the best of 2020, for whatever that’s worth

It was not my intention to completely abandon this blog, but, well… I mean, you were here for 2020, right? You saw what a fucking colossal bugfuck nightmare this year was. I am writing this post from my kitchen table while my 7-year-old scream-plays Minecraft with another of his 2nd-grade buddies, and while contractors are rebuilding our roof and upstairs office, and I am barely keeping my shit together.

Working from home meant that I didn’t have a commute anymore. Which is great, objectively speaking, but it also (perversely) meant that, because I was no longer beholden to the whims of NJ Transit, I ended up losing my favorite music listening/book reading hours. And it is impossible to listen to music or read books while your 2nd grader is doing remote learning directly behind you, and while your new puppy is chewing on your pants.

And to be honest, it’s not like I was able to absorb that much. Goodreads tells me I finished 90 books this year, but there’s maybe only 10 that stick out in my mind; and Goodreads does NOT report that I also started and read the first 20 pages of at least 50 more books which now lie cluttered in my Kindle’s backlog. I didn’t listen to that much music (because there really wasn’t much of an opportunity to), and Spotify’s Year in Review reflected less of my own musical proclivities and more that the afore-mentioned 2nd grader gained access to my Spotify account on the iPad and completely ruined the Discovery algorithm forever and ever. (My son’s musical tastes are, apparently, copyright-free dubstep that he hears as the background music on YouTube videos.) And as for movies? I’ve watched Tenet, and WW84, and that’s pretty much it.

I did play games, as one does, but it’s not like I kept an accurate record of what I played. I’ll be lucky if I can remember enough for a top 10 by the end of this post.

Anyway: my 2020 was spent in isolation, and that also meant a bit of a retreat from social media. And because I was determined to not put any more negative energy into the internet than there already was, I ended up not posting anything here. And if me not whinging on the internet helped to make 2020 even marginally less shitty, then, well, you’re welcome.

BOOKS:

As noted above, I apparently finished 90 books this year. Let’s not even pretend that I’m going to talk about all of them. Let me at least offer up my favorite books, then; these are the books that I loved, that I still remember, and that I would happily re-read in the future, in no particular order:

  • “Nothing to See Here”, Kevin Wilson.
  • “Things in Jars”, Jess Kidd.
  • “Middlegame”, Seanan McGuire.
  • The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells.
  • The Interdependency Trilogy, John Scalzi.
  • “Home Before Dark”, Riley Sager.
  • “Piranesi”, Susanna Clarke.
  • “Hench”, Natalie Zina Walschots.
  • “The Stranger Diaries”, Elly Griffiths.
  • “The Glass Hotel”, Emily St. John Mandel.
  • “Where the Crawdads Sing”, Delia Owens.
  • “A Collapse of Horses”, Brian Evenson.
  • “The Troop”, Nick Cutter.

GAMES

  • Hades, Nintendo Switch.
  • Ghost of Tsushima, PS4.
  • Tony Hawk 1&2 (remake), X.
  • Assassins Creed Valhalla, X.
  • Immortals Fenyx Rising, X.

I should’ve written about 10,000 words about Hades this summer; it was, arguably, one of the key things that happened this year that kept me from going completely insane. And in an ordinary year, I’d write about the Series X console, and I’d talk a bit about Cyberpunk 2077 and such, and we’d be caught up. But, well, here we are.

MUSIC

  • Haim, Women in Music Pt. 3
  • Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
  • Run the Jewels, RTJ4
  • Hum, Inlet
  • Louis Cole, Live 2019
  • Blitzen Trapper, Holy Smokes Future Jokes
  • bdrmm, Bedroom

Cheers, all. See you on the other side.

A few words about Neil Peart

I’ve been meaning to write here for the last few weeks, but instead I’ve been distracted because I’ve been listening to old Rush albums ever since the news broke of Neil Peart’s passing. Indeed, even now, I’ve got “Red Barchetta” in my head instead of figuring out what word is supposed to come next. Apologies in advance if this post doesn’t end up making any sense.

Can I take a second to talk a little bit about Rush, my 2nd favorite prog band? Especially since I’m 44 years old and no longer care about being “cool”? Because Neil Peart’s death is hitting me a lot harder than I was prepared for. I’m arguably taking it harder than I did the death of Chris Squire, the heart of my other 2nd favorite prog band.

My first exposure to Rush was almost certainly the summer camp I attended between 1986 (the summer my parents split up) and whenever it collapsed, which was probably the early 90s. Hell, that camp was my first exposure to pretty much everything necessary for the development of a young, arts-inclined teen-aged boy – prog rock, D&D, French kissing, high-speed dubbing, the breaking and mending of broken hearts.

Anyway, the point is: when you’re 12 and your home life is falling apart and you’ve discovered that you’re really into theater, which is probably going to spell certain doom once school starts, going to a performing arts camp and meeting dozens of other people just like you is basically the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. And so when these older, wiser people start introducing you to things, you pay attention. And so I was introduced to prog rock, and very specifically three bands – Yes, Genesis, and Rush.

I can’t possibly explain the appeal if you’re not already indoctrinated. Prog is inherently ridiculous and defiantly uncool; the only people who have the time for 20-minute epics about space wizards are 14-year-old boys who can’t pay attention to anything else EXCEPT learning how to air-guitar and air-drum every note of each of those 20-minute epics. Why learn how to talk to girls when you and the rest of your bunkmates learn how to air-shred the hell out of “YYZ”?

When the news of Neil’s passing hit last week, I couldn’t help myself; I immediately went back and listened to everything, though I eventually settled on my old favorites – Moving Pictures, Signals, Power Windows. And I have to tell you, those records hold up much better than I thought they would. I remember being dazzled by the production back in high school – I recall seeing the “DDD” on the back of the CD and thinking, wow, digital really is the way to go – and yeah, maybe in 2020 it’s a little over-produced, but you can hear every single goddamned drum that Peart pounds on. You can hear how ridiculously full Geddy Lee’s bass lines are. And while Alex Lifeson’s solos are perfectly fine as far as shredding, the real key to his genius is how good his rhythm playing is and how all-encompassing his guitar tones are. When I think about my guitar heroes growing up, I think about Jimi Hendrix and Trey Anastasio and The Edge, but the guitars in Rush are still fucking fantastic and when I think about my own guitar parts in songs I’ve played on, I can certainly trace quite a bit of it back to how Rush arranged their songs.

What I’m ultimately saying is that however uncool Rush might’ve been to the rest of the world, they were absolutely huge to me and a lot of the other musicians I’ve met along the way. And listening to them now – while the world is on the brink of chaos – brings me back to a much more innocent time, when all I needed to focus on was the next drum fill to play along to.

R.I.P., Neil Peart. You were a hero, even to us non-drummers.

Weekend Recap: Good Times

I’ve been really enjoying fatherhood lately. I don’t mean to sound like I’m surprised by that; it’s just that, well, my kid is awesome and super-sweet and we’ve been hanging out a lot together over the last few months, and it’s been wonderful.

The two of us started and finished Luigi’s Mansion 3 this weekend, in fact, and while I did most of the controller work it was he who ultimately figured out how to beat the last boss, and when the credits rolled he gave me a huge hug and it was all I could do to not just start crying all over the place.

And then we started recording a rap album, as you do, and that was also awesome. I’ve written here recently about how I’ve been in a creative rut, and yet I was able to turn out 3 or 4 beats for him in a very short amount of time, and he was so happy to be shouting into a microphone.

Anyway. It was a busy weekend.

Finished: Luigi’s Mansion 3, Outer Worlds.
Started: Jedi Fallen Order
Bailed: Death Stranding
Continuing: Dragon Quest 11

Regarding LM3: one of the first “real” reviews I got to write was about Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS, which I was pretty lukewarm about. (Indeed, I never finished it, which made me feel even more sheepish than usual about submitting my final copy.) I’m happy to say that LM3 is a much, much better game in every respect; it’s generous with checkpoints, you never get lost, it’s absolutely gorgeous and chock full of tiny details, and the game feels great to play. There’s nothing quite like sucking up a ghost in the Poltergust 2000 and whomping it all over the place, breaking everything in sight. (Plus: no bullshit tilt controls to worry about.) My kid loved it; I loved it; it’s the second game on the Switch that we’ve played through to completion (after Super Mario Odyssey), and he’s already started a second playthrough (where he’s doing most of the controlling this time around, letting me handle boss fights).

Regarding Outer Worlds: yeah, that game is excellent. Not nearly as janky as these sorts of Elder Scrolls-esque RPGs tend to be, which is probably because the game is wildly reduced in scope; I beat the campaign and finished just about every side mission I could find in maybe 12-15 hours, which is exactly the right amount of time for someone who loves open-world games but doesn’t have a lot of time. There’s no filler; just great writing up and down, lots of interesting people to meet, relatively satisfying combat (though there’s plenty of non-violent options to get through encounters as well, which was in line with how I like playing anyway).

Regarding Jedi Fallen Order: I was skeptical, as everyone was, because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars game in years and I hadn’t been following any coverage. Well, color me surprised, because the reviews were positive and I ended up downloading it and I’m having an absolute blast with it. It’s scratching the much-needed Uncharted/Assassin’s Creed/Tomb Raider third-person action platformer itch that I’ve been having all year. I’m still very early on so I’m not going to heap any more superlatives on it just yet – it could certainly use a performance patch, as the frame rate can hitch up – but I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.

Regarding Death Stranding: I wrote a gigantic thing about my attempts to get through MGS5 for Unwinnable a few years back, and my opinions on Hideo Kojima remain unchanged. My rental copy of DS arrived late last week and so I played the first hour or so of it and while it’s visually stunning, it’s also fucking ridiculous, and life is too short to sit through that much bullshit. (Or even that much absurd in-game advertising for Monster Energy Drinks.) The Twitter discourse seems to agree that the game really picks up speed about 10 hours in, and that is 10 hours that I don’t feel like wasting. You’re all aware that the world is currently on fire, yes? Spend your time wisely.

I also finished Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys on Friday, and my GOD, what a book. What a writer. What a horrible, terrible, true story he tells. I’ll have more to say about it when I get my Year of Books post online.

synchronicity, reciprocity

A curious thing has just happened, for the second time. I’m at my desk at my office, doing miscellaneous busywork, and somewhere in the back of my mind I start thinking about this particular lyric concept. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been trying to write an album for the last 4 years and I’m still stuck, because I’m at the point where I need to start writing lyrics, and lyric writing has always been the most difficult part. In any event, this idea pops into my head and it’s so strong and so resonant with what I’ve been thinking about lately that I feel compelled to write it down. And so I go to open the GoogleDoc where I keep of all the random lyric fragments that pop into my head, and I see that the very last thing I wrote – which was months and months ago – are the exact same words that I was about to write down. Which are also identical to the thing I wrote before that, which was almost a year ago to the day.

So, clearly, this is a thing I need to develop. The reason why I haven’t is because even though this idea is something that clearly strikes a chord with me, I have absolutely no idea if it’s good. When it comes to the music part of a song, I can usually immediately tell if something I improvised is worth developing further. But with words… I have no confidence. This idea could very well be brilliant; it could just as easily be the sort of thing a stoned college freshman thinks about at 3 in the morning. Hell, it’s probably something I myself thought about as a stoned college freshman at 3 in the morning; I’m sure I could dig up my old notebooks and find something similar to the thing that’s currently still haunting me.

Anyway, after all this time, I still don’t know if the way you felt about me is the way I felt about you.

being in a band

some thoughts on a sunday evening (and revised on a monday morning):

I just put on the song above – Elder is a band I like, but haven’t really thought about in a while, and I saw that they had a new album out, so, why not give it a spin on my good headphones while I’m already a little artificially zoned out anyway – and the thing is, this song just freaked me the fuck out. Here’s why: it sounds A WHOLE FUCKING LOT like the band I was in back in the mid-to-late 90s.

Like, I’ve never really heard anything ever, in my whole life of listening very intensely to music, that sounds like a band that I was in, especially when the difference in years between the two things is literally half my age. Now, of course, I’ve been in bands where it’s obvious who we tried to sound like; I’ve just never heard another band doing what we did, 20+ years later.

More specifically: I play guitar a lot like one of the guitarists in this band, and the other guitarist sounds A LOT like the other guitarist in my old band. and the rhythm section sounds, well, you guessed it. And we used to get super stoned down in the basements of Ludlow Street and jam like this for HOURS and then we’d go back to the drummer’s apartment and then continue to get stoned and listen to what we just did.

I mean, Jesus Christ, the fucking hi-hats are clipping in the mix at around the 8:00 mark, which makes it sound EVEN more like a taped rehearsal in a dingy basement with a shitty Shure microphone.

tl:dr; I thought this was my old band.

Anyway, this sorta got me thinking about a bunch of things. For one, it brought me right back to the time frame that this stupid album that I’ve been not working on for 4 years is supposed to take place in. All sorts of memories came flooding back, most of them… well, most of them are complicated, if I’m being honest. There were good times, bad times, and also quite a lot of weird times. It’s difficult to explain.

RELATED TANGENT: So I’ve started getting the ball rolling on putting the old album (“Untrue Songs”) onto modern streaming platforms. I might even be able to announce it this week? Keep your eyes and ears peeled.

BUT it also got me wondering what it would be like to be in a band again. I mean – I’m 43 years old, I live in the suburbs, and while I’ve played with other people in recent years I haven’t been in a capital-B BAND since 2007. That ship has sailed. It stopped being practical to pin my hopes and dreams of financial stability through being in a band about 10 years ago.

I’ve been starting to think about being in a band again a lot, recently, at least in less abstract terms that I’d been thinking about it ever since Henry was born. There’s been some music I’ve been obsessing over lately that, in addition to being the exact sort of sound I’ve been itching to hear, also sounds a lot like the sound of a band I’d like to play in.

And as much as I like having creative control over the music I write, I’m also reluctantly accepting the fact that it’s much easier for me to meet self-imposed deadlines when I’m collaborating with other people.

And also: playing music with other people is fun. I miss it.

Nothing Doing

Yes, I know. I KNOW. It’s been a minute. Since my last post, I’ve been a little bananas. My wife broke her foot; I caught a ridiculous chest cold that I’m still trying to shake; work has been… well, work; and the news has been, well, the news.

On the bright side, despite all of this insanity, I’ve somehow gone about two weeks without needing to take any Ativan. So that’s something.

But the larger point remains – I’m frazzled and fried, and I’ve not written anything here because I can’t seem to concentrate on anything for more than about 5 minutes. And that includes writing blog posts about not being able to concentrate on anything for more than 5 minutes.

So let me get to the business here before I run out of steam:

BOOKS: I’ve completed my 2019 Goodreads challenge, which was to finish 40 books. It’s not yet June. Despite all of the craziness above, I can get books read. Here’s what I’ve finished since my last update, along with the summaries I jotted down in my googledoc:

  • Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry. Beautifully written but very slow. Also, turn-of-the-century New York City sounds like a goddamned hell on earth.
  • Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Brennett. Very much like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, but a bit more crass. (Also, for whatever reason, I’m having trouble remembering this book now that it’s been a few months.)
  • The Force, by Don Winslow. A hard-boiled masterpiece. If even a fraction of the grift and corruption described in this book is true, we are well and truly fucked.
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid. Short, very creepy, with a very sudden and jarring ending. I’m not sure this worked for me, though it’s very well-written.
  • The Devil Aspect, by Craig Russell. An above-average thriller with a hokey title, and a good twist that I probably should’ve seen coming.
  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Absolutely fantastic; consider the patriarchy smashed.
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra. One of the best books I’ve read this year; superb.
  • Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1), by James S.A. Corey. As far as sci-fi space opera goes, this is pretty goddamned entertaining. I’ll want to read a few more books before deciding to watch the show.
  • Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi. This much-hyped novel more or less lives up to it; it certainly takes me back to my teenaged years, for better or worse.
  • Melmoth, by Sarah Perry. I haven’t yet read Essex Serpent, but it’s on my list. This was engaging and creepy, though it didn’t quite go anywhere.
  • Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Intimate and marvelous.
  • Blood Standard, Laird Barron.
  • Black Mountain, Laird Barron. Hard-boiled and fun as hell. I’ve read a few of his more cosmic horror-type books before and they never quite clicked for me, but these absolutely sucked me in.
  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. Maybe not as transcendent as his first collection, but this is still among the best philosophically-minded sci-fi ever written.
  • Freshwater, by Awkaeke Emezi. Fascinating and beautifully written portrait of a woman with multiple personalities.
  • Lanny, by Max Porter. A very strange, beautiful, ethereal dream.

MUSIC. It’s a wonder that I’m able to absorb any of the music I’m listening to these days, especially since I don’t get to listen as often as I’d like. But there’s some good stuff out there, even for old farts like me.

GAMES. I’ve been playing, like, a dozen things all at once on pretty much every system I own, though I seem to have hit difficulty spikes in most of them all at the same time. There are two smaller games, though, that deserve mention, if only because they feel quite special:

  • Observation (PS4), which is essentially 2001, but you play as HAL. Reminds me a bit of the camera hacking bits in Watch Dogs, which coincidentally are my favorite parts of those games. I’m only an hour or so into it, but I’m really impressed. A very important word of caution, however – if you are in any way affected by strobing effects or other similar visual glitches, I’d recommend staying away from this until they patch it. I’ve never before been sensitive to that stuff until this game; it’s overly aggressive in that regard.
  • A Plague Tale (X), which is like The Last of Us, but with some basic stealth and lots and lots of rats. Again – I’ve only given it an hour or so, but I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen.

That’s all I’ve got time for today, folks. Hope all is well.

CONTENT OVERLOAD

This was the weekend of CONTENT, and because I hate spoilers, I’m going to start this post with a table of contents. Feel free to skip to whatever relevant section you want; I will try to be light on spoilers whenever possible, but sometimes there ain’t nothing you can do.

  1. Endgame
  2. GoT
  3. Lemonade
  4. Games

*****

(1) Endgame. Look, I could nit-pick the movie to death. The moment you introduce time travel / time manipulation, you’re asking for trouble. I knew from the moment Doctor Strange gave up the Time Stone at the end of Infinity War and told Iron Man that “this was the only way”, referring to the one reality out of 14M possibilities in which the good guys win, that there was going to have to be some sort of time travel shenanigans, and that’s essentially what Act 2 of Endgame is. And to the film’s credit, they discuss the paradoxes of time travel pretty thoroughly (though they use films, not books). But look – that’s besides the point. The movie was fun as hell, and for a project this massive to be able to get wrapped up this well, I mean, what else could you possibly hope for? (I, for one, was so happy to see the Captain finally have his dance.)

I have larger issues with the MCU as a whole, and that could probably get its own post at some point, if I ever got around to it. None of the films are bad, even though there are some clunkers (i.e., Thor 2), but none of the films are amazing, either. They’re fun, and they’re enjoyable, but they’re also somewhat forgettable. Does this matter? Probably not – Endgame will destroy every single box-office record by the end of next week, more than likely – but it’s just… I wish the films had more personality. I have no doubt that, as a stand-alone film, Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man would’ve been a thousand times better than what we ended up getting. But I also know that Edgar Wright’s film-making style is so distinctive that it would absolutely stand out like a sore thumb when placed alongside the rest of the MCU. Doctor Strange was visually stunning but the script was basically Iron Man redux. I can only hope that in the years to come, Marvel lets its filmmakers have a bit more leeway when it comes to directorial vision. (And more than anything else, I’m also very curious to see what the Russo Brothers do next.)

If you’d rather read an actual critical take on it, I highly recommend this MZS piece.

*****

(2) Game of Thrones. I don’t want to be “that guy” who shows up in your timeline being all “I don’t watch GoT”, which is why I’m quiet about it. But I don’t watch GoT. I tried reading the first book and got bored, and I watched the first few seasons of the show but it didn’t do anything for me. (The last episode I watched was the episode before Joffrey got what was coming to him.) That being said, I emerged from my basement/man-cave just in time to see Arya strike the death-blow, and that was pretty awesome. My wife was sobbing, and I genuinely had to ask – “are those… good tears?” And she laughed and said “my favorite character just killed the bad guy, of course these are good tears”, and so I’m glad that went well.

*****

(3) The thing about being a Spotify junkie is that you end up missing things that aren’t on the platform. And while I certainly have nothing but respect for Queen Bey, I haven’t listened to any of her music, ever. So it was more out of curiosity than anything else that I turned on Spotify over the weekend and saw that Lemonade was finally available. And so I decided to give it a little spin and see what’s what.

The short version: I need to give the album a few more spins before I can assign it a numerical value between 1-10, but, I mean, godDAMN. This is not the kind of music I generally listen to, but I’ll gladly give her the benefit of the doubt.

I remember being 8 years old (or thereabouts) and putting a cassette of Sgt. Pepper in my boombox and being sort-of gobsmacked that even though I’d never heard the album before, I somehow knew all the words and the melodies. I’m not going to say that listening to Lemonade 3 years after the fact was the same kind of experience, but it is kinda hilarious to recognize certain lyrics as cultural moments – which is to say, I now know where “Boy bye” and “Becky with the good hair” comes from.

There is apparently some argument as to whether Beyonce can be rightly called a visionary genius if she has 50+ people writing her songs for her. On the one hand, I get that argument. But she’s not a singer-songwriter, and never claimed to be, and my impression of modern pop music (as a 43-year-old white guy who hasn’t listened to pop music in at least 20 years) is that authenticity isn’t necessarily what’s important right now. And whether she writes her own lyrics or not isn’t the point – nobody has that voice, and she sings the absolute fuck out of these songs.

(Speaking as a lapsed singer-songwriter: I don’t have any problem with collaboration. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a complete set of lyrics that I was actually proud of, from top to bottom, and if I had the budget to hire the best lyric writers in the business, you’d better believe I’d hire them and pay them double. This is why I still haven’t finished the album I’ve been working on for the last 4 years, by the way.)

*****

(4) I’m in a weird place with games, as per usual. I played a little bit of the new Mortal Kombat – and I don’t know what to say beyond (a) it’s a stunning package, and (b) I am utterly terrible at it and am very glad I rented it. More of my focus has been on my Switch, actually – I’d loaded up the Switch before my vacation a few weeks back and did some of the Captain Toad DLC, as well as some of the new Yoshi game, which is adorable as h*ck. But this weekend I was getting sucked into Hob and Steamworld Gilgamesh. (I’d gotten Hob on PS4 a while back but never gave it a proper look; I’m definitely going to give it a runthru when I finish the Switch version, because the Switch version is graphically janky as hell.)

Hob is an indie-feeling third-person adventure/puzzle/light combat game, with incredibly obtuse signposting. It is very easy to get lost, sometimes to the point of frustration, because the map is arguably the worst map in the history of maps. But it’s also incredibly satisfying when you do finally figure something out, and that’s part of the game’s tension. I like it!

The new Steamworld game is also pretty neat, as far as card-based turn-based RPGs go. I’m barely 10 minutes into it but it’s the sort of game I could see myself playing on the train and then realizing I missed my stop about 20 minutes too late.

Also: the new AC:Odyssey DLC is amazing – seriously, go pick it up if you’ve been away for a while.

It’s so amazing, in fact, that it’s sidetracking me again from replaying RDR2, which is something I’d been wanting to revisit for a while. My first playthrough felt very rushed – I know I missed a lot – and I wanted to stretch my legs with it a bit. I had AC:O in the back of my head while I was playing it the first time, though, and the difference in feel between the two could not have been more pronounced. In any event, if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend Film Crit Hulk’s deep dive – it says basically everything I’d been wanting to say about it, but better.

Finally, I think I’ve been away too long from Division 2. I still really like that game, but I’d had to put it down when I went on vacation and even though I’m somewhat close to the end of the story, I feel like I’m wildly underpowered, and at this point it’s hard to find other players at my level willing to do co-op story missions and such.

*****

I’ve read some AMAZING books of late – too many to condense here. I’ll be doing a major book post soon-ish, though.

And I’m also contemplating doing a 5-10-15-20 thing (see Pitchfork) because it’s a fun writing exercise and I’m curious to see what my albums for those specific years would be.

Anyway! That is all.

Quality Brain Food

If this blog is to ultimately serve as a diary of my media consumption, well, that makes it a bit easier to figure out what to write. Especially on days like today, when I’m feasting on the good stuff.

SO:

Last summer I wrote a thing about falling in love with a song, and it appears to have happened again. In this case, it’s “Plimsoll Punks” by Alvvays, and while I don’t necessarily need to do a moment-by-moment breakdown of it, I would like to point out a few highlights.

#1: That opening is straight out of The Smiths, and I adore it.
#2: The “You’re getting me down, getting me down, getting me down” hook is killer.
#3: Again – the guitar work all over the place is straight out of Johnny Marr’s playbook, and I have no complaints about that.
#4: Listen to the bassline at 1:53 or so, the way it hits the third instead of the root. UGH. That shit melts my brain.
#5: The singer’s voice in the third verse is so gorgeous.

_____________

[I was going to write a much longer First Few Hours-style post about The Division 2, but I don’t have the mental bandwidth today. (I feel like I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in about 3 months.) And in any event, while I have put in a solid dozen or so hours into it already and just dinged level 12 last night, there’s still so much more to do. In any event, what follows is what was in my drafts folder from the other day:]

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – I’m generally not into online games. I am a curmudgeon and a hermit and have no need to trade insults with young, racist whippersnappers. I like the single-player experience because it’s like playing a book. It’s made for me. I get to experience it on my own terms. And I also need to pee a lot, so I need a game that won’t punish me if I need to pause it.

When I have dabbled in online games, it’s generally for a co-op, PvE experience. The two notable exceptions to this were a several month-long phase when I had a somewhat unhealthy addiction/obsession with World of Warcraft, which needs its own post at some point, and when my Gamespot forum buddies and I would play Burnout 3 every night.

But I digress. I’m not good enough to play competitively, which is why I tend to shy away from both traditional deathmatch stuff and also the newer battle royale genre. Never cared for it, and that’s fine.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing stuff like Destiny or Anthem, or, also, the topic of today’s post – The Division 2. While they’re obviously meant to be played with groups, you can solo these games without getting unduly punished, and you can also join in with strangers rather seamlessly to take down the game’s enemies. Sure, the endgame probably won’t be as interesting if you remain a solo player, but to be honest I generally never get that far. I’ve beaten the vanilla campaigns of both Destiny 1 and 2 and The Division 1, and I got my money’s worth.

[That’s as far as I’d gotten.]

So the point that I was eventually going to get to is that The Division 2 is really and quite unexpectedly terrific. I can’t seem to get enough of it. AND THAT’S WEIRD, because, as noted above, I normally don’t get this attached to this particular genre. Playing solo is fine, though a bit more challenging than I’m happy with – but that usually just means that I need to tweak my loadout and realize that I’ve been using a wildly under-powered weapon, or that I should probably use a drone in a particular fight instead of a turret. Playing in a group with random people is, to my great surprise, A LOT MORE FUN. We’re all using different perks and playstyles and we end up complementing each other. I tend to hang back and snipe and heal, and my run-and-gun comrades end up needing my services, and I actually feel useful for a goddamned change.

Now, is the story good? OH, MERCY, no it is not. But narrative is totally unnecessary for this experience. I open the map and see that I have a mission, and in that mission I will acquire loot, and that is my primary motivation. And that’s enough. The more missions I complete, the more I can improve the quality of my safehouses, and then I can acquire better gear there, too.

And DC – as Manhattan was in the first game – is a wonder to explore. So many nooks and crannies! So many hidden caches and crates to discover! If I don’t feel like engaging with the many feral gangs roaming the streets, that’s totally OK. I mean, I’ll have to deal with them eventually, but in the meantime there’s this whole entire building that I can sneak into and pilfer to my heart’s content. It is glorious.

The whole package seems genuinely well-thought-out and put together, in all the ways that Division 1 wasn’t, at least at launch. I’m gonna be playing this for a long while.

If you want to hook up, I’m generally on during weeknights after 8pm on Xbox; my gamertag is JervoNYC. As noted above, I believe I’m at around level 12 or so. I’m always happy to tag along with fellow Agents; shit, I might even be persuaded to put on my headset.

the ides

Forgive me, readers, for I have lapsed. It’s been almost a full month since my last blog post. I have no idea why I’ve been away for so long, other than the usual self-consciousness about contributing to the noise of the internet by putting my thoughts out in public. Which, again, is weird, considering that I’ve generally had no problem doing that very thing since 2001. But here we are.

I’ve been feeling… well… weird. The usual stuff:

  • the news;
  • the weather;
  • NJ Transit;
  • the specific, nostalgic melancholy of social media and its accompanying feelings of loneliness;
  • managing the wildly unpredictable emotions of an almost-six-year-old boy;
  • fretting about the health of family and friends;
  • daylight savings time;
  • the constant need to be distracted while also being unable to concentrate on the thing I’m trying to distract myself with.

I’ve been zooming through books without really taking them in – most of the books I’m reading, while enjoyable, are more like candy than a satisfying meal. I’m playing a whole bunch of Xbox games but I’m also looking at my phone. I’m listening to tons and tons of music – old, new, heavy, poppy, acoustic singer-songwriter, 90’s east-coast hip hop. I feel like I’m in 20 different places at once, which also means that I feel like I’m nowhere at all.

In other words, this is life in 2019. But at least I’m getting better at identifying what the specific things are, so there’s that.

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Books: Since my last post I’ve added eight (8) more books to the “finished” pile, which now puts my Goodreads Challenge at 27 out of 40. As noted above, almost everything I’ve been reading this year has been fun, but also more or less disposable; there’s not that much that I’ve been able to retain and really feel like I’ve lived with except for The Overstory, which was way back in January, which feels like 20 years ago. Anyway, the list:

  • The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt. Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie. It’s an impressively written book, to be sure, but the final third of it kinda fell apart on me.
  • Liminal States, Zach Parsons. 1/3 western, 1/3 pulp noir, 1/3 cosmic sci-fi horror. Fun, also completely bananas.
  • The Plotters, Un-Su Kim. A paranoid haze about Korean assassins and the agents who hire them.
  • Come Closer, Sara Gran. I’m still on my Sara Gran kick from earlier this year (her Claire DeWitt trilogy is among the best things I’ve read in a while), and this is a short but very effective little nightmare.
  • Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1), Kate Atkinson. I have, like, 7 or 8 Kate Atkinson books in my Kindle library, and for whatever reason this is the one I went to first. It’s pleasantly enjoyable, which is a very weird thing to say about some rather graphic and disturbing murdering. And I can’t necessarily say that the detective in this book actually did any detecting. And it’s also weird that there’s a genuinely happy ending just a few pages after the genuinely surprising and disturbing final reveal. I got a chapter or two into book 2 but decided to put it off for now.
  • The Dreamers, Karen Thompson Walker. An intriguing premise, beautifully written, but I’m not quite sure what the book’s intentions were.
  • Invasive, Chuck Wendig.
  • Zeroes, Chuck Wendig. I read these out of order – not that it matters, necessarily, though Zeroes is better than Invasive. I follow Wendig on Twitter but these are the first books of his that I’ve read; he’s like a more down-to-earth Neal Stephenson.

I did end up giving up on Black Leopard, Red Wolf for the time being; I will get back to it. I also picked up and attempted to start at least 10 other books in between a lot of the above, and decided to put them down when I couldn’t find my way into them. I suspect that when I finally hit the 40 mark and can put the Challenge to rest, I’ll be able to enjoy what I’m reading at a more leisurely pace.

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Music: As noted in my last entry, I’m still trying to get rolling on finishing this album. I’m not necessarily that much further along than I was a month ago – inertia is a bitch – but I haven’t given up, either. It’s taken me a little while to remember how all my software works, and it’s also difficult to carve out free time where I can work without interruption and without being completely exhausted and/or mentally drained. And, of course, there’s this – the music that I’ve already got is over 3 years old at this point, and I’m not sure if I want to keep all or any of it. (Well, there’s at least one or two that I definitely want to keep, though I should probably just re-record them from scratch at this point.)

And don’t get me started on lyric writing, because I don’t even know how to begin cracking that particular egg without giving myself a nervous breakdown. It’s fair to say that I’m not in the same emotional place that I was back in late 2014-early 2015, when the concept for this thing was taking shape, and I’m not really sure I want to keep walking that specific road anyway. I’d reached out to a few folks for brainstorming purposes; some never wrote back, and that kinda made me a little gunshy about reaching out again.

In any event, as I mentioned above I’ve been listening to tons of stuff that’s all over the map. My son is obsessed with the Spiderman – Into the Spiderverse movie, which means we’re all obsessed with it – and hey, I’ll take it any day of the week over The Polar Express. But while he loves the newer songs, I love the 90s hip-hop that appears in the first Uncle Aaron / graffiti sequence. Which led me down this road:

And as for everything else that I’ve been listening to, there’s this:

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Games: If you’d told me that I’d find myself juggling between two different online shooters at the same time, I’d tell you that you were insane. But here we are. I am juggling between Anthem, which is enjoyable despite some serious flaws, and The Division 2, which is enjoyable despite me being kinda terrible at it. At some point I’ll have to pick one and ride it out for as much as I can, and I can already tell that it’ll probably end up being The Division, because even though I’m terrible at it I understand what it’s doing and the exploration part of it is quite pleasant and diverting.

(You’ll notice that Apex Legends is not mentioned in that paragraph; well, I like my online shooters when they’re cooperative, not competitive. I have downloaded it, but I haven’t started it, and at this point I’m so far behind the curve that I might as well delete it.)

I’d meant to sing the praises of Ape Out a few weeks back, when I’d first started playing it and it was blowing my goddamned mind. Alas, time continues its relentless march and I forgot most of what I’d wanted to write. What I can say is that you should get it and play it immediately, and make sure you’re using good headphones or otherwise have access to a good sound system, because the way the game uses music is mind-blowing. It’s a very simple premise but it’s executed with an astonishing sense of style and flair, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I got right up to the end of Far Cry New Dawn, but the last boss fight is a bunch of bullshit and I turned it off. I tried to get into the new Metro game but the writing is janky and the atmosphere is stressful, which is something I’m actively trying to avoid. My son and I have been sorta playing Toe Jam and Earl, which is silly and goofy; we’ve also been dabbling with Minecraft Story, which is as good an introduction to interactive storytelling as anything else that’s age-appropriate.

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I will endeavor to return here sooner, rather than later. In the meantime: be well, be safe, be good.

How To Reappear after Disappearing Completely

I am, I think, finally on the back half of the 2019 edition of our annual WINTER COLD THAT WOULD NOT DIE, which has laid up my entire family for basically the last month. I caught it first, then my son had it – it turned into the flu for him – then my wife got it – which turned into both the flu and strep throat – and then I’ve just had a weird frog in my throat for the last week, which was probably brought on by talking too loudly at an already loud social gathering.

One thing about being cooped up and helpless for so long – it tends to get my depression out and about. Everyone’s depression comes in different forms; mine takes the shape of me isolating myself, turning inwards, shunning social media, and kinda just swimming through a haze of lethargy and exhaustion. This tends to make being an active parent even more difficult. I want to be present in my son’s life, I want to participate in activities with him and keep him interested in what’s going on, and this is VERY HARD TO DO when all I feel capable of is hiding under a pile of blankets in the fetal position. It’s also not a great look to be hiding out in the basement playing video games, especially since he’ll want to come down and play also, and I’ll want to let him, and then I have to watch him be terrible at them.

Anyway. I’m saying this out loud [he typed, bloggingly] because I’ve found that saying things out loud tends to diminish their power. I had a therapy session over the weekend and I talked myself hoarse without meaning to, and a lot of what was discussed was precisely this – that acknowledging depression and anxiety and the act of just saying it out loud gives me an element of control over those feelings; they don’t magically disappear, but they do start to take some sort of shape that I can recognize and then deal with.

I’ve been ready to start finishing up / re-starting this album for a while now, but of course I have trouble getting started because a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and there’s always the inevitable rust that you have to shake off before you can actually start making good stuff. That being said, last night I started to feel like I could actually sit down at my music station and start tooling around and that it wouldn’t sound like shit, and that’s a feeling that is vitally important that I hold on to, because otherwise nothing will continue to happen. I’ve been in a state of heightened listening lately, which usually means that I’m very close to having ideas again. That is a regrettably unusual feeling for me these days, and I gotta keep holding on to it while I still can.

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The one good thing about writing here so infrequently is that when I do bother to show up, I actually have some shit to talk about. I’ve been reading like a man on fire lately, and since my last post I’ve added another eight (8) books to my “finished” pile.

  • The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins. I can’t recall when or why I picked this up, but I ended up giving it a go, and I’d give it a solid B+. It is a fun and super-fucked up book; the characters aren’t quite as consistent as they could be, which can be distracting, but it’s not a deal breaker. I’m reluctant to say any more, because the less you know about it the better.
  • Circe, by Madeline Miller. This was at the top of quite a few people’s lists last year, and I’m very glad to see what all the fuss was about; it is as magnificent as advertised.
  • Golden State, by Ben H. Winters. This is not quite as brilliant as his Last Policeman trilogy or Underground Airlines; the first 80% of the book is absolutely brilliant and the ending just totally falls apart. But it’s certainly worth checking out for that first 80%.
  • The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida (tr. David Mitchell). Yes, I picked it up because David Mitchell translated it, and I am in desperate need of anything David Mitchell-related. But this is something else entirely – a first person account of life with severe autism. It is gorgeous and illuminating.
  • Last Days, by Brian Evenson. Grisly and unsettling, but with an ambiguous ending that feels more like a cop-out than anything else.
  • The Tombs of Atuan
  • The Farthest Shore, both by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know there are other books in the Earthsea series, but finishing these three feels like a complete cycle. What a magnificent time; her writing is incredible.
  • American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson. A moving, affecting spy novel; it’s a small story, and it has an ambiguous ending, but it’s not a cliffhanger – the ending is deliberate and it works. This is, to my understanding, a fictional retelling of a true story, that of one of the first black women to be a successful spy.

I have not yet finished Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf; the writing is so stylized that it’s somewhat difficult to tell who’s talking and what’s happening. I don’t want to give up on it, but I also don’t want to drive myself crazy, either.

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As this blog is still ostensibly about gaming, I might as well talk about what I’ve been playing of late. Up until Friday, the real answer was “not all that much”; I’d been tooling around replaying stuff I’d already finished last year. But then Friday happened and I went a little nuts and got Crackdown 3, Far Cry New Dawn, and Anthem. I’m saving Anthem for its proper launch date – I gave it a quick spin, saw that it was working better than it was in the beta, and decided to let the big launch-day patch happen before sinking any real time into it.

As for the other two – well, look. I don’t know what to say about Crackdown 3. It is not the debacle that Crackdown 2 was, but it’s also not the must-have console exclusive that I’d been hoping for. It is, instead, for better or worse, basically the exact same experience as Crackdown 1, but with better graphics. It is still janky in the same ways as the original; it might even have some of the same sound effects. But chasing orbs is something that never, ever, ever, ever, EVER gets old, and since I’m a Game Pass member and thus didn’t actually pay for it, I’m certainly getting my money’s worth. In these troubled times, sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and jump really high and throw cars at bad guys, and to that end I can’t really complain.

As for FC:ND – well, I got pretty far into Far Cry 5 but I didn’t actually finish it, so I only know what happened through YouTube. Given that New Dawn very explicitly spoils the ending of FC5, I am not feeling all that inclined to finish it now. But I’m enjoying New Dawn to the extent that it’s a silly Far Cry game, and that it’s absolutely gorgeous, and that the designers have done some cool things to FC5’s existing map; I am traipsing around in places that I recognize, but only vaguely. And I can’t emphasize enough how goddamned beautiful it is.