492. About Storytelling: Representation Really Matters

This post is a long one, but I believe it’s much more important than most of this blog’s nonsense, so please bear with me patiently. (This post is also extremely geeky, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.)

A friend and I recently watched Doctor Strange, the latest in a long line of superhero movies based on Marvel comics. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor from Sherlock who looks like an otter. Along with some psychedelic visuals—watching certain scenes was like taking drugs without actually, y’know, taking drugs—Mr. Cumberbatch’s performance elevated an otherwise predictable Marvel movie.

Yes, Marvel movies are pretty formulaic at this point. The dialogue is peppered with quips, the villains are generally unimpressive, and the starring heroes are white dudes.

It’s tradition.

Every headlining star in a Marvel movie has been a white man. There are female characters and characters of color, of course, but nearly always in supporting roles. Black Widow (a woman) and Nick Fury (a black man) don’t get their own movies. War Machine and Falcon, both black heroes, are sidekicks to Iron Man and Captain America, both white heroes. Movies starring a black man (Black Panther) and a woman (Captain Marvel) are in development, but after eight years, only white men have starred so far in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place for diverse representation. Maybe I should look at, say, video games.

I’m pretty sure that each of these famous video game characters is actually the same guy in a different wig.

Maybe not.

I have absolutely nothing against white guys. I am a white guy. Many of my friends are white guys. There is nothing wrong with white guys. However, when white guys become a default template for fictional characters, well, that just ain’t fair.

People like to see themselves represented well in fiction. For example, I’m a Christian, and it really bugs me that Christians are often underrepresented, or represented badly, in popular culture. Joining Christians in that category are… well, lots of people. Women, people of color, various minority groups, and people with certain body types, among others, are often not represented well.

It ain’t fair.

I could yell and shake my fists, but won’t. (I find it doesn’t help.)

Instead, I’ll give a shout out to Marvel Entertainment, whose films I criticized earlier for lacking diversity, because its story doesn’t end there.

Marvel makes TV shows with fairly diverse representation. Luke Cage stars a black man, features a mostly black cast, and offers thoughtful takes on black culture and identity. I didn’t like Jessica Jones, but its depiction of a woman recovering from (maybe literal and definitely metaphorical) rape trauma deserves consideration and respect.

In the meantime, Marvel’s comics are becoming steadily more diverse. I hardly read superhero comics. However, I do occasionally read articles from Evan Narcisse, a journalist who offers brief but fascinating glimpses into contemporary comics.

Well, this is different. I like it.

Mr. Narcisse’s articles inform me that a woman carries Thor’s title at the moment. The current Spider-Man, Miles Morales, is a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager. Iron Man’s successor is a young black woman. Bruce Banner has passed on his Hulk condition to a young Asian-American man.

Marvel is embracing diverse representation, and so are many video games. I can think of at least two games—not indie games, mind you, but triple-A titles—that star Native Americans. More games are getting people of color, and fewer babes in chain-mail bikinis, as playable characters. The latest Tomb Raider games reinvent Lara Croft, perhaps the most egregious sex symbol in the game industry, as a smart, tough woman who actually wears clothes.

Then there’s Overwatch. God bless Overwatch. It’s a multiplayer video game in which colorful characters shoot each other with guns. It also boasts some truly amazing (read: Pixar-level) animations. I’ll never play Overwatch—I don’t care for multiplayer games about shooting people with guns—but I’m glad it exists.

Overwatch has an amazing cast of characters.

The characters in Overwatch represent quite a number of races, nationalities, and body types. As you might expect from a video game, there are a couple of tough-looking white guys and a few slim, curvy white ladies. There’s also a chubby Asian woman, a black Hispanic man, an old Middle Eastern woman, and a brawny Slavic woman, to name a few. (There’s also a gorilla from the moon. How’s that for diversity?)

I will remember the characters in Overwatch long after I’ve forgotten most of the generic white dudes from other video games—and that’s one reason representation really matters. Far from getting in the way of storytelling, representation can actually improve it. Diverse characters bring backgrounds, languages, cultures, and points of view to a story that might otherwise be generic or forgettable.

By the way, I know this is a longer post than usual, so please accept, as a reward for reading this far, this animation of a character from Overwatch booping someone’s nose. It’s barely relevant, but it makes me happy. Here you go.


What was I saying? I was distracted by the boop. Ah, yes, I was making the case that diverse representation can actually benefit storytelling.

A lot of people grumble that diverse representation is just “political correctness,” and that it causes harm. Does it?

Believe it or not, there can be harm in diverse representation. It can be done badly. Diversity for its own sake, lacking respectfulness and understanding, is a huge mistake. Not doing can cause less damage than doing badly. It’s wrong to leave a starving man hungry, but it’s worse to feed him poison.

Diverse representation isn’t easy. Like everything else in a good story, it must seem real. It must convince. A storyteller must understand and respect whatever he represents, which is especially hard if it doesn’t represent him.

This brings me to a personal note. It’s easy for me to preach diversity in storytelling without actually practicing it. Up to this point, I haven’t practiced it.

I want to practice it. Instead of merely ranting that contemporary stories aren’t diverse enough, I should tell a story with diversity. Conveniently enough, there’s a story I want to tell.

Anyone who has followed this blog for more than five minutes knows of the Lance Eliot saga, the story I’ve tried for more than a decade to write. Its hero was always a white dude because, y’know, I’m always a white dude.

This time, Lance Eliot isn’t white. He’s Hispanic—Ecuadorian American, to be exact.


The premise of the Lance Eliot saga is that Lance saves another world from destruction. I had always planned for a few other characters to represent other races, but imagined Lance as a white man.

In so doing, I became unintentionally guilty of upholding the white savior narrative, in which a white person rescues a community of non-white people. On the surface, it’s a bit racist. Look a little deeper, and… well, it’s still racist. The narrative is common, however—just look at James Cameron’s Avatar, whose white hero saves an entire society of people of color. (That color is blue, but the narrative is the same.)

I didn’t want Lance Eliot to be another white savior. The world has enough white saviors; Lance can be a coffee-colored one.

I chose to make Lance an Ecuadorian American specifically because of all non-white ethnic groups, I believe it’s the one I can represent most faithfully, respectfully, and convincingly. I grew up in Ecuador; I live in America. Beside, I’m well acquainted with an Ecuadorian American: my aunt, a wonderful lady who not only makes delicious Ecuadorian food, but also watches American football with greater enthusiasm than any of the white people in my family. (My white relatives prefer Latin American soccer, ironically enough.)

Has Lance’s change of ethnicity gotten in the way of the story? Not at all! In fact, I believe it will enrich the story… whenever I get around to writing it. As a character suspended between cultures, Lance now has better reasons for feeling insecure and out of place, and for hiding those feelings behind sharp sarcasm. He can adapt quickly to the fantasy world I will create, because he’ll already have learned to adapt to other cultures. I can relate to Lance more than ever before. My attempt at diverse representation will (probably) help me to write a better story.

People like to see themselves represented well in fiction, but even as a white guy, I’m tired of seeing white guys. I want to see other experiences, cultures, and points of view. There’s a big world out there, and I want to see more of it.

On a related note, Disney’s Moana just hit theaters. It looks rad.

Well, I’m hooked. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

I know this post was a long one, and probably not much fun to read. Thanks for reading it anyway. Adam out. Boop!

487. That Time I Saw a President Kicked Out of Office

Tomorrow is Election Day for the United States of America. The American people will gather to choose their next president. Some of us will worry for The Future of Our Nation. At least one of us will wish Batman were running for president instead of Trump or Clinton.

The presidential election takes me back to Ecuador, a nation of notorious political instability, and That Time I Saw a President Kicked Out of Office.

Lucio Gutiérrez was Ecuador’s president for only a couple of years, but long enough for his name to become a punchline in my family. Gutiérrez put up a lot of billboards during his presidency that read “Lucio Construye,” meaning “Lucio Builds.”

These signs, which often stood near roads under construction, were intended, I presume, to promote some initiative to improve Ecuador’s public infrastructure. What they really signified was unfinished roads and bumpy driving conditions. When my family and I were out driving, a “Lucio Construye” billboard warned us to brace ourselves for jolts. We reached a point at which any bumpy roads provoked me and my brothers to shout “Lucio construye!” from the back seat.

I don’t know who spray painted that question mark, but was a valid question: Lucio construye? Lucio builds? I guess Lucio did build the sign.

Following some political unrest, the Congress of Ecuador voted on April 20, 2005 to remove Gutiérrez from power, and the military publicly withdrew their support for him. Gutiérrez was overthrown by his own government. He fled the Presidential Palace in a helicopter, escaping mobs of protesters.

I heard his helicopter fly overhead. At the time, I was sitting quietly in my World History classroom at school, listening to updates on the political situation. My teacher had abandoned the day’s history lesson—after all, history was being made that day. As Gutiérrez fled, we heard the drone of a helicopter far overhead. “That’s his helicopter!” someone exclaimed, and it may have been. Alternatively, it may well have been a news or military helicopter, but I like to think it was the ex-president on the run.

Some of the protests were pretty rowdy. At one point, I got a face full of tear gas while walking to school. The wind blew the gas from a nearby protest to my school campus. It hit me like a bucket of vinegar, and stung quite a bit. On a scale of one to ten, one being a mild insult and ten being a jellyfish sting, the tear gas was maybe a three.

Since I didn’t actually see Lucio Gutiérrez removed from power, I suppose the title of this post is a bit inaccurate. It should be “That Time I Heard a President Kicked Out of Office” since I heard the helicopter, or even “That Time I Smelled a President Kicked Out of Office” because of the tear gas, but those titles just are just weird.

Alas, poor Lucio, who pretended to build things. We miss you. (We don’t really.)

In the end, the vice president, Alfredo Palacio, assumed the presidency, later to be succeeded by Ecuador’s current prez, Rafael Correa. The political unrest surrounding Gutiérrez subsided, only to be replaced by conflicts surrounding Correa. In fact, when I double-checked my facts for this post, I learned that Correa blamed Gutiérrez for allegedly provoking unrest in an attempt to instigate a coup. Another president, another crisis. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

I love Ecuador, my homeland, mi patria, but its politics aren’t the greatest.

Tomorrow is Election Day for the United States of America. I know a lot of people are worried, but hey—nobody is attempting to overthrow our president at the moment, and there probably won’t be tear gas. It could be worse. The road ahead may be rough, with plenty of bumps and jolts, but we can always shout “Lucio construye!” and keep moving forward.

481. Clutter

I spent hours yesterday sifting through clutter in my apartment: books, blowgun darts, office supplies, ocelot pelts, papers, outdated foreign currency, clothes, and centuries-old trinkets of carved stone and bone.

It occurs to me that my life is kind of strange.

My parents, who are missionaries, have used my apartment as their home base during their slow transition from working in Uruguay to working in Spain. Since they plan to depart for Galicia in a few weeks, we began sorting through their stuff yesterday in preparation for packing. It was an… interesting process.

My dad grew up in the jungles of Ecuador, and my mum loves antiques. Between the two of them, my family has accumulated a ton of awesome junk, much of it very old. I found a toucan beak, a stone axe head of incalculable age, an armadillo shell, and an ancient Incan figurine, among other things. I felt like I was reorganizing the office of Indiana Jones; I could almost hear him say, “This belongs in a museum!” (In case you were wondering, my parents are nothing like Indiana Jones; sorry to disappoint.)

My parents have spent time in the state of Indiana. Does that count?

Of course, these exciting souvenirs were merely sprinkled over heaps of modern, ordinary items such as clothes, books, and kitchenware. My apartment currently contains my stuff, my younger brother’s stuff, my parents’ stuff, and even a little bit of my older brother’s stuff.

My apartment is, um, a tiny bit cluttered at the moment.

Gathering my parents’ possessions uprooted some of my own, like unto the parable of the wheat and the weeds. This is actually a good thing. In a month, when my parents are bound safely for the rainy shores of Spain, I intend to take inventory of my worldly goods, and then to get rid of some.

Since my parents are missionaries, we moved around a lot. We never got a chance to accumulate much clutter. Every move to a new place stripped away all the stuff we couldn’t take with us. I learned to live light.

At any rate, that’s what I thought.

O’Hare International Airport proved me wrong. When I traveled from Ecuador to the US for college, I carried all of my worldly goods with me in a backpack, a carry-on, a computer bag, and two duffel bags the approximate size of adult male hippos.

Artist interpretation of Adam’s duffel bags.

On that day the air traffic controllers of O’Hare decided, in their infinite wisdom, to make my plane unload its luggage at one end of the airport, and its passengers on the other. This required me to walk approximately two hundred sixty extra miles along dingy airport hallways, and I had a bus to catch. Of course I did.

So I ran—well, I shuffled—dragging my carry-on, with my pack and computer bag slung across my back, and a duffel bag dangling from each shoulder. As I stepped, my duffel bags swung with the ponderous force of battering rams. Straps cut into my back and shoulders. I kept stepping—well, shuffling—wishing for a luggage cart, or a team of porters, or the sweet release of death.

That experience shaped my guiding philosophy for owning stuff: If it isn’t worth moving, it isn’t worth having. I want to live without clutter or extra weight. When I move somewhere new, which I’m sure I will sooner or later, I want moving to be as easy as possible. If I wouldn’t move something to a new home, I probably don’t need it right now, and should probably get rid of it.

For the most part, my clutter-free philosophy has worked well. (At any rate, it has left enough empty space in my apartment for my parents’ worldly goods.) A minimalist approach makes it easier for me to keep things organized, and helps me to appreciate my individual possessions. I feel lighter, freer, and calmer without so much stuff.

My friend JK wrote a blog post about tidy living. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Simplify, simplify.” Even Jesus Christ said, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

It will be cathartic to take inventory of my possessions later this year, and to give away the stuff I don’t really want. I hope the nearest donation center doesn’t mind books.

476. Let’s Think of Better Fall Flavors than Pumpkin Spice

Summer is fading into autumn, and we all know what that means: pumpkin-flavored everything.


More specifically, autumn brings pumpkin spice-flavored everything. The difference is important. As certified snackologist Mike Fahey points out, pumpkin spice is generally a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. These spices are carefully blended in order to mask the taste of actual pumpkin. Mr. Fahey puts it bluntly: “Pumpkin spice is the name for a combination of spices used to make pumpkin taste less horrible.”

I live in the United States, where the fall season happens every single year. It’s awful. The chilly weather, drab colors, and gaudy Halloween merchandise are bad enough; the pumpkin spice craze just adds insult to injury. Every year, as the weather turns painfully cold and Americans celebrate strange pumpkin rituals, I wonder why I ever left the tropics. Ecuador, my homeland, isn’t flooded by freezing temperatures and pumpkin spice-flavored products year after year. What self-destructive, Lovecraftian madness brought me back to Indiana four years ago?

What even started America’s obsession with pumpkin spice? I don’t know, but there are theories. Wikipedia tells me it started in the early aughts, and that Starbucks is to blame.

My favorite theory comes from Nerd Rage, a webcomic about angry nerds.

Seriously, though, this pumpkin spice craze needs to stop. It tinges everything from candles to Oreos to coffee—and when coffee is at stake, I can’t just sit and do nothing.

(For the record, I don’t dislike the pumpkin spice flavor. I’m just tired of it. We need something new!)

Here, then, are some suggestions for alternatives to pumpkin spice. Here are other autumn-appropriate flavors for candy, cookies, coffee drinks, and everything else.

Apple cinnamon

Apples are amazing. Since they’re gathered in the fall, and popular ingredients for cold-weather treats such as pies and dumplings, apples are a perfect flavor for autumn. Just add cinnamon for touch of spicy warmth, and lo! Not only is the apple cinnamon flavor delicious, but evocative of cozy kitchens and fall harvests.


Autumn is the perfect season for bonfires, which also makes it perfect for toasting marshmallows. As I grew up in Ecuador, marshmallows were a rare and delectable treat. (I speak of genuine, toastable marshmallows, mind you, not of the fake, dissolve-into-pink-syrup-upon-contact-with-heat “marshmallows” on Ecuadorian store shelves.) Yes, I love marshmallows. Add chocolate and graham crackers, two hearty ingredients ideal for chilly weather, and you have the s’more.

Nothing says autumn like s’mores.

Marshmallows and chocolate have the added advantages of melting in heat, making them perfect for cookies, brownies, and other baked treats. In cold weather, nothing beats a hot, gooey mess of marshmallows and chocolate.


The taste of gingerbread is basically identical to the pumpkin spice flavor, but with a hint of molasses and no clichéd association with pumpkins. It’s a win-win!

Maple sugar

Maple is a strong, sweet, distinct flavor that lends itself beautifully to baking and confectionery. Since the leaves of the maple tree are famous for their stunning autumn colors, maple sugar (or maple syrup; take your pick) seems like a great taste for the fall season. And on the subject of maples….

Maple leaves

Maybe Japan has the right idea.

These actually look pretty tasty. I would eat them! (Of course, I’ve eaten such odd things as fried leafcutter ants, but that’s not the point.)

Fried leaves can’t possibly be worse than pumpkin, right?


For some reason, nuts remind me of autumn. Is that a rational association, or am I just nuts? (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) Maybe I’m weird, but in my mind, nuts evoke images of baked treats and fall colors. Nuts are not only terrific for baking, but underutilized for coffee beverages. Almonds, walnuts, or pecans complement coffee very nicely!


Nah, I’m just kidding. Fruitcake is gross.

Colada morada

All right, I admit it: I just really want to drink this seasonal Ecuadorian beverage here in the United States. It’s tasty, and I miss it so much. My parents recently brought me back a bottle of the stuff from Ecuador, and I intend to cherish the heck out of it—and then to drink it, of course.

What are your suggestions for alternatives to pumpkin spice? Let us know in the comments!

472. That Time I Got Saved

I’ve written about many of the strange events in my life, from an awkward stage kiss to a severed human arm, but not until now of the day I committed my soul to God. It was… I don’t remember what kind of day it was. It was probably muggy and overcast. I was indoors at the time, standing in line, waiting for a meal that was, in retrospect, soggy and terrible.

I speak of That Time I Got Saved, a tale of grace and burgers.

(For full effect, you must read the title of this story with a Southern Baptist drawl: “That Time Ah Gawt Saaaved.”)

Unlike some of my other That Time I _____ stories, this one isn’t all that exotic or sensational. Heck, it doesn’t even make for a compelling testimony. I got saved while standing in line for a nasty hamburger.

This happened nearly twenty years ago in French Burger, a sketchy fast food joint. For all I know, it’s still open for business. (I really hope it isn’t.) French Burger served beef patties on cheap buns soaked in some kind of milky fluid: probably mayonnaise diluted by the moisture from wet shredded lettuce. These mushy burgers were served in little mustard-colored plastic bags. The burger juice would collect at the bottom of the bag, along with stray wisps of lettuce and shreds of soggy bun. The horror! The horror!

A photo of the food from French Burger would have been too graphic, so I replaced it with a picture of some pretty flowers. I’ve got to keep this blog family-friendly!

French Burger was tucked in a corner of a parking lot in Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a city built to the west of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. My family and I spent about four years there. My memories of Santo Domingo are few and faint, but I recall gloomy impressions of mud, concrete, overcast weather, and weeds.

Understandably, I spent much of that time indoors: watching VHS tapes of old cartoons, building with Legos, playing and replaying games on our Super Nintendo Entertainment System, dodging home school assignments, learning to read—subsequently reading with voracious interest—and trying to write a novel. (Spoilers: I quit after two paragraphs.) It was a formative time. I discovered Nintendo, J.R.R. Tolkien, Star Wars, C.S. Lewis, and coffee.

I did occasionally venture forth into the community: picking up fragments of Spanish, pestering the neighbors, riding my bike, and buying bread from the local shops. My family and I made regular visits to a local river, where I encountered a Giant Mutant Killer Jungle Ant. We also visited nearby restaurants, such as a French Burger and Kentucky Fried Chicken. (KFC is weirdly popular in Ecuador.)

Oh, Santo Domingo de los Colorados. I… don’t really miss you, actually.

It was during a visit to French Burger that I found myself waiting in line, and committed my soul to God. I could joke that I got saved just in case I died of my lousy hamburger, but at the time, I actually liked those soggy messes. (My tastes have much improved, I hope.) As I waited, I realized that I should probably be saved. I was raised in a Christian home, surrounded by Adventures in Odyssey and Sunday school lessons, with the Gospel of Christ rattling around in my head. It finally occurred to me that I should probably do something about it.

I… didn’t really do anything about it. I prayed a trite sinner’s prayer—which I repeated over the next few weeks just to make sure my salvation stuck—and then continued to live however the heck I wanted. My life continued to be as messy as those burgers.

That day in French Burger didn’t make an immediate impact, but it was a tiny step forward, and God is known to work wonders with little things.

It wasn’t until the start of high school that I became a proper Christian. It wasn’t exactly a decision, but more like a gradual movement toward Christ. I took prayer more seriously, began reading the Bible, and made a sincere effort to be less of a jerk. My faith has wavered over the years, but for better or worse, I’ve kept it.

The salvation of my soul wasn’t an event of dazzling beauty or splendid emotion, but it was a start. After all, redemption has to begin somewhere. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Neither bad burgers nor bad people can preclude the grace of God.

The Force Is Strong with This One

The Force is strong with this one

Good gosh, do I ever miss Sam and his Obi-Wan impressions. He occasionally did other movie impressions, too.

Sam reclining

“Draw me like one of your French poodles.”

After spending many happy years with my family in Ecuador and Uruguay, Sam stayed in Uruguay with some dear friends. I have a cat now, and she’s all right, but I still miss the Sam-pup. Man’s best friend, indeed.

Sam curled up

448. Neckties Are Evil

I’m currently gathering questions for a blog Q&A next week. If you’ve ever wanted to ask me anything about my life, blog, book project, or anything else, ask away!

Neckties are awful, and the person who invented them should have been hanged. It would have been poetic justice. A necktie is basically a decorative noose, after all. It’s rather morbid if you think about it.


One of these things is exactly like the others.

Who decided that a limp strip of cloth, dangling sadly from the throat, should be a formal men’s accessory? Unlike most garments, the necktie doesn’t conform to the shapes and contours of the human body. It just… hangs there.

I can’t tie a necktie to save my life. (I suppose this means I lack any sort of class or social graces, which is fine with me.) A couple of years ago, I turned to YouTube, that inexhaustible fount of knowledge, in search of tutorials. I found many, but none of them helped. My fingers, so agile when tapping away at a computer or video game controller, are rubbish when it comes to tying knots.

Donkey Kong's necktie

A necktie is unnecessary even if its wearer is wearing nothing else.

Fortunately, none of the jobs I’ve worked have demanded I wear a necktie, so I’ve kept my head out of the noose. Only once that I recall was I ever required to wear a tie.

In the early aughts, I was part of the worship team at my church in Quito. (I banged a pair of bongos; what I lacked in skill, I made up in enthusiasm.) The pastor decided one day that everyone on the worship team should wear a necktie. On the following Sunday, with groans that words cannot express, we showed up wearing neckties.

One young man, whom I’ll call Socrates, rebelled against the pastor’s edict. He wore a necktie knotted neatly around his head like a headband. The pastor was so amused that he allowed Socrates to play with the worship team… but after that Sunday, the pastor was quick to clarify how neckties were supposed to be worn.

I’ll be the first to admit that neckties sometimes look nice—on other people, of course. They add a touch of sophistication when matched with a suit or vest. Alternatively, a mismatched tie gives an untucked shirt a bit of casual, carefree charm. Neckties may be a traditionally masculine accessory, but they can look really cute on ladies.

My favorite kind of necktie, i.e. the kind of necktie I hate the least, is the bow tie. In Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor repeatedly insists, “Bow ties are cool,” and I have to agree.

Bow ties are cool


He really rocks the look. Bill Nye also looks good in a bow tie.

I admit that neckties can look all right. That said, I blame cultural conditioning for fooling me into thinking that way. Neckties are uncomfortable, useless, and empirically evil. If you’re going to wear a noose, at least keep your neck warm with a scarf!

Collectible Card Games

A few days ago, as I chatted with a dear friend from Ecuador, our conversation turned to his brave but ill-fated attempts to teach me to play a collectible card game. Years ago in Quito, my friend and I sat down with colorful packs of Magic: The Gathering cards. He wanted to teach me to play; I wanted to learn to play. It seemed simple enough.

However, there were two things neither of us considered. That first is that I am easily distracted. The second is that I have a deplorable memory: especially in the case of rules and systems. As my friend, whom I’ll call Socrates, explained the rules of the game, I flipped through his cards, looking at the pretty pictures and reading incomprehensible bits and pieces of game instructions.

Magic The Gathering cards

The rules for most collectible card games are only slightly less comprehensible than Finnegans Wake. (I’m sorry; I can’t help making lit jokes occasionally.) The pictures are nice, though!

When Socrates and I tried playing a round of Magic: The Gathering, I asked him an average of thirty-seven questions per turn. We gave up in the end, opting for Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. or some other game that wasn’t so far beyond my feeble intellect.

For years, I could hardly sit down at a table without having to brush away collectible cards. My friends in middle and high school collected cards from all kinds of games: Magic: The Gathering, which featured fantasy elements in the vein of Dungeons & DragonsPokémon, starring Nintendo’s cutesy Pocket Monsters; World of Warcraft, which had leaped from computers to tabletops; and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which featured the most egregious anime hair I have ever seen.

Yu-Gi-Oh! hair

Yu-Gi-Oh my gosh that hair is horrible.

I never got into collectible card games, except for a brief fascination with Pokémon cards as a kid. I went through what I can only call a Pokémon phase in fifth grade, in which I collected dozens and dozens of cards. I never learned the rules of the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing it with friends. Fortunately, my friends were as clueless as I, and our card games turned into anarchic free-for-alls with rules made up as we needed them. (It was sort of like Calvinball.)

I’m not sure what happened to all of my Pokémon cards. They probably slipped away to whatever inscrutable corner of the world swallowed up Amelia Earhart.

Pokemon cards

To this day, I have not forgotten the value of a holographic Charizard.

Since I finished high school, collectible cards seem to have vanished from my life, though news occasionally reaches me. I hear there’s a new My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic collectible card game making the rounds, and Magic: The Gathering seems to be doing well. World of Warcraft cards have been replaced by an online card game. The anime hair in Yu-Gi-Oh! is probably just as bad as it was eight years ago, but I’m too disinterested to find out.

I enjoy looking at them, but I don’t plan to buy collectible cards any time soon. My money must go to necessities like rent, gas, coffee, and food. Besides, my life is complicated enough without the unintelligible rules and instructions for card games! If I tried to learn all the rules to a new game, I would probably lose whatever sanity I have left, and end up eating grass like old Nebuchadnezzar. No card is worth that!

Well… a Charizard might be; I suppose it depends on whether it’s holographic.

This post was originally published on June 8, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

415. The Bests of 2015

I no longer review stuff on this blog, but I don’t mind taking a day to look back on the best media I experienced in 2015. I didn’t spend as much time reading, watching movies and television, or playing video games as I would have liked, but I did enjoy some notable works, and here are the best of the best. (For clarification, this list includes only media I experienced for the first time in 2015. I’m featuring neither old favorites I revisited nor new episodes of shows I’ve seen.)

After I’ve shared my favorites, feel free to share yours in the comments! What great films, books, television shows, or video games did you enjoy in 2015?

Here are mine.

Best Live Action Film: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max

This film is a work of art, and also an action movie with spiky cars and fire-spewing electric guitars. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film in the purest sense, with sparse dialogue and explosive momentum. The movie is basically a two-hour car chase through a dystopian wasteland, yet manages to convey (amid explosions) meaningful themes such as guilt, redemption, the empowerment of women, and the worth of human life. The film also gets bonus points for its oversaturated, brightly-colored scenery: a welcome change from the bleached, washed-out look of most dystopian movies. Fury Road is stupid, campy action elevated to an art form: a film with all the ferocious beauty and power of an erupting volcano.

Best Animated Film: Inside Out

Inside Out

Pixar films nearly always leave an emotional impression, so it’s only to be expected that a Pixar film about emotions makes a terrific impact. Inside Out nearly made me cry in the movie theater, and I’m not a person who cries. Pixar’s best movies have a simple premise, and this one is no exception: What if your emotions were tiny people inside your head? Inside Out tells two intertwining stories: the fantastical journey of a little girl’s emotions inside her mind, and the consequent struggles of that little girl to accept the changes in her life. This film warms the viewer’s heart, but only after it has finishing breaking it. Inside Out is a sad, joyful movie… which seems appropriate, as Sadness and Joy are two of its most important characters.

Best Fiction Book: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King cover

The Once and Future King is a retelling of King Arthur’s life. Like Inside Out, this story is both happy and sad; unlike that film, this novel leans much more heavily toward sadness than happiness. The epic backdrop of the Arthurian legends is used here as a stage for the intimate stories of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Fragments of the old legends—the Round Table, the Grail Quest, Mordred’s betrayal—are woven neatly into two stories: the king who spends his life trying to do the right thing, and the knight whose loyalties are forever divided. Both men are great heroes, and both are doomed from the start. As it reinvents old stories for our cynical age, The Once and Future King is funny, sad, and well worth reading.

Best Nonfiction Book: All Groan Up

All Groan Up

Its title is a really bad pun, but this is not a bad book. (Seriously, though, that title causes me physical pain.) This memoir of a young man’s post-college panic, crises of faith, search for employment, and painful transition to adulthood is eerily similar to my own experiences. Paul Angone tells his story with openness, honesty, Jon Acuff-like humor, and way too many silly metaphors. In the end, despite its stylistic quirks, his story is well worth reading for all those college-age adults who feel lost, alone, ashamed, and hopeless. I wish I had read this book five years ago.

Best Console Video Game: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni cover

This is probably the most beautiful game I have ever played. With visuals inspired (and some contributed) by the legendary Studio Ghibli, and music by noted composer Joe Hisaishi, this game looks and sounds amazing—and it plays beautifully. The game’s story of a little boy searching for his mother is touching and bittersweet… except for when it’s cute and hilarious, which it frequently is. The Final Fantasy-meets-Pokémon gameplay may be a bit deep for casual players, and the ending is unsatisfying, but these are nitpicks. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is magical. And it’s getting a sequel!

Best Handheld Video Game: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

“A true gentleman leaves no puzzle unsolved,” and Professor Hershel Layton is the truest of gentlemen. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a delightful collection of puzzles, strung together by the most intriguing Professor Layton story I’ve seen yet. The good Professor’s search for the diabolical relic known as the Miracle Mask is packed with interesting characters, charming visuals, good voice acting, and (of course) scores upon scores of puzzles to solve. This is a game for everyone, casual players and veteran gamers alike. In fact, the only people for whom I can’t recommend this game are those with no feeling, soul, or sense of humor.

Best Live Action Television Series: Marvel’s Daredevil

Marvel's Daredevil

I’ve already written two entire blog posts about the excellence of Marvel’s Daredevil, so I won’t add much here. I’ll just point out one more fun detail: a scene set in a Hispanic lady’s home contains a two-liter bottle of Inca Kola. (I grew up drinking Inca Kola in Ecuador.) That is serious attention to detail.

Daredevil (now with 100% more Inca Kola!)

Marvel’s Daredevil has a breakable hero, a fascinating villain, great writing, brilliant action scenes, a gripping (and grounded) story, and an artistically comic-booky visual style. This show is superb.

Best Animated Television Series: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

This anime isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but there’s something compelling about its unromantic romance writer and his quirky entourage of artists. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is neither a romantic comedy nor a satire, but something in between. It never feels cynical or mean-spirited as it deconstructs rom-com clichés; the show’s self-aware humor is balanced by a heartwarming charm and innocence. As an added bonus, the show offers fascinating glimpses into the process of making manga (i.e. Japanese comics). It’s fairly short and available only in Japanese with English subtitles, but Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is delightful.

What are some of the best media you experienced in 2015? Let us know in the comments!

409. Looking Back, and Wanting to Set Stuff on Fire

New Year’s Eve is almost here. A new year lies ahead, full of promise and possibility. As this year draws to a close, we take down Christmas decorations, make resolutions, and burn effigies in the streets.

Burn, año viejo, burn!What? We don’t do that in America?

This country is no fun.

As a kid in Ecuador, one of my favorite holiday traditions was the burning of the año viejo, or old year. Every New Year’s Eve, families gather to burn their own año viejo: a crude effigy of a person stuffed with sawdust, fitted with a papier-mâché mask, and doused in something flammable. Popular likeness for año viejo masks include superheroes, cartoon characters, and (of course) politicians.

In addition to sawdust, some people stuff a few firecrackers into their año viejo. Such effigies do not go gentle into that good night. They go with roaring flames and an irregular series of bangs. Man, I miss Ecuador.

The burning of the año viejo is a beautiful tradition: a symbol of letting go of the past year’s troubles and failures. (It’s also fun for pyromaniacs.) My dad, ever the creative missionary, used an año viejo one New Year’s Eve to share a lesson from the book of Romans: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”

I’m sorry to say my little Indiana town probably won’t let me set fire to stuff on the streets, even as a cherished symbol of moving forward. Since I can’t burn an año viejo, I’ll have to settle for making some New Year’s resolutions. Before I do, however, I should probably review the old ones.

Here are my resolutions for 2015. Did I keep them? Before they go up in a metaphorical cloud of smoke, let’s find out.

I will be more intentional in keeping my New Year’s resolutions.

Yeah, no. As usual, I kept several of my New Year’s resolutions, but it was only by dint of trying generally to be a better person. I had to look up my old resolutions in order to write today’s blog post, which means I failed to keep this one.

I will work on my Spanish.

I kept this one, but not exactly on purpose. My plan was to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender in Spanish, which I definitely didn’t do. However, since starting work as a CNA in a nursing home earlier this year, I’ve spoken Spanish regularly with one of the residents. I declare this resolution sort of kept.

I will practice spinning an old broomstick.

I didn’t keep this one. My talent for twirling a broomstick like some sort of janitorial ninja went mostly unpracticed this year. Sometimes, when I spin my broomstick in the local park, Amish kids stare at me fixedly with blank expressions. It’s a little creepy. I wish I could find a more private place for stick-twirling.

I will have a more positive attitude.

I actually kept this one, thanks in no small part to my resignation from a horrible job. (It’s so much easier to think positively when you aren’t crushed every day by impossible expectations, thankless conditions, and toxic people.) So much changed this year: much of it for the better. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but things seem a little more hopeful.

I will research career options.

I sort of kept this one, but not really. I researched the steps required to become a Certified Nursing Assistant—and promptly became one—but that isn’t exactly a step forward. It’s more like a step sideways. I also did a tiny bit of research into editing and did some preliminary editing for a friend’s manuscript… that counts, right?

I will value prayer more.

I… didn’t keep this one. I’m sorry to say I valued prayer less this year than in years past. I’m working on it.

What are my resolutions for 2016? That shall wait until next time!

Did you keep your resolutions this year? Let us know in the comments!

We did it, guys. WE DID IT! Operation Yuletide reached its fundraising goal thanks to the staggering generosity of a few awesome people! The fundraiser is still going, and it’s not too late to donate—every dollar helps, and there are rewards for donors! Check it out here!