Hard Knocks 2nd and 10: Coffee, Brunch, and Bursts of Anger

Here we are two weeks in to HBO’s Hard Knocks with the Houston Texans and, while there are glimpses of the pressures to come in the following weeks, it is still mostly fun, like last week. For me though, while I mostly loved the silly stuff, it was one of the more serious moments that struck me as the standout of the week. Here’s my Episode 2 top ten:

10. Cornerback Kareem Jackson evaluates his children’s clothing purchases exactly the way my mother does. First, he puts his hand under the fabric to see if he can see through it or not. Once he ascertains it is good material, he makes sure it covers as much skin as humanly possible. We were not allowed to wear tank tops until we were adults. I think Dolores and Mr. Jackson would get along great.

9. I want Bill O’Brien to retire from football to teach a college course called Corporate Nonsense. Every episode when they get to him at the lectern, I get so excited. This week, it was how to answer a question with a non-answer. “What do you think of the QB battle?” “I’m just out there trying to help the team. “What’s the capitol of Texas?” “Just doing my job, sir.” I hope next week he teaches them about passive aggressively proving your worth to your superiors.

8. Sometimes I think hazing gets a really bad rap. Yes, most of it is horrible and dangerous, but these rookie haircuts, including the one someone described as “The Friar Tuck” is exactly the kind of fun newbies should be put through. I can only hope a rookie talent show like the Bengals one is on the horizon.

7. Last year I had Deandre Hopkins on one of my fantasy football teams. He performed well, so I loved him. I liked him a little more when he broke a dude’s ankle with his route last week. I officially adore him now that he has referred to the mall as his second home, informed us that women love a guy with a good murse, and that he wants a tiny dog to take with him in said murse everywhere he goes. Hey Deandre…call me.

6. Brian Cushing, were you paying attention to what Mr. Hopkins was drinking in the mall? That’s right…STARBUCKS. Buddy, you know I love a felow Trojan and I know exactly which Starbucks you ordered from on campus, so let’s not act like you’re far too masculine for coffee when you’re two sons are hanging out in a playroom that spells out PLAY with beauty mirror lights, mmkay? It is fine if you have an easier time relating to guys than girls, you just need to work on expressing that in a way that doesn’t seem like you hate the rest of us.

5. I will say, as a person who usually finds the intensity of folks like Cushing and JJ Watt offputting, this show makes me understand it a little better. While most people today are labelling Cushing a villain, somehow I can kind of undrstand why he is pushing Alfred Blue so hard. I think it is more than just machismo. This is a guy who realizes the fate of this team is throoughly tied to Blue’s success now that Arian Foster is injured, so he is pushing him to take it up to the next level.

People like Cushing are driven, just in a way I am not used to, as being a driven creative person doesn’t involve as much yelling and threatening of your peers. So, props to you Mr. Cushing for your dedication, but how about you get a frapuccino every once in a while and chill?

4. The Watt and Vince Wilforke combo is one I underrated in episode one, but their brunch discussion has shown me the error of my ways. It also doesn’t help that my personal rookie of the year Christian Covington only took a break from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to answer one of the coach’s non-questions in a team meeting and that is it for his appearance this week. But as Wilforke and Watt correctly point out, brunch should be an equal opportunity event, not something reserved for couples and groups of women.

3. The ever-reliable Mike Vrabel popped up long enough to remind a dude that if you don’t do your job, there are repurcussions, like getting kicked out of practice. While I find it entertaining, that and the story of the third round wide receiver rookie reminds me that next week is when this show starts to get sad, as people start to get cut.

2. The top two moments belong to the same guy: Charles James. First, we’ve got to talk about the man’s sock game. He has a collection of awesome funny socks and speaks extensively about how his socks relate to his self worth. What I especially love is how he treats socks that don’t work out with more respect than the average dude breaking up with his girlfriend. He told the camera crew he talked to the socks and explained they didn’t bring him enough happiness and no hard feelings before throwing them away.

Off topic, but I always assumed that, like most football gear, a certain type of fancy sock was required. Anyone else surprised a pair of socks you could buy at a Hot Topic are sufficient in the NFL?

1. Then there is possibly the most compelling moment I’ve ever seen in an episode of Hard Knocks, when James chewed out his a rookie safety for messing up over and over again. To me, it would seem like this is a good thing for James, but he makes it abundantly clear: if you screw up, I am believed to have screwed up, and that means I may not have a job in a couple of weeks.

There are moments in Hard Knocks that are fun like trips to the mall and talks of brunch, but for a lot of these guys, their entire future is on the line. To see James so openly and honestly make it clear how much he needs this was remarkable, and reminds us why this show is the best reality show on TV, hands down.


2000: Rom Coms, Inflatable Guitars, Everything You Want

Whenever people perform stupid stunts on TV, they typically include warnings advising those of us at home not to attempt them. Don’t ride your BMX down an abandoned waterslide. Don’t light your little sibling on fire then use bubbles to extinguish him. These things are typically obvious no-nos to anyone with a baseline IQ. But, as tends to be the case with warnings, someone did try it, a lawsuit ensued, and now we need a warning.

Really though, as my favorite writer Chuck Klosterman has pointed out, the warnings need to come on things that teach us about relationships and expectations, like Coldplay and John Cusack. There are simply things that, while wonderful on film or in a TV show, simply wouldn’t work in real life, fun as they may seem.

A movie I would contend is one of the most fun of the past 20 years is Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality. This story of an ugly duckling FBI loner turned drop dead hot Miss United States pageant participant (It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship competition!) is one I still quote regularly and back in the day, I took a freeze frame of Sandra’s hairdo during the interview portion of the competition and told her to do my prom hair that way.

I’ve always idolized Sandra Bullock. She is a producer in addition to an actress. She is hilarious and never apologizes for it. She still gets cast as a leading lady but isn’t conventionally gorgeous or model thin. She looks beautiful in the most normal way possible. She adopted the most adorable baby, she is close with her mother, and she is pretty much all I want to be in life.

A recurring theme in Bullock’s movies is that her male counterpart realizes that the vapid bimbos they’ve been dating are no comparison to the substance Bullock’s character offers. This is the case in Two Weeks Notice, The Proposal, Forces of Nature, and I’m sure there are more. It is a charming thought, someone realizing you are wonderful just the way you are, but Miss Congeniality is a little more realistic about matters. Let’s be honest, it takes a team of highly-trained aestheticians to get the very hot Benjamin Bratt to notice Bullock’s character, Gracie. The film tries to show how this isn’t just about grooming, it is about Gracie learning to love herself for who she is and give herself the time and attention she deserves by doing things like flat ironing her hair and avoiding carbs.

I certainly appreciate the honest of Miss Congeniality and, while the sequel may suck, I will say I adore the fact there is no romance in the sequel, just two women working together. Even this is too dangerous to try at home though. You can be as thin and gorgeous as you’re capable of being and, if a guy hasn’t expressed interest in you before, he very well isn’t going to post-make over either. And if he does, do you want to be the person whose significant other finally decided to give you a chance because you look a little hotter? Knowing deep down you have to put this amount of effort forth in order to keep them because the message has been made crystal clear: you aren’t good enough the way you are.

So while the makeover has been at the heart of several great movies, it rarely works out in real life because it is more complicated than a single scene in which the person is simply seen in a new light by their paramour, who noticed what they’d been missing. But plenty of pop culture moments suffer the same problem–in the moment it may be wonderful and romantic, but taken in a larger context, a good majority of these cinematic romantic gestures are super creepy.

If you broke up with John Cusack and he showed up outside of your house in the middle of the night blaring a boombox, well, first you’d ask where the hell you get a boombox in this day and age, and then you would call the police. Because when you look at the plot of Say Anything and you look at the plot of the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Fear, they are kind of the same story of a guy who gets way too attached to a girl way too fast, they have trouble appropriately displaying their affection, and they develop adversarial relationships with the parents.

In other words, grand romantic gestures are usually a really bad idea. While my brain cerebrally understands it, my heart still swoons every time I hear “Your Eyes”. I love the romantic sweeping scenes of classic movies. Meeting at the top of the Empire State Building, proclaiming your love invoking hell fires and holocausts, roping your girlfriend’s grandpa into helping pull of a big surprise like they do in Meet Me in St. Louis, all of these moments melt my heart.

Which is no surprise why I quickly took to the quirky show about the bowling alley attorney who moved back home to win over his high school sweetheart Carol in the little-watched but much-loved Ed. Out of context, Ed Stevens is the creepiest dude imaginable. He kissed a chick he once knew, then bought a bowling alley to be near her. Much like poor Felicity, who changed her college plans because of what one dude wrote in her yearbook, Ed was just too much, too soon.

In the pilot episode, Ed shows up at the school where Carol teaches alongside her boyfriend of seven years and he is wearing a suit of armor and bearing a bouquet of flowers. This is harassment, no other way to really argue it. But it is damned adorable.

Another time, shortly after Carol and her boyfriend broke up, Carol is awoken by a noise on her roof. Is it a predator? A rapist? Nope, it is Ed throwing waffles on her roof, a continuation of an inside joke designed to cheer her up, so yes it is creepy, but it is a little bit endearing.

The further removed I get from my teen years, the more I think of Ed Stevens as a creeper, but there is something about him that makes me love him in spite of all this weird behavior. And while I wouldn’t actually want these things to happen to me in real life, there is one gesture of his that I will always hope happens to me someday.

In the third episode of the first season, Ed and Carol are trying to be friends, but Ed is still pulling out all the stops to win Carol over. He has a third party deliver her a VHS tape. Some of you may not be familiar, but there used to be places where you could make your own music videos. You could stand in front of a green screen and lip sync along with a song while the background made it look like you were by the ocean or riding on a magic carpet. Imagine a low rent version of Rebecca Black’s Friday.

Anyways, Carol pops the tape in her VCR and finds one of those music videos with Ed brandishing a pink inflatable electric guitar with clouds floating by in the background. He then lip syncs with every ounce of earnestness in his body Chicago’s You’re the Inspiration. I wish I could say I am not so weak-willed as to find this adorable, but I stand by what I said my junior of high school: if a guy ever did this for me, I would need one hell of a reason not to marry him.

So far, the Chicago-singing suitor hasn’t shown up. Instead, I have a string of what ifs and not quites and what was I thinkings. And, like most people, I’ve had my share of unrequited love. It would be nice to believe that pouring my guts out would result in a meaningful relationship, but as someone who tried it once only to have it result in a super awkward couple of months, I have to advise against people planning their own version of the pick me, choose me, love me speech.

When I was younger, I would try to explain to someone I liked how I felt and, if they didn’t fully reciprocate (I’m a real pro at kinda dating people btw), I would try to convince them I was worth it. My mom told me something that always stuck. “You don’t want to be with a guy you have to convince to like you, Jessica. They should know on their own.”

She was right, but I was still sad, so I would retreat to my room and listen to a song like Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want on repeat. During my most pathetic moments, I would cry sing my way through the power chorus when the protagonist shifts from talking about the other guy to himself, proclaiming how he is “everything you want”, he is the right guy for her. I would wonder why my version of this song didn’t work.

This is why songs and movies and shows like this need warning labels. They are great for what they are, which is catharsis. You want to do these stupid, ridiculous things and you know they will have stupid, ridiculous results, so you act them out singing Vertical Horizon on a loop. That way you don’t show up on someone’s doorstep with a wilted waffle, a strange monologue, and a restraining order. These aren’t meant for us to replicate in our real lives. They are grow up fantasies, fairy tales really. Miss Congeniality is just The Ugly Duckling. Ed is a literal knight in shining armor. And the power ballad Everything You Want is for when we’re feeling more beastly than beautiful. Would you ever grow out your hair and let a stranger climb it? Get roofied by your stepmother after breaking and entering into a house full of miners? Didn’t think so. Treat these like you would Sleeping Beauty. They are great stories and sometimes have some metaphorical real world application, but it is not safe to try it at home.

But seriously, the one exception is the inflatable guitar. Cause I’m still holding out hope for that tape.

1999: Staplers, Slayers, and Placing the Blame

I adore Katharine Hepburn for a lot of reasons, but one in particular is this quote:

“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.”

Growing up, I was actually taught the way Hepburn wanted people to be taught in that you need to blame yourself first, then only when given enough evidence to the contrary can you place the blame on someone else. It wasn’t something anyone in particular taught me, I just tended to pick it up from TV and books where the lesson often is placing blame anywhere but squarely on your shoulders is a bad thing to do.

This has been an incredibly useful mindset for many facets of my life. In school and at work, I do my best to get everything done with as few excuses as possible. It has made me a skilled editor, as I don’t really pull punches if I think changes can improve things. I may be the bad guy, but I am my own worst enemy, so adding a foe or two to the list doesn’t matter that much.

I know many people, myself included, who have been in jobs they can’t stand. They come up with excuses to stay, place blame on others, and ultimately keep suffering. This is why the movie Office Space stands up so well over the years. Mike Judge’s comedy is every white collar worker’s dream—admitting that the system is stupid to your superiors, acknowledging you pretend to work a lot of the time, and beating the shit out of the printer.

It may seem like a mundane comedy, but at its heart, this movie is a fantasy about being able to take control of your situation and turn it into something positive with virtually no repercussions. Whether you’re a waitress lacking the requisite flare or a middle manager at an IT company, it is up to you to fix your situation, your crappy boss, and your crappy job.

In reality though, sometimes you can’t just walk away from something you hate. It is one of the other defining differences between Xennials and Snake People. My parents raised me to believe you should be grateful for any and every job you are offered. Your job sucks? It’s supposed to. Nowadays, I constantly see people a little younger than me talking about how your work should be something you love, as if it is a requisite of employment that you not only get paid and get benefits, you have to be emotionally fulfilled by it too. While I think we all agree that would be nice, there are still those of us who consider a job a means to pay the bills, not a life-defining decision about who you are deep down inside. Sometimes I have a job just to have a job. For a while I thought my job had to be one of the key things defining who I am. But not everyone needs a career path that brings then more zen than a yoga retreat.

Those of us who can be a little too complacent can stand to learn something about blaming ourselves for our own misery and taking too much negativity because we feel we deserve it from Office Space though. Just look at poor Milton, who never speaks up and by bearing the brunt of it, only has worse and worse things heaved upon him. It may be satire, but that is how the work place and life really is. The more you prove you are a capable human being, the more will be expected of you. They’ll even take your cake and eat it too.

The more responsibility you shoulder, the more it seems easy to place the blame upon yourself. This is one of Buffy Summers’ biggest flaws on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve spoken before about late-season Buffy and her emotional struggles, but really from the time she was told she is the one and only slayer, she has heaped the literal responsibility of the entire world on her shoulders. So, when things go poorly, she blames herself. When people die, she blames herself. And when all she wants is a break like going to homecoming, she gets taught a lesson in the form of vampire mercenaries trying to murder her. When she decides to finally let a guy in and care about someone and have sex with him, he literally turns into an evil monster hellbent on killing her and her friends and the only way she can fix it is to murder her first love herself.

If Office Space is a fantasy about shirking responsibility, Buffy is a horror story not about monsters and vampire, but the unrelenting unfairness of adulthood. Milton’s series of foibles may be funny, but they aren’t that far removed from Buffy Summers, who is stuck with a gig she never asked for and constantly has to sacrifice as a result. Difference is, Buffy can’t quit being the slayer. In many ways, her situation is blameless. She didn’t get herself into this mess, but she can’t get out of it either. For those of us used to putting all the blame on our shoulders, these situations are way worse than a soul-sucking job. You know when you’re Milton that, should push comes to shove, you can say enough. When you’re in a jam you’re desperate to get out of but there is absolutely nothing you can do except put your head down and keep going, you try to figure out if there is some cosmic reason you’re in the boat you’re in, which only makes things tougher.

What is great about Buffy is creator Joss Whedon’s unrelenting honesty about how cruel life can be. I know, it doesn’t sound great, but as a show that was at the heart of my high school viewing, being reassured by this show that, yes, things are often hard for no real reason, so don’t feel like you are to blame for it is exactly what I needed.

While I am with Hepburn in the sense I would much prefer to have a friend who tends to blame themselves too much rather than too little. I find it is much better to be too self-critical than too self-assured, or else you’ll end up with too many evenings like the one described in Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy. While the song is mostly about drinking too much and blacking out, the sentiment that we kick the living shit out of ourselves from time to time resonates with sober people too. Even though I put the blame on myself for a lot of things, I still end up making stupid mistakes and know I am making them as I do it, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

While Drunk Jess (yes, I consider her a person unto herself) can do some dumb stuff, her complete disregard for consequences can be helpful from time to time, as she can be more forward, more assured, less guarded. Most of the time I rue her existence, but like any good worst enemy, she certainly challenges me and my life choices and, in the end, what doesn’t kill me with alcohol poisoning makes me stronger.

That is the best part of being a self-blamer. As you scrutinize every facet of your being all the time, you try and get better. When I go through a break up or I change jobs, I will exercise more, write more, read more, all in an attempt of self-betterment in case the reason behind the problem is me. I wish it could be like Office Space and I could just scream eff it and be done with the things not working in my life. But seven or eight viewings of all those Buffy episodes reminds me that, like Buffy, I can train all I want, shield myself and prepare as much as I can and, while I can try to prevent myself from being my own worst enemy, I am never going to be able to stop bad things from happening and there will always be instances where there is no one to blame.

1998: Time, Context, Saving Private Ryan & Shania

I’ve mentioned before that my sister and I have an agreement to watch a show neither of us are particularly fond of anymore called The Strain. There is a character in the show that appears to be in his early 70s. In Season 1 it is revealed he is a Holocaust survivor and I didn’t think too much of it. My sister and I were watching some of Season 2 together and he reveals that he is defying aging and is actually 94 years old.

Both my sister and I needed a minute to think it through and, yeah, we probably should’ve realized a guy who was maybe 20 during WW2 would be damn near 100 now. It was such a common thing when we were kids for some of our friends to have grandparents that were Holocaust survivors that the idea one would be very much alive and kicking today felt so normal. Really though, kids today will go their whole lives more than likely never meeting someone who experienced the Holocaust or was a WW2 vet because most of them will have passed on.

So once again, I refer to difference between Millenials and Xennials and which way those Xennials lean. Many of my friends had close relationships with grandparents or other relatives who still had a couple of decades of good years in them. While we were not around to experience what happened during WW2, we got to hear firsthand about what happened on and off the battlefield. Meanwhile those just a few years younger than us had grandparents who were kids during the war and couldn’t tell us about why we fought and just how horrifying some of those important battles could be.

When Saving Private Ryan first came out in theaters, many veterans from that war walked out about 45 minutes into the film. It wasn’t because it was bad or the depiction of the storming of Omaha Beach was outrageously incorrect. They walked out because it was too real, bringing back memories of their own experiences in the service that they weren’t prepared to relive. I was a teenager at the time, but watching this movie in the theaters brought me to tears several times over. Watching the movie certainly didn’t make me understand the experiences of my relatives, but it did help me to understand some of the burden they bore by not only fighting for our country, but suffering the memories of the horrific experiences alone, unwilling to burden others with it.

They are called The Greatest Generation by many, including myself. These principled people put others before self, learned to live with what they had, and appreciated everything that was given to them. I admire them greatly and my heart holds a special place for their era. I don’t know if it is nostalgia when you long for a time you didn’t experience, but as someone who thinks the early 1950s are the greatest time for movies ever, I don’t know what else to call my infatuation with the era.

I was genuinely infatuated with Saving Private Ryan. To this day it ranks in my all-time top five. Every time I watch it, even now, I get a little misty-eyed, especially during the scene in which the group’s medic dies. After being shot, he is trying to instruct the guys how to help him. As they tell him where the wounds are, he realizes what no one else does, that his liver has been hit and he is going to die. Like WW2 vets, it is a horror my brain can comprehend, but I can only imagine how it would’ve felt.

I had that personal connection, but people younger than me who watch this movie now will not have such an experience. I imagine it’ll be more like when I watched The Passion of the Christ. It puts a historical event in context in a very visceral way, but you still feel somewhat disconnected since there is no one in your real life to anchor the feelings you’ve experienced in the movies. Movies are great to watch just to watch, but when you can use them to connect with someone in a way you couldn’t before, it is a surprisingly fulfilling experience.

Like my sister and The Strain, I tend to watch some oddball shows in an effort to connect with my mom. Lately when I am home, she will call out to me during the part in Columbo episodes where he smarmily reveals who the killer is so I can watch with her. My mom has no interest in serial television and she isn’t a fan of gruesome murder and crime, so she skips the procedurals like Law & Order or CSI.

It is no wonder then that when ABC launched a quirky little show that amounted to a procedural about dating and falling in love that both my mom and I fell head over heels for it. Before he was Ari on Entourage, Jeremy Piven played Cupid. Not metaphorical cupid like a matchmaker, Cupid cupid. The general premise is that Cupid pissed off Zeus or someone up there and they sent him down to Earth without his powers and told him he can’t get them back until he gets 100 couples together. His psychologist thinks he is insane and the audience never quite knows for sure he is who he says he is, which is its own amount of fun, but the weekly romances were exactly the kind of procedural our life as missing.

The show, which was kind of destined to fail when it was condemned to a Friday night time slot, never quite got the critical acclaim I think it deserved, though it did develop a cult following. Nowadays, shows like Say Yes to the Dress, The Millionaire Matchmaker, and other reality shows have somewhat filled the void of the relationship procedural, but none have that quirk and charm of this short-lived show. I like to think much like I was a few decades late for a time I think I would’ve thrived in, this show was about five years too early, as the proliferation of scripted TV shows recently discussed on NPR’s pop culture blog probably would’ve resulted in this show ending up on a niche cable network.

A show like Cupid was too high concept to really be timeless. Much of contemporary pop culture ties itself a little too closely to the time period. Many shows aren’t built to last anymore. Reality shows sum this up the best. If you don’t catch them on their initial run, you’re hardly ever going to see any reality competition show in syndication because once people knew who won, the interest dried up immediately.

Many songs are suffering the same fate, especially in the top 40 world where lyrics name drop other artists, TV shows, and current events. In the late 90s, punk and boy bands were dominating the charts tying themselves to the era with their sound, but there was an artist who paved the way for Taylor Swift by crossing over from country to pop who hit the charts doing very much her own thing. Shania Twain’s Still the One is a timeless kind of ballad that is just as compelling today as it was 17 years ago.

That is, so long as you keep the song out of context. When she wrote it, Shania was deeply in love with her producer, Mutt Lange. In 2010, he would leave her for her best friend. Ouch.

When Shania started her show at Caesars, I went with some friends. While not a die-hard Shania supporter, I like a lot of her songs, especially Still the One. However, knowing the story behind the song, I couldn’t help but get a little sad when we reached that portion of the performance. There are a lot of inadvertently hilarious moments in the show, like when she performs some songs on what appears to be a post-nuclear fallout cheetah planet.

For Still the One, she comes in on a white horse, fog rolls in. She gets off the horse and proceeds to sing the song to the animal, as it magically follows her around the stage. (Begging the question of logistically how this is accomplished. Do they spray her down with carrot juice or something?)

It’s intended to be beautiful, but my mind went to her failed relationship thinking to myself, “You had a husband to sing this song to forever, but now the only one to serenade is your horse. That’s pretty depressing, Ms. Twain.” This song, which is so lovely and doesn’t need any context to resonate with anyone who has ever been in love has been tainted by context.

That is what happens the more you know and the more something gets connected to a place, a person, or an era. A movie like Saving Private Ryan or a simple love song can make you feel so much more than taking in things sight unseen. For the movies, something that resonates in your head can be felt in your heart, while a song that always stirred up feelings will get you thinking about the who or why and get the song stuck in your head with more than just the melody.

1997: Good Will Hunting for the Right Decision

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably let fear play too big a role in my decision making, but I like to believe it is a fault a lot of us have. I used to not worry so much, which is a wonderful side effect of youth. In my younger days, I viewed decisions from the perspective of wrong or right. Nowadays, I realize that framework only leads to quite a bit of frustration, as decisions are more easily grouped into easy and hard and further divided into worth it and not.

At its core, Good Will Hunting is really a movie about fear and decisions. You have a kid (yes, kid, you may be shocked to remember Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is supposed to be 20) who had all the potential and intelligence in the world. With that know-how, you would think finding a way out of a working-class life with no parents, a criminal record, and only one friend he can actually rely on would be a piece of cake. It seems like an easy decision to take advantage of his photographic memory and propensity for math and make something of himself.

Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, is a very real thing for some people though, Will included. I am related to several of these people. When I took a job that required a lot of international travel, my mom asked me, “Why do you want to go to another country? Everything you need is here in America.” My grandparents couldn’t understand why I would go to college all the way in California when I could’ve gone to Western Kentucky University for free. Minus the eff bombs and the thick South Boston accents, they are Will Hunting and his band of misfits.

I’ve always loved this movie, but I used to have a problem with the ending. Will chooses neither a life in South Boston nor a life among the math elite, but instead heads off to California, “to go see about a girl,” and it always seemed a bit like a deus ex machina moment for me. Like Will never had to make a real tough decision because the answer is true love. Congrats Will, it’s not your fault and you get to go hang out with Minnie Driver in San Francisco. You think you’ve made a breakthrough in therapy, but here you go running away from the big decision again.

Now that I am a little older and the leaps of faith I made in my younger years are harder to get off the ground, I realize how tough it was for a closed off person like Will to have enough faith in another human being to be there, to be worth it. In fact, of the three options, this one isn’t the easiest, it is probably the hardest. It is pretty easy to figure out if a job is for you or a living situation is for you. When you meet someone and they aren’t like anyone you’ve met before, you aren’t sure If these new feelings are a sign to run or a sign you’ve hit the jackpot.

A good chunk of people tend to live their life trying to keep big changes to a minimum, not realizing they may be doing themselves a disservice in the long run. Going through each day not making any changes seems easy in the moment, but it is also how you end up with a job, a spouse, a life that is simply okay, but is certainly not what your dreams were made of. It was easier for Will to believe he didn’t deserve to be loved too. Sure, he was setting himself up for a lonely life, but at least he knew it was coming and there wasn’t a chance to get his heart crushed again. You underachieved, but your soul survived intact.

There are people who are okay with that kind of life, who would rather take option A than get devastated again. There are people who are willing to make the occasional big decision and take the chance that it is worth the risk, and there is the cast of the David E. Kelley show The Practice. If you remember this show, the lawyers of Robert Donnell and Associates chose a career in which these tough decisions were a weekly affair. You might also remember that these characters are virtuous and awful all at the same time. If you haven’t watched, imagine the characters of Scandal in a law firm. There are certain things they value most, like lost causes and doing something wrong in order to accomplish what they think is right. The initial premise of the show was that the firm was kind of like Robin Hood, defending deadbeats and drug dealers in order to keep the business going and allow them the time and money to defend more noble causes.

It’s a weird kind of idealism this show espouses. They make the decisions look a little tough, but in the battle of protecting the innocent or potentially getting disbarred, they opt to possibly ruin their careers pretty much every time. Jimmy Berlutti ends up at the firm because he forged loan documents at his old job to keep them afloat.  Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) in particular has  a crisis of conscience every week, but it is never a choice between right and wrong, really. It is a choice between right and righter, and it sets an awfully high bar for how much us viewers have to be willing to heave ourselves upon the sword for a good cause. Or, as this scene illustrates, throwing your friend under the bus.

The really difficult decisions though are not the ones in which two paths are clear and you need to pick one. The really tough ones are the ones where you can’t even take action until you figure out what it is you need to choose to do in the first place. Will Hunting has a grasp on his emotional issues, but he subconsciously chooses to push people away rather than take a risk and let someone in. He is aware, but until Robin Williams’ character causes him to break down and let out all those emotions that come along with his thoughts, he can’t really accept that he has to make a decision about letting people in.

Whenever I hear the old Sister Hazel tune All For You, I get a bit of a smile on my face. As music came out of the melancholy haze of grunge, a glut of incredibly cheerful songs hit the airwaves like Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast at Tiffanys, Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, and the rise of Third Eye Blind.

All For You fits right in that mold. It is a fairly simple love song really, but I always enjoyed how it was a story of a guy who finally realized what has been staring him in the face all this time. He tried to find somebody else besides this one particular girl, but in the end, “all the roads, they lead to you.”

It is a romantic conceit common in romantic comedies, the idea that your best friend or the person you never thought of in another light or someone you were once with but never fully got a chance to give it a good try is the person for you. There is usually a very obvious moment where eyes get bigger, where eyebrows raise, and the protagonist literally takes off running to tell that person they were wrong.

While the song isn’t exactly complicated, it does depict a more realistic portrayal of how this happens. It isn’t an a-ha moment, it is a period of thinking you might feel a certain way, trying to deny you feel that way, trying to decide whether these feelings are worth the risk, and hopefully, the elation that follows when you take the risk and it turns out right.

We get inundated with this elation, this moment where you make a decision and it works out like you hoped for. There aren’t a lot of pop culture artifacts in which someone makes a huge mistake they can’t recover from. Another Matt Damon vehicle, The Talented Mr. Ripley, comes to mind. It also reminds me how many people, including myself, have a hard time watching what is a well-made movie because seeing a guy descend into something he can’t fix is uncomfortable and depressing. We as a culture like those movies and TV shows that affirm us that risk is good, but we need the occasional Will Hunting or The Practice episode to at least remind us that decisions are rarely easy, consequences are real, but there are some things are well worth taking a chance on.

1996: Pretension, Sleeper Hits & the Infinite Sadness

I was 13 when I begged my mom to let me see my first R-rated movie in the theaters. She wanted no part in taking me, so she made a deal with my big sister. If Debbie was willing to take me to the movie of my choice on one night, we could see a movie of her choice on another night. She agreed.

That is how my first R-rated movie in the theaters was Stephen King’s Thinner.

Don’t worry, I am not going to talk about Thinner today. I am going to talk about the movie I picked, which was Sleepers. If you’re unfamiliar, the movie is based on an allegedly true story published by Lorenzo Carcaterra about how he and his three friends were sent to juvenile detention as kids and were molested by the prison guards, only to get their revenge years later.

You very likely have never heard of this thing, but at the time it was one of those movies that screamed, “Look how important I am! Give me an Oscar!” First of all, there is the cast, which included Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, Bruno Kirby, Brad Renfro (may he RIP) and Jason Patric. It was directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man fame, and it was about some serious subject matter handled with the utmost seriousness so much so that the movie begins with the narration, “This is a story about friendship that runs deeper than blood.”

The only Oscar nom it got was for original score, which is fantastic by the way. The movie isn’t bad, it just isn’t exceptional in film history, but I was obsessed. I ended up sitting through this nearly three-hour film a total of four times in the theater. This isn’t exactly a movie designed for repeat viewing, but this was the time in my life where I became obsessed with the Oscars and more serious pictures. The fact the first half of the movie featured four attractive boys around my age (this is where Renfro came in) didn’t hurt, but it was more about proving that I was growing up and my taste was growing up too.

Let me be clear here—my tastes still and will forever always veer towards these kinds of movies. While some look forward to the summer slate of action movies, I can’t wait for Christmas time and the onslaught of Oscar bait. But this was more than just a simple enjoyment of a film. I told people for a good three or four years that it was my favorite movie (though it would be usurped by a movie released just two years later).

I don’t know if other people put as much thought into favorite movies as I do. I want to make sure it isn’t just a good movie, but representative of me and my taste. I can’t say my favorite movie is Billy Madison, even though I’ve seen it at least 20 times. It will always be a drama. It will always have names associated with quality attached, and it will always have to be one that is somewhat underrated be it at the box office, in the oeuvre of a director auteur, or critically misunderstood.

Sleepers fit the bill of all three, so even though citing a movie about kids getting molested has its own set of pitfalls, if a 13 year old told you it was their favorite, you have to assume they aren’t exactly basic. Like most adolescents, it may reek of trying too hard to be different, but I didn’t care. In all sincerity, this movie is an interesting watch if you’re a fan of flicks like This Boy’s Life, The Basketball Diaries, or mob movies in general. It is a mobster movie, a courtroom drama (my all-time favorite genre), a family drama, and a prison film with a little Stand By Me thrown in for good measure. It may overreach at times, but better to aim high and come up a little short than never try for anything, right?

Similarly, wouldn’t you rather something that has degraded in quality stay past its prime rather than be cut short too soon? This is why shows like Homeland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, House, and West Wing were on the air so long. Once you find something good, it just seems much easier to stick with it even if it starts to kind of suck rather than go seek out something new. You can acknowledge it isn’t the same (I pretend Buffy Season 7 doesn’t exist), but there is still a sentimental love for it in your heart.

I think no one would argue that ER didn’t stay long past its prime, the last bastion of NBC’s Must-See Thursday line-up. I was not one who saw it through to the end, opting out around the time Kellie Martin’s tenure on the show ended. But in its heyday, I ate that show up, fully invested in just about every character on the show, each of whom had their flaws, but were ultimately loveable.

I don’t think people really give ER enough credit when it comes to looking at the history of serious and prestige television. The credit goes to HBO primarily, but when you think about how hugely popular this very serious TV drama was and how it managed to discuss several issues that were previously unmentioned on TV, you have to give it and its police counterpart, NYPD Blue, a tip of the cap. Alan Sepinwall acknowledges this in his popular book The Revolution Was Televised, pointing out that the show, which did not dumb any of the medical lingo down for the audience, but proved there was a huge and insatiable audience for sophisticated adult drama.

Now, the adult version of me claiming Sleepers is my favorite movies runs rampant amongst my adult peers. They claim to love the most pretentious, dramatic shows they can find to prove how grown up and sophisticated they are. I like plenty of them too, and most of these people sincerely enjoy the shows they are watching. But now that the marketplace is so saturated with these serious shows, the stage is set for more shows trying way too hard and offering way too little like the second season of True Detective. I had many friends see it through to the end, but if you Google “True Detective Backlash” you’ll see what happens when the pretentiousness becomes too much for most to handle.

Sometimes though, this open wallowing in your own importance works marvelously. Such is the case with Smashing Pumpkins and their dual-disc album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I mean, just look at the name? It is a beautiful album that was showered with Grammy nominations, went platinum ten times over, and spawned five hit singles.

If you want to see a pretentious music video, watch Tonight, Tonight, which is an homage to a movie most film school nerds are familiar with, the silent classic A Trip to the Moon. As I said earlier though, when it comes to picking favorites, I hate picking the obvious, so my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song has always been 1979.

It is a bit on the nose, I’ll give you, but it is a song about adolescence written about a year front man Billy Corgan was 12 years old during. The lyrics were always a little mysterious to me, but it nonetheless captures that pent up frustration of feeling like you’re ready for more than what the world is offering. The video, showing kids pissing the day away around their neighborhood is how a lot of us spent our adolescence; biding our time until we got to be adults and live life our way. Until that day, we just tried our best to act like adults. For some kids that meant experimentation, drugs, sex, and rebellion. For less rambunctious kids like myself, it was about watching, reading, and listening to the most important things we could to prove to ourselves and those around us that we were ready for the serious matter of being an adult.

1995: Are You an Empire Xennial or a Clueless Xennial?

When people talk about the defining teen movie of 1995, they tend to talk Clueless. It makes sense. The modern-day take on Jane Austen’s Emma stands up as a good movie 20 years later, it was a hit at the time, and really captured the cultural moment that was the Contempo Casual/grunge/Ska blend that was happening around the time.

I love Clueless too, but there is another movie from 1995 that I associate much more strongly with my adolescence and that movie is Empire Records. I actually didn’t see this movie until 1997 or so since it was a huge bomb in theaters, but developed a massive cult following on video. There are plenty of people like myself who think both movies are great, but there is a sentimental attachment to one or the other that I think might be one of the litmus tests for where on the spectrum you land between Snake People and Generation X. People have been observing for a while that there is a mini-generation between the two. Some call them Xennials, I just call them me and my peoples. Within our generation though, there are people who tend more towards one generation than the other. Those who lean Snake Person tend to prefer Clueless, while those of us who are more Gen Xers at heart live every day like it is Rex Manning Day and opt for Empire Records.

If you’re not familiar with the two films, let me give you a quick summary of each. In Clueless, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a well-meaning but self-absorbed and kind of unintelligent popular girl who takes a hapless loser and turns her into a well-groomed cool chick. In the end, she realizes that life isn’t always about status symbols and tries to live a more purposeful life and be a better person that she likes and stop worrying about whether or not other people like her. As a result, she remains super popular, gains even more friends, and gets to make out with Paul Rudd. If this is what you got for being a little less selfish, I am pretty sure most of us girls would by vying to run United Way right about now.

In other words, it is a lesson about how popularity isn’t everything. The moral of the story is if you are truer to yourself and kinder to mankind, you will be rewarded with a better life.

Then there is Empire Records, which is another movie about how living up to expectations isn’t all it is cracked up to be. But rather than spin a yarn about how great your life can be if care more about others, it readily admits your life probably sucks a little, but guess what? So does eveyone’s life. It is how you make the most of it that matters. Just look at the chicks in this movie. Most will tell you that Debra (Robin Tunney) is the coolest girl in the movie. We know she is cool because her wrists are bandaged from where she tried to slit them the previous night and she shaves her head in the record store bathroom. We know Gina is a cool party girl who puts up a good façade about enjoying how hot she is and the advantages that come with it. And then there is Corey (Liv Tyler) a super studious goody goody who wants to lose her virginity to Rex Manning because for this Type-A girl, even her deflowering has to be perfect.

The real scene that puts on display just how effed up these chicks are is when Gina admits she banged Rex even though she knew Corey wanted to, so Corey gets upset and takes it personal. In response, Gina, to borrow a poker term, reraises all in, goes and fetches Corey’s speed from her locker and proceeds to fling the pills at her lamenting Corey’s, “perfect, perfect future.”

It’s not just the girls either. The guys include a shoplifter named Warren, a kid who gambled the store’s deposit away in Atlantic City, two stoners who hallucinate they are playing with the band Gwar, and a too cool for school guitarist whose band is so lacking in street cred he is actually willing to let Gina front their “Damn the Man, Save the Empire” concert on the roof.

Damn the Man, Save the Empire really sums it up. This is a movie that asks teens, “you think you’re weird and screwed up? Well, can you beat this?” While Cher’s dilemma amounted to a failed driving test, a bad grade, and accidentally dating a gay guy, the stakes are much higher for Empire’s teens and the outcome is not so rosy. Sure, they keep Empire going, but Gina is still a promiscuous girl with Daddy issues. Corey is still gonna be on diet pills. Lucas will still feel nothing. But they got through today. So there is that, which you take, you build on, and you keep going.

Clueless is the Snake Person POV while Empire is for the Gen Xers in all of us. I sure wish Paul Rudd was in my future, but the teen in me bought into Empire’s view of the world more. Don’t expect much and you’ll be okay. You’re a little screwed up, but we all are really.

If that is the movie Snake Person/Gen X litmus test for the tweener generation, then I think The Real World is the TV version. If your quintessential season of this MTV reality show is the original Las Vegas season, you are a Snake Person-leaning sort. If you hear the show’s name and your mind immediately goes to Pedro, Puck, Pam, and Judd, you are a Gen Xer at heart. The Vegas season was a turning point for the show (which has now been on the air for more than two decades btw). Gone were the earnest attempts at learning about different cultures and people or starting a company or volunteering with kids. This was a season about partying and living it up with minimal responsibilities, save for a job “promoting” the nightclubs at the Palms, which is basically a license to party.

It reminds me of this growing trend of parents supporting their children after college for a couple of years. This was something my mother made abundantly clear was not an option, even if she wanted to, as we had no money. College was our safety net, then we had to get into the real world. Such was the case of the early Real World casts. Have you ever paid attention to what kind of jobs these people had? Judd worked for a nationally-recognized newspaper. Pam was a doctor. Pedro was the foremost lobbyist for AIDS and HIV awareness. Corey was the slacker because she found a job at a high-end department store. This is not an affront to the Vegas cast at all, it seems like the show required you not to have outside employment in order to be on the show, but shows you what passed for The Real World in 1995 compared to 2000.

In old school Real World, Puck got thrown out of the house because he was disrespectful. Now, you get thrown off The Real World if you commit assault. This is how lax standards have become. I mean, check this out. Can you just feel the earnestness oozing through the camera?

Speaking of earnestness, I am still not sure where Hootie and the Blowfish lands on my litmus test. I think your reaction to Let Her Cry might determine whether you are in the Xennial category at all. Because let’s be honest, most Gen Xers were a little too old and way too cool to listen to his light rock jam band and most Snake People came of age after Hootie had peaked and was already a punchline. But if you have a non-ironic sweet spot for Darius Rucker and crew, you’re probably a Xennial, a kid who missed out on all the ennui and jadedness of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the crew, but still too skeptical to fully believe we’re all special, that the world is great, and that we are all destined to end up with Paul Rudd.

Hard Knocks 1st and 10: All Hail Mike Vrabel & Christian Covington

This is my third season watching the HBO show Hard Knocks, which takes a look inside NFL training camp of a given team each season. While nothing will compare to my Bengals in 2013, this season with the Texans is off to a good start (though I said the same thing about Atlanta and all we really ended up with was a really funny segment where the WRs go bowling). Nonetheless, I am keeping my hopes high this season, especially since I already have ten memorable moments from Episode 1:

10. Pop quiz time. While it is charming enough that Bill O’Brien quizzes his team on who the employees are, what I thoroughly enjoyed was the subtle lesson about nepotism in a sport that is a meritocracy. Who is the CFO? McNair, good job. And who is his father? The owner, good job. Like an NFL version of this:

9. Speaking of nepotism, I don’t really know why Arian Foster has been so injury-prone his whole career, but did anyone else raise an eyebrow when he is like, “This is my trainer. He is also my brother”?

8. I am not a fan of on-field fighting, nor was I particularly impressed with Deandre Hopkins and DeAngelo Hall trash talking one another. What was impressive was Hopkins running a route so vengeful dude broke his ankle trying to chase him down.

7. Vince Wilforke’s wife trash talking his basketball game. “Where’s Dick Vitale?”

6. I love how O’Brien and staff keep telling the team how everyone is underestimating them and no one expects them to do shit this season and that the media has it wrong and they are better than they think they are. Then not two second later they will say something like, “You know when he coached the Patriots…” or “When I was a Patriot…” or “The Patriots do it this way…” Hoping the season ends with an NFL version of this:

5. How much time is spent on JJ Watt interacting not with people, but random inanimate objects like a tire, one of those football contraptions you push pretending it is your opponent, a water bottle? Not to mention his singing along with his hype music. All I can think is that JJ would make an AWESOME American Gladiator.

4. Though, I can’t bag on JJ too hard, cause his commenting on how straight the lines are on the Redskins practive field. “Think dude was hammered when he painted these lines.”

3. The winner of the No Shame in My Game award goes to Ben Jones, who completely unprodded admits he vomited on the ball during a college game and continued on with the play. That’s my Pac-12, ladies and gentlemen.

2. Christian Covington took a massive lead in the “favorite rookie” contest when he informed the cameras he intended to spend his down time at camp reading CS Lewis.

1. There is always an adorable rookie on Hard Knocks and there is always a hilarious member of the coaching staff. We have our rookie. I’m pretty our coach is former Patriots player Mike Vrabel who won me over as soon as he gave his Snake Person players a stern talking to about what work is. Nothing like a guy not even your parents’ age reminding you that you are playing a game and it isn’t exactly hard work. All that was missing was a digging ditches reference, but hey it is only Episode 1.

1994: I Swear, Quiz Show Taught Me Life Isn’t Black & White

In film history, 1994 gets brought up a lot as a year where our cinematic cups ran over. It gets brought up frequently how unfair it was that Forrest Gump beat out Pulp Fiction for the Oscar (unless you’re like me and believe Gump is exponentially better than Pulp, though still not the best of 1994). For kids, there was The Lion King. For teens, The Crow and not one, not two, but three Jim Carrey movies. For tweens, Little Women and D2: The Mighty Ducks. There was even a stretch of middle-aged female thriller/action heroes in The River Wild and The Client.

Among this illustrious list, somehow The Shawshank Redemption rose to the top. Its ubiquity on cable helped, but the fact this Frank Darabont-directed contemporary classic is a timeless example of near-flawless storytelling is probably what helps the most. This movie will continue to be just as good 30 years from now because it doesn’t pull the Tarantino tricks or have a contemporary mid-90s setting. Those who haven’t seen it could watch it and have no clue what year it came out. It is a movie that deals with timeless issues of right and wrong and how someone may seem guilty, but in fact is not.

Perhaps that is why then that a very similar movie in look and feel, Quiz Show, failed to survive the glut of great movies of 1994 to remain recognized today. When Grantland spent an entire week on the movies of 1994 last year, it didn’t even get mentioned. It gets dismissed by many as fine, but forgettable. If 1994 were a competition, Shawshank beat out this Robert Redford-directed gem for the contemporary classic slot. But why?

If I had to guess, Redford is part of the problem. When you ask filmies to name their favorite directors, few pick him, the Ben Affleck of his generation. In fact, many people think of Redford as a villain of sorts after his film Ordinary People bested Raging Bull for Best Picture in 1980. If you would ever would like to discuss this, I will be happy to offer you upwards of 50 reasons why this is not a travesty, but spared us from Scorsese devolving into even more overdramatic self-important dreck. Thanks Mr Redford, both for your beautiful and near-perfect film about grieving and from keeping Scorsese in check where he belongs.

Scorsese had no hard feelings, as he actually appeared in Quiz Show, which is a drama centered around the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Remarkably, no one has realized how a movie like this would get eaten up in our reality show-obsessed society. The recent success of Lifetime’s UnReal shows you how much interest there is in the darker side of TV and how seemingly everyone can get caught up in their web, whether you’re Shiri Appleby or John Turturro.

Turturro’s character in Quiz Show, Herbert Stempel, is the heartbreaking soul of this film—a lower class guy finally given a chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps and achieve not just fortune, but the new American Dream, fame. The real travesty of the Oscars that year wasn’t Gump over Pulp Fiction, it was giving the sentimental Best Supporting Actor nod to Quiz Show’s Paul Scofield instead of Turturro. There are plenty of things to love about this movie, and I strongly encourage you all to watch if you haven’t seen it, but the real star is Turturro, who turned in the performance I currently think defines his career.

Quiz Show fit right in to today’s landscape, as would the very popular 1994 miniseries The Stand. Really, any era of humans will be fascinated by the apocalypse, but now the obsession with zombies and the end of the world has become a decidedly televisual affair. There are the Walking Dead series, Under the Dome, The 100, the defunct but still popular on Netflix Jericho, and God knows how many more.

I love the miniseries The Stand, but I don’t think it could last in today’s TV landscape without some tinkering. In Stephen King’s post-plague world, good people go to Colorado and bad people go to Las Vegas. There is very little moral grey area, save for Laura San Giacomo’s Nina, who spends time in both camps. There is very little waivering of faith either. Mother Abigail (the late and lovely Ruby Dee) tells members of her flock to walk form Boulder to Las Vegas where they will likely die, they say okey dokey. The bad guy Randall Flagg says “murder all these people”, his gang doesn’t even flinch.

If only life could be that simple, like the speech Giles gives Buffy early on in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But by the same token, Walking Dead suffers from everyone generally being despicable people, with no truly good ones in the bunch, unless you count Baby Judith. Yes, we all have our flaws, but too many of these post-apocalyptic shows are hellbent on proving that we are all truly terrible, so let’s justify and excuse our behavior without feeling too bad about it.

Rather than take a page from Walking Dead when the new Stand miniseries is produced, I hope they take a page out of Quiz Show, where people make mistakes, but they are understandable. Unlike Walking Dead in which everyone is bad or the original in which everyone is clearly defined black or white, Quiz Show has genuinely good people, genuinely morally bankrupt people, and folks whose ethics are tested with inconclusive results. Hopefully the new version of The Stand will end up closer to this than one of the extremes.

The Stand wasn’t the only thing in 1994 that fell into clear cut standards of good and bad. This was an era where the cheesy pop love anthem reigned supreme. Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Elton John, and Celine Dion all belted out songs about their undying love for their partners, but none were more popular than the song I Swear, which was so pervasive it was released by country singer John Michael Montgomery, then covered by R&B group All-4-One a few months later. Both reached number one on various Billboard charts as they crooned that nothing save for death would ever separate them from their one true love.

Unlike much of the country, which preferred the R&B version, in Kentucky we opted for the country version. Let’s be real, Montgomery is from Danville, Kentucky, about 35 minutes away from Lexington, so there was no way we weren’t going to back him up. To give you an idea of just how country this country song was, I remember attending a birthday party in a barn (yes, a barn) where there was dancing. I recall when I Swear came on, a friend who made an effort to slow dance with all the girls to make sure none of else felt awful asked me to dance to this song. It is one of my favorite memories of middle school.

Other middle school dances were not as fun. Our socials were always a bit lopsided because, as a small performing arts school, each grad of 48 kids had around 38 girls and maybe 10 boys. So, while the fast dance portions of the socials were fine with most people just chatting in groups, the slow dances were a tense time where girls filed to the wall on one side of the room (not because we were asked, but because if we weren’t picked to dance, we were ready and waiting to turn into a wallflower). The boys would then ask girls to dance, and there was a bit of a hierarchy to who got asked based on what song. Getting asked to dance to I Swear or, oddly enough, Everybody Hurts, was what every girl wanted, while some of the lesser known songs weren’t as impressive. I will certainly give props to the guys we went to middle school with. They were all brought up so well that they knew it was the nice thing to do to try to dance with several girls unless they had a girlfriend. So rather than our socials ending up a split of haves and have nots, they created a gray area where us girls could feel good about ourselves without anybody getting lead on. In middle school, where the starkness of difference can be cripplingly painful, I do in fact swear that these boys being so kind was a life saver.

Were they perfect guys? Not really. They could be mean if they wanted to, but isn’t everyone in middle school?  But they managed to take a song that as so black and white and a situation that was so have and have not and make it gray enough to be tolerable. They handled it as best they could because when the world ends, there won’t be good and evil, or at least they won’t be so easy to spot. Everyone won’t be awful like The Walking Dead suggests. Most everything will be gray and, unlike Quiz Show, we won’t know the answers ahead of time.

Scoring My Life Archive

1993: Daydream Believing in Camp and The Cranberries

It’s a fun time in my group of Las Vegas friends because everyone is becoming parents. In a schedule that almost seems predetermined by the moms and moms-to-be, the four couples who all live in the same neighborhood will have a combined two boys and two girls by Thanksgiving.

We’re already joking about which ones will fall in love and tell the two girls, who are adorable little infants, that they have to be nice to the boys when they arrive. What I really think about though is how they are going to play with one another.

Not if they will play well, but how they will play. Will they stay on their own and daydream by themselves,, will they have parent-attended playdates or, once they get old enough, or will they yell a goodbye to their parents, hop on their bike, and ride over to pick each member of the gang up one by one to go hang in the park?

I’d like to believe the latter will happen, but truly, it seems the court of public opinion is changing its mind on kids playing outside alone. While my sister and I were constantly outside and about on our own, so long as we told our parents whose house we were headed to or who we were playing with, many kids are either expressly forbidden to venture beyond the yard or simply have too many scheduled activities to have time to play outside (there has been extensive sociological studies on social classes and unstructured social time for kids, happy to recommend some reading).

Which is why The Sandlot was a nostalgic movie for both my mom’s generation and my own because it was set smack in the middle of their childhood, 1962, but it featured kids who were the same age as us babies of the early 80s. There is something else to it though. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that at the time I didn’t realize that riding our bikes through the neighborhood was going to be something that disappeared along with the 60s.

In the movie, the protagonist is actually encouraged by his mother to go off with some strange children to play baseball in a vacant lot. Okay, fine, on first glance it doesn’t seem like the best parenting decision, but let’s frame it another way. The mom in the movie knew her kid needed to make friends, and yeah these guys may get in a little trouble, but a slap on the wrist in the fifth grade is well worth the potential adult scars of a kid raised in isolation with no friends. It’s kind of like the theory about letting your young kids roll around in the dirt a bit so their body can learn to handle bacteria and germs. You could raise your kid in a plastic bubble, but as soon as they became exposed to the elements, they were done for.

If you look at pretty much any media designed for the tween set, you’ll notice the general lack of parental supervision. The parents exist, but usually only pop up as an obstacle to the next plot point. Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang are bluntly honest with exactly how adults come across: Wah wahhh wah wahhh.

Really, The Sandlot was Tween shangri-la. If you had told me that at 10 years old I had enough good friends within a bike ride of my house to field a baseball team and we could hang out all day and all night, then a carnival would come to town (minus that disgusting chewing tobacco part), I would have assumed I was in heaven.

The only thing missing would be a love interest and something I was always obsessed with as a child: camp.

The Sandlot let us live in the idealized world of unsupervised neighborhood fun, but the shows and movies set at camp upped the stakes. You didn’t have to go home in time for dinner at camp. The counselors weren’t that much older than you, and you had free reign without worrying about pissing off your parents.

At least, that is what camp seemed like to me. I never got to go, so I just watched a bunch of Salute Your Shorts. The Nickelodeon original show followed in the footsteps of original fare like Welcome Freshmen and Hey Dude with a show set at summer camp. Oh Camp Anawana, we held you in our hearts and tuned in to see a set of campers with names like Butnick and Donkey Lips outsmart their counselor Ug (Lee).

In reality, I have a feeling camp is pretty regimented. Go swim now, go play sports, cafeteria, fireside fun, lights out. But in this show, camp was just the place that these kids slept at while they spent the rest of the day scheming, unless it was color war time. All I wanted as a child was to participate in a color war.

In other words, kind of like The Sandlot, this idealized version of camp was fun, but we were never nostalgic for the experience of actual camp watching that show, nor were we nostalgic for our own experiences riding bikes with neighborhood friends during The Sandlot. When we watched those shows, we were starting to develop our ideas of what being an adult might be like. Camp, like college, are chances for kids to dip their toe in autonomy without all the responsibility. This pseudo-adulthood is what I think we’re yearning for when we think back on our love of The Sandlot and Salute Your Shorts. It was a daydream about what the next new freedom, like spending the night at a friends house or getting your own houses key, might afford you and the expectations were rarely in line with the reality. That was the fun part though. We didn’t know any better and actually thought being independent looked like this:

While there was a bounty of TV and movies designed to appeal to my Tween heart, there weren’t exactly songs which appealed to our desires. We were still too young to date, so we hadn’t experienced the joys of love, nor had we dealt with the crushing blow of heartbreak. It was that weird point in your life when you would even daydream about what your first breakup might be like, painting it in a cheerful melancholy light of how drama and romance like Angela and Jordan Catalano.

I place some of the blame on The Cranberries. When you write such a beautiful song as Linger, you can almost make devastating heartbreak and watching your love with someone else feel like anything other than pouring a salt shaker into your slit wrist.

The song is an adult daydream really, a girl playing through her head what happened in her relationship. There has to be a better word for it than daydreaming, but isn’t it really a more advanced version of what we did as kids? Replace camp and your late night shenanigans by the lake with reliving a conversation and saying the right thing or showing up at an event your ex will be at with a super hot date and voila, you’ve got daydreams. Sometimes you prevail, but years of learning how life works and how much TV camp is not like real camp, so instead of dreaming of a positive future, we linger in the positive moments of our past, even if they can smart a little. If Dolores O’Riordian can make her pain sound so pretty, we can still try to make ourselves believe that their is something wonderful we’ll gain if we think through the past until we figure it out. This is our adult version of camp. We just call it therapy.

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