A Life Told Through Media [GO, F, BT]
Aug 6th, 2009 by Dan

The taste of Cuban food, the smell right before a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, the sound of disco music, the oppressive feel of summer heat, and the sight of a pink building all remind me of my childhood home. Everyone knows that the senses trigger strong memories. It’s also common sense that the media we take in over our lives can have a profound effect on our memories of our past and development. From the simple books of my childhood to the games and music I played and listened to along my 23 years of development, there are certain pieces of media that are just inseparable from the circumstances surrounding their initial consumption. They range from the simple joys of childhood all the way to the angst of high school and the harsh realities of adult life, but I wouldn’t trade these associations for anything.

My earliest conscious memories all come from the modest house in Hialeah we lived in as children. The memories come flooding in as I think about the years I spent growing up in that house, but some of the most vivid come from the John F. Kennedy Memorial library. A giant, two-story behemoth of a building, I spent many a day browsing the books with my parents and in library camp during the summers. In the corners of my mind, I can recall watching a movie about a mouse who had a race car, but I know it wasn’t Stuart Little, it was far too early for that. I remember reading books about a purple monster (El Monstruo?) with my dad to practice Spanish, I remember watching Bob Ross videos (“Happy little trees”!), and I remember the joy of getting my own library card, even though it had a single-digit limit on check-outs, but most of all I remember checking out Three Investigators books. This, initially, Alfred Hitchcock-supported trio of detectives were the main characters in a book series that my father used to read as a kid. Knowing that I enjoyed mystery books, my father recommended them to me and they quickly became a favorite of mine. I can still remember the corner of the library where I used to look for these books. He may not realize it, but those books have stuck with me to this day and they will forever remind me of my father and my time in Hialeah.

While I have plenty of memories of playing the NES in our family room or Eric’s room in Hialeah, the first gaming system that was truly mine was the SNES that lived in my bedroom from 1992 until we moved. The story behind the Christmas I got it is colorful and fun, but Super Mario World sticks out beyond that in my mind for one simple reason. I specifically remember playing that game in the corner of my room, my television sitting atop my dresser, requiring a bash or two to get the colors just right, throughout that year and the next. It was conquered several times in two different parts of my room, with David watching me or playing as Luigi.

Memories of that bedroom are also carried within the bytes of King’s Quest VI. My father brought home the game at someone’s recommendation – this was when my father still played games on occasion – and began to puzzle through its depths at night after completing his homework. His obsession with the game became so great that he would often sneak peeks at strategy guides within computer stores during his breaks or on the way home from work so that he could get unstuck that night. My memories of the game develop from fear to delight as I grew older. You see, the King’s Quest series was not like the adventure games of Lucasarts, you could die at a moment’s notice. The realism and the grisly deaths combined to make me actively fear the game as a small child and I used to cover my ears so as not to hear the inevitable phrase “Tickets Please” uttered by the gate man of Hell itself as my father as Alexander perished yet again.

I would brave the depths of King’s Quest VI years later with Eric when we had moved to Tualatin, a small suburb of Portland, Oregon. With the help of a guidebook so detailed it included a novelization of the game’s events, we easily conquered Alexander’s quest and that of Graham and Roselia in the games immediately preceding and following. Much stronger media memories from my Oregon days come more from my original playthroughs of both Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. My Chrono Trigger story was already documented pretty well with the 16-bit All-Stars, but what wasn’t as well documented were the days spent sitting on the floor of Eric’s room as we played. Poor David was relegated to spectator status as he watched me trek through the 16-bit time travel saga, but he got his money’s worth as he asked me to read and act the character’s parts aloud as I played, which I happily did for him most of the time.

An epic nine-day rental of Final Fantasy VI will always remind me of the family’s first big screen TV. I fondly remember powering through the game, grinding in the desert as we leveled up each character in our repertoire to prepare for our battle against Kefka. Since FF VI featured a two-player mode, David was more than happy to play along through battles as we forged our way through the epic story of my favorite in the series. I can still picture the position of the television next to the fireplace in our living room. I can still remember the Hollywood Video we used to go to where we rented the game.

After a few short years in Oregon, we found our way back to Florida and I found myself in my freshman year of high school. It was in that last year in Broward county that I have my strongest media-related memories. Eric started reading books by Neal Stephenson when we were living in Oregon and he got a hold of Cryptonomicon around the year 2000. I read the book in the back of my computer programming class during the spring of 2001. My desk was in the back of the room and I finished programming assignments so quickly I always had time to read. I even remember one of the assignments, a tic-tac-toe game coded in Visual Basic.

My memories aren’t completely limited to games of the video variety, the card game Spades, a game I learned also in the spring of 2001, is forever associated with being 15 and playing water polo. Coach Childs worked somewhere else in the district and he had to travel to the high school for practice every day. To pass the time before his arrival and our usual stretching routine, my friend Scott Huntley and other members of the team would play an informal variant of spades where the first to seven books won the game. Those spring afternoons playing cards in the amphitheater on the red mesh lunch tables of our outdoor cafeteria were great. I took the great card game of Spades with me when I switched schools the next year, introducing it to as many as I could and I played at the end of the year almost every year, but it could never beat those afternoons before practice.

We moved that summer up to central Florida, the greater Tampa Bay area, to be specific, much to my chagrin. The prospect of meeting new people and making friends yet again was daunting, but I had the help of aspiring pirate Guybrush Threepwood to get me through the anxiety of that summer and keep me from worrying too much. My first playthroughs of the fantastic games within the Monkey Island series come from that summer. As I type this on the desk I first got when we moved to Tampa, the memories come flooding back to me. The precise positioning of the desk in my bedroom. I can remember David lying on my bed behind me as we worked through the puzzles and my first girlfriend, Daniela, laughing at the ridiculous jokes in the later iterations of the series, brought to life through Dominic Armato’s voice. Lucasarts adventure games dominated that summer, but the Monkey Island games, by far, left the greatest impact on me. The day that I learned about the new iteration in the series and the MI remake I told almost anyone I knew who would care. They could all vouch for how excited I was. I owe this all to that one summer where I learned the art of insult swordfighting as I got ready to enter a brand new high school in a new town.

I listened to oldies music for the first 14 or so years of my life and, while it brought me my great love and appreciation for greats like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it didn’t factor as much into my life as pop music did during my later high school years. Predictably, most music associations I have are tied to various girlfriends I had throughout high school. Take Sublime’s tribute to the working girl, “Wrong Way.” I discovered that song the summer of my Junior year when I met and was dating a girl named Stephanie I met at my job at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. She happened to live near the park and was definitely from the “wrong side of the tracks,” so to speak. I’m not implying that she was a working girl, but I couldn’t help but think about the more dire economic situation near the amusement park (seriously, it was in a really crummy neighborhood) as I drove out there to see her after work or on the weekends.

Two songs by the Lostprophets, “Last Summer” and “Make a Move,” were weighing pretty heavily on my mind before I went off to university the summer of my senior year. Read the lyrics and you’ll understand why my good friend-turned-girlfriend Ashley is particularly associated with both of those songs in my mind before we went off to separate universities.

Not all song associations have to do with girls, one in particular, “All My Life” by the Foo Fighters, is actually associated with the swim team, my friend Chris, and districts. The slowly building beat was perfect for hyping us up for our races and Chris and I both gave it a listen before lining up on the blocks to get the heart pumping in preparation. I can still almost picture the tent-like structures pitched off to the side of the pool, the smell of chlorine in the air, and the simultaneous excitement and dull boredom that is a district-wide swim meet.

All that’s great, but I want to end where I started, video games. This past summer was a huge period of transition for me. I was graduating, but the job I thought I had was closed off to me through circumstances I’m completely at fault for. Faced with the prospect of heading back home with my tail between my legs or sticking it out and looking for work, I chose to find a job or starve. I was determined to make it out here and I was lucky to have a very understanding roommate allowing me time to get back on my feet. The days were spent working toward finding myself a new job, but the nights were spent finally indulging in something I had to put off for my final semester at school: Metal Gear Solid 4. Any link between the struggles of Solid Snake to stay alive and determinedly finish one last mission despite his clone degeneration and my job hunt would be ridiculous in more ways than can be named here, so I won’t go there, but I will say that playing MGS4 on the floor of my apartment (we had no furniture at that point) on my teeny 25″ television (we have a 65″er now) will always be special to me. It was the first game I completed after completing my education. The first game I finished after I was set free in the world on my own. It was (supposed to be) the end for Solid Snake and a new beginning for me (I couldn’t resist). Beating it was my first victory amidst some pretty terrible losses that brought me to that point throughout the summer and I’ll never forget the mixed emotions I felt once I’d finished Snake’s swan song. On one hand, the MGS story was done (so I thought) and Kojima went all-out to end his landmark series I was thankfully not alone in a new state (glad to have you around Eric, Min, Duffy, and my other local friends). On the other hand, the finale was overwrought, overproduced, and kind of lame and there I was jobless and left with a feeling of “What now?” thanks both to Kojima’s ending and my situation. It been working out for me so far, but I find that I can’t go back and play MGS4 just yet. Something about the experience resonates too much within me to just replay it in these better days.

That was a rather long-winded way for me to talk about memories of my past. Any of my readers (all three or four of you) have any memories of media strongly associated with their past that they’d like to share? Comment away.

Anathem Review [Bookmark This]
Dec 11th, 2008 by Dan

It’s been quite some time since Stephenson’s ambitious Baroque Cycle hit the shelves, but, based on his latest offering, it seems that Stephenson spent that time doing boatloads of research for his second most ambitious title to date (the ~2700 page Baroque Cycle has to take the cake on that one), Anathem. While it seems that his work is definitely well-researched and that he has a very clear unerstanding of what points he’s trying to convey, I think that Stephenson fails at the more important task of keeping the reader interested and conveying the complex-yet-interesting plots from the get-go that he is normally so capable of.

It’s not that Anathem is bad or anything, it’s more that The Baroque Cycle seems to have spoiled Stephenson a bit by making him think that he can spend as much time goofing off with intellectual tangents as he did in the previous, epic-sized novel. To a certain degree, it’s all relevant to the plot and some of it is downright integral, as the reader needs to come up to speed with the crazy, outlandish philosophical points that Stephenson is trying to convey within the narrative. I can imagine trying to read this book like any pre-Cryptonomicon Stephenson book and being totally flabbergasted by the points he makes in Anathem being laid out within the twenty (if that) pages allotted, but these Socratic dialogs he presents can seem a bit useless to engineering types, such as myself, who find theoretical philosophy to be a little bit impractical.

Let me take a step back and explain this a bit better. Anathem is a book about a planet that is much like ours. It has developed, philosophically, along similar lines, but culturally it is quite different. In this world, Arbre, there was a division way back in history that split up the intellectual/philosophical elite from the rest of the world. The intellectuals are part of the Mathic world, a world consisting of hyper-isolated monks, to draw an Earth connection, while the rest is part of the Saecular world. This isn’t to say that smart or dumb people inhabit one or the other or even that the maths are religious and the outside world is not, there are both in both, it’s just that most of the interesting theoretical work is being done by the maths (and they tend to be athiest) instead of the outside world…except for the detail that all outside technology is mostly forbidden from the mathic world. Each person only has a robe, a rope to tie it with, and a sphere, all technologically advanced so as to change shape and property, but nothing more technological. Even so, they have a vast telescope and develop serious theoretical advances based solely on their devotion to such advanced intellectual thought.

Here’s where it starts to get a little annoying, even if it is basically the whole point of the book. You see, instead of using Earth-terms for stuff, there is a whole series of terms that are native to Arbre that are used instead. For example: we have “Gardan’s Steelyard” instead of “Occam’s Razer.” While it doesn’t really take too long to get all of these intricacies sorted out and the book does provide a useful glossary in the back, its still a little bit distracting and annoying. This is just personal preference for me though, and I did start to soften up to it once I got further in the book, I got used to the parallel terms, and it started to get more interesting.

Which leads kind of nicely into the next problem: the pacing. Yes, we need to establish the characters. Yes, we need to take it slow at the start so that you can get used to this brand new world (in fact, as a reader, you have to take it slowly, flipping back and forth from glossary to text trying to understand Erasmus’ narrative), but we’re talking around 400 pages just to get the faintest scraps of knowledge about what is truly going on. In an 900 page book, you have the liberty to take it slow, so to speak, and it’s generally not Stephenson’s style to tip his hand early (if my memory serves me right, Golgotha didn’t even become a factor in Cryptonomicon until 3/4 of the way into the novel), but the daily life of an avout just wasn’t as interesting as, say, the emotional development of Randy Waterhouse.

I don’t want you to think that I hate Anathem or even that I didn’t enjoy it. Once I started to become familiar with the terminology that Stephenson was using in this new world, things began to get much better. The story got compelling and interesting very fast, with the exception of all the theoretical discourse that serves to slow down the novel a bit, but ultimately prepare you for the stunning events which will be impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t a professional philosopher had he not slowly ushered you into understanding. The characters are great, but not as memorable as the Shaftoes, Eliza, Hiro Protagonist, YT, or the Waterhouses. As mentioned before, the plot, once it gets going, is amazingly cool, filled with some neat head-scratchers and only one poly-cosmic plot hole that I don’t think was fully resolved (or maybe it was and I have to re-read it). There are some neat little bonuses in the narrative too for anyone who understands just a wee bit of French (or has the Romance language know-how to recognize the origins of some words) that I thoroughly enjoyed and quite a bit of philosophical exploration for those who love a little bit of that.

Anathem is a bit of a mixed bag. The more I think and write about it after having read it, the fonder I am of it and the things it did. Clearly, Stephenson wanted to try something new, that much is clear. The entire book cohesively fits together with his themes as well as the purpose for his parallel world-structure, but I can also see it as being impenetrable to those who do not already give Stephenson some credit. If you’re not willing to read up at least four to five hundred pages to even start to get why you’ve been doing this the whole time, you’re not going to like Anathem, the payoff is just not as immediate as with Cryptonomicon (I can’t compare any other books, like Snow Crash, because their shorter length necessitates different pacing). There’s also a good chance that, unless you love this sort of thing, you’ll feel like this XKCD comic at least until you get the hang of the new vocabulary. Trust me though, there is a definite payoff and it’s quite good once you get there, it just takes a little work.

My recommendation: If you love Stephenson, you should still consider that you have to get through about half the narrative to get to the action. If you can manage that, it’s a must read. Non-Stephenson fans: think about what I just said above and realize that Stepehnson writes intellectual prose. If you don’t like a little philosophy, mathematics, and physics served up with your novels, you won’t like this book. Anyone who does though, will be treated to a book with an incredibly engaging and cool story that returns huge dividends based on the time you put into it.

If you’ve read and liked this book, you should, without a doubt, read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, two of Stephenson’s best works. Move on to The Baroque Cyle if you didn’t mind the density and pacing of Anathem.

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