5 Things Recent Graduates Need to Know Immediately

Why hello there, recent graduate! If you’re reading this, it probably means I’ve perished horribly in a surprise rabid elk attack you’ve come here looking for a nice, clean, simple checklist of things you have to do in the coming weeks. After all, that’s what you were given in school: study x hours to ace your test, finish this assignment to pass your class, mix these chemicals to dissolve a corpse, take these classes to get your degree… you might expect post-grad life is similarly structured. If you were fortunate enough to snag a decent job out of school and have had this expectation validated by glorious luck (and as much as you might want to credit merit, believe me, it was luck) then you’re probably all set. Nothing for you to see here – enjoy your regular paychecks and healthcare coverage.

Effect of a Price Floor

I'm a big fan of impressive charts next to text. They make it look like I know what I'm talking about.

Okay, now that all the people with technical degrees are gone and it’s just us good ‘ol liberal arts majors, I’m going to let you in on some secrets. Now, I’m not going to profess to be an expert and have all the answers (though I will certainly imply it), but there are some things I learned from being irregularly employed for nearly 4 years. See, I had the great fortune of graduating in early 2008, directly before the economy went all Hulk on our asses and obliterated the job market (see how I slipped in an Avengers reference? That’s SEO gold right there). I made a LOT of great mistakes along the way (and will probably make more), but I don’t see any reason to not share those mistakes (I’ve also spent a good deal of time talking with HR reps about hiring practices, so that doesn’t hurt either). So without further ado:

DON’T PANIC!

By now, you’ve probably heard enough about the job market to reduce yourself to a quivering pile of goo1. Stop it. Stop. I mean it. Having a poor mindset will make you vulnerable to depression2 and will severely limit your effectiveness. You may be in the same boat as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get out and swim for it. And if the sharks attack, use bat-shark-repellent on them and continue onward, avoiding any additional extended metaphors.

The first thing you need to do is stop watching the news. There is no joy you will get from the media that won’t be immediately crushed several thousand times over. You may not think it will affect you at first, but you’ll be bombarded so much by a message of hopelessness (and celebrity reality news), that you’ll eventually give in. This becomes more true as more time passes. Don’t worry, if something big happens like a zombie apocalypse (god willing) or an Australian military invasion, you’ll hear about it anyway. If you really just can’t bring yourself to give up news entirely, limit yourself strictly and avoid financials / economics like the plague.

Kill your pride

Ptolemaic System

This chart clearly demonstrates something about the information previously presented or soon to come.

If Fear is the mind-killer, then Pride is the, um… other… mind killer. So you have a disgustingly expensive degree. Good for you; so does everyone else. If you’re lucky enough to not be burdened with an uncaring sea of student loan debt and have plenty of savings, this lesson will probably take longer for you to learn (you son-of-a-bitch). For everyone else, Pride will cost you dearly. It is a jerk and an opportunity-killer. Pride has no foresight and will embarrass you. Keep an ambitious and confident spirit, but temper it with humility.

Live in your parents’ basement. If you have friends or family willing to house you for free / on-the-cheap, do it. You will save so much money and suffer much less for the lack of it. Don’t worry about what people will think; you’re just out of school during one of the worst economic periods in recent history. Anyone who judges you for that is an asshole and not worth your time (and also probably about to be set on fire by the hand torch you keep handy).

Use your unemployment benefits. Depending on where you live, you’ll have access to a variety of government programs that will help you financially over short periods of time. When you’re between jobs, take advantage of those programs – your taxes pay for them in case of exactly these situations. I’m serious about this; you can note the lack of snarkiness here as evidence of how serious I am.

Be willing to wear a nametag. The worst thing you can do is turn down a job when you have no other prospects because you’re “above it” (believe me, you’re below it, I checked). Aside from the immediate benefit of earning cash, low-skill jobs can sometimes lead to better and more interesting opportunities in surprising and unexpected ways. Just don’t forget (and this is important) to keep looking for something better.

The Lies We Tell

Now that you’re equipped with the right attitude, you need to have the right expectations. There’s a lot of poppycock out there about hard work, crafting the perfect resume, and where to find jobs. If you think any of it is valuable, by all means give it a try, but remember: all your competitors (aka the-people-you-finally-graduated-with) are reading the same stuff. Take what proves to be useful, and abandon the rest.

So much job hunting is luck. There are things you can (and should) do to make sure the odds may be ever in your favor (Hunger Games SEO-boosting reference!), but sometimes every advantage you can get will not be enough. Don’t take it personally.

Nobody cares about your grades. Very few employers will request a copy of your transcript, and very few that do are worth working for. This is because many HR reps already know what you don’t – good grades are not indicative of a good employee. Plenty of high-achievers in school fail to perform in the workforce (and the bedroom – I’m looking at you, Stephen Hawking). Don’t ask me why, I don’t understand it myself; it’s simply an observable phenomenon, like how being hit by lightning will give you psychic powers and/or cancer.

Nobody is going to read your resume. Well, some will, but consider this completely anecdotal evidence: The HR rep at my last temp gig told me she had received over 300 resumes in a week for a low-paying, entry-level position. Her process was to scan quickly and pull out the few that matched her nonsensical criteria, but heavily relied on recommendations from employees. Those connections were worth more to her than the random resumes (qualified as they may be) that she received and ultimately didn’t even read. This has been corroborated by other HR reps I’ve had the fortune of forcibly extracting information from learning from, so it clearly must be true everywhere. (Don’t forgo the resume altogether though. Obviously, you still need something for when you do get your foot in the door.)

You are not special. Your experience is for shit, and you probably don’t have a lot of skills outside of your field of study. It’s time to change that. Instead of spending your free time perfecting your Facebook Liking skills, take the plunge and learn some real skills outside of your core capabilities3. The added versatility *will* make you special, and very valuable to the right employer.

Your Social Network

China's Resources (1971)

There are so many things going on in China, and it has a lot of people. I'm pretty sure this map is a map of China.

THE way to find work is to meet people. If you look for work by mailing out a ton of resumes and wait for a response while re-watching every season of Buffy, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re pretty much relying on luck or desperation (which means work nobody else would take). Your network is your most important asset when job-hunting; use it and grow it (and yes, you can increase your social connections without being phony).

Go to social events. Especially the ones that don’t interest you. There are tons of free social events around – they cost nothing but your time, and are a very worthy investment of it. Have some business cards handy (scraps of paper with your e-mail jotted on them are NOT business cards) so people don’t have to try and rembmember the name of yet another unemployed post-grad they shared a brief moment of conversation with. And hey, even if you don’t learn anything or meet anyone new, you’ll probably get some free food out of it at least.

Start a community. So let’s say you live in a small town with not much going on. Let’s say it’s your hometown in the remote wilderness of Northern New Hampshire/what-might-as-well-be-Cananda. Or let’s not. Either way, the absence of activity is a good excuse for you to stir things up. Find some like-minded folks, and start a regular meeting of some kind about something you enjoy (or don’t enjoy. I don’t know, maybe you’re just a masochist. Maybe that’s your thing.) It will have the benefit of being fun AND productive.

Develop connections outside of your age group. Just because someone is 20 or 30 years older than you doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer. Some of my best-paying temp gigs came out of knowing someone I wouldn’t typically hang out with. And they usually have great stories too. Once you earn someone’s trust, they become a lot less boring and tell you all the crazy shit they did in the 80s 70s 60s.

Look out for the people in your network. If you’re not able to accept or pursue a job opportunity for some reason, help the employer connect with one of your colleagues who can. This is not only a cool/nice thing to do for someone, but it encourages reciprocation (wink wink).

Temp Agencies

Temp agencies, for the uninitiated, are companies who sell workers to companies who have temporary (and often boring) work for a project they need completed. When an agency sends you to an assignment, they charge the client an hourly rate for your work and pays you a (typically undisclosed) portion of that rate. You’re almost always getting paid much less than what the agency charging for your work, so don’t have any illusions about being taken advantage of: you are (you’ll find there are a lot of parallels between temping and prostitution). But no matter how you feel about temping, it can be a delicious lifesaver when you’re strapped for cash and just need to make it through the month. That said, there are some hidden benefits to temping, and plenty of unspoken practices you should be aware of.

Agencies are tissues. There are so many, most of them are crap, and they will usually do the bare-minimum to get you into any assignment they can make money off of. Sign up with multiple agencies4 and let them know they are competing to place you quickly. That said, if you find a good agency that consistently pays or places you well, give them preferential treatment.

Don’t turn down any opportunity. When you say no to a assignment, make sure it’s for a good reason, because you won’t hear back from that agency. They have plenty of people who will reliably accept whatever they offer. The same is true if you walk out on an assignment.

I don't even

Check this out. How complicated is this? Pretty impressive, huh? You must be, like, a genius or something.

Learn new and disparate skills. Remember what I said earlier about learning skills outside of your core? Not every temp assignment will be a cornucopia of challenges, but even small things like learning how to manipulate pivot tables in Excel, maintaining government records, or manipulating a maintenance worker into giving you late-night access to the office so you can pull an ill-conceived prank involving plastic cement and several live falcons on a co-worker can be among your many assets later on.

Don’t pay for a recruiter. I’m going to invoke Yog’s Law here: as a job seeker, money should pretty much always flow toward you – you shouldn’t have to pay for a job placement, training, or equipment.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Ask a lot of questions. The advantage to temping is you’re probably not going to be hired, so you don’t have to convince anyone that you know everything. Take advantage of that to learn more about the field you’re currently occupying.

Be as effective as possible. I know it’s tempting to pop in the headphones, crank up the deadmau5 (seriously, SO much SEO happening), and text on your phone all day while doing the bare minimum to keep your crappy temp assignment. But remember: when you’re temping, you’re working for testimonials. If a client reports back to the agency with tears of joy at how you completed the project early (and without having to use the office spear-gun once), they’ll be more likely to use the agency again, and the agency will reward you for it. Also, it’s rare, but if you do a particularly spectacular job and the client decides they’d like to hire you as a full time employee, they may decide to purchase the right to hire you (I’m not kidding) from the temp company.

Develop a relationship with the agency’s client. If you get to know the employees at a client’s office and build a rapport with them, they will often help you in your job-hunting activities (and start to think of you as “part of the team”). Stay in touch when each assignment is over, and you’ll soon have a lot of new connections in your network you didn’t have before. If it helps, you can think of them as your personal job-sniffing minions.

If you can afford it to work without pay for a while, apply for internships. Some organizations will entertain bringing you on as an intern even if you are not a student. This is an excellent way to break into an industry you have a specific interest in (see: dashing secret-agent-gone-rogue) and will typically yield greater/more diverse training and experience.

Banks Done Got Smaller

Bank shrinkage charts that look like ovums.

Core Thoughts

If you can’t be bothered to read the specifics of the above advice (and really, if you did, there’s your first problem), here are some core concepts that should lead you in the same general direction:

  • Make yourself uncomfortable & embrace the unusual.
  • Don’t be picky.
  • As things improve, be more picky.
  • Always be selling. Every interaction with every person is an opportunity to seek work.
  • Find work you enjoy that other people do not.
  • Keep yourself sane. Be deliberate in taking the time to relax and have fun.

Footnotes

1and if you’re not worried, start. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
2go ahead and laugh – see how much you’re laughing when you’re broke and stranded in the arctic tundra with no clothing and a hungry polar bear bearing down on you
3I highly recommend developing a working understanding of HTML – it’s easy to learn, and fast becoming a standard expectation from employers, even in non-technical fields
4make sure there are no legal obligations binding you to a specific agency – MA, for example, is an “at-will” state, leaving workers as free to leave without notice as employers are to fire

“Well, in Whoville they say, that his small heart grew approximately 3.1415926535 sizes that day…”

Last night, I discovered the meaning of Christmas while feeling up our newly acquired tree. There I was, trying to disentangle myself from the branches while my girlfriend stood over me, yelling. As I yelled back (which of course is the only acceptable response to being yelled at), precariously placed ornaments began falling off the branches while my pitch-covered hands attempted to simultaneously catch said ornaments and prevent the tree from crushing me entirely.

The Christmas holiday has always been somewhat of a challenge for me. While everyone around me gleefully prepares for that day of magical magic with magic snowflake magic, I find myself growing wearier and wearier. A proper Christmas, I have always felt, is something more akin to a Charles Dickens novel: suffering, understatement, and pitiful starving children. You can’t have Christmas without starving children. But all around me, Christmas is every bright ostentatious light bombarding my face. It’s twelve different charities offering people an opportunity to buy off their consciences for another year. It’s marked-up products on “sale” all the time, everywhere. Sadly, gone are the days where people gave Christmas the reverence, respect, and fear it deserves.

Oliver Twist

Which is the state of mind I was in when I remembered that I had obligated myself to my office’s “Yankee Swap” tradition*. Of course, I needed to procure a gift for the gathering, so, despite my distaste for shopping in physical retail locations, I “texted”my sweet darling girlfriend with my futuristic telephony device.
“I need to pick up a Yankee Swap gift for my office party on Thursday”
Her response chilled me to the bone.
“Great! We can do the rest of our Christmas shopping while we’re out too!”

Every year we diligently work toward picking the most perfect personal gifts for our family members that we can manage without going into a special kind of holiday bankruptcy. Since we still live in a world where employers are terrified of the possibility of hiring anyone under the age of 45 for fear that the inexperience of youth will completely crush whatever remaining threads of competency they have managed to hold on to since the recession, “perfect gift” often means, for us, “lint sculpture” (some years we can afford to splurge and decorate with glitter). There’s no worse feeling than finding the perfect gift for someone you love before realizing that you can’t afford to get them anything more unique than a nice mug ($25?! I could make cheaper drinkware! Out of lint!). So repeating this process continually throughout the night was not only something I was actively hating, it was something that was unlikely to yield any actual results, positive or otherwise.

Harvard Square

Fun Christmas Fact: Did you know that anyone carrying less than $100 of cash in their wallet is punched in the face upon entering Harvard Square? It's true! Children are no exception!

After (what felt like) several hours of mindless rejection of perfectly great gifts I couldn’t afford to give, I had somehow managed to at least acquire a Yankee Swap gift** and had now decided it was time to kill. Recognizing the look of murder in my eyes, my sweet darling girlfriend suggested we head for the bus depot post-haste. Complaining the whole way that walking was not nearly fast enough for me, and why-oh-why-don’t-I-have-my-jetpack-I-get-for-living-in-the-future, my sweet darling girlfriend’s nerves began to fray at the ends. I might have taken her attempt to read a book during the ride as a sign that she wanted to avoid an argument, but I am the argument-starting king and such subtleties are lost on me. By the time we arrived home tired, annoyed, and dinner-less, I had gotten through the first 207 reasons of Volume 1 of Why I Hated Christmas. Ignoring my distasteful disposition completely, sweet darling (increasingly being pushed toward darling-ish) girlfriend made her way across our living room to our adorably scruffy Christmas tree remarking
“Oh no, it’s crooked – will you help me fix the tree?”

The thing about my sweet darling girlfriend is that she can get anyone to do anything. What, you wonder, limits the scope of this ability? I can tell you now the answer is terrifyingly, nothing. You may have assumed that you would never eat that whole chili pepper, ride your bike through freezing weather to deliver a spare key, or stick your whole arm in that tank of electric eels while the guard across the room yells at you, but guess what? Sweet darling girlfriend just pouted that adorable pout that makes a kitten hugging a puppy on a baby unicorn seem downright offensive. And now you’re in aquarium-jail listening to the aquarium president-guy lecture on and on about “decontamination”, “secret government eel experiments”, and “pandemic protocols”. What. A. Drag.
But sweet darling girlfriend does have one weakness. One thing that has the same overpowering, mind-controlling effect on her as she does on everyone else. That thing is Christmas.

A Sickeningly Perfect Christmas

A Sickeningly Perfect Christmas

I’m lying on the floor, groping around the dirty, cold water at bottom of the tree stand trying to determine if the stump is actually resting on anything at all. It’s not. The stump is too small and low branches are preventing the fully-decorated tree from sitting properly and securely in the stand, which I’ve decided was done on purpose solely to make my life miserable. Since we don’t own any kind of shrubbery trimmers, I start cutting away branches with an ill-advised kitchen knife, handed to me by sweet darling girlfriend who has a look on her face that suggests a close-friend is about to undergo a dangerous medical operation. Two branches off. I stop and breathe for a second, trying to maintain a Zen attitude. I fail.
“Hurry up,” sweet darling girlfriend cries “I can’t hold this forever!”
By the time I’ve hacked through the third branch, I’ve run out of things to call sweet darling girlfriend and have begun making up new words which disappointingly, still fail to convey the rage I feel about being forced to violate a Christmas tree I hadn’t really wanted to begin with.
“Why didn’t you check this before decorating?!” I yell “This is why we should have gotten a fake tree!”
She yells back that she thought it was fine and that a fake tree would defeat the point. The doorbell rings; the indulgent cheap burgers I had forgotten she ordered for us from the delivery place around the corner have arrived. “One second,” she says, dashing off and releasing the tree before I can say anything. I know I can’t hold the tree on my own, and let it fall on top of me. It’s small, so it doesn’t hurt, but the needles are prickly and the sap is getting all over my clothes. It was lying there, under our disfigured, unstable Christmas tree that I realized I wasn’t really mad at all.

Charlie Brown TreeIt’s no great revelation that Christmas is a holiday of ritual. Pick out the tree, shop for gifts, visit family, cook the dinner, wrap the gifts, kidnap and interrogate a mall-Santa; it’s all part of a strange yearly obligation we agree to uphold, even when we grow tired of it. We all have nightmare stories of holiday fights with family, meals gone awry, family fights, stress about everything that needs to be done, or fights with family members. What being crushed by my comically Charlie Brown-ish Christmas tree taught me was this: all the fighting, and stress, and craziness- it’s all part of my own Christmas ritual. All that insanity and pressure is what I love about the holidays, and can’t imagine a proper Christmas without.

Several minutes of silence pass before sweet darling girlfriend emerges from the hallway, gloriously, carrying what I now sense to be the sweet, wonderful smell of delicious burgers after a long afternoon of desolation and hunger.
“Get this damn thing off me.” I say cheerfully, and we finish the work we began, quickly and successfully. I turn the tree 90 degrees so the branchless side is facing the wall, declaring “There.”
Sweet darling girlfriend hugs me “Thank you” she says. Somewhere, her beaming smile is diverting attention away from an adorable newborn.
“Fine,” I grumble “Let’s eat”.

Ah Christmas.

* For the uninitiated, the aptly named Yankee Swap is a cross between something resembling gambling and a free market economy. Each participant brings a non-specific gift to the event and chooses a number. Then, in order, the numbers are called out and the person holding that number gets to either: a) pick one (wrapped!) gift from the collection of presents or b) steal a present from someone who has already chosen. That person must then pick a new gift from the pool of unwrapped items. This continues until all the numbers have been called. Clearly, the poor, sad fellow(ess) who has the misfortune of picking the first number is virtually guaranteed to be going home with a grill brush or windshield wiper cleaning kit.

** Sweet darling girlfriend’s own office’s Yankee swap gift type breakdown was as follows: 60% Starbucks gift cards, 35% alcohol drinks, 5% “grill brush”-grade miscellaneous items

Non-fiction’s Revenge! Test Your Might!

So one thing I don’t like about e-readers is that it has now become more difficult to see what people are reading on the subway/bus. I used to have a whole system involving imaginary pulleys and levers which slowly, carefully, and with the appearance of nonchalance, positioned my brain-holder in such a manner so as to afford me a glimpse of what the person near me was finding so-damn-interesting (often followed by disappointment at the appearance of a moon-based, play-on-words title. In such cases, it turns out that my dejected sighs are not quite as inaudible as they perhaps should be). Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to talk to these people about their current read; dear no. But some twisted, deranged part of me is actually curious about what other people are interested in. But the ubiquitous aesthetic of e-readers foil this methodology of visual eavesdropping, and since actual communication is entirely out of the question, I am left bereft of material for silently judging my fellow commuters. Which brings me back to my point – e-readers suck. My literature-reading device has an instant refresh rate, does not require batteries, is cheaper (and even free if I’m visiting the library), and best of all, biodegradable; allowing me to feel superficially smug and superior instead of being superficially trendy.

Also, the robots will use e-readers in the Revolution of 2012 to destroy their human users, virtually ensuring victory over the weak, pathetic fleshies.

All this is not to suggest, either, that I actually like to read. But sometimes, in order to maintain the appearance of a well-adjusted, human-being-species-thing, one must partake in their ritual obsession with written communication. And so here I am, left with the remaining insights thoughts memories of my recently concluded readings:

Babylon by Bus Cover

Babylon by Bus
by Ray LeMoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster

I love when the lack of a plan comes together. The essential essence of Babylon by Bus is the story of two self-acknowledged idiots making a series of bad choices and coming out the other end (mostly) unscathed with some amazing stories and insight into a world most of us will never know. I am terribly jealous (most of my bad decisions involve the misuse of fire and/or electricity).

When you’re selling t-shirts vilifying the Yankees to Red Sox fans, you may find yourself with ample cash and the flexibility to randomly take off and visit, I don’t know… the Middle East? Plans? Bah! Common-sense? Poppycock! Safety? Overrated! Ray and Jeff have no problem telling their brutally direct stories, describing their experiences without bias; traveling from Tel Aviv to Iraq, living in Baghdad, and doing their best to contribute to the “rebuilding process” in a post-Saddam nation, all while looking for work, finding a place to live, not getting killed, and living in a perpetual drug-induced fog. Without pretension, they paint a picture of post-war Iraq untainted by political ideology (that’s not to say they don’t have their opinions, just that they acknowledge there’s no easy fix for what has become, at best, an unholy mess). Rather, they are more interested in what the Iraqi citizenry thinks, and develop relationships that reveal a wide range of opinions and attitudes toward the war; a far cry from the unified gratitude/zealotry we’ve been encouraged to accept as the image of Iraqis.

The two friends don’t spend a lot of time wondering what if? and this is the fault of… but rather, do everything they can to help under the CPA, while managing a fair amount of partying and ingestion of copious amounts of various substances. The many many people they meet and leave along the way are all distinct (though sometimes overwhelming - I had to keep going back to remember who each person was), from the clown troupe they live with, to the burly, ‘roid-raging military contractors.

All said, the book doesn’t have much structure – it’s better read as a series of vignettes than a single story with clear protagonists, goals, or conflict. What it does do well is tell a realistic story; life doesn’t always fit into nicely contained boxes, you’re not always the ‘good guy’, and you probably won’t ever get to see how it all ‘ends’.

Candyfreak CoverCandyfreak
by Steve Almond

Quick, name your favorite candy. And? Right, exactly – it’s impossible because anyone who has one, single, favorite candy that rises above the rest that is not immediately overtaken by another nearby competitor that was residing in a memory emerging only just now, is a damned fool. I can make pronouncements like this, because this is my blog and you’re still reading.

Steve Almond has no single favorite candy; he loves them all; or at least him claims to. Yet throughout the book he seems to take a perverse joy in specifically disparaging each of the candies closest to my heart (Neccos, Boston Baked Beans, Candy Corn, Anything-With-Coconut, etc) one-by-one. As a self-proclaimed “Candyfreak”, he is not terribly tolerant of those sweets which are produced by the big candy conglomerates (hate the hater, not the product), and his book has a heavy bias toward chocolate-based candy bars (fruity and sour candies are scarcely mentioned). Admittedly, he acknowledges his “refined” candy-tasting palette has transformed him into somewhat of a snob, but despite this cursory humility, Almond just came off sounding, time and time again, like a dick. This wasn’t helped by his repeated and jarring political rants (which had no problem taking causal jaunts into the territory of hyperbole and back again) about the downfall of America, how everything sucks all the time, and oh-how-screwed-we-are. Hey, I’m in agreement that there are things as a country we can do and should have done better (which involve a lot more depth than he was willing to accept), but I’m just trying to read about candy here! You know the “crazy guy” on the subway? You know, the guy who’s yelling to everyone about how we are all sheep (true) because the media is controlling our minds (true) with werewolves who have installed chips in our brains (only mostly true), and that Jesus is coming back with a robot army to destroy humanity in 2012 (probably not true – robots are faithless, which is why they’re so deadly). Meanwhile, everyone pretends to be intensely interested in their books, or phones, or the flyer advertising free information about starting your very own alpaca farm (call now!). Well, for a couple chapters, Steve Almond becomes that guy. He smells vaguely of urine and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about it.

That having been said, Almond is pretty damn funny (think Chuck Klosterman, but even more proud of his own cleverness). And the anecdotes about his factory tours intermingled with his childhood memories make up for the fact that he occasionally pisses himself and doesn’t notice. But my favorite people in the book are the factory owners who, despite their differing attitudes and personalities, become the same person when it comes to candy-making. Basically, they regress to the unbridled joy that comes with being a kid in a candy factory. You get a good idea about how the candy in the book is made, but the focus tends more toward the history and nostalgia invoked by the hardcore candy-lover community. By the end of the book (despite the last chapter, which is utterly soul-crushing and generally sucky) I did find myself hoping for a sequel, just maybe written by somebody not having a mid-life crisis.

Criticizing a Critic

Roger EbertI’ve been thinking a lot lately about Roger Ebert’s opinions on video games. For those unfamiliar with the recent debate, Ebert published a post on his blog arguing his stance that video games could not be art. He was, of course, immediately flooded with thousands of Internet Opinions. He has since revisited his earlier assertion, writing:

I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

Which is fine – just because I disagree doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the argument. And even though Ebert tries to make this his last word on the issue, he seems preoccupied with the topic, unable to let it go. Frustrated, he posted the results of his informal internet poll, Video games 13,823, Huck Finn 8,088. He spends a lot of time using this to speculate not that the system was gamed (horrible pun intended), but that perhaps these are actual results and that literacy in the US is in decline.

My impression is that he is concerned about future generations losing the ability to appreciate an experience they will only be able to get from a written narrative. I’m sympathetic to this view, but I disagree with the cynicism that nothing can or will ever be able to evoke a given idea or experience as well/better than a novel. I’m guessing he doesn’t think that either, else he would be undermining his argument for the value of movies.

And maybe that’s where the disagreement is. To many my age and younger, movies and video games are equivalent mediums because as far as we’re concerned, they’ve been around for the same amount of time (as long as we’ve lived). I’m not saying that means those who saw video games appear and evolve cannot “get” them, simply that their impression of video games is going to be different. So to us, it seems silly to condemn video games, while praising film. They are media cousins. And no matter how well-considered such opinions are, they will almost always sound naive to those who take these mediums for granted. No wonder he loses people with his train of thought when he says something like:

…if I’m not willing to play a video game to find that out [if video games can be transcendental], I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see.

In my brain-thinking head I can only think (and I suspect I am not alone): “HOW ARE THEY ANY DIFFERENT?”

I want Ebert to convince me – I read his blog voraciously, nod in agreement with many of his thoughtful arguments and observations (including those about video games). But this argument continues to bother me, not because I think he’s right or wrong about video games, but because this is the one thing he treats differently than all his other opinions – instead of just saying “I don’t know if video games are art or not”, he tells us “I know they aren’t, but I shouldn’t tell people, because it is too much work to deal with them”. If Ebert was anyone else, I wouldn’t mind – but because he makes money on his opinions (even his blog) and many people (who shouldn’t) parrot those opinions without really considering them, I think he has a higher responsibility than the average person. When you have that kind of audience and power to disseminate ideas among them, I believe you have a duty to inform those ideas, not simply guess or offer an impression without basis. Not “having the time or desire” to educate yourself, even a little, about an opinion you’re selling to so many is irresponsible. It’s exactly because of uninformed opinions that gamers are stereotyped as childish, thoughtless hooligans.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Ebert on this. I do think he’s coming around – he recently wrote, in an unrelated post about Inception, and more broadly, the nature of criticism:

…if you say you dislike “The Godfather” or “Shawshank,” I can’t say you’re wrong. The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion. It’s when you start giving your reasons that you lay yourself open. Many years ago there was a critic in Chicago who said “The Valachi Papers” was a better film than “The Godfather.” “Phil,” I told him, “film criticism is a matter of subjective opinion. Only rarely does it stray into objective fact. When you said ‘The Valachi Papers’ was better than ‘The Godfather,’ that was an error of objective fact.”

I’m hoping this means he’s thinking about whether his own views are opinions or facts.

"i am 8-bit" artwork

Digression:
And my take? In brief (because many many others have already tackled the issue so well already), I don’t think a genre can “be” art. Many movies and most video games have artistic qualities, but as a whole, do not feel like “art” to me. I would not call Super Mario Bros art. I also would not call Snakes on a Plane (love it though I might) “art”. I would consider both Mechanarium and The Shawshank Redemption to be art. Of course, I have no visual arts training, so who am I to say this is Truth? I’m not even sure of this myself, since yes, so much of it is subjective, and I have a clear bias – I’ve been trained in literary analysis, so there are tons of things I miss while I’m focusing on the narrative. But more to the point, I don’t think something has to be art to be culturally relevant or important. And I don’t think something being art makes it inherently “better” than something which isn’t.

Summer 2011: 2012 is coming early

I love my summer movies. Back in the day school we had a local theater where we could watch new releases for about $3/ticket (sometimes they would have $1 nights, and student discounts; no need to sell your organs at the nearest pawnshop/old-drunk-guy-in-an-alleyway-who-i-so-need-to-go-see-about-getting-my-parietal-lobe-back). It was affordable and so there was no reason not to see every new film that came out, regardless of its quality (I suspect something about this attitude may be responsible for not knowing many of my professors’ names). This was a great strategy until I found myself on graduation day being told that I had completed my “studies” and that I was no longer welcome to pursue my 5+x year BA degree (where x represents the number times they had to invent a new letter just to grade my academic performance). Oh man those were the days. I miss 2008.

ANYway, I soon discovered that the world outside of my perfect, cheap, film-watching bubble did not enjoy the same easy movie-going experience as I had. As symptoms of my cinema withdrawal grew greater (at the time i was staving off cravings by developing an intense interest in vanilla wafers), I realized I would have to choose my future movie-going experiences more carefully. With that in mind, let’s take a look at next years release schedu-OH SWEET CARMALIZED JESUS WITH A CREAMY NOUGAT CENTER! THEY’VE REPLACED ALL THE MOVIES WITH POORLY CONCEIVED SEQUELS!!

It’ll be okay. To more constructively illustrate how I feel about this, I’ve put together a sophisticated and complicated Venn Diagram based on the actual data *:

Summer 2010 Movies

Spy Kids 4? Underworld 4? Mission Impossible IV? (okay I cheated on the date of that last one a little, but I couldn’t bear breaking the “four” theme, and 5inal Destination was the only title with the sophistication to use a number as a letter). Sure, some of these might turn out fine, but it’s telling when 42% of your movies in a given season are sequels and remakes. Am I the only one who is frightened by the decline of America’s best remaining export (besides sparkly toothpaste and exhaust pipe whistles, I mean)?

Oh Hollywood, some day we’re going to look back on this and laugh… then drink a glass of bourbon while quickly changing the subject before we finally circle back to our original topic of amusement and cry vigorously like the manly Australians we are making fun of.

* “actual data” may be better recognized in this context as “haphazard delirium”. Standard services and fees may apply.

** 42% is based on me manually tallying up sequels/remakes scheduled for the May-September period and doing my best to perform basic math. I did not recount to verify my results, but rest assured, the conclusion is very scientific, as you can see by the usage of a %.

And yes, I’m counting Captain America as a remake. I haven’t forgotten.