January 1st: On Twitch User The Happy Hob
Last night (December 31st, 2020: the end of an endless year), I watched a 29-year-old streamer from the UK known on Twitch as The Happy Hob attempt to save his head from being shaved. Eyebrows, scalp. All of it. At the beginning of 2020, he made a bet that required him to complete twelve no-hit runs (playthroughs of video games, or series of video games, in which he must avoid all damage from enemies). Otherwise, he’d be required to remove his eyebrows. So too the hair on his head. Oh—and he’d have to get a tattoo. On his face. The content of which was up to the chat.
Another thing—he would have to do these things, to render himself (in his words) indistinguishable from a meth addict, just two months before his wedding. His fiancée, as he has made very clear, would be the bet’s true victim. When I found Hob’s Twitch channel some six months ago, the willingness with which he would risk a loved one’s happiness didn’t sit right with me—surely only a narcissist would gamble in such a way. One day, though, I realized Megan (said fiancée) was one of the chat’s moderators. And she was more than fine with the probable balding of her future husband. She joked about her hots for men who suddenly looked like snakes. If his hairlessness embodied anything, it was his determination to challenge himself, his devotion to his profession. And, by extension, her.
It is easy to look at someone streaming video games for a living and cry foul. Video games—even the notoriously masochistic Dark Souls and Bloodborne and Sekiro, the games responsible for making Hob famous—are escapism in their purest form. And with some Twitch streamers, I think this complaint is fair. But Hob’s audience tunes in for a different reason. For four to twenty-four hours at a time, Hob demonstrates levels of focus and precision that would inspire envy in any other professional athlete. Or he doesn’t, in which case he rages, or jokes, or paraphrases recent conversations he’s had with his sports psychiatrist. His lows are devastating, madness-inducing. After three hours of hand-cramping, eye-straining concentration, an ill-timed blink nets him a katana through his avatar’s gut. Ten hours in, his virtual self plunges off a virtual cliff. But his highs are like nothing else I have witnessed. Audiences that regularly swell past five thousand join in celebration. Emotes and donations and gifted subscriptions flood the chat. Hob’s viewers don’t tune in to see someone forgetting about their struggles. They want to see someone struggle, and suffer, and struggle some more—until at last they succeed.
In 2020, Hob finished 11 of the 12 runs required to beat his bet. He was 3 for 12 as late as October. He failed his last run in the early hours of this morning, some three hours into it, succumbing to a spot of unlucky RNG in Bloodborne, the run’s second game. At the time of my writing, I imagine he has already been shaved. (As one of his viewers put it: don’t put it off. Maximize time for regrowth, dude.) He will next be live on January 11th, rocking his shiny new do. Chat will be voting on his required tattoo. Megan, I imagine, will be there. And so will I. Not to vote, but to witness him begin another run, to make another bet. Rooting for another as they strive is endlessly satisfying. This is the pull of both fandoms and fiction, and it is why I watch Hob.
January 2nd: On Cappuccinos
On cappuccinos and whiskey
I like cappuccinos for the same reason I like whiskey. Both are efficient, elegant means to an end. (Cappuccinos get you going. Whiskey and its peaty brethren send you to sleep.) Both are texturally-fascinating, welcome guests on one’s tongue, in one’s throat. Finally, most importantly, both require a degree of craft, education, skill. Whatever word you use to connote acquired class. One has to know what one wants. As far as I and Scotch are concerned: Talisker. 10 is fine. On the rocks. And so too when I drink (or make) a cappuccino: I am all at once a man who knows what he wants. Extra shot. On the drier side. Medium. Whatever your medium is.
The first cappuccino™
I’m honestly not sure where this was? Maybe it’s all this talk about whiskey, but I think it was while I was in Scotland. St. Andrews was a town of cafés and bars and more cafés and more bars. I didn’t know what a cappuccino was, exactly, but the word rhymed with my idea of me in a way coffee did not. The new Colin, the Colin who knew how Scotch was made and what deontology meant, could vibe with cappuccinos. Light, airy things. Improbable constructions of bitterness and foam. And he did.
On learning how to correctly make cappuccinos
Here is how I see myself: I am a twenty-five-year-old who looks like he’s nineteen. On my weekends, in an effort to save as much money as possible before grad school, I barista in a Jersey shore coffee shop. I am a lanky five-seven; I wear a beanie and a flannel while I work. I write sad poems and sadder stories during the lapses between customers (which, especially in January, especially when January behaves like January, is a lot of the time). I write about failure, often. I write about fate, and misplaced hope, and the fatalism of the human condition. As soon as a customer’s in the shop, though, I’m all theirs. In almost two years at this job, I’ve learned that being a barista, just like any other service job, is only as mechanical and spirit-damping as you make it. If you want it to be, almost any job can be an art.
I’m alright at this art. I make killer Americanos (if you know anything about coffee, you’ll recognize this for the joke it is), passable lattes and mochas (my milk-foam hearts are well-shaped, my rosettas reasonable likenesses thereof). My cappuccinos, though, have always been lacking. Foamed milk, unlike steamed milk, is liable to falter. And over the last two years, my cappuccinos have often collapsed.
Earlier today, though, one of Coffee Tyme’s older employees, noticing my work (excessive wrist movement, irregularity the only rule), took it upon themselves to show me the correct technique. And I watched, and I learned, and now I know better. As of January 2nd, 2021, my cappuccinos are ones I would be more than happy to receive. But that’s beside the point. Seeing another trapped in their struggles, wanting to be their best self, failing (but still trying, damn it!) to become this self, and helping them get there: this is how I want to be. For all my obsession with failure, I want to write more the vulnerability of admitting ignorance, or weakness. I want to write about trying again.
January 3rd: On Pokémon
When the first Pokémon games were released in the States, I was three years old, and very much taken with the act of collecting. Near my house ran a creek, cool and slow, its water the color and semi-opacity of a Budweiser bottle. When my dad took me fishing, we would cast from atop a plank bridge, reel in catfish whose whiskers shocked, pickerel whose toothy jaws were best left to my father’s handling. (In 2003, in a record-setting flood, this bridge would collapse. For a long time after, its wreckage formed an island, a weedy clot of snapper nests and mosquitos, but in 2018 my uncle took a backhoe and excised it, clearing the channel once more.) A few years later, I began keeping an informal record of the fish we caught: great “mamas,” yes, but more often “little babies,” and most often nothing at all. Once, after stomping on the roots of an overhanging swamp maple, I netted the biggest catfish I remember netting. My uncle, I remember, offered to fry it in the aftermath of my recollecting this story. Whereupon I stared at him until he admitted he was joking. I doubt that he was.
Pokémon is many things. It is a card game; a lifestyle; a money-making, globe-swallowing gadget. But to me it is first and foremost a game about collecting. On my ninth birthday, I received copies of both Sapphire and Ruby, the first entries in the series’ third generation. Over the next two years I would play these games compulsively, recursively. New playthroughs were not new, per sé, but refined, permuted iterations of old ones. I would catch and grind and battle until faced with an improved version of the same team I had crafted not two weeks previous. Sceptile, Blaziken, Swampert. Flygon, Manectric, Walrein. Then I would begin again.
The arrival of Pokémon’s fourth generation—arguably its strongest—brought with it a near-terminal decline in my interest in the series. The year was 2006; I was eleven, and very much taken with the notion of girls and of grown-up-ness while knowing little about either. I would miss this generation, and so too the next, and so too the two after that. I was too cool, and then I was too busy, and then I was an adult. I had a job and bills and cats, MFA applications to complete and send off, a future to secure. I was creating. I didn’t have time to collect.
But in the middle of last December (with 2020 at last, miraculously ending), I purchased Pokémon Sword, one of the two entries in the series’ eighth generation. And after a year of grayscale unpredictability, I gave myself over to nostalgic, colorful routine. In short order, I caught an electric dog, a blue-hued crow, a sentient sword. My responsibilities and obligations didn’t go away, but, for hours at a stretch, they would take a backseat. I was writing a novel, yes. I was also teaching seniors how to integrate a piecewise function. I was also looking for apartments in New York. But I was also collecting Pokémon, forming the best team possible. I was marveling at the beauty of a computer-generated space. I was admiring the careful, loving creativity that had gone into all the coded creatures that lived in it. For stretches at a time, I was nine years old, and the world was orderly once more.
January 4th: On NBC’s The Office
Off the top of my head, I can recount only a handful of moments in The Office in which characters cry. The big one, of course, is in Season 3, when Dwight attempts to console a lovelorn Pam. But there’s also Jim and Dwight’s momentary truce in Season 4, as Jim empathizes with Dwight following his breakup with Angela. Tears abound in Season 7, as Michael’s employees say their goodbyes. And then there’s the first episode of Season 9, when Jim’s preoccupation with his job makes Pam cry. A member of the documentary crew steps in, consoles Pam, thereby threatening one of the most beloved relationships ever featured on screen. Watching, we remember, for the first time, that this show, too, is subject to the real world’s rules. This show, too, is a thing that must end.
My most recent binge of The Office began two weeks ago, before Christmas. I had taken a day off from teaching math in order to obtain a COVID test. I had received a memo from my superintendent’s secretary informing me of the stipulations of my contract, the number of sick days I was permitted. I’d responded with a strongly-worded (to put it gently) email of my own. You know, Lincoln’s whole “write a letter then burn it” bit, except without the whole “burning it” bit. I may or may not have signed off, “warmly.” It was exactly the sort of hyperbolic, impulsive action one of The Office’s characters might take, and I wasn’t surprised when I was asked (directed) to attend a meeting with my superintendent some days later, with the presence of my union representative recommended (required). I spent a number of sleepless nights on the couch, watching people like me make far worse mistakes than the one I had made and get away with it. Cringe humor is only humor when one is not the object of said cringe. A comedy’s comedy requires the viewer to know that things must end well. We are able to laugh at Dwight committing arson, or Michael destroying the hopes of a class of inner-city kids, or Andy punching a hole in the wall. We are able to laugh because we know they are human, and thus fallible, and that their world will pardon them for their failures. Sitcoms, like our unscripted lives, require stability in order to endure. Unlike our lives, though, their creators are able to provide their children, episode in and episode out, exactly this.
I love The Office. My love for the show, though, does not arise from the same rationale as does the love of many of my fellow fans, which runs (more or less) thus: the characters are just SO relatable! First: stop using the word “relatable” when describing characters or fictions you love. It means nothing. It’s an empty descriptor. Find a better adjective. Second: perhaps. For some. For me, watching The Office’s cast blunder and falter and act 100% like themselves 100% of the time, I can’t help but envy their unmedicated existences. I am one who scripts conversations with even the people he loves. I am relentlessly, terminally analytical, both of myself and of others. I perseverate without mercy, replaying mistakes I’ve made, recursively reinterpreting texts I’ve sent. Happiness is a fragile, tenuous state. We must earn it, and then keep earning it, ever wary of mistakes we might make, of everything in an instant being stripped away. There is a pit below us, even if we don’t like to admit it. The line we walk is thin. It is thus a blessing to be able to watch people, no matter how imaginary, toe the edge of this pit—and laugh.
January 5th: On Little Nightmares, and Inside, and the Why of Video Games
I have been playing through Little Nightmares for the past several days, but I don’t want to talk about Little Nightmares. Or, I do, but only in the context another 2.5D platformer released a year before, in 2016: Inside. In both games, the player character is a faceless, nameless child. At the beginning of the game, they find themselves in gloomy, shadowy surroundings. The danger they’re in is certain, their circumstances inarguably dire. For now, though, these threats remain off-screen, and we have no choice but to propel our avatar forward.
Over the next six to ten hours, we guide each game’s protagonist through a series of increasingly complex challenges. To anyone even semi-versed in the 2.5D genre, these levels offer little new. Both characters run and jump and crouch. Both pull objects into place. Buttons open hidden doors; switches deactivate electric fences. By ducking behind conveniently-placed cover, we avoid the sightlines of enemies that are not quite human, thereby gaining access to the next ill-lit space. Inside distinguishes itself by its central mechanic, which lets the player character don a mind-control helmet and thereby pilot a number of brainless, puppet-like bodies. But this isn’t why I find Inside the better game. Difficulty and ingenuity are overrated—and I say this as someone whose favorite game of all time is Dark Souls, which has shaped and is still shaping the gaming landscape like few other IPs developed this century. No, the reason I love Inside is not the fact of this mechanic—but what this mechanic has to say about the fact that we are playing a game.
Why is a song a song? And not a story, say? Or a cookie? Or a text message? What is that makes one sit down and say, yes—this must be a graphic novel. A poem. A cake.
A large part of the answer lies in one’s sensibilities. I, for example, like to write. So I write. Short stories, mostly. A novel, because I must. I do not draw, because I cannot draw. I do not sing, because I cannot sing. As I’ve improved as a writer, though, and developed a taste (if not a tongue) for poetry, an occasional craving for (loosely) gripping nonfiction, I’ve begun to question the identity of my ideas. Not everything has to, or should, be a story. Just like everything—like Little Nightmares, for example—doesn’t need to be a video game. Like Little Nightmares, of course, a thing is perfectly free to exist in this way, as a game, and is even capable of being a very good one. As far as I’m concerned, though, if the possibility of a piece of art accomplishing the same effect as another version of itself exists, then that art is not all it can be. There is a reason One Hundred Years of Solitude has yet to be adapted into a half-decent film. There is a reason why Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us games, for all their graphical and narrative prowess, will never represent video games in their fullest form.
Little Nightmares is not a bad game. Its enemies are terrifying. Its art design is a nightmarish miracle. Could it be something else, though, and equally succeed? An animated short, or feature? A graphic novel? Perhaps. I think so. Which is why Little Nightmares is not a great game.
Here, on the other hand, is how a 100% playthrough of Inside ends, and why it is one of the best 2.5D platformers ever made. After locating a number of hidden bunkers scattered throughout the game, the player character is able to access a final bunker. There, they find one of the mind-control helmets with which they have manipulated Inside’s world’s lifeless bodies. By pulling on the cable that attaches this helmet to the machine behind it, they are able to unplug the device—whereupon the boy himself goes limp. His head hangs. The screen fades to black. We are the boy, the boy is a puppet, the mind-controlled bodies to which we’ve grown so familiar are a puppet’s puppets. Perhaps we are a puppet, too. A video game is a video game because it provides its players choice—or at least the illusion thereof, as Inside so deftly observes. Inside, unlike Little Nightmares, needs to be a game. And because of this necessity, it is great.
January 6th: On Tea
Types of teas taste like different colors, to me. Earl Grey is amber, thanks to Twinings. Irish breakfast is forest green. Owing to Bigelow, English is rose, Jasmine a floral chartreuse. This is less an instance of synaesthesia and more a testament to the influence of advertising. Also to my lack of tea-tasting acumen. But I digress.
I am tired, writing this. I checked Twitter for ten minutes today to see what the world made of its continuing ending. What it had to say was more or less what I’d expected. The jokes were mechanically sound, economically bleak. It is rare, anymore, that I laugh.
My freshman year at college, I remember drinking black tea at a table in the dining hall and watching snow melt into the mulch that skirted South’s oaks. I remember studying—for what? I remember an open book, but no words. I remember the tea cooling, steam rising. I remember feeling content.
Or in St. Andrews, a year later, mixing Scotch with Twinings white tea, beginning the kilometer back from the library to my dorm the minute before midnight hit, my face impossibly warm, The Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace Is There too loud in my ears, my chest aching with a loneliness I am still not able to fully explain.
Or my year student-teaching, anxious at a pitch I hope to never again hold, drinking thermos after thermos of green tea, willing my face not to flush, fighting desperately to hold on to the me I once was, let alone the me I hoped to one day be.
Or, or. I have read tea reviews. (I have a thing for reviews of things I am unable, myself, to competently critique. Things that have notes. Things that are tannic.) I do not wish to ape these reviews. I neither know nor care whether a tea is sufficiently bitter, whether it does or does not lack malt. All I care about is how I felt at the time, purchasing said tea—whether I was angry or anxious, restless or homesick, with another or alone. I care about how the tea, once drunk, made me feel. I am drinking a red tea, right now. By that I mean the little Bigelow label attached to the tea bag’s string is red. The tea itself is black. Somehow, against all odds, I feel calm.
January 7th: On Bananas
A brief (perhaps not so brief) ode to the humble banana. Because, like, my dudes, seriously: name another fruit. That began so stingy and seedy and stringy. That, guided by human ingenuity and the unstoppable tide of globalization, waxed into the glorious testament to science and civilization we know today. That fits so snugly within one’s fist. That is at once a pie and a bread and a Laffy Taffy and a delicious addition to ice cream (no matter what some people might say). That goes equally well in cereal or atop pancakes or within French toast. That costs, like, thirty cents, max. That doubles, in a pinch, as a phone or slapstick comedy or a penis or a gun. That is and will forever be (indisputably: I’m looking at you, papaya) the fruit with the name most fun to say. That, along with the bagel and the coffee bean and the peanut and the chickpea (another day), got me through four years of undergrad.