February 5th: On Craft Breweries
Cape May Brewery is New Jersey’s best. If not based upon the quality of their shipped product, then that of their in-house experience. A visitor winds their way through a tiny airport, past warehouses and undeveloped absence, convinced they’ve made a wrong turn. Until at last they arrive in a parking lot from which there is nowhere else to go. The entrance is unassuming: tinted glass, a pastel-painted wooden sign. But music filters from somewhere inside, somewhere out back. Relaxing, forgettable stuff: Jimmy Buffett, nineties grunge, mid-2000’s rock. Inside, they find a chalkboard welcome sign, neon with cheer. At the bottom, almost forgotten, is a reminder that patrons must be 21 or older to drink. Past this runs a short, dim hallway walled by Brobdingnagian barrels and hanging merch, variously won awards, diagrams of the brewing process annotated by too-small text. And then the visitor is greeted. And then they are there.
Today, my dad and I went to Cape May Brewery. We sat outside, around a wooden barrel with WOODFORD PRESERVE printed on its lid. I started with an experimental ale, a Belgian with esters on the nose, notes of figs, 10% ABV. My dad did what my dad does, and opted for an IPA. Bob Marley sang about peace and forgetfulness, the promise of the world’s working out. Next to the back entrance, attached to the wall, tilted a Purell hand sanitizer dispenser, three-quarters full. There was no one around us; the temperature had dropped, and the brewery’s outside tables had emptied. I sipped my beer, and I did my best to tell my dad (indirectly, through gestures and jokes, discussions of Villanova basketball and golf) how much I loved him, how much days like today will one day be missed.
I don’t think my love of craft breweries is extraordinary. Your run-of-the-mill 21st-century asshole is liable to wax poetic at an unvarnished walnut bar and resinous citrus and crushability. But I do think craft breweries offer something extraordinary: the chance to be with another, drunk, or at least a little tipsy, and to be able to hear them speak. To be alone in a public space, and to feel safe. To appreciate the taste of the thing that is making you forget. To listen to another speak. To do your best to remember their words.
February 6th: On The Queen’s Gambit
I mean, I had to, right?
When Breaking Bad came out, I was thirteen, and unprepared for both its grit and its greatness. When Game of Thrones landed, I was older, but now it was arrogance that was the problem; I had read A Song of Ice and Fire, and therefore considered myself above all that fuss. The filmic phenomena that arrived in the years following these shows—House of Cards, The Umbrella Academy, Bridgerton—likewise passed me by. I was too busy to share in the moment with my peers. I was too busy being angry, and then I was too busy being sad, and now I’m busy doing a little bit of both, and also writing, and also being an adult.
But this time I did it, folks. I did the thing. I watched the thing. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the hell out of the thing.
And I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is this: The Queen’s Gambit is a show about the impossibility of going it alone. Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) does her best to do it without the help of anyone else. She drinks, and downs tranqs, and expresses little to no regard for either the feelings or acts of the people who love her. Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), the former Kentucky state champ, pulls her from the pit of the worst of her binges, and she promptly casts him aside. Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the next-best player in the US, accompanies Beth to Russia, only to watch as she drinks away her chance at a world championship. And yet, come the series’ final act, the two are there for Beth as she takes on Borgov (Marcin Dorociński), the reigning world champ. They are an ocean away, gathered around a rotary phone, but they have not abandoned Beth. Aloofness is not an unforgivable sin. Neither is numbing oneself to the world—not only the pain it provides in abundance, but also its love. Ambition requires the person possessed by it to suffer, but it does not guarantee they will suffer alone. As Jolene (Moses Ingram) puts it to Beth before her climactic trip overseas: “We weren’t orphans, not as long as we had each other.” It’s certainly not the most profound of quotes, but this, I think, is The Queen’s Gambit’s thesis: ambition is not enough. Hope is not enough. People need people, and if you open yourself to receiving help, people will be there.
February 7th: On ManDancing’s The Good Sweat
A decade and a half ago, ManDancing’s sophomore LP The Good Sweat would have been about either a girl or God. Musically, it might still be similar—hooks and riffs aplenty, slow builds that break apart into cathartic, shout-along choruses. But its thematic thrust would have been decidedly different. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his essay “The Return of the Loneliest Boys in Town,” writes that the thesis of the alternative—specifically, the emo—bands making music at the start of the 21st century was this: “to turn their loneliness into a weapon without having it actually look like a weapon.” If this was once acceptable, in November 2020, when The Good Sweat was released, this was no longer the case. To lash out against an imagined other (often, a woman) evidenced weakness, not strength. 2020, if it accomplished nothing else, reminded us of the preciousness of both trust and human touch, and thus the monstrousness of one who would abuse these gifts. That The Good Sweat does not do this—that it trades anger for introspection, violence for grace—is just one reason the album is a triumph.
A bigger reason is that the album possesses all the promise of these earlier albums—Brand New’s Deja Entendu, Bright Eyes’ Lifted—without evoking the same problematic tropes. Songs like “(the) words” and “humor (hah)” off Everyone Else, their 2018 debut, offer glimpses of the excellence The Good Sweat routinely displays. But on “GloveSweat” and “RJW,” the songs at both the literal and metaphorical heart of the album, ManDancing breaks new ground. The former is a pseudo-ballad in which Stephen Kelly, the band’s singer, sounds as similar as he ever has to Andy Hull, Manchester Orchestra’s frontman. The latter finds ManDancing at their most energetic, as Kelly near-raps over a percussive, driving beat, lifting the song as high as he can lift it, maximizing the impact of the ensuing bridge.
Other songs like “Perch” and the album-closing “Johnny Freshman” similarly showcase ManDancing’s range, featuring distortion and feedback, scratchy audio samples, backing vocals, chaos and the silence that comes after. Listening to songs like these, I am reminded of the first time I listened to Foxing’s Nearer My God, Pup’s Morbid Stuff, The Wonder Years’ Sister Cities. The development evidenced by these albums is at once expected and unanticipated, respecting each band’s roots while charting a new, reckless course. The evolution from Everything Else to The Good Sweat is a natural one, and callbacks to their earlier work, both musical and lyrical, are in abundance. At the same time, though, it is a bold one, condensing two or three albums’ worth of growth into a single leap. I already knew ManDancing was a band with promise; Good Sweat reveals at once how high they can climb and the landscape that awaits them (and us) there.
But what excites me the most about ManDancing—and what worries me, too, although less than it has with other bands—is this: they are a band fully aware that they are still becoming the band they will one day be. I have said nothing in this review about ManDancing’s folk and indie influences, which are at times more present in The Good Sweat than their emo and rock counterparts. I have said nothing about what I see as the album’s central theme: that life is not static, but kinetic. Life, to steal from the bridge of “RJW,” is “a river, a jungle, a waterfall.” There is the clammy, sick-feeling sweat of anxiety and empty sex. There is the better sweat of rising at dawn and getting to work. Rejecting stasis as ManDancing does—with every drumbeat, every power chord, every breath. I am excited for the many things ManDancing might become, the many paths they might take next. My hope is that their loud moments will be louder, their silences more shocking. But I trust them, whatever direction they choose to pursue. Until then I will continue to loop to The Good Sweat on my runs—exhausted, aching, but breathing steadily. My eyes ahead, the sweat chill on my temples, the hollow of my neck.
February 8th: On Hades
Once a year, I fall in love with a game not made by From Software. (As many are aware, I am an acolyte of the Souls games, and even more so Bloodborne and Sekiro; I will die, prostrate and bleeding, at From’s action-RPG altar). Three years ago, this was Playdead’s Inside; two years back, this was Santa Monica’s God of War reboot. Last year, Remedy’s Control, despite providing fairly run-of-the-mill gameplay, dropped me into a world whose backstory and lore reached depths unseen since 2007’s Bioshock. This year—surprise—it was Supergiant’s Hades, which rewired my brain in a way no other game has before.
With my earlier non-From obsessions, it was largely the story that consumed me. To be clear, God of War provided compelling combat, iterating upon From’s formula in smart and startling ways; Inside, for all its mundanity as a puzzle platformer, hinged upon a core gameplay loop that redefined my view of the relationship between a video game’s mechanics and story. The thing that kept me hooked into each game, though, was its narrative. I hastened to the next fight in God of War not because I wanted to test my mettle, but because I needed to see how the relationship between Kratos and Atreus developed. Inside compelled me onward by way of its central mystery: who was the faceless, nameless avatar I piloted? Why was I running, and what toward? Finally, Control, while delivering a central story that’s forgettable at best, builds a world so eerie and strange that I felt obligated to linger, to bear witness to whatever horror lurked around the next corner, to dig myself deeper and deeper into its bottomless lore.
Hades, on the other, does what From Software’s games do better than any other, which is to tie its (excellent) gameplay to its (superb) story and in doing so snare you in its inescapable grip. In it, you play as Zagreus, Prince of Hell. Your goal is to escape Hell, and in doing so to discover why your mother, Persephone, abandoned you as a child. You battle through Tartarus and Asphodel, Elysium and the Temple of Styx. You slay Hell’s lesser minions—skeletons and witches and various other species of dungeon-crawling fodder—as well as its mightiest foes: the Furies, the (testament to badassery that is the) Bone Hydra, Theseus and the Minotaur he most famously slayed. Then, at the end of a run, one of two things occur: you die, whereupon you are reincarnated back under your father’s roof; or you defeat your father, escape to the surface, and speak with Persephone, and listen to what she has to say.
I will not spoil Hades for you; the game is too new, and its story too fine, for me to ruin it in this way. But I will say this: Hades is the first roguelike game I’ve played, and this is not by accident. More than any other genre of game, roguelikes are designed to ensnare a player in its loop; death brings one back to the start, but now with a reason to try again. Either one has learned a new technique, or opened up a new area, or unlocked a new weapon, or accumulated enough of the game’s currency to increase their stats to a point where the next run might be—must be—the run. It’s an elegant trap, one which requires developers to have a firm grasp of their game’s central mechanic, to know how to balance difficulty and reward and thus keep the brain’s dopamine receptors hungering for more. Which is precisely why I have, in the past, kept myself from dipping my toes into roguelikes’ Lethean waters. I am one who has dreams, and does not want to forget these dreams. And roguelikes, based upon everything I’ve heard, possess a deadly ability to make the future (and past) dissolve.
To be clear: Hades does exactly this. And if the chatter on Reddit and Twitter is to be believed, it does so better than most roguelikes. Its six weapons entertain equally while playing wildly differently. Its Daedalus upgrades fundamentally alter how each weapon plays, as do its Boons. Hades is a drug as potent as any other, and I have lost more hours than I can say to its trance.
As I continued through the game, though, climbing higher and higher through Hell on each escape attempt, it occurred to me that it wasn’t only the game’s mechanics that made me immediately start another run. It was also the story—both that of Zagreus’s quest for his mother and those of Hell’s other inhabitants—that kept me hooked. I craved a development in Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship, a hint of future reconciliation. I anticipated my next philosophical exchange with Sisyphus, my next competitive riposte with Thanatos. Every time I died, I looked forward to exchanging words with Hypnos, Megaera, Nyx, and Achilles. Every character in the world of Hades is well-drawn, and every line of dialogue sharply written. I myself have wanted to write for a game studio for a long time, and Hades reminds me why.
Above all else, though, I looked forward to finally escaping from Hell, and finding out what Persephone had to say. I desired the answer to this mystery both for narrative and ludonarrative reasons. Of the former, there is little to say; Zagreus is a charming young man, and Persephone had better well have a damn good reason for abandoning her son. As far as the latter was concerned, my question was this: given that a roguelike traditionally does not end—it goes on and on and on, hooking the player into its loop until Atropos cuts her fatal thread, ending not only the player’s playing, but so too everything else—how would Supergiant stick the landing? Why would Zagreus keep trying to escape Hell? Why had Hades kept him locked underground for so long—and why would he lock him up again?
After being won over again and again by Hades, I didn’t think I could be surprised a final time.
And I was.
The story, through a deft little storytelling trick on Supergiant’s behalf, keeps going.
Zagreus keeps escaping.
And I am still playing, still losing hours at a time.
And I’m still being surprised.
February 9th: On Wawa’s Self-Serve Coffee
At Wawa’s self-serve coffee bar, one finds four sizes of cups—12 oz, 16 oz, 20 oz, 24 oz—and between eight and ten blends. (Regular, dark, decaf, Cuban, Colombian, French vanilla, and hazelnut are standard, with combinations of Wawa’s seasonal varieties—winter reserve, holiday blend, pumpkin spice—taking up the remaining [s]pots.) There are then at least ten creamers on offer—both dairy-free and dairy-based, flavored and unflavored—as well as a retinue of sweeteners. There are spices—cinnamon, nutmeg. There are other powdery additives—vanilla, chocolate—of positively alarming flavor and texture. There are different lids; there are straws; there are sleeves. Altogether, this leaves us at approximately one million different options, give or take a half-million or two. (Basic combinatorics, if you’re a mathematical skeptic, frequently yields wild, imagination-defying leaps like these; if you would like to press me on my Coffee Calculations™, I would be delighted to chat.)
And yet—and this is why the Coffee Calculations™ above matter—the motivation behind obtaining any one of these million-odd options is singular. One does not go to Wawa’s self-serve bar to treat oneself. Or, if they do, this self-care is secondary. The primary reason—the only real reason, as far as I’m concerned—is to re-energize. And then to get back to work, whatever work is.
Cafés originated in 16th-century Istanbul, where they were hubs for music and board games, cultural and philosophical discourse. Patrons would drink hot black Turkish coffee and listen in as storytellers spun tales both ancient and contemporary, as poets doled out their most recent verses. At their core, the cafés of today—local, mostly, but also (yes) Starbucks—have not strayed far from this origin. When I sit down at a coffee shop, I am there less for coffee than the overheard conversation, the background music, the studious hum. I am there to unintentionally (intentionally) eavesdrop upon the awkward second date happening one booth over, to pass inadvertent (and damning) judgment upon the accountant impatient for his double-shot praline mocha, almond milk, no whip. I am there for the same reason as others, for a different reason than many more, and I am there to stay. For at least an hour. Often, more.
Wawa is not this. This is not what Wawa is. If the café fits firmly into the mold of modernity, Wawa is a watering hole—an artifact of prehistory, reanimated to serve the dominant species of today . As I stir my hazelnut coffee, the driver of a Mac truck is pouring French vanilla creamer (fat free) into a 64-oz jug, whistling his contentment. Behind me, a nurse is filling up a 20-oz Colombian, blinking away the need to sleep. Nine-to-fivers are out to lunch, buried in their iPhones, complaining away their breaks. We are here, together, preparing once more to face the day. There are lions in the world—we know this. Cancer, depression, socioeconomic inequality, billionaires whose names rhyme with Neon Tusk. (Oh my.) They are not here, but they are there. And one day, one of them will find us. Each and every one. And God willing, Wawa willing, we will have the energy to meet them when they do.
February 10th: On M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village
For me, the greatest twist of M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre is that there never was a twist, nor will there ever be. It is impossible to be surprised when one anticipates surprise. All one might expect is appreciation at the surprise’s construction, or disappointment at its execution. I was twenty-three when I first watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. The year was 2019; the film had turned twenty in August. Bruce Willis was a ghost; I was well aware. Nonetheless, after overcoming my initial disappointment—people didn’t know Bruce Willis was dead? The whole time? How?—I enjoyed the film. I had expected to watch it as I watched other, lesser films featuring ghosts—watching the clock, subtracting the film’s run-time, waiting for the trap to spring closed. Instead, the experience reminded me of my first time watching Fight Club, or Memento. These are films with twists; they are also, like The Sixth Sense, films that do not need them. Their characters and conflicts alone are enough.
That the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense was the dominant takeaway from Shyamalan’s breakout film is, I think, a contemporary cinematic tragedy. It is also not a surprise. Malcolm Gladwell, in his Masterclass (another thing I will one day discuss; what a thing Masterclass is, what a thing…) on writing nonfiction, likens his essays’ often eclectic subject matter to candy; the titles alone of essays like “The Ketchup Conundrum” (detailing Heinz’s tomato-based monopoly), “Late Bloomers” (the mutual exclusivity of prodigies and geniuses), and “The Art of Failure” (panicking vs. choking) are enough to draw readers in. What his readers stay for, though—and this is the reason the name Malcolm Gladwell is synonymous with nonfiction at its best—is the humanity at the heart of these stories. “Late Bloomers” features prodigies struggling to meet (or defy) overwhelming expectations; “The Art of Failure” is about the battle between one’s body and mind, and the fragility of success. As Gladwell puts it: we come for the candy. We stay for the meal.
The meal that Shyamalan offers in The Village shares ingredients with The Sixth Sense (and also Unbreakable and Signs, the films he directed in the intervening years). It is a meditation on grief, and a commentary on the urge to retreat from that grief. It is a Gothic romance whose heroes and heroines, yearning for a brighter world than the one they’ve inherited, rebel against the safeguards set up by their elders. It is a beautifully-shot, well-acted allegory whose twist—that The Village’s purportedly late-1800s New England town exists, in fact, in modern times—didn’t need to be set up as a twist at all. That the village in The Village is secluding itself from the violence and chaos of 21st-century life is the entire point of the film—so why not place it front and center? Why not cue the audience in from the get-go, and thereby avoid devoting precious minutes to rendering believable a foundationally unbelievable premise? Why not trust the audience to trust you to tell a compelling, character-driven tale—one that lacked a twist at the end?
It’s a question that’s often framed as an either-or: did Shyamalan really rely on twist-endings to launch a career, or was this a role his audience conscripted him into, and which he had no choice to fill? The answer, I think, is a little bit of both. The Village is a very, very good film—probably tied for my favorite of Shyamalan’s with 2016’s Split—but it’s also one that could have been a great film. It’s hampered by expectations: the build-up of the modern-day reveal, the persona the public constructed for Shyamalan, the pressure Shyamalan placed upon himself. More than anything, it begs the question: What if? In lieu of 2008’s The Happening—if Shyamalan had not, in our minds, become the Shyamalan he became—what might have happened next?
February 11th: On Snow Days
When I was younger is unnecessary throat-clearing. Every story takes place when you are younger. This is the nature of aging.
A Mitch Hedberg bit, that. Once, my junior year of college, I watched Hedberg clips at a house party until midnight hit, then took a bus through a snowstorm to Rutgers’ main campus to meet up with a girl. I was snowed in with her for three days. We stayed together for eight months. When I was younger, I’d spend snow days outside, dawn to well past dusk. I received a miniature snowboard when I was eight and used it for at least ten years. Once, when I was eleven or twelve, I took advantage of a two-hour delay to defeat Baron Praxis, the first boss in Jak II: Renegade. “Praxis” means practice. As opposed to, say, theory. Action, not thought. When I was younger, a snow day was an unexpected infinity. It was infinite because it was unexpected. It was unexpected because it was infinite. Suddenly, somehow: a caesura in the forced march to the future that is one’s youth. A timeless gap.
When I was a freshman in college, snow and ice closed down Villanova for a week. Monday brought with it a snowball fight to end snowball fights. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds with their shirts off, beating their chests, bellowing from the rooftops. It ended with the power out, students scrambling for rides to either their or another’s childhood home.
When I was a student teacher, a January day arrived that was so cold a pipe in Williamstown High School burst. During the ensuing evacuation, I shuffled along after my mentor teacher, (let’s call her) Sue. Sue, a mother, had recently divorced, and was over the whole teaching thing. I shuffled after Sue. I asked Sue’s colleague, Miranda, where we were going. She told me we were going to the middle school—over one mile away, on foot, in temperatures in the high teens. We walked. I followed the crowd, chatting with the freshmen I taught. I took solace in the idea that people older and more tired than me knew where we were going. That we would have the afternoon off, perhaps the next day, but that the pipe would be fixed. The world would carry on.
When I was younger, I liked snow days for the same reason everyone else liked snow days. No school. No homework. Hot chocolate. Video games. Sledding. Snowball fights. Gripping baling twine looped around the rear hitch of my family’s Gator and lying upon a repurposed boogie board and refusing to let go until my fingers bled, whereupon I would tumble through the snow, kicking up buried horse manure with my flailing, bruising my arms and legs, the soft flesh of my waist. (Okay. Maybe not this last one.)
But I now realize that I also liked snow days for the same reason I now miss them so desperately: because I sensed—if in a dim, childish way—that these were off days for only a fortunate portion of the population. For most of the world, the world ticked on. Writers wrote; truckers kept on trucking. Paychecks went out; bills were paid. And now that I’m on the other side of this (sledding) hill, I can appreciate the promise (and the illusion) of a snow day that much more. Even if I wasn’t, now, remotely teaching—even if I didn’t have a weekend job at a coffee shop that forced me to rise at four-thirty AM, play my small part in ushering in the day—I would still be awake. At my laptop. Working. Looking ahead.
And while I am happy to do this, and while I wish to do this until the day I die, I miss the days when I didn’t desire this thing. When I was happy to sled down shallow slopes and construct forts from snowplow-piled snow. Not despite but because of the temporariness of these acts. Days when the ground swelled, when the familiar grew strange. Days when Tomorrow lurked in the wings, eyeing the snow and ice that had briefly taken over the world, waiting for Today to dissolve.