Monday, February 21, 2011

Wake up in the morning feelin' like P. Diddy: A beginner's guide

The next 10 or so posts were from a blog I wrote for the Altoona Mirror. This is my final week at the paper, and I imagine they'll delete the blog when I leave. For some reason, I wanted to preserve some of the work.

*Originally published at

I have always wanted to be a morning person. It's something that has appealed to me for years. It must be pretty rad to be able to wake up to an alarm clock on your cell phone and not want to hurl it across the room before you curl up into the fetal position and start sobbing uncontrollably. I want to be that dude from the Folgers commercials who smells coffee, sits up, stretches and smiles.

But, sadly, I am not of that ilk. I was not wired that way. The beeping sound of an alarm clock severely depresses me. Every time I hear it, I have the exact same reaction as I do when I hear "Soul Sister" by Train. It's like this: "Oh God, not this AGAIN. Why would you let such a sequence of sounds be INVENTED?" And then I shake my fists at the sky.

When I look at that sentence, I think about how I'm definitely looking at things the wrong way. I should be thanking God I get to wake up again, but when it's that early in the morning I'm not usually capable of forming such rational thoughts, especially positive ones. I'm not a morning person, and so by default I'm not a positive person in the morning. Come to me at 8 p.m. with a worry about your girlfriend who hasn't texted you back for a few hours, and I'll say that maybe she's lost her phone or the battery has gone dead; I'll tell you not to worry. Come to me 12 hours later, and I'll probably whip my mobile phone at you and then proceed to tell you she's probably hanging out somewhere with a guy who is much better looking than you, who was probably wearing a shirt with a popped collar...until a few minutes ago.

I'm not sure when I started hating getting up early, but I'd guess it was probably when I got to middle school in sixth grade, when the powers that be thought it'd be a great idea to have a school day for growing adolescents and teens start at 7:30 a.m. If I was going to get the sleep I needed back then, I was going to have to hit the sack before "Smallville" was over, and that was not going to happen. My family -- with the exclusion of my Dad, who often wakes up earlier than I even hit the sheets -- is not a clan of morning people. One of my most memorable mornings from the high school years was one day when I rolled out of bed and crawled into the bathroom to the shower, narrowly beating my older brother. I got naked and was checking the faucet for warmth when he came in and, in his bad early morning mood, decided he would not give up first shower without a fight. He literally choke-slammed me into the bathtub while I was in the buff. If it had been like three hours later, he probably would've just given me a high five and told me to go ahead and take the shower while he fired up the griddle and made some pecan pancakes.

This has gotten worse since college, when I would often arrange my schedule so I didn't have to wake up until at least 10 a.m. It has gotten worse still since I started work here. I don't come into the office until 1:30 each afternoon, which is awesome. But I've found that my pension for sleeping late extends until the moment I have to get up for an obligation, of which I typically have none before work beyond showering.

Many times in the past seven months, I've gone to bed early enough to get a solid eight hours before I'd wake up at the time I specified on my phone's alarm. I'd have plans, too. I was going to go to the gym, then I was going to start writing a novel that'd make Junot Diaz want to be my friend. At some point in there, I'd whip up some egg whites and read the paper.

Usually, though, I'd turn off the alarm. I'd just lay in bed until like noon, then I'd get up, shower and have enough time to really only read the paper while I watched Sportscenter and ate a banana while hating myself for being so lazy. I pushed the limit for the amount of time I could remain horizontal while the sun was up.

I decided recently it was time for a turn around. I want to wake up in the morning and feel like P. Diddy, to quote the great American poet, Ke$ha. I mean, who wouldn't? P. Diddy has clout, and his life is pretty sweet (well, after he beat those murder charges anyway). This is the dude who was able to make a group of hip-hop-hopefuls walk miles to get him cheesecake, because he just wanted some cheesecake. He actually had a reality show that centered around him training for a marathon. That's right, people tuned into MTV to watch a man jog a lot. If I were to start training for a marathon, my Mom might care a little bit, but that's about it.

Also, I bet his linens have a really high thread count, so that probably doesn't hurt.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but I figured it was as good an opportunity as any to start waking up and being a little bit more productive than I'd been in recent memory.

I had to start at the very beginning. There is nothing in the world that will ever make me enjoy the sound of an alarm clock. Okay, that's not true. If it becomes a daily Pavlovian signal that Blake Lively has just shown up at my door with a large order of house special lo mein, I'll probably start to enjoy it. But the odds of that are slim, so I took that stupid noise out of the equation.

"Scott, what sounds make you happy?" I thought to myself. Almost immediately, I came up with two ideas. The first is the song "Circle of Life," from the very first scene of "Lion King." It starts with the sun coming up -- which was fitting -- and some tribal dude screaming, "Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba. Sithi uhm ingonyama." According to (yes this really does exist) it translates to, "Here comes a lion, Father. Oh yes, it's a lion."

Honestly, I don't care what it means. It just sounds nice, so I like it (kind of like a Radiohead song). So I downloaded that as a ringtone on my phone, and set it up as an alarm.

Next, I obtained a compilation of music from the television show "Glee." I threw that in my CD player alarm clock, and set that up. (If you are too cool and don't dig "Glee," I suggest substituting it with the song "You Get What You Give" by The New Radicals. It's probably barely edges out "Mmmbop" as my favorite pop song from the 90's. It's very happy. I don't know how I feel about everything I just wrote in this parenthetical sequence; not very manly, is it?)

I staggered these alarms within 15 minutes of each other. This way, if the music from "Lion King" didn't do the job of waking me up immediately, the kids from "Glee" would chime in a few moments later telling me that any way I wanted it was indeed the way I needed it, and that I was just a small town girl who was livin' in a lonely world. (They were heavy on the Journey throughout their journey to the regionals. Count it.) If I was already awake and reading the paper before I left for the gym, I would get a pick-me-up from that gang of adoreable misfits.

Right before I walked out the door for the gym, I'd fill my new Gatorade bottle with some water or green tea. It was one of those squirtable ones professional athletes use. I figured that somehow I could trick myself into thinking my running on the treadmill was part of some important team activity.

Whilst on the treadmill, I listened to a lot of music by Explosions in the Sky, an instrumental band that plays probably some of the most powerful music I've ever listened to in my 23 years on this earth. (They did all the music for the "Friday Night Lights" film and television show.) I can't explain why, but their songs make everything you're doing seem like it is vastly more important than it justifiably should be. I like to listen to them while I fold my laundry. It makes me feel like the most domesticated man since Michael Keaton in "Mr. Mom." And that came out in 1983.

Next, I'd jump in the pool and try to swim some laps, something I haven't done much since my Mom made me join the swim team in fourth grade. (It ended like piano lessons : I complained until she didn't make me go anymore. Now I regret doing that in both instances.) That'll wake you up for sure.

So then I'd come home and shower and try to write something for a little bit. That novel hasn't really gotten off the ground yet, so Diaz is going to have to wait if he's looking for new up-and-coming literary pals, but I don't think he minds. I do get a lot more reading done, though, and that's good for the mind. Especially those Junot Diaz books. Dude can write. (Yes, I'm hoping he Googles his own name a lot and decides he wants to e-mail me. So what?)

So far, it has worked for me. At least on two-thirds of the weekdays in 2011. We'll call it a start.

A review: Black Swan

*Originally published at

When I was wondering if I should go and see "Black Swan" after work last night, I asked my friend Heather, who had seen it earlier in the week, if it would be a beneficial life decision.

She told me that yes, it would be, as long as I wasn't offended by, um, certain sexual things. I'm no prude, especially when Natalie Portman AND Mila Kunis are involved, so I went to see it. And I'm glad I did. Not for that reason, either. I'm no prude, but I'm no pervert, either.

ANYWAY. Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "Requiem for a Dream") has earned the hype his films have finally begun to receive, that's for sure. He's one of those directors who never sells out, and works rarely, only whenever he finds something he can really get into. In this way, he's like Daniel Day Lewis (and if they ever did a film together, I'd have to try really hard not to start screaming in the front row like I was a 10-year-old girl at a Miley Cyrus concert). He ends up with big names in his projects, though, because he's become a go-to director for actors who want to be taken seriously and want to win awards. In this way, he's kind of like Joel and Ethan Coen. It's this formula that allows him to make indie-esque movies that deliver complex and serious messages that many people will actually want to go see. His movies become acclaimed by both critics and audiences alike. In this way, he's like James Cameron, if you take away the gimmicks and weak storylines (I didn't dig "Avatar).

I expected "Black Swan" to be dark, since that's just the way Aronofsky tends to get down. It was. I've told a few people that "Requiem for a Dream" is one of the more messed up movies I've seen, and I'd make the argument that "Black Swan" may have even been darker for this reason: In "Requiem," everything takes a turn for the insane because the main characters are all addicted to heroin. In "Black Swan," everything takes a turn for the insane because Nina Sayers (Portman) literally goes insane. Drugs play a small role in a couple consecutive scenes in "Black Swan," but Sayers isn't addicted to them and it'd be difficult to make the argument that they were at the root of her problems. Her problems go on in her head, which makes it all the more frightening.

"Black Swan" takes you into the world of professional ballet dancing, a world most really don't get exposed to. It does for ballet what "24/7: Penguins--Capitals" does for professional hockey, except "Black Swan" deals with pretty and unstable women, while "24/7" deals with goofy, toothless dudes who are much better dressed than one would anticipate (it's a bit more light-hearted). You find out immediately that this world is very demanding, the dancers are very dedicated and everyone involved takes it very seriously, and unapologetically so. This dancing is not the kind of dancing you do for fun on Saturday nights at The Shandygaff.

Portman's performance is very convincing. She's trying to find a way to tap into her reserves of both good and evil in the time leading up to the opening night of her dance company's rendition of Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake." The pressure from her annoyingly arrogant company leader, Thomas Leroy (a part Vincent Cassel straight kills) seems to be the initial catalyst for the absurdity that ensues. Throw in her strangely close relationship with her Mom (Barbara Hershey) -- they share a tiny apartment in New York City, even though Sayers is somewhere in her 20s -- and her friendship-turned-rivalry with fellow dancer Lily (Kunis), and you've got three strong contributors to the amplification of her pre-existing psychological issues.

Once all of those come together, it gets pretty wild.

The most impressive trait of "Black Swan" is its ability to make a person who may be (at least mostly) sane feel a little bit what it might be like to go insane. The acting, camera work, special effects and writing all contributed strongly to that in some way. There is real life, and there are hallucinations, and after a while it's kind of difficult to discern one from the other. There are scenes in the movie that are genuinely frightening, and not in the way Freddy Kruger or Lord Voldemort are frightening. You walk out of the theater with the eerie feeling that this could have almost been real. It is possible for anybody to go insane, and it must be a horrible thing to have happen to you. If I were a professional ballerina, I think I'd be very legitimately freaked out by what Aronofsky decided to make.

I wouldn't recommend this movie to everyone. It's very serious, and some parts are pretty graphic. It's about dancing, but it's complicated; it is not "Dirty Dancing" or "Footloose." It's the usual Aronofsky jawn, and it's good to know his style going in. If not, you might end up like one of my friends, who said it was a bit too much for her to handle. She "really wanted to like it," though.

I guess that makes it this year's "Juno." An indie movie with famous people that everyone WANTS to like, because it's cool to. That doesn't mean everyone will, but I did.

Let 'Em Play

*Originally published at

I remember playing in a basketball championship game when I was 12 years old. We lost.

(I understand you probably don't want to hear about my adolescent athletic experiences any more than I want to write about them -- especially since it's not even a triumphant one. But trust me when I tell you there is a point I've become surprisingly passionate about and, being the narcissist that I am, I figured a personal anecdote would be my best way to get it across.)

The game was close, and it had to be settled in overtime. In my school district's youth leagues, there was a rule that every player on each team had to play at least one entire quarter, and this didn't change for the playoffs. My coach abided by this rule, and that's one of the many reasons I respect him. To this day, he is still one of my most influential role models, despite the fact that he would put the fear of God in me every time I shot a scoop shot instead of a lay-up by loudly informing me that I was not Allen Iverson. The opposing coach was one of those Dads who was re-living his childhood vicariously through his son's little league success, and found a way to cheat the system. I wouldn't be surprised if this guy was sitting in his home right now polishing his son's trophy, actually.

I'm ashamed to admit that after the game I thought about how we probably would have won if everybody hadn't had to play. This was because back then, for a few days, whether or not I won or lost this championship was of the utmost importance to me. I am deeply ashamed of myself for thinking this way, even at that age.

Now? I could absolutely care less. Winning a basketball title in the sixth grade would have had no long-lasting effect on my life, just like losing didn't. (Actually, I got some sympathy hugs from some of the chicks in my grade who had come to cheer us on. Losing's not always that bad.)

I hadn't thought about this game for years, until I woke up a couple Mondays ago (Oct. 25) to see William Kibler's article about suspending must-play rules for the little league playoffs in the area. There had been a parental complaint from a woman whose son was disappointed when he didn't get to play his mandatory six minutes in basketball playoff games last spring. The Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission upheld the policy, which has been in place since 1988. One of the reasons they gave seemed legitimate to me: teams with more players were at a disadvantage. I guess that makes sense, but I would think the leagues would be able to find some way to work it out so the teams had a pretty consistent number of players. Apparently, when the must-play rule was in place in the area, coaches would allegedly "offset that disadvantage by discouraging lesser players from showing up," the commission staff said.

When I read that sentence, I actually got upset. I think I felt my blood pressure escalate a little bit, like it does sometimes when I'm in a hurry to get someplace and a person is going below the speed limit in the passing lane.

What kind of person is such a loser that they care so much about winning a peewee game that they'll tell a little kid not to show up? It sends the message to me that this coach is a terrible person who shouldn't ever be listened to or taken seriously, but what kind of message does that send to the kid? It can plant the thought in his head that he's not good enough, and maybe he's not, but you really can't know that when a kid is 12. What happens when you do this to a kid because he's tiny and uncoordinated, but then he hits a growth spurt and is standing at 6'7" in ninth grade and doesn't want to go out for the team because some idiot destroyed his love for basketball when he was in grade school? Maybe this was why my high school basketball coach who ran the league kept the must-play rules intact throughout playoffs. You never know when the next Dikembe Mutumbo's going to come your way. Or maybe it's because he is a generally good person.

Now that I'm older, I feel like I can step back and put myself in the position of some of the kids I played with. If they hadn't been allowed to play in that game, then it might have had some negative effects on them in the future. If my coach had in some way tried to encourage them to skip the game, it would have probably been much worse, and I don't think that's something you'd forget about easily. I can't imagine going to every practice and game, and trying just as hard, if not harder, than anybody else on the team (some of us were arrogant back then and didn't think we had to give 100 percent during practice, because we were talkin' 'bout practice, man) and being benched throughout the playoffs at such an impressionable age.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a very competitive person, and I hate losing. I always have. But sometimes there are more important things than winning, and little league sporting events fit into that category. Most kids want to win at that age, but the lessons they learn from playing sports are much more valuable than whether or not they're champions, especially in the long run. At that age, it should be about teaching them the fundamentals of the game, and some of the components of sports that spill over into real life, like gamesmanship, hustle and the ability to work well with others. I can't fathom a coach who wouldn't understand this, but they're out there. I've seen them and been involved with them, and I've heard about them on the news. Some dudes are crazy.

For a minute, I thought I was crazy. I decided to call my old coach, Ed Boyd, and ask him what his thoughts were on the matter. I wish I could adequately describe Coach Boyd, who coached me from fourth to sixth grade and who I've remained very close with since (I've said he's like a second father to me on many occasions and meant it), but it's tough to do. The energy and competitive nature he has exuded for as long as I've known him can only really be called intimidating, but that doesn't really do it justice. Believe me when I tell you that the man does not savor losing, or take it lightly. I remember one time during practice I made a remark about how I thought we were going to lose an upcoming game and he almost shot me. But, instead he sat down the entire team and gave us a very inspiring talk about never giving up or counting yourself out, and remaining confident no matter what. (The next practice he brought us each a sheet of paper that said "The decision between winning and losing is often decided before the game." It's still posted on the bulletin board in my childhood bedroom.) We did end up losing that game, but it doesn't really matter, because the lessons I learned from what lead up to that loss taught me some things I still value today.

When I asked his opinion, he said it was definitely a tough question, especially if you ask a coach in the middle of an intense game, but that he thought every kid in that age group deserved the chance to play at least a little bit.

"You know me, Scotty. I love to win," he said. "But you know what the greatest part about coaching you little guys from the time you were 10 to 12 was? It was watching you guys all grow up together and improve on your own, but also as a team."

The way it is, he said, is that on every team you have a few kids who you think will probably move on to play after elementary school, and you have the other kids who probably won't.

"For those two or three years, all the kids should get to enjoy it, when having fun and learning is what it's all about," Coach said. "They should all at least get into the game, so you can all win or lose together as a team."

Then he told me a story about my friend Jaime, one of the kids who never played another game of organized basketball after we lost that championship game. I'd forgotten all about it, but at one very crucial point in the game, Jaime dove after a loose ball and saved our possesion.

"That was probably one of the best plays he made, and just to see how happy and pleased with himself he was for contributing like that was rewarding," he said.

If there hadn't been a must-play rule, he might not have gotten in at all, but I have a feeling Coach Boyd would've gotten him in there one way or another.

I was a lucky kid. I learned a ton from my childhood basketball coach. Stuff I haven't unlearned and still use daily. I won't say that every coach is going to be as good or affecting as Coach Boyd, because he leaves some tough sweatpants to fill. But I think kids should at least learn a little something from their coach that they can use, and that they should look back fondly on their little league experience. They shouldn't have to recollect that time their coach told them to stay home from the game so the team could win, and they shouldn't have to remember hoisting their first championship trophy when all they did was clap on the sidelines.

Let 'em play. It'll do them some good in the long run, and that's what it's all about.

Obscure costume ideas

*Originally published at

It's officially crunch time. Halloween weekend is only a week away. This is the time when people who don't have their costumes figured out yet start freaking the geek out. They go to countless costume stores in the area, and freak out a little bit more when they realize that, by this time, all of the good stuff is sold out. They can't find anything mind-blowing at the stores, and the pressure blocks their creativity, so they can't come up with anything acceptable they can assemble from a trip to Goodwill and Michael's.

Do you know what happens then?

They settle. For something unoriginal and boring. They lose all hope that they'll get admiration from everybody at the party for their totally rad costume, and they decide to dress up as a vampire (one who doesn't even sparkle) or a white trash person with a mullet wig.

An unoriginal costume was fine when you were a little kid, when you weren't expected to come up with anything revolutionary and related to cutting-edge popular culture. But you can't mess around with that stuff anymore once you reach a certain age. Gone are the days where you could just cut two eye holes in a bed sheet and venture into the night as a ghost with the mission of accruing as many Reese's peanut butter cups as you possibly could. (After many years of intense study and data collection, I can confidently say that there really is no wrong way to eat a Reese's.) These days, if you want to impress that girl dressed up as (insert pretty much anything here, and then envision a more scantily clad version, because that's how the typical girl around my age dresses on Halloween), you have to be wearing a costume that's either really good and well thought-out or is in some way mocking/making fun of something.

It's definitely not easy to come up with ideas, especially when you want it to be a unique costume you won't see many others wearing. And as I said before, it gets more and more difficult the closer you get to that first Halloween party. Sometimes, you even have to have more than one costume, because you don't want to wear the same one on consecutive nights. It's stressful.

But don't worry. I'm here to help. I start thinking of potential costumes as soon as I wake up on Nov. 1. Not because I'm overly obsessive or anything, but because I come up with ideas I would have loved to dress up as for Halloween as soon as it's too late to dress up as the idea. It's like when I go to the video store. I always think of about five movies I've been meaning to see as soon as I get home, but I don't ever think about these movies when I'm on my way to the store.

Here are a few ideas I've come up with.

* The homeless lady who's obsessed with pigeons from "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York": This one would be easy, and it puts a spin on the traditional homeless person costume. All you need to do is dress up like you're a homeless in the middle of the winter and find some fake or stuffed birds to super glue to your shawl. Then you can get some bird seed to throw around periodically throughout the night, and you can also yell "Kevin, run!" really loud at random moments. If you want to go for real authenticity, don't shower for at least a few days before Halloween.

This could be a beneficial costume toward the end of the night, especially if you live in a college town. You can post up near a pizza shop, and kids will probably either get you pizza or throw money at you, because in their drunken state they may mistake you for a real homeless person and be more generous than they would if they were sober.

If you want another twist on the homeless motif, just dress up as former CNN employee Rick Sanchez. He no longer has a way to pay his mortgage, so it's just a matter of time.

* The South Bend Shovel Slayer from "Home Alone": Yes, I really like the "Home Alone" films, excluding the third one that was a horrible idea from jump street since Macaulay Culkin wasn't in it. This one is easy, too. All you need is a black trench coat, big black boots and a snow shovel. If you can grow a beard, do that too, and then dye it gray.

I guess you could be Harry or Marv -- the Wet Bandits -- too. I just thought of that, since I'm apparently in "Home Alone" mode today. All of these costumes will get people thinking about the movie, which will in turn get them thinking about Christmas. It's never too early to start thinking about Christmas, that's for sure.

* Justin Bieber: I know this one doesn't seem to creative (I'm sure lots of kids will dress as him this year), but you just have to tweak it a little bit. All you need really is a wig that mimics the kids absurd haircut (unless you're my friend Spencer or Tom Brady, and you already have this haircut). This is the perfect costume for someone who has a little sister who still goes trick or treating with her friends. You can have her assemble an entire mob of tweens, and have them chase you screaming all over the neighborhood. Then if you see someone dressed as Lady Gaga (which you inevitably will, in triplicate at least), you can get in a brawl with them over who is the more annoying pop singer.

If at some point you run into an older person who doesn't know who Justin Bieber is, you can just tell them you're Micky Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees. Any costume that comes with the potential to sing "Daydream Believer" at some point is excellent in my book.

* Sarah Palin, except not really Sarah Palin: I saw at least 15 people (not including Tina Fey) dressed like Sarah Palin last Halloween, so that's obviously a little played out. But somehow she has -- sadly -- remained relavant. This is unfortunate, but she also becomes easier and easier to mock on a nearly daily basis, if you can get past the disgruntlement that encompasses you every time you hear or read something ridiculous she has said. She's kind of like Kanye West (except West's music is awesome, and I would opine that Palin doesn't really have any redeeming qualities).

So, since she's just as popular as she was at this time last year, maybe you still want to dress as her, but you need something to make the costume seem unique. So why not dress as Sarah Palin, and drag a parachute around behind you all night?

Suddenly, you're no longer Sarah Palin. You're Parah Sailin'.

Awesome costume idea? You betcha!

* A fast food mascot: This one would be more fun if you got a group of people to dress up with you as different mascots, then just engage in rivalry-fueled activities all night. There are many options: Colonel Sanders, Ronald McDonald, Jack from Jack in the Box, Wendy, Big Boy, the Domino's Noid, Chuck E. Cheese, Little Caesar, Jared Fogle (Subway's weight-loss phenom) and the Burger King, to name a few. (The King is actually genuinely creepy. My friend Evan is legitimately horrified of him.) It'd be very amusing to me to go into a party and see a bunch of fast food mascots arguing over whether the KFC Double Down is better than the Wendy's Baconator (toss-up) and yelling obscenities about how the McDonald's "Secret Sauce" is really just Thousand Island dressing. Hopefully at some point this becomes a physical altercation, because that'd be really funny to watch as well. I'm envisioning the King throwing Big Boy through the wall after Big Boy claimed that Burger King doesn't really flame broil its burgers.

* Four Loko: You and three of your friends dress up as insane people. If you can, get a straight jacket, and if not just dress like you think a crazy person would look. (If you want, I can show you some of my ex-girlfriends. They'd provide a good starting point.) When people ask what you're supposed to be, tell them Four Loko. College-age kids will absolutely love this, because Four Lokos are fruit flavored energy drinks that include a pretty hefty amount of alcohol. I guess they're so potent that they're on the verge of being banned, so naturally people are completely wild about them.

I'm telling you, it'd be a hit.

* Coach Eric Taylor from the "Friday Night Lights" TV series: I just decided today that this is who I'm going to dress up as this year. Coach Taylor is one of my favorite characters on television's most underrated show. This is going to be easy and cheap, so that's a plus. I only had to buy a Dillon Panthers -- the team he coached in the show's first two seasons -- windbreaker and hat that I found online a while ago. I also need to get my hands on a whistle. After that, the rest of the costume is on me. I plan on speaking in a southern drawl the entire night, and walking around blowing my whistle, screaming "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" and saying a bunch of other motivational stuff. I actually plan on giving a very inspirational pregame speech to my friends before we head out for the evening.

Movie Review: Social Network

*originally published on

"The Social Network" is a story about the creation of Facebook, which made me skeptical at first, because you'd think it'd be difficult to make a movie about the creation of a social networking site interesting to someone who doesn't know anything at all about HTML code. But when David Fincher ("Fight Club," "Seven") directs anything, I feel like I owe him nine bucks no matter what the film is about, so I took myself on a movie date to see it.

The "The Social Network" was easily better than any of this summer's releases that I saw, or anything I've seen since. It should be noted that I still haven't seen "Inception," which I guess could immediately discredit me as somebody who should be allowed to review movies in the first place. I promise I've seen many, many movies, though, and the only reason I wasn't able to see "Inception" this summer was because I was too busy sitting in front of my computer logged onto Facebook. The film begins with Zuckerberg getting dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, due largely (okay, completely) to his inconsiderate, inappropriate personality and obsession with social status -- two traits that become the themes that the film essentially revolves around. Zuckerberg does what most male college sophomores would do: He returns to his dorm room and starts alleviating his mini fridge from its burden of beer storage. Then he does what probably not many other college sophomores could do: He creates a website where Harvard students can rate the looks of one female student compared to another. It got so much traffic when it went live that it crashed the university's computer network. This was the beginning of a website and idea that would ultimately transform into Facebook.

Seriously. Zuckerberg created a website from scratch, while he was drunk and simultaneously blogging about his hatred of women and details of his creation of the site. He did this all initially because he was mad at a girl. That is so unbelievably amazing to me. If I'm upset over a girl, I just sit in a dark room and listen to Bright Eyes records for a few hours.

From there, the story progresses through the next few years of Zuckerberg's life. It showcases the rise and fall of his friendship and partnership with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and the turmoil he faced from Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, privileged twin brothers who felt Zuckerberg stole their idea when he made Facebook. (The extremely unlikeable twins were both played by one actor named Armie Hammer, who looks uncannily like Brendan Fraser, an actor I cannot stand for some reason, which just added to my disdain for them. Special effects are cool, except when they're making two Brendan Fraser doppelgangers out of one.) It also deals with his encounters and eventual partnership with human trainwreck Shaun Parker (Justin Timberlake), who is most well-known for creating Napster.

The story is split up brilliantly by reenactments of two lawsuit depositions that were going on simultaneously. Zuckerberg was sued by both the Winklevoss brothers and Saverin. Saverin files suit against Zuckerberg after he is basically forced out of his share of the company.

"The Social Network" really didn't miss in any way I can think of, but I'm obviously not on the same level of criticism as Roger Ebert. All I know is I really liked it. The story was great. The casting was also absolutely excellent., and that helped the film in two huge ways. The first was that every main character seemed to be a more-than-adequate actor, so the dialogue was very realistic (take it from a kid who knows socially inept people like Zuckerberg as well as self-entitled rich boys like the Winklevoss twins). Writer Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "Charlie Wilson's War") also deserves props for capturing the character's voices, especially since he's an older dude who probably doesn't talk to a bunch of college kids all too often. The second was that they casted people who were really, really good at pulling off being unlikeable. I already mentioned Hammer's portrayal of the Winklevosses. Eisenberg did a great job with Zuckerberg's smart sarcastic remarks toward authority figures (they were hilarious), and an even better job of making him seem unlikeable. (I kind of think Eisenberg is unlikeable in every other movie I've ever seen him in, though, so maybe that's just the way he is.) Justin Timberlake even made himself unlikeable, and he's the most likeable guy in the world. JT is so awesome he even made Jimmy Fallon look funny for three minutes on Fallon's late night show a couple weeks ago. If you don't believe me, I've posted the link to the side of this blog.

The only main character who was likable at all was Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and he ends up being screwed over the worst. That's what adds true emotion to the story, the one thing it would've been missing if it had focused on the feud between Zuckerberg and the twins, who all seemed pretty devoid of true emotion. I hate to say it, but Green Day was right with that "Nice Guys Finish Last" song they released.

What I liked most about "The Social Network," though, was how it made me really think after I saw the movie. It made me consider the social implications of Facebook, and it made me think about Zuckerberg's motivation for constructing it in the first place. He did it for a girl, the same reason so many boys and men do so many things. His hang-up on one specific girl and his desire to prove her wrong while elevating his social status (pretty much so he could get more girls) led to a social media website that has changed cultural interaction, most likely forever. If you think about it, Zuckerberg's feelings for a girl have indirectly resulted in the initial commencement of (probably) millions of relationships since Facebook became popular. I'm sure there are countless people out there who are together and in love who wouldn't have ever even met if they didn't have a Facebook. There are probably millions more who had their hearts broken because they met someone they never would've crossed paths with if not for Facebook.

It's pretty rare that you can find a film that makes you think about such sociological and cultural issues while also being so extremely entertaining. All I wanted to do when I got home was watch the new episode of "Boardwalk Empire," but I kept thinking about Facebook. Weird.

The only problem I had with the film is that my most important question wasn't answered or even undressed:

Who came up with the idea to invent the poke?

Real men wear pink

*Originally published at

Earlier this year, during my final college semester at Penn State, I approached a complete stranger at a bar and struck up a conversation with her because I thought she was attractive.

This is something I literally never do. I'm more adept at just leering from across the room and imagining what it'd be like to talk to the girl in question. I do that for a while, then I leave whatever establishment I'm at and trek home with my friends to watch YouTube videos until the sun comes up. (Once you watch one, you just can't stop you know? It's like eating Pringles.)

I don't know exactly why I talked to this girl on that particular night or where I acquired the brief bout of courage required to do so (it certainly had nothing to do with Miller High Life), but somehow I did.

If you were to ask me a couple weeks ago, I'd probably say approaching this girl was one of the bravest things I did toward the end of my college career, even though it wasn't a brave thing to do. At all. Anybody with a bit of self-confidence can approach a girl and start talking to her, and people do it every day. I assume this was how people generally met before the Internet was invented. My Dad didn't pick up my Mom 30 years ago by poking her on Facebook. He did it the old-fashioned way: He spit some golden game at her while she was ringing up his groceries at my Grandpap's store. She was unable to resist his mustache and charm (in that order), and I don't blame her.

Over the weekend, I was talking to the aforementioned girl -- yep, she somehow still talks to me -- and she told me her friends know me not by my name, but by my attire from that fateful night.

They call me "Pink Shirt."

That's fine with me; I have no problem being associated with wearing pink. But I do know they wouldn't have called me "White Shirt" or any other color (except maybe purple) followed by shirt had I been wearing something else. They probably would have referred to me instead as "Cultural Icon" or "Brad Pitt's Doppelganger." This stood out to them because somewhere in the annals of history a person or group of people made the decision that pink was a womanly color, and one that is emasculating when rocked by men. I'm not sure how it caught on, especially because men don't have a color to call their own, but it did. (If men can lay claim to any color, it's blue, predominately because that's the color most often attributed to newborn boys, while pink is attributed to girls. But a girl isn't looked upon as less girly because she's wearing a blue skirt. Men in general will usually just have a hard time digesting any information other than the fact that she is indeed wearing a skirt. We become colorblind in situations like that.)

I found out my new nickname was "Pink Shirt" on Saturday evening, and didn't really think about it again until I was watching football on Sunday afternoon (BEIN' MANLY). As I'm sure you know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, something I was reminded of by all the players wearing pink-colored everything. Some were even wearing pink skull caps. If you know where I can find one of those, please let me know.

That's when I started to feel like a complete idiot. I actually viewed hitting on a girl at a bar as something brave, when countless women all over the world are battling breast cancer.

I haven't had to do anything that even approaches that level of bravery in my entire life.

I'm sure anyone who reads this knows a family member, friend or colleague who has or has had breast cancer. I have a friend who has been battling it since she was in high school. An estimated 207,090 women were diagnosed with breast cancer thus far in 2010, and 39,840 women died, according to the National Cancer Institute. 1,970 males were diagnosed, and 390 died. (I bet some of you didn't know men could get it, right? It surprised and worried me when I first found out, because I honestly think my moobs might fit a small A-cup. Maybe I'll look into getting a sports bra for when I go running.)

That's a really frightening and intimidating statistic, and after looking at those numbers it's difficult to not feel helpless. There are things guys can do, though. Obviously, you can't just come up with a cure, but you can help. Not by offering to provide free monthly examinations (try walking up to a girl in the bar and doing that), but by wearing pink.

Now, I know this is a minuscule thing to do individually, but if you can get a few guys you know to purchase something pink from one of the many breast cancer foundations out there, some serious scratch can be raised for those who have it and those who are trying to find a cure. (There are some links off to the side of this under the search bar, and if you just Google breast cancer you can find many, more, along with instructions for those examinations you may be considering.)

Who knows? Maybe it'll become so viral that by the time a cure is found and breast cancer disappears, the notion that pink is an unmanly color will vanish with it. That'd be killing two birds with one stone. (With breast cancer being a 747 and men getting chided for wearing pink being a hummingbird, since they're obviously not even in the same ballpark of importance, but still.)

Earlier this week, women all over the world teamed up on Facebook in an effort to spread awareness. The idea was to put up a status stating where you like to put your purse. There were statuses that said things like "I like it on my desk," "I like it in the backseat of my car" and "I like it on the kitchen table." Obvious innuendos, and that was the point. I saw at least 30 of these throughout the day, and decided to figure out what was going on. Using my sharp investigative journalism skills (Bob Woodward's got nothing on me and my ability to use search engines), I found out that the whole thing was to spread breast cancer awareness to guys. They knew that one of the only ways to get the attention of dudes on Facebook is through artful and wiley use of innuendo, and it worked.

We can show them we are indeed aware, and that we care, by buying some pink gear and rocking it as soon as possible.

If you're a guy, be honest with yourself. A day has probably not gone by since you turned 13 when you haven't thought about breasts. That's just the way it is.

If they're something you think about positively on a daily basis, don't you think it's worth doing a little something to help keep them healthy?

Come on, guys. Let's help save the boobies.

Pumpkin spice

*Originally published at

I've got friends who live all over the place. Most of them began their lives in Pennsylvania, just like I did, but things like jobs, college and simple wanderlust have caused them to relocate.

They're usually very quick to tell me all the amazing things about their new home bases. It's always hot and sunny in Arizona, and there's like, totally no humidity. Same thing with California, except it's a little bit cooler and there's an ocean right there where you can eat your In-N-Out Burger combo. It hardly ever rains in either place. In New York City, there's always so much to do, and you can walk to an Irish bar where real live Irish men bartend. In our nation's capital, they have a Chinatown that's so trendy it houses an Urban Outfitters, and the president lives there. (I meant in the city, not at Urban Outfitters, though he is the trendiest president of my lifetime, so I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he's picked up a skinny tie or two from that establishment.) In Delaware, you can walk into an Urban Outfitters and purchase the clothing for the exact price on the tag, because there's no sales tax. (I just wrote "Urban Outfitters" three times in less than 100 words, and I'm currently wearing a pair of Vans. Look at this hipster.) In Dallas, there are more than ample opportunities to quietly rip on Toby Keith fanatics. In Minnesota, there are a bunch of lakes, and you can say you live in the state where Gordon Bombay and every original member of the Mighty Ducks youth hockey team got their start. In Charlotte, there are so many good looking girls that if you have a girlfriend from Pennsylvania, you have to fatten yourself up to become unattractive to these women, so your fidelity will not be tested. (My friend who lives in Charlotte told me this is actually what he tells his girlfriend, and I'm pretty certain he wasn't joking.) In Florida, there is Walt Disney World. Also palm trees.

All of these things are splendid in one way or another, and I don't think at this point in my life I would completely object to living in any of those places. I do love Pennsylvania, though, for a number of reasons, and one of the biggest just started today: fall.

You know how people say New York is the city so nice they named it twice? Well fall is the season so nice they named it twice (the other being autumn, of course), and Pennsylvania -- especially the central portion -- is one of the greatest locations in the nation to experience fall. At the risk of seeming even goofier than usual, I'll admit that I can smell fall coming. I'll walk out of my apartment in the morning, and for some reason the scent and the crispness of the air puts me in a slightly giddy mood (giddy being something I'd never be described as except on the release date of a new Brand New album). I don't know particularly why this is, but it could be anything. It makes me want to do something not unlike this.

Maybe it's knowing that I won't have to get completely soaked in perspiration on my way to work for the next few months. Maybe it's because I totally enjoy jumping into a big pile of leaves right after I carve a pumpkin and chug half a gallon of apple cider. It's really nice to be outside during fall, because everything is so aesthetically pleasing. (I initially wrote "pretty" but changed it, because I'm going to reserve that word for use only toward women. I don't want to call a girl pretty someday and have her be one of the two people who actually read this and be like, "Oh, so I look like a leaf?!" You can't be too careful, you know?) Just the other day I went for a run on the Rails to Trails Lower Trail, and was very into the scenery. The leaves were changing colors and already starting to fall on the trail. To be honest, my exercise was less a run, more a frolick. The absence of oppressive humidity and stifling heat combined with the presence of something fun to look at makes it a lot easier for me to get myself out of bed and go running in the first place. Fall helps my vain attempts at making myself something fun to look at. I dream of the day in the near future when, after jumping into a pile of leaves leaves, I also begin beasting push-ups, right in the middle of the pile. (I've used "beasting" as a verb in my last two blogs. I really hope this catches on.)

It could be because I enjoy drinking a nice pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks to while watching college and/or professional football. (I normally only drink black coffee, but they're simply delightful.) Fall is a great time of the year for sports. Football gets into full swing, baseball playoffs take place and hockey and basketball start. Combine that with all of the network television series firing back up, and your DVR/TIVO might actually explode, along with your brain. Tonight I'm recording what will most likely be Miami's college football beat down on Pitt, season premieres of Community and the Office along with episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and -- I'm ashamed to say -- The Jersey Shore. (I live alone and watch a lot of TV, so what?)

Another big part of it might be the holidays. Don't sleep on fall holidays. The two big ones, Halloween and Thanksgiving, are centered on food consumption. How do you hate on that? I still don't really get Halloween, but I love it anyway. (Other things I don't get but still love: David Bowie, anything movie director David Lynch has ever created and pogs.) Everybody has the option of dressing up as something completely ridiculous specifically to get attention from others. It's like being Lady Gaga for a day, essentially, except she pretends she's a fashion icon while most normal people will just admit they've always wanted to dress up like the Girls Gone Wild film crew. After dressing up, you get to eat a ton of free candy that was given to you by people who are oftentimes complete strangers (ever notice how this isn't acceptable any other day of the year?). On Thanksgiving, all you do is eat. That's it. You might reflect on how great it was that the Pilgrims and Indians got along, then you might watch the Charlie Brown reenactment, but then all you do is eat and gey psyched because it's now the time of year when all the soft rock stations play only Christmas music. So it's like you're No. 1 ranked competitive eater Joey Chestnut for a day, and your brother is No. 2 ranked Bob Shoudt. And you're vying for the green bean casserole consumption crown. (My favorite addition to the casserole? Bacon bits. Try it out.) That's seven different kinds of awesome.

One more thing I love about fall is that it's the beginning of cardigan season. I love wearing cardigans, for reasons unknown to even myself. I often make strange sartorial decisions, and my constant donning of cardigans is one of the strangest, outdone only by the period when I was in middle school and wore shirts three sizes too large for me. Well, it used to be, until Daniel Tosh started wearing them all the time and it became socially acceptable. The thing about cardigans is that people really seem to notice them, and can't help but to comment on them, even though I've only heard two variations of cardigan comments (500 times each): "Hey, Mr. Rogers!" and "It's a cardigan, but thanks for noticing!"

Anyway, they're comfortable, stylish and versatile. I highly recommend them. They just feel like fall. (I should write advertising copy for Eddie Bauer.)

I'm not going to say I'll never move away from Pennsylvania. But I am saying that for now I don't need year-round warm weather, rainless months (I love rain, actually), incredible fast food chains, Irish bartenders (it's not so much who the Guiness comes from), Urban Outfitters (though Pennsylvania does have them), affiliation with the Mighty Ducks, a bunch of lakes, Disney World (though that would be nice) or palm trees. For now I'll settle with being landlocked, having brutal winters, paying sales taxes, driving a maximum of 65 miles per hour (legally) and making two trips during my Sunday shopping (one for groceries, the other for wine), just as long as I can keep experiencing fall in all its splendor.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy it. Before you know it, winter will be here, and a simple cardigan just won't cut it.

But I don't dance...

*Originally published at

"Baby, I don't dance, it's not that I can't, there's a pistol in my pants."

This is something I used to jokingly say to friends and significant others in high school when I was presented with an opportunity to dance. It's an Eminem lyric, and every time I used it the "I don't dance, it's not that I can't" part was true, but there was never a pistol in my pants, because I'm a pacifist. (I've actually only shot a gun once in my life, and that was earlier this year in a controlled environment. I never really needed to, because I learned how to grocery shop at a young age and don't like to wake up early, so I never got into hunting.) Usually, people would be so shocked that I had the gall to use an Eminem lyric in casual conversation that the entire dancing question was completely forgotten. So, it worked.

I have no issue with dancing, it's just that I'm terrible at it, and since I reached an age where it may have been beneficial for me to learn, I've pushed it aside. I've always thought I had more important things to figure out. In high school I focused on learning how to make three-pointers, sleep in class with my eyes open and manipulate my mother into making my lunch every day. In college I focused on learning how to write stories, read novels during class and scout for girls on Facebook.

With so much important stuff going on, it was just never a priority for me.

That may have just been an excuse, though. I think I avoided taking dance lessons because on the few occasions that I'd tried it, I'd felt terribly awkward. And I'm not typically prone to awkwardness. There was just something about dancing, though, that really brought it out in me. I even felt weird when I'd watch Patrick Swayze writhing around in Dirty Dancing - but to be fair I usually feel that way numerous times when I see any of his movies.

I tried to fight this feeling (like REO Speedwagon front man Kevin Cronin), but it didn't go away. When my Mom tried to convince me to take ballroom dance lessons a couple months before prom, I declined. She was pretty persistent, and I eventually had to compromise with her. I said I'd learn before I got married. I thought I was playing a pretty good joke on her, because there's always been a pretty good chance that I wouldn't get married. (In fact, a girl I used to date told me recently that I can't commit to a pair of socks in the morning. I was amazed that she would use such an analogy, because I very rarely wear socks anymore. I'm sockless right now, actually.) I gave it a shot last fall by taking ballroom dance class for kinesiology credits at Penn State, probably so I could talk about how much money it cost to learn how to dance in an overheated gymnasium, which was probably somewhere in the area of John Travolta's initial salary for starring in Grease. But I dropped it after two weeks because of the embarrassment I felt at having the sweatiest hands in the world and an inability to remember any of the salsa moves we were learning.

I'd pretty much forgotten all about whether I could dance or not until I was writing an article last week that had to do with Altoona High's prom. I thought back to my prom, much like I thought back to my first day of college when I wrote about Penn State Altoona's first day a few weeks ago. I found that I remembered much more about my first day of college than the day of prom --despite them being only months apart -- and that I wouldn't even put my prom in my top 10 high school memories. I wondered why this was, and thought it was mostly my lack of dancing ability. (It certainly wasn't because somebody spiked the punch, because that didn't happen. I went to prom in 2006, not 1956, and the chaperones had long ago figured out ways to prevent that from happening.)

It turns out I was wrong.

According to pretty much every female I spoke with on the matter when I was trying to write this - including my mother, who revealed to me that my own Dad hasn't ever been one to cut a rug - it wasn't so much that they were looking for some guy to come out on a dance floor in a tuxedo and sweep them off their feet. They were looking for a guy who didn't care what he looked like, that had confidence and would come out and move around and not care what people thought about him.

Of course a few of them also said it was a turn-on if a guy knew how to lead a girl through a traditional ballroom-style dance, especially on their wedding day, which I can concede is very understandable.

I'm not sure how I didn't know this in the first place, because it seems pretty obvious. Especially when I think of the only other prom experience I've ever had. It was two years after I graduated, when I attended my little brother's prom as a chauffeur/chaperone (long story). He had taken a couple dance lessons, and had taught himself some moves using Michael Jackson videos posted on YouTube in preparation for his big day.

Ryan, who is usually a pretty socially inverted dude, was out on the floor beasting it the entire night, without any visible signs of feeling awkward. The kid couldn't do the foxtrot if you offered him a check, but he was only one step away from yelping out "hee-hee" and waving around a white-gloved hand. And he was the man of the evening. Everybody loved that this quiet kid was out on the floor essentially auditioning for Step Up 2: The Streets. It was inspiring.

On the way home, he told me that prom had been "one of the greatest nights of his life." I don't think I'd seen him as excited before or since unless the Pittsburgh Penguins were involved.

So I guess what I've learned is you can't sweat the technique, that you just have to quit worrying about it and throw yourself out there. I guess the only reason I ever felt such awkwardness was because I'm conceited and think people would actually care what I looked like when I was dancing, and that's generally not the case at all.

I plan to quit worrying and give dancing a shot the next opportunity I have. As luck would have it, I'm going to a wedding reception this weekend where I can put my new non-awkward resolve to the test. We'll see how that goes.

And for now, I'm not going to worry about learning to dance the right way. I'll just stick with my original plan: I'll learn to dance before I get married.

I figure once I get to a point where I have the relationship part right, it'll make more sense to actually get the dancing right.

The new slang conveying emotion through text messagine

*Originally published at

***Writer's Note: If you're somebody who doesn't text often or ever, I commend you. I wish I didn't text, at least not as often as I do. It's a terrible habit (addiction?) to have, and if your life hasn't been ravaged by it, I suggest you stop reading this right now, because it's going to be like me reading a manual on how to operate an eight-track player: completely useless and extremely boring. ***

I send a lot of text messages. It's definitely not the best way to communicate, but it can be convenient. You can text in pretty much any setting, no matter what you're doing - even dinner if you're not dining with your parents, who will at best glare at you for texting at the table, and at worst slap your Blackberry from your hands and right into a bowl of clam chowder.

If it's for reasons unrelated to work, I text message much more frequently than I carry on phone conversations, and by a stunning margin. I've frequently had text message conversations with a person for the entire day and well into the night, without even speaking one word to them verbally. In fact, I might actually have some friends out there who I've texted countless times, but have never spoken on the phone with for more than five minutes, if at all. I'm not proud of this (well, actually I kind of am, because that seems like it'd be a challenging feat to pull off), and nor do I think it's particularly healthy. But I continue to do it anyway.

Now, I think we can all pretty much agree that text messaging is not the best forum for a serious conversation. You're obviously going to pick face-to-face, and then a phone call as your second option. These are obvious choices for two primary reasons: It's easier to talk than to type, and it is much easier to convey actual human emotion if you're looking at a person, hearing them or both than by analyzing 160 character messages for excitement, elation or pure unadulterated rage.

But sometimes you have to have a serious text message conversation. It can be unavoidable. Because sometimes the Steelers are on TV, and you're not going to mute the voices of the amazing duo of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman just so a person can talk to you about how they just got laid off or how they think it's time to start seeing other people. (And if you think that was a bad example, you're clearly underestimating the unintentionally comedic conversations Buck and Aikman have each game.)

So, I've consulted some friends (through a group text message, naturally) and combined their suggestions with my own ideas on how to convey emotion through text messaging the best you can.

Here are some observations and tips:

>I've found that things are rarely as they seem with the use of "LOL" and "Haha," because texting has evolved through the years so that these two phrases (I don't know what exactly to call them so we'll stick with phrases) are completely overused. This has changed the meaning of them from a symbol of laughing to a symbol of normality. So, if you're texting with someone and don't include one or both of these in at least one of every five or so messages, the person automatically assumes you're upset about something. If you send an abundance of text messages, go back through your inbox and outbox and count how many times you used "LOL" or "Haha" in response to something. Now count honestly how many times you used either one and were actually laughing out loud.

Chances are, you weren't laughing in every instance unless you still use "LOL" and "Haha" for their originally intended purposes. Or somebody who laughs very easily and was texting back and forth with Carrot Top's apprentice.

Those two phrases are used now not to show people you're laughing, but that you're staying at least mildly light-hearted. I'm in a habit of using Haha constantly, much to my chagrin and deep personal shame. But if I go without it, and use short sentences with correct punctuation (like the way we write for the newspaper), people think I'm upset or something, even when I'm not.

>If you're legitimately laughing at something, you can't fail with an overwhelming "Hahahahaha." Or you can say, "I literally just LOL'd at that one." (I can't believe I'm writing about this stuff right now.)

>Obviously, using all capital letters is an effective way of showing somebody you're trying to yell at them in digital text.

>Exclamation points are the same way, but they are also used to show excitement. F. Scott Fitzgerald said you should never use exclamation points, because it's "like laughing at your own joke," so I've always tried my hardest not to use them. But Fitzgerald never had to send text messages to his wife, Zelda, who was eventually deemed clinically insane. If he had, I'm sure he would've used an exclamation point or two. I know I feel like I need to use them every once in a while. Especially when I'm conversing with crazy girls.

>If you receive a message that follows capitalized words with multiple exclamation points, then you can be fairly sure that things just got real. That's straight text message anger and/or passion right there, and if you were looking to get a reaction with whatever it was you said or did, you just got it.

>Don't be afraid to utilize ellipsis. You know, the three consecutive periods, like this: … According to Wikipedia (this is a blog about conveying emotion through texting, don't worry about my works cited page), an ellipsis can be used to "indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence. When placed at the end of a sentence, the ellipsis can also inspire a feeling of melancholy longing."

Melancholy longing? That's a pretty significant emotion to be able to convey in a text message, and you can use it to instill fear and doubt in anybody you're talking to. End a message with …, and the person is always left wondering.

>It's probably not a bad idea to have a personal sign off to end conversations. Kind of like how Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow would end their broadcasts with "And that's the way it is," and "Good night, and good luck," respectively. That way, people will always know when the conversation has concluded.
Think of it as the texting version of hanging up. Sure, you could just say goodbye, but you may as well establish your individualism in some way through texting.

My Mom gave me this idea, actually. She recently began texting, and is pretty slow at it. So when she has nothing else to say, instead of typing out "have a good night" or "talk to you tomorrow," she ends our text message conversations with "XO" or "XOXO." I guess the X means a hug, and O means a kiss (I never understood this symbolism, but I digress).

You can personalize your own. I'm still working on mine, but think she might really be onto something.

>Use emoticons. I never thought I'd say this and I still hate using them, but sometimes they can be crucial. It's tough not to feel a little ridiculous when you're texting a smiley face or a wink, but it's kind of unavoidable. I can understand how a lot of guys feel weird using them in messages to girls, but look at it this way: If you're attempting to establish a romantic relationship with a girl, aren't you already saying absurd things in your text messages that your friends would make fun of you incessantly for anyway? May as well go all out.

...I think I should take a break from texting.

School's out forever

*Originally published on

When I woke up this morning and realized it was Penn State's first day of fall semester classes, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for my recently concluded days as a college boy.

The same thing happened last Thursday, when I was covering Penn State Altoona's move-in day. When I saw all those freshmen scrambling all over campus, exuding a palpable excitement at the prospect of starting a brand new phase of their lives, I had a couple flashbacks -- not unlike a character in Lost -- to my first days at Penn State Behrend, in Erie. It's tough to believe that was only four years ago. Now I'm an old man. A couple weekends ago my brother pointed out some gray spots in my facial stubble (and that was harsh news, considering I'm going gray before I can even grow a respectable beard).

In both instances, I felt something I guess I have to describe as envy, but only fleetingly. This is because I'm going to miss college, but I don't really have any qualms with being done with it and getting on with the rest of my life, which I know is a sentiment many of the friends I graduated with in May don't share. All I had to do was sign on to Facebook this morning and see everyone with a "real world" job expressing their desire to be back at University Park for what we like to call a "super senior year."

Don't get me wrong, I loved college as much as movie character Van Wilder and inadequate rapper Asher Roth -- the guy responsible for a terrible song called "I Love College" that somehow reached popularity a couple years ago. If you ask me to name the 10 greatest times of my life, I'd say half of them have taken place in the past four years. The kind of lifestyle I lived in college is one I will probably never be able to replicate, and my body is likely thankful for that. (It turns out a steady diet of Domino's pasta bread bowls, Kung Pao chicken and Natural Light combined with an almost complete absence of exercise is not good for mortal longevity.) I'll never be able to spend as much time with my friends as I did through the past four years, either. I miss them already, since we've spread out all over the country, and that was the worst part for me about college coming to an end. I don't cry myself to sleep (that often) or anything, but it's still saddening sometimes.

That doesn't mean I wanted to remain a college student my entire life, though, which I guess is why I stayed the course and got out of there in the requisite four year time frame. Toward the end of my college career, I was actually getting frustrated with the classes I had to complete to earn my degree (and believe me, I'm not trying to indirectly say that I'm smart, because that's certainly not the case). I felt like I was just spinning my wheels when I could be out in the world doing something, like writing about education in Blair County, for example. When I took my last final in the beginning of May, I was genuinely happy I was done with school and could soon begin my job. (When I finished this test I took it to the front of the room, gave it to the teacher's assistant, drop-kicked my pen in the direction of the garbage can and pretty much sprinted out the classroom door. I take the old "no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks" nursery rhyme very seriously, and I knew I had to be emphatic about it the last time I got to celebrate the sentiment.)

When I look at it from a monetary standpoint, I'm thrilled to be done with college. That's something kids don't seem to talk so much about. I'm always going to be thankful for the education I received from Penn State, because I wouldn't be in the position I am right now without it, but I'm glad I don't have to pay tuition anymore. It's hard to describe the amazing feeling of getting paid to do what you love after having to pay an exorbitant amount of money to become qualified to do so.

As I mentioned before, I liked a lot of things about college, and they made me happy at the time. If I stayed in college for another four years, though, the significance of the things I could do while I was a student would wane and then eventually disappear. College life, like so many other things, has a diminishing margin of appreciation. The more time you spend there, the less amazing it is to you. (Think of it as if you were a young child who got to go to Chuck E. Cheese once every few months. You'd appreciate it more than if you went every weekend.) People mature, and as that happens different things make them happy. It's a bit odd right now, to be stuck in kind of a transitional period where a cheap beer special makes me happy, but so does the increasing ability to adequately match my shirt and tie when I'm dressing for work. Sometimes I get excited to go out with my friends, but I've found recently I get almost as excited for the Sunday night programming on HBO and AMC while I gear up for another work week. I'm adjusting, and enjoying doing so.

I think the thing people tend to forget, especially immediately after graduating from college, is that so much of what you experience there are things you get to take with you. I'm never going to forget lots of the information I studied in college, and I'm never going to be without the amazing friends I was fortunate enough to make there. This is especially true these days, with Facebook, Skype and everything else that's available. I mean, I have trouble not staying in touch with people I'm trying to forget about, so I'm not worried about staying close with my friends.

I'm sure a time will come years down the road, when I'm married and have children -- if I'm fortunate enough for either of those to happen -- when I'll think about how I would love to just go back and live like a college kid again. I hope if that happens I'll remember how I was looking forward to life beyond college around the time I wrote this, and that although the memories from that time will always be important for me, my happiness has evolved and belongs elsewhere.

And if that doesn't dissuade me, I'll just drink a Natural Light. Then I definitely won't want to go back.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I & I: Growing Up with Bright Eyes

Last Tuesday night, one of my friends showed me a YouTube video Bright Eyes had released of a listening party of their new album, The People’s Key. You could listen to the entire record while watching a couple members of the band and some other random people (along with a dog) wandering in and out of the room, drinking and listening. This development further fueled the gleeful feeling I’d felt the day before when I found out the album had been made available to stream in full on NPR’s website.

I guess glee isn’t an emotion most normal people associate with Bright Eyes, but there you have it.

I sat down on the couch and placed my laptop on my coffee table to watch and listen. I decided I’d take notes throughout, so I could write a review – because I’m sure there won’t be very many of those coming out in the coming weeks.

I wrote a few things down during my listening party of a listening party, and when I read back over them during a brief pause in the music while frontman Conor Oberst flipped the vinyl, I decided it’d be kind of stupid of me to review something Oberst had come out with. The notes I had at that point read like something an adolescent girl would write about a new Justin Bieber single. I almost wanted to rip the sheet out and fold it up very intricately, then pass it to a girl as subtly as possible while I blushed profusely.

I realized a review of this album would be terribly biased if done by me. It’d read like a sales pitch, really, because I’ve been unable to find fault with anything Oberst has come out with since I became an avid Bright Eyes listener nearly a decade ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a pretty hefty man crush on the guy, and he is undoubtedly my favorite living musician. If I wrote a review of The People’s Key, the finished product would probably be very similar to Kanye West reviewing one of his own albums (minus the CAPS lock). My adoration prevents me from being critical, like how love makes you blind.

My older brother, Kevin, introduced me to Bright Eyes when I was 13. He gave me a burnt version of Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground shortly after it was released in 2002. This would probably be a better story if I said I listened to it and fell in love with everything about it immediately, but that isn’t the case. I listened to the first 10 minutes or so, and didn’t dig it at all. The first eight minutes consisted of a guy and girl speaking unintelligibly while they were in a car, and the first song didn’t seem like anything too special. I was quick to dismiss it. I told my brother this, and said Dashboard Confessional was much better. I didn’t think this Oberst guy was nearly as talented a lyricist as Chris Carrabba. My brother told me that I was just completely wrong. I disagreed and then went back into my bedroom, probably to listen to Good Charlotte or something.

A few months later, I heard the song “Bowl of Oranges” while we were sitting in our hotel room on a rainy day during our family’s annual beach vacation. I told Kev it wasn’t bad. Truth was, I thought it was great, but had too much pride in my flawless musical taste to admit that he may have been onto something when he gave me Lifted.

“Yeah, that’s a good one, but that’s not how most of his songs sound,” he said, and then we had a marathon listening session.

This is really fucking melodramatic, but I do not believe I have ever been the same.

I won’t downplay the possibility that I was probably in the perfect position at the time to become a Bright Eyes fan, because I got into them while I was experiencing my first instance of heartbreak (if you can legitimately call it that at such an age), which is something Oberst addressed in his songs of the time as often as Juvenile addresses bitches and expensive cars. He made melancholy his territory the way Bob Marley made marijuana his.

Oberst and I were both sad and pissed off, it seemed, but the difference was that he was much, much better at being sad and pissed off than I was or thought I ever could be. I began listening to Bright Eyes constantly, and pasting his lyrics in my AOL Instant Messenger profile, because he had this knack for always saying the things I was feeling and wanted to say but was unable to articulate on my own. Back then, that was how you let others know about your emotions.

When my ex-girlfriend (if you can legitimately call it that at such an age) took her affection elsewhere and I found out about it from a friend of hers, I listened to “Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh” incessantly. I’d drink in my friend’s basement and lament my loss while we listened to “If Winter Ends” and claimed that we drank to stay warm while we killed selected memories. We were like seasoned alcoholic divorcees, not high school freshmen stealing gin from our parents.

Throughout high school and into college, I was able to keep drawing parallels between my life and the songs Oberst would sing. The only difference was the lyrics now found themselves on my Facebook profile as AIM became antiquated and I needed to find another digital way to express myself. I would rely on his old songs to put words to my emotions, and then he’d come out with newer stuff that seemed to be almost directed toward what I was experiencing (and yes, obviously some of this was because I was looking for these partial similarities). When I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn came out at the same time during my senior year of high school, it was like some kind of holiday for me. I remember being happy with life in general at that time. I was old enough then to actually date someone seriously, and I was doing that. So, I was just absolutely floored when I heard “First Day of My Life.” It didn’t mesh with the rest of the album emotionally, really, but it showed me that Oberst was capable of being decently happy and singing about it.

When that relationship decayed, I went back to my old ways and listened to “Gold Mine Gutted” and pretty much all of his other sad songs. I was living in Pennsylvania and drinking on the weekends, and I also hoped I’d never see this girl again, so “Landlocked Blues” became a favorite.

In college, I somehow managed to sleep with a female friend. I’d been in love with her since high school, but had drifted into the purely Platonic zone and stayed there, until we got drunk and went at it in her dorm room one night. She didn’t want things to change between us, though, and I was pretty saddened by this. I listened to “Take it Easy, Love Nothing” so often in the following months that my roommate wanted to strangle me. The song – which was somehow simultaneously gritty and Super Nintendo techno-sounding – and its lyrics encapsulated almost exactly how I was feeling. I didn’t want to have feelings for anyone, and would be fine taking my vengeance out on other girls (who had nothing at all to do with my friend and the way she viewed our relationship) by way of fake stoicism and meaningless sex. It was perfect.

I can’t say I wasn’t emo.

Cassadega came out in 2007, Bright Eyes went on tour, and then Oberst disappeared for a while. Later

that year, I threw myself into the most serious and long-lasting relationship I’ve been in so far in my 23 years on earth. I was so in love, I remember, that I would actually avoid Bright Eyes. I felt like I didn’t need to hear much depressing music. I listened to more upbeat stuff, and even found myself enjoying some of the sentiments on Boyz II Men’s greatest hits album, Legacy. It was disgusting. When I talk to my friends about that era, they say that I was literally “a different person.”

I guess when you’re very emotionally invested in something and it ends, it’s almost always going to be kind of a terrible experience. The way this particular relationship ended was, for lack of any better description, extremely bad. It was just before the end of my sophomore year. I was totally devastated, and I did two things: I took a summer internship at a newspaper hours and hours away from her and everybody else I knew, and I started listening to Bright Eyes again. All the time. I think my time at that internship might have been a period when I was the most acutely upset I’ve ever been over a woman. I would even listen to Bright Eyes while I was running, although it strikes me as very atypical music to listen to during physical exertion.

My internship ended on Friday, August 1, 2008. The next Tuesday, Oberst’s self-titled album came out. I’d been essentially living under a rock most of the summer, splitting my time between an office and the beach and a tiny apartment with no Internet, so I hadn’t read up on how Oberst had gone to Mexico to record Conor Oberst with some friends he eventually dubbed The Mystic Valley Band.

The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t even fucking believe it. Had it been out in May, it would’ve easily been the soundtrack to my summer. If my self-serving analysis is correct, the majority of the album was not only about love lost, but about leaving places of familiarity to regroup from the aforementioned love loss.

I read an interview with Oberst later that month, and he spoke about breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, musician Maria Taylor. After that, he left for Moab, Utah, and then Tepoztlan, Mexico, where he recorded the album. Both were desolate, foreign places.

When Outer South came out in May 2009, I listened and was surprised there was very little talk of female-induced depression at all. Things seemed to be looking up for Oberst, and, oddly enough, the same was happening for me.

Oberst’s work with The Mystic Valley Band was different musically than most Bright Eyes songs, but it seemed like he was still coming out with stuff that I could really empathize with. He was still angry, but not as angry, and women didn’t seem to be such a catalyst for the remaining anger.

This was fine, I thought, and I felt the same way myself. I was a big fan of The Mystic Valley Band. I went to see them play live, and would list it among my favorite shows even though Oberst didn’t play one Bright Eyes song. (He and Ben Kweller did cover the theme from Ghostbusters, though.) Most of my friends didn’t like it so much, because they’d gotten so used to Oberst being a very, very sad person, or at least portraying one through his music.

I was no longer as upset or infatuated with heartbreak as I had been when I was a teenager. It was still there, somewhere, but it wasn’t such a severe feeling anymore. I was at a point where it wasn’t really a necessity for him to come out with more sad songs, because I didn’t feel like I’d be affected by them in the same way. I was learning how to really embrace being alone, and to not make some big deal out of it. I’d learned that there could always be something upsetting about relationships, but that all the time and energy I was dedicating to the aftermath wasn’t really worth it, or helping anything.

(I was still angry, though, and with no real reason to be.)

So, when he formed Monsters of Folk with M. Ward and Yim Yames, and released another album that had little to do with break-ups, I really enjoyed that, too. Their studio video for “Temazcal” became a staple for me during my drunken, late-night YouTube binges that happened frequently during my senior year of college.

I really expected The People’s Key to be Oberst’s return to more saddening songs. I guess I’m like a lot of other people, and have been programmed to associate Bright Eyes with that emotional mindset.

The record is sad as Hell, but it’s not sad about girls. It’s sad about things worth being sad about, like a friend committing suicide (a big contribution to “Ladder Song,” I’ve read), which must trump any feeling some girl is capable of instilling upon you. I’ve grown up listening to Bright Eyes, and will always immensely value the type of music that makes me feel better about relationships (even though I have definitely, definitely hurt more women than women have hurt me). I will value The People’s Key, too, but in a different way. I’ll value it because it gives me some kind of hope that I’ll eventually grow up and distance myself from my lingering sensitivity to female rejection. If Conor Oberst isn’t so pissed off about girls anymore, then I suppose I don’t need to be either. I can still worry about things more than I should, but maybe now they’ll be things worth worrying about; things in the future, and not in the past.

Supposedly, this is the last Bright Eyes record. If that’s true, then I’ll have no more new songs to draw parallels from and mold to events pertaining to my own life. From Oberst, maybe, but not from Bright Eyes. My emotions won’t have any new words from Bright Eyes to use for vicarious purposes. My experiences will be all mine, now, and maybe I’ll find some way to put my own words to them. I’ve probably always been foolish in my thinking that my life is anything like Oberst’s. If the guy is nothing else, he’s an individual, and no two instances of heartbreak are exactly the same, either. They’re like fingerprints or something from Lady Gaga’s closet.

If The People’s Key is it for Bright Eyes, then the final new words of the final song on the record (before Denny Brewer’s last creepy-ass monologue that I actually enjoy, go figure) will be the last new words I’ll ever hear Oberst record under that moniker. The song is called “One for You, One for Me,” and they are as follows:

“You and me, that is an awful lie. It’s I and I.”

I’m almost certain that line wasn’t addressed to me, but, as usual, I can empathize.

I probably couldn’t have said it better myself, either, but it did seem like a suitable goodbye.