Sunday, November 11, 2018

Survivor Series Memories

My pro wrestling fanhood began when I was a kid. Before there was a WWE Network or any other streaming service, and back when pay-per-view super shows were a four-times-a-year event. My family never paid for pay-per-view, but in those days you could turn to the pay-per-view station and get a scrambled signal and audio from the broadcast.

So, four times a year, there I’d be, hunkered close to the television, often as not playing with my wrestling action figures while I listened to the show. My mom took to draping a blanket over the TV while I did this, certain the scrambled signal I’d invariably try to watch through would hurt my eyes. I did this for WrestleManias and for The Royal Rumble. I did this each August for SummerSlam.

And each November, I did this for Survivor Series.

Despite being the second oldest traditional super show for WWE, Survivor Series was, in many ways, the most minor of the big four original PPVs. WrestleMania was the biggest show of the year, and SummerSlam capped a big summer of angles and thus served as sort of a secondary ‘Mania. The Rumble had the infectious gimmick of its signature match with thirty men entering one big brawl at two-minute intervals. But Survivor Series? The cornerstone of the show was teams of four or five guys going head to head in elimination tag team matches—matches in which not just one pin or submission ended the contest, but rather each individual member of a team needed to be defeated until one full team was out. It’s a fun enough gimmick, particularly for the hardcore fan who recognizes how distinctive the circumstances are relative to a traditional wrestling match, but not as distinctive or epic as the circumstances surrounding the other PPVs. In particular, in contrast to the other big shows, Survivor Series traditionally didn’t include title matches or one-on-one matches to resolve rivalries, and thus could easily feel like a placeholder on the way to bigger and better things.

And yet for all of its limitations, when I look back on my childhood as a wrestling fan, Survivor Series stands out as one of my favorites annual occurrences. Purportedly, the event was originally launched for two main purposes:

1) To milk the most profit possible from the huge Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant rivalry before Andre’s health fell off completely (in this case, having them captain opposing teams staved off boredom with their matches which weren’t actually that good, and protected Andre, because with three teammates, he only needed to work a few minutes of the match).
2) For the purpose of going head-to-head with the National Wrestling Alliance’s big Starrcade show--in a particularly competitive move, forcing cable providers to choose which PPV to carry, with the qualifier that anyone who picked against the WWF would lose the opportunity to air WrestleMania and cash-in on that big payday in the spring.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that an event so purely driven by greed and a sense of cut-throat business is one that I associate with family and togetherness. For in my childhood, Survivor Series started out airing on Thanksgiving night, then on Thanksgiving eve, to the extent that my memories of the show are inextricable from memories of the Thanksgiving holiday itself. I remember spending the afternoon playing at my grandmother’s, and I remember coming home for the one time a year our grandmother visited our house--braving the big set of stairs necessary to get to our kitchen. I remember sharing turkey liver with my father, and remember the spread of food on our table--not so awe-inspiring now that I’ve seen much bigger Thanksgiving feasts, but nonetheless plenty of food and one of the few times in a given year we’d eat family style and be welcome to second helpings. And after dinner was done, as my mother or father drove my grandmother home, I remember Survivor Series, huddled under a blanket, listening as the voices of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura transported me to an arena that had might as well have been on another planet. I remember all of this and a sense of these wrestlers coming together in unlikely combinations--forming their teams as if they were coming together as a family, with all of its trepidations and baggage--to be together for one night.

I guess it’s these memories that still get me excited for Survivor Series each year. Nowadays, WWE leans far less upon on the elimination tag team structure—usually throwing in one or two of those matches for tradition’s sake, but otherwise structuring the show more like any old PPV with regular one-on-one and tag team matches, too. These shows aren’t always great, and often as not in my adult life haven’t objectively offered much to be excited about in the build up to the shows. Still, I think back to those younger days and remember the wonder, and take a moment to be thankful for adulthood and the modern conveniences of being able to pay for a relatively cheap streaming service and watching the show live--even re-watching the parts that I want to on a whim, whenever I have wireless.

Survivor Series isn’t booked mid-week any more but rather, most years, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. There’s a way in which that timing feeds my nostalgia, though, for I can enjoy the show in the comfort of my own home and, in its aftermath, be ready to travel near or far to celebrate a holiday. For in November, there are these certain, universal pieces of my life that beckon to me across time and space--family, friends, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie--

and Survivor Series.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Watching Scary Movies

Note: This post includes light spoilers for Scream, The Ring, and Paranormal Activity. Consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve never been much of a thrill-seeker in real life. Excluding a few stand-alone instances like the time I went skydiving, I typically approach my life with an eye toward moderating risk and not making the kind of mistakes that I’ll meaningfully regret if I have the opportunity to avoid them.

I suspect that my risk is aversion is directly connected to my fascination with horror movies.

When I was a teenager, I watched Scream shortly after it came out on VHS. While I’d watched some TV and movies that could be classified as scary before, that’s the first time I recall watching a full, genuine horror movie, and particularly a slasher. In that iconic opening scene, I remember thinking to myself that of course the villain wasn’t going to murder Drew Barrymore, because she was a star and it was too soon, and surely she’d survive until at least midway through the picture. Thus, it was not only visual gore, but the plot twist that caught me by surprise when she was so thoroughly stabbed, slashed, and left hanging from a tree, removing even my suspicion that she’d be hurt, maybe put into a coma, but not killed.

She was dead.

And so a fascination was born. (My budding celebrity crush on Neve Campbell didn’t hurt matters, either.)

Scream was my gateway horror flic, and a good one because so few of the horror movies I consumed in the months to follow really compared--I Know What You Did Last Summer felt like a humorless, less clever sibling picture, and entries from the Friday the 13th series that I caught on cable never really captured my imagination.

As I got more solidly footed in my teenage years, and all the more so when I went to college, I experienced more horror movies, some good, some bad. The next to really grab me was The Ring. Truth be told, I didn’t know what kind of movie I was going to when I set foot in the theater, but rather went because a girl I was on the cusp of dating invited me to go along, and I don’t know that there’s any movie I wouldn’t have gone to see in that context.

Purists will tell you this film pales in comparison to the Japanese film that inspired it and, truth be told, and I’ve talked with plenty of people over the years to follow who acknowledge it was a good enough movie, but don’t hold it in near the regard that I do. Just the same, for whatever combination of factors like personal mood, and the heightened sense of being on what might have been the precursor to a date, watching The Ring felt both immersive and terrifying on a level I had never experienced before and don’t know that I’ve experienced since at the movies. In particular, the image of Samara climbing not only up her well, but through a television screen at the climax of the movie stuck with me as one of the most captivating and horrific visuals I’d ever encountered--the kind of visual that stuck with me and continued to scare me for years to follow when I was a little tired or creeped out or otherwise susceptible to eyeing my own TV suspiciously, for fear someone or something might crawl out of it.

My interest in horror—particularly new horror—waned in the years to follow, not so much out of fear as aesthetic. At this juncture, the Saw and Hostel franchises took center stage in popular horror, and I just wasn’t into them, finding their proclivity for torture and grotesque violence less interesting, or even scary, than off-putting. It’s well and good to experience the escapism of a vicarious scare, but the physical and psychological torture engendered in the films didn’t offer me anything of interest.

So, I thought I was more or less done with horror, until I watched Paranormal Activity. I watched it via bootleg on a friend’s big screen, the night after I’d moved into a new apartment. As if it were a reactionary response to Saw and films of its ilk, Paranormal Activity reveled in the slow escalation of suspense and in simplicity. Sure, it was filmed on a shoestring budget, to more readily explain why it had to scare in that style. Just the same, it was an old-fashioned style of horror storytelling that drew me in with a payoff that satisfied me in its own internal logic.

And, like Scream had me closing the blinds and reticent to answer the phone when I was home alone, and like The Ring had me cast a wary eye at my TV screen, Paranormal Activity seeped into my psyche long after I’d finished the movie. Particularly in my new living space, in which I wasn’t yet sure which creaking floorboards or refrigerator motor sounds or shadows against the wall to ignore as routine and easily explained away, Paranormal Activity’s scares—in moving shadows and slamming doors resonated.

In my fully conscious, rational mind, I didn’t take these scares too seriously. But in my heart of hearts, when I was alone long after dark, I could start to believe again.

When I was studying at Oregon State, one of my mentors, Nick Dybek talked to us about one of the pleasures of reading, and by extension consuming virtually any media, was the opportunity to gain vicarious experience without any real danger. The message stuck with me, and I feel it applies directly to my interest in horror, and why I still make a point of it each October to seek out at least one horror film I haven’t yet experienced. Sometimes the scares are silly, and it’s a catch twenty-two that if a good horror film is doing it’s job—if the scares capture my imagination and stick with me—then I might live in fear for the days to follow the film. Just the same, it’s an appealing kind of fear. An intellectually safe fear, a chosen fear, and a fear that means I’ve consumed a good story.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Buffy Musical

For the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss.

And, if you’re just not interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

I decided to close this month’s dive into all things Buffy with a look back at my favorite episode of all, ”Once More, With Feeling.” I wouldn’t have called this my favorite episode when it first aired. First of all, I didn’t watch it until weeks after it was first broadcast, because I’d started college and didn’t watch much TV in real time then, though my parents faithfully recorded BtVS on VHS so I could catch up when I was home on breaks. More than that logistical concern, though, while I absolutely liked “Once More, With Feeling” on my first viewing, it nonetheless came amidst season six which I by and large didn’t appreciate as it was airing, the show seemingly trapped in the same post-high school, college-dropout, maybe-I-should-have-stayed-dead malaise as the Buffy character herself.

Season six isn’t for high schoolers or traditional college kids, though. It’s a season for those wandering adult life, disenchanted, chronically uncertain, and above all else lost about what to do next.

I may never have been as lost as Buffy Summers, and I was certainly never as dead as her. Nonetheless, all these years later, it’s wild how much better season six seems to me in retrospect than it did in its time.

Going back to this episode, I thought it was cute at the time, and an impressive accomplishment. Nonetheless, I was then and for years to follow committed to my favorites being those season finale episodes BtVs built up to so well, with the world on the line and multiple big plot lines coming to a head. I still maintain that the seasons two, five, and seven finales in particular are excellent for so successfully tying together such long-running storylines in such epic ways. I can also appreciate the excellence of the steps along the way now, though, too.

“Once More, With Feeling” doesn’t exactly resolve a lot for BtVs. In all of the characters being magically compelled to sing their hearts out, though, the truths revealed in song are critical to moving the plot forward and, of course, ultimately leading to that first kiss between consenting, non-enchanted adults for Buffy and Spike.

I’d be remiss to go this entire post about the musical episode without actually discussing the music. No, Joss Whedon isn’t a professional when it comes to writing music, and few of the cast members so much as approximate professional status when it comes to their singing and dancing capabilities. It’s with these caveats that the accomplishment of this musical episode feels so immense to me, with everyone involved well outside their element, busting their butts to generate the songs of an infinitely re-listen-able soundtrack, telling every bit as good of a story as any other Buffy episode. From the earlier, more expository tracks, including Buffy's expression of ennui in "Going Through the Motions," and Xander and Anya breezily singing their unspoken fears about their pending nuptials, to the heartbreak of Giles and Tara mutually recognizing their needs to move on from their current situations, to the show-stopping, climactic “Walk Through the Fire” the episode offers a near perfect balance of celebrating what fans of the show already love, while ever pushing the envelope on what the story at hand might be.

I’ve been known to re-watch this whole series, individual seasons, and five-to-ten episode arcs of Buffy ad nauseam. I don’t know that I’ve revisited any single episode more than this one, though. It's a masterpiece.

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Joyce Is Dead

For the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss.

And, if you’re just not interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

In a show full of memorable, well-acted characters, Joyce Summers is a deceptively unique figure. It would be easy enough to dismiss her as a generic TV mom, and the first two seasons all but invite this read as she is kind and caring, but also painfully oblivious to miss that her daughter is, you know, a vampire slayer. Little better, the end of season two sees her bitterly disavow her daughter, exiling her from the house in the heat of argument after learning the truth about her daughter and the supernatural forces of evil she’s so constantly at odds with.

The seasons to follow, however, see Joyce grow. One of BtVS’s strongest qualities is its capacity to use its other-worldly underpinnings to remarkable metaphorical effect, whether we’re talking about a high school on a Hellmouth as the embodiment of one’s teenage years feeling like an overwhelming war zone or the way in which the Slayer role embodies the weight of expectations and responsibility the world imposes upon many young people before they ever agree to such terms.

That Joyce is the mother to a Slayer isn’t, in and of itself, all that relatable to most any real life mother-daughter situation. The single parent doing the best she can while her daughter or son engages with a life she can hardly begin to understand? Well, that sounds much more relatable.

And Joyce is, against the odds a likable character, and ostensibly a good mom straight into season five when her health suffers in what may or may not be a result of a new daughter being woven into her life, her brain magically adjusted accordingly.

The addition of Dawn Summers in season five could be--and too often is--dismissed as a mid-run stunt for the show to re-establish its footing in a high school-aged character and mix up the cast dynamics. Dawn is a better character than some fans give her credit for, though, besides introducing a number of interesting plot dynamics that help carry the show through its final three seasons.

This is all a round-about way of getting to focus of this blog post, season five’s ”The Body.”

“The Body” is noteworthy for how minimal the supernatural really is, with only one fairly ordinary vampire offering any sort of threat over the course of the episode. No, this one is much more centered on the real, which is kind of perfect for Joyce’s character--probably the best established character from the cast to have never set more than one foot into the world of magic and demons. Her death related to brain issues, while debatably linked to Dawn’s arrival and to Glory’s presence in Sunnydale, could just as well have happened in the complete absence of magic (and, indeed, creator Joss Whedon has generally maintained that we are to understand her death as a result of natural causes).

From the surreal nature of the opening scene in which Buffy discovers the body, to the hauntingly quiet short fight with a vampire in the morgue, this episode is all about dealing with real and profound grief in a world in which louder, more violent, and more anonymous deaths are the norm. It’s because we, as an audience, also mostly like Joyce that her loss is especially devastating. We see through Buffy (and to a lesser extent Dawn’s) eyes, and our heart breaks for these young women who will have to carry on on their own.

“The Body” may be the hardest episode of Buffy to re-watch for the emotional punch that it packs. It’s also on the short list for best episodes the series ever aired.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Xander Episode

For the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss (and sometimes others).

And, if you’re just not interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

For the second post in this series, I’m turning my attention to a far less discussed and largely un-celebrated episode from season two of the show: “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

As noted in the previous article, I didn’t get hooked on Buffy straight out of the gate. I watched the two-part premiere when it first aired and though some elements of it stuck with me, I wasn’t convinced enough of the show to stick with it and continue watching in real time. I was intrigued enough, however, to tune in again almost a year later when the episode “Surprise” first aired. Little did I understand the context around this episode when Angel turns evil; though the show caught my attention and the episode stuck with me again, I also felt it was awfully melodramatic, not recognizing the requisite emotional build for one of the most dramatic turns the show would ever have when Angel went bad.

I didn’t revisit Sunnydale again until summer, when one more oddball viewing in those days of cable TV and limited channels on it led me to watch “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

The episode is the first episode and one of the few that centers squarely on Xander as he deals with Cordelia dumping him by casting a love spell on her. The spell backfires to say the least as he winds up making everyone in town except for Cordelia fall obsessively, dangerously in love with him. The story to follow encapsulates many of the shows best qualities--combining teen angst, magic, horror, and perhaps above all else comedy into a wholly accessible package that you don’t really need to have watched much of the show to get behind.

It’s these factors and--less than I’d like to admit--Xander’s dorky, unlucky-at-love persona that my teenage self probably over-identified with that hooked me on BtVS once and for all.

So we arrive at a personal, sentimental favorite episode, that nonetheless has its flaws. In the scheme of Buffy episodes, it’s strikingly unambitious for being a mostly stand-alone, low-stakes episode that does little to advance the larger narrative arc of the show. Even Xander-Cordelia breakup winds up undone by the closing credits, and the tease of dissension between Angel and Drusilla is dismissed in largely comedic fashion in a passing moment, less a tease of things to come than filler or a way of working these otherwise important characters into a largely unimportant episode. Even more damning, the boy-crazed female masses portrayed in the episode threaten to undermine the feminist sensibilities so at the heart of Buffy.

For all of these flaws and limitations, though, I’d argue the episode is ultimately more good than bad if only for the deep-dive into the Xander character and exploration of Nicholas Brendan playing the lead role. At his most entitled worst, Xander is a Ross Gellar-style man-child of the nineties who wants to call himself a nice guy, despite utterly losing his shit because the girl he wants to sleep with doesn’t like him. Xander is ultimately better than that synopsis, though, for who he grows into the loyal friend to Buffy, Willow, Giles, and heck even Cordelia. He's certainly flawed, but also learns his lessons—not the least of which is that he’s unexceptional relative to the super-women surrounding him, and that that doesn’t ultimately mean he’s without value. Sure, his treatment of Anya down the road nudges him back toward the icky line, but I venture we ought to cut the guy some slack for moments like saving the world via friendship at the end of season six.

"Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered" gives a lesson learned by exaggerated means--a farce that only BtVS could offer and the episode that started my love affair with this show in earnest.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The First Episodes

For the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss (and sometimes other episodes, too).

And, if you’re not at all interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

I’m going to kick off Buffy month with a look at the two-part launch of the series, "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest."

I watched the two-part premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it originally aired, in no small part because I was among the relative minority that really liked the 1992 Kristy Swanson movie and its concept. Two big takeaways from that original viewing:

1) I didn’t really like it.
2) Something about that viewing stuck with me and made me want to watch more.

With hindsight, and having watched every episode of this series multiple times, I can understand the two reactions. The first season of Buffy is in many ways rough, as the writing team, the cast, and the network all fumbled to figure out quite what they had in this show. “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” bleed into one another in ways that make them feel more like a movie than a two-part TV episode, and hinted at the mythology-oriented nature that the show would increasingly lean into, as opposed to the “monster of the week” format fans of shows like this were still more accustomed to. Moreover, there’s an uncomfortable mix of cheesy humor and horror—a hybrid style BtVS would come to own, but that still felt oddly paired, and arguably bad in this first outing.

The episodes center on Buffy’s arrival in Sunnydale, and she both tries to fit into her new high school community and gets introduced to the local cast ofvampires and related heroes, villains, and shades of gray. Her move-in happens to closely coincide with the eponymous Harvest, an event during which vampires will suck a whole bunch of blood on behalf of their entrapped Master, who will derive strength enough from the process to--theoretically--rise to reign over earth.

The Master is in many ways representative of the tradition Buffy stems from and has to overcome in its first season, as the omnipotent, old bad guy looms over most of the action of the show. That he doesn’t survive the first season, and is promptly replaced by the much hipper Spike and far more original Drusilla early in season two really gets things going for the show that Buffy fans love. Season one, and particularly episodes one and two of it, are therefore setup and background necessary to get to the really good stuff.

As a microcosm of that dynamic, though, it’s telling that the second most traditional villain of season one, Luke, is set up as prime villain and dispatched of by the end of the second episode. To the contrary, his running buddy Darla survives--the first vampire we meet in the surprise finish to the cold open of the show, and second-in-command baddie who makes it through half the season (and gets brought back to life for an even better run on the BtVS spin-off Angel). Early on, viewers learn that this show will introduce big, seemingly important personalities, and it will kill them without reservation when the story demands it.

Away from the biggest drama of these first two episodes, we get introductions to Willow, Xander, Giles, and Cordelia, each of whom come across as shells of the characters we’ll grow to love. Those shells are important, though as, like real life first impressions, we get the caricatures before we get to know the people beneath them. For as inelegant as their portraits are in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest,” there is some joy in looking back at these episodes and acknowledging how wrong the first impressions were.

And that’s the funny thing about these first episodes. They’re necessary, and there are ways in which they’re quite good about exposition, piquing curiosity, and setting up drama to unfold down the road. Just the same, for anyone looking to convert a new fan, or who’s skeptical but has been convinced to watch the show, I feel these episodes are a terrible place to start. Watching season two, then going back for season one—as I, personally, wound up doing, returning to the show and getting hooked on summer reruns after season two had first aired, then scrambling to play catchup—allows some of the show’s most compelling episodes to more organically hook the viewer, and thirst for more of these characters, in a way that makes season one’s unevenness not just tolerable, but a delight to ride the waves of.

“Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” are not necessarily objectively great TV in a vacuum, but a joy to rewatch for the hardcore fan.

That said, next week I’ll delve into the unlikely episode that did hook me, and led to my becoming a fan evermore. Unless you’ve discussed it with me personally, I bet you won’t guess which episode it was.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

People in Buckets

For a lot of us, when we think back to high school we think of roles. We think of nerds and jocks and cheerleaders and artists and the kinds of kids who wore Marilyn Manson t-shirts, and the do-gooders from Amnesty International. The particulars may vary based on generations and specific schools, but the simplifications loom. Maybe it’s the impact of movies like The Breakfast Club that so aggressively put high school archetypes at the fore. Maybe it’s our developmental stage—the need to categorize a blooming catalog of people in our lives, balanced by the need for a sense of our own tribe and where we fit in and how we belong.

People tend to be more complex than these roles or cliques would suggest. I give you, for example, my core group of high school buddies. We’d most easily be categorized as nerds, yet there are variations. For though I participated in Mathletics, edited the school newspaper, and maintained an A average, I was middle of this particular pack when it came to grades, and particularly middling in math and science. I was a nerd of nuance, too, in my concurrent budding obsessions with creative writing, professional wrestling, NBA basketball, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While I like to think myself special and particularly interesting, there were further shades within the group, from my friend who was most musically oriented, and the one who was a soccer standout, and the one who was better than the rest of us at basketball and had a girlfriend first. The one who wasn’t so bright but somehow or other fell in with us, so I let him copy my worksheets and quizzes in Health class. The one who stood out as the smartest of the smart—a legit borderline genius whose trains of thoughts I chased in an attempt to keep up, and who I leaned on to do all of the work as my chemistry lab partner.

I recall taking a personality test our senior year. It included listing animals that you most closely associate with. I recall picking a penguin, because they’re awkward and fall down a lot, and that my friends readily laughed along with that. I picked a wolf, too, under the rationale that they can be loners, and focused on the hunt—thinking of all the times I felt on my own as a teenager, and particularly my relentless pursuit of drafting novels at the time. My friends were less sure of that one. That smartest asked, “You know no one sees you that way, right?”

I’m sure he was right, but clearly the comment stuck in my craw enough to recall it over fifteen years later.

Of course, as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed a breakdown of easy categories in my own world. That the Star Wars obsessees I hung out with in Baltimore also watched football every Sunday in the fall, and that my wife keeps crystals and meditates, but also has a soft spot for Sex & the City. Heck, I read literary fiction between sets at the gym and write prose poems about Hulk Hogan.

Some of this diversification of interests has to do with evolution and assimilation—that we learn and change and that we inevitably pick things up along the way. Some of it has to do with the complexity of humans to begin with. In high school there are smart jocks and sporty nerds; cheerleaders who are participating in a sport less out of school spirit than to improve their shot at earning college scholarships.

So, too, can it be said that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump for president was racist, nor was everyone who voted for Hillary Clinton oblivious to her shortcomings. I’m spinning out pretty broadly here with this simple takeaway that I’ve learned and had to relearn so many times in my adult life. We put people in buckets not so much on account of their choices or characteristics, but rather for our own convenience. I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who feels completely comfortable identified as a type. We categorize people for our own comfort, usually to be proven wrong when we look closely enough.