Thursday, November 26, 2015

Turner Tunes: The Formational Years

I have been a "music guy" for at least fifteen years; what I mean by that is that I have been dedicated, at some level, to the pursuit of exploring and enjoying music in an intentional and meaningful way. I have a still-surprising wealth of knowledge from my two decades of listening to music, and I still have something of a reputation in certain circles as someone who has an interesting answer to the question "what have you been listening to lately?" I am now not nearly as invested, both in terms of time and finances, as I was a decade ago, or even five years ago, but I cannot deny that in its particular way that music is still really important to me. I may not be nearly as well-versed as I once was, or as up-to-date as I would like to be, but I still place a premium on my identity as a "music guy".

As I have been reviving my own interest in writing over the past month, I have reflected on how little I have written about music over the past few years. I resumed writing my music year in review posts in 2013 and 2014 after not writing them since 2010, but the tone of those posts is tinged with sadness about no longer being the music fan I once was. But something has changed this year, as many of my favourite artists have released new albums: I have started thinking about music a lot more again. I am nowhere near to the point I was in my heyday as an audiophile (c. 2001 to 2007), but music is arguably more significant to me now than it has been in five years. 

As a result, I have been thinking of more things to write about music, and I have decided to start a new series entitled "Turner Tunes", in which I discuss various artists who have affected me or different milestones in my biography as a music enthusiast. This first entry in the series outlines my early years as a fan of music, before I considered myself an enthusiast, including several embarrassing admissions that I had considered omitting, lest my readers look down on me; instead, I have included them as evidence that we all need to start somewhere in our pursuit of our own musical styles. So, here is my start in the world of music, shameful as it may be at points. Read, cringe, and enjoy, even as you remember your own early guilty pleasures and formational years.

There is something to be said for the role that your parents play in shaping your musical identity during your childhood; most of my early musical preferences were shaped by what my parents listened to, primarily a pastiche of 70s rock and early 80s new wave (what they listened to their late teens and early twenties) and 50s and 60s pop-rock and country hits that my dad had inherited from his parents during his childhood. When I was in Grade 6, most of my friends were listening to albums like Green Day's Dookie (it was 1994, after all); I proclaimed that my favourite band was Supertramp thanks mainly to "The Logical Song" and the theme song for the CTV investigative news program W-5, an excerpt from their song "Fool's Overture". It's not that I had listened to any of their albums; I just had hero worship of my dad, and so I picked an artist he liked as my favourite - plus, I liked the long words of "The Logical Song".

Likely as a result both of the constant presence of this musical history, as well as my love for all things trivial, I began to explore the world of popular music through my parents' collections as well as through the weekend marathons that would run on MuchMusic (Canada's answer to MTV); I would watch all weekend as Much aired weekends of One-Hit Wonders, Number Ones, or other themes and I would keep lists of the songs they included. (Did I mention that I didn't have much of a social life as an early teen?) I remember watching Rock and Roll Jeopardy! (hosted by a pre-Survivor Jeff Probst) and knowing most of the answers, which was more impressive then because we did not have the internet as an instant resources. I spent the better part of two summers exploring my parents' collection through the use of a bright yellow Walkman and my dad's extensive cassette tape collection, so by the time I was fourteen, I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music before 1990. But much like my journey through church, religion, and faith, I hit a point at which my music became my own and not my parents'.

I was fourteen years old when I first really discovered music for myself. It was 1997, and the catalyst was the MuchMusic compilation album Big Shiny Tunes 2 - the one thing I really wanted for Christmas that year. For most of my high school years, MuchMusic and the radio shaped my musical choices; what was popular there was what my friends and I were listening to. It might seem like misguided nostalgia, but I think that the late 1990s were actually an interesting time for rock: grunge had subsided and become incorporated into more mainstream rock; electronic music was on the rise; and pop punk, rapcore, and Nickelclones were not yet in full force. Soon, my collection included Our Lady Peace, The Tea Party, Collective Soul, Foo Fighters, and other modern rock artists, though I had an unrepentantly pop stream that my peers (rightfully) mocked that stayed throughout my high school years. I unironically enjoyed compilation albums like the Now! and Hit Zone series, and I, for reasons I now cannot fathom, actually bought Britney Spears' first album Baby One More Time for the music. (I did remedy that fact within a year, as my fandom of Spears did not last even to her second album, but it's still a black mark on my musical history. Now let us never speak of it again.)

My collection grew over a few years to forty or fifty albums, thanks in no small part to the Columbia House Music Club's introductory ten-album deal (this was, remember, before the internet was commonplace) and the local flea market. I also began to explore the world of Christian music, starting with albums by bands such as Third Day, Skillet, the O.C. Supertones, and Audio Adrenaline. I was highly influenced by one older friend in particular, and I remember seeking out a copy of U2's The Best of 1980-1990 and the B-Sides on my Grade 11 band trip since it was a limited edition, as well as buying a copy of Metallica's S + M as a direct result of his influence. I got a couple of concerts under my belt, including EdgeFest '99 - a full day concert that featured Green Day, Foo Fighters, Creed, and ended with a glorious set by The Tea Party - and Collective Soul on the Dosage tour, and I started to get a sense of who I was as a music fan (which is admittedly different from who I am now as a music fan).

By my Grade 12 year, my tastes had started to round out somewhat from their unfortunately poppy origins, and I had begun to listen to hardcore artists like P.O.D. and Project 86 alongside popular rock fare like Creed, who was my favourite band from 1999 to 2000 thanks in part to their side stage performance at EdgeFest. I still retained some echoes of my early pop listening, but by the time I moved out on my own, my tastes were much more set in favour of increasingly edgier stuff. As I graduated high school, I knew I could face the musical world with ears wide open (that's a Creed pun for y'all, in case you didn't catch it), ready for whatever might come my way as I entered university and learned a new way to listen to music: downloading.

(To be continued...)

The List: Top Rewatchable Movies (1995-2014)

As I was going to sleep a couple of nights ago, I concocted an interesting thought exercise that I felt the need to compose into a blog post for the roughly equal sakes of posterity, discussion, and audience reaction. Here's the proposal: assume that for any given year of cinematic history that you can watch any movie released in that year once, but that there is a limit on the number of movies that you can ever rewatch after that initial viewing; with that in mind, which three movies do you choose to keep for rewatching from any given year? I started out with the exercise at lists of five movies per year, but I found it far too easy to complete, so I had to narrow it down to three to actually make it an interesting challenge for myself and to generate internal discussion. (I have included some extra movies from my original list in parentheses if that year presented a particularly challenging decision.) It's not like it would really be possible to run out of movies to watch, given the number of movies that there are out there that I have not yet seen, but this exercise does present an interesting question of which movies you want to watch again.

I decided to limit my initial list to the last twenty years dating back to 1995, partially to limit the amount of time for this discussion, but also because I did not think I would have much in the way of meaningful decisions for many years before 1995, when I really became an active movie watcher when I was twelve years old. Note that this is not a list of the "best" movies of any given year; rather, it's a list of the movies I would most want to be able to rewatch. Take 2013 for example: 12 Years a Slave was arguably the best movie of the year, but I would not want to or feel the need to rewatch it, especially when considered over the deliciously guilty pleasures of that year (Pacific Rim!). So, with that disclaimer in mind, on with the thought experiment with my top three rewatchable movies for each year from more recently in 2014 back to 1995.

2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy; The LEGO Movie (Interstellar)

2013: American Hustle; Pacific Rim; The World's End (Her)

2012: The Avengers; Pitch Perfect; Silver Linings Playbook (The MasterMoonrise Kingdom)

2011: Bridesmaids; The Descendants; Of Gods and Men

2010: Inception; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; The Social Network (The Fighter)

2009: The Fantastic Mr. Fox; Up!; Zombieland (A Serious Man, Up in the Air)

2008: The Dark Knight; U23D; Wall-E

2007: Hot Fuzz; Juno; There Will Be Blood (The Darjeeling LimitedNo Country for Old Men)

2006: Children of Men; Pan's Labyrinth; Stranger Than Fiction

2005: Good Night, and Good Luck; Serenity; Walk the Line

2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; The Incredibles; Shaun of the Dead (Napoleon Dynamite)

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; Lost in Translation; A Mighty Wind

2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; Punch-Drunk Love; Signs

2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; Monsters, Inc.; The Royal Tenenbaums (Memento)

2000: Almost Famous; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Unbreakable

1999: Galaxy Quest; Magnolia; Office Space (Being John Malkovich; Fight Club)

1998: The Big Lebowski; Rushmore; Saving Private Ryan

1997: The Fifth Element; L.A. ConfidentialThe Man Who Knew Too Little

1996: Bottle Rocket; Fargo; Star Trek: First Contact

1995: 12 Monkeys; Canadian Bacon; The Usual Suspects

Five observations on my list:

1. The process was easier than I expected, with only two or three of the twenty years actually presenting a challenge to narrow the field down to three. I was really surprised by how easy I found it to be, as I had expected it to be far more difficult to discern which films would be rewatchable, but I realized that in any given year there were a maximum of seven or eight movies that were even in consideration, and that the elimination process after that ended up being quite simple. No year presented a huge challenge, but five years stuck out - 1999, 2004, 2007, 2009, and 2012 - as the hardest years to narrow down to three (and even five) movies, which lines up with what I would consider to be the best years of cinema I can remember in my lifetime. On the other hand, I had to stretch somewhat to fill the years before 1999 and in 2002, which I suppose makes sense, being my formative years of cinema, as well as 2002 being the year in which I abstained from most secular media (oh, that "fundy" year that just always seems to come up, no matter how hard I might like to forget it).

2. My list, overall, is admittedly inclined toward filmmakers, with very few films on my list not demonstrating significant artistic influence from either their director or writer, but that trend is in line with my movie habits anyway. I found that I did not have to negotiate much between years to ensure the presence of particular genres or directors; in fact, I chose not to attempt any such equanimity and to allow movies from each year to be included on their own merits. For the most part, my favourite filmmakers are well represented on my overall list: P.T. Anderson (3); Wes Anderson (4); Joel and Ethan Coen (3); Guillermo del Toro (2); Christopher Nolan (2); David O. Russell (2); Joss Whedon (2); Edgar Wright (4 out of a possible 4!). Nolan and the Coens, in particular, would have benefited from a slightly longer short list of five films per year, as several of their films were the last ones to be cut in their given years.

Pixar made it four times, which is both surprising in how high and how low that number is; they have, after all, made many of the most authentically moving films of the past two decades, though I expected one or two more to get edged out by other films in their years. Many other filmmakers whose work I really enjoy - Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Charlie Kaufman, Steven Spielberg - also managed to make the list once, so I'm mostly satisfied with the variety on the list. Then again, Peter Jackson made it three times for The Lord of the Rings and a couple of early Shyamalans snuck in, so I`m not sure what that says about my movie watching from the first third of the aughts. I'm not sure why some directors made it more often than others, other than to say it's probably a result of how each year breaks down, as well as overall frequency of output.

3. I found the genre breakdown of the sixty films included to be very interesting. My list is surprisingly balanced between a few genres which should themselves come as little surprise to anyone who knows my viewing habits:
  • Sci-fi/Fantasy Action - 15
  • Comedy - 19 (including 5 very sci-fi oriented comedies)
  • Comedy-Drama - 10
  • Drama - 15
  • Concert - 1
One surprise initially was the high number of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Action movies, though it makes sense when you consider that that number includes The Lord of the Rings, superhero movies, and a number of other sci-fi type films. These films tend to orient more to the comedic side, though there are a few that are dramatic in nature (Inception, 12 Monkeys). I know there's a lot of blurring between genres here (either of those movies could have just as easily been named "dramas"), but I chose to go with the dominant genre as much as possible, which brings me to my second slight surprise: the number of "comedy-dramas" (I refuse to use the term "dramedy" out of some kind of principle), which seems both high and low at the same time. Granted, a number of the movies I included as "comedies" could also be included as easily here (particularly Wes Anderson's movies), so it's more of a nuanced distinction than an actual genre-based one, but I think it's still useful to see where my rewatching tastes would be.

As to the higher number of comedic films in general - including all comedy-dramas and comedy-leaning sci-fi action films - the number sits at about 60% of my total list, which seems about right; after all, I would usually much rather rewatch a comedy than a dramatic film, and most comedies have enough drama to be satisfactory. (Now someone just tell that to the Academy Awards - or the Golden Globes, for that matter, since they often seem to have trouble categorizing and even finding comedies each year. But I digress.) The overall pattern is also toward much more intellectual films, even the comedies, as opposed to your mass appeal movies; even the blockbusters I have included were acknowledged to be much higher level than your run of the mill actions or comedies. Again, that should come as little surprise to anyone who knows me; even the "dumb" movies I enjoy tend to be highly intelligent (like Wayne's World).

4. I didn't notice too many dominant stars in my list; if anything, I was surprised by how little my list included some actors whose work I really enjoy. In terms of dominant presence in a film, there were only a few actors who stuck out, though some certainly benefitted from multiple appearance in films directed by Wes Anderson: George Clooney (4); Philip Seymour Hoffman (4); Bill Murray (5); Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the lead pair in the Cornetto Trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End (3); and perhaps most surprisingly to me, thanks to three sci-fi inclusions from 1995 to 2000, Bruce Willis (3).

Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jesse Eisenberg, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Frances McDormand, Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Pratt, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Kevin Spacey, Owen Wilson, and Rebel Wilson all made two appearances each. Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Will Ferrell, Ralph Fiennes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hanks, Melissa McCarthy, Brad Pitt, Emma Stone, Kristen Wiig, and Kate Winslet all appeared once. I'm sure there are others of note who I have missed, but the main point here is that outside of a few notable names that I tend not to watch (or at least rewatch) movies for a given star, but more for the director or for the experience of the movie, and that I have a variety of stars represented (though admittedly more dominated by males, as is the movie industry).

5. My list has some overlap with awards bait, with roughly one of my three movies from any given year gaining traction during awards season either with nominations or wins. I'm not too surprised by this, as some of the movies I favour are also widely acknowledged as brilliant films, so I tend to think that this relationship (between my movie rewatching and recognition by the industry) is more correlational than causal. Just over a quarter of my list were nominated for Best Picture (17 by my count), with only one winning (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), though there are around 25% of my chosen films that feature an Oscar-winning performance and/or screenplay (as well as a couple of Best Animated Films and nominees, too). So, roughly a third of the movies on my list have been acknowledged by the established powers in their given year; another third arguably should have been; and the final third had no chance of ever contending. That seems to reflect my general viewing habits, which according to this list are studio-heavy with only one or two truly authentically "indie" movies on the list, which I find to be interesting; I guess I go off the beaten path in my movie-watching, but I don't go too far off.

So there you have it - the results and reflections on what turned out to be a relatively engaging thought experiment. There are a few movies from each year that I have not yet seen, including a larger number from 2013 and 2014, but I doubt that those absences would affect my lists for any year; after all, if I have not yet made the time to see them yet, there's a good chance that they would not exceed any of the listed movies in terms of rewatchability. Many of the films I have not yet seen would likely not be rewatchers more than once a decade anyway, so I feel fairly confident in this list as it stands - for now.

I might at some point be interested to take this thought experiment back further to see what would happen, but I imagine that it would be increasingly difficult to pick even three movies for most years; then again, the 1980s did feature a lot of eminently rewatchable movies, so maybe it wouldn't be as easy as I think it would be. Maybe I need to start researching movies released from 1975 to 1994 and see what happens, but in the meantime, I'll put it out there for others to consider conducting their own thought experiment: what movies would be your rewatchables from each year? Would your overall composition be similar or different from mine? And what would your list show about you as a movie (re)viewer?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Rocky Journey, Part I: From Chump to Stallion

Rocky Balboa is back in theatres today with Creed, perhaps even more unexpectedly than he was nine years ago in the eponymous Rocky Balboa. In that case, it seemed like Stallone had a few things to work out (especially because he followed it up by reviving the Rambo franchise), and that Stallone, like Balboa, was able to leave the character behind. I'm not sure what inspired Creed, but the early reviews are very positive; there's even early talk of Stallone being nominated for an Academy Award again (after losing in 1976 to Peter Finch in Network) for playing his greatest character (don't go there, Rambo fans; Rocky is Stallone's most beloved creation, hands down). The Rocky movie series played a significant role in my teen years, so I decided to spend some time watching the Rocky series (which all happen to be on Netflix) before I went to see Creed in theatres. Here are some of my thoughts on rewatching (or in two cases, watching) all six previously released movies of the Rocky franchise as well as Creed, starting with the first two entries from 1976 and 1979, respectively.

Rocky: I originally watched this when I was a teenager and not since; I'm not sure why I waited this long for a second viewing, especially when I enjoyed it so much that first time. What struck me this time is how little this film is actually about boxing and how much it is about its titular character. Sure, the movie's climax comes in the final round of the match, but it could easily be argued that boxing has little to do with Rocky's internal conflict. It really is an interesting character study of Rocky, though, and the film stands up as arguably the best in the series in that respect. All four main characters - Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey - have moments of nuance (and were nominated for Academy Awards that year), and Stallone's performance as the emotionally damaged Balboa is quite compelling. But Rocky is also about the city of Philadelphia, and it belongs in that category of 1970s films that have come to exemplify certain locales in American culture like Taxi Driver, which came out in the same year. Rocky's Philly is like Travis Bickle's New York - on the edge of dangerous, but made normal through its protagonist - and Rocky is as much a love letter to the City of Brotherly Love as it is about either boxing or Rocky himself.

What I find really interesting is not even the movie itself, which admittedly probably should not have been named Best Picture that year over Taxi Driver and Network; it's the retroactive culture surrounding the movie as well as its placement in cinematic history. Some dismiss the movie as cinematic schmaltz, while others continue to find value in how the movie genuinely frames its emotions; I think, however, that many of these opinions are not necessarily shaped by what happens in this film but by what happens in subsequent entries in the series. The movie itself is a little on the long side at two hours - certainly so by modern standards, by which it would drag significantly (as many movies would) - but it is by no means overwrought or manipulative; to me, it seemed rather humble and real, despite what happens in the increasingly kitschy sequels. Rocky is both a product of the movement of auteurs in film in the early 1970s and a beginning of the movement toward blockbusters and franchises; it was situated, after all, in the years between Jaws and Star Wars.

Rocky is one of only five movies in the past four decades to both win Best Picture and be the highest grossing domestic movie of the year (along with 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, 1988's Rain Man, 1997's Titanic, and 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), and it was arguably the last "populist" movie to win the Oscar as a result of its popularity (just as Kramer vs. Kramer was likely the last movie to be the highest-grossing because of its dramatic character development, other than Rain Man). There were a number of films over the ensuing decade that were financially successful as well as nominated for Best Picture (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.), but it could easily be argued that Rocky marked the end of the era in which commercial and Academy appeal were assumed to be synonymous (which they mostly had been to that point) and the forerunner of the cinematic culture of dissonance between blockbusters and "real films" that we now "enjoy". Some critics argue that Rocky helped cause this split; I think the film was a sign of shifting values in America and a byproduct of the culture that has emerged not only in Hollywood but across many domains of American life. With all that said, I think that Rocky still stands as not only eminently rewatchable, but arguably necessary in order to understand how America has changed over the past four decades.

Final Decision: Rocky contains the best dramatic and character development of the series and is deserving of its place in American cinematic history.

Rocky II: For some reason, I had never seen this movie before now. I guess I know why now - it's really not a great film, probably the second worst in the series (behind Rocky V, of course). The central conflicts (both internal and external) are not as compelling as they could (or should) have been; it's full of gaps of logic and inexplicable character changes; and it's about a half-hour too long with far too many overly draggy dramatic scenes. The first third of the film - after the first ten minutes, which inexplicably and indefensibly merely show the final ten minutes of Rocky - is spent watching Rocky fail at almost every conceivable basic enterprise of life - including reading from a cue card - while shying away from fighting because of the possibility of going blind from a punch, a fact that strangely goes unaddressed after he resolves to meet Apollo Creed for the inevitable rematch. The middle third of the film is spent watching Rocky train listlessly and then mope about Adrian being in a coma, which, despite the genuine drama of the situation, ends up mostly being tedious and uninteresting, save for a short confrontational scene between Mickey and Rocky in the hotel chapel. It seems like Stallone, like Rocky, is just going through the motions for the money with this fight.

Suddenly, Adrian wakes up and inexplicably changes her mind about Rocky fighting (very conveniently for the plot to move forward, I might add), at which point Rocky finally gets into fight mode and makes up 45,000 minutes of training in two training montages, one of which consists almost entirely of him as the Pied Piper of Philadelphia leading a mob of children up the famous steps from the first film. Then, ninety percent of the way into the film, we finally get to the fight, for which Rocky is ridiculously and inexcusably late and in no way in any mental or physical shape to compete or endure. We are treated to the climactic fight, which echoes the rest of the movie - a few inspired moments surrounded by lots of sloppy choices. complete with phantom punches, inconceivable rallies, and some of the worst boxing form ever on Rocky's part, but somehow he manages to withstand two knockdowns in the first two rounds (!) and go the distance. The last round is almost laughably bad, as both boxers are barely standing, with yet another inconceivable finish as Rocky [spoiler alert!] defeats Creed in what would undoubtedly be considered one of the sloppiest boxing matches of all time were it to have really happened. I tried to find a YouTube video of someone doing actual analysis of this fight, but I couldn't find it; internet, you have let me down yet again, so make this happen!

Final decision: Rocky II is a subpar sequel that mostly rehashes themes and images from the first movie without enough character development or memorable moments to make it worth the two hours it takes. There is really no reason to rewatch Rocky II, other than perhaps through select YouTube highlights, like this one:




Coming up - the delightfully kitschy 1980s supersequels Rocky III and Rocky IV: montages to hit theme songs; beloved characters die unexpectedly and arguably without much reason; and two of the most villainous movie villains ever grace the screen. Oh, and Rocky - not glasnost and perestroika - ends the Cold War, so there's that to look forward to.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Vision and Self-Care

I'm in a weird place right now when people ask me how it's going. On the surface, the answer seems like it should be a standard non-commital "good": I have started working again - just over half-time as a substitute teacher over the past six weeks; my wife and I have spent some time reconnecting with friends over the past couple of weeks; and I don't really have any direct stress on my life other than not having a teaching contract. Sure, my wife has a very stressful classroom this year, and there are always little things here and there that pop up, but overall, I have the least direct stress in my life of any period of the past six years. So I was quite surprised this weekend to realize just how stressed out I have been since Thanksgiving in early October and that the answer to "how it's going" is really much more layered than it seems like it should be.

Part of what I have realized is that much of my current level of stress seems to be connected to my general emotional state rather than my available time. Over the past three weeks, I have worked on 7 of 15 days, but the real story is what has happened on my days off. On several of those non-working days, I was functionally unable to do much at all; I might have gotten a bit of housework done, or a couple of things off my to-do list, but I felt really bogged down for most of those days. Even though I have less going on in my life than any time as an adult, I still feel really clogged and cluttered. I thought that I had cleared a lot of that emotional junk out during my self-proclaimed sabbatical in September, so I have been surprised at how quickly many of those feelings have come back and the extent to which they have affected me. I probably should not be surprised - after all, many of the things that are coming up are the result of six years of fairly consistent stress of some form or another, so it would be foolish to expect them to be gone in a month - but I often am caught off guard by the frequency, intensity, and duration of these feelings (whatever they may be).

Over the past week, my wife was sick and working on report cards, so this weekend we took some time to rest together. We cleaned the house; I ran a couple of errands; we set up the Christmas tree with our two-year-old nephew; we watched a movie at home without one of us working on school work for the first time in well over a year; on Sunday, we skipped church, slept in, made breakfast, called people, and played board games. It was a really great weekend for us, and the juxtaposition of this weekend with the previous few weeks has helped me realize just how "off" I have felt in that time: I hadn't journaled since Thanksgiving weekend; I haven't been reading at all; I hadn't published a blog post in almost two weeks (although I had a half-dozen drafts started in that time); I haven't pursued many of my hobbies, other than board games, of course; and I have not taken much time to be creative. The next step, once I had realized that I wasn't really doing that well (which I knew, but of which found it helpful to be reminded) was to take a step back and to wonder why this was happening; as I reflected, I kept on coming back to how there have been two related elements that have been missing in my life: vision and self-care.

I have alluded to a general lack of vision in some previous posts, but I feel as though I am only now really beginning to understand just how little vision I have right now, both on a macro and micro scale. I can't think of a time in my life in which I have had as little vision in as many areas as I do now. I feel like part of the issue is that it seems like there are many areas that are outside of my control, and I have almost always had strong external driving forces that have helped shape my vision either in the long-term or in the short term. Right now, the only area in which I feel that I really have a strong vision is in my board gaming; I have some vision for writing, and some for relationships, but I feel as though I'm mostly just going through the motions in most areas. It's just a very strange season for me in that regard; usually, I'm very much a goal-driven person, so this is foreign territory for me.

I have resolved at times that I need to seek out vision, but it has not been a process that has been coming easily. I feel as though I have a lot of distractions, some of which are emotions that are coming to the surface, and I have felt more at the mercy of those emotions than in control of them. But now I am realizing that setting some vision is one of the ways to get past those distractions, and that having some kind of purpose beyond the immediate experience of those emotions may well be what helps me work them through. So I've decided that my vision for the next six weeks (the four weeks until Christmas break and the two weeks of the break) is to pick up on what I posted a month ago about finishing and to try to clear out some of those distractions to make room for some more intentional self-searching in the new year.

I have realized how closely self-care is to living with vision and purpose, and how much the presence (or absence, in my recent case) of self-care impacts my ability to even look at the idea of having vision. I have also realized how terrible I can tend to be at self-care and how much I take myself for granted, whether that's physically, emotionally, or even intellectually, so one way that I can clear things out and work through that feeling of "clutteredness" will be to take care of myself. So with those thoughts in mind, here are a few things I'm going to try to commit to doing over the next six weeks; in a sense, this is my vision for the rest of 2015.

1. Do something creative every day. Whether it's writing a blog post, creating a bead sprite, learning a new game, or trying a new recipe, I hope to do something that fires up my creative juices every day.

2. Connect with someone in a meaningful way every day. It might only be for a few minutes or in an email, but I'm going to try to have a meaningful connection with somebody each day, whether they are in or outside of my immediate context.

3. Journal regularly. It might not be every day, but I want to journal a few times a week.

4. Limit my passive (ie. non-creative) screen time. It's one thing to use screen time to create; it's another to consume it in playing video games or watching TV. I'm not going to set a limit, but I want to try to limit the amount that I'm focusing on things that don't matter as much.

5. Read more. I find that I do better when I am inspired by other authors, so I need to keep reading.

6. Do something that works toward "finishing" something each day. It might only be a few minutes, and it might be slow progress, but I'm going to try to work toward some of those goals (which might dovetail with some of the other items on this list).

So there they are: six things I will try to do to make life better. I'm committing to the process, regardless of what the product looks like on the side. I don't see any of these things as an instant cure, but I'm working to be on a path toward being healthy - and that's all I can do for now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Side projects

One of the classic clichés in the world of popular music is the side project: an artist (usually in a band) decides that they need to pursue an artistic direction that is a little different from their usual recording, so they start a side project that will allow them to express themselves creatively a different way; perhaps no current (or past) musician is more identified with side projects than Jack White, who maintains several (The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather in addition to The White Stripes / his self-titled band). Some of these side projects ultimately supplant their original bands both in popularity and artistic quality (among those arguably is Dallas Green's City and Colour), but many are relegated to the bargain bins of music trivia known only to superfans of that artists. I own a few side project albums in my collection, most notably Passengers: Original Soundtracks Volume 1, an experimental mostly instrumental atmospheric side project by U2 and Brian Eno that produced "Miss Sarajevo", the one song they have adopted into their regular rotation, and three albums by Brave Saint Saturn, an obscure "astro-rock" pop rock concept side project from members of Five Iron Frenzy that tells the story of astronauts on the U.S.S. Gloria who are lost in space and return to earth, using it as a metaphor to discuss life, faith, and death.

One of the main complaints about side projects - other than the fact that they often tend to not be very good - is that they distract from an artist's focus on their main artistic outlet, but I think that criticism might be misguided. I think that artists need to explore their creative impulses in different avenues, and even if the product is not necessarily the most listenable, I totally understand the need to do something different and to go through the process of seeing what comes out in other ways. I feel like I have had side projects throughout the years that have allowed me to explore or feature different aspects of my creative personality that might not exactly fit within my main creative outlet: this blog. Since July 2004, I have consistently (to one degree or another) maintained this space as my primary writing outlet, but in that same time, I have also explored different aspects of writing in different forums at different points in different ways. Those of you who have journeyed with Life of Turner for some time will no doubt remember some of these pieces of internet history, but for those of you who are relatively new to Life of Turner, here are some of the side projects I have explored over the years.

Writing before Life of Turner

My early days in the student press are perhaps more akin to my "garage band" or early touring days before making something more concrete and identifiable as their own sound; for example, U2 performed as The Hype and Feedback before they became U2 in 1978 and subsequently released Boy in 1980. My early days were spent learning how to write in the student press, starting when I was in Grade 9. I still have copies of everything I have written, embarrassing as they might be (much like many bands' early demo tapes) and I can start to see how I learned and developed as a writer, particularly in my high school years writing for our school newspaper, The Spark, and my subsequent years writing in university for the Carillon at the U of R and the Sheaf at the U of S.

By the time I hit my second year at the Carillon, I started to have much more confidence in myself as a writer, and that continued for the next six years as I wrote articles regularly. I dabbled in film review and very little reporting in sports and news, but most of my focus was on sports commentary and interviewing bands and artists, as well as op/ed pieces. And even now, when I look back at those pieces, I realize that I was a really good writer even then. By the time I started this blog in the summer of 2004, I had a clear sense of who I was as a writer and a purpose for this blog; of course, my first few months of posts are quite embarrassing "train of thought" ramblings, but I had to learn somehow. I kept writing for the Sheaf until 2006-2007, but it was definitely a side project to Life of Turner, though I did manage to combine the two for a time that fall with my short-lived "Life of Turner" column in the Sheaf, which symbiotically helped me refine my writing for my blog.

Hockey Docs (2003-2008)

I dabbled in the world of hockey blogging for a few years using the moniker and tagline "Hockey Docs: Prescribing what's best for the game". I wrote a few articles for the Sheaf with that name, most notably a several week series in which I broke down how the NHL lockout affected each of the different parties involved: owners, players, fans, and the league. I had several friends who were writing and conversing about hockey with me, and I even went so far as to pay to have a site designed with one friend with the idea that Docs could become something significant. It didn't. I continued to occasionally blog about hockey, but I soon realized that I could not sustain anything more significant without much more investment, and I was not willing or able to do that. I now post about hockey infrequently here - mainly during the Stanley Cup playoffs - but the "Hockey Docs" idea is long gone.

Bring Back Vinyl (2005-2006)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the year in which the NHL locked out its players was a year in which I was able to pursue two side projects. The first was Bring Back Vinyl, a blog dedicated to "music snobs", a term which I would perhaps now replace with "enthusiasts". It was born out of a conversation with a fellow audiophile at an Underoath show; he went home, found a template, and we started aggregating news and writing reviews. I wrote about it on Life of Turner in an introductory post that shares some embarrassing similarities to this one, as well as a very ironic (through juxtaposition, not intention) reference to Thousand Foot Krutch in a post about creating a blog for people with refined musical palates (FYI: I no longer listen to TFK).

BBV was a fun project while it lasted, and I'm not exactly sure why it didn't; perhaps we just got too busy or we realized that it had just run its course. Though my interest in music generally began to wane after 2008 (when I got married, moved away, started a new teaching job, and started having significantly less time for music), I still do listen to a number of artists and I even blog about music occasionally; in fact, one of my new writing goals is creating a series entitled "Turner Tunes" in which I write about how different artists have been a part of my life. But I'll always fondly remember those heady days in which I tried to grab a piece of musical blogging pie with Bring Back Vinyl.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (2005-2007)

In that same year, I had become disconnected from my local church in the wake of a number of personal and ecclesiological issues that had arisen, and I, like many other millennials raised in the Evangelical church, was beginning to wrestle through how to reconcile what I saw in the Gospel with what I saw in the church as one of those erstwhile churchgoers who was reading Donald Miller and Brian McLaren and calling myself "Emergent" (funny how that never comes up anymore) while kind of staying attached to a church (which I did that year). A friend presented me with the idea of gathering some other like-minded souls and working through the issues we saw; I recruited a few key contributors and ESR (a quotation that comes from John Calvin, of all places) was born.

We began meeting in the fall, and we decided that we were witty enough to have earned a space and audience on the internet, so we started blogging; most of our posts consisted of links to early Colbert Report videos or other news articles, accompanied by somewhat snarky snipes at the church in general. We were unironically pretentious, even going so far as to refer to ourselves as the "Saskatoon chapter" as if we intended for this small group to become an international phenomenon (okay, so maybe I was the only one doing that, but I feel as though the sentiment was more broadly shared). We met every Thursday night for the duration of the school year, and there were maybe two dozen people who joined in at some point for our conversations, some of which included topics such as worship, missions, and homosexuality. We kept blogging intermittently after we stopped meeting, but eventually stopped publishing, likely because we all started to get busy with jobs and life, but ESR lives on in my heart and my Twitter feed and in the friendships I still have with several of those sojourners, many of whom have continued to find enough value in some form of the church to make it a part of their lives.

Mr. Turner (2007-present)

It might seem like an odd choice to call my chosen career a side project, but that's how it has often felt to me; in fact, I have often lamented that the amount of creative energy that has been required to be successful as a teacher has hampered my writing and not the other way around. I still have not yet hit the point in my career in which it has not required a significant input of time and creative energy to be teaching for anything longer than one year; not coincidentally, that year (2009) happened to also be the most productive year I have had as a writer since starting in the classroom. I am hopeful that at some point that my teaching and my writing can work together consistently; for now, I have to be happy with the fact that the general lack of attention that I need to pay as a high school substitute teacher has been affording me to generate the most writing I have done in four years.

Church Leadership (2009-2014)

Again, it seems odd to describe something that has been so integral to the last several years of my life as a "side project", but I think it makes sense. I have been in various positions of leadership and ministry since I was fifteen, but only in an established church sense in the last few years. I had the opportunity to be creative in helping manage money, lead others, write policies, and lead summer camps, and I gained a lot of life experience. I have had the vision for several years to write a book about my experiences, and I even have a title that has still (unbelievably) not been used, which makes this even more of a creative side project. I'm sure it will not be too long until I find a new outlet for these creative impulses, but for now, I'm happy channeling this into my writing (including working on that book).

Perler Tricks (2012-2013)
I remember the day I first started making designs with Perler beads: I was directing a summer camp and a friend was leading the kids in an activity. We had buckets of beads at the back for the kids to use, so I started to fiddle with them in my free time and I was instantly hooked. For most of the next year, I spent a lot of time creating bead sprites based on my favourite video game characters, and I even used existing graphics to create a couple of my own designs. I considered trying to make my artwork something more monetizable, but I soon realized that it would take a lot of time and energy to do so, so I had to settle with a witty pun for my Facebook photo album of bead sprite creations. I come back to the pegboards every so often, but not nearly as much as I would like to.

The Play's The Thing (2014-present)

This has been perhaps more of an idea than a reality, but over the past year I have been strongly considering what it would look like to have some combination of board game blog, podcast, game production company, and café under the moniker "The Play's The Thing" (taken, of course, from Hamlet). No one has used it yet, save for the name of an actual board game based on Shakespeare's most popular plays, so it's still possible to make it happen. I don't know how much of those I would need to (or be able to) do, but it's fun to dream about my next side project and to see the possibilities as it develops.

Conclusion


Creativity is not a constant; it is a variable that incorporates many different stimuli into something entirely new. Artists often have cycles of varying productivity and creativity, and they often need to find ways to explore themselves without the weight of expectation created by success. I'm not sure how "successful" I would consider Life of Turner, but the fact that I have kept it up for this long and that I do have dedicated readers speaks to some extent to some level of success, even if it is measured in a very personal manner. I know that there have been few external pressures for this blog, but I have struggled with my own expectations of what it is, should be, and could be over the years, and I have appreciated having other outlets to explore different creative facets of who I am personally, relationally, and professionally, online and offline, as they have helped me get to the point I am at today in some way or another. In some ways, social media provides some of those tools now as different ways of exploring and expressing the Life of Turner, but the question for me always returns to what is the next step to take creatively - what it is that is driving me forward and causing me to pursue creating.

I think every main creative outlet needs reinvigoration every so often to stay lively and vital. Many artists and writers take time away from their main craft to evaluate and revitalize themselves. U2 needed to "go away and dream it all up again" after Rattle and Hum in 1989, and the result was Achtung Baby, their best album; they went away again after Pop and produced All That You Can't Leave Behind and the Elevation tour. I've never fully left Life of Turner - though my publication history clearly demonstrates that there are significant lengths of time in which I was functionally (though not philosophically) gone - but I have done some dreaming and scheming during those less active times of what it could be and hoping about what it will be, which includes some of these side projects to some extent.

Right now, this writing is my most significant creative outlet, as I'm not teaching in my own classroom and I'm not in church leadership; I am working on several other creative projects, but this is the one that is taking most of my creative focus and attention in this season. It has been really encouraging and invigorating to feel like and to actually be a better writer and to be able to take the time and energy to pour into writing blog posts in part because my success here is giving me more clarity about what Life of Turner could (and should) be. I feel as though I'm constantly seeing with more focus where this might lead, and I'm excited to keep pushing through this process.

The first step, now that I have started to do some more writing, is to keep working on the redesign of the site in a way that will include some of these side projects as part of the matrix of Life of Turner, which is in turn what inspired this post in the first place. There are elements of each of these side projects that I continue to carry with me, and I am actively seeking how to draw them together in a way that is both manageable and meaningful. So I'm choosing to eschew side projects for now so that I can continue focusing on the Life of Turner, both URL and IRL.

Monday, November 09, 2015

We'll always have Grantland

I had a surreal moment last week when I went to do my usual rounds on the internet. There are a number of websites that I check regularly for news and commentary on different areas of news, sports, and pop culture, but as I went to check Grantland, one of those destinations for the past four years, I was greeted with a disappointing screen:


I knew that Grantland had unceremoniously been shuttered by ESPN on the previous Friday after four years of operation, but it was still disheartening to see that something that has been part of my life for four years was suddenly gone. There was little news about the reasons for the decision at the time, and even though ESPN President John Skipper just recently conducted a short interview with Vanity Fair about why he shut the site down, I suspect that there are other factors in the whole process, including the dismissal of Bill Simmons several months ago as Editor-in-Chief, that will stay hidden for now (and possibly for awhile), much like Simmons' mostly-widely-believed conspiracy theories about Michael Jordan's time playing baseball and what Roger Goodell actually knew about the Ray Rice tape (which was a point of contention with ESPN last year). At any rate, Grantland is now gone and it won't be back, which makes this the perfect time to comment on what it meant to me over the past four years.

Grantland was an aberration from the start, and it probably never should have been a thing in the first place according to corporate economics. The brainchild of Bill Simmons, the self-proclaimed "Sports Guy" who started writing local sports in Boston, moved to LA, worked with his buddy Jimmy Kimmel, and started to build an audience on ESPN's Page 2 throughout the latter half of the 2000s, Grantland, named after sportswriter Grantland Rice, came out of nowhere with a dizzying array of accomplished writers accompanying Simmons in his venture, including best-selling authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, and Dave Eggers (as well as Simmons himself). The site added talent continually, and it brought together commentary on sports, pop culture, and esoteric topics in a way no other site had (or arguably has yet). Many columnists developed their own voice and audience through Grantland, and in some ways it became an aggregator for some of the top emerging non-traditional sports and culture content found anywhere.

I, like many educated sports and pop culture fans, turned to Grantland as one of our first sources for intelligent commentary on a variety of events and trends, and many of the site's writers have taken residence among my favourite bloggers, critics, and cultural commentators. Some published "in memoriam" pieces about Grantland in different spaces of the internet - former hockey humourist Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown posted his favourite articles and Shane Ryan wrote a great piece from an outsider insider to the site - but I thought that I would add my own voice to the chorus and share some of my thoughts as a result of the end of Grantland, which ended almost as suddenly as it started, but left a lasting impact on journalism in the twenty-first century and on me personally.

I started reading Bill Simmons' columns nine years ago when he was still writing for ESPN's Page 2, which functioned as a "proto-Grantland". Page 2 prominently featured Simmons, who had begun to emerge as one of the pre-eminent voices in American pop journalism, alongside writers with wide portfolios such as Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Klosterman and others. Simmons was a unique presence in that, unlike many of his predecessors or contemporaries in sports journalism, he attempted to have a distinctive voice in his writing and he rarely stuck to the established script of sports writing. He was an unashamed homer for his Boston teams, he incorporated esoteric pop culture references throughout his columns, he referred to adult film stars and Boogie Nights on a somewhat regular basis, and he had a surprisingly encyclopedic knowledge of pro wrestling.

Simmons created a series of schemas and theories that he constantly referred to in later columns and some of which even achieved wider recognition, including The Trade Value Column, retro diaries, The Levels of Losing, The Ewing Theory, and The Tyson Zone (among many others). Simmons corresponded with personalities such as Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, Jalen Rose, and others, and he built a reputation as one of the savviest basketball writers around, establishing his place with his bestseller The Book of Basketball. An archive of his work from Page 2 lists hundreds of articles from 2001 to 2008 - and that's only halfway through his internet writing career. To be a fan of Simmons was to become part of the group of sports and culture aficionados who trafficked in those spaces, and Simmons' language soon became accepted shorthand within the wider sports world as well. Simmons himself became a significant personality in sports journalism and particularly on the NBA, and he was featured as a commentator for various events throughout the last few years in addition to having one of the most popular podcasts available.

Although I didn't always understand Simmons' references or agree with his points of view, I was drawn to him for several reasons. He was one of the most insightful writers analyzing sports in any kind of depth beyond reporting the details of what happened (though his retro journals took that particular peccadillo to an almost absurdly comical extreme); and he observed trends in a quantitative and qualitative way that set him apart from his peers. He was unpredictably predictable; dedicated readers might guess where he might go and how he would respond, but he always seemed to manage to surprise you in spite of the fact that you thought you knew the column that he was going to write. He was consistent, as he posted regularly and his use of shorthand invited you to be part of the conversation and community that surrounded him, including his frequent use of mailbags in which people would write their questions and comments to him in hopes of being published (I was not, but I had at least one friend who was). And perhaps most importantly, he was entertaining and funny. He has been, both for me and for many others, one of the most influential sportswriters - if not the most - of the internet age, and he has arguably done more to shape modern sports journalism than any other writer in the past fifteen years.

When Simmons started Grantland, it immediately became a must-visit site for me, and many articles caught my attention even without an interest in the topic. The site's content varied from the somewhat mundane updates and recaps of sporting events and reality television shows to much deeper, more significant content, but the main uniting thread was that the writers they chose to feature wrote with voice. Each writer, whether a regular columnist or author of occasional (or frequent) features, brought their own spin to what they were doing, and the site incorporated their distinctiveness into features that juxtaposed writers with one another in pop-culture brackets or quick thoughts in the wake of a significant pop cultural or sports event. There are other sites that have done these kinds of activities with pop culture (Paste, Vulture) or with news and politics (Slate), but I don't think anyone has done it with the kind of intentionality and virtuosity that Grantland did; Five Thirty Eight, also an ESPN property, comes perhaps the closest, but Grantland really has been one of a kind.

Perhaps the most significant impact that Grantland has had on me, however, is not as an aggregator of content, but as a generator of hope. Simmons, Grantland, and the style of writers they have sought to allow to flourish have been an inspiration for me as a writer. I would say that my own style is in many ways not dissimilar from the kind of content that was found on Grantland, and I never saw it as much of a stretch to see that I could have been a writer for the site at some point had I chosen to pursue it more intently. Grantland featured the kind of writing that I had always envisioned myself doing as a self-published blogger and the kind of writing that had originally inspired me to pursue a career in journalism - a career that did not process past my second year of university, when I realized that the kind of writing I liked doing was not conducive to a career as a journalist, but as a hobby writer, which is what I have done for a decade and a half now.

If nothing else, Grantland stood out as a beacon that the kind of writer I have become can find a voice and an audience, and it has helped inspire me to keep going as a writer, even though I have had difficulty either making the time to write or reconciling my place as a writer with my personal or professional circumstances. Its demise is not an indication of the end of that kind of writing; rather, it shows that this cohort of writers (which is admittedly not as homogenous in generation or style as I may have made it seem) will need to continue to be creative in finding new ways to express themselves and to make their voice heard. That, unfortunately, is the easy part; the hard part will be finding ways to monetize it and to make a living doing it.

So, with that in mind, it makes sense that I could be significantly disheartened by the end of Grantland; the corporations (Disney) have won, the voices have been silenced, the people don't have a voice, and the homogenization of culture is one step closer to whichever dystopia you choose, and so on. Although the end of Grantland is admittedly disappointing, I don't see it as the end of all things good about journalism in the 21st century; rather, I see the end of Grantland as the beginning of something else and an opportunity for growth. Grantland allowed a new generation of writers and journalists to flourish, and many of them have already found spaces in which they can be themselves in various institutions ranging from Simmons' new start-up on HBO to the New York Times. This Grantland generation will continue to shape what sports journalism and cultural commentary look like, and the fact that Grantland is no longer there just means that the style of Grantland will now begin to permeate that series of tubes known as the internet (as it already has).

Grantland was not the first to do what it did, nor will it be the last, but it is inarguably one of the most influential forces in these early(ish) years of internet journalism, and it will always be a significant part of the history of at least one corner of the internet. But at the same time, it will be a footnote in history in many ways - a site that ended before its time and an archive of links to articles about events long past and only alive in the memories of those who experienced it. It's likely that even those of us who were dedicated fans of the site will not have long memories, and within a few months, we will have found other spaces on the fringes of the increasingly corporatized internet that will fill the hole that Grantland's exit has left. But for what it's worth, Grantland will always have a special place for me, even as a memory of what it represented - the democratization and accessibility of competent, intelligent cultural commentary and sports journalism - and I believe that whether through our collective memory or through the influence of its current writers and the many writers that were inspired through its four years that we'll always have Grantland.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Cult of the New

Board gamers talk about a phenomenon called "The Cult of the New", in which we tend to gravitate toward games that receive a lot of buzz and leave old games unplayed as we continually play new games. There is a constant influx - a barrage, even - of new games being released throughout the year, particularly with the rise of Kickstarter as a funding platform. There are a couple of particular spikes during the year around the major conventions: GenCon in Indianapolis in August; Spiel in Essen, Germany in October; and BGG.Con in Dallas in November. These spikes tend to bring buzz and attention to a new crop of games at those times, and usually within a few months those games find their ways onto the tables of early adopters before they receive broader attention. I tend to be one of those early adopters, but I have been curious about how much I buy into the Cult of the New, so I have spent some time looking into my own habits as a gamer over the past ten months to see if I really do buy into this trend.

One of the things I have attempted to determine is just how many games that are released in a year fall somewhere in my radar, but it has turned out to be a more difficult process than I had expected because of the need to define how a game is "New", as that can vary widely in the world of board games with the many different methods of distribution. "New" can mean several things: brand new from Kickstarter; newly translated for the North American market from Europe; redesigned and rereleased in a new edition (not just a printing) that brings significant newfound attention to a game; or even a game that has only been available in very limited quantities that is now being more widely released. As such, games that have been out in some form for several years can still be considered "New"; for example, Machi Koro was initially released in Japan in 2012 and then ported to Germany and North America in late 2014, so it was nominated for Germany's Game of the Year award in 2015 and would still be considered "New." There is a bit of ambiguity, therefore, in terms of defining "New" for the purposes of any discussion about board games, so I'm using some personal judgment as I classify games in that category. For that reason, most of the numbers I will discuss are slightly rough estimates that are meant to indicate trends in my gaming, rather than to serve as absolute statistical values. Also, the term "games" will also include expansions for games, as it's a little unwieldy to write "games and expansions" each time.


How many games in a year?


One way of determining whether I buy into the Cult of the New is to see how many games I actually track and attempt to add to my collection either through purchasing or playing each year. In
 examining my Want to Play list, as well as the games I have played over the past ten months, I estimate that there are around ninety games that were released in that "New" window (from October 2014 to October 2015 and beyond) that would be on my radar as something to want to play. Of those ninety(-ish), about a dozen will not be released widely in North America until sometime in 2016, so that number likely settles in around the low 80s for the calendar year. I have already played 33, or just over a third, of those 80-85 games released this year, and I own 18 of that 80-85 (roughly 22%), in large part thanks to several Kickstarters. Of the one hundred games I have added to my WTP list in 2015 alone, just over sixty of them fall into this category of "New". I have no clue how many games are actually released in a year, but it's somewhere over a thousand, so I'm really only hitting a small segment of all of the games released (under 10%). But on its own, this observation cannot really determine if I am too much in the Cult of the New, as all it tells is how many games I am interested in in a given year, not necessarily how much precedence they take, so I'm not sure that this is enough to determine if I give into the Cult or not.

As somewhat of an aside, I did a quick observation of some of my other media trends and how many I take note of each year for comparison, and I found that board games are quite significantly my dominant hobby right now, as I pay attention to more new games being released than to any other media I am currently following. There are a maximum of ten video games released in any year that I would intend to play, although that makes sense considering that they are each intended to generate 20+ hours or play, as opposed to the much shorter duration of board games. For music, my functional interest has leveled out at around 25-30 albums a year, although it used to be closer to 50-60 in my musical heyday (c. 2003-2007); it dropped to its current level in 2010 and has stayed fairly consistent since that point, mostly in following artists I already know while adding one or two new ones each year. For movies, the number has consistently been around three dozen since I resumed watching movies in 2004, though I had a spike to 50 in 2009. My movie watching is significantly down over the past few years in general, so a lot of those tend to sit on my "watch sometime" list, but they're still on my radar. For television shows, it tends to be somewhere around 15-20 shows that are on my radar somehow throughout a year, which often ends up being 2 to 4 shows at a time spread throughout the year, several of which are short-term (10-13 episode) comedies. But I would almost always rather be playing board games, which should tell you something about my priorities.

Playing new games


One of the "Cult of the New" trends that some gamers are trying to buck is the trend of only playing new games and not revisiting old ones (even if they're not that old). There are challenges like the 10x10 challenge on BoardGameGeek, in which participants are encouraged to play ten games ten times each throughout the year, that are intended to counteract this trend, all of which I'm sure sounds completely ridiculous to anyone who is not a board gamer (you mean you play games once and then leave them there? Why?) So I took a look at my playing habits over the past ten months to determine just how much of them are from "New" games. 
Of the games I have played:

  • 62% (78/126) have been new to me;
  • 26% (33/126) have been "New" (in the past year);
  • 42% (33/78) of new games are "New";
  • 56% (71/126) have been played only once;
  • 57% of "New" games (19/33) have been played only once;
  • 18% (23/126) have hit four or more plays.
  • 12% (4/33) of "New" games have hit four or more plays.

So what does this show, other than the fact that I'm a gigantic nerd? I have a few observations:

  • I have very aggressively played new games over the past year; the highest number of new games I had ever played in any previous year was 33, and I will likely have played more new games in 2015 by the end of this week than in the past three years combined.
  • A significant portion of new games that I play are "New", but it's actually lower than I expected it to be at less than half.
  • The rates at which I play "New" games and other games are almost identical, meaning that I seem to be assimilating "New" games and other games that are new to me at almost exactly the same rate.

I cannot compare these number to previous years mainly because I did not keep as detailed of records in previous years, but even the sheer increase in volume suggests that I am playing more "New" games than I ever have, likely because I have a much wider circle of gaming friends now (not that it's hard to get wider than three people), many of whom invest significantly in board gaming as a hobby - meaning that they buy more new games. There are risks in buying games as they're released - mainly that they won't actually be very good - but it makes it easier to do when the risk is spread out among many people rather than all in your own collection.


Evaluating Want To Play factors


In June, I blogged about how I add games to my "Want to play" list on BoardGameGeek, which I define as games that I have not yet played ever; once I play a game, it's off the list (and likely onto a different one). And just this week, I had a bit of extra time, so I spent some time going through the BoardGameGeek Top 100 (and subsequently the next 1000 after that) to see if I needed to add any games to my "Want to Play" list, which of course I did - 48 times. This year, I have done something that is even a little nerdier than I have done in the past with tracking my games (I know some of you are wondering if that was even possible, but it is, as you will see) in that I have tracked not only the games I have played, but also the changes to my WTP list, whether that was from games that I played off the list, removed from the previous year's list, or added this year. Those recent 48 additions put me at 100 games added to my list in 2015, so I thought this would be an interesting point at which to evaluate whether I was actually correct in how I said I added games to my list as part of my investigation into determining my possible predilection toward the "cult of the new". 


The five factors that I believed determined my want to play list as included at the time I wrote the post were: designer; reputation/buzz/zeitgeist; mechanic (innovation); possible/likely replay value; and theme/presentation. 
I grouped the hundred games I have added to my list over the past year into categories determined by the dominant reason they were added to my list. The categories, of course, could have a lot of overlap, but I put games in just one category each and I ended up with the following numbers:

  • Designer - 25;
  • Kickstarter - 16;
  • Reputation/Buzz - 19;
  • Connection to previous game - 14;
  • Recommended by other gamers - 13;
  • BGG Ranking - 9 games;
  • "Classic" status (games I feel that should just play at some point) - 4 games.

Of course, most of those categories don't match the five factors I identified earlier, but I realized that at least two of those factors (mechanic and possible replay value) are not so much determiners as they are mandatory to end up on my list; that is, if they don't have a mechanic I like or seem like they will be replayable for me, I'm not going to be very interested in playing them. These categories, other than "designer", are more about the source of information in order to consider them, not so much the actual content or style of the game, but every game of those one hundred had to appeal beyond the initial check to make it onto my list. Those five factors seem to still be present to some degree or another, just not in the way I may have originally envisioned; I think if I were to rank them that the order from most important to least would be: designer; mechanic/innovation; reputation/buzz; replay value; and theme/presentation.

So what of the "Cult of the New"? Well, around sixty of the games I have added to my Want to Play list this year are "New", so that means that I am interested in three "New" games for every two games that have been released before the past year. Of course, many of those forty "older" games (some of which date all the way back to early 2014) were also part of the "Cult of the New" in their day, but I either ignored them or missed them because I was too busy paying attention to other games at the time. There are relatively few of the one hundred additions (around ten percent) that came out before the last few years, so this seems to indicate that I am leaning toward "New" games as a trend. 


Conclusions



In looking at the number of games of which I take note in a year, the patterns that are beginning to emerge in how I play and replay games, and how I add games to my Want to Play list in a year, I would say that I have symptoms of progressing toward the Cult of the New. I am interested in more "New" games than I ever have been, and I am playing more "New" games than I ever have before. But I also still play and pursue a significant number of older games (ie. pre-2012), so I'm not necessarily ignoring those games in order to play the "New" ones, which is one of the primary ways that a gamer succumbs to the Cult of the New. I do have a high number of games with limited numbers of plays, which might speak to Cult leanings, but I also have a broad base of total games played not only over the course of this year but over the past few years. So I would say that I'm not entirely in the Cult of the New, but as an avid board gamer that I am aware of and excited about new games that are being released. I suspect that a diagnostic of my collection would support this thesis, as I do have games that have been released throughout the past twenty years in my collection with some skewing toward the past four years in which I have become very intentional about the games I play and own.

But part of what is interesting to me is that I am entering a phase of my BoardGameGeek-ery that I experienced in my other hobbies in that I have a wide enough base of experiences now to really start to build. When I started getting into music in 1999, or movies in 2004, or television in 2006, there was an exploratory period in which I remember getting to know not only the medium but also how I functioned within it; those exploratory periods often lasted 2-3 years, depending on intensity, before I could say that I had achieved significant progress in that medium and could be considered somewhat of an expert. Over the past four years, I have played over 200 distinct games (not including expansions), and I have played many of those enough to be quite knowledgeable about strategies, mechanics, and how to play new games. I have built a broad base of knowledge and understanding, which is why I still have so many games that I want to play even now at 188 and I am constantly adding more to that list; just as when I knew more directors or songwriters, I now know more game designers, and the breadth of my existing repertoire is a benefit to my pursuit of new games.

Having 188 games on my Want to Play list now and adding another 80 each year is also likely unsustainable for any length of time, so I imagine that I will soon (in the next year or two) hit a point, like I did with those other media, in which my interests start to again be more selective as a result of time or just general experience and knowledge. It's entirely possible - even likely - that I will again retract some of those additions to my Want to Play list and reduce the number of new games that I play and want to play, but for now, I'm happy to play what I can and to not be too affected by the Cult of the New. After all, a good game should be a good game no matter whether it was released two months ago or two decades ago, which is why I'm pulling out El Grande (won the Spiel des Jahres in 1996) at tomorrow's games night. Then again, there is a new Big Box edition coming out this year, so maybe it's just a big cycle of Cult of the New all over again...or maybe I'm just thinking about this too much and I just need to play the games I like no matter when they were released.

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