Barcelona, Day 2

The following day we toured the football stadium, Camp Nou, which had Harman geeking out at every turn. If I still followed baseball I’m sure it would have been the same as me getting the chance to walk on the field at Yankee Stadium. But Harman assured me that FC Barcelona was the soccer equivalent of the Yankees, so it was easy for me to feel a certain sense of childlike wonder, myself. We looked into getting tickets for a match, too, but their main team (if that’s even how you say it) was in their off season and anyway most tickets alone cost more than our flights over the Atlantic. So we decided a walk through the museum and a few pictures on the field would suffice.

After that we searched for some lunch and decided to confirm our hypothesis about that majestic Taco Bell from the day before. Forgive us silly Americans, but one simply cannot pass up a Crunchwrap Supreme when in a time of need. They also serve Kit-Kat tacos which, if you were wondering, is literally a grilled tortilla with a Kit-Kat bar in-between. It certainly wasn’t the greatest thing we’d ever eaten, but for one dollar we couldn’t complain.

We then did a bit of sightseeing, finding a plaza of statues and street performers, tourists and a remarkable amount of pigeons all converging at the same time and place. But it was hot and we were both still on the verge of falling asleep standing up at any given time, so we hopped the train back to the hostel to regroup and figure out the rest of our night.

When we got back Harman spent some time filling out paperwork for his impending job back home. I was – and am still – unbelievably proud of my best friend, but I was also a bit jealous – of having something you had to do for work, of having a new job lined up – but figured what better way to distract myself from the troubles of reality than to watch the sunset over the sea? We were only a few blocks from the water and all I had to do was smell the salty air to point me in the right direction.

The sand at the beach was rocky and coarse, and uncomfortable to walk on, and despite the fact that it was still plenty warm at 8 o’clock in the evening, the water was icy to step in. But the waves that came steadily crashing to the shore were a shade of greenish blue I’d never seen before in my life. I sat down and looked out onto the Balearic Sea.  Looking straight out into the water I saw nothing but a hazy horizon, one that was hiding the shores of France and Italy from my sight. To my left were the furthest shores of Spain crawling out into the water. And to my right, well, I guess I was looking in the general direction of North America. But I decided to turn my gaze around and squint as hard as I could in the hopes of seeing the Italian shoreline across the water.

There was a group of local children playing in the frigid water. There were couples kissing and rolling in the sand. Down the coast I heard the faintest echoes of nightlife. Behind the skyscrapers in the distance the hills of Spain rolled out and morphed into a hazy fog. The sun was pouring down, washing everything in a shade of gold and orange and yellow. And suddenly I felt sad that this was to be my last night in Spain. I was beyond excited to continue our trip. After all, France was next – freakin’ France! But with one city down it meant I was one check mark on the bucket list closer to having to return home. I didn’t even know what I’d be returning to.

The anxiety of trying to find a new job – one that actually put my degree to use. The anxiety of deciding which city to move to, finding an apartment, letting people down and trying to prove people (including myself) wrong. It’s a terrifying thing, growing up. I wanted to see so much and know so much and do so much and be so much. All without the slightest clue as to how the hell I’d get there. I wanted to find my soul – that’s why anyone travels. And how the hell can anyone be expected to know what city or country they want to live in, or what they want to do on a daily basis for the next 20-40 years of their life, or who they want to love for the rest of their lives, or what kind of story they want to leave behind without first truly knowing their soul? The whole thought terrified me. I thought that the moment I stepped foot on foreign soil I’d be met with a wave of clarity and awakening, giving me all the answers to the questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask.

But all I’d done was travel thousands of miles to the other side of the globe without the ability to escape myself.

However, the water was beautiful, the last woman on the beach at this hour stole my heart just before she faded into the night and the furthest recesses of my memory, and the night was still young. I was in Spain tonight and tomorrow I’d be in freakin’ France. So I didn’t let myself get the best of me, and decided I better go get a cup of coffee.

I wandered the cavernous streets of Badalona that were lined with souvenirs, pharmacies, restaurants, and drunk tourists. I got a slice of pizza from an Italian restaurant and decided to take it for a walk, but was met with about two hundred suspicious eyes as to why I had decided to eat and stroll the streets at the same time. But it was a good slice and I didn’t care, and eventually I spotted the last café open at the hour and received even more curious looks when I ordered an espresso at 9:47 p.m. But this too was delicious, and feeling at least somewhat satisfied and actually kind of bored I returned to Harman at the hostel to decide what we’d do for dinner. Or at least second dinner, in my case.

We decided on a different Italian restaurant that also had Middle Eastern options just a few blocks south of us, not too far from the beach. We arrived to a near full house of people our age, eating, drinking, laughing, and enjoying their youth and geographical location. We knew we picked the right spot. We were then immediately met with the warmest of greetings, being personally escorted to our table and waited on by the owner, himself. Harman and I were both starving and were quick to take the owner’s recommendations. He didn’t disappoint.

Out came a mountain of miniature wedge fries for us to share (labeled as tapas on the menu) and our own personal mountain of falafel and seasoned chicken, respectively, with even more fries and vegetables on the side. It was so much food that both he and I almost considered not finishing our meal. But it was so good that we couldn’t let ourselves live in regret with one bite of falafel or one slice of chicken left behind. So we stuffed ourselves and made the short, slow walk back to the Be Dream to collapse into our beds and digest until morning.

We didn’t get the chance to do everything we’d wanted to in Barcelona. Staying more than an hour outside the city centre complicated things a bit, and the first leg of any trip is always met with higher expectations than most of us can climb to. It was absolutely beautiful and being there for only two days was enough time to realize why the city is legendary among travelers. I even met a handful of fellow wanderers on my trip who had spent more time than two days in the city and had lost their hearts (along with two of them who happened to lose their phones in Barcelona nightclubs.)

If found with the opportunity in the future, I can say confidently that I will be returning to the Spanish coast for a more detailed and delicate view of the country. I’d also desperately love to see Portugal and almost made a last-minute detour on the final leg of my journey. But both Harman and I agreed – as we would come to find out many times on the trip – that there just isn’t enough time to do and see everything. It’s a saddening thought, but true, and some truths in life are nothing less than melancholic for the simple fact that they tell us all exactly what we don’t want to hear. I could see myself surrendering my heart (but hopefully not my phone) to Catalonia, for it is a place of romantics and dreamers.

But the next day we’d be on a bus to France. And that night we needed to pack and attempt to get some rest despite the unbelievable sound that was still coming from the mouth and nose of the French girl sleeping beside us.

Barcelona, Day 1

I landed in Barcelona after surviving three delays and four separate flights over the course of just one day.

I had been drifting in and out of consciousness since we departed Newark, staring mindlessly at the little TV that was attached to my seat and wondering just exactly what it was that the flight attendant was thinking when she caught me looking at her multiple times over the course of the seven hour flight. I swear I was only hoping for a cup of water, which wasn’t even included in my ticket price. Although I wouldn’t have complained if a little bag of pretzels or peanuts or sedatives had found their way into my hands, either. I really didn’t sleep despite it being a red-eye, but when the people who manned the window seats throughout the plane all collectively raised their blinds to let the midday Spanish sun burst into the plane, I forgot that I had been awake for more than twenty four hours. And I have to apologize to the nice looking family that was seated to the left of me – I wasn’t staring at you, I was simply craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the Pyrenees Mountains off in the distance.

I collected my single carry-on bag from the overhead apartment and threw it across my back. For the next three weeks my life would be stuffed and folded and crammed into one humbly-sized 40L backpack. I’d come to learn that you really don’t need much more than what you can carry.

I looked one last time at the flight attendant, hoping for a number or an address to find its way into my hands now. I would have even settled for a smile (after all, I could buy plenty of water in the airport). But all I got was the generic, “Thank you for flying Norwegian,” and I made my way to the gate. (Actually she just said, “Nice try, now get the hell off my plane.”) Defeated but only temporarily heartbroken, I now found myself staring out through the intimidating glass windows that rose from the ground to the ceiling of the El Prat airport. As the wave of fellow passengers swarmed and floated past me, all I could see was an expanse of dust and blacktop and heat and construction equipment covering the tarmac. And I had never felt like I had accomplished more in my life.

How easy it was to simply buy a ticket and make your way onto a plane to find yourself half the world away? I couldn’t tell if what I was seeing was real or simply a mad trip of the mind. Was life all about where you are or where you could go? Simply who you are or who you were able to become?

I had a feeling I’d be asking myself that question a lot over the next few weeks.

I found my friend, Harman, waiting just beyond the Customs counter in the lobby, looking just as exhausted as I did, waiting to greet me and congratulate me for successfully leaving my old self behind for at least few weeks and finding my way to Spain.

“Meet me in Barcelona,” I shouted, reverberating across the linoleum. He smiled and told me that he knew I would say that. (It was the catchphrase I had been using since he and I first planned the trip last winter.) We hugged like every good bromance and took turns watching the bags while we each threw some water on our faces in the bathroom. We were both hungry and thirsty (I was still looking for that water) but we decided to head over to our hostel first and check-in before anything else. As we exited the airport we made our way through the parking lot (or deck – I can’t remember which) aimed for the Metro line. Midway through our walk, however, we stopped and said, almost simultaneously, “We’re not in the United States anymore.” Saying that felt surreal. But we both smiled, knowing that we had a glorious couple weeks ahead of us before we had to make our way home. At that point in the trip, however, I was still unsure as to whether or not I’d actually catch my return flight in Paris. I joked that instead I would run off to the Italian countryside and make wine for a living, surviving off of nothing more than good bread and a decent-enough WiFi connection. For those of you concerned as to whether or not you’ll have a place to stay one day in Italy, I’m still looking into it.

But once we got to the Metro counter and bought an all-inclusive travel pass (unlimited use of the Metro system for two days for only $15 – steal of a deal), we hopped on what we hoped was the right train and headed for the city of Badalona, the location of our hostel just about an hour outside of Barcelona’s own city centre. Exiting the train station we looked like I assumed all weary travelers do – wide eyed and excited, but with the slightest glow of total and utter confusion. But we eventually got ourselves turned in the right direction and checked in at the Be Dream hostel.

For what it’s worth, the Be Dream wasn’t the worst hostel we would come to stay at over the course of the trip. (That title would belong to Switzerland, but we’ll get to that later.) It provided the basics – a bed, a sheet, a roof – but nothing more. The WiFi cut out the second we reached our room in the furthest corner of the furthest hall, and when I asked the receptionist if there was a water fountain to fill my bottle, he said to just go into the bathroom and use the sink.

I made sure I had plenty of change on me to buy water from the vending machines.

Staying in hostels meant we’d be sharing rooms with strangers for the next few weeks. I loved the idea, excited to meet new people and hear new stories and gain new perspectives. But the first set of fellow travelers left a lot to be desired. There was the stereotypical couple – the one that is joined at the hip and spends the majority of the time in bed waiting for the room to clear out, and a pair of French girls – one of which had the most heart stopping snore I’ve ever heard. We also met a wonderful woman from New Zealand but neglected to decipher whether her name was Penny or Pini, and we ended up hanging out by ourselves for those two days.

That afternoon we took the train to see the city centre of Barcelona. The second you walk up the stairs from the subway you are greeted with the intimidating walls of the Sagrada Familia. I remember Harman asking, “Where is it?”

“I think that’s it,” I said, turning around 180 degrees, and we both just started laughing at our own cluelessness. The level of detail in the statues and stained glass windows made my jaw hang open for just enough time to let everyone around me realize that I was, in fact, yet another tourist. Now I am not necessarily a religious man, choosing to believe that spirituality and a connection to something (whatever that is) greater than ourselves can play a role in our lives – without having to define it or bind it by some set of ancient or arbitrary rules. But despite the labyrinth of scaffolding surrounding it, standing in the shadow of that cathedral with the countless biblical narratives all beautifully constructed from stone, suspended hundreds of feet off the ground, it was easy to see why anyone within the city (past or present) could call themselves a believer.

Also, conveniently located across the street was a Taco Bell.

Harman and I chose first to try a local restaurant that was literally a hole in the wall. The food was delicious and the margaritas were strong, but we hadn’t yet adjusted to the European-sized portions, so we decided to make a stop at the Taco Bell later that afternoon. (And if you were wondering, that Spanish T-Bell location may have been blasphemous but was absolutely majestic.)

We spent the rest of the day roaming the city and checking in and out of souvenir shops. I also kept trying to remind myself that just one day ago I was nearly stranded in the Boston Logan airport with no guarantee of getting to New Jersey or Spain on time. We circled what we thought were the same handful of blocks for a few hours, sampled a local bakery, and attempted to keep our heads up – literally. I had my camera with me, but despite being in one of the biggest, most popular cities on the planet thousands of miles from home, I had no desire to look through the lens of my Canon and only wanted to look at the inside of my eyelids.

We were both exhausted and chose to save our energy for the next day when we would be touring Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s football stadium. Back at the hostel that night we divided our time plotting our travel arrangements to Marseille, France in a few days and where to get the best cheap-eats late that night. We settled on a FlixBus that left at around noon in two-days time, and a wonderful little empanada shop just a few blocks away. The flavors ranged from shredded chicken to bacon fig-jam, and were all delicious. And I finally got myself some water to wash it all down.

That Tricky, Tainted Four Letter Word

Jack Kerouac, the beat-generation darling responsible for fueling countless road trips and soul- searching backpackers over the last six decades, once wrote, “The road is life.” This is by far the easiest of his quotes for people of all ages to prophesize, exploit, and it resides among others like, “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry,” and, “The road must eventually lead to the whole world.” All of which are very catchy and easily tattoo-able. (I won’t mention which quote of his I have inked on my right forearm, but you’re welcome to take a guess.)

Like so many fidgety, anxious, confused, lonely, and pissed-off-by-the-world 24-year olds, I held onto these passages and more like gospel when I condensed my life into a modestly sized backpack and took my first step out onto that road on my own in 2019. And yes, this time in my life was immediately preceded by my completion of Kerouac’s seminal work On The Road, the 1950’s manifesto for getting into a car (or train or plane) and just going. (Objectively speaking, it’s not his best novel by far. My favorite is Dharma Bums.)

The traveler is many things; decisive isn’t one of them. But they are driven by a sort of knowing inside of them, a feeling in their gut or chest or head or spine, or wherever restlessness may lie, and if you ask them, odds are they won’t be able to pinpoint exactly which afflicts them most. Perhaps it’s a little bit of everything. But that’s what the traveler is after, right? A taste of life, here, there, everywhere; anything and everything at all. 

Two years ago, I divided most of my time between Florida, Seattle, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, New York, and Colorado Springs, resisting the urge to stay in one place for too long or to sneak away almost immediately to the next spot on my list, all of which came by the way of the equally infamous Hunter S. Thompson’s, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I relied solely on my meager post-college life savings that I’d been holding onto since freshman year, a handful of trade-work opportunities, and the kindness of my older sister to let me crash on her apartment floor when I was ‘in-between’ zip-codes for too long. But, in spite of all the instability of it all, I still have trouble believing that I hiked the Italian coastline at Cinque Terre and have seen the Eiffel Tower at night. Call me a romantic, because that’s exactly what I am, but I still try to believe in as much magic in this world as I can — even though that hasn’t been the easiest thing to do for the last year.

On some level, throughout every place I visited, I found the truest version of myself that I have ever come to know. We had some great conversations. It was nice to finally meet me. 

Through every city and country and hostel I stayed or worked in, I was introduced to that top- secret travelers code. When it comes to packing for months on end, you quickly learn what a necessity in life truly is. When you leave behind everything you ever thought you wanted you come to find everything you never knew you needed. You also become fearless when traveling. 

‘Jump and the net will appear,’ as the saying goes and if it doesn’t, you teach yourself how to swim. You realize this the moment you leave your comfort zone, when you get to see what you’ve been missing all along. Or, sometimes, you accept that comfort isn’t such a bad thing after all.

You will absolutely lose a part of yourself when traveling and will become nearly unrecognizable to the people and life you left back where you started. This sense of self-actualization is the purest form of ecstasy there is in life. Within every single person I crossed paths with, whether for a day or a week or more, I found some sort of universal thread connecting us all. You also learn the lesson of letting go, when it comes to both your material possessions and the people you meet along the way. (Don’t worry; you’ll all follow each other on Instagram, anyway.) There is, after all, a sweet serendipity to life that brings souls together when they need to be. 

Yet for everything you come to learn about yourself & the world, much of which I haven’t yet discovered myself, most travelers are still left at the end of the day trying to answer one question: What the hell am I doing this for? Why change old bed sheets all day or empty dozens of trash cans or clean bird shit from fire escape stoops all in exchange for a free spot on some exhausted old foam mattress in a room with nine other people, all doing the same thing? Why leave family and friends in the dust just to stuff your life into a carryon bag, blow all of your money on one- way tickets, and rotate through the same two pairs of jeans & handful of t-shirts for months on end? While many nights are spent in the company of incredibly interesting people with stories to tell from all over the globe, many others are spent entirely, shatteringly alone because as you will inevitably remind everyone you meet in each new destination, you’re not from there, and that can quickly become paralyzing to even the most ambitious of traveler. 

But there’s something endlessly noble about this lifestyle, the willingness to throw everything to the wind in the hopes that, one day, you’ll magically wake up exactly where you’re supposed to be, that backpack of yours now full of stories and frayed threads detailing exactly how you got there. Far too many people are afraid of simply saying that they want more out of life than what they currently have. It takes courage to admit that you‘ve been misplaced. 

Now, in spite of all the adventure and mystery and enchantment that Kerouac can inspire in so many curious hearts, he also penned later in the same novel upon reaching the end of that story he’d glorified for so long, “I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.” I wrote once that I was destined to seek whatever it is that I am looking for in life, wherever that may be, never settling for one place or time, drifting from moment to moment and memory to memory, seeking that sweet serendipity of life, collecting all I can about love and life and lust and loss, never necessarily belonging, always simply passing through. But it’s easy to become disenchanted by this lifestyle. 

You do eventually become just another person, just another traveler, wandering without a reason in yet another new location, aimlessly trying to find something — anything — that will justify your going in the first place. When you spend enough time passing in & passing through different places and people, you can start to disappear. You can quickly find yourself lost. For even the most starry-eyed individuals, you’ll eventually see the value that can come with being a practical romantic, after all. Sometimes it’s nice to have a dresser to store your clothes in or a private room to sleep in. You begin to appreciate something as simple as a bedroom door. Something which I’m still learning is that it’s OK to slow down for a while; it’s OK to just sit still, which has never been a strength of mine. You learn that no matter where you go, you both cannot run away from or fool yourself for long, and you will come to know what it feels like when you’ve overstayed your welcome — and when you’ve been forced to leave too soon. 

Yet despite all of this, so many people still constantly find themselves floating from country to country and city to city, and in many cases, from life to life, and countless more will always do the same, from all ages and walks of life. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that so many borders are slowly but surely starting to open back up. To some, it may just be a way to get highly likable content for their social media accounts; to others, it’s an escape; but at some level for everyone, it’s nothing less than a calling. You realize that the first step away in any direction is really the first step that will eventually lead you back to wherever you were going to get to in the end, anyway. Because while Kerouac and that entire generation of storytellers glorified an endless search for anything, as any traveler will attest, we’re simply searching for one thing in particular, no matter where, when, or with whom we find it. 

Home.

‘Joker’ Could Save the DC Universe

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Watch the trailer here.

Finally.

After months of teasing set-photos and a few leaked clips from production, DC has released a full trailer for the upcoming film, Joker. 

The movie follows Arthur Fleck, a failed standup comedian living in the comic book world’s toughest town, Gotham City. We now know a bit more about his backstory, including his sense of being an ‘outcast’ in society, and the revealing of an unhinged mind in the body of a crumbling man. Arthur has been beaten up and spit out by the city (literally and figuratively), and by the end of the trailer is ready to change the punchline of his own story.

Arthur Fleck slowly begins to adopt his new persona as his reality begins to distort and disappear, giving us a brief glimpse at Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the most infamous comic book villain of all time, the Joker. A more restrained, sinisterly whimsical take on the Clown Prince of Crime (at least from what the trailer offers), Phoenix’s Joker looks like a healthy mix of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. However, with as powerful of an actor as he is, I have full faith that Phoenix will bring the character into an entirely unique light, without needing any comparisons to the short list of great Joker performances that came before his (Suicide Squad excluded.)

As of now the movie seems to being staying pretty faithful to the comic storylines. (The ‘failed standup comic turned super villain’ is the backstory of the classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, albeit with the book boasting a handful of other differences.) But we are still unclear as to how this film will fit in with the newly established – and confusing – DC Universe. Joker is a standalone film set in the 1980’s, so I have no idea how it’s going to – if at all – tie in with the rest of the DC movies released so far. But in my opinion, I hope it doesn’t.

I have always said that the reason Marvel films are so well done is because they not only stay true to the comics, but for the most part are grounded in reality (as much as possible.) That’s why The Dark Knight trilogy houses the greatest ‘comic book’ films of all-time: Because they were produced and imagined as dark crime dramas with just a hint of ‘Bam’, ‘Pow’, and ‘Bang’. But that’s all in the past.

Beginning with the impossible Batman V Superman, the new DC Universe has focused their films on wafer-thin plot lines and badly animated CGI mythical creatures. (I’m still not over just how pathetically bad Justice League was, by the way.) With one critically crucified movie after another, with the exception of the solid Wonder Woman, the DC Universe is in desperate need of a good film. That is why Joker is more important than ever.

From the trailer we see a slow-burning, plot driven film grounded in a very realistic and gritty version of Gotham City. The Joker isn’t covered in nonsensical tattoos and doesn’t have metallic teeth. He is in an outfit realistic to the character and masks himself in clown makeup – the exact way you would expect a super villain to look like in a true origin story. The trailer isn’t flashy or over the top. There aren’t any crazy explosions or car chases. And we don’t even get a mention of Batman or the Wayne family. We get a hyper-realistic take on how the greatest comic book villain of all-time first got started, no glitz or glam or Hot-Topic inspired soundtracks required. And that is what I hope the film focuses on throughout its runtime.

Joker could set the precedent for the future of DC by putting plot first and CGI last. As long as this film lives up to the tone set by its trailer, this could change everything for the DC Universe regardless of where it falls in the timeline. Audiences want good stories above all else; The Joker has the best story of them all. Hopefully DC will listen, giving fans the last laugh with a movie that lives up to the hype and plots a new course for the rest of the DC Universe.

The film will be released on October 4th.

The Future is Entirely Human

On Monday, March 25th 2019, Apple held their annual service announcement. This year everybody’s favorite fruit unveiled a handful of new offerings, including a premium news subscription called Apple News+, a new game subscription dubbed Apple Arcade, and even – wait for it – a credit card. Yes, you read that correctly. The classic stereotype of iPhone users is feeling superior to everyone in the world using an Android phone. And now those users will have a shiny piece of laser-etched titanium in their wallets to prove it.

All of this sounds…cool, right? Nothing life-changing, but nice to have, eh? That was the tone of the audience until Apple’s final announcement.

The lights went out. The giant screen at the center of The Steve Jobs Theater began to come alive. And the audience was greeted by the face of Steven Spielberg to unveil Apple’s new streaming service for original content, Apple TV+.

Along with Spielberg, Apple has enlisted some of the most talented names in Hollywood, including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, JJ Abrams, Sara Bareilles, Kumail Nanjiani, and even the cast of Sesame Street. But the list goes on, all building to a thunderous conclusion when the one and only Oprah graced the stage to announce her own partnership with the streaming service. The content Apple previewed certainly looks like it will put up one hell of a fight with the likes of Netflix and Prime Video. But what caught my attention most was not the lineup of shows or stars that will be coming our way this Fall.

It was Apple’s juxtaposition of technology and art.

Our digital lives are becoming more advanced every day, and technology that may have been revolutionary only a year ago is most likely outdated today. Technology is developing at a ferocity that was unimaginable only a century ago, providing new ways to stay in-touch and connected like something out of a sci-fi epic. All of this being accomplished by simply tapping away at the little piece of glass, steel, and silicon in your pocket.

Apple’s big message behind their decision to produce original content is that they are dedicated to connecting audiences through the best stories the world has to offer. That was echoed by every A-Lister brought on stage. Now, this move obviously has a financial incentive for the company as well, with Apple looking to overwhelm yet another market. But Apple rose to global dominance by committing to one simple principle: Connect people, no matter the distance, through something as simple as the cell phone in your pocket. Now they hope to connect us all through the power of story.

I have always believed that everyone in your life is there for a reason and that you can learn from each person you cross paths with. I also believe that everyone has a unique perspective and voice, and deserves to be heard. So having one of the largest technology companies in recorded human history preach the power of connecting with other people through storytelling is a very welcome surprise. Apple emphasized a commitment to sharing honest accounts of the human experience. And that’s something that we desperately need more of.

For as far as we have come thanks to advancements in technology, the art of storytelling was the original way to bring people together. No Snapstreaks or memes required. One day I hope to be a writer and a filmmaker; Two story-driven paths. But most importantly, I hope that people will read and watch what I have to say, allowing my message to connect with as many people in the audience as possible. Just as I hope readers find a connection with every blog I write or every photograph that I post on this website.

But sometimes it can feel as if you are truly going at it all by yourself. However, during Apple’s presentation, Steven Spielberg reminded us that no on ever tells a story alone. There are inherent truths and feelings that everybody on this planet knows, regardless of race, religion, or geography. He reminds us that storytelling is a universal language all its own.

As of now, there is no artificial intelligence that can mimic human emotion or recall memories from its past, either joyous or painful. There is no software that ‘feels’ and there is no community of computers dedicated to discussing the complicated complexities of life on a soulful level. As for now, that job still falls to us humans. And that is a glorious thing.

Because for as intertwined as our digital lives may be, for the countless resources that are available to anyone with a basic internet connection, for all of the laser-etched titanium credit cards in our wallets, and for the instant gratification that comes with ‘following’ someone (or when they ‘follow’ you back,) there will never be a device more instrumental in connecting humans with other humans than something as simple as a story.

It’s the one thing that brings us all together as part of something greater than our individual selves, and it can be found in the pages of your favorite book or the frames of your favorite film. There is art in technology; There is also technology in art. But as for now, the power of story remains solely in the minds and voices of every person on this planet. Technology is going to continue advancing further and faster than we ever thought possible, beckoning us into stages of modern life that we can’t even imagine yet. But due to the power that comes with connecting to other people regardless of language or location – and thanks to the art of storytelling – the future is entirely human.

 

Google Just Unveiled the Future of Streaming.

Searching for its chance to break into the highly lucrative world of game streaming, Google may have changed the way we consume digital content once again.

As the GDC, or Game Developer’s Conference, comes to a close this week, Google stole the spotlight with the announcement of its highly anticipated, somewhat secretive gaming platform Stadia.

In non-techy terms, Stadia will be Google’s standalone game streaming service that can be accessed on your Pixel device, PC, or any Chromecast TV. There won’t be a standalone box and the only hardware set to released will be a WiFi enabled controller that looks exactly like what you’d expect from the masters of minimal, flat design. And yes, it will have a headphone jack.

Google spoke about the decision to forgo any physical console, highlighting the key selling point of the Stadia platform: It can be accessed and enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. * (Typical bandwidth restrictions apply, read the fine print.)

Certainly a better option than lugging your Playstation, Xbox, or high-end gaming PC around with you.

Google also unveiled some pretty incredible tech behind the streaming service, ultimately promising the ability to stream games in full 4K HD at 60 fps – with minimal latency. (You’ll be able to stream games at a quality identical to that of using a physical disc or digital download, all with little to no ‘lag’.) All of this combined with AAA titles is sure to be a game changer in the industry. Imagine turning on your TV and within minutes being able to stream the latest Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – at more than playable speeds. A far cry from spending hours downloading digital copies of games or buying a physical disc and installing it on your system’s hard drive, which could take hours, as well.

But beyond this, the folks from Mountain View have packed in some pretty cool features that will certainly have you thinking twice before laying out hundreds of dollars for another bulky device to sit under your TV.

With the addition of their signature, “Hey, Google” voice command, you’ll be able to access services like YouTube mid-game. So the next time you get stuck on a difficult mission or level, a quick voice command will have Google do the rest. This feature provides an overlay of relevant YouTube videos that have been auto-scrubbed (or fast-forwarded to the part you need to see) on-top of the game, pausing your progress in the background. Think of it like a next generation picture-in-picture mode. Then without missing a beat you can exit the YouTube video and jump right back where you left off, finally solving that puzzle in Tomb Raider. Pretty incredible and incredibly convenient, if you ask me.

There is also a button on the controller that lets you instantly stream your gameplay to YouTube, an attempt to upend the juggernaut that is Twitch. And there will be support for multiplayer as well. However, it will be interesting to see how the streaming quality holds up with more intense multiplayer games and just how Google plans to mimic the great community atmospheres that are found on Xbox Live or Playstation Network. Some sort of integration with their own messaging platforms is almost a guarantee, but no formal announcement about a proprietary gaming social network was unveiled. Cross-platform play is all but essential, too, in order to lure and acquire large amounts of users early on.

Google also revealed that current social media platforms will be deeply integrated, allowing gamers to access content from nearly any link they find across the internet, possibly eliminating the need for standalone digital ‘stores’ on current hardware. Talk about a truly open market.

Now if you’re reading this or watched the keynote, you may feel like you’ve heard this all before. That’s because this isn’t the first time a major developer has tried to turn the industry on its head. Devices like the Nvidia Shield and Alienware “Steam Machines” both attempted to make cloud gaming cool quite recently, but found little success as they were limited by hardware and price, respectively.

So far the response from the gaming community has been mostly positive, with Engadget calling it the “Moonshot game streaming needs.” But other tech sites like The Verge have painted a bigger picture of Google’s announcement: That this isn’t the future of gaming but the future of YouTube. The business of watching other people play video games may sound ridiculous, but it has become unbelievably lucrative. Rivals like Amazon’s Twitch holds valuable real estate in the digital landscape, with millions of viewers per day. And in February of this year, non-players committed nearly a billion hours of real world time to watching other people play games on the service. With the potential for advertisers and influencers, this is only the beginning.

The decision to break into the world of gaming has certainly been in the works for years, and with the technology that Google has invested into the Stadia service it’s clear that they wanted to get it right the first time. As for how quickly it will be adopted remains to be seen. No price was announced, but Google is aiming for a release date sometime this year. It may very well stay a secondary platform for some users while positioning itself as a more accessible daily driver for gamers just starting out. If all goes as planned this could seriously shake up a market that has traditionally been dominated by only a handful of players. But the recent pressure to innovate and give the playing community what they want has had many of the industry’s old dogs pressing the reset button. So this was only a matter of time.

With Google’s Stadia announcement the tech giant could once again takeover an industry that is in desperate need of a refresh. This could be the change that we deserve but maybe not the change that we need right now. Without any beta software it’s way too early to tell. However, if all goes as planned we might be looking at not only the future of gaming, but the future of all streamable, shareable content – and how we all consume that content on a daily basis.

Tax Return Tip$

Ah yes. That lovely time of year is just around the corner, when so many of us get depressed upon tearing into our W-2s like a kid on Christmas morning to see just how little we actually make. Fun times.

But these disappointing pieces of perforated paper also mean it’s that time of year when us good little taxpayers get our tax return.

If you’re like me, your tax refund is usually pretty pathetic. It’s basically a handful of pocket change and some spare Subway coupons Uncle Sam had lying around. And if you’re also like me, you’re just a nerd who loves making pointless Amazon purchases the moment an extra dime sneaks into your pocket. It’s Prime! So that makes it worth it!

But this time of year could mean new furniture, household appliances, and maybe even a new car (or at least the down payment on one.) Maybe you just want to start a savings account or pay-off some bills. So what are you supposed to do if you have things you need to buy but also have a list of things you want to buy that’s a mile long?

As the old saying goes, there are only two certainties in life: Death and taxes. However, I like to think there’s a third: Tech, which can be expensive. But don’t get your dead presidents in a bunch. Here are some Nerd Certified ways to save money this tax return season and still get everything on your wish list.


Go Pre-Paid.

If you have a cellphone plan with one the major carriers chances are you’re spending at least $50-$100 a month, if not more. There are a million different plans and options, but what if you just need a smartphone with reliable LTE service and the ability to occasionally make some calls or send traditional SMS texts?

I was with Sprint for 4 years and spent the entire time in a near constant headache. A few years ago I made the switch to TracFone. Hear me out. Using their auto-pay feature I spend just under $25 for two months of service at a time – yes you read that correctly. One GB of data costs $10 and I can add more to my account whenever I need it. With one of these nifty SIM card kits (you can find them at Target and Walmart for about $1) you pick your carrier all while using your current smartphone. You keep your phone number, too. It’s that simple. Literally.

I’m using an iPhone 8 on AT&T’s LTE network, and in my 2+ years of service the only problems I’ve had have been resolved by turning my phone on/off. One of the best nerdy decisions I’ve ever made.

New-ish Smartphone.

Speaking of which, everyone likes getting a new phone. Whether you’re an Apple fanboy at heart or love to play around with the latest Google has to offer, nothing is better than unboxing a fresh phone. But Sweet Baby Timberlake, are they expensive. Swappa is a service that I’ve used for nearly 5 years. Think of it as the eBay of used device shopping. Again, hear me out.

My iPhone 8, slightly used, for *half* the price of a new one.

I know the thought of a used phone scares most people. The nerd in me understands. But because anyone can sell their device on the site, it’s a constant battle to offer the best price to potential buyers, meaning that you are paying a fraction of what a brand new device costs. And if you do run into problems with the phone you bought, everything is done through PayPal. Which, if you’ve ever used before, will halt the transaction so fast you won’t even know what hit you (or your bank account).

Go Wireless.

Raise your hand if you hate wires. Yeah, me too. Sure there are wireless speakers, headphones, and almost every car produced within the last few years has Bluetooth built-in. But what if you’re still stuck in the stone-age of wires and cords? For $13 you can snag this simple wireless adapter and make almost any device Bluetooth compatible. It plugs in via the headphone jack and runs for about 3-4 hours on a charge. Not bad for the price. Plus, it gives you constant control of the AUX for those car rides with friends who have a “unique” taste in music.

Wireless Juicin’.

Keeping with the wireless theme is this $15 wireless charger. The lighting port on my last iPhone started to wear out about a year after I purchased it, making it difficult to charge if the cord wasn’t jammed in there at just the right angle. So if your smartphone supports it and you’re particularly paranoid about wearing out the charging port on your device, you can’t go wrong with this little guy. It even offers wireless fast charging, so you won’t be tied down for long (pun intended).

Book Nerds Rejoice!

No, this isn’t tech-related. But is your “to-read” list getting longer by the day? Do you spend more time looking for your next great read instead of actually reading the books you already own? Same, making Thrift Books one my favorite places to shop. The catalog is enormous, allowing you to search for books by cover and edition. The best part? It’s dirt cheap, with most books coming in at under $4 on the low-end. They also have a huge section of “2 for $7” deals and shipping is free after spending only $10. And yes, I used to work at a bookstore, but I still prefer this site to the price of a new book any day.

Best Cheap Snowpocalypse Wines

What’s a better way to warm up when you’re surrounded by a foot snow?

In my three years of legal drinking I have come to realize three steadfast principles of alcohol:

  1. Beer makes me bloated.
  2. Liquor keeps me up throughout the night.
  3. Wine is just fine.

Due to my Italian-French heritage I thought it would be best to start getting into wine. Wine not? I thought it was a grape idea, too.

It’s healthier (relatively speaking) that slamming a six-pack, can make you feel much classier than you actually are, and doesn’t require a mixer. And, if you keep your eyes open, you can find some relatively inexpensive bottles that still offer plenty of taste and value.

So as we in the Midwest and Northeast prepare for the second wave of Snowstorm Harper, what can we do to avoid the shut-in blues? Drink wine, of course!

Now I’m no expert, and I primarily stick with red wines, but I am a broke college-grad looking for the best bang for my buck. I like to think of myself as a wannabe poor-man’s sommelier. Here are some of my favorite wines under $15 that pair excellently with snowstorms and seasonal affective disorder.

Apothic Dark – $10 

As soon as you pop the cork you taste notes of chocolate, berry, and coffee – yes, coffee. They’re subtle, but they make the wine taste much more expensive than it is. This falls somewhere in between dry and sweet, making it a true crowd pleaser. This wine is also as heavy as the Italian guilt that I was raised with, and will fill you up after only a couple of glasses. But its so tasty that you may just down the entire bottle without thinking about it. I don’t see a problem with that, either.

Bullyhill Love My Goat – $10

This red table wine was recommended to me by my good friend Chalsa. It’s a smooth red table wine with very subtle fruit notes leading the charge. However, due to its light body and easy drinkability, you probably won’t notice them when you suddenly realize that you’ve finished the entire bottle. It’s not too dry, and it’s not too sweet. You might want to buy a few of these at once, because they won’t last long.

Yellow Tail Cabernet Merlot – $7

For as much flack as this brand gets from snobby sommeliers, [yellow tail] can offer incredible value. I normally stick with their cabernet sauvignon and sometimes even drink their moscato, but I have yet to find anything as smooth as this cab-merlot mix for under $10. This red blend is middle of the road when it comes to heaviness and is definitely on the dryer side of the scale. It tastes like an inoffensive dark red wine with no flavors that really stand out or make it unique – but that’s not a bad thing. For the price, red wine lovers can’t beat it.

La Boulangerie Cabernet Sauvignon – $15

Coming in at the top of the price point is this 100% cabernet from France. It’s dry as a bone, full bodied, and has subtle fruit notes that combine with an overall earthy tone. Again, I’m not an expert, but this definitely didn’t taste like a cheap wine when I first cracked it open. It’s heavy and rich, and perfect for nice meal. Or for when you’re just sitting around with your red velvet smoking jacket, a pipe, and a good book.

Gabbiano Chianti Classico – $13

Before stepping foot into the “Italian” section at my local wine store, I had never heard of chianti. But if you’re interested in trying something new I recommend this little guy. It’s not nearly as heavy as cabernet and it’s also very dry. Think of it almost like a lighter pinot noir (again, poor-man’s sommelier). It doesn’t really taste like much due to that lightness and it doesn’t leave that distinct ‘red wine aftertaste’ you may be familiar with. But there are some brief fruity, woody, and spice notes in this wine that definitely make it worth a try.

As I continue to make my way through life and the wine aisle, I am coming to realize that price doesn’t always mean quality. Let me know what some of your favorite inexpensive wines are! I’m looking forward to popping a cork or two with you.

Modernity Has Failed Us. The 1975 Haven’t.

The 1975 first broke onto the music scene in 2013 with their self-titled debut album. Their first big single, “Chocolate”, was a quirky, catchy, and sometimes hard to understand pop smash. Along withs songs like “Sex”, “Robbers”, and “Girls”, the band quickly asserted their pop promise, again, even amidst their sometimes inaudible accent. Their second full-length effort, I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, was truly ahead of its time. Songs like “Love Me”, “She’s American”, and “Somebody Else” flexed their infectious pop muscle. But they paired perfectly with deeply seductive and introspective tracks like “The Ballad of Me And My Brain”, “A Change of Heart”, and ‘Paris” to produce a nearly complete album, one that took huge leaps not only in-terms of soundscape, but also in the raw emotions found in the lyrics. 

Now, after gaining worldwide fame and frontman Matty Healy leaving the allure of the rockstar life behind in rehab thanks to equine therapy, we have their third record, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. This is their sharpest and least-bloated album to date, including some of their most addictive songs as well as a heavy dose of synthetic sounds and autotune vocals that make this one of those great ‘late night drive’ records. But it also provides one of the most genuine accounts of getting tangled up and strangled in the age of the internet while trying to stay hopeful in a world that is constantly trying to drag us down.

Over these last few years The 1975 have painted themselves as the new emo-pop underdogs, a title that many of us would be quick to misinterpret. For The 1975, this simply means being open and honest with all the feelings and emotions that come with being young and confused, rather than simply shying away from the uncomfortable moments in life that many of us have been conditioned to subdue. 

The 1975 is making it cool to feel your feelings again.

On the surface the album’s title initially brings to mind relationships with other people that have been, at least in-part, fueled by our immersion in online services. But it also reflects the way that our minds now view the world in the age of both FOMO (fear of missing out) and falling for someone or something just to show off to our Instagram followers. Whether it’s a romantic flame that was ignited by Tinder, a new obsession to prove to everyone that you can fit in with the cool kids and their self-destructive tendencies, or a relationship that fell apart because of something that happened in the digital landscape we inhabit today, this album addresses it all with beautifully brutal honesty. 

“TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” perfectly illustrates the sometime uncontrollable rush that you get when a new relationship begins; An urgency to do anything and everything as soon as possible which often leads to that flame burning out too soon. Its apologetic, but honest, and again highlights a feeling that we have all experienced. “Sincerity is Scary” begs the question of whether or not you can be friends with your ex after a relationship expires. Can you? The 1975 certainly hopes so, a concession that ultimately allows you to move on to the next profile picture that catches your eye. 

“Love It If We Made It” illustrates a relationship that began as nothing more than a spark behind a keyboard. And somehow, even though you may not know much about the other person, something inside of you is fighting to make it work. It makes you believe in both the power and naivety of blind attraction that we are all somehow accustomed to, leaving it up to us to say how hard we’ll fall for someone we barely know. 

The album continues by diving into the deeper feelings that aren’t easily justified to anyone outside of the seemingly cosmic event you are experiencing with someone else. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” at once brings to a boil every feeling and emotion that you may have when embarking on a new relationship, celebrating the chance that things may finally be different, once and for all. But, in painfully honest 1975 fashion, follows “Mine”, which confronts the fact that many people are terrified of the word commitment – all while confessing to this paradox of wanting someone to be yours unconditionally without allowing yourself to fully collapse into them on anything more than a physical level. Think about how easy it is to meet new people in our day and age. Remember when I mentioned FOMO? Or perhaps it should be FOSB (fear of something better) that is keeping you from committing. There is always a new distraction begging for our attention.

“Be My Mistake” is the only stripped down track on the album, and it’s one of the best. This is the conversation you don’t want to have about not quite being over something from your past. A moment that comes when we look for anyone or anything else in order to get us by, which inevitably leaves us feeling just as empty as we did before. This feels like a track Healy may have written alone in his room at rehab earlier this year, a haunting portrayal of desperation to not feel so alone in the world.

But the album doesn’t limit itself to simply discussing relationships with other people that we develop thanks to naivety and an idea of what a relationship is supposed to be. It also jumps headfirst into the relationships that we have with ourselves, again thanks to the online integration in all of our lives. 

You probably won’t blast “The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme” while driving with the windows down, but it is the stitching that holds the message of the album together. It tells the tale that many of us know, one of someone finding solace and friendship in the digital world without ever having to leave their bedroom. A parable of a man who finds satisfaction living his entire life online, all coming to the inevitable realization that, in death, none of that matters at all.

“I Like America & America Likes Me” is part satire and part startling realization of the toll that being young in the modern world can take on you. It deals with drugs, politics, and the image that so many of us covet. It’s a haunting track that ends with a screaming reprise of “Would you please listen?/ Would you please listen?” as if Matty and the Boys are trapped in the chaos of youth. They’re not alone. 

And that’s is why this album is so good. In the past, albums like Lorde’s Melodrama and recently Troye Sivan’s Bloom, as well as Khalid’s debut album American Teen have all brought to light what it is like growing up in the modern world. And what ABIIOR does so well is further build on the raw, gritty, and hard-to-understand experience that is simply growing up.

It makes you believe in the beauty of being young and clueless in a world that commands you to know all of the answers before you’ve even heard the question.

It is an album full of hopes and dreams, and the realization that in a world full of more opportunity than ever, it is easy to feel more alone and excluded than ever, as well. This brings to mind the lyric, “Modernity has failed us.” This is a full-blown meditation on the fact that this is just how the world works now – whether we like it or not. But that begs the question: Have we failed it? And if so, how the hell do we fix it? That is an answer, unfortunately, that I alone do not have.

This record makes you realize that sometimes, no matter what we do and regardless of any reality distortion field we may live in, there are just somethings that aren’t meant to work out. That sometimes the hardest pill to swallow is the one that tells us that’s just how the world is as it’s cutting our throats on the way down. Why? Who the hell knows. I certainly don’t, I wish I did. But no matter what, regardless of the inevitabilities, we have no choice other than to embrace everything as it comes to us for as long as we have it. I’m tempted to mention my personal mantra, that everything happens for a reason, but I’ll leave that one up to you.

It is a personal, complex album full of raw unfiltered emotions with the array of sounds that made their first two records so great, while also jumping into new sonic territory for the band. At times it is deceptively bright, offering a high that you don’t want to come down from. Perhaps reminiscent of a high some of us have used to escape our lives in the past. But regardless, it makes you want to walk straight up to the person you haven’t been able to get out of your head and pull them straight into the controlled chaos that is modern romance.

But at other times it is sincerely startling, making you think to yourself, “Oh, I’ve felt that way too. How do they know that?” It will make you question just how much time you want to spend online, and how much you share while you’re there. It will leave you asking yourself if the world we are living in is one that you want to be apart. And if it’s not, the record strives to find a solution, or at least an alternative.

This isn’t an album just ahead of its time; It’s an album at the forefront of modern culture, a record so relevant that anyone can pick it up and instantly connect to the music on some level. It’s the reality of our times, an antidote to the fantasy worlds so many of us live in today. It’s an album for anyone who doesn’t have the slightest clue as to who they want to be or where they want to go in this world. And because of that, to the delight of Matty Healy himself, it can make us all feel a little less alone.

Mumford & Sonnofabitch – ‘Delta’ Album Review

Could have, should have, would have.

People have either grown to adore Indie-Folk revivalists Mumford & Sons, or they simply roll their eyes every time they hear a banjo twang. Despite this, their first two albums, Sigh No More and Babel, were both massive critical and commercial successes, with the latter winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and both cementing the notion that banjos could be cool. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that. 

And you also probably know that their third album, Wilder Mind, received widespread pushback from both critics and fans.

The songs on that album warped together into one big generic electric mess, with little more than a few unique tracks to make note of. In short, WM didn’t have the heart or soul of their first two records, and it was monumentally disappointing having been spoiled with the likes of “Awake My Soul” and “Not With Haste” – just to name a couple. (I’ve also spoken about this with some good friends of mine who are also Mumford faithfuls at heart, all of which feel the same way.) There are already plenty of solid, electric rock bands out there who don’t utilize the power of acoustic instruments nearly enough. So why did Mumford & Co. ditch their signature sound and foot-stomping ballads in the first place, let alone return to a new sound that crumbled the pedestal we all put them on?

Who the folk knows. 

But now we have their fourth effort, Delta. The release of the singles “Guiding Light” and “If I Say” that preceded the album left me feeling very skeptical. And after listening to the full album about a half-dozen times I’ll once again be sticking to their first two albums exclusively until they get their banjos back in-sync.

The new songs aren’t nearly as literary as those found on Babel or Sigh No More, despite offering brief glimpses of their previously poetic feel. The album has a few moments when Mumford questions his existence and the meaning of it all, and the band does their best to focus on the “Four D’s: Depression, drugs, death, and divorce” as a thematic sword to fall on. But it just doesn’t fit the whole upbeat, ‘let’s pretend that those first two albums never happened’ vibe that the record is trying desperately to convey. You can’t have it both ways. Unless they want to start using electric banjos (if those are even a thing.)

There are a few good songs here, including the title track, “Wild Heart”, and “Rose of Sharon”. But for however respectable they are, the rest of the tracks are mostly forgettable. 

Sonically, Mumford & Crew play with a variety of instruments and sounds that blend multiple genres. There are many times when the sound knocks on the door of Generic and gets in bed with Boredom, with tracks like “If I Say” and “Guiding Light”. But then there are songs that grabbed me and made me feel that this was a genuine leap forward for the band, like “Woman” and “Forever”, both featuring hints of sparkling synth sounds, catchy drum beats, hand claps, and even a dose of what sounds like an echoing track of autotune at the end of the latter. 

Wait, Mumford & S…ynth hand claps?

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it either. But honestly, these unexpected moments are some of the best of the album. I only wish that they had dabbled more into the sounds of their Johannesburg EP, too.

The album offers a more enjoyable listening experience for fans of their early work than Wilder Mind ever could, but I have one over-arching critique that will prevent me from looking back on this album with anything other than resting bitch face. Quite frankly, Delta doesn’t feel like it has a point to it. WM was both critically and commercially crucified because the band tossed their pioneering style to the (winter) wind(s). In interviews leading up to the release the band has said that Delta is a culmination of their experiences going on/off tour and fading in and out of the spotlight, citing the new record as their most “ambitious” yet. And I agree with them. But blind ambition is still blind.

This does not feel or sound like Mumford & Sons should by their 4th album. But is that such a bad thing?

I’ve always had mixed feelings on artists trying to be  “ambitious” who just end up abandoning the sound that made them unique in the first place. I always admire musicians for stepping outside of their comfort zones, but not if that all but sheds their original identity. Now Mumford is essentially putting on one of those fake mustaches and hiding behind a mask of what could have been.

The experimentation and genre hopping is decently fun to listen to, with Marcus Mumford’s grizzly voice pairing well with either an electric guitar, piano, or drum beat. The handful of experimental songs on the album are among the best, as well, because they tried something new rather than simply beating a dead horse. But that horse isn’t the folk revival sound that they so easily mistake it for. It is the sound of exhausted electric guitars begging for a break. At least to my ears, nothing comes close to standing out like that with which made them global phenomenons at the start of the decade. 

Whereas their first two albums felt like beautiful cornucopias of sound and imagery, Delta feels like they just took a little bit of everything they know and threw it in a blender. It’s not the worst album I’ve ever heard, and it’s miles ahead of their previous one. However, if you were hoping for even a slight return to folky form, you won’t find it here.

From start to finish Delta feels like it’s having an identity crisis, a half-hearted mashup combining some of the baroqueness found in their first two albums with the slick studio styling of Wilder Mind.

This isn’t nearly as disappointing as Wilder Mind, but this certainly wasn’t the album that I wanted them to make. The band tweeted the morning of the release that it was their “best” work yet. Bet. This just feels like nothing more than a bunch of noise that was engineered to sound like huge stadium anthems, which makes the band feel like they are creeping dangerously close towards post-Viva La Vida Coldplay status. (Side note, the band employed Coldplay producer Paul Epworth for this album.)

The magic in their previous songs was that they naturally became stadium anthems, rewriting the definition that most of us had of what folk music could be. That luster, sadly, is gone. They are no longer shaking their burly fists at the established music industry. They are kneeling before the king, themselves. It’s unfortunate, but as their tweet also stated, they have plenty more music to come. Let’s just hope by ‘Epsilon’ they remember to at least flirt with what made them Mumford & Sons in the first place. 

The Art of Asking ‘Why’

Last year, as a dutiful Barnes & Noble bookseller, I had the task of displaying copies of Leonardo da Vinci, the highly anticipated biography from acclaimed author Walter Isaacson, the night before it went on sale. Is there a better feeling than unboxing a case of freshly printed books? But beyond that night holding the book in my hands for the first time, and my experience interacting with the digitalized avatar of Leonardo da Vinci in the Assassin’s Creed video game series, I knew next to nothing about the genius behind (among other things as I came to learn) the Mona Lisa. The book demanded my attention, and between skimming the first few chapters while standing at the checkout counter patiently waiting for any sign of life to walk through the front door and my mother purchasing me a copy of the book just a few days later, I vowed to tame the tome that was.

Thanks to a healthy amount of procrastination and an equally impressive amount of distractions I finally finished the 500+ page behemoth – more than a year later. Part art history text, part case study on creativity and the human mind, Leonardo da Vinci is, quite simply, the most compelling book I have ever read.

If you know me personally, you know that I often go off on tangents (for my speech kids, they’re more appropriately titled “Dan-gents”.) I am also the type of person to hyper-focus on erratic, random endeavors and interests. One day becoming obsessed with photography and camera work, the next running to Hobby Lobby to grab a slew of new art supplies, then filling up a reading ‘wish list’ on my favorite used book website. After that, I could be found scouring the internet for the best tutorials on making music via my MacBook, then diving into an online coding class that somehow leads to a rabbit hole of philosophical and political theory courses, which in turn directs me back to that used book website I love so much. All of this culminating in me finally and somewhat reluctantly returning to what I should have been doing in the first place: Writing.

This behavior could stem from someone being passionately curious about a variety of topics, which I am. But most likely it’s an underlying derivative of being a passionate procrastinator and becoming easily distracted, but I digress. I remember when I was a kid my parents gave me one of those huge ‘random fact’/ ‘did you know’/ ‘how things work’ style book. I loved the hell out of that thing. I still have it somewhere.

Now, it’s pointless for me to try and rewrite the book in which I am discussing. But what you learn from reading this enthralling biography is that while Da Vinci’s cultural and scientific impacts may have been the foundation of one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-seen-again life, his utter curiosity for the way the world worked was the lifeblood through which all  of his ideas flowed. That being said, I am someone who tends to overthink almost everything, from the simple to the soulful. So reading that one of the greatest minds in history could, at times, be as scattered as a Jackson Pollock painting, it made me realize that it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a lot of seemingly random interests. It made me realize that it’s OK to ask “how” something works, or “why” are things the way they are as often as possible.

Throughout the book’s 500+ pages, Isaacson introduces us to Leonardo’s passions and interests. Obviously he was an artist (a painter, specifically — Da Vinci wrote amidst his personal and public rivalry with Michelangelo [yes, that Michelangelo] that he considered painting to be the highest form of art, whereas he didn’t see the appeal to his rival’s work with sculpting.) But as we learn, Leonardo came to hate that title throughout his life. Artist. It was never that simple. He preferred to be known foremost as an engineer, among other things, and his colleagues would all come to include the title of philosopher, as well, viewing him as a great thinker and respected scientist. And as Isaacson illustrates time and time again, Da Vinci was the truest form of a polymath that the world has ever seen.

From an early age he began painting, drawing, and experimenting in the world of art. One of those experimentations, called “sfumato”, was his pioneering method of blending and smearing paint on a canvas. This technique refused to produce sharp edges and lines around his subjects, giving them a smoky, misty characteristic that wasn’t seen until he picked up a brush. But all of his devotion to perfecting this technique throughout his life stemmed from his obsessive study of optics and the human eye, realizing that nothing in our world is ever that distinct or sharp. Objects, even if only inches from our eyes, share the light and shadows from all around us. Nothing ever has a ‘black border’ or ‘outline’ surrounding it, like most artwork of his time. Think about if you’ve ever edited a photo and used the ‘structure’ setting in which everything in the picture becomes highly stylized and vivid, but almost cartoonish.

This misty quality could also be linked to his impassioned research into nature, geology, and as Isaacson notes, the “microcosm-macrocosm” effect: That everything is connected. Kind of like what we would refer to today as the Butterfly Effect, or if you’ve ever picked my brain, the adage that everything happens for a reason. I once wrote that writers must live and die by the belief that everything means everything; Seeing the hidden connections between the seemingly obscure and abstract. Loosely, this was Da Vinci’s mantra. Everything in life blends together.

The background in many of his paintings also feature distant, far-off mountains and streams that flow from the furthest point of the canvas into the subject front and center, almost like a spool of fabric unraveling from the background all the way to eyes of the viewer. This stemmed from his research and love of nature, and the patterns he noticed throughout the natural world that he similarly noticed in day-to-day life.

This is a very brief example, of which and many more Isaacson expounds upon to greater detail in the book. I can’t do all of Da Vinci’s disciplines justice. But quite simply, he was enamored with an unending number of interests. This, along with his perfectionist personality, lead to him leaving many of his projects unfinished, destined to live forever in the pages of his notebooks rather than the real world. But what Isaacson highlights throughout the book’s entirety, and what prompted me to write all of this in the first place, was Leonardo’s childlike curiosity.

Many areas of his expertise were mastered simply for the sake of learning something new. When was the last time any of us questioned something as random as the directional properties of water as it is poured into a bowl just for the hell of it? Da Vinci did. This was a small element of his research into the flow of water and vortexes and swirls that stemmed from him studying multiple rivers surrounding the cities of Milan and Florence, which he devised plans for to divert. None ever came into fruition, but the principles he discovered about flowing water lead to some of his medical discoveries on the flow of blood throughout the body. All of this leading back to his paintings, including those same subtle streams in the distance flowing effortlessly into the subject in the foreground.

Many of these same discoveries and connections wouldn’t be confirmed for literally centuries. He wasn’t ahead of the curve – he was the curve. In our time most obscurities like this won’t have an obvious impact on our lives. Nor is it likely that many (or any of us) would make these connections, let alone conceive them in our heads. But back in Leonardo’s day there were still countless disciplines to be explored. So that’s just what he did.

He also questioned why the sky is blue. (He theorized correctly.)

Obviously in 2018 the scale, reach, and depth of Da Vinci’s research is not realistic for everyone, let alone the scientists and professionals of today. But someone had to question something as peculiar as the nature of a woodpecker’s tongue. (Finish the book to see what I mean.)

Isaacson shows nothing but admiration for the genius who had a hard time finishing anything, detailing time and time again that Da Vinci’s propensity to dive down rabbit hole after rabbit hole may have hampered his ability to publish any major literary works, or complete dozens of more masterpieces, or construct a usable “flying machine,” or develop the infrastructure for his oft-written about plans for utopian-like cities in Italy. Da Vinci’s discoveries and ideas were years ahead of their time, aiding in the research of countless scientists and artists that followed in the centuries to come. So even though his to-do list was never complete, he contributed more knowledge and insight to the world than any other historical figure in history, simply by always asking why.

Along with his genuine interest in learning as much as his world had to offer, he also longed to find his place in the cosmos. What was the bigger picture? What was the point of everything? Why did anything on earth matter? He wrestled with these ideas until his death, which even he could not avoid, the last written words from his hand reading, “The soup is getting cold.” Whether he spoke literally about dinner that night, which Isaacson notes as being one possibility, or if the part time pageant/ costume/ stage designer was simply exercising a flare for the dramatic, Da Vinci couldn’t help but wonder what came next. And as Isaacson gracefully notes, not even the great Leonardo could answer this. Because, after all, he was human like everyone else.

As Walter Isaacson concludes, Leonardo da Vinci got sick and had desires. He got distracted constantly and relished in countless interests, each one more intense than the last. He was bad at basic algebra for his entire life and struggled with any medium that wasn’t represented geometrically; He was a visual, hands-on learner. He had no formal education other than what he taught himself through reading and real-world experience. Completing a painting or transferring one of his mechanical designs from paper to the real world was a rare occurrence. He was generally content with life but also faced bouts of melancholy. He lived from stipend to stipend most of his life, yet reluctantly took lucrative commissions from people in power. He was not a fan of due dates or rules, and refused to follow plans that were set in place against his will.

A desire to please others and do things how they had always been done was never what fueled his creative genius. Curiosity was his catalyst.

A Star Is Born – Review

Before the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born”, I had never heard of the story itself. However, I’m a fool for a good soundtrack-centric, music-themed movie (think “Begin Again” or “La La Land”) so the trailer immediately caught my eye. I love Bradley Cooper and can recognize and respect the sheer talent and bravado that Lady Gaga brings to everything she does, so I was immediately interested in the film. But then I caught some of the countless rave reviews, including many that said it was even better than expected. And then I saw the film with my own eyes and ears. And I’ve never cried in a movie theater before.

The film is raw and jumps right into the thick of the story, centering around fading alcoholic and drug addict rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) as he gets loaded just before finishing the rip-roaring gig that opens the movie. (Side note, Cooper actually has a pretty good voice. Who knew?) The set ends and he heads back to his car. After realizing there’s no booze left in the backseat he asks his driver to find him the first bar he can find. Jackson stumbles into a drag bar and, long story short, is given a front row seat to a lustful performance by Ally (Gaga) who sings an entire song in French. It all comes to a pulsing ending in which Gaga is lying on the counter directly in-front of Cooper, and with one look in each other’s eyes their entire world seems to stop (as does the film) as a match is lit from a true on-screen spark. After a night out of drinking and telling war stories, Jackson returns Ally to the house that she shares with her father. As she walks to the front door Jackson rolls down the window from the back of the car and calls her name. She turns to see what he wants. “I just wanted to get another look at ya’,” he says, smiling. Its pure cheesy romantic movie magic – but if you know me that is right up my alley. I’m just a sappy old soul, what can I tell you. 

Now in any movie I believe that along with just having a genuine, believable story, dialogue and theme are of the utmost importance. The exchanges between Ally and Jackson are deep and raw and emotional. They hint at the character’s souls. And in one scene early on – one that all but sets the tone for the film – Jackson lowers his head and voice and tells Ally, the aspiring singer and performer, that she’s no different from anyone else. Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. And there’s one reason we’re supposed to be here – to say something so people want to hear. So you got to grab it, and you don’t apologize, and you don’t worry about why they’re listening, or how long they’re going to be listening for, you just tell them what you want to say.”

I’ll save as many of the spoilers as I can, but as the film goes on we follow Jackson into another one of his shows, this time inviting Ally backstage after their spiritual night together – but with a catch. In a moment that feels entirely cinematic (in the best possible way) Jackson brings Ally on-stage to perform one of her own songs. The song “Shallow” is absolutely beautiful, and one that I’ve been listening to on-repeat for almost a week. The moment is the catalyst for the rest of the film as we follow Jackson through the next leg of his tour all while Ally accompanies him, slowly becoming more and more involved in the shows and performances. 

Again, I’ll save the spoilers, but common sense shows that eventually Ally gets discovered and is put up for her own stardom, rather than just hanging onto the shredded coattails of Jackson Maine. Ally’s story progresses and Jackson’s kind of comes to a halt – which, obviously, leads to problems between the couple. 

Throughout the film Jackson wrestles with alcoholism and a narcotic addiction while ironically singing the gut wrenching song “Maybe Its Time” (…”To let the old ways die…”) Ally is forced to take the brunt of it, simply doing her best to stand by her man through the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the fantasy and the reality. She even performs a song “Always Remember Us This Way” which, as you can expect, is a beautifully melancholic heartbreaker.

The night sky is home to a seemingly incomprehensible amount of stars hanging above us. Its comforting to know that we’re really not all alone in the universe, but its also humbling, allowing us to understand just how small our problems actually are at any given time. But we are unaware if those stars are still shining brightly and are close enough (relatively speaking) to be seen, or if they are perhaps much, much further away, only visible after collapsing and exploding into the infinite cosmos, reaching our eyes and our skies as cosmic material is blasted out into the universe, giving way to the next stars and planets and galaxies and stories to be born.

Through it all, the film highlights two important themes. First, that no matter how talented you are, and regardless of what that talent is, if you are not willing to put your voice and message into the world, nobody will ever be able to hear what you have to say. But more importantly, the film teaches us that as human beings and as interpersonal creatures, sometimes all we can do is all we can do. Nothing more, nothing less. We can accept our shortcomings and do our very best to help those around us, all while doing our best to fix and sort ourselves out. Sometimes life startles you and gets in the way of things and clouds your judgment, inhibiting your ability to see those same stars shining down on us. Other times life gives you exactly what you never knew you needed. But its up to us to both recognize that offering and to let it into our lives.

“A Star Is Born” is a stunning and heartbreaking film, one that is raw and intense and gritty and personal and a hell of a directorial debut by Cooper, as well as having multiple knockout performances by Cooper, Gaga, and Sam Elliot, just to name a few. Its full of delicately crafted shots that come to life on the silver screen. The spectacle of it all is haunting and lingers long after the final shot of Gaga’s sharp face fades to black. Its definitely worth seeing in theaters with the surround sound speakers, too. 

It will invade your heart and soul and make you realize the beautiful fragility of life, hopefully teaching us all to speak up, share our voices, and appreciate the stars in our own lives, as well as the opportunity that we all have to shine, ourselves.