The Compleat Jen Trynin

The mid-90s were a strange time for me, culture-wise. It was the first time — and probably still the only time — that I really followed “current” music. Prior to that and for the most part since, I’d kind of hop around, exploring genres, artists, and time periods as the mood dictates. Very rarely does an album come out that I feel the need to buy or listen to immediately. I’ll eventually get to it, or I won’t. Who cares? There’s so much music out there…why prioritize something just because it’s new?

From around 1993 – 1995, though, I cared. I followed. I watched MTV constantly, which feels like an embarrassing admission, but it’s worth remembering that during that time, the channel was of genuine cultural importance. That’s not say it didn’t air or perpetuate complete garbage (such as anti-vaccination game show Singled Out), but it is to say that it also did things that mattered. From the inventive animated showcase Liquid Television to the brilliant sketch comedy of The State to the slacker-generation icons we found in Beavis and Butt-Head (which itself gave eventual rise to the misfit icons of Daria). MTV was an urgent and important cultural force.

I say all of this to provide a bit of context. I had the bands and artists that I loved specifically, such as Green Day, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, and a few others. Those were the ones whose videos I’d want to catch, whose songs would periodically keep me interested however many others came and went without making an impact. But I also just kind of absorbed other songs in the background. Ones by artists that, for whatever reason, didn’t strike me with the same immediacy. They were often fun, cute, catchy. Sometimes they were none of those things, and you’d still end up retaining them. That’s one of the amusing quirks of popular music, after all; even things we don’t like can lodge themselves permanently in our brains.

Every so often, now, as I go about my day, my brain will feed me some snatch of a long-forgotten song. A melody, or a lyric. Maybe with a particular memory tied to it, but usually not. And because I spent so much time experiencing the songs that flit by on MTV or KROQ or the mixtapes my friends passed around, it can be difficult to identify the song I’m half remembering. I have to employ some detective work. I’ll hum it for people, as best I can. I’ll describe the kind of song it is. I’ll hope against hope that whatever fleeting pop song I’ve somehow internalized will be the same one that a peer has.

A few months ago, this happened. I remembered a chorus, but little else. And while the chorus is probably the most fruitful thing to remember, Google didn’t help, because the chorus was “I’m feeling good.” Lots of songs feature that line and title, or some very minor variation, and so there were too many results, none of which were correct. That was it. I couldn’t find the song that was haunting me.

My brain tosses me a few other bones. I start to remember more about it. I remember riding around in the summer time, in the car of an older friend, asking him to turn up the song because I liked it so much. I remember catching it playing in a restaurant or a store, and being cheered up immediately. I remember singing along to it. And the rest of the chorus comes back. “I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. For now.”

And now I find it, under a name I never would have remembered. The song is not named after its chorus; it’s called “Better Than Nothing,” and the artist is Jen Trynin.

I watch the video a bunch of times. Memories come back. It was one of my feel-good songs from that era. Cynical, but upbeat. Catchy, but honest. The mid-90s come back to me in the video’s editing, in Trynin’s clothing and hairstyle, in the song itself. It’s very much of its era, but…it holds up. It’s good. I’ve been listening to it off and on ever since. While you could certainly make a list of 90s pop songs that are better, I’d argue that that list would be relatively short.

“Better Than Nothing” is great. It constituted the only four minutes I’d ever heard from Jen Trynin, but that’s fine.

The phrase “one-hit wonder” has a bit of a negative connotation in popular music, and that’s something I’ve never totally understood. Having a hit is a good thing. Having one hit puts you, mathematically, leagues above almost every other band or artist that has ever existed. The overwhelming majority of musicians never have a hit. To have one is a triumph. It should be celebrated.

Instead, “one-hit wonder” always feels like a snarky way of referring to a musician that didn’t have staying power. Maybe it’s odd to me because I don’t think there are similar sentiments toward other kinds of artists. I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone look at a great painting and dismiss the painter because he or she didn’t also paint five other popular works? Does anyone care if a director makes just one beloved film? In literature I know for a fact that it doesn’t cause readers to look down their noses. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22 and many other massively important works all came from one-hit wonders. Who cares?

Music, though, seems different in that regard, and I’m not sure why.

So I looked Trynin up and, sure enough, “Better Than Nothing” was her commercial peak. She had two albums, some other singles, and that was largely that.

Fine.

But I found that she also had a book. Her first album, Cockamamie, featured “Better Than Nothing” and was released in 1995. In 2006, she released Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, a memoir chronicling her brief experience with music stardom. What’s more, the book got rave reviews. I started skimming them as I found more and more, because I was increasingly sold on the book and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself.

Reviewers talked about how funny it was. How charming. How insightful. What a great writer Trynin was. What a great story she had to tell.

And…man, that sure sounded like fun. A great book by someone who wrote a song I loved (and now love again) telling a story I never knew existed? Sign me up.

I bought it, but could only find a used copy. After all, it was published over a decade ago. As a collector that disappointed me (shelfwear, dog ears, sticker residue, the horror) but…well, I still didn’t know if I would like the book, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

It arrived. I read it soon afterward. I liked the book.

Hell, I loved the book. It’s no secret that I read often, but it’s relatively rare for me to read something continuously. I’ll usually read for a bit, take a break, and come back to it. As much as I love books, it’s not common that one will dig itself so deeply into me that I can’t put it down.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be did that. I expected to read a few pages and get a sense of its content and style, and ended up reading a third of it in one go. Over the course of the next day or so, I finished it. The reviews raised my expectations to an impossible level, and the book exceeded them. It was every bit as good as the reviews said.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book grabbed me the way it did. Sure, it’s about someone I remember. It’s about a topic that interests me. It’s well written. But those things describe so many other books that I never necessarily feel compelled to keep reading, or sometimes even finish.

I think the difference is that Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is so relentlessly human. I don’t know anything about Trynin other than what I’ve read here, and surely there’s always some degree of finessing when it comes to presenting yourself to the world, but I never got the feeling that she was presenting herself as anything other than what (and who) she actually is. Account for some simplifications for the sake of readability, some omissions for the sake of focus, and some inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory and I’m confident that the book shows us the real Trynin.

And the real Trynin is so identifiably, tragically, wonderfully human. I bought the book expecting a good story about one woman’s experience with the music industry, but I ended up reading about a person. A person who isn’t perfect. A person who makes bad decisions, and not always for the right reason. A person who doesn’t know what she wants. But a person who, at heart, is good, who works hard, who cares about people long after she should cut them out of her life. She’s flawed in the ways that we’re all flawed, but she has talent, drive, empathy…I was invested in her the way I’d be invested in a really great character. I wanted to see what happened to her. I wanted to see where she ended up. And the journey is humorously and engagingly complicated by the fact that she’s not even sure she wants to be famous to begin with.

The main thread of the story kicks off when Trynin decides that after years of trying to make her mark on the Boston music scene, she’ll make one last push (and financial investment) toward stardom. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t, the universe has made her place very clear.

…but she makes it. It’s a surprise to her, her peers, her boyfriend, her family. Her album debut Cockamamie, released through her own invented label, gains traction. There’s buzz. There’s murmuring. Seemingly overnight, there’s a bidding war involving everyone from indie publishers to major labels.

Jen Trynin is going to be a star.

Listening to Cockamamie now, I can understand the fuss. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever heard, but there’s a strong sense of self-confidence throughout, suggesting that the album doesn’t represent everything Trynin has to say. In short, it’s an assurance of potential. It’s easy to listen to and wonder what she can do next, with proper support…and that’s just the baseline feeling you get overall. Focus on the perfectly refined standouts like “Better Than Nothing, “One Year Down,” “Snow,” and “Do it Alone” and…well, why not make her a star?

The parallel thread of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, however, focuses on the kind of star they want to make her. Specifically, her marketing representation is insistent on positioning her as a “woman in rock,” as opposed to a rocker in general.

It feels understandably disparaging to her, and it’s something of a backhanded compliment to be sure. So Trynin bristles against it. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why they’d want to market her that way: it worked. I remember very well a number of “women in rock” that were sold (to varying degrees of success) with that very label. The time period was rife with them. Heather Nova, Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow, Mazzy Star, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and countless others. Not the least of which is the musician whose rise kicks off quietly in the background of Trynin’s tale: Alanis Morissette.

Morisette leaned into that kind of marketing, and saw incredible success as a result. Trynin fights it, pulls away, rejects it…and finds her career crippled.

I’ll step in here to make clear that Trynin doesn’t assign blame. There are a few specific moments during which she admits she herself made the wrong decision (“Better Than Nothing” should have been called “I’m Feeling Good,” as its title makes it difficult for DJs and fans to know what the hell it is), but she never points her finger at anybody else, or at any circumstance, or at any quirk of poor timing, and say, “That’s it. That’s the reason I’m not famous.” She just tells her story. It’s up to you, if you’d like to find a villain. Trynin’s motive clearly isn’t to make anybody feel bad…it’s to share a personal story that, briefly, became a public one.

The “women in rock” thing resonated with me, I think, because it feels so cosmically cruel. Trynin does the right thing, artistically speaking, by not letting herself be defined primarily by her gender. But in addition to struggling against her own representation in this regard, she also overcorrects for the perceived issue: she refuses to let women open for her on tour, so that there’s no chance her concerts can be seen as a kind of “chick night.”

This kicks off its own scandal, which Trynin then tries to manage herself, arguably digging the hole deeper. One interviewer wonders why she sees something like this as a problem. She responds by asking if he’d be okay with a “Jew night.” The spirit of this response is something we all understand and would probably agree with, but it’s also obvious why it doesn’t go over so well. Trynin doesn’t say this because she’s anti-Semitic. (In fact, it’s probably worth noting that she’s Jewish.) She says it because she’s a human being, trying to articulate something she has trouble putting into words, and stumbling into things she shouldn’t say.

Much of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be plays as a sort of cringe comedy, during which you hope against hope that Trynin will manage to stop herself from babbling a sentence too much, such as when she makes a misjudged joke about shooting heroin to one of her representatives, who suddenly becomes genuinely concerned for her.

As a result of her misguided attempt to convince the industry to focus on her music rather than her gender, her concerts end up protested. Interview questions shift from being about the bidding war, her sudden rise, and whether she prefers Jen or Jennifer, to what her problem is with other female rockers. One DJ, on air, openly tries to instigate a feud between her and Morissette. (Trynin defuses this masterfully, which registered to me as a significant triumph after the many David Brent-ian interactions that preceded it.)

But the heart of the story is just who Trynin is. There are major, identifiable touchpoints in her career, but it always comes back to our author, our narrator, our protagonist, our tragic hero. There’s a scene in which she and her band catch an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head while on the road…and find the duo mocking their music video for “Happier.”

Trynin is overcome with fear that they’ll make fun of her. Call her ugly. Say some kind of deeply cruel thing about her that she’ll have to carry with her and be internally haunted by forever. She’s relieved when they don’t (they seem to focus more on the silliness of the extreme closeups in the video), but that says so much about who she is, and about where she was in her life.

Worrying when you find out (however you find out) that these two doofuses got their hands on your music video is understandable. If they say you “suck” instead of “rock,” that could absolutely have an effect on your career and on public sentiment. But she isn’t watching the episode as the rock star she temporarily is…she’s watching it as a human being who doesn’t want to hear people say mean things about her.

A single. A video on MTV. A spotlight on one of that generation’s most popular shows. These are breaks many people would have killed for. But she’s human. She’s talented, and she’s good at what she does…but she’s a person. With a heart, and with feelings she can’t let go of. It’s the most personal and moving sequence involving Beavis and Butt-Head I’ve ever read.

The book is full of these great, unexpectedly heartbreaking moments. She insists on buying an expensive dinner for everybody in her entourage out of some unplaceable sense of guilt, including her wealthy lawyer who intended to pay for everyone himself. She fights for her band to reap the financial rewards of her contract, despite the fact that this band didn’t play a single note on her album and only formed out of touring necessity. She’s confronted by other musicians who either never made it or made it briefly and failed, each of whom assure her that she’s going to come tumbling down…and you want to hug her, tell her she can do it, tell her that they’re just cynical, jealous assholes…but we already know they’re right. We already know how the book ends. They are cynical, jealous assholes, but they aren’t wrong.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is such a good read, and it surprised me with just how…wholesome it was. The sex and drugs and chicanery you might expect from a story about a rapid ascent to rock stardom rear their heads only as small, adorable equivalents. Trynin kisses a man who isn’t her boyfriend, unthinkingly takes NyQuil before a radio appearance, and keeps the television low in her hotel room so that nobody will know she’s in.

It’s so…human.

What’s more, I never got the sense from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be that anyone in the music industry was out to screw her. Everybody we meet seems to have her ultimate best interests in mind. They treat her well. They try to help her. Even as it becomes clear that she’s not going to be the wondergirl they hoped she would, they remain helpful and accommodating and friendly.

Toward the end of the book, Trynin puts together Gun Shy Trigger Happy, her followup to Cockamamie.

It makes good on every ounce of potential anyone saw in her to begin with. I’ve listened to this album too many times to count now, and I’m convinced it’s a minor masterpiece. I like a lot of things about Cockamamie, and I think a number of the songs — “Better Than Nothing” chief among them — are fantastic.

But Gun Shy Trigger Happy is superior in every way. It’s smarter. It’s better. It’s stronger. It’s more varied. It’s more mature. It’s more impressive. It’s really, truly great on its own merits.

It also sinks without a trace. Trynin’s rock and roll fairy tale, as she calls it, is over. Her record company renames one song and releases it as a single. There’s no music video. There’s not even any art on the copy that gets sent to radio stations. The album gets very positive reviews but the record company goes through the promotional motions, and no further. The album that should matter is treated like it doesn’t. Reading about this, I felt disappointed on her behalf.

There’s a truly sad moment toward the end of the book when she and her band play an abbreviated set as part of a long bill of acts. The set goes great. The crowd loves her. They cry out for another song, and Trynin starts to give them one. But her microphone is cut. The lights are cut. Her time on stage is over. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter what would have come next. It’s finished.

Some fragment of memory, a half-forgotten song, sent me on this little journey. There was a song I used to like. A song that used to help me. A song that made me feel happy.

It was nice to find it again. But I had no idea what happened behind it. Why would I have? I had no idea what else was on the album. Why would I have? I had no idea about Jen Trynin or her gift as an author or her incredible, overlooked followup. Why would I have?

Now I know. And I’m glad I do. Because there’s a story there. A person there. A moral there, whatever we’d like to take from it. (Trynin leaves us more than enough room to take whatever we please.)

And, selfish reader that I have always been, I found what is probably my favorite (and certainly the most gripping) work of non-fiction. That’s a happy enough ending for me.

But because I liked the book so much, I actually started to feel bad that I was only able to buy it used. That meant that the author didn’t see a penny from me. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me much. But Trynin had taken me on a journey, one I really enjoyed. One that led me to music I never would have listened to otherwise. One that…mattered to me.

I reached out to her. I let her know how much I enjoyed the book. I let her know that I ended up with a used copy, and if there were some way to support her (such as by purchasing an autographed copy; I told you I’m selfish) as a way of saying thanks, I’d love to do that.

She wrote me back. I won’t share her message here, but I will say that the image I’d built of Trynin — from her music and primarily from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be — was accurate. She didn’t have to write me back at all. The fact that she did meant a lot. The fact that she was every bit the sweet, understanding, deeply human person I expected her to be meant so much more.

She thanked me for my message. She told me not to worry about paying for an autograph; she’d send me a new autographed copy just for the hell of it. Evidently, the book didn’t sell as well as anyone expected it to, despite the wealth of hype and positive reviews.

History repeats. However much talent she demonstrates, in whatever sphere, however positively the critics respond…well, there’s always next time.

It was a thematically appropriate fate for the book, but a sad one as well. It really did deserve better. It still does. So does her music. But…I don’t know. I guess we all have our place in the universe. I used to think I’d be a famous author one day. Of course, I might still be, but, more likely, I’ve found my place.

I have a job writing, and it’s a job I love. I work with people I love. I come home and I have a platform. An audience. I have a place to say anything I’d like to say.

That’s not what success used to look like to me. Whatever image I had in mind, it was probably a lot like Trynin’s. And you get closer for a while. Closer, and closer, and closer. And then no closer. You’ve found your place. Your audience may not be as big as you thought it would be, or as others expected it to be, but you have one. And that’s more than most people can say. It’s…y’know. Better than nothing.

Trynin also added me to her mailing list, and I’ll be notified whenever she’s playing with CUJO, her current band. Hopefully she’ll come out this way. I’d really like to see her live. Maybe I’ll get the chance to say hello, and maybe I won’t. But how often do you get the chance to see a great author rock out?

No moral here. No ultimate point. Just a little journey spanning decades that reminds me there’s always more to that four-minute song you love. I don’t know how many of those stories are worth knowing, but I’m glad I got the chance to hear hers.

Vintage Sesame Place swag and memories

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.


The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

Six and Thirty-Six


Above you’ll find a picture of Bono. The dog, not the human. (The human Bono is not pictured.)

Bono is my girlfriend’s dog. He’s also my dog. He’s also my friend. He’s also family.

A few days ago we received some unfortunate news.

Bono stopped eating. My girlfriend made an appointment for him with the vet. In the meantime, he started eating again. That was good, but then, just as suddenly, he stopped a second time. And he stopped having bowel movements as well.

He went to the vet. They weren’t sure what the issue was. He didn’t seem to be in pain, and he seemed healthy otherwise.

They X-rayed him. They saw nothing.

They asked if we wanted them to perform an ultrasound. We didn’t really have a choice. Not that the vet was pressuring anybody…it’s simply that it was either have an ultrasound, or be okay with the fact that Bono wasn’t eating or going to the bathroom. In short, we’d have to be okay with knowing he was slowly dying. We went with the ultrasound.

They found that he had an obstruction. They wouldn’t be sure what it was until they opened him up. Did we want them to operate on him?

Yes, we wanted them to operate on him.

Inside his tummy they found a plastic squeaker. Something he had dug out of a toy and swallowed. I don’t know how he swallowed it. It’s big so it certainly wasn’t easy. And we don’t know when he swallowed it. We would have stopped him, and he’s never left with his toys alone. But the point is…whenever and however he swallowed it, he swallowed it.

The vet said that the squeaker had been in him for around six weeks. The plastic by the time it was removed was black and warped. His body tried to process it. For a good while, he was able to eat and digest more or less normally, though he was probably feeling some amount of discomfort. Finally, at some point, it shifted, and it blocked him up. He could no longer eat.

The squeaker was in him long enough to do a lot of damage to his insides. He’s eating again, but we need to watch him to make sure he doesn’t throw it back up. If he does well for the next two weeks they’ll remove his staples…but there could still be other surgeries in his future, depending on how he heals.

Now I’ll tell you a little bit about Bono.

Bono’s a good dog. And a good friend.

But Bono’s been through a lot.

My girlfriend and I believe that when he was a puppy, somebody tried to kill him.

She adopted him from a rescue without knowing his history, but there was something clearly wrong. His back legs don’t function very well; instead of walking normally he uses them to hop, like a rabbit. His front legs are huge and muscular, as they do all the work of keeping him upright and mobile. He has at least one rib that was broken and which healed out of place. His eye, at some point, had popped out of his head and had to be replaced surgically.

I don’t know what he went through, but I know it was bad.

When he meets somebody new, he hides. He’s friendly, but he’s too afraid to act on that friendliness. He retreats from affection. He doesn’t trust people. I don’t blame him one bit.

He even took a long time to warm up to me. He’d come close, but when I reached out to pet him he’d flee. He clearly wanted the affection, but he couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t betray him the way he’d been betrayed in the past. When you let somebody in and they hurt you like that, you don’t forget it.

Eventually he came to trust me. He’s a sweet dog with a big heart. He’s safe now, even if he carries with him memories that keep him scared.

I don’t want to lose Bono. My girlfriend wants to lose him even less.

He’s an important part of our family. He has a place there. He gets to live a life of love and comfort that he probably never thought he’d have.

And now…he may not live.

It was sad enough to find out that he needed surgery. But it didn’t end there. It was successful, but he still might succumb to infection or complications. And even if he doesn’t…he might simply not heal the way he needs to heal. His digestive tract was torn up pretty badly. It could be a matter of time.

The vet bill was around $3,000. That’s money that neither she nor I really have. But he’s family. We had to try. The vet said he was otherwise healthy. He could have another 10 years of life left in him. We had to try, even if we couldn’t afford it.

And more bills could be on the horizon, depending on how he heals. Or fails to heal.

But I’m getting away from the point. The point is that Bono — this particular dog — want from being with people who tried to kill him to being with people who will fight, who will sacrifice, who will do whatever it takes to keep him alive.

I feel for the little guy. We have a lot in common.

Today I turn thirty-six. As I do so, this blog enters its sixth year of operation. In many ways, I wouldn’t have bet on either of us reaching these milestones.

I started Noiseless Chatter as an escape. I don’t mean that at all in a romantic sense; I mean that I had something — some things — that I needed to escape from. This was a way of…of continuing, really. Of keeping myself grounded, mentally and emotionally. Of having something to focus on that wasn’t the literal nightmare I was facing every day.

It was — and proudly remains — a profoundly unimportant site. Nothing here is urgent. Little of it is even timely. The world wouldn’t spin any differently tomorrow if there were no longer any of my wordy, meandering essays cluttering it up.

And yet, in a very real way, it saved me. It gave me something that I needed then. Not that I wanted, or desired, or wished for…but something that I really needed. Today, I don’t need it in that same way. Today, I’m better. Hell, I’ve been better for the overwhelming bulk of this site’s life.

But it’s still here. I don’t intend to quit. Because it still feels important to me. Important in its very unimportance.

On Inauguration Day I changed my mind about something. I had a silly post scheduled to go live. It was a bit satirical, but mainly silly. It was an obviously false essay about Donald Trump’s (invented) favorite films. That’s it. There’s probably the opportunity to get truly biting and vicious with that topic, but I thought the better joke would be something more like an anti-joke. Something that didn’t go for the easy targets…or, indeed, any targets. It was just there. It was the kind of thing where you’d read the headline and immediately guess what followed…except that none of it actually followed.

That’s what I changed my mind about on Inauguration Day. I didn’t post it. I just didn’t feel right about it. Not that I thought it was insulting or idiotic or rude or anything negative at all. I just knew that a lot of people would have strong feelings that day, and would open important dialogues, and would seek a kind of understanding…and I wasn’t going to (and couldn’t hope to) provide anything they might actually need.

I opted for silence over silliness.

I posted something to that effect on the Facebook page, to explain the lack of a post for the week.

Longtime reader and important human being Sarah Portland said this in response:

Don’t trivialize your work, even if it seems to pale in comparison to other things going on. Somewhere in your readership is someone looking for pause and breathe, a tiny corner of the world that isn’t screaming. It’s okay to be that corner.

I didn’t reply to that. I still don’t know that I effectively can. But it struck a chord deep inside of me.

That’s what Noiseless Chatter was to me, too, way back when I started it. A space to pause and breathe. A tiny corner of the world that wasn’t screaming.

If you look at my older posts, you might see some rough writing. You might see some insights I no longer agree with. You might see some outright hogwash. (You can see that in recent posts, though, so don’t bother digging for it.) But you won’t see much of me talking about me. And, again, you still won’t.

I started this site to escape a nightmare. The topics I covered included just about everything apart from that nightmare. Because I needed the distance. And maybe other people do, too.

People now and then contact me thanking me for something I wrote. Sometimes they thank me for something I don’t even remember writing. One specific message came from somebody who was feeling deeply depressed…so he went all the way back to the beginning of the ALF reviews and started reading them again because he knew they’d make him laugh.

I’ve written some intensely trivial stuff on this blog. But to paraphrase Sarah, I shouldn’t trivialize the trivial.

You never know where salvation will come. You never know how or when or even why you’ll find it.

It’s not there one day. It’s there another.

You go through things that should, by all rights, kill you. Then, maybe, they don’t. And things are dark for a while, and scary. You rear back from people that don’t intend to hurt you. You hide inside a shell that you promise yourself you’ll never break for anybody. Your life becomes an ongoing, perpetual response to whatever trauma it is that scarred you in the first place.

But then you meet someone. Or you find something. Or you’re touched in a way you didn’t expect to be touched by something you see, read, hear, or play.

Your life can change. You can open up. A little bit, anyway.

I still see a lot of reluctance in Bono. If I reach out too quickly to pet him, he’ll flinch. That’s because he remembers something. Something I wish I could take away from him.

But I can’t.

All I can do is offer a little space for anyone who needs it. A place without fear or hate…or anger that isn’t directed at a farting, tapdancing alien.

I created that space for myself six years ago. The fact that anyone else, at all, turns to it now is important to me.

Let’s have a great year.

Update. (The Show Must Go On.)

Moral Orel, "The Best Christmas Ever"

I’m mad. I’m frustrated. I’m frightened, I’m embarrassed, I’m appalled.

I’ve been waiting to speak. I’ve said almost nothing. I keep trying to get my thoughts together and, nope, I can’t process a fucking thing.

There’s no other way to say it. We made an awful choice, we’re fucking idiots, and we’re going to hurt a lot of people. We’ve given bigotry a platform, and we’ve emboldened it. Possibly we’ve cemented it. We’ve done everything we can to make this country extraordinarily dangerous to people who don’t look, act, or believe the way we’d like them to.

About a week ago my country voted. The popular vote may not have gone that way, but for all intents and purposes we came together to decide, as a nation, that we wanted to be ugly, hateful, discriminatory human beings.

Some people, I’m sure, voted for Trump because they trusted him on the economy, or something. That’s fine. I disagree with those people, and I think it says something that the three states with significant first-hand experience of his business practices (New York, New Jersey, and Nevada) all voted against him, but so be it. This is what the political process is for, after all. I believe one candidate will handle something better, and you believe the other candidate will. We put it to a vote. This is a good thing.

Others, though, voted with hate in their hearts. I’m not going to rattle off the sob stories I’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere. Those are sad and unfortunate, but you’ve seen them. Maybe you doubt some of them. Maybe some of them are indeed worth doubting. I, frankly, don’t care, because my own friends are suffering from this.

A good friend of mine from New Jersey, who’s been openly gay as long as I’ve known him, was told “Gays gonna burn in Trump’s America” at the gas station. A bumper sticker probably gave him away. I guess he’d better start hiding who he is, then.

Another friend of mine was getting coffee with her young daughter, when a group of assholes kept saying in a singsong voice, “Filthy Muslims,” making her feel very uncomfortable. She’s not Muslim; she’s Indian. But, y’know, her skin is brown, so, who can blame them. She said that she was afraid at first that they’d do something to her, but then she realized the truth is worse: that this is just the world they live in now, and the one her daughter is going to grow up in. You know how I’d talk about social workers in the ALF reviews, and what they’re like in person? It’s largely because of her. She’s a social worker who makes next to no money and gives a lot of herself over to it. She one of the sweetest, most selfless human beings I’ve ever known. She works hard to make life easier for the less fortunate, and this is how she’ll be repaid by her country.

Somebody I know on Facebook posted on Election Day that he really hoped people would “respect the election process” by voting for the male candidate, even if they preferred Clinton. “It isn’t right to have a woman in that position. It was never intended for a woman to be given that much power.” I’m paraphrasing, necessarily. The specific words obviously don’t matter nearly as much as the sentiment, which I assure you is intact. He has a baby girl, by the way. She’ll be growing up in a house with at least one parent who will make it clear that she is only allowed to go so far in life.

I personally watched as an old woman and two jackoffs talked about a group of kids playing near where my girlfriend lives. Children. They may have been Indian, too, but they weren’t white, which I guess is the point now. The kids weren’t bothering anyone. One of the guys said, “Deport the little fuckers.” The old woman, with a venom I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before, said, “I can’t wait until they do.”

Children. Bothering nobody.

This their world, now.

A friend’s colleague was black and homosexual. I say was because he hung himself a couple of nights ago. I can only imagine what he’d been subjected to. What he’d been told. What people assured him his life was going to be like, and how awful it must have been that he decided he’d rather die.

These are only the things I know, and it’s only some of them. I don’t want this to become a list of atrocities. You’ve all seen them. You’ve scrolled past them. You’ll be scrolling for a good long time.

No.

What I want to say is that…

…I’m speechless. I have nothing to say. I’ve read some very intelligent, eloquent musings on this election from both sides. Intelligence and eloquence, though, don’t mean anything right now. Somebody is sharing some very well-written advice on Facebook, and somebody else is fearing for his life. Somebody is assuring us that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and somebody else is in a waking nightmare from which she cannot escape. This has been a divisive election. We’d be seeing a lot of the same issues right now had Hillary won. Trump is a problem, but he’s not the problem. The country is the problem. The seething nastiness that’s been bubbling beneath America’s surface is the problem. And that’s what I hate. I hate that America is as ugly and cruel as it is. All Trump really did is make us admit that we’re okay with being ugly and cruel.

And I hate that.

I don’t have words. I’m not happy. For a while I even considered cancelling the Xmas Bash. Not because I wanted to get out of any work. It’s almost completely edited and ready to go. I just…didn’t feel like being funny. I still don’t.

But…

I don’t know. I can’t change the world. I can’t even change one person’s mind. We are all where we are, and all we can do is try to bring some light to our own little corners of the darkness.

I’ll do what I can.

It might not be much. In fact, it won’t be. Period.

But it’s something. Especially now, with so much fear. Hosting a live comedy stream is one thing. Hosting one that benefits The Trevor Project is another. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one I’ve already been doing. Stopping it now, when a lot of LGBTQ+ youth may benefit from it the most, would be foolish.

So the show will go on.

Which brings us to…

Updates, for those who prefer to skip my political misery:

Come back here, to this very page, at 7:00 pm (Eastern) on December 17 to enjoy the livestream of the 4th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!! You can read the full announcement here. And while it’s by no means mandatory to do so, you can use this event page on Facebook to mark yourself as attending. That way the time zone calculation will happen automatically, and you’ll get reminded.

I have a goal this year. I want us to hit $1,000 in donations. One thousand dollars of mental healthcare and emotional support for those who need it, in these unexpectedly difficult times. I think we can hit it. I’m confident we can.

Whatever we do, we’ve done well.

But I want to hit $1,000. And I really hope you will find it in your heart to help. (If you can’t find it in your wallet to help, though, never fear. You’re just as welcome as anyone else.)

Further, I had some other fun ideas for December. I think I’m going to do them.

There will be a Fiction into Film, which is actually just as valid for New Year’s as it is for Christmas. (Any guesses at to what it is?) I’ll probably post it between those two holidays, with an aim of producing a new article in the series every two months. I think that’s more doable than my original monthly goal.

There will also be an advent calendar feature that will run from December 1 – December 25. Every day I will post a new article about a different novel of my choosing. They won’t be long articles, but it’ll be a daily update, and when all is said and done I think the wordcount will add up nicely anyway, so you’ll have a lot to enjoy in the runup to Christmas.

I’ll only allow one book per author, and I’ll only cover novels. That means no collections, no poetry, no non-fiction, and so on. I have some ideas of the ones I’ll cover. You can probably guess a handful of them, but I think there will be some surprises as well, and it’ll be a great chance to see if any of them appeal to you. It’s always good to keep reading.

And if you have some great idea for what to call this feature, tell me, because I sure don’t.

Finally, I want to do another reader’s survey. We’re coming into a new year, we have this site’s most ambitious project well behind us, and I want to see where you’d like me to go next.

So get your thoughts together. I’ll post a link to the survey as soon as I have it.

Again, though…for now…

I’m struggling. I’m unhappy. I’m not creative. I don’t feel like being funny. I don’t feel like much of anything.

But I can get through this. We can get through this. Let’s just believe in ourselves, and in each other.

We’ll do the best we can.

We kind of have to.

Bad things are happening. We can’t stop them all. But we can create some good.

That’s something we can always do.

Nobody can take that away from us, and we shouldn’t take it away from ourselves.

Resident Evil 4 Scares the Hell Out of Me

Resident Evil 4

THE TITLE IS THE WHOLE POST GOODBYE

…okay, of course it’s not. You know me. If I can say something in nine words, I might as well say it in nine thousand.

Anyway, there’s a big update post to come, giving you all an idea of what to expect in the coming months. In short, though, December is going to be awesome, with the Fourth Annual Xmas Bash!!!! live stream, a great Christmas-appropriate Fiction Into Film, and a major, huge surprise that’s going to make December the busiest month this blog has had in a while.

But…you’ll have to wait to find out about that.

Because I’m playing Resident Evil 4 again. Or, I’m trying to.

And I can’t. I mean, I can, of course. But I also…can’t. Because this game genuinely scares the daylights out of me.

I don’t know why. I can’t put my finger on anything in particular. In fact, I don’t think it is anything in particular. I think it’s a combination of things. I think it’s the fact that the hordes of enemies (largely) don’t look like monsters, making it more difficult to keep them at a fictional remove. I think it’s the visuals of sickly greys and browns. I think it’s the soundtrack, which keeps unnervingly quiet until it rises up and swells against you right along with the enemies.

I think it’s everything. I think Resident Evil 4 is so well built, so atmospheric, so masterfully constructed that I can’t feel safe.

Other Resident Evil games have scared me, sure. But they’ve mainly scared me through unexpectedly placing an enemy around a corner. One of my most formative scary moments in games is shared by anyone who’s ever played the original: the dogs crashing through the windows. It’s effective, it works, and it’s also kinda cheap. And that’s been Resident Evil in a nutshell for me.

Cheap makes you jump. Cheap makes you shout a bit. Cheap makes your heart race.

But it doesn’t terrify you, because cheap is over as quickly as it begins. And cheap gets old. The 50th time a zombie pops out of nowhere, it doesn’t register the same way. You no longer panic; you respond. Instinct kicks in. The dogs crashing through the window are so fucking scary because it happens so early in the game, when you don’t know what to expect, don’t know how to deal with them, and are likely still learning the controls.

The later scares in that first game aren’t as memorable, because by the time you get to them you have some idea of what you need to do. You ready your weapon. You deal with the problem. We can all agree that the dogs scared the crap out of us, but can we all agree that anything later in the game had the same effect? Probably not.

And so Resident Evil, as a series, faced diminishing returns on its horror. We got used to its tricks and its methods. We started to anticipate what should have felt unexpected. We may not have known the lyrics, but we sure as hell knew the melody.

None of which is to say that the series peaked with its first installment, or that the series shouldn’t have continued, or anything like that. It’s just that the first Resident Evil could have done anything, and we wouldn’t have known what to expect from it. In later games, we had a kind of understanding. We knew what we were getting into. We’d jump when something popped up. We’d run out of ammo. We’d cling desperately to our healing items, trying to gauge how likely it was that we’d run into a save point before keeling over. The tension was still there, and in large part so was the horror, but it was also something we understood before it kicked in. That’s what Resident Evil is: monsters and ammo issues and unknowable gaps between save points. The first time, it’s a surprise. Every other time, it’s a convention.

Which is part of what made Resident Evil 4 so great. Knowing that fans of the series already understood how it ticked, and were savvy to the series’ tricks, Capcom chose to make a fourth installment that was entirely different. If the horror didn’t work as well, that was fine; Resident Evil 4 would be an action game instead.

Shift the genre. Shake up expectations. It was a gamble, but a smart one. You might be able to find some people who don’t think Resident Evil 4 is the best game in the series, but you’d have to do some digging.

And so Resident Evil 4 succeeded. It kept the general themes of the series alive, checked in on a few of the recurring characters, and was still artfully stingy with the ammo. Players familiar with the previous games felt largely at home, while the game itself took the series in a very different direction.

All of which is to say this: Resident Evil 4 shouldn’t scare me.

I’ve even seen people say that it’s not a horror game. They’re wrong, quite clearly, but the fact that anyone could even entertain that opinion says something.

There’s more of a focus on combat, for one. If you’ve played the previous games you probably have a lot of memories of dodging enemies in a panic, but in Resident Evil 4 your memories are more likely to be of taking on throngs of enemies with little Leon, hoping to cluster them together in a way that won’t overwhelm you, yet will allow you to send many of them toppling over with a kick.

Resident Evil 4 doesn’t want you dodging…at least, not for long. It wants you running, climbing, crashing through windows, knocking ladders down behind you when you finally find the right vantage point. Soon enough you meet your companion character, and it’s her job to stay out of trouble. She plays the role of a protagonist in the previous games, in that sense; she avoids danger whenever possible. It’s your job, by contrast, to clear the trouble away.

And yet, the game scares me. It scares me more than any of the other games do, and I think I’ve played them all (outside of Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, and Revelations 2*).

It’s the best of the games I’ve played. It’s the most exciting. It’s probably also the most fun.

…but I’ve never gotten far in it.

I’ve played the Game Cube version. I’ve played the Wii version. Now, thanks to a Halloween sale, I’m playing the PS4 version.

I’m going to finish it. I’m going to force myself to finish it. I feel as though I need to. But every time I’ve picked up that controller to play it — any of three controllers to play it — my heart sinks. My blood grows colder. There’s something about the game that scares me more than the others do, scares me in a way that the others do not, and I don’t know why.

Partially, I think the shift to action-oriented gameplay is responsible.

Strictly speaking, Resident Evil 4 isn’t scarier. It’s not. Like, it really is not. It’s rarely claustrophobic, ammo and healing items are not as rare as they were in previous games, save points are indicated on the map to let you know exactly how far you have left to go, a merchant pops up regularly to serve as an armory, a medic, and comic relief all at once…

But I can’t play it. I keep having to stop. I pick it up. I make some progress. I get overwhelmed with feelings of terror, and I have to stop.

Nothing’s happening, and I have to stop.

I try five times to get through a wave of attackers. I succeed, and I have to stop.

I see nothing around me. Maybe a merchant. It’s quiet. I’m in no danger, and I have to stop.

It’s confused me for years. Why can I play the other games in the series? It’s not that they don’t scare me — they often do — but I can keep going. I can push on. The scary moments are thrilling, and then I move along.

In Resident Evil 4, the scary moments are oppressive. And they’re all scary moments.

Years ago I had a friend who couldn’t sleep in the same room as the box for the first Resident Evil game. He’d have to move it out of the room before he’d be able to rest at all. That always fascinated me, but I felt something like it when, very early in Resident Evil 4, I came across a man’s body hanging over a fire pit, while deranged villagers circled around it. The game just started, and I was already chilled.

Why didn’t I have his reaction back then? Why would I have it now?

Again, I think it’s the fact that the game is an action game. For some reason, that’s scarier to me.

See, I’m not good at those. Give my character a gun, and he’s probably not going to use it very well.

I’m clumsy. I don’t think well when I have to think quickly. I end up wasting ammo and spraying the air around the enemy. If I hit my target, it’s luck, and luck runs out. My favorite example of this has to be the first time I played Half-Life 2, where my chronic ineptitude rendered the conceit of the entire game incompatible with my reality. Characters would materialize and sigh with relief that I was finally there to save them…that I was their hero…that I was the only one who could help. Which is an odd conclusion to reach about the guy covered in bullet wounds who keeps blowing himself up with grenades.

But earlier Resident Evil games were puzzle-heavy. This may have been the design result of the fact that the controls and camera angles were, to be diplomatic, fuckawful.

Players couldn’t be expected to gun down hordes of baddies because players couldn’t be expected to even move their characters around reliably. And so the experience was something more like an adventure game. You’d find a puzzle, scour the area for clues, and have to figure out the solution for yourself. Resident Evil is a game about zombies, yes, but it’s also a game about consulting journals, analyzing paintings, shoving bookcases around, and searching for keys. That’s because without those things, you’d just have the combat. And the combat was terrible.

Resident Evil 4 makes the combat better. Much better. The camera isn’t fixed, you can aim precisely rather than simply point a gun in some general direction, and Leon is more nimble than the protagonists of previous games. As such — and I doubt this is coincidental — the puzzles take a back seat. You still have to find some kind of key or other, but they’re not especially well hidden, and there’s nothing you won’t find if you simply comb the area around you. Compared to the original Resident Evil, which required a good deal of oblique thinking and pixel hunting, this is a massive difference.

Now that you can be expected to kick zombie ass, in other words, the game might as well let that become the focus.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m good at puzzles. And I’m bad at combat.

And I think the lesson here is that horror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

My friend who couldn’t sleep in the same room as Resident Evil was probably better at combat than he was at puzzles, so the game frightened him in a way that it didn’t frighten me. Resident Evil 4 scares the pants off of me, but not off of so many others…at least most of whom, I’m sure, are better at video game combat than I am.

See, fear only sets in when you believe you’re in danger. Puzzles — lateral thought, process of elimination, research — are my element. Yes, it would be scary to be locked in a mansion with zombies, or to have to find some way out of a city infested with them, but if the main thing standing between me and salvation was a complex puzzle with some esoteric solution…well, I’d stand a chance. Because that’s how I work. I can do that.

I’m in a relative minority, and I think that’s what made Resident Evil so scary for so many people; they knew they were in danger, but escape required a level of knowledge — or at least an ability to find knowledge — that they didn’t have.

Resident Evil 4 switches the focus to combat. I’m out of my element there. Suddenly, I am in danger.

Others see this as less scary. They’ve been shooting moving targets in the head since at least Goldeneye. They’re ready for this. The big door with the puzzle embedded in it is replaced with some guns and ammunition. Now they stand a chance. That’s how they work. They can do that.

For me, the change to a better control scheme actually made things harder, because the game now expected me to use it. My capacity for abstract thought no longer serves me well. I need fast reflexes. I need precision married to speed. I need to actually fight.

And so the action game is actually scarier to me than the horror games ever were. Because fear is being forced into a situation that you don’t feel you can escape.

Puzzles were challenges. Not always fair challenges, as anyone who played those games can attest to, but they were able to be solved. Resident Evil 4, though, is war. If anything, a capacity for abstract thought is a detriment. If you’re taking time to think, you’re already dead.

I find this interesting. We all have different fears, of course. I don’t mind spiders, or heights, or most of the things that traditionally scare people. But put a gun in my hand and tell me I need to fight my way out, and I’ll be terrified. That isn’t me.

Fear really is in the eye of the beholder. Because we’re all comfortable with different things, we’re all afraid of different things. That’s why, for example, I can fight my way through Bioshock and trudge my way through Fallout with no problem, but I’ll never as long as I live touch Silent Hill, because as a man who struggles with mental health issues every day, I already know that’s a series — however good — that I can’t handle.

So I’m a few games behind. I love the Resident Evil series, as cheap and cheesy and unfair as it is. But the game that so many believe isn’t scary at all is the one that scares me so much I can barely even play it.

I’ll get through it. That’s a goal of mine. I’ll push through, because the game is good enough that it deserves that I push aside my fear.

But for now, I find it interesting that as the team was developing a game that they knew would shift away from horror, they were crafting, expertly, my worst nightmare…one in which my survival hinged on something other than my brain.

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* Are any of these worth playing? I heard 5 is awful, but beyond that…I really don’t know much. I adored the first Revelations, which I think is what’s keeping me from bothering with the sequel. It was so good that I’m really not sure what another game could bring to the experience.

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