Music and Magic

February 26, 2016

I wasn’t a big fan of Rachel Platten, and yet I was going to her concert in Dallas, Texas at Granada Theater. My boyfriend M and I love live music, and the weekend I came to visit he bought tickets to the only artist whose name we recognized.

Rachel’s biggest song to date was “Fight Song,” a fantastic anthem describing her struggle to stardom. I admired her for persevering. She was the same age as my middle sister—her at 34, me at 24. I hoped I would achieve something in the next ten years. If anything, Rachel’s fight to fame proved that if you wanted it enough and worked hard enough, you could get there.

By the time I got off the Megabus, I was late and starving. M made salmon for dinner, which I wanted to savor, but Granada was standing room only. We had to get there early if we wanted good spots. I didn’t even take time to change into the outfit I’d set aside for the concert. We arrived during one of the opening acts. After settling on a spot with a decent view of the stage, we finally focused on the singer. She was tall, or she looked tall in black shorts that emphasized the line of her legs, and she had a good voice, a stunningly good voice. She had a clear tone while also keeping it a little rough on the edges. She regularly switched between her breathy and her belting voices with hardly any effort. I tried to catch the lyrics to look her up by song, but the words “some day my prince will come” were too strongly linked to Disney’s Snow White to get me what I wanted.

“I wonder who this is,” I said.

“Let’s figure this out.” M pulled out his phone. Within minutes he found the name of the opening act: Christina Grimmie.

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“No way. Like the YouTube star, Christina Grimmie?”

“Yeah, the one who made the cover of ‘Just a Dream’ with Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider.” Both Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider had attended Yale, also M’s alma mater, which was how M discovered the cover to Nelly’s song featuring Christina Grimmie.

Up on the gigantic screen next to the stage that we had somehow missed before, live tweets to @therealgrimmie continuously scrolled down the black background.

I bemoaned my own slowness. “We should have gotten here earlier.”

M shrugged. “We didn’t know.”

M’s sister, currently attending the University of Texas, saw our Snapchats at Granada and asked if she should see Rachel Platten in Austin the following night.

We told her yes and make sure you go on time to see Christina Grimmie.

Too soon, Christina Grimmie’s set ended, and she disappeared in the darkness of the stage. I almost wished this was her concert instead of Rachel Platten’s. Though Rachel did not disappoint—she sounded great live—my ears lingered with the haunting melodies from Christina Grimmie.

 

May 29, 2016

Today’s destination: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I would finally be able to experience the wondrousness of all things Harry Potter in full.

It all began in third grade. I used to pride myself for resisting mainstream trends. Even then, I wanted to be niche and alternative. But my mom wanted me to read more, and she somehow found out that kids my age were reading this phenomenon called Harry Potter. One afternoon, she dragged me to the school library.

“Mrs. G, do you have any Harry Potter books for my daughter to read?” my mom asked in her thick Vietnamese accent.

The friendly librarian beamed. “Excellent choice! They’re the number one book series right now.” Mrs. G checked the system. “It looks like all of them are checked out. Wait one moment—”

Mrs. G ducked into her office, then returned with a book: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “This is my personal copy,” she told me, “but I know you’re a very trustworthy student, so I’ll let you borrow it.”

I couldn’t very well say no after that. So at home, I cracked it open and jumped into the middle of a seven-year storyline that made no sense to me. Who was this Tom Riddle kid, and why was he so important to the rest of the book? The Quidditch Worldcup scenes were boring, too, but I slogged through it, and after I finished it, I prowled through the Scholastic catalog and asked my mom to buy me Book #1 and Book #2 so that I could start from the beginning and be prepared for Movie #1. Then I acquired Book #3, also through the Scholastic catalog, and got my mom to buy me Book #4 from a brick-and-mortar store.

“So,” Mrs. G chirped as Hamilton the puppet hamster, “who knows the title of the next Harry Potter book coming out this summer?”

All the way in the back row, my hand shot to the ceiling, Hermione-esque.  “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!”

The longest book in the series, I managed to finish it in three days before passing it along to my middle sister, the only one in my family who also hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. I hated Professor Umbridge, and Harry was so annoying with all of these anger issues (I’d yet to be a teenager myself at that point).

As soon as Book #6 hit the stores, I dragged my mom to Kroger for fear there’d be a line like I’d read on the internet of people camping outside bookstores from midnight. Not a single person crowded the display at Kroger except for me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to race through Book #6 before spoilers got to me first.

Then I bought the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and there ended Rowling’s seventeen years of work. The movies stretched the magic a little longer, but by summer of 2011, there was nothing to look forward to anymore. No more classes at Hogwarts. No more sneaking around under invisibility cloaks and conjuring patronuses. No more summer holidays and Christmas dinners with the sprawling Weasley family. In fact, I missed holidays with the Weasleys the most. I come from a large family of five kids, and the Weasleys are exactly how I imagined big families should be, not like mine, scattered around the country, only coming together a few times a year and usually only some combination of us. The other scene I cherished is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry writes history essays at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour with ice cream on the house. I didn’t care for thrilling battles; I lived for those daily moments.

Five years after the last movie, I was in Orlando, Florida with the crew—M, his sister R, and a mutual high school friend, C. M and R read up strategies on which rides to ride first to beat the lines and make the most use out of that extra hour before general admission to Universal Studios. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see Hogwarts, breathe Hogwarts, live Hogwarts.

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Strategy apparently required us to run from the entrance all the way to the very back of Universal’s Island of Adventure for the ride “Forbidden Journey” at Hogwarts. The instant I saw Hogsmeade Village and its ridiculous snow-capped eaves Memorial Day Weekend, I was struck by two thoughts: 1) I want to explore every nook and cranny of this place! and 2) This is so awfully fake—why am I torturing myself like this? The crew didn’t let me do either. They dragged me to Hogwarts, which turned out to be a very, very, very long and tortuous waiting line crawling through Hogwarts’s innards. I was both awed and disappointed—awed by all the details they put in, like having the photos move in the newspaper clippings, and disappointed in that I didn’t get to explore Hogwarts like a real Hogwarts student. I wanted to meander the corridors, visit the Gryffindor common room, go up to the owlery, see the sky in the Great Hall—but no, Hogwarts was merely a waiting line for some amusement ride I had no wish to ride.

As for the ride itself, if I was flying on a broom—actually flying my very own Nimbus Two-Thousand—I probably would have loved it, but no four-person contraption swinging us around like a yo-yo could compare. When we came out, I learned that we had a photo taken in the middle of the ride.

“Yeah, didn’t you see the flash?” said C, like it was common knowledge that Universal Studios would take your photo while you’re trying your best not to be sick or fall out of the contraption to your untimely death.

My eyes were squeezed shut in the photo. The crew teased me for it, but I didn’t care. I was determined to tell them, “I’m exploring Hogsmeade while y’all ride the roller coasters.”

Never got the chance. Next thing I knew, we were boarding the Hogwarts Express (only after meandering through another long, tortuous waiting line). I found it extremely disorienting to stare out the fake window, which was in fact a screen showing a video of the Weasleys riding broomsticks and the Knight Bus careening around muggles. I, however, loved the frosted compartment doors, which doubled as videos of Harry’s, Ron’s, and Hermione’s silhouettes traipsing through the carriage (“Oh look—a bunch of fuhst yearsthough I jumped at Hermione’s voice; they’d gotten someone other than the iconic Emma Watson to say her lines).

We emerged from the London Tube to pass through a brick wall into Diagon Alley, which was easily three times the size of Hogsmeade. I had to explore every nook and cranny of Diagon Alley until I carried a perfect map in my mind.

But no, the crew dragged me to “Escape from Gringotts” in which we slogged through another long, tortuous line, and then I suffered through roller coaster-esque drops that made me think oh s***, how did I get myself into this? After a non-Harry Potter ride we strategically had to visit, I finally broke off from the crew.

My Strategic To-Do List: 1) explore Diagon Alley, 2) ride the Hogwarts Express going towards Hogwarts, and 3) explore Hogsmeade Village.

In Diagon Alley, I methodically combed every single shop in counterclockwise-order. To my delight, Universal included an air-conditioned Knockturn Alley complete with a ceiling bewitched to look like constant nighttime. Every ten minutes, the dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank spouted fire so hot, I could feel the burn even a hundred feet below. Kids in robes (costing $100+) ran about waving wands to shoot arcs of water or make skeletons dance. With butterbeer stalls at every corner, I could imagine the everyday hustle, that daily life I craved from the books. As fake as all the sets were (some shops were merely facades, and no, green M&Ms disguised as the Weasley Twins’ U-No-Poo were not going to make you poo), walking around a place called Diagon Alley was physically real—and that was magic to me.

 

June 11, 2016

Exactly two weeks later on a Saturday morning, I woke to my alarm at 8:30 am. The only reason I was awake this early on a Saturday was because I had too much work to do and needed to knock out a few hours’ worth of chalk drawings at Whole Foods Market. To get my brain going, I stayed in bed, scrolled through Facebook, and—

Christina Grimmie shot dead at concert venue – ktnv.com

I stared at the link. This was a joke. This had to be a horrible joke. Christina was about my age and a rising star. No way was she dead.

I clicked on the link. It was no joke. Christina had been shot three times while signing autographs after a performance in Orlando, Florida. I shared the link to M and dropped my phone on the pillow.

Christina had been alive just three months ago. I saw her perform. In Dallas. About forty feet away from me. Wikipedia said she was 22, a mere two years younger than me, the same age as R, and she was no longer alive. The surreal detail was Orlando, a city I had walked around in, gone on Uber rides, and experienced Hogwarts. A Brazilian Uber driver had said to the four of us with a shudder,

“No Texas for me. Too many guns.”

But Orlando has guns, too.

On the drive to work, “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire popped up on my iPod. I loved both the movie version and the version featuring Nicole Sherzinger of the PCDs, but today I was thinking about another version—the acappella cover by Peter Hollens and Alaa Wardi, two fellow YouTube stars. They must have known about Christina Grimmie if they hadn’t collaborated with her. And what about Sam Tsui and Kurt Hugo Schneider? They definitely collaborated with her. How well did they know her and what was going on in their minds? It would have been one thing if, say, Beyonce had been targeted. Everyone knows of her, and she had countless songs make it to the Top 40. Christina Grimmie had competed in The Voice, trained under Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and become good friends with Selena Gomez, but how did any of those things possibly make her a target in the shooter’s mind? Selena had been performing only miles away from where Christina was shot.

At work, I opened up Spotify and listened to Christina’s latest album, Side A. That first song, “Snow White”—that was the one Matt and I heard her sing at Granada.

Some day
my prince
will come
for me

Save
me from
this harm
that haunts me

Did she ever meet her Prince Charming? Her brother, Marcus, and she apparently had tattoos that said “Player 1” and “Player 2,” a symbol of their strong sibling-ship. He had been there in Orlando with Christina and “tackled the gunman,” as the news said. He prevented anyone else from getting hurt, the princeliest deed anyone could have done in that situation, but even he couldn’t save his younger sister from harm.

The song with Christina’s vocals that I loved the most wasn’t on Spotify—not on hers, not on Sam Tsui’s, not on Kurt Hugo Schneider’s page. Nelly’s “Just a Dream” had been good on its own, but the Schneider-Tsui-Grimmie cover on YouTube blew me away. I pulled up the video, and already, Kurt had added, “I am devastated, sad, angry, and heartbroken. Rest in Peace Christina you will be missed down here.” In the days that I listened to “Just a Dream” again and again, the numbers jumped from 117 million to 118 million plus. Uploaded in 2010, she would have been sixteen. The first time I listened to this cover was just after midnight on early Tuesday, October 30, 2012—about four years ago. M must have shown me a link to one of Sam Tsui’s songs or a collaboration between Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider. From there I found Christina Grimmie, the real gem in the three-way collaboration of “Just a Dream.” The great hair, the lively expressions, the hand gestures. All of those recorded forever, and they would still be there long after Christina was gone.

That day, Sam Tsui uploaded an acoustic version of “Just a Dream,” just him singing the chorus and first verse:

I was thinking ‘bout you, thinking ‘bout me
Thinking ‘bout us, what we gon’ be
Open my eyes, it was only just a dream

So I traveled back, down that road
Will you come back, no one knows
I realize, it was only just a dream

The song no longer read about a boy and a girl in my mind. This song was about all the young, rising stars in the YouTube music scene—Sam, Christina, Kurt, and so many others. If the ones still living opened their eyes, Christina was just a dream; if Christina opened her eyes, her life was just a dream. Sam echoing Christina as she sings “traveled back, down that road” is like the living echoing the dead. We try to follow them, speak to them, bring them back, but it’s impossible to catch up. The dead are always one step ahead. J.K. Rowling knew that best when she wrote the Mirror of Erised and the cursed ring of the three Deathly Hallows.

I remembered how differently I felt about the Harry Potter series when I reread them all again in 2015. This time, I understood Harry’s teenage angst in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This time, I hated Harry’s perpetual snooping under his invisibility cloak in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This time, I cried so hard at Snape’s fate in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What had changed since then? Both of my grandmothers passed away. I’d taken them for granted in my life, and now their daily presence, just knowing that they were somewhere on this earth, was gone forever. Now we, as the living, are left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces to patch over the hole left behind.

For a lot of us, I think we wish that life was a storybook, that there’s a clear-cut evil villain and a happy ending, that we know all of our hard work will culminate into something grand and predestined. But life is anything but a story with a climax and denouement. Christina Grimmie never made it as big as Rachel Platten who still hasn’t made it as big as the countless other artists out there, but that doesn’t mean Christina wasn’t successful in her own way, her own time. We each just have to take life day by day, to appreciate those daily moments, and to make every moment count because one day, we might not get those chances anymore.

If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
Now they’re gone and you’re wishing you could give them everything

Said if you ever loved somebody put your hands up
If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
Now they’re gone and you’re wishing you could give them everything

 

 

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Music and Magic

Living the Dream

This past weekend I attended a video game convention called DreamHack in Austin, Texas—and it turned out to be one of the most fun weekends I’ve had. I never imagined myself going to a video game convention, not when I play only here and there, but with the persuasion of my fiancé (who I’ll call M) and several friends, I found myself at DreamHack. For a very affordable $30 Saturday pass, DreamHack offered arcade freeplay, console freeplay, tabletop freeplay, VR, artwork, free swag, and tons more—the dream of every gamer.

So why exactly did I enjoy DreamHack? Two things.

1: Analyzing games from a graphic design / artistic standpoint.

Sounds dry and academic? Well, some people might geek out over playing games. I, apparently, geek out over analyzing games as a graphic designer and artist. I am, after all, a full-time graphic artist, and I served as graphic designer / game artist for an iOS casual running game during my undergrad days. My skills in playing games aren’t all that great, so learning a new game always presents a huge learning curve for me.

Proof in point: I have enough trouble moving my character around on-screen while the character is visible. In the Indie Game Alley at DreamHack, my friends and I came across At Sundown, a top-down multiplayer shooter game, in which players control characters who are visible in patches of light and are invisible in the shadows. M said he had to mentally keep track of where his character was at all times. If I was playing, I wouldn’t be sure if my character was where I thought it was or if it was stuck in a corner. By having M play, I get to observe and take in all of the subtle graphics—flashes of lightning, the spurt of colored dust every time a character boosts, the details in each of the different maps. Maybe, too, this goes back to my childhood days when I used to watch my brother play while seven-year-old me sat on his bed. Anyway, isn’t eSports a thing?

2: Cosplay.

For the longest time I wanted to cosplay because it seemed like so much fun—Halloween, but on a bigger, more dedicated scale. As an artist, I’ve got at least some of the skills to make a badass costume. I just couldn’t seem to find the right people to cosplay with or what to cosplay since, as a I said, I don’t really play video games or watch much anime. At DreamHack, I finally got to live out my dream, and it was even more exhilarating than I ever thought it’d be.

Four years ago, my brother introduced me to an indie game called Transistor from Supergiant Games. And it changed my life. (Just like when he introduced me to the Flight Comics Anthology and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and… I’m seeing a trend here.)

As I mentioned, I don’t play a lot of video games. In fact, the last game I played before Transistor was probably The Sims (yup, the original). My brother promised to lend me his Steam account but, in classic fashion, never did. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to play it, so enter my then boyfriend (and current fiancé), who bought it on his Steam account. And that was my introduction to Transistor.

What is Transistor? According to Supergiant Games’s website: “Transistor is a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites you to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as you fight through a stunning futuristic city.”

I’ll let you enjoy the artwork and music of the launch trailer here. Both art and music are integral to the experience of Transistor.

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If there is such a thing as a “spirit game” (you know, spirit animals, Patronus, etc.) this would be it for me. It’s beautiful. It’s atmospheric. It’s mysterious. It’s intriguing. It’s everything I could want for in a game.

And the character Red? She is my spirit character. She sings (like me). She wears yellow (like me). She’s got a guy (like me). And her outfit is pretty doable for an amateur (like me). A number of cosplayers have already done Red much more accurately, down to a dress that rips off the skirt like in the intro cutscene. My goal was to maximize existing materials that I had for an economical and easy cosplay while still making Red recognizable. I was so excited about Transistor that I went ahead with the outfit for Halloween that year even though it was unlikely that anyone would recognize the character. I was that in love with Red.

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The next part will be more technical going into the details of what exactly went into the cosplay. Let’s face it. Cosplay—good cosplay—is all about the details, just like everything else in life.

What makes Red Red:

  • Yellow dress: Not just any yellow dress. I felt like her long evening gown needed that iconic fishtail design, so I opted for the short version since I conveniently have short yellow dresses in my possession.
  • Black corset with yellow triangle: I searched high and low, but in the end, I couldn’t find any corsets that went straight across. Luckily, one of my sisters used to be a fashion designer, so she left behind a stash of fabric to make my own corset/belt.
  • Black/brown jacket with yellow triangle: I originally tried to find a cheap men’s jacket since the jacket belonged to Red’s lover, the “Boxer,” for both M and me to match each other. Anything that looked like the one in the game, however, cost a fortune, plus I was worried that it would look too oversized on me. I ended up buying a more accurate women’s jacket from my go-to, Forever 21, while M bought a cheap jacket from Amazon. Add yellow triangles to both. Done.
  • Knee-high black boots: Red’s boots have yellow accents. I’d always wanted knee-high black boots for everyday wear, so I bought a pair and didn’t make any alterations.
  • White feather collar: Red’s signature collar is structured with the feathers splayed outwards and bigger feathers at the back of the neck. I didn’t feel like tracking down feathers of different sizes and gluing them into a collar, so I bought a white feather boa, wrapped it around white pipe cleaners and trimmed it shorter around the ends. Beware—loose feathers everywhere, and it itches.
  • Yellow nails: I rarely paint my nails and own only two colors—opaque yellow and translucent sparkly yellow, which are perfect. The opaque yellow lays the groundwork and the “live wire” yellow adds an extra sparkle to brighten and add dimension.
  • Triangle ring: I couldn’t find one with a circle inside the triangle or a yellow triangle. The best I could do was a triangle ring covered in rhinestones.
  • Transistor sword: Perhaps the biggest and most important piece. I found a super detailed blog explaining how to build a true-to-size transistor sword, but it would have blown my budget buying enormous pieces of colored plexi—not to mention the effort to cut, glue, and put it all together, or the hassle of carrying it with me when I traveled via bus to Dallas or anywhere else. I really wanted it to light up, so I found a set of tiny LED lights and built a transistor pendant based on the size of the LED light. It’s undeniably the coolest piece of the outfit.

The first time around for Halloween, I went without three things:

  • Blue contacts: While I’m sure my dad as an eye doctor could have gotten me blue contacts for cheap, I consider contacts too invasive for my personal comfort.
  • Sheer thigh-high stockings: It seemed impossible to find a cheap pair of sheer thigh-highs that weren’t overly lacy or used a garter. Many online reviews said that thigh-highs without garters tended to roll down. Seeming like too much trouble, I scrapped it and wore tights instead.
  • Red wig: Amazon’s options for red wigs were very limited. Either they would require hair styling, which from my experiments I know I am terrible at, or dying to get the right color. There was nothing cheap enough I was willing to burn my money on. At the time my hair was cut short in a bob, so I opted to buy temporary hair dye instead. When Halloween rolled around, I ended up not using it for various reasons, so the box of hair dye remained unopened for a very long time—two years to be exact. As it collected dust on my desk, it served as a reminder of my lack of dedication to the vision.

 

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Fast forward to a week before the convention.

M texted me to say we should cosplay as Red and the Boxer from Transistor. I asked him if he wanted to do better known characters like Link from his favorite game, Legend of Zelda, or characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, since we were both fans of the show. He insisted on Transistor saying we’d look cute. With a week to go, there wasn’t much time for me to rustle up a new outfit from scratch, though I later found out why M was satisfied doing Transistor despite it being an indie game with a small fanbase. His outfit was super easy—jacket with yellow triangle, white shirt, black slacks, black shoes, and boxer wraps on both arms.

I, meanwhile, scrambled for last-minute orders on Amazon prime.

The transistor sword. The one I made still lit up, but none of the backup lights worked. If the one in the transistor fizzled out, I was done for. Besides, the first set I ordered was blue bordering on violet, which had always annoyed me. I found LED lights from a different brand with brighter blue. Add to cart.

The red wig. Thankfully, Amazon now had more options. I found a “fox red” wig that exactly matched Red’s curly bob. The shade, however, was browner than I would have liked. All of the bright red wigs were the wrong shape. It was a risk, but I hoped that I could figure out how to dye the wig the right color rather than styling the right-colored wig. Add to cart.

Sheer thigh-high stockings. The bane of my searches. I didn’t trust any of the crazy cheap brands. Besides, they were all either overly lacy or plain and opaque—until I had the bright idea to search for thigh-high compression stockings. I figured if I was buying stockings, I might as well buy something I’d use in the future. Plus with compression stockings, they might stay up better than non-compression. It just so happened that the company that made compression thigh-highs had a lacy version that was simple enough so as not to distract from the overall outfit. Add to cart.

I spent the next couple of days waiting in agony. The notification for the red wig arrived. The notification for the delay on the stockings sent me into mild panic mode. This was probably the one and only time I’d ever wear thigh-highs. Thankfully everything arrived by Thursday.

First things first, I threw the stockings into the wash along with the rest of my laundry.

Second, I took out the bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol I smuggled from work, poured some in a glass jar, and left a red marker to bleed in it as instructed by a DIY blog for creating your own alcohol inks. A coworker who often makes cosplay outfits for her daughter told me that spraying alcohol inks is a fast and easy way to dye something. So I thought I’d give it a try.

When my mom saw me unwrapping the wig, she asked me what on earth I was wasting my money for (typical Asian parent response—later when my dad came home, he said, “Is that a cat?”). I tried to explain to my mom the concept of cosplaying at a convention, and the best I could get across was a costume ball. Close enough. Intrigued, she asked me to put it on. The wig came with a foolproof cap liner that easily took care of all of my hair. The tricky part was putting on the wig. I struggled a good five minutes trying to keep it pristine and yet secure on my head. Looking in the mirror, I felt enormous self-doubt. When I came out, my mom was unimpressed, plunging me deeper into the abyss of “You’re crazy for wanting to cosplay!” This was further exacerbated when the alcohol ink did nothing to change the color of the wig.

In a panic, I ran to my room and got out the Redken hair makeup from two years ago, all the while praying that it would work because if it didn’t work, there was no time for anything else. I pulled out the plug of the bottle, inserted the sponge, and gave it a good long shake. When I checked on the sponge, there was no sign of red dye. Had I left the product to dry out? I wasn’t going to give up yet. If anything, my time as a Whole Foods Market Graphic Artist had taught me that when priming a new chalk marker, keep shaking until something comes out because something will come out. Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. Shake it like a polaroiiiiid.

At long last, I saw a sign of red and made my first swipe—bright red. With a huge sigh of relief, I brushed on the product starting from the top of the wig. I figured it was more important to get the top of the wig and fade out to the “fox red” towards the bottom. For one, the makeup slowly stopped coming out of the bottle, so I didn’t know if I’d have enough for the entire wig. For another, I’d read online reviews that most temporary hair dyes tended to stain, and I didn’t want it stain the white boa.

Third, the new LED lights. They were a true blue, not as green as I’d hoped, but blue enough, and they shined much brighter than the old lights.

Fourth, I sat down and painted my nails—three coats of opaque yellow for the base, one coat of live wire yellow to add sparkly dimension—and remembered all the reasons why I never painted my nails outside of cosplaying. Maybe other nail polish is odorless, but the ones I had smelled so strong that my mom could smell it down the hallway. The other reason is the wait time. To pass time, I played several rounds of Two Dots, took a long walk outside with Pokemon Go, and then gingerly moved each article of clothing from the washer to the dryer. Even then the paint was a little chewy on the right hand, and I left a fingerprint on one of the nails.

To top it off, I packed a portable bluetooth music player and my iPod. Just in case anyone asked if I could sing like Red, I could put on some music for accompaniment.

When it came time to pack, my outfit took up an entire suitcase. Everything else had to fit in my backpack. With all the trouble for this one “doable” cosplay, I doubted that cosplaying at the convention would make the effort, time, or money worth it. Besides, what if no one recognized Red? True, at a video game convention, the odds were much better that someone would, but every time I compared my slapdash DIY efforts to the cosplays I’d seen online, my confidence dropped even lower. By the time I arrived in Austin, my confidence was crawling at shoe level. I didn’t even know if I could walk out of the bathroom with the wig on in front of my own fiance, much less strangers, some of whom might be professional cosplayers.

To sweeten the deal, Austin was friggin’ hot. I was sweating in regular clothing, and now I was supposed to don a jacket and wear knee-high boots over thigh-high stockings with an itchy feather boa at my neck and a wig, which I’ve heard from others can be itchy too.

A high school friend, C, picked me up from the bus stop. He’d just gotten off from a successful trip at a military thrift store in which the guy who owned the shop helped him get all of the pieces for Big Boss / Solid Snake and even suggested he go to CVS for the eyepatch. Off we went to CVS and got a classic black eyepatch with the strap around the head as well as some eyelash glue to adhere a piece of “shrapnel” to his head. Afterwards we hopped across the street, where C strode in the store and said to the clerk, “Give me your cheapest cigar.” Then we went to his lab to search for black latex gloves to turn into black fingerless gloves. He said he was going to beat me at the cosplay game the next day. With my confidence at the low, I admitted he might but not to underestimate me. After all, I had a cool light-up pendant and spent way more time working on my outfit than he had.

Come Saturday afternoon, I locked myself in C’s bathroom and proceeded to undergo my transformation. Twenty minutes later I stepped out to a mediocre response. M had already seen my outfit (minus the red wig), and no one else had played the game. C was still confident he would beat me. I had to admit, his was pretty convincing, even if I didn’t know Big Boss (which I didn’t). As M’s cousin drove us to the convention center, I asked for only one thing:

“Can we please crank up the A/C?”

M’s cousin parked in front of the convention center. There was no turning back. I stepped out onto the sidewalk. The world didn’t explode. I helped C pin his scarf back to prevent it from falling over all the time. M and his cousin were a block ahead of us. C and I hastened to follow after them. Lucky ducks without a cosplay or a cosplay that barely counted as a cosplay. With a deep breath, I walked into the convention center.

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No one else in the lobby was cosplaying. What if no one else had cosplayed? At least I was in a group of three cosplayers. So what if no one else cosplayed? I was here to have a good time. We walked up to get our tickets scanned. The guy behind the table lit up.

“Oh my gosh, you’re the first Transistor cosplay I’ve seen! I love that game. Wait—let me come around and give you a hug.”

That hug made my day. I could have been happy if this was the one and only enthusiastic hug I received in my short cosplay career.

“Can I take a picture too?”

Of course!

I walked in with my green wristlet and a bounce in my step. Inside the main hall, most of the overhead lights were off to let the lights from the computers, booths, digital displays—and my transistor pendant—glow in all of their soft-spoken splendor.

As we meandered through the hall to get a sense of where everything was, another guy stopped me.

“I just got through playing Transistor! That game is so great. I’m on my way out, but can I take a quick photo?”

After he left, C said, “Wow. A lot of people don’t play the game, but the people who do sure love it.”

M talked it up for me, going into the finer points of the gameplay that I used to know two years ago.

I got two more requests throughout the day, one from a guy manning an indie game booth and another from a girl in cosplay who I think was a convention photographer.

M, walking ahead of me at one point, fell back to tell me he heard a passerby say, “That’s a pretty good Transistor cosplay.” M and I were the only Transistor cosplayers I saw all day, so it’s possible that it’s only good because we were the only ones. Regardless, I was stoked that people recognized me and extremely flattered that people asked for photos. It made me feel like I was renting celebrity aura for a day. I’m not one much for the spotlight. I don’t know if I would be comfortable being famous for myself, but all the work I put in to make a character come to life, to be able to share it with others, and to interact with fellow fans—it was an exhilarating experience that helped me understand why others might find cosplay so much fun.

M and I are already plotting the next cosplay we might do if given the chance.

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Living the Dream

Wrapping Banh Chung: an Annual Lunar New Year Tradition

banh chung steamed

The Story

Every year around this time, many Asian countries celebrate a major holiday that I realize quite a few people in America have never heard of. Or, if they have, they have no clue what it is or why it fluctuates between January and February. I’m talking about the Lunar New Year. Some might know it better as Chinese New Year, but in fact, many countries other than China celebrate it too. According to Wikipedia, the list includes Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius, Australia, and the Philippines. That’s a lot of people.

In the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s always happens on January 1. The Lunar New Year calendar, however, is based on the moon, which doesn’t line up with the Gregorian calendar on a day-by-day basis. This is why the holiday usually falls some time during January or February but has no fixed date. So if you’re trying to figure out what animal you are in the Eastern zodiac and you’re born during one of these two months, you need to look at whether your birthday fell before or after Lunar New Year of that year. Anyone born through February 15, 2018 of this year will be born in the Year of the Rooster. Anyone born on February 16, 2018 or after will be born in the Year of the Dog.

As for the actual holiday itself, it’s a grand affair that some people might take a week or two off to prepare or visit home, if they live in Asia. As a kid I used to envy the time off. American kids get two weeks off for Christmas, so why can’t Asian kids get two weeks off for Lunar New Year? Now that I’m older, I envy the time off because I’ll never be able to fully experience the preparation and celebration that happens in Asian countries. This year, we consider it lucky that the first day of Lunar New Year falls on a Friday, February 16. The first three days of Lunar New Year are the most important because you spend those days with your family and close friends. With day one on a Friday, this means we get an entire weekend to celebrate.

There’s so much that goes into Lunar New Year that I can’t possibly talk about it all in this blog post. Most people probably best remember getting red envelopes with money, or li xi (“lee see”) in Vietnamese, that elders give to children for good luck. I’m going to focus on an annual tradition that I’ve been doing since 2006—wrapping banh chung (“beng chung” or “ben chung” depending on your dialect), a savory dish that goes back thousands of years to the beginning of recorded Vietnamese history. Vietnamese vendors and supermarkets only sell this dish around this time of year. A lot of work goes into it, so not a lot of families make this at home from scratch. Home-made food always seems to taste better with love though, so my family decided to tackle it, and it’s become a tradition for us as much as it is to put up the Christmas tree every Thanksgiving.

During the Hong Bang dynasty (“hum bang”—c. 1712–1632), King Hung (hung = “hoom”) had eighteen sons. To settle the matter of succession, King Hung declared that the one who offered the best dish to the ancestors would become the next king. The sons immediately dispersed to the farthest reaches of the world. Some climbed into the mountains, others deep into the jungle, and others far out in the oceans to find the most exquisite, the most delectable, the most valuable dish of all. Except for one, the youngest son named Tiet Lieu.

Prince Lieu wasn’t as wealthy as his older brothers, so he couldn’t afford to go off in search of rare or powerful ingredients. One night a god appeared in his dreams and told him that rice is the most valuable food in Vietnamese culture. Upon awakening, Prince Lieu decided to make two dishes—banh chung, a green square-shaped cake to symbolize the earth, and banh day (“beng zay” or “ben yay”), a white circular cake to symbolize the sky. Both are made from rice with everyday ingredients like mung bean or pork belly for the filling.

When the day came for all of the sons to assemble, they laid out their many dishes on the banquet table and waited for the king’s decision. When King Hung saw the two humble dishes, banh chung and banh day, they piqued his curiosity, and he asked Prince Lieu for the story behind them. Upon hearing Prince Lieu’s explanation, King Hung declared the dish as not only delicious but also the most meaningful, taking a staple grain of the Vietnamese people and presenting it as a worthy offering to the gods.

Myth or not, the Vietnamese people continue to enjoy making and eating banh chung today. I first learned the art of wrapping banh chung from my maternal grandmother when I was in middle school, but it would take me a couple more years before I was skilled enough and patient enough to undertake the annual wrapping marathon. In the beginning, my sisters did all of the work while it was my job to measure and cut the string to tie the banh chung at the very end. Now, it’s only my mom and me who do everything from beginning to end (to be honest, mostly my mom—I just do the wrapping and eating).

Before any wrapping takes place, there’s a lot that goes into the preparations. Firstly, my mom and I agree on a date to wrap banh chung. My mom prepares the ingredients in the week leading up to the day, and I find a day in which we have a solid seven to eight hours of time. Ideally, banh chung is a family effort done on the last day of the year so that as soon as the banh chung finishes cooking, we can enjoy a steaming slice at midnight of the new year. While my mom and I usually wrap a couple of weeks beforehand, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying a slice after a day’s hard work wrapping banh chung.

banh chung station

The Preparations

Recipe for about 20 banh chung:

  • 3 packages of banana leaves
    • Notes: This amount can vary depending if the leaves are fresh or frozen and how many leaves are included in a package. Fresh leaves will infuse the sticky rice with stronger coloring (it’ll never be super green without additional dye, but it gets better results than with frozen leaves). Frozen leaves will be easier to wrap with and take up less storage space since it’s not as crunchy and voluminous as fresh leaves. My mom and I prefer fresh. Can be bought at most Asian grocery stores.
    • How to prepare: Leaves need to be washed with water to get rid of any dirt. I ask my mom to keep the leaves as large as possible and only cut them apart where there’s a natural tear because you can always cut down later but you can’t make them bigger. We usually wash them right before wrapping, so I keep a towel on hand to dry them off. Fresh leaves might have a white residue from natural wax. These leaves have stained the white countertop in my kitchen, so be aware of this and either line your workspace or wrap on a surface that won’t stain.
  • 4 lbs mung bean
    • Notes: This can be prepped a day before wrapping. Can be bought at most Asian grocery stores.
    • How to prepare: Rinse the mung bean multiple times until the water runs clear. The more you rinse, the less foam you’ll get later on in the process. Soak for at least 4 hours in clean drinking water until the mung bean expands. If you have a rice cooker, cook the mung bean with ½ tsp salt. If you don’t have a rice cooker, place mung bean in a stainless steel pot with a little bit of oil, ½ cup water and ½ tsp salt. Cook on low heat and stir once every ten minutes to prevent the mung bean from sticking to the pot. Mung bean is fully cooked when it turns opaque and is soft to eat. Using too much water will turn the mung bean into a consistency better suited for dessert (che = kind of sounds like “chyeah” but without the attitude). If the mung bean isn’t soft enough, add 1-2 tsp of water at a time and let the steam cook the mung bean. Once cooled, use a food processor to get the mung bean to a floury consistency and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
  • 3 lbs pork belly
    • Notes: This can be bought pre-sliced at most Asian grocery stores. H-Mart seems to know what’s up because they had a TON of sliced pork belly when my mom went shopping. If you prefer to slice at home or can’t find it pre-sliced, slice to 2-3 mm or 1/8” thick. Pork belly is ideal for this dish since it’s got a lot of fat to spread throughout the mung bean and sticky rice during the cooking process. By the time you get to cutting the banh chung for eating, you won’t be able to see any of the fat.
    • How to prepare: Season with black pepper and salt to taste. You can add shallots (see below) for aroma and flavoring. Store in refrigerator until ready for wrapping.
  • 5 shallots, thinly sliced
    • Notes: My mom uses 3 shallots because she’s not a big fan of it, so this is personal preference how much you’d like to include with the meat.
  • 10 lbs sweet rice
    • Notes: This year my mom and I used only 9 lbs because I wrapped 14 medium (5”x5”) and 6 small (4”x4”) banh chung. If I wrapped all medium, I’d probably use all 10 lbs rice. We used to have a large (6”x6”) mold, but the bigger the size, the more rice and mung bean it requires, it’s not as easy to eat at one time, and it requires a bigger pot for boiling. We’ve found that the smaller sizes are better worth the effort and resources. My mom prefers buying the round grain to get a chewier consistency but the long grain sweet rice is more economical.
    • How to prepare: Rinse the rice until water runs clear to get rid of excess starch. Soak for at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours in clean drinking water. Pour out water and let rice drain. Immediately before wrapping, add 3 tsp salt and thoroughly mix in. I often wrap while the rice is still draining so it doesn’t have to be super dry.
  • 3 packages 25’ cooking twine
    • Notes: My grandmother used to use an enormous, neverending roll of red ribbon that you can split along the fiber lengthwise to get thinner strands. That stuff is cheap and lasts forever. My mom, however, doesn’t trust red dye or plastics in most Asian products, so she’s opted for cooking twine, which we get at Bering’s. This can get kind of pricey, so we often save the old twine from last year’s banh chung and reuse them. The twine from last year’s medium banh chung is great for a tieing a small banh chung.
    • How to prepare: My grandmother had a really neat trick for measuring ribbon (or twine) at the right size. She happened to be 5’, which meant that her armspan would also be 5’. Just hold the ribbon across the armspan, snip, and then voilà—your ribbon is the perfect length for a 5”x5” banh chung. I’m about 5’ and my sisters are all 5’4” or taller, so that was another reason why I was conveniently the designated ribbon cutter. I usually measure and cut as I go since I never know how many banh chung I’ll have the energy to wrap, but if you’d like, you can get a headstart on this and cut them ahead of time. For a 4”x4” banh chung, you can take off about 4” of twine.

 

Need the list of ingredients condensed without the notes? Here you go:

  • 3 packages banana leaves, washed
  • 4 lbs mung bean, soaked and ground
  • 3 lbs pork belly, sliced
  • 3-5 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 10 lbs sticky rice, soaked
  • 3 packages 25’ cooking twine

 

Other things you’ll need:

  • A mold
    • Notes: One of my sisters made wooden molds at three different sizes – 4”x4”x1.5”, 5”x5”x1.75”, and 6”x6”x2”. You can wrap banh chung without a mold, but I was trained with one, so I’ll go through the steps for with one.
  • Scissors for cutting twine and/or cutting banana leaves
  • A pot with lid big enough to boil banh chung

 

The Wrapping

Great—you’ve got all the ingredients prepped, now it’s time to get wrapping! What are the steps?

First, you need to find a stretch of banana leaf big enough to make a square diamond around your mold.

1_banh chung_diamond

This is where it comes in handy to have bigger banana leaves. If you’re using fresh, I recommend using the softer part of the leaf so that when it comes time to fold, the leaf won’t crack. With frozen leaves, you don’t have to worry about cracking. Trim off both edges—one edge will be hard where it was attached to the plant, and the other edge is often ragged or brown.

A banana leaf has two sides, a smooth waxy side and a ridged green side. To remind myself which side goes where, I usually think, “Green side out, green side in.” The big square is the outside wrapper of the banh chung, what you’ll see when it’s all tied into a pretty package. So place the leaf ridge side down on the table, then center the mold.

Next, you need to find four panels, one for each side of the mold. They should be about the width of each side or slightly smaller and long enough to cover the bottom of the mold, come up the side, and then fold across. Again, trim off the hard edge and ragged edges. The side panels are where I usually use the “crack-able” part of the leaves because they’ll only need to bend, no folding required. Position the panels as close to the mold as possible with the ridges in towards where the rice will go to get the “green side in.” I like to order them north-south, east-west instead of arranging them north-east-south-west to get a tighter wrap later on.

2_banh chung_panels

Then, you need to find two pieces of leaf about the height of the mold to line the inner corners. This is where you can save and use the smaller scraps as you cut down the bigger leaves. You could theoretically find one super long strip to cover all four corners, but that’s pretty hard to find. Two is less work than finding four pieces for each corner, but if it came to it, you could probably do that. I remember one year, I forgot to place the liners on the first one, and when I lifted the mold, the rice and mung bean came spilling out of the corners, and I had to start all over again. So they might be the smallest pieces, but don’t forget the liners!

3_banh chung_liner

Frozen leaves tend to stay put more easily, but fresh leaves don’t crease well. With one hand holding the panels and liners in place, use the other hand to scoop 1-2 cups of rice. Spread the rice evenly across the bottom, making sure to get the corners. The rice will help keep the leaves in place while you work on laying down the mung bean. Shape the mung bean layer in a slightly smaller square—you don’t want the mung bean to touch the banana leaves since this is the filling. I like to use my thumb to press down on the mung bean and create a smaller square within the mung bean, the “bed” for the pork belly slices.

4_banh chung_filling

The pork belly slices will be too long to fit, so I usually fold them in half and nestle two pieces like an S. For small banh chung you can fit 2-3 pieces. For medium banh chung, 3-4 pieces. When placing a third piece, I try to make it as evenly distributed as possible. The idea is to make sure every piece of banh chung will get a little bit of meat, so it’s important to make sure the meat is placed as close to the corners as possible while staying within the mung bean “walls.” At this point I sprinkle more rice along the outer edges to raise the rice “wall” higher. Then I slowly cover the pork belly with mung bean, continually pressing down with my fingers and always making sure the mung bean stays within the rice “wall.” My mom’s favorite part of banh chung is the mung bean, so I try to pack as much as I can without it spilling over the top. It’s important not to compress the mung bean too much or it’ll be too dense when you eat it.

(In the picture below, it shows Chinese sausage or lap xuong (“lup sung”) as an additional ingredient.)

banh chung wrapping

Once the pork belly is completely covered in mung bean, cover the mung bean with rice. The rice will expand during the boiling part, so don’t put too much rice or it can be overwhelming, but if you can see any mung bean now, then you’ll be able to see the mung bean after boiling. The trick is to cover it as thinly and as completely as possible.

This is where the north-south, east-west orientation comes into play. It doesn’t matter which direction you start with, but whichever panel you pull first, you’ll also do its pair before doing the other directions. For example, pull the north panel tightly across the rice. Trim if needed so it fits perfectly. Now pull the south panel tightly across and trim. Pull the west panel tightly across and trim and repeat with the east panel. With one hand keeping the panels in place, use the other hand to lift up the mold. Set mold aside.

5_banh chung_panels

Wrap the large banana leaf like you would wrap a present. Pull together the left and right corners, fold in the sides and pull the top corner down. Turn 180 degrees and repeat to remaining corner.6_banh chung_wrapping

Position the twine so the center of it is situated under the banh chung. Make sure to keep one hand on the banh chung while you do this or get help from a second pair of hands. Now we’re going to tie the twine so that it makes a 3×3 grid or tic-tac-toe formation. Position the twine underneath the banh chung. Then bring the loose ends together and cross them at right angles. Pull one of the loose ends to come around and repeat the process three more times until you’re at the start again. Tie a secure knot, and now you can re-position the twine to make it more tic-tac-toe-like. I try to tie the knot on the “bottom” side of the banh chung so that in pictures, it’ll be a perfect green grid from the top side.

7_banh chung_twine

Once you’ve got several wrapped, place them in a pot and cover with drinking water. Add salt, put on the lid, and keep at a constant simmer, 6 hours for the medium size or 5 to 5 ½ hours for the small size, always making sure to add water when the level runs low.

When it’s done boiling, take out each one on a plate lined with a paper towel and let cool. If you can’t wait, you can eat a steaming slice. I like to cut my banh chung into a grid of nine pieces. My mom always takes the center one, and I’ll take the sides. If you prefer a more evenly distributed approach, you can slice into eight pieces so everyone gets a little bit of the center. Once cool, you can keep in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat. To reheat, place in a pot with water and steam until soft (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).

8_banh chung_slice.png

Another way to eat it is banh chung ran (ran = “zahn” or “rahn”) or fried banh chung. You can either fry it in slices or flatten it to make a pancake. For the first one, slice steamed banh chung into strips and then sear on each side until golden and crispy. For the second, slice steamed banh chung (how you slice it doesn’t matter in this case) and flatten with wooden spoon until it fills the entire pan. When golden and crispy on bottom, flip and wait for it to get golden and crispy on the other side. Then it’s done!

banh chung done

Vietnamese Glossary

Bánh chưng — “beng chung” or “ben chung,” green sticky rice cake symbolizing the earth
Bánh chưng rán — “beng chung zahn” or “ben chung rahn,” fried sticky rice cake
Bánh dày — “beng zay” or “ben yay,” white sticky rice cake symbolizing the sky
Hồng Bàng — “hum bang,” first Vietnamese dynasty during the Bronze Age
Hùng — “hoom,” the name of a Vietnamese king

Wrapping Banh Chung: an Annual Lunar New Year Tradition

Logo Spotlight: Famous Footwear

Every morning on my way to work, I drive down Weslayan past a huge neon sign with logos of all the companies in a strip mall. Of all the logos on that sign, there’s one that got me thinking: Famous Footwear.

At the time, it looked like this:

Famous-Footwear

Actually, the logo on the sign was in black and white. I had no idea Famous Footwear’s primary color was red until I started doing some research. Red or not, I couldn’t help but think, “Why would the designer not line up the right edges of the icon? And what’s the deal with that perfectly circular dot?”

Where the two edges stop might not seem like a big deal, but the fact that they stop at different points meant someone had rationalized the decision. If they were going for some swoosh action, the two different stopping points makes it seem like they’re not in sync and they don’t go on forever. They literally have stopping points. Whereas if the edges were lined up, they’re now in sync and they give the illusion of extending forever. This would have been just a snapshot to make it fit on a piece of paper or a neon sign because you can’t have undefined edges on a physical object.

Well, one could argue that the two different edges better imitate the shape of an F. If you look at the Fs in the name, the top arm is longer than the lower arm. That’s a fair observation except that I’d also like to ask, “Why did they choose a serif font when a sans serif font would have better complimented the icon?”

(What are serifs you ask? Serifs are the little hooks extending from the letters.)

sansserif

Not to mention that the font choice makes it look dated and bland, like something you can find automatically installed with Microsoft Word. It’s okay for local mom and pop shops to use free fonts that come with Microsoft Word if that’s all they can afford (maybe… I personally wouldn’t advise that, but then again, I’m a designer), but it’s not okay for a brand as famous as Famous Footwear, which definitely makes enough profit to hire a designer and get a brand refresh. To get Famous Footwear on Whole Foods Market level (now there’s a company that understands the value of design), they need to ditch the serif font and go for something bolder, maybe throw in some all caps too.

What about the dot? Isn’t it kind of like an O? I mean, they’ve got three Os in their name. Except with the font they chose, the Os aren’t perfect dots, so this one dot feels out of place. A dot that circular looks like a period. And do you really want a period in your logo if you’re a company that’s all about movement and being dynamic and on the go? In case you were wondering, the answer is no. Maybe someone thought the dot was some sort of starting point, the place where the swooshy things come from. Or maybe someone thought the dot kind of looks like a ball, like a soccer ball, and if you wear shoes, you can kick it around. Or maybe someone thought it could be a comet—a comet that’s swirling down to an inevitable crash. Or maybe someone thought it’s kind of like a heel of a foot so the whole icon looks more like a foot. You know, Famous Footwear. We need feet, right?

No.

But it’d be super meta if a shoe company could get a swooshy foot!

Okay. If they really wanted a foot-like logo, I would have turned the dot into a swooshier shape to give it more of a natural flow. Here’s the thing. Their name is Famous Footwear. They sell shoes. They don’t need to bang it over people’s head that they’re all about feet. We know that. What’s more important is to capture the essence of footwear. Footwear means movement, and movement is fast.

This logo probably should have been updated on the early side of the 2010s. I sure hoped that someone at the top was doing something about the branding or else I’d have to spend every day wondering about the design decisions behind this logo.

Lo and behold—around comes 2018, and BAM! They’ve got a new logo on that neon sign. And it looks a lot like what I thought they ought to do. Guess there was only one way to go about updating the logo, which they actually did back in 2014. It’d taken them four years to finally roll out the new logo to this location on Weslayan. Of course, I can’t really talk since Whole Foods Market revamped their logo in 2016 and they haven’t gotten around to updating the logo of my store location either.

famous footwear

Now, I’m not usually a fan of putting an icon in a box because it gives the icon, well, very definite boundaries. In this case, however, I think the box is brilliant. What is a swoosh? Fast moving air? Air doesn’t have a color, so it makes perfect sense for the swooshes to be negative space.The swooshes are effectively flying out of there, breaking the boundaries, and leaving the box in the dust. The period has either gone away or sort of merged into the lower right corner of the box.

As for the text part of the logo, they’ve now updated to two different sans serif fonts. Between the two words, it’s a no-brainer which one should be in all uppercase and bold. The lowercase, thinner font for ‘footwear’ keeps the logo balanced. If everything had been in all caps, it would have felt like Famous Footwear was unabashedly clamoring for attention. In the old logo, they made ‘Famous’ and ‘Footwear’ justified to each other. In the new logo, ‘Famous’ and ‘footwear’ end where they like, carrying on a little bit of that F shape from before. As a graphic designer, my first instinct would have been to make ‘Famous’ and ‘footwear’ the same length, but here, the unevenness perfectly balances the boxiness of the icon. The swooshes have broken out and formed the name of the company. Famous Footwear.

However, something unexpected happens when you invert the logo and have white on red.

FamousFootwear-1462908429

shoes_ib22082

The swoosh has been turned inside out. In the old logo, the swoosh is made of air. In the new logo, the swoosh becomes part of the background and is also literally placed in the background as a design motif. I’m torn because the old logo clearly had its problems in its primary form. But in the new logo, the swooshes lose their effectiveness because they’ve become positive space instead of negative space. The design motif, while clever, seems a bit much repeated in such close quarters to the icon. Maybe they were trying to get some of that negative space back, but to me, it doesn’t succeed because the white text reads as negative space over the design motif, which reads as an object, a thing, anything but air.

On their website, they use the inverted logo, which I think is a mistake. Usually, inverted logos are secondary, used only when you can’t have the primary logo because of the way the colors interfere with legibility or the design scheme. This usually happens when a company is featured in another company’s marketing collateral. For example, a marathon event plans to give out blue t-shirts to everyone and Famous Footwear is one of the sponsors. Famous Footwear’s red would clash with the blue and make it totally illegible. The white logo is the only way to go. Any other color would be off-brand. So if there’s one place in which a company can use its primary logo in all of its blazing full-colored glory, it’s their own website. If you end up using the secondary logo more often than the primary logo, then is the primary logo really the primary logo?

Let’s talk about color. Is red the best color for Famous Footwear?

Everyone knows that red is the most eye-catching color. But just because something is red doesn’t mean that it’ll stand out the way you want it to. First example: on a bulletin board there’s ten different flyers, all red, each featuring something different because every single person who put out the flyer wants theirs to stand out. The whole board is red. Nothing’s going to stand out—unless it’s in a color other than red.

Second example: someone thinks it’ll be a good idea to paint a hospital wall red. They might want to rethink that. Sure, red is a warm color with lots of energy, but maybe it’s too much energy and with too many negative connotations like danger or lots of blood. It’s time to get out those soothing palettes of sage green and sky blue for calming and healing.

Third example: a company’s flyer has a blue background using the blue from the approved palette but then wants one line of text in red to make it stand out. First off, the red should be from the approved palette. If it’s not in the approved palette, it’s got no business being there. Secondly, red should be used sparingly, not an entire sentence smack in the middle of a paragraph. If that information is so important, why is it buried in the middle of a paragraph? Better to break it up and put it in bullets or make it the header or have its own line front and center.

Let’s go back to Famous Footwear. To be honest, I’m not sure what color I would have picked for Famous Footwear. I first saw it in black, so that’s how I think of it—black and white. But maybe I’m biased. A quick Google search shows that a lot of shoe companies have black and white logos: Nike, Adidas, and Puma to name a few. Reebok is both red and black. DSW is a dark gray. Payless Shoesource is blue and orange (has it always been those colors?). New Balance is the only all red one from that search.

Black is so ubiquitous that it’s the default. Black can be powerful, sleek, and luxurious. Or black can be dark, moody, and funereal. Black is understated or a statement, depending on the context. I would have been fine if Famous Footwear had used black. Maybe someone picked all red because they wanted Famous Footwear to stand out. Or maybe the word “famous” can’t be any other color but red. Roll out the red carpet. Famous Footwear is here.

Final Thoughts: The new logo is a definite improvement, and there’s nothing I would personally change. The only thing I would reconsider is using the red logo on white instead of the white logo on red for all things officially Famous Footwear.

Logo Spotlight: Famous Footwear

Glamour and Romance

Oscar de la Renta.

It’s a dramatic name, one you can’t forget. I couldn’t picture what his fashion looked like, but I knew he was a famous designer. So when a couple of friends invited me to see the Oscar de la Renta exhibit at The Museum of Fine Arts, I said yes. As a designer, I was excited to see someone else’s work.

On the ground floor of the Beck Building, we approached a wall of red, the title of the exhibit written in white: The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta. The bright red foretold of the drama to unfold inside.

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A polished young man stood by the entrance to scan our tickets and tell us of the optional audio tour, complimentary with the ticket. I planned to walk right in, but my friends both got an audio-tour player. Reluctantly, I got one too—I didn’t want to be the only one missing out on an experience. The audio-tour player was a small handheld device, about the same size and weight of a cell phone, with a long cord to loop around the neck or wrist. Its interface held three large buttons, but I never used them. As a young lady explained to us, all we had to do was point the device every time we saw a square, gray icon indicating auditory information was available. Once the device softly beeped, we could bring it up to our ear and listen to the audio.

Right at the entrance a freestanding pedestal proffered the first gray square. Skeptical of how much this audio tour would enhance the experience, I waited for my friends to point their devices first, then pointed mine, heard a beep, brought it to my ear and stepped inside the first room. I didn’t have time to focus on the audio before an elderly woman in front of me looked around, confused, as she held the device to her ear to hear nothing. I gestured to the gray square on the freestanding pedestal and she murmured a grateful thanks. I took her spot in front of the first display.

The first room was filled with eveningwear. All I remember is red—red walls and red dresses. I tried to focus on appreciating the fabric, the style, the texture, the way the cloth draped or shimmered in the golden light, but my mind latched onto several other observations unrelated to Oscar de la Renta’s designs.

Firstly, everyone in the room looked as though they were in their own worlds, the device held to their ears just like a cell phone, and the sight made me cringe at how isolated we all seemed—how isolated we were. I thought of all the times I’d sat in a room full of friends or family, and every one of us were scrolling on a phone instead of interacting with each other. On those days I despair at how technology has separated us. And to see it here, in the museum, I didn’t know what to think. On one hand, I applauded the museum’s efforts to incorporate technology in new and different ways to enhance the experience. It also wasn’t practical to have a large block of text by each display. Besides detracting from the display, not many people would take the time to read it. In other exhibits I’d seen them use QR codes to link to additional information, but that was still an extra step to pull out your phone and scan it. Here with the audio-tour player, you simply needed to point and listen. It was as easy as it could get.

Secondly, we were each in our own worlds moving at our own pace whether we wanted to or not. Since stepping into the exhibit, I hadn’t spoken a word to either of my friends. One was circling the first room on the opposite side while the other had already zoomed ahead to the second room. I wanted to be able to move through at the same pace, observe, and turn to someone next to me to say, “I love the embroidery work on this jacket.” But here I was alone, keeping observations to myself. There were so many audio icons that I had to continuously find them and still I finished going around the room before I finished the audio. That meant every time I wanted to point out an observation, either I was listening to the audio or my friend was listening to her audio, whichever one it was she happened to initiate.

Which brings me to the third point—I question the adjective of “optional” to describe the audio tour. With at least four or five audio icons per room, there was quite a lot of information that wasn’t available to read on the wall or on the labels. If I hadn’t picked up the audio-tour player, I wouldn’t have known about the red dress that five or six women wore to the same state dinner—as did First Lady Laura Bush. According to the audio, Laura Bush discreetly slipped away to change so as not to embarrass the other women. Oscar de la Renta’s dresses were so iconic that most of them were worn only once. So did Laura Bush wear the red dress to another occasion? It seemed a shame that a creation so beautiful and intricate and time-consuming was worn only once before landing in a museum, which now seemed more like a mausoleum for all beautiful things.

Fourthly, I am not a big fan of audio constantly playing in my ears. I admit, I may be old-school in wishing for quiet as I browse through a museum. I wouldn’t have minded music playing in the background, but by the time I reached the last room, I was sick of hunting for each audio icon, waiting for whoever standing there to move out of the way, and then letting the audio play out as I walked on to the next unrelated display. As a much faster reader, I would have preferred a pamphlet or an annotated map of sorts, but there wasn’t one to be had. So I simply stopped and opted out of the audio tour in order to focus on the actual dresses. Because of that, I remember enjoying the last room the best.

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The walls were a dark color, black maybe, to imitate nighttime and allow the evening dresses to shimmer in all their greatness. In the center, a delicate strapless dress of black tulle and shooting stars made of gold sequins slowly rotated in place. I wish more of the dresses had been displayed in such a way so we could see a 360 view. As a designer, I know how important it is to be able to see the bigger picture. Dresses were designed as three-dimensional sculptures, so the design of the front of the dress matters just as much as the back, the sides, and how they meet and transition. Some of the dresses, particularly the ones in corner displays, I could only see one side of the dress. Like the moon, its opposite side remained a mystery. The last room had two large screens that played a slideshow of the celebrities wearing the very dresses on display—Taylor Swift in the pink one with the bow in the back, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette as she lounged on a sofa. The other displays in the themed rooms—Spanish, Garden, Russian, Eastern—had a couple of beautiful sets with artfully selected furniture, paintings, or decor. While I appreciated each of these displays, my friends and I couldn’t help but agree that we had somehow expected more.

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Maybe not more displays and physical dresses but more visuals. Where were all the sketches showing Oscar de la Renta’s process from start to finish? Fashion illustrations are some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing artwork. Oscar de la Renta began his career long before such technology was prevalent, and I would have liked to have seen his work presented with more of that than with modern technology. I could have been happy with enlarged photos of the dresses being worn in person, like Taylor Swift in the pink, instead of viewing them for only a couple of seconds on a digital screen or hanging limply on a mannequin, their expressionless faces devoid of any life or vibrancy that real women would have had when they wore Oscar’s inventions and felt like a “princess.” Some of the dresses seemed so stiff and heavy with an overwhelming amount of beading that I wondered how anyone could have enjoyed wearing them, or was I deceived by these mannequins who couldn’t understand glamour and romance?

The interviews did add a touch of humanness to the displays, like Oscar’s stepdaughter Eliza Bolen talking about her wedding dress. I thought it would have been enlightening to hear Oscar himself speak about one of his creations. Mistakenly thinking he was still alive, I wondered why they hadn’t interviewed him instead of the exhibition curator, André Leon Talley. Now that would have been something to hear from the artist himself! But then again, he couldn’t have spoken of his work from a third-party perspective as André Leon Talley could and the impact his work had on the world. Besides which, I later googled Oscar de la Renta and learned that he had, in fact, passed away in 2014.

The exhibit opened into an atrium temporarily transformed into a shop with all things relevant to Oscar de la Renta. Immediately to the left, a black fixture of hooks stood at the ready for us to loop our audio-tour players by the cord. I meandered through the aisles of books, jewelry, and trinkets wondering if I should buy anything to remember the exhibit. In the end, I did not. Like the mannequins, all the things in the shop couldn’t capture the experience of moving through a space and understanding the three-dimensionality of Oscar de la Renta’s work.

I know I am probably asking too much of an exhibit. They strove to create the best experience that they could given the resources. I think I am glad I got to see Oscar de la Renta’s work and glean what I could of his design process, but I also can’t help but feel that I didn’t fully enjoy the exhibit because of how isolated I felt when fashion is meant to be shared, appreciated, and enjoyed together in the moment. After all, fashion is alive, full of glamour and romance.

Glamour and Romance

The Ghost of Thomas Fitzwilliam

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On the night of Halloween, Emily Garcia was dressed as a flamenco dancer. Her mom’s red dress flowed in ripples when she twirled, curly hair held back in a chignon and a red rose by her ear. She finished off the look with a pair of her sturdiest black heels. Emily wasn’t a dancer, never went to parties, and preferred staying home with a good book, but tonight was an exception.

“Gorgeous, Em,” said Terry. Her mom held up a crop top and matching white skirt. “Though you sure don’t you want to wear something like this to the rave?”

Mamá, it’s a house party, not a rave. And I can’t believe you wore that nurse outfit last year.” Emily fumbled for her sequined black purse, anything to avoid looking at the skimpy costume.

Terry shrugged and put the outfit, still on its hanger, back in the closet. “You’re going with Olivia, no? What about Brenda and Lina? Are they coming too? Any boys this year?”

Sí, Mamá, I’ll meet up with Olivia and the girls. There’ll be boys at the party.”

“Why don’t you carpool with Olivia? I thought you don’t like to drive at night.”

Emily wished she hadn’t used that excuse so often in the past. “She’s going to stay there the whole time. I’ll probably get tired before midnight. I don’t want to pull her away.”

“You should stay the whole time too. It’s Friday night, no school tomorrow.”

“It’s okay, I like to wake up early.”

Terry shook her head. “I thought I was raising a teenager, not a grandmother.”

Emily kissed her mom on the cheek. “Love you too, Mom.”

“Have fun, okay? A little alcohol is okay, but not too much so you can drive safe.”

“You know I don’t drink.”

“There’s always a first time.” Terry cheerily closed the front door and waved at Emily through the glass. In the secondhand Ford sedan, Emily texted her best friend.

I told Mom I’m going out with you. Is that cool?

Olivia pinged back right away. Obvi, we tight. But you should come!! What else you doing on Halloween?

I’m going out with my boyfriend.

Your “boyfriend.” Bring him to the party! Then we can meet him. For real.

He’s getting off from his second job. He’ll be too tired and no fun.

Whatevs. Xoxo.

Emily carefully reversed out of the driveway and followed the GPS’s instructions. She drove past the endless strip malls and commercial plazas with blaring neon signs. She drove until concrete gave way to a grove of trees that shielded the Grey Oaks Cemetery from the encroaching urban chaos. The silence of the cemetery didn’t spook her but calmed her. Out here she could think and meditate. She didn’t see a single soul until she drove into the heart of the cemetery. A flock of shimmering souls gathered around the church, no doubt the center stage for tonight’s festivities.

At a circular bend, she pulled the car up to the curb. Thankfully hers was the only one because parallel parking turned her into a knot of nerves. In the distance she saw two solid figures ambling across the grounds. Strange anyone would spend a Friday night in the cemetery, but then again, that was exactly what she was doing. With a shrug, she turned off the ignition and reached for her purse in the passenger seat. Suddenly, her hand plunged into a chilly column of air. She shrieked and clutched it over her rapidly beating heart.

In the seat next to her, Thomas grinned a blinding white smile. One elbow in rumpled blazer rested upon the windowsill, hair tousled and head leaning in hand. His collared shirt and vest peeped through the unbuttoned blazer. With ankle on knee, his trousers hung short above the ankles. At least his shoelaces were pertly tied.

Sorry about that.

Emily couldn’t help but smile back. “That is the least contrite sorry I’ve heard from you.”

Thomas wiggled his silvery eyebrows. You’re just so easy to scare. Isn’t it about time you caught on?

“I’m working on it. Can I get my purse now?”

Thomas spread his hands. Go ahead. Be my guest.

“You know I don’t like to put my hand through you.”

Why not? It’s not like I can feel it.

“I know. It’s just—weird.”

Because your purse is next to my arse.

“Thomas!” Emily threw an old receipt at him, which harmlessly swirled to rest on the worn leather seat.

Laughing, he sailed through the windshield and stood perched on the curb. Emily grabbed her purse and huffily went over to the trunk. It took her several tries to pop it open. Curiosity piqued, Thomas peered over her shoulder.

A picnic basket! I haven’t done that in ages.

“Me neither. And the weather is perfect for it.”

Emily heaved the basket out and slowly made her way to the place they first met: by her grandfather’s grave in the shade of an old oak tree with gnarled branches so long that they embraced the earth. The basket blocked her view of the grass, and she tripped a couple of times. Thomas reached for the handle, but his hand swooped right through it.

“I’ve got it. I’m a strong, independent woman.”

I know you are. I just wish— Thomas sighed. I just wish I could do things for you. Even the simplest things. One day, I’m gonna master the solid state. Just you wait.

“You’re a ghost. You’re not supposed to be solid.”

There’re so many skills to learn! The skill of wind, the skill of visibility, the skill of sound… How come I haven’t mastered any of them in the eighty-some years I’ve been stuck in limbo?

“You’ve had a lot on your mind.”

Thomas didn’t say anything.

“It’s okay to talk about it. Claire Smith died in 1994. That’s three years before I was even born.”

Don’t say her name. It’s not fair to you.

Emily plunked the basket onto the grass. “Lots of people have exes. It’s nothing new.”

Not you.

“Well. I can see you and talk to you while no one else can. Don’t you think I’m the one with problems?”

I don’t get it. I shouldn’t have met you. I should have gone on to the other side. Thomas’s gaze anxiously snapped to hers. I mean, that’s not what I meant. If I weren’t still here, I’d never have gotten to meet you.

Emily smiled. “I know what you mean.”

She stretched the red checkered cloth across the grass and unpacked the basket’s contents: a bottle of ginger ale, tamales, a pint of strawberries, two mismatching candles, and an autumn bouquet.

You brought flowers?

“I thought I’d celebrate Día de los Muertos, or, you know, Day of the Dead while there’s a party tonight.” There beneath the oak tree, she cleared the leaves from her abuelito’s grave, arranged half of the bouquet at the base of the tombstone, and lit one of the two candles. It felt right somehow to let her abuelo share in the Halloween festivities. After all, he was the reason she had met Thomas.

“Your turn,” she said, taking the other half of the bouquet and the second candle.

But I’m not Mexican.

“Everyone remembers the dead in their own way. This is just my way.”

Thomas trailed after her as she walked over to the older part of the cemetery. Many of the headstones, including his, no longer bore names after decades of rain and wind. Emily wandered between the rows looking this way and that before setting sights on a smaller cross.

You remember.

“Of course I do.”

After arranging the flowers and candle, Emily took a step back.

“What do you think?”

For a minute Thomas didn’t speak.

It’s been a long time since anybody living visited my grave. I’ve got to be the luckiest boy alive. Or dead.

Emily giggled.

Thomas knelt down and experimentally held his palm over the lit candle. Chilled by his spirit, the flame flickered wildly in an invisible breeze. He chuckled. Then he brushed a hand through the flowers and plucked a sunflower. Between his fingers rose the sunflower’s white doppelganger while its vibrant, yellow twin lightly shivered.

“I always wondered what happened on the other side.”

Don’t worry. We souls appreciate free offerings. Thomas cocked his head at her. Hold still.

“Why?”

I want to try something.

She held perfectly still as he raised the pale sunflower to her hair and tucked it behind her ear. He let go, and for a brief moment, she felt the phantom flower caress her skin before melting into nothing.

Thomas shrugged. That was bound to happen.

Suddenly, he swooped down, grabbed the rest of the bouquet, pearly and translucent, and scattered it all around her. Emily shrieked with laughter, the petals cool kisses on her cheeks and arms. Thomas darted back towards the picnic.

Come on, let’s get you some dinner. Can’t have you fainting during the Danse Macabre, now can we?

Emily picked up her skirts and did her best to keep up.

“Is it—really—that scary of a dance?” she asked between breaths.

Only for scaredy cats.

Thomas nonchalantly folded his legs and waited until she arrived panting at the oak tree.

“I’m—not—a scaredy cat.”

Thomas winked. We’ll see about that.

Emily spread her skirts in a semicircle as she sat down. She poured herself a plastic cup of ginger ale and unwrapped the first tamale. She paused mid-bite when she saw Thomas staring at her.

“What?”

I’m curious. What does it taste like?

Emily smiled. “Like the best thing you’ve ever eaten. The corn’s been ground up, so it’s soft, but you still get a bit of the texture. My mom and I use yellow corn, so it has a bit of a sweet taste. The filling is beef flavored with red chiles for a little kick.”

Sounds more interesting than anything I’ve ever eaten.

“I wish you could try it.”

It’s good enough for me to imagine it. Thomas sat up straight as though struck by a thought.

“What is it?”

He waved away her concern. Finish eating first. I’ll tell you about it later.

“Don’t forget.”

I won’t forget. Thomas grinned, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Emily inwardly sighed—no doubt another one of his experiments. Her gaze fell to her abuelito’s headstone.

“Do you think I’ll get to see my grandpa tonight?”

Thomas didn’t answer right away. I don’t think so.

“Oh. But I thought you said everyone comes out to dance.”

Many of us do, but it’s only those who’re still stuck here. Some might sleep in the ground the other 364 days, but tonight the Priest and the Monk and the Rabbi and all those religious spirits will gather everyone up for this one dance. It’s a reminder that those still living will also pass through. So that we can learn to let go and go on. Thomas pressed his lips into a thin line. Anyway, I’ve never seen your grandfather here, and that’s a good thing. He must have been at peace and ready for the next phase.

As Emily ate, Thomas talked about how some of the ghosts were preparing for the night. Some of them, like him, weren’t skilled enough to contribute to the festivities but a few of the musicians were practicing. Off in the distance, Emily thought she could hear a whisper of violins. Others, said Thomas, could change their appearance and were going all out in the most fantastical gowns of lace, silk, and beads, a sparkling mask and towering hairdo to complete the ensemble. Still others had the ability to create illusions and were hanging strings of delicate globe lights all around the church and through the skeletal tree branches.

“If you could change your appearance, what would you wear to the party?” Emily asked as she moved on to her pint of strawberries.

A neon orange t-shirt and blue jeans.

Emily burst out laughing. “You want to wear what now?”

That’s what kids wear these days, right?

She giggled as she tried to imagine Thomas in his make-believe outfit. “For a casual party. But boys also know how to dress up in a suit for proms and such.”

Thomas held out his arms, his blazer swinging open to reveal his collared shirt, vest, and tie again. I’m done with suits. I never want to see all black or all white or anything black and white ever again. Besides, t-shirts and jeans seem so much more comfortable.

“I suppose that’s fair,” said Emily. She wore a shirt and jeans so often to school that she looked forward to every occasion she could dress up.

Emily saw Thomas anxiously counting her remaining strawberries.

“I’m almost done.”

I don’t want to wait. Besides, I only need one of your hands.

“One of my hands?”

Thomas held out his right hand, palm up. Take my hand. Pretend I’m a real, living and breathing boyfriend.

Emily stared at his pearly palm. “You know it won’t work. We’ve tried this before.”

Magnus the Mountain—you know that big guy who used to be in a traveling circus? He said that the human mind can be a powerful thing. As long as you believe, then it will be true.

“But I know you’re a ghost.”

Try anyway. Try your hardest. Please?

Emily sighed, wiped her right hand clean of strawberry juice, and stared harder at his palm. Slowly she lowered her fingertips—and they went right through.

I wasn’t really expecting that to work anyway. Here, let’s try this. Close your eyes.

Emily scrutinized his expression. “Are you going to prank me again?”

Thomas held his right hand vertical. I’m being absolutely serious. I swear on my grave, and you know my grave is right over there on the other side of the knoll.

“Okay.” Emily closed her eyes.

Thomas cleared his throat. It’s the year 1931. Summertime. It’s sweltering hot but nice in the shade with a breeze. You’re out strolling in the park. You’re wearing a yellow dress, gloves, a stylish hat because if you know how to dress well in 2014, then you would have been the most stylish girl on the block back then.

“Oh Thomas, I’m a grandma by today’s standards.”

Shh. I’m the one doing the describing, and I speak the truth. So, of course, you’re both stylish and popular. All the boys want to ask you out on dates, and you keep them guessing.

“If only that were true.”

It is true. In 1931. Anyway. So you’re out strolling in the park. We’ll make it Central Park in New York City. I always wanted to visit New York City. So as you walk along the shaded pathways, a gust of wind blows your hat away and you run after it. The hat flies right into the chest of a passing young man who’s tall, dark, and handsome.

Emily giggled. “Tall, dark, and handsome? You?”

Yes, me. I’m taller than you, and before I was a ghost, I used to have brown hair, you know. Dark brown hair the color of coffee. And I am the most handsome fellow you’ve ever met in this year or any year.

“Egotistical much.”

It’s part of my charm. I’ve got a hat of my own, a blazer, vest, trousers. Everything camel-colored, unfortunately. I didn’t have much money to spend on pinstripes and blues. Your hat blows into me, and I see you running after it, and I hold it out for you and say, excuse me, miss, I believe this is yours.

And you say, why, yes, kind sir. After you take your hat, you ask, and who are you, my good sir?

“Did people really talk like that back then?”

I don’t remember. It’s been decades, and I’ve spent way too much time watching contemporary TV. Anyway. So I say to you, I’m Thomas Fitzwilliam, pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss…?

And you give a graceful bob and say, Miss Emily Garcia.

And I say, wow, Miss Emily Garcia. You are the most radiant woman I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

Emily shook her head. “So superficial, love at first sight.”

Emily, sweetheart, don’t underestimate the power of first impressions. I ask you, may I kiss your hand, and after much hemming and hawing, you proffer one of your gloved hands… Ahem. You proffer one of your gloved hands.

“Oh.” Eyes still closed, Emily held out her right hand. A beat passed. “Thomas?”

Right. So, um, you proffer one of your gloved hands. And I’ll lightly take yours, and you’ll feel the pressure of my hand, and I’ll bring it to my lips, and…

Emily gasped, not from the touch of cold that she expected, but when she felt her hand move, not of its own accord. A soft, chill pressure brushed her knuckles. She opened her eyes to see her hand resting in Thomas’s, just as though Thomas was real and not a ghost at all. She hardly dared to move, much less to breathe, for fear of breaking the spell.

Slowly Thomas reached out with his other hand and gently cupped her face, his face so close to hers that she could gaze into his silver eyes, shimmering with the light of the setting sun, and see an infinite swirling depth of memories, memories both exuberant and miserable, his intense longing for Claire, his devastation when she chose his much richer rival, his unexpected death in an automobile accident, his devotion to following Claire through her life as she raised a family of two children, as she struggled with a crumbling marriage that eventually led to divorce, her final years basking in the happiness of grandchildren, to his lost days of endless wandering without purpose, the multiple attempts he made to end his spirit form, his re-ignited curiosity in a new generation of crunk and funk, his first meeting with a girl mourning the passing of her grandfather. She was a whimsical girl, contemplative, nothing like Claire, and better yet, she wasn’t a ghost, though this later proved problematic. But in the moment, he didn’t care about practicalities. He’d never seen hair so silky or eyes so soft and a personality so demure, even by 1930s standards.

He leaned forward, their lips touching in a chaste kiss. He kissed her again, deeper, with a sense of urgency. Neither knew how long this moment could last. When they pulled away, her lips tingled with the memory of him, just a feeling, nothing more.

Thomas grinned. I’ve waited so long to do that.

“You only waited three months. That’s barely a dent in your hundred years.”

A single day can feel like forever. Come on. Night has fallen.

Thomas lifted her to her feet. Still holding her hand, he guided her down to the church, where souls were gathering for the Dance. Magnus the Mountain hefted a gigantic barbell in greeting. Twin trapeze artists swung through the trees. Three witches gathered around a cauldron lit by a white fire and occasionally gave the bubbling concoction a stir. A salesman, Bible in hand, irritated waking souls by knocking on their tombstones. A teenager flipped a couple of skateboard tricks. Graceful ladies in hoop skirt dresses and sparkling masks drifted towards the orchestra.

Ah, Thomas, there you are! Thought I’d have to drag you from your coffin again. A jolly man in a white cassock strode forward to meet them, arms wide with hospitality. And what a delightful surprise! You, my dear, must be the miraculous Emily. Thomas has spoken very highly of your character and achievements.

Emily glanced at Thomas, whose cheeks turned opaque.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” said Emily.

Father, corrected Thomas. He’s the resident priest. He’s been around for so long that he doesn’t remember his own name.

What’s in a name? said the Priest. My mission is to bring all the spirits one step closer to God. You and I are due for a chat, Thomas. I want to know if you’re making any progress.

Yes, Father, said Thomas, though if Emily knew Thomas at all, he’d skip as he’d done so for the three months she’d known him.

“Father, how can you help others if you haven’t gone on yourself?” said Emily.

Ah, the million dollar question! My, my, Thomas, she is both a beauty and a clever one. Now, Emily, I have my own theories about that, but I’ve been speaking with the Monk, and he and I both agree that it’s tied up with our mission. Either we are destined to remain ghosts forever and ever, so long as there are other ghosts to guide and to counsel, or one day we will truly understand the meaning of devotion and sacrifice.

Just then a fiddler leaped onto the biggest pumpkin in the churchyard and struck a chord. Who’s ready for a good time?

Ghosts cheered and hassled the fiddler for a catchy tune.

We haven’t got all night. Let’s get dancing! The fiddler launched into the opening measures of a square dance, and as one, all the ghosts leaped into square formations, every spirit paired with a partner. Emily snuck glances at the other ghosts and tried to keep up with Thomas. Somehow they all seemed to know square dancing, even the teenager with the skateboard.

Relax, said Thomas. Just follow my lead.

“I’m not exactly the most coordinated person. There’s a reason why I prefer reading books.”

Thomas grinned. Don’t tell me you’re not having fun.

“Of course I’m—”

Switch partners! shouted the fiddler.

Emily panicked as Thomas’s fingers slipped through hers. The neighboring ghost caught her hand, a tall, spidery gentleman with long coattails.

Don’t worry, young miss. Your man will be back shortly.

Not long after she switched partners again, this time a plump woman with a headscarf. Tonight’s the cusp between the living and the dead, my dear.

And finally, Emily grasped Thomas’s hand with relief.

You’re still solid.

He smiled at her. I won’t let go of you. Not tonight.

The square dancing turned into the fox trot, then a salsa, a waltz, line dancing, freestyle hip-hop, every style under the moon. Emily smiled so much her cheeks hurt and she forgot to feel self-conscious. She whirled in a blur of red, a red rose among white, the other ghosts clapping or dancing alongside her. Thomas was in the middle of twirling her when, mid-laugh, she heard the distinctly unresonant voices of the living.

“Look what we have here.”

“A little girl dancing all by herself in the moonlight.”

Emily jolted to a stop, one hand in Thomas’s. The orchestra screeched to a dissonant crash, and all of the ghosts froze in place. Two men, one taller than the other, leaned against the stone wall separating the churchyard from the cemetery. They snickered.

“Don’t stop dancing now. The party’s just getting started.”

“Want to dance with us?”

Get out of here, growled Thomas, swinging a fist forward. Emily refused to let go of him.

The two men acted as though they had neither seen nor heard Thomas. Emily had been so caught up in dancing, she’d forgotten that he wasn’t real to most people, or to anyone other than her. With sinking heart, she wildly looked around for anything to use as a weapon.

“Mind, don’t holler. There’s nobody around to hear you.”

“So why don’t you just be a good girl and do what we say.”

They crossed the stone wall. Emily saw a branch just out of arm’s reach. She snatched it up and held it out like a sword.

Stay away from her! Thomas jumped forward into their path, but they casually strolled through him unperturbed. Don’t you dare take another step! I’m gonna—I’m gonna… He helplessly looked at Emily. She straightened her shoulders.

“S—stay away from me,” she stammered. The branch’s tips quivered.

“Maybe she’s a feisty one.”

The other smirked and popped his knuckles. “Not a chance.”

Run, Emily. Get out of here! Thomas hurtled through the air and tried to push her away. She felt him pull at her clothes, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t leave. This wasn’t how Halloween was supposed to go.

Thomas refused to be useless. He flew towards the orchestra. Start playing the Danse Macabre. Now.

But there’s five minutes to midnight, said the conductor.

NOW! I don’t care what time it is. Cecily and Serena, Thomas said to the twin trapeze artists, run through those trees and make some wind, a tornado if you have to.

The twin sisters leaped into motion. Several other ghosts joined in, dashing through the skeletal silhouettes and rustling the leaves. Emily snapped her head as she followed the sound. She didn’t see how this would be enough to help her.

“What’s the matter, girly?”

“Scared of the dark?”

The wind slowly gathered, twisting her hair and long skirt. The fallen leaves swirled around her ankles. The violins, though they sounded like violins to her, would sound like wolves howling to the two men. More and more ghosts joined, dancing in time.

“No, I’m not scared of the dark,” said Emily, tossing her branch aside. “But you should be.” She hid her shaking hands in the folds of her skirt.

The two men exchanged glances.

Yes! You’re doing great. Keep going, Emily, said Thomas. He scrabbled at the grass and picked up a pebble. The pebble felt cold and hard in his fist. Finally. The solid state. Magnus did the same. So did the teenager with the skateboard, as well as one of the hoop-skirted ladies. More ghosts followed, snatching up pebbles or twigs.

“You know what I was dancing for?” said Emily, her mind spinning. “I dance to call the spirits for All Hallows’ Eve. I’m sure the spirits are none too pleased at this interruption.”

“I dunno about this. She’s kinda kooky.”

“She’s making it up.”

“Ow! What’d you throw a rock at me for?”

“I didn’t throw no rock! Ouch!”

Emily raised her arms and let the wind pull and tease at her hair, her dress. A cloud of leaves enveloped her. The Priest and the Monk danced their way to her, lifted her up from the ground a few inches and let the wind spin them in circles.

“What the…”

Thomas grabbed the branch that Emily threw aside and held it before him like a torch. The music was gaining momentum. He took a step into the two men’s direct line of sight. The men gasped, mouths agape in perfect circles, as they took in the sight of Thomas.

Getthe hellout of here. Thomas ran forward. A horde of ghosts gleefully followed his lead.

The two men stumbled, then clambered into a flat-out sprint, tripping over each other to avoid the barrage of pebbles and twigs. From her high vantage point, Emily laughed as a cloud of writhing white chased after the two yowling figures. In the distance, she heard a car sputtering away. Slowly the music wound down, the wind lowering her to the ground. Gradually the ghosts regrouped. When Thomas reappeared, the ghosts all cheered and passed his spirit through the crowd like a surfing rock star. Silvery champagne exploded from bottles and rained down like confetti. Finally, Thomas stood before her again, his spirit glowing so bright a halo shined around him. With a graceful bow, he swooped up the fallen rose and tucked it behind her ear. She threw her arms around him in a tight embrace.

“Thank you for saving me. I don’t know how else I would have gotten out of that.”

Thomas clasped his arms tighter around her and rested his head on her silky hair, flowing free in the wind. He thought he could still feel the vibrations of her pounding heart.

I couldn’t have done it without you.

While the orchestra had started back up again, Emily gave a huge yawn. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m so tired all of a sudden.”

The adrenaline crash, said Thomas, and it’s way past your bedtime, Abuela. Let’s take you home.

Emily warily eyed her dark car. “Will you come with me please?”

Of course. I’ll escort you all the way.

On the drive home, Thomas loosely kept a hand on her skirt. At every red light, she twined her fingers in his, just to make sure he was there, solid though midnight had come and gone.

“Maybe it’s permanent.”

Yes! The skill of the solid state, mastered. See, I told you I’d get it.

Emily smiled. “I never doubted you.”

You doubted only yourself.

With relish, she punched him in the arm, and he yelped in surprise.

“See?” said Emily. “I’ve caught on.”

Thomas grinned. That’s my girl.

When Emily pulled into the driveway, she saw the lights still on in the house. Thomas escorted her to as far as the front door in observation of one of the first rules in their relationship: no ghostly presence in the presence of her friends and family. Everyone already thought she was losing it with an imaginary boyfriend. They didn’t need to see her giggling or smiling at what they saw as empty space.

Well, said Thomas, the Danse Macabre doesn’t usually involve storming after two lecherous drunks, but otherwise, what did you think?

“Magical.”

Not as magical as you. You look gorgeous, by the way. Did I forget to tell you?

The wind had tangled her hair into a mess and tears of relief had smudged her makeup. Blushing, Emily looked down at the porch steps through his translucent figure. Thomas gently lifted her chin and kissed her full on the mouth. She kissed him back, a cool tingling on her tongue. All too soon, the moment ended, and he pulled away to let her go inside.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

Of course. I’ll be waiting.

Emily reluctantly opened the door, which would doubtlessly lead to her mother asking all kinds of embarrassing questions she’d have to think her way around. But for now, she wanted to remember all the good moments from tonight. Her heart warmed at a flash of white zipping away in her peripheral vision.

“Mom, I’m home!”

“Splendid! You stayed out past midnight—Dios mío, Emily! What happened?”

*

Emily tumbled out of the car and into the November sunshine. She couldn’t wait to hold Thomas’s hand again. Speaking of which, he should have been waiting to surprise her in the passenger seat. Maybe he was speaking to the Priest for once. She dashed to the oak tree, where her forgotten picnic basket lay exactly as she’d left it by her abuelo’s resting place.

No Thomas.

She ran up the hill to the old section of the cemetery. The flowers still graced his tombstone.

“Hello? Thomas?”

She didn’t see a single soul. Usually one or two ghosts liked to drift during the day for old times’ sake. She turned around and explored another section.

“Thomas? Where are you? Thomas?”

Again, not a soul in sight. Did spirits have hangovers after Halloween? She ran down to the churchyard, empty except for the pumpkin patch from last night. The branch she’d picked up last night listed to one side.

“Thomas, I know you love pranks. You got me. I can’t find you. Come on out.”

She went all the way around the church and still saw no one.

“Thomas? This isn’t funny anymore. Where are you?”

No one answered. Suddenly, the sunlight seemed weak and uncertain. There was only one more place to check. She peeked into the church and to her relief saw the Priest at the pulpit.

“Father, I’m so glad to see you! Where is everyone?”

The Priest looked around, confused. What do you mean? Everyone’s here.

“Everyone’s…here?” But Emily could see no one but the Priest. “Father, I can see only you.”

The Priest lost his jolly air and waved away, she presumed, the other ghosts standing with him.

“Where’s Thomas? Is he still here? He wouldn’t have left me, would he? Would he? Not without saying good-bye?”

The Priest’s silence confirmed the creeping fear since she’d arrived at the cemetery. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“He’s learned how to move on, hasn’t he?”

The tears spilled down her cheeks. She couldn’t believe it. The moment she thought he loved her, he left her. Wasn’t she as strong a reason as Claire to tie him to this life?

My daughter, said the Priest, you are incredibly unique and gifted and thoughtful. I can only guess that you can still see me because I have a message from Thomas, after which you will probably lose your ability to see any of us. But I want you to know that we are all here, always will be with you. So will Thomas.

“What does it matter? He’s not even here anymore. He doesn’t care about me or he wouldn’t have left!”

Now, you know that is not true. If last night meant anything to him, it showed him and you and all of us the true extent of his love for you. He was willing to move music, wind, earth to protect you. And you, whether you or he wanted it or not, you were the light shining his way to the next phase of the afterlife. You showed him how his life does not revolve around a single person or incident. You showed him how to forget the past and to look to the future. You showed him how to love again.

Emily said nothing, merely wiped her eyes.

Thomas came to me early this morning when he realized that his spirit was fading. He wanted to run to you, but he had no time. It was happening too quickly, in a matter of minutes. He wanted me to tell you this:

‘Thank you for everything. I’m sorry I couldn’t see you one last time. I hope you won’t be angry with me forever. These have been the happiest days of my life. And I hope that you’ll find happiness again, whether alone or with someone deserving of you. Maybe we’ll see each other in the afterlife. I’ll love you, always.’

Emily still said nothing. She held onto the Priest’s words, soaking them in, committing them to memory. She played them in Thomas’s voice, but already, he was fading in her mind. She wished so much to hear those words from his lips, anything to solidify her memory of him.

The Priest palely glistened in the beam of sunlight, though he, too, was starting to fade. He opened his mouth to speak, but she heard only a breath and then found herself gazing at empty space. She waited a moment.

“Thank you, Father,” she said.

Alone, she exited the church and slowly made her way to her abuelo’s grave beneath the oak tree. There on the checkered cloth, she curled on the ground, knees drawn to her chin, and stared at the bouquet, the flowers bobbing in the breeze. She closed her eyes and thought back to that day in summer.

It’d been two months since her abuelo passed away. She missed him terribly. She cried sometimes at night, but visiting his grave every weekend eased the ache a little bit.

“Why did you have to go?”

Why does anybody have to go?

Emily bolted upright. “Who’s there?”

You and only you.

Emily gasped and tumbled backward. A boy in a blazer and trousers sat cross-legged on a tombstone one row over. “You—you’re white.”

Duh, I’m white. Caucasian, if you please.

“No, you’re white as a ghost.”

Because I am a—wait. You can hear me? You can see me? Who are you?

She stared at him, still not quite believing her eyes. “I’m…Emily Garcia. Who are you?”

He swung out his right hand.

Thomas Fitzwilliam.

 


 

Author’s Note

This short story came as a surprise. I first thought of the idea of a ghost boyfriend or girlfriend while brainstorming for a comic art studio back in 2013. So much potential, but I did not have the time to develop a story and draw the comic within the deadline. I filed it away as a possible novel idea and later used it as inspiration for an Inktober 2015 drawing.

Every now and then, I’d wander back to the idea. Just imagine. You and your ghost boyfriend go out to dinner. You open the door to the restaurant because he can’t open it for you even if he wanted to. When the hostess asks how many, you say a table for one, even though you are really two. The waiter arrives and introduces himself and plunks down one glass of water. When you look at the menu, you struggle between the pasta and the steak because you can’t get both to share with your boyfriend. The waiter thinks you’re a bit strange for eating alone at a nice restaurant, but you’re kind of cute and the waiter hits on you, in front of your boyfriend, and you stammer your way out while your boyfriend either seethes in jealous resentment or laughs at the absurdity of the situation.

This leads to so many questions. How would this be even possible? Why would a girl be able to see and speak to a ghost? Why is a boy stuck as a ghost? Under what circumstances would they meet? Would the boy by stuffy and old-school or would he have adapted to modern times? How does the girl deal with prying questions from well-meaning friends and family? What if she goes to college? Will this ghost boy leave his cemetery and follow her around campus? How long will this go on?

It seems like there’s plenty of material for a novel, but anything I added to the plot diluted the essence of their relationship. I saw three things clearly in my mind: ghost boyfriend, cemetery, and inevitable separation. So I turned it into a short story in time for Valentine’s Day. In the time that followed, I started doubting this short story. My mind warped the story into something embarrassing and written in a rush. I shared it with a friend, upon his insistence, then put it away for a couple months. I wasn’t sure I would ever bring it back out. That same friend suggested I submit it to a literary competition. While I didn’t expect to win, it brought this short story to my attention again, and I see what motivated me to write this story.

One of my goals is to write about depression. For me, this story focuses on relationships and how it can both help and cause depression. My maternal grandmother’s death affected me more than I realized. Sometimes at night I’ll become overly anxious about my parents passing away or how little time I’m spending with my siblings or friends who I care about. If anyone I know is to die today, is there anything I wish I could have said or that they wish they could have said? I’ve tried to say some things that I’ve been keeping to myself, but sometimes it feels like our words and actions get lost in the current of everyday life.

Hopefully, this short story offers a glimmer of light to anyone going through a tough time and may feel alone.

Fun fact: I took Thomas’s last name from Colonel Fitzwilliam in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Technically, it’s also Darcy’s first name, but Mr. Darcy is so universally known as “Mr. Darcy” that I’ll never think of him as “Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

The Ghost of Thomas Fitzwilliam

The Linkin Park Playlist

I first discovered Linkin Park in 2005. Since then, the band has woven in and out of my life in the most unexpected of ways. What would your Linkin Park playlist include and why? Here’s mine:

In The End
Numb
Numb/Encore
Papercut
By Myself
Easier to Run
Faint
Session
New Divide
Waiting For The End
Catalyst
Robot Boy
Krwlng
My December
High Voltage
Shadow of the Day
Burn It Down
Sorry For Now
Invisible
One More Light

 

IN THE END, NUMB, and NUMB/ENCORE — 2005

2005 is my best guess for when I first heard Linkin Park and started to take a real interest in the group. In 2005, I was still living at my old house, the one that housed my childhood. My brother lived downstairs in his “cave,” as my sisters and I liked to call it, while I had my desk upstairs in a room with wide windows. I had just discovered the awesomeness of radio, so 96.5 gets the honor of being the station that opened my mind to “In the End.” Soon after that first glimpse of Linkin Park, I heard “Numb” or “Numb/Encore,” whichever one receiving airplay in Houston at the time, and that solidified the three songs as the beginning of my journey with Linkin Park.

 

PAPERCUT, BY MYSELF — 2006

In eighth grade, I joined the school book club and read a book about a girl who moves from Phoenix, AZ to Forks, WA. There she meets a vampire, and the rest is history. Before this book got big, I prowled through Stephenie Meyer’s website and devoured everything she posted for the Twilight series, including playlists she made for each book. “By Myself” was one of the songs for Twilight and “Papercut” for New Moon. I liked many of the other artists Meyer included on her playlists—Coldplay, Muse, U2, Audioslave, The Fray—so I thought I’d give the rest of Linkin Park a shot.

“By Myself” and “Papercut” were nothing like “In the End” and “Numb.” While “In the End” and “Numb” were well-rounded, “By Myself” and “Papercut” were messy punches through sheetrock. Just listening to Chester Bennington screeching made my own voice hurt. I preferred Mike Shinoda’s smooth rapping and the moments when Chester wasn’t ripping his voice out, but little by little, I gradually warmed up to the two songs. While browsing through my brother’s immense collection of music, I unearthed Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory and Meteora albums. I transferred these to my computer and started listening to them. I won’t lie. “In the End” and “Numb” remained my all-time favorites—that piano riff at the end of “In the End”—and I wrote off the rest of the songs as not my type.

 

EASIER TO RUN, FAINT, and SESSION — 2007

In tenth grade, I started to get serious about art class. I had to put in my best effort if I wanted to be a professional artist some day. For the Culture Shapers Competition, I picked one of my brother’s photographs as inspiration—a red teakettle reflected in nearly duplicate on the black granite countertop. I went out to Texas Art Supplies and bought a sheet of gold-ochre paper for the background. The teakettle was my first real attempt at photorealism. I wanted the teakettle to be so real, you could reach in and lift it by the sloping handle.

By this time my family had moved to a different house, smaller and more intimate. I worked upstairs in a small room with small windows. As I set about the tedious task of matching colors and scratching marks into the paper, I got tired of listening to the radio and its endless loop of ads. I had all the words memorized down to the voice inflections. I wanted something different and refreshing.

As I scrolled through the music on my computer, I came across Linkin Park again. “In the End” and “Numb” were good, but their refrains felt worn in my ears. Better prepared for the screaming vocals, I hit play. This time, new favorites emerged, like “Faint” and “Easier to Run,” though I was obsessed with “Session” for far longer than any other song. I wished my computer could seamlessly transition between songs since the tail end of one would lead into the next. Again and again, I listened through Hybrid Theory and Meteora, each stroke of pencil embedding another note into the picture. When I finally finished the red teakettle, it was the best work I’d done up to that point, and I had Linkin Park to thank for getting me through the long nights of picking between olive green or lilac to throw into the shading. For a long time, I couldn’t look at the red teakettle without summoning Linkin Park in my ears.

teakettle c

As time went on, Linkin Park receded into the background again. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly angry at the world, I’d slap in earbuds and scroll to Linkin Park on my iPod Nano. Then I’d walk around my complex in the hot Houston sun to burn off the emotions. Chester Bennington’s screaming was on point, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Mike Shinoda now felt too mellow by comparison. A lot can change in a few years.

 

NEW DIVIDE — 2009

The Transformers hold a special spot in my life. I grew up watching the animated movie of 1986. I couldn’t wait for a future like that—vehicles turning into robot companions, dinosaurs, and space travel. As a first grader, I illustrated a cute fanfiction about transformer bots organizing shelves of matrices. Many years later when I watched it again, I burst out laughing at the intro narration. The movie takes places in the far off future of 2005? We were four years past 2005, and the universe didn’t remotely look like anything in the movie. Maybe in 3005 we’ll finally get to that point.

Then the live-action came out in 2007 featuring Linkin Park’s “What I’ve Done.” I was thrilled. One of my favorite bands had made it to the big screen—and Transformers nonetheless! This unexpected collision brought Transformers back to contemporary relevancy and placed Linkin Park at the top of the cool list again. The live-action was pretty standard fare, nothing new here, and I didn’t seriously consider watching the second movie until another unexpected collision took place.

My cousin dated Shia LaBeouf.

WHAAAAAAT.

I got a glimpse of him when I went to another cousin’s wedding out in California. Apparently Shia had been over to one of my aunt’s or my uncle’s house for Christmas dinner. Mind blown. Mind still blown. Imagine getting a plate for the next course and running into Shia LaBeouf. And making small talk. At your dinner table. Surreal. Shia seemed like a pretty normal, down-to-earth kind of guy. I think I shook his hand. I don’t remember if I said anything, maybe squeaked my name. My brother-in-law got a picture of me grinning like an idiot, Shia LaBeouf blurred out in the background. It took every ounce of self-control not to watch my cousin and Shia interact the entire night. I was just so fascinated. My own cousin, dating a movie star. What must that be like? The two of them kept a fairly low profile, not much to find on the internet, and I wasn’t close enough with my cousin to ask her the burning questions I wanted to know so badly. My aunt mentioned that my cousin had matured a lot in the relationship. I could only imagine. I hadn’t even been in one relationship with a normal guy, much less a celebrity.

After meeting Shia LaBeouf in person, I was determined to watch the next Transformers movie and analyze every facial expression, every gesture, every word that came out of Shia LaBeouf’s mouth. Leading up to the movie, I listened to “New Divide” nonstop. Linkin Park delivered with another solid song. It was just a matter of who I could rope into seeing Transformers with me.

That summer I attended an architecture program at The University of Houston. I sort of became friends with a guy who had just graduated from my high school. I’d seen him around but never had the chance to talk until the summer program. He asked me to go see Transformers with him (I just got asked out on a date—for the first time!). I panicked and snagged a couple of mutual friends so that it wasn’t an actual date. While things blew up on the screen, thoughts about my cousin and Shia kept coming to me.

Before the third Transformers movie came out, my cousin and Shia broke up. I was quite sad at the news, but realistically, I knew it couldn’t last. I also didn’t date that guy who asked me to see the Transformers movie. But at least Linkin Park had their heyday with “New Divide.”

 

WAITING FOR THE END, CATALYST, and ROBOT BOY — 2010

When A Thousand Suns came out, I was in college. “Waiting for the End” and “Catalyst” marked a distinct change in their style. Gone were the days of screaming emo. Some of it was still there on the album, but it didn’t move me the way Hybrid Theory and Meteora had. Here were the mellow melodies that I’d always wanted from Chester and Mike, but I didn’t need them now. I was growing up, my emotions becoming more confusing and complex.

The first two years of college were a tough time for me. Maybe that is why I don’t have positive associations with this album. After the certainty and community of high school, I felt lonely and lost. I dreamed about transferring to an art college. Standing in my bathroom lit by only one bulb over the sink, I thought about the people who were desperate enough to slit their wrists. Did it hurt? And was I that desperate? I decided that I wasn’t. I would take things into my own hands and change the course I was on.

My sister got sheet music for “Waiting for the End,” but the sheet music only had the instrumental, no lyrics to my disappointment. Chester’s vocals make the song as beautiful as it is. Without his vocals, the music is pretty but there is no soul.

 

KRWLNG, MY DECEMBER, and HIGH VOLTAGE — 2012?

I don’t remember when exactly I discovered these three songs, but I found them slowly.

First, “Krwling.” I smiled when I uncovered an entire album of Linkin Park’s remixes to their own songs. “Krwling” was the best with its haunting vocals and subtle cues in the instrumental. I played this on repeat while studying for class.

Second, “My December.” I couldn’t place which album it was from and was later very surprised to find it attached to Hybrid Theory. I got that album from my brother. There was no song titled “My December.” Then I realized it was on the deluxe edition along with “High Voltage.” I listened to the two songs over and over again. These were the ones that had slipped through the cracks. They sounded so different from the rest of the album, I would have expected them to belong to Minutes to Midnight instead.

But I’ll take what I can. What if they never come out with another album?

 

SHADOW OF THE DAY — 2013

“Shadow of the Day” came out back in 2007. When I first heard it, I kept waiting for the climax to climb. It never did. I was both surprised and glad that it received airplay, but the song didn’t stick with me. I wanted something stronger.

Fast forward to 2013. I usually sang Soprano I or Soprano II in the Low Keys female acappella group on-campus. The music director put together an incredible mashup to create her own version of the four chord song. I didn’t get many solos in the four chord song. In fact, I may have only gotten one, more of a harmony duet with another girl (at least it was Coldplay!). I was disappointed—I really wanted to sing Linkin Park’s “Shadow of the Day” part—but to be honest with myself, I don’t make a good soloist, and my voice isn’t exactly the female equivalent of Chester Bennington’s. Another girl sang “Shadow of the Day,” the last song in the mashup, and I had to be content with the fact that Linkin Park managed to slip in at all. Linkin Park isn’t exactly easy as acappella.

 

BURN IT DOWN — 2014

One day on the drive home from work, I heard “Burn It Down” play on 94.5 The Buzz. You can’t mistake Chester Bennington’s voice for anyone else. A new Linkin Park song? Nope. I was behind two years and had completely missed the album Living Things. Apparently they had an even newer one called The Hunting Party. Work was slow. I spent almost all forty hours listening to Spotify to stay awake. But I didn’t get into Linkin Park. I had moved onto The Neighbourhood, Tove Lo, Halsey, and other up-and-coming artists. “Burn It Down” remained a blip on my radio radar.

 

SORRY FOR NOW, INVISIBLE, and ONE MORE LIGHT — 2017

When I first started working at Whole Foods Market, I started listening to music on my morning commute. I hate morning shows, so I plugged in my iPod and scrolled to—Linkin Park. The choice surprised me, but I’d recently taken to revisiting childhood memories. A couple of times I drove through my old neighborhood, the one with the house with the wide windows, just to retrace the paths I used to know so well. Now, I wanted to revisit Hybrid Theory and Meteora, still the only two Linkin Park albums that I have on my iPod.

Damn, Linkin Park sounded good in my car. I could finally hear the deep bass and the intricately layered beats that my laptop speakers couldn’t do justice. All the old classics—“Papercut,” “In the End,” “Crawling,” you name it—came alive better and badder than before. I could feel the emotions running through the stereo system, booming out to the cars around me. I laughed, thinking the other drivers must be wondering what the heck I was playing first thing in the morning. After playing through both albums twice over the course of the week, I switched over to shuffle on my iPod for some variety, but nothing sounded as good as Linkin Park blasting in my car.

One week on the New Music Friday playlist, Spotify included Linkin Park’s “Heavy” featuring Kiiara. I love Kiiara, and I love Linkin Park, but together I didn’t enjoy the song much. Was Linkin Park ever going to come out with anything that I would enjoy as much as Hybrid Theory or Meteora?

A few weeks later on New Music Friday, I came across “Sorry For Now.” This song flipped the switch for me. Linkin Park has definitely evolved over the years. I appreciate their growth, even if I don’t like all their songs, and though “Sorry For Now” seems to converge with mainstream electropop, I genuinely enjoy listening to it. Mike’s singing is a welcome addition to Chester’s vocals, which interestingly borders closer to rap. It’s as though the two of them have swapped places.

From there, I slowly branched out and listened to “Battle Symphony,” then the entire album when it was released in May. Only “Sorry For Now” stood out to me at first, but the more I listened, the more the entire album grew on me with “Invisible” emerging as the next standout song. Looking back on my journey with Linkin Park, it’s always been that way—one or two songs will hook me in, and the rest gradually find a home in my life.

The other afternoon, I was on my way to the public library when the female DJ on 94.5 said something about someone committing suicide and hoping it was a hoax. Another rock artist? So soon after Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave? I brushed it off. Probably someone I didn’t know. But then 94.5 played a Linkin Park song, and they would only do that if it was somehow related to the person who passed away. What was the name that the DJ had said? It sounded suspiciously like Chester Bennington. This had to be a hoax. I willed it to be a hoax. When the song ended, a news clip played confirming the worst. Chester Bennington was dead at 41 of apparent suicide and on his good friend Chris Cornell’s birthday.

Shakily, I drove the last half mile to the library, parked, and opened my phone. It was real. Chester’s name was plastered all over the internet. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Linkin Park was a permanent fixture in my life. They were a young band. They had years and years and years. What would become of the band? Chester Bennington was Linkin Park. Without him, Linkin Park wouldn’t be the same.

On the drive home from the library, 94.5 played nothing but Linkin Park songs in tribute to Chester. Thank goodness Linkin Park has been a relatively prolific group. With seven studio albums, the group has a lot of music to play, the only way we can hear Chester Bennington one more time. They were supposed to perform in Houston in September. Would they still? Or would they cancel? I hoped they wouldn’t. I hadn’t bought tickets, but if I had, I would want Linkin Park to come, to give me a chance to connect to Chester Bennington in the one way that I know how—through music.

I woke up over the weekend to read that they had canceled their American tour. It saddened me, but I think I understand why, or at least, I understand as well as I can.

In the day or two immediately following the news, I tried to write something. I felt obligated to write something since Linkin Park did play a part in my life, but I didn’t know what to say. Others had already expressed much more eloquently the same thoughts and emotions I felt. When I re-posted the picture of the red teakettle on Facebook, I realized that Linkin Park isn’t a continuous story for me. Linkin Park happened in moments, each song a snapshot, another mark on the paper.

So this is my Linkin Park playlist. Maybe seven albums is the magic number. Maybe this is the end of an era. But maybe it won’t be. Maybe Linkin Park will carry on in a new direction. Whatever the band decides, I’ll take what I can get.

If they say
Who cares if one more light goes out?
In a sky of a million stars
It flickers, flickers
Who cares when someone’s time runs out?
If a moment is all we are
We’re quicker, quicker
Who cares if one more light goes out?
Well I do

The Linkin Park Playlist