Hyped Ham

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The irony of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton, at the Victoria Palace in London.

Here is a Founding Father of the United States, celebrated six nights a week in the country he revolted against, while King George III is treated as comic relief in the country he reigned over. Within this theater, the predominantly British crowd is rooting for the American revolutionary to take his shot. And if you’re one of the handful Americans seeing the show in London—like me and the couple from Arizona seated to my right—you passed up Broadway, Chicago, and the National Tour to see the show in the territory that was once the mother country.

To be fair, it’s probably more cost effective for an American to see the show in London than to see it in New York, the capital of Hamilton’s United States. When the low end of Broadway’s prices hover around $300 for Rear Mezzanine and the max at the West End is £200 (about $280) for a premium seat, might as well make an overseas adventure of it. That’s the boat my Arizona neighbors and I found ourselves in.

I should note that I went into Hamilton blindly. I didn’t listen to the original Broadway cast recording because I had no idea whose voice belonged to which character. I was skeptical at the love showered on the musical in light of the thousands of dollars people were willing to pay for a seat on Broadway. But my curiosity—and the casting of Rachelle Ann Go in a lead role as Eliza Hamilton—persuaded me to dive in anyway when the production released a last batch of tickets for February performances.

By the end of the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” I understood the hype from a storytelling perspective. (The hip hop entertained me, but I’m too square/uncool to evaluate the quality of the lyrics from an artistic standpoint.)

The storytelling through the spoken word and hip hop is in your face, especially in the first act covering revolutionary America, and paces through Hamilton’s lifetime at a frenetic pace. Sounds like modern America, right? The London company of Hamilton also projected a confidence—bordering on cockiness—in how they attacked the lyrics and choreography to each musical number in those swanky colonial costumes. (The choreography for “Satisfied” and Ten Duel Commandments” are especially outstanding from a visual storytelling perspective.) It’s fitting that Jamael Westman, barely over a year out of drama school, won the role of the young Founding Father who quickly rose to be George Washington’s right hand man. Westman delivers the lyrics that Miranda wrote with that youthful tinge of fury in his voice and in his eyes that you’d expect from the ambitious individual that Hamilton lived his life as.

Ultimately, the core of Hamilton’s life is the classic underdog story. And that’s why the way Miranda delivered Hamilton’s story—rising from orphan in the West Indies to prominent statesman on the back of hard work, talent, and the help of those who spotted those traits—is important in today’s polarized atmosphere.

This is the dramatized biography of a white Founding Father presented as a hip hop musical, expanding the appeal of this story to a mainstream audience. This novel approach to a historical figure engages audiences and hopefully encourages them to go down the Alexander Hamilton rabbit hole on Google or Wikipedia on their own time. Yet the musical also gave the spotlight to his contemporaries that the high school history textbooks glossed over. I thought “John Lawrence” through the first act until I read the program during the interval and saw that he was John Laurens, and I also had no idea who Hercules Mulligan and Maria Reynolds were until last week.

The multiethnic cast fulfilling the roles of these white historical figuresis the other obvious appeal of the musical. Westman is of Irish and Jamaican descent, Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) is Black British, and Go and Christine Allado (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) are Filipina, among everyone else in the company. It was visceral to see Terera, knowing that he portrays Burr, step onto the stage as the first lead in the opening number and yet accept this revised interpretation of Burr’s appearance without a second thought. These portrayals highlight the universality of the underdog story found in Hamilton’s life—and the ideal of an America that we’re still working to perfect today, more than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

It’ll take a lot of work and time to break down the cultural, institutional, and systemic barriers that continue to push marginalized peoples to the fringes. But in celebrating Hamilton’s life, the musical is optimistic for an America where everyone, regardless of their background and ethnicity, has access to the opportunity—their shot—to prove themselves like Hamilton did. Even the Brits in attendance that night were rooting for us to get there.

The show had to pause for a brief moment for loudest ovation of the performance, when Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette proclaimed “Immigrants: we get the job done.”

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The High School Reunion in England

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An act of theft more than 10 years ago brought me to the English city of Wolverhampton last Saturday.

The club that represents the city of Wolverhampton is Wolverhampton Wanderers, whose nickname is Wolves and crest is the face of a wolf enclosed in a hexagon. The nickname of my high school is Wolves. You see where this is going, right?

In my freshman year of high school, the soccer teams at my school stole the English Wolves’ crest for their logo for one season. The school soccer logo was cool for a kid like me who no had idea about the pyramid of English football. I learned the truth year later, when I turned on FIFA 05, discovered the English Championship, and saw that the club named Wolverhampton Wanderers had that wolf contained within the hexagon.

—-

Sky Sports moving the Crystal Palace-Newcastle fixture to Super Bowl Sunday gave me the opportunity to close the loop on my high school’s theft and travel to the Wolverhampton ground of Molineux, where I saw the 3-0 Wolves victory over fellow promotion candidates Sheffield United last Saturday.

Sheffield United as the away team added more excitement to the match. In April 2017, UK reporter and Blades supporter Charlie Webster was in Washington D.C. on World Malaria Day to lobby US lawmakers to continue funding research for a cure. Webster contracted and nearly passed away from the disease when she cycled to the Rio 2016 Olympics for charity, and since her recovery began, she’s been an outspoken advocate for eliminating malaria.

I was in DC that day and read that she would deliver a final speech in the Russell Senate Office Building for a banquet open to the public. I zipped to the banquet, listened to the powerful story of her near-death experience and learned of the places she’s trying to help. In the networking session afterward, I spoke with her about what we can do individually to support her efforts and—obviously—about football. Toward the end of our conversation, she told me that she’s seen Crystal Palace and Sheffield United play each other.

“I hope to see that match-up for myself soon,” I replied.

Just ten months later, I wound up in the Black Country of England to see her Blades take on Wolves. Close enough.

Surprisingly, Molineux has the same topography issues as hilly Dodger Stadium, resulting in the multi-leveled parking lot and stadium entrances seen in the Los Angeles venue. The walk from the Wolverhampton city center to Molineux ends in the higher elevation of the Steve Bull Stand, a section that runs along the length of the pitch and is on the opposite side of my seat in the Billy Wright Stand. From the Steve Bull Stand, I took a staircase down to reach level ground on the Stan Cullis Stand (North Bank), and the Billy Wright Stand was a simple left turn from there.

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My seat in the lower tier of the Billy Wright is part of the family stand, which meant that a handful of parents and kids were sprinkled into this swath of mostly men. When I took my seat in the row behind this mother in a Wolves hat and her son, she gave me the warmest smile that I’ve received from a stranger in a long time.

Wolves allocated the lower tier of the Steve Bull Stand for Sheffield United supporters. While this was a generous allocation, the intimidating arrangement sandwiches the away fans between the noisiest home supporters at the Sir Jack Hayward Stand (South Bank), the North Bank supporters, and the home fans on the upper tier of the Steve Bull. Except for the empty yellow seats in the cordoned off section of the Steve Bull lower tier closest to the South Bank, Molineux was a sellout, and the crowd turned the stands into an abyss.

From my vantage point, it looked like every individual wore a black or dark-colo(u)red jacket to the game.

On the pitch, the opposite took hold. The colors of light sported by Wolves in their gold home shirt and Sheffield United in a white away kit were a stark contrast to the darkness evoked by the crowd’s black coats. It was as if the Wolverhampton motto of “out of darkness cometh light” manifested itself in the form of this match.

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Despite resembling a black hole, the crowd—led by the South Bank—was raucous in volume, as you’d expect out of a club running away at the top of the Championship table. After the most extravagant opening ceremony for an English club I’ve witnessed—flames bursting up on the pitch and fireworks launched into the air—the supporters sprung into a spirited rendition of “Hi Ho Wolverhampton” (from Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining”), then found something to sing about nearly every minute of the match. They cheered former Wolves-turned-Blades defender Richard Stearman in his introduction, then lustily booed Blades captain and former Wolves striker Leon Clarke, then turned their attention to welcoming back striker Benik Afobe after his deadline day transfer exit from Bournemouth.

“It’s magic, you know/Benik Afobe’s come home.”

If they weren’t singing about Afobe’s return, the South Bank filled in the gaps by singing something that sounded like “You’re wasting your time/We’re Wolverhampton/We’re one of a kind. Do-duh do-duh do-duh.”

It was clear from the beginning why Wolves are at the top of the Championship pack (yes, this starts the phase of awful team puns). The home side play fast and in packs—that midfield can rush the opposition by dribbling through them, passing around them, or hitting them on a quick counter.

The Wolves midfield showed the full extent of their might in fifth minute with the best goal I’ve ever witnessed in person. Wolves took the ball into the box from the left wing, where a tackle rolled it straight to Ruben Neves outside the box. Neves settled the ball with one touch, then sent a thunderbolt of a curling strike toward goal. Boom. The ball clattered off the far post and into the net, setting Molineux ablaze in celebrations.

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Wolves made it 2-0 in the 30th minute, when a ball driven low from the right wing reached the box, and a few tiki taka passes later (that I couldn’t see from my seat in the opposite end of the stadium) Diogo Jota had the ball in front of Blades goalkeeper Simon Moore, and Jota calmly slipped the ball past him and into the net.

After this goal, the Wolves support added “We’re top of the league” to their “We’re Wolverhampton” song.

Wolves went into halftime with that 2-0 lead. The Blades were a hard working side who could press on Wolves, but their attacking options seemed limited. Their best ventures forward came down the middle with Ricky Holmes or down the right with George Baldock—who earlier drew the ire of the South Bank when he yelped after getting fouled; the South Bank squawked at him each time he touched the ball from that point on. Trying to use Clarke as a target man with little help blunted the Blades going forward.

The second half was tame until the 72nd minute, when Moore came out of his box and clotheslined Jota in a midair collision for a loose ball. The ref sent Moore off and in the ensuing free kick, Ivan Cavaleiro delivered a free kick that deflected off the wall and into the net to make it 3-0 and seal the three points for Wolves. That would be his last act of the game. After Cavaleiro bathed in the glory of his goal, Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo took him out for the man of the hour: Afobe.

The crowd was rapt in happiness as they sang “Benik Afobe’s come home” and Afobe nearly had the dream return when he put a header just wide of the net. No problem whatsoever. The 3-0 scoreline held up through the final whistle, and Wolves fans sang “Hi Ho Wolverhampton” on their way out of Molineux.

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I’ve seen the stories of players taking trains home, such as Brede Hangeland hanging out at Clapham Junction when he played for Crystal Palace or Wolves goalkeeper John Ruddy helping an elderly man buy his train ticket. Never thought I’d have one of my own, but a two hour delay for my Virgin Train back to London allowed me to sit next to United’s Holmes at the Wolverhampton station.

I didn’t want to bother him in conversation as he ate his dinner and texted with his family back home, but a group of elderly Wolves supporters approached him and asked about him. (One asked Holmes if he was the sent off keeper…) Holmes was gracious enough to share the story of his rise from non-league to Charlton to Sheffield United; he only just joined the Blades two weeks ago. He’s got a bright future ahead of him at the Championship if that night’s performance is anything to go by, but Wolves have only the Premier League to take aim at now.

Let’s Revel in a Draw

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It took four years, three managers (excluding one Frank de Boer, binned before I could see him in charge), and some incomprehensible injustice in the world preventing Crystal Palace from scoring two goals, but the Eagles finally did the one thing I longed for them to do since my last visit to Selhurst Park. With their 1-1 draw against Newcastle United on Super Bowl Sunday, Palace didn’t lose the annual Premier League match I attend at Selhurst for the first time ever.

I’m not a hex on the club!

On the previous three occasions I trekked to South London, Palace lost to Everton 0-1 in 2015, 1-2 to Bournemouth in 2016, and—in the horror show that convinced me to return Sunday—0-4 to Sunderland in 2017.

(The only Palace victory I’ve witnessed was the FA Cup win against Stoke City in 2016. The energy in the ground was a tad muted because of the higher priority placed on the league at the time.)

My mood in the buildup to this clash was upbeat. Manager Roy Hodgson returned tactics and discipline in the squad; Arsenal and Spurs are the only clubs to defeat Palace since November. Plus there was the 10K race through downtown London that I had to run on Sunday, which Sky jeopardized when moving this fixture to the odd time of 1415. I finished the race quick enough to set a new personal record, feel like I needed to barf after crossing the finish line, rush back to my hotel, get cleaned up, and still make a noon train bound for Croydon to soak in the pregame atmosphere at Selhurst.

When you can only experience something you cherish once a year at best, it’s little things that enhance it. Moments such as the old guy hawking half-and-half scarves (come on now, is it really worth the effort?). Sharing the frustration with a woman that the toilets at Sainsbury’s are closed for repair. Watching the fellow millennial standing next to me stream his first bite of an Oreo doughnut while I ate my Red Leicester Ploughman for lunch. The shock of seeing a guy in a Palace shirt and a Chicago Blackhawks hat walk past me. Seeing Kayla the Eagle outside the Stephenson Lounge for the first time since 2016. Watching the Palace squad run drills by your corner of the Arthur Wait and relishing that sense of familiarity with the squad thanks to NBC Sports.

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To top it all off and to make up for the Sunday Church hymns I missed while freezing my butt off at the 10K, I rose from my seat at the Arthur Wait and joined 25,000 of my closest friends in belting out our opening hymn of “Glad All Over” before kickoff. It’s retained that excitement from the very first time I sang it in 2014.

But the way Palace played in the first half hour suggested more of the same bad results. Newcastle continuously put Palace under pressure, while the home side looked sluggish and incapable of retaining possession. In the 22nd minute, the ball trickled into the net after Mo Diame converted off a corner kick.

The goal was a kick to my gut, although it seemed inevitable with all the opportunities the away side compiled. This losing thing is really happening again?

While the ball was delivered back to the center (yes, I’m spelling it the American way) circle, the steward in my block turned stony-eyed. He extended his right arm toward the Holmesdale, palm facing the sky, and moved it up and down. The Holmesdale started singing right after the steward began his gesture, as if an orchestra was responding to its conductor on cue.

As the crowd rebounded from the Newcastle goal, the intensity of Palace’s play elevated around the 30th minute. Even with Palace on the front foot, both sets of supporters still remembered to give a minute’s applause in the 36th minute for Simon Tweedie, who passed away at 36 years old. I’ve participated in a minute’s applause my last two visits to Selhurst and each one tugged at me like I personally knew them. Bittersweet is the best word for these moments.

The Eagles finished the first half on the ascendancy, but went into the break down 0-1 along with a stoppage time injury to Martin Kelly that shortened his 100th career appearance for Palace. His replacement: Mamadou Sakho, ironically making his first appearance after recovering from injury. To pile on the irony, the injury to Kelly on his milestone day allowed Sakho to achieve his own milestone of 300 career appearances.

When Sakho stepped onto the pitch, the sky over Selhurst went from an overcast gray to blue with beams of sunshine poking through the few clouds that remained. The Premier League in the US tweeted that this could be a good omen. Their words would, in fact, be “prophetic.”

The dominance by Palace didn’t evaporate during the interval. They won free kicks and sent crosses into the box, while Sakho threaded ball after ball through traffic to his teammates in the attacking half of the pitch. Like how Newcastle’s goal felt inevitable, the equalizer for Palace seemed to be a matter of when, not if.

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“When” came in the 55th minute, after Christian Benteke won a penalty that I couldn’t see from my seat despite Palace attacking the Holmesdale. Whatever; I was due for some good luck here. Captain Luka Milivojevic stepped up to the spot and blasted a low, powerful shot to his right that bounced off Karl Darlow’s glove and into the net.

Catharsis.

Milivojevic’s penalty was the first Palace goal scored in the Holmesdale End in a match I’ve attended. It’s only the third Palace goal I’ve seen in person (Wilfried Zaha v. Stoke and Scott Dann v. Bournemouth). In the spirit of the Super Bowl—and something I would have done if I had an object and the space—Milivojevic fished the ball out from the net, spiked it on the pitch, then picked up the ball and ran it to the center circle. The celebration was the loudest I’ve ever heard Selhurst; the crowd smelled blood and kept the volume high in search of the winner.

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Those chances kept coming, too. A Benteke header went wide from a corner. James McArthur curled a shot that flew just above the crossbar. Yohan Cabaye fell down and sent a shot flying high. The breakthrough would have to wait a little longer, then.

That breakthrough arrived in the 70th minute, though in the form of an angry, stupid drunk in a gray hoodie who invaded the pitch with a drink. He stumbled forward from the Arthur Wait, fell on the pitch and revealed his plumber’s crack in all its glory for the Arthur, got up, and poured the beverage on his face. He then ran toward the center circle, where an onrushing steward tackled him to the ground. The spirit of the Super Bowl reached out to me a second time in a span of 15 minutes.

He cursed out everyone as police escorted him toward the exits by the Holmesdale. The crowd got the last word, singing “Send him off.”

Despite the distraction, Palace continued attacking down the left, Zaha and Patrick Van Aanholt combining and overlapping to torment my fellow American DeAndre Yedlin. All three points were there for the taking; the prior Cardiac Palace wins set the precedent that this team can snatch all the points in the final 10 minutes.

I thought that Cardiac Palace moment would come from Zaha in the 85th minute, but his curling effort flew just wide of the net. Then that last-gasp moment should have came in the 88th minute, when Zaha sent an incredible cross to Benteke, whose goal-bound header was stopped in its tracks by Ciaran Clark. Cabaye, sprawled on the ground, directed the loose ball toward goal, only for Clark to thwart him, too. It now felt like all of Palace’s good luck was already spent on that penalty.

Referee Andre Marriner blew the full time whistle after four minutes of stoppage time and Palace slumped toward the ground in exhaustion. Zaha hunched over, resting hands on knees for an extended period of time—which, in hindsight, probably wasn’t due to just exhaustion—before trudging off, while Van Aanholt sat on the pitch and McArthur squatted down. Cardiac Eagles for this match would instead be defined by all the second half near-misses that would have taken all three points.

I lingered in Selhurst for about 10 minutes  to create a lasting mental image of the ground in a peaceful, empty state. This was my Super Bowl, and to see that second half performance by Palace get everything right save for nabbing the game winning goal exorcised a lot of the demons of the three visits. The result was frustrating, yet the Eagles played well enough to make the match a fun spectacle—typical Palace in a nutshell.

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A Quest for Nostalgia

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Sure, the prestigious Carnegie Hall has hosted the Vienna Boys Choir, Broadway’s own Betsy Wolfe and Joshua Henry, and Yo-Yo Ma in the past year. But how does Carnegie Hall get a musically illiterate scrub like me to finally attend one of their impressive slate of concerts?

Book the touring Distant Worlds Orchestra, which specializes in the music of the Final Fantasy video game series.

Last Saturday, Distant Worlds, accompanied by the Desoff Choirs, set up shop at Carnegie Hall for two sold out performances in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series. I attended the evening session with 3000 temporary friends encompassing every demographic, including three guests of honor that everyone showered with love after conductor Arnie Roth introduced them: Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the music for the majority of the games; Yoko Shimomura, the composer of Final Fantasy XV; and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. All of us were here for the emotional rush that nostalgia can draw out of any person. The music would be our catalyst.

Distant Worlds went straight for the heart with the first song of the setlist, “Prelude,” one of the main recurring themes in the series. As the harpist played her solo at the beginning of “Prelude,” the giant video screen set up on the wall behind the orchestra flashed images from each installment in the series. Then the Desoff Choir added their harmonious voices to the harp, and this combination of instrument, voices, and video drove home the idea that this concert was a chance to reconnect with your past.

For Uematsu and Sakaguchi, I imagined this was their opportunity to reflect on the uncertainty and struggles they overcame when they created the original Final Fantasy (hence the name of the series). For the double dating couples seated behind me, who were anywhere from five to two years older than me, yet got into the series in Final Fantasy X, this took them back to their high school days.

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From left to right: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoko Shimomura, Arnie Roth, and Nobuo Uematsu. Photo from the Distant Worlds Facebook page.

For me, I started way too young with this series in third grade, a couple months after my family and I left the comfortable suburbs of Chicago for the vast unknown of rural Orlando. My dad purchased Final Fantasy VIII for himself, but within a couple days found the game too intensive to play through as a working parent with two kids. So third grade me hopped in and took over—the game was rated Teen, so thanks to Mom and Dad for being lenient there—and it kicked off an obsession. I played through VIII, IX, then VII, picking up random tidbits of mythology, geography, and other real world cultural allusions from the series by the time I hit middle school. The series was a stabilizing factor in helping me handle the move to Florida, and it gave me a pathway to meet my best friends to this day when I reached high school.

As the orchestra played through the first half of the setlist, I realized I forgot more details than I expected. I could easily reconstruct the gameplay sequence in Final Fantasy IX when the orchestra played “Not Alone,” in which the protagonist named Zidane—no relation to the famous French soccer player—picks a number of fights in his home planet after discovering his grim origins. Yet I had no recollection of when “The Oath” appeared in Final Fantasy VIII when the orchestra debuted it to the New York crowd and had forgotten how influential airships were in Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII until I saw the show’s selection of cutscenes.

The final song of the concert’s first half, “Liberi Fatali” of Final Fantasy VIII offered a chance for some redemption, though. “Liberi Fatali” is played in the opening cutscene for VIII, in which the playable protagonist (Squall) and the antagonist duel with their swords on a beach. Spoiler alert: each character ends up with a sword-inflicted scar across his forehead by the end of the intro.

When my dad first played VIII, I got spooked by the blood by each character suffered the slash to the forehead—and that was the only time blood was shown in the game. When I replayed the whole game in high school, I skipped the cutscene because I didn’t want to see the violent outcome for both characters. In Distant Worlds, the opening sequence played in the background as the orchestra performed “Liberi Fatali.” This time, as an adult nearing my 30s, I told myself I would watch the whole scene. I mentally steeled myself as the cutscene approached the climactic moments.

*record scratch*

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuut the cutscene at the concert cut off right when Squall should have taken the blow to the face. Instead, the video pivoted to one of the scenes shown after the final battle, and childhood me quietly breathed a sigh of relief.

The second half of the concert hit on all the favorites in the series: the “Opening: Bombing Mission” of Final Fantasy VII, “Somnus” from Final Fantasy XV (with conductor Roth doubling up as solo violinist, and extra cheers for Shimomura when Roth pointed to her after the song), a Chocobo medley, “Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X, and the “Maria and Draco” Opera of Final Fantasy VI—complete with three soloists and a narrator for the ambitious piece, saving me a trip to the Lincoln Center to see any other opera. This half was an appreciation for the universality of music, in that music—such as the piano solo composition of “Zanarkand”—can be taken from its source material and reimagined for more than 50 musicians to perform together in an orchestra. The translation is as impressive from a technical standpoint as it is from an artistic perspective.

The encore doubled down on the nostalgia for the fans and for Square Enix, the company behind the Final Fantasy series, with two gems from Final Fantasy VII: “Aerith’s Theme” and “One Winged Angel.” Roth permitted crowd participation for “One Winged Angel,” where nearly everyone joined the Dessoff Choir in yelling out “Sephiroth!” in the chorus of the theme. Silent respect morphed into a festive atmosphere with the crowd joining in on the fun. The finale was more akin to a birthday party than a formal concert with each of the nine enthusiastic roars of “Sephiorth!” throughout the song.

But this was the only way a Distant Worlds concert could end. Final Fantasy VII remains the groundbreaking favorite of the series among fans and Square Enix. It blew open the Japanese Role Playing Game for a global audience—so, you know, it was basically America’s first JRPG and a money printer for Square—and everyone keeps looking back to VII for ways to stabilize the Final Fantasy series today. It’s no wonder that the brains behind Final Fantasy VII have reunited with Square Enix to develop the Playstation 4 remake of the game, complete with upgraded graphics, an updated story, and a new battle system.

Like many of the programs that Carnegie Hall hosts, Distant Worlds celebrated the past, giving the audience a chance to relive all the memories that each Final Fantasy created for us. And with the Final Fantasy VII remake at full steam, the way forward seems to go back to the future. Either way, here’s to the next 30 years of memories, Final Fantasy.

The Pizookie

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There’s always a bit of guilt hovering over me if I go out during a holiday, making someone stuck at work spring into action. This includes New Year’s Eve, when I sat down for an early dinner at the left end of the bar at a BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Orlando. But my desire to have a pizookie, the restaurant’s signature dessert, before I left town the next day burned through most of that guilt.

My game plan at BJ’s was to order a small dinner before going for the peanut butter pizookie. I would have felt stupid just showing up at the bar for a pizookie—although I’ve already done that before in Los Angeles.

The NFL played on all three televisions mounted on the back wall behind the bar counter, looming over the inventory of alcohol on display. A retired man in a blue polo sat two seats to the right from me, followed by four empty seats, and then more people in the same age 50+ bracket filled in the remaining seats on the other half of the bar. I was the only minority and millennial seated in the bar.

Speaking of a lone ranger, there was also the bartender. She was a petite brunette in her mid-20s, and in spite of the bar reaching full occupancy on an evening of holiday pre-gaming, she held down the fort on her own. A manager in black with a silver crucifix necklace or one of the young bussers occasionally hopped in to take care of glasses and dishes, but the bartender otherwise poured drinks for the whole restaurant and took care of all the bar patrons.

More than five minutes passed before the bartender could stop by my perch; she had to refill the drinks for all the food coming out the kitchen for the right half of the bar. I needed all that time. The menu had more pages than I remembered it ever having—we’re talking Cheesecake Factory territory here—and felt weighty enough to be an informational booklet. I chose to go with the shrimp and asparagus penne right when the bartender arrived to greet me, but promptly forgot what it was called and told her the “asparagus and shrimp pasta.”

The seasonal special in the menu threatened to scupper my dessert plans, though. I saw the snickerdoodle pizookie as the holiday offering at the bottom of an insert and it threw me into a loop of indecisiveness. Last year, I skipped the snickerdoodle pizookie because I hadn’t had a peanut butter pizookie in a long time. This year, should I skip it again because I don’t know when I’ll return to a BJ’s? Or do I get a trio of mini pizookies so I can have both cookies? Or do I go all in with the snickerdoodle pizookie because I already had the peanut butter one twice this year?

As I pondered these profound questions, a man in a blue 2nd Amendment t-shirt and his significant other sat down to the right of the retiree in the blue polo, leaving an empty seat to separate him from them. Then a woman dressed in all black followed, took an empty seat, then ordered two glasses of unsweet tea—one with ice, the other without it.

I texted my sister asking for advice on the pizookie situation. Meanwhile, woman in black called the bartender over to replace both of her drinks, because they were filled with sweet tea.

The bartender delivered both glasses of tea, then walked over to me and leaned on the disabled black monitor standing to my left. I leaned toward her, expecting some sort of secret to be revealed.

“What did you have again, my love?” she asked quietly.

“The shrimp and asparagus penne,” I whispered. Redemption. I got the name of the dish right this time.

“Right,” she said with a nod.

“You’re good,” I said, trying to convey that I understood that the New Year’s Eve shift was a hectic one for a person to juggle.

My sister hadn’t texted back yet, but I made the snickerdoodle pizookie my final decision. Jameis Winston threw an interception, the man in the blue started talking to me about Winston failing to live up to his potential, and the guy in the 2nd Amendment shirt discussed how long he had to keep documents at work before he was allowed to shred them (seven years; what a weird topic).

A waitress exited the kitchen to my left and told her colleague working the To-Go desk, and then their manager in the red and green plaid shirt, that they would have to stop taking Call Ahead orders. The kitchen reached its limit for the number of dishes it was handling for the diners and the call ahead orders. The bartender stepped into the restaurant floor for a brief break, trying to figure out if a coworker would arrive. It wasn’t happening, she told the waiter standing next to her. She had friends from St. Augustine visiting for New Year’s and could have used some help before the shift ended.

The penne arrived and I dove in while watching the Saints handle the Bucs. The manager with the crucifix necklace returned and the man in the blue polo called out to her as she left with a few glasses.

“Miss working the bar?” he asked her. That’s when I figured out he was a regular.

“Yes! But not my lower back,” she said.

The rush for drinks preoccupied the bartender I finished the penne, giving me to digest everything before the pizookie. As the bartender took care of the backlog of adult beverages waiting to be poured, a woman in red emerged from the kitchen and gave a hug to the man in the blue polo. They talked about her latest trip to Huntington Beach—the headquarters of BJ’s Restaurants, which gave away that she’s the general manager of this location. The talk started with the possibility for her to move to California if she climbed up to vice president and the man encouraging her to go for it, then gravitated to—what else?—the traffic in the region.

“What are those two traffic lights on highway ramps for?” she asked him a couple times. The man didn’t answer, so I jumped in.

“It’s just for congestion control,” I said. “The 405 is crazy, right?”

“Really, that’s it?” she said. Then the man realized what she was talking about, and took it from there on how the timing for the lights are just best guesses for entry into the freeways.

My snickerdoodle pizookie arrived as the man started name dropping streets in Huntington Beach, so I focused my attention on the trove of sugar placed in front of me. The cinnamon flavor of the cookie stood out on its own so much that it was like eating a churro without the sugar crystals. Each bite of the soft cookie and vanilla ice cream together juxtaposed the warmth of the cookie with the cold ice cream in a delectable manner. I accepted extra 2000-something calories from finishing this dessert with no questions asked.

Mission accomplished.

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I wished the bartender a Happy New Year and a fun time with her St. Augustine friends before I left BJ’s. She reciprocated the well wishes and apologized for getting bogged down by everyone else’s orders at times. I told her that I understood she did her best juggling everything and that today, as a holiday, is stressful for anyone at work. Support your local wait staff–treat them kindly.

My Ben Wyatt Moment

I walked into the town transit authority office to pay for my train station parking and ended up living out a scene worthy of “Parks and Rec.”

Because this town hasn’t recognized electronic payment yet, you have to mail a check for $6 or stop by the office to pay with cash. I pull into the office at the end of this industrial park and enter through a door labeled “Employees,” because the door labeled “Office” is locked.

The space I step into is sparsely decorated, with a school cafeteria table right in front of the door. The only guy visible has his back toward me, talking to someone in a dark office. Visible Man turns around to greet me and I tell him I have to pay by cash because I don’t own a checkbook. I hand him a $5 bill and $1 bill, then he walks with the cash through an ajar door to get me a receipt. He shuts the door for some reason.

I stand alone in this office for a silent and awkward five minutes, waiting for him to come out of that door. The door eventually opens and he walks out with an expression that alternated between confused and apologetic.

“Sorry, I tried to copy the money you gave me for your receipt, but the machine wouldn’t print for some reason.”

I didn’t have a camera to look into, so I had to give him the famous Ben Wyatt Face. And because copy machines are smart, I walked out of that office with a blue post-it note that said “RECEIVED 6 DOLLARS 11 13 17”

Saturday at New York Comic Con

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Before New York Comic Con 2017, the last time I was so invested in lines was my high school geometry class.

I steeled myself for the inevitable long lines during my prep work for the Saturday session of NYCC 2017. Other than a day spent at the merch hall of Anime Expo 2011—AX was a cheap way for me to get to Los Angeles for a week with two of my best friends from high school—NYCC 2017 would be my first experience in the crowded confines of a con. I circled important spots to hit on three maps of the Javits Center; packed my badge, snacks (two bags of beef jerky and a packet of fruit snacks), and a bottle of water into a backpack; and, most importantly, blocked in the time I’d be spending in lines for the panels I’d attend. By building in an additional 40 minutes for loafing in line into each panel’s hour-long block, I stole the airline practice of tacking on the time for taxiing onto the estimated arrival time for better on-time results, and used it for something good.

I arrived at the Javits Center at 8:15 am for a 9 am opening, passed through a security line as its only guest, picked up a program, got funneled into the Queue Hall, then shepherded alongside three guys with backpacks and a group of women in Game of Thrones cosplay into the front of the fourth line for the Show Floor, sifted through the program, and read that NYCC opened at 10 am.

All that prep work and I forgot to look up the start time for NYCC.

So what I thought would be a 45 minute wait turned into a 1.5 hour wait, complete with a half-eaten bag of Korean Barbecue beef jerky. Cheers all over the Queue Hall erupted at 9:40 am, when NYCC volunteers cut the yellow “Warning” tape holding back the first group of people lined up for the Show Floor. The celebrations continued as the badge-holders from that first line walked—not ran, for safety reasons—to the escalators that took them to the convention. When a NYCC volunteer cut my line’s tape 10 minutes later and set my group free, that walk felt like I was running into Disney World right when it opened.

Upon reaching the Show Floor on the third level of the Javits Center, I window shopped the Square Enix exhibit, powerwalked west to the 100 aisle of exhibitors, found the Sanrio booth, bought the Sanrio NYCC exclusives my sister requested (best brother ever amirite?), powerwalked back to the Square Enix exhibit at the center of the Show Floor, lined up to try the Final Fantasy Dissidia NT team battle demo, lost in the demo, then zipped back down to the first floor to line up for The Tick panel that began at 11 am.

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My Show Floor adventure occurred in a 30 minute window. I took my spot in line for the panel at 10:20 am, right on schedule and 40 minutes before the panel began, and I still ended up in the overflow section of the line.

I binged through Amazon’s The Tick in September and wanted to see the cast in-person, seated mere feet away from me. The wit in the show transferred to the panel, but they also provided valuable creative insight into how they grounded the absurd world of the story with the humanity of each character. After The Tick finished its hour, I remained in the room for the panel for The Shannara Chronicles—a show I had never seen before—just because.

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What a panel, though. The grateful audience and I saw the opening segment for the first episode of the upcoming second season, four days before the premiere, then Manu Bennett entertained everyone with his colorful behind the scenes stories that tip-toed the line between teasing and dropping a spoiler. I felt like I was a fan of the show by the time the panel ended.

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When the Shannara panel ended at 1:15, I had 40 minutes before I had to line up for the hallowed Twisted Toonz panel. Those 40 minutes flew by: I tried and failed to find a bathroom; took pictures of the Justice League film costumes; bought my first ever comic book, a NYCC-exclusive Justice League #15 featuring the film’s protagonists on the cover; then dashed back to the Queue Hall to—you guessed it—line up for Twisted Toonz.

The Twisted Toonz panel was the high point of my NYCC stay. The legendary voice actors Rob Paulsen (Yakko Warner and Pinky), Jess Harnell (Wakko Warner), Tress MacNeille (Babs Bunny and Dot Warner), Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh), Troy Baker (The Joker and Snow on FFXIII), and Nolan North (uh, I know him from the soap opera Port Charles, but he’s apparently the voice of Nathan Drake in Uncharted) joined forces to read selected scenes of Ghostbusters in the voices of their adored characters and famous figures in pop culture.

It’s a visceral experience to hear the voices of Yakko and Dot drop an R-rated joke or see North drool water onto his shirt because he voiced Gary Busey for that scene. But as much as I laughed at hearing the beloved voices in my childhood cartoons drop their catch phrases into the nasty lines from Ghostbusters, the best part of the panel was seeing Harnell, North, and Baker cracking up together on the left side of the table after every line. At the craziest moments of the read—like when the reproduced voice of a famous male Disney character exclaimed “I want you inside me!”—Harnell covered his face with his hands and script, while North and Baker dropped their heads down on the table. The panel ran a few minutes long because of how often they broke from laughter.

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I was pooped when the Twisted Toonz panel ended after 3:30 pm, but mustered the energy for one last hour at the Show Floor. In that span, I got my ass kicked in another round of Dissidia NT, walked by The Tick’s Dangerboat, saw the Marvel NYCC exclusives, and marveled at the number of vendors and products present. I’d need another day to appreciate all that the Show Floor had to offer, but it would have to wait until 2018. After eight hours without a proper meal and a bathroom break, I had to call time on my Saturday at NYCC.

The biggest takeaway from my day at the con is that it’s good preparation for attending an Olympics. The Olympics give you such a large gathering of fans for a wide swath of sports—many of which you’d find niche because they’re not mainstream in the States—that it’s an opportunity to delve into what you love and to find more sports to fall for. At a con, the vast interests of comics, television, video games, and animation are concentrated in one location for a weekend under the umbrella of pop culture—and the fandom is just as infectious. Whether you’re at the Olympics or at a convention, the passion that the attendees show for their interests is impressive; it made me question what stokes my passion to their levels.

And, of course, both events are intense and exhausting.

But over the past two weeks, I’ve been unable to shake off a quote from a woman who sat next to me at the Twisted Toonz panel. When I asked her what brought her to NYCC, she has a simple response.

“I went for the first time four years ago and I just keep coming back now,” she said.

She’s right, because it’s fun to be surrounded by people who love their hobbies so much, that they spend the year planning the cosplay just for the weekend and wait in ridiculous lines to see the people who create the art that they love. I hope to return to NYCC next year for that passion, in tow with bags of beef jerky and a blocked time for a bathroom break.

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