Sunday, November 30, 2014

Heartbreaking Honesty - "Brokeback Mountain" Review

Throughout my life, the film "Brokeback Mountain" was always treated like a joke. It was always seen as that silly, funny movie about two gay cowboys. There was an underlying sense of disgust and mockery in just about everything I heard about the film. When I was less educated and open about the LGBT community as a kid, I bought into the homophobic hype a bit, and always just assumed that the movie wasn't good. I gave the movie a watch for the first time, and as an adult, fierce advocate of the LGBT community today, I can happily say that "Brokeback Mountain" is a downright incredible film, rife with honest and realistic heartbreak and beauty.

The film stars Heath Ledger as Ennis, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, two men who stumble upon sexual advances after meeting during a mutual gig herding sheep. Eventually, the two men part ways after this summer of confusing love and lust, and go back to seemingly heteronormative lives. However, the rest of the movie shows that these lives lived away from each other only work so well; the two manage to get away from their wives for time with each other.


There is some debate as to exactly what sexual orientations Ennis and Jack fall into, but that debate is hardly relevant in regards to the quality of the film. Neither character identifies as anything and have sexual relationships with both genders to varying degrees of intimacy, making it hard to confidently apply a specific label. The horrifically homophobic times the two live in make it difficult to effectively explore their sexualities and come to a proper identity, thusly creating ambiguity for them and the viewer. What isn't ambiguous is that the two men are in love with each other, and that they can't embrace that love because of the hyper-masculine and massively intolerant society they are a part of. 

Ennis and Jack's love is done without Romanticism, and works perfectly in its own way. This is not a romance film filled with astounding, glorious choruses to particularly strong scenes, or anything like that. Every powerful bit of affection is a struggle that lasts for only so long. The relationship of these two men is not always pretty; in fact, it is often quite ugly. The atmosphere of hatred towards homosexuality is shown most directly when Ennis tells a harrowing story from his childhood about his bigoted father, and bleeds into the whole film. 



The two characters themselves are fleshed out and fascinating, aided by the great acting of Ledger and Gyllenhaal. The supporting cast is also great, with folks like Michelle Williams playing Ledger's chief female love interest, and Anne Hathaway playing that of Gyllenhaal. The movie is well-written, but simple pieces of performance go such a long way. Often times, body language and facial expression manage to get across more than words in "Brokeback Mountain," making the most intense and important scenes all the better. 

The titular Brokeback Mountain serves as simple symbolism, representing the unbridled comfort in being who they really want to be: in love with each other. I appreciate a film that is willing to reject the American norm and do a bleak ending, and that is exactly what "Brokeback Mountain" does. There is no happy ending to this same-sex romance, showing the realistic nature of such a relationship in this time period. The movie embodies the exact, hazy mixture of euphoria and confusion that LGBT people have historically lived with and continue to live with today. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

My History with GEAR Debate at RHS

~~ originally written for the 2013-2014 year of Ringgold High School's school paper, The Ram Pride ~~

In my sophomore year, I stepped up to a podium in Ringgold High School's library, unruffled my lined paper full of my sloppy notes as much as I could, and gave a speech filled with statistics about drugs and football stadiums. This was my first time participating in a GEAR-sponsored debate at RHS, and it was a rather in invigorating experience. It remained the same rewarding thrill every time I did it afterwards.

Anyway, I got up there and gave my rebuttal speech, and our team full of tenth graders beat a team full with upperclassmen. I did a good job, which is a belief supported by my peers as well as the GEAR instructor at the time. We even went on to the championship, because our team scored higher than any other affirmative team. My quality stayed the same in the championship round, save for apparently coming off as petty and rude, according to some peers as well as one of the judges. The topic was drug testing for student athletes, a topic I really didn't have much of an opinion on prior. As we researched the topic, I started to support the side I was defending, starting my streak of always debating on the side of an issue I agree with. 

I find debate much more satisfying if I am defending ideas I actually think are good. So, as the lefty liberal I am, I debated in favor of Barack Obama for president, in favor of marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania, against NSA spying, and finally just last April, in favor of a federal minimum wage increase to $10.10. It felt good to debate against the ruthlessly robotic Mitt Romney. It felt good to defend adults thrown in jail for putting a relatively harmless substance into their own bodies. It felt good debating against an over-reaching spying program that throws privacy out the window in exchange for a minuscule level of defense against terrorism. And finally, it felt good to throw my hat in the ring for a minimum wage increase from it's pathetically low amount of $7.25 to a much more reasonable number of $10.10. Debating in favor of my own opinion was even more gratifying when I knew that my opponents were also defending their own opinions; I know I was able to have that experience for all of my debates except for the marijuana one, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was my toughest debate.   

There are four people on each team, two doing what is called a constructive speech and the other two doing what is called a rebuttal speech. For my first two debates, I did a rebuttal speech, and for my last three I did a constructive. As the name implies, the rebuttals are speeches directly refuting the opposing team's arguments, and are done during the latter half of the debate. They are two minutes long, and are generally expected to be mostly put together during the actual debate because of the nature of the speech, although many don't follow this notion. I always did; I would write an opening sentence and a closing sentence prior, and then make bullet points during the debate. It certainly worked in my favor because both my peers and the judges took note. A rebuttal speech is much better when it is clear that the speaker is actually directly addressing what the opposing team said, rather than guessing in a speech written before hand.    

Because of how the program is structured, the constructive speakers are typically seen as more important than the rebuttal speakers. I have a hard time avoiding running my mouth and love attention, so I much preferred this route. Constructive speakers give a three-minute speech expected to be pre-written (although some very rarely speak off the cuff), are cross-examined by an opposing constructive speaker for two minutes, and then cross-examine the other opposing constructive speaker for two minutes. I have been passionate about writing ever since I was in sixth grade, so I always wrote a very good speech. My first time, I had a hard time on the cross-examination (we faced a very good team and were perhaps overly confident given the topic of weed legalization), but the two debates afterwards, I think it is safe to say that I did a positively great job on the crosses. The audiences' reactions were a bit animated in their support of me during these crosses, and the judges we're immensely positive. My opponents sure didn't like me after a cross, though, which I think is lovely. 

I suppose I have some advice. When cross-examining, address your opponent in the form of a question as much as possible. This forces them to address exactly what you want them to address, leaving them little room to respond with some other point. When your opponent is very weak on a certain point, it works wonders to ask a solid question, and then simply let them talk for all to hear. You must come off as dominant over your opponent to the audience and the judges during crosses; this means politely but firmly finishing your sentences when they try to interrupt. Crosses are all about looking good and making your opponents squirm. When it comes to the constructive speeches, I'd say the first speaker's speech should be more focused on a more emotional, moral argument, and the second speaker's should be focused on a heavier, statistic-laden argument. This eases the audience and judges into your side, first pulling them in and then affirming the position. And again on rebuttals, please don't pre-write; it misses the point entirely, although judges tend not to be nearly as harsh on this as they should be. 

The astoundingly low participation for the last debate is alarming to me; there were only two teams entered (usually there is around at least six), and a comparatively small audience. Two of the three judges were also chosen the day of the debate. If things keep going down this path, I fear the program won't even exist anymore, which would be a huge shame on the school. But since I am graduating this year, making sure the program is strong is a job that falls on the 2014-15 school year of faculty and students. 

All I can do is remember my history with the GEAR debate program; it's a pleasant thing for me to do. I loved my experiences participating in this program. Throwing on a nice suit and sneakers, feeling good about defending my ideals, and flexing the writing and speaking skills I am so keen on keeping sharp were always a joy. Whenever I'm arguing with friends about politics or about the fairness of my play-style in a video game or about the new item at McDonalds in the future, I'll think back on my times shutting down my opponents in my high school debates. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Loud Optimism - "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Review

One of the most exciting things about 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man" was the fun garnered from its fantastic portrayal of protagonist Peter Parker's alter-ego as a strongly confident, wise-cracking goofball. The sequel, aptly titled "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," has an important theme at its heart that it takes seriously, as well as its fair share of drama, but the movie as a whole takes that fun from the first and catapults it into a loudly joyous and optimistic experience. This is the chief reason why this movie, despite big problems with the two major villains, succeeds as a very good ride.  


After a mildly dull and shakey-cam filled (albeit compelling in the long-run) opening scene about Peter's parents, the audience is treated to an incredible action sequence filled with awe, humor, and seamless set-up. Spider-Man's web-swinging looks better than it ever has in the film medium, with lots of elegant acrobatics, first-person points of view, and cool slow-motion. The titular web-head also spits out a ton of hilarious one-liners and taunts the bad guys in his signature cocky, goofy fashion. A super powers-less bad guy played by Paul Giamatti gives an incredibly fun performance filled with exaggerated screaming and meat-headed mannerisms, aided by neat zoom-in shots of his screaming, pudgy face. It is so much unabated, pure fun; this same kind of fun finds its way to a healthy portion of this film, even just through funny dialogue when there isn't any action going on. The viewers are also treated to a quick but totally effective conversation on the street between Spidey and new character Max Dillon, who later turns into Electro. 

Dillon is a compelling character, incredibly well-acted by Foxx. Dillon is deeply troubled psychologically, with an intense inferiority complex. It's played for laughs, through his mad, bumbling social failings, but it's also effective on a higher level. Dillon develops an obsession with Spider-Man that makes him dangerous when he stumbles upon the power of control over electricity through a freak accident at Oscorp. This makes Dillon a wholly sympathetic character, which again, Foxx portrays wonderfully. The actor's skill seen in his silly comedic work as well as his more dramatic work in stuff like "Django Unchained" allows him to pull off a nuanced, lovable little train wreck.


It's a darn shame that they give up on the character towards the end of the movie. It's also a shame that time is taken away from him to develop a pretty crappy Green Goblin character. 

Dane Dehaan plays Harry Osborn, a friend to Peter and a higher-up in Oscorp after his father passes away; this character is poorly acted and feels out of place, only redeeming itself slightly whenever he is decked out in the aesthetically-pleasing Goblin get-up. Harry is characterized as intimidating throughout much of the movie and the writing is fine in that regard, but Dehaan simply doesn't pull it off. His performance is weak and doesn't grab for attention. The character is also jarringly thrusted into a close friendship with Peter, and has an overly simple development that makes the stealing of screen-time from Foxx's character criminal. Both characters are lazily brushed aside at the end to save for further use in sequels, leaving a complete absence of closure for both of them. There was thematic potential for Foxx's character as well as Dehaan's character to tie into the overall theme in a much closer way, but that is abandoned. These stumbles form a big gash at this movie's quality. 


It really is a shame, because there are so many fantastically good things to this movie. There is a large amount of character drama in this movie for Peter Parker in his romantic life, with his aunt, and in dealing with his dead parents. Andrew Garfield reprises his role as Parker and does the same quirky, slick, great performance as before. His romantic chemistry with Emma Stone's   Gwen Stacey is remarkable, no doubt helped by the actors' real-life relationship together. Their struggle is dramatic in a way that comes full-circle with the theme of the role of Spider-Man. Sally Fields has already proven herself as an incredible actress and her performance in this movie doesn't stray from that. There is one scene in particular in which she gives a powerful, teary-eyed speech about her love for Parker. The drama with Parker maddeningly worrying and obsessing over the kinds of people his parents were effectively adds to the Spider-Man mythos in an original way, and also increases the level of adversity the character has to face in a good way. 

That is what is really special about "The Amazing Spider-Man 2:" Parker has a tortured sole and has to deal with a lot of heavy drama, but the movie simply uses that to make the joyous optimism even more palpable. Sure, he has clue what he is doing with his girlfriend, but he is still able to stop criminals and have the city of New York cheer him on. Sure, there is an awfully dark and sad thing that, after lots of harrowing foreshadowing, finally happens at the film's climax, but the last scene builds it all back up. After a tear-inducing scene with a kid showing bravery inspired by Spider-Man, our hero gets right back to fighting the good fight, giving hope to regular people trying to do their best and live happily. 

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" stumbles in big ways, but it does something very well that most superhero movies don't; its loud positivity and optimism convinces that maybe everything is going to be okay. Thanks to that, I'd say it's a very good movie. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

S456 ARCHIVES: "Guardians of the Galaxy" Trailer Releases Online

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

On Feb. 19, 2014, Marvel Studios put out the first trailer for the upcoming superhero film "Guardians of the Galaxy," which is set to release on Aug. 1, 2014. The movie stars Chris Pratt of "Parks and Recreation" fame as Peter Quill, along with others such as Vin Deisel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon.

The trailer has a stark focus on comedy, with a myriad of jokes, as well as on science-fiction, with its setting in space.  A simple plot is established in the trailer: Peter Quill, taking on the name Star-Lord, along with his team of misfit superheroes, steals an important object that villain Ronan wants to get his hands on.

This film, directed by James Gunn, is another movie in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" Marvel has been crafting since 2008, starting with "Iron Man." Each movie in this line takes place in the same fictional universe; all of the movies interconnect with each other.

The Guardians of the Galaxy has existed as a team in Marvel's line of comic books since 1969, first appearing in "Marvel Super-Heroes" #18. The team got its own comic book series in 1990 called "Guardians of the Galaxy," which lasted 62 issues. This series was relaunched in 2008, and then ended again after 25 issues. A second relaunch occurred in 2013, and as of right now, the series is still going with over 10 issues already released.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is not a well-known property, but Marvel Studios' track record is financially successful. "Avengers" made $200.3 million in just its first weekend and is the third-highest grossing film of all-time, and "Iron Man 3" was the highest-grossest movie of 2013 as well as the fifth-highest grossing movie of all-time.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nick Greco's Top Five Favorite Comedians - Interview

Photo pulled from Greco's Facebook
It is well-known among his peers that twelfth grade Ringgold High School student Nick Greco loves stand-up comedy. Not only does he pour tons of time into watching stand-up online and on television, but he also aspires to be a comedian himself. He loves a wide variety of different styles of stand-up, so in turn, he loves many different comedians. After a talk, his top five favorite comedians were revealed. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Dave Chappelle
After a lot of thinking he was ready to say his first performer, the loud-mouthed Dave Chappelle. “As a child I remember always watching him,” Greco said. He said that four to five years ago he started watching his stand-up. He also enjoys the comedian’s show, “The Dave Chappelle Show,” having said it is “about the same [quality].” He said he likes Chappelle because “he appeals to a wide variety of people.”

2. Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks
He likes the politically-motivated and often dark Bill Hicks a lot, as well. Hicks does “philosophical comedy” that is “truthful,” Greco said. “He had really good material” that was “never the same,” he went on to say. One bit he remembers in particular is from the “early 90s,” according to him, about Jay Leno. Greco explained that the bit would poke fun at Leno’s strange behavior and lack of talent, despite success. Hicks was explained as “somewhat like” the next performer he discussed…

3. George Carlin
George Carlin, a comedian best known for his talent as an intricate wordsmith, was described by Greco as very personally inspirational. “[Carlin] makes you want to do standup comedy,” Greco said. Greco described Carlin’s quality as “very consistent” throughout the many years he performed. He especially enjoys Carlin’s bits on “euphemisms” and something called “free-floating hostility.” “He went too early,” Greco said, even though he does realize that the man lived a long life.

4. Eddie Murphy
The next comedian he expressed his love for was Eddie Murphy, a talent who got his start on “Saturday Night Live.” Greco said he “like[s] his really early movies,” such as “Beverly Hills Cops” and “Coming to America.” The special “Delirious” is one of his favorites, he also said. One bit that he thought back on was about Murphy’s “uncle’s wife looking like a gorilla,” he explained. “Also an influence,” Greco said.
Dane Cook

5. Dane Cook
The most controversial pick from Greco is Dane Cook, a very popular comedian surrounded by multiple claims of plagiarism. He said he “never really noticed” the joke stealing even after looking into it, but noted it would be a “big ethical issue” if he did do so. He described Cook as “very relatable” and “very consistent,” and said “I like that he’s very loud.” “I’d like to see more of him,” he concluded.

Greco’s love for standup comedy is certainly apparent. It was clear that he could have discussed more comedians he loves, but these are his top five favorites. These men have a special place in his heart, because of the laughs, memories and inspiration they provided for him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze (Video Game) - Review

Remember E3 of 2010, when Microsoft and Sony scrambled to get us to care about their motion control peripherals, while Nintendo mostly ignored its own to show off fun video games? One of the couple brand new games that were announced for Wii was Donkey Kong Country Returns. I was absolutely enamored by this game, developed by Retro Studios of Metroid Prime fame. Returns was an absolutely enthralling experience for me, with its stiff challenge and frantic platforming sequences. Naturally, I was excited when the sequel, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, was announced for Wii U. I've played the new game extensively, and I can safely say that it's more of the same, but nothing more.


Tropical Freeze begins and ends with stunningly detailed and meticulously animated CG cut-scenes that bookend a mind-numbingly simple and goofy story that does its job of adding a touch of purpose to the adventure. An army of no-good Penguins freeze the jungle the Kongs live in as well as the surrounding area. They must be stopped, and bananas must be collected along the way to feed into Donkey Kong's dangerously strong addiction. It's vague, but it's fun. 

The visuals are great in Tropical Freeze. Stylistically, it's pretty conventional, but incredibly cute, colorful, and lively. Additionally, from a technical standpoint, Tropical Freeze does much to impress. Enemy designs are adorably antagonistic, and a high level of detail doesn't get in the way of a convivial, cartoon aesthetic. The game just looks fun, but with a bit of a rougher look than something like Kirby, and even Super Mario. The score does its job but didn't manage to capture me in a big way, save for a few tracks. Sound effects are silly and often provoke a smile or even a laugh, and the dynamic animations for especially the playable characters are quite enjoyable to look at.

What makes Tropical Freeze enthralling is more or less what made Returns enthralling; there is an intense level of finesse and refinement to a big collection of levels rife with inventive concepts. The first level of the third world is my favorite; it features a bunch of moving, cardboard animals with poles and vines attached to them, which makes for some exciting jumping about, all far from the ground. Other levels take advantage of sacs of water to be thrown at fires and bombs to be used to blow up wood; both of these things add a level of strategy that doesn't bog down gameplay like similar concepts in puzzle/platformers. It took a world or two before the gameplay felt notably fresh, but once it happens, it really does happen. This is a challenging yet never frustrating video game with a multitude of moments in which the player must quickly rush through a level, fueled by the fear of impending death from behind. Even during segments in which you're not forced along, there is a certain whimsy to how elegantly one can zip through these tough environments. 


The whole game gives off the stark impression that Retro Studios put a lot of passionate effort into this project. Small but important fixes to this game over the last are evident, most notable amongst them the control options that drop motion controls. Levels are packed with little visual quirks and each include (addictive) online leaderboard-enabled time trials, and the game boasts a myriad of cleverly-hidden collectibles and secret levels. Unfortunately, none of the few noticeable changes to the formula here elevate this game over the last one on Wii, despite clear potential. There are a few new companion characters to play with and they're all an equal joy to use, but it doesn't do much for the overall quality. Every now and then, the camera slides into a perspective different from the typical side-view, which could have been what this game needed to push it over that line if it wasn't used so rarely. 

Super Mario Galaxy was an incredible, revolutionary game when it came out in 2007, and magically enough, 2010's Super Mario Galaxy 2 managed to be better than just "more of the same" because the challenge and density of new concepts were both markedly superior. Tropical Freeze doesn't do the same thing over Returns, which sucks, but only to a point. It's essentially a big, graphically-updated expansion pack. Because of that, the achievement of Tropical Freeze isn't remarkable, but it sure is a blast. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

S456 ARCHIVES: A Breath of Fresh Air: Gravity - Film Review

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

A few astronauts, namely a space-rookie named Ryan Stone and a space-veteran named Matt Kowalski, are calmly working on a damaged satellite. Regular small-talk is exchanged. The situation escalates until soon enough an alarming amount of debris crashes into the satellite, sending the rookie spinning out of control, tethered to a detached hunk of metal. She begins to panic more and more as she becomes less and less in control of her fate. She drifts into space, fully detached. 

The premise of Gravity, a new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso CaurĂ³n, is compelling, and thankfully the film's execution is equally so. This movie is a terrifyingly plausible display of the human psyche when put together with the scares of space. This isn't a movie about mind-boggling future technology, or anything mysterious that may or may not be waiting out there for us to discover. This is a movie about the horror of the known, present and realistic. And it's fantastic.

What's presented here is a very effective mixture of thriller and science-fiction. The dialogue and acting is natural and believable, making these characters come to life. It's when these actors play their characters as horrified in one scene, and then nervously comical and chipper in another, that Gravity most shows just how unsettling it is. The movie looks stunning from a technical standpoint, with both methodical floating and exciting carnage which engross in whichever way each portion of the film calls for. Sound is also smartly played around with to tug on heart-strings and shoot up heart-rates. Seeing the film in 3D is so mesmerizing that I can honestly say it's the best experience I've had of the gimmick. The movie is aesthetically masterful. 

Gravity has a clear, focused story that it wants to tell, and sticks to it. Every second is relevant, delivering a plot free of fluff. Typical Hollywood conventions are not stuffed in here for length and easy-viewing; this is a unique film. It's structured like a single, long sequence, it takes its time on even small things when it needs to, and doesn't feel the need to align itself with expectations. The movie is constantly unpredictable and surprising. It's a breath of fresh air

By the time the credits roll, Gravity triumphs as a faithfully succinct tale of isolation, determination, and horror. Occasionally it gets a bit hokey, revealing perhaps a tiny overabundance of pride and confidence from the director. But ultimately, this stems from the fundamental truth that what he put together is special. Gravity is sublime. 

S456 ARCHIVES: RHS Does Radium Girls

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Ringgold High School's drama department is putting together a performance of the play Radium Girls. This play is a historical telling of a series of important cases of occupational disease; so important that they pushed big workers' rights legislation at the time. A group of female workers working with chemicals in paint were told that it would be safe, but that didn't turn out to be true. Fed up with this injustice, the system was fought against by these women in an attempt to secure labor rights. 

Twelfth grade student Sarah Krempasky, according to her at least, has been in every single RHS play and musical throughout her high school career besides one play in her ninth grade year. In this play, she is playing a lead character by the name of Grace Friar, who she explains is fifteen years old at the start of the play and twenty-six by the end. Sarah says she "really like[s]" her character and most enjoys the part when she gets to "stick it to the man." She comically ensures that a ticket to the play ensures that "you get to see stuff glow in the dark!". 

Nicole Garrick is am eleventh grade student at RHS who has been doing stage management since her freshmen year. She simply explains that she "screw[s] stuff together." Garrick told me about a bench that was "hard to put together" and had a habit of "fall[ing] apart." She says the "cast [is] very good" and "the play itself is interesting." 

Mrs. Weinstein, the RHS drama teacher in charge of putting this play together, tells me that this is "a bit more serious" of a play topic as is usual for the school. She told me that this play getting chosen was a result of underclassmen students involved in the school's productions becoming upperclassmen. After warning that "this is going to sound so drama-geeky," Weinstein told me what excites her most about doing Radium Girls is the "universality of the show." She is referring to the fact that the themes and issues of the play are relevant to many even today, as "people are still fighting this same fight." She is "very much satisfied with the casting" and says that "everybody should come and see [the play] because it's really good!".

You can attend Radium Girls on Wednesday, November 6th, and Thursday, November 7th. Both are at 7:00 PM at Ringgold High School. The price of a ticket is $4.00. 

S456 ARCHIVES: Students Consider Post-High School Plans

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

This time of year, many students have a good idea of what they're going to do after high school. Deadlines for college applications and scholarships are quickly approaching, along with the due date for financial aid in March. Some students aren't going to college, but by this time a lot of those people also know what they are doing.

Sarah Krempasky, a twelfth grader here at Ringgold High School, has been very involved in the college application experience. She wants "to major in music/theater." The main school she has in mind is Point Park University, which is a communications-focused college in Pittsburgh. She says PPU is "fabulous," and, "I like the way they structure [the music/theater program] more than [other colleges]." She feels the stress of the application process, and jokes, "it's a horrible, horrible process."

A 2010 statistic from the National Center of Education Statistics asserts that around 5.7% of the population was in college. According to the Washington Post, "only 27% of college grads have a job related to their major." Also, from CNN Money, "in the 2011-12 academic year, the average net cost for a full-time student at an in-state public university was about $15,000 for tuition, fees, room, board, books and incidental expenses, according to the College Board."

Another senior, named Bryce Imhoff, has very different after-high school plans. Bryce plans to "[drive] for a gas company." Currently, Bryce is in the tech program that RHS is associated with, in a "gas and oil class." In this class they "learn as much as possible," he says. He claims he won't do any additional schooling "other than getting my CDL," he says. I asked if he's happy with this path he's going down, and he said he is, so long as he's making six figures.

No matter what one chooses to do afterwards, high school graduation is a pivotal moment in the average American's life. 

S456 ARCHIVES: New Game Consoles PS4 and Xbox One Release to Success

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

The new video game consoles from Sony and Microsoft just released this month. Sony’s successor to the Playstation 3, simply called the Playstation 4, came out on November 12th, 2013. Microsoft’s successor to the Xbox 360 is called the Xbox One, which came out on November 25th. The most substantial new features to both of these consoles is their greater horsepower which can handle more intensive games than consoles before. These two platforms were preceded by Nintendo’s Wii U, which released in November of 2012.     

Each new Playstation console ushers in a new controller, although each controller is very similar to each other. The PS4’s controller does offer some broad changes over the PS3’s controller, including sticks that curve in on the tip to fit around one’s fingertips, and a generally bigger build for more comfort. There is also a small, rectangular touchpad at the center of the controller, which functions similarly to a touchpad on a laptop. The most critically-acclaimed exclusive game for the PS4 is Resogun, a shooter that can be downloaded from Playstation’s online store, which has a Metacritic critic score of 83.

The Xbox One’s controller is more similar to the Xbox 360’s controller than the PS4’s controller is to the PS3’s controller. The most notable new feature is the now vibrating “triggers” (the buttons at the back-top of the controller), which are used in games like Forza 5, a simulation racing game, to give the player additional feedback. An improved version of Kinect, a very advanced camera/microphone device that was introduced on the Xbox 360, comes with every Xbox One system and is integrated into the user interface of the console as well as some games. The aforementioned Forza 5 is the most critically-acclaimed exclusive game for the console, with an 82 on Metacritic.

Brand loyalty is evident in Dwight Moore, a tenth grade student here at Ringgold High School, who thinks that the Xbox One looks better because he “just love[s] Xbox.” RHS Students like twelfth grader Terry Richardson find the Playstation 4 more compelling. Terry thinks that the PS4 has “better hardware” and is a “better deal” over the Xbox One. He does also own a Wii U, saying that he likes it despite not using it very much. On a similar note, some students like twelfth grader Adam Martin aren’t interested in any of the new consoles because they are satisfied with playing video games on their PCs.  

Both consoles have been selling incredibly well. The Playstation 4 retails for $400, while the Xbox One retails for $500. On their own first day of release, both sold over one million units each according to Sony and Microsoft respectively; it is, however, important to note that on its first day, the PS4 was initially only available in Canada and the United States, whereas the Xbox One was available in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand.

The two consoles are both off to a successful start. It will certainly be interesting to see the two duke it out! 

S456 ARCHIVES: Latest Pokemon Video Game is a Success

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Nearly every American has heard of the Japan-originated franchise Pokemon, centered around young adventurers and sportsmen collecting, training, and living amongst creatures known as Pokemon. The franchise encompasses cartoons and comics, but it got its start with video games on the Gameboy back in the 90s. There is a myriad of spin-off video games, but it is the main series that fans latch onto the most. Each entry in the main series of video games releases in twos, each version only slightly different than the other, and then usually not too long after this simultaneous release there is yet another slightly different version of the game put out. Different releases are organized by “generations;” the latest to start is “Gen VI,” with Pokemon X and Pokemon Y for the Nintendo 3DS. The game has done well financially and it has also pleased both fans and critics.

The first three generations of Pokemon have entirely what is referred to as sprite or pixel-based graphics. This retro style is essentially a collection of two-dimensional, small dots, put together and animated to create visuals. Throughout these generations, these pixel-based graphics have gotten more intricate. Starting with the fourth generation back in 2007, polygon-based graphics were implemented alongside the sprites. Polygonal graphics is a three-dimensional form of visuals. The most easily recognizable difference with the newest generation is its complete usage of polygonal graphics, which forgoes old-school style pixel graphics.

Over four million copies of Pokemon X and Y (combined) worldwide in the first two days of release, according to Nintendo. Metacritic, a website that indexes professional video game reviews, has averaged out Pokemon X and Y’s critic score to an 87%, with 61 “positive” reviews and 4 “mixed” reviews. RHS Senior Aaron Turkovich has been a player of Pokemon video games since he “was… 8, maybe 9.” He bought the latest game, choosing the Y version, and says the series “just keeps getting better.”

S456 ARCHIVES: RHS Paints the Walls

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

A walk through the halls of Ringgold High School reveals walls covered with fun and interesting paintings. These paintings are called murals, and they are craftily splattered on the walls by Ringgold's twelfth grade class of art students every year. A new feature added last year means that, in addition to new murals done directly on the walls, some students' work will be on large boards that are temporarily hung on the walls, and then given to the respective artists to keep. I decided to talk to some of the artists as well as their teacher, Mr. Lewis, to check up on their progress this year.

Meagan Hyslop and Jessie Martin are both doing murals on walls: the former by Ms. Hess's room on the first floor, and the latter by the staircase next to the elevator on the second floor. Meagan describes her mural-in-process as "a big flower," that is "separated into fourths." She joked that dividing it into the four parts was done to "put some symbolism" into her work, and described her lost week of progress due to accidents in her technique. Jessie is doing a horse that, and she wants to be very clear, is "not a unicorn," and "not My Little Pony [related]." She comically described her horse as more of a piece of LGBT propaganda, in reference to its rainbow-coloring. Both expect that their mural will take them quite a long time to complete, with the eight week deadline looming over them.

Two students working on the boards are The Ram Pride's very own comedy-guru Nicholas Greco and Nick Trocano. Their boards can be seen in the last hallway of the fourth floor where the art rooms are located. Greco is doing "two flamingoes flying over a sunset into a portal." According to Greco, "it sounds good but doesn't look good." He does say, however, that "it's been pretty easy so far." Trocano told me his mural is of the professional football player JJ Watt, but with the colors stylistically altered. He says he "like[s] the effect." Trocano also said, additionally, "Hi Mom!".

Ringgold's beloved art teacher is always lively and excited to do his job. He says that the murals are "going great" so far, this year. He also claims that "they get better every year." Thankfully, he assured me that there haven't been any horror stories like paint spills and ladder falls, besides the facetious claim that the Trocano boy had been eating some paint. Lewis also says that there has been "a lot of good cooperation from the other students" in the halls. Mr. Lewis asserts that the "murals are a lot of work," but that he doesn't let that get him down.

The obvious question to ask is which of the murals in progress is his favorite.

His obvious answer is "they're all my favorites."

S456 ARCHIVES: Voodoo Heart - Book Review

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Scott Snyder is best known today as one of the biggest names in contemporary comic books, but there was a time when this wasn’t the case. His first published work was a short story collection entitled Voodoo Heart, which gained quite a bit of traction when it released back in 2006, including ringing endorsement from Stephen King.  As a fan of Snyder’s comic book work –work that includes American Vampire, a series that was originally co-written along with King – I noticed that Snyder’s style of story-telling didn’t change much once artwork was thrown into the mix. Something else I noticed is that this is a brilliant, quirky bit of fiction, which nails the crisis of having a strongly feeling and conflicted heart.

Voodoo Heart is a collection of seven short stories, altogether two-hundred seventy-eight pages in length. Each short story is memorable and smartly put-together due to Snyder’s keen ability to characterize, and to showcase drama associated with love. The characters he creates are thought-provoking in their intimate relatability, forcing me to self-analyze as I read. In the first story, called “Blue Yodel,” we read about Pres and Claire, two lovers with a fondness for airships. Claire runs away from him and flies off on one of the very things they bonded talking about. That is great situational drama, but the way he writes it is even better. The main thrust of the story takes place in the present, following Pres madly driving around looking for the airship, but flashbacks are sprinkled throughout. These flashbacks deliver beautiful accounts of their relationship when things were good, which actually hurt because of the context.

Snyder also likes to do something with these stories that he also likes to do in essentially all of his comic book work, which is tell a small story that is seemingly unrelated to the main plot, all for the purpose of thematic connection. An example of this is when he writes of a former racehorse who seems to wish he wasn’t so physically shackled by his enclosed home, which is thematically similar to the main character’s feeling of being emotionally shackled in his life due to a feeling of not fitting in. 

What’s truly neat is that he manages to do this on a much larger scale, with the entire book. My favorite short story is definitely the one with the same name as the collection, “Voodoo Heart,” which is – most likely intentionally - right in the middle of the book. This is the story that strongly reveals a thematic connection that all of these stories share, with a powerful, clever ending that takes a bit of thinking to decipher. Besides the thematic angles, there are also other, more subtle similarities to them all. These stories generally all have something a bit weird about them, whether it be a lead character who defends a garbage can with a harpoon, or a couple that bought a huge mansion for cheap because it’s next to a white-collar women’s jail.

I have a few quibbles. One story, “Happy Fish, Plus Coin,” which is very interesting (and probably the most beloved from this collection, actually), is about a loving friendship rather than a romantic relationship like all of the other stories. This is fine in a vacuum but fits in this collection a bit jarringly. Also, most of the endings to these stories are pretty vague, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allows the reader to enjoy feverishly thinking to fill in the gaps, but on the other hand, it can be a bit dissatisfying to have build-up to something that isn’t conclusive. These, again, are quibbles.

Voodoo Heart is brilliant. Snyder manages to actually hurt with beauty. He is able to make readers think about themselves and ponder whether or not they too have voodoo hearts, but plants novelties throughout to add some fun. Scott Snyder is able to write about more than Batman, folks; Voodoo Heart is a thoroughly worthwhile collection of short stories. 

S456 ARCHIVES: The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Review

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2012-13 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

When trailers for The Perks of Being a Wallflower were playing on television and before movies at the theater, I had a very distinct impression: This movie is either going to be a whiney, pretentious pile of crap, or entirely moving and  inspirational. Nothing in between, folks. And now that I've seen the film twice, I can safely say that through the tears I was looking at one of my absolute favorite movies of all-time. Strikingly realistic and strongly emotional, The Perks of Being a Wallflower knocks it out of the park, and is entirely moving and inspirational.

My chief worry based off of the trailers pertained to what's probably the most important part of a drama - the characters. The easiest way to make a teen drama fail is to present characters with problems that all feels exaggerated and artificial, but that is not apparent at all in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These problems are actually interesting and things that would cause a great deal of stress and conflict in real life. Some of these problems are things that some of us don't contemplate nearly enough.

This film follows a freshmen in high school named Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, who is challenged to move on from traumatic events in his childhood. In the process he interacts with family and new friends and discovers that they also have problems, and these break him down more and more throughout the film. One of the two most prominent of these new friends is Sam, played by Emma Watson, which plays as the love interest of Charlie but in her own right is challenged by men constantly treating her poorly. The other is Patrick, which the audience quickly learns is gay, with the main conflict of being in a relationship with a closeted son to a strictly homophobic father. There are some other characters with their own struggles and they're just as realized and interesting, but they're not focused on as much.

The movie displays these issues - childhood trauma, homophobia, violence, bad ethics in relationships - in a very direct and powerful way. The movie sent me on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, at points bringing me to a point of blissful happiness when things are working out for these kids, and other points bringing me down to absolute sadness. The most prominent display of this is at the climax and afterwards, when a big twist is revealed. This twist makes a movie with already quite depressing moments seem even more depressing, and it's hard not to tear up. But, rest assured, dear viewer, because in the time after that reveal to the end it progressively works it way up to what I can certainly say is the most uplifting sequence I've ever witnessed in a movie.

There are nitpicks I can throw at the movie. Every now and then there is a line or even a small character that really doesn't work, either because it's just lame and unrealistic or something that should be challenged but isn't. The first character that Charlie interacts with in the movie is a stock bully that appears a few times throughout the movie, and she's very lame. (She does serve as effective symbolism by the end, however). The age difference between these kids in regard to romance is another specific example of something I think should have been challenged in the movie. But again, these are just little annoyances that don't drastically affect the oomph of the film as a whole.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the best movie that came out last year, and it's one of my absolute favorites of all-time. It's just so strikingly real, and powerful. 

S456 ARCHIVES: Debate - Personal Review and Kainz Interview

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Back on April 29th, I participated in Ringgold’s Fall Debate on the topic of Marijuana Legalization. The proposition was “Marijuana should be legalized in Pennsylvania,” and I was on the affirmative side of that proposition alongside team-members Adam Martin (11), Marissa Miller (11), and Sam Allman (11). In the preliminary rounds (which we didn’t end up getting past), we faced a negative team of Sam Kainz (12), Cassie Lignelli (11), Conner Dudas (11), and Nathaniel Patton (11). I did… um… I did well. I honestly don’t feel comfortable labeling my performance any more specifically than that. After the debate, I not only received the award for the most worthy adversary from the team we faced, but I received myriad compliments from my peers. But personally, that whole day, I felt rather badly about my performance.

I was what’s called a “constructive speaker” for my team, which entails giving a three-minute, pre-written speech building up the position of your team, a two-minute cross-examination of one of your opposing constructive speakers, and handling a two-minute cross-examination from one of your opponents. My speech was well-written, working up a logical and emotionally-invigorating case for getting the Man off of citizens’ pot. When I sparred against one of my opponents in my cross-examination, I think I did a pretty good job of pointing out a bit of a fallacy in a statistic the other team brought up. But when I was cross-examined by an opponent, which was the first cross-examination of the debate, I fumbled over my words, didn’t have much to add on some talking points, and overall allowed the opposition to poke holes in our team’s argument.

Now, that’s two out of three successes, and if I look at the situation more objectively than I’ve been willing to allow myself, it’s easy to see that I didn’t exactly tank when I was cross-examined. But, well, you see, I have pretty specific skills, I think, so I take pride in them and hold myself to a high standard for those skills. I’m inclined to do well with English-type things: I think I write well, speak well, think analytically well, understand grammar well, etc. My weakness, while not crippling, was glaring, so I felt a bit, well, awful, afterwards.

I do admire the team that I faced, which went on from their victory against my team (from both the judges and audience) to an overall victory in the championship. One of the reasons I admire them is that – if I understand correctly, which I’m nearly certain I do – everybody on that team is actually in favor of legalizing marijuana. In a broad sense, they don’t really support the case that they were making, but they still defeated all opposition. I hunted down Sam Kainz, the oldest and perhaps best of the team, for an interview.

“So how does it feel to be on the winning debate team?” I asked. “Good I suppose,” he replied. “Are you proud of your team?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied.

Before this debate, Sam said that he participated in “every single debate,” besides “only miss[ing] one or two.” He’s also been involved in things like Youth and Government: The take-away is that he has involved himself in quite a bit of public speaking. According to Sam, his team’s biggest weaknesses were clinging too hard to certain points and an “extreme apathy” from their team as a whole, which is amusing coming from the championship-winning team.

In RHS, the general consensus seems to be overwhelmingly that marijuana should indeed be legalized and regulated like alcohol, which is why I thought it would have been smarter to do a topic like, say, the assault rifle ban, which seems more split. I asked Sam about this and he said that he feels the topic of marijuana legalization was “long overdue,” and he seemed positive about the decision to choose that topic. Sam “absolutely” supports the legalization of marijuana outside of the debate, but said he found debating a position he disagrees with to be “enlightening” and “easier.” In defiance of his team’s arguments, he believes that legalizing marijuana would indeed bring money in rather than lose it, and that “marijuana being addictive is a bit of a reach.” He does say, however, that marijuana “would be made less safe if legalized,” citing the increased unhealthiness of legal cigarettes over the years.

The most important thing to take away from my interview with Sam is that Matt Petras was “absolutely” the most valuable opponent he faced in all of the marijuana debating he participated in.

See, Matt, you didn’t do so poorly…  

Next year Sam will be out of high school pursuing education at the “only school he wanted to go to”: The prestigious and “extremely difficult to get into” West Point. Next year I’ll be preparing for the next debate, and probably also reading comic books and writing for this paper as per usual.

Oh, and also, Sam found it important to note that “The goal is always to crush your opponent.” And that his friend Jessie Pry was a “great scorekeeper.” 

S456 ARCHIVES: Troubles with Wages in America

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 an hour, despite increasing once both years before. Many believe that minimum wage should increase, while others think that it would be bad for the economy. Some states, like California, have already raised their minimum wage, but the state of Pennsylvania has kept it at $7.25. Exactly how much to raise the federal minimum wage, and by when, is a point of contention amongst supporters. Remarks from the president during the last state of the union address prompted discussion on raising minimum wage nationwide, even though little progress is being made for supporters. 

Back in February of this year, Barack Obama said in the State of the Union Address that he would like to see federal minimum wage increase to $9 an hour, and then automatically increase after that with inflation. According to “Inequality.org,” the minimum wage “[a]djusted for inflation using the BLS online inflation calculator… would come to $10.55 per hour in 2012 dollars.” Obama is either compromising, or attempting to avoid bad economic implications for such a large increase. In his speech, President Obama points out that “a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line.” What’s frustrating for proponents of this increase is that, as Annie Lowry from The New York Times writes, “the proposal would see the federal floor on hourly wages reach $9 in stages by the end of 2015.” That is a long time from now.

Recently, though, strikes that originated in New York from November have flooded the entire country. The Thursday before Labor Day, “workers at McDonald's and other fast-food chains conducted strikes and walkouts in nearly 60 cities,” according to USA Today. These protests aren’t specifically asking for a minimum wage increase, just a standard wage increase, but to $15. Still, these strikes express a large disappointment over wages for workers towards the bottom. Additionally, America as a whole supports a minimum wage increase to $9.00, with, according to a February poll from Pew, 71% in favor and 26% opposed.

I talked to Mr. Manko, Ringgold’s Advanced Economics Teacher, to get a grounded perspective on the matter. When I asked him whether or not there would be an extreme reaction from businesses to a minimum wage increase, he said changes would “happen gradually.” At the end of the day, he says businesses won’t let wage increases eat away profits, although “some may” just eat the costs. He did cite some chains like Sheetz that pay their workers above the minimum wage, and explained that offering good wages is an effective way of enticing people to work for you. When I asked whether or not Pennsylvania raising minimum wage independent of the rest of the country would have differing results from a federal increase, he said “you’d see an increase in cost of living,” citing other states that saw increased costs of living with a minimum wage increase. I challenged him by saying that it may have been the cost of living that prompted a minimum wage increase instead, and he conceded that it is a tough “chicken before the egg” problem. He did note that there are more to the equation than wages for workers, saying that benefits like healthcare and vacations are important.

Perhaps most importantly, I asked why the heck we haven’t seen an increase in minimum wage in around three years. His response: “Politicians are scared” of upsetting corporations. 

S456 ARCHIVES: Obama's Tyrannical Gun Control

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2012-13 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Barrack Obama is rolling out new gun legislation. What's odd is that the new legislation does not seem to be a reaction to the disaster at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which a madman wielding an assault rifle gunned down twenty children and six adults. No, this new wave of gun law proposals focuses on a five-year-old girl in Pennsylvania, who said, according to CNN, "I'll shoot you, you shoot me, and we'll all play together." It is reported that she was referring to a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

Barrack Obama is pushing a ban on military-style bubble guns, assuring Americans that concealed bubble guns for home defense and bubble guns intended for hunting will remain perfectly legal. Barrack Obama is also pushing for a maximum of four fluid ounces for containers of bubble soap.

There is outrage from both the left and the right. Piers Morgan is outraged at this new legislation, claiming that what the president should be focusing on is restrictions on what Morgan calls "actual guns." The National Rifle Association is outraged, but from a different perspective. The NRA believes that the president is infringing upon American children's second amendment rights to defend against robbers on the playground.

Barrack Obama has said that he understands many American's desire for a ban on assault rifles and large clips, but has said that the country needs to focus on the "true issue" first. The President has said that he has spoken with eye doctor Richard Starr about the negative effects of bubble soap in children's eyes. Starr says that bubble soap coming in direct contact with children's eyes halts the development of their vision. Barrack Obama says that taking away the bubble guns will force bullies on the playground to use finger guns instead, which the President claims are "much less damaging." When asked about a ban on finger guns, the President fears that removing children's fingers will decrease overall proficiency in handwriting.

Americans are overwhelmingly against the President on this issue. In response, the President said "My propositions have a higher approval rating than congress, which is probably pretty good, right?"

-only the first quote from CNN is real; the contents of this article are fictional and satirical-

S456 ARCHIVE: Gear Seminars

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2012-13 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

Last month I invited a group of students to the library for a forty-five minute lecture about comic books, and the day after, I went to a lecture about alpacas. Ringgold’s gifted program, GEAR, allows students in the program to host educational seminars about virtually anything they please. Each student that decides to host a seminar chooses his/her own format, meaning students can do a lecture, a series of activities, a moderated discussion, etc. GEAR Instructor Ms. Linda Fetchen aids and guides, but this is very much an independent project for the students.

I spoke with Ms. Fetchen about GEAR Seminars. After looking in her computer files, she found that records of GEAR Seminars go back at least ten years, meaning there were probably seminars even further back than that. She told me she started hosting the Gifted Program in 1975, but back then, seminars were “not something [they] did.” She told me, even though the seminars are “different every year” and therefore “hard to compare,” “the quality of the presentations get better throughout the years” because students become “more organized.” In past years, she told me, there were two exceedingly talented presenters, one, a student named Matt Patton, who did seminars about film, and another, a student named Ethan Harger, who did seminars about music. Her hopes for the future of GEAR seminars are that students learn to present well and do good research, and also that the audience members learn. She told me that she wishes students would do more seminars about history, but made it clear that she will never force a seminar topic on a student. This is because she believes students must have a passion for their subject matter in order for the seminar to be successful.  

I do GEAR seminars and I’m quite passionate about what I talk about. In my tenth grade year, after going to several seminars and thinking I can do that!, I decided to conduct a general seminar about comic books, in which I lectured about breaking into the hobby, contemporary comic book events, and more. This year, I have been doing a monthly series of seminars, each focusing on an individual subtopic within the realm of comic books, including “The History of the Joker,” and “Comic Book Creators.” I have a lot of fun doing these seminars, all of which are loosely structured lectures. These lectures are very well-received, which is something the evaluation sheets filled out by my audience members can attest to. Recently, I decided to start a new series of seminars to coincide with my comic book seminars, this one about video games.

I love doing these seminars and look forward to them all, but I also enjoy attending other seminars. Not too long ago, I attended a seminar by twelfth grade student Leanne Fries. She started doing seminars in her eleventh grade year, and continues to do them in her current year. She has covered music in her seminar about Stevie Wonder, and also in her seminar “The Greatest Love Songs of All-Time.” She has also covered fashion and beauty, in her seminars “Fashion Dos and Don’ts” and “The History of American Beauty.” When asked what she’ll do with her seminars in the future, she replied “probably music,” and when asked if she’s proud of her performances so far, she replied, “I think so.” She plans to use the public speaking skills displayed and developed through these seminars for a career in broadcasting. Her advice for students thinking of doing seminars themselves? “Pretend like you’re talking to your friends.”  

The seminar I teased earlier about alpacas was hosted by tenth grade student Noah Smith. This seminar took place in February and was Noah's first. Noah's seminar was unique in that he had hands-on experience with his subject matter, as he frequently works with alpacas owned by family members. I asked him if he plans to do more seminars and he wasn't sure, but he did say that if he did he'd probably do one on massage therapy. He said he had fun and he "guess[es]" he's proud of how he did, but he claims he prefers watching seminars over hosting a seminar. His advice for students who haven't done a seminar yet but are considering taking the plunge? "Take the plunge."

I hope more students take that plunge and do a seminar. And even if they don't take that plunge, I hope that they'll go be an audience member to others' plunges. I hope this because GEAR Seminars are fun, creative ways to educate and develop the skills of the student body. And seriously, when else do you get to sit in a room for forty-five minutes to hear about alpacas?

S456 ARCHIVES: Matt Takes On - Ringgold's Renaissance Fair

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2012-13 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

On Wednesday, February 7th, Ms. Jubic hosted a Renaissance Fair in the library. The students from Jubic's College English 12 class put together an event for the rest of the students and faculty to come and enjoy throughout the day. The presenting students were stationed in the library throughout the entire school day, and any students with permitting teachers could head down and enjoy the event. I was one of those students, and spent two periods there. The fair was far from unenjoyable, thanks to the intrinsic pleasure of games and food and socializing with peers, but redundant, and sometimes irrelevant information, as well as a general sense of apathy from some students brought it down.  

After talking with Ms. Jubic, I learned that this is the first year that she has done this event, and that it is meant to coincide with the students' reading of Macbeth and Renaissance poetry. The event covered music, food, sports and art. I talked to student 12th Grade Student Joe Smith at the event, and he told me that the students got into groups and were assigned a topic at random. Once given that topic, Joe continued to tell me, students could focus on whatever subtopics they wished. Joe told me that his group spent about a week on their presentation.

One of the problems with the event stems from the fact that many groups covered the same information. Instead of collaborating together, most groups seemed to tackle their topic [sports, food, etc.] in a very general sense. Because of this, I learned about jousting more times than I would have liked, for example. The information seemed to bleed together, and sometimes didn't really fit. Food found its way on presentations that weren't even about food and Bruno Mars music blared for no apparent reason. Some presenting students also seemed to not care so much, and resorted to hiding behind their stands.

It was hard not to enjoy yourself in some fashion, though. Alan Howard and Mike Rizzo told me about bicycle jousting, which is the equivalent of Renaissance jousting, and joked[?] that they do it themselves. Billy Balsley's stand offered face-painting, and I was surprised to hear that a lot of people actually obliged to the offer after asking him. Trey Martin's food stand may have been the best, offering cinnamon rolls and chicken that lots of people had positive things to say about.  Over at a sports stand operated by Dan Hess and other students, I popped balloons in a dart game and won an apple tart.

The general opinion on the event seemed mixed, from what I picked up on. More than a few students told me that they found the event boring. I did hear a lot of good things about the food, and it certainly wasn't hard to find smiling and laughing at the event. Ms. Jubic told me "I think everyone's been enjoying themselves." I'd say it was fine.  

S456 ARCHIVES: Obama Needs to Step It Up

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2012-13 year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

The economy took a massive turn for the worst under Bush, and that same president's warmongering in the Middle East fired up the anti-war crowd the most since the Vietnam War. America as a whole seemed very displeased with their leader, so when Democrat Barrack Obama was elected president back in 2008, it was a very exciting time for many disappointed Americans. It was an especially exciting time for progressive Americans, as Barrack Obama presented himself as a candidate that would lessen war, provide left-leaning economics, and stand for social progress.

Well, how did he do? For both America as a whole and progressives?

Well, he "came out of the closet" as the first president in United States history to formally support Gay Marriage, and repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell. He didn't do anything against women's right to choose, and he didn't do anything against Planned Parenthood. He did bring the troops home from Iraq, but it sure did take awhile, and we are still in Afghanistan. He and his Justice Department have hit hard on Medicinal Marijuana clinics, and the next four years under Obama do not look particularly bright for full-legalization of weed in states that desire to do so. He has been very weak on taxes, even though his spending has been no holds bars. The Affordable Care Act is certainly a step in the right direction, but there's certainly a long road ahead if we plan to seriously compete with other countries in regards to healthcare.

He's done an immensely "okay" job so far. In his second term, he needs to step it up, and hopefully he'll be more willing to do riskier things without the fear of not being reelected hanging over his head. I'm not very educated on foreign policy and our situation in the Middle East, so I'm not going to pretend that I am, but I do know that Obama and congress needs to get that all resolved as soon and as nonviolently as they can. And I do know that sounder economics and a rational and modern approach to marijuana legislation are the two things he needs to focus on the most.

If Barrack Obama needs to do a lot of spending for his agenda, so be it, but he has to raise taxes to compensate. Some very rich Americans manage to pay a very low tax rate, and Obama seems to know and care about that, but we can't be sure if he's going to actually follow up on his principals. And America can definitely do for some big cuts to spending - our bloated Defense budget that out-spends China 6-1 comes to mind immediately. In the debates Obama was very firmly against Mitt Romney's position to actually raise military spending, but it doesn't seem like our president is proactive about making significant cuts to Defense.

Marijuana Legalization is an issue of civil liberty and freedom, but it's also something that can help the economy of states that wish to legalize it. Money will not be spent putting people in jail for nonviolent weed offenses, and states will actually see revenue by taxing transactions that are already happening anyway. Heck, if Obama and Congress got together and ended prohibition of cannabis on a Federal level, telling each state that they cannot stop the sale, usage and ownership of marijuana by adults, and allowed states to handle regulation and taxation, that would be fantastic. Probably won't happen, though.

Like many liberals, I want to like Obama more than I actually do. He does a very good job of extrapolating a very progressive, inspiring view of the world and government in his speeches, but he doesn't do that great of a job when actually carrying out his rhetoric. Loads of money we don't have is being spent, and our taxes are pathetically low. Obama's Justice Department seriously believes that medicinal  marijuana is a threat to society that requires throwing harmless people behind bars. America should be even more skeptical of President Barrack Obama in his second term, and part of me is optimistic, but I'd be surprised if the next four years aren't anything but another shade of okay