Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 81: Nothing Better

Episode 81 Website CoverStella is back and here to talk with me about Nothing Better, the web comic and graphic novel series about freshman year of college by creator Tyler Page.  Over the course of our converation, we take a look at the three trade paperback collections he has released and give them our usual fine-toothed-comb review.  Plus, we talk a little bit about our own college experiences as well as the series’ themes of friendship, sex, and religion.

You can read and purchase Nothing Better here:  Nothing Better

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Some extras …

The sketches and signatures from the three trades that I own:

The shield/insignia for St. Urho College:

Nothing Better Scan0001

The national anthem of Finland:

The covers to each of the trade paperbacks:

Nothing Better Vol 1

Nothing Better Vol 2

Nothing Better Vol 3

We Were Only Freshmen

thevervepipe-thefreshmanFor the life of me, I cannot remember why I ever liked “The Freshmen.”

Okay, that’s not true.  I just needed a way to start this post and thought I would try to be clever.  Obviously, that doesn’t always work.

Anyway, I have been on a Nineties music kick lately and in my listening came across The Verve Pipe’s only hit, a song my nostalgia for probably bears explaining.

Originally recorded in 1992 but rerecorded and released as a single in January 1997, “The Freshmen” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of the same year and was a complete anomaly in the Top 40, which featured “Mmmm Bop” by Hanson and at least one song by The Spice Girls.  This was not the morose grunge-dominated early 1990s, this was the happy, dawn-of-The-Millennials late-1990s and there were few straightforward rock acts making any dent.  Even I had abandoned most of rock and roll for punk and ska at this point in my life and spent the better part of a summer annoying my girlfriend with The Mighty Mighty BossTones before moving on to a full-blown 1980s pop nostalgia trip.  But I happened to be headed to Charlottesville from Baltimore during spring break in March of ’97 and heard “The Freshmen” on WHFS and thought “This is a song that I need to listen to.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I went to The Wall in the Barracks Road shopping center that weekend and the paid full $2.99 or $3.99 for the cassette single.  That is how much I felt I needed “The Freshmen.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the song is basically a four-and-a-half-minute-long lament sung by the band’s lead singer, Brian Vander Ark, who wrote the lyrics.  In the song, he hints that something terrible has happened and he feels guilty, although he seems conflicted about whether or not he should be held responsible, especially since everyone involved was so young.  At least that’s what I understood in 1997 when I was playing the song in my Hyundai Excel’s tape deck and the video was being played and replayed on VH-1 as well as on the radio at work that summer where I remember one day we tried for the better part of an hour to figure out what the lyrics meant.  I seem to recall my boss, Joe, thinking that the song literally was about someone falling through ice on a lake and dying.  My guess was not as exact but I was pretty sure someone was dead.

Thanks to the Internet, I now know that Vander Ark wrote the song about feeling guilty over his ex-girlfriend’s suicide.  The lyrics also contain something fictional about an abortion, and listening to it nearly two decades later (I lost the cassette single years ago, however), I hear that.  I also hear why I liked it so much at the time–in 1997, it was a throwback to the bands I had been listening to when I was in high school, like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots.  Granted, The Verve Pipe was probably more on the level of Candlebox, but that’s how my mind worked.

Anyway, “The Freshmen” also reminds me of a time when I took myself way too seriously as a writer because I thought that is what writers did.  In fact, I don’t think I fully realized that angst just isn’t my style until after I graduated college because at the time the song was popular, I was still trying to write serious fiction … and was doing that pretty badly.  I mean, we’re talking attempts at drama from someone who had one of the most drama-free and “non-dark” lives in history.

But writing class will do that to you.  You are someone who loves to write and don’t have much to worry about in life, and the sappy crap you wrote about your pookie got old during freshman year (as well as extremely embarrassing), and everyone else in your workshop group has an eating disorder, an alcoholic parent, a dead friend, or an inspirational story about finding God.  Smart-assed commentary about Star Wars or short stories that were inspired by John Hughes movies just didn’t seem to hold up in my mind.

Which is kind of a shame, when you think about it, because that means I found my strengths in writing by demonstrating my weaknesses in writing class–thankfully, I was writing a column in the student newspaper at the time, so I could build on those strengths.  But when you think of it, I shouldn’t look fondly on a time when I wasn’t very good at something.  Then again, there’s something about that time in my life when I tried to be deep on purpose and nothing says that more than the forced earnestness of “The Freshmen.”

But I’m a Harvard bum.

I have to admit that I went in to re-watching With Honors with a feeling that I remember it being a lot better than it actually was.  This tends to happen, I guess, when you don’t watch a movie for the better part of twenty years and you only wanted to see it because you had (and still kind of have) a thing for Moira Kelly.  It’s honestly not that good.  Okay, that makes it sounds worse than it is, but it’s not exactly The Big Chill or anything like that.

Released in April 1994, With Honors is the feature film directorial debut of Alex Kehishian, whose best-known work is one of the best rock documentaries of all time, the 1990 Madonna film Truth or Dare.  It managed to gross a little bit more than $20 million at the box office and finished 69th overall for the year, which isn’t exactly flop material but isn’t a box-office success either.  But quality of a movie is never really measured in receipts and my original attraction to the travails of Harvard student Montgomery “Monty” Kessler (Brendan Fraser) and his friends was similar to my attraction to the gang from St. Elmo’s Fire–a weird desire to watch people who were slightly older than me so I could possibly see if that’s what my life would be like.

Which sounds completely ridiculous, especially considering I saw this film in November 1994 when it had come out on video and I was seventeen years old at the time.  Watching films about people older than in the hopes that you’ll get some sort of weird fantasy fulfillment out of it is something you do when you’re twelve or thirteen, not on the verge of graduating high school; then again, I was a late bloomer.  But there is something about the setting of Harvard (even though quite a bit of the movie wasn’t filmed there) and the house that Monty shares with his friends that fills you with a wistful sort of feeling of either wanting to live in the place or wanting to go back to a time when you were  a starving student.

But I’m getting ahead of myself and ahead of the plot, because With Honors isn’t St. Elmo’s Fire.  Whereas that film is a look at how the relationships between a group of friends becomes incredibly complicated once they graduate from Georgetown and live on their own, With Honors is the story of how Monty meets a bum named Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), who winds up touching all of them in some way or another and changing Monty’s life for the better.  It starts with Monty’s hard drive getting completely fried (and if you’re up for getting really nostalgic, check out the MS-DOS command prompts and clickety-clack of an early 1990s IBM keyboard) and his insisting that he run out right that minute to get copies made even though it’s the middle of the night and it’s snowing.  Naturally, he loses the thesis down a window grate and has to have Courtney (Moira Kelly) help him sneak into the library to get it from the boiler room.  It’s not there when he arrives and instead has fallen into the hands of Simon, who begins making him all sorts of deals so that Monty can get the pages of his thesis back.

Simon winds up more or less invading Monty’s life and at first their relationship is contentious, but soon enough Simon is not only occupying much of Monty’s time and most of his thoughts but his philosophy as well, especially after his confrontation with Monty’s professor and mentor (who is played by Gore Vidal):

So what we get is one of those “he touched all of us” stories, especially after they discover that Simon is dying from a condition caused by having worked in a shipyard that constantly exposed him to asbestos.  By the time that the gang takes a road trip so Simon can see the son he abandoned years before, he’s even won over Jeffrey, the mama’s boy roommate whose fastidiousness contributes to his initial hatred of Pesci’s lovable bum.  But he, too, joins in the group hug.

If it sounds like the movie lays it on a little thick, it’s because it does.  The characters are pretty much what you’d expect from a movie set at Harvard:  the stressed-out students, the crazy artiste (Patrick Dempsey in Everett, who even has his own radio show and acts like Ronnie Miller amped up a few nothces), and the galpal.  They live in an off-campus house that you would have killed to live in when you were in college (at least me, anyway, who spent four years in the dorm), and everything about the film says, “Stressed out smart college students finding something out about themselves.”  Plus, the main plot isn’t at all subtle and if anything is subtle in With Honors, it’s the obvious romantic tension between Courtney and Monty, who on the surface appear to act like brother and sister but really have strong feelings for one another but are afraid to act on those feelings–that is, until Simon convinces Monty that it’s worth the risk and we get one of the better scenes in the film at a “pajama party”:

Okay, maybe it’s just my aforementioned crush on Moira Kelly that makes me think this is one of the better scenes in the film, but I do love that line, “I’m ending our friendship.”  And looking at what I’ve written in the last few paragraphs, it seems like I didn’t like With Honors, but as uneven as it is, I did, although not as much  as twenty years ago.

Then again, twenty years ago I was sitting on a couch with the girl I was dating and we ended out making out at the end of the night; when I watched this, I was streaming it on my Kindle and my wife was already asleep.  In a way, it was indicative of how 1994 was ending for me personally–I’d gone from secretly renting movies at the video store and watching them alone on  Friday night to picking out something that would be a good “Date Night” movie.  And the movies themselves began to become more and more intertwined with where and when I was as well as who I was with.

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 38: We’re Not Gonna Protest!

Episode 38 CoverSave your seat on the couch, throw on some P-Funk, try to figure out the Caine-Hackman theory, work on your thesis, and get really offended because it’s time to take a look at the 1994 college flick PCU! Yeah, while it’s not the most important film of 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties, it’s still one that we all remember, probably because of the number of times it aired on Comedy Central. Anyway, I take a look at the movie’s plot and talk about five of my favorite things about the Jeremy Piven classic.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Classic College Memes: The Purity Test (slightly NSFW)

I am sure that Mr. Blutarsky's purity test score was in the negative numbers.

I am sure that Mr. Blutarsky’s purity test score was in the negative numbers.

The Internet is full of memes–lists, gifs, videos, and other things that often go viral–and that’s been the case since, well, since the Internet was invented.  A couple of weeks ago while cleaning out some old files, I found a few things and decided to spend a few weeks talking about memes that I first encountered in 1995.

My final entry is about The Purity Test.

A college dorm is some sort of primordial hormone soup, especially when you’re a freshmen.  Whereas you may have “hooked up” from time to time in high school, it was never to the extent that you do, or at least try to do, during your first year of college.  Okay, I should say “other” people do because when I started college I was at the first serious girlfriend stage that most guys are when they are freshmen in high school.  But my track record as a terribly late bloomer aside, it did seem like conversations about love and sex were everywhere and completely unavoidable.  In fact, sometimes they got intellectual, like the time a few people from one of my survey classes and I spent a Saturday night in a dorm room having our own version of Plato’s Symposium.  And that’s not a double entendre; we actually had an intellectual and philosophical discussion about love and sex … at least until it got interrupted by our gawking at the fire in Gardens A across the street.

Anyway, the quickest way to discussion about sex with the purity test.  Forwarded around at about the same time as the rest of the forwards I’ve looked at (for some reason, by spring semester and then in subsequent years, forwards would become less common, probably because the novelty wore off), this 100-question test was meme as group activity.  I remember printing copies out and taking it in a group of about ten people then comparing scores.  I think you were supposed to shoot for somewhere in the middle–a high score got you ridiculed as a virgin while a low score got you derided as a slut–although I don’t know why any score was ever a mark of distinction.  It’s not like “Hey, let’s lower that purity test score” was ever a successful pickup line, and there was more distinction in successfully completing the acrobatics necessary to have sex in an extra-long twin bed than a score on a test.

I haven’t looked at this list of questions in a good decade and a half, so I have no idea what my score would be (or honestly what it was at the time).  If you’re curious, you can take it yourself.

The Purity Test (more…)

Classic College Memes: Going to College is Easier Than it Looks

My freshman dorm, Wynnewood Towers of Loyola College in Maryland.  The building is now Newman Towers and the school is now Loyola University Maryland.

My freshman dorm, Wynnewood Towers of Loyola College in Maryland. The building is now Newman Towers and the school is now Loyola University Maryland.

The Internet is full of memes–lists, gifs, videos, and other things that often go viral–and that’s been the case since, well, since the Internet was invented.  A couple of weeks ago while cleaning out some old files, I found a few things and decided to spend a few weeks talking about memes that I first encountered in 1995.

This time around, it’s instant sentimentality and nostalgia for a few weeks gone by with “Going to College is Easier Than It Looks”

Your first semester of college is more thank likely one of the strangest three months of your life.  After all, if you’re like me, you go from living with mom and dad and having your own room to being shoved into what was once a one-bedroom apartment with four other guys who all have their own eating, sleeping, hygienic, and recreational drug habits.  Plus, unless you have a carry-over from high school to college (like friends or a girlfriend who came with you), you’re more or less figuring out both the social and academic landscape by yourself.  This is why those months–heck, the first few weeks–of college seem much longer than they actually are.

There was a point in mid-October where we were about a week away from my fall break and I had some sort of “you’ve changed” fight with my girlfriend.  Had I?  I’d been gone for all of five weeks and it’s not like I had dropped off the face of the earth for five years.  But at the same time, as I calculated the amount of stuff that had happened in those five weeks, I thought maybe I had.  A forward that landed in my inbox around the same time confirmed this.  Unlike the roommate lists, finals funnies, and other stupid crap we’d been passing around, this was especially popular among the girls and “romantic sensitive” doofuses like myself.

For years, the author of this particular piece was unknown.  But in digging around on the internet for it, I found a version attributed to Ashley Wilson of Carnegie Mellon University.  I don’t know how true that is, but it may have been a newspaper column or essay that got picked up and sent around, her name being dropped at one point or another along the way.

“Going to College is Easier Than it Looks”

By Ashley Wilson
Carnegie Mellon University (more…)

Classic College Memes: How to Mess With Your Roommate

The Internet is full of memes–lists, gifs, videos, and other things that often go viral–and that’s been the case since, well, since the Internet was invented.  A couple of weeks ago while cleaning out some old files, I found a few things and decided to spend a few weeks talking about memes that I first encountered in 1995.

Here, I take a look at a favorite of ours, which is several ways to mess with your roommate.

It sounds weirdly sentimental, but when looking at memes like the ones I have dug up for this series of posts, I can picture the dank room in Wynnewood Towers and smell whatever lingered in the air for most of my freshman year–a combination of pot smoke, stale beer, rancid pizza, and b.o.  It’s a memory that amazes me with its staying power, especially since to this day I’m amazed none of my roommates and I died inadvertently at the hands of our habits (or each other, for that matter).

This was one of the first email forwards that went around in the fall of 1995.  I think at that point I was getting along with my roommates, although some of their habits were starting to work my nerves, but that’s partially because I wasn’t used to sharing a bedroom with someone for an entire school year and I hadn’t made that clean break from back home, so I was kind of stuck in two worlds in a sense.

So it was almost a relief that lists about ways to mess with your roommate landed our collective inboxes in the fall.  And I think that since the novelty of email and forward lists hadn’t worn off, we found ways to bond over them, as absurd as they could be.  There were several versions of this that floated around with different numbers of things to do and at one point I took all of them and put them into one huge master list which had about 250 items.  Unfortunately, I lost that list years ago and had to hunt this one down on the Internet.  I found this on an old, not-yet-deleted Angelfire site that was probably from the late 1990s or early 2000s, and though I would love to give credit to the original author, his or her identity remains a mystery.

100 Ways to Mess With Your Roommate (more…)

Classic College Memes: Fun Things to do in a Final That Does Not Matter

Final exams at Ridgemont High, circa 1983.

Final exams at Ridgemont High, circa 1983.

The Internet is full of memes–lists, gifs, videos, and other things that often go viral–and that’s been the case since, well, since the Internet was invented.  A couple of weeks ago while cleaning out some old files, I found a few things and decided to spend a few weeks talking about memes that I first encountered in 1995.

This one is about 50 Fun Things to do in a Final That Does Not Matter

My academic record during my freshman year of college was less than stellar.  My first semester was a nightmare, as I earned a 2.5 GPA, the highlight of which was a D+ in Calculus II.  My second semester was significantly better, as I earned the 3.5 GPA needed to maintain the 3.0 for my academic scholarship.

I had two amusing moments happen during finals that year.  One was in the spring when I overslept my Politics in Literature final by 45 minutes.  I remember waking up, looking at the clock, and then jumping out of bed and grabbing whatever clothes and writing implements were available, all the while saying, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”  I ran across campus, was admitted to my exam and was riding such an adrenaline high (I probably smelled horrible too) that I was the first one done.  It paid off, though–I got an A- in the class.

The other happened during the fall semester.  As I said, I wound up with a D+ in Calculus II.  Why was someone who would go on to major in writing taking Calculus II?  Well, I had scored a 3 on the AP Calculus exam in my senior year of high school and Loyola had told me that if I took Calculus II I would also get four credits for Calculus I.  Not having the wherewithal to see that I didn’t need this and also not having the common sense to drop the class the minute things got tough (especially since I knew it had nothing to do with my major), I toughed it out and flirted with academic disaster through December.

That final exam was the hardest test I would ever take in my life.  I knew this going in and did what I could to get help from my roommate, Rich, who was studying chemistry and understood this way more than I did.  I then holed myself up in a study lounge.  That is, until I ran into him during one of my study breaks and he told me that he ran the numbers and I could get a 0 on the final and pass the class.  That was good enough for me and I made sure I got a good night’s sleep.

To this day I don’t know what my grade was on that final exam.  That I passed the class was enough and I never took math again.  In honor of that final, I give you another popular forward from the fall of 1995.  The author is unknown but I wish I had followed his or her advice.

50 Fun Things to do in a Final that Does Not Matter
(i.e. you are going to fail the class completely no matter what you get on the final exam) (more…)

Classic College Memes: You Know You’re in College When ….

The Internet is full of memes–lists, gifs, videos, and other things that often go viral–and that’s been the case since, well, since the Internet was invented.  A couple of weeks ago while cleaning out some old files, I found a few things and decided to spend a few weeks talking about memes that I first encountered in 1995.

Beatty Hall at Loyola University Maryland (formerly Loyola College in Maryland).  I took quite a number of political science classes in this building.

Beatty Hall at Loyola University Maryland (formerly Loyola College in Maryland). I took quite a number of political science classes in this building.

First up: You Know You’re in College When …

So the fall of 1995 was a particularly weird point in my life.  It was my first semester in college and I wasn’t used to being on my own (few are when they’re freshmen), I wasn’t used to sharing a bedroom with someone for an entire school year and I hadn’t made a clean break from back home (read: I was still with my girlfriend, who was still in high school).  Plus, starting college in 1995 meant that Facebook was simply the book of senior portraits that you received at freshman orientation and most of us got our very first email accounts.

And since email was such a novelty, we’d be excited when what we referred to as “forwards” made their way around our social circles.  Most of them were chain letters–forward this to five people and receive good luck–but some of the more memorable ones were in list form.  This particular list got forwarded around early and employs a common trope of forwards, which is the “You know you’re _____ if/when …”  During my four years of college, I’d encounter “You know you’re a Loyola student when …,” “You know you’re from Long Island when …” and would actually create a “You know you’re from Sayville when …” list (that at one point actually was forwarded back to me), but this particular list was the very first one of these I received.

“You know you’re in college when …” is perfect for the type of person who has spent two or three months in a place that beforehand was only spied in 1980s comedies or admissions office brochures.  And while it seems weird to make it seem like “college” is a foreign land that I’ve been sent off to, when you think of the life you lead when you’re away at school and the place you came from, a lot of this makes sense.

I do not know the identity of the original author of this list, just that a friend sent it to me during the fall semester of my freshman year and at one point I decided to copy and paste it into MS Word and save it to a floppy disk.  Somehow it made it onto my current hard drive with the rest of my college stuff.


Get Down Tonight

All of the pictures from the night in questions aren’t ones that my friends and I want floating around the web, so here’s a picture of the Humanities building.

I was cleaning a couple of weeks ago, doing the semi-annual “purge” of random useless stuff from the house, and among the old clothes and toys that were going to Goodwill was a pair of commemorative glasses from my college freshman-sophomore semi-formal more than 15 years ago.  I’d like to say that I had held onto the glasses because I wanted to cherish the memories of that time in my life, but to be honest, I’m one of those people who is too lazy to buy new glassware so I simply hadn’t gotten rid of it earlier.

That’s not to say that retiring the glasses didn’t make me think of the night in question.  Unfortunately, my adoring fans (both of them) will be disappointed to find out that the freshman sophomore semi, held April 26, 1997 with the theme of “Get Down Tonight” was not epic, grand, illicit, or even out of the ordinary, but instead was just like any other Saturday night in college.

Okay, I was wearing a jacket and tie.

It seems weird that a college SGA would throw dances, or at least that when they threw the dances, people actually would attend.  College students are supposed to spend Saturday nights getting hammered on Natty Ice and throwing up into a trash receptacle outside of the library (which, of course, marks the only time in college they actually go to the library), not getting all dolled up and posing for pictures like it’s a high school homecoming dance, although everyone looks ten times worse than they did at homecoming due to college beer bloat and the fact that a dorm room doesn’t make for a very good area to primp.

On some level, attending a dance at my college kind of made sense because you really had nothing better to do, especially if you were one of those students who could not get into the bars and wanted some excuse to drink other than it was a weekend night.  They were held in Reitz Arena, which is the same gym where the D-I Greyhounds played basketball … and I use the word gym because it really is a glorified gym.  Sometimes the dances were held in the student center, but no matter where they were held, they always felt kind of like a high school dance, not something you’d expect in college. Oh sure, I went to a few sorority functions when I wa sdating my wife, but I can’t remember if she had a school-wide freshman-sophomore semi held in her university’s gym.  Considering that The University of Virginia has about four times the population of Loyola College in Maryland, I’m probably right about that.

The music didn’t help, either.  Our theme, “Get Down Tonight” came about probably because the late 1990s had a fair amount of nostalgia for both the late 1970s and 1980s going for it.  Disco kind of made a comeback at that point, especially (and strangely) groups like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, whose three or four hits had become staples at weddings by then.  They also weren’t hard songs to track down because they were featured heavily on the ever-popular ESPN Jock Jams albums that were released from 1995-1997, which my friends and I were all convinced were the only CDs the deejay that the SGA hired actually owned.  I mean, how do you explain that the dance remix of “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes was popular in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999?

Maybe he was counting on the fact that we were too blitzed to pay attention to the music.  If you were going to a school dance, you showed up already drunk because you spent the afternoon pre-gaming in your dorm room (one night had my five of us–my roommates and I plus my girlfriend—drink an entire keg during said pregaming) and maybe danced with your friends for the better part of an hour before, much like a high school dance, things got boring, drama happened, ro someone required some hair holding.  I don’t think that anyone could really say that they were monumental romantic benchmarks.

Well, I should be more specific because for all I know someone first kissed his future wife at the freshman-sophomore semi.  So let’s just say that these dances were never really monumental for me.  I can’t decide if that’s because I put too much pressure on myself to have an amazing memorable time, or if I’m a complete romantic putz.  Or both.  Probably both.

But for what it’s worth, I went, danced, got my glass at the end of the night and went on with my life, developing a roll of film that probably won’t see the light of day and shrugging my shoulders at the thought of remembering and cherishing the night for the rest of my life.  Unless I’m supposed cherish it and I’m doing it wrong, because in all honesty, I had to stretch to think about what exactly went on that night.  I’m pretty sure there was drinking, sex, and definitely fighting among boyfriends and girlfriends, but ultimately it was fuzzy and fleeting, lost among the randomness of a time in my life that never made much sense and probably wasn’t supposed to anyway.