What’s Big, Red, and Eats Rocks?

My name was “bigredrockeater” for three years. I still answered to my real name, but people were more often calling me by my Xbox Live Gamertag from 13 until I was 16 because I was usually in the Halo universe more than my own.

“Bigred, get in the Ghost and get their flag!” They’d yell through my headset and into my ear as my digital soldier rushed towards the windmill on Zanzibar’s beach so I could get the plasma sword

“Rockeater, use the rocket launcher on that wraith!” They’d command while we were battling on the sprawling Waterworks map.

And, after we’d lose games and the other teams would talk trash, the anonymity of Xbox Live allowed random humans the opportunity to make jokes of the obvious sexual connotation that my Gamertag implied, though truthfully it was based on a joke I used to love when I was younger: What’s big and red and eats rocks?

Videogames used to be my life; I ate, slept, and breathed through my Genesis, my Dreamcast, my N64, my GBA, my Xbox and Xbox 360, my Gamecube, and my Playstation 1,2, and, eventually, 3. When I wasn’t collecting all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic Adventure, I was catching all 150 Pokemon, training Chocobos in Final Fantasy VII, battling Ridley in Metroid: Prime, saving Princess Peace, guarding Morrowind, 100%-ing Grand Theft Auto, or, most often, “pwning n00bs” on Halo 2.

I was in deep. I would rent games from Blockbuster and finish them within half the time of the one-week rental period. I’d buy three, four, five games per month, trading in one or two at a time and buying used games so that I could sustain their high prices. I toyed with the idea of writing strategy guides, ultimately abandoning the idea because I couldn’t figure out how to take screenshots of my gameplay every few frames like the real guides did.

Eventually, I started writing on videogame forums. I reviewed the games I was playing, posting not only on forums like Game Informer and Gamespot, but also writing for user-created websites that were only read by our online friends and, occasionally, our parents.

It wasn’t as lonely as it sounds: I made a lot of friends in the online world, forming bonds based on nothing more than a love for a shared hobby.

It was a funny thing, to make friends with people from the online world and never know what they looked like. I knew my friends by their Gamertags and screen names online, only graduating to a first-name basis in a mere few cases.

There was ThePinkPoo and Chaos987 and Apocalidiot and Halbred, Viewtiful_Gamer, Jesus_Hates_Dogs, and SSRMAGNUM, among others. I didn’t know what these gamers looked like or where most of them were from, though I did know by the sound of their voices that they were all males, probably only a few years older than me.

Most of my friends in the online community were met through Halo 2, the sequel to a first-person shooter that redefined shooters on consoles. Halo 2 was released on November 9th, 2004 on the original Xbox, a day I was conspicuously absent from school due to a “sickness.”

The next year and a half of my life revolved around that game. I met my online friends through the videogame forums I was writing for and on the Zanzibar beach while I was trying to capture the other team’s flag, in the center pit of Midship while we attempted to arm bombs in Assault, and as we were gunning a Warthog out of a team’s base, flag in hand, on Coagulation.

I was hooked and, perhaps best of all, had made a collection of like-minded friends, despite that I wouldn’t have been able to pick them out of a crowd of people unless I heard their voices in my ear.

A few of my friends from the real, non-digital world joined me in Halo 2. Though we all had our different reasons for playing, each reason was strong enough to keep us glued to the Xbox for 4, 5, or 8 hours per day.

“I didn’t want to read or play outside, so virtual worlds it was… [I played] for leisure,” Jack Kennedy (Gamertags: “BALSAKTHEGREAT,” XBIGEARLX,” and “MoronBerserker”) said through a Facebook message.

While some of us played for fun, others embraced the hobby as a way to become closer with family members

“My uncle was a gamer so he gave me the same N64 as a gift. He later gave me a Dreamcast. My dad was also a gamer. He always wanted to learn to fly [airplanes] but because of finances, he got his fix through flight simulators. That’s how I got influenced to game…” Nino Ranjo—also known as “NINOTHENINJA,” “xWARH4MM3Rx,” and “MOSES91”—said.

Jack, Nino, and I spent our early teenage years saving humanity from the Covenant by capturing flags, arming bombs, and slaying blue and red Elites and SPARTANS. But eventually it came to an end as college, girls, social lives, and homework got in the way of our gaming.

“I don’t game as often as I used to,” Ranjo replied when asked about his current gaming habits, “I feel like I’m wasting time and money but despite that I still make time for it because it has importance to me.”

“Currently I only really play ‘The Last of Us’ consistently,” Kennedy said when asked the same question.

I escaped hardcore gaming for a few years, ducking back in occasionally to play the “Batman: Arkham” games and “Metal Gear Solid 4” for a few weeks. But it never reached the level it used to have in the days when I would slay digital aliens by the hundreds with my online friends.

Online video games don’t have the sense of community they used to have; players rarely talk through their microphones anymore, despite the obvious strategic advantage that communication can give a team on the digital battlefield.

“I play ‘The Last of Us’ because it has a strong online community of communication like ‘Halo 2’, though not as good,” Ranjo said.

Headsets and online gaming connect people from all over the world and gives them something they immediately have in common: a love for a particular game, or at the very least a shared hobby. The loss of communication in online games deprives video games of their best quality: the ability to connect people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, age, or gender.

Because of this, a lot of us who used to play videogames back in the days of “Halo” have significantly lessened our playing times.

“I need a world that is immersive but at the same time I can share it with friends. It has to be worth my time… [however] if I’m super lame, I’ll YouTube games instead of playing them because I like the story,” Ranjo said.

As for me, I recently dipped back into casual gaming last Christmas when I was given my first console since Xbox 360: a Nintendo 3DS XL. It took me a year, but I finally just beat one of the two games I had gotten with it: “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.”

I have long tried to discern what possessed me to log countless hours onto Xbox Live and all the other single player games I have obsessed over since first playing Sega Genesis when I was four years old. I didn’t know what made me want to start gaming again when I first asked for a DS last Christmas, considering the new time demands facing me from work, writing, social life, and trying to get back into school.

It took two rectangular 4.88-inch screens and a tiny three-dimensional kid dressed in a green and blue leotard to finally make me see why I had been gaming for all of these years: the connection to a simpler past and the feelings of comfort that can evoke.

I played my DS as I suffered through a bitter Chicago winter. I played it as I was finishing my first job after college, logging 10- or 12-hour days for virtually no pay. I played it while I was studying for the GRE, terrified I wasn’t going to make it into graduate school. And I’ve been playing it throughout my search for full time employment and the pain of writing countless cover letters and seeing the words “Entry Level Job” one line above the words “2-3 years of experience preferred.”

Video games are something I cling to when I’m scared of what’s coming next; my obsession of “Halo 2” was at its peak when I was finishing eighth grade and starting high school, delving into the atmosphere of gossip and materialism I had been conditioned to fear in teen movies, and I spent more time on my Playstation 3 at the beginning of college trying to beat “Metal Gear Solid: 4” and “Uncharted” than I care to admit.

Simply, video games help me feel younger, somehow more invincible, and less vulnerable. In uncertain times when I feel like I don’t know which way is up, they help me to stay grounded by granting me immersion into a new universe and connecting me to my five-, ten- and 15-year old selves.

But one leotard-wearing hero named Link taught me an important lesson when I finished saving Hyrule on my DS last week.

“The Legend of Zelda” is a videogame series consisting of 17 games and multiple spinoffs, dating back from 1986 when the title game was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, a “Zelda” game has been released on every major Nintendo console, handheld or otherwise.

The games are unique from other series due to their similarity: each game features largely the same story, with a hero named Link as the Chosen One who must rescue the Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. There are variations on this story, but only in certain games is the redundancy of the stories noted. In most cases, Link is a character who does not know he is an iteration of the legendary hero he has heard about all his life, and who always leaves his life as a blacksmith or farmer to go on an adventure in an attempt to fulfill his destiny.

As I was fighting Yuga, the piggish, Triforce-wielding version of Ganon in “A Link Between Worlds,” I was struck with a realization: each Link exists in a different universe and, though his goals change in certain games and his path to the completion of his destiny may feature one less Water Dungeon here and there, he always succeeds in his goal.

Link was probably pretty scared to leave his blacksmith shop at the beginning of “A Link Between Worlds,” or his farm in “Ocarina of Time.” He probably doubted he could save Zelda when he was sailing the seas in “Wind Waker” or when he fights Ghirahim at the Skyview Spring in “Skyward Sword.” Maybe he didn’t think he had it in him to beat the final form of Ganon in “A Link to the Past.”

But he always fulfills his destiny. He ages a few years in each game, becoming an adult by each journey’s ends, but he always gets a little tougher and a little braver, and he always succeeds.

Like Link, I’m nervous about my future. I’m worried about continuing my job search and going to graduate school, to take chances and risks. To leave my metaphorical farm and find my metaphorical Triforce and save my own metaphorical princess.

But if Link can always succeed exactly as he has to in order to fulfill his destiny, maybe a big, red, rock-eater can too.

Even at 23-years old, video games are still teaching me lessons about community, friendship, and life.


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I could tell I was exuding angst by the way the 18-year old girl shot lasers at me with her eyes in the Barnes and Noble cafe. Her style was a paradox: an eyebrow piercing above her right eye, a small tattoo of a green clover behind her left ear, and a private high school’s school uniform consisting of a black sweater, white button-up, and a black-striped skirt. The schoolgirl within prevailed over her rebel disposition as she glanced at my headphones with a mix of perplexity and annoyance when Brand New’s deafening chorus came belting out of the white wires dangling from my head.

Relax, we all get it: you’re annoyed at the world, said the brown eyes that betrayed the barbed piece of metal a quarter of an inch above them.

“Do you mind turning those down?” mouthed her mother (black-framed glasses, no eyebrow piercings or schoolgirl uniform: tattoo number unknown) while Jesse Lacey screamed in my ear about people not understanding him.

I did mind, but I acquiesced and went back to allowing my soul to be sucked from my body as I gazed down at The Princeton Review’s “1,007 GRE Practice Questions,” a mammoth bible of standardized test questions. Weighing in at 946 pages, reading it every day is about as arduous and anxiety inducing as reading the Book of Revelations while suffering through a panic attack about the future’s uncertainty; its size is exceeded only by my growing annoyance at having to open it every day.

It isn’t a big surprise the teenage angst I used to exhale as a pheromone in high school is coming back to greet me like an old friend. My mornings these days usually begin with the same two things: an obnoxious BEEP from my iPhone at 8 a.m. and a two-ton weight with the word “anxiety” on its shaft placed on my chest. One screams for me to get out of bed while the other ensures maximum difficulty in doing so.

I usually let the panic and fear of doing merely average on another practice test sit on my chest for a few moments before I drive the 14 minutes south on 309 to Barnes and Noble, where I sit for two to five hours (depending on my projected masochistic desire for the day) and open The Princeton Review’s “1,007 GRE Practice Questions,” “Kaplan’s “GRE Premier 2015,” or ETS’ “The Official Guide to the GRE.” This may sound like I take advantage of the bookstore by refusing to buy their books in favor of stealing the practice tests as I pretend that, yes, I am a paying customer at this bookstore’s Starbucks because look at this empty cup I totally did not bring from home to make it look like I ordered an iced coffee earlier before you started your shift, mister barista, but I did pay $21.89 at one point—I bought The Princeton Review’s “Cracking the GRE.” I just worked through it once already, and I used all of the internet’s free practice tests for the revised GRE. I don’t have another $21.89 to support an industry based on a standardized test that measures nothing other than how well you take said standardized test, as opposed to anything actually useful or quantifiable like intelligence or your aptitude to succeed in graduate school.

I refuse to buy another book because no person should own more than one GRE test prep book. That’s masochistic and pathetic outweighs even my neuroses. It’s like owning two copies of Taylor Swift’s new cd: no one even wants one of them except people who are going to use pocket protectors when they get real jobs, so why buy two when you can just as easily stream it online as you pump the volume through your headphones and get dirty looks from girls who can’t decide if they want to rebel against society or become nuns?

Max Bemis and Adam Lazzara and Anthony Green are helping to bring me back to Earth again, though. Just like they did in high school, when the thought of listening to one more person say “Yo, bull!” or “That jawn is hot,” made me feel like I needed to run my head into a wall at full speed. Their voices that scream about sex and rage and anti-establishment are once again ecstasy for my ears. No one can quite calm me down like a singer with a raspy voice and a pitch-perfect scream that carries above whirling guitars and quick drums.

And yet I’m starting to think that maybe the emo tendencies and mosh pits were never really a result of my hatred of what’s around me after all.

I spent last weekend at my school’s homecoming, a blissful reunion of dozens of friends who haven’t all been in the same dilapidated, beer-soaked room since April 2012. I had dreaded it because I didn’t want to feel nostalgic for what I used to have: 3 a.m.’s with groups of five after a night at the bar, too worried to go to sleep out of fear that life would take away our carefree youth the next morning. I feared a longing for regression. I feared walking back to my financial aid office and demanding a fifth year. I feared an impending terror at the uncertainty of the future and a subsequent yearning for the freedom and comfort of the past.

Or, worse yet: I feared feeling like I had gotten too fat to fit into an old favorite sweater. More than anything, I didn’t want to feel out of my element in the one place that had (mostly) always made me feel like I had fit in.

The weekend came and went and all of these fears were unwarranted. I never once felt sad or scared about the future. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to stay. I didn’t want to force everyone to move back to Pittsburgh in a last-ditch effort to delay adulthood.

I kind of just wanted to go home and keep studying for the GRE.

Seeing everyone was great. Things between us were all more or less the same, as were my friends, save for the addition of a tattoo or piercing or hair color; but I never had a crystallizing moment in the middle of a tailgate or party or dinner get together that screamed I MISSED THIS SO MUCH.

I missed my friends. I continue to miss them, despite having seen them 48 hours ago. I think it’s normal to miss people who have all had some hand in who you are today, even if you feel like you and they have changed and you both place more of an emphasis on different things now.

But I don’t think my rediscovered angst is a result of hating that I’m not with them anymore, or that I loathe where my life is now; I think it’s a symptom of being ready for the next thing. I have no idea what the thing is yet, but I don’t think I had any idea when I was in high school, either. I didn’t know I was going off to Pittsburgh for college until the closing months of my senior year, and once I reached that big thing I turned to Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes to quell my loneliness and thirst for familiarity rather than old standbys like Senses Fail and Cursive.

Homecoming weekend made me see that I’m not listening to Weatherbox and Blink-182 because I hate where I am now, but because I feel ready to go to wherever I’m supposed to be next.

And so here I sit, two days removed from a massive reunion with almost everyone I went to college with, listening to Gerard Way sing about black parades as I pore through my 1,007th GRE practice question.

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Courtroom Misadventures

I had stressed about this. I stress about everything, but I was extra-stressing about finding the courtroom. I’d never been in a courthouse, didn’t know the labyrinthine layout of the arcane building.

At first I was only worried about parking. I can’t parallel park: the secret of every suburbanite who moves to a city without a car. I imagined metered spots with only a few feet between the cars, a line of Ford Taurus’ behind me as I unsuccessfully tried to park my Honda Accord in the tight space. People would honk at me, cursing through gritted teeth while I screwed up and cut the wheel too early, hitting the curb and jutting out of the space at an awkward angle.

Luckily, this nightmare didn’t come to fruition; I found a spot in front of the courthouse by a parking pay station that I only had to pull into.

I scrounged a few quarters from between the seats in my car and walked over to the pay station. I keyed in my parking spot—P24—to the keypad and slid a few quarters into the slot.

They rolled back down to the bottom of the “refund” section of the pay station as the display remained unchanged. I pushed open the refund slot, unnerved, and found over a dozen quarters inside the small rectangular hole. Evidently, the parking station wasn’t working.

I took the quarters out of the slot and tried to put them back into the pay station. They fell through the system hollowly, returning back to their home in the refund slot.

I removed the coins and put them all in my pocket, the irony not lost on me that I had just stolen right in front of a courthouse. I whipped out my wallet and took out two wrinkled $1 bills, forcing Mr. Washington’s face into the bill slot.

“$2.00: 90 MINUTES,” The station read back to me.

I hit the green button to signify the end of my transaction so I could get a receipt to put on my car’s dashboard. The screen remained frozen. I stared at it, dumbfounded, until I noticed the snicker of a tall, potbellied man from across the street. The attendant of the courthouse’s parking lot.

I tried not to look as young as I felt as I took out my iPhone to take a picture of the station’s display in case there was a parking ticket on my car when I came back.

I walked up the stairs and into the courthouse, smiling at the two security officers sitting beside the metal detectors in the building’s entrance.

“Empty your pockets,” the one on the right said as cheerily as you can give a command that involves checking to see if you brought weapons inside a building.

I took the twelve-plus quarters out of my pocket and put them in the clear bin, eliciting questioning stares from the guards.

I went through the metal detectors—no beeps! —and was struck by the immediate realization that I had no idea where I was going. Which was exactly what I was stressed about besides the parking.

I had promised my Dad I would go to watch him try a case that had just went to trial. An antithesis to how he would watch me play sports when I was a kid, I was going to watch him try a case as a criminal defense attorney.

I just had no idea where he was. I only knew that the courtroom was a place simplistically called “B,” but all the rooms on the first floor were numbered, not lettered.

I considered asking the security guards for directions, but didn’t know how to phrase it without feeling like a 6-year old who was lost at a baseball game.

“Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me where my Daddy is?”

No way. I’m a bearded, tie-wearing 23-year old man.

I looped around the building and walked into a bathroom so that the woman walking angrily behind me, her heels clack-clack-clacking on the plastered floor beneath, would think I knew where I was going. I made immediate eye contact with a urinating police officer as soon as I opened the bathroom’s door. I worried he would know I had stolen the quarters from the parking station, so I opted for the privacy of a stall rather than the vulnerability of a urinal. I didn’t want to get caught, literally, “with my dick in my hands.”

I realized as soon as I locked the stall’s door behind me that I didn’t actually have to go to the bathroom. I stared down at the toilet and hummed, waiting for the cop to finish up and walk out the door. He left after a few seconds, allowing me to get out of the stall and wash my hands.

A few minutes after the bathroom incident I found a sign that said: “Courtroom B: Floor 3.” I made my way up the two floors—taking the stairs, careful to avoid the embarrassment of revealing I didn’t know where I was going after I had spent six minutes following two men in suits—and found Courtroom B.

Two women and a man sat outside of the courtroom. The possibility of walking into the wrong courtroom and having to walk by these people twice stressed me out, so I ducked into another Men’s room. This one was cop-free.

I gave myself a pep talk and left the bathroom after three minutes, emboldened and determined to enter Courtroom B. I stormed past the family and into a room that looked like a church.

50 people sat and whispered in pews behind an altar where I presumed the judge sat. So much for separation of church and state. Instead of a Porcelain Jesus on a cross, a painting of Jefferson and Washington was sprawled above the judge’s altar. Ornate chandeliers were suspended above us from a decorated ceiling, and portraits hung on the wall, replacing the Stations of the Cross paintings found in churches.

I slunk into the room and took a seat in a pew on the far side. I pondered the similarities between our courthouses and Christian churches for a few minutes before I noticed the stares of people from all around me.
They were malicious “you don’t belong here” stares, the kind I hadn’t seen since high school when I tried to hang out with the popular kids.

Everyone was throwing daggers at me with their eyes. The Dad with a green button-up shirt and wire-framed glasses. The annoyed bearded guy hunching over a pew who let out an exasperated sigh every other minute after looking at his watch. The fully-grown man in a baby blue shirt who for some reason still owned a pager. The middle-aged attractive brunette woman who wore a wide smile for the entire conversation she held with three older women until she glanced over at me.

I was attracting everyone’s attention like I was a female guest who had decided to wear a white dress to their wedding. The whispers were getting louder, cicadas in the House of God, er, Washington.

I self-consciously averted my gaze from each person’s death stare until it became fixed on a man’s chest. He stared at me with one eye closed and a lip that curled slightly to the right, the way kids look out of telescopes.

A card sat in a placard on his chest. It was white with a bar code on its bottom, and the word “JUROR” on its top.

I had inadvertently made my way into a jury selection, and the potential jurors had no idea why someone would willingly attend something they were being legally required to miss work and personal time for. I felt like I was auditing a college class in molecular biology.

I kept my head down and avoided the whispers. I pretended not to hear when someone said, “Is he in the wrong place?” I felt like I was a 6-year old again.

“Mr. Lyons, please visit Guest Services to claim your lost son.”

“Mr. Lyons” did eventually return from the judge’s chambers, though not to claim me. I gave him a “What’s up?” expression when we caught each other’s eye. He walked over to me as I sat in the room’s corner-most section of a pew, the closest I could get to crying in the corner in a fetal position.

“Yo. The judge wants to open tomorrow, so this is just jury stuff,” my father said with a smirk on his face.

“OK,” I replied, “I’m here, so… I think I’m in the wrong place. All these people keep looking at me like I just murdered their family pets.”

“Yeah, because you’re supposed to be outside,” he shot back. “Here, hide.” He laughed, pointing at the maroon carpet below the pew.

I laughed, mentally noting how easy it can be to feel like a kid again, even as a college graduate, pseudo-professional man in a tie and ironed pants.

I stayed in Courtroom B for 96 minutes, stubbornly refusing to give the jury pool the pleasure of kicking me out of a room they were legally required to be in.

Eventually, I left the courtroom and trudged back down the courthouse’s steps to my Honda, probably parked illegally in front of the building where all parking ticket disputes go to court.

I reached my car and smiled at the absence of a parking ticket on its windshield.

I guess I didn’t need to take that pay station’s picture after all.

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Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another [Application]?

Kelan Lyons


To Whom It May Concern:

I think I’m going to light my hair on fire. Or maybe give myself a diagonal scar from my forehead across to my left eye. Anything that gets you to notice me. To see that I’m a person; a smart, young, energetic kid who is willing to do anything to get a job at your nonprofit.

Truthfully, I don’t even know what you guys do. If I’m applying, I assume it’s because you do X amount of good for Y group of people. I’ve applied to so many nonprofits like yours that I can’t bear to look at your website and see what differentiates you from the others. It’s all the same to me; whether you provide clean water to children in Africa or tutor children in the inner cities of America or provide relocation assistance to refugees or offer discounted prescription medications to low-income families. The thought of taking the time to look at one more nonprofit’s website to see what services you offer Y group of people makes me want to sink to the floor in a puddle of frustrated tears. If you offer help to some group of people, just assume it’s something I’m passionate about.

Job-hunting is a full-time job and it’s starting to kill me inside.

I just want to help. I look at the news in Ferguson, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Somalia, Sudan, Chicago, Philadelphia, Nigeria, wherever, and I get the feeling in my gut that I need to be helping these people. That even though I’m from America, a land where money is King and we all live in pursuit of some vague Dream of owning a business or comfortably raising a family, I would rather dedicate my time to helping people who began their marathon at a different starting line than I did so that they can attain Dreams of their own.

I feel like working for a corporation is going to make me feel stagnant and useless and like I could be doing more for people. I worry it would make me lose sight of my belief in the fundamental purpose of humanity, which is to help others to attain things they want and need. To aid in leveling the playing field in an arena that is anything but.

And so I’m applying to your organization, in favor of a low salary or stipend, or maybe just for some leftover food and a few free lunches, instead of taking a job to pay back my student loans. Because I believe in giving someone the tools to go to college like I did so that they too can stress about what to do with their lives when school is over and wonder how they’re possibly going to pay back their loans.

But I’m starting to get a bit discouraged.

As a faceless member of a generation with a large number of do-gooders, I’m starting to feel like the only way I can stand out is through some arbitrary characteristic that gets you to remember who I am. For instance, an eye scar or enflamed hair.

I know this because I’ve tried everything else. Graduated from a decent college with a 3.8 GPA. Completed a year of service with an AmeriCorps program. Engaged in a host of extracurricular activities, held down a job while I was in school, meticulously created and edited a resume that lists my talents, awards, and professional experience. I even have a name that sets me apart from most of my peers.

But I’m still finding it hard to land a job in an organization like yours. All us do-gooder millennials are. We’re hyper-educated, hyper-intelligent, hyper-motivated, and just plain hyper. We’re foaming at the mouth to help, and yet still finding it hard to get work.

I’m one of the lucky ones: I have experience. I’m not one of the countless twentysomethings who tried their hands at the white-collar world, only to decide that I couldn’t take it and wanted to help people instead. I have over two years of mentoring experience. I completed a year of service in a team setting, proving I can play nicely with others. I maintain my own WordPress regularly, showing my technical prowess and writing skills. I’ve blogged for various nonprofits, worked with families in communities vastly different from my own, spearheaded different initiatives focused on recruitment of community stakeholders or spring break curriculums. Helped get a new nonprofit off of the ground.

I don’t say this to note that I’m qualified or stand out from the crowd. I say this because I’m one of a long line of my peers willing to help, to serve, to dedicate my life for the betterment of another’s circumstances, and our applications are still being overlooked in favor of one person who is more qualified than us for seemingly arbitrary reasons.

We’re young and we’re willing to help, but find ourselves unable to do so. Some of my peers are taking this as a negative and becoming discouraged at not finding work, or when they do, see themselves as overworked and underpaid as they do their best to avoid giving the correct addresses to their lending institutions. But I see it as something a bit more positive. That maybe it’s a good thing that we’re such an idealistic group of young people. That it could be OK that we have a surfeit of people willing to brave a crowded market where “Entry Level” means “1-2 years of experience” and “Advanced Degree Preferred” means “Will Not Consider a Mere Bachelor’s.” That perhaps the difficulty in landing positions in nonprofits like yours means that qualified young people are really making an effort to change the world and willing to brave one painful cover letter at a time to ensure they get a crack at it.

We’re out here, waiting for you to call upon us. Willing to help.

Just please don’t make us light our hair on fire to get your attention.


Kelan Lyons



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Freeing Willy

People love Killer Whales; they brush their teeth with Shamu toothpaste, dress their dogs in Orca costumes, send their kids out for Halloween in foam and felt whale outfits, and watch Disney movies predicated on the idea that the oceanic top of the food chain is a befriend-able, loving animal that all humans should just hug.

Orcas have been in the news a lot over the past year. The film “Blackfish” opened people’s eyes to the injustice of caging animals that swim 250+ miles a day in a glorified swimming pool, and SeaWorld’s rebuttals to the documentary in a court of law made us pray that no alien life ever wants to study us for “scientific purposes” in the same way that SeaWorld claims to benefit human understanding of Orcas.

Marine life has always been an obsession of mine. I plowed through “Moby Dick” at a young age, refused to bathe after watching “Jaws” at 4 years old, stared wide-eyed at “Free Willy” while eating Goldfish crackers from my couch in my Philadelphia home in kindergarten, and went cage diving in South Africa while I was studying abroad two years ago. I rarely pass up an opportunity to go to an aquarium or gaze out over a beach in search for dolphins/sharks/jelly fish/seaweed.

Moreover, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next with my twentysomething life the way Ahab searched for his White Whale. I finished a job with a contracted end after college and have since been unemployed with zero clue what to do next. I’m allowing my loans to pile up at home while I avoid moving back in with my family by traveling everywhere but the Philadelphia area.

Washington State was one of the many places I visited on my trek out West. The waters are havens for Orcas, so I had little trouble justifying the roughly $100 to see them in their natural habitat.

I’ve always hated taking pictures, and since I found myself continually needing to justify why I was neglecting to look for employment in favor of driving across the US, I decided to record my thoughts on the whole experience whenever they popped into my head. The results, I think, are better than just a collection of Snapchatted selfies to my friends with Orca fins in the background.

11:00 am—The sun is struggling to peek out from behind the overcast gray sky on this muggy August morning in Washington State’s Ana Cortes. We’re boarding a commercial vessel in an attempt to observe Orca whales from the safety of a boat while I fight the urge to jump into the Salish Sea and join the apex predators. There are worse ways to get out of paying back my student loans.

11:07 am—Our tour guide is introducing himself (“Chauncey” henceforth) and what the crew hopes to accomplish today. Evidently the rain and bland skies are going to create fog and decrease visibility, lessening our chances of seeing any whales.

Chauncey clears his throat after telling parents to watch their kids to ensure we don’t unintentionally chum around the boat in an attempt to draw in more Orcas. He smiles and says, “Next thing we are going to do is look for whales.”

Hold on, there are whales here? I was unaware. They should advertise this more.

“These whales can go down underwater for a long time. We don’t know where they go.”

This may be a long voyage.

11:11 am—I’m tempted to go to the snack bar onboard and ask for a whale burger. I want to point towards the horizon when an orca breaches and exclaim, “I’ll take that one!” and then look confused when the crew mate behind the bar (“Fuschia”) looks at me like I’m a monster.

“What?” I’ll reply. “Is that not what we’re doing here?”

Sounds like someone who really missed the point of “Blackfish.”
11:14 am—I could totally do this job. I gave tours in college for my school. I am much funnier than Chauncey. I could call my business “Lyons Whale Ventures,” with the slogan “Orca Tours With the Driest Humor.” Peak of irony when you consider the whole tour will take place from a boat.

11:21 am—I’m bored. I’m flipping through the operation’s complimentary manual for some information on Orcas. Turns out they’re between 17 and 32 feet long, weigh between 7,000 to 23,000 pounds, and can live to be over 100 years old. There are two different kinds of orcas: resident and transitory. The former are a bit more basic bitch, eating different types of salmon and other fish, but the latter are the bosses of the sea, dining on seals, sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins. Stats like this make me question why humans get all bent out of shape over killer whales’ deaths but fear sharks. The same people who would rather eat glass than be in the water with a shark would jump into the ocean to kiss an Orca, unaware that their gesture of love would probably result in a watery grave. Or being buried inside an Orca.

11:26 am—Chauncey tells us to look at the trees on the bordering cliffs for a bald eagle. His nasally voice informs us, “I guarantee that an eagle can see us from way up there as easily as we can see him,” which I find improbable, considering that I have no idea where it is.

11:28 am—Where the hell is this bird? I can’t find anything. It’s as elusive as the Dream of the country its supposed to represent.

11:31 am—Eagle just jumped off of its perch and flew around our boat, only to then return to its original tree. Typical Eagle in that you think it’s going to go somewhere, but it only ends up exactly where it started: nowhere. Being from Philadelphia has left me with a perpetual distrust of these birds.

11:34 am—Where are these whales? Was there some sort of whale party the night before, causing all these mammoths to get a late start to the day?

11:41 am—I’m giving up on whales for the time. Just made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the supplies I brought. I heard a lanky young father just enthusiastically tell his 6-year old son that he once read that Orcas are the third smartest animal on Earth. I wonder if he’s considering humans as number one. What could be number two? Marsupials? Tour guides named “Chauncey?”

11:43 am— Just placed my peanut butter and jelly back in my cooler and noticed that I still have a few Canadian beers with me. I wonder if it’s couture to drink these now. What are they going to do to me, eh? Kick me off the boat?

11:43:30 am—While looking around the room for signs of any prohibition of the consumption of alcoholic beverages, I saw an advertisement for $4 bottomless coffee. Coffee versus alcohol: the great debate for every twentysomething rages on.

11:54 am—Chauncey hasn’t spoken in awhile. WHAT’S THE MATTER, CHAUNCEY? WHALE GOT YOUR TONGUE???

11:57 am—I wonder if Ahab ever got this bored when looking for Moby Dick. This is why Quint was always getting slammed when he was searching for the shark in “Jaws.” 11:58 am­—Chauncey’s voice comes on over the intercom to tell us that there are a few seals and black birds to our left side of the boat. Unless a shark is chasing its Happy Meal Seal across the water, I’m uninterested.

12:01 pm—I should have brought tuna to chum for these whales. Or Shamu toothpaste. A whale whistle. Anything.

12:07 pm— Why are these whales avoiding us? Don’t they know I haven’t changed my Facebook timeline picture in over a year? A filter of an Orca whale breach will net the maximum amount of likes. Why are these whales hindering my popularity on social media? I can make you famous with just one perfectly timed picture on my iPhone, whales. How else are my friends going to know what I’m doing and be jealous of my experience?? Third smartest animals on earth, my ass.

12: 14 pm—Visibility just got really poor. There’s a heavy gray fog that’s preventing us from seeing more than ten feet in any direction. What a metaphor for my life! I’m just trying to find a whale/career/mate/purpose in my transitory twentysomething life! No, universe, I said a “purpose,” not the porpoise I saw 13 minutes ago!

12:17 pm—I’ve just decided that “Lyons Whale Ventures” (patent pending) will be a booze cruise with a fully stocked and open bar. Win (see whales) or lose (don’t see whales), we still booze (consume alcohol).

12:21 pm—I’m thumbing through this viewing guide again. It explains all the labeled anatomical parts of an orca that are on the page, but they subtly left out the description of the area labeled “Genital Region.” Is this organization trying to avoid the birds and bees—er, orca and tuna—talk for kids? Are they trying to spare parents from having to give sex talks on the boat every time they take people out to see the whales?

“Well, kids, when a Mommy Orca and a Daddy Orca love each other very much…” 12:24 pm—The pamphlet says that there is a 94% chance of seeing Orcas. Cool. However, know where has a 100% chance? SeaWorld.

12:24:06 pm—Regretting my previously mentioned SeaWorld joke.

12:31 pm—Fog has been lifted. Chauncey has also just blabbered that our surroundings are the “quintessential Washington picture” due to the mountains, mist, water, and sun enveloping us in a menacing embrace.

12:50 pm—Found the whales. This is pornography for the middle-aged women on this trip. They keep having “orcasms,” screaming “OOHHH!” and “OH MY GOD!” whenever an Orca even remotely reveals its figure below the water. Their screams are so high-pitched that the whales themselves can probably understand them.

The women are ogling at a pod of eight whales as they rise and fall out of the water. It’s amazing how they (the whales, not the women) move with so much grace and cover such distance each time they go under the water, but not as amazing as how amazed the collection of middle-aged women are each time they see the amazing Orcas resurface. It’s as if they expect the whales to disappear every time and are continually grateful for their reappearance.
The whales are everything you’d expect: gorgeous, beautiful, flawless killing machines. Etcetera.

A woman wearing a royal blue fuzzy hat and an equally fuzzy green zip-up is standing next to me with a camera that is nearly as big as the whales she’s shooting. She appears to be an expert, shouting such informed comments as, “OH! That’s a male!” and “Look, he’s swimming on his back!”

1:01 pm—Chauncey just yelled from the observation deck that we’re going to cut the engine, to which Fuzzy Expert translated, “That means they’re feeding.”

1:04 pm—These whales are terribly beautiful. Flawless, even, in their own environment. Not so flawless in the environments we box them into. Caging them is an act of terror to such an intelligent, majestic creature. Even Fuzzy Expert can see that.

Even just following these Orcas around is only marginally permissible. It feels like we’re some sort of whale paparazzi.

“Excuse me, Mr. Tillikum? Can I have a comment regarding your alleged sexual affair with Willy?”

1:09 pm—It occurs to me that the way we box these mammals into pools is similar to the cages we place on ourselves. How we tell ourselves that we need to follow this career path, stay in this geographic region, can’t travel or spend money because there is a certain path we have to be on and being free to swim wherever we want doesn’t bode well for following it.

I guess we assume that if we like creating our own mental swimming pools instead of having the whole ocean to wander around in, we assume equally intelligent animals of the ocean must feel the same. Hence SeaWorld.

1:17 pm—Chauncey has just told us to “do the whale shuffle” and stay on the deck because the Orcas have swum under the boat. “You get your exercise on this boat!” He yelled. Considering that I have taken approximately seventeen steps since stepping on this boat two hours ago, I will have to respectfully disagree.

1:21 pm—We’re chasing the whales and I don’t understand why. I don’t anticipate Chauncey would be very appreciative if an alien species followed him on his way to work and narrated all of his mundane activities by making pointless jokes.

1:22 pm—A woman in a pink windbreaker to my left has just had an orcasm after a whale unexpectedly breached the water. Forget “50 Shades of Grey,” all these middle-aged women need is “50 Shades of Black and White.”

1:25 pm—Another member of the crew (“Pedro”) has dropped something into the water called a “hydrophone.” It’s amplifying the conversations the Orcas are having below us. It’s sort of like a wiretap. Evidently the NSA has taken an interest in whale populations and has deemed their conversations worthy of espionage as well. IS NOTHING SAFE ANYMORE? Has Al Qaeda infiltrated marine life too???

1:33 pm—A large orca (“MALE!” according to the orcasmic call by Fuzzy Expert to my right) with a fin at least seven feet out of the water has appeared to the left of our boat. Chauncey is calling this guy a “transient whale,” meaning it eats animals of the sea that aren’t simply fish; Porpoises, seals, other whales, those kinds of dishes.

A kid is leaning over the rail. If he falls into the water, this transient whale will probably rock his shit. And yet sharks are feared, despite that this giant mammal fifteen feet away from us is twice the size of a great white.

1:44 pm—I have relocated to the upper deck of the ship for better viewing purposes. Also, my elevated position has allowed me to evade Fuzzy Expert for the time being.

2:00 pm—My new view has just allowed me to see an Orca breach the water. I erupted into a reflexive “OOH!” These damn orcasms are contagious.

2:07 pm—Chauncey has just said he is “thrilled” at our luck of seeing so many whales. Thank you, Chauncey, for your Aquaman-like ability to draw these whales so close. I like Chauncey. He’s showed us a good time, despite his weird jokes.

2:08 pm—I no longer like Chauncey.

“I notice who is playing the most: it’s the young whales! Sound familiar to anyone?!”

Stop talking.

2:15 pm—Three whales are jumping artfully through the water. They look like they’re in perfect sync with the pull of the sea. True beauty is utter perfection in its own environment. Taking these creatures out of the water to be put into pools should be a crime. Natural beauty is best left undisturbed and without possession; an interesting take on love.

2:21 pm—Chauncey has just informed us that we have seen at least 15 families of whales, if not more. He then followed this up by warning us that “the seals on the rock over there may have a worried look on their faces because they are just a few feet away from the apex predators of the ocean!”

2:24 pm—Chauncey is expressing his desire to see an orca feeding on a seal.

“I love carnage!” He says.

I wonder if transient Orcas eat human tour guides. Then I too would love carnage.

3:00 pm—We’re turning around. The whale shuffle is over. I wish the whales would let us ride them into shore. They can beach themselves in a predatory act, so they would survive such shallow waters. With the $15 minimum wage coming to Seattle in a few years, the Orcas can unionize and make some decent money if they partner with this whale watching expedition.

We coasted back to the harbor at 3:07, leaving me alone with my thoughts about whales, job searching, and orcasms as Ace tried to sell a $40 DVD to the crowd. The people onboard reacted as I imagine people did when vendors first started selling bottled water: slowly at first due to the stupidity of buying something they already owned free of charge, but eventually embraced a “this is awesome!!!” attitude after a critical mass of seafarers made the purchase. I did not buy my own copy, mostly because you can’t sell an experience for $40; you can only sell its hollowed memory, and compared to living it, it isn’t worth $40.

We docked at Ana Cortes and left the boat at 4:11, leaving the water as we found it: calm, quiet, and full of whales, somewhere out there.

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