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I Can’t Find the Big Dipper

I can’t find the Big Dipper anymore.

I’ve begun to take long walks very late at night. I do this because I can, and because I no longer have a boss who cares when I get up in the morning. I take long walks because I am free, freer than most, and because no one tells you the dark side of that. There can be terrible freedom.

It is also for this reason that I no longer pay attention to space, or astronomy, or Mars rovers. It only reminds me of everything I’ve lost.

But, you know what they say: You can take the girl out of the planetarium, but some knots do not easily unwind. And what, are the stars going to gaze at themselves? I’m taking the long walks regardless; I may as well look around, make sure the wheel still spins.

At the moment, depending on the time, Jupiter and Saturn are right next to each other on the southeastern horizon. And if I’m out close to midnight, Mars is high and bright and clear, shining an austere copper. The moon tonight is an unsure gibbous moon in the west, fading, slowly backing down and away from its full height.

Chicago is, of course, light-polluted as hell. But this far north, you can usually find your way around the biggest and brightest, and I’ve always been able to find the Big Dipper. You can find it too, probably. That’s the beauty of the Big Dipper, really – that anyone can find it, even and especially those who don’t know shit about stars.

But I’m looking. And looking. And I don’t see it.

I know it must be in the north; it’s literally always in the north. I know it must be low on the horizon because we are in autumn. And I know that it must be right across from Cassiopeia, which I can see ever so faintly, right at the sky’s zenith, the faint white W blinking candidly at me. I look and look and look, growing rushed and unnerved as I draw more and more lines between stars that refuse to cohere into the object of my search. Am I crazy? Have I gone bizarrely, selectively blind? Have I stepped into the Berenstein universe, where the Big Dipper never was? It might be light pollution of course, but I could always find it before! Have the northern suburbs all agreed to switch on their directional lamps, their stage lights, their spotlights and flashlights and stadium lights, and point them skyward just to gall me?

In every planetarium show, the Big Dipper is the first shape you discuss. It is the starting point, the orchestra’s tuning note, the A at the beginning of the alphabet. To find Boötes, the herdsman, you must follow the arc of the Dipper’s handle, and arc all the way down to Arcturus. To find Leo the lion, you must imagine the Dipper’s bowl as a casserole dish; you must then poke a hole in the bottom and imagine the tomato sauce drip, drip, dripping down onto Leo’s back, and Leo does not like this one bit because deep in his heart he’s just a big old cat. If you want to point yourself north, you must go to the front of the bowl and follow Merak and Dubhe up, up up up to the middling, twinkling Polaris, the axis on which the whole great wheel turns.

The Big Dipper is the light, the hope, the drinking gourd. And it’s gone. It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s fucking gone.

Or at least, I cannot see it.

Or at most, it has been obscured from me.

Each day I wake up, thinking that I have finally let go of any illusion of stability. And each day, what little ground I didn’t know I still had is ripped out from under me, and I am tumbling, tumbling. The Big Dipper is gone, and what can we do about it? Is there a senator I can call? Is this how I am to spend my evening walks? Ambling aimlessly in wide amorphous loops? Connecting dots that aren’t there? Searching ceaselessly for a semblance of sensation in a sopping, sloshing, sickening sea of senselessness?

The sky is still spinning, slowly, and steadily.

That must be something.

There must be meaning in that.

Polaris, that great axis, faint yet powerful, is still up there. I cannot see it either, but this does not cause me as much concern. As the only unmoving star, it does not need to shout as loudly to let its work be done.

There is wisdom in that, I think.

And there is wisdom in the cool autumn wind, and in the slowly reddening trees, and in the cool, wet grass that gives, ever so slightly, beneath my sneakers.

Steven Universe Guides

Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #6 – Cat Fingers

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And the Season One Weird Phase™ continues with “Cat Fingers,” in which we must again ask the Crewniverse, “You were seriously intent on showing this to children?!?”

“Cat Fingers” is a weird beast because it feels like a step back in terms of complexity; I find it almost completely void of anything to analyze. But in terms of the horror movie imagery introduced in Frybo, it feels like a TERRIFYINGLY ENORMOUS STEP-UP. The Cronenberg-esque monster that Steven transforms into by the episode’s climax is so genuinely disturbing that it actually makes my skin crawl. 

Mostly, this one baffles me. Let’s get into it!

Synopsis

As Steven and Greg are doing some father-son bonding at the car wash, Amethyst shows up and joins in, shapeshifting into various forms. Steven wishes that he could shapeshift, and Amethyst responds that, being a gem, he probably can. This is backed up by Pearl back at Steven’s house, who explains that all gems have shapeshifting abilities. 

Amethyst attempts to teach Steven how to turn into a cat — and while he can’t shift his whole body, Steven does manage to turn one of his fingers into the head of a tiny cat. Excited, Steven runs to show everyone in Beach City. Along the way, Steven excitedly cat-ifies more of his fingers, until all ten are miniature cats. Unsurprisingly, he soon realizes that this is a rather inconvenient way to live, as picking things up is now much more difficult.

As the Crystal Gems are piling into a small boat (called the Gem Sloop) to go and fight a “living island,” Steven attempts to join them, revealing his feline finger problem. Pearl wants to stay and help Steven, but Garnet insists that the mission is more urgent.

Steven attempts to shapeshift back to normal, but only succeeds in making more cat heads sprout up all over his body. As his condition worsens, he runs back to his dad at the car wash. By this time, Steven’s body is very nearly consumed by a riptide of yowling cat heads. Thankfully, Greg and Steven discover that the cat heads absolutely hate water. When a spray from the hose isn’t enough, Steven goes through the car wash and is mercifully returned to normal. Back at the beach, Steven greets the Crystal Gems as they return from their mission, and the episode ends with a delightfully bad string of cat-based puns.

Analysis

This is the first episode we’ve discussed that I can safely say I dislike. Apart from my general bafflement at the body horror, Cat Fingers borrows a great deal of its structure from the preceding episode, Frybo. Namely, Steven discovers a bit of magic, makes reckless decisions with it, gets into a sticky situation, and then has to get himself out of that situation. As with Frybo, the conflict stems entirely from Steven’s immaturity, and as with Frybo Steven doesn’t seem to learn very much by the end.

However, while Frybo is hardly deep, it does manage to sneak in some surprising and insightful observations while it’s having its fun. The purpose of “Cat Fingers” utterly eludes me. Is it perhaps a story about Steven learning to ask for help, rather than floundering to find solutions to problems he can’t solve on his own? Well, no. While it perhaps takes him a little too long to realize the direness of the situation, when he does he asks for help immediately — first from the Gems, then from his dad. Is it a story about learning to control your own power? Well, no. The solution comes not from any sort of self-control, but from the application of water, the most abundant liquid on the planet.

Garnet manages to give the proceedings at least the hint of an arc: when arriving back from the mission, she tells the other Gems “It just goes to show, you should have a little more faith in Steven.” Here she is the only Crystal Gem expressing any sort of confidence that Steven can figure out problems on his own. However, this still falls short for me because it is no more than one interesting line in a largely inane episode.

One could make the argument that this episode is important because it introduces in full the concept of Gem shapeshifting. There are two things to note here:

  1. Whenever Amethyst shapeshifts, you can see that the purple gem on her chest (from which she summons her weapon) doesn’t seem to change in size that much, and is always on the chest of whatever she shapeshifts into.
  2. Although Pearl discusses shapeshifting, she does not do any shapeshifting herself.

These are both interesting details that will become important later — but we will see them repeated many times before they do, in better episodes.

Conclusion

Aside from some amazing comedic moments, I’ve never been able to find much to love in this episode. I have been spoiled, I suppose, by later episodes of Steven Universe that are much more interesting, heartfelt, and ripe for analysis. “Cat Fingers” still very much has the feel of a goofy kids’ show, with low stakes and easily resolved escapades. I think it’s valuable for helping to create that facade, which later episodes slowly strip away. However, if you’re still not quite convinced about the series, I’d give this one a skip.

Outtakes

  • Favorite lines: 
    • “It just goes to show: always listen to me, and never listen to Amethyst.” 
    • “Eh, that’s fair.”
  • Peedee is working the fryer now! Good for him, I guess?
  • We never see the Gem Sloop used again (though it does appear one more time), possibly because it seems a terribly inefficient way to get around. Surely the warp pad would be faster? Or, I don’t know, a motor boat?
    • Also, sailing nerds on the Steven Universe wiki have informed me that the Gem Sloop is not actually a sloop, but a cutter. Who knew?
  • Speaking of the Gem Sloop, we never see the “living island” that the Gems go out to fight, in this episode or in the future. Without spoiling, I’ll say that it’s therefore unclear how this particular monster fits into the series’ mythology.
  • This is our first sighting of Mayor Dewey! We don’t like Mayor Dewey very much.
  • SLIGHT SPOILER: Okay, so considering one particular fan theory about Steven Universe: Future that’s been making the rounds on the internet, could Steven’s horrifying transformation this episode be considered foreshadowing? Only time will tell, I suppose. Spoilers at the link, obviously.
Steven Universe Guides

Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #5 – Frybo

Season 1 of Steven Universe is a strange beast. The most interesting thing about it, as I’ve said before, is its unique style of worldbuilding — slowly giving the audience tidbits of information over the course of nearly fifty episodes. The purpose of this is to ground the story in Steven’s perspective, so that the audience learns about this fictional world in the same gradual manner as a real-life child learning about the real world. Season 1 is, in many ways, a perfect simulacrum of childhood.

Like childhood, then, there are some. . . shall we say, weird phases. In particular, Season 1 has a decent stretch where it seems to have gotten really into horror movies? Like a child developing a new obsession that will be gone in three months, it suddenly leans sharply forward into images and concepts that are genuinely creepy even to a supposed adult like myself. Often, these episodes are presented with the shocking, straightforward enthusiasm of that weird kid on the playground who’s ridiculously proud of this dead bird he found. And in the past, I haven’t been able to make much sense of them. What kind of tone are you trying to go for, Steven Universe? Are you a fun, goofy kids’ show, or a terrifying parade of nightmares?

“Frybo,” therefore, has never been a particularly re-watchable episode for me, as I think it’s emblematic of the Crewniverse still floundering to find the show’s identity. But upon re-watching it for this guide, there are some interesting observations in here. Let’s get into it.

Synopsis

We open on Steven’s house, where Steven is looking for his pants. Pearl, meanwhile, is looking for a dangerous weapon, a small white jagged object called a Gem Shard. In a hilarious moment (which gives us a surprisingly informative download I didn’t think we got this early in the season), Pearl explains that each Shard contains a partial consciousness that can possess objects and follow orders, and thus can’t be allowed near clothing — but Steven’s 

mind wanders and he doesn’t take in a word of it. Pearl leaves to go look elsewhere, and Steven spots his pants walking around by themselves. He puts them on, and removes the Gem Shard from the pocket. 

Steven heads outside to give the Shard to Pearl, where he runs into Peedee. Peedee’s dad runs the local fry shop, and is forcing him to walk around wearing Frybo, a creepily happy-looking mascot shaped like a bucket of fries. When Peedee wishes that the costume could just do its job without him in it, Steven comes up with the idea to put the Shard inside. 

Frybo wakes up and starts following orders, even spouting new legs seemingly made of fries. Peedee tells him to “go make people eat fries,” and he and Steven set off to play at Funland Arcade. However, they are quickly interrupted in their fun by distant screams.

Running back to the fry stand, they discover that Frybo has taken their orders much too literally, and is force-feeding fries to multiple Beach City citizens. Steven attempts to fight it and is thwarted — and even when Pearl shows up, Frybo starts spouting powerful jets of ketchup, throwing Pearl backward and letting loose all the other Gem Shards she had been carrying in a bubble. This gives Steven an ill-advised, yet surprisingly effective idea; he immediately takes the Shards and puts each one in a different piece of clothing. His pants, shirt, sweatshirt, socks, boots, and even underwear all take up arms against Frybo, and Steven is able to successfully remove the Shard from the Frybo costume. The ruined Frybo is given a Viking’s funeral, and the day is saved.

Analysis

This episode is about. . . capitalism? Yeah, I didn’t really expect that either. 

With the introduction of Peedee, we are given our first episode that comes under the subgenre of “Steven has a solo adventure with a human friend.” These episodes are going to be very important moving forward, and they serve two purposes. First, they let Steven forge connections from people outside his family unit. Steven’s human half is just as important as his gem half, and learning lessons from both humans and gems is going to be an essential skill for him.

Secondly, human-centric episodes often allow the Crewniverse to make comments on real-life issues that they simply can’t with gem-centric ones. Gems, as the more fantastical beings, are often at the center of stories that must deal in metaphor, symbolism, and the figurative. But here in Frybo, for instance, we can get very literal, very quickly, about the horrors of capitalism. Let’s look at this scene in Funland with Steven and Peedee:

PEEDEE: This seahorse [ride] used to make me so happy. Now, it’s just giving me whiplash.

STEVEN: (shaking on the jellyfish ride) I just feeeeeel tiiiinglyyyyyyy!

PEEDEE: You’ll understand when you have a job.

STEVEN: I do have a job! I protect humanity from magic and monsters and stuff.

PEEDEE: I mean a real job, that you get paid for. 

STEVEN: I’m paid in the smiles across the town’s faces.

PEEDEE: I don’t see anyone smiling. You pick up a job to buy a house, or raise kids. . . or to impress your dad. You work away your life, and what does it get you?

STEVEN: Smiles on faces?

PEEDEE: No! You get cash. Cash that can’t buy back what the job takes. Not if you rode every seahorse in the world.

STEVEN: Whoa. You wanna try the jellyfish?

Here, Peedee is explaining, however involuntarily, a common philosophical critique of capitalism. Many minds smarter than mine have pointed out that dependence on a wage for survival can restrict individual freedoms, even in an ostensibly free society. This is sometimes called wage slavery, and it has psychological effects as well as economic ones. As Olly Thorn of PhilosophyTube recently put it, “If you work a job you hate just to make money for somebody whose job is owning stuff, then are you free? Just ‘cause you can choose what color socks to wear and what to have for lunch?”

It’s easy to see that Peedee feels trapped within this system, even if he doesn’t fully understand it yet. As a child, he doesn’t yet need to work for survival — in place of that, we see that he took the job to impress his dad. But he’s already seen the endless push and pull that capitalism can work on your desires. He can work hard to get fatherly approval, but how much can he savor that approval when the job itself makes him miserable? And even when Peedee attempts to briefly escape his daily grind by supernatural means, he is roundly punished for it. The horrifying scenes of Frybo attacking the townsfolk could easily be seen as a metaphor for the chaos when you deviate from the norm, even a little bit, while working a low-paying job. If you show up even slightly late, or attempt to take a vacation, or say something even slightly off to a rude customer, your attempt to find any scrap of solace can backfire, even affecting the people around you.

Peedee eventually reaches an equilibrium with his father, after Mr. Fryman (thinking that Peedee is the one in the Frybo suit attacking people) tells him that he truly values him, and apologizes for pushing him so hard. Ominously, though, he expresses Peedee’s value to him not as his son, but as a “valued member of Fryman Brothers Incorporated, and all its affiliates.” Much like an executive using quirky team exercises to foster a feeling of staff unity, Mr. Fryman is addressing the aggression, but not its underlying cause. Even their final conversation as they send off Frybo, while it has all the gestures of a filial reconciliation, fixes nothing under the surface.

Steven, of course, is blissfully unaware of all this. He is separated from Peedee’s world not only because he is part gem, but because he is seemingly much less invested in impressing his own authority figure. 

Pearl — the only Crystal Gem to appear this episode — briefly attempts to act as Steven’s mentor by explaining to him the history of the Gem Shards, but gives up rather quickly when Steven seems unreceptive. This is the first episode so far in which the entire conflict stems from Steven’s immaturity; if he had listened to Pearl in these opening minutes, or exercised some caution with the Shard, all the destruction and chaos to follow might have been avoided. And troublingly, he seems to learn absolutely nothing from this. He resolves the conflict with the exact same technique that he used to start it — namely, putting Gem Shards into articles of clothing. 

Conclusion

This lack of growth from Steven is the main reason why I label this episode as skippable; it presents no forward movement in his character and thus feels quite static. 

There are some interesting revelations, and the show continues its masterful slow burn of information — this time, concerning the Gem Shards. What are these things? Given that they are called gem Shards, did they once used to be part of an actual ‘gem’? Is that why they only have partial consciousness?

The introduction of the Fryman family conflict could also be considered important, but they remain minor characters throughout the series and are better utilized in later episodes. Frybo is fascinating for its horror elements, and it’s charming in a bizarre kind of way — but if you’re trying to get hooked on the series, I advise you to plow forward and come back later.

Outtakes:

  • Every person in the Fryman family has blonde hair that looks exactly like French fries. This imagery is very deliberate, and is important to the series’ symbolism — let’s put a pin in that.
  • Is there a Mrs. Fryman? I don’t believe we ever see or hear about her.
  • Favorite line: “THAT’S UNUSUAAAAAAAL!”
  • The cartoon birds on Steven’s rain boots look less like ducks, and more like doves. Is this meant to evoke Noah’s Ark imagery? Or perhaps foreshadow Steven’s peacekeeping role later in the series?
  • Here we have yet another monster that can not only occupy organic matter, but seemingly create more of it out of nothing. This is also the second time that Pearl is defeated by food.
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On the Overemphasis of Hanukkah

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Disclaimer: There is no correct English spelling of “Channukah,” and I have made no attempt in this essay to find one. You have been warned.

My feelings about Hanukkah and its place in the “holiday season” are. . . complicated. 

I grew up in an extremely WASP-y and homogenous part of southern Maine. The crowd around me, however, was mostly pretty liberal — and so the small acts of anti-Semitism that I experienced, rather than being actively oppressive, were often broadly comedic. I never got a single “My pastor says Jews are going to hell,” but I did receive plenty of “Santa got me an XBOX and a dirt bike and three Bionicles for Christmas, and you should convert to Christianity so you can get presents too.”

One time in seventh grade (I don’t remember this story but my mom loves to tell it), my homeroom teacher approached my mother, asking whether I would mind if the class had a Christmas party. My mother responded that he should ask me directly, and told him to prepare for the possibility that I might, in fact, mind. And believe it or not, when my teacher ran into my mom again, he said “I asked him and he said he minded! What am I supposed to do now?”

At which point my mom said something along the lines of “Well, you could just not have a Christmas party.” Which then presumably caused my homeroom teacher to short-circuit. I do remember that we ended up having a Christmas party — not just in homeroom, but in Every. Single. Class. The people of Kennebunk, Maine loved a good Christmas party, and neither hell nor high water was going to stop them.

This was my first brush with the fact that many goyim (a word which here means non-Jews) are quite keen on making other cultures feel “included” in this Holiday Season, but are rarely receptive when you challenge the very notion of such a season.

On the one hand, reiterating this point feels like old hat, but lots of folks still seem not to know about this, so here I go: Hanukkah is one of the minor Jewish holidays. The reason it’s the most famous is simply because of its chronological proximity to that towering December titan, Christmas. Historically, it’s more akin to Independence Day than Christmas, and gift giving on Hanukkah was not a thing until the twentieth century. Against all odds, Hanukkah has been catapulted to notoriety, to the point where it’s seemingly the only Jewish holiday many goyim know about. This is less the case today, but when I was young in Kennebunk, I heard so much “Hannukah is the Jewish Christmas, right?” and saw so many nine-candled menorahs as generic symbols for Judaism that it honestly began to grate. Hannukah itself was never the problem — it’s a delightful holiday, and Lockman family Hanukkah parties absolutely slapped — but its dominance in the non-Jewish sphere made me resentful.

The overemphasis of Hanukkah has continued to this day, of course, just in more subtle ways, and often with the best of intentions. As a theatre critic, now is the time of year when I review shows like Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, or Grace and the Hanukkah Miracle — kid-friendly fare that is often steeped in Jewish history. And on the one hand, these shows are glowing celebrations of our culture; an inarguable social good. On the other hand. . . well, amidst a sea of December shows that are nearly all Christmas-themed, are shows like Herschel or Grace contributing to this widespread misconception, conflating Hanukkah with Judaism? Reducing an entire culture to one holiday? I have never seen a children’s show about Passover, or Purim, or Sukkot, or Rosh Hashanah. 

I don’t really have an answer for you. I guess I’d like more shows about Sukkot (objectively the BEST HOLIDAY, you can’t change my mind), but in the end, what I really want is less Christmas. Nothing makes me feel more like the token Jew than staring at the spreadsheet of Chicago shows I could review in December, and seeing a slew of Christmas media — but look! There’s the one Hanukkah show, just for me! Guess I’ll take that one! (I’ve reviewed Christmas shows in the past, but I’ve disliked most of them for obvious reasons that are usually unrelated to the production, and I’ve decided that it just isn’t fair to the Christmas show.)

A similar feeling comes over me when I see Christmas displays in lobbies of buildings, festooned with trees and baubles and tinsel — and then there’s a cute little electric menorah in the corner. Honestly, when this happens, I feel condescended to. My gut reaction to such a display is twofold:

  1. Jeez, can you tone it down a little?
  2. Please leave me out of this.

And therein lies the problem! In my experience, goyim do not want to be told to tone it down. Christmas is the dominating force, and they’re not gonna back down one bit — but they still want to be nice to you! And if they leave you out of it, how can they feel like they’re being nice?

It’s occurred to me that I’m describing Christmas almost like an invading army. And honestly? For me and a few Jews I’ve talked to, that’s often what it feels like. If there was a War on Christmas, we have long since lost it. December is an occupied country, and the only way to survive in it is to keep your head down, not make too many waves, and pray for January.

And here’s the thing: describing this feeling? Especially to my well-meaning goyishe friends who love Christmas but want to support me anyway? It sucks. It feels like by critiquing the larger phenomenon, I’m trying to poo-poo their individual Christmas traditions, when that’s the last thing I want to do. Things like going home to see your family, creating a spirit of generosity and gift-giving, and celebrating warmth, togetherness, and light in the darkest, coldest time of the year? Those things are objectively wonderful. 

I’ve talked a lot in this essay about “Christmas” and “the goyim” as a large, powerful group — and I want to be careful not to generalize. I hope this doesn’t feel like I’m attacking any individual. But in encountering these things over and over and over again, my frustration with the season has built up, and this is my attempt to describe the shape of that frustration. In all likeliness, I won’t start to hate you specifically if you think, feel, or say anything I’ve described above! It’s the cumulative effect that takes its toll. I’m not asking you to stop loving the things you love about Christmas. I am asking you to take a step back, look at it from the outside, and try to gauge how your culture is affecting the world as a whole. It’s worth doing, especially in an era when anti-Semitic violence is on the rise in America, and religious persecution in general is on the rise all over the world.

***

I have a confession to make. Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that I regularly celebrate.

It feels almost hypocritical to admit that, after railing against its overemphasis for a thousand words. But for a broke millennial such as myself — who’s not quite comfortable enough in their faith to go looking for a congregation — it’s simply the most convenient holiday. Passover requires a big, complicated dinner with lots of room and preparation. Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur involve going to a synagogue. And Sukkot gets its label as the best holiday because it’s the only one that involves building a RAD FORT — and with my small apartment and smaller budget, I just don’t have the space or resources for a RAD FORT.

Hanukkah is comparatively easy. If you can afford a $10 menorah from Target, as well as a $1 box of candles (and if you want a traditional meal in a hurry, a $2.50 box of frozen latkes from Trader Joe’s and a $2 bottle of applesauce) you can afford to have a cheap, easy Hanukkah. You can light the candles and say the blessing by yourself; the party has always been optional. And in a blasphemous twist, it’s the most Instagrammable holiday as well. The simplicity and beauty of the burning candles translates well to social media. 

I can rant all night about how Hanukkah’s importance is inflated and Christmas is ruining everything. But I’m a part of the system like everyone else. And I’m not at all interested in berating myself for that.

***

So. What do we do? How can we move forward from this?

I’m not sure. I’m talking about a small issue here, but of course nothing is as separate as we think. There are larger struggles at play here. 

This morning, I tweeted a dumb joke: “I don’t believe in Christmas. I don’t think it’s real.” And all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I seem to have attracted the attention of Twitter Nazis! Yay! Now, my mentions are full of things like “Happy Holocaust, Schlomo,” and “Say hi to Satan!” I have made liberal use of the block button today, my friends, but they keep popping up.

Should I delete the tweet? Make my Twitter private? That might make them go away for now, but it’d almost feel like an admission of defeat. 

And furthermore, what do I do with the biting anger I’m feeling now? Do I tweet about it? Again, that’d feel like letting them win; telling them they’d got to me. 

This is not metaphor; this is actually happening. And yet, I can think of no better metaphor for the state of the nation right now. How do you comport yourself with dignity when dignity — or at least the illusion of it — went out the window long ago?

Lastly, I know that for many folks, this is a time of reflection and reset. And that is something I have always liked about this particular week; how most of the world just shuts down for a few days, nobody goes to work, nothing seems real, and we all take a few moments of quiet. 

Let’s try to sit in that quiet this week. And maybe, when we open our eyes, there’ll be some concrete solutions ahead of us. Fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.

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Aaron’s Steven Universe Guide #4: Together Breakfast

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I think I should probably clarify what I mean by a “skippable” episode of Steven Universe. Judging from a few folks’ reactions, I think my words towards “Cheeseburger Backpack” last time may have come off as a little more. . . uncharitable than I thought. My intention, when I label an episode as skippable, is never to imply that it’s not important to the series, or doesn’t have anything substantive to say. In fact, one could make the argument that “Cheeseburger Backpack” is quite important, as it establishes what a ‘normal’ mission for the Crystal Gems looks and feels like. My goal with every single one of these guides, however, is to get you as addicted to Steven Universe as quickly as I possibly can. And while we are in Season 1, that unfortunately does mean that I might tell you to skip some episodes that have enormous value to many people, if only to slightly speed up your long journey to the really meaty stuff.

“Together Breakfast,” then, is an odd animal. I like it, but I wouldn’t call it a must-see. It’s not emotionally significant for our characters, but it contains foundational information of a completely structural nature — namely, the layout of the Crystal Gems’ Temple. We don’t see as good an introduction to the Temple’s interior until, arguably, “Secret Team,” and there are too many episodes in between that rely on the knowledge laid out here.

I have no choice, then, but to refrain from giving this one a SKIP stamp, despite my impatience (I just wanna write about “Rose’s Scabbard,” dammit!). Let’s get into it.

Synopsis

Alone in the house one morning, Steven entertains himself by making a ridiculously unhealthy breakfast of waffles, popcorn, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce, hoping to share it with everyone. Garnet arrives, holding a mysterious scroll. Refusing breakfast, she holds out her hands to the door at the back of the Temple. Both of the gems in her palms glow, as do two corresponding gems on the door, revealing a room full of floating bubbles. Confiscating Steven’s phone (after he takes a picture of the scroll), she exits and the door closes behind her. Steven tries to open the door with his own gem, but nothing happens.

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Amethyst arrives, and after some shape-shifting antics, Pearl comes out of Amethyst’s room, using the same door. Apparently, the door serves as a sort of magic portal to different areas of the Temple. Despite Steven’s pleading that they all enjoy breakfast together, Amethyst and Pearl exit into their own rooms using their gems — and Steven sneaks in after Pearl before the door closes.

Pearl’s room is a serene landscape full of magical water fountains. Pearl shouts at Steven to get out of there, but he falls down a waterfall to Amethyst’s room — which looks somewhat like the inside of a geode, with rocky crystalline structures all over the walls, accentuated by Amethyst’s piles of human junk. Steven meets Amethyst, who seems to want to eat the waffles for herself. This leads them on a chase through several more surreal areas, including a gravity-bending hallway, a room of floating rocks, and an area filled with red crystal tubes that Pearl (who catches up with them) calls the Crystal Heart. Finally, Steven falls into the bubble-filled room we saw earlier, where Garnet is about to destroy both his phone and the mysterious scroll in a pit of lava.

Amethyst and Pearl whisper to Steven to get out of there, but he’s overjoyed that they’re all finally together for breakfast. Unfortunately, his shout interrupts Garnet’s concentration — and the scroll, which she had been burning inside a bubble, turns into a smoke monster and attacks the team. The monster goes inside Steven’s stack of waffles, inhabits it, and attacks them in the form of enlarged, enraged breakfast food. Steven manages to defeat the breakfast monster by shoving it into the lava pit. Back in the house, the united Crystal Gems make a replacement breakfast, but have lost their appetite for waffles, and decide to order a pizza.

Analysis

This episode is particularly effective at recreating a familiar childhood feeling; that of wanting to spend time with the adults in your life, only to find out that they are too busy or distracted to hang out with you. The otherworldly nature of the Temple is used to accentuate the non-humanity of the Gems, making them seem unattainable and strange — again, a metaphor for the way you perceive your parents when you are a child. Steven gets a glimpse of an ‘adult’ space, and it is appropriately a wild and weird journey.

The difference between the clapboard coziness of the beachside house and the fantastical, gravity-bending Temple is also fascinating on a more literal level. The house contains a kitchen, a living room, and a bed, all evidence of a human inhabitant with human needs; the Temple contains none of those things. Given that we now know about the Gems’ long lifespans, then, it seems likely that the house was built specifically for Steven, long after the Temple itself. This is backed up by the moss and large cracks that cover the Temple’s statue-like exterior, giving it a sense of age, compared to the house’s modern materials and clean state.

We also get a glimpse into each Crystal Gem’s room, providing some insights into their personalities.

The aquatic theme in Pearl’s room is likely a nod to the underwater origins of real-life pearls. The serene magical fountains seem designed both for aesthetic pleasure and organization; I am a particular fan of how she can access and browse her catalogue of swords via dancing. It seems quite convenient and meticulous — but interestingly, Amethyst points out that occasionally items from Pearl’s collection will fall down the waterfall into Amethyst’s room, whom Pearl will then accuse of thievery. Without spoilers, I’ll say that this is a delightful metaphor for Pearl’s emotional state, and tracks with some of her unhealthy coping mechanisms we’ll observe later in the series. 

Continuing to foreshadow future character development, Amethyst’s room is illustrative of her dual identity. It is both the most gem-like and the most human. Lots of delightful earthly junk, likely collected or pilfered from around Beach City, lies in comically tall piles, almost calling to mind the Room of Hidden Things from Harry Potter. But the walls, ceiling, and floor are also covered in crystalline structures that closely echo the look of a real-life amethyst geode. There’s another dichotomy here which parallels Steven’s eventual journey of reconciling his gem and human halves. But for now, I like to savor the thought of Amethyst sneaking around in various comical disguises, stealing random crap from generations of Beach City citizens.

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Garnet’s room — or at least, what appears to be Garnet’s room — is where things get a lot more interesting. Remember back in “Gem Glow,” when the defeated monster turned into a small green sphere, and Garnet put it inside a magic bubble, which then disappeared? Well, here we get a glimpse of where it might have gone. The room is filled with floating bubbles, each with small objects inside. Each one is, presumably, a defeated monster. And when she is trying to destroy the mysterious scroll, we see her try to contain it in a similar bubble. Steven doesn’t seem to take note of this, but we the audience are slowly getting more clues as to the scope and nature of this Crystal Gem gig.

As for the monster this episode. . . well for this one we’re going to have to pull back the beaded curtain and step inside a new segment I’m calling:

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Okay, so if you haven’t seen the entire series and care about spoilers, please skip this section. 

The smoke monster in this episode is a rare case of an antagonist who can’t be explained by the later reveal in “Ocean Gem.” If all the Gems our heroes fight used to be normal, uncorrupted, sentient gems, then what is the scroll? It doesn’t appear to have a gem, nor does it seem to be connected to a larger creature with a gem like the Centipeetles in “Gem Glow.” 

One Tumblr user, whose post I cannot find for the life of me (any help finding it would be greatly appreciated), suggested a theory a long time ago that I find particularly enthralling. What if the ink on the scroll is made from crushed gems?

A truly horrifying prospect, but it’s not too far-fetched, considering both the Gem Shard experiments and the Cluster. Both of those instances proved that Homeworld wasn’t above forcing their own kind into awful, inhumane configurations for the purpose of turning them into weapons. What we see here would simply be a miniaturized version of the same technology. A gemless smoke monster could squeeze through small cracks for which normal shapeshifting would be insufficient, making it ideal for subterfuge. And being able to possess organic matter means that it could neutralize resistance from alien populations, turning their own soldiers against them and paving the way for colonization.

Why put the ink on a scroll, then? Perhaps the scroll acts as a sort of trapping agent, much like Lapis’s mirror, so that the smoke monster can be released on command. This would also explain why Garnet destroying it with fire, and then bubbling it, is such a delicate process. She wants to liberate it from its trap so it can be safely bubbled, but doesn’t want to let it loose either. Another small piece of evidence for this theory: the subtitles on Hulu for this sequence read “DISEMBODIED WHISPERING” and “DISEMBODIED SCREAMING.” The scroll makes similar sounds to what we’ll hear later from the Cluster.

But why destroy Steven’s phone? I’ve gotta admit I’m stumped on that one. Maybe the image itself is designed to drive organic beings to madness, as a safeguard? That’s a stretch, though. Let me know if you have any ideas.

None of this train of thought is particularly pleasant, which is probably why, to my knowledge, nobody from the Crewniverse has ever delved into it — if it’s even intentional. There is always the possibility, in these early episodes, that the team was still figuring out the specifics of the lore.

Conclusion

This episode continues the theme of Steven being obsessed with food — specifically, with unhealthy dessert food. Here, rather than seeing food as an opportunity to unlock his own power like in “Gem Glow,” he conflates it with feelings of family and companionship, to nearly catastrophic effect. The symbolism of food in the show will continue to evolve as we move forward, but here it is once again tied to Steven’s humanity and emotions. 

Additionally, the final scene foreshadows an important theme that will be important in the series — namely, trauma. Two breakfasts are wasted in “Together Breakfast,” despite the second one remaining entirely edible. However, when the Crystal Gems look at the second breakfast, all they can think about is the scarring (and disgusting) experience of fighting the first one to the death. The narrative does not shame them for this, and the suggestion of ordering pizza is framed as a moment of relief. It’s a quick and simplified explanation of trauma, but an effective one, easy for a child to understand, and it lays important groundwork for future events.

“Together Breakfast” is a lot of fun, and writing this review has certainly changed my position on it. There is a lot more here, bubbling below the surface, than I initially thought. The parental relationship between Steven and the Gems continues to establish itself, but hasn’t quite begun to evolve yet. The characters, and the dynamics between them, remain delightful yet static. It’s not an episode I would choose to re-watch for fun, but it’s definitely not skippable your first time through, and worth coming back to now and again.

Outtakes:

  • When Amethyst runs into her room, distraught at Pearl’s straightening up of her mess, there’s a slight animation error. We hear the sound effect of the door closing, but it stays open — and in the next shot, it’s closed.
  • The door-opening effect for each Gem’s room is different. Garnet’s door splits along two lines (one purple, one pink), creating three panels which slide apart. Amethyst’s door splits just once, and the two panels are connected by gooey-looking filaments, creating an almost organic look — again accentuating that she is the most human of the three. Pearl’s door is more literal, splitting once along the middle, with a circular pattern at head level, echoing the placement of her gem. Why does Garnet’s door have more panels? And why does she light up two points of the star instead of one like everyone else? Only time will tell, but it’s worth noting that upon first watch, this was the first episode when I noticed that Garnet had two gems.