Life-defining media from your past

I now live near to an electric substation, and every time I walk or ride or drive past it, I think of a British public service film I was shown at school when I was about 7 years old.

It had such a huge impression on me. Of course it did, because it shows TWO children dying due to high voltage electricity. It’s waaaay too brutal to be showing to 7 year old children! It traumatized me for life!

Except it’s the perfect movie to show to 7 year olds, because since then I’ve been super cognizant of the danger of high power electricity lines. So much so that my partner doesn’t understand why I get so stressed out when seeing anyone fly a kite anywhere even close to power lines.

So I finally looked up the film by searching for “boy dies getting frisbee from substation and you see his legs catch on fire” and it was listed in a page with a title like “Seven Most Terrifying British Children’s Public Information Films”.

I watched it for the first time in 33 years… and it’s just as brutal as I remember! Juliane had her mouth agape and also couldn’t believe I’d been shown it as a school child.

Trigger warnings: seeing children a boy die suddenly and his burning legs remain upright because you know his upper body is melted to the substation, seeing another boy indirectly kill his own sister, 70’s fashion.

As cliche as it is, I can honestly remember the exact point where I first heard the intro drum fill of this song, and can categorize my life as a musician in two periods based on it.

I wouldn’t call it life defining in the sense that Luke’s is. Nor did it define me as a musician.

But christ is it something I think about literally any time I ever smell anything burning…

Smell burnt toast - Must be dying.

If you want to have fun and stay alive, keep away from overhead power lines

And stay alive, hell of a line to be feeding little kids!

I’ve been thinking about this thread since Luke posted it.

There’s a ton of movies and shorts that really had an impact on me, mostly in ways that I couldn’t point exactly too but if it came up I could go “oh, I do this/feel this way because of that”.

There is one set of media that I consciously think about even to today, and that’s the Ultima games.

Specifically Ultima 4 through 7pt2.

Ultima 4 had you strive to be a Paragon of Virtue in an open world game. Be the most good person in the realms where you can basically do anything you wanted. Want to murder everyone, steal everything, sure. You could totally go GTA in U4. But you know, that’s not very virtuous. And what do we mean by Virtue?
I feel that the chosen Virtues were where U4 had the most impact on me. Honor, Honesty, Spirituality, Humility, Valor, Compassion, Sacrifice, Justice. That they were separated really got to me. It wasn’t about some 2 dimensional view of what good means. You could be honorable but not honest, Spiritual without compassion, etc. You had to balance each and find the path forward. It made every morality system come after it (you know everything made after 1985 >>) be simplistic drivel.

U5 twisted the ideas. The main premise was that you could go too far with a virtue and turn it into a vise. You can be honest to a fault, so just that you destroy the community, etc. It demonstrated that Too much is just as bad, maybe worse, than not enough.

U6 was a meditation on racism, colonialism, and slavery. In U4 you went and brought back the “Codex of Ultimate Wisdom” from the underworld and the gargoyle that held it. Well, those gargoyles were then enslaved and mistreated. They’re animals and not human so who cares right? Well, they’re conscious, feeling, creatures with culture. You spend most of 6 righting the wrongs that you committed in U4. Thinking about it from 25 years later I am certain that the solutions are far too little. It’s exactly the sorts of solutions you’d think a privileged white dude in 1990 would come up with to fix those issues.

U7 and U7pt2 have their good points, but its a bit more off the same. Corruption of institutions, prejudice, injustice, etc.

I still think of the lessons I took away from those games, in many ways it’s colored how I view good, evil, morality, it’s one off the lenses I use to view the world.

So when I look at periods of my life media is an easy way for me to look back on it. Think about what spoke to me from it without getting too hardly hit by tryna piece together my own memories of that period. Revisiting them can be interesting, too. I never stopped loving Hunter S Thompson and I never loved him so much I couldn’t see his faults, but rereading the books I started with helps me see what parts I missed when I was in high school. There is one life defining media from my past that I can basically talk endlessly about though, so here’s an essay about him that I wrote a while ago and don’t think I ever published anywhere, it’s part of a project I’m not even close to done with.

It was the week of February 20th 2012 and it was the middle of the worst academic year of my life. A depression that had been ramping up since the end of my 9th grade year had climaxed at this point in 10th grade. I was receiving treatment but it wasn’t effective yet. I wanted to leave everything. I had a plan to run away to New York City and make a new life there. I never wanted to see anyone or anything in Boston again. Well, almost anyone.

Dr. Carroll the younger (there were two Dr. Carrolls at Boston Latin School) was my Latin 4 and German 3 teacher, and one of my strongest lifelines. His classes and lectures gave me a reason to go to school each day. As long as I could make it to Study Hall, which I spent in the learning center with my greatest lifeline, Mr. G, and to my Latin and German classes. I would feel ok about existing that day. Dr Carroll was also the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan I had ever met. I may have surpassed him since he moved to Seattle in my senior year and I lost touch with him, but even now as I write this book solely dedicated to the works of The Boss, I’m uncertain if I’m as big a fan as he is.

So February break that year was difficult. When most of your motivation to live has to do with the friends and teachers you see at school, not being around them takes a toll on you. I had recently gotten a turntable set up in my room to listen to the 600 records my parents still had in the basement, and I brought about 50 of them upstairs. Among Elvis Costello and Neil Young records, I had brought up the first four Springsteen albums. It was on that cold February evening that feels like midnight by 8pm because the sun goes down so early in Boston, when I was ready to do something awful to myself that I decided to listen to Born to Run, as it was Dr Carroll’s favorite Springsteen record and I wanted to be reminded of him.

That day I met a greater lifeline to my mental health than Dr Carroll, Mr G, or even my own parents could be. Because the work of Bruce Springsteen was there for me 24/7. On Born to Run, Springsteen articulated so much that I never could find the words for. From those opening notes of “Thunder Road,” I felt like I had met someone who understood me better than I understood myself. I had hid under the covers and studied my pain. I had somewhere I wanted to go and walk in the sun even if I didn’t know when. And I felt gunned down by my own dreams like the Magic Rat.

I still remember that day crystal clear. During “Backstreets” I felt confined in my small room, claustrophobic even. After turning the record over and listening to that wall of sound of a title track, I bumped up the volume, put on my jacket, and climbed out onto the surprisingly not snow covered roof that lays beyond my bedroom window. During “Jungleland” my dad came in, probably to tell me to turn the volume down as it was getting late, but saw me on the roof and just stood in the doorway and waited for Springsteen’s last wail to close out the album before telling me to come back inside.

I still get flashbacks when I listen to some of these albums. Not to that moment in February, but to the months that followed when I would listen to nothing else. It doesn’t matter how far away in time and space I am from the route on Chestnut Hill Ave from the Reservoir train station to my house in 2012 and early 2013, if I listen to Greetings from Asbury Park I’m that fifteen year old Latin school student again, trying to figure out whether I’m happy to be leaving school or depressed to go home. I think if I listen to these songs in another few decades in my 80s, I’ll still become that kid again.

Anyway I’ll write more about what about Springsteen and that album specifically speak to me and my turmoil specifically, but a lot of you have read me talk about it briefly for the last 8 years and it’s Bruce’s birthday today so I have other Bruce things that need attention!


Fun blog post from Al Reynolds, about some stories that I also could never quite remember but was sure I wasn’t imagining.

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Of course I’m overselling Bottersnikes and Gumbles as “Life-defining”, but it clarified a few things.

First, it always annoyed me that in Stranger Things, a show set in the 80’s, all the posters on the kids’ walls, and all the things they were into, is the things that still hold up and are admired today. But that’s not how kids get into things!

Everyone is bemused or ashamed of half the posters they put on their walls as kids. Why did I ever think that movie was great? Why was I ever a fan of that sports star?

The kids in Stranger Things played DnD, but it’s just as likely they played something that didn’t last, like Hero Quest. Though Hero Quest might be a bit modern for Stranger Things.

Anyway, as a kid, I was waaaay more likely to play act as a Bottersnike than as something “cool” like a character from Tron or whatever.

Second, I think it’s no coincidence that one of my favourite authors also had this brain worm. He’s older than me, but had a similar exposure to a weird Australian kids book at a young age. That we both half-remembered this is probably just as influential as us both reading actual science fiction.

Growing up in Austria I was never familiar with the Carmen Sandiego game show though for some odd reason the animated TV show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” ran on german TV eventually, and I enjoyed it when I watched it through satellite TV.

However, the above video did remind me of the defining german-speaking kids gameshow 1, 2, oder 3 (german wikipedia link as there is no english one, despite the concept being based on an american show). This show has been continuously produced since 1977 and at least one common german phrase is directly borrowed from it: “Ob du wirklich richtig stehst, siehst du wenn das Licht angeht” (literally: “Whether you are standing in the right place, you will see when the light turns on”), often used in a condescending manner when used between adults and making some decision.

This phrase is used to after children made their selection in the multiple choice questions. These options were presented as elements on the set of the show, and children made their choice by running up and standing inside a box in front of the set element. The lights were turned down and the correct choice was lit up after a moment. Here’s a sample with the preferred intro and presenter from my childhood:

Children would earn points (in the past represented by small balls they would insert into a tube that was part of their “podium”) which at the end of the game they could exchange for prizes based on the number of points they won. Another elements of the show that defined it is that the contestants are grouped into teams of three, with each group representing a different nation. Germany and Austria are always present. When I was young they also always had Switzerland, but in the mid 2000s they changed it to have various other nations present instead. Finally, one of the children in the audience is selected as “Kamerakind” who would become a camera operator for the show.

Here’s a more recent episode to see what the show looks like these days:

I always loved watching this show as a kid. It was high energy, entertaining, and I really liked the focus on trivia.

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