Pandemic Pac Man and The Selfish Ghosts

After a two month hiatus, I’m writing about an incident related to the topic of the year: COVID-19.

I was grocery shopping last weekend, and it was like a game of Pac Man without masks. Don’t get me wrong, I love video games and Pac Man. However, when you die in the classic arcade game after being chased down by a ghost, a new game costs a few quarters. Unfortunately, life outside of an arcade game isn’t as cheap or forgiving.

Only about 60% of people were wearing a mask in the store, and if someone was coming towards me down a narrow aisle without a mask, I turned around and fled. 

Another observation I made (and maybe this is an isolated incident): a majority of the people who refused to wear a mask in the store were men, specifially white men. I’m not anti-men, and this isn’t a radical feminist comment. But guys who refuse to wear a mask, your privilege is showing. Why do you think you’re immune? Why do you not want to protect those around you? 

A mask is a mark of humanity. It shows you care about someone other than yourself. If everyone would wear a mask and social distance, COVID-19 cases could be reduced exponentially. 

I’m disheartened and incredibly frustrated every time I leave the house these days. There’s another pandemic threatening our country that has yet to be addressed:

Selfishness.

Let’s Erase the Bubbles

I remember sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor of my second grade classroom when I was first taught how to fill in a bubble on a standardized test. I stared at a chalkboard while my teacher drew bubbles and repeated the same things over and over. 

Number two pencils only. Make sure to fill in the bubble completely. If it’s filled incorrectly, the machine will mark it wrong. Don’t fill the bubble like this, no, not with an X. Make sure to erase the bubble completely if you change your mind or make a mistake.

The importance of these bubbles could not be overstated. 

Standardized testing came as a result of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act which passed through Congress and was made law in 2002 by President George W. Bush. The law “significantly increased the federal role in holding schools responsible for the academic progress of all students […] States did not have to comply with the new requirements, but if they didn’t, they risked losing federal Title I money” (Klein).

In theory, the NCLB law was a great idea– students should be proficient in certain areas before graduating from high school. Despite the good intentions behind the NCLB law, standardized testing should not be the measure of success for students, teachers, or schools. 

Instead of using testing to ensure that no students are left behind, standardized tests determine almost everything in education now. Most colleges require standardized test scores, elementary school teachers are evaluated based on the scores of their students, and even schools are assessed based on the scores of students and the achievement of “adequate yearly progress” or AYP. 

In The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss discusses several times when standardized testing went too far. In one case, Florida law refused to let students move to fourth grade if they couldn’t pass a third grade language arts test. That’s it. They didn’t care about grades or work ethic or any of the other measures of a good student. They just needed the test score to determine if a student was ready to move to the next grade.

Colleges have relied on test scores in applications to determine a student’s success, too. The SAT was formerly used as a scholarship test in the 1930s, but now it determines how successful a person will be in college. A study by William Hiss found “there was virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test “submitters” and ‘nonsubmitters’” (Westervelt). A test provides merely a number, but when we reduce people to numbers, we ignore the things which make them great students.

Proponents of standardized testing argue it’s the best way to measure academic preparedness and success. They claim that students should be assessed to make sure they’re proficient. But is a test the best way to measure the intelligence of students? Should it determine whether a student is accepted into college or moves to fourth grade? 

Although standardized testing was never meant to impede students’ learning or act as the measurement for school and teacher success, it’s become a problem. Can filling in bubbles on a piece of paper determine curiosity, grades, or love of learning? 

Instead of worrying about test scores, let’s make sure students love learning. Instead of worrying about filling in bubbles, let’s erase the bubbles entirely

The World Turns To Art

I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. I’ve never felt comfortable using the word to describe myself: artist. The name only seems fitting for people whose art hangs in museums or costs thousands of dollars. But when I think about all the art teachers I’ve had, or my mother or my grandmother, I want to call them artists; they’ve created their entire lives so they must be. I’ve been making art since I learned to hold a crayon in my hand. 

I am an artist.

A few months ago, I heard a guy in my English class casually say, “I don’t understand why we’re required to take an art class in college. I’m majoring in statistics. I won’t learn anything useful in an art class.”

I replied, “You’re not serious, are you?”

“Uh yeah, it’s a waste of time when I could be taking more math courses. You don’t learn anything in art classes unless you like art,” he said as he turned in his chair to face me. 

Knowing I wasn’t going to change his mind, I just said, “An art class isn’t supposed to teach you things. It’s supposed to teach you how to see things. It’ll make you a better statistician.”

He scoffed and turned to talk to someone else. 

In an effort to prove the guy from my English class wrong, and everyone who doesn’t think art is useful, I want to talk about art. I want to talk about how an art class is one of the best classes you can take. I want to talk about how persuasive and meaningful art can be. Art and artists are undervalued and underappreciated in our world, even though art is one of the most powerful forms of communication. 

Art Is Storytelling

Art is a form of storytelling. Through art people can view stories of the past, present, and future. Art tells stories through the illustrations in children’s books to the costumes and set design in your favorite movie on Netflix. In “The Role of Storytelling in the Visual Arts” in Medium, Troy Camplin says, “Once upon a time, the majority of humanity was illiterate. Yet, it was important to pass on the cultural stories. You had your storytellers, true, but people are very visual creatures […] humans often told their stories visually, whether on ancient vases, sculptures, or paintings.” Art has always been one of the most powerful forms of storytelling, and it can help us understand historic events of the past. 

Afzal Ibrahim elaborates on this point in “What is Art? Why is Art Important?” from The Artist: “In fact, it can be said that if it weren’t for art, our history, culture, and traditions would be in more danger of being forgotten than they already are.” Literature can inform us of history and culture, but so much of our history is ingrained in our visual art.

Art Is Empowerment

Art empowers people. It explains emotions that can’t be explained with words. In recent years, art therapy has become a tool for people with mental health problems and psychological disorders. In “How Art Therapy Is Used to Help People Heal” in Verywell Mind, Kendra Cherry says, “Art therapy is a therapeutic technique rooted in the idea that creative expression can foster healing and mental well-being. Art […] is used to help people explore their emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem, and work on social skills.” Art is an expressive medium; it helps people communicate and handle stress or anxiety. 

Additionally, art is a compelling form of activism. Art can convey changes we want to see in the world. For example, the thousands of protest signs seen at rallies are a kind of art activism. In “Louder Than Words: How Art Serves As A Form Of Activism” from Marquette Wire, Noelle Douglass discusses art and interviews people who have created art for social change. She says, “The ability of art to inspire activism and understanding is seen in the stories of many different artists and social advocates […] ‘The exhibit is about the power of images to construct narrative,’ Layden says. ‘Images tell stories, and people make meaning from those stories, but that meaning isn’t fixed.’” 

Art created in the interest of social change forces people to change their perspective. Art appeals to pathos in viewers because there’s a kind of raw truth present in any kind of art used for activism. 

Art is Everyone

Our popular culture is defined by our art and our artists. Art connects us and makes the globe smaller; it makes us feel united. 

In times of crisis or uncertainty, the world turns to art to express emotion and convey history in a way words can’t. Although many things have been canceled and banned during the COVID-19 pandemic, art is stronger and more present than ever. All forms of art are uplifting spirits during quarantine, even music, television, and movies. In “How Art Can Soothe Us During Times of Crisis,” a clip during PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff says, “In these trying times, people are creatively using the arts, like song, to come together, even in the face of social distancing. It is a reminder of the power of humanity even during hardship.” 

A.O. Scott talks about art connecting the world during crisis in an article from The New York Times called “What Happens When We Lose The Art That Brings Us Together?” He says, “Art is a way of knowing, of seeing and feeling […] It makes us witnesses and participants in the crossing of those frontiers, and in doing so makes visible and permeable the boundaries between our individual and communal selves. We are alone in the dark of the theater or the light of the museum, and also together.”

Simply put, even when we are alone, we are together through art. 

Support Artists and Art Education

Art makes our world brighter, it heals us, and it empowers us to make the world a better place. So, why are artists completely underappreciated in society? They shouldn’t be. 

In “Why It’s Good Business to Support The Arts” from Forbes, Henry Kurkowski argues, “The economic impact of the arts is well documented […] There are many reasons why promoting local arts and cultural nonprofits can help to improve communities. Promoting the arts can also positively impact the bottom line for companies that support these organizations.” Kurkowski says that companies can benefit from supporting the arts, but there are ways individuals can support artists, too. If you’re looking for a way to give back to artists, buy from them on websites such as Etsy and RedBubble. These platforms are dedicated to supporting artists and selling unique work. Like any other buying decision you make, it’s always better to buy from a small business.

Perhaps the best way you can support the arts is by protecting art education in schools. Art programs are frequently underfunded and sometimes even cut in public schools. A year ago in Oklahoma, a school’s art program was cut, and students lost a valuable part of their education. 

An article titled “Decline in School Arts Programs Follows Funding Drop, But Cuts Aren’t Equally Felt” from High Plains Public Radio Online discusses the fallout from the elimination of the arts: “High school juniors and seniors had a dedicated art teacher who taught class five days a week. They would paint, sketch and learn ceramics. That all changed five years ago after budget cuts forced district officials to eliminate the class. Now, instead of creating art every day, high school students have the option of learning about its history online. Very few do.” 

Art programs are usually the first to go because the arts can’t be tested; there’s nothing on the SAT or ACT about art specifically. This means the decision to cut arts programs is almost exclusively a data-driven decision. You can’t put a numerical value on art. 

In “Probing the power and importance of art” from the American Psychological Association, Kristen Weir writes about art in schools: “Funding for arts education is often precarious, and arts advocates are eager to show that studying art or music will lead to better grades or higher SAT scores […] ‘In general, correlational studies showed a strong connection: Kids who take arts classes do well in school,’ Winner explains.” Weir continues by arguing that art teaches more meaningful things that can’t be measured on paper. 

In “10 Real-World Ways Art Class Can Impact Your Life” from  The Art of Education University, Debi West talks about everything you gain from art education. She argues that the art education we receive in school provides us with several skills we need as adults: creativity, improved academic performance, developed fine motor skills, confidence, visual learning, decision making, perseverance, concentration skills, collaboration skills, and accountability. 

Imagine A World Without Art

Some people are still unconvinced of the value of art in the world. I will never stop encountering people who say things like, “I don’t understand why we’re required to take an art class in college. I’m majoring in statistics. I won’t learn anything useful in an art class.” Art doesn’t just happen in a classroom. The skills you learn in an art class you take in grade school or college will change the way you see things for the rest of your life. Art is everywhere which is why you have to engage in the arts even after you leave the classroom.

Artists are undervalued because that’s what we’re all taught in school. The people who decide to cut art in a school aren’t bad people; they make the decision because there’s no concrete numerical way to measure success in the arts. But if we were forced to measure everything in our world to see its value, and if we got rid of the things we couldn’t assess with data, we wouldn’t be left with much. I don’t want to have to imagine a world without art. I don’t  want to live in a world devoid of color and music and museums and everything that makes life beautiful. 

Art education is the most useful to students, not because it’ll raise their test scores, but because it’ll make them better people. Art isn’t valuable to the world because it’s good for the economy; it’s valuable because it makes life better. And in our darkest times, the times we’re in need of hope, the times we want to feel human, we turn to art. The world turns to art. 

We Should Be Social Media Distancing, Too.

It’s been almost a month since COVID-19 hoisted me from my dorm at Temple University and plopped me back in my parents’ house indefinitely. Days are beginning to run together, I haven’t seen my friends in weeks due to social-distancing rules, and optimism is waning steadily. Like most people, I’ve been spending an embarrassingly large amount of time on my smartphone. I’ve discovered how much people are controlled by social media and the Internet in the last four weeks as a result. We’re drawn to our devices during this pandemic, but it’s probably a better idea to limit screen time. 

Digital detoxes aren’t a revolutionary idea; people have been saying screen time is bad for mental health for years. But in this new dystopian world we’re living in, going online is different. When you unlock your phone, you’re constantly inundated with information about the virus which can cause an incredible amount of anxiety. 

In “Coronavirus News on Social Media Stressing You Out? Here’s How to Handle The Anxiety” in the American Heart Association News, pandemic reporting and mental health are discussed: “The ever-shifting news has some people constantly checking their phones for updates […] ‘It’s really the perfect recipe for anxiety and panic,’ said licensed clinical psychologist Debra Kissen of Chicago.” Kissen continues to argue that uncertainty, especially the uncertainty everyone is feeling now, is the definition of anxiety. 

Influencers and online personalities are another reason to limit screen time during self-isolation. They’ve always promoted unrealistic and stylized lifestyles online, but during a pandemic, it’s even more maddening. In a recent article from Vanity Fair titled “Is This The End of Influencing As We Know It?” Kenzie Bryant says, “It’s hard to kick back and consume a little mindless fare […] whatever inspiration influencers offered will no longer cut it. We’re all a little too spent to aspire to anything except making it through.” In isolation, people aren’t seeking an aesthetically-pleasing Instagram feed; people are seeking hope and authenticity. 

Above everything else, the biggest problem with social media right now is the spread of misinformation. The Internet has always been a place where stupidity can shine, but ignorance is one of our biggest enemies right now. In “How Social Media Is Shaping Our Fears Of– And Response To– The Coronavirus” from Time Magazine Online, Alejandro De La Garza argues, “Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which didn’t exist or barely existed during past major outbreaks, are facilitating important conversations about the virus, while at the same time allowing sensationalism and misinformation to spread.”

Proponents of a digital-heavy diet in isolation will argue that it’s the best way to stay connected to friends, and it provides people with the latest information. I agree we should be staying in touch with family and friends, especially since isolation can be so lonely. However, the fastest information isn’t always the best information, and breaks from the screen are beneficial even if it means a short time without friends.

Ultimately, no one but you is going to police the hours you spend on social media in isolation. Mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter can be a comfort for people who haven’t been outside in weeks. But honestly, quarantine is creating a questionable internet environment, and maybe we should be social media distancing, too. 

A Fitting Start to the Roaring Twenties

In January, people celebrated the new year in style: hosting themed parties in flapper dresses and talking about 2020 like it was going to be a renaissance of the culture that made the 1920s so roaring. Well, it turns out that 2020 is beginning to look a lot like the 1920s, but not in the way we all imagined. With COVID-19 barreling through the United States and stock markets plunging, Americans are getting much more than they asked for at the beginning of the year. 

Streets have emptied, businesses are closed, and everyone is self-isolating at home with unexpected free time. Like many people stuck at home right now, I turned to Netflix to find a binge-worthy show, and I stumbled upon Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. This documentary miniseries is completely foolish and sickeningly brutal at the same time, and it’s an absolute must-watch. 

For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard about the show, Tiger King follows zoo-owner Joseph Schreibvogel, better known as “Joe Exotic,” and the world of big cats in roadside zoos. The documentary miniseries also shows how Joe Exotic winds up in federal prison with murder-for-hire charges against animal rights activist, Carole Baskin. The show is an amalgamation of murder mystery, animal rights, magic, explosions, and so much more. No written summary of the series can really do it justice. 

The editing and videography are thrilling and seemingly uncensored. I felt as though I was watching a reality show and a murder mystery simultaneously. The show seamlessly pieces together Facebook footage, Joe Exotic TV clips, news reports, and testimonials shot for Netflix. Every episode is completely different from the last, and you never know what will happen next. Seriously. One minute you’re watching baby tigers, then you learn about possible murder involving sardine oil, and then a building with alligators is on FIRE.

The editing was particularly genius because it included flashforwards in every episode to give peeks at Joe Exotic in prison. No one really knows why Joe is in prison until the penultimate episode, but the flashforwards make the series seem like a murder mystery. The final episode even shows that Joe has ended up quite poetically behind bars just like all of the tigers he kept in captivity. 

In “What to Read, Watch and Listen to Now That You’ve Finished Tiger King” in W Magazine, Brooke Marine says the show “is a true crime investigation, subculture deep dive, and ethically contentious production all rolled into one.” Most importantly though, the show is structured and edited in a way that gives the audience no clear answers or truths. Despite the prison sentence at the end of the series, the audience is left unsure about several characters and murders.  

One of the more subtle things I appreciated about the series was its coverage of animal cruelty. By looking at it closely, you notice the series is an allegory about animal mistreatment. It’s caused many viewers to learn more about animal rights, and the series offered a platform for organizations such as PETA and National Geographic to speak up. 

In a recent article titled “Key Facts That ‘Tiger King’ Missed about Captive Tigers” in National Geographic Online, Rachel Bale takes advantage of the series to educate people about tigers in captivity: “Cubs are only economically (and legally) useful for a short time—eight weeks to 12 weeks old. They quickly get too dangerous to interact with visitors. They may become breeders themselves, or go on exhibit. There’s evidence that some are killed.” The show forced people to see how cruelly animals are treated which has produced a new wave of awareness about animal rights. 

In a time of uncertainty and chaos in the world, watching the series puts things into perspective. In a strange way, Tiger King makes people feel better about COVID-19 and quarantining. In an article titled Tiger King is Cruel and Appalling– Why Are We All Watching It?” in Wired, Kate Knibbs insightfully comments about the pandemic and the series.

She says, “As most people experience their first pandemic and its attending grief and misery, comforting sitcom standards or adorable rom-coms seem like they should be attracting audiences. Instead, the buzzy quarantine show is about a man who wildly mistreats majestic animals, appears to prey on vulnerable young men, and at the very least seriously considers straight-up murdering a lady.” Things seem dystopian and strange all around us, but Joe Exotic’s life is even crazier than ours which makes the series so fascinating and comforting. 

Viewers who didn’t like Tiger King will argue it was too crazy, not structured enough, or showcased too much unethical behavior. However, I think the unstructured craziness and unethical behavior are what make the series good. It’s a cautionary tale, a true crime documentary, a look into a world audiences have never seen before. It’s so bad you can’t look away. It has something for everyone.

I encourage anyone to sit down and binge this series, especially if you’re stuck inside because of COVID-19. It’s a show no one has ever seen before, and it’s the show you need right now. Joe Exotic’s eccentric life and love of tigers are truly a fitting start to the roaring twenties.