Thursday, December 01, 2016

Top 10 Video Games of 2016

Looking over my list of my favorite video games of 2016, one thing is clear: It's been a great year for storytelling.

I'm so glad voice actors garnered some long-overdue time in the spotlight and kudos to those supporting them by using #PerformanceMatters in their social media posts. Because I'm drawn more to story-driven material, it goes without saying that my list would be very different without the talents of some incredible actors behind the mic (except for a couple, but we'll get to that later)

As important as I believe it is to continue to shine a light on the #PerformanceMatters movement, I definitely don't want to take away from the rest of the team who toiled hard behind the scenes to bring us a lot of really incredible moments in gaming: Directors, artists, writers, developers...everyone whose name is included in the final scroll of the end credits. 

Choosing my ten favorite games of the year was actually a fairly easy task. The ones that stood out to me really stood out (apologies to Far Cry Primal, an amazing game that just narrowly got edged out), but as far as ranking them from best to worst...I don't wanna do that. They're all incredible works and all of them deserve a place on your shelf/hard drive. That being said, I'll be listing them not in order of least-favorite to favorite but instead very simply the order in which I played them. Also note I'll only be including games that were released in 2016 (you know...since it's the Top 10 of 2016).

I went into Oxenfree not really knowing what to expect, and I believe that's the absolute best way to go into it. If Telltale gave birth to the Duffer Brothers, they may have made a game like this (Yes, I'm aware a video game company can't give birth to humans. Work with me).

A well-written script is brought to life by an outstanding cast of voice actors (prepare to hear that phrase a lot as you read through this list) and you can't help be drawn in as you join the motley crew of explorers as they try to figure out just what in the world is happening.

A mysterious island. Secret experiments. LOST-like hints that take their wonderful time revealing to what it is they're pointing. What are we dealing with here? Aliens? Ghosts? Science gone wrong? Never have I enjoyed being so confused so much.


The first of two games I alluded to in my intro that managed to move me without a single word being spoken aloud, I'm not ashamed to admit Unravel gave me more warm fuzzies than a bucket of cute kittens watching YouTube videos of even cuter kittens. You wouldn't know it from my super-tough exterior (I'm writing this smack in the middle of No-Shave November, and my beard has given me an overblown dose of machismo), but I can be a pretty sentimental guy and this one got me right in the gut.

Beautifully animated, the adventures of Yarny are a gorgeous metaphor for the memories we hold dear and how easily they can, well... unravel with age. Each level is a quest for a memento that triggers thoughts of an earlier, simpler time, slowly filling the empty pages of a photo album as we go. The visuals of the game are presented in a filter that encapsulates nostalgia in a way that would make Instagram jealous.

Simply put, it's wonderful. Prepare to say "Awwww." A lot.


There's a reason TellTale games keep popping up on my end-of-year lists: Plain and simple, they make really good games. 

Although I've been quite vocal about finally giving up on the TV show that's certainly not the case when it comes to The Walking Dead series put out by what I consider to be the Pixar of video game studios and The Walking Dead: Michonne did not disappoint.

TellTale has an amazing group of voice actors they - for good reason - continue to invite back to the party and this time around is no different. Director Kent Mudle perfectly blends the talents made available to his hands and he manipulates them with impressive dexterity, much like a puppeteer making an impossibly-complicated marionette spring to live with a natural ease.

As in the source material, what poses the highest threat of danger isn't the legions of undead lumbering through the landscape, but those still alive trying their darndest to stay that way. Cissy Jones steps behind the mic to breathe life into Norma, one of the baddest baddies you'll love to hate, and she seems more than eager to dole out the consequences coming your way based on choices you make.

If you only know Michonne from the television show, you'll be pleased to witness how the writers have chosen to present her backstory. We're jarringly thrust into flashbacks when we least see them coming; painful, heart-wrenching glimpses into what haunts her waking hours that make the walking dead seem like a walk in the park.

If you're a story junkie like myself, Quantum Break is your Disneyland and I had a blast running through the park. A game experience like none I've ever witnessed, the game makers have pacing down to an art form. It's like they understand how, after a particularly stressful boss battle, I need a bit of downtime to get my heart rate back down to normal, and I'm rewarded after each chapter with a live action mini-movie (each episode has a running time of about 25 minutes).

I was genuinely surprised by the number of people who complained about this alternate approach to cut scenes and I sincerely appreciated how Remedy Entertainment broke out of the box to give me a unique adventure. Even more impressive was the replayability of the game and watching how the live action sequences changed slightly depending on different choices I made during my gameplay. I appreciated the hard work and multiple storylines the writers had to balance while at the same time moving things along in an exciting way.

The production value is quite impressive and never did I feel like I was watching a video game but instead this was a full-blown big-budget Hollywood production. Special kudos to the stellar cast, highlighted by the likes of Shawn Ashmore, Lance Hendrick, Aidan Gillen, Patrick Heusinger, and Courtney Hope just to name a few.

For as long as I can remember I've wondered what it would be like to find myself as the hero in my own action/adventure. Quantum Break made it happen.


This is the game that will no doubt be at the top of most Best of the Year lists, and for very good reason. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End blew me away at every turn with its stunning visuals, clever writing, and thrilling gameplay. Nathan Drake, one of my favorite protagonists since Han Solo smirked his way onto the screen, once again finds himself in over his head and soon danger lurks at every turn.

Unlike our favorite Star Wars scoundrel, though, the writers do an incredible job of adding weight to the proceedings. Each of the relationships Nathan holds closest to his heart are jeopardized in one way or another and some of my favorite moments in the game didn't come during a thrilling mountainside jeep chase scene, a stunningly beautiful puzzle inside the workings of an old clock tower, or during a nail-biting final flame-surrounded pirate-y duel. Instead, it was the quieter moments that stuck with me. An awkward conversation on a couch. A heartbreaking revelation in the jungle. A phone call with a loved one that's more lie than truth.

Naughty Dog marvelously weaves all of this together into one seamless adventure that consistently caught me by surprise time and time again. When it comes to this game, my only regret is that I'll never be able to experience it for the first time again.


I realize I'm jumping the gun on this one, but I've learned to have faith in the Telltale team. The game isn't actually completely released yet (they just released episode 4 of 5 but since it's halfway over I've decided to put this one on 2016's list instead of saving it for next year) but so far the journey has been incredible.

When I first heard that Batman: A Telltale Series was going to focus more on Bruce Wayne as opposed to his Dark Knight alter ego, I admit to being slightly non-plussed. "Oh cool, what am I gonna do, sit in my manor by the fireplace taking inventory of my priceless Japanese sculptures and Mayan artifacts?"

But as Roland the gunslinger might say, I'd forgotten the face of my father. This is Telltale we're talking about and they've brought me some of my favorite games of all time (Have I mentioned Tales from the Borderlands lately?).

Here we're shown that being Bruce Wayne can sometimes be just as perilous as donning the cowl, and as you navigate the interpersonal relationships between thugs, goons, deviants, liars, thieves, killers, and politicians - characters often landing in more than one of these categories - the fact that you know your decisions will affect how the story unfolds makes it nearly impossible to tread lightly.

With the characters brought to life by a stellar acting cast (#PerformanceMatters), it's possible the bat signal has never burned so brightly.


Hey, remember that time I mentioned there were two games on this list that managed to tell amazing stories without the use of voice actors? Well, Mr. Robot is the second one and Telltale (again!) has managed to spin an intriguing web using only a handful of JPEGs and some well-timed texts.

The premise is simple: You've come across a phone (played in this game by your actual phone) and soon you're pulled in by a hacker group (fsociety, the same group from the Mr. Robot TV show you don't need to be familiar with to enjoy the game (but you should be)) who've decided to recruit you for a job or two and they're not taking no for an answer.

You begin exchanging messages with a mysterious contact and soon you find yourself pulling off cyber hacks you never thought were possible from your phone. One of the reasons the game works so well is how it unfolds in real time. If the person you're texting says, "I'll be in touch later" they mean it. It could be hours, sometimes a day or two before hearing back, and that's how they hook you. I genuinely found myself wondering about the game throughout the day, why I hadn't heard from anyone, and what would unfold next.

And then...then you hear back.

And it's not just a text saying hello, it's URGENT. They need you to jump on this RIGHT NOW and then you'll get a text from someone else and you're suddenly juggling three conversations at once and wait, did I get a clue about how to do this or am I just supposed to wing it and oh man I'm doing it, I'm doing it, I'm doing it and....


The texts stop.

Radio silence.

And you realize that without any voices, animation, or musical score this game really sucked you in and got your heart pumping.

And then your phone buzzes again. Here we go!


For years my pal Gabe would talk about going into stores and feeling like he was being watched. I always thought he was just being paranoid.

"What do you mean 'they're watching you?'"
"Because they think I'm gonna steal something."
"What? Why? You're crazy. I've never felt like that."
"Of course not. You're not black."
"Dude, they're not watching you just because you're black."

And then Gabe would just stare at me and raise one eyebrow as if to say, "Please." I realize now I was being quite naive. I just couldn't grasp why. Mafia III helped me understand what he was talking about, if only just a bit. It may seem like an exageration to proclaim a video game helped me look at racism from an angle I hadn't seen before, but it's true.

This isn't the first game to include a black protagonist but it is the first one to remind me of my skin color (or my avatar's skin color) on such a regular - and realistic - basis. The game is set in the South in the 1960s, and it doesn't take long for you to pick up on the NPC citizens of the city and their conversations and what they're muttering about you.

You can only hear so many "We don't want your kind around here"-type phrases (most of them actually much much worse than that) before you just want to scream, "But I'm not doing anything! I'm just walking by!!"

And God forbid you stumble into a store or shop whose employees and patrons are standing firm in their bigotry. Again, I'm not saying I experienced anything in a video game that even begins to compare with what people experience in real life...but I got a glimpse. And it sucks. And because I felt how much it sucked, it's a testament to how well the developers succeeded.

I would be remiss not to mention the other aspects of the game. Each mission was thoroughly enjoyable and the writing really kept me guessing (Be sure to watch through the end credits!). All of that, as excellent as it was, was made even better by a stellar voice cast.

Finally....that soundtrack. Oh, MAN that soundtrack. I could happily drive horribly (I am NOT a good driver, Rain Man) through the streets of New Bordeaux blaring Sam Cooke for hours on end. Especially if I knew I was on the way to shoot some racist hillbillies.


I really enjoyed the original Dishonored. But I reeeeeeeeally enjoyed Dishonored 2. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that as soon as I finished I opened up a new game save and started all over again.

This time around you can choose from two different characters to play: Corvo, the lead character from the original, or his daughter Emily who is now grown up and has developed some impressive powers that put her dad's to shame. I played as Emily the first time around and the new skills play like driving a finely-tuned sports car (and yes, making the switch back to Corvo felt like getting behind the wheel of a classic. It's not as slick or flashy and may not have the same get-up-and-go but it sure feels good while you're behind the wheel).

The storyline this time features the appearance of a heretofore unknown family member looking to cash in on the family's claim to the throne (not unlike "those" family members who pop out of the woodwork as soon as they hear of your lottery windfall). Depending on which character you choose to play, the other finds themselves in a position of needing rescue and thus the chase is on.

One of the beautiful things about this game is it lets you choose what kind of experience you'd like. Are you, like me and my MTTG co-host Tim, trying to sneak through as stealthily as possible? And, on top of that, make it with as few casualties as you can? Then go for it.

Or are you looking to mete out your own brand of justice, slaughtering anyone and everything in your path? The go for that.

Either way you're awarded with  an ending appropriate to your gaming style. More importantly you're rewarded with some fantastic gameplay. Each level is massive in size and those who like to take their time and snoop through others' bathroom cabinets will be paid handsomely. As of this writing I am halfway through my second go-around.

And yes. There will be a third.


2016 was definitely the year of highly-anticipated sequels. And not just that, but highly anticipated sequels that really paid off. Watch_Dogs 2 fits perfectly into that classification. Don't get me wrong. I loved the original and was happy to don the conductor's hat on the hype train. But this time around... (Picture me pinching my thumb and index finger together, kissing them, and making a "MUAH" sound). That's a spicy meat-a-ball.

This time Ubisoft took what really worked (the clever hacking puzzles) and amped them nicely (now 3D geographical puzzlers) and introduced a couple of new mechanics I quickly fell in love with (I couldn't get enough of the new drone and hi-tech RC car). What didn't really click with fans last time (Digital trip, anyone?) seems to have been left behind in Chicago.

What really sets this one apart is the incredible DeadSec team voiced by some actors who are really throwing down some impressive work. I laughed out loud. I empathized with them. I yelled "No!" at a completely unexpected turn. And I called the villain with a man-bun a douche. A lot.

Ubisoft really excels at presenting you with a massive map to explore and they did not disappoint this time around (Although I admit I was waiting for the moment the map would open and expand even wider than you originally expected. And yeah, I miss the "Free the outpost/Unlock the map" missions that were in the first one as well as the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series).

I'm looking forward to playing this one again and since I'm not a Final Fantasy-er, I'll have a few hundred hours to spare.


And there you go. My choices for The Best Video Games of 2016 According to Ed. Visiting them again for this write-up has only solidified my choices. It was a great year for games. It was a great year for great writing. It was a great year for incredible performances.

2017, you have your work cut out for you.

Ed is a co-host on the Married to the Games podcast and a regular contributor to the MTTG YouTube channel.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Mug Shots - Last Call

Well, there you have it. The end (for now, at least) of my Mug Shots series. If you missed it, here's what happened: I went through our cupboards and wrote about some of our coffee mugs. 

Trust me, it was more exciting than it sounds. Or maybe it wasn't. 

Joking aside, it really was fun to go share some of the stories that zip around my head each time I brew myself a cup of coffee. It was great to sit down and simmer with memories of those close to me and flashpoint moments in my life. 

I'd like to encourage you to do the same. I'm not saying you have to sit down and write about everything in your kitchen, but take the time to notice the items around you that usually go unnoticed. What do you have in your house that was a gift or meant something to you at the time you picked it up? Is there something on your desk at work you placed there to remind you of a person or experience and the significance has slowly faded away? You might be surprised at the happy moments that come flooding back to you. Once those good memories are fresh in your mind, make it a point to not forget them. 

Chances are you're surrounded by more mementos of love and support than you realize. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Mug Shots - Among the Thirsty

I love this mug for so many reasons. 

First, let's just talk about its aesthetic design. This has fast become a favorite in our house just because of how it's made. It's large enough to hold a 12-oz homemade pourover, which in itself is a plus. But it's also much skinnier than most mugs, which means there's less surface area at the top and your coffee doesn't cool off as quickly. 

Secondly, let's talk about how I got this mug. I was working as the contest coordinator at a radio station and one of the record labels I got to work with was Tooth and Nail/BEC Recordings. Tess, my contact there, is one of the coolest people you could ask to work with and one of the on-air giveaways they sent to us was a package promoting the new project from the band, Among the Thirsty. It included a signed copy of their CD, a bag of coffee from Land of A Thousand Hills, and one of these super-cool mugs. 

I joked with Tess about taking the mug home for myself instead of giving it away...but didn't. I promise. A short time later, I got a package in the mail from Tess and - you guessed it - it was a mug of my very own all for me! See what I said about how cool they were to work with? 

Thirdly, let's talk about Among the Thirsty, more specifically front man Ryan Daniel. He's the kind of guy working in the Christian music industry that you're glad is working in the Christian music industry, mostly because he isn't "industry" at all. Follow him on social media and you'll soon see what I'm talking about. 

I believe that for a long time Christian music fans have castrated anyone and everyone in the CCM public eye, especially those in the music business. Say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, be human, and we're coming after you. Boycotts. Outrage. Protests. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

That tide is turning, and I like what I'm seeing. I like that artists and musicians have started to be less concerned with offending the easily-offended and more concerned with speaking the truth. You that one guy in the Bible. 

I really admire that about Ryan (you can listen to my conversation with him here). We need people who will speak out and take a stance when others don't have the guts (or permission from their publicity department). Life is hard. Wear a helmet.

And that's why I love this mug. Yes, it's conducive to a great cup of coffee but it also reminds me of Tess, whose unexpected expression of kindness made my day, and Ryan, who reminds me to never back down from the Truth just because looking it in the eye might make me a bit uncomfortable.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Mug Shots - Star of David

Once upon a time I did a show at a theater that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. To say the working conditions were less-than-ideal would be a bit of an understatement. Up until this point, everyone I'd worked with in the past had been incredible and only encouraged my love for this creative field. I suppose that if you work long enough in the acting world, eventually you'll end up working for one of those directors you always hear horror stories about. This show was my time.

Fortunately, my number came up at a time in my life when someone screaming and swearing at me didn't bother me the way it would have if it happened to me in my 20s. It's much easier to keep a professional attitude when you have a loving wife to go home to and the insight that the more someone rants and raves and belittles others, that's more than likely a reflection of their own insecurities.

The girl playing my wife in the show was young and enthusiastic, this being her first professional job out of college. For both of us this was our first time involved with the company. The other cast members warned us about what the director could/would be like, but neither of us could have expected things to turn as sour as they did. 

Rehearsals were a test of everyone's mettle. When things didn't go according to the director's exact vision or if there was a line flub, she would let loose with a vulgar tirade that brought everything to a halt. To this day I'm still not sure how belittling and embarrassing someone in front of others is supposed to encourage improvement, but maybe that's just me.

After the show was up and running, things didn't get better. On more than one occasion, she would come swooping backstage during intermission like a foul-mouthed Cruella DeVille to berate actors, swearing TO GOD they were horrible, should never have been hired, and are. Not. Funny (Have I mentioned this was a theater that only does comedies? Yep. Perfect environment to encourage humor, huh?).

One positive product of such a situation is how it fosters camaraderie among the cast and crew. At the time I likened it to the children of an abusive, alcoholic father, huddling together at night, whispering words of encouragement to each other after the tornado swept through. We encouraged each other to stay strong, let those words - all untrue - roll off your back, and not to give in. I assured my co-star that the situation we were in was not reflective of how most people work and at least she was getting her terrible experience out of the way early in her career. 

More than once we wanted to walk off, letting the director/theater owner dangle in the wind as the two leading actors just...didn't show up one day. War is hell, though, and you can't leave your fellow soldiers behind. So we stuck it out, did our best, had some great shows, and swore we would never work for them again. It almost because a game, as we threw down some incredible performances and then laughed as the director struggled to find something to get worked up about. Soon the rantings and ravings became just what they were: Hilarious. And fodder for stories such as this one. 

In the show, the character I played was Jewish and as a Christmas gift (the production was their holiday show), my co-star got me this mug. After the show's run was over, she went on to work with a different theater troupe, is still working with them to this day (she even met her husband-to-be there!), and it makes me happy to see her working in an environment where she - and her talents - are appreciated.

This mug reminds me that even though circumstances may be crappy, a lot of good can come out of it. And, if you stay professional and do your best, one day that crappy situation may come back to you, asking you to return to work for them and you'll have the pleasure of telling them no.

And, if you're especially fortunate, they'll ask you more than once and you'll have the pleasure of telling them no more than once. I'll raise my Jewish mug to that.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Mug Shots - Square One

Everyone thinks their local coffee shop is the best and I can't fault them for it. We're all a little biased toward our local businesses and I don't have a problem with that at all. Except... when I say Square One Coffee in PA is one of the best (if not the best), I can sort of back that up.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in getting my regular (a 16-oz latte) and when the barista Sarah was about complete, she dumped my drink out and began again. She apologized and told me she wanted to start over. When I asked what happened, she explained that the shot was pulling too slow - ten seconds too slow - and she wanted to make sure it was right. That attention to detail is just one of the reasons why I love the baristas over at Square One. Tell me you're going to get that kind of attention to detail at (insert name of a popular chain coffee shop with a drive-thru here)

Square One has gradually turned me into a coffee snob. Not a coffee snob in the fact that I look down on you for drinking whatever it is you're drinking that you picked up at the gas station, but in that I've come to appreciate the tastes and flavors that can come out in a perfectly made cup. A lot of that has to do with the bean. Square One roasts their own beans, and I admire them for so closely working with the farmers who grew them. Just like pouring the perfect latte design is an art, so is the process of roasting and I don't think most people know just what goes into it (or should go into it)

Coffee cupping (the process of tasting various brews and rating them for flavor and roast) isn't unlike wine tasting, and I don't mind bragging that I can now identify a coffee's origin by taste alone. Until Square One, I didn't even know there was a difference. Probably because most of the coffee I'd had until then was burnt to a crisp or pre-ground Folgers crystals that tasted more like something that should be used to fill a litter box.

Just a few more reasons to support my Square One fanboydom: They've won multiple awards for their coffee, co-owner Jess Steffy is a judge at the regional, national, and international coffee championships, and they have people like Hadassah training their new baristas. They have Joel, Sarah, Rachel, Trevor, Justine, and Taylor working the bar (not only is it a place where everybody knows your name, but you know everyone else's name, too) who always serve me a cup that makes me pause and say, "Man, that's good."

What really stands out, though, is how they've educated me about the coffee community - and it really is a community. The next time you visit your local coffee shop, ask questions. There's a lot to learn about the beans, the farmer that grew those beans, the process, the way weather affects how a shot is's fascinating. 

So yeah. I like this mug. Not only does it represent one of my favorite coffee places or let you know what brand of coffee is currently in said mug (as is usually the case in the Placencia casa), it's also a symbol of just how good you can be when you do what you love to do and take the time to do it right. 


Monday, February 29, 2016

Mug Shots - Life is Good

Life is good. 

Yes, it is. 

This mug was indirectly given to us by our dear friends John and Lisa Blowers. They brought this gift to a WJTL Staff Christmas party a few years ago for the White Elephant gift exchange and through some fancy footwork, Sarah and I managed to wrangle this for ourselves. 

I can't think of a mug that better encapsulates our feelings about John and Lisa. They've been dear friends of ours for quite a while now, and when you're with them you just...feel really good. Warm, generous, and sincere, they're probably one of the coolest couples you could ever have the good fortune of being around. 

When you're with John and Lisa, time really does fly. The common phrase that seems to be said when we're together is "Oh man, is it that late already?" because conversation with them always comes easy. On more than one occasion we've been hanging out, just talking about life and all of its simple pleasures, and seen day turn into night turn into early morning turn into what-are-we-still-doing-up. 

Like everyone else, John and Lisa have seen their fair share of struggle (to hear more about that, check out my interview with Lisa on the Foot in the Door podcast) yet they always persevere. It isn't easy to stay strong when things look grim, but John and Lisa share a faith that would make Job take notice.

At the end of the day, despite what that day may entail, John and Lisa always get back up on their feet and carry on. Seriously, if you want to be an upstanding citizen in a crazy world, then I highly recommend studying these two. Plain and simple they - just like life - are good.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mug Shots - Heady

Chris Heady and I are a lot alike. 

That's not why I like him but it is probably why we clicked so well and so quickly. Between our love for art, the arts, the Muppets, and Sherlock, there's really no way it could have gone wrong.

I met Chris a couple of years ago while I was working as a digital puppeteer (ask me what that is sometime in's a lot different than what you may have in your head and a lot easier to explain when I can use my hands to gesture) and we hit it off immediately. 

Most people try to give a good first impression when they meet someone (those who don't are either psychotic or Mennonite) so as I've gotten older, my jaded self stays guarded until I know just exactly what kind of person I'm dealing with. 

Chris is one of those guys you meet and immediately exhale a sigh of relief, knowing you've genuinely met one of the good ones. He has a sincere desire to get to know others and when he asks questions of people he's just met, you know it's not a formality. Chris just really loves people. 

And his heart. 

Oh, man, I love this guy's heart. It's huge (and not in a medically dangerous way) and it's great and its loyalty knows no bounds. Chris is generous and caring and just...just a really good guy, ya know?  Case in point: This mug he gave us a couple of weeks ago (actually he gave us two, but at the time I took this picture the other was in the dishwasher). Out of the blue he brought these over for us (filled with candy, by the way!) just to express appreciation of our friendship and Sarah and I were both sincerely touched.

I never take the friends who have been put in my path for granted (or at least I genuinely try not to) and this mug always reminds me that when it comes to the people in my life, especially Chris Heady, we are truly blessed.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mug Shots - Pac-Man

This just looks like a simple, plain, black mug but it's not.

Well, it is and it isn't. 

When I received this mug from my sister as a Christmas present, it didn't look like this. Instead it came adorned with the all-too familiar maze from the popular Pac-Man video game (in case you didn't know, I'm a bit of a gamer. You can find some of my gameplay on the Married to the Games YouTube channel). Much like my Community mug, it was heat sensitive, and when the mug was filled with warm liquid, ghosts and Pac-Man would appear on the mug. 

If you read my post about my Community mug, then you know where this is going.

Plain and simple, you're just not supposed to put magical heat-sensitive materials in the dishwasher. Because I didn't heed this warning, my Community mug is forever paintball-splotched. Not so with this one. In fact, pretty much the opposite happened. After one wash cycle, the entire maze decal began to peel off. I felt really bad about it, especially since it was a gift, but not bad enough to change my habits and wash the mug by hand like a commoner. 

So now I have something you don't see much of anymore: a simple, plain, black mug with no decoration on it whatsoever. But to be honest, I kinda like that about it. I'm sorry I didn't take care of the present you gave me, Jaime, but if it helps, I still use it all the time and really like it a lot. It's just...well, now you know why we can't have nice things.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Mug Shots - Doney

I met Ed Doney my freshman (and only) year at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He's a Letterman fan, an Ed Grimley fan, and one of the funniest guys I know. Is it any wonder we've been close friends from the get-go?

Ed and I are ridiculous together and we all need a friend with whom we can be ridiculous. If you can judge the quality of friendship by how many in jokes you have, then it would be easy to say Doney and I have a super high-quality friendship. 

If you spend time around us, you'll hear us utter a series of nonsensical phrases (and noises), all with their own had-to-be there backstory. From "Aroo!" to "Do you have any paaaaancakes" to "Don't be scared" to "I....I'm not scared no more" to the classic "BAAAAAAAAAA," we pretty much have our own twin language that immediately sets us into a fit of giggles. 

We all have friends like Doney (or at least I hope you do) and as you're reading this, you're probably thinking of someone with a smile. It's that special pal whom you may not see in person for years but when you finally reunite again it's that old cliche of seeming like a day hasn't passed. 

Doney and I haven't lived in the same area code since that year in Whitcraft Hall back in 1989 and each time we see each other, we make the most of our time together. Whether we're filming shot-by-shot recreations of Rain Man scenes, exploring nearly-abandoned zoos and dinosaur exhibits, ghost hunting, or frolicking through the (scary at night) streets of Baltimore, we always manage to spend our time laughing. 

I'm super happy and pleased to report that Sarah is more than willing to join us in our goofy adventures. Rather than sit back on the sidelines and scoff as the old college buddies try to reconnect, I'm blessed to be married to a girl who is more than willing to not only let the guys have their guy time, but also encourage it. 

Like the time Doney visited and the three of us went walking through downtown Lancaster City on a drizzly day. We took turns taking pictures of each other being ridiculous, and we even got in a three-tiered plank. 

A little while after Doney returned to Oklahoma City, we received this mug in the mail adorned with some highlights of our hang time (you can see a glimpse of one of our cool "If we had a band this would be our artsy album cover" photos on the mug shot above). Needless to say, I love this mug. Although it's only a year and a half old, it carries with it memories of nearly 30 years (yikes!) of laughs, love, and genuine friendship. 

I'll drink to that.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mug Shots - Pottery Works

Not long after Sarah and I got married, we decided to walk to The Pottery Works in downtown Lancaster PA. It's one of those cool little shops where you choose your piece of choice, paint it, and then leave it there for them to fire. A short time later, they give you a call and you can pick up your new uniquely designed piece.

This was my first time at a shop like this and I was impressed with how many things you could choose from to paint and design. Plates, cups, bowls, animals...and a lot more. Of course, Sarah and I opted for coffee mugs and it made for a fun afternoon.

I chose to create a mug with sarcastic directions on how to use it painted all over it and Sarah went the more artsy route. I had forgotten from high school art class how the colors you paint with actually look nothing like the finished project because the heat of the oven makes the paint change. So, if you choose a blue paint, it might look red going on. It's pretty crazy, science and all, and makes it a little tricky to picture what the final project will look like.

Sarah doesn't like how her mug turned out ("I mean, what IS it?" she still asks to this day when I tell her she did a nice job), but I love it because she made it and I love it for its imperfections (or what she sees as imperfections). It's funny how we see ourselves compared to how others see us. When I take a photo of Sarah, it's always a dance because as soon as she catches me pointing the lens at her, she smiles and poses (Understandably so. I think it's a natural instinct for all of us) but I prefer a candid shot, one that doesn't feel planned or staged. I think there's a beauty in the everyday moments of life (especially when Sarah is the subject of the photo).

Maybe that's why I like her mug so much. It reminds me of a sunny Saturday afternoon we spent together but, more than that, it's a reminder that there's beauty in crooked lines. There's warmth and attachment in something truly hand crafted and admittedly a biased love that radiates from within knowing those lines and colors and shapes were made by my best friend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mug Shots - Frothy Monkey

Yesterday I wrote about my time in Nashville working at Gotee Records. I've since returned to the area a number of times to visit friends and, projecting back to my time there in the early 2000s, the 2002 version of myself is wayyyyyyy jealous of the current-day version of Franklin. I'm not sure when it came about but citizens in and around the downtown area now get to enjoy and take advantage of the existence of Frothy Monkey, a coffee shop/cafe that does everything it does better than most places do. 

I don't remember who tipped me off to Frothy Monkey - probably Gabe or Brad - but I'm glad they did. They make a mean cup and the food... oh man, the food. Also, it's a great place to go if you like playing the "spot the music industry person" game (Hint: Look for skinny jeans and super deep vee shirts (guys only)).

Frothy Monkey is a great place to work out of the office, which many people take advantage of. And, if you're like me, it's a great place to meet someone for an interview which I've done more than a few times for my Foot in the Door podcast. They're always super-accommodating, the breakfast menu is incredible and, as a coffee nerd, I've never had a cup I didn't like.  

In our many visits there we've collected Frothy Monkey sweatshirts (they did NOT skimp on the quality) and of course, two of the mugs shown above. A good coffee shop is more hard to find than you might assume, so it's nice to have places like The Monkey you know and trust that you can hit up while you're in town (the same goes for Catalina Coffee Company in Hermosa Beach CA)

There are actually three Frothy Monkey locations (the other two are in downtown Nashville) so if you're ever in the area, you've no excuse to not stop in and experience the goodness for yourself. And when we're NOT in town...we have these mugs to make us feel like we are.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mug Shots - Gotee 20

From 2002-2004 I worked in the radio promotions department at Gotee Records, a label based in Franklin TN, about 20 or so miles south of Nashville. It was only two short years, but I'd be hard-pressed to find another time frame in my adult life that has meant so much to me and shaped me into who I am today. 

I had been a fan of Gotee and their music (Christian music that doesn't "sound" like Christian music, if you know what I mean) for years. I was a fan while I was there, and I'm still a fan to this day. 

It was during my time there that I really grew to have a heart for musicians and artists. It's so easy to hear a song on the radio and assume that, just because they have a song on the radio, they also have a diamond-encrusted swimming pool and George Clooney on speed dial. Let me assure you, that's not the case (especially in CCM radio). 

I admired the artists I worked with for their dedication to their art and their message. Gotee was an independent label, and that gave us the freedom to put out music that was way ahead of the curve (as a result, we sent a lot of music to Christian AC radio that, as far as I know, is still in the "To Listen" stack of a lot of Music Directors).  

What I'll really take away from my time there, though, are the friendships I've made. Many of my closest friends are those who live(d) in the 615 and I call it a sincere privilege to know so many good people, especially in a town where the "industry machine" rumbles strong. I won't begin to name names, but more than likely if you're reading this and I met you while I was in Nashville, I'm talking about you.

Gotee recently celebrated 20 years and I have to thank Brad Moist at Gotee for hooking me up with this mug. I'm fully aware that in the grand scheme of things two years isn't much, but to me, it' was everything.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mug Shots - Gotham Comedy Club

If you're going to move to New York City, I highly recommend doing it without knowing another soul there. It's a huge city and I realize that may sound counter-intuitive at first. "How will you find your way around the subway?" "Who will tell you how to get to your job on the other side of Times Square without actually having to walk through the masses?" "Who will point you to the nearest Duane Reade?" That last one is actually never a problem. If you don't see one, just turn around and look directly behind you. 

The thing is, when you go there without knowing the answers to these questions - or any of the others that are sure to crop up in the first 20 minutes of setting foot in the city - you're kind of forced to just jump in and go. Or huddle in the corner of an alley, crying and crapping your pants. I guess you could do that, too. 

One of the first things I did was scout out a comedy club (shocker, I know). I don't know if they're still doing this, but at the time Gotham Comedy Club was running a special on weeknights (I want to say Wednesdays, but I'm not sure if that's correct) where it was a 10-dollar cover and you could see a ton of comedians. Most of them were hammering out bits for the weekend and it was so cool to see a number of big-name comedians in the intimacy of a club setting. 

I began to go every week (I don't know if you know this, but Judy Gold is a hell of an emcee) and one night splurged a bit to buy a hot chocolate in a souvenir mug you could take home with you. It reminded me not only of the great comedy I saw, but was also representative of the time I moved to the big city by myself...and didn't get stabbed.

And then...a couple of years later....tragedy.

While washing my mug in the sink at work, I dropped and broke it and this upset me way more than it should have. I don't think it was until that moment I realized just what exactly this piece of kitchenware had come to symbolize for me.  

My time in New York was spent picking up the pieces of a shattered relationship but somehow I found laughter. 

I had become a member of an improv theater where I discovered one of my true joys and also made many lifelong friends, I had a safe haven in Gotham where I knew I could always find laughs, and I found myself giving directions on the subway to tourists without having to consult a map.

When Sarah and I went to New York with her family years later, we returned to Gotham (my first time back since their renovations) to see Iliza Shlesinger perform. And of course, to pick up a replacement mug. Iliza killed it (Of course she did! If you don't know her...I feel bad for you) but I didn't buy myself a new mug. 

I bought two.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mug Shots - Community

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Simply put: Sarah and I love the TV show Community, set at Greendale Community College. Toss in a reference to one of their groundbreaking episodes (Paintball!) and you couldn't ask for a more perfect mug.

Well, I guess you could. This is one of those heat-reacting mugs which starts off as a black mug and when heat is added, the colorful paint splotches appear. 

Unfortunately, we didn't bother to read the directions and looking back, I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to put it in the dishwasher. But let's be honest: We all knew that thing was destined for the dishwasher from day one and we pretty much destroyed the cool special effects.

So now, as a punishment for our lackadaisical drinkware care, the paint splotches are a permanent design. Meh, it's all good. I still like it. When I bought this mug, I bought an identical one for my friend and fellow Community enthusiast Dominic. I hope his is holding up better than ours.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Mug Shots - Dylan Brody

I stumbled across Dylan Brody's fine words and phrases a few years ago while I was writing reviews of comedy albums and was immediately a fan. So much so that I soon found myself scouring his online store/emporium for more Brody goodness. 

Being a fan of both good coffee and good storytelling, when I saw this mug I knew I needed to add it to my collection. Not only did I admire the simple, strong strokes of the design, but as a coffee nerd I also loved the fact that it was a 16-oz mug instead of the standard 10 or 12 ounces (since the pourovers I make at home are of the 12-oz sort, many of the mugs we have are just to small to contain the perfect serving size)

I was fortunate to see Dylan live at a Storyteller evening in California a few years ago. Afterward he was gracious enough to chat with Sarah and I over drinks and it was an evening I haven't forgotten. He's a wonderful conversationalist with a knack for encouragement and speaking inspiration. Sarah and I made a few big decisions at the end of 2015 and Dylan's words stuck with us every time we began to second guess whether or not we were doing the right thing.

Encouragement, inspiration, and storytelling, all in one handy mug.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Mug Shots - Slospeak

When I was living in Nashville, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a guy named Davy. He's the kind of person you wish there were more of in the world: kind-hearted, generous, giving of himself and his time, and genuinely concerned for the well-being of others. 

I especially found this to be true when I was going through what was arguably the lowest point of my life. At the time my pride kept me from opening up to others about what I was going through, but Davy wouldn't have any of that. He was there to listen when I needed to bend an ear and speak wisdom to me when I needed to hear it most. 

Fast forward a few years. 

I had since moved out of the area and it had been way too long since Davy and I had seen each other. I had started up a podcast called Foot in the Door, a series of interviews conducted with people whose life stories intrigued me. When I knew my travels would once again take me to Tennessee, a sit-down with Davy was at the top of my list. 

My conversation with Davy isn't the only thing I took back with me on my return trip to Pennsylvania. Also a coffee aficionado, Davy presented me with this Slospeak Records mug after we had finished recording (but not before first sharing a cup of joe in his kitchen to talk about everything that wasn't fit for public consumption).

I love this mug. 

It reminds me of Davy and our friendship, yes, but it also reminds me of what friendship should be. It reminds me to not take my friends for granted; that not admitting I need help or a hand is a selfish place to be, especially when I have people around me who genuinely want to help. All of these thoughts - and more - go through my head whenever I use this mug. 

I'm sure when Davy gave me this memento from the record label he was heading up at the time he had no idea how much it would mean to me. But I wouldn't be surprised if he did. He's just that good a friend.

Mug Shots

We have a lot of coffee mugs. 

Like...a lot.

I realized the other day that many of them have a special story or meaning. Whether given to me by a close friend or purchased at a special moment in time, they carry with them a little extra something that gives each wonderful cup of coffee an extra bump of wonderfulness. 

Over the next few days...weeks...however long it takes me, I'll be writing a series of blogs about them. They'll be presented here in no specific order (it really just depends which one is closest at hand) but I'm eager to share them with you. 

So, grab your own favorite mug and join me. First stop: Slospeak Records!