Jess and Cosplay: The Journey from Fan Conventions to Academic Conferences

By: Niki Fritz

Before I sat down with Jess Tompkins to talk about her former life as a cosplayer, I had seen pictures of Jess dressed up in amazingly intricate and realistic costumes on Facebook. I had assumed she was just a Halloween enthusiast when these costumes were actually part of a larger and more complex world of media fandom.

Jess started out by explaining that cosplay is not larping; to which I had to ask what larping was.

“As you can probably guess, [cosplay] is an amalgamation of costume and play. It is different from larping (an acronym for ‘live action role playing’). Larping is about being part of a narrative, taking on the role of a character in a story and it often involves physically acting out battles or fights,” Jess explains.

When I continue to look a bit baffled she explained: “[Cosplay] involves making a costume to portray a media character.  Anyone can purchase a costume but most passionate cosplayers want to complete their own costumes, including props, with their own hands. Some cosplayers even make their own costumes with others in a group setting and the costumes are usually worn at a convention. At the fan conventions, it is perfectly acceptable to just walk around in your costume, to pose with other fans and to pose with other characters for pictures.”

We started to flip through her old Facebook photos so I could get a better sense of what these costumes looked like. As we clicked farther and farther back on Jess’s timeline, I began to get curious about how she got involved in this less-than-mainstream world of fandom. Was she drawn to the media or to all the cool convention stuff first?

“I was into the media first. My brother and I were really close when we were teens. I used to watch him play video games and eventually I started to play, too,” Jess says. “We would play a lot of cooperative games together and then I started to venture into what I liked.”

Their hobbies and interests led her and her best friend to the Animazement Convention in Raleigh, NC. It is traditionally an anime convention but has branched out to include video games and comic books as well. It was the summer of 2008 and Jess hadn’t learned to sew yet, so her best friend’s grandma helped her make her first costume for a character from Dynasty Warriors 6 – Yue Ying.

“That was the catalyst moment,” Jess says. “I had a great time [at the Animazement Convention]; I met other people that had the same passion. After that I knew I wanted to do more cosplay and I wanted to make the costumes myself.”

Later that summer, Jess’s aunt bought her a sewing machine and she spent holidays learning to sew, and each year she made progressively more challenging costumes.  At Animazement she was also introduced to another part of the cosplay world: costuming clubs. These organizations usually focus on a particular media franchise.  Members of costuming clubs get together and help each other make costumes, often swapping skills such as sewing and metalworking. Jess was particularly drawn to Star Wars costumes, a franchise she and her brother had been interested in since childhood.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina for her class on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

“When I was a teen I spent a lot of time online, usually searching more about Star Wars. When I was about 13 I learned that there is more than the movies. There are more stories about the characters told in video games, comics, and novels. I consumed a lot of the Star Wars ‘expanded universe’,” Jess says. “I really enjoyed those narratives because there was so much more to learn about the characters.”

One character who stood out to her was a little-know bounty hunter named Boba Fett. Although Boba’s role in the official movies is small, he has a deeper narrative in the expanded universe.

“I loved Boba Fett because he was the morally ambiguous bounty hunter,” Jess says. “Like a lot of fans I was drawn to the armor. There was an aura of mystery about him. When I read the books I discovered that there is more to him than just being a bounty hunter.”

Luckily Jess found a group of Mandalorian (the type of armor worn by Boba Fett) enthusiasts in a costume club in North Carolina known as the Mandalorian Mercs, who met once a month for costume parties. The founder, who lived just an hour from Jess, helped her complete some of the complicated metalwork on her custom set of Mandalorian armor.

After completing her costume, Jess was welcomed as an official member of the Mandalorian Mercs costume club. The club often does charity events by dressing up in costumes and requesting donations for pictures. During her undergraduate years, Jess went to about 10 conventions including one of the biggest, Dragon Con in Atlanta. However, as she geared up for grad school in 2012, she realized her life in fandom was about to change.

“The main constraint now is time and money, the two magic ingredients. That was something I realized when I started grad school that I would have to make some sacrifices. Now, instead of a fan convention I am preparing for my first academic conference in May!” Jess says. “It has been an interesting, but exciting, transition. My dream is to be invited as an academic guest-speaker at a fan convention. I look up to scholars who are able to bridge the academy and speak to the fan audiences about their research. I would love to do something similar.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Gift of Adventure

By Mona Malacane

Everyone loves and appreciates a thoughtful gift. When you put effort into choosing what the gift-receiver would truly enjoy, you’re giving someone something that they can cherish (hopefully) for many years to come. Perhaps this is why gift-giving is sometimes referred to as an art.

Being the ever-thoughtful couple that they are, Teresa and Nic recently decided to really embrace the challenge of giving a good gift. For Christmas last year they sought to gift memories rather than material items to their loved ones. “We had decided that this year for family and people that we were buying gifts for, we would do a bit more of buying experiences,” Teresa explained. “So for [Nic’s] parents, we bought them a paddle-boarding trip and we bought my god children passes to a nature preserve, things like that.” Little did she know that Nic had something very unique and special under the tree for her.

He had found a Groupon for a flying lesson at a local small airport. When she opened her present, she was a little confused and completely surprised. “I opened the card and had to read it twice and I was like … I’m going to fly a plane? …”

The answer was yes and on March 8th, the two drove up to Indy Sky Sports for the lesson. Because it was a flight lesson and not just a passenger ride, the flight instructor had to go through some specifics before they got up in the air – the ergonomics of the plane, the physics of flying, and some safety info. All pretty necessary stuff if you’re going to be gliding around above the ground in a plane that weighs a little more than 600 pounds soaking wet. And from takeoff to landing, Teresa was pretty much doing all of the flying with the instructor there for support. No really, Teresa literally taxied and lifted the plane into the air for takeoff, and centered the plane to the runway and brought it down to the ground for landing.


After takeoff when they had climbed to about a mile above ground, the instructor threw her a curveball. “When we got up to cruising

A side view of the small plane (Photo credit to Indy Sky Sports Website)

A side view of the small plane (Photo credit to Indy Sky Sports Website)

altitude, which was about 4700 feet, [the instructor] said, ‘one of the first things I like to do to instill a sense of confidence in my flight students is I tell them to cut the engines off …’ And I’m thinking to myself, well you’re in the plane too so you’re not going to tell me to just fall out of the sky.” With the engines off, the cabin was silent and for a few seconds they were just gliding through the air. And then the nose started to dip a little and things got a little dicey for a minute … But just as easily as the nose started to dip, it corrected and tilted up. “Essentially we were dolphin-ing through the air but there was no forward momentum other than what we picked up from flying up.”

The rest of the experience was equally as adrenaline-rushing and yet smoothly effortless. With a huge grin on her face, Teresa told me some of the amazing (and probably terrifying for the average person) tricks the instructor did with her like banking, 360s, and flying towards the sunset.




The instructor took over for some of more advanced tricks they tried, like the corkscrew rise. It is exactly like the name suggests, the plane was climbing at about 60 degrees in a spiral movement. Another advanced maneuver they tried was called astronaut training. “Basically what we did was we went straight up in the air with high acceleration and we were probably at about a 70 degree incline, so I felt like I was laying almost completely flat on my back … and when we got to the top of this ascension we dove straight down. It was like coming over a roller coaster.” Before the ascension, the instructor had handed Teresa a key chain and told her to throw it up in the air when she felt weightless to visually see the loss of gravity but she said that she didn’t need the key chain to feel it because she was already floating out of her seat.

Flying a small plane wasn’t something Teresa had really imagined herself doing before her birthday trip, and understandably so. Flying is kind of a rare and exceptional thing to do, usually reserved for professionals. “I had never thought that I would fly before, not because I didn’t think that I wouldn’t want to, but I just didn’t think it was an achievable thing.” Now that she has a taste for it? “I definitely want to fly again … I would say it’s probably not the last time I’m going to fly, it was really really cool.”

TgmaWhile she hadn’t given much thought to flying before March, T’s grandmother was actually a pilot in World War II. She flew both large and small cargo planes behind enemy lines and would drop supplies for soldiers on the ground. She said about her grandmother, “Growing up she used to always tell my grandfather, who was a paratroop ranger [during the war], that any monkey can jump out of a plane but it takes someone with real brains to fly one.” She sounds liked a real aerial Rosie the Riveter.


Honorary Grad Students

By Mona Malacane

Although it feels like weeks have already gone by, spring break was only two weeks ago. I can hear your groans through my computer, “Yes Mona, we get it, due dates are quickly approaching and I didn’t get enough done over spring break …” But I promise I’m not bringing this up to compound your end of the semester anxiety! Actually, by the end of this post, hopefully you’ll feel a little bit better about the stress of grad school.

Over this spring break I went back home to Georgia to spend some time with my parents, who have always supported my grad school ambitions. These trips home are usually full of reflecting for me. Something about going back to where I grew up makes me aware of how much my life has changed and what more I want to accomplish. It probably also has something to do with re-explaining how much longer I’ll be in grad school beyond the 2.5 years I have already spent here. Nevertheless, trips home aren’t complete without at least one or two conversations with my parents about the past, present, and future.


My mom, sister, and dad at my college graduation. (Go Dawgs!)

One evening over the spring break as we were chatting over wine I could feel the conversation starting to head in the general direction of the “reflection talk.” My dad beat me to it and started sharing some of his thoughts about grad school. As I was listening to him, I slowly realized that, in many ways, my family has also been going through graduate school with me. I don’t mean just listening to me talk about my assignments or projects or classes or daily life, but sharing in my ups and downs and everything that we as grad students are responsible for.

I wish I could remember what exactly he said but given the spontaneous nature of the conversation (and the wine) it escapes me. On the other hand,  I’m kind of glad that I can’t remember what he said because if I recounted his thoughts they wouldn’t be in his words. So for authenticity’s sake, I asked him to write his thoughts about what grad school is like and how he thinks I have changed since starting grad school.  Here are his thoughts in his own words:

“From a distance, I feel the stress of her long nights, incessant deadlines, and brief phone calls when I offer to do something for her and I quickly sense she is busy and really doesn’t have the time to chit chat. I’m not as offended as I used to be because I better understand the constraints she works under. She owns all of it. With great determination. I read what she writes and it’s so academic and I listen to her research which is so structured. If you can’t prove it with research Mona doesn’t believe it. I don’t always agree with this, because everything isn’t always black and white, but I respect her dedication to proof and seeking answers in the result.

Your independence is accomplished. It’s no longer something you strive for – it is real, but we still love it when you ask us for recipe advice, what cut of meat to buy, and an occasional life lesson which we love to give.

Maybe not a grad school thing but a trait your mom gave you that once you see something and try it you want to own it and be the best. I wish you wouldn’t be such a perfectionist. It describes your quest for quality but can also drive you crazy when it is elusive. We love and respect the way you have matured.”

Me reading my dad's sweet email.

Me reading my dad’s sweet email.

My fellow grads have stories of their own to share about observations made by their “honorary grad students.” They offer perspectives into grad life in their own special ways.

Min Ji Kim’s father: “I, as her father, would say that the grad school is more like waiting for her marriage life because it is something in which she wants to find happiness but still doesn’t even know where it is. I would explain that my daughter is having a very hard time struggling to find her own way to reach her goal. It doesn’t really matter what she’s grabbed or what she’s missed so far, however. I do know she is doing her best now … She has changed a lot. A lot in positive and desirable ways as she is studying abroad by herself far away from home.”

Kelsey Prena’s grandmother: “Just yesterday my grandma asked me how many classes I still have to take until I can work on the floor (in reference to hospital work).”

Nicky Lewis’s Grandma Betty: “So, you’re getting your PhD in television?”

Teresa Lynch: [In terms of having a significant other in grad school] “Life events are dated in terms of semesters, vacation destinations are determined by conference locations, and deadlines come before dishes.”

Edo Steinberg: “I didn’t hear this directly, but a distant relative of mine who heard I research satire once asked, ‘so he’s getting a Ph.D. in making fun of people?’”

Jess Thompkins: “My parents don’t comment much … mostly because they don’t understand what I’m doing in grad school. A few weeks ago I mentioned to my father about the female video game character content analysis that I did with Teresa, Irene, and Niki. His comment ‘Aren’t those outfits based on the fashion industry?'”

Nic Matthews: [What does it mean to have a S.O. who is a grad student?] “It means that nearly all conversations, such as where to crop an Instagram photo, eventually lead to a discussion on philosophy, relevant theories, and 4 study ideas. It means that I’m vicariously enrolled in 3 additional classes every semester having heard the reflections and insights gleaned from each reading. And it means that pushing dinner back a bit for work only becomes problematic once you pass 11pm … okay maybe 11:15pm.”

Antonina Semivolos: “My mom has been the most supportive person thus far … Even if we do not talk for too long, she always finds a way to entertain me, or to give me a wise and special advice (which I could never accept before, but am now receptive to because of the amount of intellectual angst I face every week). She entertains me with jokes about famous people and about what is going on in the world (I don’t own a TV), as well as reads my weekly horoscopes. She sees my working on a PhD as a way to synthesize the knowledge and experience I’ve collected thus far for my own benefit and that of people I will encounter in my life … I’m very proud of her because she’s made a few major sacrifices in order to emigrate with me to the US twenty years ago, and she is proud of me because I’ve been utilizing my time at the Indiana University, Bloomington in such a way as to obtain the highest caliber of contemporary knowledge. So, one of the main outcomes of my staying at the University has been our becoming closer as a family. It is the same with my older sister, even though I know she still secretly hopes I will someday become a medical malpractice lawyer in NYC.”


The Joy of Composting

By: Niki Fritz

Spring is in the air and nothing says spring time to me like a good ole fashion heap of decaying vegetables, coffee grounds and leaves. Or at least that is what spring time means to me now after talking to Glenna about the beautiful process of recycling old food waste into fertilizer for gardening.

The fantastic homemade compost bin ala Glenna and Ben

The fantastic homemade compost bin ala Glenna and Ben

I had heard about composting before but never really seen it in action until Glenna invited me over to her perfectly charming house in Prospect Hill, where she and her partner Ben have not one but TWO compost bins.

“We lived in an apartment in Indy last year so we couldn’t compost,” Glenna explains. “When we moved here we had the perfect space for it. There was no excuse not to do it here.”

Their place is perfect for composting. At the back of their little two-bedroom bungalow, they have an old un-used garage, where they store leaves collected in fall. Behind the garage they store their two large compost bins, out of street view and away from interested dogs. Next to the garage there is a small gardening plot, which stands to benefit from the fertilizer they create.  A compost bin could not ask for a better home than at Ben and Glenna’s.

Ben dumping scraps of "green" into the compost bin

Ben dumping scraps of “green” into the compost bin

The whole process is easier than you might think.

“I assumed it was going to be stinky and that it would be a lot of work. I read a lot about it and it seemed intimidating. There were a lot of instructions and a whole list of things not to do,” Glenna says. “But really it is easier than you think. It seems daunting but you really can’t mess it up.”

Ben and Glenna took the simplest approach to composting. They bought a big round cheap plastic garbage can. Then they drilled a bunch of holes all around it. They put some old leaves in the new compost bin and then started adding their table scraps. The bin is raccoon-proofed with a simple bungee cord over the top. They propped it up on two concrete slabs to allow air flow through the bottom of the bin.

Ben "turning' the compost bin which basically means rolling it around on the ground.

Ben “turning’ the compost bin which basically means rolling it around on the ground.

The most “difficult” part of the whole process is turning the compost bin every few weeks or so. This basically entails Ben hoisting the bin off the concrete blocks and then rolling it around the yard a few times. This mixes up all the old leaves and food and encourages the particles to break down.

Besides being really hippy-chic and giving them free fertilizer, Glenna and Ben point out it is extra good for the environment.

“The foods that get thrown into landfills make methane gas which is really bad for the environment. If you compost, it’s not as bad because all the methane gas is not contained within the plastic-lined sealed landfill. You get to put waste back to the earth instead of just letting it sit in a landfill,” Glenna explains. “Plus it reduces the CO2 released by garbage trucks because we are making less waste.”

“It has really reduced our waste that goes to the landfill,” Ben agrees. “And the garbage never really stinks that much because all the food is in the compost.”

If you are still on the fence about whether or not this composting thing is a good idea, Ben has these final words for you:

“Take the plunge and just do it,” Ben says. “Really, it’s not that hard.”

Five tips to start your composting adventure

Although it is relatively easy to start a compost, now that Ben and Glenna are the official resident experts, they do have a few tips to help you along the way.

The kitchen bin with notes on what you can and cannot put in the compost bin

The kitchen bin with notes on what you can and cannot put in the compost bin

  1. Remember the 3:1 ratio; three “brown items” (aka leaves, old newspapers, dryer lint, coffee grounds) to every one “green item” (aka vegetables scraps, fruit peels).
  2. Don’t put any meat, fats, dairy items or oils in your heap, even if they are vegetables that were fried in oil.
  3. Don’t put onions in your compost because they can make the heap stinky.
  4. Get a kitchen bin! It’s just a little bin that sits in your kitchen to collect scraps. Then when it is full, take the little bin and dump it into your big bin. It’s also helpful to put lists of what can and can’t go into the compost heap on your kitchen bin in case you forget.
  5. Use a cheap garbage can; no need to be fancy for composting people!

Antonina gets mindful about mindfulness in academia

By: Niki Fritz

When I was sitting at Starbucks chatting with Antonina, a woman came up to us, apologized for interrupting and then told me with straight-forward-earnestness that Antonina was “one of the most beautiful and inspiring people that you will ever meet.”

I looked over to see Antonina’s expression. She was slightly blushing and shaking her head. But the woman insisted, saying Antonina was a special kind of human being. Antonina and I had only been talking about an hour but I could see what this possibly-highly-caffeinated woman meant. Antonina was a rare academic who was both kind and calm while being insightful.

1991, Florence: "Yin and Yang"

1991, Florence: “Yin and Yang”

For Antonina, it has been a long journey to get here, to get to that one moment of stillness and mindfulness. Antonina was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine until she was 15. Then she immigrated to the United States, where she landed as a sophomore at James Madison High School, the only high school in Brooklyn that, at the time, had a program for Russian-speaking students who have just moved to the United States.

“When you have no language, you just try to survive. At times, I felt I was bumping into walls,” Antonina explains. “At some point I realized my mind was super hectic. I noticed it was going in circles.”

Despite the enormous hurdles she faced, Antonina graduated from high school and started college at NYU. For four years, she says she continued to just survive until a semester abroad in Florence, Italy woke her up. After college, Antonina continued to explore the world; traveling, working and continuing to look for her own belief system.

Then one day, she chanced across Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now.”

“I just found so many answers [in Tolle’s book.] He spoke about meditation and watching your mind,” Antonina explains. “I thought to myself: ‘What is watching your mind?’ Then he gave an analogy. Imagine your thoughts are like clouds floating through the clear peaceful sky. You can watch your thoughts just like you can watch clouds.” Antonina says this analogy just clicked in her mind. This is what meditation became for her.

Antonina thus began her journey into mindfulness meditation. She also made the decision to leave NYC and go to law school at IU. It was while pursuing her JD as well as her MA in Russian and East European Institute (REEI) that she began to see academia as another possible space to practice mindfulness.

“While working on my area studies degree, I started learning about myself and my conditioned self from the Soviet Union,” Antonina explains. “It was as if I was studying myself from the perspective of an anthropologist. In an unexpected way, my academic program made me more mindful of my own self.”

Antonina is now studying the way our virtual communications impact the expression of self and the creation of our individual life stories, as well as rapidly-changing notions of privacy in Internet age. She is certain that mindfulness will serve her especially well as a social scholar.

“I think mindfulness is a necessity to scientists; I mean to be aware of your own bias,” Antonina explains. “Many social scientists have their own personal biases, simply by the virtue of being human. As a result, they must work on consciously weeding these out on a daily basis.”

Bloomington: winter 2015

Bloomington: Winter 2015

For example, Antonina explained how if you examined everyone who walked through the door at Starbucks for one hour, you might notice 5 behaviors about 20 people; but many more behaviors have actually occurred for each person. The behaviors one person observes are based on observer’s own biography and life experiences. Antonina believes mindfulness is the only way to detect such possible discrepancies in our perceptions.

“I know I’m biased and I start from there. I use mindfulness to be aware. I’m subjective. I think when people say they are objective, it is because it makes them feel secure; it gives them a familiar mask,” Antonina says. “I think scientist have to put special awareness in this. It may be different in case of artists who are creators, and have the urge to simply express themselves. On the other hand, scientists are engaged in a never-ending dialogue about truth. One must be first of all truthful with oneself in a dialogue of such caliber.”

The idea of truth is one hotly contended in academia. Antonina says mindfulness allows her to get glimpses of the truth, and to detect where her personal perceptions and projections interfere.

“I see truth as something we get closer and closer to,” Antonina says. “If you practice mindfulness, this path becomes more unhindered. I must constantly ask myself not just what I am seeing but also what I am not seeing, what is said and what isn’t said. According to one philosophical statement, silence is a part of conversation, full of meaning. Only paying attention to silence and what is absent can we attempt to construct the whole picture.”

More than just aiding in her academic pursuit of truth, Antonina shows how mindfulness can help academics in other aspects of their lives, particularly balancing all the demands of academia and home life.

“I used to be a perfectionist but it was not good. Perfectionism is one of the worst ‘socially-acceptable forms of self-abuse.’ It is the same with academia. Sometimes when I’m resting I feel guilty,” Antonina explains. “Mindfulness makes you prioritize. When you have a lot of things to do, you have to question yourself about what is important and trust yourself and your decisions.”

As for her mindfulness routine, Antonina treks to yoga at least five times a week and tries to incorporate intention practices into her mornings. However, she assures me that mindfulness, meditation, and basic awareness doesn’t necessarily take a yoga membership but just some time each day dedicated to observing those thought clouds.

“The mind works all the time when one is an academic. You always ask questions and do research. People question you. Sometimes I feel as if smoke is coming out of my ears!” Antonina exclaims. “With mindfulness you help your mind and make it work for you. Mindfulness is a must and a privilege … [because] the craziness of life never ends. Many times, we are just surviving. Mindfulness allows one to make choices and live fully, while teaching us be aware of each moment. It allows us to become fulfilled.”

For those scientists out there who want “proof” of the benefits of mindfulness check out Dr. Siegel’s website here. 

And if anyone wants to start their own mindfulness practice, IU Health offers daily sessions, or check out the video below, or better yet, just chat with Antonina!

The Jam Band Lovers in our Ivory Tower

By: Niki Fritz

I was raised on steady diet of Beach Boys and gospel-style Elvis Presley, the music diet equivalent of unseasoned pork chops and potatoes. I did not even know the Beatles were a thing until high school. I most certainly was never exposed to any “jam bands” or any music that jammed at all.

I was curious when I heard not one, but two, of our faculty members self-identified as jam band fans. Bryant Paul is a notorious Deadhead, while Julien Mailland considers himself an active Phish Head. While I understand the basics of a jam band (which I assumed is VW buses, tie-dye and lots of “jamming”), I wanted to find out more about the lure of this free-style music. In particular I wanted to know why two seemingly serious academics would be into the chaos of bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish.

Bryant’s love affair with the Dead started way back in the 80s when Bryant was in high school. The band had a resurgence after playing for years in the 60s and 70s when their song “Touch of Grey” ranked in the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, the only Dead song to ever do so. Bryant was a guitarist and the Dead-style of jamming inspired him.

In 1989 Bryant finally had the chance to go to his first show at the Spectrum in Philly. He pulled into the parking lot with his friends on a Thursday night in October. It was drizzling, so they threw a huge tarp over all their cars, making a temporary camping site. Other Deadheads were doing similar things, e.g. selling goods from the trunks of their cars. Bryant and his friends walked around, talking to people from all over the country. During the show, Bryant remembers people free-flow dancing and an open, welcoming, hippy-esque environment.

Bryant explains that the Grateful Dead is really about live performances, not studio recordings. “[Live shows] gave you the opportunity to sit there while someone is creating art in front of you,” Bryant explains. “Having all these people work together to create something as a whole is amazing. They bring clarity out of chaos.”

Bryant went to over 15 Dead shows but eventually, the crowd began to change and the front man, Jerry Garcia, started to fade.  When Jerry died, Bryant remembers thinking something big was ending.

“You want to think the Dead were more than Jerry – and they were – but they were 85% Jerry,” Bryant says. “It wasn’t that he was the only one you wanted to hear; he was just this bigger than life personality. When he died, so much died with him.”

Today though, Bryant says he is probably a bigger Deadhead than he was back in the day, thanks to the Grateful Dead XM radio channel. It is what he listens to 95% of the time, finding new inspiration with each live concert.

“[The Dead] has a special place in my past,” Bryant says wistfully. “I think the thing I got the most out of the band was this idea that you can create something really cool and work really hard at it, but it doesn’t have to be so serious. Look at what I do for a living. If I die tomorrow, the world will keep turning. That is what the Dead taught me.”

I was beginning to understand that this jam band stuff may be about more than just the music and neon-colored dancing bears.

Julien says he considers himself a Grateful Dead fan, but can’t be considered a Deadhead since he never had the chance to see the band perform live. Luckily, he found another jam band, Phish, while he was in college in the States.

Julien's Wall of Cognitive Dissonance, which includes a Dead poster and a signed Bush photo

Julien’s Wall of Cognitive Dissonance, which includes a Dead poster and a signed Bush photo

“I’ve been to 15 Phish shows including an 8-set, 3-day show/campout with another 40,000 Phish Heads in the California desert,” Julien tells me when I am in his jam band-sprinkled office. “I don’t put much philosophical meaning behind Phish. [Live shows] are just a really fun experience.”

For Julien, Phish shows hold a similar appeal to what Dead shows used to be; there is a cool parking lot vibe as well as some solid jamming during shows. He calls Phish shows a “multidimensional sensory experience,” particularly when the jamming is combined with a light show as well as audience participation in the form of glow sticks.  I was not particularly sold on what audience participation was until Julien showed me a YouTube clip of the glow stick action. I was starting to understand the whole appeal of this jam band thing.

Julien explains though that the shows are also about a Phish Head culture.

“[Phish shows] draw from the tradition of counter culture and having a society that is not necessarily based on full-on Adam Smith principles. It goes back to the tradition of carnival, which goes back to the Middle Ages,” Julien explains. “In that tradition people dress up and there is a flattening of the social structure which I think also occurs at Phish shows.”

And this is where I begin to see the draw of jam bands, while they are about awesome “riffing” and musical talent, they are mostly about culture.

As Bryant explains: “With the Dead it is about a culture as much as it is about the music. The culture is super appealing. It represents the 60s and the hippy movement at some level, being part of something bigger … We fetishized the 60s as a time of great love and hope; I’m sure it’s not as great as that. But the Dead was something I could reach out and touch that was part of that era.”

For both Bryant and Julien, being a jam band head isn’t just about music or tie-dye t-shirts; it is about stepping into a culture that is vastly different than the one they occupy daily; a rose-colored, socially-equalitarian, spiritually-harmonious space that may only exist for a night in a parking lot of some arena. But for that night, jam band heads get to step out of their hierarchical rigid world of corporate America or the ivory tower and into a world of harmony, love and glow sticks.

I may not be ready to follow Phish or any of the newer jamtronica bands around, but I think I understand the jam band culture a bit more. And I know I will be a little less judgmental of all that tie-dye in the future.

Living it Up in the Big Easy

By Mona Malacane

For some grad students, “doing something different” means trying a new recipe, going hiking in the limestone quarries, playing in the snow, or taking off on an exotic trip in the summer. But last week, Gabe Persons went on what I would call an enviable pre-mid-semester-vacation to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. A far cry from hunting and baking bread, on Friday the 13th Gabe and Isaac Knowles drove 13 hours and 800+ miles to Louisiana to Baton Rouge where they stayed with some of Isaac’s friends for the first leg of their trip.


Photo courtesy of Gabe Persons

After a day and a half in Baton Rouge, Gabe, Isaac, and several of Isaac’s friends headed to the Big Easy for Mardi Gras festivities. But this isn’t your usual Mardi Gras story people – Gabe swore to me that he did not once expose himself to procure colorful plastic baubles. He also made explicitly clear that this trip was not about visiting the numerous daiquiri bars that populate New Orleans (but he did enjoy tasting a few). For him, it was about the food, music, the experience, and checking off an item on his bucket list.

“It’s been on my bucket list for a while for a number of reasons … what you hear about is always the party stuff but that’s not what’s intriguing to me. I like the music side of New Orleans, I like the food side and while the party atmosphere itself is not what drew me, I think it indicates something about the nature of the people there and they were generally a friendly bunch of people.”

Photo courtesy of Gabe Persons

Photo courtesy of Gabe Persons

Some of the most memorable moments from his trip were from the famous parades that occupy much of the Mardi Gras celebrations. “The very first parade I saw in New Orleans was very interesting. It was not like any parade I’ve ever seen. The audience is constantly interacting in a way that you don’t see at other parades and the floats are huge and pulled by semi-trucks.” Some fun things Gabe et al. received from the float “throwers” included a fedora, a pair of glowing hand-cuffs, lanyards, and footballs. But other than to watch the parades, the group Gabe was with avoided Bourbon Street (and the hordes of tourists that flock to it for Mardi Gras). “We were on [Bourbon Street] briefly just to get somewhere else and you could barely move, it was just a sea of people.”


Photo courtesy of Gabe Persons

While in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Gabe, Isaac and friends, visited some delicious restaurants and even got to cook a good ol’ low country boil. Gabe explained, “I really like Southern food. I don’t like the weather but I love southern food.” In fact, their trip back to Bloomington was slightly longer than the trip down south due to the obligatory (hungover) Waffle House brunch stop. While WaHo is undeniably a Southern tradition, I strongly recommend Cracker Barrel next time.


Trust me, I'm from the South: Cracker Barrel > Waffle House

Trust me, I’m from the South: Cracker Barrel > Waffle House