All posts by WW

A Piece of the Pie

A few years ago, looking to furnish my new shoebox apartment in Tokyo, I made my rounds of the secondhand shops in the area. At one place, a little far from home, I spotted two super-cute vintage chairs – around $50 for the pair. I loved them. I wanted them. And I bought them. It would have been a hassle to bring them back on public transport, so I ended up paying another $20 or $30 for shipping. It felt much relative to the cost of the chairs. But I liked them enough to overlook it.

I had never properly shopped or invested in furniture before, even $25 chairs, primarily because I had never quite settled in a place of my own. In Irvine, where I lived for six years in a university-owned apartment – the longest I had lived anywhere in my entire life – my biggest purchase was an arcade basketball machine. My residences had generally been furnished by roommates. And where items were lacking, I would fill in the gaps with unimaginative, cost-effective options: a bedside table from Ikea, a desk from Office Depot.

My reticence to invest in nothing but the most basic, low-end items was certainly linked to the transient nature of my existence. I could not help but think about the inevitability of having to get rid of that furniture in due course: nine months, a year – it would go by in the blink of an eye. Indeed, my approach to furniture reflected broader sensibilities linked to the moving around, as I heralded utility above all else. This was reinforced by the fact that I was both a cheap and relatively poor bastard.

As I have mentioned on these pages before, luxury was unknown to my family growing up. We were never quite uncomfortable, but nor were we ever comfortable either. We rented, never owned. We bought Corollas and paid them off over the span of years. I only had two or three years during my childhood and adolescence in which I did not share a room with my sister, until she went off to college. Given how hard my parents worked, given how hard money came by, spending extravagantly simply could not enter the realm of possibility.*

*Naturally, I wasted money anyway, being human and a child. But it was within reason.

Opportunity, however, began to present itself as I grew older. I made a little money working as an undergraduate, then more as a teaching assistant in graduate school. With some semblance of financial independence, I began to do things with regularity that would have been unfathomable when I was younger: engaging in fun travel (if almost exclusively within the States), attending sporting events, and simply going out on weekends for food and drinks and the like.

Thus it was that luxury too came to manifest, even if in spurts and with limits. I had nosebleed seats for my favorite baseball team, but they were season tickets – thousands of dollars’ worth. I bought a laptop or two on sale, even when my existing one was only aging rather than nonfunctional. I picked up small items like DVDs, books, comics, etc. without even thinking twice. I no longer had to dwell on such transactions, but for entirely unexpected reasons: because it WAS possible and not because it was not, as in the past.

Still, I struggled – and continue to struggle – to reconcile the reality of my present with that of my past. Of course, that my mother remains a blue collar worker, that many of my relatives and their social circles remain decidedly lower-middle class (or perhaps upper-lower class), provides a constant reminder of a life that is not quite in the rearview mirror. Additionally, that my own career instability continues to loom provides a constant reminder too of a lifestyle that can be all too fleeting.

Whatever the reason, I certainly have developed mixed feelings about the kind of life I am able to live sometimes. About the kind of world I live in that values a particular skillset over others to the tune that it does, with the kind of inequality that the difference entails. The effect is exacerbated by how it is represented in my own life: in comparison to my parents and how hard they work, in comparison to my sister and the societal value she brings, even in comparison to my own life (and duties) just two or three years ago.

I am able to live my life without dwelling on it most of the time, of course. I am not as good a person as I would like to think. But there are times when it becomes too obvious, too naked – with things that are small and tangible and all too easy to compare. In those moments, I feel somewhere between apprehension and full-fledged guilt. And thus I cannot spend over certain unwritten amounts for clothes, for electronics, especially for extravagant meals, even if I am all too aware that the limits I have set are quite arbitrary.

Indulgences take many forms. I have written of my ability to travel to more places than I could have ever imagined. And while I can rationalize such trips as genuine experiences that will be lodged in my mind in a way that a tangible thing cannot be, in reality one is not too far from the other. Ultimately, I am spending sometimes obscene amounts of money in one go – for a day of fucking around in a new city, for a weekend at a friend’s wedding on the other side of the world, for a week in the woods.

It seems of course misguided to deny myself the opportunities that I have been able to attain – no matter how unfair the world that offered them to me might be. To do so appears as self-righteousness to the extreme, an act meant primarily to assuage my own guilt. The solution then, broadly speaking, is to channel what luxury I have access to now to improve the world around me, to help others when I can. It is something I think about as I continue to pursue that elusive stability. And it is that awareness that allows me to live with myself.

There is a bookend to this. After I left Japan for Switzerland, my friends cared for my two chairs for the better half of a year. But when they left Japan too, I did not want them to simply get rid of the chairs. So, after contemplating my options, I asked for them to ship the pair over. They’re out on my balcony now, the exceptions in what is again an otherwise furnished sublet. It cost me about $250 to ship them over. I’m not particularly proud of that. But for now, I’m still all too conscious that I shouldn’t be proud of that.

Snapshots of a Friendship

I met him six years ago in Boston. He was my officemate. We had to feel each other out a little at first, the environment being what it was. But we became fast friends: hitting happy hours, watching sports, bitching about everyone else there. I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend (she sucked), some of his friends in the area (they didn’t), even his parents at his graduation ceremony. It was a good year.

He left for a year stint in Japan before I knew I would end up there after he left. He struggled, the same way I would my first year. For him, it was mostly the long-distance thing with his girlfriend (the one who sucked). We Skyped once or twice, exchanged occasional emails. A mutual friend and I visited him out there together. We drank sake, ate conveyer belt sushi, celebrated my 30th. It was a good week.

The next time I saw him was either DC or Japan; I’ve forgotten the timeline. DC was when I stayed with him and met his new girlfriend (she didn’t suck). We chatted, drank, played with their dog. It was a good couple of days. Japan was longer. This time around, I lived out there, and he had come out to do some fieldwork. We hung out, drank too much, took a trip up to Sendai. It was a good few weeks.

We met up in Atlanta last year. His girlfriend was there; the dog didn’t make the trip. We were there ostensibly for an academic conference, but managed to sneak in a basketball game. We hung out the next night too, catching up and drinking a fair amount – while bitching about acquaintances we had been talking to just hours earlier. It was a good day and a half.

I saw the two of them again this past weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was their wedding.

A year and change, a handful of Skypes and emails. It doesn’t seem like much, not in the grand scheme of things. Snapshots. But it seems representative of most my relationships these days. A past period of close proximity, sporadic reunions, but otherwise, infrequent, almost nonexistent communication – and a fundamental lack of involvement in and intimate knowledge of each other’s daily lives.*

*There is one exception, but she is truly the exception that proves the rule. I write about the rule here.

It makes me wonder about the nature of friendships, certainly the nature of my friendships. There appears a thin line between space denoting comfort and ease with the relationship and space reflecting the harsher reality that the relationship is simply no longer what it was. Proximity – or lack thereof – might appear an easy excuse, but it seems hardly determining, potentially (easily?) overcome by effort.

Perhaps though this is the natural evolution of a relationship, as friends move out in different directions, stages of life, geographic locations. It is quite difficult sometimes to disentangle the relationship from the shared life experience that created its foundation, harder still to predict whether the former can survive in the absence of the latter, especially as people themselves change.

I think about the people I consider among my closest friends and I can recognize that it has been ages since I have had a real conversation with the majority of them. We exchange sporadic texts and emails, either for the most significant of life occasions (an impending child) or the opposite extreme (fantasy sports or political commentary), with little in between, regarding for instance aspects of our daily lives.

And yet I feel even with only snapshots of their current realities I still know their essence, due either to the length of the relationship, or the previous close proximity shared, or both of these. I wonder though if that too is a mirage, akin to what I wrote of the image conceived and acted upon by family members who profess to know the “real” you. I wonder then to what degree I am lying to myself.

I hope the distance is not because I take friends for granted. I hope there exists an implicit mutual understanding that relationships persevere even as they evolve and in some cases devolve. But maybe this is all semantics. The real question has to do with the kind of friend I am and want to be and am capable of being with each individual. It is about fit and connection and love, again even as I change and they do also.

Relationships are fraught. I know this is universal, having attended the aforementioned wedding in which the best man mentioned he was surprised to have been selected as such, in which mutual friends I expected were not even offered invitations, in which there appeared nobody from the locale in which the bride and groom were currently situated. Connection is not easy – to make, to maintain.

Then again, maybe this is precisely why I went out there. Even if I am no longer involved on a daily basis, even if I do feel somewhat detached from their present realities, I still could be there for a moment of genuine significance, for an updated snapshot. And as a result, the idea that I still know his essence a little bit, that we still had some of that first year in Boston in us, doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Every relationship is different. Thus, every relationship has to be examined on its own merits. Not all of each is in my control, of course, and perhaps too often, I cede responsibility – whether purposely or not. I’d like to think that I give enough, hopefully more than that, to those who ask, those who want. But I am picky too. Maybe that’s why the snapshots mean something to me still.

(Photo by Mayaoren, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

This Music in My Mind

I like shitty music. Art is subjective, I realize, and I actually do like my music very much, but I am the first to admit that my sensibilities leave much to be desired. My album collection is filled with the kind of innocuous, forgettable, embarrassing stuff most people outgrow by the time they graduate high school: Avril, Britney, Shania, Taylor, Blink. None can be excused as mere relics of my past, as all listed remain prominent features in my current playlists.

Some many years ago, I tried to resell a good chunk of my CD collection. I brought 20 or 30 albums I had already digitized into one of the largest independent music stores in the world: Amoeba Music in Los Angeles. The clerk dutifully went through them one by one, checking their condition. When he finished, there was a moment’s pause. “These are really middle-of-the-road,” he told me. “We can’t take any of them.” I brought everything back to the car. I felt embarrassed.

I never was all that musically inclined growing up. I didn’t develop an ear for good music (despite the considerable size of said ears), never bonded with my parents over their music. Perhaps as a result, my childhood love of Disney created a precedent I retained. I gravitated not towards lyrical depth or instrumental innovation or whatever “legitimate” variables might be discussed in the pages of Rolling Stone, but instead towards catchiness, simplicity, accessibility, fun. I preferred comfort food: top 40, bubblegum pop, conveyer belt stuff.

Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of shit from my friends about my tastes during my teenage years (and still now, sporadically). Like seemingly everyone else in high school, they fancied themselves connoisseurs: discovering indie bands, speaking of lesser-known albums. There is indeed something to the portrayal of music as a core component of adolescence, especially American adolescence, but because of my apathy and less-than-acceptable musical tendencies, it was a conversation I never took part in.

Even now, the aura around music and its meaning eludes me. I obviously enjoy the artform at some level, but its fit in my life remains unnatural. I simply cannot grasp the universal level of passion, of judgment, that appears unique to that form of art. People, for instance, do not extol the virtues of Byzantine art to great (or any) reaction, and no one would debate unearthed coins versus animal exhibits at the natural history museum. But music is treated differently. I wonder if it is the convergence of art and artist and performance that elicits such visceral reaction.

I wonder too whether my own issue goes beyond music. When it comes to the arts after all, I have always had a rather grounded and at times cynical receptivity. I cannot say that I have ever read a book that changed my life, as the cliché goes, nor have I seen a movie that altered how I saw the world around me. I am not a robot – I have been deeply affected by art of course, and I have at times felt art with every fiber of my being. But I would be remiss to suggest that any of it has penetrated my essence to the point of fundamental alteration.

Yet the preceding caveat does not fully explain the general distinctiveness of my feelings towards music. With literature, for example, I have gradually developed a sense of obligation to consider classics from all walks of life, jumping most recently from a sprawling work of historical fiction set against an African civil war to a British coming-of-age children’s novel tinged with magical realism. Similarly with movies, I hop with regularity from black-and-white classics to foreign language films to contemporary blockbusters and 1980s classics. But I have never in this manner actively or systematically sought the spectrum of options in music.

I pause to say here that I consider myself rather open-minded about music, certainly in a way that music snobs are not. I happily accompany friends to just about any live show*, I often purchase songs after hearing them in passing, and I will without fail check out recommendations sporadically directed to me from friends and acquaintances. Yet my personal exploration of music has heretofore been passive, and I simply lack the natural intellectual curiosity for the form I clearly have elsewhere. Essentially, analogously, I am content to watch Transformers and Fast and the Furious and little else.

*I absolutely love the environment – a corollary of my sports fandom, I suppose.

Perhaps all this has to do with the fact that music is meant to stick with the consumer of art in a manner that other forms do not. Indeed, I do not reread books, and it is actually quite rare that I will rewatch a movie – my favorites included. Even museums are not visited more than once. But music is replayed again and again. Music contains an intrinsic degree of permanence, and as a result, requires something that might exceed the boundaries of my open-mindedness. In fact, its very nature alters the conception of what being open-minded entails. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the tried-and-true is what has stuck with me.

Still, much as I love the music that I do, much as I am ready to defend that music or (more likely) belt it out at karaoke, I do sometimes feel excluded from an art that reaches people so deeply. There is certainly some part of me that wishes to have the awareness to feel the rhythm (getting stronger) or the knowledge to break down verses and recognize allegories and so forth. Who knows. Maybe this will happen in due course, and I eventually broaden my horizons. But maybe it won’t. Maybe my love will always be superficial. After all, there exists the terrible possibility that music simply does not speak to my soul.