Tag Archives: adulthood

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 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.

Of Crushes and Loves

(1983-2015)

She was pretty and smart. And she had a unique name that I still remember. We were in first grade. But my friend declared his own crush for her first. So I kept quiet. It didn’t matter much in the end. I moved and changed schools after less than a year. Funny enough, I did run into her a couple of years later at the public library. She stood there when I came out of the bathroom, openly staring at me. I recognized her back; I must have. Neither of us said anything though. It’s hard to explain why third graders act the way they do. I suppose the idea of fate didn’t register to either of us then. Anyway, after a beat, I offered her the bathroom key. She didn’t take it, didn’t react. So I went on my way. That’s the last time I saw her.

She was a pretty freckled girl. She and her best friend were the queen bees of my new elementary school. I remember vividly how big a deal it was when the two of them got in a fight in the girls’ bathroom once. The details of the fight – physical or emotional – were a complete unknown. I developed a crush, of course. But she was always hanging around the school jock. I had no idea if they ever actually dated (this was third grade, after all), but they seemed a natural match. Her friend actually liked me for about a week. That was her thing; she had a new object of her affection every week. Nothing came of it. I moved after fifth grade, and that was that.

She was the smartest girl in sixth grade. I might have been the smartest boy. (It was a small school.) We were friends. Acquaintances, really. I remember writing in her yearbook, “don’t let your brain fry in the summer heat.” It seemed clever at the time. She playfully threatened to chase me around the playground when we came back in the fall. A budding love, perhaps. But my family ended up moving again without notice. We actually ended up at the same college though. I saw her once on campus. She was older, obviously, but still pretty, still unmistakably her. But we had never kept in touch. So I let her be. I only saw her just the once.

She was the prettiest girl in middle school. I wasn’t particularly cute or cool or anything then (or now, for that matter). We sat together in a class, at a four person table, for an entire semester. But we didn’t talk much. Still, the topic of crushes did come up once. I became the subject of scrutiny. I didn’t say anything. She started probing, listing other girls in the class, being obtuse, the way attractive people can be about their own attractiveness. I didn’t admit anything to her though, or to anyone else. Years later, I learned that she would actually become the first love of one of my best friends in high school, totally unbeknownst to me. Years later, I learned she broke his heart.

She was the smartest girl in ninth grade. Seemed it, anyway. Freckled, curly-haired. Different. The creepy social studies teacher would make comments about her and the smartest boy in the class (definitely not me) like they were peas in a pod. It only made me like her more. Regardless, I made my way to my next crush. Four years later, I did ask her to sign my high school yearbook. My big move. She wrote something so generic another friend mocked her in the message he wrote to me. The last time I saw her was after senior night. I was driving home, she was outside waiting for her ride, and our eyes met for a moment. It seemed like closure, if for something that never was.

She was the kindest girl in high school. Seemed it, anyway. I didn’t much interact with her, certainly not outside class, but I projected all of my hopes and dreams on her. I don’t know how I got to that point. Before we graduated, I wrote her an absurd email about my not wanting to have any regrets, about wondering if there might be something there. I asked for a reply in the form of her presence, for a meeting at the Observatory. She didn’t show, of course. I still cringe about putting all of that on her, 15 years later. There’s a part of me that wants to apologize, even now. But it’s a selfish desire.

She had the bubbliest personality. Smart and pretty too. I was her teaching assistant. She never gave any signs, any hints. But I plowed ahead and asked her out via email after the quarter. She never responded. Horrifyingly, she ended up in another of my classes a year after that. I felt awful. I wrote to apologize for putting her in that position. She wrote back. Somehow, we became friends. She shared a lot about her life with me, her issues. To this day, we’re in touch – emails, texts, the occasional movie if I’m in town. My crush is still there, I suppose. But it’s just so irrelevant now. I’m more concerned about her, protective of her. Maybe this is how I’ve tried to repent.

She was older, seemingly far wiser and more experienced. A friend in graduate school. We weren’t too close, partly because she was married. Then she wasn’t married anymore. By then, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so lengthy phone conversations sufficed. She came to visit eventually, her birthday weekend. My first love. I had ridiculous fantasies about us, about our future. It was different for her. A fling. It took me too long to figure that out. I visited two years later, in town for a conference. She was cold, distant. She made sure we didn’t spend time alone. We had contentious conversations about other things. Everything fell apart that weekend.

She had a great sense of humor and a nice chatty way about her, if fueled by a fair bit of narcissism. She rebuffed me on our second date, but we continued to hang out, as friends. It was unhealthy. She came to lean on me during a tough time. I accepted co-dependence in place of love. She would speak about a friend in another country who was supposedly perfect for me – ostensibly because it wasn’t her. It was patronizing. After she moved away, I realized how shitty the relationship made me feel about myself. It was nothing she said or did in particular, just the whole of it. Our conversations became less frequent. The last was, and will be, in September.

She was the sweetest girl, intellectually curious and gorgeous too. We had a cute date, great conversation, some silliness that made for a perfect story. A second date followed, then a third, and more. In that brief time, she seemed like a true love, not just a fling, and not unrequited. But she had family things going on, and fell ill from the stress. She kept me at arm’s length. Our correspondence slowed when I went for a visit home, about six weeks in. When I returned, she had decided she needed to take care of herself. I wanted to share that burden, but she was resolute. She was to leave the country in eight months. She never reached out again. In the end, I suppose it was unrequited love too, if in its own way.

(Photo by Corwinhee, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Left Unsaid

There are some things left unsaid. They have to be.

There’s a quote that high school seniors love to use in their yearbooks, that high school graduates have taken to using in their inspirational memes. “Dance like nobody’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” The idea is nice, to be sure. Romantic, empowering, life-affirming. But it’s also not viable. It’s not viable for the same reason why “live everyday like it’s your last” is an abstract (and absurd) philosophy rather than a realistic blueprint for daily living. After all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’re living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilized way.”* We have societal duties, responsibilities.

*Wise words from a wise man.

I’ve discovered this past month that social mores are never more manifestly apparent than during a period of transition (say, a move to the other side of the world). Perhaps it’s the inherent contradiction. What seems a perfect opportunity to cut to the chase given the blank slate instead becomes a stark reminder of the game we have to play in existing as part of this world. I want desperately to ask my new colleagues outright about the assholes in the department. To ask my panel what they really thought of my interview months ago. But as honest and straightforward as I fashion myself, there are consequences to consider, and thus, boundaries to mind. Maybe I get my answers in due time. Maybe I never do.

I admit that I felt a tremendous urge to impart memorable words to those I left behind in Japan. I suppose it’s the theatrical side of me, growing up in Los Angeles. Regardless, I certainly considered offering unsolicited advice to those who have been a part of my life over the past two to three years and beyond. Perhaps in my more drunken moments, I even started to do so. I itched to tell my supervisor about the work environment he had fostered, I racked through my brain for the right words with which to relate counsel to colleagues, I began a letter – in my mind – for the research fellows who were to join the institute I was leaving.

But despite the temptation, I did not end up doing any of these things, for any number of reasons. It’s undeniably arrogant for starters. For me to impose my perspective on someone else’s experience, to presume that the would-be recipient was not already aware of their own traits, to overlook the possibility that they too might have thoughts about me, my persona, my very essence that they were holding back out of common courtesy. But more than arrogance, that I did not feel comfortable enough to share my thoughts up until that point with these individuals reveals much about the nature of our relationship as it had existed.

I had a conversation before I left with a friend about my mixed feelings toward giving advice to a mutual acquaintance. And he asked, “Why not? You’re leaving anyway.” It’s not that simple. Leaving a place, leaving people behind – it’s not an excuse to forgo social obligation and responsibility, to essentially live like there is no tomorrow. My departure might have been a necessary condition for an airing of laundry (clean and dirty, positive and negative), but it is not in itself not a sufficient one. Yes, in a few rare cases, I did have heart-to-hearts. But the foundation for those conversations, for those memorable words, had been meticulously laid out – on both sides – over the course of those relationships.

Still, I would be remiss to suggest that there were no words left unsaid even in those instances. The game is prevalent even in the most intimate of relationships. Because ultimately in life, there are some things that don’t need to be said, or shouldn’t be said, or haven’t gestated enough to be said properly. Restraint in these instances is not a matter of cowardice, but the reverse, and linked to having a measure of basic decency as a human being. There are boundaries to mind, a result of timing, or circumstance, or consequence. There always will be.

So some things are left unsaid. They have to be. At least for now, and perhaps even for ever. But that’s the burden of living with a tomorrow. That’s the burden of living when someone is watching, listening, responding.

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Let It Burn

The world is dysfunction. I walk through the park – the Centennial Olympic Park, no less – and there are more homeless here than there are visitors. City workers set up for an unspecified event, a marathon from the looks of it. Tourists, myself included, snap shots of nearby statues, plaques, landscapes – landscapes decorated with those for whom survival is a struggle. They exist in the park the way the trees do, the way the benches do. They exist but invisibly so. This is normal city life, we have been told, and we have somehow been conditioned to accept.

A ten-minute walk from this park, a day earlier. I sit in a conference room with ten others. Four are there because they have to be, because they have been scheduled to present, same as me. Two are friends, two others share my alma mater: all moral support. Only the last two are genuine audience members. We’ve come from all over the country, the world in some cases, myself included, to be here. I wonder if anyone aside from my friends grasps the absurdity of it all. They debate regime complexes, breadth versus depth, theoretical frameworks. We’re so far removed from the world that it borders on delusion.

All manner of accommodations adorn the skyline from my perch in the middle of the park. The conference I’m here for is a four-day affair: thousands of attendants, hundreds of panels, dozens of rooms. I try to make sense of all of this. I know what we do matters, that society requires the pursuit of knowledge, the sharing and imparting thereof. But I sit here and look upon my surroundings and I sit here and think upon the conversation in those rooms a ten-minute walk away. And I try to make sense of all of this and I fail. We’re so far up our own asses it’d be funny if it weren’t my life. Maybe it’s funny anyway.

My friend got laid off yesterday. My mom has been up since 5 am for her job. A dozen homeless line up in an alleyway by the church, presumably for a warm meal. Meanwhile, I spent nine dollars for a beer at a basketball game last night. I received a free trip to this city to talk for ten minutes on a panel with two real audience members. Sometimes, on what I would say are my best days, I feel like I don’t want any part of this world. Let it burn. Except pyromaniac isn’t exactly a sustainable life philosophy. And this is ultimately the only world in which I exist. So where does that leave me?

Passions, Redux

A friendly soul. I don’t usually speak with seatmates on flights. But immediately, I can tell this guy has a good heart, that his travel companion too has a kind demeanor. So we chat, in the natural way that is generally reserved for people who are not me. He’s a teacher, he says modestly, even if the truth is clearly itching to get out. Really, he’s a screenwriter. Just sold his first, he can’t help but beam. He had always wanted to, he says. An ex had bought him the software. And so he wrote and made a short film, got some recognition for it, hired an agent, finished a script, sold it. Simple as that. He spent most of the 14 hour flight working on his next project.

His journey was inspiring, frankly. But it also felt so detached from reality – my reality, at least. I totally understood where he was coming from. I’ve always loved movies, enough to have written a screenplay of my own. But once it was over and done with, it just sat there, never to be edited, never to be reworked, never to be shared beyond a competition for which I received an “above average” score, but without advancing to the next stage. A second screenplay went about 20 pages before I hit a wall, lost interest, and ultimately deleted it – the concept perhaps more attractive than the work required to executive it. So my screenwriting career lays dormant, seemingly a passing fancy.

This is the story of my life. Laziness, lack of follow-through, frustration with the absence of instant gratification. I wonder if I have already used up all my energy for this PhD, or whether I was only able to achieve even that precisely because I had relative security the entire time. I look at things I actually care about or love, even, and I no longer have that patience, if I ever had it in the first place. I look directly for the payoff, wonder what the best case scenario would be. I love comedy, enjoyed performing – or more precisely, writing a stand-up routine, but I cannot fathom life on the road, putting up with hecklers and shitty venues, all for what – a long-shot to secure a comedy special or a network sitcom or something. I am too cynical to have the love of the art be sufficient, too lazy and poor to start from the bottom. The screenwriting endeavor appears no different.

But where does that leave me then? I fall back on the excuse – rationale – that my hobbies and my job should not, cannot be one and the same, fearing that my “passions” (the quotation marks are purposeful) will become the mundane. But meanwhile, I struggle to reconcile that what the world has heretofore valued of me is not anything I value beyond its practical utility for my survival. And so I face yet another crossroads, two years after my previous one, in which I find myself almost wishing for a clean break and an excuse to have to start from scratch, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, even as I fear (or perhaps know deep inside) that doing so would not inspire me in the least but only relegate me to a life of mediocrity while flushing away the work I have managed to put in to this point. Again.