Tag Archives: daily life

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.

The Grind

Week 3 (of 104).

The curtains I picked are adept at blocking out natural light in the Land of the Rising Sun. But the alarm goes off, and I wake up about two hours earlier than I would prefer. I shower, dress, grab my bento, and head out the door. There’s a black minivan around the corner. I check my reflection in its hard shell; sometimes I have to untuck and adjust accordingly. Five minutes to the train station. Schoolgirls in full regalia head past in the opposite direction. Some chat happily; others look so miserable I can’t help but chuckle. It’s just life, girls.

The train is packed, though not as much as you might imagine. Four stops, seven minutes to the line’s end: painless. I scurry down the escalator onto the street, turning into one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world: Shibuya Crossing. It’s tranquil now: 50-100 people at the same time instead of the supposed 1,000-2,500 at its peak. I make a point of smiling, as not to blend into the depressed masses. I maneuver my way to the opposite corner, the modest number of commuters still enough to prevent a straight line across.

Under the tracks, to the other side, beyond the just-about-open Sbarro, and across another intersection, where tissue-pack advertisements are handed out. There’s a small hill to climb. About halfway up, two parking lot attendants occasionally stop pedestrians to guide a car in or out. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing until I round the corner left at the top. An intersection. I cross and hold my breath as I stride through what I have dubbed “Cancer Corner”: a sad smoking area under a staircase always packed with a cross-section of Tokyoites.

It’s the home stretch in Aoyama. There’s a giant billboard across the street, an attractive Japanese model hawking makeup or a bikini or a corporation or something. A unique, smooth-looking building with sporadically placed triangular windows, resembling a Flintstones-style skyscraper. To my left, fellow commuters disappear into nondescript buildings, one after the next. There’s a plaza as we approach the Aoyama Theatre (the “re” suggests it’s for live productions). An ugly statue of some sort. Then, my building. I reach for my badge and enter.

I greet the security guard with a nod, sometimes an “ohayou gozaimasu” when I feel brave. I glance to my right to tell the receptionist good morning. With my key card, I open the door into the stairwell. Seven flights of stairs. Eight really, since there’s a bullshit extra one between 4 and 5, I guess because there’s an auditorium with high ceilings or something. I’m not sure I’ll keep doing this after they move my department up to 10 or 11 in a few months. I reach 7. The lights in the hallway won’t be on. I fumble with my keys, and let myself into the office. 9:30 am.

My officemate usually comes in five minutes later. We greet each other. We repeat the process at the end of the day, with different words. This is generally the extent of our interaction. I stare at my computer and he at his. I have a nice view, so every so often, I glance outside wistfully. I peer over at my officemate’s screen every couple of hours as well. I adjust the lights as necessary. I keep an eye on the air conditioner. And I read or write or browse or listen to podcasts or do nothing until lunch.

I take my lunch at 1 pm to splice the day in half. I microwave my bento on the floor beneath: we don’t have a fridge or a microwave on ours. Grabbing my book, a drink, and my badge, I bound down the stairs and out of the building, a block or two away to a quiet area next to a bicycle parking lot. I enjoy the fresh air. I eat, read a little, diddle with my phone. Then it is back up the stairs. I wash my bento, and return to the office and the computer. And I stay there until 5:30 pm.

I wait a minute or two so it doesn’t look like I’m watching the clock, even though I am. I trudge down the stairs, still disoriented from the computer screen. I bid farewell to the receptionist and step out into the early evening. I retrace my steps from the morning, though a lot more commuters flank me now as I move again past Cancer Corner, down the hill, across the street, under the tracks, into Shibuya Crossing, up the escalator, and onto the first train. Four stops on the local, just one on the express. Five minute walk home.

A couple times a week after work, I’ll stop by the market, do the laundry, run some errands. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will wake up earlier to hit the basement gym at work. Otherwise, this is my routine. I am an academic plopped into the real world, a researcher confined to regular working hours and legitimate morning-to-night structure for the first time since high school. I can give you pluses or minuses, I can tell you it’s fucking weird, but it doesn’t matter: I have to adjust. This is my life now. This is my life for the next two years.

Welcome to the suck.