Category Archives: Travel

Rambles Vol. 1: Becoming Otaku

Rambles: Becoming Otaku


I have been watching a lot of anime lately. My general intuition insists that I should be embarrassed about this habit. My inner introvert delivers a counterpoint: If you enjoy them, who cares? Your time alone should come with a (reasonable) suspension of outside judgment. If you want to watch silly cartoons, do it. It’s your private time.

I am not tarring all anime with the same brush. The specific things that make anime embarrassing (which I won’t get into at this time) are present on a spectrum, which goes all the way to zero. In addition, many a series makes up for its foibles by delivering something special.

There is a certain sensibility that I appreciate as well – a skewed version of Japanese culture that nonetheless enchants and mystifies. And let’s not forget that one is essentially looking at beautiful artwork for twenty-odd minutes. Hearing voice actors speak a language I don’t understand for characters who are drawn allows me to suspend judgment about acting and performance. I don’t have to watch Hollywood phonies phonying around on some set for a paycheck. Instead I can just watch someone’s imagination take life on the screen.

Irregardless, I have lost the sanctimonious perch from which I previously judged those who sacrificed their hours at the altar of mediocre TV. For all intents and purposes of smug judgment, I might as well be watching Burn Notice.

Chihayafuru looked pretty questionable at first but soon became a must-watch. The show follows a group of high school students (they all do) as they enter the world of an arcane, historical card game in which classical Japanese poems are read aloud, signaling players to slap that particular poem-card away from an array of cards arranged before them and their opponent. Chihaya – the heroine of the series – is both endearing and admirable, possessing model good looks (her sister’s pursuit of a modeling career is a subplot), a deep lack of social skills (she calls her teammates demeaning nicknames, seeming not to notice their complaints at all), and the dedicated, tireless, obsessed heart of a champion. My favorite moment has Chihaya in school, filling out her all-important career survey. After some consternation she simply scrawls “Queen” (the highest-ranked woman Karuta player in Japan) on the paper. Afterward the adults in her life express concern about her. Second favorite: when Chihaya, hearing syllables almost before they are spoken, nearly becomes a god during competition.

…For you see, the very best animes are about transcending human limitations and approaching godhood. For example, in Neon Gene

During my last trip home to Ann Arbor, I went out for a drink with a very good friend of mine. Anime came up, and I mentioned Neon Genesis Evangelion. He had seen it! Alas, he didn’t much care for the show… the character of Shinji struck him as “a whiny little bitch.” He then suggested that Cowboy Bebop is the superior anime.

I took a swallow of beer and held my tongue. I had never seen Cowboy Bebop. I resolved to watch it with an open mind.

After watching all 26 episodes I can report that I DON’T KNOW WHAT ALL THE HUBBUB IS ABOUT.

Yes, the animation is gritty and gorgeous, the far-flung space colony settings are alive and seedy and varied, the characters are defined with subtle strokes yadda yadda….

Some of the early episodes are just so dumb. Spike literally dodges bullets every goddamn time (even while floating in space, with no method of changing his momentum) while smiling smugly, then follows up with crazy kinetic Kung Fu. Accompanied by Yoko Kanno’s hot jazz, complete pandemonium breaks out in crowded urban areas and all of the bystanders miraculously dodge, are missed by inches, or disappear in clouds of dust. Our man Spike always wins the battle, often with the help of the Bebop crew, but some clever coincidence or twist of fate always cheats the crew of their bounty.

Lather rinse repeat.

Over the course of the series there is some development, but it tends to work backwards – we explore the characters’ pasts, which are composed of decently dramatic genre fare. The characters, trapped in their pasts and monotonous present, become static, despite all their crazy adventures. Nothing too surprising happens, there are no existential threats or epiphanies worth chewing, and nobody transcends any limitations.

I can’t even put CB in the same category with NGE. The latter’s plot keeps building and escalating until the viewer is left in a state of ecstatic confusion. Instead of elastic characters who reset every week, NGE illustrates how repeated traumas and inexplicable phenomena deteriorate the mental health of the characters at the center of our giant robot drama. Gods are created. Differences of strategy arise in the execution of the apocalypse. Gigantic biomechs go berserk and strangle each other. A father praises his son and calls him by name…

Cowboy Bebop was fun to watch. The animation was perhaps the apex of a certain 90s aesthetic, but the adventures were too action-movie lazy (by this I mean protagonists cheating death, willful ignorance of damage and civilian cost, heavily favorable physics, goofy coincidences, deus ex machinas, overuse of dramatic timing, etc.) and the characters failed to evolve or fully interact. For the record Radical Edward was my favorite, and she just *Spoiler* [leaves the good ship Bebop at the end of the story, never to be heard from again].

Speaking of vaguely disappointing outer space narratives, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Last Jedi, but it made me miss both The Force Awakens and Rogue One in very acute ways. *Spoilers Follow* Awakens had a little more daring in spots, especially toward the beginning. We actually got to see the Stormtroopers Stormtroop, massacring civilians on planet My Lai as a number of our main characters watched. I enjoyed the early incarnations of the characters, and the ways in which they were established. Remember when the trailer came out and there was a shot of a black Stormtrooper running in the sand? I sure do. Finn’s whirlwind bromance with Poe Dameron was memorable if nothing else, and it was fun to see him not get along with Rey right away (a callback to earlier times, I know). Speaking of Rey, her difficult, thankless, lonely life as a junk scavenger was beautifully sketched. My favorite scene in the film is her adorable Rebel-pilot-fantasy dinnertime featuring beat-up helmet and hard-earned meal.

As the two main characters were swept into events, the complete changes to their ways of life were made properly palpable. Self-discovery followed, and had the cowards at Disney not shoehorned in a third death star, the film may well have been something special.

Jedi was not kind to Finn. It turned him into a toothless, slapstick, millennial everyman with no real purpose. The minority-sidequest-casino adventure he and Rose embark on is an utter disaster, wasting runtime, a novel setting, and interrupting/diluting the urgency of the main storyline. And wait! What the hell was that Princess Leia forcegrab thing? Wiping her away in a heartbeat would have been so goddamn gutsy and memorable – a reminder of the cruel speed of death… time cut short and no chance to say goodbye… art imitating life. Instead she survives the vacuum of space and now Rian Johnson is smiling all over the internet. Like a pleased little gerbil. “Oh I’m so glad Kathleen liked my contribution to the Star Wars Universe. It was so difficult to know if we were doing the right thing with Luke Skywalker, but I’m confident that what we decided was true to the character, who we all love of course. Oh I’m ever so happy for the opportunity to make my own trilogy…” In interviews Johnson often speaks as though portions of the story and film are beyond his purview and understanding. The hyperbole about direction by focus group is tragically apt.

If the entire film is set up as a doomed death-chase, why haven’t the writers borrowed liberally from Mad Max: Fury Road? As the finest film of the decade, it has many les

What I missed from Rogue One was the grit and the mistrust. The strange bedfellows created by the rebellion. The mistrust and tension and scarcity that comes with squashing people from across the universe into a tiny ship and telling them to accomplish a vital, deadly mission. The blind pseudo-Jedi monk fellow is by far the most interesting character to come out of this whole revival. The Last Jedi got Benicio Del Toro to stutter a few things on the way to the bank (art imitating life) and said good enough.

Adam Driver is great, though. His Kylo Ren is straight out of Scorsese – a tortured catholic questioning his lineage and his very soul. I must make an unconventional gripe here: Jedi’s millennial flavor – present mostly in the dialogue – irked me. Irked me because I can’t stand my generation (ironic, since I just praised Adam Driver, who was in Girls, which is perhaps the flagship media artifact of self-important millennial narcissism). Sometimes I feel like I’m aging out of my generation by falling behind (or opting out) on media, methods of media consumption, social media consumption, ways of talking about things, social movements, etc. Someday I will file an application for asylum in Generation X.

Speaking of subtle but essential distinctions between outwardly similar people, Blade Runner 2049 was cool (this post began as a review of only that movie). However! Denis Villeneuve’s strengths worked against him in noticeable ways.

Elegance. A sense of space and geography. Continuity. Cinematic composition. Controlled pacing… these are the qualities that were completely decimated by the bizarre cut-and-paste (and recut and re-release) futurist pastiche that was the first Blade Runner. Somehow during the remake these very qualities were resurrected – becoming the building blocks of the new film. This means there is no stylistic continuity from the original to the sequel. Big deal – they’re like 58 years apart. The issue is lack of boldness. Blade Runner dropped us in the rain getting shoved by Asians and made us yell “with noodles!” two times to make sure. We didn’t speak the language and we didn’t know who was a replicant. Future shock was real.

I said no stylistic continuity, but the aesthetic and societal continuity were almost 1:1. By that I mean 2049 did not bother to change where or how people lived. Only our viewpoint of Los Angeles changed. It was more deliberate, more consistent and aware of distance. 2049 was a good yarn. Humanity was questioned, new life forms fought for life. Our semi-hero worked at a mystery and finally solved it.

But the ending stunk, at least compared to the other one. Roy Batty’s poet-warrior shtick may have infringed on Kurtz, but it was effective. Poor Deckard left with his head spinning, not because of the violence of the replicant attack, but because he was ultimately saved by a skin-job. By contrast the climax of 2049 was just a lot of violent punching and water. Why exactly couldn’t they torture Deckard on Earth? Where did K get his flying cars from?

And boy did Villeneuve misunderstand the nature of bureaucracy! K’s boss is never busy or overloaded, and just gives him simple directives from behind a big desk in an elegant office. And what about the vindictive police state, how did that erode to the point where some replicant lady can just stroll in and kill LAPD employees whenever she wants?

Speaking of characters doing whatever they want, I am happy to report that K does not commit any acts of

Speaking of the nature of bureaucracy, it drives me crazy when Neon Genesis Evangelion fanboys (I am, of course, among their number), crow about Shin Godzilla being like “a live action manifestation of Evangelion,” when in fact the Hideaki Anno-directed monster movie most clearly resembles the bureaucracy-porn masterpiece Patlabor 2: The Movie. The similarities are manifold. First, we have an extraordinary crisis that stresses the existing systems of emergency response. Second, we are introduced to a bureaucrat whose responsibi

I took another trip to California, this time with the waifu (my girlfriend). Though the fierce and abundant nature of the place struck me the last time, this time I came to feel that all Californians must necessarily be in touch with it. The climates and landscapes of the Golden State are so clearly the work of large-scale geological forces that one simply cannot ignore the fact that there is a planet called Earth… and that it may soon kill us all. Here in flat, vaguely coastal Rhode Island (the Atlantic coast, north of Delaware and south of Maine at least, is vaguely fraudulent, industrialized, cold and homely – no more interesting than the shores of the Great Lakes), the only evidence of a wrathful weather god is the occasional big snow (“Bombogenesis” this year, a sort of windsome blizzard) or leftover hurric’ne wind ’n’ rain bl’win’ up fr’m dow’ the c’st.

In California however, sustained droughts hang in semi-permanence over daily life. Just during my visit, the draught was broken by a day’s steady rain – which subsequently caused mudslides that killed over a dozen people, and closed a major highway. This tragedy ensued because the landscape near Santa Barbara had recently been weakened by OUT OF CONTROL WILDFIRES. In the days before we arrived, an earthquake gently shook Berkeley, and in the following weeks other minor quakes followed.

Climate change and geological activity are not just abstract out there, like they would be at some factory in Ohio. Californians are distinctly living on the edge of disaster, on contoured lands not quite designed for sustained civilization. I believe this forms a large part of the state culture – greater appreciation of the magnificent beauty of nature, and its fearsome power, forever.

When I got back, my friend and bandmate hit me off with Netflix access, so now I’M ALL CAUGHT UP ON BLACK MIRROR. This the part where I’m supposed to feel something, correct? I am now a minimally informed member of the cultural zeitgeist! Retweet me!

It feels sometimes like the Netflixes and Hulus are the only forces preventing the entire generation from bursting apart due to the explosive forces of narcissism and large outbreaks of public phonestare. Oh and also the culture wars. Is social media still fun? People say facebook is no good, but people still use it. Instagram seems to be pretty low impact in terms of shame and suffering… but what do I know.

Anyway, Black Mirror is good. It feels a little too famous for its own good now – no longer a British curiosity, like Altoids, but rather a transatlantic zeitgeister high-expectations juggernaut, like David Beckham. My favorite episode from seasons 3 and 4 is “Men against Fire,” in which a platoon of soldiers (privately contracted? It seems that way) are *Spoiler* [fooled into committing eugenic genocide by performance enhancing implants]. A cynical part of me says that with the right messaging, training, and prestige, the implants wouldn’t be necessary at all. Anyhow, I thought that one was great – using brutal violence in smart ways, sketching a main character who we understand more intimately and sympathetically than the people around him (the Bigger Thomas effect is real), and deploying a really painful twist (of the knife, in flesh). Runner up goes to USS Callister, for the way the narrative is set up in elegant layers, and the way the plot action has to work in multiple layers as well, pushing up against well-defined constraints in each. Inception-esque, now that I think about it, but sleeker, with less hullabaloo.

In conclusion: Trump.

Some would argue that President Trump is somehow a worse president than George W. Bush. He’s openly xenophobic they say He’s costing us our standing in the world. I beg to differ. I believe there may be some “What you see is all there is” happening here (go read Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s wonderful). Are there standard metrics for this kind of comparison? I’m ignoring them. To phrase things in Rumsfeldian terms, there are inept-actions and inept-inactions. Where Bush was the master of the inept-action, the defining characteristic of Trump’s chaotic reign has been the inability to establish a functioning, effective executive branch. Trump’s first year in office has been marked by sustained and repeated inept-inaction. Yes, he has managed to hurt people by means of executive order. The travel bans, the transgender military ban (if you ask me, no one should be allowed to serve in the military) and a bunch of other stuff aimed at kicking the non-white and unfortunate, the vulnerable and the different. However, in many cases cooler heads have prevailed and ameliorated. The court system has stymied many of Trump’s most pernicious initiatives, while the “adults” in the cabinet (Mattis and Tillerson) have sought to soften a few of the other imperial decrees. Perhaps the most painfully, Trump has let ICE off the chain, but Obama was no angel on deportation either.

I don’t believe American society is significantly more nightmarish under Trump than it was under Obama. Few of the current goings-on troubling the liberal conscience are brand new – the difference with Trump is that he has come out in brazen support of them. This as opposed to Obama’s approach – pointing out wrongs, then being unable to do anything really meaningful about them. Examples: Guantanamo Bay, Carbon Emissions, Oil Pipelines, Killings of unarmed Black People by Police, White Supremacists, Underperforming Schools, Campus Sexual Assault, Financial Shenanigans, etc.

Bush used a portfolio of carefully prepared lies to start a war that killed over one million Iraqis. The other war he started is still going strong 17 years later, with a resilient, defiant Taliban pulling their most depraved stunts yet. A report recently came to light, establishing that US actors (military advisors, I believe) in the region turned a blind eye to Bacha Bazi (PBS made a great, horrific documentary on the practice) in order to keep things going smooth with our allies. While many of Bush’s actions may have been inept-actions in his case, they often represented the execution of ept-actions orchestrated by Dick Cheney, the actual president of the United States from 2000-2004.

Under Cheney’s rule the government started two wars and legalized torture while the whole country looked on. They also let pollution-happy fossil fuel companies write the national energy policy, built JSOC into a commando team that could murder any human being on the planet without consequence, established the killer drone program that Obama later fell madly in love with, and so on. If you value human life and want to understand how Prez Cheney, then Prez Bush, then Prez Obama completely denigrated that value, read Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It’ll give you nightmares.

America is building a wall and dropping the torch. China is taking over the mantle. Nuclear war with North Korea is inevitable. The sky falling! The sky is falling! Sorry, but most of this stuff strikes me as noise. Trump likes to bellow and tweet and responsible people feel responsible when they respond to the dangers that are latent in his words. LOTS OF SMOKE, but as of yet, how much new fire? Inept-inactions.

Bush said nice things about Muslims, then assiduously created the conditions for sectarian civil war and ISIS. Inept-actions.

Cheney didn’t bellow, or say nice things. He did his work quietly and thanks to his efforts on faraway continents whole families died in their bedrooms.


Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

“The Ice is Gonna Break!”

Some photos taken a few winters ago at Olney Pond in Lincoln Woods. After a long and bitterly cold winter, ice formed atop the pond. My friends and I saw children playing on it, near the shore. Our oh mans soon turned to well let’s try its and before we knew it we were walking across the whole thing. Mustafa had just bought a nice DSLR so we took turns shooting with it.


Tagged , , , , , ,

Miscellaneous Photos Vol. 1

Some photos I have taken with my phone. It’s certainly easier to point and shoot, but I miss the finer control afforded by the DSLR.


Tagged , , , , ,

Somber City II: Finally, the Desert House

I’ve been shamefully absent from the blogosphere for several months. A lot of my unbridled optimism and defiance have been squeezed flat by a long spring/summer doldrums. But I’ll write about that later. For now…

I went to the Garfield Park Conservatory just after New Year’s 2015 with my dear friend Hammurabi. The Fern Room and the Desert House were still closed after a devastating hailstorm in 2011. When we went back in July 2015, the areas were open again, and restored to their former glory, if not improved. I took some photos with my old, shitty Pentax K110D, and surprisingly, some of them came out alright. Here they are.*

Yes, this is a photo blog entry. Get off my back – it’s the best I can do right now.



*A few of the photos are from the Lincoln Park Conservatory – a smaller but still resplendent spot next to the zoo. Also, one obviously depicts a statue of John Peter Altgeld.

Tagged , , , ,

That Somber City – FormerConformer Update


The evening of January 1st, 2015 found me on the Amtrak Wolverine bound for Chicago – that somber city – where I lived and worked for the four years following my college graduation. I stayed with my old friend from Norris Housestaff and well beyond – we’ll call him Hammurabi. I’ll start by saying that Hammurabi could not have been a more generous and gracious host. He picked me up from Union Station on Thursday night, and for the next four days he opened his home to me, drove me countless miles around the city, offered me everything he had, screened me his latest film-in-progress, stood me meals and drinks, and generally made me feel welcome and comfortable. I only hope that when the time comes I can summon the same spirit of giving, patience and selflessness as a host, guide and friend.

On Thursday night, myself, Hammurabi and his roommate – we’ll call him Philbert – attempted to go dancing at club Neo in Lincoln Park. Alas, the establishment was closed for New Year’s Day. In the throes of dance fever, we drove all around the city. In all the by-rush of familiar streets and neighborhoods, I realized the weight of my time in Chicago. I lived there for four years man! 1400 or so days and nights that I bused and el-trained and walked all over that place. I had friends and was a friend, I had jobs and was a mediocre employee, I had apartments and romances and adventures and was a resident and a lover and a young intrepid all across those venerable gridded blocks. Memories came flooding back, but not as nostalgia per se. They felt slightly distant, as though they had happened in a chapter now closed, one having little to do with me now. I wondered if I had spun my wheels in the Chi. Did my face look tired and strained for moment, like McMurphy’s? I hope not, because although my career had not been the best, Chicago itself, and the people I knew there, had been good to me.

But this time around the city felt incredibly, ominously large. I have only lived in Providence for about seven months, but I have already adjusted to its size. I have come to expect the run-ins with acquaintances, to find out about the friends in common, to see the familiar faces at bars, restaurants, events, and walking down the street. Chicago by contrast seemed almost threatening in its enormity. What safety mechanism would keep one from becoming swallowed up by all that bustle? How does one beat back anonymity and feel any sense of eminence or community in such an outsized milieu?

In the end we ended up at the Skylark, arguing about 12 Years a Slave – the merits of that film itself, as well as those of Amistad, but also genre and the state of the slave narrative in Hollywood. Philbert did not hold McQueen’s work in the same esteem that Hammurabi and I did, and we disagreed, but it was a lively and engrossing discussion nonetheless.

On Friday Hammurabi and I got out and about. The early destination was Garfield Park Conservatory, which Hammurabi had recommended a long time ago when we were still Chicago chums. I never made it before I moved away, so I was quick to suggest we check it out together. First we stopped at Flying Saucer for a late breakfast. Just a hip sort of diner with good food and reasonable prices, one pinprick in the constellation of likely the hundreds spangled along Lake Michigan. Again I realized the size of the city, and how many nooks and corners I had left unexplored in my time there.

Garfield Park Conservatory itself was excellent, although two of the best areas were closed for repairs – a long healing from the June 30, 2011 hailstorm that devastated the glass roofs of the interconnected Conservatory structure. We could gaze across the Palm House reflecting pool into the Fern Room, and peek through a glass pane at a few high cactus tops in the Desert House, but the rooms were off limits. Nonetheless there was a wonderful feeling to the place.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Palm House was humid and colorful, and the other sections had their respective charms. The aroma of flora was pervasive and good. There were colors and textures a-plenty, and coming in from the desaturated waste-land of Chicago in winter, the conservatory was the source of a very positive mood swing. It was as if a museum and an arboretum had procreated in order to provide a special sanctum, one of those holdovers of altruistic vision and public consideration that are the true pillars upon which great cities stand.

High off the pollens of Garfield Park, we made for the Lincoln Park Conservatory, which is situated next to the zoo. No, not Wrigleyville – the actual Lincoln Park Zoo. We were defeated soundly by Lincoln Park however, as we could not find parking within blocks of the Conservatory. We drove by the apostrophe-less RJ Grunts multiple times, and realized what we were up against. We remembered why we had always lived west and south of the North Shore yuppie epicenter. Too many phonies! …in this area.

We made instead for Bridgeport, to visit Palmisano Park and Stearns Quarry. Palmisano Park is built around a large hill with prairie features and a generous summit. In my Plainfield commuting days, I used to drive past the hill on my way back to the city via I-55. It always looked large, and sometimes vaguely holy, with pilgrims young and old mounting its slopes, or in play or in reverie at the rounded top. I was surprised to find that the hill was much smaller and easier to climb than I imagined. There were some large rocks up there, and an art installation comprising a circle of white Buddha heads, some of them graffiti-ed.

The quarry turned out to be the most interesting feature. There is a fishing pond at the excavation site, with a metal walkway leading down to a large platform. The water was largely frozen over, with thick ice near the shore. Hammurabi and I ventured out on the ice – not too far – and in our idle fooling made a great discovery. Rocks thrown onto the surface of the frozen pond made a strange metallic birdcall sound, some springed reverberation that seemed more mechanical or electronic than organic. It came to me like a promotional hip hop headline – “Quarry Ice makes crazy noise.” We entertained ourselves by throwing pebbles and stones across the pond, eventually heading up to an overlook to find bigger stones and enlist gravity in making greater physical and sonic impact.

Afterward we went to Maria’s and had rare, unique beers (I had a Dogfish Head 120-Minute IPA, and Hammurabi had Marz’s soy sauce barrel and shiitake mushroom-aged Takeshi Umami Stout), plus a delicious pot pie from the Pleasant House Bakery. Often the delight is in the low-key places, the ones perhaps sniffed out by the nightlife magazines and dimply on the radar of the masses of live-in tourists, but still far enough out of the way to remain true to their character and mission.

That night we went to the Arrogant Frog to meet some old friends for drinks. I had put out an open call by email to a fair-sized list of names. What can I say? I became nervous before the first people arrived. It had been at least 16 months since I had seen the vast majority of them. To some of them I had left suddenly on an ill-defined mission, while I had blabbed at length to others about my ephemeral reasoning and at-best vague plans for a “sabbatical.”

Well the nerves were for naught. Things went well, and people seemed happy to see me. I was happy to see them. No one interrogated me, and I did not feel judged or ostracized at any time. The bar was almost empty besides our party, so there was room to sprawl and no wait for drinks. I chatted, caught up with people and generally enjoyed the occasion.

However there is one observation I must make, and that is that most of my Chicago friends are on a distinctly different path from the one I am attempting to walk. To put it crudely, it seemed that they are looking for spouses, houses and dogs. That is, settling down. I meanwhile, am looking seriously at a life of austerity, uncertainty, and creative striving. I was once a yuppie alongside these responsible, educated people, and had money and security, but the lifestyle was a terrible fit for me. I had to make a hard break with that life before it broke me. In the months prior to saying “So Long Stinkjob!” I unfairly projected a lot of my misgivings about the corporation-subsidized life on these friends of mine. But now, having liberated myself, I felt ambiguous feelings toward them – I could and would not judge the life choices of those who had been so kind to me – for everyone makes their own choices, as I finally had to courage to make my own – and yet, I could not identify with them on matters of job and career, of marriage and family, of workday gripes and unpursued personal stirrings.

The next night Hammurabi and I went for a walk in Pilsen. It was cold, but we had been languishing on the couch and wanted to stir our blood with fresh air. Hammurabi is a tremendous listener, and allowed me to work out many of my own feelings by his patience and attention. I like to think that his suffering my ramblings wasn’t a totally altruistic exercise for him – I feel that we are working through many of the same difficult ideas and choices as we attempt to live lives that we can be proud of. Still, he let me go on and on, and I felt truly comfortable and able to share, and also able to explain how things had impacted me, even if it took a few tries.

A thread ran through my words, and through everything I felt on my visit, the primary aspect of which was that I led a very circumscribed life in Chicago. Apart from about five months of (anxiety-relieving) unemployment in 2011, I was working forty-hours-a-week the entire time. The weekday curriculum was rise-eat-commute-work-lunch-work-commute-dinner-shower-freetime-bed. The freetime in this cycle was a mere 2-3 hours, sometimes depleted by grocery shopping, laundry, social engagement and the like. Between friendships and relationships, my weekends were often planned for me or shared, which was a blessing and a curse. I almost never felt lonely on the weekends, but I also became bitterly defensive about my hobby time, often to the detriment of my relationships.

Throughout it all, I was never was able to take care of administrative, automotive or health business without annoyingly wrangling the time off work by some corporately acceptable means. Most painfully, I almost never had the opportunity to soak the weekday sun, to call a friend and make plans to meet for a leisurely lunch or early dinner before the yuppies had at it. This workaday routine was natural for some, but I hated it.

My life in Rhode Island has been Very different. During the initial nine-month sabbatical, the whole day would stretch before me, and in the spirit of freedom and solitude, I readily busied myself with my own projects. In Providence, my work engagements are sparse and do not follow regular weekday hours (this may change). Many are the days appearing as blank canvases, waiting for the strokes of my brush. Without routine, I am forced to make choices and use my time productively, if not wisely. After all, if it comes to the point where I am merely frittering away time and money, I might as well go back to the office and shore up my finances. But it has not come to that, so I am a free agent, untethered, but also unsupported, and I can feel it making me into a different person.

And that is the second strand of the thread: that I was a different person in Chicago then, and that I am something of a new person now. Conformer became FormerConformer, just like that. As Conformer, my primary state was frustration. I was vaguely excited by the city and its myriad sights, sounds, tastes, textures and social opportunities, but I lacked a calling, a voice, a reason to be. If I lived in Chicago now, my objectives would be completely different. I would make my own hours and strive to monetize my heart’s work. I would seek the company and community of my contemporaries – the struggling writers and creative strivers, people like Hammurabi, who work hard at their vision, piling on then chipping away, fully engaged in the long project of revealing their own soul’s elegant shape.

Other things happened in Chicago. I played basketball in a fancy high-rise. I met with a former romantic partner and we caught up over coffee and tea. I played a game of Seven Wonders and foolishly overspent on my military. Hammurabi and I watched the entire seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which is hilarious, for the record). Hammurabi and I sang “Head Over Heels” to a crowded karaoke bar in Avondale, then walked down the block to dance to New Wave music. It was a full weekend.

Hammurabi kindly dropped me off at Union Station on Monday morning, and I prepared to head back to Ann Arbor for a last night before heading back east. I was eager to get home; what seemed like a New Year’s impulse at club Habana had blossomed unexpectedly – revealing an epiphany of intimacy, understanding and trust that usually takes weeks, if not months to develop. I was excited to see this young lady again, bittersweetly, before we traveled back to our provisional lives on opposite coasts – she to California and I to Providence and my weird FormerConformer life.

As the Amtrak Wolverine slogged across the snowy hellscapes of northwestern Indiana, I thanked myself once again for steering myself out of the rut whose ultimate construction may well have entombed me within a shell of false contentment – into a chamber of mood disorders and quiet desperation. Instead my life has become somewhat weird and unpredictable, fresh and at times surreal. Though the last ≈17 months have been somewhat disastrous financially, I’ve still got yuppiecash in the coffers, and more importantly, I feel strongly that I am on the right track, working toward becoming a realized person, one who is not afraid, who strives on, with curiosity, purpose, skill and pride.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

FBR#2: Nation of California

This is a little piece I wrote after a trip to California. There is an associated photo album, which I unfortunately cannot include here.


Nation of California

by David Sano

In the mind of a lifelong midwesterner like myself, the idea of California exists in a state somewhere between a shimmering dream and a foolish fantasy. The image-based “phony” culture of Hollywood and Los Angeles tends to elbow its way to the front of any of my discussions or thought explorations of “SoCal”. How can one reconcile the endless folly of the Kardashians and Real Housewives, The Paris Hiltons and Hoopzes with any meaningful and effortful pursuit of life? And yet, somehow – despite my strong approbation – LA goes on.

Secondarily there is San Francisco. Idealized in the 60’s as a Mecca of alternative lifestyles, it has since become a hotbed of innovation. The new titans of the information industry (Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk et al.) have chosen the San Francisco area as the birthplace of their world-changing innovations. However, a certain elitism has arrived along with the wellspring of dynamic ideas. Rent in San Francisco is mind-bogglingly high – comparable to the patently absurd prices in Manhattan. I had recently dubbed San Francisco “1% City” due to my ignorance and a hearsay construct of the coding elite who live and work in the area. An earlier trip to LA had done nothing to really disprove my preconceptions about said city, but I had yet to visit San Francisco.

Thirdly there is the land of California itself. This was the aspect I have always half-overlooked – my envious disdain was directed at the sun baked Cali culture. Although the beaches and sun played into my bitterness, My tunnel vision was narrowed in on the weather moreso than the actual soil and clay of the state. I live in Illinois, a state utterly devoid of natural features. Lake Michigan is mere window dressing, a grudging concession and frustrating temptation. The lake is perpetually ice cold and has actually claimed the lives of a few of my former schoolmates and coworkers. The only thing in Illinois is the city of Chicago. There is nothing else.

My childhood state of Michigan boasts many winsome natural attractions. The Great Lakes are obviously king, but there are also the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Hartwick Pines, Mackinac Island and more, as recently given shine in the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign. However years of city living in Chicago had lowered my standards for what qualifies as “nature”. To drive out of town for an hour or two and see a bit of green and a few stars was enough to make me feel all lovelorn and nostalgic. I really didn’t know what I was in for.

Named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infamously too-casual greeting of David Ben-Gurion at the 1938 Évian Conference, Yosemite National Park is a colossal swath of preserved land located in central California. Protected from development, it stands as a living geologic snapshot – a picture window looking in on the beauty and power of a mostly lost American landscape.


Within a short time of beginning to hike on one of the park’s many trails a number of dormant ideas rose to absorb my attention. As a media observer with an environmental conscience, one can’t help but feel that nature is a perpetual victim. A living thing actively raped and butchered by the leering, grinding teeth of industry. If not outright destroyed, nature is to be broken down and reprogrammed and demystified and patented until all of its wonder and grace are spent. In a sense this is true – the Earth needs protection from the greed and indulgence and ignorance of too many people with too many wants. However, in Yosemite, one gets a sudden reminder of the foreboding might of the planet we call home. Yes, we can pulverize and drill and dynamite and chop, but even if we irradiate everything, the Earth will abide. Barring a celestial shift, she will forever remain, long after we are harmless dust in the ground and on the wind.

One also gets a sense of a dangerous one upmanship at play. It is easy (but painful) to imagine contractors stampeding callously in with explosives and heavy equipment and desecrating thousands of years of growth and formation in a matter of hours. It is also easy to imagine immense granite faces shearing off from mountains and leveling entire construction camps, smashing cranes and bulldozers like a child’s frail toys. However in Yosemite as currently preserved, it’s best not to think about such things at all. A long-held truce exists and the harmony is exquisite, provided one can manage to forget how much driving they did to get to the park. A hike at Yosemite is a chance to commune with nature, to feel a part of something larger than humanity. One can climb house-sized boulders at repose as they fell hundreds of years ago, can touch gnarled trees older than human thought and feel the mist of waterfalls carved out from the melted snow of innumerable springtimes.

The park’s strewn boulders and rushing rivers and defiant trees exuded a serenity and patience that was humbling, even embarrassing in the face of all the packaged food and technology we had brought along. The air smelled almost violently fresh. Other people were to be politely greeted, but also avoided, as in a museum on a weekday afternoon. Each person or small group experiences unbridled nature in their own way. After a time, the outside world ceased to exist and childish fascination became the general mood.

The second day’s hike was a strenuous march up a 4.6 mile long, switchback-heavy trail to “Glacier Point”. We came horrifically close to just abdicating our will and driving the rental car to the top. I sincerely believe that decision would have caused a schism in time-space, whereby the us who hiked would cross a wormhole to vehemently shame and ruin the vacation of the lazy motor-tourist us. The hike was estimated to take more than 3 hours, and the early going was sobering indeed. However as we rose by degrees above the valley, we knew that the sweat and toil was going toward something, a miniature graduate degree of experience to hang forever on our mental office walls. One of our fellowship developed painful foot blisters but kept bravely on. As our elevation rose out of our normal frame of reference we began to be intoxicated with the sheer height and unfamiliarity of it all (urban heights can also be thrilling, but offer much less mobility and a built in sense of scale which can re-orient and re-scale you against your will. Airplane heights are abstract and sequestered). Each view was better than the last. Each mortally sheer edge along the trail seemed to spray a fresh jet of adrenaline against the walls of my stomach.

I imagined all sorts of things: Being an early white settler coming onto the valley; Being an early indigenous nomad coming into the valley; Being an early nomad shepherding a whole tribe, pregnant women and children and livestock and all, along underdeveloped trails out of the valley to escape the seasons. Later in the hike the trail grew more precarious and deadly and I began to grow mentally fatigued and feel distinct waves of weariness and fear. I took solace from the lesson in Carlos Castaneda’s “Journey to Ixtlan” in which Don Juan tells Carlos that death is always with us, just on our left, and that one day, our death will tap us on the left shoulder and we will know it is time to depart.

We reached a wooded area thousands of feet above the valley and entered a mountain wood as vibrant and stunning as the many below. Passing hikers began casually to warn of bears on the trail. We soon stumbled upon the mother and her two cubs. I made noise while making a wide circle off the trail and the mother looked dead at me. I have seen the stirrings of friendship and loyalty and happiness in the eyes of domesticated dogs and cats, but the mother’s bear’s look made the bottom fall out of my stomach. I quickly recalled Werner Herzog’s comments in Grizzly Man. The bear’s look held nothing but cold confrontation and dull instinct, and behind that, a coiled readiness for terrific violence and murder. In hindsight, it was a lot like dealing with the police.

Once the bears had wandered off, we braced ourselves for our plunge back into modern society. We had been warned (by cellular technology) about falling into a deep naturalistic trance during the hike, only to be jarred rudely awake by a swarm of sloppy tourists eating ice cream. The experience was just as unpleasant as advertised. Glacier point is outfitted with stores and bathrooms and and parking lots and lookout areas and filled with a cross section of American and global travelers, most of whom have driven or taken a bus to the top. One of the first people I saw was an ancient woman using a walker with the tennis balls on the feet. We slunk off a little ways into the woods to eat our lunch. Bold squirrels essentially panhandled us for food. We got ice cream like the other tourists but felt like we had at least earned it – and we at it too fast. People we had seen hiking up alongside us became our co-conspirators in not being part of the lazy, haplessly tacky, shortcut-taking herd. In an alternate universe the us that drove up got out of the car and felt dirty.

We made the hike down in less than two hours. Some deer grazing the mountainside came very very close to me. The journey to the top felt more and more like a weird dream as we touched back down on the ground. We got in the car, went to the Yosemite grocery store/gift shop, got snarled in Yosemite Valley traffic, and felt the aether of modernity schloop back down around us. The contemporary world never felt so absurd.

We hit the road for San Francisco to meet a friend and go out on the town. He lives in a building that resembles the hotel from The Shining. His apartment is large and pleasant, and due to some luck, rent-controlled and relatively affordable. We were in the “Lower Haight” and ended up at a bar called “Delirium”. On the street and in the bar, there was a great stew of people in various cultural plumage. I got a pleasant, scummy East Village vibe (I have only been to East Village once though, so don’t quote me on that). A friend of mine from college recently moved to San Fran and joined us. We started a small mosh pit on the dance floor. Some kids were horsing around outside after the bar closed. They broke a skateboard and tried to throw it under passing cars. Overall reports from San Francisco were inconclusive. It was certainly not the 1% city I had imagined. The on-the-street urban culture was vibrant and chaotic, but it seemed like even the slightly dilapidated districts had money hidden away behind those bay windows.

We left San Francisco headed down the Pacific Coast Highway, a winding and scenic route which stretches down much of the California coast. We made stops in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo, both of which seemed impossibly sun-drenched paradisical towns. We also stopped along the highway at Big Sur to look at an incredibly scenic waterfall. At some point the question in my mind changed from “what kind of person would live in California?” to “what kind of person WOULDN’T live in California?”

The place is honestly its own country, and the rumors of great weather are true (arguably excepting San Francisco, which is generally pretty chilly, as our friend there noted bitterly, icicles hanging from his beard). There is abundant fresh, local produce and the Pacific Ocean is blue and majestic. One gets the impression of great and widespread enthusiasm for the outdoors. My friend from college described the area as a vast playground with enough diversions to keep any reasonably inquisitive person busy for years. Between the breweries, wineries, skiing, national and state parks, urban culture, beaches (We saw wild dolphins at the beach in LA – WILD DOLPHINS), surfing, joyful weather and happy people, what more could anyone ask for?

We arrived in LA and that old LA feeling settled in. A vast lattice of complexly layered striving floats just a short distance above the entire city-state of Los Angeles. If the light shifts the right way, you can glimpse a strand or two straining in the breeze like still-drying spiderweb. The sister of one member of my travel party was actively involved in a music video shoot with a certain pop star. The presence of the thing only added to the strangely casual intrigue that so defines LA. Indeed Los Angeles is the land of demigods, paradoxical people larger than life, and yet as human as you or me. The tension between worship and scorn and identification and envy hangs over the place just like the smog. One of my traveling party delved with some humor, but also real feeling into the sheer poignant humanity of celebrity-paparazzi culture. He described watching a youtube video (from a friend’s facebook link) of Kanye West bumping his head painfully and being denied the basic dignity of a private moment to collect himself and let the hurt subside. Paparazzo: “Hey Kanye you alright bro!? *SNAP SNAP SNAP*”


We somehow ended up with a Ford Mustang convertible and enjoyed cruising around LA in it – but not too much. Nobody ever seems to enjoy anything too much in LA. Being cool or attractive or rich on the verge of your breakthrough seems like a job there, and a taxing one. Simple joy is to remain unexpressed and experienced quietly until it passes. Well to be fair, there are 12 million people in the area, and I can hardly hope to form a cohesive conclusion about a single one of them. Still, places have moods, auras, and LA’s is definitely uniquely detached and restless and jaded and hopeful and content all at once. You can feel it and you can feel it becoming you.

My trip ended at the giant St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop. It felt good to get back to something frugal and normal, but seasoned with a tinge of adventure and unfamiliarity. It was a reminder that people in LA thrift too, and go to the grocery store and get utility bills in their mail and look at their phones and get stuck in traffic (do they ever). It’s not fair to caricature the people there, or make them mascots (or effigies) for the whole state. It’s certainly not fair to judge them as phonies for embracing surface pleasure and beauty when we just do the same thing from indoors and further away. LA is a manifestation of some spirit within our national character, the part that went west and made the best of it when the land ran out. Los Angeles is an immutable part of the whole, and LA makes much more sense when one reframes the whole – when one considers only the wondrous land of California.

And indeed California is an entity unto itself. According to my friend and traveling companion, it would be a top 15 global economy even without the other 49 states. No longer will I scorn Californians for being so cool and tan and happy and laid back. We all make life choices, and to hunker joylessly down in the cold flat Midwest – as I have – is as much a choice as any. In said Midwest, people suffer quietly through 6-8 months of debilitating winter, then immediately switch the air conditioner ON when the ambient temperature is above 74 degrees. It’s barbaric. Even now it is warm and humid outside and I sit miserable, toes and fingers cold and aching, in a frosted and dehumidified office. Perhaps it’s time to go to the thing instead of waiting for it to come to me. Good enough isn’t good enough. Fortune favors the bold, and some of us want MORE. The people of California know that, want that, and perhaps the reason they seem so aloofly smug is that they are amused at the sight of us, puffed with foolish pride at our own sense of sober decency and humble character, and yet the whole time denying ourselves.

Tagged , , , , ,