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Turning 25

Last weekend I turned 25. I enjoyed a nice, steady birthday where my family and I went to see Blade Runner 2049 and eat at one of our favorite Siamese restaurants. The movie was a masterpiece and the Gaeng Phed Ped Yang always hits the spot. At various points during the day, my friends and family asked me “So how does it feel to be 25?”

How does it feel? British humor dictated that I reply “You know, it’s an awful lot like when I was 24,” and I obliged the waiting faces a chuckle- but I wasn’t done. I did feel something. I was suddenly morbid. The last 25 years seemed so vast, and I feared that the next 25 would go by in a flash. At some point I’d wake up, 50 years old, and remark “Where did the time go?”

I was at the biological peak of my life, I told myself. I was finally here. When we’re young our bodies bail us out of bad habits, quickly replenishing cells with fresher ones for optimum efficiency, priming us for our sole purpose- which is the same for all life- procreation. And once we get past these mating years- whether we make the beast with two backs or not- we start slowly dying. Everything deteriorates gradually, cells are replenished slower until they’re not replenished at all, and you start doing things like spending your mortgage savings on a Harley with aggressively steep ape-hangers, or trying to explain to your wife that the reason the laptop is overrun with malware totally isn’t because you were streaming Girls Gone Wild from a less-than-reputable source.

It might sound a bit hysterical, but it wouldn’t be a birthday without an existential crisis wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. I’ve never really been good at birthdays. Something about turning 25 makes me feel like I’ve completed something, like I can look back on everything behind me as a single volume in the story of my life. It might seem that I was plagued with visions of the future, but to be honest most of that was the tickle of my subconscious. I spent most of my first week of being 25 looking backwards, at the past.

I was definitely better at birthdays when I was a kid. Back then I’d invite all my friends from school to go tobogganing or to play laser tag and we’d top it off with chicken nuggets or something. It was something loud and colorful, and I didn’t feel self-conscious or weird about the fact that it was all about me. Birthdays weren’t bad after that, but once my teenage years came around they were never the same. I became bashful, almost guilty, that there was a day where social custom dictated that people celebrate me. And the idea that I was expected by everyone to be happy made me anxious. I’m not exactly the best at being happy. The wild-eyed, theatrical rogue that was my child-self was dead. He didn’t make it past the age of eleven, sadly. He was skipping along as in a 1940s cartoon when an anvil fell from the sky and flattened him. The Michael that emerged, once he popped back into 3D and resumed his journey, had an altogether different look to him.

Teenage years were a mire of hormones and bullying and the search for identity. I was extremely self-conscious. I remember extended family members remarking how quiet I’d gotten all of a sudden, trying to pin-point the moment the little devil they knew had become an awkward, gangly recluse forever blushing and apologizing. Birthdays came every year and each day they seemed to reflect in some small way the person I was becoming- the same way the birthdays of my childhood were indicative of the little adventure-seeking, bright-eyed brat that I was. They were still fun, but now I didn’t make too much of a fuss. I enjoyed a low-key meal with a few friends, before giving up the idea of inviting people to an event altogether.

I was going to make this post one of those “Letter to My Younger Self” things where I’d address the kind of person I was at 15 years old and how I’ve changed in the last 10 years. But to be honest I’m not sure what I would say to the Michael of my school years. I suppose the thing to do would be to warn myself not to overreact, stay positive, yada yada, but that would just read like a catalogue of my teenage angst. I’m not sure I want to send 15-year old Mike a telegram saying “WATCH THE FUCK OUT” for this upcoming pitfall or that. Not to try and sound philosophical, but you kinda need pitfalls in life. There’s a bunch of things I regret, that’s for damn sure. Like most people I have memories that make me shudder like someone emptied a jar of cold piss down my neck, ones that I wish I could erase. I hate hurting or disappointing people. It sucks, but assuming you have some level of self-awareness you do learn from it.

What I’ve always ultimately been interested in is how best to navigate the social sphere. Call it what you want- coexistence, perhaps? Being able to understand others and communicate effectively is what it’s all about. That’s how you succeed- whether you’re building business relationships or personal ones. In my teenage years I’d watch other people at school float on by with effortless skill. I focused on small things- the priceless knowledge they had- how to walk, what to do with your hands, how to joke around, how to speak, when to speak. It was like everyone else had the answer sheet to a project and I’d inexplicably missed out.

I watched other people, less skilled, trying out personalities that weren’t entirely their own. I was never so brave, but when an unexpected situation came my way I often found myself saying something that didn’t feel quite so natural to me, trying out different walks, thinking to myself how best to look relaxed when sitting in class. The big one was how the hell to talk to girls. You’d see other guys making them laugh and wonder how on Earth they did it. But at the time I was far too ignorant to realize that girls were people too, and that behind their laughing eyes and self-assured smiles there was a human being experiencing all flavors of confusion, doubt and fear. But it’s from that very ignorance that empathy is learned. I’m still searching for answers to all the questions of my youth, but I don’t feel quite so hopeless now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’ve realized all along that so many others, perhaps more than I ever thought possible, were asking the same questions.

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Caribou Island & the Joy of Second Hand Books

What a pleasure it is to actually justify bringing home books by the sleigh-load! There have been far too many times down the years where I’ve bought a bunch of books only to have them collect dust on my shelves. Not only was I aware that I was wasting money, but I felt like a failure as a reader. I became resigned to the idea that I just couldn’t commit, that laziness and impatience were permanent fixtures of my personality. As I’ve stated in other posts, 2017 has really eschewed those fears. Human behavior is not something innate; none of our traits are set in stone. Instead behavior is like clay. Everything can be molded, smoothed and sculpted into a different shape. This year, I discovered my productivity- and it’s very much a work in progress, something I have to constantly manage and amend.

Last weekend I finished reading David Vann’s novel Caribou Island. It’s another title I got from our favorite Houston book retailer- Half-Price Books. This summer saw me leave that place with bigger stacks than your momma’s Ihop brunch plate. The only difference this year was that I knew I could justify every purchase and finish every book. Looking back on our frequent trips there, it occurred to me how well second-hand bookstores go with my new approach to reading. I’m trying to branch out as much as I can. My mission this year has not only been to read as many books as I can, but to read from as many voices as I can. With second-hand bookstores there’s no assurance you’ll find what you want. I found that many times I went in and searched for a tried-and-tested author, only to not find him or her among the publications Half-Price had in stock. So then I’d look around and inevitably leave with a novel by an author I had never heard of. Half-Price Books has helped me discover new voices in world literature. When I was in Crete I read Bone Horses by Lesley Poling-Kempes, another purchase from Half-Price, and then I moved onto Caribou Island. Both novels serve as examples of books I took a chance on; glancing briefly at the covers, scanning the blurb without retaining much of it, and then of course checking the pages to see if the print wasn’t too small. And I’m so happy I did roll the dice on them, because now I can’t imagine my life without these authors.

But what is Caribou Island about? In a nutshell, it’s a story about a deteriorating marriage. Irene and Gary live in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, in a landscape that draws you in with its stunning scenery, only to reveal that its wildness is not an idyll, but something bitter and unforgiving. The novel sees them attempt to build a cabin and live a frontier lifestyle without electricity, heating any modern comforts, in the hope that such an existence will rekindle their love. The novel also features Gary and Irene’s son Mark and daughter Rhoda, now grown-up and still living in and around the city of Soldotna. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be dark, with the runner-up being beautiful. There’s no graphic sex or violence, and it’s not particularly seedy in any way. It’s not dark in the visual or horrifying sense. Instead it’s just depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this book. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I felt extremely invested in the characters, especially Carl and Rhoda who are perhaps the most sympathetic figures. But when I was finished I did feel quite sad. I could feel the exhaustion of the characters weighing on me like a baby panda, dragging me down. The novel explores the dark places of the human psyche. It’s about emotional trauma and the breaking point it takes us to. The characters in this book are self-loathing, disenfranchised, and discontented. Everyone seems to have a chip on his or her shoulder, and half of the characters are cheating on their significant others or contemplating doing so. It’s a book that makes readers uncomfortable because of the dark conclusions the characters reach about the institutions of marriage and family. Hell, one character is so lost for meaning in life that he consciously devotes himself to having as much sex as possible, regardless of the consequences on his partner. It’s a book about failed dreams and broken promises. For David Vann, the American Dream is a desolate wasteland. Everyone in this book is searching for meaning in some way, and lashing out at each other when they don’t find any.

I would definitely recommend this novel and it’s easily one of the best I’ve read this year. The dialogue is snappy, intelligent, and engaging, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are truly beautiful. This book is a must-read for any of you interested in marital, familial and domestic dramas!

Making Friends in the USA Part 3

I learned years later that during my first week of college in the USA, Akbar had Skyped Aaron- who was still at his family home on an Indian Reservation near Green Bay, the opposite side of the state. This video call is significant. At this stage, it’s just me and Akbar living on the fourth floor of Towers North. The Americans would be arriving in the coming days, and Akbar had presumably called Aaron to go over some things he needed to provide for the room. At some point during this conversation, Akbar had told Aaron “Hey, there’s this British guy- a Chelsea fan- who’s living here across from us. But he’s very shy, so we have to actively include him.”

I would come to spend more time in Akbar and Aaron’s room- 459- than my own. There was a running joke that I was the “third roommate”, and I often left my belongings there. One time I had gotten so cheeky with the shoes I had left on their floor and raincoats I had left hung on their bedposts that Akbar decided to teach me a lesson by wearing my shoes to a conference he was attending in La Crosse, which meant that by the time I woke up around noon, I had no footwear for the day. A routine fast developed. Within a few weeks of knowing them, it got to the point that it was expected that I go over to their room as soon as I woke up. And if I didn’t, I would get a text or a knock on my door asking what was wrong. My own room- the number of which and can no longer even remember- was just where I slept and stored my clothes. For the first time I no longer worried about what to say and when. I was natural and comfortable in my skin. I was myself. I had ceased scrutinizing every little thing I said; I fell asleep quickly every night because I wasn’t replaying every social interaction of the day in my head.

But how did I arrive at this point?

If you read my previous essay in this series, then you know how Aaron- so named for his resemblance to the greatest quarterback of all time (Sorry Johnny U) – had asked me to lunch. From that one meal we had together, it seemed like I had instantly signed up to a contract, that I had attained an exclusive, lucrative membership of sorts. Because I knew straight away after that first lunch that not only was Aaron now my best friend, but that I would never go to the cafeteria alone ever again.

That same Friday, I got a text from Aaron on my TracFone- which was so far behind the capabilities of everyone else’s cellular devices so as to be mistaken for a prop from the Flintstones– asking if I wanted to join him on a wander downtown in search of adventure and excitement. It promised to be a good opportunity to test my social skills, get to know the local area, and to spend more time with my new best friend. There was no specific goal in mind, just a vague notion that if we walked in the direction of Eau Claire’s famous Water Street that something would be going on. Our little jaunt proved unsuccessful- but I have learned over the years that misadventures are great opportunities for bonding.

We got off to a poor start. We were walking across the footbridge that leads from campus towards Water Street, when two girls with slim waists and the yellow heads of Prussians come walking up briskly by the side of us. For sure they were heading to some wild house party in the depths of Eau Claire. I could picture it; it would be a wooden, two or three story house with a large porch, the kind of Victorian remnants once inhabited by the old lumber barons of Eau Claire- and it would be fit to bursting with over a hundred red solo-cup wielding sophomores, bouncing up and down to a mashup of rap music and EDM (genres that, at the time, I knew nothing about). The girls were walking arm in arm and gushing about something exciting. No– I made that up. But that’s how I wanted to perceive them, both at the time and in my memory. From what I remember, they were walking normally and not really saying much of anything.

“Talk to them,” Aaron instructed.

“I couldn’t possibly!”

“Sure you can. Just say “Evening ladies” in your British accent and they’ll fawn all over you.”

I started to sweat. My lips were considering it. The problem was what to say afterwards. How did I justify randomly approaching these sweet Wisconsinite girls? What reason did I give? What would I tell them?

The moment came and went. The girls walked on to wherever they were going. They were probably headed to some bar where we couldn’t follow. After all, at the time we were both 19 years old and therefore below the age limit. We walked up and down Water Street, going as far as Dooley’s before heading back. It was a light night. There were plenty of students dipping in and out of bars that looked like they were modelled on the saloons of the Old West. Water Street is an historic part of Eau Claire, and you can tell this by some of the old brick buildings- the echoes of what was once a frontier town, a logging town, which had transformed from the beginning of the 20th century to the new millennium into a small city dominated by the university. Water Street had been ruled once by the thirsty, German-speaking loggers and their flatulent whores. Now it served the same purpose, had endured, but the loggers and the whores had not. Now it was the watering hole of Oceanography and Kinesiology majors, of juniors, seniors, and all those with fake ID’s.

Fake ID’s were not something either of us had in our possession, so our trip seemed kind of stupid. I was aware that other international students had procured them, but it was not something particularly high on my agenda. I had more bad memories from alcohol than good ones, and something about the party scene had always instilled a fear in me. I liked that Aaron, at the time, had no thirst for alcohol either. And it was reassuring to see someone reject it who was tough, athletic and confident.

As we made our way back down the street, Aaron got this crazy idea that we should pretend to be roaring drunk, and get on the special bus that returned inebriated students to their dorms. The Drunk Bus or whatever it was called. The part of me that yearned for adventure seriously considered it, but the self-conscious side of me was unsure of my ability to be a convincing actor. At that time in my life, the fear of failure dictated everything. We ended up walking past the bus anyway, as I suddenly had to piss like a racehorse. I asked where the nearest pisser was and Aaron suggested we continue our adventure downtown rather than give up so soon. I was excited to tell him that I knew of this hipster joint called The Acoustic Café that I had been taken to by Andrew during my International Orientation. We walked on in that direction, and by the time we got there, it was late at night. They were open, but the restrooms were cordoned off and the waitress said something about them being out of order.

At this point I was getting pretty desperate. I asked her to reconsider the status of the restrooms but she said we couldn’t go in. Aaron and I then decided to call it quits on our quest for wild excitement. I kept thinking that the chance was blown when those girls had walked past us on the bridge. I had set the tone right there and then, by not speaking up.

After rushing past the darkness of Owen Park at night, which was sure to be hiding the next Ted Bundy in its sleeping bushes, we made it to the footbridge. The shadowy façade of the library came into site, and it was decided we would go there. By now I had the disjointed gait of a horse walking in the aftermath of having one of the knees of its back legs done in with a sledgehammer. We reached the library, which was brightly lit but completely empty, and I was able to relieve myself. We laughed about our foolhardy excursion and walked back up the dreaded hill that lead to upper campus. At this stage in the night there were streams of drunken students (mostly underage) leaving the dorms for whatever awaited them across the river. Groups of blonde girls in denim short shorts closely guarded by sharklike males grinning with wet mouths out of faces shadowed by backward baseball caps. I remember one such passing jock remarking to us- loud enough for half the street to hear him- “Where ya going? The party’s this way man!”

I wasn’t tempted. I had a friendship group now. My loyalty was to Aaron, and whatever he said, I would do. I sometimes think of myself like a feral cat; at first I seem suspicious, but once a true and loyal companion emerges, I become completely dependent on and clingy to them. I have always been someone that forms close and strong friendships than someone that has an army of contacts, whose very smile can win the undying loyalty of a room full of strangers. Now, it seemed, I belonged. With Akbar and Aaron, who had many friends on lower campus, I had access to things like playing soccer regularly, someone to hit the study room with, a bunch of lads to make dirty jokes with at the cafeteria.

The events of my semester abroad took me completely by surprise, and to this day I’m still a little shocked by it all. I have to remind myself that once I felt so desperate. But this story is a long way from being finished. What started in 2012 set in motion the events of the next five years. Stay tuned for the next episode in my series of personal essays! Oh, and if you have had similar experiences with shyness and anxiety, it would mean the world to me to hear from you!

Why Fahrenheit 451 Is Worth Your Time Now More Than Ever

The ritual of burning books has been around for as long as we have been printing the things. Books are vehicles of thought and elicitors of questions. They are written by individuals (or perhaps a couple of individuals) and read by individuals. To read a book is to have a conversation with someone separated by a vast ocean of distance or time, and so they act as the scrambled notes of washed up bottles. It is this aspect of books, its conversational aspect, that sets it apart from the passive, mass media hypodermic drugs of radio and television- and this is also what makes them so dangerous to the practitioners of conformism. When the Aztec king Itzcoatl ousted the rival Tepanecs from their seat as the dominant Mesoamerican tribe of the Valley of Mexico, he ordered burnt all of the historical codices. Through the incineration of these codices he was able to consolidate Aztec power throughout the region by having the state manufacture a history and a religion based around the worship of the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli.

This brings me to last week’s book, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. There are echoes of Itzcoatl, the Nazis, and a dozen other book-burners from human history in the book’s straight-up creepy depiction of a futuristic United States. In the novel, the state similarly has edited its history to create a truth that suits their narrative. However, as Bradbury himself has many times pointed out, the true message of the novel is not about book-burning per se. There is no sinister despot, no secretive oligarchy, no Duce del Fascismo, no Big Brother. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the change to dystopia is brought about by the masses themselves. The theme is not so much a condemnation of censorship as it is a warning of an illiterate culture, one which- in this case- is shaped by rapid technological advancement and mass media exploitation. In the novel, firemen have become the guardians of public peace of mind, and set about burning any books that aren’t sex magazines or comic books. The idea is that books, as opposed to mass media, encourage individual thought as opposed to collective happiness, and that therefore books will inevitably make some sects of the population sad. It is better that society remain happy and unenlightened; that there be no conversation of any substance. The people themselves got tired of reading, abandoning it for the wanton entertainment of sports and television. Books would inevitably offend special interest groups- and we don’t have to look too far in our own world to see the tendencies toward censorship to suit the narrative of one agenda or another. Just look at all those Christian parental groups that try to ban what their kids read at school (see Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home); and on the other side of the spectrum, the infernal SJW’s that attempt to police language itself. Both of these extremes are afraid of material that does not fit exactly with their narrative, and become in my mind societal tumors.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I want to write in more specific terms what the meat of the book is all about. The protagonist of our story is Montag. He’s a fireman, and just like his coworkers he is titillated by the act of burning piles of Faulkner and Joyce and Thoreau. The firemen don’t go about their job with a solemnness; if anything there is a sense of arousal in the burning. Bradbury’s world is one where simple, fast-paced entertainment reigns supreme. Crowds gather to watch the spectacle of the book burnings. There is a rousing, theatrical swagger when the firemen slide down the poles and jump into the Salamander, and this is reflected in Bradbury’s lyrical writing style. I really found his use of language interesting and unique, and despite the disturbing subject matter, there are paragraphs in this book that are beautiful. Perhaps the most scary passages in the novel are those that involve the firemen’s mechanical hounds- animatronic, eight legged beasts armed with gargantuan procaine needles on the end of a steel proboscis. They are fascinating and terrifying creatures; being robotic they are incapable of feeling, and make apex hunters with their advanced “olfactory” system, tracking down dissidents with cold efficiency. Yikes. Things change for Montag early in the novel when he meets a young girl who makes him question everything around him- in particular his wife Mildred and his boss Beatty. Without spoiling too much- since I really want you all to read it- it’s a story about someone on the inside, someone who serves as an executor of state policy, who struggles to reconcile his life with his changing view of the world.

Fahrenheit 451 is as relevant today as it was in 1953, when it was written during a dark time for the artists of America. Ray Bradbury was outraged at the infringement of McCarthyism on creative expression. I wonder why I picked up his novel that day last month. I got it in a second hand book store in Bath, England, the kinda place the firemen from the book would have burnt down and turned into an Apple Store. I have been craving dystopias ever since reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver a year ago. But with every page I read of Bradbury’s masterpiece, the more my mind turned to the world around me and the current trend towards Populism, the rapid pace of life in today’s world of 24-hour mass media, the exploitative potential of technology and social media by specialist groups, et cetera et cetera. To conclude my little piece, I thoroughly recommend this old book- be it for lovers of Lois Lowry-esque dystopias, badass Wolfenstein-style mechanical hounds, or those interested in sociopolitical discussion. Happy reading, folks. Vowles out.

 

VERDICT: Love the world building and the poetic, lyrical prose. And as a graduate of Creative Writing, I’m all about novels that shed light on the dangers of censorship and groups that attempt to place limitations on creative expression. That stuff gets my blood pumping. Overall, I’ll give it an 8.5/10!

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