On Sharing a Pole Dancer with your Father, and Happiness.
I’ve been going back, pulling writing from the past: writing that has gone unseen except for a few pairs of eyes; slowly dragging them back into the light. Reexamining them: do my past convictions still hold up? Years later, I think these works still have some value. Not only as an exercise in self reflection: a contemplation on the past and the journey to the present; but to recenter myself for tomorrow.
Five centimeters per second is the rate at which cherry blossoms fall, spinning and twisting to the ground from wherever a breeze may have plucked it from. And yet, as these petals fall, some even from the same flower, each retains its own solitary space in air and rests wherever nature carries it. In a way, these petals can be likened toward human beings, sharing an origin in common at one moment, and slowly drifting apart as gravity and nature stretch the limits of relationships. In 5 Centimeters Per Second, Makoto Shinkai attempts to capture this metaphor in film, relaying how time and human nature slowly break down the relationships between people, causing them to grow apart. As time progresses for each of the characters and pushes them down different paths, they must learn to accept that the relationships of the past seldom last forever.
For me, that moment of acceptance has formed the letters of this essay.
There was a vague moment in my twenty one years of life, muffled by blurry images and not so fine specifics, where the gap between two men, my father and I, grew too large to be bridged by words. Small talk that I stumbled through, awkward questions he didn’t know how to ask; this is what our relationship had become.
I’d like to think that typical kids my age grew up with something Nintendo or Playstation branded. Each a classic childhood video game system bundled with visionary Japanese games that almost every kid I knew had access to. But not I. Caught between the cutting edge of American computer game design and the mass production of cheesy, half-educational kid games, I experienced a different childhood: one filled with my father.
Where Japanese games failed to take hold, my father and I shared a common enthusiasm for American games. Side by side in the dark with the glow of a single monitor between us, we would spend hours together: navigating the decrepit halls of a space station, pondering the puzzles of ancient tropical islands, throwing singles at poledancers, adding and subtracting by shooting numbered asteroids; we experienced each new world with a hunger for adventure and exploration and occasional laughter. Many of my friends only played games by themselves or occasionally with a friend. For me though, video games became an inherently social experience, one you shared with other people and reveled in the world that you lost yourself in.
A decade has passed, and the house is filled with a different kind of noise. His slight loss of hearing has the TV louder than it used to be. I pass the living room heading towards the fridge and watch him out of the corner of my eye. Sprawled across the cushions or with his feet propped up on the coffee table, he eyes the news or the screen of his laptop with a half stare of bored exhaustion. The only accompanying sound is the opening of the fridge, the waterfall into a cup, and a vacuum thump as it closes again. No words, only footsteps and a closing door. Then I’m a world away, without him.
There was a moment of transition where games still held their draw over my imagination but lost their grip on his. Instead, he dreams of different things. Of bows and rifles and new houses overlooking a lake. I wonder if age is the source. I wonder if his days have become so long, his memories so jumbled, his thoughts in such a different place that those worlds we explored aren’t worth anything anymore. It makes me think about who I will be in thirty years. Will the things that have become such an integral part of my life today be totally meaningless in the eyes of an older me? Will I wake up one day and no longer care about something that is so meaningful today, in the now?
I don’t know.
In his essay “Labyrinthine,” Bernard Cooper details a maze filled childhood, exploring the joys of not only navigating between the the twists and turns of the mazes, but also finding meaning in creating mazes of his own. Yet it is after these memories where “Labyrinthine” progresses from the rose tinted memory of yesterday to the stark grey realities of today. Cooper laments the loss of his parents and of the joy that mazes used to bring him, age and a weaker mind leaving him jumbled and confused amidst the trials and trepidations that adult life brings. This sentiment is neatly encapsulated in the closing statement of his essay:
“[Mother, Father: ] What have things been like since you’ve been gone? Labyrinthine. The very sound of that word sums it up — as slippery as thought, as perplexing as the truth, as long and convoluted as a life.”
But it is only after reading these final words, the last dregs of Cooper’s sobering thoughts, that I feel myself encased in a sort of lingering despair and unexplainable sadness. Cooper presents this seemingly unsolvable conundrum, this uncertainty about life, caught between the twists and turns and unaccounted variables that are thrown our way, forever leading us astray from our full potential, and leaves no answers.
Yet where Cooper leaves off, Joan Didion provides a potential solution. In her essay, “On Self-Respect,” Didion documents the juncture she reaches upon failing to be elected into Phi Beta Kappa:
“I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man…”
At these crossroads beside her, we again are faced with the problem posed by Cooper: where do we go from here?
Robbed of the certainty that she has relied on all her life, the nineteen year old Joan Didion is lost in the maze she thought she knew so well. She comes out of it victorious, or so the reader hopes, because she comes to realize the value of true self respect.
“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.”
Here, Didion is referring to the aspect of self-respect corresponding to how we allocate our own time amongst the many relationships and stimuli that exist in our lives. Time, the most important resource that we can give, is divided and used based on our own self respect. With no self respect, we surround ourselves with those we despise, wasting our time away. With false self respect, we prevent ourselves from refusing anyone, playing the puppet to those around us out of false sympathy and keeping no time for ourselves. It is only when we have true self respect: the ability to say no when we mean it and yes when we want to, where we embrace not only our choices but the consequences that follow; where we are truly being respectful of ourselves and living the life we want to lead. It is at the cost of some of these relationships and stimuli that a person, through self-introspection and self-realization, should be able to find a way out of the maze towards relative happiness.
If self-respect is the key to solving our uncertainties about life, this issue posed by Cooper contains a drastic caveat. Not only does Cooper ask how to navigate the mazes that exist in our lives, but also how to continue to navigate these mazes even when our minds, weakened by age and biology, are no longer capable of self respect. Stating that
“Recollecting the past becomes as unreliable as forecasting the future; you consult yourself with a certain trepidation and take your answer with a grain of salt,”
Cooper not only feels insecure about the memories of his past, but is plagued with doubt in the choices he makes. No longer able to enjoy the mazes he once did as a child and trapped within a life so “loopy and confusing,” Cooper has lost the self confidence and character that he once had. This sadness and doubt bleeds through his writing, leaving the reader cold and numb, slowly dreading the point in their life where they look back and find themselves in Cooper’s place.
Yet maybe that was the intention. Without explicitly telling the reader so, maybe Cooper attempted to capture the flamboyant maze crafter of his childhood and contrast it with the darkening greys of age in order to deliver the subtle seed of urgency. After all, when thinking back on “Labyrinthine,” it is the images of a young boy sprawled across the floor, scribbling lines, rubbing out eraser marks, pondering devious tricks within the walls, that haunts me. It is the breathtaking enthusiasm matched with the dedication of “a slave sealing the pharaoh’s tomb” that we remember most. By making these the shining moments of the essay, Cooper intends to tell us that time and youth are finite resources limited only by our own unwillingness for self-respect.
It seems then, that Cooper provides us with no alternative to the eventual fate he faces: we are all doomed to old age spent in limbo and unfulfilled wishes, doubt and lost initiative plaguing the moments of time where we can still remember what we were doubting in the first place. However, both the sense of urgency created by Cooper and Didion’s grasp on the value of self respect creates a potential escape plan. If we have any hope of being happy, looking at ourselves and realizing what we want out of life while we are still young enough to act on it may be the only choice we have. It might be the lonelier of choices, costing us some of the relationships along the way to fulfill our own self-wishes, but the fate depicted by Cooper seems much more grim in comparison.
Looking back at my father now, I’ve come to accept the divergence that’s come between us. The silence that has invaded our relationship is here to stay. Just like the emptiness of the office where we spent so much time together, a hole has grown in our lives where our dreams and our wishes no longer overlap and can be shared. And yet, we all want each other to be happy. If that means allowing our relationship to remain silent so that we can selfishly pursuit our own sources of happiness, then I think the rewards we reap are worth the cost. We only live so long anyway.
Cooper, Bernard. “Labyrinthine.” Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay.
Ed. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson,
2008. 345–347. Print.
Didion, Joan. “On Self-Respect.” Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay.
Ed. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson,
2008. 569–571. Print.