Thanksgiving, Day 22: Friends and Family

I was going to do this as two separate entries, but I found that I was saying the same things both times. Rather than double up like that, I figured I’d put all y’all into one entry and let that be the one to close off this little project.

NO.

A few months ago, when I was taking the Proust Questionnaire, I noted that I feel like I have lost the ability to make friends. At least, I’m not nearly as good at it as I once was. To quote:

I have come to suspect that I’m not actually a friendly person. I think I’m polite, kind, supportive, even funny. I can be nice, helpful, I can teach without being condescending, and I can listen to what people have to say.

Lost somewhere in all that, though, is the kind of openness and willingness to make a genuine connection with others that would best be described as “friendly.” I hold myself back. I keep a certain measured distance between me and other people, and I’m really not sure why.

I figure I must have been able to do this at some point – after all, I do have friends. And I’m talking real-people friends, not just names on a Facebook list. Barring catastrophic betrayal or the triumph of apathy, we’ll probably be friends for quite some time. But whatever talent it was that I had back in the day seems to have dimmed.

It is because of this difficulty that I am so thankful for the friends I do have. Some of them go back to high school, some to college, and all of them are part of who I am. Our shared history, the funny, strange, sad, weird things we did together, are what made me the person that I am today, and without all of those people [1] I wouldn’t be the person I am today. When I was going through all the sturm und drang of youth, my friends were there. When I came out to them as gay, not a single one turned their back on me. When I moved to Japan, I knew they would still be over on the other side of the world, and that the wonder that is the internet would mean that we had no reason not to stay in each others’ lives. Even if we do not talk quite as often as we should.

There have been some friends who have drifted away, for reasons all their own. I hope to see them again someday, to catch up and see where their lives have taken them.

Close enough.

My family, too, is a group of people who have made me the person I am today, and they are people that I will always treasure. I hear stories sometimes – often around holidays – about people who don’t get along with their family, or who don’t even like them. Stories of resentment and jealousy and betrayal abound, and people who come from these unhappy families will tell you at length about how unhappy they are.

The storyteller in me perks up when I hear this. After all, it was Tolstoy who said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In terms of drama potential, an unhappy family is always better. But in terms of real life, I think I’ll stick with the one I have.

As with my friends, my family has always been supportive and loving. Again, when I came out, I was assured over and over again that my being gay changed nothing. And it didn’t. When I wanted to move to Japan, they all supported my grand adventure. [2] We all want the best for each other, and I think that’s what really makes the family as strong as it is.

What’s more, they’re all interesting people. I can tell – and often have told – countless stories about my brothers and my sister and the lives they live. I tell about my parents and the things they taught us when we were children. I talk about my extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles, of stepbrothers and sisters, relatives related not by blood but by the choice to be part of this strange amalgam of souls.

I have long thought that none of us is truly an individual. We did not come into this world with our personalities wholly formed and ready to go. The person I experience as “I” is a collection of influences and experiences, all of which are inextricably tied up with the people who have come into my life since the first moment it began. And they, in turn, have been shaped by me and my decisions. I have made them who they are just as they have made me who I am. Our personalities and our identities are what emerge from this constant trading of influences.

It is this lesson that my friends and family have taught me over the years: we are all responsible to each other, to make each other better. The world has a million different ways of making us miserable. My friends and family have taught me not to add to that number.

…sigh…

And so with that I thank you all. This has been a good bit of blogging, I think, fundamental to what the whole idea of Thanksgiving is all about – thinking about the things in your life that give it meaning and purpose. I have a great many things to be thankful for, and that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Now. Go eat.

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[1] And I’m not even going to start making a list – as soon as you start including people, then you run the risk of excluding by accident. I don’t want to see that happen. You all know who you are.
[2] Though I suspect my mother may be having second thoughts about that, twelve years later…

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Thanksgiving, Day 21: The Podcast

Part of who I am, who I have discovered myself to be, is that I have a certain fondness for ritual and routine. I like it when I can predict what’s coming up and when I know what I should be doing and when. Now if I were in a Hollywood romantic comedy or playing the lead on a TV show, I would clearly be in the wrong and would have to have someone like Drew Barrymore or Zooey Deschanel show me the error of my ways. They would feel compelled to teach me a love of spontaneous chaos, to break me out of the stolid routine my life had become.

Drew and Zooey can just piss right off, as far as I’m concerned. I like my routines and my rituals, and of them all, the one that really defines my week is the podcast – The Labyrinth Library.

I started this back in aught-nine, after my sister floated the idea past me of doing short book reviews for the radio station she works at, WNPR. I’d been writing reviews for ages, and had a pretty good back catalog to choose from. The idea was that I would record a five or ten minute review and it would help fill space in the broadcast schedule. As it turned out, her bosses didn’t go for the idea, but that was okay – it gave me the liberty to take the idea and make it my own.

This wasn’t my first podcast, actually. I tried making one a few years before, when podcasting was just beginning to catch on, but I very quickly realized that I didn’t actually have anything to say. The few episodes I did were just me talking about… things. And you know what? The internet has enough of that already. As I started listening to others’ work, one thing became very clear – if you’re going to ask people to spend time with your podcast, it should be about something. And for me, there was nothing better I could have chosen than books.

So I did my research, figured out how the whole process should work, and launched the Labyrinth Library on January 15th, 2009. I started with Good Omens, as a representative of what I love in books, and followed it by The Bad Beginning, as a representative of what I hate. Everything else fit in between those books somewhere.

And I’ve done it ever since. Once a week, without exception, for 202 episodes (as of this morning). If it were a sitcom, I’d be making mad money on syndication rights. It’s not too late, NPR…

As it is, though, I have something I can be proud of. I don’t have a great history when it comes to committing to projects and following through with them, so it would not have surprised me if I had done this for a couple of months and then let it die out. But I didn’t. It’s fun to do, from the writing to the actual production of it, and as the years have gone on, I’ve become aware that there are people who not only listen to the podcast, but enjoy listening to it. And it is because I know they’re out there that I can set up my equipment every week, ask The Boyfriend to keep the dog quiet for a half hour or so, and put this together. So to everyone who listens, I am thankful for you.

I don’t know what the future of the LabLib looks like, of course. As I have alluded to, I have a limited back catalog, and as I don’t read and review a new book every week (since I have a job and stuff), there will come a point where recording day comes and I don’t have anything to record. At that time, it’ll have to go from being a weekly podcast to an occasional one. I’ll still update, though, as often as is possible. I’ve done this too long and had too much fun with it to let it go entirely.

So, in my ritualized, carefully-structured week, the podcast is something I always look forward to. It gives my week shape and it helps keep me busy. For that I am most certainly thankful.

Thanksgiving, Day 20: Being Able to Write

The internet has democratized content creation, and, to paraphrase Theodore Sturgeon, 90% of it is crap. Maybe it’s because education standards have fallen or because people don’t read as often as they used to, but a lot of the blogs I read and sites I visit – even the professional ones – feature really bad writing. People have no sense of the flow of language, how it makes you feel or how it works when you scroll down the page. They type what they think and then hit “PUBLISH,” not giving a second thought as to whether or not what they have put up on the internet is actually their best work. Even setting aside grammar and spelling errors that no one should make [1], a lot of it just isn’t all that interesting or appropriate for the point the author might be trying to make.

While I’m certainly not going to try and put forth myself as an expert on how to write, I can at least say that I’ve been doing this long enough to have a good sense of how to not screw it up. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and even when I was a kid I practiced writing. I tried adapting comic books to text, wrote my own stories, and eventually ended up becoming a serial book reviewer. As soon as the internet became A Thing, I took to it like fish to tartar sauce – I wrote flash fiction, essays, arguments, all kinds of things. I started my own homepage after college, joined LiveJournal when it was still popular, and have maintained a written internet presence for ages.

Being able to write well takes practice, and lots of it. It takes observation of others, to see what you might want to emulate and what you want to avoid. It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, to know when what you are doing needs to be tweaked, revised, or in some cases thrown out entirely.

More importantly, though, it allows me to express myself. It allows me to take the ideas that spark and flash and smolder and effervesce in my head and organize them. It lets me lock them down and look at them from different angles until I know what they are and what they mean. Writing, in this sense, isn’t just the act of putting words in order, but rather of putting thoughts in order. And of all the skills I could have asked to have, that ability has been a mighty useful one.

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[1] And it is at this point that I start getting email from people about the grammar and spelling errors in my posts….

Thanksgiving, Day 19: Being Debt-Free

I wish I knew who drew this, because it’s perfect…

I still remember the day I was damned.

It was in college, in the morning – which, in college, could have been any time before, say, 3 PM. A telemarketer called from Capital One and offered me a deal. A credit card, with low, low rates that would be all mine to do with as I wished. The credit limit wouldn’t be huge, but as long as I paid it off, it was my ticket to freedom. I was sleepy and not thinking terribly straight, so I said *Okay,* and set in motion a series of events that would have a profound impact on my life.

Another time, AT&T did something which I still believe was profoundly stupid on their part. I’d had an AT&T calling card for a while – just a simple card that I could use for long-distance, in case I had to call home or anything. One day, while I was living in Rhode Island, I got a letter from these idiots that told me they were replacing all their calling cards with credit cards. And mine had a limit of $3,000 on it.

I mean, come on. Who just gives a guy like me a $3,000 credit card? Seriously?

Suffice it to say, I was not the kind of person you wanted to be handing these things over to. I never really learned about money when I was younger, though my parents did take a shot at teaching me. Mostly it was with pleas to save money that I got from my paper route or from relatives, with the promise that I would b grateful for it later. But when has that ever worked on a kid? I mean ever? I don’t know if this is a New England thing, but we never talked about money in serious terms in my house. I don’t remember my mother sitting down with us and telling us what a food budget was and how she went about making it. I don’t remember my dad showing me his paycheck and explaining how he had to budget for utilities and insurance and the mortgage. Money was just a thing in my household, from my point of view. It just happened. My parents’ credit cards were sorcery, as far as I knew, and so when the time came to get one (or two) of my own, I really had no concept of what it meant to be responsible for it.

I may as well have done this, for all the good it did…

Needless to say, I hit my limit pretty quickly. I was working retail at the time, so the best I could pay each month was usually the minimum required amount (also known as the “You will never, ever pay off your card” amount, though they don’t tell you that), and the debt I owed never really went anywhere. Eventually I had two cards that I couldn’t use, but still had to pay for. And couldn’t.

Then I went to Japan. I figured the job I had here would be better than the one at home, and I could send money back or something like that. But it was too late – the collections letters started coming, and people started calling my mother’s house, not very convinced when she told them that I had moved to the other side of the planet. Eventually, through some long, protracted letter-writing, sending over all the money I had saved, and giving up the money left to my when my grandfather died, I paid them off.

It was over. I was out of debt.

I was fortunate not to have student loans, which meant that as soon as my credit cards were paid off, I was free and clear. Since then, I haven’t owed anyone a damn thing.

The whole thing has certainly taught me a lot about money and how it works, and I have become much, much better at being aware of where my money goes and why. I know what my bills are and when they need to be paid, and I make sure to take a chunk of money out of the bank on each payday – about 25% – and just put it away somewhere until it’s needed. This came in especially handy during the Great NOVA Collapse of ’07 – during the month we were all out of work, some people were trading English lessons for food, and I was having a nice, quiet vacation at home, with internet and perishables and everything.

I’ll pay in cash, thank you very much.

It’s a liberating experience, really, not having this hanging over my head all the time. I don’t have to worry about collectors or holding a little bit back every month, or trying to calculate what percentage of my debt I could possibly pay this time… It is true that, should I ever return to the States and want to buy, say, a car or a house, I’ll be in trouble. Either my old credit history will still be floating around, or they’ll notice that I haven’t had any kind of credit history for nearly a decade and decide that I cannot be trusted.

I wouldn’t change a thing, though. Not being in debt? TOTALLY worth it.

Thanksgiving, Day 18: Books

I really feel like this should go without saying, but I’m incredibly thankful for books. For the books that I have, the books that I love – hell, just the existence of a cheap, portable information storage and transfer medium that’ll probably outlast every single electronic device in my possession right now. I’ve been reading books for as long as I can remember, and even when I was living in miserable, tiny apartments – hell, even my dorm – I made sure to have books with me. Books are a part of my life that I can’t imagine not being there.

At the moment, I probably have about 800 books in my place, and I would have more except The Boyfriend put a limit on how many bookshelves I can put up. He seems to have this notion that the people who designed the condo didn’t factor in the weight of nearly a thousand books when they designed the place. Or something like that. All I know is that when I suggest getting more bookcases, he just glares at me and shakes his head slowly.

I suppose that’s why I have come to appreciate e-books as much as I have. Don’t get me wrong – I love my dead-tree books. I love the feel of them and the look of them and the smell. I love being able to flip the pages back and forth with my thumbs. I love the sound of a big, doorstop hardcover when you close it. There is nothing about conventional books that I don’t like, except that they take up so much space. And until I get my infinite library, there’s going to have to be some sacrifices on the number of books I’m able to keep at home.

Someday, man. Someday.

E-books at least give me the chance to try books out. They’re cheaper, and for all practical purposes they don’t actually exist. If a book really impresses me, I’ll have a real one shipped out to me.

In any case, I love books for the same reason any good bibliophile loves books – I love the stories and the characters, the worlds and the mysteries and the magic. I love that so many writers have been able to come out with so much wonderful work. Not only does it give me a place to go to in my head, but it inspires me to make my own places and write them down as well.

Books educate, enlighten, and entertain. They’re repositories of science and history and philosophy, whole schools of thought that represent centuries of thinking, pressed between two covers. They are a symbol of humanity’s desire to pass on its hard-earned knowledge to future generations.

Writing a book is an act of hope for the future, and books should be treated accordingly.

Thanksgiving, Day 17: My Job

Home away from home…

As with the post about The Boys, I think it is important to be thankful for those things that are fundamentally temporary. [1] If you’ve been reading for a while, then you know that my current employment situation is, how shall we say – in flux, and that this state of uncertainty is not something which sits well with me. Mind you, there are avenues of exploration open that will, if successful, bring this period of uncertainty to a close, but I’m not going to say anything about them until they’re more of a sure thing.

Until then, let me be thankful for my job.

Of all the jobs I’ve had, it is certainly tops in every respect. It’s challenging and interesting, I work with a lot of good people who not only know what they’re doing, but who are willing to go out of their way to help out if necessary. The students are, by and large, hardworking, polite, and conscientious (with the occasional exceptions, of course, but far fewer than might be expected elsewhere). The facilities are modern and nice, the pay is good, and the teachers are given a lot of freedom and leeway to teach as they think best. The only thing I can really complain about is the commute, and that’s just because they’re not willing, for some reason, to move the whole operation down to Osaka.

When I compare it to the other jobs I’ve done and places I’ve worked, I can’t think that I would give this up to go back to any of those.

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[1] Which, technically, would include everything, but I only have a few days left on this project.

Thanksgiving, Day 16: Getting Over a Cold

Seriously, it’s the best.

I’m not 100% yet by any means, but I feel better than I have for a few days.

Thing is, I’m a bad sick person, I really am. I get awfully self-centered about it, and if I’m not careful I’ll convince myself that this is how I’m going to feel forever. I can’t remember what it feels like to be “well,” since “well” is an absence of sickness, which is the exact opposite of how I feel at the time.

That said, I do try not to be a dick about it. It’s a cold, not leukemia, and there are limits to just how much of a self-absorbed dick I can be. Just enough to get people to leave me alone, but not enough to make them leave me alone permanently, I suppose. Besides, I know people who have actual medical problems, and for me to me lamenting about how “O Woe Is Me, My Nose May Be Stuffy ForEVER!” is just an insult to them.

Anyway, I’m behind schedule and I’ve a lot of things to do this weekend. I’ll fill in days 14 and 15 soon enough…