Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Iron Goddess of Mercy

The legend goes like this:

In southeast China there was a rundown temple which housed an iron statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. A poor farmer passed the temple each morning on his way to the tea fields. He would look upon the temple with a heavy heart, noting its crumbling condition.

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Because the farmer was poor, he had not the means to restore the temple’s glory. Still, he wanted to do something. He brought a broom from his home and swept the temple clean of debris, then lit some incense as an offering to Guanyin. He did this each day for many months. “It’s the least I can do,” he said.

One night, the Goddess appeared to him in a dream and told him of a hidden cave behind the temple where great treasure awaited.

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She told him to claim the treasure as a reward for his hard work and share it with the others in his village. The next day, the farmer searched and found the cave the Goddess spoke of, but upon entering found no great treasure. Instead, he found only a tiny tea shoot poking up through the ground. He was disheartened.

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The farmer took the tea shoot anyway and planted it on his farm. To his surprise, it grew into a hearty bush from which the finest tea was produced. He gave cuttings of it to his friends and family, and they began selling it. Before long the village prospered and grew famous for its delicious tea. As thanks to the Goddess, they named the tea after her: Tieguanyin. The Iron Goddess of Mercy.

I drink Tieguanyin most nights. Occasionally I’ll switch up the tea I drink, but Iron Goddess of Mercy is the one I continually return to. Making tea is a ritual I look forward to. My workload has a tendency to pile up and the ritual of brewing tea offers momentary respite, during which time I can clear my head and recalibrate. I focus on the steps: filling the tea bag, boiling water, steeping the tea, then waiting for it to cool so I can drink it. It’s a simple ceremony but a calming one, and the legend behind the tea’s origin serves as a hopeful reminder that everything I do will one day amount to something more. It offers solace from the stress of my life, however fleeting.

Another little ritual I have is laying on the floor in the dark, panicking over the notion that I’m wasting my formative years on misguided endeavors.

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In these ephemeral moments of despair, tea is of little help. While I’m comforted by the fact that everyone my age deals with the same ambiguities and insecurities, it doesn’t negate the sobering fact that I periodically have, and will continue to have, these big moments of complete and all-consuming doubt that seem like they might cause my whole life to derail—but then watch a bunch of Roseanne episodes or go get some Thai food from the place down the street, and tell myself that everything is all right, and I make some lists in my head and set some goals and before long it’s tomorrow and I’m fine.
           
Everybody’s twenties are marred by uncertainty. This is fact. I’m 25, about to be 26, which means I’ve begun that slow crawl toward 30. It feels like a good place to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned so far.

1. I Can’t Keep Dating Douchenozzles, Hoping To Turn Them Into Good People

This has taken me ages to learn, and I’m still not sure it’s sunk in all the way. Barring one notable exception, I’ve dated pretty much exclusively garbage-people. For a while, it was fun to imagine that I could reform someone else, like a science project. A part of me still hopes I can find someone to mold into the perfect human specimen, as if I’m building a mate from carefully selected parts.

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In reality, I have a hard enough time changing myself. There’s no way I could possibly change another person.

2. I Can’t Eat The Way I Used To

I will probably never be fat. Looking back at the men in my family, not a one of them was anything other than lean (and usually downright noodly), and for this I am thankful. Still, I’m discovering that I can’t continue to shovel food into my gullet and expect to maintain a figure like that of Christian Bale in The Machinist. Now when I eat loads of shitty food, I find myself feeling lazy and lethargic. I have to run longer on the treadmill to maintain my Voldemort-like physique. In a couple years I’ll most likely have to move up a belt size, from 28 to 29, which is too traumatic to dwell on. It would be so much easier if I could eat like I did when I was 16, but I fear that will lead to dark places.

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3. I Can’t Drink Like I Used To

I’ve always been a pretty responsible drinker (ahem, sort of) but I just can’t keep up with my younger self any longer. A few months ago I went out for a friend’s birthday and consumed what seemed like a perfectly reasonable number of vodka tonics. I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a crippling hangover. I spent the entire morning on the floor of my living room, my head pounding like Denver the Last Dinosaur was about to hatch from my skull.

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In college I could spend the night partying, get 3 hours of sleep, wake up feeling buoyant and refreshed, and go to my 8 AM class without a care in the world. Now if I have too much to drink, I have to personally call FEMA to deliver me a bag of Egg McMuffins.

4. Money Vanishes

I try to keep an eye on my bank account but it still feels like cash is being steadily funneled out of my possession and into a void. I feebly attempt to cling to my finances, yet frugality seems like a nonsense notion in my twenties.

It’s almost sneaky the way it happens. A couple visits to the Las Piedritas taco truck for $5 burritos, a night out at Wimpy’s for $2.50 well drinks, a too-good-to-pass up sale on Bonobos.com, then a couple auto-payments hit my account for bills and my gym membership, and suddenly I have $500 less in checking than I did the week before. It’s as if I’m tying hundred dollar bills to my cat and sending her off into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

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Before I realize what’s happened, I’m destitute, with nothing to show for it except a burrito-induced tummy ache and orange chino shorts that don’t even fit because of all the burritos I’ve been eating.

5. I Am Jealous Of Everyone For Their Success, Be It Real Or Imagined

I’m at that age where many of my friends are getting married and having little goblin offspring of their own. Every week I open my mailbox to find save-the-dates and wedding announcements, oftentimes from people I hardly remember. The barrage of invites is endless.

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I remember being eight and adamantly claiming I’d never get married (unless it was to Sailor Moon) and that I’d rather die than have children of my own. I’ve softened somewhat on the notion of children, though currently I can’t imagine my life with a son or daughter present. I can fathom no worse hell than having to pause my Skyrim game to change a diaper, and yet I somehow find myself jealous of all my friends who are getting married and becoming pregnant.

It shouldn’t be a competition. I don’t even want to get married and I certainly don’t want kids right now, but I still stare at all the wedding announcements pinned to my fridge with a mixture of envy and loathing.

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I try to remind myself that this is just a symptom of the Facebook age and that we all make unreasonable comparisons about ourselves and our peers. Then I brew a scalding hot cup of Tieguanyin and casually pour it out the window onto some unwitting passerby.

6. Despite The Pervasive Uncertainty Of Life, I Am Gaining Perspective

Though my days are often filled with a vague sense of dread and forboding, there are moments of profound insight, and I cling tightly to these, collecting them in my subconscious like precious jewels so that I may reference them later. These moments usually manifest in small and quiet ways—an electric, passionate discussion with a friend, or a walk through the city when the weather is perfect and the streets are buzzing with life. These moments are like little islands of positivity. Sometimes I get tired of swimming, but I trust there’s another little island on the horizon.

I like to think that when my twenties come to a close, I will be at peace with myself and at one with the universe, wise and tranquil like a spiritual Maharishi.

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For now, I’ll draw and I’ll write, and I’ll try to learn new things, and I’ll attempt to take something positive away from every experience I have, no matter how small. I’ll try to keep my finances in check and be nice to my friends even when they’re being insufferable little shits, because I love them and I know they’re the same as me. And I’ll make Tieguanyin tea at night, and imagine the Iron Goddess watching over me, telling me that someday all my insecurities and second-guessing will melt away, and everything will be good, and I will stop worrying.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I Want To Play A Game

Sometime around midnight in early July, 1997, my childhood came to screeching halt. In my tiny, darkened bedroom, I stared at my little television set, completely shocked and speechless.

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I wasn't sure if I was sad or angry. I'd spent months playing through Final Fantasy 7, and it felt like such an achievement just to reach the end of the first disc. Aeris had been a mainstay in my party. Now she was gone.

As a kid, I was terrible at video games. I was an only child, and with no older siblings to show me the ropes, I had to stumble through the process on my own. I was eight when I received a Super Nintendo for Christmas, and it was such a strange and novel contraption. I didn't really know anyone who had a video game system, and now that I had one, I wasn't sure what to make of it. Like the monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey, marveling at the giant black monolith, I didn't entirely trust or understand my new device.

My mom would take me to the video store to rent games, and for years I didn't realize people could actually buy them to keep. I'd look at the back of the boxes, choose whatever looked most interesting, and spend the weekend crouched in front of the television. I could never truly grasp the strategy involved in the games, but it didn't stop me from being completely enamored with the experience. I'd try to recount events to my mother, who did her best to act interested.

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It didn't matter to me that my skill with video games was on par with a lobotomized preschooler with no fingers. A houseplant could have fallen onto the controller and had more luck at beating the game than I even did, yet I never felt frustrated while playing. I was happy to just be experiencing new and different worlds. Because I only rented games for years, I was able to play other people's save files, meaning new areas were always opening up to me. If I waited a couple weeks, I could rent a game I'd played half a dozen times before, and if I was lucky, someone else would have advanced the story for me. It made games strange and mysterious, because I never knew what to expect.

One weekend I rented Final Fantasy 3 (technically 6, but let's not get into that) and opened up a save file from the previous renter. I played for a while, wondering why I was on an island, and doing my best to catch fish for the whiny banana-looking dude in my cabin.



When the banana guy died from tainted fish, I thought I'd done something wrong. I had tried so hard to catch healthy fish for him, but he bit the dust anyway. I felt awful for my tiny sprite-based character, lugging fish back to sickly banana-friend.

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Then, feeling alone in the world, she tried to commit suicide. It was a lot for a nine-year-old to handle.

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Slowly I got a little more skilled at video games, but by and large I still sucked. I didn't beat a game on my own for years, but still I was enamored with them. It gave me something to talk about with other kids in my school. Since I could draw, I'd doodle characters from my favorite games, which impressed my schoolmates, and making friends became easy for me.

One day in class, I learned that some kids actually owned their video games and that renting wasn't the only option.

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I felt like I'd been lied to for months. How was it possible that I'd remained in the dark so long? Lowly humans could purchase videogames? For keeps? Everything had changed. I went home that afternoon and made an announcement to my mother.

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That Christmas, I received
Earthbound as a present. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I was thrilled. I was ecstatic.

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It was the first game I'd ever owned, and I cherished it like the treasure it was. None of the video stores around me had copies of it to rent. I'd only heard tales of it from my friends, and it sounded too good to be real.

"It's like, set in modern day. You run around town and fight aliens and monsters and stuff. You eat pizza to regain health!" I didn't believe it. It sounded like a myth.

It's difficult to put into words exactly how delighted I was to own a game of my own. I went nuts. My little heart could barely handle the excitement.

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With a game in my permanent possession, I could take extra time and learn the strategy involved. It was still a struggle, and I died hundreds of times, but slowly and surely I managed to advance further and further into the storyline.

Earthbound spilled over into my real life. I fought evil robots at recess. Everything I ate in the cafeteria refilled my HP. A sandwich was no longer a sandwich; it was a vital item, bringing me back from the brink of death so that I might save the world.

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Earthbound, like the other games I'd played before, eventually became too difficult for me to beat, but I didn't mind. I'd start over from the beginning and play through the familiar parts, over and over.

I became a gamer. I'd brag to my friends about completing dungeons in A Link to the Past, or we'd speculate what the secret might be in Secret of Mana.

When I was eleven, I sold my Super Nintendo to a neighbor so I could buy a Playstation. Then, because I didn't have any money left, it sat unused for several months until I could afford a game to play. I bought Final Fantasy 7. I died six times before the first boss. I was awful. But I stuck with it, and advanced in the game bit by bit. It might've been easier if I'd known what I was doing, if I didn't run away from battles so often and load up my characters exclusively with Summon Materia.

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When Aeris died, I was floored. Final Fantasy 7 was the first game in my life I'd had any real success at, so it felt like a real blow. I eventually beat it, but it took a year, and I've never felt that sense of accomplishment since. Graduating from college pales in comparison to delivering that final blow to Sephiroth.

In high school, I played games less and less, focusing more on my studies. Senior year was devoted to college admissions, and soon after that I stopped playing games altogether. I moved to Boston for college and left my videogame systems behind. "I love video games!" became, "Yeah, I used to play games. Are they still making Zelda?" I fell out of the loop.

A couple months after I graduated, and several years after I'd picked up a controller, I came to possess a copy of Fallout 3. I don't remember how I came to own it. I like to think it just appeared in my apartment one day like a divine gift from above.

I popped it in my Playstation 3 (which I'd purchased as a Blu-ray player) and didn't leave my apartment for four days.

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Just like that, I was a gamer again. I went back and beat all the old games I was too young to grasp. I sought out the games I'd missed in high school and college and blazed through them with ease.

At 25 years old, I pre-ordered my first video game: Skyrim. I waited in line for the midnight release, barely able to contain my excitement.

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I played it all night and well into the morning. I felt like a kid again. I didn't feel bad about neglecting my friends over the next couple weeks, because they were all playing it too.

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I remember once trying to make my mom play Street Fighter 2 with me but she wasn't interested. To her, I think videogames were just flashing lights set to bleeps and blips. I took that to mean adults don't like videogames in general, and that I should enjoy them while I was young because eventually I'd lose interest.

On the contrary, I'm more fascinated and enamored with videogames as an adult than I ever was as a child, and I can't imagine a time when I won't be. Years from now, I'll be sitting on my porch, leering at youngsters as they pass by, thinking, "fucking n00b. I bet I could waste you in Mortal Kombat 23."