Personal  •  September 5, 2016

Breakfast for Thought

I woke up at 8:05am even though I had an appointment to see my friend Robert at 9 in the West Village. I quickly analyzed the likelihood of being able to get there in time. I needed to take a shower, get dressed, walk the dog, and get on the subway. On weekends (actually, today is Labor Day) the subway is unreliable, so I concluded that it’s highly unlikely that I could get there in time. I emailed Robert to let him know that I was going to be late by about half an hour.

My wife and daughter are away this weekend. They are in Vermont where her mother and stepfather have a summer house. I’m not particularly fond of the place, so I didn’t go, but what influenced my decision more was the idea of being alone. I needed time to myself.

Some people don’t like to be alone; I don’t know how they can function. A few days ago, I visited my friends who live in a one-bedroom apartment with three kids. There is not a moment of calm in their home. Reality to me is just another medium like TV; the only difference is that it’s super high definition—as high as it can get. With five people in the apartment, it’s as if every room is an IMAX theater with nowhere you can escape to. In comparison, when they started watching a violent detective drama on their giant TV with a high-end audio system, it felt rather peaceful.

There are many conflicting aspects within myself like the rational part versus the emotional part, mind versus body, what I want versus what my ego wants, fear versus passion, etc. They are constantly butting heads with one another. Without spending some time alone, they are hopelessly mixed up like shaken salad dressing. I can’t tell what is coming from which part. Solitude helps me separate the oil and vinegar.

When I stepped out to walk the dog this morning, I realized how cool it was. A hurricane is supposed to be heading towards us but the sky was clear and I felt only a mild breeze. I walked her for about fifteen minutes, dropped her back home, and headed back out. The subway came rather quickly, and I realized that I might be able to get to my friend’s place in time. When I got out of the station at West 4th Street, I checked Google Maps on my iPhone. Professor Google told me that it would take six minutes to walk to my final destination. It’s 8:54. That number made me want to get there exactly on time at 9:00:00. As I reached his block, I called him to let him know because he was expecting me to be late. Unfortunately, this phone call ended up ruining my plan; I got distracted by talking on the phone, and I walked passed his apartment. I had to turn back, and by the time I reached his apartment, I was about thirty seconds late. You might find this ridiculous but I get frustrated when things like this happen. My desire to control the events in my life is absurd.

We went to a classic French restaurant with posters and sconces on the wall. All French restaurants, by now, are imitations of themselves but because it’s been that way for so long that it is futile to analyze in what way any particular appropriation is interesting. They are appropriating appropriations. Derivatives of derivatives. There is no value in tracing their origins. So, I said, “Shut up,” to my own analytical brain and stopped looking at the interior design of the place, and ordered Croque Monsieur with French fries.

Robert just published a book. I ordered it on Amazon but it won’t arrive for a few more days, so he showed me his own copy. I told him that, to my own surprise, I’ve been preferring printed books over digital readers like Kindle. He was surprised too because I’m as digital as any human being can get, but apparently, it’s not just me; the decline in sales of printed books has now stopped, and plenty of them are still being sold. How ironic that the first medium to be digitized is the last to be disrupted by technology, and it appears that the disruption won’t be complete like with music and video.

We then started talking about how emotionally vested we are in our own language. For instance, if you are an immigrant in the US, should you teach your child your native language? In my experience, this has been a sensitive topic loaded with emotions. I abandoned my native language and decided to commit to English when I was in college. I never looked back. It’s been thirty years. Since then, I’ve only been back to Japan three times, and every time I go back, my knowledge of Japanese seems to come out of nowhere, like someone planted it in my head a la The Matrix or Blade Runner. Robert told me that his mother was the same way; she was committed to speaking English and did not teach him how to speak Hungarian.

Between Robert and I, a conversation flows fluidly. It organically moves from one topic to another. I started to wonder why because last night my conversation with another friend of mine was the opposite. My conversations with him often get cut short because we often run into fundamental disagreements. For instance, last night, we were talking about Internet addiction (because we had just watched the new film about the Internet by Werner Herzog), and I tried to differentiate addictive behavior where people are trying to escape unbearable predicaments versus addiction proper where they are not trying to escape from anything (they have a genetic predisposition to addiction). This differentiation was not my point. I just needed to clarify this first in order to make my point, but he did not believe that this difference existed. He explained to me that unless the substance is physically addictive (like heroin) addiction (like alcohol, gambling, or Internet) is always a form of escape. Our conversation had to stop there, without making my point, because there was no time to get into a scientific discussion. Indeed continuing this conversation would not have been fruitful because whatever conclusion I drew as my final point would have to depend on all its assumptions. Every argument has assumptions. If we cannot agree on those assumptions, it’s a dead end.

There could be two different reasons why my conversation with Robert moves fluidly. 1. We share many of the basic assumptions in life. Or, 2. Robert is more interested in hearing my point than discovering some sort of truth.

My Croque Monsieur arrived. It’s exceptionally beautiful. You may have noticed that I didn’t say our food arrived; that’s because I’m being honest about how I perceived the scene. I generally do not care what other people order. I feel annoyed when people ask me what I’m ordering. I feel like telling them, “Worry about your own problem and decide fast.” I’m squarely focused on what I ordered. Robert may have ordered sushi and I would have barely noticed.

Robert said he believes he is good at knowing how people are feeling. I asked how he knows it; not because I was skeptical of his claim but because I know I’m not good at it, and I would like to know how he achieves it. He said his friends often tell him how perceptive he is. I then realized how peculiar this word “perceptive” is, because I’m often told that I’m “perceptive” too. How could this be? I theorized as I ate my French fries with mustard.

Robert is perceptive in an intuitive sense. He might know how other people are feeling but might not understand the mechanics of it. I’m the opposite. When someone literally tells me how he is feeling, I am good at guessing why. For instance, one time when I was chatting with another friend, he started sharing his perspective on life that it’s all about fulfilling obligations like mortgage payments. He said such thoughts dominate his mind. I then asked if he grew up in a financially unstable and unpredictable family. He said, “How did you know?” I don’t mean to brag but I’m pretty good at figuring out why people are feeling what they are feeling as long as they tell me what they are feeling. This is what they mean when they describe me as “perceptive.” I observe and figure out the mechanics. This financially insecure friend, I figured, had parents who preferred to have a secure job but for one reason or another couldn’t. Their constant worry about money lead to him internalizing their fear. Children are scared of whatever their parents are scared of. So he became determined to avoid the same situation at all cost. The opposite can happen under the same circumstance if the parents were fine with the financial instability. One way or another, they get through all their troubles, so the kids confirm their belief that ultimately everything would be fine. I think this is how entrepreneurs are born and raised.

I then drew an analogy to photography. Photography is difficult for someone like me who perceives the world head-first. Whenever I see something interesting, my analytical mind jumps in front of it and offers interpretations. If I then press the shutter release button, the image captured would have a clear reason why it was shot. The audience can almost read the words that ran through my head. Once these interpretations are digested by the audience, there is nothing left in the image. It’s done, like a film canister. This is fine for commercial photography, but in order for the image to have a lasting value, it must be captured before the internal contradictions are resolved within the photographer. He can then think afterward; that’s fine because, at that point, his interpretation can no longer alter the photo. To achieve this, the photographer must trust something other than his intelligence or emotion because each of them on its own makes the image single-dimensional. To capture the contradictions, something else must transcend those common human facilities that contradict one another. I theorized that Robert might be a good photographer because he is able to trust his own instincts.

We talked for about two hours. Towards the end, we were just sipping on our drinks, Robert on coffee and I on Earl Grey. Robert then went to the restroom. As soon as he came back, we left. It felt a bit abrupt because there was no real sense of ending in our conversation, but I wanted to go home to be alone. After all, that was the main reason why I didn’t go to Vermont with my wife and kid.