Car

I’ve mentioned before about an ongoing argument with my mom when I was young. She wanted me to get my driver’s license. In a strange role reversal for this typical scenario, I, the foolhearty, stubborn, and naive fourteen year old, rejected this idea.

“Dillon, you need a license,” she’d say.

“No, I don’t.”

“How are you gonna get around?”

“Wherever I need to go, I’ll go with my friends.”

She looked at my best friends, Alex and Kelson, sitting in the backseat of the car after cross country practice, “I’m sure they’re gonna love driving you around.”

A part of it came from my aunt. Both my parents have younger sisters, and in both sides of my family I’ve been declared the wrong child. I don’t come from my parents, but instead my aunts. A lot of that is true.  My mom’s sister didn’t have a license at the time of the conversation, and she’d been living just fine. My mom never had a good way of explaining the choices she made for me — even if they were the right ones. As an adult now I realize how hard it would’ve been to get one on my own, and even how difficult it can be to afford one. In Japan the legal driving age is 18, and even then, most people don’t get a license until they turn 20. The cost of going through training, and paying all the fees is at least $2,000 so it’s not something to take lightly either. So eventually I lost that argument. I got free drivers training as part of my public education, and was out with my permit when I was 15.

Ok, fine. I got the license, but no way am I going to get a car.

My first accident was a week after I got my license. It was in September because as a typical suburban teenager  I spent the summer volunteering in Mexico, doing a choir tour in Germany, and going to running camp in Oregon after my birthday in July. I was pulling out of a Caribou Coffee after helping time a girls swim meet in my mom’s Lexus ES. Just so you know, the initials ES stand for Executive Sedan. This was a decent car to start out driving. It had a huge hood and was powerful on the gas. It did not, however, have good views of clearance. What I thought was enough space between me and the Lexus RX (the SUV line of luxury vehicles), was really just enough space to collapse my front bumper on their back bumper. It was a crunching sound that brought me to depths of fear I hadn’t visited since I halfheartedly helped my mom move a couch and she broke a nail. Luckily, with a little spit the white paint on the back bumper of the SUV came right off. I didn’t stick around to see if anyone else would’ve noticed. And I won’t go into much detail of my mother’s wrath, but only say that I’m so thankful she works for Lexus where they actually have all the tools to fix such a problem.

I never had want for a car in high school. I could only go out after school anyway, which meant someone would be home with a car for me to borrow (take). I never had the kind of money to think about getting a car either. In college finally my roommate, Ostrich, bought a VW wagon one summer, and it was the first time I realized I could even afford to do something like that. Except, in reality I couldn’t afford to do something like that. Anything I attempted to save was quickly spent on climbing equipment, or computer parts, or underwear. Instead I wore it as a badge of my ability. I thought about times when I’d be in my late twenties, drunkenly circled with friends playing five fingers, and I’d declare, “Never have I ever owned a car.”

Of course in New York there’s no need for cars. After graduation I never thought about it, taking the train or riding a bike to work. In winter I switched my slim bike tires for ones equally as narrow but with ridges that would keep me upright in piling snow. Then when I first came to Japan with no savings and an insurmountable view of my college loans having a car was still unobtainable. I even specifically checked a box in a preference sheet that it’d be best if I could walk to my school.

I’ve had a driver’s license for ten years and have essentially driven consistently that entire time. I think the longest stretch I’ve been workout driving was six months when I first got here and didn’t have a permit to drive. Then I only took the wheel as a designated driver since Japan has a zero tolerance drinking and driving policy. I finally got my Japanese license a year after I first arrived. For an American it’s quite simple –and if you’re from Maryland it’s a piece of cake–just a written test (about ten questions almost completely pictorial). I was actually kinda surprised at the lack of skill proving. When I was sixteen fresh out of driving school I had to show off all sorts of techniques: parallel parking, hill parking, T-parking. The first time I failed because I crossed into a different lane while turning into a two lane one-way street. This time I just had to hit speed limits, look out for stop signs, and remember to drive on the right (meaning left) side of the road. Even then when I passed I’d been fantasizing about the types of cars you see in the Fast & Furious movies. But it was still just a dream with no real money to put behind it. At that time I’d already had a sense that I wouldn’t recontract with my school, and at that time the probability of me staying in Japan was quite low. A car would just be a money sink I’d enjoy for two months in the spring and then worry about selling.

I was also pretty peculiar about what my first car would be. The smartest thing would buy a tiny economy kei car for $1,000 or even a Honda fit for twice that much and call it good. Except I grew up going to car shows and watching The Fast & The Furious. Even now there’s usually a weekend every year where I’ll watch them all in order, adding the newest edition for last. Cars were (/are?) something special for me. When I was a kid I played Need for Speed games for hours imagining it was the real thing. I think it had a connection to why I enjoyed running, why I read The Flash comic books, why I like Dub Step music. There’s something about speed that runs deep through my soul.

I searched through thousands of listings for cars on auction websites. In the end, with the start of summer vacation and my new job drawing nearer, I realized I had to go with what I could get. Leave it to Yukie, who’d become my constant savior and practical caretaker in Japan, to muster through all her contacts to find me a car. Leave it to my luck for it to have been the model I was considering: Subaru Legacy B4 sedan, silver, twin turbo, all wheel drive, less than 100,000 miles, and beautiful. It was a gas guzzling beast that could barely fit on some of the countryside roads, but it was fast and cool and more than enough for me. The first month of having it I went through $200 of gas in two weeks just driving it along the coast and through mountain roads day and night. There was an entire freedom I hadn’t realized I could get with the power to go anywhere at my fingertips.

I’d already planned the modifications for my new car, so although I was reckless, I wasn’t careless. That whole time I’d only had one accident: that minor fender bender the week after I got my license. Except when I started writing this post back in November I’d experienced two more in two months. Since then I’ve had another two.

Perhaps tellingly three of the four happened when I was driving rental cars. The first wasn’t too bad, just an understeer of a plastic box into a guard rail — an annoying bite into my pocketbook. The second was worse, an actual crash. I was on three hours of sleep heading toward Osaka with four of my coworkers (I was on the most amount of sleep, and arguably the most experienced with long distance drives). It was only until we got into the city after a highway of torrential rain that I was on tilt. We’d left an hour later than planned to catch our flight to Singapore. Really we were reaching the end of our drive, so my fatigue was probably part of the reason. I’d considered after two hours to pull into a rest stop and switch drivers, but with only an hour left I figured I thought I’d persevere.

City highways were a bit more challenging. It’s funny because it finally felt familiar. In Minneapolis so much is connected through the highways, so I didn’t think I’d be so rusty. Working out Japanese signs while driving too fast in kilometers proved to be too much, and I was finally taken in when the construction moved my third lane into the second. Luckily I was driving what was essentially a luxury space ship on wheels. The front bumper and door jammed into the back end of a passing truck with a that wasn’t as startling as it was awakening — at least for me. We were stranded for an hour sorting everything out and barely made the plane. No one was hurt, but I still called my mom crying out of shame.

Before then I’d always been a bit confident in my driving skills, and I still think I’m reliable, but it was a tough way to learn to put safety first.

The next two were within a week of each other last January which I’ve now deemed the worst month of my life (which too be fair isn’t saying much, but it’s still a sample size of 300). The first was, as I’d learn the saying in Japanese, “100% not bad” or in American English, “totally not my fault.” I was completely stopped at a red light when I heard the screech from behind, the crunch, felt the jolt, rocked in my car, and still for a couple seconds wasn’t sure what happened. Did they hit my car? Was that an accident? Really? Right now? Two weeks away from moving? Literally already finished the deal to sell my car and now… I took a breath and let out a couple expletives. Looking at the back the car was even more painful. The roof is connected to the side panel in one seamless piece and I always knew a crash would be irreversible. The entire trunk which last fall filled three people’s $1,500 worth of Costco groceries, was smudged like a folded futon. Trust me, it’s worse than it looks.

 

 

It was replaced with a two wheel drive Toyota just in time for 140 centimeters (55 inches) to fall. I got stuck and dug out more than three times in one day, finally cracking the front bumper as the puny front wheels careened into a pile of fresh snow. I was supremely upset that’s I couldn’t enjoy cruising in my Subaru one last time as I hauled all my belongings on the freeway to Tokyo, but I never actually appreciated it’s capabilities until I had to use a different incredibly inferior piece of plastic.

Originally the title of this post was going to be Drive. It’s a hobby that a lot of Japanese (men) claim. “I like to drive,” they say or, “I drive in my free time.” I’ll still have plenty of time for that. In Tokyo you can rent almost any type of car for the right price and I already forsee myself heading to the beach in a convertible once summer comes. What I won’t have, at least for another couple years, perhaps even a decade, is another car. It was a short fun six months of ownership, but it was a draining one too. Driving to work through traffic is even more humiliating in a car that can reach 100km/h in six seconds. The environmental impact wore on my conscience as well.

I’ll always enjoy pushing the pedal, a good soundtrack in the stereo, open windows, and straightaways. For now, I’ll just have to enjoy pedaling wheels, gripping drop-down handlebars, and more than a little extra money from reducing climate change. Besides, when you’re a runner you know: fast is all about perspective.

Commute

I’m on a train back to Fukui, barely a month after I left, finally finding myself with time to edit my life. I thought a life in Tokyo would mean constant trains, and yet, most of the time I’m walking places. This post is actually one I started months ago when I was still fantasizing about my life in the city. I’ve got a backlog of posts similar I have to go through and reorganize, but plan to push out here soon. I guess this is a start.

When I lived in New York I read so many books. The first two months on the subway I went through two books of Game of Thrones just riding on those metal carriages. Back then there wasn’t WiFi to be found. An hour completely underground can pass by unnoticed while flipping the final pages of a 400 page novel.

Coming to Japan my reading has been staggered. I started the book list with the goal of finishing in two years. That put me at roughly one book every two weeks — a type of math I didn’t bother figuring out. As my astute comrade in Spanish poetry and renowned literature Nico Sanhueza pointed out: reading merely 20 pages a day from Infinite Jest (the last book on my list) would take me almost two months. I tried and succeeded in the very beginning. After travelling, and having over a month to get settled to my new small life in Japan, I found the amazing Tokyo-based English bookstore Infinity Books to spend enough of my new salary. Without a car and the onset of winter, I burrowed in my one room apartment (not studio, mind you, this was much smaller than a studio) and flew through the first couple books without a problem. Then I met Virginia Wolf with some of the best and most dense story telling I’ve ever encountered (there are two short stories weaved into the otherwise tough novel To the Lighthouse which is among the best writing fathomable). I actually skipped over her for a while, and then spring came, and I was outside, and lazy, and enjoying nothing. After struggling with the enormous paragraphs of Michael Chabon soon after,  I decided to quit literature all together.  After all, the original goal was to finish the list before I left Japan. At the time I thought that’d only be two years, but… things change.

After a year in Japan I started to notice a few slips in my vocabulary. You see, at a junior high school level of teaching English, the scope of your corrections are pretty redundant. Things are very interesting. Students try hard. Tokyo Disneyland is a great place. Because its fun. Surrounded by a bunch of other expats who are involved in the same thing, your language starts to clip the longer words. The grammar also evolves, to match those non-native speaking minions you interact with everyday. The result is a strange abandon of usual language, for something more direct and less verbose.

Learning another language, also, doesn’t support the retention of the former.

Moments (which are now too familiar) started happening in the middle of conversation. I’d be telling a memory, or a story, or just asking for a favor.

“Did you stay at a capsule hotel in Osaka?” “Oh, I wanted to, but there we no… open beds? Free spaces?”   “You mean, vacancies?”

“The new bakery sells huge cinnamon rolls, but they’re not very… great? enjoyable? delectable? … Satisfying!”

“In Minnesota you always hear about accidents with drunk people driving on… winter… jet… skis, but you know, like jet skis for the snow.” (I actually can’t remember what they’re called right now, and have too much pride to Google: winter jet skis.)

It happens at least once a week. I can see the word flash in the front of my mind whenever I think about it. A shining, well outlined … piece? shape? … thing that disappears as soon as I think of it. “Come back!” I cry, as its rolls off the tip of my tongue cackling into oblivion. Instead I’m left defenseless, degrading my language to amend the situation, pondering what could have been.

I looked at the stack of books holding shape against my wall. Each a sword against this latency in language. There are the ones I definitely can’t handle right now: Catch-22One Hundred Years of SolitudeThe Dharma Bums. Then there are the slimmer volumes, the ones written for the common people, sometimes inventive (Slaughterhouse Five) but more often objective (Casino Royale). Even a poignant story like Fahrenheit 541 has a chase scene in it. Those were my jam, those I can do. Even the unwinding accents in As I Lay Dying are comprehensible through the short three page chapters. They become manageable escapes from mundane lifestyle.

The problem with reading, though, is the actual process. I recently wondered what I was like without a cellphone, or even without a smart phone. Many times I recall keeping my Gameboy stuffed in my pocket, but equally as often I would carry a book with me, a finger poised between two pages ready to continue the story at any moment. So smartphones are the culprit right, or internet at large, offering more distractions than necessary. Consuming our time with nonsense.

This can’t only be the case, for even on weekends when the news is on a break, the apartment is clean, the outside is raining, I can’t be helped to pick up a book. It’s the sense of time prioritization. When I was a kid and didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me, I had the time to bury my nose into a story. As an adult I’m constantly thinking of what to cook, what to clean, what to buy. My value of books is suppressed by the sense that my time would be better spent somewhere else. Not to mention the rate that I read a single page is snailish.  I try to absorb every detail, and in such focus often have to reread from missing the bigger picture.

In Fukui, I drove to work every day, forty minutes there and forty minutes home. The onset of winter dragged that even longer: one hour, one and a half. Someone would say I should invest in things like Audible (I do keep waiting for a sale), but there’s something to miss in listening versus reading. Sure, I swear by the Jim Dale versions of Harry Potter over any printed form, but not every author has the time, dedication, or voice as great as local author Ben Percy. I’ve found quality narration reserved for just the bestsellers of the latest season, and my list knows no bounds.

Instead I turned to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to them for almost three years now. I first got into Serial right before I came to Japan, and broaden my spectrum since my former neighbor and professional backpacker, Mac, introduced me to Stuff You Should Know. It still strikes me that their popularity hasn’t truly reached the mainstream. I consume them while doing everything else in my life. They probably run at least four hours of my speakers everyday. Even today I’ve already listened to NPR’s Up First, APM’s In the Dark case about Jacob Wetterling, Vox’s The Weeds, and Dan Pashman’s The Sporkful interview with Michael Pollan. I guess it’s a result of not having internet access. I just download podcasts all at once somewhere and run them through the day or week. Still, it’s not enough. Unlike a book, if I miss something in a podcast, I just let it run until the story catches my attention again.

Originally, when I first thought about this post, here is where I’d talk about my solution to start reading again. How living in Tokyo would mean that I’d once again be stuck in a train without WiFi and all the opportunities granted by faded paper. It’s almost still something I long for. Except in Tokyo, the commutes are cramped and drudging. Where in New York I could buy a monthly unlimited pass for around $120, in Tokyo each time you ride a subway costs at least $1.50. I decided this was not the way I wanted to start my mornings and waste my evenings. I actively sought out places within walking, or biking distances from my work. I exceeded my original expectations with where I live now, but there is a part of me that thinks about the books.

Overall, I’m more than relieved to cut the two hours of sedentary transit from my daily life. I was hoping to have one final hurrah with my car, but that’s a subject for another post. I still ride a train every week to get to my Japanese lessons, and occasionally on weekends if I need to go out across the city — or on my way to Fukui. Recently I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my phone and found digital books can be read just as effectively for some genre. Except in those cases, stopped on the train, there always seems to be so much more worth planning. Multiple trips to be sorted. Photoshoots to arrange. Then of course, keeping in touch with you in the simplest way possible. After all, why read when you can write?