Jerel Says, ‘What’s in a name’; Willy-Nilly

What's In a Name

When I started ManVsLoneliness, I wasn’t really thinking too much or too far into the future. I had this massive, intimidatingly wide and deep rift of heartbreak left in the wake of my last destructive relationship. This blog was my attempt to bridge the chasm, one dangling piece of wood at a time. I didn’t know if I would be able to follow through for the entire year, or what reflections and experiences it may bring. I never thought to expect any sort of readership, let alone the much appreciated and loved level of engagement and communication I ended up having with some incredible people through WordPress.

Day 1

Having never blogged before this, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience. Before this I couldn’t even remember the last time I wrote for pleasure or leisure. Now I can’t wait to share my thoughts on love or movies or music, food, relationships, events, or travel. I can’t always say they’re good thoughts, but I can’t deny my compulsion to share nowadays. I have crossed the rift stronger, wiser, and happier. A little worse for wear, but overall, overwhelmingly and satisfyingly intact.

Jerel Says

I’ve built my bridge and walked across it, and now in new and unchartered lands I find I want to continue building something. I can’t keep looking backwards and adding to the bridge, as important and essential as it has been to me. It was always meant to help get across and find something new and worth finding. A lot of people have asked me, ‘what happens after the year’, ‘what happens after ManVsLoneliness‘. And I always said that I’ve learned to love blogging and want to continue on with it, but I didn’t really know to what capacity or to what purpose.

In a way it’s kind of strange to look at my newer posts, with its new outlook and perspective, and still see ManVsLoneliness. It reminds me lot of the heartbreak and the insecurity of the beginning, and it doesn’t give me the opportunity to reflect and portray the growth of the past year. I just figured I couldn’t continue on with the same name, when I’m no longer just a man trying to fight back loneliness.

Single Guy Says

But now I think I’ve figured out what I want to do, and it requires a new look, new identity, and new focus. So I’ve started a new blog, titled SingleGuySays. A lot of the posts will look very much like how they’ve been looking recently, starting with a quote that captures the theme, experience, or thought of the post. Those are the Single Guy Says posts. But I will also be adding other kinds of posts that are kind of the main inspiration for what it is I’m looking to do now. Those will be the Single Guy Tries posts.

Frisbee Alone

Spending a year on your own means that eventually you’ll have to venture further than your own home and continue to experience your own life. That means a lot of solo activity.  Eating out by yourself, watching movies, going to events like concerts or festivals, and a whole lot of solo travel too. It’s been my experience that often times doing these things alone change kind of how people act or behave around you. Servers and bartenders are really good examples but so are locals when you’re traveling or strangers at a festival. So I think there’s a lot of interesting insight and reflection to be had about viewing these experiences from the single person’s perspective.

And at the same time a comment I get a lot from friends and family is how much they’re  usually surprised by how comfortable and secure I am doing these things on my own. And I’ve written in the past about that feeling of insecurity or self-consciousness or just lack of self-interested self-motivation that prevents a lot of people from doing things Eating Alonesimply because they don’t want to do it alone. And I want to explore that, live in that, breathe life into that for a lot of people and to also see it from both sides and understand that feeling. So I want to do things that I’ve always wanted to do and maybe have held back because I thought it would be better or only reserved for when I was with someone. I don’t want to restrict myself or the things I do. And I want to tackle some ‘couple things’ that I’ve just always wanted to try. Like dance lessons. I don’t want to wait until I have someone who wants to dance and then start trying to learn so I can dance with her. I want to be the guy who can dance already. Or what happens when a single guy wants to do a paint and sip class? I want to have this  conversation with people, ask them either about the things they’ve always wanted to do on their own or the things they never got to do because they couldn’t find someone else to do it with them and were too afraid to do by themselves. And there’s a great opportunity there for communication and collaboration and feedback from the community on ideas and requests and places to go and things to do.

Single Guy Tries

So yes, I’ve changed my blog identity and name. And I know this is not something to be taken lightly and I don’t change willy-nilly. It’s going to mean a lot of starting from scratch. I won’t have the same subscribers, the same exposure, but I can always work to build it up again, and I can’t ever forget that the first person I write for in anything is myself anyways. When I first started I was happy to throw my thoughts into the void, and while now there is a part of me that takes some pride and accomplishment in the thought that I can share my writing with people who are interested and care, I can keep writing for myself and trust and hope to find others along the way.

For the next couple days I will continue to mirror the posts on both blogs to give people as much time as possible to find my new blog and starting to go there  by default. Eventually I’ll simply have it redirect for a long period of time to keep getting as much notice as possible. But otherwise, having built one bridge already, now I’m excited and looking forward to building something else, something brand new. I really, sincerely, hope to see you all there to see what I end up making.

Jerel Says, ‘Ato no matsuri’; Organize

Obon Night

Ato no matsuri

Translation: The day after the festival (to be late, to miss one’s chance)

-Japanese proverb

Every August, for three days, the Japanese celebrate the bon festival, otherwise known as Obon. It is one of the most important Japanese traditions: a time when many Japanese return to their hometowns to honor their dead relatives.

Festival Crowd

The origin of Obon comes from the story of Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples. Mokuren used his psychic powers to look for his deceased parents to see in what world they had been reborn. Dismayed at finding his mother in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, he went to Buddha to ask how he might save her. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who finished their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (eighth in the Gregorian calendar, hence August and not July). In doing so Mokuren was able to rescue his mother. Looking into his mother’s past, he also began to see and appreciate her kindness and the many sacrifices she had made for him. Overjoyed and grateful not only for his mother’s rescue but for her selflessness, Mokuren began to celebrate and dance. His dance became known as bon odori, or simply the ‘bon  dance, which is still one of the major aspects of the bon festival to this day.

Bon Dance

I’m pretty fortunate that there is a rather large Japanese demographic where I live, and Edgewater, NJ is home to the largest Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in the country. These two things combined mean that every year around the 15th of August our Mitsuwa holds a giant summer festival in honor of Obon and it never fails to draw an enormous crowd. I even ran into an old coworker from my glory days working at Blockbuster and an old classmate and former club member from college. It was nice to run into old friends and catch up for a bit while enjoying a whole assortment of Japanese summer treats. There were all kinds of treats to enjoy. I had an assortment of grilled seafood, grilled chicken skewers, takoyaki (fried dough filled with octopus), yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese style pancakes), squid pancakes with fried eggs, gyudon (rice bowls with simmered beef and onions), gyoza (Japanese dumplings), and desserts like shaved ice and mochi (sticky rice dough filled with ice cream).

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There were games where you could win prizes by shooting targets with a plastic toy bow or if you could get plastic rings caught on wooden pegs. On others you had a tiny net with a thin strip of paper and you had to delicately try to catch toys floating in a kiddie pool. Still others had a whole assortment of prizes attached to pieces of string and on the other side you had to grab one and pull and find out just which prize you ended up pulling out. You could also buy a variety of plastic Japanese festival masks. Some were the traditional demons and gods while others were things like superhero masks from Japanese television shows or even Pokemon.

Throughout the day, local Japanese cultural clubs and societies put on different displays and demonstrations. One was the trademark bon odori with singing and dancing and bells and spinning hats and parasols. The other was a taiko drumming performance. There was something really therapeutic and de-stressing about watching the flurry of sticks and movements and the yelling and the deep thunderous roar of drumbeats.

Taiko Drums.jpg

It really was a huge community event and not just for the Japanese (obviously, since I’m Grilled Seafood 2Filipino). You see a lot of people enjoying the summer festival every year. It’s not uncommon to see a couple young kids from high school and college anime clubs doing cosplay and showing up dressed as their favorite characters. There are plenty of families and it’s adorable to see little kids dressed up in yukata and kimono (traditional Japanese festival wear). I can’t tell you how many times I probably fell in love with some of the young women dressed in kimono as well. Whole generations of families, grandparents, parents, and children, Okonomiyakiwere enjoying the festival together. Some were celebrating their culture, others were learning about an entirely new and different one from their own. Plenty of couples, groups of friends, all different kinds of people coming together not just to enjoy, but tons of volunteers of all different ethnicities running booths and helping to organize the event behind the scenes as well.

In the US the summer festival is a fun celebration of Japanese culture and food. Mainly food. It’s a nice community event, but it’s obviously more about the surface level things like food, toys, and fun cultural displays. But I like to remember the spiritual origins that Ohakamairi.pngare still major in Japan. See the story of Mokuren ended up taking on a very specific and influential meaning in Japan. It became a story of honoring one’s ancestors and celebrating and appreciating family. Over the three days of the bon festival the dead are allowed to return to the realm of the living. Families clean their houses in preparation and hang lanterns to guide the spirits back home. They also visit their ancestor’s gravestones to place offerings such as food and incense and also to clean them up every year by brushing away dirt and leaves and washing them with water. This is known as ohakamairi. On the last day of the festival families light paper lanterns and set them afloat into rivers to send their ancestors’ spirits back off into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful tradition that fills Japan’s rivers at night with floating lanterns that is just surreal and serene and at times equally somber but also celebratory, remembering our family members who’ve since moved on.

Bon Lanterns.png

Obon is definitely a beautiful and wonderful time to reflect on family and to honor the people who’ve moved on. But I also think it’s an especially important time to remember to appreciate life and the moments we have, because we never know when it’s ‘ato no matsuri’. There is a Buddhist teaching that says that the most universal message the dead have to give us is that death will come for all equally. Kings, peasants, rich, poor. Obon is a surreal, magical time where the infinite divide between the living and the dead is shrunk just a little. We feel closer to the people who’ve moved on, who we miss and who were huge parts of our lives. Maybe it’s nice to think that there is this time where we might be visited by them, that they haven’t entirely left us and we can bring them home. Or maybe it’s just nice to have this festival to set aside time for us to reflect and remember them and honor their memories. But it’s also an important lesson that the best thing we can do is to live our lives fully and well, and to leave a mark on the world that our families and friends might remember in the future, so that years from now, they might light a lantern for us.

Jerel says, don’t wait until the day after the festival.

Jerel Says, ‘Remain Constant’; Amble

ETAR Entrance

‘Even as the archer loves the arrow that flies, so too does he love the bow that remains constant in his hands’

-Nigerian proverb

WHAT. A. WEEKEND. I have been riding on an archery high ever since I got back from my first ETAR (Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezous) experience. The scenery was spectacular, the people were incredible, and the shooting courses were absolutely fantastic. I had no idea what to expect last week, but ETAR completely blew me away.

First off, if you remember from the last post before I left, I shared the video that got me ETAR with Effieinterested in and started on the path of traditional archery. Among the people interviewed were a young brother and sister from north Jersey, Demetri and Effie. Well, I got to meet them! It was a completely random happenstance but basically as I was browsing the vendors tent admiring all of the high quality bows and arrows and leather quivers and braces I saw two very familiar faces. Very much uncharacteristically of me, I approached these strangers and asked if they were in fact, the same two people from that video. They were! I was ecstatic, and shared with ETAR with Effie and Raythem that it was that video and their words that got me interested in traditional archery and inspired me to make it to this festival. They were super nice and very happy to hear and offered words of encouragement. We exchanged numbers and, since the brother still shoots in north Jersey, he let me know where he usually goes (a park only fifteen minutes from my place) and hopefully sometime when we’re both free I can get out there and shoot with him!

They had just started browsing the tent and I was on my way out to finally hit the ETAR Practice Range.jpgcourses for the first time so we chatted for a bit before I headed off to the practice area just outside. I’ve really only had indoor range experience so the practice range was a necessary stop for me to get used to the new environment and setting and circumstances. That’s where I first got a real sense of just how big this festival really is. All across the back of the field you could see endless rows of campers and tents. It was like a small army had set up camp in the scenic beautiful woods of the Pennsylvania mountains. Over the weekend I’d come to meet people from NJ, NY, California, all states in between, and even people from as far away as Switzerland. There were plenty of archers just at the practice ranges, and even more ETAR Practice Archers.jpgtucked into the many gorgeous hikes carved along the park where the shooting courses were set up. I spent about a half hour getting used to the foam animal targets, figuring out where the target circles were on the bodies, and shooting from different angles not just straight down a lane, before I headed off to tackle the ten different courses.

So if you’ve never been to a 3D archery shoot, it’s very different from indoor target ETAR Bobbyarchery or even outdoor target archery. For one, the shoot is designed to mimic settings for a hunt, and the ultimate goal is to help archers practice for live hunting. So instead of round targets with painted circles, the targets are foam animals of varying size, shape, and design. Large black bears, bears on their hind legs, cubs, turkeys, bobcats, boar, deer, and even the random jackelope. Another big difference is that there are almost no regular straight shots. Since this is meant to be an outdoor natural shoot, often times you’ll either be shooting uphill or downhill, or at least from different angles. There might be small trees, brush, or bushes in the way. Fallen trees might obstruct or obscure certain parts of the animal. You only get one shot, and every target along a particular course is like a new problem to be solved. How you approach your shot, how you make your target, is between you and the woods.

Speaking of the woods, my god what an incredible setting for a shoot. Denton Hill State ETAR Solo KillPark is nestled on the northern slope of Denton Hill in the Pennsylvania wilds. Almost the entire park is canopied by trees. It was cool, shaded, and the air was crisp and clean. The paths were marked but far from worn. Some steep climbs, drops, rocks, fallen trees, every step took you further from civilization and closer to peace and calm. Sometimes I almost missed sighting a target because I was already just so content to amble through ETAR First Kill.jpg the woods admiring the scenery. Being more than just a 3D shoot, being a traditional 3D shoot, also meant there was a real natural connection to everything. It was stick and string the entire time. In the dead quiet of the forest you would hear the distinctive whoosh of wood arrows being shot from wood bows. It’s a different sound than glass or compound bows. And the satisfying thud of hitting foam let you know when an arrow found its mark. There was something deeply peaceful and almost meditative walking through the nature trails and taking a shot at each stop.

ETAR Boar Target

What really made this festival memorable though was the people. I spent the weekend ETAR Making Friends.jpgsurrounded by some of the nicest, most welcoming, generous people I’ve ever met. Demetri and Effie were great and super nice, and on my way to my first shoot I met two other guys who ended up being my shooting buddies for the entire weekend, Kevin and Bobby. They were from upstate NY and had been hunting for years, and were so generous with the advice and knowledge. In one day’s worth of shooting and chatting with them I learned more than I could have learned in an entire summer on my own. They shared great stories of past festivals, shoots from all across the country, and hunting conquests and failures. But more than just Demetri, Effie, Kevin, or Bobby, the people of ETAR are incredible. No one really has any ego, there’s no judgement. Beginner, expert, we all go into theETAR Kevin and Bobby woods together and we all shoot together. And whether you miss or hit the target dead on, we all walk into the woods to pick up our arrows together before moving on. There’s no time, no opportunity, for ego to get in the way. There are some shots that will naturally come, some we’ll struggle with, beginners will hit when experts miss.

ETAR Last Kill

I’ve made some great new friends at this festival, and I’ve learned a great deal more in terms of my archery and practice. But now both, these relationships and my skill, are going to need me to put in the constant time and effort to continue to grow and develop. I don’t want to lose these connections I’ve made with genuinely nice people, and I don’t want to forget the lessons I’ve learned that will help me hit all my targets in the future. Now, as the archer and the person, I must remain constant.

Jerel says, ‘remain constant’.

Jerel Says, ‘Aim high’; Shallow

Arrow Flight.jpg

If you would hit the mark, aim high above it. Every arrow that flies feels the pull of the Earth.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I first started getting into archery, I had no idea how many different styles of shooting and of bows there were. Obviously you’ve seen Olympic style archery with the super high-tech recurve bows shooting at 70 meters or so. Then there are the compound bows and crossbows mainly used by hunters. English style longbows, the Japanese yumi, mounted archery with short and long bows, speed shooting, trick shooting, there were tons to pick from, each with different styles and techniques and lessons.

Traditional Archer.jpg

I didn’t know which one was going to be for me. I just knew I wanted to feel a real quality bow in my hands, rely mainly on my own skill, focus, and attention and a simple bow. And I wanted to learn for practical reasons as well. Learn a style I could take into the outdoors, into the woods, and enjoy wherever I was. Then I saw this video, and not only learned about traditional archery and what it meant for the mind, the bow, and the archer, but I also learned about a huge community that was meeting almost right in my backyard. Well, five hours’ drive from my backyard but you get the idea.

So I picked up traditional archery, for much more than the shallow reasons other traditional archers warned me to stay clear of. (Don’t pick up trad archery for the Instagram pics of beautiful wooden bows or for the ego trip of saying your style is the ‘hardest’ because it uses no equipment.) I do it for the time I get to spend outdoors, the relationship I have to have with my bow, and the focus I need on the field. I’m headed off to the ETAR weekend now in Denton Hill State Park in Pennsylvania and I’ll be back after the weekend. I hope to come back with some great stories. More than about targets I may have hit, but about the people and the community and the mind-clearing soul-soothing effects of being outdoors and shooting. As Fred Bear, a famous American archer, bowyer, and author once said, ‘nothing clears a troubled mind like shooting a bow’.

Jerel says, ‘aim high’.

 

Jerel Says, ‘When hungry, eat-when tired, sleep’; Hidden

Kyudo Banner

A student once asked his teacher, ‘Master, what is Enlightenment?’

The master replied, ‘When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.’

-Zen saying

When I first started my martial arts training eighteen or so years ago, my then-teacher Zen in the Art of Archeryrecommended I should read a few books on the spiritual, mental, and philosophical aspects of martial arts. Surprisingly, a youth spent watching old, badly-synced kung fu films and practicing my ‘fist of death’ technique on clothing store mannequins tended to glaze over that part. I’ll be honest, a lot of it went right over my head at the time. I was very young and while I had an idea for why I wanted to get into martial arts in the first place, I had zero idea of what other benefits I might be able to gain, and so couldn’t really recognize them when they were right in front of me. Among the many books were two about the Japanese interpretation of Buddhist philosophy known as ZenZen in the Martial Arts and Zen in the Art of Archery. This week, in preparation for my upcoming weekend away to the Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezous, I decided to revisit Zen in the Art of Archery and see if hopefully now, I was better prepared to capture more of its valuable insights.

Zen in the Art of Archery was written by Eugen Herrigel, a German professor of philosophy, in 1948. In it he writes about his experience in Japan during the 1920s as a Eugen Herrigelvisiting professor at University of Tokyo. During his time living in Japan, Herrigel took up the ancient art of Japanese archery, known as kyudo, under the tutelage of Awa Kenzo, a renown kyudo master and teacher/philosopher of Zen. Since one of the major aspects of Zen is that for it to be fully understood one must ‘walk its path’ versus ‘learn its way’, the book doesn’t spend too much time trying to define Zen or dwell on its Awa Kenzoteachings. Rather, it reads like a journal going through the years of lessons and private conversations Herrigel had with Kenzo. It lays out the obstacles, trials, and difficulties when it came to both physical and mental blocks and the demonstrations and words Kenzo had to share to slowly, but masterfully, guide Herrigel through it all. There is a whole wealth of wisdom and insight hidden in plain sight between the sparse eighty pages of this short book. Not to betray the spirit of Zen and become too long-winded, I’ll only share my thoughts on three.

If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

This I like because it goes beyond just archery, and can be applied to any practice. A unique aspect of Japanese culture is that everything, from its food to its art, music, and even its most lethal martial disciplines, all of it stems from philosophical and spiritual roots. In this case of course we mean Buddhism, and then further Zen Buddhism. What I love then is the mindfulness characteristic of Japanese life. There is a certain beautiful minimalistic yet ritualistic rhythm to everyday Japanese life. How one enters and exits a room, prepares and enjoys a meal, and yes even how one draws a bow. In it all there is an unconscious awareness that brings with it peace and purpose. There’s a saying in Zen archery that an archer should be able to shoot without a bow or even an arrow. Kyudo ShotEventually, an archer transcends both bow and arrow to the point that his mind and body know what to do without knowing or thinking. We are often times caught up in our own thoughts, so fully aware of ourselves and our actions we can never fully inhabit the moment. Once we are aware of ourselves, we lose sight of the goal. This is a higher level than just an archer being able to hit his target. It is an archer realizing that there is no target, only himself. The best artists, chefs, performers, martial artists, they never dwell on what they are doing as they are doing it. They simply do. And it is safe then to also believe that they continue that mindfulness throughout their day, so that this Zen never actually leaves them. It’s supreme confidence, awareness, and unconscious consciousness. It’s eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, and never questioning or wondering. So in whatever we are passionate about, whatever we pursue, there are two great goals. The first is to achieve this level of Unconscious awareness, where we can do without getting lost in our own thoughts. The second is to pursue ‘artless art’, where we can apply the mindfulness and awareness to our everyday life in all aspects.

The master knows you and each of his pupils much better than we know ourselves. He reads in the souls of his pupils more than they care to admit.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

In the beginning of the book, Herrigel mentions the struggle he had trying to find a teacher willing to teach a Western student. In fact his eventual master, Kenzo, was extremely averse to the idea, having tried to teach a Western student before and had ‘such a dismal experience he regretted it ever since’. The teacher-student relationship is a significant one in both Western and Eastern cultures, although it takes a very different Karate Kid 1shape and structure. A common aspect of teacher-student relationships in the West that we often take for granted is that students are often invited, even encouraged, to ask questions of lessons and teachers. In a more traditional Eastern setting students are expected to follow a teacher’s instructions with very little question. This can be seen in say, more traditional martial arts schools where often the format is the teacher will demonstrate a certain posture, stance, or form once, twice, maybe three times if you’re really lucky, and then the students are expected to watch diligently and then do their best to recreate the motions. There are no questions, no explanations, the teacher shows as much as he sees fit and the students are expected to do a lot of their ‘learning’ on their own. While there are pros and cons to either approach, I just want to focus on the unique benefits of this particular style of instruction. First of all, for this to work we have to assume the highest in the instructor.Karate Kid 2 If we trust in the teacher, then we do not doubt ourselves. There’s no need to pressure or worry, we must simply, in the spirit of Zendo what is asked of us. Sort of like ‘wax on, wax off’. Which takes a lot of pressure off of the student and more impetus on the importance of finding a highly qualified, skilled teacher. I also appreciate it for how much it more readily lends itself to actual results-driven growth. You can’t smooth talk your way through something when you aren’t allowed to talk. Just show. Much like true Zen, mastery is not displayed in rhetoric but in practice. The right teacher will show you what you need to see when you need to see it, and the right student will understand how to grasp the lesson and apply it to practice.

The Zen adept shuns all talk of himself and his progress. Not because he thinks it immodest to talk, but because he regards it as a betrayal of Zen. Even to make up his mind to say anything about Zen itself costs him grave heart-searchings.

-Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

While I take this to heart and understand that to try and speak of Zen and explain it betrays not only the spirit of it but my own understanding of it, I am still so green to the concept that this really only probably set me back a couple months’ progress. Hopefully. The truth is, I love this because there’s something very purpose-driven in trying to Zen Circleunderstand and pursue Zen. And not just in archery, but in my martial arts, my daily mindfulness, relationships, in everything I pursue with any level of passion. And I would love to see more outside of the traditional Eastern arts try to pursue and understand Zen as well. There are two great fundamental observable truths of all the masters of Zen. The first is that there can be no denying that a Zen master carries himself with a certain level of distinct poise. In their mastery of their chosen art, but also in how that mindfulness carries through in every aspect of their life, there is an undeniable appeal to want to pursue what the master has. The second though is that inevitably, when one finds a master to help them along the way, one will find that the master has very little to say on what Zen is or, frustratingly, how to achieve it. It is a path we have to walk on our own, and the further along we go Kyudo Classthe more we realize the futility in trying to capture it for others. That’s sometimes very difficult to grasp in modern times. We like to have things readily available, and when we falter we want support, guidance, we want explanations. But Zen and its masters offer us neither, because the struggle, and the eventual resolution, are all valuable parts that are necessary to the path. They know that to expound would rob the student of valuable experience. There’s a saying that once we know, we longer do. So it is promising to think that to pursue Zen we must do in order to know. It’s a longer and more arduous path, not much suited for modern times, but it is rooted in ancient wisdom and understanding.

I don’t know how much Zen I might get this weekend, but one weekend aside, in my martial arts training, my further archery practice, my cooking, my relationships, in all aspects of life I want to master, I can continue to develop this mindfulness until, with some hope and patience, it becomes like the masters say, ‘an artless art’.

Jerel says, ‘when hungry, eat-when tired, sleep’.

Jerel Says, ‘It’s a nice place to visit’; Tea

Nordic Lodge Entrance

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

-Twilight Zone, ep. 28 ‘A Nice Place to Visit’

So there’s this great episode of Twilight Zone called ‘A Nice Place to Visit’. In it, a lifelong Twilight Zone Nice Place to Visitsmall-time crook finally has the law catch up with him after an attempted robbery, and after being shot by a cop, wakes up seemingly unharmed and in a bright white place, with a luxurious apartment, a gourmet meal, and a busy bustling casino. His guide, a mysterious figure named Pip, explains that this world was built entirely for him, and that anything and everything he could ever want would be provided for him. No one in the world is real, but they’re all meant to satisfy his every whim. He can eat whatever he wants whenever he wants, he lives in the most beautiful luxurious high end apartment, he can have any woman instantly fall in love with him, and no matter what he can never lose a single bet at the casino. Figuring this must be heaven and somehow he managed to get himself in despite how he’s lived his life, the man goes on to fully enjoy his seeming reward.

Of course, after about a month, he starts to grow bored. There’s no thrill without the possibility of loss. He no longer derives any joy from having his every whim instantly satisfied. He tires of the fake crowds, always cheering him on, always into him, always ‘on’. He tells Pip he’s tired of heaven, tired of this unsatisfying existence, and asks to be brought to ‘the other place’. And this is where and why this episode sticks out as one of my all-time favorites. This is where that signature Twilight Zone twist comes into play and you realize the horror of it all. Pip starts to laugh as the man struggled with the locked door trying to escape and says with self-satisfied glee, ‘Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!’

Ooh, that always gave me shudders. Now I was really young when I first saw that episode. Always wondered what could possibly be so wrong with getting all of your wishes to come true. How could having everything you’ve always wanted spread right in front of you be a bad thing?

Then, many many many years later, I was watching Travel Channel’s Buffet Paradise and there was a particular buffet that caught my eye because it was fairly close by in Rhode Island, and it seemed to me like the buffet straight out of my wildest dreams, serving and focusing almost solely on the things I loved the most.

So of course, on my way back home after two weeks in New England, I decided to extend the stay one extra day for personal reasons and finally take the opportunity to go to this buffet. I’d been dreaming of this place ever since I first saw the Buffet Paradise program back in 2013. I would often tell friends and family of it if the topics of New England, Rhode Island, or seafood ever came up. It was one of my goals to finally make this pilgrimage.

But it was on this journey that I finally understood the torture Valentine had to live through in A Nice Place to Visit. Because at the Nordic Lodge in Charlestown, RI you walk in thinking it’s heaven, but you crawl out feeling like hell.

Nordic Lodge Viking

Look into the cold, wooden eyes of the Devil

Words cannot describe my initial elation to finally be walking up the path to the Nordic Lodge. I couldn’t believe years of dreaming and yearning were finally about to be Nordic Lodge Lakefulfilled. The location is absolutely stunning. The restaurant is a giant wooden lodge on a beautiful stone foundation right next to a large lake. On the other side is a man made lake with a shooting fountain and the entire property includes a couple wide open acres of farmland with horses, alpacas, and sheep roaming around. If you’re thinking to yourself ‘oh this is lovely, a great setting to walk around and walk off my meal’, that’s what I thought too. You’re wrong. It’s to lull you into a sense of false security.

The inside is just as remarkable but for wholly different reasons. The Lodge looks like a

Nordic Lodge Round 1

Round 1: Prime Rib with sauteed mushrooms, shrimp and scallop scampi, 1 1/4 lb lobster

hunting lodge. There’s a stuffed grizzly in the bar area and mounted heads of various animals decorate the walls. It’s an all wood interior which is homey, comfortable, and nostalgic. The people are incredibly friendly. Everyone greets you with a smile, from the hostess who takes your money and gets you seated, the server who greets you with an all-too-knowing grin and gives you a personal tour of the layout of the buffet and knows just when to refill your iced tea without you ever having to ask, to the many buffet attendants who are all too happy to pile prime rib, lobster, crab legs, oysters, hot foods, or ice cream onto your plate.

Nordic Lodge Round 2

Round 2: 1/2 dozen oysters and king crab legs

This is not your Vegas style fly around the world smorgasbord. There are at best, maybe around twenty different dishes. But what they lack in variety they more than make up for in actual noticeable quality. All of their grilled meats are certified Black Angus beef and the prime rib is juicy, tender, and cooked to a nice medium rare with a gorgeous amount of pink. You can dress the meat however you choose, with horseradish mustard,

Nordic Lodge Round 3

Round  3: More of the same BUT with the addition of bacon wrapped sccallops

sour cream, au jus, sauteed mushrooms and onions, or more butter. The scampi is sweet, buttery, garlicky, and full of fresh plump shrimp and scallops. There are bacon wrapped scallops that are fatty, meaty, crispy, but still sweet, soft, and buttery. The lobster are bright red and hefty, full of meat and juices. There’s nothing like cracking into a fresh lobster and knowing there’s going to be a good amount of meat inside. The lobster juices (what experts and aficionados call the tamale) inside the head taste like the sea. If you’re lucky and get a female, there might even be some super sweet lobster roe inside too. The claws are meaty and the tails are plump and slide right out of the shell. The Nordic Lodge also prides itself in its raw bar, and the oysters were sweet and meaty and full of great flavor and the oyster liquor is never spilled or wasted. The crab legs, giant meaty king crab, are sweet and salty and freshly steamed and pop right out for you.

Nordic Lodge Round 4

Round 4: More than a 1/2 dozen oysters and another pile of crab

After the first bite, I was in heaven. After the first lobster, experiencing nirvana. After the first plate, convinced I was in paradise. Around the third plate I was beginning to wonder what I had actually gotten myself into. By the fourth, I knew my soul had been lured into a trap. Long distance runners will tell you about hitting ‘the wall’. A mental

Nordic Lodge Round 5

Round  5: Haagen-Dazs coffee milkshake, Haagen-Dazs butter pecan with whipped cream, strawberry topping, and crushed Oreos, lemon bars, and strawberry shortcake sandwich

barrier that threatens every runner’s resolve and could spell disaster. The mind wants to shut down and every step feels like a leap. Well, eaters have the same thing. Every small bite feels like a pound of food in your mouth. Swallowing becomes arduous. Sweet becomes sickeningly sweet. Salty becomes super salty. Textures become warped and take on sinister mental implications. By the time I made it to the dessert bar, not only had I hit the wall, but I felt like it had fallen right on top of me. But, my mind implored, it’s Haagen-Dazs! Who gets to eat all you can eat Haagen-Dazs? We should probably get some anyways. Ooh and look at all the pretty baked things! Everyone at the dessert bar funnily enough had the exact same look. A dead, thousand-yard stare just trying to look beyond the void and read the list of available Haagen-Dazs flavors and toppings. We’re all beyond the ability of standing on our own accord, leaning against the wooden counter just to make sure we don’t fall over from the sheer weight of our stomachs. We all look at each other knowing the pain we’re going through and yet we can’t help but get a scoop of ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, a spoonful of strawberry topping, and some of the baked desserts too.

This is literal and figurative hell at this point. You’re so full of food nothing makes sense anymore. You have an existential crisis in the middle of the restaurant, questioning everything you know. Suddenly all the mounted heads feel like they’re looking right at Louis CK Fullyou. Every one of the god damn staff is so god damn nice and polite and cheerful you feel sick. They’re so happy! Why are they so happy?! I’m miserable! What is going on. Stop smiling at me. You bastard, you know what you’ve done to me. I wonder if behind their smiles they take secret pleasure in causing so much pain. I just want to stumble around in pain and misery but everyone keeps greeting me and saying hello and asking how I’m doing and if I’m happy and if I’m enjoying and joking about the food and I want to wring their necks. I’m laughing and crying at the same time. I feel like all the constituent parts I’ve eaten have reassembled themselves into whole animals in my stomach. I don’t know how to walk anymore. I see more and more people coming in and Full CatI want to yell out warnings, tell them to turn back, abandon all hope ye who enter here, but all that comes out is a mighty burp that only slightly relieves the pain. I’ve never spoken in burps before but I fear I’ll never get rid of all this pressure. What was at first a gorgeous expansive property is now just a vast wasteland separating me from my only means of escape from this hell. I finally reach my car and become one with the chorus of moans and cries echoing from all the weary drivers in the lot. This buffet did what I thought wasn’t possible. What I failed to understand about that Twilight Zone episode from my youth. That you can actually be destroyed by having too much of everything you’ve ever wanted.

I am a big fan of The Twilight Zone. I love how it never tried to be explicitly, overtly scary. It was never about monsters or ghouls, ghosts or zombies, Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. Instead, it wanted to get into our heads, peel back our innermost fears, terrify us not with the extraordinary, but with the ordinary. It was pure psychological horror in TV opera form. It might not get you while you’re watching. It might not even be the subject of that night’s nightmares. But eventually, inevitably,  you’re going to feel that immeasurable dread like you, too, are caught…in the Twilight Zone.

Jerel says, ‘it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’.

Jerel Says, ‘Don’t die wondering, man’; Traditional

Water Wizz

Don’t die wondering, man.

-Duncan, The Way Way Back

New England spans the six northernmost states on the US’s east coast: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and New York and Canada to the north and west, the region is probably best known for its beautiful fall foliage, bountiful and delicious seafood, harsh winters, and one of the most distinctive regional accents in the country.

Boston Accent

But new Batman aside, I’ve always wanted to explore New England. The southernmost part of New England, Connecticut, is only a brief one and a half to two hour drive from north Jersey. As an avid seafood lover, the variety and freshness of New England’s daily catches have always allured me. And as a cold weather fan, I’m practically built not only to handle, but to thoroughly enjoy, their biting winters.

I don’t know why, then, it took me until just these past two weeks, and for work reasons, that I finally took the time to head north and visit this beautiful, scenic, fascinating New England maplandscape of people, places, and provisions. There’s something timeless to New England. It has somehow managed to avoid being tainted all these years. Often times the moment a place is hailed for having an ‘untouched charm’ is the moment it dies. Floods of tourists, opportunistic businesses, and hordes of would-be travel writers and bloggers and vloggers and every other thing wanting to be the first to ‘discover’ the place or the first to declare it officially ‘passé’ ruin everything these places stand for by trying too hard to define it. So to protect the magic of New England, I’m not going to sit here and try to wax poetic and figure out some way to capture it like no one else has. The truth is New England is one of those places you need to discover on your own, and you have to realize and respect that even in its tiny little geographical area, there are enough differences and variations to keep one interested, curious, and conscious.

The Scenery, and Getting There

I’ve already let you all know how inspired I was by some of the most beautiful stretches of driving roads I’ve ever seen all nestled and tucked into thin ribbons spread across mountains in New England. Aside from the guaranteed headache of dealing with either the George Washington Bridge on I-95 or the Tappan Zee Bridge on I-87, driving to and through New England is pretty much smooth sailing. Word of warning, get your ass out of Connecticut as quickly as possible. Sweet people. But god damn if they aren’t the worst drivers in the country. Every single one of them either wants to kill or be killed on the road, and I don’t know which is worse. Pardon the Connecticutians for they know not how they drive.

Other than that though, if you’ve got the time, get off those major interstates and soulless highways to discover the real charm of New England without even having to get out of your car. The local roads are much more peaceful, more more scenic. My second week in New England in the area around Wareham, MA the manager I was working with was New England River.jpgnice enough to give me a quick tour of the area. When I told her I had never actually made the trek to New England before and so was ignorant of the charm of say, Cape Cod, after lunch she took me on a quick drive through the area. The effect was almost immediate, and you could feel it even from the passenger side window. New England is gorgeous. Landscape and architecture, it’s all just wonderful and timeless and charming. There are vast sprawling acres of unspoiled woods. Driving in the summer I felt like I was entering into an untouched magical forest, to be spit out into a land of fairies and sprites. The trees are allowed to grow tall and wide and lean over the road and create leafy canopies, with sunbeams peeking through random pockets. In fall I can only imagine how beautiful it must be to drive through bright flashes of red and orange, to walk among crinkled fallen leaves and listen to the crunch. In winter I envision these large plains blanketed in pure blinding white. I’ve no doubt in any season, New England must have been made for aimless wanderers and roving lovers. I’ve never been one for beaches or sunscapes. My heart doesn’t jump at the sight of tropic plants or white sand beaches. I don’t have much to say about concrete jungles or crashing waves. But give me dense forests, calm clear lakes and swiftly running river waters, wooded mountain peaks, and I can feel it all in my very bones.

What man has touched in New England though is still as pure, as historic, as connected to the region’s history and traditions. Even their cities feel like towns at best. Separating New England BridgeBoston and the Greater Boston area (New England’s largest metropolitan center) most of New England feels like a collection of villages. For the most part, what you think of when you think of New England are old colonial style houses, historic wood buildings, and Main Streets, the arteries of these towns, dotted with local mom and pop shops, bars, and restaurants. Unlike other areas, New Englanders are attached to their buildings. When new roads threaten to throttle business life or cities move to match populations, so do the buildings go with them. During my little cross-the-Cape tour my tour guide pointed out just how many buildings in the area were originally from other, smaller towns sometimes even miles away. Propped up, picked up, or floated along the river to live on in new areas. Even their bridges, like the one I have here meant for trains to cross the river, look like medieval castles, contributing to that fantasy-land aesthetic.

The People and the Food

Do you know when I can tell the food is going to be good? When I see the locals making it and eating it. Oh sure, I’m no stranger to the fine dining establishments. All bougie andNew England Clam Chowder hoity-toity and all that. But when my heart and soul are hungry, I want those local, hole in the wall, favored treasures. So when I am in an area where I can tell the people are involved with their food, I know I’m in a good place. New Englanders are passionate about the food they serve. They make no great presumptions, they just state what they know is true and real. Like they know that New England clam chowder is the best clam chowder. Rich and hearty and creamy with ridiculous amounts of sweet fresh clams in each spoonful. They know that clam chowder should be thick enough to stick to your spoon but not so thick as to stick to your gut. They know all that, but they also know that you could go to five different restaurants on the same stretch of road and each one’s chowder will taste completely different, yet all so wonderful.

More than just incredible clam chowder, I can’t tell you how much lobster I’ve had these Lobster Fritterspast two weeks. I made it my goal to have lobster practically every day I was up north and by god if I didn’t damn near accomplish that goal every day. In the most unapologetic, kitschiest, most ridiculously over the top decorated seafood shack (I’m talking fishing nets on the wall and portholes for windows) I had some fantastic fried lobster fingers. Sweet plump chunks of lobster claw meat lightly battered in cornmeal dipped in melted butter. Crunchy on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. Fresh and fried. And everyone, get this. Practically every place in New England serves lobster rolls. INCLUDING MCDONALD’S. I first discovered this on my walk back to my hotel after already having a full, satisfying meal. But at $8.99 for a lobster roll, who could resist? Maybe a stronger person, but not me. So yes, on various occasions and in between hotels and store visits and meals I was having McDonald’s McDonalds Lobsterlobster rolls. I gotta tell you though, they were great. In fact, between the McDonald’s lobster rolls and the lobster rolls at Panera (I told you they all did it in New England), I have to say the McDonald’s one wins. The Panera lobster was bland and tough and the bread soggy and falling apart.  The McDonald’s lobster roll had the foresight to serve it on toasted thick baguette style bread that holds up to the lobster juices and mayo. Crisp romaine, generous amounts of large chunks of lobster, generous seasonings that didn’t overpower the rich sweetness of the lobster, and I think they did this on purpose, but the fact that there was a tiny bit of shell in my McDonald’s roll that I had to take out with my tongue kind of made it all feel…authentic? I can’t prove it, but if that was a marketing decision to convince customers of the authenticity, it worked. By the way, that Panera roll was $29!

Most of the best restaurants in the area have stories in and of themselves. When you’re entire existence relies on small town old world historic charm, it’s not surprising that the Top of the Hill Grillmost successful restaurants have been in business for generations. The wood creaks with stories. In Wareham I ate at a family restaurant that’s been open since 1948. Inside you can still sit on the old-fashioned diner stools and booths and admire the trademark red checkered linoleum floor of small town diners of the time. Around the back though is an entire addition that almost triples the size of the restaurant, with murals on the wall depicting fishermen and cranberry farmers (there are tons of cranberry bogs in the area). In Merrimack, NH I ate at the Lobster Boat, Top of the Hill Grill Viewopened in the 1980s. But perhaps the most interesting and fun place to eat for me was in Brattleboro, VT at the Top of the Hill Grill. It’s a tiny restaurant on the side of the road with open air seating overlooking woods and a lake. There are speakers playing music all night and the barbecue is simple, unassuming, but flavorful and plenty. There’s nothing like digging into some barbecue spareribs and brisket, sweet cornbread, licking barbecue sauce off your fingers as you look out into this gorgeous field.

The Setting

I’m not the only one to notice the strange magic that flows through New England. You Way Way Backfeel it when you see it in the scenery, smell it in the forest air, experience it when you walk through the towns. It’s more than just visit magic though. The charms of New England translate well to movie magic too. Some of my most favorite films have been set in different areas of New England, and I even got to visit some of those places! The Way Way Back is a coming of age story about a young boy whose family goes to Cape Cod for the summer holiday. Most of the movie takes place in water park where the boy ends up getting a job.  This is a real location. Water Wizz is touted as ‘Cape Cod’s largest and only water park’ and is located in East Wareham, MA, where I had lunch with one of the managers and did my Cape Cod tour. This is one of the best most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen about courage, love, and independence. Wes Anderson’s Romeo and Juliet-esque Moonrise Kingdom takes place on the island of New Penzance off the coast of New England. In Brattleboro, VT, where I stayed for a few nights, they shot the goth-punk cute girl samurai acid dream Sucker Punch. A Moonrise Kingdomgreat movie for pure style over any discernible substance. The Town and The Departed of course made Boston the gang capital of New England, and Jaws made everyone, not just New Englanders, afraid to jump into the water. Clearly, filmmakers, yearly flocks of tourists, and a dedicated local population are onto something.  In fact, I feel a New England movie marathon coming on. The list is endless and full of real gems. The magic of New England has not waned through the years, and honestly, I really do regret having waited so long to visit. Now I have a new area to explore and discover. In the fall I might want to take another drive up just for leisure, or in the winter I could take a cruise from New York through New England and into Canada to appreciate the winter scenery. The most important thing is, New England has always beckoned with its immeasurable charm, and if you’ve ever wondered if it was worth the trip, well I only have one thing to say.

Jerel says, ‘don’t die wondering, man’.

Jerel Says, ‘The enemy is not what we believed’; Fragrance

The Beguiled Banner

‘It seems the enemy is not what we believed.’

-Ms. Martha Farnsworth, The Beguiled

I can’t think of a guy who’s actually been in a serious relationship with a woman who still clings onto the juvenile, naive fantasy that being with more than one woman at a time could be anything but a terrible disaster. Leave those Casanova fantasies and playboy aspirations to doe-eyed dreamers and yearning youths. A man can tell you from experience, just one incredible woman can fill every one of your dreams, and it takes only one terrible one to possess your every nightmare. So what happens when a too charming for his own good, devilishly handsome Union gent finds himself under the care and supervision of a house full of Southern belles?

Well, if the modern remake of The Beguiled is any indication, first it’ll be a whole hell of a lot of mind numbing nothing. And then everything.

I never saw the original with Clint Eastwood back in the 70s, so I have nothing to say on the matter of its faithfulness to the original, or to the novel on which it was based. I am a blank slate, with no preconceived notions, letting you know what I thought of this standalone piece.

To be honest, I think very little of it. First, the strong points. I am beyond thrilled to see In BrugesColin Farrell in a film. I honestly find Colin Farrell irresistibly magnetic. Maybe I’m just another sucker for that Irish charm, but I do think Colin Farrell should have been excused much much sooner and forgiven by Hollywood for the mistakes of his past. I remember the tabloid stories and photos as he seemingly descended into a drunken, drug fueled, sex crazed rage. But I also remember how much fun the film In Bruges was because of him. I remember how kick ass he was in SWAT. I think Seven Psychopaths isn’t nearly as celebrated as it absolutely should and that’s a crime. I mean come on. You start to think back, Saving Mr Banks, Total Recall, Scrubs, Colin Farrell has been such a wonderfully charismatic and attractive pull. And it’s great to see Colin Farrell really be taken seriously in such a dramatic and intense role as the recovering Union Corporal McBurney. I hope that for whatever independent, art-house, cine-beauty attention The Beguiled received, some of it rubs off on Colin Farrell and I see him more often again, like when he was first hailed as ‘the next greatest actor in Hollywood’ in his youth.

In fact, every single performance in this slow crawl to inevitable nothingness deserves merit. Nicole Kidman is nothing short of expected perfection. She is calm, cool, calculating, and utterly reserved, as a proper Southern lady (I imagine) ought to be. BeguiledKirsten Dunst, another surprising nonentity considering her prolific repertoire, also brings a level of experience and expertise to the film. Not to be outdone, many of the younger actresses, led by the elegant and ethereal Elle Fanning, are also a great joy to watch on screen. I particularly enjoyed, and was surprised by, Addison Riecke (at only 13) for her humor and timing. If for nothing else, because you’d really be hard-pressed to find anything, The Beguiled shines as an exemplar for outstanding performances. There is real artistry and craft in every line delivered, every emotion expressed.

As such, my biggest criticism for The Beguiled is that though it is strong as performance, it’s honestly very terrible at being a film. Compared to my last rave review of Baby Driver which was almost specifically because Edgar Wright knows how to manipulate and take advantage of the unique characteristics of film, The Beguiled is just a static, dull, long drawn out smug self-satisfied expression. First off, cinematography is pretty much non-existent. The camera is almost always still, a passing thought, just a fly on the wall as action happens in front of, instead of with, the observer. Because of that, a lot of scenes Beguiled Establishedseem very boring. You as the viewer are just not engaged. It’s slow and it’s inactive. The whole thing would have worked better on a live stage versus a movie screen. With the dialogue and the performance and the performers, all of this with that live energy of seeing the action just a few feet away from you, the audience feeding off of the energy of the performers and the performers feeding off of the attention of the audience, you would have felt more engaged and enjoyed more. Instead, as I feel with most of these art-house style films, there was just too much in the movie. So many establishing shots. B roll of Southern landscapes and old plantation mansions. Portrait shots of girls doing mundane tasks. It all felt so self-indulgent. So presumptuous. Cut out all of that ego-elements, restrict it to just the dialogue and performances, and you would have had an excellent stage production.

As I’m wrestling trying to figure out if the movie should have been a play I’m also trying to figure out what’s supposed to happen in the movie. At certain times I feel like I know what’s about to happen and I like it, I’m satisfied, I think it’s smart and would make for a great film. And then the whole plot takes another left turn. At first I think the sudden appearance of an ‘object to be won’ (a clever and smart reversal of gender roles, a So Badstatement on modern sexism) can unearth some unresolved issues and tensions among the women. Could be a great psychological movie. But then the girls get jealous and possessive of the attractive young man, somaybe we have a group Misery ordeal. Trapped in a mansion and not getting any better as the girls obsess over him. Then Farrell reveals his character to be a manipulative and chauvinistic playboy, and there’s a hostage situation. So potential for a cat and mouse piece. And then sometimes in strange spatterings, the movie bothers to have a love story. It’s like being haunted by a mystery fragrance. It’s like that shame and embarrassment when you get home and smell and think to compliment your partner’s home cooking, only to find out the kitchen’s been sprayed all day by exterminators. Let me tell you, your partner isn’t going to be flattered that industrial strength killer reminds you of their cooking, and you won’t be so reluctant to trust yourself from now on either. It’s all so jumbled up and misleading, it seems the movie is not what I believed!

Overall, strong performances aren’t nearly enough to save what is to me an entirely ego-driven self-indulgent art-house attention piece. It could have benefited from a liberal amount of editing, a boost in cinematography and film style, and a more clear direction. I’m glad that the actors, skilled as they are, knew where they were headed and how to get there, because I was lost the entire way.

Jerel says, ‘the enemy is not what we believed’.

Jerel Says, ‘Love is a rebellious bird’; Edible

Carmen

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird)

Que nul ne peut apprivoiser (That none can tame)

Habanera, from George Bizet’s Carmen

LightningThere’s no warning to a lightning strike. If you’re lucky, you might feel the change in pressure in the air, the hairs on your arm standing on end, and you might at least get an idea of what’s about to happen, but there’s no anticipating it. No predicting it. And certainly no preventing it. When lightning strikes all you can really do is hang on, and know you’ll have one hell of a story afterwards.

This past Saturday, on my way to fixing my craving for some authentic Japanese soba (buckwheat noodles) at a restaurant near my home, I was struck by lightning. But instead of a bright and blinding light and electrical shock running through my body, I just ran into a small, lovely, incredibly friendly and entertaining Japanese woman.

From the parking garage to the soba restaurant is about a five minute walk crossing two very busy streets. As I’m waiting at the first one this tiny little Asian lady walks up and waits beside me. The lights change, and change again, and nothing happens for us, so she says in fluent English with a strong Japanese accent, ‘I don’t think this light works. I’m going to run for it.’ Look I have no doubt she could make the crossing no problem, but I’m not about to risk being the guy standing at the crosswalk while his Asian aunt gets run over by some unaware driver. So I pace out onto the street with her and just make sure I’m between her and traffic. We get to the second crossing and this time the light actually behaves for us and, I notice, we just keep continuing on in the same direction.

Seeing as we just survived a near-death experience and we seem to be kindred spirits on the same path for at least a little while, we strike up conversation. I forget who started talking to whom, but friendly chatter and some casual facts are shared. We both hate that the new garage is further from all the restaurants and actual main part of town. We both go into this town often but are from other areas (me from a different part of north Jersey and her from Manhattan). And we’re both right now heading to lunch.

Soba Noodle Azuma

Okay, I think as we continue walking in the same direction together and my soba restaurant comes into view, now I actually do want to know where she’s headed.

‘So where are you having lunch today?’ I ask her.

‘Oh every Saturday I like to drive here and then have lunch at this soba restaurant.’ She replies.

No way! I’m actually headed there as well!’

‘Well then, why don’t we just have lunch together?’

A bright flash. A crackle of white. A boom of thunder.

First of all, when she said she came here every Saturday, I believed her. I come to this place often enough to know it’s good food, authentic handmade soba prepared in the restaurant (which is incredibly rare), and that the owner is a charming elderly Japanese man. She not only knew of the owner, but immediately greeted, and was greeted by, him in Japanese and straight away had a table prepared for the two of  us. She greeted every member of staff personally and shared some of their details with me.

She has family in Tokyo, and she’s the only one here right now.

He used to be just a busser but look now he takes orders!

She’s going away to the University of Hawaii next week! It’s her last day here and I didn’t want to miss saying goodbye.

And to each one of them she happily joked, ‘Look! I’m taking my grandson out for lunch!’

We browse the menus, even though being the obsessive foodie that I am I’ve already studied this menu over and over for the past three days thinking about and fantasizing about my order already. I wait an appropriate amount of time to pretend like I just came to my decision. She gives me some extra Japanese tips, like which dishes were just added because of the season, and which ones are best to have during the hot or cold months. We both order and now we have a chance to really get to know each other.

Waiting at that crosswalk ten minutes ago I had no idea who this woman was, or what her story was, or how incredibly fate works in getting the right people to the right place at the right time.

Her name is Emi, Emi Peluso, and I don’t think she or I would mind putting her name out there because she’s lived a good deal of her life in the public eye to begin with. She was Shikokuborn in, and grew up on, the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Though her family was primarily Buddhist she alone converted to Catholicism at an early age because, as she said, ‘she fell in love with how beautiful little Catholic girls looked like in pictures and paintings, their hands clapped together in prayer’. She studied to be an opera singer and graduated from the Tokyo College of Music. After performing in Japan she moved to New York to continue to pursue her singing career, though this was before recordings could have preserved her performances. She told me what it was like being the third daughter among four children, all girls. She was, as she put it, ‘the forgotten one’, the rebel who had to piece her life together on her own. She was the only Catholic, the only musician, and she was the only one who left Japan, left their island of Shikoku, where they all are still. I got to hear stories of what it was like growing up in Japan, studying opera, how hard she had to work to get her parents to accept all these things that made her different. How her study and passion had led her to New York. What it was like moving to a new city not knowing a word of English, only having opera to get doors to open for her.

She told me about her family and her home, but the real spark was how much she talked about love. Two years ago her mother passed away, and her father (going strong at 99) picked up the practice of writing daily haiku (Japanese short poems) in memory of her and their love. Last year she was in Japan for his 99th and as a surprise for the family, he Frank Pelusoread aloud some of these haiku. She was so happy and animated to tell me how sweet and loving and beautiful they were, and how writing them seemed to save her father, keeping his mind sharp and his spirit strong. Her own life has also been a fascinating and beautiful story of life. Obviously this Japanese girl from Shikoku did not originally have the surname ‘Peluso’. At an audition just two months after moving to New York, while waiting for others to finish, she heard the most beautiful tenor coming out of this young, handsome, Italian-American boy from Brooklyn. With his charming smile, young good looks, shiny slicked back hair, and his love for fine-tailored Italian suits, she pegged him for a playboy. And the one main warning her mother gave her before moving to America was, ‘stay away from the playboys!’ So she did. But they both got parts in the same production and she would listen to him sing and be amazed, but they never spoke a word to each other. Until opening night, after the final curtain fell, when he came up to her with a bouquet of flowers, and said the most incredible, unbelievable thing she’d ever heard. ‘I’ve been talking about you to my family non-stop, and they’d really love to meet you’.

I died laughing. It was just so awkward, so beautiful, so romantic. They had never spoken, never went on any dates, but apparently he was so smitten with her he just kept babbling about her to his parents that they thought they were already dating. Obviously, Central Park Nightshe said no. But she did agree to go out on a date with him to get to know this ridiculous young man. On their first date he took her up to his apartment on 66th Street, walking distance from the Lincoln Center (where they would have countless dates at the opera) with an incredible view overlooking Central Park. She joked that apart from the man, she could have fallen in love just from the view. Two weeks later, she moved in with him. ‘He treated me like a princess, I felt in my heart really special and important’. Whenever they fought he would stay home with her, talking to her, consoling her, never leaving her side until she felt better. They had their wedding and honeymoon in Hawaii. For their ten year anniversary, he surprised her with a beautiful painting he had commissioned of a photo of her in her wedding dress looking out into a Hawaiian sunset.

Three years ago he passed away. They tried, but never could have any children. He was twelve years her senior and had married before, leaving behind a daughter and four grandchildren. She still lives in the same apartment, with the same view she fell in love with, surrounded by memories of the man she loved. Turns out this building was a hotbed for performers and singers of the time. Imagine my shock when I learned that some of her best friends and neighbors were the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne! She was casually listing off some of the greatest and most famous singing talents the same way I’d talk about the family who lives next door. In fact Marilyn was at her husband’s funeral, and surprised everyone there with the honor and pleasure of an impromptu performance. She sang not only for the memory of this man, but for her love of Emi and the desire to comfort her and give her something beautiful to take some of the pain away. Below is a video of Marilyn Horne singing Habanera from Carmen. This was one of her most famous roles and even according to Emi, one of her best. Since then she’s kept busy, taking French lessons in the city and occasionally meeting with old friends. But, like this Saturday could have been, most of her days are lonely, and she says that sometimes she goes whole days without saying a word to anyone.

What absolutely struck me was how memorable and how vivid their relationship was. It seemed like if I had given her the opportunity she could have gone on forever about how much she loved him and how much he loved her. Nights spent together. The good times and the bad. And it amazed me how connected she still was to the memories. Often times I see people, after experiencing loss, try to distance themselves from the reminders. Good and bad relationships alike, some people just aren’t strong enough or willing to put themselves through the process of remembering all the time. Yet here was this woman dedicated to the memory of her love. In fact she told me that this  past summer she went back to Hawaii, looked up the judge who married them, and found him again and visited him! He was 89! But she wanted to retrace the steps of their honeymoon. See familiar places and faces. Watching her mannerisms, her expressions, listening to the rise and fall of her voice, I could tell how happy she was to be sharing these stories and how much it meant to her. The same way I might talk to you about food, she would talk to you about love.

I’m never one to shy away from meeting new people, and making friends out of strangers is an important skill to have when you travel, especially alone, like I do. But I make ‘friends of the moment’. I share brief but intense bonding experiences with kindred souls at bars or wander city streets with the equally inquisitive. I relish them for what they are, personal mementos of trips, a soul connection souvenir. But there was something very different about having this completely random happenstance lunch with Emi. I wanted to learn more about this love she had. Wanted to know where a love like that could come from, grow from, and grow into. There was just so much I could learn from this story. Her life just fascinated me. Inspired me. Thrilled me. As a storyteller, there is nothing more exciting than a good story. And I knew she had plenty.

The soba we had was delicious, as always. But this was more than just an edible encounter. Between satisfying slurps of soba I was surrounded with stories. EmiAfter our lunch she took me to this Japanese bakery right around the corner. I had been coming to this restaurant for a long time and never even knew this bakery was right there. We had a few pastries and some coffee and she continued to tell me about herself. Afterwards, knowing I couldn’t let this opportunity go by, I suggested that we keep up this newfound friendship of storyteller and storytellee. We exchanged numbers, and I told her the next time she was in the area and looking to have lunch, she should let me know and I’d be more than happy to join her. She could tell me all about this love that she’d had for so many years and was very clearly enthusiastic about sharing. We even took a commemorative selfie (which I never ever take ever to begin with) to mark this new friendship. I carried the bags of pastries she bought from the cafe back to her car and we hugged and I saw her off while I continued on with the rest of my day in solitude but I had that tingling feeling. That anticipation. Like maybe I was hoping sometime in the near future, lightning could strike again. I don’t know if we might ever actually get to share another lunch. I’m not sure if we’re ever allowed more than one of these perfectly aligned moments of kismet. This random person, waiting at the same light, going to the same restaurant, with no prior connection, sharing this brilliantly illuminating experience. I’m hoping I get to hear more. Learn more. I’m hoping I made a friend.

Jerel says, ‘love is a rebellious bird’.

Jerel Says, ‘Eat the Uni’; Bumble

Sushi Banner

First or second date, I would always take a woman to a really good sushi bar and I would order uni. If she didn’t eat the uni, that relationship was pretty much over. If she’s immune to the charms of sea urchin row or unwilling to try it, there’s no hope.

-Anthony Bourdain on dating

We all have our dating quirks. Relational eccentricities that, beyond any real rhyme or reason, we still look for, or look to, in a person. Even though I’ve definitely changed, Relationship Testlearned a lot, and hopefully shifted some of my priorities and desires when it comes to relationships and the kind of person I want to be with and the reasons I would want to be with them for, I still have these dating ‘tests’ from before that I have used and will still probably always use when I’m dating someone new. Some of it makes sense to me, some of them are about matters of compatibility or the importance of sharing similar interests. Others are just there to help me feel better, more confident about a potential relationship. Now take these for what you will. Obviously I sometimes tend to speak in hyperbole. Would I really consider scrapping an entire potential relationship because a girl might ‘fail’ one or two of these tests? Of course not.

I mean…probably not.

But definitely, maybe.


Jerel’s New Relationship Dating Tests

THE SUSHI TEST

This is of course, inspired by my culinary and lifestyle role model, Anthony Bourdain. He Sushi Jumphas stated in numerous interviews and various episodes on No Reservations and Parts Unknown how important and integral sushi is to him not only in terms of food but in matters of the heart as well. I have always loved sushi, but I’ll admit I was a young naive ignorant fool compared to the master, Bourdain. I wasn’t even good enough to get a white belt in his dojo. But over the years and through extensive study and application *coughs*allyoucaneatsushibuffets*coughs* I too learned the secret ways. I learned that sushi is a finger food first and foremost. Or that sushi should be dipped fish side down into the soy sauce. And don’t you EVER, EVER, EVER let me catch you mixing the wasabi into your soy sauce. And that really great sushi is about the rice, not the fish. It’s 90% in the quality and attention and care to the type of rice and the preparation and seasoning of it.

So what’s the test? It’s part knowledge and part sense of adventure. I usually like to take a girl to a sushi restaurant on the third date. It’s a little more into the relationship than Bourdain, but then I don’t have Bourdain money, so I figure there could be other red flags worth noting before really investing in the sushi test. So by the third date, I’m Sushi Lovemaybe kind of already hoping it’s gonna work out alright. First off, it’s major negative points if I’m with someone who can look me straight in the eye and say ‘oh my god I love sushi’ and then order nothing but California rolls or shrimp tempura rolls or the absolute worst, deep fried sushi. First of all, there’s no way in hell if I want authentic genuine high quality sushi that I would take someone to a place that even has these on the menu. So if she’s searching for it when we order, I’m searching for the exit. While I would be absolutely thrilled and enamored if I found out the person I was with was just as into sushi and knew all the best pieces and ate them with confidence and style and all the right etiquette, I would be just as happy to see them at least interested and adventurous enough to try. Yes, uni would be on the menu. As well as squid, octopus, and raw scallop. Don’t lie about how much you know about sushi and at the very least be interested and open enough to try. Though I would also note, of all my past relationships, the worst have this in common: the girls did not like sushi. So yeah, it might be important that someone I want to spend a good portion of my life with should probably like my absolute favorite food.

Pass: Basic interest/knowledge in sushi or willingness to try/learn

Fail: Lying about their interest in sushi or not having any to begin with

Extra Credit: Orders the uni first and eats it all with her fingers

THE IKEA TEST

I was doing this before (500) Days of Summer! I never thought the deep dark secrets of my dating world would be plastered all over the big screen with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. The Ikea Test comes after the sushi test. This girl is now more than Ikea Fail.gifjust someone I’ve seen a couple times and want to date. This is like, girlfriend territory waters we’re not dipping our big toe in. Like the way they test their furniture, I’m going to use Ikea to stress test this relationship. It’s gonna have to last longer than 1000 open and closes. We start at the Ikea Cafe, which to me is not celebrated nearly enough for the quality of the food and the price. Great Swedish meatballs with that rich creamy gravy and mashed potatoes, sweet and tart lingonberry jam, smoked salmon with mustard and dill, and some of the best fries. Crispy crunchy crusty surfaces with soft fluffy insides. But be honest. The moment I mentioned ‘we’re going to be eating at Ikea’, how did you really feel. Because that’s what I’m gonna want to find out about the girl I’m dating. Look, anyone can take anyone to a five-star top quality first class restaurant and have a great time and enjoy the food and the company. Now I’m not saying I’m taking someone to some unmarked shady hellhole of a restaurant. It’s a bright and well lit and clean cafe with practical, affordable, yet well made Swedish furniture. And the food is good. It really is. We can even get some soft serve ice cream on our way out. They have strawberry topping too if you’d like. The point is, life isn’t always going to be top of the tops. Anyone can enjoy that. I want someone who can see beyond that, to simpler and humbler things, and not only find joy in that, but add to it too.

Then we wander and walk off our meal on the Ikea showroom floor. And we get into conversations that honestly, I don’t know why so many people in relationships avoid. They think that those uncomfortable topics like, what kind of place do you want to live Ikea Datein, what kind of family would you want, where would you want to live, etc are taboo or that they’ll scare a partner. But let me tell you, even on first dates, it’s sometimes nice to break the barrier and get to those kinds of questions because you bond sooner and because really, who the hell wants to talk about the weather, or what they think of the city. No one ended up with their lifelong partner because they both liked the weather. In fact, a dating study found that when they forced couples on first dates to ask more ‘controversial’ topics (number of sexual partners, any history of STDs, if they’ve ever been broken hearted or broken someone’s heart) by the end of the date both the questioner and the replier felt closer and more satisfied with the other person. So here is this opportunity, in a very non-threatening, non-committal, and informal manner, to jokingly but also honestly imagine what a future would look like, and ask those questions responsible people should ask of each other.

Pass: She enjoys the Ikea date in good humor, and is comfortable with the ensuring showroom communication.

Fail: Her upturned nose poo-poos the Ikea date.

Extra Credit: Not only is she so familiar with the dishes she can order them in Swedish, but on the showroom floor she names the furniture she wants us to get.

THE MOVIE TEST

Oh this is way way waaay more than ‘Netflix and chill’. No self-respecting adult should Better Off Deadever utter that phrase unironically. Now it’s obvious I’m a huge cinephile. But this isn’t about finding another film nerd, or quizzing some poor girl on movie trivia. Even I wouldn’t enjoy that. As I’ve mentioned in the past, movies are portals for our emotions, and great movies awaken the Better Off Deaddeepest and most filling and profound expressions. So to save us years of having to dig to find moments of equal emotional depth, I figure I could just have us watch certain movies and see how we (she) will react. I’d like to see how compatible our senses of humor are. Would we be able to find humor in the same things. (Good god I don’t have much, if she doesn’t find me funny I’ve got even less.) Do we share the same outlook and opinion on things like love and relationships. Do we feel emotions on similar levels, is there that sense of empathy that could help us understand each other better. We would actually have to focus and you know, watch these movies, rather than just have it playing in the background and making out.

I love a thousand movies. And in the course of  my life I’ll probably love a thousand more. But two essential must watch films for me are Better Off Dead and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both, interestingly enough, have breakups as the catalysts for the Eternal Sunshineplot. Obviously one is more humorous and the other more dramatic, but both are about how we deal with separation and how we move on in search of love and forever. They’re also both filled with absolutely stunning visuals. Eternal Sunshine has incredibly beautiful natural landscapes and scene-scapes, from the dramatic dismantling of the beach house scene to the wide beautiful sweeping shots of the beaches of Montauk and the frozen waters of the lake. The dream world scenes and the memory wipe scenes are beautiful and done so simply with minimal effects but lasting impression. Better Off Dead is visually overflowing with subplots, visual gags, and extra treats to unlock with further viewings. I remember the scene in Lane Meyer’s math class when his teacher asks everyone to take out their homework and there are a series of brief close up shots of various students bumbling about in their desks and bags. You’ve got one boy who is printing an entire thesis on an old dot-matrix printer, another girl has a metal accordion file that expands to like twenty sections of work. And you’ve got Lane (played by John Cusack) taking out a single folded piece of paper that’s stuck together with old gum and all it says is ‘do homework’. It’s visual gag overload, and there’s even a slightly creepy completely out of Eternal Sunshineleft field claymation scene with a Frankenstein-esque burger that freakishly comes to life and starts singing Van Halen. To me, both are excellent examples of their genre. Eternal Sunshine never fails to bring up these feelings of heartbreak and sadness but also nostalgia and optimism. And it evokes conversation about how we deal with loss, and what we view as the value of a relationship, regardless of it succeeds or not. Better Off Dead is so much more than just silly humor. It’s coming of age, it’s innocence, and it’s the joy and excitement of discovering new opportunities. It is also full of timeless cultural references, and I’ll always want my ‘two dollars!’

Pass: She enjoys the movies in much the same way, and I can tell we share the same sense of humor and outlook on relationships.

Fail: She falls asleep or doesn’t laugh/feel anything.

Extra Credit: She brings her own blu-ray copies.


Relationship Test 2So yeah, these are three of the relationship tests. Don’t know when my next chance to do them will be, but there they are waiting for the next soul. How did you do? Would you have passed some of these, or even gotten the extra credit? And do you have your own innocent little ‘tests’ when you date someone? I’d love to know!

Jerel says, ‘eat the uni’.