2018: A Year Well-Lived?

Retrospective time. Inventory-taking and all that.

So, 2018 was wild. I don’t think I’d be making an overstatement to say it has been the best year of my life thus far, even though I spent the majority of it on the verge of being any combination of completely broke, overworked, and stressed. But these were minor setbacks. I traveled, I read, I studied, I goofed. Then did it all again. So, as I sit here thinking about all I did in the past 365 days, let’s get down a few of the most memorable this and thats. Not necessarily the bests of the year, but the ones that popped into my head first while thinking back on it.

The Places:

Travel happened. This year I was fortunate to spend time in nine different countries spanning from the Far East to the Far North.

Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan:

Quite simply, my visit to Tokyo was a dream come true. And, choosing a single place in the city as my favorite is quite a task. In the twenty or so days I spent in the Tokyo area, I visited all the major neighborhoods, and even got to see a couple on the outskirts (like the sleepy, but oh-so-cozy Naka-Meguro).

But Akihabara, also known as electric town, was surreal. There are high-rises filled with nothing but claw crane and arcade games, the din within is a slur of beeps and baps and clinks as 100-yen coins go down the slots in hope of achieving that high score or finally getting that Sword Art Online figurine to fall down the chute.

Likewise, you’ll stroll past five-story sex shops. Libraries of more hentai that you thought could exist. Entire floors that are filled with such depravity that one or the other gender isn’t allowed to enter.

Despite all the lights and glitz, there was something primal about Akihabara. An entire neighborhood devoted to satiating basic desires. Whether it is the need for companionship and attention lavished on you at a maid or butler café, the satisfying pulse of shredding at Guitar Hero knockoffs, or the buxom anime characters lining the walls of a video-game establishment. The town is a glimpse into the subconscious mind, a peak at what we all might desire, but only Akihabara is bold enough to put it on shameless display.

Unfortunately, I was too swept away by it all to take any photos worth sharing. Google it, you’ll see what it’s about.

Avakas Gorge, Cyprus:

Another tough choice. Cyprus in winter was exactly the break I needed from the bleak, busy atmosphere of Moscow in December. The tiny island in the eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea was full of sights and views and the remains of once-great civilizations. The ruins at Ancient Kourion gave me chills, the Tombs of the Kings in Paphos were a pleasant reminder of my own mortality, and the crisp air at the peak of Mount Olympus in the Troodos mountains all will stand in my memory for years.

But the cool damp of the Avakas Gorge was that good good. Stone walls rising on either side to a sliver of blue sky, hopping from one slick rock to another, the background conversation of the river’s timeless flow…all of it together made for a hike suffused with a sense of peace and agelessness.

Old Tallinn, Estonia:

Quite simply, I am a sucker for anything that has a tinge of fantasy to it. I religiously rewatch The Lord of the Rings extended editions almost biannually. I drink coffee from a clay mug. I go to Renaissance Faires. I spend sizeable portions of my paycheck on the works of Brandon Sanderson.

Old Tallinn in Estonia was a pocket of medieval life in an otherwise modern city. There were shops that sold handmade bits and bobs. From one of which I purchased a bar of tar-infused soap that has become the main reason I take showers. Then there is the Three Dragons Pub.

You hunch under the arched entrance to find a dimly-lit interior, a few candles on the walls and tables providing the only illumination, shadows flickering across the stone walls. You spot a corner that is oddly reminiscent of the one in which Aragorn (then referred to as Strider) sat at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, wreathed in smoke and mystery. You order wine poured from a skin flask and a bowl of soup. There are no spoons. You spear a pickle from a huge barrel and sit down in the pleasing gloom. Sip the red wine, slurp the salted meat from the soup, pull out a notebook, and start writing.

For a few hours you are somewhere else. Electricity is but madman’s dream. Horseless carriages naught but nonsense.

A flight of fancy indeed, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Oh, and try the pepper schnapps at the Olde Hansa Shoppe. Let the proprietor advise you how to drink it in the traditional way.

Disappointment: Riga, Latvia

While Riga, Latvia did have an Old Town section as well, and it was quite pleasant in its own way, I found very little memorable about the city overall. I enjoyed my time there, but was glad it lasted only a week. Saw a nice sunset over the river. Partook of a calm but rainy walk on the beach at Jurmala. Witnessed an incident with a pigeon in a café wherein it nearly pooped on my computer. But overall, a lackluster city.

The Video Games:

I bought a Switch this year. And I love that little guy. Also, finally got a TV so I can get jamming again on the Playstation. The games below didn’t all come out this year, but they were the ones I played.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)

Pretty much all I can say about this game is that what others have said about it is true. It has the wonder of exploration. A perfectly minimalist sound score. An art style reminiscent of Studio Ghibli. And on top of all that, it is actually fun.

Part of the appeal of the game is that you have so much room to go about it in your own way. You can go through the game, ticking off tasks and fighting with an effective glaze over your eyes. Or you can mess with the physics engine, launching boulders at enemies from yards away. I spent hours just figuring out what the limits were. And there are very few.

Beautiful. Immense. Genius.

Hollow Knight (Nintendo Switch)

No getting around it: this is a ‘Dark-Souls-But’ game. That is, it is Dark Souls, but presented as a 2-D side-scroller, and instead of a cursed human, you are a bug. So far so good. The atmosphere is oppressive and dark, and as such I found myself playing it sparingly with periods of rest between. It is heavy. You feel the weight of the world in which it takes place, the sense of hopelessness and madness that warps around some of the NPCs. But within it all is a game made with care and attention. One that presents a genuine challenge balanced with reward.

Undertale (PS4)

I’ll admit it. I accidentally killed Toriel. And I felt like a total ass afterward. I reloaded my last save point, and that was when I first realized that this game’s simple appearance was a deception. Despite having a visual render that hasn’t been present since floppy disks were still a viable means of storage, Undertale was one of the most unique and complex games I’ve played. There are so many secrets and hidden gems placed throughout the game, little things that developer Toby Fox came up with that make the game a modern day treasure hunt.

Oooh, and there is humor. Clever, witty, bizarre. Quirky in a way that Portlandia could only dream of being.  And that soundtrack. Bam. It hits you with the adrenaline, then with the groove, then in the feels. My alarm is set to one of the songs and thanks to it, I generally wake up less grouchy than usual.

Don’t trust flowers.

Disappointment: Dark Souls: Remastered (Nintendo Switch)

I picked up a copy of this for the Switch as soon as it was available in Russia. Though I’ve played the game before, the promise of Dark Souls on the go was too tempting. The game was fun, just like I expected…the only problem was, it was the game I remembered. Clunky rolls, buggy spots, AI that tweeks out at times. What exactly was remastered? A floor texture? Smough’s armpit shadow?

I still played the entire thing, and will come back for an NG or two, but dammit. This felt more like a redeployment than a remaster.

But hey, now I can play it while on the metro.

The Films

Was only going to include films I saw in cinema, but the I remembered The Endless and decided to sneak it into my list as well.

Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse directed by Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman

This was a good year for those of us who like grown men and women running around in spandex. We got the big boy, Avengers: Infinity War, which gave us a completely mad and totally misled villain who was also sympathetic. We got Black Panther with T’Challa bopping baddies to a heavy-hitting soundtrack. We got Deadpool being torn in half by the Juggernaut. We got animated Batman as a ninja and a Victorian steampunk shadow of justice. We got Venom

Uh…and Ant Man and the Wasp (still never going to watch Ant Man movies, sorry Paul Rudd, I just don’t like you). Then to top it all off, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse comes along for Christmas with animation that was beyond fresh. A story that yanked on all the emotions. A decent soundtrack. Hell, it was a fun movie.

All too often, “fun” is interpreted by studios as more explosions, more battles, bigger bad guys. Spiderverse knows what make something fun. Yes, there is action, but it is painstakingly animated in a unique style. There are high-stakes, but none of the wanton destruction that made something like Man of Steel leave you numb. A big, bad villain, but one who is (much like Thanos) momentarily sympathetic.

The pig Spiderman was a bit much though. But I’ll forgive it, since somehow even Peter Porker smuggled in a few clever bits of humor.

The Endless directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

You can tell this is an indie movie right away. The acting, while still good, is just slightly off. But the story gripped me from the beginning, and didn’t let go as it dragged me into a dark and disturbing world. Genuinely spooky and mystifying, I welcomed the spiral into the world conjured by Benson and Moorhead. Your heart will jump, your mind spin, you gut clench. Good stuff.

A Quiet Place directed by John Krasinski

Jim from The Office directing and starring in a horror film. Okay, I’ll give it a shot. I saw the film after a long day at a Renaissance Faire, and figured it was a decent occasion to partake of the recently legalized marijuana. Nowadays, I rarely smoke, so the effect was immediate and intense. I spent the next hour and a half breathing at a rate of about one breath a minute. I’d inhale, hold it as the suspense built in the film, wary of making a sound, adhering to the same strictures of silence a the films protagonists. Then eventually I’d remember that I could use some fresh oxygen.

Being stoned aside, the film proved a strong directorial debut for Krasinski that avoided the dullness that can easily plague films of the genre. Unique premise, rad acting, creepy monsters. All check out just great.

Disappointment: Mortal Engines directed by Christian Rivers

Since The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has been consistent in evoking disappointment. The Hobbit films were an endless video game cutscene (and I’ll never forgive him for making Sir Ian McKellen cry on set). King Kong was fun as a teen, but tedious and overlong when I gave it a rewatch. The Lovely Bones…couldn’t be bothered to even download it. I went into this film expecting the same as soon as I saw his name attached (as a producer this time around). I only gave it a shot because the ticket was the equivalent of $3 and the cinema let you drink beer. Not even the beer could save this. For the first time in my life, I walked out of a film.

It was messy. It was predictable. It wasted the talent of Hugo Weaving. No dice, cowboy. Fun concept, terrible film. Finished my beer and went home.

The Books:

Managed to get just about fifty books under my belt this year. Two less than I had been hoping for, but still enough to keep my brain whirling the whole year.

Reality is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli:

reality is not what it seems

Loop quantum gravity explained with care, enthusiasm, and clarity. No prior knowledge of physics or science really needed to enjoy this work, though some familiarity with the terms and topics will make it a lighter read. Wrote a full review on it here.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson:

words of radiance brandon sanderson

Second book of The Stormlight Archive series. Improves on the first. 1000+ pages. Epic fantasy at its finest. Wrote a full review on it here.

Some Prefer Nettles by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki:

I found this book for a decent price in the massive bookstore near Lubyanka one drowsy Moscow evening. The cover art got my attention and I went home with it. A couple hours later I had realized that Tanizaki is a master of subtlety and ambiguity. He wields these tools with a master’s grace to construct a story that was compelling and murky at the same time.

Disappointment: The Cloven by B. Catling:

I didn’t even finish the final installment in Catling’s Vorrh trilogy. The first book was a wave of poetic prose that was almost painful to read, but proved rewarding in the end. The second one calmed down the words a bit, and got some things happening. The third…I snoozed. Still, may revisit it someday. The cover art is still dope.

The Experiences:

The knowing of the thing is in the doing. So I did some things.

Sulfur Baths (Tbilisi, Georgia)

I felt good when I stepped out of the baths onto the street. Goooood. Euphoric in a way. I walked with my coat unbuttoned and an inner warmth that didn’t seem to fade. But before that moment, I was in the sulfur cloud of the underground baths for which Tbilisi was named. A fog of impenetrable steam that curled around the bodies of the dozen or so other naked men. A slightly eggy smell plastered in my nostrils. Sweat oozing from every part of me. Blue and while tiles lining the domed roof in a gentle mosaic pattern. Welcome to the public sulfur bath experience. Less than $10 for a solid hour of purifying, sweltering heat. No privacy. Just you, natural sulfur spring water, flimsy flip flops, a bar of soap, and grunting middle-aged men.

Exit the room. Towel off and throw on some clothes. Up the stairs, out the door.

And then I felt damn high.

Renaissance Pleasure Faire (City of Industry, California)

I mentioned I like fantasy things. And this event is about as fantasy as real life can get on this side of psychosis. This year I attended the escapism jubilee twice and spent way more money than I should have on beer and soap. Thankfully I befriended the folks at the javelin toss station and was rewarded with free unlimited tosses during the non-peak hours. Then I managed to hitchhike a ride with some shoe sellers from the fairgrounds to a metro station. Finished the both days with a solid layer of dust all over me. Pleasure.

Beat Saber VR (Нереальное место aka Unreal Place, Moscow, Russia)

Moscow has introduced me to a number of things. One of them being virtual reality. After trying my hand at creation in some VR art studio, I stopped by another place, but there the focus was on games. After trying a climbing simulator that left me nauseous, I had a go at Beat Saber. An hour later I was covered in sweat and grinning. The game is simple. You have two lightsabers, blocks come at you in time with the beat of a song, you slice those bad boys like no tomorrow. Think Dance Dance Revolution, but with fucking lightsabers.

And…

There. Inventory taken. So much more happened, but I’m a couple hours into writing this already and will call it a day…or a year. Another orbit around the sun complete. Bowling forward into another one at 30 kilometers every second.