Chatter of the Squirrel – Honolulu, and a Hole in the World

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Wednesday, June 10th – How do you talk about something like this while remaining fully honest? With yourself, with the people who take the time to read you? I ran hot. I played well, but I don€™t want to claim that I attained some newfound mastery. Bloodbraid Elf was clearly the best card in the format, so we played more and better Bloodbraid Elves.

There are no words — and yet there always are.

“Trust me. It’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed—for mine is a generation that circles the globe in search of something it hasn’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation. Never resist the unfamiliar. Never fail to be polite and never outstay your welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience—and if it hurts, well, you know what? It’s probably worth it. You hope and you dream, but you never believe that something’s going to happen to you. It’s not like it works in the movies. And when it actually does, you expect it to feel more visceral, more real. I kept waiting for it to hit me.”

— Alex Garland, The Beach

When you’re waiting for the train at Tokyo-Narita International Airport, the train that links the main International Terminal to the aptly-titled Annex, the train that comes after a crowded back-room baggage-search and the clinical flashlight strobe of Swine Flu screeners buzzing with inactivity, the train that bridges no more than a minute’s walk tops across a flat level covered surface devoid of any potential traffic or inconvenience, when you’re waiting for this train, you are specially and specifically instructed not to board a certain random subset of normally-available train cars. It’s the same train you’d normally board. It pendulums between both terminals in familiar patterns, doesn’t diverge, doesn’t stop for maintenance. You watch it play forward, empty, into the building from whence it came, maybe a hundred yards away, close enough to see passengers at other boarding gate looking just as perplexed as you as they too are denied entry at random via square little digital screens and instructed to wait purposelessly for another forty-six seconds until the doors to their right greet the arrival of the next available transport.

It’s in that main terminal I’m now sitting, the sound system at the AsiaCafe BowlBowl easing a jazz cover of Garth Brooks’ ‘The Dance’ between scattered chairs and the click of chopsticks on porcelain dishes. My Singapore Chicken Rice tastes nothing like Chicken Rice in Singapore but is nevertheless well-seasoned and tender. A yellow-outlined box on my table invites me to Please Touch! Outside, a JAL 757 aligns with the tarmac, reverses, realigns, moves forward, reverses, stops. It is neither cold nor hot nor ever just so perfectly right.

Over the last two weeks I have gained maybe twelve pounds. Five of my last fifteen days have been spent entirely in airports. I have become acquainted with the non-illicit uses of pay-by-the-hour bed-and-shower hotels. Once I waited for seventy minutes outside of Louis Vuitton just to see if anyone actually buys anything from ubiquitous non-sequitur upscale International Terminal boutiques. Overwhelmingly it’s the squat toilets that remain unoccupied. Still I marvel at how actively different kinds of carpet can render themselves aesthetically uninteresting. But soon, very soon, I will be back.

To Malaysia.

But yes, a month from now, to the good ol’ U S of A. For good, I mean. Or at least good-for-the-near-future. For the next year, at least. It’s time to slow down.

Okay, look. I understand that I just Top 8ed a Pro Tour and that’s awesome and I’m still totally floored-excited, and at some point I need to talk about that. And I will. But last week I horsebacked through the Mongolian taiga, waves of snow like filled pillows bursting and gusting in horizontal densely-sheeted waves. I stood on hilltops and gazed out at the points — the in-the-geometric-sense literal one-dimensional points — where stark rock cliffs terminated the easy slopes of conifer forests like the breaking-in and entry of two competing worlds. I met presidents, artists, exiles, and people who blurred those categories beyond recognition or meaning. I fell into a broken virtuoso. And all these things are connected, intertwined, feeding off of and into one another like the sections of a symphony, and so to isolate just one would be as profane as pickling a liver in a formaldehyde jar and calling it a human being.

How do you talk about something like this while remaining fully honest? With yourself, with the people who take the time to read you? I ran hot. I played well, but I don’t want to claim that I attained some newfound mastery. Bloodbraid Elf was clearly the best card in the format, so we played more and better Bloodbraid Elves. At first I was behind, so I knew to shut my mouth, and for a day I did nothing but watch Pat play games. Cascade isn’t random if you decide not to randomly Cascade. You don’t ‘die if they cast two Blightnings,’ as everyone kept saying, if you cast an Esper Charm first. From there, I didn’t mulligan much, I won something like 2/3 of my die rolls, I didn’t punt, and I played a solid enough Limited game to squeak through at 4-2. In the Top 8 I drafted exactly the type of deck I wanted to draft and lost in five to mana flood and Obelisk without drawing Banefire once. The two games I won, my opponent’s draw was very weak. Being realistic. I know when I made the finals of GP: St. Louis people like Aten were cringing that I’d suddenly high-horse undeservedly and play the fool. I hope I’ve learned enough to dodge that insidious tendency.

On the other hand, it’s equally fallacious to create such distance between yourself and your desires that you start refusing to feel anything. Am I supposed to pretend that, since I was maybe 13, probably younger, I have literally dreamed of Top-8ing a Pro Tour? That this finish was the terminus of a whole host of narrative arcs? That it still seems surreal that, at the last Booster Draft PT Top 8 back in Kuala Lumpur, I was writing coverage? Why so much the impulse to avoid being vulnerable, to pretend that the things in life that mean something don’t mean anything, to act like we can’t care? Maybe it’s that we know, if we don’t put everything ‘in perspective,’ that someone will do it for us. That we don’t want to look silly. When they announced the Top-8 and invited the competitors to come to the front to take some details, I am sitting there drafting with Osyp and Billy and Finkel and I literally jump up and leave the draft thinking that I had to be up there on the stage. I scuttle back maybe thirty seconds later to some brittle laughs at the ‘first-timer.’ We don’t want to purport to be someone, because the people who do usually aren’t.

And yet. And yet, and yet.

So I wanted to avoid writing a “Got-there-here’s-my-wisdom” article, because that wasn’t really how it worked. At least three different times, I was asked what changed between Berlin and Honolulu or some variant thereof, and the truth is that I had no real answer. We broke the format in Berlin and we did something similar here, though an overwhelmingly majority of the credit should go to Chapin and Michael Jacob and not at all to me. Maybe the difference was that at Berlin I was literally throwing up between matches, or maybe the difference was something as simple as die-rolls, topdecks, or the opponents’ decisions to make mistakes. Maybe I actually just played better here. I don’t know what the difference is, something fundamental, if there was one at all.

I do know, though, what felt like the most important contributor to my success, and that I do want to articulate here. It’s been said before, but I am so sure now that it’s necessary — if not necessarily sufficient — for any successful competitor that I don’t know how in retrospect it hasn’t been given more time.

Before I went to Mongolia, I forwarded John Rizzo’s “Stuck in the Middle with Bruce” to Ming Holden, the author who was showing me around, as 1) an example of how to broaden the appeal of genre-writing and 2) as a piece of advice for emerging authors as a sort of caution to keep in mind. But in reading it again, it really stuck with me, not because I hadn’t heard it before, but because I wondered why it was so resonant for all of us, why it has become a classic. Because the most miraculous thing about the piece is that the proof was in the assertion. It doesn’t lay forward a system of step-by-step terms that show, in some cases, why Bruce systemically rears his head. It simply asserts that he does, and yet, in the wake of the piece, everyone was left nodding their heads and identifying. It felt somehow totally correct.

It might surprise some of you that Honolulu was by no means my first Pro Tour hot streak. In fact, I’ve started out 4-0 or better no fewer than six times: Valencia, Atlanta, Charleston, Hollywood, Berlin, and then again this past weekend. Yet the pattern has gone that the first loss buckles me and I almost always lose two or even three straight from that point. In fact, in my most successful finishes prior to this one, I basically scatter-stepped into a top-fifty finish by maintaining more or less a two-to-one ratio with some positive variance every four or so matches. When I started to go on a hot streak, it seemed I inevitably crashed and burned.

You can imagine, then, that sitting at 8-0 after Day 1, I was terrified that the train would derail. And sure enough. After a good match against Kibler, pairings against fellow Top-8 competitors Tom Ross and Kazuya Mitamura — hard-fought 2-1 battles, both close — left me with two straight zeros on the results sheet. Fortunately, Constructed was coming back around, and when my opponent (Conley Woods whom I’ve played several times before) led with an early Ancient Ziggurat, I was feeling pretty confident. Our testing against the Specter deck leaned heavily in our favor. But he broke past my walls with Naya Charm, and in the second game, he just flatlined me past a bad mana draw, and suddenly I was sitting at 9-3, sort of nodding my head to myself that yep, this was it, it was happening again.

It was here I made my best decision of the tournament.

Y’all may have seen the writing on my hand where I abbreviated to remind myself “Focus on What You’re Doing Right Now” — some words of wisdom from the one and only Patrick Chapin. And before every single game, I would do something I would highly recommend to anyone from here on out: I sat and focused and thought about every card in my deck, how it interacted with the format’s common threats, what could be done to surprise me. Would remind myself that I couldn’t sit too safe behind Wall of Denial with a Thrinax on the table because they could always Terminate their own creature. Would force myself to always consider Esper Charm as both a draw and a discard spell. Would go through a bunch of hypothetical attacks to avoid on-board tricks, Exalted triggers, and the format’s common instant-speed methods of interaction, as would be presented by hosts of different decks. These exercises got my mind where it needed to be, kept me focused on the match I was playing at the time.

But after loss number three, the focus got replaced by narrative. The oh-it’s-happening-again. The so-familiar struggle to try and understand myself and my own mind. The wondering why I didn’t have it in me. The what was wrong with me, anyway? And I felt these questions looming, I felt their seductive allure. But I resolved to myself right before match number one, sitting outside the waterfall-sculpture that flanked the Convention Hall, that whatever happened in this tournament, I would not make excuses. That I would evaluate everything honestly. And the truth in this instance was that it was me, not the universe, who was creating this narrative, and it was me who insisted upon making it true at all costs.

So I got up from my chair after signing a match slip. I looked at the clock. It said there were thirty-seven minutes, fifty-six seconds left in the round. I noted that number exactly. I began to exit the event hall. Maybe once or twice on my way out, I paused to ask a friend about his record, his deck, his standing. Never did I quit moving. Exiting the Convention Center’s main door, I eyed a crosswalk and, without pausing, I proceeded to the street as the light changed. Across from me was a decent-looking Japanese restaurant, and even though I’d eaten lunch, there was something about the place that looked peaceful. Entering through the front door now, which was really more of a screen, I heard the horizontal yellow hum of plucked string instruments. A waitress sat me down and smiled. I ordered a spicy tuna roll and a bottle of hot house sake. I ate the tuna roll. I drank the sake. I took in the music and the atmosphere and the blood-red window-drapes and the play of shadow across the tables’ draped silk centerpieces, and as I became fixated upon my own breathing and the relationship between the sound of my own inflating lungs and the restaurant’s curtain of competing noises, I realized that I wouldn’t lose another match.

I allowed it to stop being about me and start being about the game, how I could play it, what I could do. I focused on what I was doing right now. I allowed myself to win. I refused to be afraid of the vulnerability that success implies. I allowed myself to be hurt, to be crushed even, by the possibility of impending loss. Only then could the competing possibility be realized.

We owe it to ourselves to care, to be invested. Life is more than just a paper shadow. We live in moving moments, infinite stretches of now, and to embrace those moments rather than distance ourselves from them is, I think, how we generate the courage to find meaning in things. And if not that meaning, if not the games themselves, then the afterwards sharing a beer on the beach with Cedric or karaoke with Tim until the morning’s littlest hours or seeing Juza’s addled birthday-celebration or hearing Paul re-tell his own personal battle with a certain coral reef — if not the meaning of those cut gemstone moments, well. Well.

“I still believe in paradise, but now I know it’s not some place you can search for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s about how you feel for a moment in your life. And when you find that moment — it lasts forever.”