The Fifth America

Life Strikes Back

December 18, 2021

We made it. We got through the wilderness of the first. The treachery of the second. The danger of the third, the rot of the fourth, and how we are here. At the Fifth America.

The Fifth America is an upscale shopping mall.*

Been a little bit, huh? I haven’t written anything here in a while. America is still here, if you didn’t know. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought otherwise.
If you somehow only keep up with my life through these blogs (uh, hit me up, I don’t know who you are!), I did indeed go back to Denmark for a month as I was longing for last time, and I have now been living in Santa Clara for 4 months.
School kicked back into full gear and, honestly?

…It’s been pretty good.


We've hit the pseudo-no-lockdown stage of “everything is generally open you just gotta wear masks indoors and please use hand-sanitizer and be nice about it”. So campus is open again. Classes in physical locations! With people! That have bodies below their chest! And they can move around you and gesture and draw on whiteboards! In front of you!
I was also taking a class on the main campus in Santa Cruz and, despite the long-as-hell travel time and getting up at 6 in the morning, it was awesome to be there when there were people.
My first day down there happened to be the first official day of school for all the new students, so campus was bustling. Alive. There were students who were excited about being there, going to classes and hanging around in the nice weather on benches, doing homework in between the trees.
It was, honestly, the very first time ever since I got here a year ago, I truly felt like a student among other students again. Going to get lunch and sitting in a lab with other folks, chatting about their classes and life. Just, being around people, as they went on their daily activities. Wild how enriching that can feel.

This one doesn't have the most people in it, but uh, it's a big campus, okay? There WERE people.

Thursday was my day at the main campus, a little retreat to the forest, to be enlightened and enriched.
And that’s not to say everything up in Santa Clara is bad! Campus up here, while not as big or as bustling with freshmen, still has people. We got a decently growing PhD pen with 6-10 students (depending whether you count everyone or those who show up regularly), and that’s also been great to be around other people as well. There are also games master students at the campus who are making cool games, and it's been really nice to see other people's work around me. I have a desk with stuff and a wall I can put things on! That’s not at home.

It’s been really nice to have a commute again. I got something as un-american as a bicycle, and the 20 minutes ride back and forth has been great. There’s an Amazing climbing gym a detour away from that commute, too, so I’ve picked up doing regular climbing again, which has been amazing. And even learned to belay and top-rope because there’s other people up here who climb, so I can go up mountains in theory? We’ll see, hopefully that happens sometime in the new year.


I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t really been writing or felt pushed to write. Things have just been going, and going well.
It is sometimes a sad truth that there’s less to write about when you’re happy. Not always (I do have a Stuff of the Year coming up for 2021 as well and those things are exclusively positive, but also, uh, at the end of the year lol), but I can feel less compelled to write when I am content. When there’s nothing to work through. Nothing to get out. That can be elation, or sorrow, but when things are “just going well” you feel neither.
I’ve also been busy, which doesn’t help either. Idleness can circumvent that, tear into contentness like a nest of ants hollowing out a cake. But when you’re busy, the cake is always moving (what is this metaphor).

I went up to Alameda (a little island next to San Francisco (no, not that island)) over Thanksgiving to visit some friends. It's nice up there!

I now live in San Jose (in general, Santa Clara, specifically, but it’s in the San Jose area), and it is decidedly… less interesting than Santa Cruz. Or elsewhere I’ve lived. It is a weird mix of high-tech industrial complexes and suburbia as far as the eye can see, with roads stretched even wider and even broader, for even more cars, than elsewhere in California. It is the most California you will get for your buck. Santa Cruz was American, sure, but it was walkable. I could walk 20 minutes and be in downtown, another 15 and be on the beach. Here, I walk 25 minutes and I’m at the nearest supermarket.
This place is designed for cars, in all ways.

So, I got a bike!
Makes perfect sense, no?

No, actually, it does help tremendously. That 25-minute walk is now a 10-minute bike ride. Distances aren’t gone but they’re collapsed enough that they’re approachable. Workable in a daily schedule. The roads aren’t the most bikeable, though, and google maps often wants you to bike on a tiny sliver of asphalt next to 3-4 lane freeways which I Am Not Doing, so you have to get a little creative, but once you search a bit, there are actually roads that have dedicated bike lanes, and even a bike trail I can take a good part of my way to campus.
I still feel like an outsider on my bike, I see around 1-2 other bikers on every trip, but hey, it works.

I was looking into getting a car, before realizing they are horribly expensive right now because of the shortages and that I could actually manage daily life without one (something I was unsure of). But any time I have to do something slightly esoteric or special, that’s a 20 minute bike-ride, minimum. It doesn’t help either that we are living right in the middle of the middle of a big suburban area, which does mean that it is very quiet and safe here, but also, very far away from everything.

However, it is not all bad, because that that nearest supermarket I mentioned? It is right next to another supermarket, and that is a Korean supermarket. Just a full-on, full-America-sized supermarket, just in Korean. With Korean local shoppers who speak more Korean, or other Asian languages, than English.
It is like that Korean restaurant I mentioned last time, only, uh, it’s an entire, huge building.
I have been experimenting way more with Korean cooking than I already was because of this. It is so easy. It is literally the same distance away as any other supermarket. Of course, you can’t get everything there (they don’t know what bread is, for example), but reversely you can get Gochujang, and frozen Udon noodles, and Korean pears, and rice cakes, and so many other things I didn’t know existed before now.

I don't have any pictures of Korean food, but I DO have this picture of a Japanese Arcade in an American Mall, which is both as San Jose as you get but also really cool. Haven't seen these Arcade machines since I was in Japan, it was awesome :D

And now, as we’re heading into The Great Omikron Winter, and the world is looking no less dire than it did a year ago, just with less restrictions overall, we are coming to terms with the fact that this is our life now.
Stuff’s hard to get. Masks are eternal. Fire season came and went and will come again. The tornadoes will get worse.
This is less of a resignation and more of a reality check. This is just where we are.
Christmas will be nice. I hope. On the pendulum of recurring events, it sure is more enticing than fire season.
We've actually got a decent chunk of rain already! Two instances of big "atmospheric rivers" (as they're apparently called here) with a good solid 2 days of rain. Let's hope it keeps up throughout the winter.

I’m (somehow) already in my second year of my PhD. I have to start nailing down what I want to spend the next 3 years on. Which is a big decision that will require some thinking. Some very honest, partly terrifying thinking, knowing that I am going to shut down options by focusing on others. The kind of decisions that feels bad to make. The kind of decision where every option is potential, probable, feels fruitful.
A very direct contrast to how the rest of the world feels, just, an increasingly narrowing of options, an increasing dread as we realize we do not have any (good) choices.

In here, in my little academic bubble, I have the power to choose, for 3 years, what I’m doing. That choice feels powerful and immense. Difficult, sure, but also enriching, empowering, engulfing.
How do you choose when every option is just as enticing as the next, when each one holds something you want to explore? I don’t know yet! I’ll hopefully find out. By the time I get around to writing the Sixth American Story I might already have chosen. At least temporarily.
Because it can always change. I know that. Choices aren’t meant to persist. They decay, shapeshift, morph into other beings. I can change my mind, but I also have to choose now. I have to choose now. I have to choose now. I have to choose now. I say, repeating it over and over, hitting Ctrl+S to save this document too many times, making me believe it. Manifesting it in the world, as real as I can make it with words.

That's all I can do. Try to make impossible things real. That's what life is. And life's here right now. It never really left, even though it sure felt like it at times. But, enough messing around, life's here to stay. At least for a couple years more. Need to make of it what I can.

*It is! I don't make the rules!
Ok, so to briefly explain, I stumbled into this place when I went to get my booster vaccine shot, which took me on a longer-than-anticipated trip down to an upscale shopping street and mall which was quite the strange shift from the brown-and-green suburbia that is everywhere else here. I guess all the rich people who earn money from the tech companies need to spend it somewhere.