The Dodge Game, Corvettes, and Personal Validation

During my 6th grade year my family took a lot of road trips. And by a lot of road trips, I mean that almost every weekend we were driving to a different city in the American Midwest to accompany my dad on his church visits. Each trip was usually over 50 miles one-way, so, for my brother and me, two rambunctious elementary-aged boys, that usually amounted to between two to five (and sometimes upwards of ten) hours of sitting in the back seat of a car every single weekend. Pestering our parents about our geographic proximity to our destination was quashed rather quickly, so we had to find other ways to pass the time. Car bingo (red Mercedes! Bingo!) and punch-buggying got old pretty fast, which led my brother, in a rare stroke of fourth-grade brilliance, to create the Dodge Game.

The basic idea was pretty simple and allowed anyone who wanted to play to catch on rather quickly. My brother had decided that Dodge Ram trucks were Cool, Dodge Dakota pickups were Really Cool, and the Dodge Durango SUV was Super Cool, so he assigned point values to the sighting of each car - Ram +1, Dakota +2, and Durango +3.

This game kept us occupied for several weekends, each of which was passed with pen and pencil in hand and eyes peeled. The game abruptly (and sadly) came to an end, when, while traveling alone with my dad, we passed a Dodge dealership. I returned home trumpeting my “insurmountable and decisive victory”, to which T.J., while no doubt initially disappointed, kept his composure and resolutely informed me that 1) the game was already over, and 2) Dodges were never that cool.

Well, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but it was pretty close.

I was left to my own devices, but soon recovered and went lusting after Chevy Corvettes because, when you’re eleven, they are pretty much the coolest car around, regardless of year or body style. Before long I had a mental picture book of every Corvette I had seen, and enjoyed calling our the year of every Corvette that sped past. This was a win-win-win situation for me, because I got to feast my eyes on fast cars, yell, and sound knowledgeable about things on which no one would take the time to challenge me, all at the same time.

This (annoying) hobby, though, had another function. It wasn’t just about keeping track of all the cool-looking cars I saw. It was also my way of affirming my American-ness. If spotting cars was cool, then spotting the quintessential American car topped everything else on the road. With each additional Corvette I spotted, I felt more American. I felt that my participation in identifying a cultural icon somehow validated my blond hair and white skin.

I look back at this now and think, “What was the goal I was aiming to fulfill? What did I think this activity would solve.” But that is the wrong question. If fact, that question is unanswerable because the activity of spotting Corvettes, to me as a scrawny sixth-grader, was self-fulfilling. Corvette-spotting made me feel like I belonged. There was certainly some “If I spot one more then I am 5% more American.” type of thinking going on, though one wonders what would happen once I spotted Corvette #25. Maybe I would’ve tattooed a barbed-wire ring around my biceps and or eaten a whole apple pie without chewing it. Who knows. But the point stands that I still felt that I had to, for some reason, validate my whiteness. I could have listened up and piped down, and probably fit in in America and done just fine. Instead I spoke up and acted out.

The Dodge Game turned me on to a preadolescent need that I didn’t know I had. Spotting cars may have been good for my short-term self-esteem, but it certainly didn’t help me realize what the underlying problem was. It was a quick fix, and, like most quick fixes, it didn’t last. I didn’t need validation of my being; I needed reinforcement that who I was, a multicultural kid, was OK and acceptable.

So who’s at fault? I mean, there has to be someone to blame, right? Perhaps, but I can’t think of anyone. Maybe the whole system of missionary home assignment is to blame. Maybe my peers or neighbors are to blame. Maybe God just put me in a strange situation. Whatever the reason, I’m OK with it, because it made me who I am now, a man who knows that personal validation isn’t something that things, places, or even people can give you.


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How I Relate to Movies And Why I Watch Them

I watched a movie called Blue Velvet the other night. Before that, I watched The Fountain. And, sometime this week, it is likely that I will watch both Cool Hand Luke and Intacto. All this movie watching is admittedly unlike me, for I rarely watch movies these days. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about that - “that” being why I do or do not watch movies. To me, watching movies is a form of cultural study; a medium through which I can forge links to friends and society in general.

I don’t relate to people or life through movies. I imagine that this has more to do with me not watching a lot of TV/movies as a kid and less to do with some lack of cognitive functioning, but I could be wrong. I’ll try to explain. When I watch a movie, I do so either because A) Friends/family/other people are watching it or B) So that I can have knowledge of what others are talking about or referring to or, in the rare case of C) I am re-watching a movie that I enjoy.

I treat movies as a sort of social capital, a way of furthering myself socially through acquisition of shared experience. I don’t really watch movies to think about how the story affects or mirrors my life or how it is a symbol of some relationship present in society or whether or not it was made to make a political statement. I don’t care. I watch a movie to get the plot and the main ideas, and to get an idea of whether I like it or not. I watch movies so that when someone say, “Hey did you see that wicked awesome scene in so-and-so?”, I can reply with “Yeah, but I thought it was too much like the scene in blanky-blank.” I watch movies to talk about them.

The funny thing is that I can trace back to the exact point in my life when I started doing this. It was April 17th, Monday, I was in seventh grade, and I had just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark the weekend before. I thought it was a good movie and was all excited to tell people about it, so at school that day, I went up to a kid named Bob, who I thought was pretty cool, and said, “Hey, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark the other day. Have you seen it?”

“Pssh, YES,” he scoffed in an eight-grade-cool, almost as if he were offended that I had even entertained the thought that he had not seen it.

“OK, cool,” I said, and that was the end of the conversation.

But that stuck with me. That five second conversation taught me, however inaccurately, that every cool American kid had seen way more movies than I had, and I needed to get on the ball. I needed to play a lot of catch-up if I wanted to be cool, and man, did I ever want to be cool. I clearly needed to watch more movies, and since I didn’t have any precedent for the movie-watching experience, I made up my own. I became comfortable with watching movies alone. After all, I needed to catch up, right? And I couldn’t afford to wait for social situations where I could watch movies with others; I needed to watch them as fast as I could.

I began with renting VHS tapes from my local library. Or, more specifically, watching VHS tapes at the library audio-visual booths. See, Japan is really lax on media regulations, which meant that I, as a twelve-year-old, could rent R-rated American movies (in English, with JP subtitles) from the library as often as I wanted to. I did this relatively often, and the movies were, indeed, usually rated R - partly because general consensus among my peers was that all the “good” movies were R, and partly because I felt that watching any R-rated movie made me socially superior to any of my peers who watched PG-13 ones. This strategy, however, didn’t really work because I didn’t have the social connections to know which movies were “hot” and which ones were “not”, resulting, for the most part, in my watching all of the wrong ones. The cool kids watched MI:2 and Adam Sandler movies; I watched Cocoon and Robocop.

This continued until the 9th grade, when my family subscribed to cable Internet and I discovered P2P filesharing. Suddenly the whole Web was open to me, and I became a downloading fiend. Remember, though, that this was still 2001 and video encoding wasn’t the best. Even when it was, it took so long to download a 1GB+ file through 2001-era networks that P2P usually wasn’t worth it, so most of the movies I watched were either low-quality rips or in-theater camcorder captures (usually one and the same). It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done - I was still educating myself. The (relative) respectability of the movies improved, too. Now I was watching Fast and Furious, Gladiator, Minority Report, Bourne Identity, and Rat Race (ironically, mostly PG-13 stuff). My family also got cable TV in the Internet bundle, so between the two media I should have been guaranteed social popularity and acceptance.

Hah! like that was going to happen. It turns out that just watching the same stuff as the cool kids do doesn’t make you cool, but I was to learn that a bit later in life. But I need to get back on track, because this essay is about my movie watching, not about how cool I wasn’t.

All this solitary movie watching has been helpful, though, in the sense that, because I didn’t have other peoples’ input during the movie, I was able to form my own honest opinion of it. These opinions, compounded throughout the years, have made me really critical of movies in general. Nowadays I find that very few movies are worth my time, and hence I am less swayed by a group decision to watch a movie I know I don’t like or know I will not like. This is a complete 180 from where I started as a tweener. I now watch movies for my own betterment; not to go with the group and lubricate social niceties. I rate and judge movies based on my own system, which I have distilled into the following four categories.

Movies Not Worth Watching - These movies were a waste of my time, and I would not recommend watching them to anyone that I like. Examples include Reign Of Fire, almost every Adam Sandler movie, Dolemite, The Ladykillers, I am Legend, Hancock, Wolverine, and Equilibrium.

Movies Worth Watching - These are movies that I felt had a good plot/elements/premise, and, even if I didn’t necessarily like said movies, would recommend that others watch them. They were worth watching once through. Examples would be Man on Fire, The Strangers, Wall-E, Ironman, Saw, and Windtalkers.

Movies I Liked - These are movies I enjoyed but can’t bring myself to buy on DVD because I don’t think I will re-watch them enough times. Examples include the LOTR trilogy, Dark Knight, American Gangster, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, and Blow.

Movies I Will Buy - An incredibly small number of movies fit into this category. I (effectively) never buy movies that I have not seen, and even then I have to like the movie a lot and be willing to watch it over and over again. This allows me to have a very intimate collection, because if I own movie that means, almost by definition, I have seen it at least three or four times. At this writing I own about 15 movies including Silence of the Lambs, Army of Darkness, Fight Club, Dead Poets Society, Big Fish, Super Troopers, and Zoolander.

I saw Raiders... when I was twelve, and my movie watching was never the same afterwards. Now, nine years and hundreds of movies later, I still watch movies to increase my social capital. I don’t watch them nearly as often or with as much social significance attached, but I still watch a majority of them alone. Maybe I need to stop that and get a life. Maybe I need to cut back and treat movies more as a social activity. Maybe I’m just fine the way I am. But if you ever want to watch a movie with me, you can ask, but please don’t be offended if I refuse to watch it.

I have my reasons.


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