Be the Reds!

The flight attendant gently shook me awake.

“Sir, we’re about to land. Please return your seat to the upright position.”

It took several moments for me to process her words, I had been sleeping so deeply. On this leg of the flight, I was fortunate enough to have a window seat. I looked outside but could see nothing but the inky blackness of the Yellow Sea below. The lights of Incheon International Airport soon blinked into sight, and after a routine landing I was on the ground thousands of miles from home.

One-and-a-half decades of dreaming of Asia were finally coming true. I was in Korea on opening night of the 2002 World Cup.

We filtered out of the airplane and sifted ourselves into evenly-spaced lines at customs. Incheon was a brand-new airport, built on an island far west of the capital Seoul. Built as a shiny yet inanimate ambassador to those like myself that had never set food in Asia, it was designed to be large and efficient. No less than fifteen booths were manned with customs inspectors, a far larger number than I had seen in my previous foreign travels. Behind the booths was a broad balcony overlooking the lower floor of the airport and its baggage claims and shops.

Either I was still asleep, or processing passengers seemed to take longer than expected. Yet after moving in the air for fourteen hours, I was in little rush to move any faster than I had to.

Suddenly, the air was snapped by a sonic boom of human design. It began downstairs in the baggage claim area. Like an tsunami of sound, it swept upwards into the customs area and blew past us, so concussive that I felt the hairs on my arm snap to attention. It was a loud roar, a cacophony of humans cheering, and the building shook from its power.

Before we could process what happened, a door on the far right wall opened up. Out popped the customs supervisor.

He was yelling something in Korean as he briskly approached past each agent’s stand. Occasionally, he grasped an agent by their shoulders, looked steady into their eyes, and quickly exclaimed the same untranslatable news.

Several agents popped up and ran off downstairs, leaving their boothes unmanned and us standing in line. If we so chose, we could have snuck into the country illegally without gettng our passports stamped. Those agents remaining were high-fiving and hugging one another. Quickly, the roar subsided, the absent agents returned to their posts, and our processing continued. We still had no idea what had just happened/

I got through security, headed downstairs, and scanned the crowd, hoping to find the friendly face I expected. Behind me, I heard a familiar voice.

Spam!

Noone else in Korea could be expected to answer to that name. I whirled around, and there was my best friend Jim. He had been on a separate, earlier flight to Korea — he had apparently made it alright. We embraced in relief at seeing one another.

I asked Jim what the hell was going on. The roar, the ensuing chaos. “Oh, you mean everyone celebrating the South Korean team scoring?”

It turns out that the noise was the collective celebration of an entire scoring their second goal of the night against mighty Poland, during the World Cup opening game that was ocurring right at that very moment.

Jim waved his hand towards the several flat-screen televisions mounted in the terminal. Each was broadcasting the game live. Jim explained that when Korea scored its earlier goal, the entire building exploded in a similar celebration. The scary thing was that everyone, from security guards to shopkeepers and cab drivers — abandoned their duties upon each score. Each left their post in a rush towards the nearest television, which would replay the glorious, impossible moment several times. The World Cup was amazingly important to South Koreans, so much so that they’d be willing to leave the airport momentarily defenseless in order to share a moment as a nation. The place could have been robbed blind, or a bomb set off, and noone would have noticed anything but Hwang Sun-Hong pounding home what would prove to be the only goal needed by The Reds.

Now that both of us had arrived, we had a ride to meet. We went out to the curb, where Jim introducted me to our driver for the evening. He was to drive us the long route from Incheon to Seoul, where we would be staying at the home of a family whom we had never met before. We could only hope they spoke English.

“Sorry, Gotta Go!”

Although this story is ancient, it’s received a fair number of encores over the past few months. And it’s appropriate to tell again, since some of these same thoughts and experiences are being relived, not just by me but by some of my more artistically-tuned friends.

In retrospect, the year 2000 turned out to be the hardest and most amazing year of my life. At the beginning, I was dating Rebecca, a girl that I thought might be the one — it turns out that she had other ideas, as just two days after our anniversary she broke up with me. On February 2nd, Groundhog Day ironically enough, a day that is dominated by stories of shadows and seems to repeat itself over and over.

My heart was crushed, and more trivial plans of mine were screwed. The most-immediate of these was my plan for the weekend before Valentine’s Day. Because my own car was not road-worthy, I had plans to borrow Rebecca’s car a quick weekend visit to Austin. Micha had secured some tickets to a comedy club, and I was going to spend a day or two with her before heading back up to school. When said girlfriend was removed from the equation, so was her car and my plans were shot. So the Friday of that aborted weekend, Ellen invited me to a party her crack house being hosted by her and the two roomies. Ellen was well-aware of how devastated I was and rightly thought I could use the distraction of company.

At the party nursing mixed drinks from bring tumblers, I lamented to Ellen about my loss of love and vacation; Ellen told me how she wished to be down in Austin as well, for a good friend of hers was having a birthday party that weekend. We were quiet for a brief moment. Then, we looked at one another and our thoughts connected simultaneously: “So…why not go to Austin?” And with that, Ellen had a bag packed quicker than a speeding bullet and we abandoned the party she was hosting. One quick trip to Bruce Hall to gather my things, then we were on the road screaming south in the middle of the night.

Our first stop was Midlothian, TX–the Cement Capital of Texas–to pick up her two girlfriends Crissie and Cassie, two of the most-gorgeous sisters I’ve ever met. We switched to their vehicle, our own little partymobile, and with breathtaking swiftness the four of us are lead-footing it to Austin with the hopes of getting me there in time for the comedy club show.

We helped push the homo sapiens species into new evolutionary heights that night, going from the mortal pursuit of driving to flying down the highway towards Austin — beers in hands, foot on accelerator, cares left behind. All sorts of laws were broken that night: state, local, federal, physics, relativity, gravity. I commented that when (not if!) we get busted, it is going to equally epic and bad. Ellen turn to me, smiles that lazy smile of hers, and says, “Honey, you’re in a car with the three most beautiful women in North Texas — ain’t no way we’re a’gettin’ a ticket tonight!” Hard to argue with that logic in Texas.

Do I still have a ticket to the show? I remember to call Micha at this time.

“Do you still have the ticket?”

“Umm, yeah.”

“OK, great — see you there in an hour.”

“Huh?”

I hang up.

We arrive at the Capitol City Comedy Club just minutes before the show is to start — a line of people snakes around the building await entrance. We spill out of the car to Micha’s astonishment. I fetch my bag. Ellen in turn fetches Micha…into her open arms and declares via drunk-voice, “I’m so glad to finally meet you!” Micha is still scarred by this, I believe. The girls jet, I get in line with my big stupid suitcase and small smart sister, suffer the grumpy comments that people made about having to share space with both me and my luggage, and proceeded to laugh my ass off that night.

The next morning, Micha and I are driving along one of the most-beautiful stretches of road ever paved, the Capital of Texas Highway. I’m staring out the window at the breathtaking views: hills and horizons to the west, the distant skylines of Austin to the east, high radio towers on low buttes which do not seem possible to have been man-made. I break the silence with the following epiphany:

“You know, I think I’m going to move to Austin.”

Micha pulls over and her eyes get big. “Really?”

“Yep…I think I’m going to move here ASAP.”

Micha gives me the biggest hug. It was going to mean so much for her best friend to live nearby.

So early the next morning, Ellen picks me up and we made the long drive back to Denton. I would discover in the near-future that this drive will always be slow because I know what I’m leaving behind by leaving Austin.

The next morning, Monday, Valentine’s Day, I woke up at 7am refreshed as never before. Got to work at 8am and promptly called our central housing office in order to meet with our chief of housing, Betsy. Receptionist says that 4:30pm is her earliest free opportunity, which is cutting into both my 4pm one-on-one meeting with my boss Kelly and my hall’s 5pm staff meeting. I decide to take it — if I miss any of my meetings to turn in my resignation, what are they going to do…fire me?! I idle away the rest of the day, smug in the knowledge of my little secret.

At 4pm, Kelly and I meet like usual. Earlier in our professional relationship, the two of us argued many times about the best direction for the hall. By this time, we’d ironed out some of our differences and learned to accept the strengths within one that made them carry out decisions that frustrated the other. I had intended to begin the meeting with my news, but Kelly had a subject more urgent to speak about.

“There are these great head hall director positions opening up, I found out, and I think you should apply because I think you’ve got a lot of what they’re looking for,” she says. I chuckle, not believing how this is going to color what I need to tell her. But I roll with it. I lean back in my chair, place my fingertips together, and ask her, “Like what?” So I listen for a little bit as Kelly waxes about all sorts of my positives, about how she thinks I’ve grown a lot during out time together, that my charisma and smarts will take me far, what I mean to the residents, etc. I soak it all in, then check the time: 4:25pm. Gotta go! So, I cut her off with, “Kelly, that’s great! But…I’ve got to go. See, I’ve got a 4:30pm appointment with Betsy to turn in my resignation, but we can continue this conversation when I get back.” Kelly’s jaw drops and her eyes bulge out — this is the basis for a whole future generation of animated shorts, I believe. “No, you can’t quit yet!” she squealed, as she wasn’t ready for me to go (wanted to keep working with me, but was also about to take off for maternity leave). Sorry, gotta go.

I speed across campus to meet with Betsy. I wait for a short moment, then get called in. Betsy greets me with her standard nickname for me, “Hey there, Spamster! Didya hear about these head hall director posit–” I cut her off: “Betsy! I’m here to quit!” And in one of the rare moments when anyone has caught her using such language, Betsy says, “Well…shit. Nevermind.” So the two of us talk for a little bit, and I explain to her what happened between Rebecca and I, and more importantly how I needed to make myself move on before I became trapped in the Denton life. Betsy is smart enough to understand everything I said, for I was going through what all hall directors eventually go through. The difference is I was doing something about it before I was there too long to escape.

To make the rest of the story short, I headed back for our hall staff meeting. During our normal segment of “Things that suck/Things that don’t suck!”, I spilled the beans to my eleven resident assistants. For the most part, they were stunned, as would anyone who went into the weekend thinking one thing about the goals and ambitions of their boss and find out on Monday that they have radically changed course.

My decision quickly spread across campus and I was besieged by students and phone calls. The general opinion was shock: “Holy crap, Matthew’s leaving UNT! Matthew’s is leaving Bruce Hall!” Perhaps they were shocked because I was such an institution, but perhaps they were blown away by the fact that I proved it’s possible to leave school (Bruce lings have a terrible habit of staying long after they graduate).

And so began in my life a course that took me to Austin, across the sea, and back to Dallas in one short year full of amazing excitement, deafening pain, and oceans of indecision through which I’m still wading. Including today, one day before I turn 30.

The Beginning of the Hardest and Best Year of my Life

Back in the day, I had grand dreams of becoming a comic-book artist. It started way back in the 6th grade, when my mother took me to Zak’s (long-time north Texas residents will remember that chain of art stores) and told me I could get whatever I wanted. Even before I knew I wanted to be an artist, my mother had sensed my potential and always encouraged it. I left the store with a sketchpad, handfuls of graphite, and a thirst to create.

Years and sketchbooks and comics and scraps of paper later, it was time to decide on college. Because I was a combination of apathetic, lazy, and aware of the better choice facing me, I applied to only one school, the University of North Texas. I easily got it. I quickly started my art career, and just as quickly discovered that this was not the best place to pursue my dream.

North Texas features a great art program, which by the time I was a freshman had spun off from the liberal arts college to form The School of Visual Arts. Many disciplines were taught, ranging from fibers to watercolor to sculpture to computer art. I chose drawing and painting, a program which was administered by a number of regionally-renowned artists. Names that I recall include Vernon Fisher, Vincent Falsetta, Annette Lawrence, John Pomara, Rob Erdle, and Ed Blackburn. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the new Modern in Ft. Worth, you’ve also been equally fortunate to have been around the works of some of those artists. Some of their work can be found on this excellent database.

Wanting to be an illustrator in a program with a stronger emphasis on painting and pictoral objectivity was terribly difficult. I didn’t always fit in, but as long as I was creating art and being involved in the studio, it didn’t matter to me. Twice must a painting major pass a barrier review, once at the junior level and once right before one is allowed to graduate. I failed my junior review the first time I went through it, setting me back nearly a year. My teacher and advisor at the time was John Pomara, who I credit with taking my work in many new directions, especially in my use of materials. But it was these “many new directions” that made my portfolio seem chaotic and unthoughtful — basically, my work echoed his and the fact I didn’t see that coming irks me still.

To make a long story short, I worked my ass off and got through my second junior review under Vernon Fisher. After that, I had a full senior year to refine my work into a cohesive pattern, and was largely successful towards the end. My final teacher Annette Lawrence is herself primarily a draftsperson, and under her my drawings flourished in subject, scale, and craftmanship. Senior review came up all too quickly, and despite having a severe case of pneumonia that landed me in the hospital, I was able to round up a strong enough portfolio to graduate. I had passed my senior review and now had a month or so to ponder my future before walking across stage.

A couple of days after my review, I was making the long walk home from the Art Building to my College Inn apartment. It was a cool, clear night in March, just after Spring Break, and I had little on my mind. Then, while passing McConnell Hall, I was stopped cold by a thought that hit me like lightning.

“I don’t want to be an artist.”

And those words rang clear and made the most perfect sense. And I experienced the unburdening feeling one typically feels when they have an epiphany. And I never looked back — to this day, I have not done a painting since and have barely drawn.

The tricky part of this story is explaining not the what, but the how…how could I give up my dream of the past 12 years, especially just a month before I was to graduate? Well, gentle reader, it is unfortunately one of those things that has no explanation. Years would pass before I found someone who had a similar experience, although it was a character within a movie. In Adaptation, a movie that I am not completely fond of, there was a scene that kept me on the edge of my seat. Forced into this position by the empathy surging through me, I watched the scene where the reporter Susan Orlean was interviewing the orchid thief John Laroche and touched upon his habit of switching passions:

ORLEAN: So, did you ever miss the turtles? The only thing that made you ten year old life worth living?

LAROCHE: I’ll tell you a story. I once fell deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish. I had sixty goddamn fish tanks in my house. I’d skin-dive to find just the right ones. Anisotremus virginicus, Holacanthus ciliaris, Chaetodon capistratus. You name it. Then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow to never set foot in the ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe into that ocean. And I love the ocean!

ORLEAN: (beat) But why?

LAROCHE: (shrugs) Done with fish.

Done with fish. Done with art.

Simple as that. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll be able to explain it more. But for now, it makes perfect sense to me, which is all that matters.