The Aquarium

October 25, 2016 | straining through turbulence

aquaview

The minute hand of Quinn’s watch ran as fast as the possibilities did in her mind. It was silly. She knew he wasn’t like that and appreciated the effort he was making to get here at all. His project’s client was almost not worth it, but until it was his choice to make, here they were. Or here she was. She and her thousands of well-traveled friends.

Paul grew up on the west coast and ingested as much seawater as she did faux-healthy smoothies in high school. Passionfruit coolers were as close as she got to an island lifestyle in suburbia. His skin had absorbed all the sunlight it could before going off to college, and it radiated through, despite the dark and cold blanket that covered New England for most of the year. She fell in love with his brilliance. When it came to her turn to pick for date night, she wanted a place they could slowly amble together, not sitting in some dim space deciphering dish descriptions. She didn’t realize until now that most of the aquarium would wash them in a deep shade of blue anyway.

Truth be told, the place wasn’t her original idea. Or maybe it was. Her feed had served her an ad, algorithmically chosen based on her admiration for National Geographic photos and envy of her friend’s recent snorkeling trip in Australia. A night at the aquarium at a discount. She barely needed to think for herself. Somewhere there was an engineer she should thank. Maybe one of his friends.

Quinn had pointed out the California coast exhibit advertised on the website. It wouldn’t be an exact homecoming for him, but they could get a taste. She imagined him standing on his board and surfing above the multitudes of life below. He had only shrugged and said it should be fun. She thought it could be like college again. They had loved going to museums and exhibits around the city. They dared each other to narrate the introduction to the artist placards in their best imitations of snooty curators’ voices. He even maintained character when trusting tourists asked him to explain more about the artwork.

She stared at the card that detailed the distinct stripes of the delicate shrimp species in the picture window-sized tank. A second face suddenly materialized in Cheshire cat fashion next to her reflection.

“When did you get here?” Quinn asked and offered him a smile. She looked for indicators of how his day had went.

“I came straight from work.” Paul immediately took her hand in his and steered her towards the entrance to the rest of the aquarium.

“What’s the rush? The fish aren’t going anywhere.”

“I’m kind of tired, okay?”

“Okay, sorry.”

Her imitation of Jean-Jacques Cousteau could wait.

She broached the subject. “How was today?”

Paul scrolled through a new email on his phone. “Not bad, not good. We found a mistake in our model that had been holding us up this whole time. It got fixed, not a big deal, but I’m still frustrated.”

The summary made it possible for her to understand, but she wondered if the conversation could go longer if she knew more about the work he did. She could take classes.

“Makes sense. It feels like you lost time that you didn’t need to.” Quinn bent down to peer at a dimly lit tank housing a rare octopus species. Paul followed and craned his neck to get a glimpse.

“Yeah, exactly.” He confirmed. “I can’t see this thing. Maybe it’s asleep. How about you? How were the kids?”

Quinn sighed. The class she inherited this year provided more than enough opportunity for her to stretch her teaching skills and make a difference, as the corps had advertised.

“You know that quote from commencement I’d taped to my desk?”

The inner edges of Paul’s brows met as he thought. “Uh, no…?”

“Okay, well it was from the end. The laundry list. ‘Prevent apathy and inspire action.'” Quinn reminded him again. “I think I’m succumbing to apathy.”

“You’ve only been teaching for a year. If real teachers gave up this early, where would we be?” Paul swung their hands back to emphasize. Quinn dampened the motion as she led them to another tank.

“You’re right. Maybe I’m not a real teacher.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. But if you really don’t want to do it anymore, you can quit anytime.”

“I can’t,” she replied. “I know I can make it through another year. I don’t want to give up on those kids like that.”

“Then you won’t.” Paul said quickly. As far as he saw it, he knew she wouldn’t, and so there wasn’t anything else to discuss. After giving this routine report of their days, they shifted into silence.

They walked at a pace not much faster than the large fish swimming languidly in their clear cages. She drifted toward the touch tank, and Paul followed.

“I thought you were too scared to do this?” He asked, swishing his finger in the water. “You can’t even feed a giraffe at the zoo.”

“Starfish don’t have large teeth, however blunt.” Quinn gently stroked one of the arms of a purple specimen.

He cleared his throat, and then a voice worthy of a BBC documentary sounded. “As you’ll see here, we’ve found a rare starfish species with small, serrated rows of teeth on the underside of their arms.”

“You’re bluffing.” Quinn smiled but still retracted her hand from the water. “And why would they need teeth underneath?” She waited for him to counter, but it didn’t happen.

Paul appeared to read the placard intently. She didn’t understand the change until she turned to see a father and his daughter walk in to the section. They couldn’t be the children in the room anymore.

Quinn and Paul joined hands again, and she steered them to the exhibit she had wanted them to come see.

The tank looked like it was two stories tall, and that was just from their standing view. The glass wrapped around most of the wall so that it felt like the fish weren’t on display but the human visitors were instead. Glass also made up part of the floor so that braver guests could see into the world below.

Quinn marveled at how a place like this could have been built in such a crowded city. She should propose the place for a school field trip. It would mean she’d get to come and see it all again.

“Isn’t this place amazing?” she said to Paul.

“Pretty crazy,” he agreed. He looked down at his phone. “Hey, I need to take care of this. I’ll be quick.”

Quinn nodded and watched him leave. As he walked out of the unlit area, his skin regained its deep golden shade.

An aquarium guide waved to get the attention of the guests milling around. Quinn joined the group gathering by the edge of the wall of water.

“We have three species of sharks in our largest tank here in the facility, and they can all be found along the Pacific coast. However, our nurse shark is elusive, and you might have to look underneath your feet to find her.” The guide explained then suddenly pointed down. “There she is now!”

Quinn and a few other more curious listeners rushed over to the glass floor and saw the latter half of the shark glide by. Next to her, a man goaded his girlfriend or wife into crouching down to get a better look.

“It’s right there! Don’t you see it?” he pointed.

“I don’t see anything.” The woman replied confidently, trying to prove that she was in on the joke. He put his hands on her shoulders and guided her closer to the center of the glass. They brushed past Quinn.

The woman yelped as the shark’s snout appeared and then the rest of its thick and powerful body glided by. Quinn gasped in awe at the animal’s fearsome presence.

Paul had to see this. She looked up and then around but found no one to wave over. Her phone didn’t have any messages either.

Quinn turned back to the glass floor. She looked and looked, but she couldn’t spot the animal again.

Layers of Love in Kubo & The Two Strings

Before I walked into the dark theater to lose myself in another LAIKA creation, I bought myself a cup of coffee despite the 7:15pm showtime. Ensuring that I was alert was my way of honoring the studio’s unbelievable craftsmanship. After being enchanted by the detailed worlds in Coraline and ParaNorman, I expected nothing less from Kubo. And of course, LAIKA has outdone themselves, again.

kubo poster
Source: kubothemovie.com

A lot has been said more elegantly than I ever could about the actual art and filmmaking of Kubo. Watching it all unfold flawlessly before your eyes, you would never (or totally can) believe that it takes a week on average to film just 4.3 seconds. Of course the final product, like any movie today, had help from computers and 3D printing, but the overall amount of crafting and puppeteering required can only be described as a patient labor of love. However, this is only the first layer of love that permeates Kubo. Indeed, I was expecting an adventure movie, but to me the intricacies of the story all relate back to love.

Spoilers ahead!

Love That Defies The Heavens

Not long before the film’s release date, lovers in China and Japan celebrated a holiday known as the Double Seventh Festival or Tanabata, respectively. To put it another way, these are equivalents to Valentine’s Day in the Western hemisphere. As a simple summary of the legend behind the holiday, a mythical being fell in love with a mortal man, and they were forbidden from seeing each other except on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

qixi bridge
Source: Google Doodle for Qixi (7/7)

I couldn’t help recognizing this cultural reference while learning about Kubo’s story. It’s revealed in the film that Kubo’s mother had to escape with him because her father and sisters perceived her love with a mortal warrior as a betrayal of their family’s heavenly status. (Talk about tough in-laws, right?) Later on when Kubo confronts his grandfather as his antagonist, the latter cannot understand why he would not want to join him and his aunts in the heavens, free of the suffering characteristic of an earthly life. Kubo defends the mortal struggle and insists that it does not diminish the beautiful moments but in fact amplifies them. His love for life and all that it entails is his rebellion against his grandfather and the heavens.

Love That Bonds Mother and Child

kubo mother
Source: tribute.ca

Unlike the parental relationships depicted in many other animated films, Kubo and his mother display reciprocal care for each other, which added much tenderness to the story. The bulk of the film indeed shows the extent to which his mother protects him in both human and non-human forms of her being, but in the very beginning we see Kubo serving as his mother’s caretaker. As a result of the trauma she faced to keep Kubo from the clutches of her (terrifying) father and sisters, she is rendered catatonic for most of her day and so needs his care. For me, this was refreshing to see in a movie, as it provides enough reality to ground the viewer without weighing them down too much.

creepy sister
Source: fatmovieguy.com

Like Lily Potter, whose love protected her son Harry, Kubo’s mother enchanted his clothing to help him escape when her human form could no longer protect him. Even so, she uses her magic to put herself into another physical form so that she can be with her son for just a bit longer on his journey. By the end of the story, Kubo has grown and become stronger, and his mother’s love remains with him in his memories.

Love That Forgives and Lives On

Although Kubo’s grandfather is painted as the enemy, ultimately there is no slaying of the final boss, no Kubo taking back the eye that was taken from him. Instead, Kubo’s generosity of love extends to the grandfather he had no connection with, and it’s implied that they will build a relationship from scratch. In this way, the story conveys the idea that perhaps love’s greatest power does not only come from its tendency to persevere, but also the capacity it gives us to forgive. Besides Kubo’s epic shamisen-playing abilities, this was the most aspirational part of the story for me.

Kubo delivers a heart-wrenching final monologue at a makeshift grave for his parents, amongst other villagers celebrating what I believe was a clear reference to Japan’s Obon festival honoring the deceased. He wishes more than anything that his parents could be with him to live out more of his story with him, but the memories he holds are what will have to carry him forward. To remember, then, is another way to love.

A Happy Meal

July 28, 2016 | for my father


Fifteen minutes. Then finally, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Fourteen minutes. The end of the workday was taking its time.

Still slick with oil from its former owner’s fingers, the toy rested on its side across the table. The painted-on smile was perfectly shaped. He couldn’t wait to surprise his daughter with the find, if he did end up getting to keep it. She would be overjoyed. Each Happy Meal she had opened in the past few weeks had ended in a pout and his heart deflating a little. He could’ve gone to the cashiers to just ask for the toy she wanted, but his embarrassment held him back. He couldn’t say the name of the princess right, and “purple dress, purple” got him nowhere the last time.

But they might come back for it. They left their table not long ago, bellies full and mouths still chattering away. At least, if it was his daughter who had lost her toy, he definitely would.

Ten minutes. His favorite song out of the long and always unchanged soft rock soundtrack to the restaurant started playing. He let out a full yawn, sound and all, now that the place was cleared of all but the staff.

Maybe he could just take it now and pack it away with his things. If the family came back for it, they would understand. They would think that another kid took it, or that it had gotten bussed away with the rest of their uneaten food.

He reached for the plastic doll and righted it up onto its feet, then took out a napkin from his waiter’s apron pouch to wipe off the oil. Much better, and ready for his daughter to play with.

He rubbed his sore shoulders and neck and rolled up his sleeve to cover an oil stain his wife was sure to tsk at. Being open on a holiday meant more customers, but it also meant more heavy trays of food to run back and forth. Technically people could still walk in and order food to-go, but he was pretty sure he was done for the day. He would simply refuse. He only had energy left for the drive home.

He pictured his daughter’s face peeking through the window of the back door. She would be so happy with the toy. The thought that her joy might come at the expense of another child’s crossed his mind, but it didn’t stay.

The door chime stopped his daydreaming. His head jerked back up, and he craned his neck to see whether it was one of the people from the toy’s table. It wasn’t one of the flood of faces from today, and the person left when they were told it was too late to order even to-go. He let out a breath that he didn’t realize he was holding.

“Where did you get this, daddy?” She grabbed it out of his open hand with the eager force of a delighted child. Immediately she started twirling it in the air, choreographing dances and spinning stories in her head that he could only wonder what they were about.

He smiled wide and said, “It was meant for you, so I found it.”

That was all she needed to know.