Will J. J.

Day-to-day musings and occasional short stories for your delight.


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The Films of Makoto Shinkai

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A couple of months ago, I published a post about the wonderful film Your Name., also known as Kimi no Na wa. You can find that post here, but suffice it to say, Your Name had an enormous impact on me. I happened to catch the film on a flight heading back from New York, not realizing that it hadn’t been released in the United States. I raved about it for another two months before it hit theaters here. Between then and now, I’ve watched every film that Your Name’s director, Makoto Shinkai, has ever made, and I’ve gained a great appreciation for his work.

Your Name actually wasn’t the first Shinkai film I had seen. A few years ago, a friend showed me The Place Promised in Our Early Days, a feature length Shinkai movie from 2004. Ironically, having now seen all of Shinkai’s works to date, I can honestly say that The Place Promised is his weakest film. Something about the emotions in The Place Promised just didn’t ring true to me, and they didn’t draw me in or affect me, an unusual issue given that emotional resonance is normally Shinkai’s strong suit.

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The Place Promised in Our Early Days

At the time, I felt strangely disappointed watching it, and I might never have watched another Shinkai film had I not happened to catch Your Name on that plane. Interestingly, as I sat on that flight back from New York, scanning through the in-flight movie options, I chose Your Name because I was familiar with Shinkai, remembering his name from The Place Promised, and I had also heard that Your Name was a massive hit in Japan. If that first ingredient had been missing, I probably never would have seen Your Name, and I wouldn’t be excitedly telling you now that Makoto Shinkai is one of my favorite directors.

When I first watched The Place Promised in Our Early Days, my friend really overhyped it for me, excitedly proclaiming that Shinkai was “the next Miyazaki”. I’ve heard many fans and columnists give Shinkai that label, and I don’t think it’s fair or true. Shinkai himself doesn’t like being compared to Miyazaki, and I can see why. Hayao Miyazaki is a legend, someone who can never be replaced, and those expectations will only be met with disappointment. His films were intensely imaginative, coming of age stories, brimming with magic and meaning. Makoto Shinkai’s films, while packed with emotion and depth in their own right, don’t have much in common with Miyazaki’s, other than the fact that both feature gorgeous animation.

People often tend to mistake animation for a genre, when it’s actually a medium. Just like live-action movies, comic books, or simple, printed words, animation can be used to tell a broad spectrum of stories with ranging tones, themes, and characters. In America, people often associate animation with childish themes, but it’s capable of so much more. Shinkai’s films are often affecting, emotional affairs that examine the longing in the human soul juxtaposed with an almost surreal beauty in the world all around. He focuses heavily on the everyday aesthetics and actions that most of us take for granted. With the exception of Journey to Agartha, he has refrained from constructing exotic, fantasy worlds, and instead focuses on ordinary settings, sometimes adding a single, sci-fi element.

Makoto Shinkai’s first big hit was the 20 minute short, Voices of a Distant Star, which he made almost single-handedly, handling storyboarding, animating, editing, and even some voice acting. The film centers around a near-future where a 15 year old girl is sent into deep space to fight in a war against aliens, while her childhood friend and crush remains on earth. The two exchange text messages to remain in touch, but as the girl treads deeper and deeper into space, her messages take longer to reach her friend on earth, until those messages take nearly a full decade to arrive. The film is maximized for emotional impact, as if someone tapped into the saddest thought possible, and then twisted the knife even more. It was an astounding, breakout hit, and garnered him a ton of worthy attention. Voices also provided a blueprint for Shinkai’s recurring themes and style.

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Voices of a Distant Star

Shinkai’s film reputation to date is comprised of two qualities: intensely gorgeous, prettier-than-real-life animation, and deep, tragic sadness. The former is well-deserved, but the latter is grossly inaccurate. So many have characterized Shinkai’s films as simply depressing, but I suspect that anyone who makes that claim has only seen his earlier works, or none at all. Admittedly, his early films fit that melancholy mold quite well, and I’m quite certain that his “master of sadness” reputation stems heavily from one film in particular: Five Centimeters per Second. Memories of that film have fueled this perception for a full decade now.

I remember thinking that Voices of a Distant Star was heartbreaking. The following day, I watched Five Centimeters per Second, and I had no idea what I was in for. Five Centimeters made Voices feel like a trip to Disney Land. It was soul-crushingly sad, and it emotionally rocked me, as if I’d been hit by a freight train of hopelessness. That’s not to say that Five Centimeters is a bad movie, as it’s an absolutely fantastic film, but it’s certainly not light fare. Before seeing Five Centimeters, I had been on such a roll with Shinkai’s films, moving through them in chronological order, and I had planned to finish the rest the following weekend. Instead, I took a full month off, and I almost didn’t continue at all, because I wasn’t sure if I could stomach any more sadness. I’m extremely glad that I did continue, however, because his films after that were much more complex and emotionally rewarding.

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Five Centimeters per Second

The common thread through all of Shinkai’s films is a deep sense of longing, often in youth, but the themes he explores with that longing vary wildly and have evolved in interesting ways throughout his career. His first feature following Five Centimeters was Journey to Agartha, and it remains his largest stylistic and thematic departure to date. Rather than his usual aesthetics and settings, Journey is a coming-of-age fantasy epic with a rich, magical world. This is the one film which I feel could fairly be compared to Miyazaki’s. It feels like a Miyazaki film in so many ways that I actually found myself, halfway in, wondering if Shinkai really directed it. It’s a fun, sometimes dark, adventure, and while there are emotional low points, they’re not the focal point of the story. It was a nice surprise to see something so different from Shinkai after several films reflecting similar themes.

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Journey to Agartha

Shinkai followed Journey to Agartha with The Garden of Words, a 45 minute film that might just feature the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. Garden really surprised me, as well, particularly because it starts off the way some of Shinkai’s earlier films did, focusing on a poetic beauty in the mundane and two characters who yearn for something more. Unlike his early films, however, Garden takes some remarkable twists and turns, becoming something beautiful without remaining mired in sorrow. Garden might feel, at first glance, like Shinkai leaning back into his wheelhouse, but it’s actually an examination of that same sense of longing from a fresh angle, one that treads lightly on sensitive themes and takes risks simultaneously. I was deeply impressed with The Garden of Words.

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The Garden of Words

And then you have Your Name, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Your Name manages to seamlessly transition between drama and comedy, and from lighthearted to dire. This is Shinkai’s first film with more than a small dose of humor, and it really works. The emotional heft is still there, but it’s about the highs and the lows in harmony. Your Name also features Shinkai’s most well-rounded and well-written characters to date, and they’re placed within his most ingenious and clever plot yet. The one aspect that struck me after finishing all of Shinkai’s filmography was how different Your Name’s music is from all his other films’.

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Mitsuha, Sayaka, and Tessie in Your Name

Most of his other works feature somber piano pieces or solemn, orchestral works. Your Name’s soundtrack, on the other hand, features three pop songs with lyrics, in addition to instrumental pieces ranging from heartfelt to spirited. The scoring throughout the film perfectly matches the plot’s emotional roller coaster, guiding the viewer through the journey. When the scene requires visual attention or character focus, the music accentuates, but remains unobtrusive. When a moment calls for a dramatic swell or climactic punctuation, the music takes the foreground, building brilliantly. Your Name would not work nearly as well without this music. In an age when music in American blockbusters is increasingly an afterthought, it impressed me to see just how in-tune these pieces were with the plot and timing in Your Name. I read a great deal afterward about the band responsible for the music, Radwimps, and how Shinkai involved them so heavily in the film’s production from the outset that their music actually drove changes to the script. Furthermore, Shinkai demanded such a level of excellence and precision that melodies had to shift at extremely specific moments in order for entire scenes to function. There’s a reason this music is perfect, and all that hard work is showcased in a way that goes far beyond any of Shinkai’s previous films.

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Your Name

Your Name is a brilliant work of art, and after seeing the rest of Shinkai’s films, it feels less like an aberration, and more like a natural evolution in his work. It’s his most ambitious and innovative film by far. I’m excited to see what he does next, because he’s doing things no one else is, and looking at things no one else seems to be paying attention to. His films are thoughtful, emotional, and beautiful. The animation is always a wonder, with landscapes sparkling like photographers’ dreams, but his films are at their best when they feature fully-developed characters and emotional range. His last few films have seen a dramatic improvement in both areas, and I’m eagerly awaiting his next film 🙂

Makoto Shinkai Films

P.S. Your Name is still in theaters in some areas, and I’d highly recommend checking it out. It’s being shown in both dubbed and subtitled versions, and while the dubbed version is quite good, I still preferred the original, subtitled version.


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Your Name – Kimi No Na Wa.

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You guys might not know this about me, but I love movies. They are, hands down, my favorite form of media. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a flight back from New York City with Emily, and I found a Japanese movie called Your Name (also known as Kimi No Na Wa.) on the in-flight screen on the seat in front of me. The title immediately rang a bell because I’m a fan of anime and had heard that this one was insanely popular in Japan, breaking all kinds of box office records, and I had seen other films by the director, Makoto Shinkai.

 

I started the movie, expecting to watch it casually, because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually watch a movie on a plane expecting to be the most engaged. I was dead wrong. From the very first scene, I was sucked right in, and I was just praying the flight wouldn’t end before I finished the movie. At one point, I was actually crying and clutching the seat in front of me with both hands. It was an intense experience, an incredible movie, and it finished just before we landed. What I didn’t realize is that it won’t be released in the U.S. until April 7th, so no one I know has seen it yet. It has been KILLING me not having anyone to talk about this movie with, because it’s downright amazing.

 

Your Name is a fantasy, drama, romance story about two high schoolers in Japan who begin waking up in each other’s bodies at random, and the two must adapt their lives around each other while building an unlikely connection. The two are bound by fate, but kept apart by more than just distance. The premise might sound silly or overly sentimental, but instead, the result is genius. I don’t dare divulge more of the plot, because the film reveals itself in such beautiful ways that it would be a crime to spoil. What I can say is that the characters are equal parts hilarious and authentic, the animation is astonishing, and the story is heartbreaking, thrilling, and satisfying. Even saying that, though, doesn’t really capture the essence of what makes it great. This is so much more than just a romance, and it would be a shame to try and cram it into that category alone. 

 

Your Name is a special movie. It’s ambitious, original, honest, and vivid. This movie tapped into so many of the themes I cherish most, including love, time, and dreams. It explored love in such a pure yet genuine state that I have never seen portrayed nearly so well. Quite frankly, this movie reminded me of some of my deepest beliefs that I hadn’t really thought about in ages.

 

Your Name is my new favorite movie, and I haven’t had a new favorite movie in over a decade. I take favorites very seriously. Rest assured, when it comes to the U.S. on April 7th, I will be the first in line to see it again. I recommend you check it out too 🙂


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Japan

Japan

Day 3639

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The Thousand Torii Gates in Kyoto

Last week, my best friend returned from Japan, and it brought me back to the many adventures we had when I visited him in September, adventures that I have yet to share with you. I think it’s high time I told you guys about Japan. 

For the past year, my best friend Fezz was in Japan, teaching English. In early September, I finally carved out enough time and money to go see him, and we had an incredible week traveling the country. Here are my thoughts:

Japan is magnificent. I had never before been overseas, nor had I ever spent more than a few hours in another country. Before I left, I did a ton of research on what to expect from Japan, but all the google searches in the world won’t tell you as much as five minutes on a Tokyo street corner. Traveling somewhere so entirely different from your normal life shows you just as much about your own culture as it does about the one you’re visiting. Every little thing was incredible to me, because it was all so different from what I experience on a daily basis. Several times, I found myself wondering, why don’t we do it that way? Case in point:

Trains are amazing. Japan has one of the most advanced public transit systems in the world, and it’s all based on trains. Tokyo is a city with more than 13 million people, and the vast majority of them use trains to get everywhere. Their trains go everywhere, and they’re always on time. If, for some reason, a train is late, the rail company will issue every passenger a note for work apologizing for the tardiness. That’s how absurdly dependable their trains are. What’s more, they’ve got all sorts of trains, subways, elevated, bullet trains, and they go just about everywhere. While I was there, Fezz and I almost exclusively used trains to get around, and I was continually amazed.

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Overlooking Kyoto

Tokyo and Kyoto show two very different sides of Japan. The first thing Fezz told me when I found him in the airport was, “Remember this moment, because you’ll be surrounded by thousands of people for the rest of this trip.” He was absolutely right. Tokyo is a massive, sprawling city filled with so many people. Every time we were in a train station, it felt like 100 thousand people were flying by me. On every street corner, thousands rushing by. There are blaring, electronic ads everywhere. The pace of Tokyo is dizzying. Every single building is 5-20 stories high, and every inch of space is carefully planned.

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Feeding monkeys in Kyoto 😀

Kyoto, on the other hand, is a city of 1.5 million, and it is much more relaxed. In Kyoto, there is a sense of warm friendliness and less of the hustle and bustle that I found in Tokyo. I love Kyoto, and a big part of that is because there is an incredible balance between industrial, natural, modern, and classic there. The city is huge, but it’s located in a valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The ocean of buildings melts seamlessly into the lush, green mountainside, with colorful temples peppered throughout. It’s truly a beautiful city, and I felt genuinely welcomed there.

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Akihabara, Tokyo

Everything in Japan, except for the people, is massive. I’m serious. We went to Akihabara, the shopping district in Tokyo, my first day there, and it feels endless. Roads full of 5-10 story shops. We went into a 6 story, SEGA arcade, and when we left, there was ANOTHER 6 story, SEGA arcade right across the street. We visited the Skytree mall in the heart of Tokyo, and after shopping and wandering through its shops for hours, we never found the end of it. I’m convinced that Japanese malls just don’t have ends. It’s like an optical illusion.

Japan has amazing history. We visited the Tokyo National Museum and countless shrines throughout Tokyo and Kyoto while I was there. Kyoto, even older than Tokyo, has shrines and temples all over the city. Something that struck me when I arrived is that, as an American, I think of national history as covering the last ~200 years, but that’s only because the United States is relatively new. Japan has been around for millennia. Let that soak in for a second. At the Tokyo National Museum, Fezz and I saw swords nearly a thousand years old, masks used in ancient plays, and maps scribed so long ago, the years only had 3 digits. Japan’s history is rich, and I found it intensely fascinating.

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There is nothing like spending time with your best friend. A good portion of my time in Japan was spent goofing off, watching terrible John Cena memes, playing Super Smash Bros Project: M, and talking life with Fezz. Really, I would have traveled anywhere to see him, and the fact that we got to explore Japan was just a bonus. It’s good to have you back Fezz! 🙂


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Updates Galore!

Day 3562

    Hello friends, I’ve got some big updates for you today!!

    First off, after several rounds of discussion and design, Darkness Reflected has a new cover!! I’m stoked to see it printed, and I feel like this cover really captures the excitement and mystery of the novel. Darkness Reflected is a science fiction, suspense novel CURRENTLY available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Google Play, and will be available in hardback and paperback through Amazon very soon. If you’re interested in hearing more about the novel, feel free to check out the story behind the book HERE and for more all updates about Darkness Reflected, click HERE.

Final Cover

    Second, I’ve got even MORE exciting news about Darkness Reflected. When I first self-published the book in March of 2014, it had one additional chapter than the version currently available. I took out the first chapter, because it was turning off too many readers, confusing rather than intriguing them. It was a painful decision, because that was one of my favorite chapters, but I recognized that it wasn’t drawing people in.

    Fast forward a year and a half to last month, and I was working with my publisher, California Times Publishing, on edits for the book. I sent them the original first chapter, asking their thoughts, and much to my surprise, they loved it. The major issue with the original first chapter was that it contained a great deal of intense, complex imagery, and with no time to set up or explain the scene, the chapter was simply too fast-paced and overloaded to convey the feeling I was trying to express. After talking with my publisher, I decided to rewrite the chapter, and it came out far more exciting, relatable, and intriguing after I was done. I stripped it down and focused on the urgency, and I’m pleased to share that I am reintroducing it back into the novel as a prologue. As a writer, getting a chance to correct my mistakes and improve my writing is an incredible feeling. I edited the entire novel over the past couple of months, and I just sent the my publisher the finished version of Darkness Reflected yesterday. Expect to hear more news on the book VERY soon 🙂

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Me and Fezz in Austin

    Lastly, in news unrelated to Darkness Reflected, I’m going to Japan!! My best friend Fezz lives has been living there for nearly a year, teaching English, and I’m going to visit him! We’ll be making our way through Tokyo, Kyoto, and climbing Mount Fuji. I’ve been really missing Fezz, and I’m thrilled to be exploring Japan with him 🙂 Heading out today, but I promise I’ll be back with lots of stories and pictures!


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Year End 2014!

Day 3315

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Emily and Me 🙂

Hello my friends 🙂 2014 is almost over! Just a few hours more and this year that seemingly just began will be coming to an end. Today I just want to share with you all a few updates on what’s going on in my world and talk a bit about what 2014 meant for me, because it sure was a time of change.

The Missing Chapter One

First off, I have to let you guys know about something new with my book. Any of you who purchased Darkness Reflected when it was first published back in March will notice that it had 27 chapters, but if you bought the book today, it has only 26. This is because I released a second, revised edition with some vital changes that I felt needed to be made after receiving a great deal of feedback from readers. Most of the updates I made were very slight and insignificant, however, I did make one massive alteration: the first chapter from the original release has been completely excised. After listening to the thoughts of many others and approaching the story with fresh eyes, I realized that the first chapter was so abstract and lacking context that it turned people away rather than whetting the appetite, as it was intended to do.

After much deliberation, and in spite of my own personal attachment, I removed that initial chapter. Chapter two realistically served as the better introduction, and I feel that the book is much stronger for this change. If you read the first edition, please do not feel that you have missed out. On the contrary, you are one of the only people who will ever know what that mysterious and forgotten first chapter contained! Consider yourself lucky 🙂 I had intended on posting about the change when I first released the second edition a couple of months ago, but time got away from me. As always, you can purchase Darkness Reflected here to immerse yourself in a science fiction/suspense tale about a troubled man who stumbles into an impossible reality and is forced to confront his own inner demons. Available on all ebook platforms here.

2014!

On the one hand, it’s difficult to believe that this year is already ending, because it all flew by in a flash. On the other hand, it seems unbelievable that so many different major events could have possibly fit into a single year. 2014, perhaps more than any other year yet, was a time of intense growth and adventure for me.
I’m not sure that I could mention all of the noteworthy happenings that came my way this year, but here are some of the most memorable moments from this year that I will take away:

 

Living Solo
After a year in a dorm, two years in an apartment shared with three of the most wonderful people in the world, and six months renting a room out of a stranger’s house, I finally found a place completely on my own. The transition hasn’t always been easy, especially the mind-numbing quietness at times, but overall, it has been an amazingly fulfilling change.

Started this blog in February!

Published Darkness Reflected
After years of writing and planning, I finally accomplished one of my life’s dreams by publishing Darkness Reflected as an ebook. Believe me, the amount of work that goes into publishing a novel, even self-publishing, is just as much if not more than the actual writing. My second time around I will be far better prepared. A fun little tidbit for you readers: I am currently outlining my second novel. Stay tuned!

Went to Yosemite
My sixth trip to the preeminent national park this summer was a great one, taking several new trails and getting some much needed rest after a busy few months.

Published Article on Student Debt
This is an issue that has always been passionate to me, from the moment I first realized that I would need to take out loans for college. When I was given the opportunity to write an article for The Daily Texan on Obama’s Pay As You Earn loan forgiveness program, I jumped at the chance. You can check the article out here.

Old Friends and New
After slowly going their separate ways, the last of my close college group of friends moved away at the end of the summer. It was an emotional time for me, but it also challenged me to spread my wings. I joined several active social groups and met a ton of delightful people, some of whom have since become some of my closest friends. Heather, one of the best new friends I made this year, actually went to the same high school as me, but I never really knew her until recently. I found in her someone much like myself, but who has chosen to chase her dreams at full speed, without worry for caution. I’ve learned a great deal from her. The thing about a full-time life is that such a regimented, regular schedule can slowly drown one’s dreams in the everyday. Heather provided a jump start for me, reminding me why I headed down this path in the first place.

Victory
After 8 years of competitive, long distance running, I finally won my first race. It was a 5k with my office, and my time was not my best, but it was something special to cross the finish line first after so many attempts and close losses in years past. Later in the year, I was able to defend my title with another victory, this one over a minute and a half faster.

A Wedding To Remember
In October, I was delighted to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends. Katie has been one of the few friends to keep in touch with me over so many years, even when our lives have taken different directions, and I was so happy that I could be there for her special moment to tie the knot with Josh.

To Japan!
In early November, my best friend Fezz headed to Japan for a year long contract as an English instructor. He had been dreaming and fighting for this opportunity for so long, and I am incredibly proud of him for seizing the day and taking advantage. Fezz is, without a doubt, the best friend I have ever had, the kind of person who is always there for you and who forever puts others first. It’s already New Years in Japan now, so Happy New Years Fezz! Hope you’re having a fantastic day 🙂 Anyone who wants to check out Fezz’s own intriguing blog can check it out right here.

Debt Free!
Exactly ten months after graduating with The University of Texas at Austin, I paid off my final student loan. I worked six months at a second job deliverying items around town and paid as much as I could possibly afford per month to get that gargantuan monkey off of my back. Working since I was 15 and managing my finances as carefully as possible for so many years, I was ecstatic to finally reach that mountaintop. This also led to me achieving another life goal of mine just yesterday, setting up my own retirement plan 🙂

9 Years
Earlier this month, on December 3rd, I hit the ninth anniversary of my ten year bet. In case you are unfamiliar with my bet, I wagered $5 with my cousin on December 3rd, 2005 that I could go ten years without drinking any carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic beverages. Over nine years later, I’m still going, and in less than a year this epic journey will come to an end. If you have wondered why I include a day counter at the top of every post in this blog, it is because those days correspond with the number of days I have been going on this bet 🙂

Emily!

One of the first group meetups I went to in the summer was a book swap at a local ice cream shop. Everyone brought their own book, placed it in the pile, and took a new one. I walked in and started chatting with a few folks about the books they brought. Only two seats away sat a spellbinding, articulate woman with curly, brown hair and a passion for science fiction and fantasy. You guys may have figured this out about me, but I’m quite a nerd, and I knew immediately that I had to know more about this woman. As I soon found out, her name is Emily, she had recently moved to Austin, and she is one of the most social and welcoming people I have ever met. We became fast friends, with me showing her around the sights of Austin and her expanding my horizons one new experience at a time. I was attracted to her energy and intelligence from the outset, and with every day around her, I was more and more intrigued by this dazzling person.

It was a couple of months before I asked her out. I was so nervous. I’m far too genuine to be smooth. Truth be told, I called her on a Monday night after I had decided that I just needed to do it already, but when I called, we ended up talking for a full hour and a half about everything from action movies to coworkers without me ever bringing it up. Finally, I just jumped in and asked, flat out. I’m quite certain that I caught her off guard, and it took a moment for her to collect herself. Never has my heart raced as in that moment, and when the moment passed, she said yes! Huzzah! Thus began an epic relationship through time and space, and in mid-October I asked her to be my girlfriend.

Between roller derbies, hiking through extravagant wildernesses, dining at some of the quirkiest eateries in Austin, dressing up like Robin Hood and Indiana Jones, nerding out about any number of topics, and countless, shared moments of infinite treasure, these last three months with Emily have been filled with happiness. I am very fortunate to have Emily in my life, and I very much look forward to what this next year has in store 🙂

I hope all of you guys have a fantastic New Years, and I’ll be back soon!