Can We Talk About Guns? Can We Talk About Anything?

It’s not time to talk about gun regulation when people use guns to kill for fun, politics or revenge. It’s not time to talk about human contributions to climate change when hurricanes sustain category five winds for 36 hours or dump five feet of rain in a few days. It’s not time to talk about health care when GOP politicians are rushing a vote on damaging legislation through secret meetings. It’s not time to talk about the antiquated electoral college despite two of the last five popular vote count winners losing the election. It’s not time to talk about Russia interfering with our election because Trump said there was no collusion. It’s not time to talk with North Korea because we’re not willing to offer anything. It’s not time to talk about obesity because few will listen to a Black first lady telling them to eat their vegetables. It’s not time to talk about certain infrastructure being years past prime and needing major renovations because ‘The Wall’ needs to get built to keep out those shifty Mexicans. It’s not time to talk about university tuition indebting generations, opioid epidemics started from profiteering pharma, police and minority relations continuing to strain communities, poisoned drinking water or the incessant pollution from fossil fuels.

It’s not time to talk about anything because no one is listening! If you are a Hillary voter, could someone convince you that Trump is a good leader because he’s saying honest things that no other politician is willing to say? If you are a Trump voter, could someone convince you that Hillary was going to be good for the country because she is a powerful woman with a moderate and progressive vision for America? If you agree with Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, could someone convince you that it is a foolish objection and that any Black person killed by police must have been guilty? If you think kneeling is an affront to our flag and nation, could someone convince you that Black political, personal, social and cultural suppression is real and present in 2017?

America is becoming separated into little enclaves of beliefs reinforced by segmented and divergent media. There are the extremes of alt-right tiki torchers and antifa black masks, the religious nuts and atheist extremists, also the disagreements of city mice and country folk, with the classic Republican and Democrat finding their own corresponding information. Locked away within our personal confirmation bias of who is wrong and why, there is little room for debate with someone’s opinion because to disagree with his/her opinion means to disagree with his/her reality.

Extreme right ideas: Obamacare needs to be repealed because it was from an illegitimate Kenyan president. DACA should not be allowed because immigrants are criminals. Guns are a 2nd Amendment right and regulation only punishes the innocent.

Extreme left ideas: Transgender bathroom use or military presence represent no problems to anyone. Immigration is good no matter the country of origin. Guns are a 2nd Amendment right and regulation might stop some killers from killing.

All the above are incomplete ideas and open for debate. There should not be a razor’s edge where no reasonable answer can balance. We need a decent mesa of acceptable ranges of solutions, a place to discuss and hear the other while sustaining an openness to find satisfactory resolutions.

The recent terror in Las Vegas will inevitably result in America’s biannual shitshow of arguments after a mass murder between guns are cool beans and guns are weak sauce. The fact that we have laws against murder didn’t stop this man, but the fact that we legally sell semi-automatic rifles with scopes that can be easily manipulated into automatic dispensers of death certainly helped that man. The answer could be metal detectors in every hotel, transit point, school, shopping mall, restaurant, movie theater, and public building. The answer could be to stop outdoor festivals or any massive gathering. The answer could be restricting, limiting or even outlawing some or all guns and accessories.

Guns should face more regulations and controls but laws cannot change in America (see Sandy Hook). If every gun was taken away, those dedicated to homicide could use a 3-D printer to make their own firearms, manufacture homemade bombs and set them off at a tailgate party, drive cars into pedestrians at a farmer’s market, stab people in a crowded subway, throw acid in strangers’ faces, drive a bus off a bridge or a plane into a mountain. We know that guns aren’t the only way to kill large groups of people.

But guns are the most impersonal. I heard a Radiolab podcast that dissected the runaway trolley question. (A trolley is out of control and headed on a track to kill five workers. You can pull a lever to switch tracks whereby the trolley only kills one worker. Do you pull the lever to save five but kill one?) 9 out of 10 people will pull the lever that saves more lives. But, when the situation is changed and you have no lever, and you must push a fat man standing next to you onto the track, now 9 out of 10 do not push the man. The situation is the same, five will die if you do nothing, but most people (True fact: aside from psychopaths and Buddhist monks who both would push the man) feel that pushing a man to his death feels different than pulling a lever.

Take the gun away, and the ease of which they kill may derail some murderous/suicidal plans. While true that guns don’t kill people without a human to pull the trigger, that is some chicken and egg logic there. Would there be over 30,000 gun fatalities (2/3 of which are suicides) every year if America were gunless? Is it our unique culture of violence or our unique culture of gun possession?

We must concede that 7.4 billion humans aren’t going to live together peacefully, at least not yet. There is so much trust involved in daily interactions, utilities, internet and simple rule following that is taken for granted. In a given day I trust the water to run and flush, the electric to turn on, cars to stop for a red light, weather predictions to be accurate, chefs to serve clean food and to not be murdered by a maniac. We expect things to work neatly in our neat little worlds, in our neat little neighborhoods, in our neat little houses.

The world humans created is not always neat and is approaching a cataclysm, a future beyond prediction, overpopulation, unbearable heat waves, fishless seas, ruthless droughts, recurrent floods, unabated migrations, lethal diseases, or any combination of frightful events, including mass killings. The effects of soaring human population with capitalistic winners and losers, factory farming, loss of species and habitat and climate change will certainly have negative repercussions. That is not pessimism, that is reality; however, my dark yin is accompanied by a bright yang. Humans are more than capable of solving problems.

We’ve made a nice little domain here on Earth. We’ve created comfort with entertainment, dispensed vaccines and eradicated diseases. We’ve decreased poverty and global hunger by half in the past thirty years. We’ve sent ships to spy on distant planets, submarines to the bottom of the ocean, investigated the deepest jungles. We’ve made human life an art form. Granted, millions still struggle every day, and until they are brought out of their misery, humanity will communally suffer, some literally and others through that painful knowledge. Violence is just one more problem we seek to solve as a united society. A few governments hold the key to total destruction with nuclear weapons and individuals have the existential power to end their own or another’s life at any given moment.

The fact that people made guns to erase life, but also concocted medical shots to prolong it displays the intriguing yin/yang of a human psyche.

America has too many gun deaths, India has too many untouchables, Yemen has too many starving, Syria has too many homeless, Japan has too many suicides, Congo has too many child soldiers, North Korea has too many prisoners, and Somalia has too many pirates. All forms of tragedies are played out daily around our world. Las Vegas was a tragedy and felt like a turning point for new legislation, but I don’t think it’s going to generate firearm restrictions. The entrenched sides have been dug. It’s sad to accept the unavoidable fact that humans have killed, kill and will kill again—ourselves, each other and millions of edible animals every day.

 

Advertisements

Four Ways the World is Changing

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the vocal artist Otis Redding: “Change is the only constant (and yet) everything still remains the same.”

I feel a change lately. The changes feel negative, far-reaching and unavoidable. How can one balance an individual existence during global complications, how to protect positivity when assaulted by negativity? The reality bruising author, Cormac McCarthy, said, “Sure I’m pessimistic, but that’s no reason to be gloomy.”

Our brains have developed enormous powers in the past century. We’ve created the method with which to evaporate humanity, the power of flight and space travel, electricity, new and exciting art. We’ve explored the land and sea, investigated the human body and mind and developed powerful hand-held computers. We’ve answered ancient mysteries of physical forces and we’re only beginning to understand the possibilities of quantum mechanics and CRISPR technology, but we haven’t solved the tribal instincts which lead to racism, sexism, bigotry, nationalism and illogical hatred. We don’t know what will happen when the oceans rise or when some giant asteroid approaches. We don’t know how to solve fundamental questions of exorbitant wealth and piteous poverty. We confuse ourselves with questions of sexual identity and sexual preference in an over-sexualized world. Amid all the progress and scientific advancements of humans lies the confusion of apes shouting at a fire. We’re a few hundred centuries beyond our homo sapien origins and a few hundred decades into the Anthropocene. It’s a juncture moment. It’s a moment of bizarre dread flush with menacing omens and no new-age positivity, or Steven Pinker tome about this current peacefulness can push the horror away from the reality that things change. And some big changes are coming.

Let’s examine a few worrying trends of the 21st century and if there is room left to hope:

Politics:

We begin with our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. He’s a douchebag. A douchebag is a fitting word for him; the nickname he should have been labeled by the poor, misguided Hillary Clinton campaign. “Hillary, which do you like better, Donny Douchebag or Douchey Donny?” (Dirtbag is a good second place if you’re worried about copyright infringement from South Park.) If you’ve never used the word, you might want to start, because it’s a good non-specific insult. So, Trump, our first, and certainly not last, reality show president, was undeniably more charismatic, blunt and candid than any of the republican sloths put forward, breezed through the primary, slogged through the general election and is now schlepping his way through the White House briefings and international conferences while remaining thoroughly, a douchebag.

Donald

From: knowyourmeme.com

He’s arguably (scandal prone, uninspiring and bullyish) a crap president (and subjectively a crappy person). But, that’s the worry, crap in, crap out. How could there be 40 million people willing to vote for a douchebag with poor elocution, lacking in general knowledge with a penchant for pussy grabbing and an overall slick dick demeanor of a guy who just bought a yacht but hates the water? Crap in, crap out. American people have been fed crap literally (from fast food) and metaphorically (from politicians) that we don’t recognize crap when it’s served to us, as long as the portions are good.

I believe that there were three kinds of Trump voters: 1) Republican die-hards who’d vote for a Mexican if he wore a red tie and promised tax cuts 2) fervent anti-Clinton people who hate her “shrillness” (code: possession of ovaries) and 3) the deplorables. Deplorable was a bad choice, the phrase more apropos is “bucket of degenerates.” (Check the definitions, she meant degenerates. Degenerate means a decline of or lacking in; deplorable means deserving condemnation. We don’t need to condemn those with whom we disagree, rather just accept that the white working class is in decline and distress. Trump recognized it and jumped on it.) Their middle-class union jobs were in decline and their opinions on the world were lacking in, to be polite—elegance. “Lock Her Up” and “Build that Wall” are a bit more combative and a bit less harmonious than Obama’s “Yes, We Can” while also more specific than Hillary’s empty action feminist call to arms of “I’m With Her.” It’s the people who have gotten screwed throughout the rise of free trade, globalization and immigration. The people whose American Dream of middle class status with a middling education/skill base was eradicated by the forces of automation, clean energy or outsourcing are who became degenerated. The All-American families of Detroit carmakers, Pittsburgh iron workers, Kentucky coal miners, Midwest farmers, New England haberdashers, Carolina furniture makers, coastal longshoremen et al. have been affected by robotic techniques or cost-cutting moves abroad.

The time of immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps went away when work boots were replaced by wing tips and the assembly lines left for Asia. The new blue-collar jobs are mostly service industry with hourly wages, rarely as high paying as those salaried jobs of the 1950’s when today’s poor degenerates were just racists with good jobs. As the world changed, the degenerates watched the factories that employed their parents close. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy speaks of this loss. George Packer found this in The Unwinding. Trump gave these degenerates a voice, a condemning voice, not against them, but against Mexicans, Muslims and the “dishonest” media. Truly, it wasn’t the working poor who were entirely at fault for the colossal changes of the past half century.

CEO pay has increased 997% since 1978 while worker pay went up an insulting 10%. CEO’s are an integral part of a company; however, since the 1970’s, have they become 1,000% better at increasing sales or just 5,000% better at padding their pockets? America’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, is notorious for meager benefits and low pay. A minimum wage job in 1968 used to be enough to cover a family of three; now, minimum wage is barely enough for a bachelor in a studio apartment. Opioids were dispensed by friendly, in-the-cut doctors, addictions formed, until the development of a crush proof pill pushed street prices higher, and we get a resurgence of cheap, dirty street heroin followed by the devastating power of Fentanyl. One quarter of Americans live alone, and loneliness reports have doubled in the last decade. Government subsidies to corn, wheat and meat farmers fuel production of cheap, processed foods. A man who earns less than his father did, who can’t afford a house, riddled with back pain from a factory job that closed down, living alone because his wife left from the stress, coping by eating expensive OxyContin and cheap Big Macs is NOT the picture of health. But it may be a picture of some of the degenerate class of Americans beset by radical changes and seeking to place blame. Such bleakness may explain the rise in suicide of over 40 white men. Such feelings of being ignored by the politicians elected to help may explain the popularity of Trump.

Our president is fueling that fire of depression by blaming Chinese for stealing jobs we want (true), Mexicans for stealing jobs we don’t (also true) and Muslims for changing society (could become true). Throwing blame without solutions stokes the helplessness instead of inspiring and motivating that change could provide new opportunities. America has always been a country in flux. Immigrants did the dirty jobs, and as they moved up the ladder, they cut the rung below for the next group. However, the dirty jobs are slowly evaporating or becoming extremely unsustainable for long term development. Crop picking and animal slaughter areas employ the majority of undocumented workers. Without supportive unions or stable status, illegal immigrants will be hesitant to report poor farming or unhealthy slaughter techniques. What will low wage earners do when robots learn to pick blueberries and slice tenderloin? The problems now go up the ladder affecting all on the way, from producers to consumers—an unhealthy chain of consumption.

Climate Change:

The longest ladder of problems which will affect the whole world soon enough is the great mystery of climate change. The mystery isn’t so much will it happen, but what will happen. An iceberg the size of Delaware just calved from the Larson ice shelf in Antarctica. Icebergs break off all the time, but the increasing rate is the worry from climatologists. The calving icebergs open more Greenland and Antarctic glaciers to the open sea, followed by sea rise and pH changes. We can see the pictures, hear the stats and understand the repercussions, but we don’t really know what to do. (Removing one of the most populous countries and one of largest polluters (U.S.A.) from the Paris Climate Accords is definitely NOT going to help.)) Even if we knew exactly what to do, it would merely slow what is already occurring.

The delicate balance of modern life along the coasts, the essential farming communities in the plains and the magical medicines of the rainforest are all in danger from climate change. Extinction from climate change is part of the historical record, and humans are no less susceptible to such souring weathers just because we wrote those historical records. Arctic sea ice has reduced by 65% in the last 40 years where temperatures are soaring and by having less white sea ice, there is less reflective surface and more heat absorbing dark black water. With the extra sun in the north, the 1.8 million tons of carbon locked within tundra permafrost is at risk of melting, releasing its highly concentrated methane gas which is 34 times as powerful as regular CO2. The fifteen hottest summers of the last millennia were every summer since 2002. The warming Earth, sustained carbon release and growing population creates an existential problem for those living there.

A new film on Netflix, Chasing Corals, following the name brand of 2012’s Chasing Ice, where the latter used time-lapse to watch evaporating glaciers and ice sheets, this movie uses photography to witness the changes in our life-giving oceans. The oceans that consume a substantial amount of our CO2 emissions, provide a myriad of protein variations, and control the winds, waves and weather of our world are struggling to maintain homeostasis. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef was lost to bleaching in 2016 alone. The statistics are shocking, but it’s hard to understand what it means for one person thousands of miles away. The largest coral reef in the world provides tens of thousands of jobs, billions in tourist revenue and a home for many ocean creatures. The ocean is a gigantic cycle from plankton to blue whale, from mackerel to dolphin; thus, if you cut a rubber band, it loses its functionality and you chuck it. We can’t afford to cut the bands of the ocean cycles.

American Exceptionalism:

In America, far from the bleaching corals of Australia and the melting icecaps of Antarctica, we find a nation lost between reviving its historical greatness and retreating into partisan squabbling. A partial list of our nation’s problems reads as a catalog of the stale prince, Jared Kushner’s, job description: solving Middle-East peace, fixing the opioid epidemic, creating stronger relationships with China and Mexico, reforming the massive, bloated criminal justice system, as well as the infuriatingly slow and anarchic VA, oh and if you have time on Friday can you make the U.S. government function less like an elephant picking flowers and more like a business?

Those are not small issues for an amateur; they’re some of the biggest concerns for our century. Things that require life experience, negotiating experience and diplomatic tact might not be in the wheelhouse of that little stooge. He’d be better off locked out of the Oval Office thinking of solutions to problems more suited to his skills–like creating the first flak jacket blazer.

It’s hard for me, as someone who’s been away from America for around seven years to truly understand the vibe there. Reading and watching news paired with first-hand accounts from friends and family seem to paint the same picture. Things be cool, but things be cray. It may stay like that for a while, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, a terrorist will slip past those talkative TSA agents, or a natural disaster will hit, or another stock crash will come, or some hostile foreign country will make a blunder, or most likely of all—Trump will misjudge, misfire, mistweet, misstep, misspeak or mistake his egocentric thoughts as solid policy and we’ll all pay for it. In this hyperbolic world of crises, stable leadership is needed, but no president is going to save the planet, no group of informed citizens under a clumsy acronym is going to change the world, and no amount of planning can predict the unknowns. Essentially, we all have to remember we’re carbon blobs, floating on a blue ball of iron, gas and water in one of millions of galaxies and nothing really matters.

A.I.:

Artificial intelligence is the greatest example we have of a self-inflicted punishment or pleasure. If we are successful, we find The Jetsons—robots cooking, driving, cleaning, and teaching us; and if we fail, we find The Matrix—robots using our body heat for batteries. Self-driving cars are coming, and they will erase the need for millions of jobs around the world of loquacious men wearing vests. There may be a way to make robots do our dirty jobs too. Those horrible animal slaughter jobs, or backbreaking farm jobs may get automated eliminating the need for low wage immigrant labor. Fast food burger artists and French fry pouring employees with be extinguished in place of a stable A.I. who never calls in sick. Nursing may become an industry of waving a multi-purpose wand over the patient and interpreting the results. Teaching might transform into a professional internet guide, leading students to self-guided informational sites and waking them up from their virtual reality lessons because the robot bus is here to drive them home to a meal cooked by a microwave bot before watching social media events on their corneal implants until their internal clock releases a wave of melatonin proscribing the necessary amount of sleep for their individual metabolic function.

The benefits of an automated world are tangible. But, with the loss of so many service industry jobs, manufacturing, nursing and teaching, we’d be forced to find a solution for such extreme unemployment. That answer is a universal basic income, an idea kicked around for centuries and recently espoused by governor of the internet, Mark Zuckerburg, during his Harvard commencement address. It would allow all humans a guaranteed income on which to live despite not “working.” Handcrafted everything would become normal as more people could create their craft. Carpenters, artists, welders, photographers and anyone with a talent could pay rent and eat even if they didn’t get a contract that month. Let the robots cook, until you want a special handmade ravioli from the restaurant down the street. Let the robots teach grammar and the creative writers lead weekend retreats of fireside poetry readings and fictional character studies.

If we figure out ways to curb climate change by using our ingenuity such as science fiction answers like carbon filtering clouds or even the pragmatic switch to renewable resources, will we find a livable equilibrium? If we make desalinization cheap and comprehensive, will we worry less about droughts and access to clean water? If we manufacture robots effectively to be helpful instead of the Skynet Terminators, will we have a cheap workforce with millions of new jobs in computer tech and robot repair? If we replace the worries of 99% of workers living paycheck to paycheck with a standard of living given to all…that’s something I can’t really imagine what will happen. Will we reach utopia? Will racism stop when we all find ourselves on a level playing field? Will hatred for immigrants stop when countries unite into a singular currency?

I just don’t think it’s currently possible for seven billion people in almost 200 countries with two million years of evolutionary tribal hatred bred into us to magically swing it around and live together in John Lennon’s imaginary world. There’s too much competitive testosterone. There’s too much jealousy. There’s too many limited resources. There’s too much religion. There’s not enough desire to give without taking. There’s not enough tolerance.

It’s human nature. But, as we incorporate more robotics into our bodies and lives, melding into relative cyborgs, perhaps our negative human responses might be replaced with Spockian logic. Maybe things will change—they always do.

“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” –Chinese proverb

Losing a Pet

 

img_4554

Her name was Hanil (하늘). In Korean, it means “sky.” She was a Shih Tzu, which in Chinese, I imagine means “Sits on You.” She loved to sit on me. If I was on the couch, she was on the couch; if I was in bed, she was on my foot mat. Before she got sick, she would try with grunty zeal to jump up on the couch or bed. She followed me around the house and barked if I closed the bathroom door. She followed only me on dog walks. She needed no leash, because she never strayed from my feet. When we drove, she would jump across the dead man’s zone of used cups and chocolate wrappers in the elbow console just to get to my warm lap. She was brown and white with big black cataract eyes. She used to roll and rub all over my scattered clothes trying to absorb the smell. She loved me and I loved her back.

Hanil was fifteen when she moved into our new apartment this March. Jordan’s mom couldn’t take care of three dogs alone, so Hanil came to live with us. She got along with the two boys, Hershey and Alvin, but used to try to eat their food if they were too slow to the bowl. She loved food. She ate in gulps. She ate everything you put in front of her. She had recently gotten mouth surgery to fix a broken jaw. Now, all her food had to be soaked in water to allow it to soften because chewing was no longer an option. She still ate well for a while. Then, when she stopped voluntarily eating, we had to feed her with a small syringe. Jordan would cook vegetables, eggs, and meat, then blend them into a healthy slurry. I’d hold her head tight as Jordan tried to slyly sneak the food into her growling maw. We knew she was really sick if she didn’t want to eat.

She got sick in the kidneys and used to pee almost hourly on the tiled bathroom floor so we could wash it down the drain. I’d hear her little feet with overgrown toenails clicking her way on the hardwood floors to the bathroom. We’d have to wipe up her feet after to prevent pee prints, and that includes the midnight hours. She was so sick and could barely jump up the raised step out of the bathroom. I’d give her a little push from her belly.

The vet said she had very little chance to live because of how far along the kidney disease was. We took her for a last trip to the beach. She did okay with the heat of the day and chill of night and relished the chance to sit on my lap for extended sessions of Korean weekend traffic. I complained about the traffic, but should have just enjoyed the lap time. We don’t always realize the impermanence of life while stuck in traffic. When we got home, I researched the internet and found a cocktail of Azodyl, kidney purifier, and vitamins B & C could help. After one day of treatment, her faced perked up, her step got bouncier, she started eating again. She still looked old, but was acting young. We got our hopes up.

I ordered another three-month supply of everything, since she was doing so well, I could save on the shipping. The hot summer days and humid nights passed as she snoozed in the A/C, she slept by my bed, sat on my lap for preseason football, we went to the park, we walked at night, she barked for me to open the bathroom door, and things seemed normal.

The disease was stronger than the medicine. On Thursday night, I took her out for a moonlight walk. She used to keep up with me, only stopping to pee or poop. This time, her head was down and she was just going through the motions, a sort of mechanical walk. She wasn’t sniffing the bushes or wandering around, she was just trying to keep up. She didn’t pee or poop. I picked her up, rested her on my arm, she wrapped her front paws around my wrist and we went inside.

Friday morning, I’m rushing around after walking the boy dogs, brushing my teeth, styling hair, drinking coffee, taking morning pills, eating yogurt and getting dressed in my daily rush of daybreak. Hanil usually followed me from task to task. That day, she only made it to my closet to say good morning before laboring back to her bed on top of my workout shorts.

At work, I got a message that Hanil was very sick and needed to go to the hospital. She’d been to the hospital a few times before, got an IV drip and was released. Cautiously optimistic, I went to my Friday night work dinner with all the teachers, but left early to try get to the hospital. Hanil was resting.

Saturday afternoon, we got to the vet clinic after a big pizza lunch. It was clear something was different. Her head didn’t leave the pillow when I touched her. Her back didn’t arch when I rubbed between her shoulder blades. She was very still save for breathing.

We sat for a few hours beside her little cage. I was under the impression she was going to get better again, so we went upstairs to hit golf balls at the fenced driving range to relieve some stress. Later, I took Hershey and Alvin, who had been patiently waiting in the parking garage all day, out of the car for their night walk. I got slightly lost meandering thoughtlessly, thinking of the little pup’s life with us. I thought of how, years ago, when Jordan and I were first dating, Hanil sat with me, creating a calming influence for me in a strange new house. I remembered, during my interview for James’ TV show, Hanil sat with me on camera, giving my nervous hands something to do. I thought of all the naps I’d taken with her as an armrest. Basically, if I was in her vicinity, she was next to me. She’d given her love, affection and attention to me constantly. That’s the thing with love from pets, it’s always there, so you think it will always be there. I got back to the clinic around 22:00. Jordan managed to get us a private room. Hanil was still hooked up to the machines and randomly twitching from the ammonia poisoning that was now soaking her insides. The odor was pungent and upsetting.

An hour passed, I had to move the car out of the garage and feed the dogs dinner. Moments later, I got an urgent call beset by panic. “Come in, Hurry!” The mind doesn’t prepare you for death’s horrorshow. Hanil was receiving CPR and in the process, her eye had nearly burst out of its socket, her white tongue hung listlessly out of her sad jaw and they were pressing upon her chest in a brutal, rhythmic pulse. I exclaimed curses and begged them to stop. The last few minutes were terrible as I waited for someone to translate to me what happened. But, I knew.

Back in the little private room, we wrapped her in a blanket and sat sobbing. I wanted this terrible day to end, so we began the 70-minute journey to World Pet, a crematorium near the ocean. In the countryside, crying and confused, Jordan asked, “Where is she now?” I began a sentence when from our right, out of the cornfield, a meter-wide wing span swooped in front of the car, forcing us to brake in terror amid our stunned screams. It was a beautiful owl. We cried and trembled in fear before imagining a wonderful thought. It was our hope than Hanil traded in her sub-par eyes through re-incarnation for the animal kingdom’s best.

World Pet had a nice, clean candlelit altar, incense hung in the air. The man brought us a small box into which we placed a flower and her body. A long, lugubrious half hour later, we had a tiny urn and box which read “Hanil is in the origin of the soul. September 11, 2016.” The general burden of that date was not lost on me as we exited to the sound of deep rolling thunder. There was distant lightning as a misty rain fell. The rain fell harder as we drove away. It stopped suspiciously quickly after we mentioned how it felt like Hanil was crying with us, and the road was dry the rest of the way home.

Our little apartment was full of painful reminders: Tupperware full of blended foods, medicines and syringes scattered on the table, mesh shorts piled in a cozy circle beside my side of the bed, wet tissue for cleaning up accidents. I was home, and finally able to cry, unabated into my pillow.

The sun rose in a gleaming yellow flood upon our living room. We hugged and stared the distant gaze of loss that all pet owners feel at some point. We whimpered in sadness and tried to assure ourselves of her good life. We grieved and thanked her for her love. We wondered if she heard.

img_4555

img_3872

img_3836

img_4517

img_4544

Cecil the Lion and The Social Media Outrage Factor

Some Iowan naturalist named Aldo Leopold made this nice quote, which I will paraphrase, “Ethics is what you do when no one’s watching.”

Nobody was watching Walter Palmer when he boarded a plane to Zimbabwe to kill and behead a wild lion. Nobody is watching as rhinos are becoming extinct because of their horns holding possibilities as prurient penile pumpers. Nobody sees the crude slaughterhouses of America where 9 billion animals are killed every year, or the 50 million rabbits skinned worldwide for their downy fur. Nobody sees the millions of strays languishing or euthanized every year in kill shelters. Nobody noticed when the president for life of the astonishingly poor Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, butchered elephants, antelopes, impalas and a lion to celebrate his 91st birthday in February. That is: until it goes viral.

Social Media offers a great opportunity to the young, restless, constantly outraged and perpetually inactive young generation. We can teach each other about injustice, deception, inequality or discrimination with an idle click of a “Share” or a “Retweet.” Raising awareness is the new achievement of success. But really, what comes next is the important part—acquire information, form a plan and act. The ice bucket challenge of last summer was a way to self-promote yet still feel altruistic. A rare and virtually unknown disease needed money for research, the right links were “shared” and the ALS Association’s coffers were $100 million richer. Joseph Kony was the most hated man in the world for a few days in 2012, and I haven’t heard about him since. A few million people shared a link and it raised awareness for the Invisible Children situation in Uganda. Cecil the Lion’s martyrdom brought a new sensitivity for animal conservation. But those actions were easy and done with a click. To fix race relations, poverty or take on corporate America, we’ll need some real action heroes.

Turn on your Facebook and you’ll see some of the outrage du jour. Last week was about Cecil the Lion’s numbingly pointless murder in a destitute African nation. Yes, it really sucks that some hunt animals for sport, but when the unemployment of Zimbabwe hovers around 90% and the meager food staple of the host country is a bland corn mush called “mealie-meal”, can you blame locals for allowing if not encouraging the chance to take some wild eyed white man’s money in his daft search for the crown of the king of the jungle?

We read the tales, feel the anger, share the story, and then move on to the next victim of public shaming. The lion killer Walter Palmer’s business and house were made public and subsequently trashed and vandalized. He’s an idiot with a stupid hobby, but should his life have been ruined for a legal, if immoral, hunt? What if we reacted like that to the U.S. foreign policy? What if we egged the Capitol, spray painted congressmen’s cars, threw pig feet on the White House lawn and demanded that more than the paltry 1% of the federal budget be spent on foreign aid to help poor countries like Zimbabwe struggling under an autocratic despot whose negligence, avarice and mismanagement of the farming system has all but crippled the country. Their inflation rate in 2008 before abandoning their currency was a staggering 80 billion percent. They actually printed a 100 trillion note. What kind of changes could we enact in the world? Probably whatever was trending and fomenting #outrage that week.

What if we demanded action in America? What if we learned the true reach of lobbyists, cronyism and big money’s position in politics? What if we sincerely wanted to help the struggling food stamp consuming masses? What if we got serious about slowing climate change and curbing pollution? What if we re-invested in education? How can we get people as mad, restless and eager for action for those positive changes in the world, as they were to vilify one man’s hunting exploits?

For what will we use this new power of global outreach? Absolutely, saving wildlife is important, but certainly, we should be concerned for not only our own species’ survival but also the realization of ending poverty and hunger or equal rights or access to clean water or demanding reusable power. What change would you like to see? Ricky Gervais’s Facebook page jump-started this shaming of big game hunters until its climax found a face with that proud, dead lion and the world leapt onboard. Perhaps there will be a renewed interest in wildlife conservation. But, there should concurrently be a newborn interest in the fate of Zimbabweans. No amount of conservation of animals is worth starvation of people. Now that we can see the power of social media and our collective voices, what do you want to change?

Photo: The Independent

Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.37.51 PM

What Happens When the Person You Love Is Abusive?

I tried to write about this before and didn’t like the outcome. But, the fact is, this issue is important to me. Today, October 1, marks the 3-year anniversary of when I landed in Seoul, Korea. I wasn’t just a post-grad looking for teaching experience abroad. I’d lived abroad, I’d been a teacher for years by then, I’d also recently escaped a tortured relationship. I was looking for a place where nothing would remind me of the past. I found it. I found good people who thought I was good, despite what I had come to believe about myself. I found my own feet not covered with eggshells, I found my own ideas not littered with scorn, and I found my sense of humor (repressed for fear of reprisal) again. Although I could have gone anywhere, I went to Korea. Within a month, I met the most beautiful woman I know, and now our 3-year anniversary is approaching. 6 years—broken into two parts, have given me a picture of what relationships can be.

This is a personal blog. Yet, this particular topic is personal to a depth that I might never fully devolve to anyone. But the superficial details are necessary to continue. In 2008, I met a girl, we argued constantly; the stock market crashed, my job sucked; she didn’t want to break up, there were no other jobs, therefore, I stayed in my belligerent relationship and stayed in my sucky job. I lived that life for three years. Finding solace wherever I could, video games, sports, cooking, exercise but mostly in three of the best cats I’ve ever known.

This was not a one-sided abusive relationship to be clear. We tortured each other. We loved each other in ways that made no sense to someone outside the situation. We hated that we loved each other, we hated that we fought so much, we hated that we disagreed on almost everything, but we stayed together. The moments of good could get us through the moments of bad. It was verbally and physically abusive on both sides. It was mentally and spiritually draining. It was scary, stupid, but mostly boring. Who wants to have the same argument ad nauseum? Cops would arrive at our door responding to a neighbor’s complaint. Plans would be cancelled with terrible excuses because we couldn’t be seen in public. No security deposit was ever returned back from either of the two apartments due to the broken doors and holes in the drywall. The cats would run into the other room and sit right next to each other in a row with ears tucked back, eyes fully alert in our direction. It makes me cry to think about those gentle little furrballs who loved us and just wanted to lie in our laps as we all watched an “X-Files” re-run. There are more nights than I can remember of staring at the clock, after scream arguing until we both lost our voices, when no alarm clock was necessary, I couldn’t wait to go to my crappy job. Family, friends and dreams became weapons. Hopes and aspirations could only go one way—there was only enough support in the relationship for one person to succeed at a time. Someone had to constantly give and someone had to consistently take—and that is a precarious, unsustainable balance. There was never compromising, only sour capitulation.

I reached a personal limit when I literally heard both the girlfriend and my mother say to me on the same day, “Don’t you f@#%ing do this to me!” I realized when given the option to choose. I must side with my loving, caring, supportive mom. I left the relationship with a battered soul. It took years to get past the derision and contempt spouted at me with spiteful eyes from someone who I used to love. It took a brave, beautiful woman’s love and many nights spent venting over cheeseburgers with patient, tolerant friends to move in my own direction.

Then I saw Ray Rice’s elevator punch, followed by the hollow eyes and callous behavior. I knew those hollow eyes. I knew that feeling of not caring. I don’t know the immense anger to resort to full out haymaker. I would never support his actions. I also don’t think the question, “What did she do to deserve it?” or “Did she provoke it” are applicable. In those relationships, anything or even nothing can provoke abuse. Any misstep, any miscalculation of mood, any eggshell can break leaving both in a terrible mess. These terrible relationships are all over the world. 25% of women, and 8% of men in America have dealt with physical violence. I can only imagine the numbers are higher for verbal abuse. I hear people say, “Why doesn’t he/she just leave her/him?” Leaving isn’t easy. Suicide threats, homicide threats, casual threats, nasty threats, loss of children, loss of property, loss of pets, and the unknown, frightening future among others are all featured prominently in a decision to leave. That strange world of abuse has become your world, and the picture of security isn’t easily imagined. Remember, a person is at their weakest at the moment of trying to leave. The strength you feel today if you are in a solid relationship; it’s the opposite if you are in an abusive one. That’s not even mentioning the religious factor in some relationships.

Where does one turn in those times? Some have alienated their friends and family from years of defending the abusive partner. Some don’t possess friends and family. Some live far away from a support system. Some, despite knowing better deep in their heart, keep hoping for the best, that maybe, their partner will change.

Abuse lives and breathes, grows in private and rots from within. It doesn’t respect gender, race, size, wealth, or religion. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need motives. It simply exists in the dark, shadowy spaces of previous abuses, unreconciled losses, persecuted minds, arbitrarily punished, systematically brutalized and mistreated souls within us all. There is not one soul inside. There survives the amalgam of all our choices, our memories, and our awareness. The duality of dark and light lives in all things. Some push that evil darkness on others. Many lights are extinguished. Some lights escape. But the light that escapes, gains strength while always cognizant, that one heavy, horrible gust can put that light out again.

Happily, my battle ended in the light. My last three years have been as memorably joyous as my anxious brain and pessimistic outlook will allow. New and old friends seem to enjoy my company thereby giving me confidence that I may still be fun to be around. My adorable and amazing girlfriend continues to shower me with affection that I contentedly return. My wonderfully weird family is a never-ending source of strength. So, I remain forcefully hopeful with grateful moments of acceptance that such a painful past provides the prudence to part with agony, seeking the inclination to limitlessly love the who, what, where, when and why of my life.

unhappy-relationship

The Continual Contrast of Life

It had been a hard month of preparation for an “open class” where the parents of our kindergarten students come to see their children’s progress toward English fluency. We had prepared fun lessons with interactive speaking and listening activities with ample parental involvement and were now ready for it to be over. The night went perfect. All three native English teacher’s classes were fun and exciting. I was riding a high of a small success; tired from a week spent sightseeing and stuffing myself with the best food Seoul had to offer as my sister, Elianne, and her friend, Alycia, had been visiting me. I felt I deserved a pizza. Good things were all around me, nothing extraordinary, just small bubbles of happiness fizzing in my mental soda, effervescent emissions of emotional elation. I get these sometimes. The buzz of self-actualization and being happy in the place you are is a great natural high. I think it’s the feeling of first time parents, sporting champions, and cats that just caught a mouse.

I felt jaunty and jolly. I left the pizza shop with an enormous box and a gluttonously asinine grin. I saw a small woman with a crutch, walking arm in arm with another woman. I just thought it was a grandma strolling with her daughter for a Friday night saunter. As I got closer, I noticed it was not an old woman, but some sort of a Benjamin Button type situation. This was a young girl with an elderly face. She was smiling and telling a story. She walked slowly and deliberately. She might have been fully-grown at about waist height. She didn’t give the impression of self-pity, yet I still had my typical reaction of: “be grateful for everything you have and hope that she is happy.” But, I was overwhelmed. I literally wept onto my pizza box behind a dirty truck. I cried for her situation, mostly because it was hard to imagine myself in her shoes. I am so lucky to have good health, good friends, great family, a decent job, a warm home, clean water, a full fridge (stocked with mediocre pizza), a closet full of clothes, disposable income, and the ability to live a life as I determine. I assume this girl might have most if not all of these things, and I am only being superficial in thinking she is any less happy than I am because she looks slightly different than I do. But, whatever it takes to get a strong smack in the face to remind yourself that the world is beautifully flawed, an irreconcilable contradiction, with a loving detachment for all its inhabitants, the more you can appreciate any brief glimpse of pleasure.

After composing myself, I walked past the BBQ restaurants filled with jovial conversations and satiated stomachs. I saw the cars pass on their way with presumably fit humans. Girls in tight black stockings and men in tight blue jeans walked around in autumnal comfort. And I felt the pervasive oblivion that traps us inside our own trivial problems around every corner. The coffee shops, ice cream parlors, and beauty salons that give us brief connections to distill the true isolation we all feel at times. Then I heard a cat wail. He was under a garage gate and had cute eyes that actually looked at me instead of watched me like the other street felines. He was hungry. He wasn’t interested in my pizza cheese, so I bought him a tuna can and observed his hunger and my desire for a good deed be satisfied together.

I seem to have a real fascination with the modern contrast of life. The simplicity and comfort fused with the complexities and anxieties mixing us into faltering amalgams of artificial confidence and impenetrable neuroses. I suppose it’s the world I choose. Or maybe it’s the world I inherited.

People Are Strange And So Am I

            The people I see when I walk around the cities of the world simultaneously amaze, frighten, arouse, stimulate, disgust and amuse me. Some are unbearably attractive, others the kind of ugly that permeates from the inside out. Some are beautiful and life affirming in their actions, others make me feel complicit in their greed and cruelty, simply by being human. Some are good, some are bad, some are pretty, and some are not. I’m not looking to judge someone by their cover, but I am judging my own emotions and internal reactions to their external appearance and/or behavior. Without interacting or talking to these people, I form opinions about them, or just gaze in their direction in bemused wonder. Although it’s good that there isn’t one type of person or one style of person, it does make for some strangeness in my day, either on purpose or just by accident.

            On the subway today, I saw a man with a rather grotesquely oversized face contorted in a grimace with an old flip phone to his ear. He was moving his mouth like a cow chewing cud. He seemed unaware of anyone around him. I saw hundreds of women in high heels, holding cell phones in short skirts. I saw hundreds of men in varied colors of plaid shirts also holding cell phones. I saw a dirty old beggar with the heavy-duty rubber leg coverings lumbering down the streets playing that pathetic, lonely, and distant homeless man music on some raggedy old radio. I saw all the smiles of the employees of my favorite restaurant smile at me in unison when I told them the food is great as usual. I saw a diminutive old man in shabby, ill-fitting clothes using the touch screen map at a subway stop. He had that twisted face of a smile, frown and squinting into the sunlight all at once. He confused me. I caught eyes with one nice looking girl; we shared smirks. I saw families walking together, babies in strollers, kids arguing about nothing, parents happy to be out of the house. This isn’t some crazy festival day, or a holiday full of traveler’s angst, it was just a dreary September Saturday in Seoul.

            Last week, in Jeju Island, I was at a bus stop, when a woman approached me with a huge goiter on her neck the size of a tennis ball. It was highly noticeable. My friend, Alex, ran away, ostensibly to find a bush on which to urinate, but closer to the truth, he couldn’t handle her. She was grizzled, overly tan, sun-spotted and prone to staring. I thought to myself, yes, she’s scary, staring at you, holding a bag that’s dripping some mysterious liquid, but she’s probably just curious and old. I kept my face to her, while looking beyond her for the hopefully approaching bus. She suddenly spoke to me in the kind of voice in which you’ve heard cigarette-smoking snakes or dying vampires speak. A rather unsettling chill ran down my spine and settled in my sweaty shoes. She asked, in Korean, about my friend who ran away. Who knows what she said, the only word I could translate was “man” and she pointed in his direction. I managed a few polite Korean words to explain I didn’t know, but whatever information she wanted, she wasn’t going to get it. We hailed the next taxi that passed and left her at the eerie deserted bus stop as the sun slipped down over the hills.

            Not all people are pure weirdness incarnate. Some are capable of inspiring poetic lust, adoration or hedonistic passion simply by their walk, their talk or their charismatic aura. I’ve seen women that I’m certain I could learn to love and spend my life with pass by me, escaping into the ether of the daily shuffle. Their smell, or their shape, or their enchanting smile can captivate me and stay with me for any number of days. It’s amazing how much my feelings are connected to appearance. Yes, it’s slightly superficial, but with six billion people in the world, I’m entitled to some sort of vetting or examination test. I think we all do it do a certain degree. There are some people that match our internal inspection test and make us feel the wonderful, loving butterfly chills; and others that give us the creeps or make us feel the infinite sadness of the world through their eyes and we get that icy chill of mortality from them. You don’t have to travel the world to fall in love across the street or find the finite nature of society in a poor man’s empty cup; you only have to keep your senses aware, welcome your emotional reactions, and then act accordingly.

I remember this. Do you remember that?

I remember in university, taking a Toni Morrison literature class. My teacher graded my final paper and told me I didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say about identity, helping me realize how it must feel to be black and read William Faulkner. It’s not easy to identify with something outside your identity. Despite that class being my only C of my last two years of school, that teacher did teach me something that stuck with me; the idea of re-memory. That is, remembering a memory. We all tell stories from memory. Homer, the ancient blind storyteller, conveyed great epics orally from memory. But, why do we only remember some things. Why are some memories, some smells, and some moments more memorable than others?

My ex (a catalyst of my future) had three long-term boyfriends who were all born on October 11, just like me. I thought that was a crazy coincidence. Perhaps, it’s only people born on that day, when the stars align just right to make a person capable of dealing with her. Only those mid-Libra birthdays are crazy enough to be attracted and sane enough to be attractive to that particularly irrational redhead. Then, in Korea, I met David, a young man from Nebraska, very similar to myself, who was also born on October 11. Is it possible that sharing a birthday, even on different years carries some kind of kindred nexus of past memories thereby making future connections?

He left Korea earlier this year, and I took over care of his plant. Now, when I feed it, I remember him, hear his sarcasm and think of him. Not in a wistful or contemplative way, just in a perfunctory way of, “Hi, David’s plant.” I told a story of how I remember the smells of my childhood basement before we remodeled it. The musty, smoky, cool, dank smells of those spider webbed corners, those random pieces of wood, those giant water tanks, the scary African tribal masks are burned into my brain via my olfactory senses. When I hear a train whistle, I remember my grandparent’s house in the Philly suburbs and their dense green shag carpet that I was sitting upon when the main line express rumbled past Ambler’s station. I remember the smell of fire and the cold wind blowing in at dusk as we finished our peewee football practices. I remember the first moment I went underwater and took a breath with my scuba tank and felt the fear fade into exhilaration as I realized I was living among the fish for the next 30 minutes.

I don’t remember a majority of college parties. I don’t remember much from high school classes. I don’t remember the first time I ate popcorn. I don’t remember when I first saw Star Wars. BUT, I remember some college parties and the euphoria and freedom I felt. I remember Mr. McGuire describing the smell of Civil War battlefields. I remember the sound of popping corn from the kitchen during weeknight Flyers games. I remember watching the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS with my first love snuggled on my futon in my first apartment. Our brain isn’t capable of remembering everything. It isn’t even capable of remembering the best things. It remembers some things. Who knows why, or what prompts a memory to be stored away in the annals of our myriad brain folds. Presumably, our large memory banks evolved to help us remember safe caves for shelter, animal migration routes or which berries were poisonous. Without this great human trait, we would be lost in the transitory present like a nervous jittery mouse, sniffing between steps and never aware of the beauty beyond our nose. Memory gave us the ability to feel the pangs of nostalgia, the pain of loss and the glory of victory, not just once, but anytime we are reminded of it. As we grow older, how do we even walk down the street without seeing things that remind us of something? It could be a crippling feeling, engendering the “What If?” game; or it could be a liberating feeling of a life well lived and memories of which to be proud.

Two people can experience some event and remember it totally differently, thereby creating the two sides to every story maxim. Every single person alive and everyone who has passed on have had a story to tell. They all had some memories stored in their banks. In the classic Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, he says he remembers a day when he met a beautiful woman, ate lobster and made love on the beach. He wishes to relive that day over and over again instead of being stuck in limbo in rural Pennsylvania covering a weather-predicting rodent. But, he would probably get sick of that day perfect day too. Memories, like wine or denim, get better with age. Even the bad things seem to get pushed under the rug of recall. That’s how we get back into bad relationships or repeat mistakes from the past. When George Costanza, from Seinfeld, was walking up Susan’s flight of stairs after elucidating his undying love for her, he felt all the bad memories that he had blacked out wash over him in a moment of panic. It took the re-memory of hiking up those stairs to remind him that was a metaphor for his relationship with her.

This is such a large topic, and such an important one to me. I remember so many (what I think are interesting) incidents of my young life. I could write an endless scribe of strange episodes, love affairs, weird experiences, and random occurrences; however, nobody really wants to hear about your life. It’s what makes memory so important. You can play the “Remember When?” game with yourself. It does get boring though, which is where friends and lovers come in to fill in the gaps of your memories. And, you will do the same for their memories. It’s a cycle of life.

I remember so many trivial things. People ask me, “How do you remember that?” I remember movie lines word for word, sing songs from heart and have to play dumb with certain historical facts or geographical details sometimes lest I resemble a poor man’s Rainman. However, memory goes deeper than statistics or statements. It taps into our conceptions of self. We are who we are due to circumstances beyond our control, such as place of birth, parents, school, and time period. In addition to that, we become who we are from personal choices, choices made from knowledge, knowledge gained, remembered and implemented. If we forget those great moments of enlightenment from a lover’s touch, a drug induced epiphany, a random waterfall, accidental encounters, or unintentional insights into the subjective nature of our life, we are doomed to remember lesser, trivial things, like movie quotes.

The Recycling Program

The old lady ambles across the street in baggy floral pants, shuffling her tattered sandals along patchwork sidewalks pulling a large, flat wheelbarrow loaded with possibly hundreds of pounds of cardboard. People steer slowly out of her way, barely glancing up from their smartphones. Cars pause before her path; buses wait for her to cross the street, yet she is somehow disregarded as an inconspicuous piece of city life, discreetly moving among the masses. She is the can rattling along the sewer grate in a breeze. She is the stray cat mewing in a filthy corner. She is the invisible working poverty. I wondered about her. Does she have a family? Are they proud of her for continuing to work at her age or embarrassed of her lowly standing? Does she make good money recycling? Where does she go after work? I tend to think Koreans can ignore her along with the legless beggars of Itaewon and subway stations, but do they see her and feel pride or shame? Is she a part of their former provincial history that hasn’t been eradicated by modernization? Or is she just a helpful part of the trash removal system that rewards salvaging?

All the same, she is one of many familiar faces in my neighborhood. I know the cardboard ladies’ faces better than the sock sellers, cell phone hawkers and ddeokbokkgi dealers of which I pass just as frequently along my daily travels of my main street. I look at them, but never too long. They have penetrating eyes like black diamonds of vague awareness. I don’t know if those are the sage eyes of a lifetime of labor or the darting eyes of cardboard pursuit. Their wrinkles tell stories I can’t translate. Their tanned skins tell of extensive work hours my soft moisturized hands can’t possibly understand. Their rotten clothes speak of a humility most educated people wouldn’t recognize. They serve a purpose; they do their job. How long have they done this job? One lady is so hunched from pulling those massively heavy, overloaded carts that she is literally shaped like a number 7. I see them chatting together at twilight, on quiet, dusty stoops, holding their faces in their hands as they speak, caricatures of themselves, like living black and white photos of a poorer time. What do they talk about? What do people unlike myself talk about? What can permanent disfigurement caused by toil teach a person? I can learn, again, to cease any entitlement to complain and strive to be thankful, positive and respectful.