Saturday, November 27, 2021

Omnicron (imagine spooky music) and gratitude

The World Health Organization has declared another variant of the Covid virus that is "of interest" and it has been given the name Omnicron. Stocks tumbled, markets shook, countries began to block borders in anticipation of another round of death and upheaval. As Rob Wallace pointed out, he told us so. It is impossible to leave the world unvaccinated and then to be SHOCKED (cue the handkerchief) when variants show up.  

But what does anticipation of Omnicron have to do with gratitude? Some people say, "I'm for [something terrible] because [something good]," which leads to the logical question, maybe we just misjudged the first event or leapt to a conclusion or something like that. In fact, why make judgements? I have judged exercise as a bad thing and how did that work out? Not well -- now I have to exercise AND improve my terrible attitude. My doctors are giving me that "very-sorry-to-say-prognosis-not-good-because-you're-a-jerk" look. If you can't judge exercise, what's the point of judging anything? 

But even if we don't JUDGE Omnicron, that doesn't get us to gratitude. No it doesn't, except that Reverend James Forbes reminded me today of the man who'd been sick for so long and to whom Jesus said, "Pick up your bed and follow me." And the sick man got out of bed and followed Him.  Now, as they say, if that don't beat the Dutch. 

Last night, which was Friday night, my family gathered for Thanksgiving. It was a day late because one of us had a Covid exposure and we had to wait for the right time to do the tests. Everyone was flexible, something we learned in Covid. The cooks were relaxed and had a day of rest before the cooking marathon started. We didn't sweat the small stuff, like running out of cinnamon or not having a lemon -- a relaxation of rigidity we learned in Covid.  Then point is -- it's all mixed together -- the tragedies of Covid and the plethora of useful experiences are a package -- a LIFE package, we might say. The yin in the yang and yang in the yin, to note a fundamental truth about how it works, big picture. 

I'm quite sure Omnicron arrived because we didn't listen to Rob, but we can also be grateful that Rob is reading the tea leaves as fast as he can and telling us the future -- we could listen and vaccinate the world. Learning is slow: maybe we needed this epic failure to learn to listen to Rob?

In the meantime, poet Michael Lally loves to quote his mentor who said, "Michael, if you get a check, say 'thank you, God.' And if you get a bill say 'thank you, God.'" Don't waste time judging: you might miss the big picture. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

K-drama: Cream Rises

In my twenties I was obsessed with The Whole Earth Catalog. I studied its pages and imagined doing all the crafts and activities laid out on the pages. I really enjoyed the inset boxes labeled "Cream Rises." These underscored items that were special in one way or another. As milk that had not been homogenized was something we had from time to time, cream rising was a vivid image for me. 

I recently re-watched Romance is a Bonus Book, a K-drama that tackles discrimination against mothers in the workplace. It is built around the transformation of Cha Eun-ho and Kang Dan-i's lifelong friendship into romance. There is one scene that rises in my memory, like cream rises from milk, to borrow from Stewart Brand: Cha Eun-ho's celebration scene.   

Dan-i, struggling to get back into the force after raising a child, hides her qualifications to get a job at the publishing house co-founded by Eun-ho. When her omission is discovered, she is forced out against Eun-ho's strenuous opposition, and after she anonymously enters a contest for new publishing ideas. On the day that the contest winner is to be revealed, Eun-ho sits at the computer to link the winning entry to the entrant's name. He reads it, abruptly stands up, says, "I'm going to get some coffee," and walks out of the room, leaving his colleagues to learn the news for themselves.  

Eun-ho goes to the office kitchen, puts a pod of coffee in the coffee maker, and begins to take in the delightful news that "oori Dan-i" has triumphed in this way. He shakes his head in disbelief, he grins, he does her favorite power pose, and finally just lays his head down on his arms in delight at the magical affirmation that has been offered -- balm to the suffering of the woman he loves. 

I think Eun-ho's savoring of Dan-i's triumph is key to the whole situation story.  It is, indeed, a story of "cream rising," as Dan-i over and over again shows her skills and commitment. Yet the social opposition because she is re-entering the workforce nearly kills her. The story, in giving her an opening, asks the Korean futurist question, "What if we give people a chance?" The answer is clearly magical. It reminds me of a review in the Times of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which asks the Afrofuturist question, "What if we hadn't destroyed Seneca Village, the black community leveled to make Central Park?" 

If we don't destroy people -- if we love them and give them a chance -- we will blossom and have joy unimaginable, just as Cha Eun-ho has in Dan-i's affirmation. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

K-Drama: Word Play

This article made me wish I were a journalist, covering the Hallyu beat. Wow, to get to ask directors, writers and producers what they were thinking -- that would be a dream come true. I would want to do more than scratch the surface on such tantalizing tidbits as this:

“When we made ‘Mr. Sunshine,’ ‘Crash Landing on You’ and ‘Sweet Home,’ we didn’t have a global reaction in mind,” said Mr. Jang, who worked as co-producer or co-director on all three hit Korean Netflix shows. “We just tried to make them as interesting and meaningful as possible..." (emphasis added)

What did Mr. Jang mean by "meaningful"? That is what I would have asked. In the meantime, I'm enchanted by meanings that are wrapped up in these shows and eager to understand them. Left to my own devices -- and the subtitles -- I'm sometimes at a loss, as with a strange scene in Hometown Cha Cha Cha. The heroine's father said something to the hero, Hong Du-sik, which caused him to back away and walk off in shock. The subtitles said, "It's not funny to me, you bastard." But the father is smiling and his wife says to him, "You like him, don't you?" 

Happily, Professor Kyla Park, who is my Korean teacher, explained that what the father said was a word that could be translated "you punk" or "my little baby," something that is said to children. 

Reconstructed, the whole exchange is: 

Father (to Hong Du-sik): Why do you speak to me informally?

Hong Du-sik: It's my philosophy, I think it's friendly.

Father: Not to me, "my little baby." 

Thus, the father, who had been shocked by Hong Du-sik's informality since first encountering him, trumps Hong Du-sik's friendliness, and at the same time, makes it clear that Hong Du-sik may date his daughter. Hence, the dad can drive off with a big grin on his face and his wife's observation, "You like him, don't you?"

I could be wrong about how the scene plays. I do think it introduces a small piece of meaning that shows up over and over in K-Drama: the joy of turning the tables. Ri Jeong-hyeok turns the tables on Yoon Se-ri (more than once in Crash Landing on You), Yu Ji-ho turns the tables on Lee Jeong-in (One Spring Night), etc. I love these small moments. I find myself chuckling over them, and appreciating the balance they offer to the world. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

K-Drama: What Jae-in Learned

One Spring Night, like much of K-Drama, has many layers. One of the intriguing small stories is that of Lee Jae-in, the younger sister of the show's heroine. In the finale, Jae-in sits by the river with her boyfriend, Park Young-jae. He asks what she is thinking about, and she replies she's thinking about the reason for her return to Korea. He says, "You said you didn't want to study." She answers, "I learned a lesson." He is interested, but she simply offers to clink beer cans with him and looks at him with admiration. 

The central reason for her return was that she was stalking a man in France. As that was a crime, she returned home to escape prosecution. On her return, she was plunged into the dramas of her older sisters who were being abused by men who wouldn't leave them alone. The parallels to her own transgressions are profound. She had chased Young-jae at the beginning, seemingly repeating the kind of behavior that had gotten her in trouble in France. This seemed to have sorted itself out as Young-jae realized his own feelings for her, and Jae-in became calmer. It is clear that they share a kind of perspicacity for the doings of those around them. It is a new basis for a relationship, not the obsession that had driven Jae-in before. It is also clear that Young-jae is not the heavy-handed patriarch Jae-in had experienced in her father. Young-jae is kind, loyal, and accepting of others, all qualities Jae-in finds honorable. 

I think what Jae-in learned was that the freedom she was longing for was not to be found by abusing others. She couldn't be liberated from the patriarchy by replicating its bad behavior. Rather she needed to find the people who offered breathing room so that she could be herself. In K-Drama, everything is put to use. The quiet scene by the river is perhaps the metaphor that Jae-in has found a man who sees and respects her path and her right to breathe. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

K-Drama: Taking on the Patriarchy

The K-Drama, One Spring Night, takes on the patriarchy, triggered by something nearly incomprehensible to me: a taboo against a single father. As we all know the trope in Western movies of sympathy for single dads -- Hugh Grant in About a Boy for starters -- the idea that this would lead to profound social ostracism is hard to conceptualize from my life experience. A little bit like the distance I now feel about Lydia Bennett's elopement with the infamous Mr. Wickham, though I did understand it as a teenager in the time before the sexual revolution.

OK, so it's hard to grasp, but I can accept a premise. A woman meets this man and falls for him and his son, as anyone would -- they are that delightful. She decides to face the censure and marry them. First she has to break-up with her boyfriend -- no biggie, right? But there again the story veers into territory that is way outside of my experience. The boyfriend says, "You can't make that decision. I have to save you from the error of your ways." He recruits his father and her father to help him, carrying on for many episodes about setting the wedding date. 

At this point, the seven key women in the K-Drama begin to show up for our girl, to help her resist the demands of the patriarchy. It is complicated, because the male oppressors are also the dads, boyfriends, friends, and at least one -- the ex-boyfriend's dad -- is an interesting character. There is also a lot of support from other men who, like the love interest, are younger and not inside the power structure. 

While the outcome is never seriously in doubt -- there is too much joy in the relationship -- breaking through the patriarchy is not trivial. South Korea emerged into capitalism very recently, so the old feudal Confucian systems of fealty has a greater hold there than in other places. Our heroine is fighting against cobwebs of the past. Her younger sister, who has studied in Paris, is the untrammeled voice of the new: defend your true feelings, she says, thus echoing Hamlet. The chaos of capitalism cannot be contained in the trappings of the old system. Just as I lost track of Lydia Bennett as the culture shifted, people will lose track of the old ideas. "Young people have it so easy these days," old-timers will say, not even really understanding how the old rules evaporated. And these days, people start to be old-timers at about 25 when they don't understand the technology anymore. 

It is important to consider here the "why" -- why is it so terrible for a man to be raising a child? I think that in itself is an act that takes on the patriarchy, because childrearing is a woman's role. And if we reject gender-defined roles, what next? You know -- people will reject gender, a fear that is inflaming the rightwing in the US. There was a great photo in The New York Times this morning of a teen band that is on the verge of making it big.  The caption said, "One narrative has characterized the band as 'just a group of five white guys,' [band member] Bassin said, 'I'm not white and Gus isn't a guy.'"

Members of the band, Geese, from left: Max Bassin, Gus Green, Dominic DiGesu, Foster Hudson and Cameron White. Photo by OK McCausland for the Times.

This train of thought clicked with a piece from the American Medical Association about the experience of abuse among medical students in the US, which was associated with burn-out and regret for the career choice. Medicine, when I was in school, was a very "Polite White" affair, run by white men in shiny loafers. A few were openly racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Most stuck by the genteel work-arounds. I protested not being selected for the medical honor society, AOA, even though I was awarded the Franklin C. McLean Award as top minority medical student in the US. The answer was that I didn't get honors in medicine, and it was medical school, or had I not understood that? I did and do understand what he was saying: If you're Black, get back.

The great joy of One Spring Night is in the creation of a new family, in which the child is the first to say, "We're family." More power to them all for taking on the patriarchy!

Wednesday, October 27, 2021


My family recently lost a friend, Juan Rosales, whose brilliance and deep love had enriched our lives profoundly. All the emotions you might expect have been kicked up by this, from the most "respectable" (reading C.S. Lewis on grief) to the least "respectable" (you know, the competition for "most bereaved" that sometimes happens in families). My approach in this moment is to practice what I call "two-sides of the coin," feeling the loss but trying to pair it with the joy. 

This is a practice I stumbled on in the aftermath of my nephew Avery's death from leukemia. That night, my niece Jaden wrote on a blackboard, "Avery met Leo!" meaning Leonardo DiCaprio. I realized we all had that choice -- to remember the incredible joy of Avery's life, or to pine for the loss, or maybe to feel both, like knowing a coin has heads and tails. 

Jaden said recently that whenever she thinks about Avery's good fortune, it makes her smile. Whenever I envision what she wrote on that board, I smile -- it was incredible that it happened and so right with the kind of luck Avery had. Of course, the huge luck was part of the loss and weighed the grief with all the "would haves..." But the luck was also part of the joy, as he strode through life accomplishing so much!

Juan was the same. I thought of him on the Supreme Court -- of course, the Supreme Court of a slightly more evolved USA -- and I still love to imagine how much fun those hearings would have been with Justice Juan on the bench! It makes me smile, even though it didn't really happen. I could regret that we didn't get to see that -- and of course I do -- but the sheer memory that I knew someone so gifted makes me laugh with glee. 

So I think, if I were going to write a book on the subject, I would write a book on grief::joy, and put them together. This is what I wish I'd known at 20 when my father died, sundering my world and setting me adrift for ten very long years: that one day I would have such joy that we had the complicated relationship that we had, that it would be the great treasure of my life. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Talking with Allison Lirish Dean: Oori Consciousness Meets Main Street

Allison Lirish Dean has a podcast series called "Ear to the Pavement," organized in cooperation with Progressive City.  We talked about my book, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All, in episode #20. Allison talks to lots of people and is an astute observer of the city. She poses questions that I find profound. In the course of our Main Street conversation, we talked about the deep fragmentation in the American scene and the need to find solidarity. In that quest, Main Street plays an important role. Main Street is organized as a crossroads of all of us. It offers the opportunity for us to know one another without being acquainted. 

It is a koan, one might say, that this setting in which strangers pass one another on street has the capacity for us to come together as a nation.  Buddhist teacher, Dr. Marisela Gomez, explained koans as short statements or stories that wake us up because we cannot follow them in our usual linear thinking. The most famous, perhaps, is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I add my Main Street koan to this genre. 

Because Main Streets DO bring us together, they offer us a path to the emerging consciousness in which the importance of the collective takes center stage and we will be able to think our way to sustainability. At the very end of the podcast, I explained to Allison about "oori consciousness," borrowing the Korean word for "WE" to name this emerging way of thinking. As someone raised deep in American individualism, I can't say I understand the sense of WE that I can glimpse in K-Drama. That doesn't mean I can't see that the path forward runs straight thought oori consciousness -- that is, if there is to be a path forward, that's how it has to go.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

K-Drama: Anatomy of a Crisis

K-drama revels in peeling the layers of a crisis so that we can see the individual moving through the morass of uncertainty. Pharmacist Yu Ji-ho, the hero of One Spring Night (봄밤), is a single father, a scandalous fact in South Korea. Yu Ji-ho was managing his situation by suppressing his feelings -- a solution that can't last. The show carefully watches as he moves to the moment of falling apart, graciously then letting us see his repair. In this careful study, we can see the "anatomy of a crisis": the initial conditions, usually set before the show starts, which create the uneasy resolution; the challenge; and the recreation of the self. Shows partition the parts differently, but successful shows take us on this journey and offer some ideas about the management of each part.  

The initial conditions are set by some trauma. In One Spring Night, the trauma is the abandonment of Yu Ji-ho and his son by the child's mother. This places Yu Ji-ho in the position of social outcast, though he is diligent, even conformist, and did nothing to merit such judgement. He uses his will to control his emotions and manage the day-to-day slights and arrows of this. He shows the fortitude of the bear who, in order to become a person, spent 100 days in a cave eating mugwort and garlic. The bear became a person and the mother of Korea. 

The challenge to Yu Ji-ho's fortitude comes as he falls in love with Lee Jeong-in. She loves him and fights against the stigma that surrounds him -- a version of the Rapunzel story we met in Rookie Historian. As Lee Jeong-in tears the barriers down, Yu Ji-ho becomes more and more exposed. The growing anxiety leads to the falling apart of the fortress of fortitude and the deep hurts and insecurities are finally spoken. 

The recreation of the self is accomplished in the society of loving people, first and foremost Lee Jeong-in, but also her family, his family, his friends and his co-workers. While he has been viewed harshly, his long endurance and sweet personality triumph. That he enters this new world without bitterness is remarkable: he states a number of times that he has refused to be angry or resentful about his situation. In the end, everyone is crying with joy that Yu Ji-ho, his son Eun-u, and Lee Jeong-in can become the family they long to be. 

Principles -- like the refusal of resentment -- drive the person's path through the uncertainty. We have no guarantee that things "will work out." We are offered the security of character, tested by fire. One of the assumptions of character, which has no real US equivalent, is what I call "oori consciousness," the existence of a "we" that is larger than the self. Yu Ji-ho has been pushed out of oori by his circumstances, but he never gives up on oori. His loving stance makes it possible for his ferocious girlfriend to bring him back in and it's that deep feeling of reconnection that makes everyone weep -- like snapping wooden train cars together. One can almost hear the "pop." 

In this regard I note that the pharmacy at which Yu Ji-ho works is called "Oori Pharmacy." It is translated as "Woori Pharmacy," though to English-speakers who don't understand oori, it's probably no big deal. 

In the US -- lacking "oori consciousness" -- we limp through crisis and have less access to the spiritual healing of being embraced by the collective. I have long thought that our society is birthing a new consciousness, though I lacked the word for it. In that revolution in our thinking lies the hope of salvation in this place and time.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

K-Drama: One day at a time, forever

I just finished re-watching The King: Eternal Monarch (TKEM). One has to pause to say that Lee Min-ho and Kim Go-eun are mesmerizing as individuals and as a powerful partnership. OK, that out of the way, what I asked myself was, "Given that K-drama is all metaphor, what was this really about?" There are deep threads throughout, helping us think about fate and destiny, both about the paths our lives take. I am giving a talk as a "model scholar," which has caused me think about my own life and work. Influenced by TKEM, I would have to acknowledge how overdetermined my work has been by the set of family, community and world issues into which I was born. 

Yet the path is also determined by the steps we take, and in that regard, we can choose to accept our destiny -- we can work with circumstance. In TKEM, the lovers can only have a long-distance relationship. They commit to this, and adopt the strategy that they will live one day at a time, forever.  They fill their time together with small dreams and adventures, so that every day is what it can be. They part without dramatics. Michael Lally, faced with a difficult situation, will always suggest, "Don't make a big deal about it." This is useful because it helps the brain move on from the intense experience. 

We are in a situation that has some of that tension. A note from Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster puts our larger situation in context:

Less than a decade ago there was a virulent debate on the left on the question of “catastrophism.” A number of influential socialist thinkers, including friends of ours, charged Monthly Review with having exaggerated the dangers to humanity arising from the accelerating planetary ecological crisis induced by capitalism. Fast-forward a few years to the present, in which we are increasingly confronted in our daily lives with a chain of catastrophes, including record heat waves, persistent droughts, out-of-control wildfires, megastorms, unprecedented floods, torrential rainfall, glacier melts, and sea level rise, combining in myriads of ways to threaten every region and ecosystem on earth—with the prospect that under present conditions this will only get worse. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has alerted the world to the dangers of the spread of zoonotic diseases across the globe, resulting from the economic destruction of critical ecosystems and the interface of this with agribusiness monocultures and global commodity chains.

We are in a long-distance relationship with peace and tranquility. So the question becomes, "What's there to be GLAD about?" It's a good question, and so thoughtful of TKEM to be so concrete about finding joy in circumstances that might defeat one.  More to follow on this question!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

K-drama: Hong Du-sik and the crack in everything

I am watching Hometown Cha Cha Cha whose "new episodes every week!" have kept me on the edge of my seat for some weeks now.  When we first meet our hero, Hong Du-sik, he comes across as arrogant, competent and devoted to the residents of his small seaside town.  We quickly learn that he has PTSD, but the source of his night terrors is a closely-guarded secret.  It's possible that Grandmother Gam-ri knows, but no one else. The village respects his privacy -- per Robert Frost, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." But as the heroine arrives and falls in love with him, we see that he is profoundly stuck.  He is deeply ashamed of the events that precipitated the PTSD and so vacillates between pulling her close and pushing her away.  He can't help but love her and she can't help but think he should tell her what's up.  His defense is crumbling quickly, and then people arrive who know the story.  In a very public attack, his shame is exposed.  

Happily, we're coming to the end of the new-episodes-every-week.  A great thing about K-Drama as an art form is that stories end.  It is often referred to as soap opera and a common question when one googles a K-Drama is, "Will there be a second season?"  Netflix creates this problem by labeling the shows "Season 1." But as far as I can tell, the situation story has been finished, and it's on to the next.  It's a very satisfying form, which avoids the neurotic repetition compulsion so beloved in American TV.  God forbid anybody work through their issues and get on with their lives!  K-Drama is just profoundly interesting because it focuses on the crack in the brittle defenses that have worked for a while, but are insufficient for getting through the crisis at hand, whatever that is.  As Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." So we must be joyous to see our hero disintegrate, held as he is by a loving girlfriend and devoted community.  We have great hopes that he will make it to the other side, with a new lease on life, the PTSD behind him.  

This happened to me. My own version of the patched-over crack was the very brittle resolution of the trauma of changing schools when I was 7 years old. It never worked very well, but fell apart with a one-two-three punch of illness, divorce, and displacement from my beloved office.  I was lucky to have the care of a community that reminded me that I was loved, not because -- to borrow from Leonard Cohen -- I had a "perfect offering," but rather because I was. They were not afraid of the crack and welcomed the light that shone through. While Du-sik (lucky guy!) is going to be a new man in two episodes, it took me a couple of years to get through that. Those years were not so fun -- on one of the worst days, I totaled my car driving through a stop sign. Metaphors abound. 

What made my situation so brittle was the lack of faith in the world -- I thought I had to keep going by drawing on my unaided will. That was not enough to overcome my fears. What would be enough? I needed a deeper source of strength -- I had to find my faith -- as one friend explained to me, "Gratitude is the way forward from trauma." That strikes me as totally paradoxical and totally true. On the other side of the upheaval and re-working was that thing that had eluded me since I was 7: a sense of belonging -- belonging to a family, a house, a job, a congregation, a neighborhood, a troubled world. 

It's the troubled world that can learn from Hong Du-sik's crash. We can't keep the secrets or hide our shame. We are loved by God and other people -- and even the elephants, my friend Dominic Moulden assures me. As another K-Drama put it, "It's OK not to be OK." We can face the reckoning that has arrived.   

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Zoom can't give you Vitamin P... Or can it?

 I have been writing about the new vitamin I discovered, Vitamin P.  You might not have heard about it yet, but lack of this vitamin might be EXACTLY what's troubling you!  Vitamin P (for people!) is needed to keep our energy rolling and our ideas flowing.  In its absence, we fall into a state of lassitude.  

At the beginning of lockdown, back in March 2020, we were all glad that "at lease we have Zoom." By now, we're over Zoom, and all I hear is "I want things to go back to normal -- Zoom isn't cutting it for me!" 

I say that this is a moment for deeper reflection.  On the one hand, the desire to rush around -- which is what "normal" was for most of us -- is winning the day.  On the other hand, the Delta variant is still out there -- tragically we just passed the mark of 1 in 500 Americans having died of Covid.  

The rational response is to take it a bit slow -- let's accumulate some data and slowly add activities, rather than opening everything at once.  (Not that Americans are rational.) 

Part of the rational response is to reflect on what we've learned about Zoom, including posing the question, "Can Zoom give us Vitamin P?" If Vitamin P is a pheromone that we have to smell, then the answer is "no." But if Vitamin P is new ideas that get our minds working, then the answer is "Yes, if we use it creatively."

Some of the things I've seen make Zoom fun and invigorating are:

  • Keeping the segments short.  I love it when people use the Pomodoro Technique to work in 25 minute segments, punctuated by 5 minute breaks.  Doctors are saying that we shouldn't sit for more than 20 minutes, so the Pomodoro Technique is a natural for standing up and moving a bit -- helps butt and brain!  
  • Having fun check-in questions.  Questions can cover a huge gamut of options, from silly to tragic. These small sharings build connection and add humanity.  Check-ins are not good for groups larger than 15 though, so this as limits.  
  • Using break-out rooms.  I asked a group of doctors to reflect on my model of Main Street as a metaphor for the organization of a hospital.  I was actually shocked at what a great job they did in the breakout rooms, using this metaphor and identifying lots of areas of social organization that might need attention.  They were attentive to my lecture, but they made something of it in the breakout part. 
  • Having people turn their cameras on.  Not everyone can have cameras on all the time, but the more the merrier is a real thing in a Zoom room. 
  • Accepting that Zoom is what it is.  It's not a walk in the park.  But it is a great tool for connection, and one we are just learning how to use.  Like many other parts of life that not all we want, we have to learn to accept and even have gratitude.  Every time you want to complain about Zoom, take a moment to imagine this: we went into lockdown and there was NO videoconferencing.  
While we are in this "GO SLOW" period, I suggest that we re-connect with the utility of Zoom, and explore the ways in which it can help us get our daily does of Vitamin P.  

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Are "new ideas" the real "Vitamin P"???

In an earlier post, I announced my discovery of "vitamin P[eople]" -- the essential nature of seeing other people in person.  Of course, the exact nature of vitamin P is not yet known -- it could be a chemical, like pheromones, that is smelled.  But an interesting article in New York Times opens another suggestion.  Claire Cain Miller, in an article on the utility of casual conversations at work, reports that casual, cross-fertilizing conversations have their most important utility in getting projects started.  Once started, individuals workers can bring projects to fruition. One example she offers of this is a water-cooler  conversation between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, which laid the groundwork for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against SARS Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. 

In our shelter-in-place life, our networks contracted. Not only didn't we see the people we would have seen at the water cooler, but also we didn't see all the people we used to see at big meetings, like faculty meetings or church services. For many people, Zoom was not a substitute, on the one hand, and, on the other, a great it was a great excuse for skipping a meeting. "It doesn't work me" became the "dog ate my paper" equivalent to a getting-out-of-meetings free card.  As someone who has been absent from many meetings that "didn't work me," I have lived this experience. 

But in my shrunken network, new ideas and experiences are hard to come by. I had a face-to-face encounter with exactly one entirely new person over the past year or so.  The well from which I drew inspiration has dried up, and I was languishing, as many people were.  My daughter moved in for a bit, in-person classes resumed, I got sent to physical therapy (punishment for being too sedentary during Covid), my storage unit got flooded by Hurricane Ida and suddenly my life and networks have opened up again.  And along with all that, new encounters have sparked new ideas. It is like an expansion of the old adage, "Move a muscle, change a thought," which we might rewrite as, "Encounter a person outside your close circle, and spark a new idea."

Can it be that "having a new idea" is what defeats languishing? That the encounter outside the small circle of our intimate lives is Vitamin P? As they say in science, "More research is needed." 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Aesthetics of Equity

In Root Shock, the first volume of my urban restoration trilogy, I proposed that the key to a just and sustainable future was an "aesthetics of equity." In such an aesthetics, we would find the signs of inequality to be unattractive. For example, we would not celebrate the beauty of something because it was gilded. Nor would we love a statue that paid homage to someone who violated our values. 

We have taken many steps in the direction of this aesthetics in recent years. One that I read about in the New Yorker -- "Britain's Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker Narrative" -- was particularly shocking. It gave details of the ways in which slavery created the wealth to build fabulous mansions.  The article made the case that seeing the story behind the wealth made the oohing and aahing over its trappings a new experience. The illustration that accompanied the article said it all, juxtaposing the iconic drawing of ship packed with people to be sold into bondage with a father and son traipsing through a mansion to see its splendors.  

In a somewhat similar vein, an article by Roberta Smith in today's New York Times about the painter Chuck Close explored how we might think about his work in light of the revelations of sexual harassment. Are we to stop looking at his paintings because of those revelations?  She argues perhaps not, though we should know his story.

I have thought about this issue a lot because it was revealed that my most beloved college professor -- Dr. Herbert Aptheker -- had molested his daughter Bettina. Dr. Aptheker's work is of monumental importance, but we can't just brush aside his crimes. Had he been convicted in his lifetime, he might have gone to prison, served time, and re-entered society, as millions of people are now doing. Are we to never forgive any of them? Will we discount whatever they do because of their crimes?

This is why we need an aesthetics of equity. I do think that the question of forgiveness for crime will find a place in this philosophical endeavor. There is much to be explored. In the meantime, we can look skeptically at the houses of the rich and famous and wonder where the filthy lucre came from.  

Just as yin and yang are opposites, but always in relationship to one another, might we have an aesthetics that is non-dualistic, which sees good and evil as parts of the whole?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

What is Vitamin P and how do we treat Vitamin P deficiency when the Covid numbers are shooting up?

I have discovered a new vitamin: Vitamin P.  Two observations led to this discovery. 

First, my daughter came to stay at my house. I am on a tight timeline of summer work [yuck!] so at first I thought this would throw me off course. I was shocked to discover that the simple presence of another person around the house increased my efficiency one thousand percent. This was completely counter to my predictions. 

Second, a friend of mine was in tears, saying she couldn't get off her couch and was in a serious depression. I asked about her trip to Arizona the previous weekend,  "Oh I had a great time," she replied.  Now, in my book, serious depression does not let up for trips even to great places: it's socked in.  So my mind started scrolling through the reasons one might be tied to the sofa, thinking life is meaningless.  I was reminded that I was in a similar state on Monday when my daughter was gone, but got out of it on Tuesday, when she dropped by again.

That is when I made the historic discovery of Vitamin P and I don't mean Flavonoids, which will have to move to F or Fl, I mean Vitamin People.  I am a person with a Masters in Nutrition. I love the stories of the discoveries of the vitamins. I am very proud to be adding one to the list.  The point here is that the discovery of a vitamin depends on several factors. A vitamin, by definition, is a chemical that our bodies can't produce, but need to function.  We discover a vitamin by recognizing the deficiency and by "curing" the deficiency by supplying the nutrient. Vitamins have been discovered long before there was mastery of the chemistry to isolate the chemical, as with the discovery that limes prevented scurvy. In this case, I don't know what the chemical is that is supplied by People. I am convinced that there is one. 

Back in BC--Before Covid--when people were around all the time, we only had glimpses of the power of this vitamin. Eric Klinenberg's study of deaths in the 1995 Chicago heat wave pinpointed social isolation as in the pathway to demise. Other studies have said that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking. 

But the removal of normal social exchange from all our lives -- this is the kind of "natural experiment" that scientists find reveals much about the hidden workings of the world, including the myriad ways in which we are hive beings, unable to function well absent the buzzing of our hivemates.  

The question of how to supply Vitamin P is a difficult one. We know that, despite the downsides of isolation, people have made some adjustments to it, and are hesitant to re-emerge into society. We also know that, thanks to our gross mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, we are now a new wave of illness caused by the highly infectious Delta variant.  

The steep sweep at the end is a very big problem, compounded by the incredibly stupid decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to monitor "breakthrough" infections, among others.

So what are we to do for a nation with Vitamin P deficiency, on the one hand, and risk of Covid infection, on the other?

This is where Klinenberg's observation about social networks becomes crucial. Not everyone is as isolated as everyone else. People who are in motion--and getting more or less enough Vitamin P--need to reach out to the people at home alone and get them out of the house: take them for a walk, for openers, to an outdoor restaurant for coffee, and eventually, as they build tolerance, to an outdoor concert. Take it slow. An hour a day with one person will be great at the beginning. And encourage that person to reach out to another isolee for the walks-coffee-concert series.  

I just want to be clear: we have to have our vitamins EVERY DAY.  This includes our Vitamin P.  I believe that the chemical is transmitted in person--think pheromones--so Zoom is no use for treating this problem. Getting a nation off the sofa is a challenge, but I think we can do it. Outdoors, slow re-acclimation to the Vitamin P, and daily dosage are the key.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A cup of coffee on the dock

Molly Kaufman and I are visiting friends in Lodi, New York, which is on Seneca Lake.  We are staying in a small cabin with a deck that hangs over the lake.  This morning I made a rather perfect cup of Peets coffee and sat on the deck with my laptop.  Molly brought her laptop and coffee to the deck and we did some work, while also scrolling the New York Times, and answering a few emails.  It was the kind of summer moment that one remembers all winter.  The dock -- like a hotel balcony in Johannesburg overlooking Grant Street -- struck me as the perfect place to sit and write a book.  

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Redlining and Trees

The observation that the redlining imposed on American cities in the 1930s affects tree cover now is more and more widely appreciated.  This terrific piece in National Geographic includes a fantastic video about the topic.  Worth a read!

The piece also explores how to examine cities for the places of the haves and the have-nots, using the "transect," a walk along a boulevard that cuts across the neighborhoods.  Fascinating photos!

Bloomberg News/CityLab collaboration produced a superb report on the redevelopment of the Lower Hill District in Pittsburgh, a pivot point for the future of the historic African American neighborhood of The Hill -- famous as the setting of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.  My favorite line -- the project overall will be $1 billion dollars -- $50 million is slated to go to the residents of The Hill, who have suffered decades of displacement and disinvestment.  The developer said, "I think that's more than fair."  It's slightly better than the $15 million that was being bandied around by some developers who talked to me a couple of years ago.  But FAIR???? Have they completely ignored the news????  Did they visit The Hill????

In order to see this in your own city, you might find the article on "map twins" interesting -- a Chicago project to introduce people who have the same house number but live on different "sides" of the north-side divide of Madison Street.  It would be an interesting project to replicate, if your city has a nice long transect that cuts through a variety of neighborhoods. 

Some advice on building a healthy society by the leading American epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health.  At the heart of his advice: fairness.  

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Kdrama: Why did Ddol-bok and So-yi have to die?

The awesome website, kdramabeans, is my go-to site for step-by-step action of whatever kdrama I'm watching.  I'm one of the those people who looks at the end of the book soon after I start, and kdramabeans offers me that opportunity.  So I was intrigued when I read posting on episode 24 of "Tree with Deep Roots" and author questioned the deaths of the two young lovers, Ddol-bok and So-yi, 

I’m left to wonder why they couldn’t have just actually lived, and why that final scene we were shown truly couldn’t have come to pass. Did their deaths really change anything? Were those deaths necessary to propel the story? Not really.

First a bit of background -- this show is about the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong in 1446 -- even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  This is a formidable feat, the making of a phonetic alphabet, easily learned by Koreans but also accessible to foreign students (I got the basics down in 59 minutes).  This drama centers around the ruling class's opposition to universal literacy. Ddol-bok and So-yi are servants who play important roles in the creation and dissemination of the language.  

Why do they die?  Could they lived modestly and happily ever after, having played a role in Korean history?  

Who knows what the authors were thinking, but I think all kdrama is metaphor, and therefore their deaths stand for a larger truth.  In this case the truth that the drama is exploring is the wisdom of the people.  The head of the opposition argues that the people will are protected from sophistry because of their lack of education.  They will be more vulnerable if they can read.  King Sejong doesn't buy that argument.  He replies that maybe sometimes, but not all the time, echoing Abraham Lincoln who famously said, "You can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."  In the meantime, the chance of literacy is a chance for dreams and hope.  

It is that dream for which Ddol-bok and So-yi are willing to risk their lives and die with pride.  Do they have to die? Well, of course not.  But their deaths signal the stake that working people have in literacy.  All working people have struggled for literacy, certainly including African Americans.  So I identify deeply with their commitment to this deep cause.  Ddol-bok and So-yi stand for the wisdom of the people in fighting for literacy and the chance to dream. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Small Pleasures

On Tuesday I bumped into some issues of aging. I felt discouraged and trapped by the inevitably of getting older and sicker. I slept well, but woke up in much the same sad, hopeless mood. One of my first activities was reading Father Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, which had the title, Choosing Love in a Time of Evil.  He quotes from Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  Frankl noted:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision [emphasis mine], and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

I know Viktor Frankl's work well, yet it shook me up -- it reminded me that I, too, had choice. I did not need to surrender my humanity to my troubles.  

With that in mind, I went about my day, focusing on the famous glass half-full.  When depression tugged at me, I pushed it away. After dinner, I found myself shelling roasted, salted pistachios for dessert. Each nut required that I push the two sides of the shell apart and scope out the nut meats. I was chewing on my third or fourth nut when I realized that I was sublimely happy. My problems had not changed since the day before, but my perspective had opened up. If someone in a concentration camp could hold on to their humanity through troubles, then so might I. That's the theory -- but sitting in my kitchen cracking pistachios, I had some proof that I could do it. It wasn't an automatic thing. I had to make the choice. And I had to push away my unhappiness throughout the day. The work, however, allowed me to recognize the pleasure of eating some nuts. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Coronavirus: India Under the Hammer

The New York Times has run a special section devoted to the lives of those we've lost to Covid-19. Today, in the print edition, it was devoted to people in India who have died, including a young American who was living there. 

As has been true throughout the year, we have lost dynamic people whose talents were devoted to making the world safe and fun for all of us.  It brings the tragedy home.  

Several of my friends are closely connected to organizations in India that are responding to the crisis and here's their advice on organizations worthy of support. 

Nupur Chaudhury recommends these:

This org is near and dear to my heart, and I continue to do service work in honor of Daxa Patel, who passed away recently. Working with her in rural health camps was my first job out of college. They work deep in the rural areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were very involved in helping displaced families during the construction of the Narmada Dam. They continue to hold my heart as I continue to work to integrate service in my life. 
You’ll see that their website is bare bones. Don’t let that deter you from donating. 
Where to donate (USBased 501c3 to accept donations ):
If you do donate through PayPal, feel free to include a note saying that you were “referred by Nupur Chaudhury” so that they know it’s a legitimate donation—they don’t have a ton of donors. 

Manav Sadna
I worked with this org in the slums of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They work mostly with the dalit commuity, and work out of Gandhi’s old ashram.

Latha Poonamallee shared this:

If you are looking for a trustworthy grassroots organization to help rural India, I would strongly recommend Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India. 

I have been involved in this organization from 2001 and know them intimately. Their ground game is exemplary and they have the infrastructure to reach nooks and corners of their part of the country through their networked parallel governance organization. Their leadership is morally upstanding and you can be assured that your donations are being put to good use.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Coronavirus: A Year of Cooking with my Daughter

I love Eric Kim's piece on a year of cooking with his mother, which he called "a masterclass in Korean Home Cooking." No children would move home to learn cooking from me. Their father and stepfather did the cooking, while I happily and occasionally baked -- to great acclaim, I might add.  Paul Hollywood is my idol -- 'nuf said.

This pandemic forced me to confront this lacunae in my homemaking skills. My daughter Molly took over my food life in gentle steps, first of which was bringing me food in those days when my age group was in lockdown and we were all living in terror of the unknown. Given raw ingredients, could I make something? It was a tad grim at first. Gradually, the meat-and-potatoes recipes I'd learned at my mother's side all fell into place. Beef stew, spaghetti and meat sauce, meatloaf -- you see the pattern here.  I ventured into lentil soup and rice and sweet potatoes.  

Then we went on a vacation for two weeks and I got to cook at Molly's side. She was at the beginning of a cooking adventure.  While we were at Plum Island, meals featured the fresh produce and amazing ice cream and bread that were to be found.  Chocolate milk ice cream, fresh corn on the cob. The house we were renting was equipped with a grill, reputed to work once you got past the cranky starter. Molly insisted I work this thing -- I was ready to quit when the starter acted up, but she powered us through that. We made hamburgers and hot dogs and veggies on that grill and ate on the porch overlooking the ocean. We were satiated.  We were not afraid.

As we returned, the second wave took off, followed closely by the third wave.  We had to stay close to home.  Molly took up cooking with real seriousness.  She tried many recipes, investigated cookbooks, bought new spices.  She regularly shared what she was trying with me, by which I mean, we talked about it, as we rarely got to eat together.  We subscribe to the New York Times Cooking app, and discuss Sam Sifton's advice on a regular basis. She encouraged me to try certain recipes that she thought would be easy and satisfying.  Thanksgiving was a time for experimentation, as was Christmas.  We could only share in our small "pod," which put certain constraints on, for example, the number of pies we might bake.  The many satisfying discussions of stuffing were topped by a terrific meal.  Molly got me a Challenger bread pan for Christmas, which is one of the best presents I've ever received.  

As we come to the end of this year, I find that I am a very different cook.  Mainly this shows up in how comfortable I am in my kitchen.  My pots and pans are friends.  I can throw a meal together from what I have in the refrigerator.  I can steam, boil, bake, braise, sear, grill.  I chop with ease.  It doesn't always turn out well, and that usually happens when I get too freeform.  I'm much better off with a recipe.  But some things are so clear to me that whatever variations I try they work.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I could not make a decent pot of rice and now I can.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I rarely ate green leafy vegetables of my own volition.  Now cabbage, kale, collards and spinach are friends.  I even harvested dandelions from my garden and threw them into the pot of collards I was making.  I know how to freeze and unfreeze.  I can make a shopping list.  These are good things.  

The year of cooking with my daughter has been a master class in "try it, you'll like it."

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Happy Mother's Day!

I am in the process of packing up my research team's papers, which are set to go to the archive at Columbia University.  In the midst of the stacks of old transcripts and drafts of papers was a paper bag with things that belonged to my mom, Maggie Thompson.  At the bottom of the bag were a bunch of small pieces of paper.  I went through them very carefully, like a '49er shifting for gold.  Almost all were her to-do lists.  But one small piece rewarded my efforts: it was a joke that she'd gotten on the internet, printed out, cut off the parts of the page that weren't relevant, and then folded.  How it got into the bag I don't know.  I do know that the joke was so typical of my mother's sense of humor, I had a flash of her laugh, which was a delicious feeling.  

Here's the joke.

96 year old draws a bath.  She puts one foot in and pauses.  She yells to the other sisters, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"

The 94 year old yells, "I don't know.  I'll come up and see."  She starts up the stairs and pauses.  "Was I going up the stairs or down?"

The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters.  She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful."  She knocks on wood for good measure.  She then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."

Happy Mother's Day to All! 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Coronavirus: The Day's Check-In Question

Check-in questions had gained traction in meetings before Covid struck, but they seem to be essential to building cohesion on Zoom. In a meeting the other day, my daughter Molly proposed the question, "What's something your family taught you to protect you from scams?"

It turns out that my family has quite a few stories and expressions on this topic. Molly mentioned my dad's saying, "You have a have a big ear to hear the big lie." I grew up knowing about and listening for the big lie. As a psychiatrist, I've cultivated my ear as my profession requires hearing what's between the lines. 

Revisiting those sayings reminded me of others. My mother loved a saying of an organized she worked with in the 1940s in Jersey City. When people were proposing preposterous ideas, he would say, "If we had cake, we could have cake and ice cream, if we had ice cream." I don't know why this saying always struck me as so happy. Perhaps because getting cake and getting ice cream always seemed possible.  

One of the expressions I am fascinated by in Kdrama is "by my side." While my image of love might be of an adoring lover gazing at the beloved's face, the image in the Kdrama is that of the lovers going through life side-by-side. "I hope you will stay by his side," Gu Jun-pyo's sister says to Geum Jan-di early in Boys over Flowers.  

It is hard to notice that this was interesting and got me thinking about so many things. That is certainly the challenge of Covid, in the slow progression of days. The experience of "excitement" has to fit my circumstances. As my mother always used to say, "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors." I hasten to add, she meant this ironically. But Covid has taught me to say it in a new way. "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors, tiny bits of joy that make this day unique."

Monday, April 26, 2021

Kdrama: Gu Jun-pyo's lunchbox

Probably the most striking change in my life during Covid is watching television, which I basically never did before and now do every day. I'm not very handy with all the controls, but my remote has a "Netflix" button. After I tired of American TV and Brit Box, I thought, "Why not try one of these kdramas Netflix is always advertising?" The rest is history, as they say. I have been thinking about my profound love of melodrama -- which these writers completely anticipate -- and how satisfying it is to worry about these fictional characters whose lives will move to the next thing in 16 or so episodes even though mine will not.  

Lately I've been caught in a love-hate relationship with Boys over Flowers. Very chaotic -- the two lovers at the center of the drama rarely had more than two calm minutes of connection before the next crisis took off. This disturbed my sleep, as you might imagine. The only saving grace was that Yoon Ji-hoo was devoted to Geum Jan-di and always showed up to her rescue (and mine). Not that he got to have the girl in the end... 

This is not the kind of tidy show that Crash Landing on You is. This was more like the erratic brainstorming of people who just needed to find the next fix of terror for the audience. So a question like, "Why does the plutocrat Gu Jun-pyo love commoner Geum Jan-di?" can never be answered except maybe "It made good television." But there is one exchange on this topic that is helpful. She asks, "Why me? I'm not cute, or smart, or wealthy." He replies, "I have all that: I'm handsome, smart and rich. I don't need anything. So just be you." Which evades the question -- what is about her that has captivated him?

I believe the answer lies in the humble lunchbox, which shows up, by my count on five occasions, and leads me to assume that the archetype here is the Snow Queen. The frozen boy immediately recognizes the warmth Geum Jan-di exudes and sees in everything about her life the possibility to be engaged and friendly -- literally, to be warm. He wants to eat her lunch from the first time he sees her with her lunchbox. He asks her to make it for him. The first time she does, he has been dragged off by the Snow Queen. She sits waiting for him: eventually Yoon Ji-hoo arrives and takes her home. The second time they do get to picnic and he loves the lunchbox, but it is the occasion for her to say she can't take the no-holds-barred battering she is getting from his mother.  (This image is from Cooking Gallery)

An aside: She's actually not that forthright -- his mother's attacks on her friends are more than she could take so she retreats. These shows are very roundabout and key people may or may not ever know what's "really" going on. People have to have their own moral or emotional compass; alternatively, a very strong friend network will suffice and might share the news. 

The third appearance of the lunchbox is not in person, but in Geum Jan-di's recounting to the Snow Queen what her son likes. Gu Jun-pyo has been injured in an accident. As soon as he is pronounced out of danger, his mother turns to leave. His sister screams at her, "Do you know anything about your son, like what he likes to eat?" Of course she doesn't. As she walks away, she suddenly feels weak and sits down on a bench. Geum Jan-di sits down next to her and explains that Gu Jun-pyo likes to go on a picnic and have rolled eggs. Geum Jan-di smiles with deep joy at the memory. The Snow Queen, who has done her best to destroy Geum Jan-di, feels the warmth of this young woman: it is the exact moment when the ice in her heart melts.  

Gu Jun-pyo recovers from the accident but has amnesia about Geum Jan-di. The fourth appearance of the lunchbox is Geum Jan-di's effort to get him to remember her. She leaves it by his hospital bed while he is sleeping. Gu Jun-pyo recognizes the taste. Unfortunately, a snow princess (the fifth!) has snuck into the action and claims that she made it. He falls for this, of course. He likes it so much he asks her to make it again. In the fairytales this is when her falsehood would be discovered, but not here. Snow princess pulls off the deception for a bit more. This fifth appearance of the lunchbox was, for me, the most terrifying of all the terrors in the 25 episodes of the show, because snow princess would freeze Gu Jun-pyo for good. So much evil. Geum Jan-di finds the way to his heart and all ends as well as it can in kdrama, which falls short of my standard for happily ever after. And perhaps especially with this anxiety-provoking show -- can we please let these two have a couple of years of joy??? 

Back to the humble lunchbox. In another scene, Gu Jun-pyo insists that Geum Jan-di make him her special ramen. She brings it to him on fine china. He says, "Where's the lid? I want the lid." By this he means he wants to eat it from the pot, using the lid as a plate. His joy at eating it that way is world-encompassing. These small objects -- the lunchbox and the lid -- enable him to be alive in a way that is denied him in his silver-spoon world. At one point, his sister, recognizing the dilemma he is in, asks, "How far will you go?" Meaning "Will you give up all this?" The survival of his family depends on his answer, and ultimately he finds a way that is consistent with his principles. 

As my favorite reviewer noted, Boys over Flowers is rough, but ultimately I am grateful for the experience. I wish I could have watched it in 2009 with all of Korea -- it was a tad lonely to go through all this melodrama on my own, which is why I'm sharing it here! And that's a wrap! 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Coronavirus: Yellow Daffodils on a Gray Day

Yesterday it was gray and sometimes rainy.  Sitting in my kitchen, I caught a glimpse of yellow daffodils, their bright color intensified in the setting of dull skies.  It seemed to me a metaphor for what I have looked for every day in this long year of Covid-19.  A year ago, in the first shock of lockdown, I took photos every day of the lilacs that were coming into bloom.  It was, I thought then, a spiritual exercise to follow the small changes, appreciating each day's advance to full bloom, full perfume.  On the Kdramas I watch, the practice of saying "thank you" -- like the practice of saying "I'm sorry" -- is emphasized.  People say, "Thank you for getting well."  Or "Thank you for being here when I got home."  It's very much gratitude for the grace of presence.  And so yesterday I said to the daffodils, "Thank you for being here."  And as the daffodils fade, the lilacs will bloom.  I didn't know, before this year, why gardeners think so deeply about the flow of bloom and form throughout the year.  Now I know that it means that everyday there is something to remind me of hope, something that gives me a chance to say, "Thank you."

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Coronavirus: The Long-Handled Spoon

I was reflecting on the ultra-marathon we've all run over the past year when I received an email from Nicole Crooks of Overtown, Florida.  She wrote to thank me for the 400 Years of Inequality timeline and my work on root shock.  I was very touched to receive a note from a stranger who'd taken time to find my email and write some kind words.  

It reminded me of a story I once heard about a man who visited Hell and Heaven with an angel.  Hell was horrible.  Everyone was at a banquet, but starving, trying to get the plentiful food into their mouths, but the spoons they were using had handles too long to fit -- they kept missing their mouths.  Then the angel took the man to Heaven -- same setup, everyone at a banquet table, same long-handled spoons but everyone was having a great time. "What's different?" the man asked. The angel replied, "They've learned to feed one another and so get fed themselves."  The long-handled spoons worked perfectly for giving food to another person.  

If we were running a marathon, there would be people lining the side of the course and handing us cups of water as we went by.  There's nobody outside this marathon who can hand a runner water -- we're all runners.  But what if we thought of this as a problem of long-handled spoons?  Nicole, from her own goodness, gave me a sip of kindness.  What if each of us could share out a bit of kindness with another? I don't think we'd say, "Wow, this is Heaven," but I do think each day might be a little easier and we'd emerge from pandemic state in better shape.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

Coronavirus: The loneliness of the long distance runner

Sarah Lyall, writing in The New York Times on April 4th, 2021, noted that the long-term stress of the past year had created a state of lassitude and forgetfulness in the millions of us ungrounding from our "normal" lives.  Forming memories and formulating plans are equally difficult in this state, as is finding the way to be joyful and energetic.  She concluded:

"But in general, your guess for how to make this strange time easier is as good as anyone's.  'I don't know,' one person wrote [about what to do]. 'If you find out, tell me."

I loved this article, as it answered the question that has been on my mind: why are so many people I know feeling miserable?  I do have ideas, of course, for how to manage what she describes so precisely.  We have a combination of several challenges that, taken together, create the "loneliness of the long distance runner." 

The first challenge we'll call the "finish line" problem.  A colleague of mine, Rebecca Jordan-Young, wrote a book about testosterone.  In the course of her research she met a lot of world-class athletes.  She learned that the hardest aspect of a race for sprinters to master was to aim to run past the finish line.  Otherwise, if they thought the finish line was the goal, they'd slow down and add seconds to their time.   We can see the finish line out ahead -- tantalizing us -- but we have to aim past that point.  Because we aren't finished with the work of this pandemic until we've rebuilt the country.  

The second challenge we'll call the "depletion" problem.  Too much stress depletes many parts of the endocrine system and leaves us weak.  We have nothing left for the ongoing stress.  This is a time when people fall apart, both mentally and physically.  This is compounded by the finish line problem -- we can't just stop just yet.

The third challenge we'll call the "loneliness" problem.  This year of sheltering in place has left us very lonely, not just for hugs from loved ones, but for the general feeling of the madding crowd.  The frenzy of people bustling through the train station or shopping on Main Street is a feeling that echoes deeply in the human soul and which we have missed enormously.  Our offices we might eschew, but a ball game would be great about now.  

How do these three problems come together to offer us a way forward?  It makes me think of the 1962 British film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  This was shown at the art film house in my youth.  I saw it on Main Street in East Orange -- I think the theater was called the Ormont.  It is the story of a teen rebel, ready to pay the price to defy authority.  What comes to mind, at this moment, are the scenes of the hero running through the countryside -- just alone.  

In long distance running there are moments of profound exhaustion -- one hits a wall, as we all have at this moment -- and one has to run through such moments.  The image of that young man running and running is comforting to me.  And, I know from the film, he finds strength in running.  It's this that is part of the solution -- we can connect with the strength that gets called up by this kind of trek.  

We also have to respect the depletion of our stress management systems.  For those of us in North America, we are in luck because the sun is rising and the days are getting longer.  Get out and get some sun.  Dig in some dirt, even if it's just a pot.  Feel the wind.  Commune with the insects that are waking up after a long sleep.  

Finally, forget whatever you're thinking about "this will be over."  If there was ever a time to keep it in the day, it's this time.  Getting into this mess was very fast, but getting out will be much slower -- more like evolution than revolution.    

A long distance run is a time of altered consciousness, it's a time of stress, and it's a time of loneliness.  What the film reveals to us is that it's also a time of discovery.  The hero of the film is able to use the challenges of the long distance run to get perspective on his life and he uses that knowledge to come to a decision -- he refuses to comply with authority, despite the personal cost.  I'm not advocating that as a choice, I'm just saying that percolating in each of us on this particular ultra marathon is some precious knowledge about life that will help as we enter the "what next?"  

Don't miss the chance to hear what the universe is telling you about running a great race -- it might not be the answer you expect, but it will be the right answer for your life.  Enjoy the run!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Tao of Kdrama

I believe that Korean situation stories hold much relevance for people seeking enlightenment.  When I watch them, I laugh, I cry, I learn.  Here is the "Tao of Kdrama" I laid out to reflect on what I'd learned.  It's a listicle.  

1. “I'm sorry”+bow

Life means always having to say you’re sorry, Erich Segal notwithstanding.  Everybody in Kdrama says it all the time. 


2. No excuses. 

This is shocking to me, as crafting a “good” excuse is second nature.  Traffic, the paper-eating dog, Covid (the master excuse) – whatever, there’s ALWAYS a reason.  Nope, they don’t offer a reason, just an apology.  See #1.


3. Gossip is necessary. 

Happily, since you can't offer the excuse yourself, the friends tell all and it straightens out many a difficult moment.  Consider this from Crash Landing on You: Yoon Se-ri has missed her flight because she had to save Captain Ri’s life.  He wakes up and yells at her that she wasn’t on the flight, for which he has risked his life.  She says, “I'm sorry” and flees the room.  The nurse and doctor come in.  The nurse says, “You and your girlfriend are perfect for each other – thank goodness she has your blood type, you might have died.”  Captain Ri gets out of the sick bed, goes to find Yoon Se-ri and gives her a kiss. 


4. There is suffering.

Everybody has substantial trauma – a lost parent or sibling, being raised in an orphanage, abuse at work. 


5.  There is a path away from suffering.

Bond with your people, don’t be greedy, live up to your name.                                                                                                                    

6.  Shop. 

“Do all rich guys think they’re in Pretty Woman?” Eun Ha-won asks in Cinderella and the Four Knights.  Yes, is the answer. 


7.  Laugh. 


8.  Listen. 

The magic’s in the music, and often the key to the story. 


9.  Be true to your Self. 

Goo Hae-ryung, in Rookie Historian, refuses to be a princess just because she loves a prince.  She wants to be a historian.  There’s no path forward except one’s own path. 


10.  Chop vegetables. 

Everybody can cook and so can we!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois's "Litany for Atlanta"

As result of the 1906 Massacre in Atlanta left between 10 and 100 African Americans were left dead. Wikipedia notes, "According to the Atlanta History Center, some black Americans were hanged from lamposts; others were shot, beaten or stabbed to death. They were pulled from street cars and attacked on the street; white mobs invaded black neighborhoods, destroying homes and businesses." Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, penned "Litany for Atlanta." It seems appropriate to revisit Dr. Du Bois's words as we mourn 8 people killed this week in Atlanta.  An excerpt from the original:

 A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance!
    Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!
  In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears and held our leaping hands, but they—did they not wag their heads and leer and cry with bloody jaws: Cease from Crime! The word was mockery, for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.
    Turn again our captivity, O Lord!

Friday, March 5, 2021

Our Rehab: A Mushroom on the Seder Plate

I want to propose adding a mushroom to the Seder plate this year.  

My Seder plate from 2010

I want to start by noting that "Our Rehab" is a new topic for my blog. We are coming out of the pandemic with three metrics: hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations. But those fall far short of capturing the misery of the past year.  What are the numbers of mothers depressed? Evictions hanging over people? Low wage people who's employers went out of business? Main Street businesses that closed? Elderly who didn't exercise and are deconditioned? Children who fell behind in school? People who discovered that they didn't want to work as frantically as they had? New gourmet cooks who'd rather cook than do take out?  The suffering and the ways we found to endure are the real measures of where we are at this point in time.  

When I look at those numbers, I say, "This is as serious as a heart attack!"

Well, if you or I had had a heart attack, we'd go to cardiac rehab! If we'd hit a bottom from drugs or alcohol, we'd go to rehab. If we were injured in a car crash -- as was our beloved Tiger Woods -- we'd go to rehab. You get where I'm going with this: we need rehab. "Our Rehab" is a new project of the University of Orange to ask all organizations to help us get back on our feet.  

I propose that we start Our Rehab this Passover on Sunday, March 28th. While Passover is a Jewish holiday, the Jews I know are happy to invite others over for the observance. And, having grown up on Paul Robeson singing the African American spiritual "Let My People Go," I always felt a deep identification with the story of Exodus -- I know this is shared by many African Americans, although we haven't had a festival for it.  

In Jewish tradition, the observance of holidays, and especially Passover, is a family task. Families make the meal and carry out the ceremony, using a Haggadah for the telling of the story. The meal is organized around a ceremonial Seder plate, on which are items symbolic of many parts of the story. Families can add to the Seder plate, for example families have added an orange for LGBTQ+ equality. This year, my family and my church family will be adding a mushroom to the Seder plate. Why, you might ask?

Mushrooms are remarkable organisms that represent the upthrusting of dense underground mycelial networks. They come up and then disappear, but this does not mean the underground network has died. Mushrooms are a metaphor for communities, as we require dense networks, even when the connections are not visible to the naked eye. We celebrate the moments when the community comes together to show its ability to solve problems or help the vulnerable -- when it mushrooms, we might say -- but we rely on the connections every day of our lives.  

The battering we've taken in the past year has strained our connections and taught us that injustice has put all of us at risk. We need to repair as much of that injury -- that of the past year and the past 400 years -- as we can. This is Our Rehab. Just as rehab can prevent a second heart attack, Our Rehab can protect us from future plagues, help us manage climate change, and prepare us for a just and sustainable future. If we fail to do Our Rehab, we put ourselves at risk of more plagues. It took ten plagues before Pharaoh let the Jews go free: how many will we need before we make the changes we need to make? The mushroom on the Seder plate poses the question to us: will we repair the strains and injustices that undermine our communities or do we need more plagues to wake up to these tasks?

My community will hold seder on March 28th at 4pm est: you are welcome to join us. Or join another Seder or host one of your own. Remember to put a mushroom on the Seder plate and ask, "How many more plagues before God's people are free?"