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!