On Walking Well

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At the suggestion of some friends, I’m starting a blog.  It will be my first foray into this sort of venture.

The goal here isn’t to flex my grand writing skills or become a prolific star of the blogosphere, but only to share my thoughts with anyone who might find them worthwhile.  So thank you in advance for taking the time from your day to read them.

The overall approach will be to make concise, satisfying historical prose about random topics that I find interesting.  I’ll do my best to cut out all the filler and stick to real shit as much as possible.  And by real shit I mean the bizarre, the ironic, the wicked, the moving, the devastatingly poetic narratives found in the human experience.

People seeking only positive, uplifting content will be disappointed here.

History should be told for the purpose of absolute illumination, and if what we see is hideous and monstrous, then all the better in order to more fully understand, appreciate, and grapple with the realities we inhabit.

In my view, the more discomfort we experience looking at the terrible extremes of the human condition, the better equipped we become for dealing with life as it comes to us. Because the universe is indifferent to our suffering, we must prepare for it to close in on us at any moment.

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Analyzing the worst parts of ourselves and our world is painful, sure, but so is lifting weights.  Nobody takes issue with the fact that muscles must break in order to grow back bigger, stronger, better.

Dissecting and analyzing human fuckery in great detail is like heavy weight lifting for the brain, which behaves like a muscle in its own right.  Brains are malleable, so one must break old pathways in order to build newer and better ones, which we can then use as tools for navigating the world around and within us.

All around us is suffering of the most horrendous kind and we expect justice, but there is ultimately only a blank void looking back at us from the cosmos.  How many humans are being trafficked as slaves right now as you read this?  Who or what will save them from their depraved captors?  Who or what will save them from that sort of trauma, even if they do get lucky enough to escape their misery?  That’s merely one example of many we could point to.

To quote the late, great East Coast emcee Guru, “there’s no justice, it’s just us.”

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Our universe is indifferent, and yet everything is connected. The gush of oxytocin we get from falling in love is connected to the maggots crawling in the dead carcass of the family pet on the side of the road.  The fart you accidentally blasted next to the girl you crushed on in 7th grade is connected to the supernova explosion that occurred in the Andromeda Galaxy 4 billion years ago (which is expected to collide with the Milky Way 4 billion years from now to merge into a new massive elliptical galaxy), which is all connected to the K-pop group Girl’s Generation, who released their hit song ‘Galaxy Supernova’ on September 18th, 2013, making it damn near impossible for anyone living in Korea at the time to avoid hearing at least a few dozen times.

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With that said, the first story I’ll share is an autobiographical one about a fire in Korea. I promise this page will be dedicated to topics other than my own life, but I feel the need to make an introductory post that tells a brief narrative to help define the worldview to come out through future historical posts.

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In 2013 my wife Riki and I moved to Seoul, Korea, with our three year old son Mani and our boston terrier, Goya.  We stayed in a small apartment below my brother in law Draper, who had been living in the city for a decade already.  He made the move easier by placing us in the immigrant (or expat if you wanna make it sound like something it’s not) section of the city, an area called Haebangchon.    We used to walk around and get lost in the maze of hilly streets.  It was a fun little adventure for us, and I taught English in the posh area you might have heard of, called Gangnam.

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For the first couple months in Seoul we lived with Draper.  After Mani went to sleep, we would watch Game of Thrones together, as the movement and energy of the menacingly vast city buzzed around us.

Looking back, it was a magical time, full of uncertainty and exploration of a new culture, new ideas, and this wild show that blended good and bad, hero and villain, so thoroughly that it felt more authentic to real life than any other series before it, and it was still fantasy.

The show simply blew us away, as it did so many others.

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When Facebook advertised a build-your-own GOT sigil, I created one for our family.  The logo I chose featured an elephant, my wife’s favorite animal, and the caption ‘Walk Well Through the Fire,’ which was a paraphrased version of a Charles Bukowski line: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

(The Bukowski line had stuck with me, especially after I became friends with an aging woman who lived in the apartment below us in Long Beach.  She told me war stories about how she and her feminist group had held public debates against him and his misogynistic art, just over the bridge in San Pedro, during the 1970s.  He actually showed up and debated face to face with these women.  She said he was a true asshole.  “A good writer though,” she admitted.  She passed away shortly before we departed to Seoul.)

I made the sigil and used it as my profile picture for a while.

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A few months and too many makgeollis later, I woke up in the middle of the night and noticed smoke coming through the bottom of our bedroom door.  Upon opening the door, I bore witness to a raging inferno enveloping our tiny abode, with a pathway towards our son’s room that was closing rapidly.

Because both bedroom doors were closed and the door to the living room was open, the smoke was all filling into an area where there were no humans for it to asphyxiate.  The flip side to this is that it kept our rooms relatively smoke free long enough for the flames to make thorough work of our kitchen and dining room area, and to threaten the only path to the only door leading out of the apartment, which was fortified with cement walls to keep fires inside their apartments of origin.

In other words, the fire was moving quickly.

Adrenaline-boosted and suddenly alert, I woke Riki up and grabbed Mani to get them outside the door.  Knowing I only had time for one shot at it, I darted back inside for the canine companion, holding my breath and squinting my eyes as the smoke fought its way into my pupils.  There were only two places the dog ever slept, and I made my pick.

As my hand made a few sweeps over the top of the dirty laundry pile and felt only cotton, I knew then Goya would die.

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The next instinctual move was to ring every doorbell in every apartment on every floor above us to tell them, “FIRE!!!” I’ll never forget their reactions.  Even if they didn’t know the meaning of the English word, they knew the look of terror on my face, and that it was real.

Then we were outside the apartment complex, covered in soot, people surrounding us.  A little girl handed me a pair of unused Detroit Lions flip flops.  Police and firefighters, lights flashing, intense interrogative tones from the officers assigned to this case in this neighborhood known for frequent late night shenanigans from intoxicated foreigners.

The next day, we took our son to the toy store and told him he could have any toy he wanted.  Within seconds he walked over and picked up a big red fire truck.

I asked if he was sure it was the toy he wanted.  His head moved up and down emphatically. The three year old kid we didn’t yet know was autistic picked up on more than we could realize at the time.

As this post shows, we were shaken up but grateful to still have each other.

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We spent the next couple months moving around from place to place, sleeping on couches if we had to, and wearing donated clothing.  On September 11th, 11 days after the fire, I took Mani to the imposing yet calm, meditative Korean War Memorial down the street, where we could spend the day relaxing and processing what we were going through.

Creation and destruction, life and death, the fleeting nature of life and brutal indifference of the universe, all sang in my head like cicadas, and Mani looked at me with concern.

Heres’ my post from that day:

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The point here is not that my son is some sort of prodigy talent for making art out of day to day life (although he most certainly is).  The layers of meaning in the scene at the war memorial presented themselves at random and Mani simply channeled them, acting as a conduit, while I bore witness.  The beauty is in the connections themselves, and in the fact that humans have the abilities to act as conduits and witnesses to them.  There is something sacred there, even to this atheist.

Also, it’s clear to those who look that creation and destruction are intimately connected.

The Hindus got it right with the Shiva Nataraja who does the cosmic dance of creation and destruction, breathing all things into existence and then snuffing them all out into oblivion, over and over again.  Almost like inhaling and exhaling all creation repeatedly for all time.

Isn’t it true the universe is expanding?  Will it then contract in a ‘big crunch,’ until all matter is less than a fraction of the tip of a needle again, before another big bang exhales all of it back out again?  Is that what Shiva’s dance looks like on the macro scale?

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Only time will tell, but by then the earth will be long gone.  The sun’s outer envelope will expand, scorching the earth to the point where our planet will turn into a giant lava ocean, with continents of metals and icebergs of refractory materials floating around.  Then our little planet will either be swallowed by the sun as it expands into a red giant or shot off into outer space after the sun collapses into itself as a white dwarf.

While all of this might sound violent, it’s important to note that violence is a human construct.  The universe has no need for such petty terms.  What is violent and terrifying and catastrophic to us is routine to the timeless expanse surrounding us.

The universe doesn’t even bother to glance up from its quiet reading of the book of time, no matter how loud we scream at it to stop what it’s doing.  It reads on, expressionless, turning pages mechanically, beautifully, with the calm of a glass Canadian lake and the force of a billion atom bombs.

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So with the destruction of our apartment, and along with it our dreams of hopping around Asia together as a young family, came the creation of a new life in Omaha, Nebraska, where Riki and I had both grown up.  Apparently after a near death experience, one instinct people might feel is to just… go home.

The serendipitous part of the whole thing is that only after we came back to the States did we get Mani tested and found out he’s on the autism spectrum.  So a massive city like Seoul would have never been ideal for him, and hopping around Asia isn’t exactly what parents of autistic kids should go for anyways.  They need routine.

While Mani was definitely affected by the loss of his best friend Goya and the couple months we spent living from place to place out of our suitcases (we counted eight separate places we lived in two months time), we are here now.  Roots down.  Stable.  Safe.  Mani is thriving.

Out of the ashes, rising as the Phoenix from the flame, Mani creates new from the destruction of the old.

He has walked well through the fire.

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Since arriving back in Omaha I’ve started teaching U.S. and World History for a living. While nobody is required to hold ‘official’ credentials to write about things they want to write about, I’ll add that I’m trained academically in history, sociology, critical theory, and education.

I also spit rhymes sometimes, but there will be time for that at a later date.

I’m starting this blog at the suggestion of friends who insist they enjoy the brief historical narratives I post on social media, so I might as well put these out there for anyone to see if they so desire.  Thanks again for taking the time to read what I have to share.

I’ll end here with one last photo.  Only a few of my belongings survived the fire, including my college degrees, an authentic Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Garnett jersey (it still smells like smoke), a box of cds from back in my hardcore emceeing days, and the book my brother in law loaned me upon our arrival in Seoul all these years ago now.

The Book of Time is the Book of Change, and the book of Change is the Book of Time.

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Walk Well Through the Fire

 

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