Sorry, Jack (Quotes Provided by The Buddha and Tennille)

Standard

Last week, my friend Deyne posted the following quote on her Facebook page:

 ‎”My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

It just so happened that on the morning she posted this, I was in a terrible and grumpy mood.  My love life was a disaster and I wasn’t up for what I found to be a sappy quote about changing the world.  Deyne posted the quote exactly as it appears above, with no author attributed to it.  In the minutes just before the first bell of the school day – when my bitchiness is at its peak – I commented on her post by writing, “These sound like the words of a naïve fool.”

Turns out that they were the last words said by Jack Layton, the Canadian DNP Party Leader who passed away last Monday.  Deyne responded to my comment by informing me of that, and then went on to talk about how Layton wasn’t only a great figure in Canadian politics, but was also an inspiration to her personally.  Whoops!  Sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth closed and click “Like.”  Obviously I don’t think Jack Layton is a naïve fool, mostly because I’m ignorant and American and I don’t actually know who Jack Layton is.  But my little Facebook faux pas got me thinking about quotes.  How was I to know an important person said those words?  Reading it out of context, with no speaker credited, it didn’t sound like anything profoundly deep.  It could have been said by anyone, Snooki from Jersey Shore even.  Secretly, I blamed Deyne for manipulating my Jack Layton dis – not identifying the speaker of a quote is like letting someone believe it’s delivery when it is, in fact, DiGiorno’s. 

What if we always took the name off the quote, I started thinking.  Then the quote would have to stand for itself, the words would have to be as strong and independent as female R & B singers (they’re very independent).  It occurred to me that maybe a lot of quotes are really only powerful because of who said them.  Really, someone like Gandhi could say about anything and it would sound profound.  And, by extension, Joey Lawrence, for example, could say the deepest thing in history and nobody, knowing it came from the same mind that produced “Whoa!,” would take it seriously.

Here’s a little example.  Look at the two quotes below.  Think about, just based on the quotes themselves, if one is really that much better than the other.

“Let your heart guide you.  It whispers, so listen closely.”

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Both quotes are pretty similar.  The second one was said by Confucius.  He was pretty smart – or at least that’s what some people think – and so, if someone quoted that during a speech, I’m sure most of the audience would find it touching.  But what about the first one?  That was said by a character identified as “Littlefoot’s mother,” from the movie Land Before Time.  Despite its content, it’s not really quotable.  Could you imagine Barrack Obama using it in his State of the Union Address?

“My friends, I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect upon the words of Littlefoot’s mother…”

Um, the country wouldn’t exactly be proud.  Here’s another example.  Down below are two fairly well known quotes.  Imagine, though, what the perception of each quote would be if one flip-flopped the speakers:

“The greatest science in the world, in heaven and earth, is love.” – singer Jackie DeShannon

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain.  There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.  There are oceans and rivers enough to cross…What the world needs now is love.” – Mother Teresa

Suddenly, Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s corny song lyrics sound pretty good.  Looking through lots of quotations, I began to realize that there’s a thin line between lame song lyrics and the influential words of great leaders.  In fact, if a political or religious leader wrote pop songs, I don’t think the end result would be very different from the songs as they are now.  It doesn’t matter if it’s The Captain and Tennille or The Buddha and Tennille.  Buddha said “love is what makes two people sit in the middle of the bench when there is plenty of room at both ends.”  Captain and Tennille said “love will keep us together.”  Same difference.

When we quote something, are we really choosing to quote those specific words, or are we quoting the words only in relation to the resume and reputation that go with them?  Almost like how we choose to accept one person’s phone call and ignore another’s, we screen the quotes we use based on perception and anticipated outcome.  This quote will have an affect, this one will not.  If you just look at the words and sentiments alone, though, one person’s words generally aren’t much better than another’s.  Language alone doesn’t go very far. 

I could tell Deyne that I’m sorry for accidentally dissing Jack Layton.  Or I could quote Tolstoy and say, “Let us forgive each other, only then will there be peace.”  And I wouldn’t want her to think it would happen again.  For that I would quote another great mind: “We must not reenact the history that divides us, rather we must embrace that which draws us together.”  That’s a pretty good quote.  Words of wisdom.

Thank you for saying it, Spongebob.

*

Please Be Quiet Around the Dead Body

Standard

The guards at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum dress in all white with touches of red on their sleeves and hats.  They look good.  If someone was to guard my dead body, I’d like for them to dress like the guards at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  You don’t want the person guarding your body to be wearing skinny jeans from Hot Topic or an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt.  Guarding a body is serious business.    One should look the part, and I’d rather have a stone-faced Asian man guarding me than someone who looks like Joe Jonas.

These guards are snappy dressers, and they’re also very strict rule enforcers.  As soon as the four of us – Heather, Clara, Perkins and I – arrived at the Mausoleum, Heather was told she had to cover her knees.  No exposed kneecaps around the body.  Later, our cameras were taken and put into a bag for us to retrieve after seeing Uncle Ho.  No pictures around the body (which is a shame, because I thought a nice shot of me smiling by a corpse would make a good profile pic).  Inside the Mausoleum, Clara was instructed not to fold her arms on her chest and I was told to get my hands out of my pockets.  Arms straight down around the body.  The corpse does not like having to read your body language.

If all of it seemed ridiculous, that was fitting because we were about to see a preserved corpse in a glass case.  President of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.  He did a lot of amazing things while he was alive, including gaining his country independence and unifying it.  He is, to the Vietnamese people, what Jesus is to Mel Gibson.  In other words, they really like him a lot.  Uncle Ho, as he’s called, wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread across the fields of Vietnam.  Burying his body, he said, would waste valuable farm land.  Instead, it was decided after he died to preserve his body and put it on display.  With the aid of Russia, the body was embalmed and it’s been a Mecca for both nationalism and tourism ever since.  (Apparently preserving dead leaders is a big thing in communist countries – Lenin is preserved in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, and Kim Il Sung in North Korea.  This leads one to wonder how difficult it will be to keep Fidel Castro’s beard looking good in 70 years.)

Being a dead body just ain’t what it used to be.  I mean, there used to be a time when burial and cremation were the only choices (with, of course, a few fringe options such as mummification or cannibalism, but those never really caught on).  In our modern world, though, there are so many other options a contemporary corpse has.  Robert Ettinger – the father of cryonics, also known as corpse freezing – is currently in a vat of liquid nitrogen in Detroit, waiting to be reanimated.  Baseball great Ted Williams is also frozen – his son had him decapitated and had his DNA striped before sticking the Splendid Splinter in his own vat of liquid nitrogen, in two pieces.  Writer Hunter S. Thompson had his remains shot out of a cannon, and other people have had their ashes turned into riffle ammunition.  Dead bodies have, recently, been turned into fireworks, power sources (think The Matrix), and pencils.  There’s even a weird new thing called Plastination where a corpse is made into a life sized action figure that looks like Slim Goodbody.

Uncle Ho himself looked pretty good.  He’s lying peacefully on his back.  His skin is smooth and his hands are nicely folded across his waist.  I hope I look that good when I’m 121 years old.  The guards are also careful to make sure no one talks in the Mausoleum.  You wouldn’t want to wake him.  I walked by Uncle Ho robotically, hands at sides, knees covered, quiet.  Like a constipated soldier.  The line is kept moving swiftly, and I only had about a minute or so to look at him before I was shuffled out.

A dead body is not a person.  This idea must be spreading.  Plastination, preservation, ammunition, 4th of July displays – we’ve entered an era where we can have a little fun with the remains of our loved ones.  There was no feeling of grandeur when walking past the body of Uncle Ho Chi Minh.  Just a slight feeling of irritation at being told over and over what to do by a group of guards in white clothes, with white gloves, watching over the dead body like ghosts at a funeral.

*

Man on the Tracks

Standard

Each morning, I leave my bed the way a kid leaves home for the first day of school, miserable, wanting to go back, possibly crying, and I find myself thinking about the night before and the day that lies ahead and mixing the two up into some kind of anxiety-ridden fog.  That was certainly the case on the Wednesday morning I left for Hong Kong.  There were so many things to be worried about.  It was like a buffet of stress.  There was my flight, which I was nervous I’d be late for.  Then there was the idea that I’d be spending six days in Hong Kong and I hadn’t planned a thing.  I had no place to stay, no sense of how much the currency was worth, and no real itinerary of things to do.  And to add to all that, there was a certain girl whose apartment I had just left.  She was still sleeping when I headed down to catch the first subway train.  I thought about how much I liked her, and how I hoped that my side of the bed would still be empty when I got back.

All this is to say, on a day when I should have been excited, I was instead overcome with the enormous realization that nothing about my trip to Hong Kong felt right.  I would be spending six days alone in another country, probably not talking to anyone and going to bed early to escape loneliness.  Part of me wanted to go back to the girl’s apartment and curl up with her.  I sat on a bench down by the subway tracks.  Going back was a bad idea.

I was thinking about her when an older Korean man standing about twenty feet from where I was yelled something out.  He sounded serious.  I had no idea what he yelled, as it was in Korean and, despite living here for almost a year, I have no grasp of the language.  I turned my head, though, as the noise demanded attention.  In doing so, I could barely make out the image of a young man walking down the subway tracks.  Not on the platform I don’t mean, but walking down the tracks themselves.  I looked up at the board to see if the train was close.  It was two stops away.

It was as though every person waiting for the train noticed the young man at the exact same moment, suddenly everyone began shouting and running.  Everyone except me, that is.  I continued to sit there, looking down at the guy on the tracks with mild interest.  Things like this don’t happen, right?  That’s what I asked myself.  Yeah, there was a man on the tracks and the train was coming, but people don’t just get crushed on the subway tracks in front of you.  It didn’t seem possible.  I was sure someone would help him up and he’d walk away fine.  For all the horrible daily events that happen in the world, for each car crash or electrocution or brutal animal attack or mugging, none of it seems to happen in my world.  Secretly, I hoped the train would come and run the man over.  Just to spice things up a bit.

But as I had assumed, nothing really happened.  A subway officer was rushed to the tracks and he went down and helped the man back up onto the platform.  The man didn’t put up any fight.  He did exactly what the officer told him to.  Back up on the platform, he staggered away.  He was obviously drunk.  The subway officer pulled himself up off the tracks and then led the man away.  The shouting and running around ended, and in a few minutes everyone got on the train like nothing had happened.

Taking a seat on the train, I thought about a couple things.  First, no matter how bad I might feel, there’s probably someone around who feels worse.  I might be sitting by the tracks feeling depressed, but there’s someone who feels so bad he jumps down on them, and for that person maybe there’s someone who feels so bad he actually lets the train hit him.  And secondly, I thought about how rare true disaster is.  For all the anxiety, all of the possible catastrophes, nothing much happens really – the man always gets off the tracks before the train comes.  Things have a tendency to be right, even when they feel all wrong.

*

Endings at a Park

Standard

The list of unspeakables had gotten long.  Ashley and I sat in the park near Incheon’s Arts Center, eating sandwiches and watching the children play in the enormous fountain.  My chicken wrap dripped mustard sauce like sweat; it was a Sunday and the sun was bright and warm.  Summer was just stepping to the front of the line, the heat of the days making things like breeze and shade more valuable.  The children in the park ran through the fountain to cool themselves off.  Ashley and I sat right in the sun.

“Have you noticed that we’re the only non-family here?” she asked me.  It hadn’t dawned on me, but she was right.  Everyone in the park was either a parent or a child.  When a little girl fell down, there was always a mother there to pick her up.  Boys played catch with their fathers.  Sometimes the children would walk past us and, seeing the lightness of our skin broadcasting that we were from somewhere else, they would wave to us and say “hello.”

A relationship between two people – whether it be friendly, romantic, or some sort of mixture of the two – is only as good as the list of unspeakable things is short.  Ashley and I sat in the sun and talked about movies, feminism, and childhood.  We laughed when a small boy took off his clothes and urinated in the fountain.  Still, our list was there and I could feel it stuck between every pause in the conversation.  It was all the bad things that had happened between us – the people that couldn’t be mentioned, the nights that had gone bad.  Certain words, like “lawyer,” had grown fatter in meaning because of the things I’d said.  Simple questions like “what’d you do last night” changed into inquiries, switching from conversation to control.  Those questions weren’t simple any more.  Questions have memories, and my questions were filled with the memories of those nights when she’d left me alone to go off with other guys.

But there had to be something that brought us to the park on a hot Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t coincidence, or boredom, or the allure of eating a chicken wrap and getting mustard sauce all over our fingers.  It was the three months we spent together, talking for hours every day, making each other laugh and becoming great friends.  When there’s a list of unspeakables, something must be there to keep two people pushing past it, making conversation in the face of it feeling forced and awkward.  Or at least a person likes to think so anyways.  Like every sentence she said told me that no matter how much she might have hurt me, she was still there.

Every now and then, the water in the fountain would stop, and the children, their wet clothes soaking up the heat, would wait anxiously for it to start again.  Some of the little ones would wander around, confused.  Still, they seemed to know where they were, aware that they were inside the confines of something – the park, the fountain, their families – and if they would wander away from the collection of children at the fountain’s center, they would never have walked too far away.  Not so far, they seemed to know, that they couldn’t turn and come running back to the water when it started up again.  It would only take a few beats to rejoin everyone, in the heart of the fountain, where all the complexity of the world was washed away by giant geysers of white water shot five feet up in the air.  I wondered if, at the end of their day, headed back home to dry off and get ready for school the next morning, those children, thinking back to their Sunday in the park, would feel like smiling or like crying.

Monday morning I called Ashley.  I was exhausted.  I told her that I cared for her, and then I told her that I couldn’t handle having her in my life anymore.  Our list had gotten too long, the hurt too much.  Strange, isn’t it, how empty one can feel when they know they’re doing the right thing?  It must’ve felt, I imagined, the same way those children felt leaving the park.  I suppose the end to anything, no matter how good or bad the events that preceded it, is always at least a little bit sad.

*

Kicked (In the Balls)

Standard

Not everyone can say they were kicked in the balls by the Vietnamese Mafia.  I can’t say that.  Not truthfully anyways, so if I see you at a cocktail party and I tell you the mafia punted my nads, you can call me out.  I only know one person who has been kicked in the nuts by the Vietnamese Mafia, and that’s my friend Perkins.  He told me this around 7 AM on a Saturday morning, outside our dorm room in Hanoi, right after he’d been robbed.  Perkins was obviously upset and shaken by the event.  Since then, I’m happy to say that both he and his testicles have recovered.

In recreating the crime, we need to first set the scene: Hanoi, Friday night.  Motorbikes everywhere, zipping up and down the streets, honking their horns.  Older women with funny hats and banana poles on their shoulders, acting as a balance, a bowl of fruit hanging from each end, roaming around trying to sell that fruit to whomever they come across.  Shops selling prints of propaganda posters from the Vietnam War.  Outside the Bucket Bar, people sit at red plastic tables eating pho, drinking Tiger beer.

Then there was Perkins and me.  We had gotten into Vietnam only a day earlier.  The city still seemed new and exciting.  We bounced from Temple Bar to Funky Buddha to a dodgy place called The Lighthouse.  We threw back beer and talked with backpackers, locals, and a hooker we found in The Lighthouse named Queen Bee.  She wore enormous white sunglasses and, after realizing neither of us was interested in a transaction, spent the remainder of the night sitting outside texting.  I wasn’t sure who she was texting, but I was glad that her occupation allowed her a decent phone plan.

Sadly, for me, the real excitement happened after I left.  Around 5 AM I was too drunk to think, wandered outside, jumped on a motorbike and went back to the hostel.  Perkins was still in party mode, and so he stayed.  I’d see him two hours later, when he banged on the door to our dorm room.

“Bru,” he said.  “I got kicked in the balls.”  He bent down and took a deep breath.  I could tell the situation was serious.

Perkins had eventually left The Lighthouse and jumped on a motorbike as well.  Only his motorbike didn’t take him to the hostel.  Instead it took him across a bridge and into a quiet, vacant area.

“Where the hell are you taking me?” Perkins asked, angrily, getting off the motorbike, trying to walk away.  He didn’t get very far.  In an instant, eight bikes surrounded him.

“Vietnamese Mafia!” they yelled.  One of the bikers pulled out a switchblade.  Another stared at Perkins with crazy eyes – eyes that showed the madness of seeing the Water Puppet Theater one too many times.  The leader of the gang went up to Perkins, kicked him in the nuts three times, and took all the money out of his wallet (about four hundred bucks USD).  Worse than that, though, the leader saw that Perkins had an ATM card.  Onto the bike they went, with poor Perks in the middle.  The leader drove, and another guy rode at the back, keeping a knife in my friend’s back.

Thankfully, Perkins is a good talker.  Instead of being brought to an ATM to empty his account into the hands of the Vietnamese Mafia, he talked his way into being whacked in the head and thrown to the side of the road.  The “Mafia” even left him some money to get spring rolls.  Despite the pain he was in, he was able to walk back to the hostel and tell me the story. 

At the time, I hoped that maybe we could find a Vietnamese testicle donor, maybe someone working in a rice field who didn’t need his love spuds anymore.  Then Perkins could get a transplant and make babies that would look like little Ho Chi Minhs.  That was my hope anyways.  As it turned out, things just ended up going back to normal.  It was only a crazy night in a strange city that’s filled with money and commerce, sitting quietly on the bank of the Red River.

*

Sandy Does SUNY

Standard

Back in 1999 I had a ponytail, wore lots of Hawaiian shirts, and went to an art school called SUNY Purchase College.  Purchase wasn’t technically an art school – one could theoretically go there to study biology or history – but the bulk of the students there were majoring in dance, theatre, poetry, film, or some other field that typically ignores the possession of a college degree.  It was there, outside the Farside dorm building, that I met a girl named Sandy, although I had heard about her several times before I actually had the pleasure of saying ‘hello.’

This is because Sandy had a rep.  She had apparently slept with about half of the campus in the first week of the semester and, as a result, the skinny girl with short curly hair had become notoriously known around campus as a “slut.”  Now to be labeled a slut at, say, a Christian school, is not hard.  It’s a real accomplishment, though, to obtain that status at an art school, where people are sexually liberated and don’t judge others.  At an art school, the word “slut” is supposed to sit on a shelf with other obsolete words like “dame” or “flapper.”

The interesting thing, to me, was that Sandy could achieve this feat without being particularly good looking.  She had a small head and a large nose and wore an oversized pair of black rimmed glasses that made her look like a caricature.  I was 21 at the time and had virtually no knowledge in the ways of the woman.  I was lonely and intensely embarrassed by my lack of sexual experience.  While others at our school seemed to look down on Sandy, I looked at her and saw nothing but hope and opportunity. 

In the following weeks I small talked her helplessly.  She was friendly but didn’t seem very interested.  My one chance would eventually come on Halloween night, when she came over to my dorm room dressed up as the Y2K bug, an outfit that consisted of a short, tight dress and the words “Y2K” written on both her arms in glitter.  There were a lot of people in my room, and she climbed up onto the top bunk bed.  Her legs dangled down and a friend of mine, sitting next to me, whispered, “Look, she isn’t wearing any panties.”

I gulped.  As the night wore on, Sandy somehow ended up sitting next to me on my bed.  I didn’t know how exactly it happened – I hadn’t done anything to orchestrate it.  Then, as if fate wanted me to get some lovin’, everyone left the room except for the two of us.  We were alone and just sitting there.  Me, nervous.  She, commando.

Not knowing what to do, I engaged her in a blustered conversation driven by nervous energy.  “I was watching The Man Show,” I said, “and they were talking about how someone can have sex if they just walk around a city asking people to have sex with them.  Eventually someone is bound to say yes.”

“That would be me,” she said, laughing. 

It was bewildering.  I told myself to do something.  Make a move.  Ask her to have sex.  Kiss her.  Jump on her.  I didn’t know.  It would be like shooting a gun blindfolded and hoping to hit something.  I sat there with my finger on the trigger but couldn’t pull it.

Minutes passed and I hadn’t done anything.  I wiped sweat off my forehead.  We were still talking and, the more it went on, the clearer it started to become that nothing was going to happen.  Talking, I learned, is the worst kind of foreplay there is. 

“I had an AIDS test yesterday,” she said.  The comment came out of nowhere and, in an instant, everything crumbled.  “I’m terrified to hear the results.  I feel terrible about myself.”

She went on.  There was some guy she liked, but he didn’t want to be her boyfriend.  It hurt her.  She didn’t understand why.  What was wrong with her?  He’d sleep with her, sure, but that was it.  We talked until there was nothing left to talk about and, at the end of the night, she hugged me, teary eyed, and thanked me for listening to her.  Guys usually didn’t sit and talk with her like that, she said.  I told her it was cool and, if she was comfortable, to let me know how the results of the AIDS test turned out.

Inside, though, I was wracked with disappointment.  If guys didn’t talk to her like that, then I must not have been much of a guy.

Just like the real one, this Y2K bug turned out to be all hype.

About a week after that night, I ran into Sandy in the courtyard.  “Everything okay?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said, smiling.  “Everything’s good.”

There must be something about how we act, and how our behavior is interpreted, that causes others to react to us in such particular ways.  Sandy slept around and seemed carefree and content, and maybe that caused her guy, whoever he was, not to take her very seriously.  Something about the way I acted, unaggressive and asexual, caused Sandy to see me as someone she could talk to.  And in doing so, and by NOT sleeping with me, it caused a part of me to resent her, although I didn’t like admitting that to myself.  By hugging me and saying goodbye, and by being my friend, she made me feel immature and inadequate. 

Sandy walked by me, through the center of the courtyard, passing all the liberated women who spoke so poorly of her.  That talk didn’t change her a bit.  Sometimes a chorus is just a chorus, telling a back-story that’s only really interesting to itself.

*

2,500 Birds

Standard

Myeong-Hee Bae is a pleasant old woman with white hair and red glasses.  On a Monday afternoon she brought me an iced coffee, American-style, and directed me to a chair sitting at a large table made of dark wood.  Children were using crayons to draw on small white squares of paper, which they would later tape to her wall.  For the past seven years, many children have come and put their drawings up on her wall.  And yet, despite what must be a great variety of children, with differences in everything from age to drawing ability, there is a perfect uniformity to the pictures they’ve hung.  In other words, every kid who has ever made a drawing for Myeong-Hee Bae has always drawn the exact same thing:

Owls.

This is because Myeong-Hee Bae is better known as the “crazy owl lady.”  She runs a small museum in Samcheong-dong called The Owl Art and Craft Museum.  The name is an apt description of the place.  Inside the Owl Museum, one can find…well…lots and lots of owls.  There are owl sculptures, owl figurines, plates with owls on them, owl ceramics, owl paintings, blankets with owls, owl clocks, telegraphs that show owls, owl fans, owl folding screens, owl masks, and pretty much everything else one could think of with the exception of a real live owl sitting there on a tree branch in the museum.  Myeong-Hee Bae and her husband even resemble owls a little bit themselves.  They have a stately quality about them; it’s the same personality trait an owl has that makes people want to draw a pair of glasses on its beak or a graduation cap on its head.

Don’t be mistaken, though.  The Owl Museum isn’t so much about craft or aesthetics, and it certainly isn’t about learning about owls.  The Owl Museum is about one thing, clear and simple:

Obsession.  More specifically, owl obsession.

Unlike some museums, the Owl Museum is a private residence, meaning it was Myeong-Hee Bae’s home until she and her husband decided to renovate it and turn it into a museum.  The collection has taken her over 30 years to assemble and consists of more than 2,500 pieces of owl memorabilia.  There are pieces from about 80 countries, from owl paintings made in Asia all the way to Hooters beer koozies from Winnipeg.  Essentially, this woman really liked owl stuff a lot and hoarded so much of it that she ended up having to turn her house into a museum.  It’s the sort of thing that makes the term ‘private collection’ seem contradictory – here’s a woman who took her home and opened it up, charging 5,000 won a person to come have a cup of coffee or tea with her and look at the things she’s assembled ever since she was a child.

Walking through the Owl Museum and seeing Myeong-Hee Bae sitting there at a table with the children coloring their owls, I started to think.  What makes a museum a museum?  Really, the experience wasn’t any different from being in her living room, only I was invited by a sign and not a phone call.  I thought about the goofy stuff I’ve collected over the years.  If my purchases were more thematically oriented, maybe my home could be a museum as well.  This was just, well, her junk…only her junk was so narrowly honed that it became impressive.  As I looked around, the thought struck me that, despite this massive collection, it seemed to say very little about the woman herself.

Here was thirty years of meticulous, painstaking collecting, and what did it say about Myeong-Hee Bae other than that she liked owls?  I didn’t know why she liked owls, or what exactly she liked about them.  For some reason, owls seemed to make her happy and content.  She brought them in, and they brought people to her.  Children.  She sat with her husband and watched them color.

There is no other owl museum on the planet earth other than Myeong-Hee Bae’s Owl Art and Craft Museum.  It’s eccentric and perplexing, as odd as owls must find humans.  At the end of the day I put an owl mask on and sat on a bench in the museum with my friend (who, of course, also had a mask on).  Myeong-Hee Bae smiled and took our picture.  Just as so many children have drawn pictures for her, she certainly has taken photographs of so many people.  How many, I wonder.  It must be thousands. 

All strangers, wandering over from Insa-dong, spending a few minutes of their ordinary lives with her and her owls.

*