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.

*

Things I Didn’t Do In Vietnam

Standard

“In Cambodia,” Perkins said, “you can pay $150 to shoot a bazooka.”  He said that as we looked down at a rusty old RPG sitting in a glass case in Vietnam’s Army Museum.  RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade; an RPG sits on the shoulder of the person that fires it and was designed during WWII so foot soldiers would have something to shoot at tanks. 

“What do you fire the bazooka at?” I asked him.  If one was going to shoot a rocket, it seemed to make sense that there should be something there to stop it.

Perkins didn’t know.  “A house,” he finally said. 

I didn’t think about firing an RPG again until we met a strange character named Santiago while slurping down bowls of pho in a small restaurant near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  Santiago had heard that a person could fire an RPG in Vietnam if that person had the right connections.  Since Santiago seemed to have looked into this, I asked him the same question I’d asked Perkins.

“What do you fire it at?”

“A cow,” he said, not missing a beat.  “I’ve seen videos of it on YouTube.”

The videos Santiago referred to show men in large open fields firing rocket launchers into the distance.  The videos stop short of showing exploding cows, which is what I’d pictured in my head.  I’d seen a cow detonate into a mushroom cloud of blood and bones, letting out a pained “mooo!” as it burst like a bubble, leaving behind nothing but a pool of pink milk. 

“I don’t think I could shoot a cow with a bazooka,” I said.  It seemed cruel.

“What animal could you shoot?” Perkins asked.

I thought for a second.  “Maybe a bear.”

Both Perkins and Santiago seemed appalled.  “Oh no, not a bear,” they said, showing disapproval.  “I could never shoot a bear for fun.”

Shooting a bear, obviously, is not fun.  Not as fun as eating a snake.  In the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, Perkins and I signed up for a live snake dinner.  I was quick to tell anyone I came across about it.

“They take the snake,” I’d say, “and they cut its heart out.  Then you eat the heart while it’s still beating.  And after that, you down it with a shot of blood!”

This wasn’t the only strange thing we found that involved snakes.  The Vietnamese also put snakes in jars.  They then pour alcohol in the jar and let it sit for two weeks to pickle.  At that time, the lid is removed and what you’re left with is some sort of potent drink that apparently, due to the mixture of alcohol and poison, has psychedelic effects.  I saw a woman on Monkey Island dropping limp snakes into jars, preparing the drink on the beach while a group of people huddled around her to watch.

Yet by the time I left Vietnam, I hadn’t shot anything with a rocket launcher.  Our beating heart dinner was canceled, and I never tried the snake wine.

When I came back, I found myself telling people more about the things I didn’t do in Vietnam than the things I actually did.  It was as if I had a whole imaginary trip to go along with my real one.  The exploding cow.  The snake’s heart about the size of a kidney bean, beating and hopping around in the palm of someone’s hand.  The way things would look after drinking the wine, like how a snake would see the world, through a thick window of clear liquid and glass, watching everything from inside a jar.

*

Everything is Pain: My 20 Hours at a Buddhist Temple

Standard

Hour 15 – The Meditation

We had been taught to make a circle with our hands and to rest that circle on our laps like the sun sits on the horizon at dawn.  The circle served a purpose.  If my fingers wilted and the circle broke, bending and folding like yarn, the monks would be able to see that I was sleeping.  Sleep in not allowed during the meditation.  Anyone sleeping during the meditation would be struck with a bamboo stick.  The stick itself was split so that it would make a loud clapping sound when it landed on your shoulder.  I kept my circle firm and my eyes fixed on a spot on the floor that was slightly darker in color, making it look as though the wooden floor had a birthmark.

The meditation had been going on for nearly a half an hour.  My legs were numb.  We had been told to count our breaths, that counting your breathing is a valuable tool to block out thoughts.  One doesn’t think during the meditation, not the way we think and reflect when we’re, say, on the toilet.  Across the room from me was the young boy and although I tried to stay focused on the discolored spot, I couldn’t help but notice him.  He was wiggling around all over the place, couldn’t stay still.  Movement is not a part of the meditation.  The younger monk came over and said something to him.  I felt anger towards him because I envied his movements, his will to wiggle in the face of kinesthetic adversity.

At the time, I had no idea how much longer we would be meditating.  I began to feel frustrated and anxious.  It needed to end soon.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  I felt like I was going crazy.  The spot on the floor sat there.  I tried to look out the corner of my eye at TTD, to see if she was doing okay or if she was losing it like I was.  She looked calm, composed.  The floor seemed to move in waves all of a sudden, like it wasn’t made of wood anymore but of water, and the spot looked like it was floating along, sailing in the wooden waves.  Breathing was becoming difficult because I was so conscious of it; I wanted to stand up and quit the meditation but instead I waited.

Finally the monk struck the bamboo stick on the floor, signaling the end.  I stretched out my legs.  The nerves tingled like crazy.  Yeo Yeo said the day before that in Buddhism, everything is pain.

I told myself to listen to her more closely.  She knew what she was talking about.

Hour 2 – “Where is Buddha?”

Yeo Yeo was a short woman with a large smile and a kind face.  She was the monk – or “nun” I guess – who would lead us through our 20 hour program at Myogaksa Temple.  During this time, we would be meditating, learning the basics of Buddhism, and doing other things that I was only vaguely aware of.  TTD, my friend who I was there with, had told me that we would drink tea and make a necklace.  She knew more about the program than I did, even though it was my idea to go.  There were about ten other people there from all over the world: a tall man named Jorge from Brazil, a blonde Australian woman, two people from Germany visiting Korea because their band had played a concert in Seoul (he played piano, she played the flute), a Korean mother and her young son, a guy from Iran who was raised in the States and now lived in Asia, and a handsome man from India which, as it happens, is where Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha himself – was from.

“I will ask you a question,” Yeo Yeo said.  We were all sitting on the floor.  There were two images of Buddha in the room with us.  One was a picture of a wood statue that showed Buddha gaunt, his ribcage popping out of his chest.  The other was a gold representation of him, plump and content.  Yeo Yeo smiled when she talked.  She looked from person to person and asked, “Where is Buddha?”

Although I’ve been around religious people enough to know they generally aren’t completely literal when they ask things like that, I decided the take the question literally.  He could be on the wall, or she could mean his body.  What the heck happened to it?  I had no idea.  His body must be someplace, right?  Buried?  Or maybe his body was lost or something.  I looked at the picture of him thin and emaciated.  Wherever he is, I thought, he must look something like that.

“He’s inside…” someone said.  “In my heart.”

“Yes,” Yeo Yeo told us, “except not just you.  All of us.  We all have a Buddha mind.”  She explained that there is no “my” or “mine” in Buddhism but only “ours.”  Then she said that there are things that surround our Buddha mind, that cloud it.  Food.  The desire to possess someone.  Money.  Sleep.  Power.

I looked back at the golden Buddha.  Did he have any of those things?  Power, perhaps, and by the looks of him, he had food too, although maybe he just stuck to rice to avoid complexity.  I wondered if it mattered where his physical body was.  What does it matter if he was buried or cremated or frozen like Walt Disney?

What I was thinking, though, hinted at the ideas in Buddhism that intrigued me.  The duality of thought, for instance.  Self and object, separation and distance.  Me and him, one alive and aware, and the other somewhere in the ground or cremated.  It didn’t feel like Buddha was inside me.  It didn’t feel like there was anything inside me except my own thoughts, my own constant analysis.

Hour 7 – Mosquitoes and Mad Monks

We were sitting in the main room an hour before bedtime.  It was about 9:00 at night.  Yeo Yeo had come back after our first meditation.  She began to talk about becoming a monk and the first time she shaved her head.

“The other monks stood outside in the open,” she said.  “They were not worried.  My head was bald and when I went back to my room, I discovered I had many mosquito bites.  The mosquitoes came and bit me on the head.  I thought about the other nuns and I was confused.  How could they stand there in comfort?  How come the mosquitoes did not bite them?”

I liked this story because it was about a practical aspect of monks having to shave their heads.  I had never considered this before, that getting mosquito bites could be a problem.

“Then I remembered,” Yeo Yeo said, “all of the bodies of the mosquitoes in my bathroom, by my shower.  I had killed them with my hands.  I remembered and I said, ‘Thank you, mosquitoes, for biting me.’  They had reminded me that I had killed their ancestors.  It was not revenge…they were only reminding me.  And then I knew that I had killed them, and I apologized to the mosquitoes.  After that we were in peace, and the mosquitoes did not bite me anymore.  This was why the other nuns were not worried.  They, too, were at peace.”

Near the end of the temple stay, I asked Yeo Yeo if she uses an electric razor or a straight razor to shave her head.  She told me she uses a straight razor.  Then I asked if she shaves her own head, or has another monk do it for her.  She told me that she does it herself.  “Back long ago,” she said, “it was very dangerous.  A long blade was used to shave the heads, and the monks would shave each others.  But many monks lost their minds during their worship and as they got older.  It was always dangerous because no one knew what might happen…no one wanted to have their head shaved by one of the monks who was going mad.”

I enjoyed this story very much as well.  The idea that at one time someone sat in the peace and tranquility of the Temple, perhaps nervous (although I pictured the person sitting calmly), and had his head sliced open by a mad monk on head shaving day.  I pictured the blood running down the smooth skin of the monk’s bald head and the other monk – the mad one – gazing at it and then at the same blood running red and brilliant down the edge of the blade, wondering what he had done, why he’d done it, and what that all meant.

Hour 18 – An Interruption

We were waiting in the meditation room when a male monk came in.  He looked stoic and wise.  At the bell ceremony, he guided us through the ringing and then explained the chants to us.  He also told us to walk sideways through doorways so we wouldn’t disturb any ghosts that were there.  I liked him very much.  He seemed to live in a world of folk tales and philosophy, a place where chants and the tolling of a bell carried the significance that alarms, emails and bus schedules did in my day to day life.

He began to speak to us, but as he did, his cell phone, tucked away somewhere in his robe, rang.  Annoyed, he looked to see who was calling him.  The ringtone was upbeat and jazzy.  I wondered if he’d gotten it from ITunes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’ve got to take this.”

Hour 8 – Kung Fu Panda

Yeo Yeo is allowed to leave the Temple to see her family once every ten years.  The last time she left, they asked her what she wanted to do, and she told them she wanted to see movies.  Her family showed her the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then, since there are a lot of kids in the family, they watched Kung Fu Panda.

“I watched it and I thought, this is not a kids’ movie,” she said.  “This is a Buddha movie.”

She’s right, of course, but then again, when one lives in a Temple, maybe every movie becomes a Buddha movie.  Yeo Yeo talked about it and drew parallels to her religion.  She asked us questions about the soup and about Po’s father.  No one knew the answers to her questions, but people seemed to be vaguely aware the Po did, in fact, have a duck for a father and that there was a soup involved.  I realized, as she spoke, that she wasn’t talking about Kung Fu Panda because it was what she knows.  No, she was talking about a silly cartoon because it’s what we know.

We were in a temple, listening to a monk talk about a Dreamworks cartoon, because that – Kung Fu Panda – was our frame of reference on Buddhism.

I understood everything she said.  Then I looked at Buddha, and I felt ashamed.

Hour 4 – Prostration Bows

TTD told me that we’d make a necklace.  Neat.  That seemed like a fun and easy thing to do.

We were given a bag with 108 wooden beads in it and told to pour the beads out onto a pillow.  The pillow sat at the foot of a cushioned mat.  Yeo Yeo explained the significance of the number 108 in Buddhism, although I had trouble following the explanation (no reference to Pixar to help).  She then told us about the importance of bowing.  A prostration bow involves facing the Buddha, getting on one’s knees, touching one’s head to the floor, kneeling, and then standing up.  It looked poetic when she did it – it was fluid and dancelike.  When I tried, it was laborious and difficult.  I felt stiff and clunky like Frankenstein.  I couldn’t sit with my ass on the back of my feet, and I couldn’t stand from the kneeling position without using my hands.  Yeo Yeo asked me at one point if I was still breathing.

She gave us our instructions – for every prostration bow we did, we could place one bead on the string.  That meant that to complete the necklace, we had to do 108 prostration bows.

It was all good fun until around bead #50, when I realized I was covered in sweat, my body hurt, and I still had a hell of a lot of beads left.  To motivate myself, I looked over at TTD and decided, in my head, to race her.  Her bows were more relaxed than mine.  She popped up and down with relative ease.  I accused her of cheating.

“You double beaded!” I whispered.  “I saw you double bead!”

“What?” she whispered back, confused.  “What are you talking about?”

We were down on our hands and knees in front of Buddha.  “You put two beads on the string during the same bow.”

“I did not,” she said, shaking her head.

“Yes you did,” I replied, confirming my position.  “You’re a double beader!”

“I’m not a double beader!”

After that, she picked up her pace and eventually beat me by two beads.  When I finally finished my necklace I wanted to turn over on my back and scream, “Thank you, Jesus!”

But that would have been out of place.

“My legs are killing me,” I told TTD.  “This is ridiculous.  I need to take flexibility classes or something.”

“Flexibility classes?” she said.  “Do you mean Yoga?”

“Yeah, whatever you Asians call it,” I said, stretching my legs out.  If there’s one advantage to Christianity, I thought, it’s that it’s less demanding physically.  In all my years of going to church, I’ve never felt sore or broken a sweat.  If I would decide to get further into Buddhism, I would have to start working out.

Hour 5 – Eyelids

The young nun was pretty in a Sinead O’Connor kind of way.  She spoke no English, only Korean, and the older male monk translated for her when she talked.  We were in the main room, about to meditate for the first time.  She had shown us how to make the circle with our fingers and had warned us of sleep.  Monks drink a lot of tea to fight sleep.  Sleep is bad.  The young nun directed our attention to a painting on the wall.

The painting showed a bearded monk with enormous eyes.  She told us about him.  The monk in the painting meditated for several years, but every now and then he’d fall asleep.  This didn’t sit well with him, as he couldn’t find enlightenment in the midst of all this dosing off.  One day he went to his room, took a knife, and sliced off his eyelids.  Without the ability to close his eyes, he was able to meditate soundly.  He meditated for many many years and became very wise.  In the painting, his eyes were huge and white as clouds.

Wisdom is all about keeping one’s eyes open.  The young nun taught us the lotus position, whacked the bamboo stick upon the floor, and we all began meditating, eyes wide open.

Hour 20 and Beyond: The Body and the Right Tooth

At the end of my Temple stay – I mean OUR Temple stay, as there is no ‘my’ in Buddhism – I had learned about our Buddha mind and had many things to think about.  At the conclusion, Yeo Yeo told us about Siddhartha Gautama’s death.  His followers placed their hands on him, and he told them that there is no Buddha, no leader, no ONE.  He was unimportant, just made of ideas.  And people like Yeo Yeo later listened to those ideas, still, even in a strange and technological world, and put the two together to see what would come of it.  She ended her story about the Buddha’s death, and then we all posed for a picture together.  Later, she posted it on her Facebook.  Why not?  Pope Benedict doesn’t have a Facebook, and maybe he should.

Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about that body.  Where was it?  What happened to the Buddha’s skin and bones after he delivered that last message and kicked the bucket?

It turns out that he was cremated, just like my grandmother and my pet dog Toby were.  But, unlike Grandma or Toby, some of Siddhartha Gautama’s remains were kept as relics.  The most important of these is his right tooth.  There’s an entire temple dedicated to it.  If one travels to Kandy, Sri Lanka, he or she can pay visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  I’m not sure how open the place is to tourism.  It has been bombed twice by terrorists and each time had to be rebuilt.  The tooth itself was never harmed.

On Wednesdays the monks at the temple conduct a ritual bathing of the tooth.  A mixture of water, herbs, and flowers are used to wash it.  It is, from what I’ve gathered, the only major remainder of the Buddha’s physical form in our world – other things, like his collarbone, are said to have been given to worlds beyond.

TTD and I left the temple and went Dunkin Donuts for coffee.  We text messaged people.  It was a warm Sunday morning.  Back at the Temple, Yeo Yeo was free to meditate, to think, or to do whatever else she did on Sundays.

Everything is pain, she told us.  Pain has its place.  Just like the smile on her face, or the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka, or the cynical analysis in my head that I can’t stop.  It doesn’t matter what hour it is.  Some things just always stay.

*