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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Kindness of Enemies and Being Lonely While Surrounded

The Russians believed the Chechens were wily and suspicious. The Chechens believed the Russians were aggressive and treacherous. They were both right, they were both wrong. - Leila Aboulela, The Kindness of Enemies
Ah, springtime. My favorite time of year. When yellow-jackets start to build their nests in my backyard and the weeds fight for dominance among the fledgling little plants I try to grow in my garden. When longer days lead to ornery kids who say it's "too light outside for bedtime," and I start to sunburn because I guess I forgot what sun does again and it will be a month or so before I remember to bring sunscreen in my backpack when I work outside. When my morning bike ride is freezing, so I wear a sweatshirt and beanie, then it's blazing hot when I go home so I have to wrap my sweatshirt around my waist like some guy named Chad.

Spring is also my conference season, which is a super specific and not-at-all-relatable time of year when I go to like three 3-4 day conferences in two months and feel very inadequate for one hundred reasons all at once. Here's what wildlife conferences are like: there are talks and presentations by people who have accomplished and are accomplishing amazing feats of real science. These are interspersed with breaks in which one should be "networking" and "meeting people" and "making eye contact" but one is actually nursing a Dr. Pepper kind of by oneself and realizing (again) that one has very few friends and just never feels comfortable anywhere.

At the first of these, located near beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park, the best word I could describe for the experience was this: it was the word lonely. Surrounded by like-minded people in a beautiful setting shouldn't feel that way.

Me: I should take a selfie here
Also me: 

That's sad, right? I like being by myself. That's not the problem here. To me, being lonely doesn't mean that I'm alone, because alone is pretty rad, tbh. I like hiking alone, going on long bike rides alone, and especially movies alone. That's not lonely. That's freedom. Lonely means being alone when surrounded by people, wanting to be among them in a meaningful way, and failing.

In the last few years I feel like the internet has been filled with posts and articles about this secret world of introverts that only introverts will understand. I'm not sure if I'm one of those. I don't know what it even means. Chances are most people who claim to be introverts probably aren't. Does it mean that sometimes people exhaust me and I would rather spend some time in a quiet place sometimes? Sure. But I also deeply enjoy being the center of attention and crave it like Sonic the Hedgehog craves chili dogs. What I am is someone who very much likes the conviviality of social interaction with other humans but who is also very bad at it.

I would say that using words wrong is so hot right now, but that would be literally bananas.

I spend a lot of time during conferences on the outside of small talking groups of people who know each other very well but don't know me. I nod along with them and laugh or whatever and then the group disperses. Was this dispersal because of me? Well that would be pretty narcissistic to assume that my presence had that impact on other peopl- oh look they have formed the same group on the other side of the room. It's true that I'm relatively new at the agency where I am working, and I use that as a consolation except wait a minute is that the new girl just surrounded by uproarious laughter? Dang it.

That's kind of the whole thing. I know some people, and like them, and hopefully they like me back, but I'm very aware of the phenomenon of the conference clinger. I don't want to just follow around the small handful of people with whom I am comfortable, because they're supposed to be networking too and just because I'm rubbish at it doesn't mean that I should drag them down with me like I'm some kind of Jack hanging on to the driftwood that is Rose's effortless ability to be part of something bigger than herself. So I let go and drown. It's very sad but we'll definitely meet in heaven, conference buddy. As the rules of heaven go, we will reunite where we met, so heaven will be a conference. And both of us will really have to question how we lived our lives after all. Is this heaven? We'll ask ourselves, and then the credits will roll on our ambiguous faces -- reality dawning on them too late. The first speaker begins. His Powerpoint is bad.

This year instead of going to the big banquet at the end, I went for a hike by myself and dinner in Panguitch. The hike was fantastic. Eating my too-small smothered burrito in a hamburger and shakes place while listening to a podcast was fine. Going to the gas station to get supplementary chicken strips because of the aforementioned inadequacy of the smothered burrito was just the kind of thing that makes me enjoy being by myself. I can make those kind of unilateral bad decisions without any judgement or grumbling. But the long road back to the hotel room (long because I got lost) gave me time to kind of feel sorry for myself, too.

The truth is, I don't know why I'm like this. I don't know why I'm socially awkward and am more likely to say something that results in the uncomfortable stare followed by a let's-pretend-nobody-said-anything return to the conversation. And I certainly don't understand how in other circumstances I can have a crowd of people eating out of the palm of my hand, as the saying goes, though I want to emphasize with some forcefulness that I mean this metaphorically and not literally because gross. How can this same person (me) be genuinely quick-witted and charming one moment and be such an absolute failure the next? Get yourself lost in Southern Utah sometime and let me know what you come up with.

This is all super small potatoes, by the way, compared to how the main characters in The Kindness of Strangers feel. But because of the aforementioned narcissism, I still managed to relate to it. Natasha calls herself a "failed hybrid" of Sudanese-Russian descent. She considers herself a secular Muslim, which is to say non-practicing but fascinated by the culture. Her favorite student, Oz, is a descendant of Imam Shamil, who in the early 1800s led a spirited defense of the Ottoman Empire against the advances of an imperialist Russia.

Natasha is a professor at a small university in Scotland; an expert on Shamil and his military campaign, and she befriends Oz and his mom. In a post-9/11 world, Natasha is viewed with suspicion in Scotland based on her lineage and her fascination with Islamic Jihad, and in Sudan is rejected for not practicing the religion in which she was raised. Thus the "failed hybrid" part. Oz, a young man fascinated with his heritage, is even more closely scrutinized, and his search history leads to an arrest and detainment. This throws everyone's life into disarray as computers are searched, offices are broken into, and the university shies from the new attention.

That's the one story being told. The other is about Shamil centuries before. His son is kidnapped at a young age and raised as a Russian. Decades later, in retaliation, he kidnaps a Georgian princess for several months and holds her for ransom and his son's return. Anna, the princess, develops a fondness for Shamil and Shamil's son Jameleldin integrates into the more technologically and culturally advanced Russian society.

But nobody integrates fully. Anna is Georgian married to a Russian, but she still pines for a free Georgia. Shamil calls her the Queen of Georgia, which she likes very much, though if her husband heard her say it he'd flip. Jameleldin thinks he's fully part of Russian culture, but is rebuffed when he asks for a Russian woman's hand in marriage. As much as he loves the place where he lives, he's always considered an outsider. Both, when returned to their old lives, feel wrong and shiftless. Anna misses the simple life and righteous cause of defending one's homeland she witnessed in the Caucuses. Jameleldin craves literature and music, forbidden among his family. Similar to the kidnapped children raised as Kiowa in News of the World, there is no world for them left.

That's way more description than I usually get into, by the way. But I guess it's what I keep thinking about. On the one hand, my personality takes getting used to and is not for everyone. I'm the first to admit that. I'm like black licorice in that some people love me, some people have tried me and would rather never do that again, and some people think they know me from the get-go and turn the other way. Also, I don't like black licorice either. So there's that.

The other thing is that I don't really feel fully invested in anything. Having one foot in everything (in this scenario I have dozens of feet) might make me interesting to go on a car ride with, but it makes me so hard to talk to. I like wildlife but I don't hunt. I bird, but not every weekend (or even every other weekend). I watch football but not college football and literally not one second of any other sport. I read, but not any one genre. My politics are left of a lot of people I work with now, but right of a lot of the people I worked with before. What happens is that I'll find a common interest with someone, but I'm not as into it as they are and so the conversation quickly exhausts my limited knowledge of it and then we're casting around for anything else. "So," I ask, desperately flailing for something, anything, that can keep this person engaged. "What's your favorite Sega CD game?"

It's interesting that one of the things I like about myself is how hard it is to put me in a category; but simultaneously that's part of why I struggle so much in social situations. When Wall-E finds a spork and struggles to categorize it, he finally gives up and puts it between the spoons and the forks. It's super cute, but here's the thing: sporks suck. They're useful if they are the only thing available, but do neither thing well. If you have a more specialized option, you go with it. I'm almost 38. I don't know if at this point there's going to be some big change where I'm able to focus on any one thing long enough to make it my own deal. It might be spork-town from here on out for ol' Howie.

This is a look I'm pretty used to when meeting strangers
I'm being pretty hard on myself, I guess. Human beings aren't eating utensils. There's a good chance that I'm a conversational multi-tool. I'm not the best knife or set of pliers, but sometimes you don't need the set of pliers. You just need the screwdriver thing. If you need a screwdriver, a knife isn't going to get you very far, just like the guy who lives and breathes Alabama football maybe isn't going to get you very far in a discussion about disc golf. I've played disc golf like 10 times. I'm not the expert, but I can hang.

"I'm not the expert, but I can hang" may be the thing I request be put on my tombstone.

Also a big part of the book is how different jihad was during Shamil's time, even in a military sense, than it has been in modern times. It's discussed that Shamil would despise the current actions of some members of his own religion, even as his name is sometimes invoked in support of it. That's a very good and interesting discussion but I couldn't figure out how to make it about me, so let's stick with the tombstone thing.

Tombstone generator

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lumberjanes, Creativity, and the Definitions of Flotsam and Jetsam

I was prepared to let this week fly by without a blog post. I'd already reconciled it in my mind. Last week's post was one of the least-clicked on posts I've ever written, I haven't finished any books since the last one, either. A lot of my free time lately has been playing video games and reading comic books.

This whole thing is pretty cyclical. I read a lot, get a good backlog of posts lined up so that I don't have to worry about meeting the self-imposed deadline that absolutely no one else will even begin to hold me accountable for, and I kind of coast. The posts go up, fail to compete with the myriad of other online entertainments on offer, and then they disappear quickly into the flotsam and/or jetsam (note: research whether there's a difference, like with stalactites and stalagmites. Or are they interchangeable, like "odds and ends," or "Olson twins") of internet content. And we all move on with our lives as if nothing happened because essentially nothing did.

By the way, I just looked it up and there is a legally important difference between flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam is debris unintentionally introduced to the water that the original owner still has claim to. Jetsam was deliberately jettisoned, and therefore to the claimant goes the spoils. In other words, if I'm on the high seas and lightning strikes the rad masthead I have of a particularly bosomy octopus, knocking her into the water, that monstrosity still belongs to me. And I'll have you return it promptly, thank you very much. If, on the other hand, it is a desperate situation on the high seas and I feel that said masthead is a liability and consciously shed it to the whims of the sea, someone else is going to be rewarded with the find of a lifetime.

Flotsam and jetsam are basically the opposite definition for the entirety of the internet. Much of the things that delight, disgust, or distract us are unintentionally entered into the public record and immediately become the property of all. The woman who falls down the many, many stairs because she's scrolling through Instagram on her way out of the courthouse would rather that content not make it on the internet. And yet lo, she is briefly the most famous person on earth. The cat who loves playing under a faucet doesn't know there is an internet. She is just a broken cat trying to navigate a world in which there are giants who could destroy her at a whim and has found a distraction from the daily terror of feline life.

On the other hand, those things deliberately introduced to the metaphorical ocean of amusing or infuriating content only gains attention if it is horrible. Like so many underpants floating among the foamy waves, these are the blog posts with 18 followers saying that Star Wars is feminist propaganda, Frozen is actually a poisonous concoction of political correctness and gay brainwashing, and one weirdo saying that drama kids aren't actually bad. We take these gross fringe opinions and inflate them to some kind of commentary on the national state of thought. "Man writes blog defending drama kids, internet destroys him."

Basically 80% of what we do online is tear things down, it's like the opposite of a barn-raising, where instead of gathering to help our neighbor build a building (one that I assume is useful though I'm only vaguely aware of what barns are for aside from giving teenagers in rural communities a place to kiss and do heroin) we get all of our cars together and drag a massive chain across the entire historical downtown shopping district. Like, it's nice that we're all working together on something, but only if you really like rubble.

As a very influential and well-respected opinion haver, influencer, and tastemaker, I understand that I keep some opinions carefully hidden, knowing that if I unleashed them on my social medias, I would lose half of my friends. These aren't the relatively innocuous political platforms like maybe Mussolini had some good ideas. Oh no, these are much more virulent. Like, if people knew that I believe deep down that Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut are writers who only exist in order to be grown out of I would be torn to pieces. When Prince died I couldn't think of a single song of his that I was able to listen to all of the way even once. The book Ready Player One has the worst opening chapter of any professionally published book that I've ever read and I was unable to read even one more word of it. You mad? What if I replaced Ready Player One with Twilight. Is it OK now?

That felt good for me, but probably made everyone angry. Just like I lose my dang mind when I read the Goodreads reviews of books I loved. Why did that feel good to point out that something you love is bad? Why is it so easy to critique, and so hard to create? We spend the entirety of our childhoods thinking about how we would do better than our parents when we have kids and spend the entirety of parenting hoping that we do at least as well as them. We criticize the American school system yet contribute nothing towards making it better. Half of us spent eight years tearing apart Obamacare instead of actually designing something useful. It's like going to the mechanic because your starter is broken and your mechanic flicking a cigarette into your car followed by a gallon of gas. "We'll just build you a new one," he says, the dancing flames reflected in his glasses.

I mean I know the answer to all of these questions and it's this: creating things is hard as balls. Blog posts probably have the lowest barrier to entry of any creative form known to man, and still it's hard. Making stuff out of clay that looks like real stuff? Painting with oil paints? Making movies or learning how to play the guitar and then creating original music for that guitar and THEN writing lyrics to the original music? Seriously it might as well be impossible. And then if you do all of that and you play at your local coffee shop you have to be like embarrassed that you did it. What an a-hole, right? How dare someone create something and then try to share it with people that she cares about.

We all have that friend who learned how to paint and really cares about it and wants to share their art with you and we look at the art and we're like, it's not even good. Do you know where that comes from? I do. It's the part of us that tells us that because we don't do it, it's bad. It's the voice in your head that says my friend had better not succeed at something artistic because then I'd have to admit to myself that pursuing something creative isn't a waste of time. Can you imagine how bad Fall Out Boy's best friend in high school must hate him? Fall Out Boy in this universe is an actual person. And behind every Fall Out Boy is his super petty high school friend who secretly rooted against him at every step.

Here's the thing: we're all bad people. Every one of us who has begrudged someone else's attempt to create is bad. I get mad because I think that Stephen King is a bad writer. Like objectively bad. I hate that he's very successful and I think that's unfair. I am annoyed that Steven Spielberg isn't directing a movie based on my book that I never began to even try to publish. It just burns me right up. I'm angry because I didn't do anything and nobody is praising the work I didn't create.

It doesn't matter to that awful part of me that these works have enriched the lives of many millions of people. What matters is whether they satisfy some version of quality that I alone dictate. The person who is having a great time putting together a Thomas Kinkade: The Painter of Light puzzle while watching Big Bang Theory and eating Olive Garden seems to be actually having a pretty good time and THAT CANNOT STAND FOR SOME REASON.

Have you read Matt's blog? Yeah. It isn't even good.

Maybe it isn't. There's a really good chance of that. But it exists. I guess that's why I keep writing it. It's why I pay the $12 a year to keep the domain name. It's why I paid off a guy $35 to stop him from suing me for using his picture. I must be in the hole a good hundred bucks by now on this endeavor. I spend time on it that I could spend doing a million other things. It makes me feel bad just as often as it makes me feel good. And yet here I am again angrily hacking away at my ergonomic keyboard.

Here's my last gripe about a society in which earnestness and creating just for its own sake is punished: all of us are taught at an early age that creativity is good. Parents and teachers give us magic markers, crayons, lego blocks, and clay. They thrust ukuleles and recorders into our hands. They send us to piano lessons. I spend a lot of time with kids, many of whom come from dangerous and fractured families, and every one of them wants to color. Every one wants to put blocks on one another. They all want to show me their drawings. They want to make something that never existed before.

Until about 4th grade.

At that age enough people (adults and children alike) have told these kids that they aren't good enough. "A stringed instrument isn't right for your child's temperament," the music teacher tells you in front of them. An art teacher spends all of his time focusing on the three or four students who are "gifted," and "have a knack," while ignoring the kids who don't measure up to their arbitrary standard. "Everyone knows that Fall Out Boy can't sing," a fellow student (rightly) tells Fall Out Boy, who runs outside and cries in like ten pitches at once.

As if by fourth grade any of us know what we will really be good at. And as if it even matters. The number of concert pianists worldwide who make their living solely as pianists (if I ever have a podcast this will be a funny sentence to read aloud) number in the hundreds while there are currently 40 million piano students just in China. Your chances of being a professional football player as a high school student are one in four-thousand. Even if you make it to a college team, it's a 0.004% chance that you will play even one year of professional football. If the chances of making a living with your creative endeavor are so slim, the argument that we should discourage children from doing things that they love just because they aren't good at it goes away.

But what if they waste their lives pursuing a dream that will never come true? Sure. Maybe don't spend every second you have getting good at one thing. Look at Richard Sherman, lockdown cornerback and member of Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom. Guy had a 4.2 GPA in high school and a degree from Stanford. The lead singer of The Offspring is pursuing a doctorate in molecular biology at Keck School of Medicine so that he can cure HIV. Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, is a GD ASTROPHYSICIST. I can't imagine a job candidate being thrown out of the office because, in addition to a degree and experience, they can paint killer landscapes or play the entire Rush discography on drums. That seems like a plus to me. Imagine your office parties.

Play football because you love it. Play piano because it's awesome that you can play piano. I was in a church meeting once where a a teen boy played a very lovely piece on the piano and happened to glance around the room at the many young ladies in attendance. There were not enough fainting couches on hand to deal with the mass swoon. I didn't play sports well as a kid, I played them very poorly. Thankfully, though, my parents let me stay in them as long as I wanted. As a result, when a bunch of middle aged men gather around to throw a ball around and complain about how it hurts, I can hold my own.

I was a creative writing major for several years. At times, teachers told me that I had "it." One teacher told me that if I didn't pursue a writing career, he would consider himself a failure. Spoiler alert: I did not pursue a writing career. I changed majors to conservation ecology. Was my professor a failure? He was not. Here I am, writing. Not because I'm good, but because I like to do it. Is there anything wrong with doing something just because you love it? I submit to you that there is not.

I like to cook, and that's fine because cooking is something we do to, like, survive. But what if we need to create art to survive, too? What if writing a blog is a decent way to combat depression sometimes? What a weird hypothetical situation.

Anyway, all this brings me to Lumberjanes.

In Lumberjanes five young girls of extremely varying personalities and aptitudes meet at a girl scouts camp known as Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqui Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. They represent the Roanoke cabin, and right off the bat they're earning badges and solving mysteries.

It's the kind of series that didn't exist when I was a young kid reading comics. In those books you could have women on the team, but they were never the decision makers. They also all had to wear leotards ten sizes too small and I assume spent most of their fighting energy making sure they didn't have stuff falling out of their costumes so that they were decent enough to not be put on a different shelf in the bookstore.

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Faith Erin Hicks, Brooke A. Allen, Brittney Williams, Aimee Flack, Becca Tobin, Carolyn Nowak, Felicia Choo, T. Zysk, Aubrey Aiese, and Maarta Laiho probably were told their whole lives that they were wasting their time pursuing art and writing. They were certainly told at different points in their careers either explicitly or just by looking at the names of writers and artists in their favorite comics that there wasn't a place for them in the industry. They went ahead and wrote a radical book anyway.

If you like to draw, keep drawing. If you've always thought you'd like to draw but never did, try it. Write every day if writing makes you feel good. Practice the instrument you learned in junior high but never picked up again. Play the ukulele. Sing. Make a band. Start a YouTube channel of you seriously reviewing every Hardy Boys book. Make something out of clay and fire it in your oven. Is it good? Who cares. Did it exist before you made it? Nope. That's something, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Human Acts and Why Your Excuse is Crap

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered - is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable? - Han Kang, Human Acts

I probably don't have any jokes to write today, so I'm sorry if you clicked on this post in hopes for a break from the scary stuff out there. Some days I don't have it in me. This morning on a long drive for work I listened to This American Life, as every white person who has glasses like mine are required to do, and I just got so mad. In the beginning of the episode, Ira Glass is sitting in on a meeting where Chicago immigrants are being given advice on how to deal with immigration officers. They are told certain phrases, and asked to repeat them back. One is "I do not consent to the search of these premises." In the recording, you hear a very small voice near Ira say, "I do not consent to the search of these promises."

That little voice just crushed my heart. This little girl in a room full of over a hundred people has to deal with the potential reality that her family will be ripped apart. If she was born in the United States and her parents were not, she may end up staying with strangers or distant relatives while her parents are forced to return to their country. Or, she may need to leave her school and live in a country in which she has never set foot. She has to learn about things like "power of attorney," and "legal guardians."

I think I've covered the immigration thing a lot, so I don't know if I have to discuss it further. Regardless of anyone's opinions on how it should work, the fact that a young girl has to fit in her worldview that her dad may go to work one day and not come back, or get detained just after dropping her off at school is messed up. Or that she may live for months in an overcrowded detention center, or that her older sister who is on a scholarship at a prestigious university may be pulled out of class or detained on the way. My kids worry that they won't get enough time playing the new Zelda game.

I felt powerless and useless and despondent. Those aren't normal feelings for me. I have a little mantra that I repeat to myself that I have to choose to be an optimist every day, but it's really multiple times a day. Sometimes it's multiple times an hour. This story caught me just at the wrong moment and I'll be darned if I didn't just about lose it. It's probably because last night I finished Human Acts, by Han Kang.

The thing I think about every time a new headline makes me feel awful is how precarious everything is. People have the capacity to do absolutely astonishing acts of goodness. I seek this out every way I can. I'm consistently amazed by just the day-to-day work that people do that is inspiring and great and to them it's just their job. But also, you guys, people can be terrible. I don't even want to link the articles, you've seen them.

Every day someone is doing something awful both abroad and in our own towns. Each level of awful is duly categorized by journalists quietly cataloguing the depravity of man while we all argue about whether the new Netflix show is really good or just kind of good. It's minor and stupid, like American college kids in Cancun being racist. Or it's unbearably awful, like kidnapping and massacres in Nigeria and the completely avoidable starvation of children in Yemen.

Human Acts spends a lot of time on the fringes of the May 18, 1980 Democratic Uprising in Gwanju, South Korea. It's not a history book; it's not trying to tell you everything that happened. It assumes that the reader, like the author, grew up around it and recognizes 5-18 as a date that anyone would immediately recognize without any other information. The government's horrible response and the public's response is credited as the turning point that led to South Korean democracy. A quick glance at an encyclopedia article probably gives you the context you need.

In the book we see the uprising from a variety of viewpoints, beginning with 15-year-old Dong-ho, a real boy the author learned about after having lived in his house after his family had moved away. Dong-ho exemplifies a feeling of duty, one of the human acts the title refers to, when searching for the body of his best friend. In fact, the entire book follows bodies. What does a government do with the corpses that pile up around them as they try to subdue a populace that is in active revolt? How does it dispose of the dead, often unarmed citizens that soldiers have bludgeoned, shot, or tortured to death in cities and suburbs?

Dong-ho begins to volunteer as a helper for families looking for their loved ones. He mans a clipboard in the University gymnasium. A gym filled with the dead in various stages of decomposition, a candle lit at the foot of every body. He pulls back the cloths on the ones too gruesome to view unless specifically requested. Little heroic Dong-ho watches the faces of the bereaved when they either finally find the person they are looking for, or perhaps worse, are forced to continue their search.
Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.
The day I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of my fellow civilians, staring down the barrels of the soldiers' guns, the day the bodies of those first two slaughtered were placed in a handcart and pushed at the head of the column, I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean... the sublime enormity of a single heart pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.
Bodies are seen everywhere, in a wheelbarrow being pushed in front of a busload full of young women with megaphones, protesting the Butcher, Chun Doo-Hwan. They lie on the side of the road.
Then I saw them, lying on a patch of grass by the side of the road. They just looked like they were asleep, at first. Two students in jeans and college sweaters, with a yellow banner laid across their chests as if they'd both been holding up an end. The letters had been done in thick Magic Marker, so I could read it even from the inside of the truck. END MARTIAL LAW.
They are stacked in the backs of pickup trucks as soldiers drive from location to location to pile them up. In one story, the soul of one protester struggles to maintain contact with his body, losing track of it as more corpses are piled on top. Students sacrifice the blood of their own bodies to supplement the loss in others. Mothers identify their sons and daughters.

The dead are not the only issue Kang addresses, but the empty survivors. The ones who were captured and tortured. Starved. Violated. Humiliated.
At that moment, I realized what all this was for. The words that this torture and starvation was intended to elicit. We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.
Many years later, when South Korea enjoys a freer democracy, these people still exist, like the bodies of the slain, as a constant unfortunate reminder. A young boy who inspired one character in an especially difficult time finds it impossible to function in the subsequent peace and ends up in a psychiatric hospital after violent episodes. Leaders of the uprising later drink themselves to death.
 Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass.
In 1997, many of the victims were reinterred in a memorial cemetery. In 2000 a human rights prize was established to remember the events. The man the government identified as the main instigator, Kim Dae-jung, who was sentenced to death instead became the second democratically elected president. Nobody talks about the soldiers, though. It seems interesting that rarely do anyone talk about them in these cases. We know victims' names and stories, but the perpetrators of horrific crimes under the banner of their country seem to slip back into life. Are they haunted? Or do they excuse their actions as "just doing their job?"
And even now thirty years have gone by, on the anniversaries of your and your father's death, I find myself troubled when I watch your brother straighten up after bowing over the offerings. The thin line of his lips, the stoop of his shoulders, the flecks of white in his hair. It's the soldiers, not him, that your death should have weighted on, so why did he grow so old before his time, so much quicker than all his friends? Is he still troubled by thoughts of revenge? Whenever I think this, my heart sinks.
Here's an article that I can't stop thinking about. What Ever Happened to All The Old Racist Whites in Those Civil Rights Photos? They're somewhere, right? Every white person who was caught on camera beating black men and women for the color of their skin went on to live their lives after that photo. And imagine the countless people who committed worse atrocities and weren't photographed. Did they just stop being racist when the law changed? Or do they just meld back into society, their predilections unknown.

There seems to be a percentage of our population, in our communities and schools and neighborhoods, who given the chance and maybe the hint of approval from people in powerful positions, will do terrible things. They are not a "product of their time," or "from a different era." They are not "just following orders." In that article, there's a picture of young white people who are getting drinks poured on their heads because they ate at the same counter as people of color. They got it. As long as someone, somewhere knows it's wrong, your excuse is crap.
There were paratroopers who carried the wounded on their backs all the way to the hospital and set them down on the steps before hastening back to their posts. There were soldiers who, when the order was given to fire on the crowd, pointed the barrels of their guns up in to the air so they wouldn't hit anyone. When the soldiers formed a wall in front of the corpses lined up outside the Provincial Office, blocking them from the view of the foreign news cameras, and gave a rousing chorus of an army song, there was one of their number who kept his mouth conspicuously shut.

Friday, March 24, 2017

frightening things are going to happen

Through the newspapers, you witnessed the seemingly inexorable rise of Chun Doo-hwan, the young general who had been the former President's favorite. You could practically see him in your mind's eye, riding in to Seoul on a tank as in a Roman triumph, swiftly appropriating the highest position in the central government. Goose bumps rose on your arms and neck. Frightening things are going to happen. The middle-aged tailor used to tease you: "You're cozying up with that newspaper like it's your new beau, Miss Lim. What a thing it is to be young, and be able to read such fine print without glasses."
-Han Kang, Human Acts