June 30th, 2014 § Leave a Comment

There was an essay portion of the exam. It asked for a brief summary of the last book I had read. I wrote a little something about Escape from New York by Mike McQuay, the book made more famous by its film adaptation. If the random dotting of multiple choice answers somehow didn’t do it, I insured my fate with my ramblings about the virtues of Snake Plissken. It was a lock. I slept like a baby that night.

A couple weeks later, my parents told me what I already knew. I had failed the entrance exam to the exclusive prep boarding school. They were set to pour every penny they had and every penny they were going to make to maneuver us within striking distance of one of those Ivy League Schools. The private prep school. One tour of that place was all I needed to see. Dorm rooms with random kids. Dorks walking around in pleaded trousers, ties and loafers … well, they looked dorky to me at the time. A formal dining hall. What do you think the chances were of me finding a bowl of rice and some kimchee in that joint? Exactly. Moving from West LA to the Suburbs ripped us from ourselves. This? What was this going to do us? A month in that place, we’d hardly know ourselves. Forget it. No way I was going.

Our minds were made up; we were throwing that exam.

What I didn’t realize until I saw the look in my Father’s eyes was what the failure would mean to him. All I thought about was keeping myself out of that silly place. What he had to come to terms with was that his sons were dumb. The notice of failure came with it our scores. In my eagerness to keep my feet out of the fire as it were, I had been overzealous in portraying my stupidity. Of course I couldn’t tell him I threw the exam, he’d have wrung my neck. But now that I’ve seen my own children, you know, through that rosy lens only parents have, I wish I would’ve told him I threw it. It would’ve been worth taking the lumps to give my Father the relief of knowing that his son was not an idiot.


August 2nd, 2013 § 2 Comments

It was a dreary Saturday afternoon. My father sat slouched, cross legged on the floor, a “wife beater” hanging from his narrow shoulders, a burning cigarette pinched between his fingers when a Geisha floated by him through our apartment’s little living room. “What’s that?” My brother who was holding the art work explained that it would be his submission for the Lloyd’s Bank Art Contest. My brother, the prized pupil of Commonwealth Elementary’s gypsy-like Jewess art teacher, Miss Itskovich was holding a potential winner: A finely detailed replica of a Meiji Period Japanese Geisha painting done in pencil and marker. The exceptional piece garnered a less than enthusiastic reaction from our father.

To say that Koreans are not fond of Japanese is putting it mildly. Japan spent a good deal of the first half of the 1900s waging war all over Asia. In doing so, they didn’t make many friends. The Annexation of Korea done in extreme malice was a painful, humiliating sore on the national psych. The kind of stuff that festers for generations. Our father saw it first hand.

“Why do you want to paint that?” We knew exactly what he meant. “Here, let me show you.” The silent, lifeless man was all of sudden up on his feet, ripping down calendars with traditional Korean watercolors. Demanding pencil. Paint. Paper. The newspaper he was reading was laid on the beige carpet. In a matter of a couple hours, he masterfully taught my brother how to paint in watercolor. It was my brother’s first painting lesson. To see and paint a piece as a whole.

I sat off to the side in stupefied wonder, not moving so as not to awaken our father from this almost hypnotic episode. He was alive, alert. And he cared. Cared about his history, his people. He cared about art, beauty. He cared about my brother – my brother’s connection, my brother’s art.

As my brother adeptly applied the lessons learned, my father lit a cigarette. He intently watched as the painting flowered in the watercolor. “Yes! That’s it!” I got to think, he was satisfied.

As a fourth grader, my brother’s watercolor rendition of a traditional Korean painting won first prize in that contest. There was no doubt.

My brother, he still paints.


January 7th, 2013 § Leave a Comment

I don’t remember how I ended up sitting there crying, outside that room. I was about four or five years old. I know because it was in the first home of my memory, that place I now see in “black and white”, fuzzy fragments. Sitting outside the room, drawn shut by sliding paper doors, I was approached by our Nanny. After consoling me, she ushered me to the door and slid it open. The room was dark. From his lying position on the floor, my Dad lifted to look out at us. Our Nanny explained to him how she found me sitting outside, crying. “He is sad because he thinks you’re still upset,” she explained. “I told him that you are not angry anymore, but he won’t believe me.” After mediating, she left me there staring into the room darkened by the lengthening shadows of the afternoon. He called me in, motioned for me to lay next to him, and then drew the covers over me. And I fell asleep in the warmth of his closeness.

Even as I write it, I wonder if it really happened. “It must have been a dream,” I tell myself. Spun in the heart of a child that beats for things as they ought to be. But I feel that warmth … the uncomfortably unfamiliar comfort of his closeness. Can’t feel pain in dreams. Can you feel warmth?

It’s a Girl!

July 25th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

With our first two, we didn’t find out their gender. We wanted to be surprised. With our second, we got what we wanted. There are all kinds of “hokus pokus” theories on determining gender – day of conception, morning sickness patterns, the positioning of the baby, and so on. Everyone who had an opinion on my wife’s second pregnancy was convinced that this one too was going to be a boy. When people get excited and tell you what they think, especially when it’s something as whimsical as a guess on the gender of your wife’s pregnancy, you smile, you nod, and give the look, “Oh, that’s nice. Maybe you’re right.” But there was this lady. We were walking through an outdoor mall. My wife was about eight months pregnant. An older lady, Middle-Eastern, a shawl framing her wrinkled, sage-like face walked up to us. “Your baby. It’s a boy,” she said in an ancient accent, and walked away.

We were convinced. So, convinced that in the delivery room, upon hearing, “It’s a girl!” we looked at each other with the same expression: “What? It’s a girl?” I’ll never forget it. Literally, my wife’s first expression – the very moment she pushed our daughter out, her feet still in the stirrups – was, “What?” In fact, we weren’t even settled on a name. We had a boy’s name. It took us a couple days to choose between two girl names, neither of which we thought we’d use.

I had heard the thing about a girl, “There’s something about a girl.” It’s true. They unlock something reserved, deep inside a father. A girl somehow highlights the beauty and the precious fragility of a baby. And I don’t think it ever really goes away. She was beautiful. I remember the long fingers and toes, the fuzzy ears, head full of dark hair, a crooked scowl, and a single dimple on her lower right cheek. I remember holding her and wanting like I’d never wanted anything before to protect her from the world. She’s still beautiful.

Like all the rest, the old lady was wrong. Twelve years later, I can’t tell you how glad I am that she was.

Can You Say, Ball?

July 5th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

My kid’s first word was “ball”. Yeah. You’d think as a parent, I’d be bummed about that. I wasn’t. No, because I’m a father. And like many other fathers, I’ve dreamt of my kid being a star athlete. So, when he blew right past “Mama” and “Dada” and went straight to “ball”, I turned to my wife in fascinated delight, “Is he saying ball? I think he’s saying ball.” Once confirmed, I stood up, inhaled deeply and beamed with pride, “Well, would you look at that.”

The kid is a pretty good athlete. More than freakish natural ability, he possesses a competitive spirit and a solid work ethic. Is he going to be signing a multi-million dollar contract to play in front of thousands of adoring fans? Not likely. Will his athletic prowess garner him a free ride through college? Not discounting it. But really, how many kids get that?

I’ve learned: dreams are mine, reality is ours. I can try to wedge him into my dream, or meet him in our reality. In this real life, I’ve jumped up and down in cheer. Watched as he made that catch and beat the rest to the wall. I’ve put my arm around him to console him, and I’ve barked at him to spur him on. I’ve coached him on the importance of balance, and on not letting the ball get into his palm. We’ve talked of courage. And that you never, ever give up. More than anything, we’ve played ball together – stood out front and tossed it around. And really, isn’t this the dream?

Old Photo

May 31st, 2012 § Leave a Comment

There’s this old photo. It’s maybe 5×8. The resolution says the original was even smaller. The black and white has that greenish/brown tint of genuinely old photos. It’s a “head shot” of a Korean man with a very Korean face: Broad with small eyes and full lips. The eyes and the full lips wear a trace smirk, giving the man a kind look. His hair is wavy and pulled back like Clark Gable. And he is wearing a coat and tie. I was told that he was the only man in his village to wear a coat and tie. The man in the photo was my Grandfather. I never saw him. I don’t know his name.

Growing up, I’d see that photo a couple times a year. It along with another grainy photo of a small woman got pulled out of the closet and pasted on the wall for a traditional memorial called Jae Sah.  Depending on who you ask, Jae Sah is characterized as everything from a memorial feast to ancestor worship. For me it was a strange evening of seeing men, my Dad and Uncles in humble posture – a posture they seldom took. Followed by a feast of too much of a good thing. The feeling leaving the table was always, “Ah, I didn’t quite get at that right.” During those nights, I’d overhear bits and pieces of the story.

My Grandfather as a young man led a student resistance movement against the occupying Japanese rule. He was arrested, jailed and tortured. My Dad remembered a permanently disfigured elbow. His courageous patriotism garnered him local legend status, which he parlayed into advancing a political agenda. Despite being a wealthy landowner … okay, okay, I know, this is where every Korean ancestry goes back to some wealthy landowner or royalty. Right. And family history has that acute vulnerability to embellishment. Acknowledged. Like I said, I didn’t know the man. This is what I heard from admittedly sources who tend to bleed truth into legend into wishful thinking. Okay, where was I? Yes, despite being a wealthy landowner, he was a political idealist who believed in the virtue of Socialism. Or he was a big, bad communist. Again, depending on who you ask. At the outbreak of the Korean war, the Communist North advanced South. In retreat, the South rounded up known Communist leaders. He was marched up a hill with others, lined up, and shot.

My Dad was fourteen years old. Being the oldest surviving man of his house, he went up that hill accompanied by a trusted servant to identify and retrieve the body. Two years later, he lost his Mother to disease. He lived through the War and practically raised his two younger brothers.

Fathers aren’t perfect. My Father sure wasn’t. By the time I came around though, he’d seen a few things. Life has a way of crushing a man. It’s surprising really – after all he’d been through that he treated me as well as he did. My Father, I don’t think, knew the man in that old photo much better than I do.


Humming Taylor Swift

April 5th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

Awhile back, I caught myself humming a line from a Taylor Swift song. Yes, I am a man. A forty-two year old man. Certainly, not a pretty man. You’re right, I should not be doing anything Taylor Swift. After some well deserved self-flagellation, I went to where lots of people go in times of self-loathing. Blame. “Why do my kids have such horrible taste in music?” They do, forgive me. And they bring this, this KIIS FM into my world. It bores a hole into my brain. Seeps in. Sounds of Taylor Swift, Usher, and Katy Perry take up residence. And while I’m engaged in mindless activity, guard down, it slips or … uh, hums out.

It’s rather disappointing. Where did it all go wrong? I tried to expose them to my taste, my eclectic pseudo cool: Dylan, Hendrix, Coltrane, Marley. Yeah, there was some Country there … well, truth be told, a lot of Country. Once again, gonna blame. With Country, it’s my wife’s fault. But even there, we tried to mix in some good with the Rascal Flatts: some Cash, Alison Krause. Despite all this, our kids want to listen to something you can dance to from some dude who decided to go with Bruno Mars as a stage name. Bruno Mars? C’mon man, really?

Then it hits you. Maybe your idea of cool isn’t so cool anymore. Maybe just like your Dad who couldn’t understand Prince and the Revolution or Run DMC, you can’t understand the Black Eyed Peas or, yeah, why not, Taylor Swift. …She wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts. She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers … nana nanaa nana nana nanaa … what your looking for has been here the whole time. If you can see me…da, da, dada, da da. Yeah, I guess it’s kind of a catchy tune.

Jammed at the Gate

March 28th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

Years after my Dad died, my Mom told us about a conversation they had in his hospital room. He said, “If I could live to see our younger son married, I could die happily that night.” He assumed my older brother would marry first. The story struck us as odd. The statement far as I knew was out of character. My Father was a lot of things; a sentimental man, he was not. We did not celebrate holidays. There were no anniversary dates – hell, there were no dates, period. A tough childhood memory for me is on my ninth birthday, I ran up to my Dad as he got home from work. I saw him coming up the steps from the garage. I ran along the side of the apartment building to cut him off as he got to the side gate. “Dad, guess what day this is?” He grunted something that indicated he didn’t know. I withdrew to the safety of silence. He walked in. I still wonder if he really knew and jammed me on purpose.

So, what gives? Why the sentimentality? There’s another story my Mom tells of a train ride. My Father kept getting up every few minutes, heading for the back of the train. My Mom got up to see what he was doing, and caught him adjusting a handkerchief he’d hung against the window along our seats to shield his two sleeping boys from the afternoon sun. There must be something that happens when a man is in the presence of his children. Something bad, something scary that makes him want to withhold that thing – that warm thing he really wants to extend.

You know what I think? I think the living long enough to see my sons married was really my Father. The guy who adjusted the handkerchief. And I knew it! I knew it. He jammed me at that side gate.

Chromosome and Shoes

March 21st, 2012 § Leave a Comment

I’m Korean American. Born in Seoul; apart from the first eight years, raised in California. I married a woman who was born in Louisville, Kentucky to parents representing a broad swath of peoples of Western Europe. Our family is a blending of ethnicities and cultures. On any given evening, you’ll find forks and knives on a set dining table. On the next, you’re likely to see spoons and chopsticks. Our dog lives in the house – lives pretty large, I might add. And we remove our shoes at the door. When we have a good sized group over, the entry looks like a clearance table at a shoe outlet store.

When our second, the oldest of our two girls was about two years old, she began a strange, ritual migration. Whenever the entry was filled with shoes, they – the shoes, ladies shoes specifically, and I swear she knew the difference – would pull her toward them. Without ever being encouraged to do so, she began trying ’em on. She’d put a pair on and drag them around a few steps, put them back, and try on another. After dragging another oversized pair for awhile, she’d go back to the collection, and so on, … You get the picture. Did I mention, she was two! Yeah, I have a picture of her with some woman’s size six shoes, a little purse, and a toy cell phone to her ear. It’s a really scary picture. Yes, she is cute … very cute. So cute that one might miss that the photo is a harbinger of things to come – expensive things.

I don’t get the shoe thing. Not counting my basketball shoes collecting dust in the closet, I own five pairs. It’s the most I’ve owned at one time in my life; I’m kind of embarrassed that I have so many. But I’ve heard it enough to be convinced that the thing for shoes is not made up. Oh, it’s real; I’m a believer. What I did not know was that that thing, the thing for shoes is in the female gene. Somehow it’s tied in with that extra X chromosome. Who knew?

And, yup, she still likes shoes … a lot.

And so it began

March 7th, 2012 § Leave a Comment

I remember exactly where I was sitting – the little space between the bathroom and the vanity in our one bedroom apartment, our first place wedged between Newport Beach and Industrial Costa Mesa – the larger half of the two bedroom crudely chopped into a one and a studio. I remember it was cold in the apartment. It was December. She’d gotten home from work with one of those home pregnancy tests.

She came out of the bathroom, and set that white, plastic stick on the vanity. She crouched next to me to wait out those nervous few minutes. Neither one of us wanted her to be pregnant. We had plans, you see. Good plans: Wait two, three years before starting a family; “Grow together as a couple,” we were told. Yeah, sounded right. Take a few little trips. Go camping. Sleep in on Saturdays. And then there was the money. I had followed my calling. And as it is with most callings, it paid dirt. She was making double my salary. The plan was to live tight, put away her checks and buy a place of our own. Good plans.

So, why were we both smiling? We were. I can see us. Didn’t want it. Scared. But the clearest things in my memory’s eye – looking down on those two sitting there, huddled next to each other – are those smiles. Those nervous smiles. Man, we were just kids.

“What do you think?”
“I don’t think you are.”
“No? … I think I am.”
“You do? Hmm…”

“That two lines?”
“I think it is.”
“Really? Why’s that second line so faint?”
“Did we wait too long?”
“I don’t know. Five minutes – is that what it says?”
“Should I do another one?”
“There’s another one?”
“Yes, they come in two-packs.”
“Yeah, think you’d better.”

She did. She was. And so it began.

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