Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tears For Philip Seymour Hoffman

It is beyond sad to lose the brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His performance in Death of A Salesman quite simply tore me apart. As soon as he came on stage every detail of his artistry drew me into Willy Loman’s misery. It ended up shaking me to the core.

The performance had particular resonance for me because the character he played reminded me so much of my father. My father wasn’t exactly Willy Loman. And I’m certainly not Biff, but listen to this:

My father came to this country from India in the late 1940s. He became an aerospace engineer, married a brilliant and beautiful woman from Korea, bought a house in the suburbs with a pool, and had five children. He taught us to live as moral beings, to be the best in science and math, and to love music, literature and the arts. But, as Willy Loman and so many others discovered in times of economic change, the American Dream was illusory.

There was no happily ever after. When the space program cut back in the 1970s Papa was out of work. He declared bankruptcy but was still burdened with family responsibilities. We moved out of the house and my parents divorced. And my father, the rocket scientist, could not find work except, as he said in his last note to us, to build weapons, which he would not do.

A proud man, he always dressed neatly to pick up his unemployment check. Like Willy Loman, my father became superfluous when his particular set of skills was no longer needed.

In the play Willy Loman’s wife Linda tells their son Biff “he’s been trying to kill himself.”  She had previously written to Biff about Willy’s accident driving off the road, but she found out later a witness said he had deliberately smashed into a railing.

When I was about thirteen, I read a news item of a man who had driven his car off a cliff but survived with only a broken arm. That man turned out to be my father. I did not realize at the time that it was his first attempt to commit suicide.

At some point my father came to the conclusion that he was worth more dead than alive.

Like Willy Loman, he made the awful, deliberate decision to take his life so that his family could have the insurance money. When I was sixteen, he succeeded.

I’d seen the Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy revivals of Death of A Salesman. We all knew the story. Yet I hadn’t noticed how closely this play tracked my father’s death. It took Philip Seymour Hoffman’s searing performance to slash through the emotional fortress I had maintained for 38 years.

When you lose a parent at a young age and no one talks about it, you can bury it away into adulthood as a deep, unexpressed and unexamined sorrow. But the way Philip Seymour Hoffman captured the utter humanity of Willie Loman and his plight elevated the play to the realm of art. He illuminated my father’s own hard times, Papa’s love for his family, and his final lonely decision. As I watched the play my tears flowed freely, without judgment or anger, but with love and understanding for my Papa as a human being.

So thank you, Philip Seymour Hoffman, for performing with such intelligence, compassion and truth. But now your children have lost their father while young. I hope they find healing and peace. They have a difficult road ahead of them. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The 9/11 Memorial, Visited

Just before the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attack, The 9/11 Memorial opened its doors in the evening just to the Lower Manhattan community. I jumped at the chance to view the memorial away from the hordes of tourists. And I was touched that we residents were given a moment of our own. Much of the attention, rightly so, has been on those who lost loved ones in the attack. But those of us who witnessed the neighborhood engulfed in the toxic cloud of debris and human remains and heard of the sudden death of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers have been in shock and grief ever since and also in need of some structured place to heal and pay our respects.

After 9/11, far from having a public place to go for contemplation and healing, Lower Manhattan was upended. We spent a dozen years trudging around the World Trade Center site assaulted and jostled by the noise and harsh visuals of the largest construction project in the world.

But here it is, finally. With just what I wanted to see first. Soft, verdant grass. Trees. Life.

I'm glad they took the time to do such a splendid job. The plaza spreads out with ample place to stroll. You can choose where your footsteps go and where your mind takes you. The two reflecting pools, supposed to be the size of the footprints of the towers, if not at their exact location, are enormous.  Appropriately monumental. And the sound of rushing water, falling from the sides, running horizontally and falling deeper into a center rectangle is LOUD. A breeze can cover you in wetness. All of this is surrounded by a varied cityscape of Lower Manhattan buildings, modern and old, that embrace the site with a sense of belonging, together with an ever-changing sky that is all part of the memorial experience.

Most striking to me is the presence of the names carved expertly and beautifully into the dark stone surrounding the pools. You can touch the letters and ponder. I don't know them, so they are abstract texts to me, but not just text-art as in Ed Ruscha's works - far more profound. The letters spell out a person who once lived, who was special in some way and whose death will not go unnoticed. All kinds of names, different ethnicities, first names chosen by parents long ago with great care. I wonder about their lives. I remember reading small biographies of many of the dead in the paper. One in particular I wish I had remembered to look up ahead of time so I could look for him. The man who had no family or close loved ones to report him missing. The only way authorities knew he was among the dead was because he did not make his regular Tuesday haircut appointment and the woman at the salon reported his name.  Now it's etched in stone somewhere on this plaza.

The sheer monumentality of it all makes one humble. It succeeds as a memorial by creating a place to lift us from our trivial daily lives so that we have the space and time to ponder the still unimaginable magnitude of the loss. The destruction of hate. Heroic acts of selflessness. Healing and continued anguish. Our individual self and this great city.

Though firmly and sometimes grumpily an atheist, I was happy to see a Buddhist monk there - our city needs all the help it can get where such tremendous violence took place.

It said in the news that there are well over a thousand people who worked at or lived near the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks that now have cancer. The terrorist attack did not just happen and end on September 11, 2001. It continues to this day in horrific, anguished memories and in the very bodies of people walking in the city. The 9/11 Memorial does what it should do. It pays respect, to the dead and to the living. We were in great need of such a place and it is finally here.

Looking up from the dark pools of water and my thoughts I was gladdened to see the city, rising, flourishing. Look there - you can see the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's wings take shape over the new Fulton Transit Center next to old, beloved, St. Paul's Chapel, and 1 World Trade, almost ready for business.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Breathing Space

Enterprise flying near the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, from my apartment rooftop April 27, 2012.

I hear the soft slaps of my father's burgundy Papa-slippers as he walks down the hallway to its end, then slowly turns around and paces back. Over and over. Back and forth. With 3-year-old me riding piggyback, or o-boo-ba, as my Korean mom would say. It is the middle of the night and I can't breathe. The asthma medicines in 1961 were not helpful. There was some yellow, icky-tasting liquid that I recall. The only thing that made me feel better was getting a piggyback-ride and gradually falling asleep as my shallow, rapid breathing synchronized to the steady rhythm of fatherly slippers. It's one of my earliest and most vivid memories of Papa, who died when I was a teen.

I could've used an o-boo-ba this past week when I landed in the hospital for asthma, but Papa's not around anymore and I'm a grown-up adult. Still, it would've been more comforting than the massive amounts of corticosteroids that made me jittery and the Ambien that gave me nightmares.

Although I must say, steroids do the trick. Thank you, science, for better daily medicines, which should keep most asthmatics - those who receive consistent health care - out of the emergency room. My problem is that I'm allergic to just about everything on this planet, and this was a particularly bad allergy season. I think the only thing that would really help my health, but at great injury to my sense of style, would be if I were to go about my day in an air-conditioned, HEPA-filtered spacesuit.

Asthma can be debilitating to people in varying degrees. There was New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, born in Oklahoma City like my husband, who died of uncontrolled asthma triggered by an allergy to horses when he was crossing the border out of Syria. Then there was Teddy Roosevelt, who overcame his childhood asthma by exercise and sheer willpower, which, frankly, I find annoying. After having read more about Teddy Roosevelt recently, I can say that TR was a maniac. Do not compare me to TR. I will never be able to overcome asthma to lead an expedition into the Amazon jungle, nor could I continue with a speech after having been shot and the bullet still lodged in my chest.

I can't complain about asthma and do not. My father passed on the genetic disposition to me and my siblings -  the five of us -  but that's just how it was. My parents never thought of us as growing up to careers requiring healthy lungs, like athletes or florists. The life of the mind was the ticket, with its infinite possibilities. We may have been fragile and earthbound, but our imaginations were lifted aloft by literature, music and science.

And yet, early on I vowed never to have children because I did not want to watch my child gasp for air while I stood by helplessly. Now, I wonder. But I had my busy career, and met my Oklahoman late in life, and there you have it. We are quite happy without kids. Except that we do have a darling child, who happens to have four legs and a tail.


On Friday, the day after I got out of the hospital, I was breathing easier but still feeling pretty low. Then something happened that sent my spirits soaring. The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise was making a special last fly-by over New York City. I was tired but there was no way I would miss this. It represented my father's aspirations in space exploration as a scientist and a classic Star Trek fan, which he also passed on to me.

I went up to the roof of my apartment building in Lower Manhattan to watch for her. The skies were a beautiful blue with soft white clouds, and the bracing fresh air soothed my lungs. There was a joyful hoopin' and hollerin' from people all around as Enterprise came into view. Then everyone in this busy city just stopped what they were doing to look up, eyes wide and hearts full of pride at this universal symbol for transcending earthly constraints.

Hitching a ride on the back of a jumbo jet, Enterprise flew triumphantly from the Statue of Liberty up the Hudson River, turned around by the George Washington Bridge, and then flew back down again. An o-boo-ba!

NASA photo, April 27, 2012

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't Miss the Boat: A New York Love Story

One sultry summer day in 1997 I met my future husband on a boat to Ellis Island. It was as romantic as it sounds.

I was 39 years old and unmarried, 38 of those years by choice. My Korean mother, who to her great regret started a family before she graduated from college, programmed me well: I was to have an education and an independent career before I got married, and at the same time, no man was good enough for me. To my mother’s dismay, it worked too well. Not only did I have one career, as a college professor, I started as second one, in law, and now she was worried I’d never meet a life companion.

I started to worry, too. I had earlier convinced myself that I was fine being alone, thank you very much, but now I had just moved to New York City, from Chicago by way of Ohio, had no clue about how to meet anyone, and dearly wanted someone to share my life. It couldn’t be anyone – it had be someone interested in books, history, music, especially classical piano, films and art but most of all, someone with an ironic sense of humor – another gift from my sharp-witted mother. I was so lonely that I filled out a notebook form at a coffee shop that facilitated dates. When I listed my education: B.A./M.A./Ph.D from The University of Chicago and soon to be J.D. from Columbia Law with a specialty in First Amendment law, I thought: “No way anyone’s going to call me.” And no one did.

My fellow law students were in their early 20s –way too young. One of them, a brilliant, extremely stylish and extremely short 24-year old Vietnamese woman name Thi, dragged me one day while we were working as summer law firm clerks to an event at Ellis Island hosted by The Lawyers Committee on Human Rights. I didn’t want to go but she was adamant. When we boarded the boat at the southern most end of Manhattan, a man in shirtsleeves with blondish hair and, yes I’ll say it – dreamy blue eyes - sat behind us, mopping sweat from his brow from the heat. “You lawyers?” He inquired. I said yes, budding lawyers. He was a journalist on the editorial board of a New York newspaper, invited to the event by friends he knew on the Committee. He had interviewed them on series of articles about Cuban prisoners back when he was at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (I found out later that the series made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize).

A writer! My heart quickened. The conversation came easily and we ended up chatting further at Ellis Island, surrounded by its riveting, haunting history and the glorious harbor. I looked very young, so I made a sure he knew I was older than the other law students and found out he was ten years my senior. No problem.

The boat ride back on jet-black, gentle waves gave us a tremendous view of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, now glittering with lights and bathed in the romantic glow of the smitten. I confided to Thi that I’d like to see this man again, but didn’t know what to do. He was about to disembark and walk out of my life forever. She suggested running after him to ask him for his business card. (I told you she was brilliant!) I did just that and he said: “Would you like to go to dinner sometime?”

When I got back to the law firm, I promptly did a Lexis search (no one Googled back then). If he wasn’t a good writer, I would be very disappointed indeed. I was pleased to see many, many awards and columns of great insight, including one that talked about a trip into Brooklyn while musing on the current Edward Hopper exhibit –I love Hopper and had just seen that exhibit! Later, on our many daily phone conversations, I found out he’s so well-read it puts me to shame, is extremely and sharply funny, and – something important to me – is of a shared cultural heritage that made it unnecessary to explain, for example, what Watergate means or who Floyd the Barber is. In fact, he’s a big fan of Floyd’s. To top it off, he mentioned in passing that he owns a baby grand piano and likes classical music. That's the equivalent of a red Ferrari to other women. I was hooked.

Who knew that I’d meet just the right man for me late in life in New York City on that fateful boat. He’s a southern gentleman from East Texas and Oklahoma, a slow talker with each well-chosen word a gem, a writer of extraordinary original ideas grounded in facts and observation, and quite simply the kindest, most humane person I ever met. Since that first dinner, we have not gone a day without chatting and laughing, and we’ve now been together almost 15 years, married for twelve.

That’s my New York love story. I guess the motto is, don’t give up. You never know. Don’t miss the boat.

And they lived happily ever after.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Zuccotti Park

My black lab Darwin and I often walk through Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan early in the morning on our way past the World Trade Center, on to the West Street dog park and then around the bottom of the island. Zuccotti Park is better than most privately-owned public spaces - it's prettier and more inviting, lined with trees, filled with flower beds, with cool light panels arrayed on the ground and benches throughout made of nice smooth stone.  On one side are carts for coffee and pastries and fresh juices, and every week a farmers market sets up, adorning the park with rows of colorful produce.

Darwin enjoys nosing about the flower beds and greeting people sitting at tables eating their breakfast, with the ulterior motive, of course, that they share some muffin with him. Sometimes he chases pigeons or looks up at the little birds out of his reach, hidden in trees. We see people sipping coffee, checking their calendars for the busy day, others obviously dressed in their best, too early for their interview, silently running through their presentation or pitch. Then there are groups of robust construction guys, some chatting and laughing for the last few moments of relaxation before the tough job ahead, others drinking coffee alone, lunch box in hand, pensive.

The park is just across from the World Trade Center construction zone, and thus situated at the edge of doom that awful day, receiving the first blow of that terrible cloud of ash, debris and human remains that rushed through the corridors and covered Lower Manhattan after the towers fell.  The office where I worked in 2001 was a few blocks from there, and after the attack I would walk up to where the renovated park now stands to gaze at the skeletal remains of the twin towers, then sitting atop piles of rubble and toxic smoke.

For the last month, the park has become the site of another ground zero, the vortex of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread throughout the country and beyond.  It has transformed into a setting for the quintessential exercise of free speech: pointed criticism at the powers that be for the way they run the country - in particular by ignoring the inequities that resulted after the economic collapse largely caused by unregulated financial markets. But I'll leave it to them to explain. Mostly young people. The park is filled with their passion and hope and the desperate need to be heard. And they speak on behalf of so many who worked diligently but lost jobs through no fault of their own, suddenly saddled with credit card debt, student loans, and unpaid mortgages while the giant two-faced banks show no mercy - taking in hard-earned money on one side, investing in scurrilous financial products on the other. Make no mistake, all of New York City needs our banks and financial markets to be flourishing, but it will not hurt the economic basis of the city to question and critique the process.

The political and cultural debate started in Zuccotti Park will continue for a long time. Who knows if it will change anything? It has engendered a deeply hostile reaction from those with certain established views and old fears. And many residents of Lower Manhattan are not happy that their neighborhood, newly restored ten years after 9/11, is upended again. Police, already a huge presence around Wall Street due to terrorism concerns, have set up new blockades. Individuals having nothing do to with the policies under protest are mistaken for "bankers" and harassed. Families are bothered by the drums and chanting late into the night.

The Occupiers vow to be there indefinitely, and it may be a very long time before Darwin and I get our morning stroll there again. No matter. The park has changed forever. At some point they will leave, perhaps when it gets too cold, so cold that, as in Paul Bunyan stories, the heated words of their debates over economic and social justice themselves become frozen, hanging in the air, until they thaw in the spring, to the astonishment of Darwin, who will look up into the trees and hear the voices of democracy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Father Harrie's Seat At The July 4th Parade

I've been fortunate to have been friends with some extraordinary people, brilliant, creative and kind. Most of them aren't here anymore, like Mom and her best friend, Harrie. Mom, from Korea, my father, from India and Harrie, from Holland, all met when they were students living at the University of Chicago's International House in the late '40s. Harrie and Mom were classmates in art history, and he became close to our family after Papa died.

Harrie at my wedding in 2000

Most people called him Father Harrie, since he was a Catholic priest, but I did not. Mom didn't either.  Ever the rationalist, at dinner she would suddenly ask: "You don't really believe in God, do you?" To which he would simply answer "Yes" and ask for more potatoes. He liked potatoes especially, and cheese, being a Dutchman, and we always had a nice bottle of Scotch at the ready for when he visited.  He lived in the United States for over 60 years and never became a citizen. But he loved and respected his adopted country and he always looked forward, like a little kid, to the local July 4th parade.

To describe Harrie as "a kid" is a bit unusual. Besides being a priest, he was a beloved and esteemed professor of Chinese and Japanese art history at The University of Chicago and generations of his students now teach all over the country. He taught us how to look at a great work of art. He'd take a detail, like a boulder at the bottom of a Chinese landscape painted by a master, and show us how the smallest sequence of brush strokes was full of vitality, whereas the same boulder in a later copy by a lesser artist would just sit there like a dud. I treasure the many happy times we went to museums together, peering into paintings with his pocket viewer, discussing what each of us liked best, me wishing I had his superhero-level vision for art.

He and Mom both shared a gift for recognizing authenticity and they loved to go antiquing on Midwest country roads, looking for early American objects like tools and toys. They often discussed loudly - in Japanese - the quality and price of a potential find, though it was obvious what they were saying to everyone in the store. It was usually "No Good!"

Harrie painted a postcard "The Big Apple" when I moved to New York City in 1995

Harrie had a deep love for the simple and real. He was born into a Dutch farmer's family of 11 kids - one daughter and 10 sons, with Harrie chosen to be sent off to the priesthood, which is what landed him in China before the revolution. He loved to work with his hands, repairing antique pocket watches or restoring a deserving old chair. He painted still lifes and drew whimsical cartoons. Mom and Harrie's best friends were not academics but a retired butcher named Roger, a gentle, large man with a bald head and an anchor tattooed on his massive arm, and his wife Pearl, with whom they shared a love of well-made and well-worn objects. They'd go over to see Roger and Pearl for coffee after dinner on Thursdays.

Harrie's self-portrait "thank you" card to me for a subscription to The New York Review of Books

On the day before the local Independence Day parade, Harrie would be full of excited anticipation, planning on where to set down two little fold-up chairs for him and Mom, worried that they would arrive late. It's not that Harrie and Mom had much grasp of American history. Visiting Gettysburg for me was as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. I was deeply affected by the carnage and Abraham Lincoln's perfect, healing words urging the divided country to unite. Mom's response, with her characteristic Korean directness, was: "Nothing! Nothing there!!" On the other hand, to me a local parade in Evanston, Illinois was nothing special - some local pols and Realtors in open cars followed by a few marching bands. But to Harrie, it was a valued tradition, every year the same ritual that brought people together to enjoy the simple joys of life, with barbecue after and then fireworks by Lake Michigan. Never mind that he and Mom argued about the barbecue - she wanted the fire blazing hot for bulgogi, he wanted to tone it down for the chicken.

Harrie died peacefully of a heart attack in his sleep in 2007, a little over two years after Mom passed. I miss them both. I will not be at the parade in Evanston, but I can still imagine his smile of delight as the bands march by, and I can almost hear the two of them arguing about how hot the grill should be. The meal was always fabulous, even if the chicken was a bit too charred.

Happy July 4th.  I love this country.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thug in the Picture

See that guy walking up on the right side of this photo?  The fellow in the dark slacks and jacket.  You can't make it out, but he's carrying a paper shopping bag, one with handles, looking like one of the many casual visitors to the Beijing University campus that lovely spring afternoon in 1994 when I shot this picture.  I was aiming for the bulletin boards, which don't look like much, but they played an important role in modern history as the spot where students pasted notices of political demonstrations.  I thought it would be nice to show to my Chinese literature students back at Oberlin College, who would appreciate their significance.  As soon as I snapped the picture, though, all hell broke loose.

The man with the shopping bag suddenly rushed toward me, yelling and gesturing menacingly. A crowd immediately gathered, then uniformed guards brisling with guns and bayonets surrounded me. You see, Shopping-Bag Guy was a plainclothes policeman, one of those thugs you've been hearing about so much lately who help the Chinese government keep things under strict control while operating outside official law.  You mess with them, they can beat you bloody and have you thrown in jail with no recourse. I knew that an American reporter had just been beaten up by such a thug, and so when he demanded my camera, I immediately handed it over.  Instead of confiscating it, however, he opened the back and pulled the film roll, without taking it out, just to expose it, then he handed it back to me and stomped away.  The crowd dispersed.  The guards, thankfully, went back to their posts.  It was a grim moment to say the least.

I developed the roll anyway, and only one picture survived.  The very photo worth keeping.

I had for many years been immersed in the study of Chinese literature and culture.  I found some truths along the way, but not the truths I expected.  What I discovered was the universal need to be treated with dignity and respect.  What I also discovered was that those in power, obsessed with their own survival, will go to great lengths to make sure that basic human need is not met.

This fundamental truth is being played out in Egypt and Libya right now. Again and again, protesters say all they want is to be treated like human beings instead of slaves in an authoritarian state.  They want respect for the work they do, to be permitted to enjoy dinner with their family without harassment at the end of the day, to express joy when they're happy and speak their minds at injustice without fear of reprisal. They don't want to be treated like animals or like cogs in a machine.

Last January President Hu Jintao suggested China isn't ready for human rights because they are still a developing country.  But they've long been ready.  They've been ready from the time of the anonymous soldiers in the 7th century BC, whose poems complain of unrelenting border wars, to the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who lamented that while in exile he was not able to set the emperor straight. And they're ready today as we've seen in the strong undercurrent of political dissent and the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and so many other human rights activists.

Even local villagers are taking on instances of corruption and abuse.  In tiny Zhaiqiao they rose up in anger when their village head Qian Yunhui, who had been protesting the unjust confiscation of land by a power plant, was suddenly and conveniently run over by a truck.  The village promptly voted his close relative to the post to carry on where the deceased had left off.

If most Chinese are willing to submit to total government control, why does the Chinese government work so hard at silencing voices of opposition?  It takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to spy on what everyone is saying or thinking and blot out any hint of criticism. 

When I lived in Beijing, my insignificant mail would arrive with a big piece of Scotch tape clumsily pasted over where it had been ripped open and reviewed.  The government is so obsessed with quashing criticism that it goes to ridiculous lengths.  Even Confucius was not spared in the recent crackdown when his giant statue was unceremoniously removed from Tiananmen square under cover of darkness one night this past week.  Guess they suddenly remembered that Confucius demanded ethical and humane behavior from rulers as well. 

The truth I learned in China was that basic human rights, including the freedom to speak up at injustice and abuse of power, were more important than an appreciation of the finest ancient brocade.  I'm now a First Amendment lawyer, protecting the work of journalists to report and criticize government officials and others who affect our lives.  I go to work every day to make sure that our free speech guarantees are preserved and not chipped away.

I have Shopping-Bag Guy to thank.