Marxist Influence in South Korean Development and its Global Implications

The life of a political science student at the University of Oregon is pervaded by the omnipresence of Marxist text, and though the progressive-leaning-socialist views of the professorship are clearly present, the students are largely left to their own devices in determining the effectiveness, viability, and applicability of Marxism. It is in this text that we will attempt to discern the quality of these traits, using the economic development of South Korea in the 20th century as a case study. Through this process, we will see why Marxism, like many political and economic ideologies, can be wildly valuable in certain contexts, such as in the early economic development of vulnerable regimes, and detrimental in others. We will also explore the implications of these findings for the political theorist.

South Korea’s transition into a fairly major player in the global economy is a fairly recent development— as recently as the 1970’s, over half of the nation’s labor force was employed in agriculture. This changed quickly, though; within 20 years, that was reduced to only 20% of the population (Koo, 34). So what happened during those 20 years? According to Hagen Koo in Korean Workers, this shift from agriculture occurred alongside a massive expansion of manufacturing in the country. As jobs were created in urban areas through state investment in manufacturing, young people began moving from the rural areas they once occupied and began earning wages. This establishment of a proletariat is likely where our analysis of Marxist thought begins, as the workforce transitioned from low-density, non-wage-earning, disjointed population to a high-density collective, employed by a small number of manufacturing companies.

It’s also important to mention that this “proletarianization” was very much encouraged by the state— during the 1970’s, there was a massive economic liberalization movement in southeastern Asia. It’s this movement from small, agrarian, authoritarian states to manufacturing export economies that marked the rise of the region’s global presence. South Korea’s most concrete example of this is perhaps the creation of POSCO, a state-owned steel production company, in 1968. While South Korea had, up to this point, never been home to a steel production facility, Park Chung-Hee was hoping to imitate the economic success of the west. South Korea was able to become the fourth-largest producer of steel in the world within 10 years with the financial support of Japan, with which South Korea had just recently normalized relations. Very rarely can a nation’s economic policy change without having some impact on culture, though, and an impact was certainly had.

With this new, liberal, west-emulating agenda, South Korea was confronted by an interesting and dangerous paradox: Their workers remained unionized only in the most technical sense, underpaid, and overworked in spite of the adoption of this new pseudo-democratic framework. This paradox is faced by nearly all developing countries attempting to liberalize their economy, and we can see a nearly perfect parallel in the case of Thailand. In Thailand’s case, the “class struggle” was met and complimented by a growing presence in Marxist ideology (Walker, 13). We can see that this was the case in South Korea as well, as is evidenced by the labor struggles that extended well into the 1980’s.

How might we have expected any other result, though? With South Korean political scholars clearly advocating for systemic changes to closer emulate the west, it should be no surprise that the culture changed to meet those adjustments. As discussed in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, there are some forms of violence that are simply incompatible with the ideals that the west espouses, and oppression of the the proletariat is a form of mass violence— violence, of course, being defined as an intentional act of harm.

Although POSCO is an example of oppression by the state, the lack of laborer’s rights extended into the private sector as well. The fact that workers were treated as mere resource, or as Marx says in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, “[sunk] to the level of a commodity and [became] indeed the most wretched of commodities (70)” instigated an incredible upset that would change the landscape of the laborer. As workers-turned-scholars and scholars-turned-workers recognized their own circumstance in the writings of Marx, revolution became inevitable; although class warfare is often avoided by the maintenance of ignorance in the lower class, working-class South Koreans of the 1980’s had the benefit of comparative politics. Prior to the departure from agrarian life, comparing their own status to those in the west would be comparing apples to oranges— most were self-employed, and those who weren’t were aware of their nation’s vulnerable regime. It became far more reasonable to demand ownership of their labor once the state entered a more stable, growth-oriented period, especially when that period was accompanied by a flood of western ideals being systematized.

The idea that workers and scholars began to blend and fuse is an important one to understand when attempting to conceptualize how Marx made his way into the hearts and minds of the worker. This class of scholarly workers developed a culture of ceremony and togetherness in the 1970’s and 80’s that involved public protest of inequitable systems and unfair class politics. This culture of ceremony was deep, robust, and prolific— involving formalized dance, masks, music, and poetry. One particular ceremony, the mask dance, often involved two different groups of people, the Confucians and the commoners. The commoners would heckle and tease the Confucians for being hypocritical and immoral. This ceremony was clearly influenced by the class politics of the time, and reinforced by Marxist ideology.

Korean Workers brings forward an important account of the activism of Lee Sun-ju on page 119, which underlines the importance of Marxist thought in the labor movement. Lee Sun-ju, a student at Seoul Women’s University, was bound for a life of factory work, and worked in a garment factory (as many women did) for a month during her junior year. At that point in her scholastic career, Sun-ju had familiarized herself with Marxist literature after learning Japanese, as there were very few texts offered in Korean. Her circle of friends had studied the political and economic philosophies of Marx, discussing how it could explain the incredible inequities and injustices found in Korean culture at the time. So, when Sun-ju experienced the life of a worker, she was appalled.

After experiencing the pitfalls and failings of the industry for a number of years after graduation, Sun-ju and a group of her coworkers (a number of which were also former students) flooded the union election with labor activists, placing a number of former scholars and advocates of Marxist ideology into power.

If one looks at the local leaders of the labor movements, they will likely find that the majority of them had formal education that led them to the works of Marx. Koo reveals this on page 103:

“[i]t was a period of Marxism and radical discourse; many students, intellectuals, and political activists were strongly influenced by Marxism, dependency perspective, or people’s liberation theology and embraced the idea of radical social transformation through collective action.”

Although Marx is rarely credited, the consistency with which his works appear in the lives of those leading the movements can be no coincidence. We might infer that the reason for the omission of Marx’s credit for the success/instigation of such activism is the pervasive anti-communist sentiment that was and is found in South Korea. This inferral can be reinforced by the behaviors of the minjung political party.

The minjung (“people”) movement is potentially one of the most concrete examples of Marxist ideology making its way into the public consciousness in South Korea, although those advocating for the new party were sure to align themselves with nationalists; during that time, to align one’s self with Marx would be to commit effective social suicide (Koo, 143). This party largely focused on the issues that class disparities created, and aimed to represent those marginalized by the recently liberalized economy— much like the labor movements that occurred earlier in the US and the UK. The parallel to the labor movement in the UK is particularly strong, as the UK’s labor party has much in common with South Korea’s minjung party. Suehiro points out, though, why South Korea was able to see such incredible change so rapidly on page 257 of Catch-up Industrialization: “The three features most frequently pointed out have been lifetime employment, the seniority system… and cooperation between management and trade unions to achieve the company’s growth-oriented targets.” Although South Korea changed a lot to mimic the west, the threshold between the private and public spheres was very blurry during this time. This resulted in a lot of oversight that restricted both unions (each factory could have only one union by law, so many companies created their own to block the minjung advocates from creating their own) and companies in way that created a culture of employee loyalty. Because of the lifetime employment expectation and the reliability of the seniority system, which rewarded loyal employees, workers felt invested in their work environment. This culture of personal investment is very much backed by Marxist thought, and came about as a result of workers identifying problematic elements of work culture in the country and unifying against those elements.

A term coined in Marx’s Political and Philosophic Manuscripts, “alienation”, was almost certainly one of the concepts that immediately took hold in the hopeful and progressive minds of South Korean students. The South Korean worker, especially if female, was made to work a considerable amount more than the workers of countries South Korea competed with and emulated. In 1980, as the labor movement began en force, Koreans were working 53.1 hours per work week, as compared to the 39.7 hours that were (and are) expected of Americans (Koo, 48). Revisiting Sun-ju, we learn that her daily wage at the garment factory, where “[o]vertime until midnight or even 2 A.M. was very frequent”, was approximately $9.95 in 2017 USD. Because the workers of South Korea were unable to appreciate the value of their work, they become removed from it. Not only did most workers not have a passion for the work in the first place, but the ability to take pride in the work was ripped from their hands. She was unable to even regret her decision, she said, as “[l]ife was too busy to reflect on… her decision to become a factory worker” (Koo, 120). How can we make conscious decisions about our wellbeing if we are unable or disallowed to even reflect on the decisions we’ve already made? Marx brings this up on page 74: “[The worker] no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions- eating, drinking, procreating.” The person has become animal. A person unable to correct their own path is a victim of de facto slavery, “forced labor”— in Marx’s words: “With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men.”

The very nature of industrialization makes alienation almost inevitable, as industrialization is most often accompanied by mass production, which undermines the value of the worker’s hand in the creation of the object. Regardless of the worker, the bowl will look the same and serve the same purpose, devoid of the mark of its maker. In this way, the commodity (a bowl in this case) is removed from the worker, and the worker is disallowed from taking pride in the creation of that commodity (Marx, 74).  

It is furthermore important to recognize that, because the labor of a member of the working class very rarely actually belongs to the individual, the product of that labor becomes unimportant. When labor is exerted as a result of employment, the individual sees the production of steel bars less as the creation of a valuable resource and more as an opportunity to receive capital. The exertion of labor is less about living a life fulfilled, and more about living a life at all. In this manner, the worker is treated not as a powerful and individual human, but rather as a source of energy: no more important than the coal powering the facility.

As time went on the working class continued to struggle, in spite of occasionally winning small victories on the company level, until the growing conflict exploded in 1987 in what was dubbed the “Great Worker Struggle.” So relatable were the frustrations of the working scholars, and estimated 1.2 million workers participated in the struggle. This was estimated to be about a third of those employed by larger operations (Koo, 158). Prior to 1987, the labor movement consisted largely of women, who grouped up attain more gainful employment through community effort. The Great Struggle, though, succeeded in bringing employees from previously uninvolved sectors through a far more active approach to activism. This swung the demographics of the movement far to the male end of the spectrum, and although it would be easy to say that the change following 1987 was a result of widespread threat of violence, the change in demographic points to the possibility of cultural and institutional racism that was holding the movement back prior to the involvement of a more masculine population.  

As tensions built, Chun Doo-hwan feared an uprising and rolled out what became South Korea’s transition to democracy. Ignited by this success, the labor movement exploded: The number of unions increased exponentially overnight, and the beginnings of a years-long uptick in labor disputes were seen (Koo, 157). It is at this point that the average work week began to grow shorter in South Korea, and although Korea was still significantly behind the US, Japan, and even Taiwan, progress was progress— the labor movement had made a massive stride forward. The struggle not only brought real change to the lives of workers, but it also developed a strong class identity among the proletariat. The masses were now proud of the work they did, and announced boldly their status, taking ownership of their skill, hardworking nature, and the minjung movement only grew (Marx, 175). The glass box of alienation had been cracked, if not broken.

The interesting and ironic reality of this analysis, the analysis of a political economist, finding correlation between the spread of Marxist thought and the development of the labor movement in South Korea, is that Marx openly critiques and warns of the direct, black-and-white approach:

“Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain. Such a primordial condition explains nothing. He merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance. He assumes in the form of fact, of an event, what he is supposed to deduce-namely, the necessary relationship between two things-between, for example, division of labour and exchange. Theology in the same way explains the origin of evil by the fall of man: that is, it assumes as a fact, in historical form, what has to be explained (71)”.

In attempt of explanation, Marx says, the political economist reverts to a “fictitious primordial condition”— a not-so-subtle jab at the naive nature of the simplification— which should be avoided when possible, as it “explains nothing.” Here, though, he commits too heavily to his assertion. While his point is well taken (political science involves far too many variables for us to pretend that it is infallibly consistent), he seems to brush aside the value of the science as a tool of prediction and advisement, in spite of the fact that many of his works make bold assertions about the correlation between capitalist ideology and economic inefficiency. While it is entirely possible that Marx was referring exclusively to those attempting to make absolute claims, the irony of the fact that Marx himself utilized absolutes should not be lost on the reader. So, in spite of his critical view of those attempting to discern the correlation between politics and economics, let critique of our analysis be on the basis of flawed logic, rather than on the basis of the form of the analysis itself.

The influence of Marxism has spread to all corners of the earth, and this is clearly visible in populist movements across the globe. Although communism is still essentially a four-letter word in many places, this was particularly true in South Korea of the late 1900’s; with the communist North and the anti-communist South splitting in 1945, the fear of the spread of authoritarian communism was very real. Marxist ideology can be cleverly disguised as nationalist populism, though, and we saw this occur when student workers fought to organize themselves and to take ownership of their labor and their bodies. Without the influence of Marxist texts, which had to be sought after, it is very possible that South Korea would look very different today. It began with a few students learning Japanese, evolved into a political ideology, and then threatened the state in such a way that the Chun administration gave into the rising tide of democracy as a preventative measure.
While Marxism has yet to prove itself valuable to me in the context of the first-world nation, it is without hesitation that I affirm its value for countries on the cusp of achieving true democracy. With the leadership of Marxist scholars, collective action has enough pull to enact real change in certain vulnerable regimes.

Works Cited

Koo, Hagen. Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Press, 2001. Print.

Marx, ​​Karl, ​​and ​​Friedrich ​​Engels. ​​​The​​ Marx-Engels ​​Reader​. ​​2nd ​​ed. ​​Edited ​​by ​​Robert ​​C ​​Tucker, Norton, ​​1978.

Suehiro, Akira. Catch-up Industrialization: The Trajectory and Prospects of East Asian Economies. NUS Press, 2008.

Walker, Andrew. Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

 

Predicting Populism

The 2016 presidential election saw two major candidates who used an incredible amount of populist rhetoric during their campaigns— Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In spite of lying on opposite ends of the dualistic American political spectrum, both claimed to come from humble beginnings and to understand the plight of the average American. While Sanders advocated for the “99%”, which included wage earners making up to ~$250,000 per annum (Wage Statistics), he primarily targeted those in lower income brackets— Effectively garnering the support of many minority groups. Trump, while still using populist rhetoric during his campaign, instead targeted a single group, middle-class whites, to make up the bulk of his support. A Face in the Crowd, a auteur political film released in 1957, highlights a number of themes that are particularly relevant today, in light of this political dynamic. In particular, the film attempts to communicate that politics are a corrupting force, and that populist rhetoric should be met with skepticism.

While the amount of literal political content in A Face in the Crowd is fairly small, the plot of the story and the interactions between the characters are all very much political, and the message of the film is one that warns of the pitfalls of populism. In this way, it very clearly contains a political agenda. This message of caution is delivered in a way that is both impactful and disturbing, as the character of “Lonesome” Rhodes is one crafted to be immediately likable. He is introduced in a way that implies to the viewer that he is the protagonist of the story, which makes his eventual turn to a blatant distributor of propaganda that much more surprising and memorable. Not only does this make the film more entertaining, it also gives the political message more “punch.”

The release of this film came at an interesting time in history, as it released shortly after President Eisenhower’s second election. It is unlikely that this was a coincidence, as Eisenhower notably used a great amount of populist rhetoric in his 1952 campaign. A study done by Bart Bonikowski and Noam Gidron of Harvard University found that “[t]he 1952 Eisenhower campaign, the 1996 Dole campaign, and the 1968 Nixon campaign represent peaks in Republican populism” (p. 1604). They concluded this by measuring the percentage of campaign speeches that employed “populist rhetoric” and comparing the results across parties and election cycles between 1952 and 1996.

This study also showed in the results that those without previous political engagement are much more likely candidates for the use of populism. Eisenhower, who fit that demographic, was able to easily stand opposed to what he considered a vulnerable regime, as he had not been an active participant up to that point. By critiquing the decisions made by the previous administration, he capitalized on the public’s frustration and ignorance of political issues. This placed him firmly into what Stephen Skowronek calls “The Politics of Reconstruction”, which Skowronek identified were present under the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who are widely considered very successful presidencies (Skowronek, p. 36). Eisenhower knew that to grab hold of this approach, he would have to bring to attention the questionable decisions made by the Truman administration, and so he focused on three hot-button issues, identified by Bonikowski and Gidron:  “Korea, Communism, and corruption” (1606).

It is very possible that the A Face in the Crowd was pitched as a result of Eisenhower’s approach to the campaign and the presidency. Eisenhower was incredible at maintaining his positive image, and hoped to largely separate himself from politics in the minds of the people. We can see a very tangible relic of this endeavor in the form of the Chief of Staff, as well as some other positions that Eisenhower established as permanent members of the White House staff.  

Because Eisenhower was a master of delegation, the newly-established Chief of Staff position would allow him to hand off tasks that could hurt his public image. He knew how important it was to maintain the image of a down-to-earth man, just as Rhodes did even late into the film. That is not to say, of course, that Eisenhower had the same intentions as Rhodes, but rather to point out that both knew how powerful popular opinion can be. Eisenhower used it to gain favor in a political environment that had put a Democratic congress in place, while Rhodes used it to gain money, fame, and power for himself.

Projecting Politics describes Citizen Kane (1941) in a way that draws a large number of parallels to A Face in the Crowd— A person with humble beginnings slowly loses their grasp on the values that they once held and chooses to use the power of popularity to get involved in politics. Even similarities in the form of the films can be drawn, and Haas, Elizabeth, et al. go on to describe Citizen Kane as “an antielitist, antiauthoritarian reiteration of the axiom that power corrupts” (126).

The shift in character that we see in Rhodes part of the way through the film is accompanied and complimented by a shift in editing and perspective during his scenes. The scenes in general seem to be staged in a way that make Rhodes seem powerful and unreachable, and are often poorly-lit. This is most obvious in the scenes filmed in Rhodes’ apartment, where he is often pictured looking down from his loft. The dark corners of the room feel sinister and occasionally somber, as if the director was lamenting Rhodes’ transition from a jubilant and lively man walking away from the camera in broad daylight to a greedy, power-obsessed monster. This speaks to an underlying darkness that the film is trying to show exists in those involved in politics, and particularly in those who attempt to come off as apolitical.

Works Cited

Bonikowski, Bart, and Noam Gidron. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Discourse, 1952–1996.” Social Forces, vol. 94, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1593–1621., doi:10.1093/sf/sov120.

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group, 2015.

Skowronek, Stephen. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Wage Statistics for 2016. United States Social Security Administration, www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2016.

 

Authorship and the Romanticism of Smoke

It seems to be that, for some reason or another, the act of smoking attracts authors like flies to honey— there is something deeply profound about taking the product of flame into one’s own body to the detriment of health, as humans have done for centuries, but we must understand that there are limitless explanations for this phenomenon; this analysis serves as a tool not to distinctly explain why authors smoke, but to rather engage in the topic in a way that might be useful for the reader. Through understanding how those who perpetuate and capture culture through the art of written world see the world, we might learn to better understand our own motives. It may be that, by looking at the world as a jumble of thoughts, objects, and moments to be collected, we become wrapped up in the external. Let us, together, build a framework upon which we might see the world through the author’s eye.

Before attempting to break down the inner workings of any particular author’s mind or work, we must make clear the what and the who of authorship. Any person reading this particular work is likely to feel that these attributes are somewhat easily defined, but the importance of creating concise, accurate definitions cannot be undermined— we cannot (and should not) place value on the undefined, and often the simplest questions hold incredible depth.

So, what is authorship? The word author can be misleading and intimidating in this context, as it requires the labelled individual, by definition, to have published work. This is perhaps unimportant, though— the author’s mindset is not exclusive to those with the time, ability, and resources to commit to writing as a profession. No, in this context, we refer to the “author” as a person profoundly dedicated to the act of immortalizing thought and object through language. The authors we will glance at, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Haruki Murakami, and Ayn Rand, are important not because they were and are wildly successful in captivating vast audiences, but because they are masters of the moment. Like an insect to their amber, moments are grabbed from the ether of their minds and given permanence and form. During Vonnegut’s early days, when he was supporting his family of eight on nothing but his varied and inconsistently-successful short stories and the mixed reception of Player Piano (his first novel), he noted the following in a letter to his editor at Scribner’s:

“If I could write another pretty good book, Harry, I would. The trouble seems to be that I’m a compulsive, irrational writer, rarely on top of the creative process, but that my id, or whatever it is that Hemingway and Faulkner get in touch with way down deep, down among the dead men, isn’t a very interesting one— not even to me” (Letters, 50).

At this point, Vonnegut was clearly a skilled writer, but he had only truly began his foray into technical authorship. It is this example that gives the definition we use here rapport. It should be noted, of course, that Vonnegut did get in touch with his “id”, a Freudian term for his deepest level of consciousness, pervaded by the sexual and primal, but this is something to be touched on later.

The who is perhaps where the majority of our focus should lie, if we are to consider this mission statement of this text— to better understand how our most romantic thoughts impact our behaviors. The author is one who brings together the stories of the world around us and turns them into experiences that may be shared. While writing is a skill that can certainly be mastered by the the jaded and greedy (one only has to glance at the likes of Oscar Wilde to see this), the authors who we turn our attention to are the ones who write not exclusively as a method of stroking the ego or acquiring capital, but to those who write as a way to appreciate culture, connect with others, and express themselves. It is this nature that draws authors to a behavior as loaded with emotion, symbolism, and expression as smoking.

The act of writing is one that is deeply personal— the words that grow on the page are a product of a nothing but a few keystrokes and the creative energy of the keystroker. As Vonnegut addressed in his letter to his editor, he felt that there was an element of consistent and effective writing that required use of the the “id.” So, it may not be much of a stretch to interpret the act of writing through the use of Freudian thought, and indeed, it would be remiss not to. In a not-so-subtle way, the act of writing is very similar to that of dreaming. As ideas form and twist and come into being, we can discover things about ourselves that would be otherwise impossible. In this way, writing is a method of growth and self-discovery. Freud asserted that “the meaning of every dream is the fulfillment of a wish” and that “there cannot be any dreams but wishful dreams” (134). If we are to continue with our analogy between the art of writing and dreaming, we must accept for argument’s sake that this is true in both cases. This is the crux of our foundation.

Haruki Murakami is perhaps the one of the most prolific writers of his time, and although he grew up in a world that was aware of the negative effects of smoking, nearly every main character featured in his fiction smokes frequently. So frequently do they smoke, in fact, that it could be easily be considered a major element of all of Murakami’s works. In Norwegian Wood, which is widely considered to be Murakami’s most successful work, the main character, in spite of representing Murakami’s more scholastic and romantic side, begins his story by reminiscing about his time in the university dormitories— an experience that would not be complete without mention of cigarettes.

While the main character, Watanabe, eventually finds love in a girl named Naoko, much of his attention in the first several chapters of the book are focused on a girl named Midori. Midori being a hypersexual eccentric smoker, a description that matches many of the ephemeral love interests featured in the works of Murakami, fills the former of what we might consider to be the two forms of love that we see represented in all corners of humanity— the immature and the mature. Midori exists as a highly conflicted and complex character in the story, but we might posit that she represents the repressed sexuality of Murakami; if the main characters of these stories represent Murakami himself, then this process of writing is Murakami’s way of expressing and mulling over his conflicting desires. Watanabe ends up loving Naoko, who is far more reserved and “sweet” than Midori. She represents the mature love that Murakami sees as an ideal. Midori, though, is who Murakami is drawn to— and we can see this because she fits a stereotype found in almost all of Murakami’s novels. Midori’s cigarette smoking is what gives this away. The cigarette, producing fog-emulating smoke, holds an aire of mystery and intrigue. Like a mystery novel, the smoker holds our attention and makes us want to know more. On top of this, we might add a layer in the Freudian semiotician’s perspective: that the cigarette is a blatantly phallic object, holding direct meaning in the sexual lives of the smokers (Danesi, 4).

Murakami’s writing as an expression of desire is further reinforced by Watanabe’s relationship with an upperclassman character, Nagasawa. Nagasawa is a couple of years older than Watanabe, and most likely represents Murakami’s ideal self. Throughout the book, Nagasawa coaches Watanabe on how to properly get women to sleep with him, all-the-while talking about the incredible professional development opportunities that he secures. Even when congratulated, Nagasawa maintains his cool and confident demeanor:

“That’s it. Officially, it’s called the ‘Foreign Affairs Public Service Personnel First Class Service Examination.’ What a joke!”

“Congratulations!” I said, and gave him my left hand to shake.

“Thanks.”

“Of course, I’m not surprised you passed.”

“No, neither am I.” Nagasawa laughed (201).

Although it occasionally comes off as grating to the reader, it isn’t difficult to see why Watanabe (Murakami) would look up to the character.

Ayn Rand, in contrast, was confident in her knowledge of the sexuality of herself and others: “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” Rand wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life” (“The One Argument”, 3). Rand, though, had an insecurity that was likely a compound of her mental illness and her womanhood. Following the publishing of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Rand fell into a depression. “John Galt wouldn’t feel this”, she lamented (“The One Argument”, 1). This particular combination of identities likely lent Rand to feel powerless, and smoking reinforced the identity of power that she wished to hold.

Rand’s appreciation for smoking, in fact, can be found in Atlas Shrugged:

“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind—and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression” (56).

This romantic description of the act of smoking, the connection to the primal force first harnessed by man, fire, is a clear indication of Rand’s love for the concept. It was only when Rand was diagnosed with lung cancer that her perception of the power associated with cigarettes was shattered; what once gave her control of her life threatened to take it away. The story goes that she put out the cigarette she was smoking in the doctor’s office and never touched one again.

As we read with these things in mind, we see incredible compounding evidence of the author writing as a method to express repressed emotion. Murakami writes of a sexuality he wishes to obtain. Vonnegut writes to escape trauma. Rand writes to regain control. Murakami writes of cigarettes because, to him, they represent a coolness, mystery, and sex appeal. Vonnegut smokes to express and assert his masculinity in a world that embraces him as an immasculine figure. Rand smoked and writes of smoking in order to feel powerful. By seeing these methods of coping with our internalized desires, perhaps we can see our own repressed desires and emotions. The author, who feels deeply and more often requires a method of escape and empowerment, who has their thoughts and desires written plainly for all to see, offers a case study through which we might improve ourselves.

Works Cited

Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey, Penguin Books, 1991.

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Translated by Jay Rubin, Vintage International, 2000.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New American Library, 2016.

“The One Argument Ayn Rand Couldn’t Win.” NYMag.com, nymag.com/arts/books/features/60120/index1.html.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Letters. Edited by Dan Wakefield, Vintage Books, 2013.

 

Goathead

Today marks one month without writing anything of substance, and this is my breaking the fast. I’ve thought on more than one occasion what it means to be called a writer, and I’ve come up with a rough sketch. It’s a bit like when an artist begins to draft out the basic geometry and composition of their art: We lack detail, but a resemblance to the final product exists.

My first draft, then: A writer is one who cannot stop writing.

For whatever reason, it’s gotten into my head and my heart that the only appropriate response to emotionally volatile circumstance is to sit down and write. For the past month, I have, on many occasions, felt the urge to sit down and allow myself room to breathe air unclouded by smoke. With my recent move, though, this has proven difficult, and I’ve been extraordinarily lazy. Now that I am settled, hopefully we can explore these thoughts together in a way that is both productive for me and entertaining for you.

Anyway, the topic that left me longing for the keyboard at 2:30am: Loving someone who doesn’t exist.

We all, in one way or another, love someone who does not, has not, and/or will not exist. The form may change from case to case, but the result is often the same — a unique brand of unrequited love. This specific type of unrequited love is similar in function to the everyday, I-love-the-most-popular-girl-in-school type of love in that it leaves the owner, the lover, lost. Inside of us we have a kind of burn that refuses to heal, cannot be salved, and throbs with pain each and every time we nearly forget about it. When one loves another, and that love is not returned, it can result in a romantic nihilism that fractures one’s sense of self-worth, meaning, and emotional wellbeing. What makes our special brand unique is that we can remain disconnected from the reality of our futile love indefinitely. While love for the girl next door may fade with time, or with a realization that she’s a bit rude, or when she gets engaged, there’s little to keep us away from the ghosts of our minds. Men (and I can only speak from a straight man’s perspective) may pine for the image of a particular woman for years with the hope that one day she might open her eyes and see him. To be seen, not even loved, is among the greatest of hopes for the unrequited lover.

When I was a young teen, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I had a dream about a woman who I had never met. She had long, strawberry blonde hair, glasses, and braces. In a phrase: The type of girl thirteen-year-old me idolized. In this dream, the girl and I played in the snow, had a few meals together, and fell in love. From my perspective, I spent days with this dream girl. I can still smell the pine wood of the cabin we stayed in, and feel her cold, dry hand in mine.

That was nearly a decade ago.

This woman only existed for a moment, and only in my head, and yet I remember her as I sit here now. For weeks afterward (and this may have been symptomatic of other problems that middleschoolers go through) I was lovesick. I knew I could never see her again, but I fell asleep each night yearning for another dream with her. I would spend every chance I could sleeping, just on the off chance I could catch her again. With childish hope that she could possibly be real, I pursued her. The girl from a dream. The shadow of a real person. An object created by my subconscious. It took a toll on my health, my schoolwork, and my social life.

It can be funny to look back on how silly we were as children, but old habits die hard. While I doubt many of us chase literal dream women, how many of us can honestly say we’ve never had a celebrity crush? Or fantasized about an ex from years past? Or imagined a life with the person standing behind us at the grocery store?

These people, and the qualities thereof, are fiction. Celebrities are painted in limelight, our exes change and evolve as normal people do, and the person standing behind us in the grocery store is just trying to get a few eggs for an omelette that could use a bit more salt.

To love these people, as we do, is to deny the reality of the truly great people around us. When we choose fiction over fact, we hurt ourselves and deny others the opportunity to love us. If we are preoccupied with dreams, we can never see them realized.

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women touches on a similar topic. After a woman’s death, her husband contacts our narrator, an old boyfriend, to inform him of the news. The narrator of this story hadn’t thought of the woman in years, and had moved onto a new life. The man the woman once knew was, in a way, dead, yet we can infer that she carried some amount of love, care, or thought of him to the grave. He was important enough to her, after all, that her husband felt it necessary to call.

Don’t carry love for the dead to the grave. It can only bring hurt, and we need all the love we can muster for the people around us. The people who still exist. Pull the goatheads from the soles of your shoes and toss them by the roadside.

Decay

Yesterday, I read an article on how quickly nature will take over civilization once we’re gone. The speed with which we’re forgotten is astonishing, and it seems that gravity and decay are the tools of erasure. The article was a summary of The World Without Us, within which the author, Alan Weisman, says “If you want to destroy a barn, cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.”

We are now in the first days of Fall, and the Eastern Oregonian mornings are showing it. As I drank my coffee and began my work this morning, I felt the season enter my lungs. The Blue Mountains surrounding the Grande Ronde Valley stared down with icy silence, rather than heat-induced fatigue. I’m staying at Hot Lake Springs, a historical site between Union and La Grande, and the stresses of time are on my mind. I’ve seen the building in a completely unlivable state — when my family first came to the property, the building was roofless, and on the verge of collapse. A layer of bird refuse, rotten leaves, and the building’s broken walls and ceilings covered every surface. It was locked in the season of Fall, a season of decay and decline, on a semi-permanent basis. With far more than an “eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof,” the building was falling down whether we chose to stand back or not; it would prove this later, even after my family’s repairs and restoration efforts, when the entire western wing would fall down. In spite of this, we were able to, with enough duct tape and not a small amount of help, make the place livable (and even nice) for some time. Even now it’s a comfortable, but we can see in some places that nature is trying to reaffirm its position here. If we were to abandon it again, I can’t help but wonder: How long might it take to return to disrepair? I think not long.

Likewise, a certain amount of maintenance is necessary in our lives to maintain some semblance of stability. Without this maintenance the vicissitudes of life leak in through the holes in our ceilings. Decay sets in, and gravity can tear us down. For me, this maintenance is writing. For others, it may be running, or alcohol, or being a great parent. Not all methods of maintenance are equally effective, though: Where expressing one’s self in music is akin to replacing the hardwood floor, smoking is patching it and forgetting it was ever whole. Running is winterizing, and escapism is performing triage on the damage as cold sets in. A trend to notice, here, is that the healthy methods of maintenance are often accompanied by a passion with which they are pursued. The self-identified runner has a far more meaningful connection with their self-care than the externally-identified alcoholic. This is not to say that I have exclusively healthy coping mechanisms, but rather to encourage folks to find a passion of some kind. The passionate person is much more likely to maintain health in all aspects of life — this study touches on the impact passion has on psychological health, which in turn has emotional, spiritual, and physical effects. This is no closely-guarded secret of the world of healthcare; it’s an exercise in common sense and introspection.

The passion of my family not only held them together, but helped bring back this property from the dead. The bronze sculpture of my grandfather, a direct, physical manifestation of his passion for art and history, will be recognizable for 10,200,000 years. In this way, he has shaken off the effects of decay for some time. I hope to do the same.

Grandson for Hire

The clock teased me in life. As I checked it too frequently, my boredom or discomfort was brought to my attention as I waited for something, anything — it didn’t matter much what it was. I know where it began, though; the clock began flirting with me in my teens, when I waited eagerly on Thursday and Friday afternoons to leave early from one class or another to work an afternoon shift at one of my several jobs. The second hand would complete its minutes-long wink and just as quickly the tires of my truck would kick up the gravel of the parking lot. After speeding home to change into my one fitting dress shirt, I always found my mother still laying in bed, sun shining onto her pillow through the slats of the open blinds.
“Boy!” She would yell across the house, as if I brought the sun in with me. I never understood why she didn’t just leave them closed; I only remember opening mine once in a blue moon — or rather, once in a very sunny day. The light, on those days, would transform my room from a prefabbed square of painted wood panels and mildewed carpet to an aquarium of light, complete with dust mote fish. The day had to be just right, though, or the contrast would drown out any color and bleak shadows would appear behind what sparse furniture I had. It was this withering quality of light that characterized my mother’s room as I entered it on those late mornings to close the blinds for her. I would do so as I adjusted my tie or put on my nametag, then leave without thanks.

Trading the trailer for the driver’s seat, I would stop each day to grab a microwavable burrito or a couple of cheeseburgers. Among the few things my mother provided for me were plasticy TV dinners that I would warm up each night in the microwave, which left everything lukewarm no matter how long it spent inside.  Outside of these, I provided largely for myself — allowing my mother to buy the jewelry and cars that were her body and blood.

My father, of course, didn’t know about this — he assumed that the clothing on my back and the cologne on my neck were bought with the fat child support check he sent to my mother each month. He had his suspicions: he knew that I was at work more often than not, that I lived in a single-wide trailer, that my mother’s non-business couldn’t have possibly paid for the piss-yellow SUV she loved so much, but I didn’t explain the $0.00 balance in our joint checking account. He didn’t ask.

My first job, which I worked Monday through Thursday, 6:30 pm to 12:30 or 1:00 am, was at the run-down gas station on the corner of Main and Fifth. You know one just like it. I didn’t care much for selling cigarettes and pricing inventory in the walk-in cooler, but 20 hours of minimum wage work would net enough change to eat out whenever I liked, and whatever was left would cover the alcohol I’d grab for my buddies and me to drink on the weekends. My boss, who spoke very little English and always smelled of red Pall Malls and a Russian potato vodka that I couldn’t pronounce, didn’t know or didn’t care that I’d buy whatever was sitting in the back of the cooler. As I made my way through the aluminum box, shivering through the clouds left by my breath, I would hope to find a decent IPA; I liked the hops even if my friends didn’t. But Oregon was famous for its craft beer drinkers, and it was mostly crappy seasonals or weird flavored stuff that I’d find in the back corner. In any case, it’d get me drunk, and the others didn’t complain too much. Geoff and Maddi normally paid me back. J.P. never did, but I didn’t mind; it gave me an excuse to mooch off him when he bought weed from his friend in California each summer.  

My second job, which I worked Thursday through Monday, was as a social media manager for the Deschamps Family Fun Center, which went out of business three years after I left town. It was an exceedingly easy job, consisting mainly of dicking around on the internet and taking phone calls, but I earned my pay. For one reason or another, I was the only one in the place who knew how to do much more than send an email, so they kept me busy with cleaning old technology, organizing files, and keeping our social media accounts up-to-date. Although the business was never successful, the bustle of our holiday events was enough to keep my elderly bosses happy. An old Mormon couple, Ellen and Jean-Paul had, in a way, adopted me — Jean-Paul insisted I call him Pépé, and would raise his thick, grey-streaked eyebrow at me if I addressed Ellen by anything other than Mémère. Pépé and Mémère were well-known around town, which I suspected was because they seemed to be related to everyone. Their thick accents, though, meant that nobody could pronounce their surname without sounding silly or pretentious; we took to calling them The Champs. This habit started with a number of my classmates in middle school, in spite of the protests of a faction of great-grandchildren that defended the original pronunciation, and quickly spread to the whole town. J.P. was the only great-grandkid that got a kick out of the moniker.

This job was my favorite of the three, so I was there more than I was at home. Although my shifts were technically Thursday through Monday, I would often work off the clock during the rest of the week. It was at the end of each of these shifts that Pépé would give me a smiling wink and an astonishingly firm handshake for a man of his stature, leaving a few wadded-up notes in my hand as he withdrew his own.

The last of my Eastern Oregon jobs was as a “grandson for hire.” My mother had seen some viral photo online that gave her the idea, so she made herself my “agent” and pawned off my physical labour for whatever her friends and friends of friends were willing to pay. This was almost always less than minimum wage, and my mother usually took her “fee” of 25% of whatever I earned before I saw any of it, but I didn’t complain. It was mostly yard work, and the scent of freshly-exposed soil working its way into the crevices of my hands lightened my heart. I did a damn good job at whatever I was hired to do, too; I wanted to earn whatever I was being paid, even if it wasn’t much, and my mother would normally be much more willing to let me do as I pleased after working a shift. “Boy!” would be traded for silence for a few days, and the silence was sweeter than J.P.s favorite cider. Oily, half-frozen TV dinner brownies. Seven-in-the-morning, damp-hair-chilling, lung-awakening country air.

Life was okay. While I didn’t like going home, I at least liked The Champs, which made my job with them not only bearable, but fun. They loved seeing friends of mine drop by every once in a while, and since J.P. was in the family, he came to hang out in the office on the weekends. If he spent too much time chatting with me he’d be shooed off, but by-and-large we were able to hang out while I absentmindedly typed out responses to messages we received on our social media platforms or organized the many thousands of photos that had been taken of The Champs’ businesses over the years. I was getting ready to transfer a few hundred of these photos off of an old office PC on an early Sunday morning when I heard the front door close. It was Maddi with a bag of McDonalds and a large OJ. I had mentioned to the group that I had been running late that morning and hadn’t had the chance to pick up breakfast, but I didn’t expect anyone to bring it to me. If it was going to be anyone, though, it would be Maddi, and I was glad to see her. She smelled of mountains and her autumn sunset hair was cool to the touch as I hugged her. She had been taking pictures — probably of the secluded waterfall a few miles north. She and I liked to visit there on the cold, bright mornings of spring.

We didn’t know what love was at 17, but I believe that I probably loved Maddi. I know now that she was hoping for something more than a hug and a thank you to come from that morning, but I wouldn’t become comfortable enough to recognize those things until a number of years later.

It was with the kinds of mornings that Maddi and I enjoyed that came an influx of job requests by my mother, and more than a few of these jobs directed me to The Champs’ backyard for the purpose of installing sprinklers or planting flowers, the latter of which I took great pleasure in. If I had to do “grandson for hire” work, I wanted to be there. Mémère would always come out and offer me tea and “biscuits” as I toiled in the soil, and the chewy molasses crumbs covered my chest. The mess was a part of the experience; biscuits were meant to be eaten outside. Although The Champs would pay my mother directly, I would often find a $20 bill in the pocket of my canvas jacket after getting home. I mentioned it to Pépé the first couple of times, hoping to thank either him or Mémère, but he answered only with a small, smug smile.
I wouldn’t realize until much later that The Champs had been trying to save me. Maybe my young self assumed they were being kind because of some obligation to their god, or that they just felt bad for me. It didn’t occur to me that they may have genuinely cared, as I now know they did; if I knew little of my feelings for Maddi, I knew nothing of familial love. Having spoken to them a few times since, Mémère has said in no uncertain terms that they believed my mother to be a “salope.” Upon seeing my confused expression, she translated: “Bitch.” Pépé only blushed and looked down. “You deserved more.”

In my third year of working at the the Family Fun Center, I turned 18. It was the month of June, and I had just graduated in what was nearly the dead-center of my class, being ranked 23rd out of 48 students. The only person who could be more average than me was Geoff, who got a B- in animal science. I was just about to unlock the front door during an opening shift when Pépé walked into the lobby with a cup of black coffee and a maple bar for each of us. The steam drifted lazily upwards, clouding his half-moon glasses. The smell of the food filled the room and I grinned at Pépé, who wore his mischievous, tight-lipped smile. The smile didn’t last as long as it normally did, though, and he adopted a more serious complexion.  

“Please, fils, sit with me a moment. It’s too early to be in a rush.”

This wasn’t terribly unusual, though his wrinkled features were configured in such a way that I felt something was different. There wasn’t any specific emotion about him then, but it was at this time of morning that he usually seemed to be most alive, and at that moment he looked uncharacteristically tired, aging him 10 years. He let out a sigh as he lowered himself into one of the two old wicker chairs that occupied the southwest corner of the room, across from the customer service window that opened into my office. With a gesture of his hand, I was seated in the chair next to him. It smelled of the motes that swam across the beams of morning light.  

“Ellen and I have been thinking for some time — do you plan to go to college?”

“Not really. A National Guard recruiter has been on my tail for the past two years, so I’ve considered that, but college is so expensive.” He bit into his maple bar as I continued; “I don’t even know where I’d go.”

We each sipped our coffee and considered a couple of sparrows playing outside the window to our right. They dove and flitted and tackled, and I suspected that a nest would need to be looked after shortly. No jewelry for that momma bird. Pépé frowned and let out yet another tired sigh, drawing my attention.

“Fils, the military is no place for a clever young man to learn what it’s like to live.”

I agreed, and we discussed the reasons that the military was or was not a proper course of action and how Pépé’s son had changed after his service. We tired quickly, though, and conversation changed to lighter subjects for a few minutes before Pépé finished his coffee and waved for quiet. He then procured a brochure and an envelope from his back pocket and handed them to me.
“Don’t open the envelope until you get home. We can chat tomorrow. I need to get back to Ellen, and you need to get back to your desk.”

Pépé’s bones cracked as he stood, walked to the front door, unlocked it, and shouted back over his shoulder “And stop making me do all this work for you!” I could hear the smile in his voice.

The envelope was made of thick, cream-colored paper and was sealed with the family crest of silver wax that adorned every letter Pépé sent. The brochure, on the other hand, was wrinkled and folded hamburger-style. I polished off my maple bar and retreated to my desk in the adjacent room to finish my shift. I had intended to take another look at the brochure, but a steady stream of people ate the time away, and the thought faded from my mind until my shift was over and I felt the weight of the envelope in my pocket.

When I got home later, I went immediately to my room and sat on the edge of my bed and pulled out the brochure and envelope — the brochure, the kind one might find at any information desk or in any trashcan, was for a community college on the coast, in Newport. I had been to Newport a couple of times with Maddi and J.P.. Maddi and I loved everything about it, and J.P. loved the saltwater taffy. He claimed that he hated the coast, that it was too sandy and old, but I doubt he came for the candy.

Breaking the seal, as I had done every two weeks for the past three years, I was confronted by the crisp green folds of $50 bills — too many to count at a glance, but enough to know that it was several hundred dollars. I counted out the last of the 30 bills, equivalent to a full month of pay. A knot formed just above my adam’s apple as I went to the hole in the back of my closet and pulled out the mason jar holding my savings. $1246.

“Content,” Mémère would say many years later, “is the most dangerous human emotion. It makes us believe we are moving when we are stagnant.” Although we are capable of sailing rough waters, as most people must be, we still need to push through to find a place of peace. She didn’t know much of the stoic Buddhists or the easygoing Taoists, but I imagine Buddha would see nothing wrong with content, and Lao Tzu would remind her that water does not push; it finds the cracks and flows along the path of least resistance.

When I was young, I would have struggled with Mémère’s sentiment — perhaps I should have been a Buddhist. I was content with my subpar existence in that small rural town. I had settled down before I was even a man, and it was purely my respect for The Champs that made me reconsider my status. So, when I told my mother that I was considering going to college that June evening, it wasn’t eagerness to leave that pushed me away; it was her rage. Maybe I was giving her a chance at redemption, or maybe I was asking to be helped. In any case, she did not seize the opportunity. I stood in her doorway and looked at my feet as she cussed and spit at me. Her words dug into my skin, leaving bloody marks where they burrowed into my chest. The room was grey in the dim light of the setting sun, coming through the blinds that my mother had opened again. My face grew hotter with every insult thrown, and when I looked up to reveal that my face was wet, she stopped for a moment. She hadn’t seen tears there since I was a child. Neither had I.

There was a lull in the one-sided screaming match and I turned to leave the room. “Get the fuck back in here; I’m not done talking to you!” I didn’t stop, though, and slept on J.P.’s couch for a few days. Each night, after I got off work, he, Maddi, and I would go bum cigs off of each other and climb the trains at the railyard. The moon lit our faces as they distracted me from the change that would soon come.

My mother and I only spoke once again, but I didn’t ask her why she got so angry that night. I assume it’s because she’d have to trade in her SUV for the busted Pontiac that J.P. saw her driving some months after I was gone. I could only thank her for not changing the locks until I had left town, and she could only answer with a tight-lipped nod of the head.

The Champs, by contrast, were ecstatic to hear that I would accept their help. Mémère cried silent tears and Pépé pulled me into a hug. Although he was frail, and I could feel his ribs poking into my torso, there was an energy about him that assured me that I had made the right decision.

“We only ask,” Mémère said, “for two things: first, we’d appreciate it if you’d work the rest of the days you’ve been scheduled so you can train J.P. on all that you do for us. He’ll be taking over when you go.” She wiped her eyes, then, and regained her composure. “Second, get a haircut. I can barely see your eyes. That is no look for a college man.”

Training J.P. was easy, both a blessing and a curse. He was pursuing online certifications related to web development, so our “training” was primarily just handing off passwords and protocols, many of which he was already aware of from sitting beside me as I worked. This meant that we had plenty of time to talk about my move, and it was clear to me then that he was unhappy with my decision; where he was normally the one to goof off and distract me, he brushed off my attempts to make him laugh. The last part of the transition process, though, gave us some reprieve — the way I organized the photo archives was fairly hard to explain, so we were too distracted to talk about anything other than organizational and transfer methods.

On our last day, he leaned back in his chair and jabbed me on the shoulder.
“Now who the hell is going to get Maddi, George, and I drunk?” He asked with a meek half-smile.

I breathed out a week and a half of tension and grinned, jabbing him back. “The real question, J.P., is who the hell is going to buy me weed?”

I left my three jobs, Maddi, J.P., and my mother’s SUV behind on the second of July, and stood on the rocky shoreline of Newport, Oregon alone for the first time at 3:27 pm on Independence Day, 2013. I thought of my now-unpacked apartment and the classes I hoped to register for in the fall. I thought of Maddi and J.P.. I thought of The Champs.

The blue waves washed over the stones below me as I smiled at them. They formed frothing vortexes within the tidepools, and silt swirled past the colorful tangles of anemones. Crabs thrust themselves into the dark crevices of the rock, escaping the rays of light that pierced the waving surface. I noticed them, and they noticed me, and we came to a place of mutual understanding; I was just there to see my new aquarium.

Pacific

As a child, I was a good swimmer. At every opportunity, I would dive into the pool and stay for as long as my grandparents — and it was almost always my grandparents — would let me. “You’re like a fish!” they would say, and I would take great pride in that, and thought often of my friends’ daily practices with the swim team. Being a quiet, literary child of an overly-involved mother, though, resulted in a lot of quiet days alone. This became our family’s status-quo, as I was either too content or too shy to bring my frustration with the lack of a social outlet up to my single, somewhat domineering, mother.

As I grew older and more social, I was eventually able to convince my mother to let me join the swim team, as long as I was able to convince my father to pay for it. This was common, so my request was met with a familiar sigh and an “Of course, son. How much?”.

I hated asking him for things. Talk of money always made me uncomfortable.

This sense of guilt was only exacerbated by the fact that I was placed in the lowest class, along with the younger sisters and brothers of the peers I had hoped to spend time with. After a season of humiliation I left the sport, hoping to put the experience behind me.
It’s funny how these things follow us.

In May, many years later, I stood on a rocky shoreline and looked across the vast expanse of the Pacific. I would die here, also in the month of May, but not this one. I still had much to do, although I wasn’t entirely sure what. Life had been fine enough to me up to that point, but a flame of some kind had been snuffed out — I couldn’t, and can’t, pin down exactly when, but somewhere along the way I had lost my ability to see the bright colors of the world and gained a rope affixed to my chest, applying a constant, but not insurmountable, pull towards this place.

To be clear, I was not a sad person. In fact, I would consider myself quite happy. Just unfulfilled.

I met a girl in late August of the year before, and fell in love with her in September. There was a distinctly morose nature to her, but not at all in a way that seeped into her interactions. It was easy for me to see that there was pain there, as there was for me, but where I had become unfalteringly optimistic to cope, she maintained an edgy sarcasm that I found infinitely charming. This showed through in a number of ways that were both frustrating and exhilarating. Her absolute confidence in what she said meant that, while we often disagreed, conversation was always easy to have. She may have disregarded my hobbies and passions as silly or inconsequential, but she continued to show me a love that, for some time, was the most profound relationship I had been a part of.

To September:
We were taking an aimless walk around the city, as we often did, engaging in light small talk. The city was still largely unfamiliar to us at this time, and the conversation had pulled my attention away from our environment.
“Look.” She said as she stopped.

I followed her gaze and saw that we were on the edge of a park. The park, which was still recovering from a dry summer, had turned a shade of gold that could only be found on the evenings which were not quite summer, not quite autumn. Having begun its descent into the horizon, the sun cast a fiery glow across the sky.

At that point I hadn’t yet told her how I felt, but she solved that problem by grabbing my hand. She pulled me to a small grass-covered peninsula jutting into the pond, and watched the sun set. I watched the geese swim across the still surface of the water.

“Shoe’s untied.” She said, pointing to my busted leather boots.

“Oh, thanks.” She must have been looking at me as I watched the birds.

I stood up and kissed her, and she was someone else. Her body, which always felt so cold to me, softened against my touch as though I was relieving her of some invisible weight. Her hand came up to meet mine on her neck.

They say that the eyes hold the soul (or some similar platitude), but what I noticed most in her then was her lips. Although I had been spending almost every day with this woman for several weeks, I realized then that this was the first time I had seen her smile. Her lips slid past her teeth, revealing piano keys. Her smile showed in her entire face, and the transformation of her already-attractive features left me teary-eyed.

I last saw that smile in December of that year, and that was what I thought of as I stood on that shoreline in May. I thought, too, of her delicately perfumed scent.
Scent, being the sense most directly tied with memory, is perhaps the most important piece of a moment, and tells us far more than appearance ever could. A scent, whether objectively good or bad, has a million subjective things to say. Chlorine developed in me a sense of anxiety. Petrichor one of homesickness. Her hair one of longing nostalgia. It’s fascinating, then, that we evolved to have a much-dulled sense of smell — in animals, the art of scent is appreciated to its full extent. Where shadows of memories are evoked in you or I, complex messages are conveyed within insects. In the world of sharks, the sense of smell trumps even eyesight.

That girl that I had fallen in love with, I now knew, had met a man when she joined the Peace Corps two years, three months, and nine days after she last smiled at me. From what she tells me, she fell deeply in love with him after they met, and although there were troubles in the first few years after leaving the Corps, they had a fleshy-faced little girl and got married in the snow. Turbulence was something taken for granted in her life, but her marriage stayed afloat regardless. Her husband, a man with a refined sense of humor and unusually large ears, was kind, self-sacrificing, and patient in a way that I never could have been. She tells me that he had wanted to be a global health advocate, but put that dream aside when their daughter was born.

Could I have done that?

When I died, their daughter was twenty-eight and did not know who I was. Her mother, who I still longed for in some way, had not thought of me for nine months. I had married, too, but my wife’s scent never caught me by the throat in the same way as my September love. We had no fleshy-faced children. We did not marry in the snow. I met her on a beach three Julys after September had married.

July was a good, Christian woman — truly exactly what my mother wanted for me. She was, though, very pretty, and very much in love with me. She loved me more than September ever did, and I loved her back. Even with my reservations, I feel we enjoyed a life of productivity together, and I am sure she was shattered when I floated away. If I was able to see her now, I would apologize for taking the eternal love she desired away from her. If the universe is kind, she found another man, more appreciative than I, to love. I’d rather not find out — I was too selfish to die alone, but for us, my death truly was the point at which we parted ways.

I had no way of knowing that death was actually quite a loud, celebratory affair. As I floated away, the crashing of waves turned to a roaring crowd, and my still arms began to move.
I was swimming.

The movement of the ocean subsided, and as I went up for a breath, I was hit by chlorine. I reached for the blue-tiled wall in front of me and sputtered as I tried to leave the water, and a pair of warm hands grabbed me by my arms. Like a child from the womb, I was thrust into the cold light of the world again, and a roaring crowd surrounded my young, shivering body.

Life after death isn’t so bad. As people come to meet you, you get to see glimpses of their lives that you were never aware of, and then you reminisce and introduce them to eternity. Some are quite pleased with themselves and ask to meet god, while others are displeased that the universe had the audacity to prove them wrong. As we stroll away from their point of entry these sulky and self-righteous feelings tend to subside. While nobody knows if there’s a god, knowing that there is no apparent end to undeath is enough to please most. Everyone, it turns out, was quite wrong.