To my nieces

4/13/14

Satie and Saeren,

My darling nieces, I look forward to seeing you in Irvine this coming weekend.  Satie, you are a full sized toddler while your sister, Saeren, walks and grins but is still very much a baby.  

I do not write these letters for you to understand now, but to be read one day years into the future when you are older and curious about your relatives and the world they lived in.  I suppose now, in my early thirties, I contemplate the past as much the future, perhaps more so as marriage and age have led me to calmer, happier waters (being single is an exciting though turbulent time, at least for your uncle).  I wonder what my parents, your grandparents, were thinking when your mother and I were still so young.

I’m not sure what to write about.  I suppose I will share stories about our respective childhoods and into adulthood.  These are periods of time which will no doubt seem ancient to you but hopefully will give some sense of connection to how things were.  

I will share stories about your grandparents.  This comes out of my own lack of grandparents growing up - this is not a lament at such a lacking but rather a sad outcome of history and geography.  Your great grandfathers perished early in their lives, an unfortunate set of circumstances after the Korean War.  Your maternal great grandmother passed away when I was in the second grade – I remember this vividly as I traveled with your grandmother to Seoul to see her after she suffered a stroke.  It was a sad time but also a nostalgic one as I met my cousins and aunts for the first time and realized I (and you) have an extended family.  Your great grandmother on your grandfather’s side (my paternal grandmother) only passed away a few months ago in Seoul, though we did not know her well due to distance.

Your maternal grandparents (my parents) were a helluva pair.  They are the classic immigrant family who came in the seventies and through hard work and a bit of luck, made it.  I have no doubt as you grow up they will regale stories of how hard your mother and uncle worked, but they might neglect to share stories of their own.  

Your grandparents babysit you every Saturday morning.  They take you to the mall to ride the carousel and eat lunch, and they send photos of you to your aunt and me via text message.  When we receive them, we stop everything and smile and marvel at how cute you are but also worry how fast you both are growing up.  

Right now your grandmother (your mother and my mother) is currently is Seoul visiting her sister (your great aunt) and college friends from many years back.  While I do not believe you will ever meet your great aunt (as she and her husband are much older and unable to travel), you should know how kind and loving they were to your sister and me.  Beyond gifts or material things, they always were happy to see us and we felt a tangible warmth whenever we spoke on the phone or embraced on a visit.  Your grandmother and great aunt were very close, as they suffered much together growing up in post war Seoul.  

There is much more to write about, and I will try to actually tell stories versus write “about” what I will write (as I have done today) but this is a start.  Your aunt and I love and miss you very much.  While you both are many miles away, you are never far from our thoughts.

Your uncle,

Yujin

The First Dance Again

tango silhouette

My story concludes.  Read the last post (Chapter 10) here.  The first five chapters are here.  And if you want to learn more, sign up to my reader list.  

We look out and can make out the white book now muddied in a small puddle, and the phone+time machine module sprayed out on the cement sidewalk.  We step inside and I shut the balcony door.

My wife runs and embraces me.  Her head lies on my shoulder. She looks up at me.

“I thought you were going to jump,” Verna says.  I look down and see twenty floors of glass, concrete, and vertigo.

“I’m not THAT crazy.  This isn’t a Korean soap opera,” I reply.

“Why’d you throw away…your future?” she asks.

“They’re not my future.  To me, they’re just a book and device.  I only thought they were more than they seemed. Besides, I don’t need to know my future.  I need to know and cherish my present.  What’s in front of me right now.” I look into her eyes, two lovely pearls welling with tears.

“You corny oaf.”  She wipes her eyes and smiles.  “You ARE going to need a new phone.  I don’t know why you just didn’t throw away the module-” she says.

“I know.  I was just being…dramatic.  So you knew I was serious.”  Yeah I probably should that part through.

“What do we do now?”  I feel relieved but my heart beating from the rush of throwing it all away.  Verna looks the same way.  We’re both wide awake.

“Let’s do something completely unpredictable.  Something no autobiography or time travel machine would ever predict.”

“Let’s go dancing!” she exclaims.  I gulp.

“Isn’t there something else?  We can literally do anything.  World’s wide open.  And you KNOW I can’t dance.”

“Exactly.  Completely unpredictable.  Something you’d never do.”  She giggles and I sigh.

“I’ll consider this paying down my husband debt.”

“I’ll consider this paying down your husband interest.  We haven’t even started on the debt part.”  This is what happens when you marry a business school grad.

We check her phone for a local nightclub or bar.  While she’s looking for a spot, I wonder at what I just did.

Maybe I should be more worried.  Maybe I should reassemble the time machine module.  Maybe I should make sure the future is…better.

But maybe there’s nothing I can do.  Maybe it’s just out of my hands.  And just maybe, this all will work out.

Screw it.  Let the future take care of it self.  Tonight, we dance.

I call Andrew the next day and told him what happened to the time machine module and my phone.   He just sighs in response.  I offer to make it up to him.  But honestly I’m not sure how.  He did design and manufacture the world’s first time machine.  That’s something a free dinner probably won’t fix.  I hope he understands.

It’s been a month since the incident.  I’ve emailed and texted him but he hasn’t replied even once.  I think he’s still upset.

Sometimes you trade  marriage for friendship.  I’ll figure something out.  I always do.

Epilogue

The night is late but the lights to his startup office still shine brightly.  Andrew Chen works diligently at his standing desk.

On the left side of the desk is a pile of tangled wires, pieces of a shattered circuit board, and scattered microchips.

On the right side Andrew solders the finishing touches on a new circuit board.  He removes a memory chip from the wreckage on his left and inserts it into the right side, new-and-improved device.  He connects a mini-usb wire to his smartphone.

He follows the instructions, activates the app, and pressed the connect button on the touch screen.

“CONNECTION ENABLED,” the screen says.

A face appears on the screen.  White hair, wrinkles, brown eyes, but smiling.  The man’s face no longer carries the weight of regret or anger.  He cheeks after fatter, not sunken like before, as if he has enjoyed a few decades of happy living.

“My friend, I thought you stopped your time travel hobby,” the face says.

“Just checking up on you.  I wondered if anything changed,” Andrew says. “My curiosity got the better of me.”

“Well, things are just fine.” An older woman enters the view screen, her hair slightly grayed, her lips red, her arms wrapping tightly around the older man’s neck.  There is no scar underneath her eye.  Andrew recognizes her, and smiles.

“The future isn’t what it used to be,” she says.  “Say hi to Sandi for us.”  She smiles.

The woman waves her hand, and then in a deliberate motion, puts her left index finger and thumb together as if she were measuring a pinch of salt.  The screen immediately goes dark, and the words “Connection terminated” appear on the screen.

Andrew presses another sequence of characters on the touchscreen.  The screen lights up with the words “CONNECTING…”

Another face appears.  It’s his own but aged by about twenty eight years.

“Well what’d he do?” the older face asks.

“He chose wisely, but it was close,” Andrew says.  Andrew+28 nods.

“Who’s next?”

 

Author’s Note

Thank you for reading my “practice novel.”  This was a very wacky story so thanks for staying with me.  Some of you actually read all of it.  Many of you have written or sent me very encouraging notes - I really appreciate them.  They mean a lot to a fledging writer.

I’m not sure if I will recompile, edit, and publish this as a full novel.  There are many plot holes, errors, and areas where the writing could be vastly improved, so perhaps it is best the story exists in its current disorganized form, to better hide it from judgmental eyes.  Still, I may change my mind.  We’ll see.

While this story was by no means literature, I learned a lot about my writing style and narrative structure, and hope the next one will be much much better.  I’ve learned that I like to write about time travel and science fiction, but perhaps my real niche is romance.  If you know me, and know how sentimental I am, this should come as no surprise.

Well, I’m off to the next story.  We’ll see where it takes us.

The tricky part of ending HIMYM

My wife told me Monday night that our usual post dinner routine of Downton Abbey would have to be postponed, as March 31, 2014 was the series finale of How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM).  She is a big fan of the show and was jumping with excitement on finally learning what happens to the characters.  My use of the word “jumping” is literal, not figurative.

While there has been a flurry of outrage, I thought the ending was amazing.  Of course, I had never seen an episode start to finish before, but even not knowing any of the characters or their history well, I was moved by the finale and enjoyed the twist.  It felt like a more accurate picture of what happens in realistic love stories, which are always more circuitious than we readers or watchers would like.  The narrative irony was especially clever as sometimes telling a story reveals a hidden truth to the storyteller which is all too obvious to the listener.  The season finale also “worked” as I then immediately watched the series pilot, along with several other episodes (thank you Amazon Prime) to get the full backstories of the characters.

I suppose this is the tricky part of writing an ending.  On the one hand, you have your core audience who has largely followed the show from start to finish – you have an artistic objective is to finish the story in a satisfying manner.  On the other hand, you have new viewers who know nothing of your story or characters – you have the practical objective to convince new viewers to watch previous episodes.  While it would be easier to merely meet the needs of the first audience, the second audience will always be much, much larger and will no doubt drive long term syndication, download, and rental sales.  So there’s a balance to be made, though at first glance the two goals seem almost irreconcilable.

I also liked the format of a father telling stories to his children, with the “present” being far into the future, 2030.  In a place and time which worships the future as a titular deity, this format deems less importance to the historical or technological advances of the time, and more on personal relationships and related drama.

This is why I like Downton Abbey so much.  The show also looks back on a bygone era, which seems backwards in societal norms, technology, and politics, but does it in a way where enough of the struggles and stories of the characters are revealed to make them deeply sympathetic.  As much as the outer world changes and transforms, our inner human nature evolves ever so slowly.

It also inspires new story types.  I wonder if there might be an interesting “history” to be written of modern times but set to an author living in 2114.  I’ve already dabbled in time travel so might as well play with new concepts.

Also I wonder if it might be fun to write a series of letters to my nieces, who are now three and one, to describe to them not so much the broad technological and societal shifts we are experiencing as citizens in early twenty-first century, but also to share personal vignettes of myself, friends, and especially their parents.  “Letters from your uncle” or something similarly sentimental.  My innate motivation for writing these letters would be my own longing for similar media from my parents and their generation.  Unfortunately a World War and a Korean War prevents many of these stories from being told, at a time when I am so curious as to how they lived and what they remember.

But the letters’ target audience would always be two girls, but two very, very important readers.  :-)  If done right, these letters offer a glimpse of a past they just missed, and could help them understand their older relatives (ie me and Verna), not as aged, doting caricatures, but as real people who were young, silly, and foolish.   Just like they will be one day.

 

Last decisions

My story continues.  Read the last post (Chapter 9) here.  The first five chapters are here.  And if you want to learn more, sign up to my reader list.  

wet book

By this time we are back in the hotel room, our luggage pushed to a corner.  She utters the fateful words:

“I was planning to leave you.”  I turn the smartphone + time machine off.  My Autobiography sits idly on the coffee table.

When I hear her words my heart and lungs feel the simultaneous stabs of a wasted past and a lost future.  For do not all tragic personal errors result in the convergence of memory and hope?  Do not all entail immediate, painful analysis of recent decisions combined with the darkening of a planned, brighter future?

As for the past, my worst fear becomes real.  For all the poetry and silly tweets and cute photos, for all the good things a man might paint on the canvas of his social media, often times they are designed merely to draw over an ugly truth.

This truth was a case of extremes.  Too many late nights at the office.  Too many dinners interrupted with a buzzing phone and distracted eyes.  Too many trips away for conferences and meetings.  Too much obsession of the future, of what’s next, of fulfilling ambition and keeping up with everyone else.

But it was also too little.  Too little time spent on dates and walks.  To little listening, really listening, without a phone or tablet present.  Too few household chores finished, our home now filled with dirty plates and used socks everywhere.  Too few words shared till we were just strangers in the same space.  And too little time enjoying the present, the happy present; instead, always planning and fretting for an unknown tomorrow.

We were together in name, in law, in title.  But only tenuously together in heart.  The threads of marriage which wound so tight only a year ago unraveled until only a few, thin threads remained.

Even tonight, on our anniversary weekend, where I hoped we might revitalize our disintegrating union, we’re running around the city, exhausted and confused.

The future then, that sentimental portrait of pretty gray hair and held wrinkled hands, seems now a dream not deferred but demolished.  Instead, it would be replaced with a single room apartment, reservations for one, a lonely sequence of quiet desperation.  And in my vision of fear, I can feel that spark of anger and resentment, that single match turned to flame, a flame which makes me hate everything.  That future, that unbelievable future of crime, murder, and destruction becomes not just likely, but inevitable.

Anger will keep me strong.  Hate will keep me going.

I see the phone, the Autobiography, and my wife.  The future and the present.

It seems already prophesized, the battle already lost, the future already written.

Verna goes to the door, ready to leave, forever.

“Wait,” I plead.  I go to the white book, and search for Chapter thirty three.  “If I can just know what happens, we can change-”

“It’s always the future with you!  Always wanting to know what happens, how to plan, what to do.  Well, you can pursue your future, whatever it is, whenever it comes.  But it will be without me.”

“But so much is at stake!  Our happiness, our survival, everything what might happen is in this book, in this machine!”  I hold the text and grip the phone.  “We can rewrite our future if we know it!  But we still have the book and the time machine-.”

“But it will never stop, will it?  You’ll forever be changing today to suit tomorrow.  You’ll always be a slave, never a master, of your own fate.”

I put down the phone and begin to peel pages through the book to find my lost spot.

When will it stop, all this drama and revelation?  Even for a night, the book and the phone, the oracle I always wanted, have revealed nothing but pain and despair.

Verna doesn’t move, her hand on the handle now, turning it slowly.

“Wait, honey-,” I ask again.

“No Yujin, I’m sorry,” she says.  She opens the door.

Instead of reading the book I close it tightly and hold it in my right hand.  I take my smartphone with the time machine module still connected in my right.  I jog deeper into the hotel room.  Verna closes the door and follows me.

I put down both items, open the balcony doors and feel the rainy breeze of a San Francisco night.

“No don’t!” she says, worrying I might do something severe.

“I should have done this earlier,” I say.

I look outside over the precipice and see twenty floors down.  She gasps in fear.

I then pick up the book and smartphone again, and I throw them off the balcony.  I hear them thud onto the street below.  My eyes strain to see the damage but can make out a book soiled in a puddle, the phone shattered in a spiderweb of glass and metal.

 

 

Why I Write

Fountain pen

Most of you have been supportive of this blog and my fiction writing but sometimes people ask:

  • Why are you writing?
  • Why fiction, of all things?  Given my background and experience and education, it seems…silly.

And very rarely I hear  criticism:

  • Waste of time
  • No point
  • No money
  • Weird

I don’t dispute these comments. Writing fiction is silly. There is no short-term gain. I won’t make money. It makes no sense.

Furthermore (as I continue to argue with myself) writing doesn’t fit into my character stereotype of a person with my resume.  A resume mired in analysis, sales, relationships, business, etc.  It is weird because it clashes so badly and irrationally.

But that’s exactly why I do it.  Because those weird habits and tics make a person real, not just a name and a LinkedIn profile.  And writing is that consummate thing which makes me feel human, not just another title on a cardboard cutout.

Writing is not easy for me.  I wondered, for a long time, if I could even do it beyond the random journal entry or blog post.  I wondered if that muscle, tucked deep in the folds of my calcified brain tissue, might be weakened, or worse, dead.

I write because there is no point, there is no expectation, there is no short-term.  But writing gives me hope that underneath my resume, reputation, my “mask,” there is someone who can still make something.  It’s not lost, just hidden, and waiting to be discovered.  That muscle never dies, not for me, not for everyone.  But it does need exercise and nourishment to be anything more than a hobby.

I write because it’s fun.  Even though the critics won’t stop jabbering, especially the hidden ones tucked deep inside my own skull.  But if I keep writing, I strengthen (albeit slowly) my ability to express an idea, describe a scene, paint a memory.

I write because there’s an inexplicable joy in creating.  And it’s in all forms of writing, whether pulling an emotion from a guarded reader, to presenting an idea with as few words as possible.

And I know I’m not alone.  These stories and this blog has introduced me to so many of you who want to write, who have written, who are desperate to create.  And I’m here to say you can, and you should!  In future posts I’ll share I’ve learned as it can seem daunting to fill a blank page or paint a blank canvas.

Regardless, ignore the noise and rationality.  Ignore pressure and expectation.  Ignore finding the point of writing because you’ll never find it.

You just write.

The words are there.  You’ll find them.

Villain

My story continues.  Read the last post (Chapter 8) here.  The first five chapters are here.  And if you want to learn more, sign up to my reader list.  

 

 

the-villain

Her tone is serious but I feel flattered.  I’ve been called a variety of terms in my life – mostly adjectives, never nouns.  And never anything so…dramatic

But according to Verna+28, I become not just a villain in a movie script but closer to an infamous figure.  Somewhere between Kim Jong Il and a mafia boss.   She tells my future like an angry fortune teller, and it’s like she’s describing a character from a Russian novel or George Lucas trilogy.

“You lose Verna and fall apart.  You lose everything, your home, savings, everything, and there are even reports you attempt suicide multiple times.  But unfortunately you survive [she pauses and gives me a sneer], and embark on the worst of entrepreneurial venture.

“You start a company helping embargoed regimes, drug cartels, and black market thugs with IT.  It’s like a bizarro version of your current job – you take your skills and experience and turn them for evil.  Apparently even criminals needs help moving to the cloud.  But by storing all their information you have all the transaction history and information on your network.  You build the CRM platform of evil.  Soon you’re peddling everything from online identities to nuclear launch codes.  You become a broker of addiction, sin, and violence.

“You had to be stopped.  My team and I have been trying to stop you the last twenty years, and we’ve finally did.

“What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and stop all the suffering and murder you’ve caused.”  She takes out the pistol and points it at me through the screen. “If only bullets could travel through time.”

It sounds fantastic because my past and present would hardly predict this future.  I’ve always thought of myself as the epilogue of an immigrant saga.  It’s almost a formula:  poor Korean parents come where with two bags and no money, work hard to start a family business, instill children habits of hard work and ambition, son goes to Ivy League university, gets streak of good jobs, goes to business school, gets another great job, meets wonderful woman, gets married, lives well but humbly, and so on.  I could add a few more elements to make the formula less mundane, but really that’s it.  Sometimes I almost feel I am at the climax of the story, that it probably doesn’t get much better, maybe it plateaus and shrinks away like a boring television show about to get cancelled.

But nothing in the earlier episodes of my life/TV show would imply…this.  Maybe a few bits here of  corporate douchieness – I have work in the hat trick of consulting, banking AND corporate – but that doesn’t mean I’m on the verge of moral collapse.  I admit, I would be hardpressed to admit any great contribution to society, but you wouldn’t find any great crime either.

I’m the guy who posts photos of his adorable nieces.  I write poems for my wife on anniversaries and birthdays.  I’d like to think I’m generally well-liked and easy going, with hardly an agenda other than finding time to read the odd novel or watch TV.   I’m happily, predictably, boring.

But in the histories of great leaders or villains (as Verna+28 would say), are there ever any hints of future greatness or horror in their early histories?  Could those individuals have foreseen such accomplishment or destruction?  Would August Kubizek, Hitler’s teenage friend, ever imagined what he would become after being rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts?   Would Swiss high school students ever predicted chubby Kim Jong-Un’s transformation from a devout Chicago Bulls fan into a vicious dictator who ordered dogs to rip apart his uncle in state sanctioned murder?

Does any “villain” know he will change for the worse?  If he did know, would he seek his future?  Would any hero for that matter?

Just as we read the biographies of great entrepreneurs and leaders who start as lowly wage workers or face early failures, the beginnings of criminals and megalomaniacs could be just as misleading.  We don’t know our own futures and what terrible and incredible paths lay ahead.  We might think tomorrow is merely a predictable extrapolation of today but all it takes is a single black swan to bring about great luck or great horror.

What disturbs me most, though, is the tiniest inkling of satisfaction.  That my future is still wildly unpredictable and need not follow a slow death of suburban mediocrity.  That deep behind my self-perceived shortcomings and weaknesses, there exists the potential to do something…incredible.  Sure, you have to filter out all the death and horribleness, but it’s empowering to think I might command an empire, whatever that empire might be built upon.

But such wishful thinking is still clouded by why I would undergo such a transformation.

“I’m sorry, or want to be sorry, for all of this.  But why kill me in front of me?  Why tell me any of this?  And doesn’t telling me any of this potentially change what the future might be?” I ask.  I doubt any of these questions could be answered.

“You’re holding the damn phone.  You were always holding the damn phone.  I might as well tell you.  But my priority is to talk to your better half,  my younger self.”

I hand the smartphone to Verna, the current one.

“I know things are hard.  But now you know what will happen.  Maybe things can work.  Try to make it work.  Don’t leave him,” Verna+28 says.  Don’t leave me?

“What does that-?” I ask.  Verna sighs.

“It’s true,” she says.  “I was planning to leave you this weekend.”

The Reverse of Nostalgia

My story continues.  Read the last post (Chapter 7) here.  The first five chapters are here.  And if you want to learn more, sign up to my reader list.  

frog-s-leap-winery

One of my most powerful memories with Verna before we married was a Napa Valley road trip.  After the usual touristy roll of visiting the more commercial establishments, we visited a winery which felt more a converted home than place of business.  It had a large backyard with outdoor seats and couches lazily lounging, as if they were tanning outside on the cut green grass.  This trip was in early August so the heat was strong, the sun was gleaming, and the view was filled with rows of plants, trees, and weeds, a Monet of green and yellow swaying against a light breeze.

We had been speaking of marriage for only a few weeks earlier, and I was initially shy to the idea, as all young men are.  The very word “marriage” only conjured up images of suburban lockdown, lazy potbellies, and bland polo shirts.  We were having so much fun at meals, trips, and parties.  Why ruin it with legal formality?

But I remember sitting with her in this scenic, peaceful place where, besides the light noise of conversation, you could hear only the rustle of wind and the falling of leaves.

I remember holding her hand and her smiling at me with her those dark brown pearls of eyes.

I remember feeling a powerful sentiment akin to reverse nostalgia – not the sentimentality associated with an event long past, but the hopeful longing for an event which had not yet happened.

I imagined a future with Verna and me as an old couple with white hair and baggy, awful clothing, sitting outside this very same winery, sharing a glass, and holding each other’s wrinkled fingers.

I knew then the future was clear.  Sure, it may be filled with generalities around occupation, wealth, and a million other details.  But it was specific as I would not be alone.

My future was to be with her.  With only her.  And I proposed a month later.

This romantic memory, however, dissolves against the reality of the woman in front of me.  Verna, my wife, at age fifty nine is still…attractive. She’s fit, trim, a few wrinkles but nothing ruinous or noticeable.  Time has been kind to her.  Think Diane Lane or Marisa Tomei, but Chinese.  Simply said, she’s smokin.

But Verna+28 is different from the woman I married.   Verna+28  is all edges:  aggressive, unemotional, and impatient.  She is not the woman in my memory.  She stares at me with cool brown eyes, with a long scar underneath her left eye, so deep it shades red.

“Will you need a tissue?  Does experiencing your inevitable death make you cry?  God, you were always so emotional,” she says.  She’s a real bitch.

I should feel terror or anger at having seen my future self killed in front of me, and yet my hands are steady and I can’t feel my heartbeat.  I’m eerily calm and I understand why:  we are all going to die but we just don’t know when or how.

I do, however.  Once a character knows his ending, he can do whatever he pleases.  I am invincible.

But my ignorance trumps any feeling of omnipotence.  One question remains.

“Why?” I ask.

She looks at me for a beat, and says, “Because you deserve to die.  You’re a fucking bastard.  You might think you’re this devoted husband, this friendly, bland business guy, but we know it was all a front, an elaborate lie.

“Yujin, you’re not the hero in this story.  You’re the villain, one of the worst villains in history.”