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In a world,

Where thumbs exercise more than thighs. Where an elliptical machine is just another platform to twiddle your thumb. Where your eyes are glued to those few square inches. Where your thumb kindly strokes that screen, with a definitive sweeping motion. Scroll. Scroll. Where thighs slow down at the will of the thumb. The will of the device.

In a world,

Where pedestrians walk blindly. Where bustling downtown sidewalks house zombies strutting idly. Where eyes do not look where they are supposed to look – in front. Where the “next big thing” must dwell within those few square inches. Frown. Frown. So serious.

In a world,

Where the break of day is announced through those few square inches. Where your closest companion is neither dog nor partner. Where a device is put on a leash, never to leave your sight, always by your side, by your bed, by your head. Where. Where. Don’t loosen that leash.

In a world,

Where comics become reality. Where Power Rangers is now on your wrist. Where the device wears us. Where something electronic clasps on to your pulse. Where the “next big thing” pierces the flesh, quivering through fat and muscle fiber, like some alien nightmare. Thump. Thump. Wear the machine, those few square inches.

In a world,

Where no one owns the world in one’s palm. Where I dare to look up.

 

In a world.

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YOLO (“You Only Live Once”) is such bullshit. Unless you pull an Austin Powers and arrange to be thawed in a few decades, yes, you do only live once. YOLO is based on the premise that one should do whatever one desires because, hey, you only live once.

Partially agreed, because I too think that at the end of one’s life, one’s greatest regrets are the things one did not do, not the things one did do (I read that somewhere). But YOLO is a coin, and on the other side, it is premised on mayhem – LET LOOSE. The premise of “no regrets,” on steroids, unleashes one’s innermost desires and pleasures, often in uncontrollable, irresponsible manners. “YOLO” so “Just Do It.”

In disguise, YOLO appears to be inwardly soothing. I have a desire for something, for some act. I only live once. I carry out that desire, that act. I achieve what I want. I have no regrets. Therefore, I am pleased. I am happy. Right? RIGHT? YOLO! In fact, the fruition of desire rarely brings lasting satisfaction. Instead, it fuels more desire, a thirst only quenchable by increasingly daring thoughts and actions. You are not “living in the moment.” Actually, you are living “for” a moment, and when that moment lapses, so does your satisfaction. And repeat.

Every moment counts. The second that just passed by while you read that last three-word sentence will never return, lost in eternity. So valuing the moment and following your passion is critical in living a satisfying, happy life. However, contentment need not always be accompanied by accomplishing things. Not everyone is a twenty-something George Washington University grad with no debt and cash to spare, thanks to daddy’s checks. Yes, there are desires, there are passions, there are dreams – but for some (perhaps most), circumstances do not allow them to come into fruition. Shouting YOLO, dropping everything, and darting to achieve that desirable act may not be an option.

A better slogan is “Amor Fati,” a Latin phrase meaning “love of one’s fate.” This is about total inner contentment, focused on “being,” rather than “doing.” At first, such proposition sounds feeble and helpless, bound to a predestined life. As my middle school clarinet tutor would say, “Life is a whore, whatever you do, you’ll always get screwed.” Traumatic at the time. But this is not what amor fati is about. Amor fati is about self-respect.

True content is only attainable when you practice the deep art of loving yourself. To do this, one must recognize and accept the current condition one is in, or one’s “fate.” However, I do not use the word “fate” here in an eternal sense. Rather, I like to think of it more as a short-term experiment, bound to change one way or another by miscellaneous factors beyond one’s control, in directions one cannot foresee. Love your fate also means love your situation. Regardless of where you are, regardless of your circumstances, regardless of what you have, regardless of what you don’t have – love yourself. Thrive in your cubic meter.

Stifling? Maybe. But not when you think about amor fati with its sister Latin phrase, “memento mori.” It means remember death. We all die, some sooner, some later. Death escapes no one, and therefore, every moment should be preciously lived out as if it is our last. The best way to do this is to prescribe value to the “now,” in its purest form, no bullshit, as is. The standard for contentment lies within. It is absolutely subjective, bound by no comparison, chained to no material or immaterial possessions. While YOLO is forward-looking (Just Do It), amor fati stops now, at this instance. And I am content.

The root of unhappiness is “but I don’t.” But I don’t have have money, but I don’t have time, but I don’t have the looks, but I don’t have the skills – but he does. This poisonous act of comparison, placing the standard of contentment outside of who we are, is like an inoperable cancer in society, claiming more lives than we bother to consider. (Read my piece on the suicide epidemic in Korea, here.) Millionaires cannot buy contentment. But that Zorba in Kazantzakis’ famous novel, dancing gleefully under the moonlight with santuri in hand – perhaps he holds the key to happiness.

We demand respect from others, but fail to respect ourselves. Happiness begins with self-respect. Happiness is achieved through loving me in the now.

Memento mori, so amor fati.

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Objects do not speak. In rare circumstances, they appear to speak, in tones our ears are not trained to recognize. These apparent attempts at communication, the apparent tonal exchanges, are understood as “sound.”

Cell phones do not speak. But the manual input that took place the night before, the scrolling and pressing of 6:00 am, empowers it with an apparent voice. 6:00 am hit, so the hand-held device spoke, apparently. Incessantly. The repetition of a singular tone, so perfectly spaced yet alarmingly disorienting, triggers a host of other sounds – rustling sheets, creaking springs, groaning mouths.

Coffee does not speak. But the brewing process gives it a tongue, or tongues, fuming along with every ounce of vapor. The kettle hisses lightly, its lid rattles unevenly, to no particular pattern. The grinder is more unforgiving; you will not miss that voice. Even more so than the alarm, the Burr grinder penetrates the solemn morning kitchen like a freight train. Perhaps the most delicate of sounds is birthed when the fresh grinds bloom, in the womb-like cone filter, rising steadily but in no hurry. As the bloom dies down, like a deflating souffle, its bubbles burst, and the vapors that say “hey, this is coffee” permeate the several cubic feet of airspace surrounding its deflation.

Subway stations do not speak. But the unforgiving ticking of the internal clock resuscitates the concrete blocks and steel rails that make up these underground Batman caves. Up and down the escalators, on the “fast” lane on the left, shoes and pumps click sporadically, hurriedly. Eyes dart to and fro, wrist watch to cell phone, back to wrist watch. Coughs here and there, chatter elsewhere. Central Command blurts out something over the speaker, only to be buried in the business of busy-ness. From afar the tunnel illuminates, the train announcing its arrival with a not-so-authoritative honk. Again, the doors fail to shut on the first try. Bells go off, and the doors re-open, re-close, re-open. Hear the eyes roll. Newspapers rustle, and someone’s Beats headphones blast beats that sound like that other song with beats. Phones ring, “I’m on the metro, I might lose….” Lost. Doors closing.

Sidewalks do not speak. But the season tickles it just enough to evoke giggles and sighs. Summer comes, and the sizzling summer sun beats down on K Street. Old partners and young associates, seated outdoors in the one of many kitschy cafes and bars, chatter about and clank wine glasses. Autumn comes, and the orange and golden brown leaves lightly tap the sidewalks at the end of their descent. Visiting winds roar through the fallen, twirling them left and right, choreographing their every move, conducting their every sound. The chatter and wine glasses are no more, as if the winds have hushed them indoors, muting them from the sidewalks. Winter comes, and the leaf chimes are no more. The visiting winds sound empty, their howls become prolonged symphonies with no interludes or arias to speak of. The shoes and pumps, the clicking of heel to cement, accelerate and become sharp staccatos. It’s cold. Spring comes, and, well, spring comes. Alas, through all this, one sound fails to change. The lone saxophonist at the subway station continues his hymns, wrong notes and rhythm and all.

Offices do not speak. But the paycheck is the meth that powers the addiction, and more meth. Keyboards click, stop, and click. Outlook chimes, and more Outlook chimes. The printer sounds like it has a cough. The stapler has a weird soothing effect, but it has more to do with the physical motion of stapling than with the sound. Debbie, please come to the front desk. Debbie, please come to the front desk. Another motorcade. One, two, too many motorcycles, cop car, cop car, Suburbans, two more; is it Obama? Who gives, the siren is just as annoying. Outlook chimes. Printer coughs. Knock on the door. Keyboard clicks. More Outlook chimes. Damn, Bill Gates.

People speak.

From daybreak, people enable objects to speak, apparently. People empower objects with voices, apparently. Immersed in sound, people decline to differentiate sound from noise, floating along with their alarms, their grinders, their subway trains, their Outlook chimes. Immersed in noise, people cannot differentiate sound from sound; everything is the same, repetitive. Immersed yet unaware, unwilling. Unable.

But sound is here.

For creative professionals, lawyers, athletes, chefs, physicists (basically everyone), one of the most commonly thrown around expressions regarding creative thinking is “think outside the box.” To illustrate this point, a simple test was devised to see how well people actually carry out this concept. Perhaps some of you have already seen this, as this is certainly not news. The objective is straight forward. Using only four strokes, connect the nine dots on the page, with your pen never leaving the surface. For those of us that are visually challenged, here is my illustration, aided by my child-like handwriting.

In my two-dimensional brain, this was hard. Like a raged bull constantly charging a brick wall at the end of a dead end street, I zigzagged my way across this grid, seemingly lost.

The outcome was something like this.

The solution is rather simple, revealing a critical assumption – no one said you had to stay within the “boundary” created by the nine dots.

Taking that into consideration, here is the answer.

“No one said you had to stay within the box.” The illustration above, I hope, is self-explanatory.

The expression “think outside the box” sounds very creative, insightful, and is indeed useful. It reminds us to lift our heads out of the gutter, step back, and observe the situation as a whole. It reminds us to not allow the given rules of the situation limit our thought process by throwing up brick walls at every turn. It reminds us that the answer is actually “outside” the box, not within it.

This expression, however, is not always accurate.

Often, there is no box at all.

“Think outside the box” assumes that there is indeed a box to think “outside” of. Take a look again at the diagram of nine dots. Let me assure you, there is no box. A simple grid of nine dots. This “box,” then, is a pure creation of our imagination. The imaginary box dupes us twice. First, when we were trying to connect the dots (unsuccessfully), we assigned ourselves an imagined rule that we had to stay “within” non-existent boundaries. That led to nothing. Second, even after we figured out how to connect the dots with four unbroken strokes (by going “outside” the self-assigned, non-existent boundaries), we slap our knees and resort to saying something like “and that’s why people say think outside the box.”

Often, there is no box at all.

The only alleged box is the imaginary one we perceive, limiting our thought process to such non-existent boundaries. Therefore, the correct expression should be “think like there is no box.” In other words, think like you’re drawing your own boundaries, because there are none to begin with.

Problem solving requires one to work with a set of “givens,” meaning there already exists certain pieces to the puzzle that one simply cannot discard. Fair enough. But those pieces themselves are rarely “boundaries” imposed to set the outer limits of one’s proposed solutions.

Creativity, unlike problem solving, rarely prescribes a set of givens to work with, so thinking like you’re drawing your own box should be simpler. The dots on a grid do not signify anything; they are mere reference points, mere suggestions, designed to prick the tiniest of holes in a bulging water balloon of ideas. The reference points do the pricking, and the gushing thought process does the rest. Remember, no one told you to connect the dots within a supposed square outline. But also remember, no one told you to imagine a box in the first place.

Think like there is no box.

I am known for saying “lawyers are assholes,” but I make a conscious effort to include the word “most” before the phrase. Some of us are creative, some of us are virtuous, and some of us are simply amazing people.

As I often lazily do on lazy mornings, I was browsing through a jumble of news articles when I came across Ms. Miyoun Lee’s story. Two things hit me. First, she’s a lawyer, but her office is combined with a café. Mind blown. Second, she’s a young, solo practitioner, and her practice focuses on sex crimes in Korea. As I read through a myriad of interviews (all by Korean media), I knew I had to contact her and interview her myself, in the hopes that her story would spread further than the natural borders of the Korean peninsula. So I did that.

In a maiden Q&A for i am not a lawyer, I conversed with Miyoun on her creative venture, her passion for helping victims of sex crimes, and why she does what she does – in the small town of Euijungboo on the outskirts of bustling Seoul. Affectionately known as the “Neighborhood Lawyer,” her true colors shine from start to finish. The following is a translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Korean. Thank you Miyoun for taking the time to do this. It was definitely a meaningful opportunity for me, and I know it will resonate in the hearts of many, lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

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INL: A law office and a café. This is a breakthrough combination. As a total coffee addict myself, and as this blog contains many essays on coffee, I’m curious about your coffee preferences and patterns. When and how do you drink coffee throughout the workday? Do you brew your own or have preferences?

Neighborhood Lawyer: By no means am I a coffee connoisseur or snob. I know just enough to detect whether the coffee is weak or strong, burnt. I prefer stronger coffee and don’t really have a preference. As soon as I reach my office in the morning, my sister brews me a strong Americano, and I usually drink about three cups a day.

INL: “Law” and “law firm” sound stiff by nature, which makes the convergence of the law with coffee more intriguing. What prompted you to come up with such a unique combination? Do you take part in running the café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I couldn’t stand structured bureaucracies, so I didn’t want to work in an established organization. A good thing about being a lawyer is that you have the option to open up your own shop and go solo if you wanted to, and in doing so, I wanted to create a workspace that personally appealed to me. “General Doctor” in the Hongdae area in Seoul is a neighborhood hospital mixed with a café. I was intrigued by that concept and thought, if a hospital can be run like a café, why not a law office? So I discussed the idea with my sister, a gifted craftswoman, and devised our café-like law office. My sister is in sole control of running the café. But at the moment, it’s such a small operation in a small town, so I’m supporting the café financially through my practice.

INL: As I read through the “Neighborhood Law Firm” blog, I hinted a level of pride in the cookies and pastries offered at your café. Do you have any particular treats you’re fond of? Are all the pastries baked in-house at the café? Where do you purchase your coffee? Any special drinks you’re particularly fond of?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My talented sister does all the baking herself. Personally, the carrot cake and peanut butter cookies are my favorite. As for the coffee beans, we purchase them from a small local roaster we frequented before we even opened the café. Our coffee is good, but I’d also recommend our seasonal beverages, including our in-house ginger ale and lemon tea. Delicious!

INL: It’s interesting that your office is right in the middle of a traditional outdoor market in the small town of Euijungboo. Why did you choose Euijungboo over Seoul, and why did you choose a marketplace? Could you tell me more about the market? I’m also curious as to how you found your current building, and how you went about remodeling your office space and café. What are some pros and cons of opening your practice in an open-air market?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I was born and raised in Euijungboo, so returning here for my practice made sense. While many law firms in Korea are located near courthouses and other official buildings, I didn’t want to follow that path, so I expanded my search beyond the usual legal and business districts. I’ve walked these streets in my youth, so choosing Euijungboo came naturally.

My office is in the midst of a traditional outdoor market, known as “Cheil Market.” It’s fairly big, and the “ddukbokki” [Ed. rice cakes, fish cakes, lettuce, and other goodies smothered in smoltering gochujang sauce] is incredible. Everyone in the market is warm and welcoming.

Euijungboo is a relatively small city, with many older buildings still standing throughout the market. Many of them don’t even have elevators. After a long search, we luckily found one renting its second and third floors, perfect for our dual-concept approach. And the landlord cut us a great deal on the rent, which never hurts.

In terms of design, my sister and I researched the layout and interior of several cafes we liked and remodeled our space accordingly, and more importantly, we had to stay on budget. My sister hates dainty things, and I also felt that we could slowly fill the space out, little by little. So our café has a lot of intentional “empty” space.

The "Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe" is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

The “Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe” is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

INL: Given the location of your office, how would you describe your client base? What were some memorable cases you had this past year?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Even in small Euijungboo, there are many chain cafes around the central downtown area, where my office is located. Most of our café customers prefer our atmosphere over those of the chain shops, and we have regulars who camp down for hours with a MacBook, enjoying our space.

My clients are as varied as the market itself. Some clients stop by while strolling through the market. Others were dissatisfied with the legal service they received at other firms and intentionally looked me up to change lawyers.

Given the type of work I do, I’m frequently asked about the most rewarding cases or memorable moments. To me, every case is worthwhile and meaningful, and every case and client has been memorable. I’m still a young lawyer, so everything is still new, offering valuable learning opportunities at every step.

INL: Why did you choose the law? Did you have any different plans or goals while growing up?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My father suggested that I choose law as my undergraduate major. As a law student, I assumed everyone had to take the judicial exam after graduation. If I’d known how tough that exam was beforehand, I wouldn’t have even started. I spent about five years preparing for the exam. After I failed the first round, I quit, and wanted to write fiction or take up photography for a living. I felt groundless, lost.

INL: Taking the bar exam here was a pain. I’ve heard horror stories about the Korean examination process. Could you tell me more about the exam, the preparation, and what happens after you’ve passed it?

Neighborhood Lawyer: The Korean judicial exam is comprised of three stages. The first round is all multiple choice, the second is a series of essays, and the final round is an in-person interview. If you pass the first round of multiple choice questions, you are granted two opportunities to take the second round of essays. The multiple choice questions cover four subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, and an elective of your choosing. The essay portion cover seven subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, administrative law, and contracts. The essay round goes on for four days, a true killer. Two subjects a day, for four days. I don’t even want to think about it.

If you pass all three rounds of the judicial exams, you now enter what’s called the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” where you take part in practical training for two years. Specifically, you practice writing judicial opinions for civil and criminal trials, and receive practical training for civil and criminal defense. The first year is mostly spent in the classroom, learning theory, while the second year is spent in real world of courts, prosecutors’ offices and law firms.

Ever since Korea adopted the law school system four years ago, the judicial exam and “bar exam” are being used concurrently. In the law school system, you take a grad school entrance exam, and upon graduating, you take something similar to a U.S. bar exam to earn your license.

INL: Compared to the bar exam here, your judicial exams and the two additional years of training sounds tough. So instead of choosing the big law pay check or a comfy judicial post or prosecuting job, why did you decide to open a solo practice? What were the difficulties of going solo, and what were the rewards of working alone?

Neighborhood Lawyer: As I mentioned, I wasn’t made for structured organizations or bureaucracy. I didn’t think I would be happy in any of those.

Financing was the toughest part of opening a solo practice. I was constantly worried about whether I would earn enough to even keep the office running. My goal wasn’t to make the big bucks, but rather, I wanted something more sustainable for the long run.

Working alone is a perfect fit for me. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I’m not good at distributing work to others. And I really hate people nosing around in my work [laugh]. These traits totally make me sound like I have a personality disorder or something (just kidding, I’m fine).

INL: I’ve heard that you specialize in representing victims of sex crimes. Is that your sole practice, or do you take on other cases as well? What sparked your interest in sex crimes? In terms of client interaction, what’s different about representing sex crime victims?

Neighborhood Lawyer: During my second and final year at the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” Korea initiated a public defender service program for victims of child sexual molestation. Within the confines of Korean criminal procedure, the victim is usually left out of much of the process. However, in sexual harassment cases, the victim’s testimony is often the most critical piece of evidence, or sometimes the only credible evidence. Taking this into account, there was a great need to assist the victims in the process.

The problem was that, while the victims were getting assistance during the trial, they were actually re-victimized by unrelenting and insensitive government agencies, lawyers and other arms of the justice system. The press certainly did not help protect the victims, either.

So when I started my own practice, I was determined to focus on sexual harassment cases, to make sure that the victims were fairly protected throughout the entire trial process, and not seen as mere nuggets of information. Of course, to pay the bills, I regularly take on other civil and criminal matters as well.

I was first interested in victims of sex crimes in college, when an upperclassman introduced me to some women’s study courses. There were a myriad of different areas within women’s studies, but given my law major, I was more interested in sex crimes. As I researched the issue in depth and read through critical court opinions, I noticed something wasn’t right. So before I started studying for the judicial exam, I spent more time delving into books and documentaries focusing on women’s issues.

In terms of approaching sex crime victims, there isn’t one clear method or checklist. Victims come from different age groups and professions, and the degree of victimization and relationship to the assaulter vary greatly. Also, approaching a client with special needs presents a new situation as well. However, even with innate differences, there are a couple of key things to watch out for. First, to maintain the integrity of the victim’s story or statement, I try to stay away from leading or suggestive questions that would embellish or alter the facts in any way. I also try not to prejudge anything in favor of or against the client. Second, keeping my emotions in check is important. I can’t afford to be too emotionally attached to the victim’s story.

INL: I’d like to ask you about sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs in Korea in general. What’s behind the never ending news on these horrific crimes? How can Korea, or society in general, solve these issues?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs can be categorized as “power crimes” aimed at socially vulnerable individuals. The greatest problem is that our society in general is losing sensitivity towards socially weak and vulnerable groups. The current education system, only rewarding “first place” achievers, is also a problem, along with the common recognition that only praises and encourages success in terms of monetary gain or political influence.

There are too many issues, and they cannot be solved at once. To implant a sense of community and care for the socially vulnerable groups, the most important thing is to educate our children in that manner from a very young age. But to correctly educate our children, the parents’ values need to change first. Because of the interconnectedness of the issues, no one educational program or simple approach will present a cure. I constantly worry about these issues, and yet never come up with a clear solution.

INL: Whether in Korea or here in the U.S., I think lawyers are in a tough spot financially, as there are fewer opportunities. Any words of advice for current or future law students, and practicing lawyers who are concerned about their career path? How did you overcome your financial difficulties and expectations of others? Now that you’ve been going solo for almost two years, what are your dreams and goals, both personally and for your neighborhood law firm café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I’m in the same boat as other young lawyers, with financial debt and a practice that doesn’t yet rake in the cash. I guess I’ll be able to pay off the loans at some point. I try not to let the finances get too much in the way of having fun, though. Getting through school was tough, and studying for the judicial exam and completing the two years of practical training was worse, and I basically sold my happiness throughout those years. I thought I’d be happy after I passed the exam and became a lawyer, but that wasn’t necessarily true. So instead of choosing a particular “job,” I honestly asked myself what it is I wanted to do, and opted to choose a path that was centered on allowing me to pursue what I truly wanted to pursue. I found something that would make me happy in the long run, and I am glad and thankful to be doing that now. My true passion is helping victims of sex crimes, but I also have to take on other cases to keep that passion a reality. Because I know that all of my cases fuel my true passion and calling, every day on the job is fun and meaningful. I am now thoroughly convinced that doing what you love for a living is the greatest blessing of all.

My dream is to stay put in Euijungboo as its neighborhood lawyer, for a long, long time. There will undoubtedly be obstacles along the road, but I will never quit trying.

Ms. Miyoun Lee and the Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe own all the rights to the images incorporated into this interview.

I envy doctors.

Not their paychecks (okay maybe a little), not their social status (what status?). I envy them because their profession requires them to partake in life at its most essential core, its bare naked truth; at the very crossroad of life and death. Observing death, or one’s miraculous escape from it, has a certain effect (or depending on how you look at it, a certain toll) on one’s life and thoughts. Life, stripped of all temporary badges, removed from all foam and bubbles, comes down to your health. At the root of everyone’s lives and concerns, health, and consequently death, is center stage. Observance of the body’s inherent weakness and vulnerabilities, often leading to tragic ends, humbles you like no other, constantly reminding you of what it means to “live.” Oddly enough, death illuminates life.

The life of an average lawyer is often monotonous. Contrary to public belief, not every lawyer enjoys courtroom thrills every other day like the JAG guys in “A Few Good Men.” Litigators, like me, spend most of our time buried in paper. This past week, in which a filing of thousands of pages was due, all I remember are Excel spreadsheets, corporate documents in PDFs, standing in front of the massive copier, feeding the copier, more spreadsheets, more PDFs, cursing at the copier, and walking to and from the copier. And the scanner with an unusual appetite to devour every other page, making that terrifying hissing sound as the sheet is violently crinkled and deformed. Like a pure, white lamb being devoured by a gray wolf.

Sure, this work was also for the public good (I try to console myself), as a victorious case will save this corporation millions of dollars, keeping it in business and providing paychecks for its employees. Yet in this statically hectic life of an average lawyer, “life” is so often forgotten. Working for corporations with no “face” makes it very difficult to measure the impact of one’s worth; dollar signs, while critical on the balance sheets of the business, do little to gauge meaningful “personal” impact on individual lives. Mindlessly muttering in front of the copier and computer monitor does not help, either.

Living in this gray area called “associate attorney,” I am sometimes jolted awake with utterly unreasonable tragedy.

A family of six was just beginning to revel in their new life in Phnom Penh. The parents were both missionaries from Korea, and were sent to the bustling city to study the language and culture of Cambodians, all in preparation of eventual missionary work. The young children – eleven, nine, seven and three years old – were grasping the language like dry sponges, slowly becoming accustomed to the suffocating heat, the very fragrant (but very different) food, the people, and streets, everything. As the parents began laying the ground works of their mission works, brainstorming and networking, the children also began building their imaginary fortresses – of new friends and classmates.

Traveling in Southeast Asia is fundamentally different from living there. No matter how long the duration, be it a weekend trip or an extended six-month stay, travel is travel. Knowing that your roots are not permanent, that you have the will and ability to pack your bags, book the next flight and get out of there offers a sense of freedom or outlet that calms the nerves. Leaving the comfort of your home country to set new roots in Cambodia – with four young children – takes guts. No amount of planning seems adequate, and suddenly, sacrifice takes on a whole new meaning.

Yet this family of six made it through the first three years. Chatting up the locals and making friends was easier, thanks to all the language training. The food – the food! – was beautiful, vibrant. When the announcement came that their missionary site had been finalized (Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia), the excitement in the household was palpable. The thought and process of moving again was daunting, but years of preparation had finally come to fruition. As they packed their limited belongings, thoughts of their new life and work in Siem Reap reeled through their minds, a distant land full of new people, new schools, new food. Change, they now realized, was a blessing in disguise, now an essential fuel for this young family.

Sometime in the early morning. The last of the boxes were stuffed into the back of the weathered SUV. Teary goodbyes were exchanges, as other missionaries and friends gathered around to send the family off. But no one was truly downhearted, for they had made plans to visit sometime in the near future. They promised to call when they arrived in Siem Reap, and to send pictures. A fellow missionary took a photo of the family in their SUV, and after the family had left, emailed the photo with the message, “Sending this now, but you’ll see it when you get there.” All of this took place before 10:00 am.

The missionary friend who had taken the photo (and who had also helped with the packing the past few days) went about his usual routine, taking language courses, making contacts. Ready to go to bed, he received a phone call later that night around 10:00 pm. “There was an accident. The SUV carrying the missionary’s family hit an oncoming tour bus head on.” His mind blanked. His knees buckled, and he grabbed a chair for balance. He could not believe what he was hearing. The family was passing through the Kampong Thom region. Both parents and the two middle children were killed on impact. The oldest daughter and the three year-old survived, but the oldest suffered massive brain damage, several compound fractures, and lost an arm. The youngest was in a coma. Ten Taiwanese tourists on the bus were also killed. Still unable to digest the news, the missionary rushed to the hospital, where the four lifeless bodies arrived around one in the morning.

I am told that the grieving mother of the dead missionary just boarded a plane from Korea to witness first-hand what had just happened to her beloved son and his family.

Why.

Why do things like this happen, even to the best of us. Why now, when their new mission work was just about to bloom. Why the kids, still so young, full of life. The surviving children, what about them, what about their lives. What about the old, grieving mother; what are you supposed to say to her.

Why.

There is simply no answer. Reason only goes so far. Logical explanations are often rendered meaningless. No words of comfort are good enough – they’re simply not good enough. Grief, anger, confusion. Nothing satiates what life sometimes regurgitates. It does not care about your circumstances, and it could care less about how you deal with it in the aftermath of tragic loss.

In the wake of things, as I continue to go about my work as a lawyer, swearing at the copier and cursing Bill Gates and his damned Excel, I am once again reminded that life has a purpose. No level of comfort will do, and no cry for an adequate explanation (why?) will satiate the thirst. But a belief that everything happens for a reason, and that every life in every path has a purpose mends at least a portion of torn hearts. The enlightenment that someone’s purpose may be realized through death is still hard to swallow. That “why” question.

So much suffering, so much injustice. As another tragedy is permanently etched in my mind, this average lawyer continues to ponder about the purpose of life.

May the victims rest in peace…

A few months ago, when Jodi of Legal Nomads asked me to take part in an interview for her “Thrillable Hours” series, I was excited yet worried at the same time. Unlike many other interviewees for that series, I had not turned my back on the law, I had not packed my bags to travel the world, and I did not have a unique, interview-worthy career. I was (and still am) an associate at a small law firm, living in the repeated patterns of commuting, working, commuting, eating, sleeping. I did not attend a top law school, and I certainly did not finish in the top of my class. Nothing special. What the hell was I going to talk about?

I was telling people that the gist of my interview was this: stop being an asshole and you’ll start having fun. That point still remains true. Upon reading through the interview again, however, I realized that a common thread was much broader and “brighter”: it was creativity. What I didn’t have was the Ivy League diploma, the credentials, the experience, the connections, the ability to travel the world. What I did have, and what I was really struggling to get out through the interview, was to show an average lawyer’s desperate clawing to live a creative life, to lay in bed at night and honestly say I created something today that I am really proud of. What I did have was this blog, started from humble beginnings (still is), but slowly growing to 500 subscribed readers. What I did have was a developing writing gig with an online magazine headed by former editors of world class publications (why the hell would those guys work with me?). What I did have was the urge to think beyond my daily lawyer parameters, to leave something lasting that is more than legal memos and motions. What I did have was a new found ability – and willingness – to stop and to think, not only with the logical left brain, but with the entirety of my being. Creating.

A headache created by the left brain is often cured by igniting the right brain. We were born to create, and therefore, we experience the purest quality of satisfaction and happiness when we are creating. Sadly, some occupations were not created to create, consuming even our non-working hours with work-related thoughts and worries, a never-ending noose slowly suffocating our creative capacities without any tangible alarm system to trigger our senses. Take lawyers for example. By nature, lawyers are destructive. To be successful, we must be (particularly litigators). Whether you practice before county judges or federal agencies, lawyering is warfare; if you don’t strike first, if you don’t strike accurately and with force, if you don’t contemplate your opponent’s every move two, three, four steps in advanced, you die. There is partial truth in that even we lawyers create. Yes, we come up with legal arguments, draft pieces of writing, practice the art of persuasion before judges and juries. But the ultimate goal of such creation is, ironically, to destroy. Someone must lose for you to win that verdict, that settlement, that zero percent dumping margin. The tool of our craft, our weapon, is principally the left brain and the logic it supplies. We strain the brain for every ounce. This is the prime culprit behind lawyers’ unhappiness and destruction. With every successful memo, with every persuasive brief, with every jaw-dropping argument, we may win motions, we may win cases, we may achieve acclaim, money and success. But as most lawyers would agree, behind those wins lurks emptiness. Uncontrollable emptiness. Human beings (yes, lawyers are people too) were meant to create lasting value for the enjoyment of the entire flock, and when we fail to do so, we are miserable.

This is why I write. Commuting on the metro, walking the sidewalks of DC, I take notes of every morsel of thought that jabs my thought. Every time I scribble something in my Moleskin, every time I sit in front of that keyboard to pound at something, that is when I feel like I am truly creating lasting value, something worth pouring time into, something that will live on long after the breath at the tip of my nostrils ceases. That is when I feel alive. That is when my right brain, and for that matter, my entire being, is moving. No, I am not a professional writer. No, I was not a journalism major. No, I am not actively seeking to become a professional writer or a journalist. Regardless of one’s profession, we are all writers on many levels. Historians say humanity, and culture, was born when people started drawing and scribbling things inside caves. Writing need not be so technical; simply put, it is a form of expression. Every breathing being yearns to express itself, though some are more talented at doing so than others. I am a human being who expresses himself through writing – this is a natural, very average, phenomenon everyone should strive for. The form of expression varies. Some write music and perform, some paint, some act. Though different in form, all methods have this in common: they make you stop and “think.”

To live creatively, one should practice two principles.

First, be observant. Two people see the same object, experience the same environment and observe the same happenings. The non-creative person easily walks by, nonchalantly, thinking “this is the same lilac from yesterday, this is the same street, the same protests.” In other words, the non-creative person does not give a shit. On the other hand, the creative person, having taken in the same things, “cares” and does give a shit. He stops, observes, and more importantly, asks “why” or “how come.” I once read somewhere of a training technique for fiction writers. They would sit around in a cafe, facing the street and looking through the window. Taking turns, they pick out a random person, and knowing absolutely nothing about that person, they would devise her life story – where is she from, where is she going, why is she going there, who is she meeting, and on and on. This exercise is perfect for fiction writers who need to develop characters and prose. It’s also a great example of what daily creativity requires. It requires observant storytelling. It requires you to look at something, someone, and think beyond the mere given, beyond the facts. What you see with your eyes is the bare minimum; you have to imagine beyond that to tell the hidden story. Creativity is storytelling, and all stories are built upon patient observance.

Second, become a generalist. Study and absorb as many areas of knowledge as you can. Throughout the industrial era, and even as recently as the 1990s, many “successful” people were highly specialized professionals, the cream of the crop in their fields, sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. They drilled a singular well, and they drilled deep, not wavering, not looking to their left or right. So what you end up with are physicists, lawyers, doctors and PhDs of all kinds. For drilling that one well, for drilling it deep and sturdy, you were compensated. People paid you for your professional knowledge and experience. In other words, people receiving your services could care less about whether you played in a garage band on Sundays or whether you secretly baked macaroons as a hobby. You’re a doctor, I’m paying you to remove my appendix, do your damn job and remove my appendix, no more, no less. To be clear, if you’re a general surgeon, and if your job is to remove the patient’s appendix, you better be qualified to do the job, and you better do a damn good job. In terms of living a creative life, however, just doing your job is no longer good enough. Rather than becoming a specialist – studying one thing, doing one thing, and living completely immersed in only one thing – become a generalist. Be the doctor who can discuss economic policy with other economists. Be the mad physicist who can discuss Manet with the art student. Be the lawyer who can discuss the ancient art of Edo-style sushi with the chef from Japan. Creativity in this century will come from a wide net of individuals, all contributing (and deeply understanding) one’s intellectual gifts. All areas are interrelated. Sorry, but you can no longer give the science guys the finger. The web of knowledge is what creates true value that lead to lasting change in people’s lives. To join this web, one must meet others dwelling in other professions, widen one’s reading capacity and crack open one’s intellectual curiosity.

Whether it’s literature, music, economics or engineering, regardless of professional area, the creative being – the satisfied and happy being – is one that constantly seeks new ground, sees what others do not see or simply pass by, and stops to create something that adds value to humanity. The artsy people do not own the copyright to the word “creativity.” This transcends occupations or personality. We are all wired to live creatively. Not creating will inevitably lead to bitter depression and hatred. Live according to your wiring. Stop and observe something, and think. Meet new people and read about the last think you thought you’d ever read about. Ignite your being in its entirety, and live happily ever after.

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