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1.

Fewer things are as unpredictable as life. Fewer things are as miraculous, unique and precious. Its beginnings, though often calculated and planned, are nevertheless spontaneous, a result of a rather tenuous competition, or race, ending in a spark that in time changes the lives of others forever. Its endings, though often not calculated or planned, are often dictated by terms within the controls of a system, a system promulgated and regulated by those that were equally “created” by that miraculous spark we call conception. Life begins as a spark – arguably out of one’s control – and yet, oddly, life may end when a third party decides to snub that spark, at a time and in a manner as that third party deems appropriate.

The recently renewed discussion revolving around drone killings shines more light upon life and the right to take it. Lawyers make a living taking sides on arguments, and dubious words and phrases are friends in concocting more dubious explanations justifying the circumstances in which lives may be ended. As any lawyer would know, “legal reasoning” is often another name for “rubber stamp”; it is a sophisticated (maybe not) mean to a desired end, amorphous and easily sculptable. Simply put, it is bullshit – expensive, gift-wrapped bullshit. By no means am I taking sides. There is no easy answer to drone use, and one should stay away from either extreme, as there are always two sides to the equation.

2.

Winter in the Nevada desert is dry. Appropriately so. As the decadent shades of the summer months are dry, so are the winter winds and chills. The cold slaps the outer layers, but fails to penetrate further, bouncing away to some other vulnerable target. Winter on a tiny peninsula, which, by definition, is surrounded on three sides by ocean, penetrates. Frozen air particles drift aimlessly, forming sheets and clouds of ice, and there, the cold wraps around you, clinging to your layers, to your face, to your ears. Humidity is the problem. Sweat and dehydration in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter.

But alas, the enrapturing humid cold is perhaps why Koreans are mad for spicy things and things boiling in hot stews. Russians and their vodkas will also get the job done, but on this particular day, wool scarves wrapped around our faces, we stumbled in for a fire-breathing treat. Space heaters are strategically placed around the tables, but the small dining area is only degrees warmer than the howling winds outside. Taking our order, the lady assures us the heaters will warm up the place in a short bit. A large order of “agujjim” (monk fish casserole) and a order of “gaejang” (raw crab in soy sauce). The friendly lady was right, as coats started coming off and the room, already permeated with the aroma of bean sprouts and fresh fish, started to heat up.

I sat across from a man I have never met before. He looked tired, shoulders slightly stooped, either due to the cold or some weight of life bearing down. And yet his eyes possessed a twinkle, an excitement I only possess when I am awaiting for a plate of food I have been yearning for almost a full year. His twinkle was beyond that.

As recent as forty years ago, the monk fish was thrown away as inedible trash in Korea. Understandably so, given its ugly countenance and rather lackluster amount of fillet. Then fishermen in the Masan area of South Kyungsang province, after hours of battling the waves for the day’s catch, took these beasts to local establishments and asked the cooks to conjure up a creation to enjoy with shots of soju. According to gastronomic legend, for the original Masan-style monk fish casserole, the fish was dried in the wind for twenty to thirty days before cooking, but now that the dish has become a national favorite, simply gutted versions of the fish are used as well. The lightly boiled chunks of fish (fillet, skin and cartilage) are smothered in red pepper flakes, loads of garlic and green onions, alongside bean sprouts, water dropwart and sea squirts.

monkfish

The casserole still steaming, I pour soy sauce over a mound of fresh wasabi. As I have uttered before in this post about monk fish at the restaurant Adour, the true beauty of this creature is not in its fillet, but in its skin and cartilage. Pepper flakes and garlic penetrating the flesh, even the fillet on this cold day is moist and delicate. The wasabi is a surprising match. Chilli spicy and wasabi spicy is different, and the counter play between the two dance on my tongue as I dig into a bowl of steaming white rice. As all of this is unraveling, my eyes are locked on a piece of fish with a generous amount of skin attached. As true gourmets know how to enjoy fish head, if you know monk fish, you know skin and cartilage. The pepper, garlic, wasabi-laden beauties go in the mouth, and chopsticks fly out once more to haul in some of that glistening bean sprout.

Food is a great ice breaker. Even for a table of six and first encounters, a belly full of spicy fish ought to warm the conversation. As our stomachs fill, our small talk about the food, of the weather, and of local politics also blooms, paving the way to something deeper and greater. Not unlike a well-timed shot of vodka, pepper-drenched sprouts and fish simmers a soothing campfire in one’s innards, slowly crawling up and out into one’s mind, illuminating flash-frozen thoughts of past and present. As our bodies thaw, so do our neurons, captivating glimpses of a reminiscent slideshow we call life.

3.

I am against the death penalty.

Arguments for and against this institution are plentiful. The power of the state to decide on the fate of a human life is not to be taken lightly, and there are decades of advocacy on both sides. I am against the death penalty not for those reasons, but because of the man with whom I shared a plate of monk fish casserole. Sweat streaming down the side of my face, and washing down the spiciness with tea, I was in the midst of a meal with the adopted uncle I never had; more accurately, the uncle of stories and yet not reality.

One mistake – one violent, ill-reasoned mistake – landed him on death row for armed robbery and murder. He grew up in an orphanage in Busan; his birth and life before the orphanage is unknown, lost. Maybe it was never lost, because it was never found or realized to begin with. Roaming the streets in Busan with other orphans, my then-delinquent uncle had no reason or purpose to life, listless and restless. Some say the opposite of “love” is not “hate.” Rather, antonym to love is “disinterest.” The potential of disinterest to harbor and nurture hatred is deeper than hate itself. In actuality, this type of hatred may be irrelevant to the common hate, as it is ideally closer to “fear”; a fear of abandonment, a fear for survival, a fear for the cold. The ultimacy of the crime itself – the mens rea, the actus reus – is no doubt the responsibility of the individual. On the contrary, the question revolves around this question: is the act a consequence of the individual himself? Cause is difficult to define, as social justice itself may have no definitive definition to lend support for teenaged orphans convicted of armed robberies. A product of the streets, my teenager uncle, convicted and sentenced to death, arrived at a prison in Daegu, which greeted him with cold bars and a jumpsuit. He was seventeen.

Abandonment hardens the softest of hearts. Prison cells do nothing in reverse, instead pouring superglue over the wounds of hatred and shame. My grandmother, even with years of experience in prison ministry, chiseled away painstakingly slowly to reach out to my uncle. The hardship of reconstructing trust in humankind is no different for death row inmates; the issue of one deserving trust is often so one-sided and disproportionate. Cursed out, neglected, and shut out at first, my grandmother confesses that all he needed was a spoonful of “motherly love” to initiate the thawing process. “Everyone has some good inside them,” she says, “and it is up to us, those of us that appear to be slightly advantaged in the amount of love we’ve received, to caress that good and bring it to the forefront.”

How easy it is to judge upon standards conjured by the select few. How simple it is to draw lines, not in sand but in permanent, black ink. How reasonable it seems to impart indifference to others that fall outside bubbled boundaries. And yet how difficult it is to look over one’s shoulder, to take a second look, to turn around, to walk back, and to reach out one’s hand. How difficult it is.

Fear and emptiness cause hatred. Ironically, the same fear and emptiness causes hatred not only in death row inmates, but also in model citizens under the law. There exists a significant void in our emotional capacity to love. Those closest to us, be it family, lovers and friends, are easiest to love. The socially acceptable, seemingly good folks causing no harm to others, are lovable, but not like our immediate circle. The void has crept in, yet not permanently, for these folks are easily admitted into the circle – a few drinks after work may do. Those that have no connection to us (not even on LinkedIn) are beyond the void. Because “we don’t care.” A simple phrase with devastating impact. Why fill my void with these “others”? Worse, why fill my void with death-deserving convicts. When one does not care, and finds no reason to care, one strikes the gavel, personally condemning others to death. So easy to do so. Because that inmate has no face. And death has no face.

But death has a face.

4.

The most straight forward way to enjoy crab is steaming it with Old Bay seasoning. The best way to enjoy crab, however, is not cooking it at all. Instead, fresh blue crab seeping in a soy sauce mixture for days and weeks creates a succulent delicacy known as “gaejang.” Crab flesh is jelly-like in its raw form, and its natural sweetness is beset preserved this way. Anything that has been seeped in soy sauce is salty, but this kind of salty is counterbalanced with the sweetness of the crab meat and the slight bitter-butteriness of the the crab “brains,” that is, the yellow and green oozy goodness on the shell. The result is melt-in-your-mouth raw crab meat, spoonfuls of gorgeous innards and roe, and a sauce that shall not go to waste, to the last drop.

gaejang

The kind lady prepares a house specialty with the gaejang. Forcefully yet delicately, she squeezes out the crab meat into a gigantic bowl of steamed rice. In a few swift motions, she then tosses in spoonfuls of the crab-indulged soy sauce, handfuls of crushed dried seaweed and dashes of sesame oil. Mix. This “gaejang rice” is beyond human description. The entire experience of inhaling it was as creamy as butter, but there was not an ounce of butter, and it was better than butter. Infinitely. Blasphemous, but true. The soy sauce has absorbed all the flavors of the crab, and in the process, has breathed in the ocean breeze as well. It tastes of the ocean.

Guacamole prepared at the table could be a dining experience, but it is no longer unique and sought after. What makes this rice dish so memorable was how it was made. Slow food (as the crab itself took weeks to complete) as the lady painstakingly removed all the raw crab meat, chatting with us, laughing, adding sesame oil here and there, sprinkling nori. I felt as if I was dining at a home on the shores of Busan.

Death has a face if you choose to give it a face. In spectacular form, food gave me a face for the death penalty; I could no longer speak of it in the abstract, in theorems. Not because he was ultimately executed, but because he was not, because he lived. Hearing his testimony over a meal brought death from the abstract into a name, a face, a wife, a new home, a job – a life. Before him, death row inmates have never been paroled in Korea. While several inmates with life sentences were granted parole, death row inmates evaporated one by one with no hope. But miracles do happen, and after years of transformative interactions and conversations (and probably an intricate pulling of political strings), my uncle was granted amnesty and entered a new world leaving decades of cell-life behind.

It struck me to realize that life illuminates death. One could see how death illuminates life, encouraging one to live to the utmost worthy cause. As a butterfly struggles free from its cocoon, and into a new life of beautiful flights among trees and flowers, a life that should have ended on the end of a noose or in a chair blooms retroactively, the cocoon acting as incubator for something greater and worthier. The narrative I was listening to, from this uncle out of nowhere, would not have been the same from a third-person point of view. If his death sentence had ripened and was carried out as intended, the death would be the only thing illuminated, his life not even worthy of a few lines in a local paper. Yet he lives. And it is his life, the words that came out of his mouth, that struck me as to value the moment of death, that sacred moment when a beautiful life calls it an end.

Whether one believes in creation or evolution, or things in between, life “begins” beyond one’s reach. If your sperm refuses to swim towards the egg, you have no life. We are here because we are here. Capital punishment, for admittedly valid reasons, “ends” life with third-person control. We are here because we are here, but you will no longer be here because we decided against your interest – sums up the issue. Even in death row inmates, the miraculous potential of life still exists. This is one confession you cannot make until death has a face in one’s life. And this face is given not because someone died, but because he lived.

5.

Our plate of monk fish casserole begins to show its bare bottom; I scoop the remaining bits of sprouts and red sauce into my mouth. The gaejang rice, sadly, is long gone, and I reach over and grab a final crab leg hanging out in a pool of that magic soy sauce. Another bowl of rice would have been great (as a vehicle for this amazing crab-infused soy sauce) but what measure of reason left in me politely declined. Such useless politeness, if you ask me now.

The death penalty arbitrarily takes away “potential.” Within parameters constructed by imperfect human beings, we define “worth.” We then measure a life against those parameters and deconstruct it, asking whether the crime in question is “deserving” of death, and whether the person in question is “worthy” of life. My uncle and I shared one of the most memorable meals of my life, both in terms of gastronomic substance and conversation. The culmination of my grandmother’s stories, her news clippings and my imagination was a warm, laughter-filled meal, with an uncle that may have never been. Capital punishment takes away that potential; a full life with a paying job, a new wife and just-blooming memories all cut short and denied with a few poundings of the gavel and some bullshit order by a judge.

How funny it is that one speaks of death over food.

But how fitting it is to realize that food, the very fuel that sustains life, is the perfect medium to reminisce upon the most basic rights to humankind – the right to life.

1.

Expectancy adds minimal value to our travels. Setting out, on a journey for a day, or two, or days on end, expecting the expected is nothing beyond our norm, our due course; comfort, as some may call it. Comfort is the public enemy of a truly memorable trip. Expecting the expected, and cajoling one’s body and mind through the expected events and circumstances when the expected appears and executes itself; comfortable as it may be, it’s leagues away from memorability.

We remember glimpses of our travels through the unexpected. The virtually unknown crab shack (hideously delicious) discovered amidst pure desperation, an unannounced downpour that led to a scurry into a previously hidden vintage shop, road construction and its consequential detour, birthing explosive panoramas of cypresses, pines and willows.

2.

Resting on the southern shores of the peninsula, Busan’s warmth and radiant beaches rarely hint of snow showers. Even in the winter months, when Seoul and its surrounding regions shiver and solidify like chocolate mousse in a blast freezer (minus seventeen degrees Celsius recently), Busan generally sports a gentle southern breeze, its temperatures never threatening or malicious.

After a two-day gastronomic galore, dark clouds swarmed in like horizontal pillars of smoke, and the skies opened up, regurgitating white powder and clustered matter with all its might. My cognizance had never pictured Busan cloaked in white. There is something intensely bothersome about non-accumulating snow; it’s a tease, a master of the push-and-pull, showing you glimpses of purity, yet taking it back before the density of its colors are fully revealed. Exceptions exist, and when an unsuspecting mind meets a wall of white flurries, dusting the windshield, brushing hotel window panes, caressing every barren branch, accumulation is an unneeded luxury to compose the luscious silhouette created by the clouds.

Fish mongers swiftly scurried about, not with panic or urgency, but with inexplicable joy, almost childlike, at this phenomenal downpour of snow. Beaming. Tourists, huddled under canopies or behind glass walls of some multinational coffee shop chain, absorbed the site of purity falling silently, at times at a slant, at times sideways, but always silently. Beaming. A gray-haired gentleman briskly walks with a young boy of no more than five years old, appearing to be grandfather and grandson. The older man’s knit scarf comes off, and he wraps it around the neck of the younger man. Both beam excitedly.

The unexpected snow cleansed our retinas, drawing us closer to the edge of our known comforts, and ultimately unwrapped its purity. Standing, walking, sitting, beamed we did. Giddily. With monstrous snowflakes hitting the sides of our faces, we loaded our luggage one by one, not knowing what the storm would bring to Kyungju, our destination. As we made our way, I was reminded of a Busan I encountered years ago, a city and shoreline on the brink of a mild hurricane. The soot-like clouds seemed abnormally low that day, as if one could grab a chunk if one stretched out far enough. The winds were gathering speed, gusting in some instances. At first, the raindrops were scattered, not menacing at all. But then after a roar or two of a thunder’s cry, I “heard” the rain as much as I saw it; Haewoondae beach and its shallow waters magnified the chorus of raindrops falling on its surface.

Odd as it seemed, a hurricane-infested beach was incomprehensibly more attractive than a sun-infested one in mid-July. Mother Nature’s flakiness, it turns out, memorialized an otherwise uneventful trip.

3.

“With our backs to the snowy mayhem” would be entirely inaccurate. For one, the entire drive from Busan to Kyungju was never snow-free, and secondly, “mayhem” is a relative term. True for the driver, but not so for spectators. “Through white curtains and grayish black slush,” we drove the expected two hours to the ancient Shilla capitol.

As Alain de Botton put it: “Among all the places that we go to but don’t look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty. This may not involve prettiness nor any of the obvious features that guidebooks associate with beauty spots; having recourse to the word might be just another way of saying that we like a place.” (The Art of Travel)

Kyungju is just the place. As the capital of the thousand-year Shilla dynasty, it bears the many fruits of the era’s cultural heritage; tombs, artifacts and landscapes. Not unlike Washington, DC’s National Mall and its countless museums, where flocks of students and chaperons partake in the annual summer pilgrimage, Kyungju is the most popular field trip destination for many budding academics. But as de Botton accurately observed, not many look at its fruits properly, and consequently, Shilla’s legacy rarely scratches the innermost corners of our thoughts, and too often leaves travelers indifferent.

A thousand-year history bears a heritage too rich for words. On a clear day, when the yellow and orange sun beams directly above one’s head, eyes dart from left to right, trying to encapsulate the green, the brown, the granite-gray. Too much for a pair of eyes to handle. An inherent beauty of snow lies in its ability to simplify matters, to cloak the distractions, the impurities, and leave standing only what is truly important. As I stepped out of our vehicle, and as my sneakers fell through a seven-inch white abyss only to be stopped by that friendly “squeek” of compressed snow, only two beings occupied by sight; five majestic tombs and the surrounding barren trees.

The sky and snow-covered tombs were inseparable, the whites of both bleeding into one another, their boundaries blurred and unclear. Distinguishing, with any degree of certainty, the end of earth, mound, tomb, and the beginning of sky, atmosphere, air was a daunting task. The color “white,” however, was distinguishable in shades; pale, bright, stern, mellow. This panoramic plataeu of white was disturbed only by specks of black representing far and near trees, standing as guardians of the dead, and even this disturbance was no menace at all, instead adding depth, perception and balance to the otherwise overwhelming display of the shades of white.

4.

To borrow the words of John Ruskin, “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”

Ruskin was lamenting the speedy haste of tourists, boasting the ability to blast through Europe in a week by train; going instead of being. Kyungju and its royal tombs would be nothing more than a few white blurs from the vantage point of a warm car. Feet sinking in inches of powder, the steam from our breath billowing in clouds of white, tasting the moist winter air – every step draws one closer to Shilla, to the story of its kings, their reign, and their long-forgotten legacies.

Closer to beauty in its absolute terms.

A family of five was busily snapping photos; father shifting left and right for the perfect angle, mother struggling mightily to harness her three boys; and the boys preoccupied with the size of their snowballs. One would hardly guess that this, indeed, is a grave site, laden with death and sorrow. Yet ironically, death, symbolized by the five hill-like tombs, resembled nothing less than pure beauty, the effects of funeral somber nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the white sheet of snow has cast a spell, suppressing whatever gloomy thought squirming to emerge from the underworld, just layers beneath our feet. But on a second thought, even in the spring and summer months, the tombs, with their lush greens resembling pastures more than burial grounds, may be deemed beautiful; even then, the tourists come and go, families pose and smile, children run about. The snow must then have another meaning.

“For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsion; his mind, liberated from sentimental entanglements, leaps on to discover the essence of Greece. But for the Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression. A Greek landscape does not give us – if we know how to listen and to love – an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea)

A pilgrim’s confusion is exemplified by layers of snow. How easy it would have been to walk besides those mounds of dirt with no thought, no inquisition; as Kazantzakis explained superbly, “without any great convulsion.” Travel with no convulsion is like locking one’s bedroom door and embarking on an epic journey from one’s couch to one’s bed, then on to the mysterious windows (This was actually done by Xavier de Maistre, written about in his Journey around My Bedroom). Beneath the snow, beneath the layers, exists fruits of history that have been muted indefinitely. For a traveler obsessed with the “speed” of travel, a journey through Kyungju, through Korea, is simple, uncomplicated; but for those who question the “innocent tremor of beauty” – the cities’ flashing night lights, the thumping music, the car-riddled roads and cloud-piercing skyscrapers – one may hear the groans of centuries of invasions, bloodshed and hunger.

A hiatus of invasion or foreign occupation was a rarity for Korean Peninsula; the various Chinese tribes from the north, the Japanese on their ships from the east. Even when Shilla conquered its rivals and built a thousand-year dynasty, blood was poured on the streets of Kyungju and elsewhere to maintain that power. After the Second World War, the peninsula was split in two, and a civil war tore through, permanently scarring the mentality of those surviving and even their unborn descendants. Financial hardship drove people to the mountains in search of food – tree barks, grass, dirt. The economy boomed like no other example in modern history, but at the cost of democracy and individual freedom; even the president at the helm of that exponential growth was gunned down. Bloodshed, pain and tears defined this peninsula, more than any of us would like to readily admit. Much of this has been drowned in “beauty,” perhaps of a misunderstood variety.

Perhaps the “snow” layering the ancient tombs of Kyungju have deeper meaning; perhaps it is a symbol of a new beginning, a cleansing of whatever impurity that lies beneath it, within the deathly mounds; an opportunity to press the refresh button. Free from the costly race that has deceived us with economic fortune, free from the corruption that has become the new norm, free from the pain-drenched conscience of every pilgrim walking the grounds. Perhaps snow is, truly, beauty, and beauty is truly possible. Cloaked in shades of white.

5.

My gastronomic senses instinctively recognize “beauty” when they see it; the nose first detects it, the ears bring in the crowd, the sizzle, the eyes memorialize on first sight, the tongue and mouth take care of the rest. Our footrace through time amidst the snow-covered tombs was only complete with another pilgrimage to a traditional bakery infamous for its “Hwangnam bread”; a delicate dough filled with sweet bean paste, imprinted with its signature logo and baked until the very tips turn ever so crispy. Proportion and texture stands out. Each pastry is hand-molded from scratch, and the dough has surprising density, despite its incredible thinness; Chewy Chips Ahoy after they are heated for ten seconds in a microwave, but better. The sweet bean paste tastes nothing like the sugary black matter easily found in cans. Also handmade from scratch, the smooth yet lightly grainy texture perfectly matches its buttery richness (but, of course, no butter added).

Beauty, so easily found, so easily consumed. But then again, the slushy roads were no easy task to reach this harbinger of beauty, and it is doubtless that its beauty was magnified by each step we took amongst the dead kings and ever-falling snow, still visible just outside the steamy glass windows. Beauty led to beauty, all falling into its respected place, enhancing and never overwhelming.

Exotic lands and voyages across forests and rivers may reveal some layers of beauty, some value not easily discoverable in everyday life, say in one’s bedroom. But beauty’s true shades, its true colors, are closer than we often assume, at times right above us in the falling snow, right in front of us in the tombs of dead kings of bygone eras, and right beneath our feet is squeaky snow. Perhaps the first bite into a steaming Hwangnam bread is all you need to fall into an aesthetic abyss.

Some say you eat with your eyes. I say you eat with your circumstances; why limit eating to the eyes? How you got to the vendor, on what road, in what weather, who took your order, in what plate was your pastry given to you, who partook with you, did you stand or sit, coffee or tea, was there a line – all this accompanies one’s “eating.” Not at all complex, just circumstantial. The surroundings make the food, such a truth in all the gastronomic corners of Korea.

6.

Handing one’s passport and boarding ticket to the attendant at the international departure terminal is an oft-overlooked trigger; memories of all hues and depths percolate in one’s conscious, filtered and recollected. The attendant glances at my passport photo, looks up at me, glances at the photo again, as if the photo is nothing more than an alter ego bearing no resemblance to the man thirty inches away. One last look over my shoulders, crack one last smile; one last wave goodbye, before reentering the vortex called reality.

The annoyance of removing one’s shoes and the ritual of posing within the all-seeing body scan machine shuffles one’s thoughts, not in any particular order, yet cinematographic. A mind does not remember every morsel of detail from a trip, however short or prolonged. Like an artist, it harvests only what it chooses to harvest, carefully picking the highlights of the trip’s crops; and scenes are filtered, some crisp and some fuzzy, to embed permanent sketches into the soiled walls of our conscious. Vincent van Gogh would latch unto this phenomenon in an instant, in which some colors, contours and characteristics are chosen amongst others, brought out into the fore. Yet the exaggeration still represents “reality,” and resemblance takes on a completely different subjective meaning.

Snow-covered tombs of ancient Shilla kings thumped the outer edges of my thoughts as I closed my eyes in my cramped economy seat. Beauty is majesty cloaked in white, the hurt of bygone eras caressed and blanketed by all-forgiving, forgiving and healing layers. Beauty is simplicity in design and taste, balanced under the scrutiny of all one’s senses and with its surroundings.

Travel is beauty, but only if one’s soles are willing to embrace the sound of sinking snow.

“Life is a whore. Whatever you do, you always get screwed.”

So said my seventh-grade clarinet teacher. Traumatic? Yes, to a docile pupil with virgin ears and no real life experiences to speak of, traumatic and daunting.

Life is probably not a whore, and in many ways, one can find ways to not get screwed at everything one does. But life is a grind. One would love to sit here on a gloomy Wednesday morning and write about a vacation in St. Barts, or peer through lush photos of delicious eateries at the hottest grub joints in town and around the world. Both are great things, but 98% of the time, either life clutches your balls or you clutch his. It’s a struggle.

Some of us were not born to wealthy parents, some of us have no privileged backgrounds. Some of us had to work part-time gigs just to get through school, some of us gave up our own lunch money to feed our siblings. Some of us chowed down on ramen noodles before playing in junior-varsity basketball games, some of us gladly accepted a bucket of the Colonel’s best from a kind neighbor.

The mountain top never seems to come in sight. We climb hills with different slopes, some steeper than others. We carry different loads on our shoulders and backs, some heavier than others. We have family and friends climbing alongside us, maybe trailing us, some more than others.

There must have been a time when getting bread and water on the table was the mountain top. That achieved, one would think that there was no slope to climb, no hill to scale. But life for many of us is more than bread and water. If I’m spending twelve hours of my daily life doing something, those twelve hours beg for a cause, a cause worthy of the struggle, a cause plentifully worthy of the climb. Not all of us have such pleasures. In the end, yes, it is about bread and water. Still.

As Nikos Kazantzakis put it in his travel account of Cairo, “Nowhere on Earth have I felt such violent and sensual contact of life with death. The ancient Egyptians used to place a mummy in the center of their banquet halls in order to look upon death and sharpen their joyful awareness of the tiny flash of their own life.”

There lies a partial answer to this struggle. Twenty-somethings do not discuss death. We are, after all, in our minds, immortal, infallible beings. We take to our beds at night, assuming that we shall rise the following morning. The question is never “if” tomorrow comes, but always “when”. I dare say this naive frame of mind contributes mightily to our misfortune.

Life is most brilliant when standing side-by-side with death. The sooner one grasps the concept of death and the afterlife, the more meaningful and fulfilling our everyday lives will be. Seventy, eighty, ninety years is no eternity. Our struggles, our hills and mountains, are no eternity. Fleeting, at best. A time will come when we twenty-somethings will face our mortal ends. When that time comes, we shall hold our heads high and pronounce that our mountains have been conquered and that our struggles were worth the climb.

Think twice about clarinet lessons.

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