JAMES ZERNDT – THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each.  There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.

UH OH! MOM’S GONE ALL KAFKA!

Mom, now that you are 104 years old, this one’s for you!

Gone Kafka

My mother hated cooking. I always wanted to tell her to relax. We would make our own food. No one would starve if she didn’t make dinner. Mom, go back to your paints, sewing, sculpting. The things you love and do so well.

Not all women were born for the kitchen.

REMEMBERING DAD ON HIS 100th BIRTHDAY

I planned to write an epic piece about my Dad who would have been 100 years old today. But my body has staged a mutiny, so I’ll be brief.

Dad must be smiling.

William Benfield Armstrong was the real life Quiet Man. I’m the oldest of three sons who realized that Dad meant what he said — just by the look on his face.

75-edited-GarryMomDad-WW2-300

My Dad was a handsome guy. Tall, lean and with a smile that dazzled women and men. I always thought he could’ve been a movie star, rivaling Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

Dad rarely showed emotions. He kept it all inside. The day I left for basic training in the Marines, I saw something rare. Dad was crying as he put me on the train.

My Father didn’t talk about his experiences as an Army Staff Sgt. in World War Two. We knew he saw action in Germany but he never offered any details, always giving us an annoyed look if we persisted with questions. I finally got some answers a short time before Dad passed away in 2002. He told me about seeing his best friend killed in a jeep explosion, just a few yards in front of him.

He said it was an image he carried for the rest of his life. Dad talked and I listened. It was the longest conversation we ever had. When he finished, he just looked at me with a sad smile and patted my shoulders.

75-GarryWMom-Dad-1990

After my Father died, my two brothers and I were going through his possessions. We found, buried under clothing, several medals he had been awarded in that war so many years ago. My Dad was a hero! We always knew that but never understood or appreciated him in that larger context.

So here’s to you, Dad. At 100, you’re still a ramrod, tall and proud.

SPEAKING A NEW LANGUAGE

Un nouveau langage, par Rich Paschall

What if you could wake up tomorrow and be able to speak a new language?  Suppose you did not have to work at it at all.  There would be no boring repetition of words and phrases.  You would not have to study rules of grammar.  You would not have to learn to conjugate.  You would not take home lessons to write out.  The language would just be there at your command.  Your speech would be fluent and your understanding clear.  What language would you choose?

My best guess is that most people would consider a language of their ancestors.  If they came from Poland, then Polish might be their first choice.  In a city like Chicago, with a large population of Polish immigrants and descendants, this would make perfect sense.  If you have a relative that speaks the language, wouldn’t you be pleased to speak to them in their own language?  Your Polish grandmother would be so proud, and you, of course, would take great joy in this.

My elementary school was largely populated by kids of Irish descendent.  The Irish priests and an Irish American Bishop, who was also pastor, of course attracted a large student body made up of blond and red-haired children.  I can not say I ever heard any Gaelic, however.  I suppose some spoke it.  Many had a brogue so thick, I could not understand them.  Still, I can not say I was interested in knowing Irish language.

For much of my life, I lived in a German American neighborhood.  My maternal grandmother spoke German and would sometimes gossip (I thought it was gossip, anyway) with other old German-speaking neighbors.  The parish we lived in after the grade school years, was largely German American.  It was started by German immigrants who built the church.  For decades there was a mass in German.  I thought it would be cool to know this language, especially years later.  I was encouraged to take Latin in high school.

This proved to be a big disappointment as we grew up and took part in German fests.  There was Mai Fest and Oktoberfest and Rosenmontag and more feasts then you can imagine.  We learned songs in German and sang along at dances, festivals and anywhere a band was playing.  Unfortunately, my conversation was limited to Guten Tag, Auf Wiedersehen und zwei Bier bitte!

Sprechen sie Deutsch?

Sprechen sie Deutsch?

Years later as many Hispanic groups arrived and there were many more Spanish speakers, it seemed to me that learning Spanish would make far more sense.  The old Germans I knew were dying out, my grandmother was gone and I had less occasion to speak German.

Clearly, there would be a large Spanish population from Puerto Rico, Mexico and a variety of Spanish-speaking countries.  I have neighbors from Guatemala nearby.  There are ethnic restaurants all around and in the summer, Spanish music fills the air in our area of the city.  There are so many cultures I could learn if I knew this one language, it seemed like a logical choice.

What is the second language of your community?  Is there even a second language?  Perhaps you are in an area where you only hear English and there is no immigrant population or descendants to pass along another language.  Even if this is so, would it not be great to learn another language and travel to countries where this language is spoken.

In recent years, the desire to automatically know German, Spanish or even Polish have given way to another.  While all of the above would be interesting and certainly useful, not just if I travelled to countries where these languages were spoken, but even right here in our local communities.  I still have a different interest in a language I would never have thought to learn just a decade ago.  Friendship has become the determining factor.

My previous job brought in interns from other countries, particularly France.  As a result I made a number of friends from France and even got to know other friends and family members of these co-workers.  It was not just that I learned some of the culture.  Yes, we went to French restaurants and talked about their local communities.  Of course, we talked French politics and sports.  Indeed I learned about the regions that were home to many of my young French colleagues.  But in the process, something important happened.

This way?

This way?

Now one of my best friends in the world is a Frenchman.  We have gone on many adventures here and in Europe.  I have visited his home and the home of his parents.  We have visited all across Alsace.  For six years, France has been on my vacation list.  It turns out that the language I would like to know tomorrow when I wake up is French.  It is not about the neighborhood I live in, the ancestors I have, or the neighbors that have recently moved in.  It is not about my grandmother.  It is not about my parish.  It is not about countries I may someday visit.

The language I would like to know is all about my friends.  In fact, it is about one of my best friends, and it does not matter that he is fluent in English.  My friends and community are all French and I wish I could more fully participate in our adventures whenever we meet.  Is there a better reason than friendship to know another language?

WOULD YOU LIKE TO STAY FOR DINNER?

CELEBRATING THE FAMILY WE NEVER MET AND MAYBE DON’T WANT TO

“So,” says Uncle Shmuel, who having appeared out of nowhere, now miraculously speaks vernacular American English — albeit with a heavy Yiddish accent, “Nice place you got here. I see you keep your animals in your house. That one there sounds like a pig but looks like a dog.”

“They are our pets, Uncle Shmuel. The oinker is Nan. She just makes that sound. She’s kind of old. I think that’s the dog equivalent of ‘oy’.”

“Pets, shmets. Animals. In the house. What’s next? Toilets? Never mind, your life, your choice. Oy.”

“Can I give you something to eat? Tea? Coffee? Cake? If we don’t have it, I can go out and buy some.”

“Are you Kosher?”

“Uh, no. Not Kosher,” and I shiver, remembering the bacon that has passed through our kitchen. “Oh, wait, here’s my husband. Uncle Shmuel, I’d like you to meet my husband Garry.”

Shmuel looks shrewdly at Garry, then at me. “He doesn’t look Jewish.”

Garry’s eyes twinkle. “But really I am,” he says and deftly pulls a yarmulke out of his pocket. It say “Joel’s Bar Mitzvah” across the back in big white letters. Fortunately, Shmuel doesn’t notice.

“So,” Shmuel continues after a pregnant pause, “You have problems with the Cossacks?”

“No Cossacks, but lots of politicians,” I reply.

“Cossacks, politicians, there’s a difference?”

“Not so much,” I admit.

“And for a living you do what?”

“We’re retired. But before that, I was a writer. Garry was a reporter. On television.”

“What’s a television?”

I look at Shmuel, realize we are about to embark on an extended conversation, so all I say is: “Oy vay is mir!” Which seems to sum it up.

Oy vay. Can someone set the table?

HEY MOM! THEY’RE ALL HERE!

In Israel, they have a word that translates loosely to “close-far.” It refers to the tribe of “almost relatives” by marriage or informal adoption. This includes all the rest of the folks who claim some sort of relationship to you, like your cousin Alfie’s second wife’s husband’s niece.

Picnic-Crowd

I recommend we have a Gathering Day during which we collect all these “relatives.” The ones who are related by blood, albeit so distantly we are unclear on lines of descent (but are sure they are there, somewhere), the kids mom and dad fostered while their parents were getting a divorce. The related-by-marriage to second and third cousins and their off-spring. The brothers-in-law of our sister-in-law, twice divorced and their adopted children’s children from their third marriage.

A mighty big picnic. With guitars. And booze. Lots of burning meat. A sing along to which everyone brings their favorite dishes.

Ya think? We get a day off from work during the best time of year for warm, sunny weather and do it in a public park. It’s safer in public.

We will call it Extended Family Day. It would be a huge hit! The greeting cards and invitations alone would generate a ton of money and maybe some new jobs! No downside unless you are unlucky enough to come from a family dominated by bad cooks.

Who’s ready to jump on my bandwagon?

Don’t be a spoil sport. Even if you have no known relatives or none you want to know, you can invite all the fake aunts and cousins — or hook up to another group and be one of the almost relatives in someone else’s clan. Anyone for whom you feel even the vaguest familial attachment will suffice.

On this special day of days, water is as thick as blood!

IT IS SO ORDERED

Equality and the Supreme Court, Rich Paschall

While the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was expected by some, it was a total shock to others.  Nevertheless, people took to the street to celebrate their activism.  Many had demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court in recent weeks. People carried signs and waved rainbow flags.  Politicians made speeches about what the Supreme Court should do.  There were articles and editorials.  The rhetoric on the topic hit new highs (or lows, depending where you are) and social media exploded with cute (or not so cute) graphics (internet memes) in support of one side or the other.  None of this mattered, nor should it have.

In the Spring of 2013 when two landmark cases were about to be decided (Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144 and Windsor v. United States, No. 12-307), the Sunday Night Blog offered an opinion on another important case U.S. Supreme Court v. Public Opinion.  The first case dealt with California’s Proposition 8 which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.  The court could have side-stepped that one easily, and in a way, they did.  They ruled that those who had brought the case had no legal standing as they were not harmed.  In essence, they told the Ninth Circuit “the appeal to the Ninth Circuit should have been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction” as there was no harm to those who brought the appeal.  Same sex marriage resumed in California.  Interestingly, Judge Kennedy dissented.

In the other case Edie Winsor, whose marriage to Thea Spyer was recognized in the state of New York, found that her marriage was not recognized by the federal government when her partner died.  She lost everything for her lack of being able to inherit from her partner.  This was due to the highly controversial Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  It seems the federal government could not declare on one hand that whoever a state recognizes as married is married, and then say it does not apply to all people. DOMA was a clear violation of states’ rights as well as civil rights. Here Judge Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority, stating  “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”  While the ruling tossed out DOMA, it left gay marriage to the states.

Taken April 28, day of oral arguments to Supreme Court, CC License

Taken April 28, day of oral arguments to Supreme Court, CC License

In the court of Public Opinion, the people have no standing when it comes to the Supreme Court.  It does not matter how many people show up with rainbow flags or protest signs.  It does not matter how many politicians or activists  make speeches from the court-house steps.  It does not matter how many presidential candidates come out for or against the issue.  In fact, it is likely few candidates actually read the case or the court’s ruling.  The movement of public opinion in favor of gay marriage should actually have nothing to do with the court’s opinion.

The Supreme Court is there to rule on the law as it applies to the Constitution.  They are not there to rule in favor of shifting opinions.  They are not there to write laws.  They are not there to grant new freedoms.  They are there to hear how the case before them is to be considered in light of the law of the land, The United States Constitution.

In the case of Obergefell v. Hodges (14-556), Director Ohio Department of Health and similar cases from three other states, the justices were asked to take on the matter of same-sex marriage as being protected under the Fourteenth Amendment in all states. It became clear that any ruling by the Supreme Court would impact same-sex marriage nation wide.  So the question became, does the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution mean same-sex marriage should be recognized and legal everywhere?  When the court took on these cases as one, there was no opportunity to side step the issue.  The justices had to decide two fundamental questions.  Does the 14th amendment require states to license same-sex marriages?  Does the 14th amendment require states to recognize those married in other states?

The debate outside was not important to the court case.  The important debate was inside the Supreme Court.  What was said? These debates are not held in secret and in fact, you may hear the oral arguments of question one here and question two here. If you have the time to listen, you will hear the often debated issue of the definition of marriage being raised.  Is the court redefining marriage?

In the end, the court is not changing institutions on us or rewriting the law, they are strictly dealing with the protections of the 14th amendment.  Justice Kennedy again wrote for the 5-4 majority.  His opening line of the decision in fact stresses the law of our land is being upheld: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”

But is the court working against the writers of the Constitution?  Do they have the right to offer an opinion that takes away the right to define marriage at the state level?  Are they working within the framework of their assigned duties.  Again, Justice Kennedy for the majority: “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”

So, they addressed it head on.  Many will celebrate while many, who have not read or considered the legal matters here, will bemoan the state of our nation and the Supreme Court.  Chief among the complainants is the Chief Justice himself: “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”  To call the majority of the justices “five lawyers” shows a level of disrespect this decision is likely to see for decades to come.  The battle for equality will continue.