Memory, Time, and Attachment

Strange how memories bubble up in dreams.

In the past few weeks, memories of kindergarten have popped up in my dreams, even though those events are now more than 20 years ago. The class was sitting in a circle, passing along a small Tupperware filled with whole milk that we were each to shake to turn the milk into butter.  The butter was made, and we later spread it on some banana nut bread, of which each student received a slice.

My kindergarten teacher was, when she taught me, actually younger than I am now. I distinctly remember her telling someone that she was 24 years old. In these last 20+ years it blows my mind that the time I spent growing up could be the span of someone’s entire career.

I’ve wondered about my teachers who have impacted my life and how they are doing now. I am fortunate enough to keep in contact with a few, but with most I have no idea how they are now.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a much more mobile world now that I feel a sense of unease about how transient our communities have become. I understand that what makes a community is the personal connections made. I have no trouble picking up a conversation with a friend who I have not seen in person in over ten years (in fact, I did so last week). Yet, there’s still this melancholy, rooted in attachment, that comes from knowing that we have been apart, that we have changed, and that we can’t take it for granted when we will see each other next.

Memory is a double-edged sword. Because of memory, we can make connections with others. As much as I would like to practice unconditional love for all, generally speaking, we are more loving towards people we know than we are to perfect strangers. How likely would you be to making a connection with someone who you could never remember? Their habits, their quirks, and all of their endearing characteristics…

But memory also forms attachment, makes it hard for us to let go. When someone we love has moved on, or passed on, it is all of those endearing characteristics that we can no longer experience that we miss. We are constantly changing, but the memory of those who we  love but no longer see stay the same. Yet, everyone is changing no matter where they are. Always chasing after that same experience (impossible, as we are all changing) then becomes living in the past.

That is the tragedy of people who have grown apart, when you realize that someone who you care for is not who you remember them to be, or that you are not the person that you thought you were. And if our loved one has passed on, we don’t know what’s going on beyond the veil (if there is anything at all) and how different everything is for them over there.

I want to love without attachment. I’ve wondered about my ability to do so. Sure, I’ve gone to places and done good things for people without the expectation of anything in return, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder about where those people are now. Those elementary school boys I lived with, taught English to, and played soccer with in Puebla are probably in high school now. I wonder about the lives of the high school students in inner city Chicago who I gave presentations to. Have their lives gotten better after graduation? Did they go to college?

How free from your attachments can you get? Or will they only hold you down, trap you in the past? I know you can give up everything and everyone you know and still love them – that’s how immigration works. That’s how the United States was built. You are still making new connections all the time, your future is filled with connections that you have not yet made. But immigration in recent times still assumes some form of attachment, that you still go back to the “old country” from time to time to visit your family and friends. But could you still give up everyone you know and love for a one-way ticket to Mars?

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Dover/Westlake High School Class of 1952 and other letters

Back in 8th grade, I remembered that our social studies class received a letter from a high school alum from the class of 1952. This letter was addressed to Westlake High School’s class of 2002, 50 years after his own graduation year. He had described the world of his youth, and how much quieter it seemed than the one that we knew. The area was more rural, the classes were smaller, the high school was where the middle school was now, and the whole high school was 8th grade and up.

I was the leader of the team delegated to reply this letter, which we duly did. I remember that our letter back to him described how life and how the city of Westlake had changed from 1952 to 1998. Many of the city’s farms and vineyards had become middle-class cul-de-sacs, with a new strip mall (The Promenade) and “lifestyle center” (Crocker Park) still to come. Our middle school dances, which I never attended, were called “canteens.” Our letter also included an invitation to our high school graduation in 2002, which was then still 4 years into the future.

He replied. In his letter, he mentioned that in his immediate-post-World War II childhood, canteens had a military connotation. This connotation had been far, far forgotten by my generation of schoolkids, and to us, “canteen” was just a dance. He also politely declined our high school graduation invitation, as he had already planned a trip (to Florida, I believe) during that time, 4 years into the future.

Speaking of the future, he had mentioned how, as members of his class were now in their early 70s, that reunion membership had been dwindling. He employed the metaphor of entering a long, dark, tunnel to which there was no exit. That metaphor made me think about how mortality that waits for all of us.

My social studies teacher gave the letter to me. We weren’t nearly as organized after we received his reply and our second letter never materialized. Since then I’ve wished that we had kept the conversation going.

In an optimistic estimate, I’d guess that our writer would be 88 years old now. Living to and past such ripe old ages is pretty common now, although people have an increased tendency for existence failure with increased age. If he is still living, I’m sure he’s not even expecting anything of our class anymore. We’ve been graduated for over 10 years now, and everyone has gone in his/her separate direction. We hardly even get together anymore, but it’s good to see old friends when we do.

On the topic of unanswered letters, I remember in third grade, one of our class activities was to write letters to the senior class stressing the importance of not drinking and driving. I never received a response, but I thought about replying to such a letter when I was older. Surely I would receive such a letter when I became a twelfth grader.

Spring of senior year I did receive such a letter. Each member of the senior class did. When I opened and read it, I was surprised by how simple the grammar and content was. I was dumbfounded and didn’t even know how or what to reply. At the time, I was also swamped with AP classes and finals, so I put the letter on the back burner and never got around to answering. By the time I could make replying a priority, well, it was already summer and graduation. It didn’t make much sense to reply then or after.

The letter made me think about how simple my letter to a member of the graduating class of 1993 must have been, and how difficult replying to such a letter would be. It was then I realized how much my own thought processes, vocabulary, grammar, and ways of expressing myself had matured, and how such processes were not yet developed in a third grader. It also makes me wonder how our eighth grade class’s letter sounded like to our alum from 1952. The student who wrote me the letter about being sober for prom probably graduated high school in 2011 with a much vaster vocabulary and much more nuanced way of expressing himself than when he wrote me back in third grade. I wonder how he’s doing now.

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Dream Journal: Escaping from a cult

Somehow, my friends and I end up trapped by a cult. Maybe we were part of some innocuous group that somehow got taken over by a charismatic leader. I’m not quite sure how the larger group’s path down insanity began. In any case, when the cult leader introduced human sacrifice, I was ready to get out of there. I had a fear that I could very well be next, as no human could be safe under those circumstances.

The circumstances under which I ran away now seem hazy, but I remember looking behind my back quite a bit. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have abandoned people that I knew. Either I was so panicked at the time I didn’t even consider it, or I became fearful that my friends had become brainwashed and would turn me in. Then again, it was a dream, so logic does not really have to follow anyway.

I move from place to place (one place was the upstairs of a tavern/inn) trying to outdistance these guys, and I give explicit instructions to the staff not to tell anyone that I am in hiding. But one girl, Sandra, breaks in anyhow. I am wary, but she tries to convince me that she is on my side. She tells me her story of why and how she escaped (unfortunately, my conscious mind does not recall it), and we escape by driving off in a large tank of a van.

The leadership of the cult falls apart. While I was gone, somehow my friend Christian wrests his way to the top of the cult hierarchy and destroys it from within. Another friend who also has escaped meets up with us and tells us that at first he was appalled by what seemed to be Christian’s betrayal, but when he found out what Christian was actually doing, he felt star-struck, like he was aiding a movie star. Christian caused the cult to implode on itself, freeing everyone else who was unwillingly bound to the cult. I don’t know why that I assumed that Christian would be OK, but characters generally who put themselves in that scenario end up sacrificing themselves for the greater cause.

We pile into our tank of a van and Sandra backs us out of the parking garage with controls in the back of the van. Once we’re out of the garage, I take the controls at the front of the van. We drive down the hill, through suburbia, towards the great, lush valley ahead of us and the Sierra Nevada mountains beyond.

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Dreaming of a Time Traveler and Supergirl

I can’t say that this is anything deep like Zhuangzi dreaming of the butterfly. I just thought it would be interesting to journal a dream.

I was at a campsite. Someone pulls up next to me and sets up a tent and cot, who turns out to be Laura Vandervoort (TV’s V, Smallville) and she talked to me as if she knew me. I was confused as asked if we knew each other before, and she said no. She told me that I was too busy to respond to emails and texts. I wondered why she was even talking to me then.

We drove to a college campus of a vaguely New England flavor and walked around for a bit in the surrounding city. She was disguised as a brunette with glasses and wore no make up, and as we walked across the city (not quite sure if it was Providence or Columbus), she mentioned giving up acting and moving to Columbus, OH. Just talking and getting to know her made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

We were entering what I thought was going to be a drag show (the bouncers warned us not to be mistaken for go-go dancers), but instead the performance was about vocalizing waveforms that had been visualized. We weren’t paying any attention to the performance (two people, and girl and a guy had vocalized their waveforms), and the two people sitting behind us, also a girl and a guy, weren’t paying attention and we just chatted with each other.

We left the show and walked down a hill before transferring to an elevator. We appeared at a Russian-language grocery store (the only word of Russian I remembered upon waking was “pozhaluysta” – please) where the staff took items off the shelf for you. Apparently the staff and I had different ideas of what was acceptable food merchandise, as the box handed to me was already open and the staff didn’t care. Apparently there was also another part of the store where you could bag and seal your own granola.

Something happened where I jumped ahead in time by two years. I went back to the college campus, and Laura was there. She talked to me as if no time had passed at all. And then I jumped forward in time again, but in my own life. I was middle aged now, but Laura was still the same age. I saw that we were on campus, and that while I was older, I had jumped backwards in time. This was the day that she and I met and walked around campus. Somehow, Laura knew all these versions of me across time, and it was truly remarkable how, for her, time and knowing someone were not linked. We walked into the campus building, and I saw my younger self interacting with Laura. We were in a large group and organized into taking a group picture, where I stood next to my younger self.

I heard my name called three times. The voice sounded like that of my friend Nicole, and I woke up.

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On Reform

This post is in ways a response to an earlier post, On Revolution, but it is also springs from a conversation with Dan at tdaxp, where we discussed the legacy of the Xinhai Revolution.  The revolution toppled a Qing Dynasty struggling to reform itself into a constitutional monarchy and ushered in the modern Chinese era – and China’s bloody 20th Century that resulted in over 90 million dead.

Dan said:

The most dangerous time for a decaying government is when it realizes its mistakes, correctly observes the world, and begins reforms. The France of Louis XVI was more liberal and modern than that of Louis [XIV] — the Libya of [2000s] was more liberal and modern than that of the 1980s — the China of 1988 was more [liberal] and modern than the China of 1978.

Reform raises expectations and exposes to the people how weak the government was to begin with.

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this pattern.  Overthrown regimes are generally less repressive than the ones preceding them.  De Tocqueville concluded that, though people “may suffer less,” their “sensibility is exacerbated.”

As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, under an extremely repressive regime, the people are too focused on overcoming day-to-day suffering to focus on a grander scale.  Once that burden is reduced, then people can focus on the great work of establishing a government that respects human dignity.  While Gaddafi’s overthrowing may seem anomalous in that his regime was extremely repressive, his opening up to the world in the 2000s resulted in a regime that was, by relative comparison, less repressive than what it had been in previous decades.

To add to the list of states overthrown during reform, I would include Gorbachev’s USSR during glasnost and perestroika.  As this article from Foreign Policy put it, the conditions that permitted the people to question corruption and the speak out was what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, not government prioritizing military spending over economic growth.

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and the accession of his son Kim Jong-Un has led to speculation on whether the successor will be as brutal as his father, or if he will be reform minded.  There is no reason to believe that the younger Kim will be a reformist, despite the fact that their only ally, China, has been goading the Kim regime to follow in Deng Xiaoping’s footsteps.

2012 is the 100th birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.  Supposedly this year special accommodations will be made for the North Korean people for the occasion.

I want to be clear that I in no way endorse what the North Korean government is doing to its people and wish that the North Korean people can someday, soon, have the options to live lives as they choose.  However, given the history of reforming governments being overthrown by their people, one can see why the powers that be would be reluctant to open up North Korea to the world.

China put down the stirrings of discontent of 1989 by brute force (again, I’m not endorsing this action), and since then has been able to manage the tension between increasing living standards with an authoritarian government.  Of course, China is not out of the woods by far.  China is continuing to change, economically at breakneck pace, necessitating that the government respond in kind.

People living there now don’t know what China will look like in 20 years, much less 100 years.  It is my hope that they will be able to pull off the transition, much in the style of South Korea and Taiwan.  These East Asian Tigers had been authoritarian states with growing wealth, which successfully morphed into open and prosperous societies that don’t require continuous government response to keep stability.

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Improving our schools – addendum

My friend Vanessa had this to say about the previous post:

Interesting idea, but I have to respectfully disagree that breaking up families and instilling children with the belief that they come from an inferior cultural and family background is the best way fix the education system. My own idea, though not fully developed, is that the government should provide parent training classes annually and actually pay parents to attend. We’d be helping people be better parents and help them with the costs of raising children. Obviously this would be an expensive program, but as you say, something needs to be done to help break the cycle for poverty!

My vision is something like a professional development/continuing education program where you’d take a few hours of classes each year. When you’re pregnant you would take a class on prenatal nutrition, when your child is 4 you’d take a class on activities you can do with your child to prepare them for kindergarten, etc. The focus would be on health, safety, and education. The classes would be open to everyone for free, but you wouldn’t get paid for them if you make over a certain income. I think everyone could benefit from the help in parenting, not just parents who are low income. Classes could be offered at multiple times. Child care could be provided during the classes, or some may even be appropriate for parents and children to attend together. Just some initial ideas . . .

Breaking the cycle of poverty probably requires attacks from many different sides where a variety of programs may have to be tried.  I think a professional development program doesn’t necessarily have to be government run, but can also be nonprofit, similar to how we have private universities and state-run universities.

I think the biggest problem in breaking the cycle of poverty is cultural. Poverty limits ones access to the greater world outside, and thus limits knowledge. Limited knowledge means not knowing things like basic nutrition, how to pay taxes, mandated car insurance, and the biggest one of all – OPTIONS on how to live life and knowing that there is more – things that further penalize the poor for “not being properly socialized” when their environment hasn’t provided this possibility.

Does this mean that parents from poor backgrounds can’t succeed? No, of course not. But the deck, statistically, is stacked against them. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have a cycle of poverty.

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Improving our schools – from the home front

Part of the national dialogue for a while has been how the state of education in the United States is in crisis. While, yes, things could be done at the hiring and administrative level to improve how teachers teach students, an important thing to realize is that teachers cannot take the place of parents. Forcing teachers into a parental role is beyond the capacity that one can reasonably expect a teacher to do, especially when each teacher is in charge of so many students.

Therefore, this is a proposal to help improve schools from the home front: providing parental role models. The lack of student achievement in schools is not entirely the fault of the teachers. It is also a cultural issue. Poor and/or broken families either are too worried about getting the next paycheck or simply don’t know how to raise their kids to value good education, achievement, and good citizenship. Their living environment surrounds them with negative influences where good grades is not a priority and is sometimes even looked down upon. While one may make the argument that poor people shouldn’t be having kids, let’s get real here. That’s NOT going to happen.

Furthermore, while the parents may be at fault, why should the child be the victim?

While this would by no means solve the entire problem of education, here is my humble suggestion:

Recruit nonprofits and religious charities to run boarding houses where children would live together until they finish high school. Parental visitation is allowed, of course, but the majority of the time the kids will be surrounded by positive mentors and role models who take on the roles of parenting that the kids’ birth parents are not able to provide.

Of course, getting kids there must be voluntary. Parents must believe that their kids will be better off living separately, or court-ordered if it is proven that the parents really shouldn’t be parents.

Rigorous background checks on the mentors would be absolutely paramount. The mentors would also have to ensure cohesion among the kids and prevent bullying and shenanigans that kids could get in serious trouble for (drug abuse, pregnancies, etc.). I’d also like to make sure that kids are completely supported and accepted in such a home. For instance, if a kid realized that s/he is gay, I would hope that the mentors give the kid their full support and NOT tell the kid that there’s something wrong with her/him. Rejection in the latter form on impressionable kids could be internalized and seriously mess up a kid.

Yes, a boarding house program will be expensive. It will require a lot of funding from donors and probably the United Way.  But breaking the cycle of poverty requires full-blown intervention. The reason why I would like nonprofits to fill this role is that having the government step in in such a role isn’t culturally palatable in the United States (and may also be an economic MORAL HAZARD in subsidizing bad parenting and throwaway children), but also because nonprofits have done this before.

Caritas, a Catholic charity, runs boarding houses for students in Mexico. These houses have adult supervisors who are this 24/7 support system and basically the kids’ parents during the week. The kids have the option of going home to see the parents on the weekends.

I think that keeping the parenting, schooling, and mentoring are all separate provides openness in the kids’ lives and also allows for the distribution of responsibilities among different adult role models. When I visited Puebla, Mexico a few years back, I lived in such a place for a week and was quite impressed by how things were run.

Of course, the nonprofit running such a house doesn’t have to be a church. It could be of any belief or not affiliated with any religion at all – as long as the values of the organization are in line with loving the children, accepting the children as they are, and encouraging the children to be curious about the world and excel in academics.

On a smaller scale, the NBC news program Rock Center ran this story on a nonprofit in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, called Targeting Our People’s Priorities With Service (TOPPS), run by Annette Dove:

While TOPPS does not house the kids, it provides a safe and nurturing place for kids to hang out after school and keeps them off the streets. More organizations like TOPPS could go a long way in improving the culture in our schools to help shape our students as high achievers.

I recommend nonprofits look into more ways to help kids achieve more and change American school systems from a cultural front. It’s impossible to ask schoolteachers to do everything, which is why I think it’s so important to have a mentor role for the kids if the parents cannot do so.

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