Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas - 1993 Style

Keeping with the tradition of the past few years, I have written a retro Christmas newsletter about what I did in 1993. I did not start writing newsletters to include with my Christmas cards until 1999 when I was in my final year of college and busy with exams and packing to move to Washington, D.C. It made sense to have a newsletter so that I didn't have to keep writing the same things down in card after card that I sent to people. I know that some people seem to hate newsletters and the complaints seem to be about "bragging" or "depressing" but the one complaint that I don't understand is the one about newsletters being impersonal / form letter. I don't mind that as much, because I'd rather get a newsletter, no matter how braggy or negative or formula than to just get a card with nothing but a signature. Those are the worst. Don't bother to send me a card, then. I want to read about the adventures and experiences of a person's year. That's why I love them.

I keep all the newsletters I send out in a binder, along with a sample card of what I have sent out, and my Christmas card list (dating back to 1987). They make an excellent summary of every year, which is why for the sake of my blog each year (from 2010 through 2018), I will feature a "retro-Christmas newsletter" about events that I experienced 20 years ago. Enjoy!

The Carillon Scholar

Christmas 1993 * La Maddalena, Sardinia

“I have sailed this impossible ocean
I have sailed this crazy sea
I can never be what you want,
whatever you want me to be”

Johnny Clegg, "I Can Never Be (What You Want)”

Compared to the amazing adventures of the previous two years, this year was somewhat of a let-down for me, but as I reflect on all that I experienced, I can honestly say that it wasn’t a bad year at all.

In January, I was excited about the inauguration of a Democratic president and probably was the only sailor on the USS ORION who was happy that day. Each time a controversy occurred in the news, some of the officers I worked for would always ask me, “Do you still like Clinton?” Uh, why wouldn’t I? I’m not a flaky, fair-weather person. I might not always agree with what the Democratic president does, but I much prefer when my party is in the White House. Despite what the naysayers say, I think Clinton is more Kennedy than Carter, and that would be just fine with me.

Starting in January, I had a persistent eye problem that the Squadron doctor (LT. Jensen) couldn’t figure out. Some shipmates thought I had pinkeye. Others gave a more obscene diagnosis. Basically, my eye was red, making me look like I haven’t slept in years or that I was some kind of demon. Anyhow, by April, LT Jensen said that if I cared about my eye at all, I needed to see the eye specialist at the Naval base in Naples. I had hesitated going because my supervisor kept telling me that it was a “boondoggle” and would make me look bad if I went. He threatened that I might not have my Squadron job when I got back. On top of this, the USS SIMON LAKE was due to arrive in late April for a transfer of duties as the ORION sailed back to Norfolk for decommissioning. I didn’t want to miss out. Anyhow, the gravity of what LT Jensen told me was enough to convince me to go. After leaving the eye doctor one day on a shuttle bus back to the barracks at Capodichino, the bus jerked to a stop. I looked out the window and saw two young men in white shirts and riding bicycles. One of them looked familiar…a classmate from 7th grade in Bellevue, Nebraska, whom I haven’t seen since the school year ended in 1985. After some amateur sleuthing around, I learned that the Mormon missionary was indeed my friend, John Adams, from Logan Fontanelle Junior High School in Bellevue, NE. I visited him at his Rome Mission on the way back to La Maddalena, Sardinia. This coincidence amazed me and really got me thinking that there must be something more to the universe than what atheists or religious people claim.

Travel was a big part of my year. I spent Valentine’s weekend in Nice, France on an MWR trip with some shipmates. The most annoying thing about traveling to France with Americans is that someone will inevitably bring up all the negative stereotypes Americans have about the French, which ticks me off. I have not found the French to be rude or arrogant. In fact, there was a man who worked the front desk of the hotel we stayed at near the beach who singled me out from the rest of the herd and asked me questions about Robert F. Kennedy. I was impressed that out of a group of Americans, he probably picked out the one Kennedy fan amongst us. We had a great conversation while the other Americans were out looking for rude French folks to tell the shipmates back in La Maddalena all about. Other than that, it was great to see beautiful Nice again with trips to Monaco and Monte Carlo casino as well as a perfume factory near the hillside village of Eze. I love the French Riviera!

In the summer, I went to sea with the USS SIMON LAKE to Gibraltar, which is a place I have wanted to see ever since I saw my favorite James Bond film in the summer of 1987: The Living Daylights. I got to admire the view from the top of the rock, watch the Barbary Apes terrorize the tourists offering bananas (some of the apes look like big, fat teddy bears), fail at downing one tot of bad rum, and went on a day trip to Tangiers, Morocco where we ate North African cuisine at a restaurant. I had to sit on my left hand throughout the meal so as to not offend any Arab diners who might glance our way. The mint tea was especially delicious. The young boys selling trinkets were persistent in wanting a sale on illegal items such as switchblade knives and tortoise shell drums. I left Morocco with only a book on Morocco and some photographs. I would’ve liked to have spent more than a half day there, though.

From Gibraltar, I flew to London for what was supposed to be my second Eurail trip, where I would pick up my Eurail pass at the USO in Paris and head to Scandinavia. I was interrogated by the British customs agent, took the train to Canterbury but decided not to stay the night and just continued on to Dover to catch a ferry to Calais. A late arrival in Calais meant that I had to sleep at the train station like other backpackers, hoping that no one would attack or rob me in the middle of the night. Then I caught the first train to Paris in the morning. I learned at the USO that my Eurail ticket had not arrived from Germany, so I decided to spend a few days in Paris before heading back to La Maddalena. I was disappointed because I had written a detailed itinerary for Scandinavia and had no idea what I wanted to see in Paris that I hadn’t seen in October 1992 (or 1988 or 1985). So, I rode random buses with no end goal in mind and just had a relaxing time, seeing Paris like a resident rather than like a tourist. I visited bargain stores, strolled around residential areas, relaxed in parks, and saw the view from the top of Notre Dame cathedral. It was a relaxing time in a great city.

In October, I finally made it to Prague, Czech Republic. The biggest shock was how cheap the prices were. It was 4 cents to ride the streetcar or subway or bus, I rented a studio apartment for $25 a night, a bottle of Coca-Cola was 23 cents (which cost more than $2 in any western European city), and I even got to see “Jursky Park” (“Jurassic Park” in English with Czech subtitles) for what was advertised as the most expensive movie ticket prices ever seen in the Czech Republic: $1.50! I loved the gothic architecture and layout of the streets in Prague. Some places I visited included the famous clock tower in the main square, Wencelas Square, Lennon’s Wall (someone had painted a portrait of John Lennon in graffiti style along a wall), Prague castle, and Charles Bridge (the one with all the statues). I stayed in a hostel the last night and had interesting conversations with two Aussies, one Brit, and one Dane. To me, that was probably the most memorable aspect of my trip because I love hearing what foreigners think of America and Americans, as well as hearing about what their life experiences were like. My shipmates tend to use all 30 days of their leave each year to visit family and friends back home and don’t understand why I spend my leave traveling Europe by myself. I love the people I get to meet on my travels and I also know that when I’m in college, I don’t want to regret the fact that I lived in Italy for 3 years and didn’t make a point to see as much of Europe as I’m able to see in three years.

The saddest news for me this year is that my temporary assignment to Submarine Squadron 22 has come to an end, as the SIMON LAKE requested me back so that they could send me to man the Palau Community Center for my final year in Italy. I love working in Squadron 22 and consider it a huge blessing, but all the officers I liked the most have transferred and many of the replacements have not been as good, so perhaps it’s for the best. At least I get to keep my barracks room at Paradiso, even though my commute to work includes walking for 20 minutes from the barracks complex to the pier in downtown La Maddalena, then a 30 minute ferry ride to Palau on the mainland of Sardinia, then a 10 minute walk to the Community Center. My job is to keep the center clean, to operate the snack bar, and keep the place operational. The Community Center is only for U.S. Navy personnel and their dependents, so that means I have to tell curious Italians or even American tourists that they can’t hang out there.

That sums up my year and I hope that you have a BUON NATALE and best wishes for a great 1994!

Friday, December 06, 2013

Eulogy for the Great Human Being known as Madiba

On December 5th, 2013, the world learned that one of the greatest human beings to grace us with his presence for nearly a century has left us for the spiritual dimension, where he will hopefully meet the souls of the other great men of the 20th Century: Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We all knew this day was coming at some point. Mandela had been sick for much of 2013 and reports of his death often appeared on social media throughout the year, but this time, it is true. While we are all sad about his passing, there is also much cause to celebrate a remarkable life that was an inspiration and a stellar example of how to live one's life. Rather than repeat what I've written in many blog posts of the past, I am reposting one that I wrote in tribute to him on the occasion of his 90th birthday on July 18, 2008.

Nkosi sikeleil iMandela!

From July 18, 2008:

An important milestone in the life of a great man: 90 years old! I was pleasantly surprised last week when my Time magazine arrived and on the cover was none other than Nelson Mandela. The cover story was written by the man who helped write Mandela's excellent memoir: "Long Walk to Freedom." I read that in 1996 and it remains as one of the best autobiographies I've ever read (I highly recommend it). The most alarming thing about the article, however, is that the writer seems to hint that he doesn't think Mandela will be around much longer. Will he live to see triple digits? Who knows?

The article seems to be the last chance to lionize the man once again, with a new twist: Mandela on Leadership. The article stressed a few points on what we need in a leader, which could be read as a jab against our current president because he has none of the great leadership qualities which Mandela excels at. The qualities include: leading from behind; able to negotiate with "enemies" while bringing allies along; the ability to realize when one's ideas don't work and making changes. It's a very good list.

Mandela has been one of the people I most want to meet since the late 1980s. I first heard about him in 1986 when I read an article about Winnie Mandela. Its kind of humourous today to think that I only heard about him after I read about his wife Winnie, but I was an apolitical teenager who didn't come into true political passion until the summer of 1989 (the massive student protests in Tiananman Square, Beijing was the wake-up call). As I learned more about Mandela, I became a fan. My favourite singer, Johnny Clegg, even had a beautiful song about him ("Asimbonanga"). After his release from prison in 1990, he went on a Goodwill tour around the world and came to Atlanta. I didn't go because I would've had to go by myself and I knew it would be a massive audience, so I stayed home. That's too bad. It was one of those events that I wish I had decided to see, when he spoke to a stadium audience at Georgia Tech.

On my 1994 trip of a lifetime to South Africa, I was in the country around the time of his 100 days in office and the media was rating his first 100 days, which I thought was odd. I asked a tourguide about it, saying, "this is a crazy American tradition that is unfair to all presidents. It all started because FDR made it a goal to have sweeping changes in his first one hundred days as president. America needed those kind of changes back then, but ever since then, every president has been held hostage to that legacy and I'm sad to see that now, Mandela is as well." That led to an interesting discussion about the inappropriate levels of influence our country had on other countries. If I remember correctly, we started talking about lofty things and eventually devolved to a discussion on Michael Jackson (whose career started to decline after the child molestation allegations hit in 1993).

What I most enjoyed about South Africa were the people. When Africans found out I was an American, they had many questions to ask and some were not even afraid to quiz me on my knowledge of South African politics (I passed). I saw taxis around Johannesburg with pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, so I asked a store owner about it. In a nation that gave the world great figures such as Desmond Tutu, Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela, I was pleased to see that South Africans found our Civil Rights icons inspirational as well. It reinforced the idea that South Africa and the United States were tied together in a unique bond that no two nations on earth share. In many ways, I found South Africa to be the photo negative of the United States. Everything was flipped (the seasons, the side of the street they drive on, the racial statistics between blacks and whites). Even our histories paralleled: South Africa counts its history from 1652 when Jan Van Riebeck of the Netherlands founded a colony at Cape Town for a trading company. America was first settled in 1607 at Jamestown, for a trading company. Both countries passed discrimination laws, which reached intensity in the 1960s. It just took longer for the blacks in South Africa to gain their freedoms.

With the rise of Barack Obama in the United States, it would not surprise me one bit if he is already popular in South Africa, with many people hoping that he becomes our next president. And I truly hope that Mandela will be around to see that day, as well as get invited as a special guest at the Inauguration. Out of all the events that has happened since my birth in 1971, I consider the Inauguration of Nelson Mandela to be the greatest event in my lifetime (I'd put the fall of the Berlin Wall at #2). Leaders from around the world (Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and dictators) all put aside their political differences to honour a man who achieved a dream that was a long time in coming. I still get high thinking about that day when I watched it live on CNN International from my barracks room in Italy.

In college, when I took a human rights class and a discussion occurred over Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, there was a white South African in the class who called them a "terrorist." I was shocked, but even more shocked when he praised Mangosutho Buthelezi (Zulu chief) as the kind of African to admire. Buthelezi was behind some of the vicious attacks that occurred into the lead-up to the first universal elections in South Africa. I remember a scene of one man throwing a huge rock at another man sitting on the ground, his head red with blood. Buthelezi is what one would call a conspirator who sold out the interest of his people for a little bit of power for himself. The apartheid government often did this, particularly with the creation of the "homelands" where they made tribal leaders into "Kings" of their reservation for a bit of "autonomous rule" (think of the American equivalent: Indian reservations--hardly areas worth "ruling"). But, the white South African classmate was biased, of course. True to form, he was a conservative in his political view (as anti-communist as any Republican in our country), so of course he wasn't going to admire Mandela or Tutu.

The biggest lesson I learn from Mandela's life is the power of forgiveness. He was imprisoned for 27 years during the prime of his life. When he finally received news that he would be released from prison immediately, he wanted extra days to prepare. As a prisoner, he was known to help his white jailers with some legal advice. By his leadership example, he showed that reconciliation is the best way to move beyond the past. Instead of seeking vengeance against those who participated in the apartheid system, he sought truthful disclosure in exchange for amnesty (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the greatest ideas ever conceived by man). If there is one person to nominate as the best representative of the 20th Century, I would nominate Nelson Mandela.

Unfortunately, his wisdom, grace, and spiritual enlightenment is rare among leaders. On a continent that has produced a Mandela on one end and an Idi Amin at the other end, too many leaders have followed the Idi Amin leadership example: liberate the country from the white colonizers, then abuse your fellow citizens and live a lavish lifestyle while everyone else struggles along in desperate poverty. We've see it time and again in places like Liberia, Nigeria, Zaire/the Congo (first with Mobutu then his successor Kabila), Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, the Central African Republic (they once had a crazy leader who modeled himself after Napoleon, complete with a coronation and a renaming of his country into the Central African Empire), and of course, the current atrocity in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 and was knighted in the 1990s (which was finally rebuked this year, I believe).

Why don't more African leaders aspire to Mandela's greatness? If they are egotistical (which you can wisely guess that they are), you'd think that they'd have their eyes on history and for the sake of eternal posterity, they'd want to leave the world having improved their nations standing and the lives of their citizens. Instead, people hundreds of years from now will remember Mandela as an example for all humans. No matter what was done to you, if you are on the side of universal justice, you can achieve a kind of power that no one else can touch. There is power in forgiveness and no one need look further than the life of Mandela to see that it's true.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Music Video Monday: Richard Marx

This Monday marks the one week anniversary when I learned that Celine acted in such a way that ended any possible romantic future between us. When we first started getting to know each other, so many love songs popped into my head that described what I felt and they all seem so "cheesy" now. I mean, songs like "I Knew I Loved You" by Savage Garden, "Cherish" by Madonna, "In Love" by Ronnie Milsap, "Rush Rush" by Paula Abdul, "Love Changes Everything" by Sarah Brightman. Interestingly, though, each time a "red flag" presented itself to me that made me doubt that a relationship with Celine was possible, this song by Richard Marx would always pop into my head. "Should've Known Better." Yup. Ain't that the truth. You live and learn. I've always loved this song...but now, it will forever be associated with my summer with Celine. A promise that ended in heartbreak. Perhaps even a lie that I thought was real. But, I learned that lesson and I won't be repeating it because I took a risk that went against my principles and in the end, the experience only proved the reason why I have principles in the first place and should never compromise them for anyone.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Where Have I Been?!?

So much for blogging this year! As we head into the final month of the year, I acknowledge that I haven't been much of a blogger in the past two years. Last year, it was due to my obsession with the 2012 election, as I spent hours of my free time reading article after article after article of anything dealing with the election and the candidates.

This year, it was partially due to my HP mini laptop having a problem that I still haven't had a professional geek to look at it and give me the diagnosis, so I'm here at the library to post an update about my life. But the biggest reason for my lack of blogging is because I got busy falling in love. Now that what had seemed so right and inevitable had turned out to be a complete bust, I'm going to offer my diagnosis on what happened. Normally, I wouldn't do this. When people make my "first tier" of friendship, they can expect privacy and my not writing about our relationship (which is why I hardly ever write about my family and close friends on here). But, if the relationship is over, then the hazards of being friends with a writer and a blogger will come to the fore, because I believe in an honest examination of life and hopefully, my experience won't be someone else's experience. Learn from it and avoid the mistakes I made. The only way the human race can improve / evolve is if we learn from each other's mistakes and avoid making them ourselves. So, I write this as a favor to humanity. You can thank me later.

I'm changing some personal details because its not important who she is but what the situation was that made things "unworkable" for the long haul. So, here it goes...

In March, I met a lady at church named Celine, who is married with young children. Even though I found her attractive, I didn't pursue her because I just don't do adultery. A few weeks later, when she happened to tell me that she was planning to get a divorce because her husband is verbally and emotionally abusive, I thought establishing a friendship would be a worthy goal, to show her that she has options. He's an atheist who hates religion and Celine is an incredibly spiritual woman. For me, that contrast definitely boggles the mind. I have plenty of friends who are atheists but I would never marry one because in a relationship, especially if the couple has children together, the difference will become huge and ultimately incompatible, particularly if one has a hostile view of religion and the other wants to raise the children in the church. I was curious about her relationship with her husband and it sounds like they have very little in common. She won't even tell me why she married him (she actually proposed to him, even though he had told her that he wasn't the marrying type and that no one in her circle of family and friends even liked him), but I suspected that she was too embarrassed to admit that she was attracted to him for shallow reasons (he's supposedly 6'5", 250 pounds of muscle, and gets plenty of attention from other women), so she simply says, "I don't know why I married him."

Things heated up in late April when she admitted that she was attracted to me and wanted a relationship. I was pleased to hear it, but I was planning to just be her friend until the divorce happened. I didn't want to ruin a friendship by rushing into a relationship. In May, June, and July, we pretty much spent 3 of 4 weekends together doing various things around Portland. One of the "red flags" for me was that she said she missed me a mere 3 days after we declared our intentions for one another, when I went out of town for a 36 hour period. I thought it was too soon to say that. She also was quick to drop the "love" word, when I didn't feel it yet. She was confused by that, and I told her how the process works for me: it takes time, more conversations, more activities, but eventually, the "loyalty gene" will kick in and it'll be solid. For me, that moment came in July when she went with me to see a special screening of a documentary about Yogananda.

With Celine, I had the most amazing conversations with her. Deeper than with any other person I've ever known. We talked about everything and anything. There was no censorship and it was through these conversations where I actually felt like I had met the one I am meant to be with, because I didn't have to censor myself with her. She doesn't get offended easily like other women I've known do. She shared my spiritual views and even though she's not political, she said that she likes my political views. She and I had over 25,000 messages between us on Facebook's Instant Message.

Then she started getting distant in September and on the night of the full moon in October, she called me all hysterical about her husband. Instead of being sympathetic, as it was the same old story she told me all summer long, I simply asked her, "So what steps are you taking to free yourself?" She then lashed out at me, saying I don't understand because I have never been in an abusive relationship before. I responded, "Of course I haven't, because I know I could not be in an abusive relationship. I'd rather be alone than be in an abusive relationship." Rather than listen to her drone on and on about the latest drama in her home, I had to cut it short so that I could participate in a "full moon meditation" with my housemates.

In November, her behavior became even more erratic and illogical, until ultimately, she cut me off of Facebook by blocking me. I was stunned and devastated. She did this (and did this on the Monday of Thanksgiving week) when she had told me that blocking someone on Facebook was "bad karma" (we had discussed that sometime during the summer, the reasons one should block or de-friend someone). I was completely shocked by what she did, especially since she had claimed to have never been in a relationship with a man who respected her or treated her as an equal. We were so compatible, or at least I thought so or was led to believe by her. During the summer, I had surprised her by taking her to a movie theater without telling her what we were going to see (she loves surprises like that). I chose Austenland since she loves Jane Austen. Before the movie began, she asked me, "Would you have gone to see this film on your own?" I responded, "Probably not." Her eyes glowed and she said, "No guy I've ever been with has done that for me!" Wow...really? That's the way I roll. I wanted her to be happy and I am definitely more easy going about things. I don't have hang ups about what other guys derisively call "chick flicks".

Since Monday, I've been thinking a lot about what I've learned about my summer with Celine and what I also know about abused women, based on books I've read. There's something psychologically amiss about a woman who only knows love through the intense drama with an abusive male. I knew that she'd probably experience a "freak out" at some point. I thought that I was going to be devastated by her behavior and cutting me off, but a housemate had me go through a technique called "EFT" or "Tapping". After we did that, I was surprised how quickly I felt the effects (a small blissful feeling in my "solar plexus" and a view that it's her issue and not mine, so I am able to let it go). In the days since, I actually feel good about moving on and beginning the search anew.

I will probably use elements from our "summer of sizzle" in a novel I've been wanting to write about courtship and dating. Not sure if I plan to write that next year, but I'll at least develop characters, story, and plot so I can begin writing it as soon as I get my novel about the Boy Scouts completed. I decided to devote 2014 to meeting my writing goals, no matter what. The itch to write again is coming on strong.

What I learned most about my experience with Celine is that the most important personal value I have is my sense of personal freedom. I consider it so vital to my well being that I am unwilling to surrender it to just any lady who comes across. To me, a relationship means a complete commitment that involves my loyalty and the subversion of my own interests for the sake of the other / for the relationship. I can't do that for a woman who is emotional unstable or a control freak or neurotic or whatever dysfunctions people have and bring into relationships. I read a book this summer that describes the kind of relationship I seek. The book is Gary Zukav's Spiritual Partnerships. Direct and honest communication is required. The game playing, cryptic messages, and evasions / non-communication subverts the relationship. Keeping one another honest about one's emotions and actions is not for slouches. Interestingly, Celine's daughter asked me on a few occasions why I'm not married. I told her, "The most important decision you can make in life is the person you marry." I think most people make it for ulterior motives that they might not even be aware of. The casualness of many engagements is likely a factor in many a divorces. A few years ago, I actually overheard a cellphone conversation where a young man in his 20s was telling his buddy on the other end of his phone conversation that some girl was really into him and he'll probably marry her because he's shipping off to Iraq and if the worst happens, it would be nice to have at least one person cry at his funeral. I was horrified when I heard him say that and prayed that the woman would somehow come to a realization that he was not right for her. That's an incredibly selfish reason to make a decision as important as marriage.

As the year ends, I am amazed that it began with my frustrations of living in a household where I witnessed the homeowner / landlord sexually using a variety of Asian women for his sexual pleasure and it ends with personal heartbreak that being the proverbial "nice guy" who treats women as equal and with respect failed with a lady who has a long history dating and marrying only abusive men. But I have the self confidence to say that this is not the life I want for myself and I'm using my personal freedom to move on and hopefully manifest a more suitable partner for myself in 2014. This time, I hope that she is ethnically / racially mixed or African American. Lately, I've been finding that my interests / attraction for someone who is a racial blend like myself is growing. Or maybe it didn't disappear altogether. Most of all, the next lady I date will be single and fully available for a relationship. Until then, you can find me in the gym. Happy December!