Thursday, December 23, 2010

Three Minutes

(This piece was also published here. Minor changes in this version)

The time it takes to listen to a good tune, the number of minutes to cook a microwavable snack, one eighth of your favorite television sitcom, is three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds. For some, it is an instance, a fraction of time that can pass by unnoticed. But time has a strange way of working. It morphs with the surroundings encasing it, and inside the squared circle, three minutes can last a lifetime.

In amateur bouts, open fighters compete for 3 rounds, fresh pugs in the pros go at it for 4, and those at the pinnacle of the sport battle 12 three-minute rounds for the right to call himself “Champion”. But the actual number of rounds is irrelevant. Some fights are cut short due to a devastating knockout, accidental clash of heads, or one corner simply throwing in the towel to defend a fighter from hurting himself further. But legacies can be defined in one round, careers solidified or shattered within the duration between bells. All you really need in order to know a fighter is one single round, just three minutes.

Even in the gritty chambers of the boxing gym, one three minute round of sparring can tell you everything about a fighter’s mood, a reflection of their day, maybe even their life. How he moves, whether he adopts a slick southpaw stance or the posture of face first brawler, what he is willing to give and what he is willing to take, will tell you who that person is as a fighter.

Some boxers enter the gym after 16 long hours of menial labor; others come because it’s the only thing that will keep them out of trouble. I’ve heard countless anecdotes of how the Sweet Science saved troubled lives and strangely enough, sometimes a controlled environment of violence is what prevents fighters from committing violence outside of it. You might get a sprinkle of college grads or urban professionals looking to refine their skills in unarmed combat, but most of the serious ones are in it because they want a better position in life, and there’s no other option to go about it but to raise your fists and fight for it.

Boxing is the sport of the dispossessed; the gym a sanctuary for those outcasted from society. “I’ve had ex-convicts, rape victims and drug addicts walk through that door,” my coach tells me. “Anyone that needs it can train.” And sure enough, posted outside the gym door is a staunch reminder of this ethos: “This is a safe zone, all are welcome here.” You don’t need an academic scholarship to train here or even a shred of athletic talent; just show up with the right attitude and you’re good to go.

Most people who scurry in fresh off witnessing the latest Pay-Per-View extravaganza are gone within days. Where were the blazing fast fists? The back and forth action? Where was all the drama? Contrary to the exciting glitz of a bloody brawl, a boxer’s training regime is incredibly boring. You might spend 2 weeks throwing only one punch, endless hours studying footwork, and there’s a guarantee of at least 3 rounds of skipping rope in the exact same spot each time you walk in. But the ones that stick around gain something. They find a discipline, a few sacred moments of silent focus, and for some, maybe even a momentary sense of peace.

The first sparring session is a frightening one. In those three minutes you are tested of your will, your durability, and if you’re lucky, your resolve at the prospects of defeat. You learn what you are afraid of; you learn what you can do, and more importantly, what you can’t. But in any good boxing gym, sparring is never about beating up one another. It is a cultivation of skills, a bonding of camaraderie, and an exploration of into the self.

The feelings are heightened when a fighter starts competing. Now you are not only fighting for yourself, but you’re representing your gym. In a professional fight the stakes are raised even higher as most fighters compete to quite literally feed their families, and given the dim employment prospects for boxers, there is little recourse elsewhere. The Greats fight for an entire nation, sometimes even a universal cause beyond them. Muhammad Ali’s legendary bout against George Foreman legitimized his stand against Vietnam. Tito Trinidad fought in protest of the US bombings in Vieques, and crime on the streets of Manila comes to a virtual halt anytime Manny Pacquiao laces up the leather.

Of course boxing suffers its share of causalities. Benny Paret died ten days after taking 18 unanswered punches at the hands of Emilie Griffth, the death of Duk Koo-Kim changed title fights from fifteen rounds to twelve, and each year the sport continues to add victims to its mortality rate. But contrary to the tragedies that bestow the sport, the intention behind these combatants is seldom to actually hurt one another. It is merely a contest, a payday for all the hours toiled inside the gym and for the monastic abstinence from worldly temptation outside of it.

So if you think boxing is nothing more than an exhibition of brute savagery, go into a gym, talk with the fighters. Ask them where they’ve been, where boxing has taken them and where they would be without it. Just spend three minutes with them, in person or through the television screen. Three real minutes, and it might change your view on the whole thing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Perspective on Self-Sabotage

When Hernán Cortés first set foot onto what is known today as Mexico, one of the first things he did was drill holes into his own ships with the intentional purpose of sinking them. The Chinese did the same thing in their own foreign conquests. To most people, this appears as a foolish measure of self-sabotage; even Cortés' own men were on the brink of mutiny upon learning that their unfortunate predicament lay in the hands of their own leader. But this is simply a strategy of war. To successfully extract the precious metals they originally sought, an undeniable obstacle remained in defeating the powerful Aztec Empire, and in order to do that, Cortés needed his troops' full attention. Their complete focus.

Being soldiers on conquest in a foreign land, naturally their minds wandered astray in thoughts of their wives, their children, their lives back at home. Having those ships afloat represented the possibility to flee, to run back to what is familiar and comfortable. Cortés sunk that possibility and left them with only two options: Fight together or die together.

Sometimes I feel we can apply the same concept in our own lives. We might have an initial interest in pursuing something that is, at the same time, frightfully dangerous and magnificently glorious, but we approach it with caution. We always maintain a safety net in case we fall. While I do think it is important, at times crucial, to have an exit strategy, it's also important to investigate how much reliance we invest in that exit strategy. Do they begin harboring our excuses to retreat when we had more left to give? Do they provide enough reason to surrender the good fight in exchange for a comfortable death?

If our defense mechanisms against self-sabotage act as crutches instead of an instrument to aid us in the battle for our lives, that, ironically enough, is more of a self-sabotage than "drilling holes into your own ships" could ever be.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't Get It Twisted

Women threw down just as much as the men did back in the day:

"Although boxing matches were frequently advertised as 'trials of manhood', women as well as men could often be found fighting at the booths and bear-garden. In August 1723, The London Journal noted that 'scarce a week passes but we have a Boxing-Match at the Bear-Garden between women'. It would not have been unusual, while browsing the newspaper, to come upon a challenge and reply such as this:

I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle.

I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate-market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words - desiring home blows, and from her no favour; she may expect a good thumping!"

From Boxing - A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Downsides of Travel

When people hear about all the places I've been, a common response is usually, "Oh, I wish I would have gotten that chance. You're so lucky!" While I do appreciate all the opportunities I've been blessed with throughout my life, sometimes I wish people would stop treating my circumstances as some dumb strokes of luck that landed into my lap. The result of my life has been a culmination of choices where I consciously took the most difficult route on the sole basis to challenge myself.

An ongoing existential debate is whether our current realities are dictated by choice or fate. Do we have a stake on the outcomes of our lives or are we all predetermined to an unforeseen destination? Like any wavering 26 yr old, I choose to take the middle ground. I am of the strong belief that fate presents us with the doors of opportunity, but only you and you alone can make yourself walk through them.

The earliest genesis of my travel experience dates back to when I made the voluntary choice to enroll in the Honors Program of the Sociology Department, simply driven by the principle that it would make my academic studies more difficult. From that, my name appeared in a database of eligible Sociology students to be employed on a nationally funded research project. I spent 2.5 years filing through thousands of census records in pursuit of determining whether or not social characteristics affected the likelihood of blacks being lynched in the late 1800s. This work allowed an opportunity to earn a Mary Gates Research Scholarship, which eventually funded my first trip abroad to Spain. During those three months, I caught the travel bug to motivate me towards any other outlets of travel, and because of my Honors status with the University, I was eligible for the Bonderman Travel Fellowship - a grant that permitted 1.5 years of globetrotting and the basis of my Fulbright proposal in Brazil, leaving me where I am today.

But as transformative as traveling can be, I think people have a misconception that somehow transformation is easy, romanticizing the end product without considering the massive amount of shit you have to go through to get there. It comes with a lot of disappointments and failures, a lot of sacrifices and heartbreak. Many good relationships have been broken from my traveling. I created distance with old companions due to my shifting perspectives, missed the wedding of one my closest friends when I was in Guatemala, and because I chose to leave and explore the world, I lost an amazing woman that I still think about everyday. I'd say that 90% of those 18 months traveling in Latin America I spent depressed, constantly questioning my adequacy in the world, and always feeling this overwhelming sense of fear each time I departed for a new destination.

Now to some people, this may sound like some real bitching over some spilled milk. (For Godssakes, you were traveling!) But to be fair, nobody else was on that journey with me. I didn't spend the majority of my time in party hostels or sightseeing the major attractions of each country. In fact, I felt incredibly guilty whenever I took a moment to enjoy myself. Instead I spent nearly every moment in the boxing gyms, in uncomfortable situations that beat me physically and emotionally. I went home every night angry at the state of the world, unable to accept the incomprehension I had witnessed that day and worried about the day that was to follow. But for some reason, I just kept going back. I don't necessarily know why I did, I just felt something innately discomforting with the way most people travel. There was something worthwhile in exploring the emotional places that few people venture, something more valuable than what any guidebook or tourist attraction could give me.

Most people have called me a "negative person", a real pessimist because I choose to acknowledge the afflictions in the world. While I do believe it is harmful to allow suffering consume you into a bitter person, I also believe it is incredibly selfish to completely ignore these things just because they make you uncomfortable. Quite frankly, I think I've reached a point in my life where I know myself well enough to vocalize my beliefs and those who disagree can either discuss, ignore, or go fuck themselves.

However, my point isn't trash the beliefs of others or to stroke the ego of my accomplishments, but just to say that it always pays off to take a challenge. It is worth going into those dark places of despair and uncertainty to battle all that is unsettled in your heart. I've recently adopted the belief that you cannot spread peace in the world until you have found peace within yourself, and ironically, finding inner peace is a long grueling process of going to war with yourself.

But eventually you learn to appreciate the pain, you learn to love the struggle. It's just much harder than most people would like to believe.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Something I wish I would have said

The first two friends I made in the boxing gym were these guys from Somalia, Omar and Mohammad. Omar, a strong and stocky inside fighter who always opted to slug it out rather than box, and Mohammad, with his lanky, long-limbed frame fit best for an outside fighting style turned boxing into a choreographed dance. Despite their physical differences, they were the best of friends, probably because the one physical commonality they shared was that permanent smile plastered on their faces. They were the epitome of friendship, real ball-busters around the gym, but at their core, kind young men.

To this day I still don't think either of them know my real name. They just called me "Nasty", the ring moniker given to me by my coach. But despite being on a nickname basis, these two knew me better than most of my own friends. Omar initiated me into my first sparring session, forcing me onto one knee by way of lefthook body shot, my first experience of "getting the wind knocked out of me." I picked myself up to survive through the third and final round, and immediately after the bell rang he came and hugged me, exclaiming in my ear, "You did good Nasty! You did good!" as if celebrating my final rite of passage to joining the team.

Now you know what it feels like to be beaten up. Now you're one of us.

And despite being pummeled and dropped, Omar somehow managed to pummel and drop me without making me feel embarrassed. There was no shame. No dishonor amongst a band of brothers who had all been there before.

For the next few months Omar became my regular sparring partner, inadvertently teaching me the valuable lesson that chewing gum relieves the soreness a fighter feels after getting their jaw bashed in. Soon it became ritual to buy a box of Wrigley's after a week of sparring with Omar. I still remember when he clipped me with a right uppercut that jammed my teeth down right over my bottom lip, creating a small black scar that I still carry with me today.

But Omar didn't go far in boxing. Mohammad told me he enjoyed soccer too much to make the necessary sacrifices of the pugilistic mantra, and spent more time juggling the round ball on his feet than throwing combinations on the heavy bag. After taking a few fights in weight classes too high, he eventually disappeared from the gym. But I hear that he now has a wife and two kids, works with a friend of mine in a production factory. Overall, I hear he's happy. In many ways, he's made it.

I shared a very different relationship with Mohammad. We weren't sparring partners due to our drastic weight disparity: me, a welterweight, him, a featherweight, but we always went to the fights together. I still remember during one of our first visits to the fights, we watched boxers battle it out at the Niles Country Club in Mountlake Terrace where I sat in disgust at the sight of high brow men of power placing bets on my teammates as they smoked cigars and groped the bikini-clad women serving them drinks. When I turned to Mohammad for his opinion, I found his eyes tranced on the faux tiki torches planted on the golf course. "Man, this reminds me of Africa," he managed through somber tears. "I miss home."

That year, Mohammad was the only other fighter to accompany me in our first cross country road trip to the Ringside World Amateur Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. My first tournament and actually, my first fight. Over 33 hours of driving, we slowly became more acquainted, found solidarity in being the only two colored kids whenever we made a pit-stop in places like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska.

I learned that Mohammad had just been admitted into the University of Washington, but had reservations about accepting his enrollment. His goal was to be the first Somalian boxing superstar and didn't want university courses to interfere. I thought about how both were possible; hell, I was a living example, even though I wasn't nearly as good as he was. But people still did it. Former Undisputed Lightweight Champion Juan Diaz reached the pinnacle of his division while studying Political Science at Houston University. Education and boxing could coexist, but for some reason I never mentioned it to him.

I ended up losing my first match in a hard fought battle against Alonzo Juarez from New York, but many spectators came up to me afterward to pat my back and say, "Hey man, you won that fight." Being that Juarez had 7 fights to my none, I didn't feel all that bad. Mohammad, on the other hand, was irate, up in arms crying foul play at the nod going to the other corner. "I'm going to win this tournament for you Nasty," he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, Mohammad's road to glory also fell short, getting robbed himself in the second fight of the tournament (and I mean REALLY robbed), but he didn't let a silly tournament get him down. He went on to compile a string of victories upon his return, knocking out tough prospects and generating a small following in the community, me being one of his biggest fans.

After a couple more of my own fights back in Seattle, I left for Spain to study abroad for a quarter. In those three months I discovered part of myself through reckless partying and stuffing my face stupid with bocadillos and churros con chocolate, effectively destroying any physical fitness I had gained from boxing. When I returned, I was so out of shape that I couldn't go back to the gym with dignity. I had to at least look somewhat decent before showing my face.

I didn't step foot in the gym for nearly a year, but when I did, Coach welcomed me back with open arms, spoke to me so nonchalantly as if I had showed up to train the day before. We quickly caught up on each others' gossip. I told him about Spain, he told me about his recent tournament ventures through the West Coast. I instinctively asked if Mohammad had snatched up any titles, but Coach's expression instantly turned bitter, reporting that Mohammad started drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd. "The streets got him," Coach put it angrily.

But I knew it wasn't just anger; it was disappointment, not only at the prospect of losing a great fighter, but because he just cared about the kid.

I saw Mohammad a few months later and the rumors were true. The first thing I noticed as he waddled in was the uncharacteristic pot-belly he bore and a general look of dishevelment on his face. But he came back to train and straighten his life out. Even though he was noticeably slower, frequently short of breath, and the time he dedicated to training was about half as long as he once spent, he was back. Mohammad was back.

After about two days I never saw Mohammad again. I ran into his cousin a few weeks ago and was told he now spends most of his day in the streets with a beer can married to one hand and a cigarette in the other. I was heartbroken. How did this happen? How did such a young, bright kid with that mean left jab get reduced to this?

My narcissism left me responsible. I should have never left for Spain. I should have stayed and helped him through the tough times. I should have told him about Juan Diaz. Why didn't I tell him about Juan Diaz?

But Spain had changed my life and I really thought Mohammad didn't need any living examples to push him forward toward his goals. I simply had a different path and boxing wasn't on it.

I was never really that good at boxing, just good enough to survive. Quite frankly, I just never put enough effort into it. But I didn't make that choice because the sport didn't interest me. I did it because I was scared. I lacked the courage to put all my eggs into one basket, especially in a trade where the success ratio follows a decimal point and is never based on ring talents alone. Of all I know about the politics of boxing and all I've witnessed in the lives of fighters, it was a good decision for me. I always say, if you have any other options in life besides boxing, take them. I just wish I would have said that to Mohammad.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Conversation

* One of my more recent writing assignments was to recall a past conversation that told led to the moral of a story. This is what came out. Any feedback is appreciated.

“What are you doing here in Colombia?” he asked meekly, fishing for the right answer.

“I’m doing a photo documentary on the lives of boxers. What boxing means to people. How it can change lives,” I stated proudly.

“They call me ‘The Bear’,” he offered, raising his hands and posing in an orthodox stance, urging me to evaluate his form. “I’m a featherweight fighter…maybe you could help me find a fight in the United States”

I paused for a moment. The desperate hope in his dish saucer eyes made me a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t here to scout fighters, nor could I really do anything if I found a promising prospect. So I did what anyone does put in an uncomfortable situation. I stalled.

“Well, I’m not really a promoter and…”

“Are you an agent?”

“No, I’m a fighter, but…”

“Well maybe you could get me in contact with your promoter.”

“Actually, I don’t fight professionally and well…”

“Are there professional fighters in your gym?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well maybe you could ask their promoters.”

“Ok, see, I don’t…”

“Because I can fight anywhere. I’d be willing to travel. You don’t have to pay me much. I don’t even have to win.”

At this point I’m exhausted, simultaneously empathetic and annoyed. Like any independent traveler, I wanted to be validated for my character, not for the color of my passport. I was, afterall, like him wasn’t I? I was a fighter. I knew what it was like to be punched in the face. Hardship? Yeah I’ve been through some of that myself. I wasn’t privileged. I mean this trip wasn’t all flowers and honey you know. It was tough traveling on your own. You get lonely, you get tired, sometimes you get hungry. I was roughing it. Spending my nights in cramped hostels, intermittent couches and whatever barren floor that could accommodate my sprawled body and cover me from the forces of nature. On top of that, I wasn’t even sightseeing or doing your “typical” backpacker’s journey of drug tourism and partying. I was writing a book, doing something meaningful. Yeah, that’s it. I was doing something to change the world.

But at that moment, the thing I wished to be most was a traveling boxing promoter.

“Ok look. I’m more of a writer than a boxer. I don’t have any connections to promoters. I’m just trying to do a documentary.”

“Are you a journalist then?”

“Well, no, not really, but…”

“Because maybe you could publish something about me in the papers and…”

“Okay, really this is something I’m just trying. I don’t really know what I’m doing or where this is going to go so I have no connections. I can’t help you get a fight.”

“Then why are you writing about us?”

“(Sigh) because I want the world to know about your struggle. I want to write about the lives of boxers and what boxing means to them. I want to write about how boxing can change…”

At that moment I pause at the realization that those were the exact same words I had squeezed out thirty seconds ago. It was my rehearsed response in case anyone questioned the integrity of my journey, against anyone exposing my ignorance of my intentions, but “The Bear’s” inquiry pierced through it all. What was I doing? Did any of this really change anything?

“Look,” I finally said, “I’m not here to find fighters. I just can’t get you a fight.”


As he sullenly carried himself back to the heavy bag, I was left with a feeling of anger. It wasn’t that he asked these questions forcefully, in fact they were about as passive as a child asking someone for a candy bar, but I think that was the problem. I felt strange at the fact that a grown adult spoke to me as if I had such authority, as if I had earned this presence of power that he regarded, as if my privilege was something more than merely the unexplained twist of fate of being born in a particular part of the world.

There was such an eagerness in his voice that if I had been an actual promoter, I could have probably made him concede to any ridiculous stipulations I set forth and I became enraged at the realization that this is in fact how boxing works: The stepping-stones of the sport’s superstars are plucked from third-world gyms and paid pennies to risk their lives. I guess I just hated the desperation in his words, hated how the world created and allowed such desperation to exist, that it forced people to sacrifice their dignity for their livelihood.

I was angry at his questions, angry at how it forced me to face the truth. I was a nobody. Absolutely powerless.

So I did the only thing that was in my power. I printed the photos and handed them out to every person I photographed in the gym. Two for each fighter, a tab that still amounted to well over $150.00 USD. In retrospect, a cheap price to wash away the guilt of global inequality, but it was the only thing I felt I could do.

The next day as “The Bear” approached me to claim his photos, I readied myself for the conversation I envisioned:

“No I can’t send pictures to promoters.”
“No I can’t get you into the newspaper.”
“No I can’t help you feed your family.”

“Hey, did you take these photos?” he asked.

“Yes I did,” I said resentfully, waiting for yet another plea for a fight.

And in perhaps the most humble and grateful manner, he kindly said to me, “I just want to say thank you, because nobody in Colombia would do this for people like us. So Thank You.”

As he started to walk away, I immediately chased him down and took down his information, told him to repeat to me his weight class, his wins, his losses, telling him I’d see what I could do, see if I could maybe pass on his stats to someone I knew or someone I’d meet. The truth is, there’s really nothing I can do. But I figure that maybe it was better to at least let him think that I was trying, that maybe there existed some hope for him to land that big fight, even if it really was a lie. To this day, I still wonder if I made the right choice.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Frustrations with the Trash

There is this garbage can that sits in the common area on the bottom floor of my apartment. Each week this garbage can gradually becomes stuffed with newspaper ads bombarded into the residents' mailboxes. If there is one constant in the world, it's that my unopened mailbox is brimming full of coupons from QFC and Walgreens. As the pseudo on-site manager, the emptying of this garbage can is technically my responsibility, "technically" meaning that it's a hassle to lug that thing to the dumpster 20 feet away and that I'm just fucking lazy.

But today I finally decide to fulfill my duties since it was starting to reflect poorly on the property, and as I'm dragging this cylindrical trash receptor up the road, the winter winds begin snatching the various ads for next week's Black Friday Sales and scattering the streets with 2 for 1 deals on USB Flash Drives and the best price per pound on turkeys. I begin to become frustrated, not only at the prospect of retrieving these renegade leaflets of newsprint, but at the incredible waste of paper I'm responsible for disposing of week after week after week after week. My neurotically over-analytical mind begins imagining the corporate boardrooms that make the executive decision to plow advertisements into random apartment buildings because regardless if 90% of these ads become destined to wander the earth as litter, 10% will bring in new customers, and what that 10% spends usually outweighs the financial cost of printing these things.

I began to become frustrated at the fact that business decisions are made at the expense of the annoyance to the people and to the environment. I'm annoyed at the fact that these mass produced advertisements are just prompting us to buy other mass produced products that in the grand scheme of things, is shit we probably don't need. I'm upset that our overindulgence in consumerism is a direct cause to the suffering in other parts of the world and we are completely justified in ignoring it. I'm angry that people aren't honest enough to admit that the holiday season is really focused on instantly gratifying our desires and painted over with the veil of holiday cheer.

This is my thought process within the 45 seconds it requires to take out the trash. This is how ridiculous my mind has become.

I make my way around the corner and haul the horrid reminders of global inequality into the dumpster. I run into the streets and retrieve each and every fugitive paper and shoved them to the bottom of the now empty trash can. Out of sight, out of mind, out of worry.

But for some reason, I was still angry. Angry that we are allowed to be irresponsible with our lifestyle at the expense of the world. Angry that we care about things only when they affect our immediate reality. Angry at the fact that what angered me the most during this whole ordeal was having to carry out a heavyass can of trash in the cold.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Opinion on Writing and Grammar

As a writer, you have a commitment to your audience. Your duty is to guide your readers through the text with ease and clarity to your intended message. Whether or not the message is worthwhile is completely a matter of personal opinion, but the necessity of grammar is undeniable. They are tools to your craft and writing a piece with inadequate grammar is like attempting to build a car with only a hammer and a screwdriver.

I’ve never been a grammar Nazi or even considered myself “good” at grammar, but I’m not foolish enough to think we don’t need it. You must have some command of the English language in order to effectively guide your readers because it is simply a fact that linguistic communication of our society, or any society for that matter, is based in some organized structure.

Don’t get me wrong, I always appreciate, at times even admire, the awkward styles of writers that take a non-conventional approach to writing, so it’s not to say you can’t manipulate the organized structure of "traditional" literature. But you have to know what "paint" and a "paintbrush" are before you can create your masterpiece. You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what the box is made out of.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Do Not Fly Too High with Wax Wings

The rise is exhilarating. The flight is heavenly. You are surrounded by praise and adoration. You are loved. It gives you a false sense of confidence, an empty facade of invincibility, a foolish belief that you can fly higher than you are capable, because in that hastily obsession with flight, you never took the time to learn the virtue of humility.

You fly towards the sun, it's glorious warmth only matched by being completely engulfed in its presence. However, wax wings were not built for such magnificence. They were never intended for greatness.

As the wings slowly melt, as you begin to descend, the light begins to fade, the chill begins to crawl across your skin. You don't fall instantly; it feels like it last for years. Each second is a regret of the shortcuts you took, of never paying your dues. Each forceful gust of violent wind is a reminder of what you once had and the cruel reality of it being stripped away. Maybe even realizing that you never had them to begin with.

When the torturous fall finally ends, you hit the ground, and wake up in complete darkness, terrified at the discovery that this is where the real torture begins. You are accompanied only by your lost moments of glory. They are your only companions. Your demons.

You huddle naked, crouched in a cold corner, the open wounds sting as the damp mist drips down your back. It is here you realize that wings should never be made from wax. They should be made from materials of fortitude - the broken shards of failures and disappointments, from the scattered remnants of heartbreak. They are made from lessons of defeat and sewn together in a jigsaw pattern of unmatched colors by the hands of hope and despair. The wings are horrendously ugly, but they are yours.

This is where you should have started your ascent. Not in the clear blue skies of manufactured bliss, but in the dark pits of Hell, where you're forced to create your own light, because then, you'll never need the sun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Artist Statement

I’ve always been taught that a writer must use words to appeal to every sense of the reader in order to allow them the space to create a reality in their own minds. While I respect the imaginative freedom of personal interpretation to a writer’s words, my approach to art utilizes multilayered mediums to not only provide more pieces to constructing an experience, but to also prevent the mind from creating a story that simply is not there. This is not to say that my approach is meant to be limiting, but rather that my work is deeply committed to presenting the rawest account of my experience and challenge the reader to determine their own truth without ignoring the possible discomforts they might not want to confront. In other words, I don’t want the reader to ignore the starving baby in the corner if there was in fact a starving baby in the corner.

But my intention is not to shove my beliefs down the throats of others, but rather it is a humble plea for people to simply consider these uncomfortable truths I’ve encountered. When someone has read or seen my work and questioned their beliefs as a result, I feel I have accomplished this goal. And likewise, the thoughts and comments of others have forced me to second-guess my own interpretations. None of us are exempt from the possibility of being wrong, the artist included. I believe that is the beauty of art: it inspires us to explore the genesis of our beliefs and question the current state of our lives. It gives us the courage to create against our conditioning.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Road Less Traveled

People will be angry when you don't conform. They will be angry because your non-conformity reminds them of their fear. It reminds them of that one memory that continually haunts them; that pivotal point where they traded their individuality for the safety of the crowd. And since that day they have felt a subtle restraint. A consented imprisonment. Your brash and unwavering freedom will drive them mad with rage. It will remind them how they once were and how they are now too afraid to be. The more you grow indifferent to the opinions of the world, the more they will want to destroy you. Indifference does not belong in a comfortable world. But keep steadfast to the beat of your own drum. Structured dances do not match with awkward rhythms and taking the road less traveled always pays off in the end.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Definition of Success

I had a friend recently ask me, "What is your definition of success?" I had to contemplate that question for a while and think about the things that validated my life as worthwhile.

Originally, I gave a cop-out explanation that it was dependent on the individual and what that individual defined as important in their individual life. I saw it as a cop-out because under that logic, well, success could be anything the person wanted it to be. While that technically is true, I think our definitions of "wants" and "desires" always need to be investigated beyond what we're conditioned to believe. Why do we want the things we want? Why do things like money, recognition, titles, accomplishments or whatever, define who we are? Why do we give value to these things?

I guess the point I was trying to make was that I felt we needed to understand if it came from a place of living in accordance to our own expectations or the expectations of others. Do we want that car and that house because our neighbor has that car and that house? Do we want that accomplishment just so people will acknowledge our accomplishment? Even our "noble" intentions: Would we still be motivated to act on the behalf of others if nobody applauded our efforts?

It's not to say that these things shouldn't be part of our lives. Every underpaid teacher deserves a reminder that they're changing someone's life. A humble display of gratitude to an overworked social worker probably aids their service to others. But it shouldn't be the core motivation behind our choices. External validation should be a supplement to our driving principles, not at the core, and I just think finding that core is a much more complicated and painful process than what we have probably invested. More often than not, we're still operating from an expectation of others (at least I know I am) and I think that is how success eludes us.

In the end I answered that my definition for success was the ability to pay back your dues. I don't know if I believe any longer that we should strive towards the things we enjoy. In some ways it's incredibly selfish to think only of our personal fulfillment. I'm beginning to see that many of these things I'm able to realize are due to opportunities I've been given in life, so I think a large part of my definition is related to the ability to pay back what I owe. That is the driving motivation behind most of my choices. Which choice will put me in the best position to repay that which I owe? And even that needs to be questioned of its true intentions. I'd like to think that it comes from a place of personal belief, but I clearly haven't reached a full level of sincerity if I still find the need to post it on a blog.

Who knows, in two years time, my answer will probably change. But I'm starting to accept the fact that each epiphany I too hastily label as a universal truth has a smaller lesson packaged inside of it. And I think this time the hard lesson is that sometimes you don't do things because you like them; you do them because you have to.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I make a lot of analogies with boxing and life because for me, I see life inside the squared circle. But I usually try to find the stories of gentle kindness to exhibit the humanistic side of the Sweet Science because I think boxing gets a bad rap as a barbaric, brutal bloodsport and I just feel it deserves a fairer shake. And it does. Paradoxically, most times boxing allows the compassion in a person to flourish.

But to be honest, there is also a very dark side to boxing. After all, it is combat packaged into a sport. This is evident in the feeling of you have when inside the ring, that one moment when you're staring your opponent in the eyes, right before the opening bell rings. You two are pegged in battle: one will come out the loser, and the other the victor. That other person is literally trying to take something from you. They are going for your heart, they are going for your soul, and when faced with the hypothetical of "me or them?", the core question of every match is:

"What will you do? Will you fight for it, or will you give it up?"

That is why boxing reveals the true nature of a person. How you react is a precursor to how you live your life. What is it? Fight or flight?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

In Defense of SELF

I've had close friends in my life say to me with venomous ardor that I am a condescending "elitist" and that I think I'm better than other people. Because of that, I’ve gone a good portion of my life thinking that people generally don’t like me. It's a strange feeling to have before you approach every new person in life, a feeling that you just don't fit in anywhere (and no, this isn't one of those "I don't fit in anywhere because I want to look cool," type feelings), but rather a true sense of loneliness, like you are unloved in this world. It's a pretty crappy feeling to carry around really. Truth be told, it just kinda hurts.

But instead of actually confronting these questions, I always ran to the scapegoat explanation that, “I don’t need other people. I don’t want to be reliant on external validation,” which is true, but only when it comes from a place of sincerity and not a desire to quickly cover my unanswered inadequacies with something profound I heard but didn't yet understand. You have to distinguish the differences before you can move on.

I’ve had this belief for most my life in Seattle. I don’t know where it started exactly but this is the reason why I keep wanting to leave the country. Spain was the first place where I realized that people could actually like me for who I am. It was the first place that allowed me to reinvent myself, but by then it was already too late. My identity had become defined by being critical, on separating myself from others because they were the ignorant ones, not me. It wasn't until Costa Rica that I realized all the "ignorant" people around me were enjoying their lives, while I sat in a disgruntled rut, angry with every possible thing in the world. Maybe I was the ignorant one all along.

Akey told me that this realization was a catalyst to a long journey of self-hatred and loathing before I finally learned to love myself again. For the longest time I kept wondering what it meant to love yourself and if I could finally say that I did. I just wanted that painful journey to end.

I started making myself agreeable to people. I wanted to be liked. I'd bite my critical tongue around those I didn't know, and would even nod in agreement with things I was fundamentally against. I felt sick to my stomach with disgust when the curtains closed, but hell, I was no longer being "elitist" anymore right? All I had to do was be liked by others and then I could learn to love myself, right?

No. That's what you call being a fucking tool.

Loving yourself is loving your ideals, your passions and having the conviction to stand for your beliefs despite the disapproving gaze of others. Loving yourself is a willingness to put yourself through the pain and uncertainty to explore those dark places of your inner being because you love yourself enough to make sure you are being led by the SELF, not by the ego. It is learning how to maintain a respectful dignity in your stance because you've realized that the intention behind your beliefs isn't about being right, but about the principle behind them.

If you've TRULY dived into yourself and came out with the conclusion that you're not an elitist, then you're probably not. At the end of the day, that's really the only person you need to prove it to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Ultimate Rejection

They say a good salesperson is hard to come by, probably because honestly, how many people want to be in their field? How many people want to deal with rejection on a daily basis? How many people want careers where you are evaluated based on how other people feel about you? No, we'd rather have the same comfy job where we don't have that kind of pressure. We want our value to come from something less, or at least conceivably less, superficial than "what other people think of us". But is it because we truly believe it is shallow or because we are afraid to be rejected by other people?

Think about that. If success was a guarantee, how many of us would choose to be models or entertainers or involved in any field where our success was dependent on the judgment of others? How much of our decision to pursue our path is rested on the mere assurance that we won't fail?

That is how I used to play Warcraft and Starcraft. I only played the games I knew I would win, and I played those levels over and over and over again. Those games are actually extremely intricate. Experts gamers calculate hit points, hit damage, the strengths and weaknesses of each character and how to exploit those weaknesses with their own strengths. Basically, the game is way more than building units and ransacking the enemy, like how I played it. It's really a complex game of strategy and I realize that I did not know ANY of the strategy for those games. That just proves my laziness and fear. I was always afraid of competing with someone who could potentially beat me.

That's when I realized that I am afraid of competition. It is not the job, but the competition. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely jobs that just don't click with people, but it's because of the nature of the job itself that turns them away, not the passion for the job. If you love the work but hate the competition, the rejection, or whatever part that is a reflection of an insecurity, then do it. I say that anytime the sole reason you're not pursuing a career is because a personal insecurity scares you, then that's probably the job you should do. It means that nothing about the job itself has stopped you, and instead your mind had to create a reason to stop yourself from not having what you want. Those justifications aren't real. They're made up in our heads. How much power we give those justifications is an indication of how bad we want it. And that's the ultimate rejection:

"I don't want it bad enough."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reckless Abandonment

The reason we are scared to chase our dreams is because once we pursue them, they are no longer dreams. They are pulled into the realm of reality, which means they are subject to the possibility of failure and if they fail, they can no longer be that place of comfort we run to when shit in our "real life" doesn't go our way.

Simply said, we want a cushion. We want a fallback. We want a place where we can run to in our minds and say, "This is where I'm really happy. One day I'll be here." But the truth is, we don't want that day to come. We don't ever want to be "there". We are afraid of disenchantment. We are afraid of being left naked with no recourse, because if we ever do get "there", where will we run for refuge? Where else can we keep lying to ourselves that who we are, is not who we are?

I say fuck it. A life never realizing your dreams is not a life worth living. Welding together the two realms of consciousness is true enlightenment. It is worth the risk.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Looking for Light

For as long as I can recall, I've been in this constant battle in defining the concept of "happiness". I would say I'm "happy" maybe 10% of my life, depending on what standard of evaluation one uses. The other 90% is an oscillation between depression and confusion, an unsure stance on whether to adhere to a majority perception of the emotion or to live by an independent standard.

I suppose the definition of "happiness" I employ refers to the heart lifting sensation of the chest, the increased bloodflow through the body's circulation that sometimes gets misinterpreted for a bout of inspiration. Truth be told, a lot of "happiness" is a mere change in the bio-chemical balances in our bodies, not necessarily an abstract concept we struggle to subjectively define.

Instead what I think matters is the source in which we generate the hybrid sensation of physical and metaphysical state-of-being. I'm starting to realize that the majority of "happiness" has been dependent on the external. Career goals, relationships, material possessions, whatever.

I've been trying hard to cultivate happiness within. That isn't to say there isn't use of the external objects that make our lives easier, but the problem lies in the dependence of these things. I always wonder how I would be if all these things were stripped away from me. Would my integrity still be there? Would I still be the person I claim I am? That's the real test. Who a person is at their core.

Finding that core is half the battle, sometimes, it's the entire battle. It's almost like standing right in front of your darkness and not turning away. Thinking this time that you have enough strength, maybe not to fight, but at least enough not to flee. You start thinking that all your previous defeats were merely stepping stones in the lesson plan and suddenly, you have no more regrets. It's like a shower to wash the grime. Everything was meant to happen. Everything had its purpose.

Once you go under the demon's wing, you better be prepared. You better have that resistive instinct salivating at its teeth, ready to fight and rebel against the beckoning call of night. Because whoever comes out of that battle will be a different person. It'll be that who defines you. And afterward you won't even know the whole thing happened.

The crowd is fickle

...I'm interrupting her ...I'm interrupting her ...I'm interrupting her. I'll never see her again.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

“Roll with the Punches”

* I gave the following piece as my closing reading at VONA 2010.

“Roll with the punches” is probably the most overused boxing proverb to get us through tough times, but I’ve spent far too many hours in stuffy gyms around the world to settle on a cliché one-liner.

In many ways the Sweet Science is like writing. It’s a lonely affair. You may have your coaches and gym mates beside you, but come fight night, you’re the only one in that squared circle. Stepping through the ropes for the first time is much like publishing your first piece. You’re naked out there. You’re vulnerable. That’s what makes the experience both frightful and exciting. That is the reason we live.

Fighting pushes you to the extreme limits of being human. It is in those moments of pain and despair, of confusion and desolation that you truly know what you’re made of, and your training makes or breaks your survival. Ali once said “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.” And that’s true. Preparation is everything and the difference between talent and skill is self-discipline.

Most readers will never see those countless hours toiled while the rest of the world slumbers. They will never understand how cutting out a paragraph can be just as agonizing as self-amputation. And they will never appreciate how after the critics tear us to pieces on the public sphere, we slowly learn to love ourselves again.

But writers, like boxers, learn to grow tough skin. We might fall, but we get up and come back stronger. It becomes instinct to “roll with the punches” and soon enough, we learn that it was never really about winning or losing in the first place, but all that ever mattered was that we showed up and fought well.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

El Mamba

*I haven't posted much lately because I've been focusing my writing on recounting the tales of my journey. I meant to write this story when I first met this boxer, but I did briefly reference his neighborhood previously in the blog here. The following is a rough draft excerpt of a book I plan to write. Any feedback is appreciated.

(Outside the home of Henry “El Mamba” Aurad - Cartagena, Colombia.)

When visitors enter my apartment for the first time, they usually ask about this picture that hangs on the wall. They wonder about the story behind the image, who the fighter is, where he comes from and where he is now. Most people guess "Africa", probably due to the rural village-like background, the fighter’s skin complexion, and the fact that most people don’t know that there are black people in Latin America. The photo was taken in Cartagena, Colombia - traditionally the city of Colombia most populated by tourists.

Cartagena is a fisherman’s port, frequented by foreign maritime merchants for centuries, but with its location primed next to the tropical beaches of the Caribbean, it seemed only natural that gaggles of tourists would come and make it another playground for the world’s economically privileged. But when you mention “Colombia” as a travel destination, the notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, or the infamous kidnappings by the terrorist FARC militia, are the first things that come to mind. Bottom line is: you don’t visit Colombia.

In recent years the rest of Colombia has become relatively safe to travel, but tourists have always stopped regularly to visit Cartagena, so much that Presdient Alvaro Uribe, and the presidents before him, made security in the city a high priority. One can see that from the noticeably increased visibility of military presence, and the fact that one of the President’s palaces resides in the city center. But the Cartagena's misconceived affluence overshadows the immense poverty that plagues the majority of its residents. In truth, it is one of the most impoverished cities of Colombia and sure enough, the city is rigidly divided between the haves and the have nots, or as locals would constantly describe to me as “Cartagena tiene dos caras” (Cartagena has two faces).

Perhaps the most troubling part of these very distinct barriers of class and race was that the socially marginalized neighborhoods juxtaposed themselves next to the luxurious city centers and guarded tourist communities. During my two months in Cartagena, my daily commute from the backpackers’ hostel to the boxing gym constantly reminded me of this rigid divide, as the hostel resided in the city's most affluent area, and the gym resided in a considerably poorer district; its fighters often living in even more impoverished conditions. As a legal caution, but more so as a form a courtesy, I had every boxer sign a consent form that included a disclosure of their home address. I remember when some Colombian friends stumbled upon these forms they'd ask me quizzically, “Why do all these forms have the names of dangerous neighborhoods?”

The particular neighborhood pictured above is “Barrio Olaya”, and the side in which this fighter resided was not even ventured by fellow boxers. Apparently he lived in the most dangerous part of the most dangerous neighborhood. His name was Henry Aurad, but everyone called him “El Mamba” - a ring name embroidered in green letters on the back of a white training tee that he wore each day. When people in the gym heard I was looking for boxers to interview, he approached me with a handshake and a hopeful smile. In all honesty, having already done a good round of interviews earlier, I wanted to be through for the day, but with his respectful patience and the realization that these interviews were just as much, maybe even more, of a time sacrifice to the boxers as they were for me, I couldn't possibly turn him away.

Henry spoke with such fluency and comfort that it was clear to me he had done interviews before. I learned later that he was one of Cartagena’s top prospects, despite his pro-debut loss. I was really looking more for the low-ranking common boxer that never had their story heard, but the thoughtful and intriguing answers Henry gave showed a level of class and intelligence I had not encountered before. It was apparent that Henry had struggled for his achievements, but it was the clarity of his explanation and the awareness of his surroundings that made it so interesting. For instance, I always ask the question, “What do you eat before a fight?” in hopes of showcasing the Spartan-like discipline a fighter must have to make weight for a bout and to highlight the gastronomic sacrifices made during training. Most times I would get a very typical nutritional catalog: rice, plantains, chicken, fruits and vegetables. But not this time.

Henry was the first to tell me that he sometimes did not have enough money to feed himself. He told me that despite being considered one of Colombia’s top prospects, athletes like him could very rarely afford a nutritiously-rich meal or "a Gatorade to restore the electrolytes lost during a training session". But it wasn’t as if Henry’s inability to afford a stable diet came from a lack of personal drive or motivation, (how could it when he participated in the most difficult sport in the world?), but rather because he had other mouths to feed, and sometimes, theirs came before his. In fact, Henry still is one of the hardest working persons I’ve met during all my travels.

A typical day for “El Mamba” begins with roadwork at 4:30 AM, the only hour where the oppressive Colombian humidity allows someone to run. By 7:00AM he arrives at his job as a carpenter and works until his 11:00 AM break. Traditionally, Colombians are given two hours for lunch, but Henry is given three. With his employers being quite supportive of his career in the ring, the extra hour allows adequate time for Henry to make the forty-five minute roundtrip commute to the gym and squeeze in two hours of training. After a quick shower and hurried scramble to the buses, Henry is left with a little less than 10 minutes to actually eat when he returns to work. At 8:00PM he finally returns home to his wife and child in a neighborhood commonly confused to be a rural African village. This was Henry’s daily routine. This was his life.

(“El Mamba” demonstrating his work. From Monday to Friday, Henry works 9 hours daily, earning a monthly wage of 500,000 Colombian pesos, or about $250.00 USD at the time this photo was taken.)

On top of his meager income, Henry is Afro-Colombian and like in most parts of the world, dark skin carries with it a social stigma. In addition to being economically poor, he is also snuffed by Colombia’s upperclasses for being black. For Henry, boxing is his way out. It represents the opportunity to provide some medium of change in his life, whether it is eventually reaching a level of superstardom, or merely being allowed to travel outside the country for a fight.

I asked Henry what he thought about Olaya, if he ever planned on moving to another neighborhood. Surprisingly to me, it took a moment for Henry to hesitatingly answer, “yes,” almost like a politician carefully choosing the words to publicly address his thoughts on abortion. Henry quickly followed his admittance of relocating with a declaration that he would never forget the “barrio”. There is always some level of pride in where someone comes from. People never forget the influence of neighbors, or the uplifting support of a community in the times of adversity. It is what made him.

Boxers are celebrities in their community. Regardless of their ranking in the broader context in the world of boxing, they are still regarded as superheroes. While walking with Henry through the streets of Olaya, bombardments of salutes, handshakes and friendly inquiries of upcoming matches appeared as normal routine. At one point we were followed by a group of school kids screaming, “El Mamba! El Mamba!” for nearly ten minutes. Henry had respect in his community. As a matter of fact, knowing him was probably one of the only reasons I was able to freely walk around carrying around a $1200 digital camera in my hands. But Henry wanted to move out of the neighborhood not necessarily for himself, but for his son. After the immediate validation for his beloved “Olaya” barrio, he gently explained to me that he wanted to give his son a better future than he his own, or as he put it, “I box so my son doesn’t have to.”

(Henry standing with his one-year-old son)

When these photos were taken, Henry was twenty-four years old, and my own twenty-fourth birthday had passed earlier that year. It made me wonder how two vastly distinct lives can coexist simultaneously in the world. Henry quite literally fights for his survival and I am attempting to document that struggle with a piece of equipment that equaled six months worth of his salary. But I think what I admired most about Henry was that these glaring inequalities never seemed to bother him. He never dwelled on the question “why”, but rather on figuring out the “how.” I remember asking him how he felt waking up to his backyard (which literally looked like a bomb had exploded earlier that day) and located just twenty minutes away is an area akin to the commercial suburbs of the United States. “That’s just the way it is,” he would tell me. “I’m not focused on why they are this way. I’m focused on how I’m getting out of it.”

This is the beauty of boxing. You could never pity a fighter. Despite the horribly impoverished backgrounds fighters often hail from, boxers hardly present an image of weakness. One could see from their intense training regimen that their circumstance is never a consequence of an unwilling laziness to help themselves. Instead, boxing eliminates all possible explanation that inequality is a result of personal agency, but rather that opportunities towards upwards mobility simply aren’t distributed equally. You couldn’t place mercy or feel pity to the poor, suffering (insert third-world developing nationality here) that too often occurs when aid workers try and “fix” the inequalities of the world. They wouldn’t take your pity even if it was offered on a silver platter served with a million-dollar fight contract on the side. There always remained a value in pride, and that prideful integrity brought all the piercing realities of the world straight to your face. That is what I love about the sport.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Compassionate Independence

I remember in Spain when many of my American classmates would gawk in ridicule about how their host siblings were commonly over the age of 20, sometimes 30, and still live at home with their mother. "Haven't they learned how to get a job?" was always the mocking question they'd ask amongst themselves.

But to me living with your parents wasn't strange at all. At least in Asian families children stay with the family well beyond their 20s. I remember when one of my best friends from high school was well into his 20's, he chose to move with his mother from their cramped 2-bedroom apartment to a larger 2400-sq ft home, but he didn't do it because he needed a place to stay, he did it to help pay the mortgage. The idea is that your parents cared for you as you grew older, and in return, you care for them as they do the same.

But that's not to say there isn't value in independence. An inability to separate from another person - your parents included - can be as much of a debility to personal growth just as much as an immunity to your loved ones. But I think independence, particularly in the United States, is propagated irresponsibly. We're told to be alone, but never taught how to be alone. This is seen in the distinction between "loneliness" and "aloneness".

The physical state of isolation is present in both conditions, but in "loneliness", we're still seeking companionship. We do this in our need to always go out with friends, to throw parties every weekend, even the need to be married or be in a relationship so quickly. The acceptance of other people somehow translates to a validation to our existence.

"Aloneness", on the other hand, is finding satisfaction in solitude. It is the comfort of being by yourself and appreciating the time for time itself. It is taking every single beautiful thing this world has to offer and appreciating it's simple existence, just as the world appreciates yours. That's what it really boils down to: having the confidence and security in knowing that you mean something in this world, regardless whether or not someone tells you so.

The problem particularly in this country is that we're filled with a false sense of confidence and we view conceding to the will of the collective as a weakness. It's viewed as an attack on independence. We're constantly bombarded with the message that we need to be leaders, we need to be independent, we need to be ourselves, yet we're never really made aware to the fact that leaders are defined by their masses, independence only exists in comparison to some level of conformity, and distinguishing ourselves from a crowd can only happen if that crowd is there to begin with.

The point isn't that these supposedly revered traits of greatness are only attained by few, but rather that we need to understand both to become a complete person. It is relentlessly beating this sense of independence into our hearts and minds that ironically causes the need that same ideology is working against. You see this in the supposedly "successful" people of the world. The celebrity has the need for attention, the multimillionaire has the need for money, the politician has the need for power. Most of it is merely for the approval of others, just through different means.

My mother told me that true contentment in solitude comes at the realization of happiness from helping others. I mean truly helping others. In addition to the false sense of independence in this country, we also promote a false sense of altruism as well. I find it strange that nearly every socially conscious person I've met wants to start a non-profit organization, but never wants to be part of one working towards the same goal. It's like an independent approach towards solving a shared issue.

Rather true contentment and true altruism and in some cases, true philanthropy, begins at reducing our own ego, our pride, and our yearning to own and do things independently. It comes at a very sincere realization of lessening the desires in our own lives and reducing the consumption that results from that selfishness. Sometimes even just learning how to be less focused on yourself and more on others, is enough, at times more, than any amount of time or money you could donate.

It seems that only the side of individuality is adored and sought after, yet this disconnection with ourselves and our communities explains many of the chronic problems we suffer from and also cause in the world. Most opinion polls report the United States to be the world's unhappiness nation despite all the gadgetry we're made to believe bring us joy. People still feel alone and unloved despite all the "romance" flourishing in popular media. Sadly, we've created an empty existence and passed it off as a superficial state of happiness. The problem is that we've never been told to examine ourselves internally. We've never properly learned how to be alone.

*Thanks to my mother and Jamil for inspiring this post.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Enlightenment through deprivation

I've always been intrigued by the ways in which enlightened beings lived. I've been told that samurais would sleep only a few hours a day, monks could go long periods without food, something in their spirit carried them beyond the luxuries in which we deem physical necessities nowadays.

I haven't eaten for 10 days now, meaning I haven't physically chewed a piece of food in more than a week. I've been on a 7-day master cleanse, the diet popularized by Beyoncé for her quick weight-loss to fulfill her role in the movie "Dream Girls". But the Master Cleanse isn't meant for weight-loss, for me it's not even that much about physical cleansing of the body (though that seems to be a byproduct of taking such an insane regiment). But rather, the master cleanse is a cleanse of our triangular relationship to life: the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts of our being.

Not once have I been physically hungry throughout this fast and I've learned the difference between "hunger" and "cravings". Instead what I've found is that gastronomic indulgences are really just distractions to disconnect us from our understanding of self, and in their absence you're forced to confront a number of internal emotions that brew to the surface; without things like "food" to latch onto, they really have nowhere else to go.

During this fast, I decided to learn about the food industry to essentially rebuild my diet after I had "reset" the digestive system, yet despite all the troubling and horrifying facts I've learned about the profit-driven trade, the only thing I could think about was eating the food being described. But what I missed most was participating in the festivities that involved food. The sharing, the laughing, the comradery in the breaking of bread amongst friends and family. Yet at the same time, I couldn't ignore the troubling disturbances that I had read about. Sadly, it made me feel that I could never successfully reintegrate myself back into the lifestyle I once enjoyed.

Ironically enough, the day in which I can finally eat (at least liquefied foods) is actually the first day I don't feel like eating. Something changed along the way. Somewhere I started feeling more and more detached from society and despite all the isolation from others, I was onto something. Maybe that's why the cleanse is commonly promoted for 10 days rather than 7.

Perhaps most troubling was I became more and more comfortable with being alone. Books, writing and work satisfied my needs of companionship. But I think the other component to finding inner peace is learning how to be peaceful with others. Inevitably we learn that as humans, we need each other. You have to learn to accept others for being human just as they have to learn to accept you.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Power of Pain

We, as humans, are taught two types of thinking: Boast your accomplishments, be proud of who you are. The world is out there for the taking, so make it happen. On the other side of the spectrum we are taught to be humble, to belittle our ego. The world is a place we must share and sometimes we must concede to the ideas of others to make it work. The problem is not that these two views exist simultaneously in the world; the problem is the false belief that the two cannot coexist.

As human beings we are conditioned to avoid pain, both physical and emotional. But there is something magical about pain. It is the loudest and clearest voice we have. It tells our bodies and minds when we are progressively growing, or conversely, when we are overexerting ourselves. In the end, to fully realize both there is really only one requirement: You must know pain. You must go out fearlessly to confront it, and eventually, befriend it.

The reason there is such a polarization between the arrogant and the timid is a direct result to this avoidance of pain. We adhere to the type of thinking that already validates our way of life because that is what is comfortable. If we are arrogant, we will justify our actions with one belief. If we are timid, we will justify our actions with the other. In reality, those two need to be reversed. We need to actively seek out the uncomfortable and the painful, because they are what make us grow. They are what make us balanced.

All the answers lie within our own minds and bodies. Sometimes it’s not a matter of searching, but rather, a matter of listening.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Children should not talk back to their parents. Neither should adults for that matter.

Monday, March 1, 2010


There's a saying in boxing, or well, not really a saying, but more of a cardinal ranking that says "speed" beats "power", but "timing" beats "speed". In physics the equation of kinetic energy is "1/2 mass times velocity squared". I remember my physics teacher pointing out how speed was always more important than mass in the development of energy; a bit counter intuitive for a Western perspective I think. Here "big" and "massive" are heralded over "small" and "mobile", like how Bruce Lee compares the philosophies to a stationary tree trunk to the swaying branches of bamboo. For him, bamboo always won out, because in the winds of a storm, bamboo would sway with the forces, rather than stubbornly pushing against it. After learning that perspective, I began respecting adaptability and flexibility over strength and power.

But in boxing, people commonly look at two things: speed and power. A fighter either hit really hard or punched really fast, and like ranking says, the faster fighter usually had the advantage. But the overlooked aspect which apparently outranks them all is the element of timing. WHEN you land the punch dictates everything. The biggest reason is because landing that a punch disrupts the momentum of the other fighter. Most boxers function on a rhythm, a cadence, and when that pattern is disrupted by a perfectly timed shot, they're forced to start over. Very few fighters can overcome a good timing with sheer force, and the few that do, don't last long as prizefighters.

But timing makes me think about life. How things come into your path and how sometimes good ideas aren't necessarily meant to be adopted when they initially dawn upon you. Sometimes they're meant to be held for later. The same principle applies in business: A good idea can go to shit if the moment isn't right.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday strolls through Seattle

It's amazing how a visitor can open your eyes to a city that you've lived in half your life. If you let the inexplicable forces of nature and destiny guide you, you'll never be disappointed. We waited 30 mins for some doughnuts holes in a place I never knew existed. Had a variety of teas from a Chinese guy that operates a tea shop in downtown Seattle, but lives three blocks away from my parents in Bellevue. Explored a new world of literature and connected with what I would call, a "book expert." It put my book reading skills to shame, but only forced me to work harder. Discovered that you can carry 4lbs of king crab and oysters onto the plane as long as you use dry ice. Topped it all off with a hum bao and "The Story of Stuff". Goddamn it was a good day in Seattle. Good day to be alive.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Conversations with my Father

Over the past few weeks, my father and I have been meeting for random lunches, and during these meetings we would chat mostly about the logistics of business; the specific things I have to learn in the property management world. Like most discussions, what arbitrarily develops are side conversations, things that are related, but not directly. I discovered a lot about my father within these small conversational tangents. There's something about youth that makes us stupid enough to think our parents were never once like us, or that we are somehow existing apart from their own story. I think at some point, we are eventually able to place our own lives in the context of theirs, which in turn, make us more appreciative of all they've sacrificed for us.

My father came to this country when he was 24 with nothing more than $50 and a Ford Pinto. Comparatively, that is much more than other immigrants, but to most US Americans, it's nothing. From that he built what we have today. A tax firm, multiple properties and a damn nice house. Given the humble beginnings of his own family, it's quite a feat. I never knew this but my father came from a once wealthy family until the government came in and seized all the family's possessions. They were completely bankrupt. He would tell me how in the following years the question of their next meal would be a daily concern. He was five at the time.

That story is the driving fuel of my father's ambition. He never wanted to go back. He never wanted any us to go through that. Growing up, I've never questioned our standard of living. I just thought that was how it was. We actually grew up quite poor; my parents just never let me know. After working with my father and witnessing his day-to-day life, I realize how damn hard he works, and well, in reality, the relative luxury that I enjoy is nothing guaranteed. My father wasn't born into wealth, and apparently, neither was I. Instead, our livelihood is constantly upheld by years and years of toil. Never once has my father gotten lazy. In fact he still wakes up at 6am every morning.

The one thing I respect about my father compared to other Chinese/Taiwanese entrepreneurs is that he doesn't keep it within the culture. Don't get me wrong, he is still VERY Taiwanese, but in a business sense, he works with everyone, treats everyone equally and I've yet to hear him say something racially prejudice about any of his clients, business partners or tenants. My friend Mike said he really liked my father. He said my father never talked down to him for his dark complexion like other Asian parents have and that he always felt welcomed in my parents' home. For years I've studied ethnic studies and all the little nuances of race, yet somehow these small instances of change still go overlooked when they occur in my own household. I guess youth and aimless rebellion makes us ignorant our own lives.

These conversations with my father have garnered a higher respect for the code of life that he lives by. I've always been awed at the accomplishments of my father, like a kid would be to his favorite comic-book hero, but at the same time, hearing about his own struggles have made him more human in my eyes. He tells me of his failures, his foolish decisions and, to my discomfort, his fears. I've always viewed my father as an invincible and indestructible force. But I suppose everyone has their own fears, even super-heroes.

I guess you could say I've grown up in these conversations with my father. I can say I understand, just a bit better, of what my family has done to be here, and finally appreciate all the blessing I have in my life. Sometimes it's a bit saddening that I can't hold the same innocent and juvenile awe that I once had, but at the same time, who said humans can't be heroes too?