The Torch

I’ve written about my family more than once, but I rarely write about my mother for fear of not accurately illustrating the impact her life had on mine.  I hold her in reverence, as any child might to their creator and to their first and best love.  Writing anything about her seems like a futile exercise as words always seem a poor palette with which to paint anything resembling what I can remember of her life. But during a recent trip to Greece I experienced an unusal connection to the lands I was visiting.  Walking through hallowed, ancient ground reminded me of my mother, and of another Olympia on another continent. 

Once every couple of years I am able to fly back home to Olympia, Washington, where she resides.  I make the journey to converse, to regain some necessary perspective on how and why the events of my life have unfolded the way they have.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a one-sided conversation as these days visiting my mother entails a folding chair and an occasional umbrella as I sit straddling a tiny patch of earth with a fading brown marble headstone. As such I have not been afforded the luxury of having her around to serve as a sounding board since I was twelve years old. So I grapple at memories, at photos and heirlooms, at the stone memorial I stand over; anything I can use to remember the dream of Christine Fomin.  I try to imagine conversations I might have had and memories that might have been made, invoking what I can of her words and my own fading recollections of who she was.  And much like that small cemetary, as I strolled through the ancient Acropolis of Athens, around the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and reading other timeless words inscribed in everlasting stones, my thoughts sharpened into a focus on a resonant, lasting power that the past holds up to the present.

Obviously, her death had a played a big part on my developing sense of self and identity.  But far greater impact was what remained after that loss; a legacy. Looking down at that headstone are the words that I travel thousands of mile to see and see again, year after year.  To me, they are less words etched in marble, and more of an incantation that reawakens the ambitions of a slumbering heart; Eternal Love to all My Progeny, the Torch is passed.  These are the words that have ignited my heart in the past and are pushing the blood to my fingertips as I pound the keys on my keyboard to the rhythm of renewal.  Today, my keyboard is an anvil, and I’m hammering away at a refined edge with the white-hot blood of past purpose and future dreams. These words are the common, fiery-golden thread.  They carry a weight coming from my mother beyond the grave and into my living, breathing world. Not just because I loved my mother, as any child does, but because I know the heights to which she climbed in her own time were so great.  The Torch she carried now lies at the top of a formidable mountain of achievement she ascended during her career, waiting for her progeny to pick up from admidst ruins and carry on into the future.

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The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

It’s plain to see that I hold my mother in high esteem, but what is not so readily seen are those lives changed in her wake, or the light she brought to those around her. She attended the University of Washington in her undergrad, in the process meeting my father, a german-born russian immigrant.  They got married, much to the chagrin of her more conservative family, when she was 21. She punched a police officer once during a planned protest. She went to some length to befriend members of the Black Panthers in a largely homogenous and white Washington state. These of course are just stories, but the facts remain that by 1982, she was 31 years old and had earned an MBA, Juris Doctorate, and given birth to two boys. She died a little over 25 years ago and even now people come to me with stories about how she made an impact on their lives. She was the first female graduate of her MBA program. She started an independent attorney practice and represented local firemen. She worked in service of others, and the Torch she carried was bright and filled rooms full of people with a quiet optimism.  So perhaps you can see now anyone growing up in the shadow of that metaphorical mountain might be more than a little humbled to hazard a trek up the slopes. At best, I could hope to gain some elevation by fumbling in her footsteps. At worst, I could live in a shadow.

My career, in constrast to hers, has been a story of safe choices and risky ventures with a recent skew towards taking ever-increasing leaps into the unknown, hoping to grab onto a higher perch.  But my attempt to clamber up the rocky path has been clumsy and haphazard. My college education was as one professor put it “as if [I was] simply grazing through courses like cattle eating grass. You can do better.  I know you can, and so do you.” And to be honest at the time it was true. I was shot into the college campus environment with the force of an emotional cannonball after my mother imparted that her last wish was for her boys to go to college.  My time there was spent less in service of my education and more to my identity formation as a survivor. I never asked any tough questions of myself, what I wanted to do with my life or what my mother’s final epitaph really meant. I simply endeavored every day to exist.  To abide the inevitable and proverbial next shoe being dropped into my life after the searing memory of how your life can be crushed in a few agonizing moments. For years, it was easier to persist under an overcast sky and pass along a forgiving flat plain, rather than look up to the peaks of achievements occupied by others.  Let alone to that Torch set on high. For a long time, it was even easier to believe that perhaps those places where simply out of my reach.

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The Acropolis of Athens

Since scraping by on credits to graduate, it’s probably no accident that I’ve worked at three institutions of higher education; a relatively small regional public college, a major flagship research institution, and a burgeoning urban university with a surging national profile.  In retrospect my undergraduate induction into the higher education community, although unexceptional (and towards the end abysmal), had a profound impact on the trajectory of my career long after I received my diploma. By working side by side with people who held purposeful goals, I became infected with some of that quiet optimism my mother had shown so many others years earlier.  It’s even easy to think of our universities and colleges as the modern day stand in for the ancient Acropolis, populated with great thinkers and people seeking knowledge in their propspective passions. It’s only natural while sharing the same ground with so many motivated people I would begin to reflect on that idea of personal growth, of striving towards bettering oneself. That is when I started seeing the Torch for what it really was. It was knowledge of self. It was improving life for yourself, your community and your world. It was Knowledge with a capital ‘K’ that you could spread like a sticky Greek Fire, from person to person.  It was human achievement, not just for the individual, but for the public. For everyone. My mother’s flame was a light to show others the way through darkness. A personal Prometheus I could summon at will from memory. The flame wasn’t on a mountaintop. It was in me.

Every job I’ve held has been in service of other people, although it’s only recently that I’ve realized that the people I work for have been giving back to me in ways I hadn’t noticed.  They have given me their stories to listen to, their personalities to work with, their skills and talents to emulate and observe, and their ambitions for making this world a little better for everyone.  I have tried to do my part in every conscious aspect of my work to bring these ideals to light and to work in service of others by making more efficient systems, more effective policies and procedures, and always assuming that everything can always be better.  Now, at the age of 38, I’m reawakening to that call from my mother once more, by continuing my education and finally getting a Masters degree.  It’s high time I tried to climb further up the mountain.  It’s time I held the Torch a little higher and walk a little further up the path. Maybe one day my fire will help you on yours.

Keep climbing.

Review: Chick-fil-A Hapeville Dwarf House – Hapeville, GA

We ventured into this, the very first Chick-fil-A, while trying to kill some time before our flight at Jackson-Hartsfield International.  Imagine something between a Chik Fil-A and a Denny’s with weird dwarf theming. If you can set your expectations to that level you’ll do fine. The budget-minded gourmand might indulge in the “Hot Brown,” a breakfast food item you can eat. I ordered a plate with two sides that came in plastic containers fresh from the microwave. Now thems good eats. Still, if you’re inmeshed in Chik Fil-A lore you know the significance of this holy site, and will rebuff any criticisms of the quality of the food or its presentation to the consumer. There is nothing I can do to stop you, is there?

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The business of breaking hearts.

Recently I found out a friend of mine was likely going through a divorce, and when I heard the news, I had to pause for a moment to manage what felt like heartburn of the soul.  It’s sad of course to hear of any couple deciding to part ways, amicably or otherwise.  But this was the first time in recent memory someone around my age had started going through the process, and it caused a flare-up of dormant feelings I haven’t examined in years.  Prior to hearing this news I hadn’t experienced a bad acid-reflux flashback  since I went through a divorce myself.  It’s the kind of heartache that no one ever asks for, but is often given and taken in flurried exchanges of passion, ambivalence or scornful retribution. I’m talking, of course, about having your heart ripped out of your chest and drop-kicked into the rubbish bin.

Alright, so perhaps that’s a bit dramatic.  But you know what I’m talking about.  The feeling of being betrayed, of being on the receiving end of deceit and lies. Or worse, having someone fall out of love with you.  The feeling when someone ends a relationship with you suddenly, with injury or simply without care.  A million cliches from scorned lovers in centuries of literature and film immediately spring to mind: “How could you do this to me?  Why? What did I do wrong? Don’t you love me anymore?” All of these questions of hobbled fidelity and faith; of furrowed-brows in disbelief at these cruelest of cuts from those we loved which all seek the same answer;  How could you betray my trust? You of all people, amongst all those we expect to inflict wounds to our ego at work or at home? You, the person I was closest to? Or to be more facetious: Et tu, Boo-tay? You too?

We can relate to Ceasar’s incredulity even if we haven’t been stabbed to death by a pack of angry gay dudes wearing bed linens, because we understand the value of trust.  Whether you are the dumpee or the dumper, it’s a dirty business when someone gets the proverbial rug of trust pulled out from under them in a relationship.  It’s almost transactional; as if your partner is saying I don’t believe this institution is viable any longer and I wish to withrdaw my investment.  Or more to the point: I don’t believe in you, or us, any longer.  One person’s worth has been substantially devalued by their biggest investor and advocate, and it hurts because that investment was based on an intimate understanding. If someone who knows so much about us – someone who knows our accomplishments, idiosyncracies, and peccadillos, can think so poorly of us seemingly overnight, what does that say about our true value as a person?  Its easy to see from that point how people might go into a complete emotional tailspin and never regain the altitutde they once enjoyed.

But relationships take nosedives like this every day, often to people around us that otherwise seemed fine.  And as good as things may be today, tomorrow may look very different when staring across the table at your partner, spouse or significant other.  So what can we do to avoid these violences of the heart?  How can we avoid pushing each other off of psychologically steady ground and over the edge of devastating uncertainty? The answer is not obvious of course, because humans are bizarre, complicated primates with growing, changing feelings and interests.  The circumstances of every breakup is slightly unique because the history and the personalities involved are in and of themselves so varied.

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Many of us feel an upcoming fork in the road and realize we’d rather go where the other person simply can’t follow.  Maybe we were “tempted by the fruit of another.” For whatever reason, you can see a point in time or opportunity approaching where you wish to make a change, and even arriving at that conclusion can fill one with the dread and anxiety of not knowing how to handle it.  Honestly I think that is why so many relationships end with what looks like carelessness: people just not knowing how to process those feelings or how to act on them and then getting flustered or upset when having to deal with the situation when that fork finally arrives.   Now imagine the person on the receiving end of this change, watching the person you love veer off in another direction while you go speeding off of a cliff.  Not only is someone breaking up with you, but they are handling it with all the maturity and care of a Fox News host interviewing someone from the NAACP.  Or so it would seem.

The point of all of my rambling is this: if you find yourself looking down the relationship path and not liking what you see, the onus is on you to take action.  If you see something, say something.  To use yet another ridiculous analogy, if you were the pilot of a small plane, you wouldn’t turn to your co-pilot and say “Listen, this has been great, but this plane is out of fuel and we’re about to crash. I’ve already prepared my parachute, so I think it would be best if I move on.  But you can keep trying to glide this thing down on your own or whatever.  You’re a great person, really.  You’ll be fine.”  All of this could have been really, super useful information for the co-pilot to have known at any point prior to you strapping on your helmet and jumping out of the fucking plane.  Can you imagine the co-pilots face at that moment?  A Ceasar-esque mix of confusion, desertion, hopelessness and what-the-fuckism. Sounds a lot like the Ceasar salad at the Olive Garden, actually.

As someone who has been both the pilot and co-pilot, the first person to spot a fork and the survivor of a few nasty falls off the cliff, I know it’s never easy to navigate your way through life.  But the worst injuries I’ve witnessed came when there was little or no communication between people.  It’s easy to say all of the responsibility should fall at the feet of the person who is wanting to leave, but we all know relationships are a two way street.  So while yes, it is extremely dickish to ditch your co-pilot with no fuel, if that co-pilot had up until that point been high on angel dust and clawing at the controls while dressed like an anime character, a lot of people wouldn’t find fault with your sudden departure. But let’s be honest – most of the time that’s not the case.  If anything, your relationship has been on auto-pilot as you’ve watched the fuel levels diminish and the red lights begin to flash.

So all that said, if you do need to bail, do it with the grace and respect you would afford somebody who has something you need.  Because guess what – they do.  They have all of the time of a newly released convict with the aim to seek retribution on those that have done them wrong.  They have all the dirt on you, and none of the socially constructed expectations for good grace or civility.  If the onus was on you to bring the relationship to an amicable close, your partner has the inaliable right to be pissed off.  More importantly though, your former partner will continue to hold-on to something you should value: your self respect.  Nobody wants to be thought of as the asshole in the relationship by their friends and family, but really you should be more concerned with how you think of yourself.  Were you crueler than you needed to be?  Did you allow your partner a modicum of dignity or a chance to save face?  If Mr. Rogers was watching the whole thing playout, would he think you are acting like the best person he knew you could be?

These are the questions you need to ask yourself when in the business of breaking hearts.  Ultimately, you are responsible only for yourself and your own well being.  But communicating and being open about your feelings in any relationship is just basic courtesy towards someone who has comprehensive knowledge of how weird you really are.   And if nothing else – maybe you can avoid causing lasting emotional and psychological damage to your fellow human beings.  That would be nice.  Wouldn’t it?

Well I think so, anyways.

Review: DoReMi Karaoke – Atlanta, GA

Fine karaoke rooms and good service, but you do sometimes need to track down the staff to get what you need. Be aware this is a Korean karaoke joint so almost all the the materials are in Korean, and their song library is 80% Korean songs. Still plenty to keep English speakers singing for hours; not really even an issue if your drunk enough that Korean starts to make sense.

****

The Sounds on Screen

If you are as old as me or relatively close, you were probably raised on a steady diet of movies and tv shows that you consumed with reverence whenever possible. Ideally at the movie theatre, but more realistically at home. Mine was the VCR generation and I grew up surrounded by VHS and betamax tapes; every inch of precious celluloid ribbon filled end to end with pirated movies our family taped whenever something good could be found on the old boob-tube. TV Guide was essential reading material. It was the only way you could know when to set the timer on your VCR to record a movie without missing anything. That’s assuming you could figure out how to set the time on your machine in the first place and get rid of that dreaded blinking “12:00 AM”. This was how I filled my days in between trips to the movie theatre; savoring every bit of saturday evening cinema I could stay awake long enough to take in.

If the movie theatre was my church, the VCR was my at-home bible study. I was hooked, and would watch and rewatch every tape ad nauseum. I knew the dialogue inside and out without knowing the real meaning or subtext. I would replay my favorite scenes over and over until the tracking on the tape became so bad I had to resort to playing it out in my head. I’m pretty sure over the broad term of my childhood I re-enacted every major lightsaber battle, every showdown or dogfight, every crack of Indy’s whip, every steely exchange with a villain and every quip from an unlikely hero. If there was any way to immerse myself deeper into these compelling worlds and stories, I found it. And long after all of those tapes faded into dust and static, I discovered my favorite way to revel in the resonance of all those fabulous adventures, something I hadn’t really noticed but was there all along.

It dawned on me one day when I was thirteen-ish, bumbling around a music store in the early days of CDs (MDs and Laserdiscs were also widely available). That day I found myself with money burning a hole in my pocket, anxious to find something to play in my new DISCMAN (I couldn’t afford the one with 5-second skip protection), with very little idea of what kind of music I actually liked. I floated around awkwardly, as any pimply, pudgy 13 year old you can imagine would, until I wound up in the ‘Soundtracks’ section. And lo, shining like the shimmery cheezball effects of so many B-movies, stood an obelisk of musical adventure. It was the original boxed anthology set of the original score recordings of the Star Wars Trilogy. I picked it up and took it home, where I listened to it well into the next day, trying to place each musical cue with where they belonged in the movies I remembered from my childhood. It was one of the first CDs I ever purchased and one of the few I still have lying around.

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As an adult, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. And as I thumb through genre after genre, popular and unpopular, decade after decade, I always find myself returning to movie scores. Perhaps it is because the music is so closely tied to a story and experience. It feels like an invocation of sorts. A call back to the stories that can spark moods or summon the characters that left indelible marks on my childhood. It’s a way to revisit and re-examine; to mine for undiscovered facets and new interpretations of the themes and mythos that I still think about to this day. In many ways I feel like that’s something that we are hurtling away from as a society – depth of understanding. And that’s not to say there are profound human truths to be found in your 87th viewing of Die Hard. But there is a profound loss of revelry in art of all forms. We’ve become a society of scrollers, grazing through content with a consumerist mentality of thrift and breadth; fearful of missing out on what’s new and cool by sifting endlessly through the noise. It’s all about ‘What’s next?’ instead of “Let’s play it again.” Next, instead of Rewind.

Movie scores are meant for “play[ing] it again, Sam,” and taking a deep dive into the real soul of a story, often to places you didn’t know you would be going. They’re about extracting an idea and playing with it in the abstract to find new meaning. They are written to enhance, accompany or challenge the visual story. Music adds depth and weight through the use of tone and rhythm, drawing another of your essential senses into the story. This make you feel more enveloped by the experience, sometimes in a sneaky way. Have you ever been in a horror movie and heard the unmistakable sound of a heartbeat, not realizing at first if it was from the movie’s soundtrack or from your own chest? Ever noticed the swells of music as a hero hastens to join the fight, summons their strength or finally turns the tide? Did you notice how a particular note or theme is tied to a character or idea?

Movie scores and soundtracks are often so finely ingrained and enmeshed with your favorite movies so as to make them inseparable. You cannot think of Star Wars without hearing the opening theme blasting in your head. Would Jaws even be the same movie without the menacing ‘daa – dum..daa -dum’ that *spoiler?* preceded every shark attack? Can you picture a dusty old western town without whistling from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly? A lot of these songs have taken on a life long outside of the movies that bore them into public consciousness. I mean honestly, how many people today have actually seen Jaws? How many more know the theme? These are the pop songs of movie soundtracks; memorable and exciting. But film scores are everywhere, and are as varied as movies themselves. Some are purely adrenaline-pumping soundscapes and others are at times rich, dense, light and whimsical works of art.

I guess at the end of the day I just wanted to write this to turn some of you on to movie scores so that I could share some of the joy I get out of them. One of the great things about scores is they capture such a broad spectrum of expression and mood. You can find a movie score to play in the background at work, while you are reading, in the car or just unwinding. Try a pulse-pounding score from Hans Zimmer for your work-out (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight). Get your creative juices flowing with a Danny Elfman soundtrack (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas). Get lost in the adventures of James Horner (Braveheart, Aliens, Star Trek). Create a spotify playlist of John Williams – I guarantee you will recognize every single song, and listening to that music again will take you right back to that dark movie theatre. Or that pile of pillows on the floor in front of your family’s 20-inch cable-ready Magnavox on Saturday night. Or wherever you first got sucked into those great stories.

Happy listening.

25 Years Later

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This is a picture of my mom on her wedding day in 1971. I think she looks pretty happy, considering she’s about to bag the biggest nerd she could wrangle up while attending the University of Washington. She was 21 when she married my dad. By 1982, she was 31 years old and had earned an MBA, Juris Doctorate, and given birth to two boys. A little less than ten years later she was dead at 41 years old.

Today, March 29th, 2018 marks 25 years to the day since I watched my momget taken away on a gurney, and although I’ve filled the years since with wonderful memories and people, I would trade any of my very best days for just five more minutes with her. I want so desperately to tell her about my life. To talk to her about… anything. To ask, and to listen. To say goodbye.

While my mom was in remission from her first bout with breast cancer I was still pretty young, so I didn’t really understand why my mom started spending more time with me afterwards. In the remaining years of her life, before her cancer regressed, she went to great lengths to make memories with me that I could hold on to for the rest of my life and look back on. I was really lucky in that sense; my mom could sense her own mortality and was able to slow down and focus on using her remaining time with purpose. Many people never get that chance.

I’m writing this today as a gentle reminder to everyone on her behalf. You never know when your charted path will abruptly change course, or who may come and go along the way, whether you like it or not. Please slow down every once in awhile, and please try not to take things for granted as you hurry through life. Tell people you love them. Be thankful for new suns and swift moons. Make memories. Today.

Review: Bahama Breeze – Orlando FL

Overpriced, tropical-themed family restaurant specializing in making you realize how much of a glutton you really are by posting insane calorie counts near all their menu items. While I appreciate the honest disclosure of their entree’s heart-stopping power, the lack of commitment to providing any healthy and equally appealing menu items is disappointing. Especially given that the food is not especially great, I shouldn’t feel compelled to ask if the restaurant staff are trained in CPR or how to operate a defib unit. But let’s be honest, you came to this restaurant to slowly kill yourself. And the mood couldn’t be better set by the island cabana decor soaked in the sounds of a middle aged man who refuses to give up his 30-year old dream to be a musician. Excellent fruity cocktails.

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