new york, stop haunting me

I’ll be honest with you.

I woke up right now in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep. I turn over, the clock reads 5:47. I had just gone to bed three and a half hours earlier, and dreamed about a conversation I had with a friend about New York. My mind is running ahead of my body. I stare long into the dark before my eyes take in the scene of my bedroom. Odd. It was once familiar.

I say once familiar because all of a sudden, my room seemed just a little too big, like it should be spliced into thirds, and it felt unnerving that there was so much space–emptiness–that would have been filled up if this were New York. Then it hit me. This sort of inconsolable pit within me because I was no longer in New York. I ran through all the lovely and fascinating people I had come across. Some old friends, others new, all coming together like best-of scenes from TV shows. I couldn’t get them out of my mind.

I thought about one girl in particular.

I thought about how all these people and stories were merely one hundredth of one hundredth, like a spigot I had just discovered and started to turn. The water’s dripping, but really it’s waiting to erupt–like that gushing fire hydrant I passed on my hot summer day in Brooklyn.

How could all these stories be running around the pavements, flying down the subways and taxis and street corners and open parks of New York? There was so much life and activity in these people, in that city, and I wanted more–I need more. Maybe all this is just the writer in me talking. But perhaps, maybe, I’m the one meant to catch them all.

I recalled a speech I heard several days prior. Seth Godin was talking about art and generosity, and in one example, he described how piano players encounter a fermata in their sheet music while playing that tells them to “play it as you feel it”–not just as it is written. And he mentioned how people from all over the world would come to hear one composer do Beethoven because it was his own particular, felt version of Beethoven.

Is this my fermata? To add my own voice to the sheet I’ve been following thus far? Hell, is this even jazz and I’m supposed to break from the sheet altogether?

I don’t know. Right now it’s two hours before I’m supposed to wake up for work and I should probably rest a little more, and think about these things a little more. But there’s something about the city and the people that I cannot shake (shack).

Maybe the seed’s already been planted, who knows. The old me–or I suppose the older me–wouldn’t have even bothered to get up to catch these jumbled thoughts.

Odd. Before this trip, I was once familiar.

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How I’m Spending My Twenties

Several months ago, I was passing time in a local bookstore scanning through random books. I remember picking up a woman’s memoir or self-help book of some sort, and I caught a quote from the back cover that has stuck with me ever since.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

The words are simple but they sunk in heavy. It encapsulated how I felt for most of my twenties. I still remember my first day at my first job out of college. And all the other jobs after that. Yet I find myself here, at the beginning of June, and I can’t tell you how I got here. The years are short.

Oddly enough, when I’m catching up with old friends, I often find myself muttering the same words. If you were to ask me what’s new in my life, I’m not sure what to tell you. I’m kinda slow in the milestone department. No wife. No kids. No house. “Just work, that’s it.” The days are long.

It’s a weird time in life because I feel like I’m caught in the middle of two worlds. I have friends who have long settled into the next chapter of their lives, married with a kid or two in tow. (These are the ones responsible for half of my book sales–so thank you.) I also have friends who are still hanging onto the vestiges of their youth, playing the same cards until it’s out of their system–whatever that means. Me personally? I’m at a crossroads; I’m ready to board but my train hasn’t yet arrived.

There is a temptation to follow the paths of those who’ve gone before me. I wonder what it would be like to be a husband, to wake up early some mornings and cook her favorite breakfast or write her little notes, or how I’d have to think up something clever to make up for doing something stupid, which would probably be every other day. I also wonder what it would be like to be a father. My closest experience was found caring for my little cousin Justin for his first 13 years. Lord knows I would love to be a father.

But for whatever reason, it’s not now. So, in the meantime, I’m actively waiting.

Waiting…

And waiting.

There is something sublime that happens in this waiting period. For one, waiting puts you back in your place. You can’t always get everything you want, whenever you want. Waiting also benefits you in the end. It will intensify your joy and appreciation of that prized object when it does arrive.

I wrestled with this lesson a few weeks ago. Literally. I was rolling with my friends in jiu jitsu. It was my first time, and I wasn’t on the mat very long, but by the end of the night I was spent. I had exerted so much energy trying to attack, predict and defend against the opponent’s moves, but my friends pinned me easily, breaking little sweat. My friend Josh later pulled me aside. He said the ones who excel are not only sound technically, but also patient. Before they execute their moves, they would wait for opponents to make a mistake or tire themselves out. That’s what separates the good from the best. I thought that was rather poetic. Even in a physical, full-contact sport, there is a time and place for waiting.

The waiting room. It is a hard place to be in, no doubt, when most of my peers are jumping and sprinting to their next stages in career and family. But when I learn to embrace this place, it’s like there comes a serenity that falls upon me, wraps around my mind and holds my soul together.

I don’t know when my train will arrive. Some days I even wonder if. But I stopped looking at my watch. When I take the time to look around me, beyond me, the world opens up. There is so much more beauty than I ever cared to notice.

——

“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry…you will someday.” – Lester 

A Day In The Life…

It’s February 29 today. I don’t really have anything significant to say, but since I only get to do this once every four years, I figure I should just write something. So…why don’t I do this old school style and write about my day, kinda like what we used to write about in our blogs or diaries when we were younger?

– I woke today and made myself some bread with strawberry spread. I listened to a message by Greg Laurie while driving on the way to work. It was about wealth and not falling in love with riches for it is temporal. Good reminder.

– I got a lot of work done in the office today. It’s great to be and feel productive. I shared the BBQ short ribs that I made last night for dinner with my co-workers. They loved it.

– I stopped by Joghurt on the way back to the house to say hi to a guy named Jonny whom I just met two weeks ago. It was his birthday today. Met some cool people and talked to a nice guy who’s getting his masters in philosophy. I love the Biola community.

– Came home and went for a second attempt at a turkey spinach melt. It was just right this time–went a little lighter on the salt with some different seasoning as well. Good meal.

– Watched some ESPN highlights. Knicks won (Lin had 19 pts, 13 rebs, only 1 TO), Lakers won (a team effort led by a masked Kobe), and US beat Italy 1-0 in an int’l friendly. Overall great day of sports for me. (Well, except for that whole UCLA story breaking out…)

– Prepped a sermon that I’ll be delivering to my Lifesong church family this coming Sunday. Very excited and a bit antsy at the same time. Let’s just hope God speaks and moves through me.

– Took a shower. I smell fresh n’ clean now.

…And that’s pretty much my day. It’s funny, I haven’t written an entry like that in years, if not longer. But it felt good, perhaps even a bit therapeutic. This sort of entry reminds me of all the small little wonders that happen every day in our lives. It’s just learning to see the magical and memorable moments in the ordinary that can be the challenge. But when you start to see this way, you slowly realize that every breath given to us by God is nothing short of an outright miracle. Thank you Jesus for these miracles.

Happy Leap Day, everybody!

Be The Match, Save A Life

LIFE IS A TWISTED fit of irony. That’s what I say to myself on some days. In fact, the more I think about it, I can’t seem to conclude otherwise.

Like times when I think about how a woman whom nobody wants is the same woman whom someone later decides he cannot live without. Or the faithful couples I know who try hard to conceive in vain, as countless teenagers make their way in and out of clinics on the basis of “convenience”. And while there are approximately one million suicides in the world each year, there are those like Janet, in the video above, who are desperately pleading for every ounce of breath that life would lend them.

I came across Janet’s plea last night from a buddy’s link. I told myself I should probably register to donate the following morning, then went to bed. Today I get a call from a 213 number, somewhere in Los Angeles. I don’t usually pick up if I don’t recognize the number immediately, but on this day something prompted me to do it.

“May I please speak with Martin?” said the soft, feminine voice on the other line. By the tone of her voice, I could tell she was young, Asian, and perhaps even cute. Yes, this is he, I said. She went on tell me how she was from the bone marrow registry and that I had given a sample back in 2004. Now I might turn out to be a match. Not a call I had expected.

“Oh cool. So, what does that mean?” I asked. She said something about having to fill out a questionnaire of some sort and then proceeded to explain two of the possible procedures I’d have to go through if it does turn out to be a perfect match. One was as simple as drawing blood or something like that. The other involved undergoing an operation to remove stuff from my pelvic area. That’s bittersweet, I thought. I hate surgeries. I am tired of surgeries. Please God, no more surgeries…

I asked her if she knew any details about the patient. “Her name doesn’t happen to be Janet, right?” No, she said. The patient is a 33 year-old woman. But she happened to catch the viral video on YouTube, and she said there were a lot more registrations today because of it.

After the conversation, I thought about what a coincidence it had been that I had just watched the video last night and wondered if I needed to re-register or donate, only to receive a call that I was a match no more than a day later. I got back home and filled out the electronic questionnaire. I breezed through most of the questions, especially the “sex” ones. (It was a simple “No” throughout.) Some of the diseases they had asked about I couldn’t even pronounce. By the time I had finished and submitted the form, I was rooting badly that I would be her match. Or someone’s match. What’s a few hours in the hospital and a couple days of pain if I can save someone’s life on earth?

I’m praying that I will be this woman’s match. I’m praying for Janet that she’d find her own match. But for those of us who are blessed with good health, I ask that we do our part to help those in need. As the girl told me over the phone, they are in dire need of Asian donors.

Please register here to donate today. It only takes a few minutes of your time. You could save a life. And you never know if you’ll be in Janet’s shoes or know someone who is.

false starts / new ground

In a little less than 10 hours we will have effectively reigned in the new year. We will have had a little more to drink than we should and make resolutions that we won’t keep. We will put our arms on one another and sing a round of Auld Lang Syne, reflecting on the year that was and how this year, for better or worse, will be a different year.

How will this year will be different? Who do you aspire to be? What new things do you aspire to accomplish?

I ask this because I’m not sure what to wish or hope for myself. The superstitious side of me used to welcome these even-numbered years because these seemed, well, not odd. Until 2008 came to shred that theory to pieces by proving to be the single hardest year of my life. I also used to welcome the Chinese zodiac, perhaps thinking that my fortuitous year would bode much fairer to its “rat” kind. Until I realized it was also the same year as 2008. (Maybe those are the years I should avoid? By, you know, living in a forest or something.)

One can neatly sum up my past five years as a series of “false starts.” Since I’ve graduated college, I’ve been at four jobs, in and out of three relationships, and in three different living situations. That’s hardly something I’d like to advertise to any prospective employer or wife. If you were to ask me where I see myself in five years, I would tell you that I’ll have either won the Nobel Peace Price or found residence next to a guy named Leroy on Skid Row. Looking at my recent track record, I wouldn’t rule out either one. The point is: I stopped trying to predict life a long time ago.

Yet for all its ups and downs and crazy turns, life has never for once left me complacent. It has never stopped asking of me, never stopped prodding me to grow, learn, examine and redefine all that I have tried to so neatly assemble. I have a lot more dirt, and many more scars now than I did five years ago. But I can tell you with great confidence that I learned more about life and the human condition in the school of hard-knocks than I ever did by reading about it at a public institution.

One of those lessons is that failure can be a good thing. In the first two decades of my life things came easy. I never had to apply strenuous effort to excel in academia, sports or friendships. These last five years seemed to make up for them. Never have I failed so much in life. Failure was what I ate for breakfast. Failure was what I smelled like after the gym. Failure was what I pissed in bathroom stalls. (Alright, I exaggerate a bit…I did experience some success too, but it just didn’t compare.) Little did I realize that failure was the very thing I needed to build my character and prevent me from chasing things that aren’t real. It’s the sort of thing that recalibrates your perspective in life: keeping you diligent, humble and thankful. What if I had succeeded in everything I attempted these past five years? I’d probably be an arrogant, self-serving jerk. Granted, a jerk with lots of money, but still a jerk.

In his restraining grace, God gives us failure to help us realize that success isn’t everything. That life isn’t about medals or money or respect. That we need Him. That what you want isn’t what you actually need, and even what you think you want isn’t what you want after you have attained it. The challenge for me then is to live a life that I would not regret 70 years later in my deathbed (Lord willing).

So, what to say about 2012? I think Winston Churchill said it best: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” It’s about living life for a greater purpose than following a paper trail, about taking risks for the greater good of those around you and to continue trying even when failure is fresh. And if I have attempted these things in the upcoming year, then whether I succeed or fail, 2012 will have been a year well-lived.

Risk hard, love hard, dare to make a legacy. Here’s to another year of living–cheers.

-MY

Navigating the Story

I’ve always known that life is messy. It’s a concept that’s addressed through countless books and film and reinforced through personal experience. It’s a known fact. Yet, what I’m starting to wonder is how much of this inkblot is due to my own making. Let me explain.

As a writer and student of literature, I have always been taught to look for subtext. “Not everything is as it seems.” It is always more than meets the eye, deeper meanings hidden behind people and places and stories. Connotations. It’s the subtle nuances behind words and the contexts in which they are placed that allow us to arrive at the same destination and come to different conclusions. When I apply this sort of thinking beyond books and into the realm of life, I tend to look at my life as a story. The idea itself isn’t much of a stretch–after all, our lives are punctuated by the very conflicts, climaxes and resolutions from which our art is derived. Nor is it a wrong to think in this manner–in fact, more of us need to be aware of our place in the bigger picture.

Rather, what I am mainly addressing here is the problem that arises when one is not only aware his life is a story but begins to force elements into the story that do not belong. In other words, you begin to imagine the progression of your life and determine proudly to construct a conclusion by which it is the only way your story can end. For instance, if I believe I am supposed to find love like it is found in fairy tales, then I will sit at the coffee shop and wait for the “love at first sight” moment. In this case, I will not allow love to happen, perhaps more practically and less “romantically”, through online dating, set-ups, or the like–though it could very well be that is where you were meant to find it.

The chief issue is this–you want to be in control of your own story. You demand the pen. You want to write it. You want to shape your own plot, be the captain of your own ship. Thoreau novelized it with his beat of my own drummer ideology. Granted, who does not desire this sort of freedom? I do. In fact, I live most of my days as though this is true.

The problem is we are not capable of the task. You and I are no more capable of writing our own stories than a puppet is in creating his own speech. There are many things that fall out of my jurisdiction. I cannot control the stock market, my health, or even the people with whom I’m living. There are so many factors that are connected to life, why things do and do not happen. (How much of my life is reactionary as opposed to initialized?) It is nice to think that I have some semblance of freedom, of self-determinism, but in the end, as Shakespeare so tenderly puts it, “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.”

If so, then maybe the goal in life isn’t so much about trying to break rank as it is about discovering what our roles are in this grand play. Am I Horatio trying to play the part of Hamlet? Or have I been cast merely in the background? Our confusion and failures lie in the possibility that we have denied who we were meant to be, what we were meant to do, with the talents and passions uniquely gifted to us, and rather tried to indulge in fantasies shaped by comfort and safety. The issue is not that we are too ambitious but that we are not truly aware of our role and our purpose.

I once thought that being the captain was divine until I realized that I had no clue as to where I was going or how I’d get there. I was shipwrecked, before being found by a greater Captain, one who knows the way to True North and brought me on board to join his grand adventure.

Yes, I’m merely a sailor. It sounds less exciting than captain, more dutiful than daring. But I rather be a sailor on a ship towards paradise than command my own boat to wreckage. In the end, I trust that the beauty which I will have experienced in the journey and destination will prove my rightful surrender.

It’s Never Sunny in Seattle

At least that’s what I’ve heard. So when my plane pulled into the terminal last night amidst a huge torrent of rain, coming down like sheets of liquid bullets shooting sideways, I didn’t think I’d wake up to see this:

Yes…the sun. I hear it rarely makes an appearance up here, but it didn’t even take a day for me to find it. It’s the same sun that shines in LA, that I take for granted all too often, but here it’s peeking through to lend the place some light. It’s like the plants and trees rehearse so that whenever it appears, they are ready to reflect their wondrous colors onto the world:

I’ve only been here less than 24 hours, but I am already in love with this city. The weather, though a bit nippy, is crisp and cool. And the Seattle folks are unlike Angelinos–they are quite nice. They take time to make conversation with you, and in fact, welcome the opportunity to meet strangers. Smiles come on the faces of both the poor and rich, and hello’s are doled out by the dozens. There is a spirited current running through this city…it’s infectious.

Since my buddy Josh had to work, I took the community bus from Lynnwood to Downtown on my own. I went out looking for an adventure, for stories, and I found it not in the buildings or monuments, but in the people. Right as I hopped off the bus, on 5th and Pine, I saw a man on the street holding up a sign that read “help”and “jobless.” Caught in stride, and prompted by the Spirit, I went to strike up a conversation and perhaps offer him some food. I told him I was visiting from LA and asked if perhaps he wouldn’t mind giving me some pointers to the city. He responded sure no problem and told me his name was John. His friend Roger saw us talking and tagged along; we walked down the street for some Subway. We talked about the struggles with the economy and how hard it was to hold down a job. Then we talked about guns and how Roger shot a .45 magnum and how I couldn’t hit a thing with the magnum because the recoil was furious. John told me I needed to steady my wrist with the other hand lest the kickback might snap it. It was a rather enjoyable lunch with my two new friends.

I went on my way to Pike Place, home to the famous Farmers Market, and was able to visit the many vendors there who were selling homemade goods. The people were once again very amicable and probably sold me on some items because of their personalities alone. I could support the faces and names behind them. One woman named Lauri even gave me a map of the city and pointed me to the first original Starbucks down the street:

I got the exclusive gift cards that feature the original Starbucks logo that you cannot find anywhere else. I’m not a big coffee drinker, so it looks like they won’t remain in my hands for long…

Anyways, it’s time to sign off. The rain is about to hit the smooth streets of downtown–the sun was just here on loan–and I’m going to write for a bit before I meet up with another couple at a Thai place for dinner. If you ever get a chance, go visit Seattle–it rocks like Nirvana.

Thanks for reading, and keep warm in body and spirit.

-MY