That Nerdy, Unpopular Kid at School

Imagine a scrawny kid with large ears that stick out from his head like jug handles. He’s self-conscious about his looks and is exceedingly shy. He’s scared of everything: the dark, ghosts, robbers, bugs, snakes…He’s lousy at sports. He’s a mediocre student. Afraid that his classmates will make fun of him, he runs to school and back home to avoid having contact with them. When he becomes a teenager, he steals money to buy cigarettes. His teachers are exasperated by him. His parents are disappointed in him.

When he grows up, he somehow manages to get through law school, but fails miserably as a lawyer. In his very first case, he feels too shy to cross-examine the witnesses. He is so rattled, he returns his fees to his client and can’t continue with the trial. He experiences humiliation throughout his adulthood. He is physically thrown off a train, kicked, punched, and has stones and rotten eggs thrown at him.

This was Mahatma Gandhi. Today he is revered and honored as a hero who fought injustice wherever he saw it, who led India to independence from British rule, and who inspired and taught people all over the world to fight for their rights through nonviolent means. He was a “Great Soul” indeed.

The Helping Hands kids have been drawing pictures to submit to James Madison University’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence “Peace builds community” art contest. Last Friday I told them Gandhi’s life story while they drew. When we think of heroes, we usually think of human beings who are extraordinary. We think of heroes as possessing exceptional strength, looks, charisma, intelligence, courage, and virtue. To me, the most compelling part of Gandhi’s story is how very human and imperfect he was. I told the kids about how Gandhi struggled, was bullied, and had self-esteem issues. I told them about all the incredible things this unlikely hero was able to accomplish before an assassin’s bullet tragically ended his life. I hope that hearing Gandhi’s story will inspire them to see that anyone, even that nerdy, unpopular kid at school just might turn out to be a hero.

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I am convinced that a human being is at his or her most powerful between birth and 5 years of age.

My little 2 year old nephew Daniel, a.k.a. Dandelion, is a perfect case in point. We were thrilled to be granted an audience with him this past Saturday.

Whenever we see him, we all fling ourselves upon him like a bunch of shameless groupies. We can’t help ourselves. Usually, he looks right through us as if we were panes of glass. This time he was feeling particularly generous. He liberally bestowed his favors upon us.

My mother was delighted to be granted the privilege of holding the pieces of his invention.

He electrified us with the latest dance moves:

He graciously posed for pictures with his fans:

And me? Dandelion came up to me and lifted his arms in the air and said, “Pick you up?” which translates to: “Pick me up!” I practically swooned. I scooped him up and tried to play it cool…as if it were an everyday occurrence that a superstar would ask me, me for a lift, but I couldn’t resist turning my head to gloat at my sister, mother, and Dandelion’s mom. “OH. MY. GOD!!!!” I mouthed gleefully.

Dandelion commanded me to take him to the basement.

My daughter ran ahead to herald his arrival…”Daniel, the rock star is coming through!” she chirped.

My kids and Dandelion started to play on the bed. First Dandelion would roll over to my son. No sooner would he begin to bask in the glow of little Dandelion’s attentions, then he would abruptly abandon him to shine his light on my daughter. Back and forth he went in this fashion, toying with his minions, who were only too grateful for his largess.

My son was ready to trade his sister in for Dandelion. “I wish T were still this age,” he said wistfully:

and, “Look how tiny his hands are!”

And then it was time for one last photo op:

The dream was over. It was time to say goodbye until next time.

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50th Anniversary

wedding partyI turned eighteen shortly after starting my first year in college. I was shocked when I found a birthday card from my father in my mailbox. My parents have never been ones to mark occasions that most people celebrate. Had I woken up in an alternate universe? Could I be hallucinating? I was reassured that all was as it should be when I pulled out the card. It contained no message and was signed “Rev. David H. Kim.” My dad’s secretary was keeping track of birthdays and sending out cards from a pre-signed stack to everyone in his congregation.

I can’t remember a single time my dad ever bought my mom chocolate for Valentine’s Day or flowers for their wedding anniversary. The words “I love you” have never, not once, either on purpose or by accident, ever fallen from my father’s lips. It’s not that he doesn’t feel genuine love. He worships my mother. His children and grandchildren know that he loves them deeply. It’s outward, obvious expressions of love that make him distinctly uncomfortable.

Almost five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis. The prognosis was dire. The doctors told her she had eighteen months to live. My sister managed to get her into a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. My parents were living in Korea at the time, but returned to the States so that my mother could get treated. My father left her in my sister’s care and returned to Korea to finish out his work obligations, intending to return as soon as the semester was over.

The aggressive, experimental chemotherapy regimen knocked my mother’s disease into remission, but not before it nearly killed her. One day, she was exhausted and suffering and ready to give up the fight. She called my father to say goodbye. She didn’t think she would ever see him again.

My dad told her that she had to hold on. He told her that he wanted to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together. I know the chemotherapy drugs did their part, but I also know without a doubt that what pulled my mom back from the brink were my father’s words. My sister reported that the phone call was a turning point. When my mother hung up the phone, she had resolved to live. She began to force herself to eat and to force herself to get up out of bed and walk around. My dad’s love saved her.

Yesterday when I mentioned that it would be their 50th wedding anniversary on Sunday, both my mother and father seemed to have forgotten all about it. My mother said, “Oh, really? No, I think it’s already passed.” I had to pull out a calendar to show her that Sunday really would be their 50th wedding anniversary. My siblings and I have long been planning a huge party that will take place this summer, but today I want to mark their golden anniversary with these words. I have never once seen my parents kiss or hug each other. I have never once heard them exchange the words “I love you.” But they have always shown me what a true partnership looks like and what true love is. My parents don’t read this blog and they’ll probably never see these words, but just as they have never had to actually say “I love you,” I think they know the words in my heart.

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Yesterday I wrote about Teaism, one of my favorite spots in DC. I like to go to the flagship tiny little two-story tea house in Dupont Circle, but there are two other DC locations in Lafayette Park, Penn Quarter, and one in Old Town, Alexandria.

Apart from their extensive tea selection, they are best known for their Japanese and Indian food. Customers also rave about their Salty Oat Cookie. The reason I like to go to Teaism is for the ochazuke. Ochazuke is a simple rice dish sprinkled with a variety of toppings such as fish, pickled vegetables, crumbled rice crackers, seaweed, or wasabi. Green tea is poured over the top to create a kind of soup. It’s a good way to use up leftover rice and is served as a snack, at the end of a meal, or as a hangover cure.

Today, I tried to recreate the salmon ochazuke I had at Teaism with:

1 microwaved cup of Minute Rice brown rice:


Salmon Furikake (A condiment  used to add flavor to plain rice. Furikake comes in different blends and is made of a variety of ingredients, such as sesame seeds, nori, dried fish flakes, and salt).


Crumbled rice cakes:


And some green tea:


Verdict? Not nearly as good as Teaism’s, but a super quick and easy, decent approximation.

Hope your weekend is full of wonderful discoveries!

Girls’ Weekend

My daughter and I had a “girls’ only” trip to Arlington over the Presidents Day long weekend. My oldest son wasn’t feeling well and my second son had a rehearsal he had to go to, so on Sunday afternoon my daughter and I unexpectedly found ourselves heading up to Arlington on our own. My dad happened to be in L.A., so when we arrived we had a cozy dinner with just my mom and sister. That night, after I got my girl tucked into bed, I slipped out of the house to catch up with my friend Janel. When we got kicked out of Starbucks at closing, we returned to my parents’ house, where we continued whispering and laughing into the wee hours of the night.

The next morning my daughter and I joined my mother on  a stroll down memory lane. She asked me to drive past our old house in Arlington, which she hadn’t seen in years. She always regretted having sold it. “I’m mad at them for taking down my blueberry bushes,” she grumbled as we drove past the house. When we drove past the bank we used to go to, I told my daughter all about how my mom used to torture bankers there on a regular basis. “I was young. I had energy back then,” my mother said wistfully. Finally, we went grocery shopping, partly to stock up and partly so that my mom could get some exercise as she slowly walked up and down each aisle.

We saw these:


A strange glint caught my eye. I bent to get a closer look and saw this abomination. Those are rhinestones glued to the center of the roses:


A clear example of “gilding the lily,” or in this case: “bedazzling the rose.”

One aisle brought back another memory that made me laugh out loud. I’m sure the other shoppers thought I was insane as I chortled and took a picture of this:

IMG_1988I was remembering shopping with my second son when he was maybe four or five years old. As we walked down the aisle, he ran his chubby little finger along each of the packages.

“What are these?” he asked.

“Oh, uh…they’re just things for women,” I answered vaguely.

“But, what are they? Cheese sticks?”

“Yep. Cheese sticks. For women.”

I brought my mom back home and then my daughter and I headed out again to meet up with my friendy Wendy and my sister. We paused to admire the view of D.C….

We decided to split up for lunch. My daughter was delighted to get Auntie Sissy all to herself. I dropped them off at the Shake Shack, from whence they sent me this photo:


I took Wendy to Teaism in Dupont Circle, a favorite old haunt that we’ve gone to many times over the years.  We had one of those long, heartfelt conversations that make you laugh one minute, cry the next, and love your friend all the more. As we were leaving, Wendy pointed out a table of young women and started saying something like, “They could be us years ago. Now look at us, we’re so…” At this point I plugged my ears with my fingers and started singing, “Tralalalalalalala” so as not to hear the rest of her thought. I’m choosing to think that she was about to say, “…we’re so much more fabulous now!”

I called my sister and asked if she and my daughter would like me to come pick them up. My sister put my daughter on the phone. She had taught her how to say this:

Leave a comment if you recognize this line…

Oh, how I love these women!

Baci, the Therapy Dog

I had just come to terms with the fact that my dogs are “otherly abled.” Sure, they pee on my couch whenever I turn my back for one lousy second. Sure, they eat poop and rocks.  But, by God, they’re awesome at…ummm…well…They sure do look cute when they’re fast asleep.

Then I met Baci, the Therapy Dog.

Baci and his human Debbie came to visit the Helping Hands kids last Friday. Baci has passed tests to become a certified therapy dog. He is brimming with intelligence and is exceptionally obedient. When Debbie very casually says, “Look,” Baci practically gives himself whiplash as he turns to gaze soulfully into her eyes:

Therapy dogs work in a variety of settings. In nursing homes and hospitals, they bring cheer to people who are separated from their own pets or are unable to have pets of their own. Some therapy dogs work in school settings. One program, for example, pairs up children who are struggling with  reading with therapy dogs, who sit and listen to them read out loud. Sometimes therapy dogs  visit disaster sites to provide comfort to those in need.

Recently, therapy dogs from all over the country visited Newtown after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. There are beautiful stories of children opening up and speaking for the first time since the shootings after spending time with the therapy dogs. Some of the dogs returned to Newtown to be a gentle and reassuring presence when the children returned to school in a new building.

Debbie explained to us that dogs are so well-suited for this kind of work because they never judge, or make fun of a human. They love unconditionally. They don’t talk back. But not just any dog can be a therapy dog. Debbie told us that people who are interested in training a therapy dog can do certain tests to see if a puppy will be suitable. A first test might be to see which puppies in a litter will come when called. Another test is to turn the puppy on his back. If he doesn’t struggle to right himself, that’s another good sign that he will be trainable. Therapy dogs have to love people. They must be gentle, calm, and tolerant. They have to be obedient. In a hospital setting, where someone might drop a pill on the ground, for example, a therapy dog would have to “leave it” on command. They can’t be easily spooked or distracted. One of the tests Baci had to pass before getting his therapy dog credentials was to continue walking without paying attention to a set of keys being dropped from a height into a metal bowl.

Tallis, Chloe, obviously no one’s expecting you two to pass any kind of test anytime soon. But you better up your game, because Baci is making you look even worse than usual!

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On Saturday our Helping Hands kids (an after school service group I co-lead) helped transform the Fellowship Hall of Westminster Presbyterian Church into a PACEM homeless shelter:




Many years ago, my children and I took a train trip to Staunton, Virginia. The train goes past the woods behind Farmington Country Club, perhaps the most exclusive neighborhood in Charlottesville. The expansive and luxurious homes here sell for millions of dollars. As I looked out the window, I noticed that there were blue tarps scattered throughout the trees. I was shocked to realize that homeless people were living there. On another occasion, the Helping Hands kids were picking up trash from the nature trail behind our elementary school. From the debris we found, we realized that there must be people living in the woods there as well. The best estimate we have is that there are about 240 homeless people in our community. Another sobering statistic says that there are about 450 children in our area who are either homeless or living in shelters that are unfit for human habitation.

PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry) is a grassroots interfaith organization that formed in 2004 to address the problem of homelessness in Charlottesville after members of the clergy reported the common experience of finding homeless individuals sleeping in the doorways of their churches. PACEM coordinates volunteers and space (mostly in churches and temples) for a rotating shelter that operates in the colder months when homeless individuals are most vulnerable. From late October to early April, homeless men and women come to an intake center on the Downtown Mall. From there they are transported to separate shelters (one for men and one for women), where they receive a warm dinner and a bed for the night. In the morning they are served breakfast and are transported back to the Downtown Mall.

My family has learned a lot from volunteering with PACEM over the years. I had always assumed, for example, that the homeless were also jobless. I was surprised to learn that many of the PACEM guests do in fact have jobs. Many of them work physically demanding construction jobs. Recently, I also learned that there are young PACEM guests, who are students in one of our local public high schools. The very first year we helped with PACEM, my oldest son was about seven or eight years old. One evening we helped cook and serve dinner. The staff gave him the special job of loading up a dinner plate for a guest who used a walker and would have found it hard to go through the cafeteria-style line. My son delivered his plate to him at his table and then sat down to chat with him for a few minutes. I remained in the kitchen serving up food to the other guests. My son ran back to find me in the kitchen, and said excitedly, “Guess what?! He speaks English, just like us and he was really, really nice!” In that moment I realized how valuable this program is, not only for the homeless individuals it serves, but for the volunteers who see the human face of homelessness.

To learn more about PACEM and how you can help, please click here.

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The Fragrance of Ink

Many years ago I saw a traveling exhibit of literati paintings of the Choson Dynasty from the Korea University Museum. I was enchanted by the name of the exhibit – “The Fragrance of Ink.” Inspired by that evocative phrase, I wrote this haiku. (Is it cheating that I didn’t make up 1/3 of the poem)?

The fragrance of ink
Is subtle, but insistent
Lingers, and is gone.

This literati painting is my favorite work of art that I own. It was done for my father by his friend, a well-known calligrapher. The words are a description of my father’s character:  “Deep thoughts, Great spirit”:


I love how the vigorous characters boldly wriggle, leap, pirouette and undulate as if they were going to dance right off the paper.

May your weekend be filled with beauty.

A love poem


The Kiss, Auguste Rodin's sculpture in marble ...

The Kiss, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture in marble (Musée Rodin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I could take a leisurely trip,
I would voyage inside you.
I’d navigate the pulsing red rivers,
Stop to visit islands on the way,
And finally arrange my limbs
Within yours,
Peer out of your eyes,
And send my breath through your lips.

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True Love

IMG_7076Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrate romantic love. Couples will exchange kisses. They’ll gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes over candle-lit dinners. Many will get engaged. Bouquets of roses and boxes of chocolates will be given.

Today I celebrate a higher order of love. This love is not expressed with cards or chocolate, but with bitter tears. This type of love is messy, sad, and complicated. It’s what remains when falling in love happened a million years ago, and maybe it’s even what remains after we’ve fallen out of love. It sears us with pain. We should all be so lucky to experience it.

My dear friend’s husband died yesterday. When she first met him, there was a lightness in her step, a twinkle in her eye, and a quiet joy that I’d never seen in her before. On their wedding day the look of adoration in her husband’s eyes brought tears to my own. He looked as if he couldn’t believe his luck to be standing next to this amazing woman. The words he spoke during their vows reassured me that he knew her worth. He understood who she was and truly, deeply appreciated the person who was joining her life to his.

That was then, and it was beautiful. In these past few months, my friend’s husband became so ill that he slept most of the time. My friend’s days revolved around his pain management. They made plans not for the future, but for the end. They met with hospice workers. They discussed funeral arrangements. The twinkle in my friend’s eye was long gone, and had been replaced by sad resignation. Pill bottles, delirium, mental and physical exhaustion are not beautiful, and yet this formed the backdrop of a scene of pure and exquisite love that surpassed any romantic love they shared in the salad days of their relationship. So today, the day before Valentine’s Day, I celebrate this love and the fact that my friend’s husband was blessed to experience it as he left this world, and that my friend had the strength, courage, and love to give him this gift above all gifts.

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