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JULES OF ALL TRADES | A blog about learning.

Journey to the Moon, in reverse

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The 50th anniversary of man’s moon landing is here, and it appears there are two camps of people: those who care, and those who don’t.

For most of my life, the feat of putting a man on the moon was more of a punchline than anything, useful for pointing out the absurdities of modern life. We put a man on the moon, but vending machines still can’t handle credit cards? We put a man on the moon, but automatic toilets still don’t know when your butt has cleared the seat? And so on.

Maybe it was a given that I’d trivialize the event simply because I wasn’t around to see it. By the time I was born, the Apollo moon missions were over, and we had moved on to the next big idea -- putting enormous buses with wings into orbit so we could tool around in space. I grew up with these “space shuttles” and their kin, visiting them in the National Air and Space Museum and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, at a time when Canaveral was an equal attraction to Disney World. I saw it all: shuttles, boosters and rockets, satellites and unmanned capsules, old control rooms. In my childhood, the space shuttle was an everyday object, just like the television. Back then, we had a little 12-inch color TV, and it was on such a device that millions watched in 1986 as the Challenger space shuttle broke apart in plumes of smoke and flames. I couldn’t tell you if that was my first encounter with death, but I remember my disbelief that the curly-haired women on board were gone forever.

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As with any innovation that preceded one’s birth, I had little reason to marvel at the story of America’s space program. I didn’t know the difference between Challenger and Discovery or Saturn and Apollo. I roughly knew that the Russians and maybe a monkey had gotten to space first, but that story was ancient history -- and thus uninteresting.

How do the events of the past come alive for those who emerge later in time? It’s a question as important as it is vexing. How do we understand wars? How can we remember genocides and holocausts? What can we learn from disasters and accidents? We claim to remember our follies in order to avoid them, but more often than not we do a terrible job. Can we get to a better world by remembering man’s triumphs instead? Perhaps. Especially these days, where it seems like all news is end-times news. But how can we channel the power of our greatest achievements as a species when they are in the past?

There is one way, the same way I came to care about the moon landing - by listening to the stories of those who lived through them. I did not go looking for stories about NASA’s Apollo program, but they found me. As a result, I’m discovering the moon landing in reverse — rather than the excitement of the event fading away over time, my interest has grown, due to a few chance encounters. The chronology is as follows:

July 2017

I write this blog post about the loss of the Amazon rainforest and how my sense of natural wonder was stoked by leafing through National Geographic magazines during class. I include a picture of this National Geographic cover from May 1969.

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To me, it’s just a whimsical picture, but my dad hones in on two articles listed on the cover, “Apollo 8: A Most Fantastic Voyage” and “And Now to Touch the Moon’s Forbidding Face.” I hadn’t even noticed them, but my dad suddenly remembers Apollo 8 like it was yesterday. He goes on to tell me that it was Apollo 8 that took the first picture of our planet from space, the famous “Earth-Rise” photograph in which our glowing half-sphere emerges from the black jewel-box of space. I am for a minute taken aback. I’ve always known what the earth looks like in space - its blue and green and (increasingly) brown hues, the familiar outlines of the continents, the clouds artfully swirled over its surface. It never occurred to me that there was a time where we didn’t know what we looked like. It never occurred to me what it must have felt like to see that image for the first time and know so many things for a fact: the beautiful colors of its life-sustaining surfaces, its precarious uniqueness and solitude, its diminutive footprint on the surface of infinity. Later, William Anders, the astronaut who took the photo, would say, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

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April 2017

I visit Wayne in Florida where his trio is performing, and we stay with Gregg, an avid supporter of the arts. Gregg is also a retired air traffic controller. I eventually get the chance to quiz Gregg about his career, which I find fascinating in part because a career assessment in junior high told me I should either be a canning plant employee, a ballerina, or an air traffic controller. I became none of those, so I figure now is a chance to know more about my missed destiny. Gregg obliges, telling us about the training and how tough it was, about the control center where he worked and how American airspace is divided up into grids monitored by different teams. He tells us about his fierce promise to himself that no one die on his watch, and how he retired having kept that promise. We ask him how he decided to go into this profession, and Gregg tells us how, as a kid, he watched on tv as Mission Control in Houston guided the space program to the moon, and how he wanted to be in that room, to be on a team working to achieve something great. And how he wasn’t alone, how the space program inspired an entire generation of young people into aeronautics careers. And then, I swear I saw this man, more precise and calm in thinking and words than almost anyone I’ve met, pause and tear up, ever so slightly. At that moment, I wondered what we have on tv today that is even a fraction so inspiring.

July 2019

I’m on a plane to Vancouver, and for once, it’s not a crack-of-dawn flight where I want to go right back to sleep. Wayne starts right in on a superhero movie as per usual, but I always take forever to browse the listings. I come across a National Geographic documentary on the Apollo missions to the moon. Vaguely aware that the anniversary is coming up, I click on it. Because of my dad and Gregg.

It’s as if my moon landing education is being orchestrated by a higher being, because I now have been primed to take in everything in this documentary. Certainly, I gain book knowledge: how the various modules of the spacecraft worked, how each subsequent Apollo mission tested out incremental step towards landing safely on the moon, how some of our brightest men and women were lost in the effort. I also take in the cultural images of 1960’s America: nearly everyone in Mission Control is a white male, some smoking cigars as they work. When Apollo 13 radios Houston that they have a problem, the engineers whip out their pencils and start doing calculations - on paper. The wives of the astronauts are suitably demure on camera when asked how they felt about their husbands being in space. Everything is in black and white.

More than anything, I have been primed for the emotional impact. I feel so many things, especially pride. I nearly stand up in my seat and salute every time I see the letters “USA” emblazoned on spacecraft, and especially when the American flag is planted on the moon. I feel that this is evidence for what I’ve always known - that ours is a great country, one where leaders challenge citizens to dream big, one with the collective determination and ingenuity to make those dreams reality.

A proud young American.

A proud young American.

At the same time, I am also moved by images of mankind’s unity. As Apollo 11 descends, gingerly, to the moon’s surface, as Neil Armstrong emerges from the capsule and turns on a tv camera, people all over the world stop in the middle of their day to watch Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin place their footprints on the moon’s surface, and then applaud, cheer, or cry. We were all one at that moment. As Armstrong said, it was an advance not for him or for the USA, but for all of mankind. I cannot think of the last time we were gathered together as a species. We cannot even agree to stop destroying the only planet sustaining all of us.

Lastly, I tear up during, of all things, the recording of a phone call by Nixon to the astronauts after those first steps. Despite history’s attempt to demote Nixon from our pantheon of Presidents, I am moved by the call. I am moved by the dignity of the words, by the expressions of gratitude, and by invocations to a greater good. When was the last time a Presidential conversation did those things? Here’s the historic phone call:

Nixon: Hello, Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you've done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Armstrong: Thank you, Mr. President. It's a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future. It's an honor for us to be able to participate here today.

After these encounters with the moon landing, it now means something to me. The event represents not only our technological advances but our spiritual capacities. We yearn to explore the very frontiers of our imaginations, work together to achieve previously unthinkable greatness, and have the humility to realize our individual insignificance in the face of that greatness. These are some of our best human qualities. I could stand to be reminded of all of that, and of the worth of listening to people’s stories, every time I look at the moon.

The life-changing 5 pages of the KonMari method

More Christmas decor than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

More Christmas decor than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

Marie Kondo is (again) having a moment. Her Netflix show, which debuted New Year’s Day, has been a huge hit across the globe. If you, like me, devoured her book back in 2014 when it first hit our shores, you’ll enjoy watching transformations happen before your very eyes: cupboards cleared of moldy food and lined with neatly organized spice jars, piles of clothing disciplined into smartly folded rows, garages returned to their proper usage as ...  actual storage for cars.

The results are certainly more organized, beautiful, even. But are they life-changing?

First-Order Decluttering: Protocols

The KonMari approach is usually summarized by the methods that she demonstrates in the show, methods that have become mainstream:

  • sorting items by category rather than location;

  • keeping only those that “spark joy”; and

  • folding clothing to stand up in a drawer.

Yes, this was our New York wardrobe “color” palette.

Yes, this was our New York wardrobe “color” palette.

All of this is great, but I don’t think it is the real value of the KonMari technique. After all, this step-by-step advice has been around long before her book. I call this “first-order” decluttering: using methods and processes to evaluate our possessions. Ever since moving into my very first apartment after college, I had been addicted to such first-order advice. One site I visited religiously was Apartment Therapy, an interior design site with tantalizing photos of impeccably designed apartments. It also had lots of tips for curating one’s own space. As a self-professed organizational obsessive, I quickly learned all of the tricks. Some of the classic ones included:

I ate it all up. I had an outbox. I had a photo outbox. I took things to Goodwill every month, and I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about a capsule wardrobe. These protocols did make a difference, but they also raised lots of questions for which I had no answers. Why did I find it so hard to part with things that were clearly no longer useful? Why did I continue to accumulate things after repeated declutterings? Why was the process so emotionally taxing?

The embarrassing array of things in my photo outbox at one point.

The embarrassing array of things in my photo outbox at one point.

Second-Order Decluttering: Stuff is Feelings

There’s a reason those articles come back year after year: they’re a short-term fix. They focus only on what to do, rather than why we do. Any effective behavioral change must deal with things like motivations, emotions, and values. Diet habits work this way. Exercise habits work this way. Why would our stuff habits be any different?

The genius of Marie Kondo’s teachings is the connection between stuff and our emotions. She knows that stuff is often a manifestation of our inner lives. This is why cleaning house often has a cleansing effect on our spirit. The magic of decluttering is that it is slightly easier to deal with physical manifestations of our feelings than our feelings themselves. The KonMari method forces people to confront the physical manifestations of their feelings by piling them into a gigantic pile, the visual absurdity of which encourages those people to face the reasons why they created the pile in the first place (btw, seeing people’s shock at the enormity of their clothes/toys/shoes piles is a highlight of every episode of the show).

The first life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it is based on feelings. Rather than think about an item’s cost or current value, how broken or useful it is, Kondo’s famous “spark joy” test requires that you think about how you feel about something. It is an emotional test! There are two holistic benefits to this approach: one, if you are not someone who likes to connect with your emotions, this is an excuse to work on that, ratty t-shirt after ratty t-shirt. Two, the hardest decisions about our stuff likely will flag deeper emotional issues standing in the way of our dreams.

Indeed, it is in the most challenging moments of discarding that our deepest emotions emerge. The second life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it tells us specifically WHICH feelings tend to hold us back. I found this wisdom on pages 181-184 of the book when she explains why it is so hard for us to let some things go:

“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

BOOM. That’s the bombshell. It’s a bombshell because I’ve found that failure to thrive IN LIFE is due to these same two things. Consider that. How many people do not take the steps towards a better job, a creative passion, a relationship, because of fear? How many people barter their own chance at being joyful today for yet another day to dwell on the bitter wrongs of the past? So many of us, including me, do these things. Fear and regret and anger and bitterness and all of the emotions that hold us back similarly manifest in the things we hoard against all reason.  

Consider the fear of scarcity, perhaps the most common fear I saw on the Netflix show. Many of us know that person (are that person?) who keeps everything JUST IN CASE. The fear of scarcity often has roots in a different time, place, or circumstance -- the Great Depression, a developing country, or a poor childhood. However, it often no longer serves a rational purpose in our lives. Although raised by immigrant parents who save every piece of molded plastic (because, true, it is very hard to manufacture molded plastic yourself), I learned from thrift stores in Manhattan that ALMOST NO MATERIAL POSSESSIONS are scarce. People threw out nicer thing than I will ever own in gigantic piles every, single, day. Scarcity for most of us is not a present-serving reality, but an emotional delusion created by fear.

The scene at the 79th St and Broadway Goodwill every single day. There are designer duds in there, yall.

The scene at the 79th St and Broadway Goodwill every single day. There are designer duds in there, yall.

Marie Kondo suggests that holding on to these fears can have ramifications beyond the Mt. Everest of takeout containers in the pantry, and I’ve seen this to be true. Those who are afraid to part with things often are afraid to risk capital and time and reputation, even if it means gaining immense reward.

Similarly, not processing the past can hold us back, in our closets and in our lives.  A prime example of this for me were my law school notes. Did they spark joy? Hell, no. But I had a hard time throwing them out. Why? Because I was attached to aspects of my life as a lawyer. I was proud of my law background, of my honors at Harvard Law, of working for a prestigious and demanding law firm, of serving the public through nonprofit and government organizations. When I was trying to throw out my notes, I had quit my law job and been reincarnated as a lowly piano grad student, slaving away day and night on my craft for seemingly no affirmation. Those notes represented a time during which I was a well-paid suit working in a skyscraper with brass elevators, supported by around-the-clock secretaries. And now? I sure felt like a nobody. If I gave away the notes, would anything be left of that former me?

Confronting Yourself/Your Socks

In challenges like these, Marie Kondo’s wisdom helped me formulate two ideas that helped me stop fearing the future and start processing the past: the Superior Substitute and the Culmination of Self. Briefly described these phrases mean that:

1) I am the superior substitute for all of my things, and 2) I am the culmination of all of my things and when I go, so will most of their meaning.

Whoa. How did I get from folding underwear to pondering my own mortality? Don’t worry; it’s a good thing.

Superior Substitute/Culmination of Self

What helped me to process the past was realizing that almost all tangible things are a piss-poor substitute for the ACTUAL SELF. I can never lose my law training because the ultimate result of those experiences is ME! And I’m still here. Same with gifts and such. The relationship with the person is the actual self, and I won’t lose a relationship because I got rid of that tchotchke you gave me (Mahan, I’m looking at you). I’ve realized that memories and my personhood are way more effective embodiments of our sentiments than things.

Love ya, but no, I did not keep this.

Love ya, but no, I did not keep this.

This means that EYE MYSELF -- as the person, as the culmination of all of my experiences and relationships and achievements to date -- am the best relic to keep around. The fineries of my law school notes pale in comparison to the stories I could tell you of my time there. No present from a friend evokes nearly as much warmth as when we chat. And so on. We and the people around us and our memories are the most precious keepsakes. This realization is in part why I wanted to write a blog - to put those memories somewhere, to ponder the person I am and hope to become.

The flip side of that, of course, is that our stuff remains after we leave this world. If my self is gone, what matters? Very little, I know. Let’s be honest. Nothing of mine is going into a history museum or memorial library or really anywhere except maybe into the hands of those who love me. And they will have their own memories of me that are more real than any little trinket I can leave them. So, if we are truly afraid of the future, we should know that, in the end, our fate is exactly the same as any other living being on this planet. After that, the reality is that no one will care about your things as much as you do. They might even feel weighed down by it! Which is not a nice thing to do to the people close to you.

That’s ultimately the life-changing magic of tidying up - the focus on a life well-lived and the recognition that our stuff is just here to help us do that. I’ve come to recognize more quickly items that help me live my best life. Some of these items include the one birthday note I have from my parents with actual sentiment -- feelings were never vocalized in our family, so I save that note to remind me that we do love each other. I also cherish handwritten letters and notes from friends that really showed me what support, or heartbreak, or vulnerability look like. I’m trying to cull everything down to a “Juliana’s Life” binder, including funny sketches from coworkers at my first job, certain school acceptance letters, and pictures, of course -- stuff that is so evocative of a memory or emotion that it makes sense to keep. And very few things make that cut.

Freed from THINGS, I can better focus on what matters - the quality of my life and the memories I will share with those around me for as long as I’m here.

The rest? is just stuff.

The Ambiguous Loss of the ABC

In Taiwan, back when everyone was just a bit younger.

In Taiwan, back when everyone was just a bit younger.

The cleaving of my family tree from its ancestral roots may have happened over forty years ago, but it hit me just today over my kitchen counter. Even I was surprised when the tears fell. Why now? A few days earlier, we found out (in true modern fashion) via iMessage from Taiwan that we had just lost my maternal grandfather (ah gong). At the time, I said, “Oh that’s sad,” and then carried on with my day. Or at least I thought I did. But my subconscious knew better -- family is never that simple.

I know less about my grandfather’s life than I know about my morning Starbucks barista. It sounds crazy, but I honestly couldn’t write out his Chinese name for you. I know that he grew up in Taiwan under Japanese occupation. That fact alone accounts for most of the rest of what I know about him: he loved baseball, especially the New York Yankees; he spoke and wrote Japanese better than Chinese, and he sang Sakura with the indoctrinated enthusiasm of a schoolboy. The physical aspects I gleaned from the handful of times I saw him in person: he wore plain buttoned shirts, he slicked his hair back, his face was usually stern and unsmiling. From relatives, I learned supporting details: that he hadn’t attended much school because he had to work from an early age, that he worked hard in restaurants, and that he kept a daily journal (in Japanese). That’s about it.

How can you mourn a relationship you never had? Can you even mourn a person that you didn’t really know? Am I allowed to mourn a connection that I did not nurture?

When I ask that last question, I think of the relatives who stayed in the old country and had the burden and privilege of taking care of my grandparents, of living daily life with them, and of no doubt hearing their old-timer stories countless times. They are the ones who put in the work that family bonds require, the nurturing and the resolution of conflicts and the sharing of experiences that are the building blocks of any close relationship. Can I lay claim to any of those building blocks? These are my questions to bear, because my parents were the first branches of their respective trees to stretch this way. They are the only branches I have known in any living detail. The rest, despite being real people and my closest of kin, exist mostly as as-yet uncovered stories.

I know I am not alone in the desire to know more about my roots. I think psychology will someday come up with a term for this human sehnsucht, which seems near universal. There is no better evidence for this yearning than the popularity of DNA testing from companies like 23 and Me, which promise that the power of science will reveal FROM WHENCE WE CAME. Truth be told, the data they purvey is no mere intellectual curiosity — it has important ramifications for the very basis of one’s identity. It can inform who we believe we are, explain why we feel a certain way about ourselves and our loved ones, and we hope, even heal the wounds of the past. There are so many stories of people -- seeking a parent or an identity or confirmation of a family lie or omission -- who use these services and find a bit of information that completely upends the story they’ve known their entire lives. It can be devastating to have your world turned upside down; and yet, we still want to know.

We want to know so badly that watching other people find their roots makes for good TV. Finding Your Roots on PBS, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., guides the show’s guests, usually the rich and famous, through their family histories, connecting personal stories with fascinating vignettes from world history, whether scenes from the slave trade in the New World, examples of espionage in WWII, or interactions between the huddled masses arriving at Ellis Island. It’s fun to watch, but for me it’s also been somewhat painful, because the language barrier means that it would be much harder for the production team to do a story on a Chinese person. The only Asian I’ve seen profiled is Aziz Ansari, courtesy of the English records of the British Empire in colonial India.

This language barrier is the source of an enormous cloud of guilt over so many of us ABCs (American-born Chinese). The Chinese ability of your typical ABC does not approach the level you need to foster relationships. Mine certainly doesn’t. I could barely talk you through how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Chinese (what’s the word for peanut butter? I took two years of college Chinese and I don’t know). Expressing emotions is hard enough within an Asian upbringing; finding the words from a foreign language to do so is nigh impossible. So my conversations with my grandparents consist of me babbling like a toddler, while my adult psyche drips with the guilt that I should be able to do better.

I highly suspect that a big part of my loss is guilt. After all, it is the guilt that wracks us most after a loss, is it not? The could-have-beens, the should-have-beens, the why-didn’t-I’s. Yet, fortunate as I am to not be hardened to loss, even I know that guilt succors no one in these times. It helps my grandfather not a whit. It helps me celebrate his life none, and it is a burden that no one put on my shoulders.

Part of the grieving process for me is to put the guilt in its place by acknowledging that I can do nothing other than live the life I was given. The life I was given started out as someone’s dream, that of a better life, of economic mobility, of higher learning and the payoff of hard work. And for all of that I am grateful. But how could I embody all of that and still have a close relationship with people an ocean away, in a language that is no longer my own? You can’t have it both ways. I certainly can’t, and couldn’t, and part of this reckoning is telling myself that fact enough times to forgive myself for something that was never my fault.

I think what all of this — the guilting and the attempted un-guilting — is telling me is that I do have a part in this loss. Over the past few days, my throat unexpectedly closes whenever I realize that I did have some relationship to my grandfather, that I did know him and that he did know me. People have been digging up pictures as we prepare to say our final goodbyes, and most of the pictures of me were from our one big family trip to Taiwan when I was 12. There are pictures of my brother and me with my grandfather, smiling over a cake, hiking in a grove of bamboo, at a big banquet table. These photos bring back memories, memories of how he always called me by my childhood name, “An-An”; memories of how, like him, I seem to subsist on instant noodles and tea. Memories in turn, bring feelings, such as a feeling of kinship with him because I too have a habit of journaling, though not daily like his (he kept the diary out in the open, fully knowing none of us could read it). I remember the feeling of heartbreak when I returned to Taiwan years later for my grandmother’s funeral and my aunt reported that on the day my grandmother died, he stopped writing. “What’s the point, when the person you love is gone?” she had said, calmly but devastatingly. From these feelings emerges knowledge: I know that he loved his family, near and far, and wanted us to be happy together.

Family, no doubt, was extra precious to him. I found out in my twenties that my grandfather had been given by his birth parents to another family, during an era in which childrearing was dictated more by economic than emotional considerations. I found out that his adoptive family later had a baby boy, and that he loved that brother fiercely. I only saw them together once, and my grandpa was beaming the entire time with the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. He loved us fiercely too, even if we didn’t know it, apparently keeping the photos we sent over from the States in neatly organized photo albums, making note in his journal anytime my mom called home, staying up to date on all we were doing, even if we hadn’t heard his voice in years. The last time my brother visited, my grandpa, with great effort, took my brother out to his favorite soup shop, loving him through food rather than words, as is the Taiwanese way.

I remember the last three times I was lucky enough to see him, when I (by no plan of my own) married a violinist who regularly played in Taiwan. I tagged along on these concert tours, and each time, we made sure to have one dinner with my grandpa, in his 90s by then. I brought him a Yankees cap each year, and he immediately took off his current hat and tried it on, fidgeting with it the entire dinner until it was just right. He would ask me a few basic questions in the loud voice of an almost-deaf old person, and I would do the same, half-shouting, it seemed, in the restaurant. We’d eat, take a picture, and go our merry ways. It seemed so incomplete, so unsatisfactory to me at the time, but at this moment I recognize that it was something. It was more than many people ever get. Our separate lives intersected for a few hours, affirming to each other that we existed and that we cared, and for that I must be grateful.

Gotta get that hat just right!

Gotta get that hat just right!

What I’ve realized this week is that I have somehow always felt the stretch of the branch that reached over the ocean and planted me here. Even if never verbalized until now, I have felt the strain and the absence my entire life. I realize now with the fullness of emotion that I have mourned the loss of my grandfather my entire existence. I’m grateful that his passing comes at a time in my life when I have the perspective to do something about it. I am lucky that my eldest cousins on both sides, those who grew up with my grandparents, are women my age, and some of the most thoughtful, compassionate, kind, and giving people I know (and can write in multiple languages, including English). They are valuable branches of my tree, and I hope the years ahead afford us time and the opportunity to bring our divergent branches closer together, if not geographically, then through shared stories.

We are all living the lives we are given, but there will always be that irrepressible desire to connect to the family we were also given. It’s hard, but I’m going to try my best and forgive myself the rest.

I have no doubt that ah gong, God rest his kind soul, would approve.

Love, always.

Love, always.