A Perfect Pandemic Love

The safest approach to dating during a pandemic is to go solo. There’s a faintly depressing paradox here. But I may have inadvertently found the perfect way to love despite distancing.

At a time when pretty much anything and everything can be acknowledged and debated in the public sphere, there’s a part of myself that’s very hard to write about.

I have a love that’s very unfashionable. My paramour and I cannot meet or speak with each other at present and for an indefinite period into the future. There’s no digital or physical evidence of this romance that I can point to, no tagged photos or corny gifts or grand gestures recountable by mutual friends.

I love them deeply and I am as certain of this as I am of my own name. They do not love me — not yet, anyway, or maybe not ever. But the trust and respect I have felt from them for me — the regard with which they held me — was unlike anything I have experienced before or since. Thus this particular asymmetry, which many would consider fundamentally flawed and unstable, actually doesn’t bother me.

This is not a new kind of romantic situation. It’s like having a lover who is off at war in some remote place in the 19th century, or courting someone with the patience born of watching them come to their own conclusions in their own time, except both at once. Every hour that passes is an hour closer to that beautiful day when we’ll meet again in joy and freedom, whenever that may be. But I try not to rely on this future memory too heavily, since it may well not happen. The point of this love, like Life, is the journey and not the destination.

This love used to press into my heart with razor sharp edges that wracked me with hurt, guilt, betrayal, blame, and confusion. With the benefit of time, reason, and understanding, these shards have smoothed into a gentle kaleidoscope, like sea glass in a tumbler. I tamed these feelings out of necessity, since they have nowhere else to go and no one else to harm, but in doing so I’ve also created something beautiful and sustaining. This is the pearl my oyster heart has cultivated, is cultivating now.

The fullness of this love accompanies my steps and soothes my soul. It keeps me from seeking new entanglements — not because of any promises or constraints, but because I don’t feel the thirst and desperation of extended solitude as keenly. The more opulently romantic I feel inside, the more ascetic I become externally. Love is not just in the declarations and the presents and loud togetherness; it’s also in the spaces between, where I think and gather myself in preparation for a new era.

The main guidance I’m left with during this purgatory is to be true to myself. It’s my half of the only thing I have that resembles a pact: they will keep being the person they are and I should keep being the person I am, and when the time is right something magical might happen again like it did for two honest and curious individuals before. There is nothing I could purchase or consume to hasten this process or increase my chances of getting another chance. It’s a capitalist’s nightmare (as is the pandemic).

And so I march on, rendered oddly self-sufficient by wistfulness. I take solace in green landscapes and sunshine because most man-made things pale in comparison to the strange and pure love maturing inside me. Founded as it is on the tenderness of hope mixed with truth, its many layers soften reflected light and make me luminous. Loving this person is nearly indistinguishable now from loving myself. Pandemic or not, I think this is how it should be.

How To Get Superpowers

Superheroes in Antwerp. Photo credit: agracier – NO VIEWS

Let’s look at a classic superhuman power: precognition, or the ability to see the future.

A few years ago, I had just sat down at a table in a Mexican restaurant. The waiter placed a glass in front of me and poured ice water into it. I touched the glass and it was unusually hot — it must have just come out of the dishwasher. I withdrew my hand and waited.

A few seconds later, the glass shattered, turning the table into a mess of water, ice cubes, and shards. I got up calmly to wipe the water off my pants, smiling a little. “I figured that might happen,” I said to my surprised date.

It’s true that, upon touching the glass, I had thought to myself that it would probably break, even though that had never happened before in my experience at restaurants. Some people might think this was a supernatural feat. But others would realize that it was because I had a good enough grasp of physics to observe that the extreme temperature difference between the water and the glass would stress the material enough to fracture it.

We love superhero movies and tales of people who, by virtue of birth or some strange accident, develop powers that help them perform miraculous feats. I grew up watching/reading X-Men and idolizing Jean Grey, who was telepathic and telekinetic (able to move things around with her mind). I thought it would be amazing to be able to read people’s minds, or turn invisible, or zoom around with super speed. I knew, though, that the odds of getting bitten by a radioactive spider or a similar catalytic event were slim. Still, the potential benefits seemed really compelling, so I kept thinking about it in the back of my head.

After decades of observation, research, and physical and mental training of various kinds, I’ve discovered that it’s possible to develop “superpowers” in a more ordinary way because of a certain insight. Superpowers are usually portrayed as defying the natural order in some fashion, as though regular humans are biologically limited to a certain range of abilities and anything outside of that is evidence of some alien influence. However, the actual “rules” being violated aren’t really those of nature, but human expectation. If I could consistently do things that other people didn’t expect, like reading their thoughts or actions with some degree of accuracy and reacting in ways they didn’t anticipate, that would basically be equivalent to telepathy and super speed (minus the cool costumes and special effects). You just have to stay one step ahead of the rest.

In an aikido class, I watched as the head instructor demonstrated how to catch an opponent off-guard. He wasn’t necessarily faster or stronger than your average fit 60-year-old Japanese man, but the way he surprised and took down much larger sparring partners seemed superhuman. One key technique was staying totally relaxed until the very moment he acted. It turns out that humans can unconsciously see muscles tensing, which helps us predict when someone is going to run or punch or what have you because tensing muscles is a precursor to physical action; your eyes detect that someone is preparing to move and you have a fraction of a second to react. But if you shave down that split second by intentionally staying relaxed, it feels to your opponent like the action comes out of nowhere. Likewise, if you’re observant enough to see patterns in the way people think and understand enough of the factors that influence them, you can anticipate their ideas in ways that feel supernatural to them — like you read their mind.

I can’t actually fly like Superman or grow huge muscles on a whim like The Incredible Hulk. But if you strip away the flashy CGI and other Hollywood conventions in your imagination, you might realize that “superpowers” are all around us if we care to look, and are easier to come by than we might think. Whether you use them as a party trick, or to save lives, or to perpetrate evil is up to you, but maybe that’s not the best way to approach it. We’re taught that adhering to the norm is the way to survive and succeed, but it can be very useful to think and behave in ways that people don’t expect, to zig where others zag. It would at least make life more interesting, and I prefer to live in a world where “superpowers” prompt me to recalibrate my own expectations. The more I can acknowledge and learn from the stunning breadth of human ability, the better off I think I’ll be.

What Is ‘Wisdom Forever’?

[I’m 60% of the way to my goal for my GoFundMe! Thanks to everyone who has pitched in thus far.]

My middle name, Jeeyoung, is pretty important to me, which is why I often style my name “Christina J. Kelly” and why I included it in my college nickname “CJ.” It’s the only part of my name that connects me to my Korean heritage, and it translates to “wisdom forever” (智永 in Chinese characters). 

When I was a child and “wisdom” was just a fancy synonym for “being smart,” it felt like a name with great expectations. It meant getting A’s in school and never falling prey to the petty delinquencies pursued by bored and/or traumatized kids in a comfortable Boston suburb. It was invoked by Korean church ladies and older relatives, a temperamental father, and others who have since dissipated out of my life.

After surviving the frying pan of formal education and jumping into the fire of adulthood, it started dawning on me that while I’d generally succeeded in being smart, there was something else to wisdom. It was a more ineffable thing — you couldn’t get a degree in it — and it was hidden in old cliches and greying beards. I carried it around like a dusty plaque inscribed in a long-dead language, incomprehensible but clearly valuable. The “forever” bit was almost as enigmatic, dancing as I was in an ephemeral milieu of startups and futuristic technology. Did anything really last forever? My name was significant but out of touch with my surroundings.

Then 2020 came, with its many undeniable reckonings. I found a new meaning in the phrase that followed me as surely and closely as a shadow, the one that was forged for me personally when I was newly minted in the world yet spoke to something eternal that I couldn’t hope to fully contain. I saw the global climate falling apart, and the overlooked oppression of millions bursting through the facade of the richest country in the world, and a deadly disease that simultaneously isolated humans and forced us to work together. Once seen and understood, I knew I could never return to the blissful darkness of ignorance. This cold wisdom, once attained, was forever.

I’m by nature an optimistic person, though, and I’ve kept searching for a new angle on this topic that wasn’t so bleak in its finality. I’ve come to realize that wisdom isn’t just the awareness of the heralds of doom, but also the capacity to trust that life goes on. It’s possessed by the plants and animals who make their way in an uncertain world with unconscious grace. It’s often resisted by us humans, who fill our heads with strange shoulds and shouldn’ts, made-up things like “power” and “money,” and so on, but I think we all stop struggling and accept it eventually. I don’t have to explain it anymore, because it’s just me. I just have to remember it, and that’s why it’s my name.

Why I Love My Exes

A long-ago work colleague once told me that whenever she broke up with someone, they were out of her life for good. She didn’t want to see them, talk to them, or think about them thereafter. Close the book and MoveOn dot org.

While I understand the logic behind this, it’s never been an approach that works for me personally. It feels like a waste. If I invest an immense amount of time and energy choosing and connecting with and understanding a person as a romantic partner — growing together and individually, learning how to be a team — how does it make sense to ever throw that all away? It would be like refusing to eat the cuisine of a country after I leave, or trying to forget how to write a press release after a high pressure PR job. Sure, there may be some negative associations, but it’s a lot of baby to chuck out for a little bathwater, however dirty it may be.

I do not necessarily recommend this mindset to anyone else, however, simply because it’s an integrated part of the way I approach romantic relationships. Patience has never been an especially strong virtue for me, so over the past 17-odd years I’ve been the initiator in dating more often than not. This grants me the boon of being fairly certain I want to be with the person I’m pursuing, since I’ve already thought things through enough to come to a strong positive conclusion. The major downside is experiencing a lot of rejection over the years, but you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. 

Breakups are difficult, especially if you tend to put everything you’ve got into a relationship. It’s useful to have a cooling-off period where there’s no direct communication, and I have exes I haven’t talked to much in years, due to residual trauma or growing apart or what have you. But I keep them alive in my thoughts and my life through the things they’ve taught me, which I insist on attributing to them. Favorite shows and video games, friends who have shaped me, places I’ve visited and lived, concepts that expanded my outlook on the world — these came to me courtesy of the people I’ve been in love with, and I have no real desire to separate the sources from their massively beneficial effects. There’s a strange notion out there that a personal passion isn’t “real” if you got into it through your significant other instead of on your own. I can say from experience that this is untrue; my tenure at Blizzard was no less “real” because I originally got into StarCraft through an ex.

I do like talking to many of my exes from time to time, and I’m largely pleased with how they (and I) have turned out years after our respective relationships. The pain points and heartache fade over time, and now I can see that the traits I appreciated in them in the first place are still there and often further developed — thoughtfulness, honesty, integrity, improbable accomplishments, a sly sense of humor, the drive to keep growing and perfecting, and so forth. It’s really cool to have friends like these, but the best part is that I can call upon their facsimiles in my own head whenever I wish and learn something new about whatever situation I’m facing. It’s like having a secret advisory board full of interesting people who care about me and always have something insightful to say.

Every one of us contains multitudes. I think I’ve chosen mine well, and I wouldn’t give them up for the world.

Thanks for getting me to 25% of my fundraiser goal! Check out my GoFundMe page here.

Feeding Teenagers, Feeding the Soul: My Life in Korea

In Pyeongtaek, South Korea, the city I’ve lived in for the past month, the air is alive. Inside the house of my hosts: the gentle thrum of air conditioning and the persistent meows of Zelda, a large and ever-hungry cat. Outside on the balcony: the hum of cicadas and the barking of three dogs who single-mindedly confront whatever bird or squirrel might have wandered too close to their territory. The late summer heat, mitigated by recent typhoons, presses on the wind and makes it dance, celebrated by the wind chimes that hang nearby.

Unlike Seoul, a city punctuated only here and there by cultivated parks, here the straight-backed buildings with their glittering or faux stone exteriors are balanced measure for measure by greenery and rolling hills. The slim trunks of trees meander upwards from slope to sky, silently judging humankind’s uglier industriousness. When I occasionally bike into the center of town to buy fresh produce, I’m grateful for the fancy electric motor that helps me pedal uphill with ease and cuts out when I glide downhill.

Each day in the last couple of weeks has revolved around two main events for me: meditation in the morning and cooking in the evening. For a hot minute I thought I’d try to become a Buddhist nun, so I read a bunch of online texts about Buddhism and the monastic life. I concluded that I was far too attached to meat, sex, and video games to make a real go of it, but the philosophy made sense to me overall. I started a practice of meditating for 20-30 minutes after waking up, usually with a YouTube video by Thich Nhat Hanh or someone like that narrating and keeping me on track. Once I have enough space in my mind to encounter the day, I noodle about the house reading, researching, petting dogs, playing video games, and doing chores until late afternoon.

There are three other people currently in this house with me, all around 17-18 years old. Two are siblings and part of triplets, and their brother is off in the USA with their parents getting accustomed to college life. One is a student from South America who’s been stranded in South Korea for the better part of a year due to COVID-19. We get along quite well and the house is certainly big enough for everyone, with grand comfy couches and TVs that I use for instructional yoga videos and the occasional Studio Ghibli movie. I’m not exactly in charge here or responsible for anyone, being a short term guest, but I am the only one who really knows how to cook (plus I enjoy cooking for other people). So, I’ve put myself in charge of the big evening meal where all of us are awake and in the mood to socialize.

As this idyllic moment in my life draws to a close, I can feel the many experiences I’ve had in the past few months — both fictional and IRL — mixing into a stew of useful lessons and references to draw from. I’ve had more fun doing nothing than I really thought I would, and fun is a great teacher. I have a great deal to share with the world and I’m looking forward to doing so as the need arises.

Check out my GoFundMe fundraiser here!

Education: The New Frontier

[Originally published on Facebook 9/4/2020]

My mother likes to say that my path to journalism started in preschool in Wellesley, MA when I would stand watch at the window at the end of the day and announce the parents who were arriving to collect their kids. This allowed for a smooth and joyful transition as my classmates ran to grab their coats for the journey home. It was information arbitrage at its simplest, and it was gratifying to provide a service that was useful and evoked delight. Since then, although my career has led me to much more esoteric corners of news in the video games and esports industry, I’ve always enjoyed being at the forefront of what we see as possible for humanity and relaying information and stories that herald a future of inspiring potential. I joined ESPN Esports in 2017, six months after the website was launched, where my colleagues and I described the glory of a brand-new kind of sport to a wider audience. The global passion and innovation of esports was too explosive to relegate to obscurity, too relatable to consign to niche online forums and uninformed assumptions about awkward teenagers in basements.

After years of moving around the US and the world to find the best stories and the best opportunities to tell them, I’m currently preparing to move back to the Boston area and shift to a new frontier: education. I’ve spent over a decade of my life breaking new ground in the esports and video gaming industry as a communications professional and an Asian woman in a space notoriously hostile to gender and ethnic minorities. I found success even as I grew increasingly dismayed at the doors closed to myself and others like me. Now, I think the answer is to mentor a new generation whose outspoken awareness of social justice will fully explore the possibilities of a world where anyone and everyone has a fair shot at their dreams, regardless of biological characteristics and circumstances of birth.

I will use the money from my fundraiser to support myself as I find opportunities to reach students, especially those who are interested in my former industry. I want to enrich their passion for games and esports with my unique depth of experience. This will give them the edge they need to pursue their careers in a very competitive field without compromising their visions of a more equitable world. The more young people I can inspire to tell the stories only they can tell through all the tools available, the more hope I’ll feel for a better and brighter tomorrow.

Thanks for reading!