Archives for category: Family stories

The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

The shoes
Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

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My dad always described his father’s side of the family as a bunch of sociopaths and his mother’s side as just plain psychotic. I thought he was exaggerating until I heard this story, which has been proven by various witnesses to be true (that is, you can’t make this shit up).

My great-grandfather Cho—my paternal grandmother’s father—was a hulking man with a stringy beard, perennial dark circles under his eyes, and a stare that could be described as visionary or simply unhinged. He was the chieftain of a small southern village in Korea called Young-Yang. One day, in 1932, he received a visit from his new son-in-law—my paternal grandfather—who had come to pay his respects after the wedding.

My grandfather was only 20 years old, and was intimidated by this large man. However, he got a warm reception and was shown to a guest room in the large Cho family homestead. The next morning my grandfather woke up to a wild commotion. He cautiously slid the rice screen door aside and looked out across the courtyard to his father-in-law’s private quarters.

A small crowd from the village had gathered in front of the door to peer in, so my grandfather joined them to see what all the hubbub was about. Inside the elegantly furnished room, Great-Grandfather Cho was screaming and kicking his son, a handsome young man clad in a fashionable Western suit. To my grandfather’s horror, he grabbed his son by the hair and proceeded to drag him all around the room. “This guy is completely insane,” my grandfather whispered under his breath. But the fun had only just begun.

GGF dragging son

The abused young man was the college-educated eldest son of the proud Cho clan. He had incurred his father’s wrath by abandoning the plain-faced wife that had been arranged for him and instead eloping with a beauty from a remote village up north. On top of that, instead of delivering a large dowry to my newly married grandparents as asked, he had used all the money for his own expenses. When Great-Grandfather Cho found all of this out, he went berserk.

After mopping the floor a few times with his son, my great-grandfather dashed outside to gather a bundle of pine boughs. Returning to the room, he dropped the branches on the floor and set fire to them, exclaiming that his family’s honor had been destroyed, so the homestead had to be burned down as repentance. Flames leaped up, abrupt and glorious, and my grandfather watched from outside, wondering whether to flee or to help.

As the room filled with smoke, the villagers snapped into action, retrieving buckets of water and dumping them on the fire. They were all close relatives who had grown accustomed to the Cho family’s theatrics.

News quickly traveled to the Chos’ youngest son. Distraught and racked with shame, he made his way to the house and rushed into his father’s room, hauling a burning pot of charcoal that he promptly dumped on the floor. As flames rose once again, he begged my great-grandfather, “Father, will you die with me to repent for such familial disgrace?” Fortunately, the ad hoc rescue squad was on hand to extinguish the blaze again.

GGF son with brazier

After witnessing the melodrama of his new in-laws, my grandfather was appalled and became very worried about his own future with his new wife. (He had very good reason to be concerned.) He also fretted about his future progeny, since they would carry some of the crazy (another legitimate reason and one that my own father would lament, when raising me).

My grandfather gave an excuse to leave shortly after the event, and made the long journey back home, shuddering the entire way. For years afterward, whenever he was drunk in the evening and in a good mood, he would always begin, as if speaking to himself, “My wife’s father is a real madman …” My grandmother would immediately jump up and storm out of the room, even if it was the middle of dinner. My grandfather would just smile and brace himself for another battle.

Grandparents' wedding mkupAnd to think that it had all started out so nicely. Back row (from left): the deranged great-uncle who tried to set fire to the house; the handsome great-uncle who got dragged around by his hair; and my pyro great-grandfather. (My paternal grandparents, as bride and groom, in front row.)

Glass shatterer

One day, shortly after the chamber pot incident—which had been my grandmother’s ultimate revenge on her husband’s philandering ways—my grandfather was drunkenly prowling around the house. He was hunting for his wife, who had taken to hiding from him in different areas in the spacious compound: in closets, the servants’ quarters, even the rooms occupied by her first-born son and his family. (After marrying, my parents lived in that house for seven years, following Korean tradition.)

Entering a room, my grandfather thought he saw his wife’s diminutive silhouette through a frosted-glass screen. Sure enough, he thought, she must be sitting quietly behind it, wearing her traditional hanbok with her hair tucked into a demure bun. This was his opportunity to avenge her; he could feel the blood throbbing through his veins and an imminent satisfaction so rich that it felt like a heavy slab of raw meat in his mouth.

Tiptoeing up to the screen, my grandfather took a deep breath and swung his wooden cane with all his might, smashing through the glass. Splinters and shards flew everywhere, a blinding, never-ending shower of crystals. Then, with a gasp, he realized that the woman behind it was not his wife. It was his daughter-in-law—that is, my mother—nursing her baby daughter. Glass covered my mother’s hair and a tiny fragment even made its way into her eye. Miraculously, my sister was unharmed, and my mother would recover from the trauma, although barely.

My grandfather never apologized, because men of his status and generation didn’t waste their words that way with women. But if my mother, ever the dutiful daughter-in-law, brought him a vegetable dish for dinner, he didn’t complain about the lack of meat the way he usually did. Instead of bellowing, “What the hell is this? Am I a COW?” and flinging the bowl out the window, as he was inclined to do, my grandfather just tilted his head in thanks and picked up his chopsticks to eat. As in all Asian families, silence speaks volumes—even entire, unabridged libraries.

Chamber pot
Like many Korean men at the time, my grandfather Lee had a mistress whom he’d visit in the afternoons. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he’d clench a cigar defiantly in his teeth and march out the door, wearing an Italian fedora on his enormous bald head. My grandmother would continue to scream after him, making all kinds of threats, but he was used to this.

People who had seen his mistress said that the young woman was so beautiful that a room became brighter when she entered it. She was decades younger than my grandfather, but was attracted to his imposing height, debonair style, and the money he lavished on her. My grandmother, a talented but thwarted artist, was beside herself at her husband’s infidelity.

One day, my grandmother came up with the ultimate revenge. She crawled into the darak, a tiny attic above the front door of the house, and hunched like a coiled snake in that cramped, musty space, waiting for her husband to return from his mistress’s house. Her nose stung and her throat constricted, but she stayed put and kept her eyes fastened on the narrow window. After several hours, my grandmother spied her unfaithful husband returning, his gait a little looser, his hat tilted at a more rakish angle.

As he strolled to the front door, my grandmother opened the window, lifted a chamber pot from their bedroom—brimming with foul contents—and dumped it onto his head. My grandfather’s blood-curdling scream and murderous curses caused the neighbors to come running. My grandmother then did the sensible thing, which was to scurry away and tuck herself into a hidden spot in their servants’ quarters. She smiled to herself as he thundered about the house and managed to avoid him for days.

Eventually, my grandfather’s affair came to an end when he ran out of money to give his mistress. The young woman told him to leave and, when he didn’t, hurled a heavy ash tray at his head. Then she barred him from entering her house again, even though he had bought it for her. My grandmother accepted her husband back with a triumphant smirk and let him know she’d just sold his big, expensive car so he’d never be able to visit that stinking whore ever again.

Arguing couple

Even on their wedding day, you could tell my dad’s parents were not a good match. My six-foot-tall grandfather Lee Dam (whose name sounds like an emphatic curse in English) towered over my grandmother Cho Ah-Young, who stood at barely five feet in her slippers. Together, they looked lopsided and ill at ease—an obvious arranged marriage.

My grandparents were matched in one thing, however: their fearsome tempers. My grandfather Lee would bawl at his wife in the herky-jerky accent of Korea’s Deep South. She would bellow back in kind, in the same dialect, using even dirtier words. You might say they could finish each other’s sentences.

My grandparents were also eccentrics. As a young man, my grandfather had run away and joined a touring carnival until his father dragged him back to Korea. My grandmother was a fiercely independent poet and visual artist. Unlike most women of her generation, she pursued her art with a steely ambition, and my grandfather couldn’t tolerate it. He figured that if his wife could put all her attention into brush painting, he could just go find a concubine. With his wealth and debonair mien, he lured one in—a young woman whose beauty, many have said, illuminated the room when she walked in. She birthed three anemic children who were forever barred from my grandmother’s house.

Sadly, my grandparents’ similarities only made them less compatible and more violent. They fought extravagantly, throwing everything in sight, including food, antiques, furniture—even the entire dinner table—at each other. (Traditional Korean tables are small and portable, but they still make a huge mess.) My grandfather would beat my grandmother until she’d scream and hide in a closet or a corner of the yard, where she’d hatch her next plan to get him back. Then she would lie in wait for her husband and dump the contents of a chamber pot on his head or avenge him some other way.

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They hate each other.

The children of my grandparents were no better. My aunts would pull each other’s hair and fight with scissors in the courtyard. My father and his younger brothers unleashed their aggressions at school, using whatever object they could find as weapons. My uncle wrenched off the top of a school desk and caused major damage to a classmate’s head. My dad set fire to a salvaged plank to appear twice as dangerous to his adversaries.

My dad still shudders when he recalls the constant commotion in the house. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s, he often fled to the train tracks, where he would watch the enormous locomotives slowly roll by in the rain. To this day, he still watches VHS tapes of nonstop locomotive footage (there must be a niche market), perhaps gaining some long-lost solace from them.

My mother, who was forced to live with her in-laws for years, sighs and recalls, “It was a battleground.” She was a terrified 23-year-old bride when she entered the house of the factious Lees. By the time she had her second child, my mother had dwindled to 84 pounds from the constant insurgency around her. Her wedding ring would barely fit the finger of an adolescent girl.

My grandfather passed away in the late ’70s, and his widow lived on to be nominated as a National Treasure of Korea for her prolific art and poetry. Diminutive in her silk hanbok, my grandmother would narrow her eyes with self-pride as she held up another published book or arts award. She’d say, “He never respected this, that bastard. Who has the last laugh now?”

Grandparents' wedding
My grandparents’ wedding in Seoul, 1931
(I think they had my grandmother stand on something to make her seem taller)


When you grow up with a dad who’s probably the only surgeon in America who threw an amputated leg at his boss, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting experiences. I’m happy to finally see a sitcom about an Asian-American family on TV (only took 20 years), but if the network really wanted melodrama, they should have just filmed my family. If I had my own TV series, one of the first episodes would feature an experience I had growing up that is forever seared into my psyche.

But a little background first: My parents had emigrated from South Korea to the US in the late ’60s like many others of their generation. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC, in a solidly middle-class family. I had two older sisters, who were 10 and 12 years older than me (I was apparently a mistake that happened in South Carolina), and a mom who tended house. My dad was a vascular surgeon whose rounds had him driving all around the Beltway. By the time he got home, he was a twelve-pack of carbonated Psycho Korean Dad Whoop-Ass that was shaken up enough to have a cataclysmic effect when opened.

My dad used to constantly yell at the top of his lungs at my sisters and me when we were growing up—even for the smallest things. Each time he did, it felt jarring and sickening, like my innards were sliding out of my body. Given that upbringing, it was no surprise that I developed my own temper. Unlike my dad, I knew when to hide it, at least in front of him. But one day I didn’t hide it and I’ll never forget what happened.

One afternoon, I came home from high school in an agitated state, furious after yet another wasted afternoon of sitting in detention (my home away from home). To my relief, the house was quiet. My mom was out of town, and my dad was still at work. Confident that nobody was home, I launched into a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, screaming in that empty house until my ears rang and my throat was raw.

Then I heard a toilet flush somewhere upstairs and my heart stopped. A few seconds later, my father came stomping down the stairs, his face a frozen mask of outrage. He had gotten home from the hospital early and was relaxing in the bedroom. Clad in only a cotton undershirt and briefs, my dad’s plump, ovoid shape made him resemble a gigantic, white aspirin capsule, but he was still terrifying—even more so because he was uncharacteristically silent. Bracing myself, I muttered any apology, which felt as effective as shielding myself with a Kleenex in front of a smoking volcano.

The Vesuvian eruption I anticipated never occurred. Instead, my father looked strangely tired and spoke in a subdued tone I didn’t recognize. It sounded almost like defeat. “Yoona,” he sighed and paused for what seemed like a full minute. “I grew up with my parents fighting. They fought like the cat and dog. My sisters would also scream at each other. So much yelling in that house.” He looked away and shook his head. “When your sisters grew up, I thought the famous Lee temper had skipped this generation. I was so thankful. But then you came along.”

Then his voice changed and began its inevitable crescendo. “If I ever—EVERhear you scream like that again,” and his eyes began to glow, “the next day you will come home from school and you will find me up there”—my father stabbed his finger toward the rafters of the house—“hanging from the ceiling. I will have hung myself to AVENGE you.” He fixed his stare on me for a few seconds longer and turned away. Then the angry aspirin capsule mounted the stairs and retired to bed.

Death threat

I was so shocked that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Once my horror subsided, I phoned my older sisters, who were both remarkably cavalier about the incident. One said, “He’s all talk.” The other reassured me, “Don’t worry. He’s got too much ego to commit suicide.” Suddenly becoming a frightened little girl, I whimpered, “Are you sure? I don’t want him to ki-i-ill h-hi-i-mself,” and sobbed heavily into the phone.

That day I vowed never to show my temper around my dad again—if not out of self-preservation, for his preservation.

Some teenagers get grounded and have to forfeit their allowance or do extra chores as punishment. But lucky me, I get a dad who threatens suicide as a form of personal revenge. But it’s just another day in the life of the Lee family. Now how’s that for an entertaining (and mildly traumatizing) TV series?

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My grandmother and me, 1994

To my four-year-old self, my paternal grandmother was an incomprehensibly old woman with a baffling cross-hatch of wrinkles that divided her brow vertically and horizontally like a waffle. When I visited my grandmother again in Seoul, Korea, at age 19, I was shocked at the resemblance between us. Not only were we physically similar—with tiny eyes, an oval face, and diminutive stature—but our gestures were also identical, even though we had met no more than four times in our lives. We both gave an upper-lip snarl to express contempt and used the same grandiose gesticulations when making an important point. Plus, we both had voices of an uncannily similar timbre, along with a fiery temper that was passed down through generations, an heirloom of dubious value.

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My grandmother at age 16 (left); me at age 22 (right)

My grandmother, Cho Ah-Young, was a writer and a visual artist, as I am. A passionate advocate of her own work, she weathered adverse conditions, including two wars and an abusive husband, to create and disseminate her poetry. In the ’80s my grandmother discovered the virtues of the Xerox machine and spent blissful hours at the neighborhood copy place replicating her masterpieces. She would return home with armfuls of duplicates and beamingly distribute them among her neighbors. My grandmother later boasted to us that she had been recommended as a National Treasure of South Korea for her poetry. She also regarded herself as the “Second Greatest Brush Painter of South Korea” (the first being her rival Chul-Gyung Lee). All bragging aside, her talent was palpable, and she was well regarded in Korean literary circles.

Though a natural self-promoter, my grandmother was introspective and seemed to enjoy having her picture taken alone. There are many portraits of her as a young woman, established in her self-identity but searching for something beyond the painted backdrop and the camera.

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My grandmother in her early twenties, Seoul, Korea

Similarly, I have spent late nights drawing self-portraits in front of the mirror, usually during times of crisis or profound loneliness. The only ballast I have then is my own face. While sketching, I seek shelter in the moment and solace in the familiarity of my reflection.

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Self-Portrait with Headphones, 2008

When I visited my grandmother again in my twenties, she heartily confided to me that she used to love drinking and dancing—which happened to be two of my favorite activities. For a woman living in conservative South Korea during the early twentieth century, my grandmother was a radical and irrepressible free spirit. I courted trouble as a teenager by becoming a punk rocker and eventually an anarchist. Like my grandmother, I was outspoken in my political views and attended many demonstrations, including the infamous Seattle WTO protests in 1999.

Even though my grandmother spoke only anachronistic Korean and I spoke late-twentieth-century English, we still managed to understand each other. My grandmother’s method of conveying things to me was to speak as if she were instructing a three-year-old. She repeated phrases over and over with exaggerated pantomime and sound effects. “For pretty lips, put some honey—you know … honey … booong booong [the sound Korean bees make]—on your finger and do this,” she’d say. Then my grandmother would purse her lips and rapidly poke them with her finger, making a sound like “muh-muh-muh-muh.”

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With my grievously limited Korean skills, I could discern little of what my grandmother was saying when she inevitably got on the subject of Korean history. To my ears, it sounded like she was saying, “Big mountain … Korea … war … LOTS of dead people.” Then my grandmother would clutch herself and heave a melodramatic sigh to emphasize the tragedy. It was a bit like watching the Muppet Show, but I would nod agreeably and try to look empathetic.

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My grandmother was famous for her poems about the maudlin history of her oft-colonized country. My greatest regret is not being able to read and fully understand her poetry; it feels like gazing at a walled garden and seeing only the tops of its vivid blossoms. It makes me sad that I will never fully understand the literary decisions that went into her work and, likewise, my late grandmother will never know my writing. But one day I will hire a translator and enter the garden she painstakingly cultivated.

Scan 7

During one of my last visits with her, my grandmother positioned herself in front of me, firmly placing her hands on my shoulders, and gazed into my eyes with mute adoration. We were sitting opposite each other, like mirror images, on the floor of her traditional Korean house. I now realize that this gesture was her best, most affectionate attempt at bridging the significant cultural and generational divide between us. She died a few years later, in 2000, on the cusp of the Millennium, having experienced America only through letters and photos.

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A decade and a half later, my grandmother’s voice reemerged from a letter I found at my parents’ house. She had written the letter in response to two drawings I’d created as a sixth grader and mailed to her in Seoul. My mother translated, “Thank you for the sketch of myself and the self-portrait you sent of yourself. We do look alike. I was so surprised to find out that you drew those. I like to draw too. Yoona, you make your grandma very proud.”

While drawing her portrait from a photo, I had been impressed at the steely woman in dark-framed glasses staring into the camera. Every now and again, approaching my forties, I catch a glimpse of her in the mirror.

Scan 2

My grandmother never made it to the States, but I reside in Seattle and try to continue her legacy in my own way. Like her, I craft and obsessively refine text and image; her spirit, even across cultures, is unmistakable in my work. Maybe one of these days, I’ll enter her garden. I know she’s already entered mine.

Scan 2

One day my dad made history at his hospital at southern Virginia, and it wasn’t pretty. If you’re at all squeamish about severed limbs, at this point you should probably stop reading.

Earlier, a man had been wheeled in to the hospital with a raging infection in his leg. The hospital reached a consensus that the leg needed to be removed below the knee. My dad, the surgeon in charge of the amputation, examined the man with great care and found the infection had spread to where the leg needed to be removed above the knee.

My dad decided to modify the operation, even without the hospital’s consensus, and perform it immediately to save the man’s life. He required the staff to stay beyond their quitting time of 4 p.m., which upset many of them. One nurse ran off to complain to the director of the operating room, a large, intimidating woman who was feared by orderlies and surgeons alike.

My dad had finished the amputation when the director stormed into the operating room, demanding that he stop what he was doing. She yelled that surgeons could not break protocol by changing the surgery without consensus and keeping the staff after hours. Eyes blazing, my dad marched toward the director of the operating room and shouted, “Youre here for the hospital. Well, I’m here for this man,” and pointed to the patient. Planting himself in front of the director, my dad demanded, “Get out of here!” The woman didn’t budge, so my dad bellowed, “I’m going to count from 1 to 10, and if you’re not out of here, I will kill you!” In his blood-spattered gown, clenching a scalpel, he must have looked convincing.

The woman stubbornly held her ground, and then my dad did the thing that made the headlines: He grabbed the amputated leg and hurled it at the director of the operating room. She dodged it and fled, screaming bloody murder.

Now, it had felt great to throw the leg and everything, but my dad soon suffered the consequences. He was immediately put on probation and forced to work under a famous and eccentric heart surgeon. This surgeon was known for scheduling operations at whatever hour caught his fancy—even 3:00 in the morning. “It took this guy hours to set every single machine before a surgery and we had to all wait for him!” my dad recalls. But the surgeon was remarkably successful in his field, mainly because of his exacting, obsessive nature.

Thirty years after the leg incident, my dad visited his former hospital and was introduced to some young residents. The young men fell silent and one tentatively asked him, “Wait, are you the Dr. BB Lee who … ?” They probably didn’t know whether to get his autograph or dash out the nearest door.

As for the amputee, he was said to have survived, apparently with no knowledge that his leg had been used by a madcap surgeon for such a barbarous–and memorable–deed.

Home repair lo res

My dad, BB Lee, was a surgeon who had hands that could cure patients, but he still couldn’t fix a broken appliance. I dreaded having to accompany him to the basement to make a home repair. He’d demand I hold the flashlight and swiftly hand him whatever instruments he needed. Then he’d revert to his operating room voice: “Scalpel. Screwdriver.” If I didn’t grab it in time, or if he said, “Plier-thingy … look like plier, you know …” and I hesitated, then my dad would quickly change from industrious DIY electrician to raging Hurricane BB Lee.

It didn’t help that my dad emitted some kind of weird electromagnetic energy that seemed to affect gadgets around him. If he held them or even stood near them for too long, the phone would stop working or the remote control would freeze up. If my dad couldn’t fix these things, he would just hurl them against a wall or stomp on them, yelling, “FUCKS.” (Gotta love the angry Asian dad English there.) One time he smashed a brand-new laptop on the floor when a software program wouldn’t open. As the liquid crystal began to leak onto the kitchen tiles, his brother came into the room and asked, “Did you restart it?” My dad looked momentarily sheepish before launching into a diatribe against all computers in general and the DUMB STUPID people that design them.

Fortunately, at the hospitals where my dad worked, there were technicians who made repairs. Otherwise, there would have been a lot of yanked wires and strewn debris in his wake. And lots of yelling. Maybe even some lawsuits.

Ironically, the man who could save lives, using delicate craftsmanship on arteries and veins, couldn’t replace a light switch to save his life.