Tragedy at Yonaguni Island


”Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” ~Robert Kennedy

Life can be full of tragedy, but only if we make it that way.  Every once in a while, there comes along a heartbreaking tale that is almost too hard to believe.  This one I experienced on a remote Ryukyuan island, seemingly far from the harder toils of life.

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Infamous Kuburabari can be found at the top-center of this rather animated map.

Kuburabari, located near the west tip of Yonaguni Island, is near to Kubura village.  An infamous gorge located there is about 60 feet long, 25-30 feet deep, with a width on top of about 10-15 feet.  In the age of the Ryukyu Dynasty, foreign rulers imposed a severe tax based on population throughout this island chain then under their control.  It is said that during these sad times, to avoid an unaffordable increase in population pregnant woman were made to attempt to leap the gorge, ensuring only the strongest mothers and by extension babies survived.  But more directly to the point, to ensure that most of the woman and fetuses didn’t survive the attempt….

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Contemplating the Past

A terrible tale by any stretch of the imagination, something of which to be ashamed.  Perhaps that is why in more recent times the Yonaguni Island Board of Education has claimed the story to be only a local folk tale.  That said, Kubub Bari remains designated as an important prefectural scenic tourism spot, with signage explaining his haunted past, and with a small Buddhist altar located on-site.  Besides, there is always some measure of truth in folklore, else it wouldn’t exist.

When you visit however, you can take the edge of this sadder side of the site by going in the very late afternoon.  You see, the hill the gorge is sliced into also happens to be the last hill in Japan to see the sunset, being on the western portion of the most western island in all of Japan.

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It is said that Satsuma and his clan were ultimately responsible for such a horrific outcome.  Based in the southernmost part of Kyushu, Japan and looking to rebuild their fortunes after defeats in the Japanese home islands, they built 100 warships to carry 3,000 samurai invaders to send to the Ryukyus.  Eleven years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Port, the Satsuma battleships left on a mission of violence on February 6, 1609.

Satsuma’s troops took over Nakijin Castle on Okinawa, then burned it to the ground as they slaughtered the local peoples they encountered on their way to capital city and castle of Shuri.  On April 1, 1609, Satsuma’s invaders rushed into Shuri Castle. Then Ryukyuan King Sho Nei was arrested and the Kingdom’s treasure and important official documents were stolen.  The Ryukyu Kingdom suddenly came under the control of Satsuma.

Ships of the Type Used by Satsumo

Ships of the Type Used by Satsuma

Removing the deposed Sho Nei and his ministers to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Satsuma was free to prepared a wholly one-sided treaty, which was imposed on the King’s offices by force.   The Ryukyu’s “Golden Age” of peaceful self-rule had suddenly turned into a Dark Age under Satsuma colonization.  For the next 270 long years, the people of the Ryukyus suffered under Satsuma’s control, paying heavy taxes and impossible tribute to their new, brutal rulers.

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

All the Kingdom’s people between 15 and 50 years of age now had to pay taxes.  Some tales talk about a “head tax” (jinto-zei) rather than age.  In some villages in the Yaeyama islands (southern-most islands in the Ryukyu chain), stone pillars can still be found by which children were measured; once over the stone’s reach, taxes were to be imposed.  To make things easier, Satsuma blamed the taxes on the deposed King, and claimed to have come to the rescue of the peoples of the Ryukyu Kingdom.   Obviously, these lies and shams became rather obvious when the taxes were never lifted or eased, and, in fact, were not abolished until 1903 and only after a strong petition from the local peoples once under Japanese formal rule starting in 1879.

On Yonaguni Island, some claim that is was Satsuma himself who introduced sad and inhumane methods of population control.  One method was Tonguda, the rice paddy located at the center of the island.  Periodically, all islanders between ages 15 and 50 had to dash to the paddy on some signal, and those who couldn’t get there in a set amount of time were beheaded.  Obviously this most effected the physically handicapped, injured and sick….

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Placard explaining the rocks and small Buddhist altar at far right

yonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-the-jumping-point-for-sadnessyonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-rocks-to-jump-acrossAnother, more infamous method was the one detailed here:  killing of pregnant women.  Periodically, all pregnant women of the island were forced to line up on one side of the Kuburabari ravine.  They were then ordered to attempt to hurdle the ravine by jumping to the other side.  Of course attempting to leap a gap of 10-15 feet was mostly impossible for women in such a state, and most of them died after bashing against the rock of the opposite side and falling deep into the ravine.  If that is not bad enough, there are claims that most of those women who miraculously succeeded their leap of faith ended up suffering miscarriages.  The islanders usually had to pay their taxes in food (mostly rice), and only by reducing the number of mouths to feed could the taxes be afforded.  Similarly, Satsuma realized he could receive maximum tribute if he were to “help” control population.

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Sadly, there is only the smallest memorials altar placed at the site.  Although there is tourist parking and signage explaining the nature of the area, they are as much about observing the sunset here as remembering a darker time.  It seems in a formal sense that Japanese officials have ignored and discarded this shameful history as simple island myths and legends not to be taken literally.

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But the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  For me, myth and legend do not exist in a vacuum.  And I would rather say a silent prayer for all those lost here, rather than ignore the possibilities.  Rather than to act as our guide in life, tragedy can rather result in wisdom for life.

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The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa: Guardian Shisa


“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”  ~ Sigmund Freud

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”  ~ Bernard Williams

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Thankfully, not this kind of Cat-Dog.

Sometimes I really want a dog.  These daze (pun intended), maybe even most of the time.  I have been suffering a rather serious (physical) ailment, and a family member who would be ecstatically happy to see me come home, who would be a whore for my love, and who would understand at least a few f-in’ words of English would certainly alleviate my darker moods.

But don’t tell all that to Cleopatra.  Who is certainly not a dog.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

A yawn is about as close to a roar as we get out of Cleo.

Cleo is a cat.  And I have had many.  Cats I mean, not Cleos.  Although I do adore the right dog, I am also honest with myself:  I, in no way, want the daily duties (and doodies) that caring for a canine involves.  Leaving for a long 3-day weekend?  Just leave dry food and water out for the cat and she’ll slothfully sleep away your absence.  Have a social engagement straight from work?  Don’t worry about the cat pissing on your curtains and leaving you a welcome-home surprise on the living room rug!  Unless you count vomit.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop lion-dog at Pizza in the Sky

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, conceptual Shisa Talisman in the Okinawan Prefectural MuseumScuba Diving Okinawa Nov 2013, Maeda Point, Shisa Dog standing watch at the CapeLuckily, Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the Far East of Asia, offers just the right mix…of bothShisa (シーサー Shīsā,), or “lion-dogs,” are perhaps the ubiquitous, most visually recognizable and culturally distinct artifact of the Okinawan culture.  These effigies, large and small and stylized in any number of ways, can be found standing guard on most tiled rooftops, flanking the gates to homes, or gracing the entrances to businesses and shops all over Okinawa, all to help ward off evil.

Alexander and Cleopatra

Alexander and Cleopatra

Okinawa Nov 2013, Hedo, shisa dog in the mountains11165104594_9d07055525_bDon’t get me wrong, I still very much love my cat.  Problem is my cat apparently loves my wife…more.  Cleo was adopted along with her brother by me in 2010 BJE (Before Jody Era) when they were just eight weeks old.  The previous winter Sammy, my favorite cat ever (don’t tell Cleo this, either), went missing.  After somewhat recovering from that mammoth loss, I was ready for more cat-company.  Cleopatra and Alexander grew up as indoor cats, but become indoor-outdoor tabbies since Jody’s house came complete with a small pet-door.  Cleo was always very aloof and distant, letting her brother be the warm, loveable cat.  The very day he went missing, however, her personality underwent a radical metamorphism.  Afterwards a much more vocal and affectionate feline…for a girl-cat…she is still no…well…dog.

Distant Cousins - Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Distant Cousins – Gothic Gargoyles of Europe

Foo Dogs

Foo Dogs

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa, clay lion-dog at Ryukyu Mura

A relative of the Chinese shishi, lion-dogs were first introduced to Okinawa in the 14th century via trade and cultural exchange with the nearby Chinese mainland.  However, shisa and its forerunner shishi both share a common ancestry with the Persian empires of long ago, where they took the form of more traditional (Asiatic) lions, and which traditions moved East with trade on the fabled Silk Road.  Interestingly, they along with European-centric and beasty gargoyles of gothic times all serve very similar roles.  The oldest shisa on Okinawa, dating to 1498, continues to stand guard on a bridge at Shuri, although now certainly worn and weathered.

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

Jody with the old Tomori Stone Shisa on Okinawa

If you haven’t figured it out, I remain a rather hard-core cat person.  I respect their lofty independence and envy their sleep schedule.  But sometimes it’s very frustrating to talk to your cat, only to be met with vacant, silent contempt.  It’s beyond me that cats just can’t figure out certain words (besides their names), or bring a frickin’ toy back after they bat it all the way under the large love-seat in the corner.

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Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisa dog as a fountainOkinawa Nov 2013, Yomitan, cracked and weathered shisa guard dogChinese guardian lions (Chinese: 獅; shī; literally “lion”), often called “Foo Dogs” in the West, date back to roughly the 1st Century BCE, and by the 6th century CE, they were popularly depicted guardian figures.  Pairs of guardian lion statues (hence shi became shishi) are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other structures throughout China and in most corners of the globe where Chinese have settled, especially in local “Chinatowns.”

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo did use to hang out on our roof.

Cleo doesn’t do much guarding around our household, except from maybe spiders and roaches.  The mere sound of the doorbell brings on high-alert, and I’m not sure who would be more of a scaredy-cat if an actual ghost were to appear.  All I know is that she fits easily under the bed, which in the feline realm apparently is instinctually employed as a domestic surrogate for cavernous and secret shelter.

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My daughter, long ago.

My daughter, long ago.

Okinawa Jan 2014, Shisa, rooftop shisa lion-dog at Peace Prayer Park

One the of primary differences between Chinese shishi and Okinawa shisa is that in the former’s case, the male rests his paw upon a gold-embroidered ball, which in Chinese imperial historical contexts represents worldwide supremacy, while the nurturing female guards a cub with a frightful open-mouth roar.  Okinawan shisa are also displayed in a pairing of the sexes, one with a closed mouth on the left to keep in spirits of virtue, and the other on the right with an open mouth to frighten away the wicked.  Although there is some debate about their sex, it seems that most often the male is considered the closed-mouth lion.  This may or may not have anything to do with how much women like to talk…(wink).

This one is pretty clearly a female....

This one is pretty clearly a female….

Okinawa Nov 2013, Shisas full of color and character in Yomitan 26730672213_38b3305216Although originally fearsome and regal guardians of royal palaces and shrines, today’s Okinawan shisa are found to be much more frolicsome, and sometimes almost cartoonishly humorous, especially like those in tourist gift shops.  Long before Jody actually considered moving to Asia, she banished my old shisa from the inside of her house.  She actually was a little disturbed by their fearsome, foreign appearance.  They sat outside bordering our front door, and since they were made of resin and not designed for outdoor use, they were ravaged by the Florida weather and sub-tropical sun.  Our domicile, however, remained shielded from supernatural things bad, and they continue to stand watch today at the threshold of our condo in Okinawa.  But this time they are just inside the door (wink)!

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

My well-worn and worthy Shisa still standing watch.

Now that Jody understands their fundamental role as protectors, she is at ease with their presence.  And she even wants to replace the ones damaged.  Quite honesty, though, it’s hard to push my shisa aside simply to get “fresher” ones.  It seems at once disloyal and superstitiously unethical, both reasons why I have undoubtedly failed to settle on a replacement pair.  All this much to Jody’s ongoing chagrin and growing guilt.  If she had her way, we would have a whimsically playful pair of protectors.  What good would that do?!?

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

Our newest Okinawa Shisas from Ishigaki-jima

8278755027_e2e046ce4c_o8520049532_b55d329c7c_bCleo is actually highly regarded by all our friends and cat-sitters.  She is playful, seeks attention, and has a serious and somewhat embarrassing fetish for shoes, socks and feet (the more smelly the better).  But only men’s feet.  Go figure.  I do believe that while she may not have spider-sense about impending earthquakes that happen here – she barely wakes up for them – she does influence our potentially paranormal surrounds.  I’m just not sure which way.

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So, do I really want a dog?  Nah, I don’t.  Me and my miniature lion guard get along just swell.  After all, I’m counting on her to help protect me from my illness getting any worse.  And while a puppy’s tongue may be good therapy, a purring cat’s trusting cuddle is sometimes all the security I need.

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For more photos of Okinawan Shisa, please see my Flickr collection here:  Shisa

For more reading on Shisa, please see my blog on the Tomori Stone Lion

Finally, to hear about how I almost killed during our move to the Far East, see Nine Lives & Hard Travels

Placenta: Prescription or Placebo?


“Thin people and fat people are the difference.”  ~ loose (machine) translation of a Facebook advertisement for Fasty Placenta

Fasty Placenta - not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

Fasty Placenta – not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

This one is hard to…uhmm…swallow:  Japanese women (and a few men, I guess) ingesting placenta to stay blemish-free and thin!

At first when seeing the commercials on our Japanese satellite TV channels months ago, I thought surely that using the word to product name containing “Placenta” was a way to differentiate and market yet another vitamin/dietary supplement, which it appears from the frequency of such commercials that the Japanese adore (and buy) on a scale I could have never imagined.

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But real placenta?  Like in tissue from animals…or humans??  Sounds horrific, and let me assure you, the goo they show on TV that actually goes in the capsules being peddled, looks equally as bad.  So, it appears I may have stumbled onto the mystery of how here in the Far East, sexy young-looking women still wearing their high school sailor-girl uniforms are actually in their 40s and 50s, due to the magical life-sustaining power of pig, horse, or lamb placenta.

Placenta to the rescue!

Placenta to the rescue!

Actually, when you stop and think about it, consuming placenta, no matter from what type of mammal, is more akin to one of the horror movies where zombies roam the countryside hand out-stretched, moaning away for brains.  Or, maybe to be more culturally current and hip, conjure up an image of vampires in their tormented and undying search and constant consumption of warm, thick blood.

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well....

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well….

Think I’m kidding about placenta?

I’m not.  Placenta, human and animal, has been used traditional Chinese and other Asian traditional medicines for thousands of years, usually to treat infertility, impotence, or as a dietary supplement for certain wasting diseases.  Like the longevity of booze and smokes (used in moderation), we probably shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a millennia of culturally medical knowledge; if a behavior has survived that long as part of the human condition, there is probably something beneficial to it.  Oh, and many animals do eat their placentas after giving birth.  But, as we homosapiens are generally more well-fed (and easier grossed-out) than our animal brethren, the animalistic example and reasoning of eating “after birth” (pun intended) doesn’t really apply.

I would've used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

I would’ve used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

Here in Japan many companies (Check out the FB page for Fasty Placenta!) are hawking a plethora of porcine (pig) placenta products, varying from jellies, to facial skin masks, to soaps, to easy-to-swallow capsules, to what I can only assume are less easy-to-swallow drinks.  Most of the claims are for weight loss and general health (for the ingested formats), and for younger, more beautifully radiant babyish skin (for the soaps and topical treatments).  There actually is some casual evidence that the hormones contained in placenta tissue can help treat postpartum depression and menopause.  Men would certainly pause (there’s a pun there too) if they knew their wives were consuming placenta!

Eating it probably shouldn't be one of them.  Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear....

Eating it probably shouldn’t be one of them. Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear….

Nihon-Sofuken offers a full array of placenta products.  What’s impressive about most of the placenta prerogatives are the numbers associated with just how much “ingredient” one derives from a dose.  Claims of 100,000, 270,000, or even 300,000 milligrams abound, which sounds impressive…as an advertising ploy.  Converting to grams, though, and the numbers come way down into the 10’s of grams, equivalent to an ounce or less.  Think of it as a shot and knock it on back.  A beer chaser is highly encouraged.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number!  Too bad it's placenta.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number! Too bad it’s placenta.

Why?  Because although one of the selling points online translates to something like “completely remove blood which cause bad smell and rot via a special extraction method,” you know that it just can’t be appetizing!  Although one company touts that they “erase the high-density animal smell of the pig placenta (it does not smell like ham, bacon, or pork chops!) with a peach or apple flavor,” I’d still much rather have it taste like bacon.  Bacon goes with everything!

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

In spite of the Japanese claims, I can find no real peer-reviewed and published results showing any health benefit efficacy, and in the West, such claims and treatments are best considered pseudo-science.  I have read that even here in Japan there is enough concern about adverse effects from placenta tissue that some of the more invasive treatments preclude people from donating blood as an additional safeguard to help prevent transmission of pathogens.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

But of course it’s not just a Far East Fad.  Check out this placenta cookbook…available on Amazon, in English.  I’m not kidding.  At least in this form the tissue is cooked, and apparently, served with stewed vegetables…but it’s 100% human.  The FDA in the United States maintains that placenta extract may be potentially hazardous and its use is subject to restrictions and requirements of warnings.

No matter.  It appears that people ‘round the world will do – and eat most anything to remain youthful and trim.

Thank goodness no bad smell!

Thank goodness no bad smell!

How far are YOU willing to go??

Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


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“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”  ~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

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It’s indeed strange how myths East and West can and do converge.  Take, for instance, the idea of the end of winter and beginning of spring, which for each direction, basically comes down to soybeans and shadows.

Let me explain.

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

Setsubun bean throwing festival at Zoujouji Temple3Setsubun is a traditional Asian ceremony with origins from the Chou Dynasty of China (introduced to Japan in the 8th/9th centuries), designed to dispel demons at the end of winter/beginning of spring, and is usually observed on 3 February.  The practice of scattering roasted soybeans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away any malcontent demons that might have been lurking during the cold winter months is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil in Japan.  The term setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節), but has come to be specifically applied to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which also corresponds to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient lunar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.  Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun became associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.  Mamemaki originally began as an imperial event, but later mixed with indigenous customs of throwing beans at the time of rice-seedling planting during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).  To this day, in many places in Japan, setsubun rites include those associated with forecasting the year’s crop and spells for a plentiful harvest.

Sounds crazy and superstitious, right?  But no more than our own Groundhog Day….

I chose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

I choose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on February 2nd, just one day apart from its counterpart in the East, and is to a harbinger of spring.  Amazing how ancient time-keepers managed to independently align these events based on the sun and moon!  According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a gopher emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early (he doesn’t see his shadow); if it is sunny, the gopher will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  Given this tradition, setsubun seems not so silly, and, in fact, seems to be a lot more fun!

setsubun-mask

P5211316ONIDuring setsubun soybeans are roasted (peanuts are becoming more popular) and placed in a small wooden box of the type used for measuring rice or sake.  The “fortune beans” are scattered inside and outside the house or building by the male head of household to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons!  In with good luck!”) and the sound of slamming doors.  It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age for good luck, and then one more for the year ahead.  In more recent years, especially in the Kansai region of Japan, famous temples and shrines host well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year that help throw beans at evil spirits during “demon dances.”

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than...say...top hats.

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than…say…top hats.

The celebration of Groundhog Day in America began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has origins much deeper into ancient European lore wherein a sacred badger or bear was used as the prognosticator of the weather, in preparation for the planting season…much like setsubun is tied to early farmers!  By the way, it also bears (pun intended) similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar (lunar-based, just like that of China), which is celebrated on February 1 and also involves weather forecasting.

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So, spring this year – and each and every year – comes down to customs and traditions East and West:  Soybeans and Shadows.  But, if we take a step back and really look at culture, custom, tradition, and even religion, we can find many more similarities than differences.  It seems that the human condition is inescapable; we all, ‘round the world, live around the same physics, share the truly international language of math, endure all the same trials and tribulations of life, and embrace very similar metaphysical wants, hopes and dreams.  We all need to strive and remember that we all much more the same than we are ever different.

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Punxsutawney Phil, however, seems to be accurate only 39% of the time since 1887 on the length of winter.  I, for one, will embrace the myth of throwing soybeans to ward off evil rather than depend upon the myth of a shadow for the warmth of spring.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  ~Robert Fulghum