A scene from my hometown. Cincinnati, Ohio.
At around 9 p.m., my friends and I pull up to Bellevue Park, a nondescript park close to the University of Cincinnati. We bring our Chipotle bowls and sit out on a ledge overlooking a panoramic view of the city. The faint smells of marijuana waft through the air.
“Nights” by Frank Ocean is playing through the speakers of my nearly-dead phone. We peer out into the city, watching the little lights of sports stadiums, skyscrapers, and stores. Our conversations are sparse, but the quiet is good. Peaceful.
I had lived in the suburbs of the city for 10 years, far removed from this panoramic view. My life in my mid-size Midwestern metropolis was quiet. My coming-of-age story wasn’t a dramatic coming-of-age movie. Never really went to parties. Never had a harrowing breakup experience. Never won a state championship. I didn’t live a lifestyle that was larger than life. So, instead, I lived for quiet moments.
Scrambling an egg on a sizzling pan. Watching the ducks float around the pond. Reading a difficult passage of a book over and over again. And looking into that expansive, picturesque view of Cincinnati.
Ohio is a big state, but it’s a lot of empty space. The drive from Cincinnati to Columbus is quiet thoroughfare through expansive seas of farmland. It’s a tour of the evangelical centers of Ohio as well. There’s a litany of road signs that seem to intimidate people into Christianity. Some of my personal favorites:
A line listing of the Ten Commandments. In big bold letters.
HELL IS REAL. (This one shows up a few times, surprisingly).
But there’s one that’s wonderfully existential.
If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?
During my junior year of high school, I took a class called Catholic Justice and Morality. One of our first assignments for the class was a little macabre: We had to write a eulogy for ourselves.
So I, 17 years old at the time, had to come up with a speech in memory of myself. The things I cared about. The people I loved. The legacy I left behind. But what kind of legacy do you leave behind as a 17-year-old resident of suburban Ohio?
In 2017, Cincinnati native Otto Warmbier came back from North Korea and died of an unknown brain injury.
He allegedly tore down a propaganda poster at the Yangakkdo International Hotel and was subsequently arrested at the Pyongyang International Airport. A member of Warmbier’s tour group, Danny Gratton, said that Otto didn’t resist arrest. He smiled.
So, for a year, he was sentenced to hard labor in a North Korean prison camp. Otto’s parents pleaded with national security officials to bring their son home. 17 months later, he was released by North Korea. He came back in a coma and died six days later. He was 22.
When a 22-year-old dies, what is his legacy?
Was Otto’s legacy contained in those national headlines? A symbol of North Korea’s evil regime. A demonstration of the United States’ diplomatic prowess. A mystery death to which no one has a clear answer. When he died, did Otto Warmbier become a symbol of something else? Or was his legacy contained in how his friends and family remember him? A studious and popular student. Studied at the University of Virginia and the London School of Economics. An active member of his local Jewish community.
Or are we obsessed with the idea of his legacy?
Otto didn’t give his own eulogy, but he did give a salutatorian speech. When he graduated from Wyoming High School, Wyoming is a neighborhood of Cincinnati, in 2013, he ended his oration with a line from “The Office.”
“‘I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ol’ days before you’ve actually left them,’” he mused. “To me that sentence perfectly captures the feeling of this graduation. This is our season finale. This is the end of one great show but just the beginning to hundreds of new spin-offs.”
I wonder what the good ol’ days were for Otto. Did he, like many other Ohioans, enjoy the quiet drive on I-71 North, admiring the intimidating road signs? Did he laugh at the “HELL IS REAL” sign? Did he think about where he would spend eternity?
Did he savor the quiet moments?
In Manila, Philippines, there’s a highway that stretches from the airport to my uncle’s neighborhood. It’s called the Manila Skyway.
Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, so traffic is always miserable. On any given day, you’ll be caught in a dance of bumper-to-bumper movement. But that’s if you don’t pay. That Manila Skyway bypasses most of this traffic. It’s a raised roadway that turns two-hour trips into fifteen minutes. Cars move quickly, speeding along The Philippines’ little autobahn.
I remember one night out with my cousins, travelling to Din Tai Fung — a high-end dim sum restaurant in the middle of the city. This time, however, the driver didn’t take the Skyway; he took the main roads.
It was hot and humid, and all six of us were stuffed into a little sedan. Our skin bonded together by the profuse sweat. The movement of the car was jarring, starting and stopping every few seconds.
But that two-hour trip into the city — no matter how uncomfortable — was a scene I’ll never forget. The windows were rolled down as my cousins and I discussed my embarrassing high school dating adventures and screamed “Lucid Dreams” by Juice WRLD into the void.
These moments are what fill most of our lives. Sitting in traffic. Watching the road signs. Doing weird assignments for class. Starting out into a panoramic view of your city.
Yet, they aren’t what fill up our eulogies. Our lifetimes can’t simply be summarized into a speech that only takes a few minutes. Our eulogies are highlight reels — the best things for which other people remember us. In most cases, they’re pretty flattering: No one wants to make the dead look imperfect or unexciting. But the truth is, life isn’t always perfect or exciting.
We can only be remembered for what we leave behind. Those beautiful little scenes from our lives will die with us. No one to record or remember the quiet, insignificant moments.
So, in that case, maybe we should pay more attention. We live between a multitude of quiet moments, but we aren’t remembered by them. And how I wish I could be immortalized by that beautiful view of Cincinnati.
Contact Robert Castaneros at rcastane ‘at’ stanford.edu.