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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Spies, Spills, & Curls

Checking the news to see if someone you know has been indicted for espionage activities involves some of the same emotions as checking the wedding announcements for glimpses of men on whom you used to have crushes. Whereas the latter is relatively normal, the former is Decidedly Bizarre. Thus far, I haven’t recognized any of the names of the Russian nationals in the recent FBI indictment —I noticed that American University seems to be a hotbed of spies (much to my total lack of shock)—possibly because I left the DC Russianist circle long prior to any suspected untoward activity. Back in the day, during the Cold War, Georgetown was supposedly prime CIA recruiting ground, with aspiring Russianists being approached by clandestine agencies and asked to apply for jobs with them. However, this never happened to me! Perhaps because a tell-all blogger who corresponds with Russian friends on a frequent basis is not the sort of agent they’re looking for?

Speaking of correspondence with Russian friends, I am supposed to spend my long weekend at the end of this month with Priya and her family at their pension. We’ll hope to make some progress on our joint publishing efforts. My friend Irina‘s daughters have yet to be able to persuade the St. Petersburg publisher of Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands to give us written assurances that it is OK to go ahead with the English American publication. I wrote one daughter last night and asked if perhaps the publisher was stalling for cash. Which would be hugely tacky.

People being tacky with regards to money has been on my mind since Sunday, because we went to our usual seaside coffee shop after church and when I went inside to pick up the tray, it was loaded with four tall glasses brim full with our drinks, and two porcelain plates with our bread on them. I picked the tray up 2 inches off the counter and everything promptly fell over, dousing the countertop and the front of the counter and splashing on my shoes. It was way too heavy and awkward for any person to deal with. Accidents happen, but I thought it was particularly indecent of the store that they blamed me, and refused to replace June’s and my drinks without another full payment! Their smoothies are already highway robbery at 6500 KRW per glass, and without having been able to taste the first ones, we were required to shell out for seconds. And it’s not like we were one time customers. We come every week. We’ve spent hours talking with the owner (he wasn’t there yesterday)—much good that did us! Out of sheer “I’m sorry that happened to you” business sense (never mind their fault in having overloaded the tray) they should have offered to refill everything free of charge, or at most charged half price. I was really disgusted, and declared I will not go back to that coffee shop. Ever. I forgive people, but I don’t forget bad institutions. Lousy customer service. I have since been told this is unfortunately fairly typical Korean practice.

After three days of formal working out (current weight: 62.1kg), my arms do look better. Of course, this is not just because of the stretches and exercises I’ve been doing since even before I joined the gym, but also because of the reduction in calories: When I long for carbs I have been going for a handful of medjool dates or a monster carrot. I haven’t been eating very much bread at all, and relatively little rice. Incidentally, gnawing a giant raw carrot like a rabbit is an excellent way to stay awake when you’re trying to edit something late into the night. Better than coffee.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sacred & Profane Trails

I don’t think a person is necessarily a good judge of his or her own singing ability. Everyone sounds great (well, most people) warbling in the shower or the stairwell, but when it comes to carrying a coherent tune at an audition, those of us who have flattered ourselves tend to be in for a rude awakening. At the beginning of our eight mile hike yesterday, Reese and I were reminiscing about our similar grade school experiences singing alone for our music teachers, and how we were each dismissed with embarrassing abruptness. I recalled being tremendously jealous of my best friend, who was selected to sing a solo, whereas I wasn’t even chosen for the show choir. I couldn’t hear the difference then. Now I can. We agreed that there’s nothing quite as sexy as a good singing voice—even a fairly homely guy who can sing well is surrounded by an aura of attractiveness. Of course, it’s a bonus if he’s already gorgeous (e.g. Park Seo Joon).

Both Reese and I initially regretted not having gone snorkeling instead of forging ahead with the hiking plans. The ambient temperature was high but not brutal. However, the UV index was blistering—so much so that the backs of my hands (the only part of my anatomy that wasn’t covered with clothing or ray-repellant cream), were burned. I had stopped to wash my hands after picking up more than $2 worth of what may have been urine-soaked change from the side of the road—it looked like some drunk person had decided to relieve their bladder and their pocket weight at one go—and I didn’t have any cream to put on them afterwards. Today they ache like they’ve been scalded.

We took a long bus ride to the beginning of Olle 9, and then quickly missed the route as we talked and climbed up an impressively steep paved road in the sunshine. Giant red dragonflies skirted above a brimming concrete trough like so many koi fish who had escaped their pond but were inexorably drawn back to it. We were soaked with sweat, and I had drunk half my 3 liters of lukewarm Camelbak water supply before we reached the top of the hill, which had a beautiful clear view for miles of the coastline and the many houses and apartments springing up among the orchards on the slopes. Then we realized that we were off the trail (there were no orange and blue guide ribbons anywhere to be seen), and Reese called a friend of her husband who met us in his car in a nearby town. He was a slender man in his mid-fifties and he and his sidekick, a pump bespectacled guy of the same generation, were apparently just driving around cheerfully bickering all afternoon.

Since we were already so far afield from Olle 9, they dropped us off at the beginning of Olle 10, which was much more scenic and less steep. I accidentally left my hat in the car, but Reese lent me a bandana to keep my neck from burning. We had to skirt a huge new pool, thronged with young families and surrounded by picnic tables right on the seaside, then climb a hill—there was an ominous tick warning sign at the bottom, and Reese insisted on spraying us both thoroughly with a homemade bug repellant concocted of cinnamon water (she whipped out the bottle every time we paused thereafter, and I told her she reminded me of the Windex-obsessed patriarch in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). On the other side of the hill there was a beautiful view of Sanbangsan, a sheer rock walled mountain lushly festooned with trees and shrubs, its top shrouded in a picturesque soft cloud. Local lore has that the goddess who created the island cut off the top of the center volcano and flung it to the southwest to create Sanbangsan. Because of its sacred status, it’s illegal to climb the tempting rock faces. On the opposite side, there is a giant gold Buddha, a temple and a sacred grotto.

Along our walk around the mountain were not only fat dragonflies, but also pairs of birds fluttering and twittering in the bushes and trees, and butterflies colored black and teal, green quartz (an almost white pale yellow), and orange and black stuttering through the air. I kept thinking, “I am grateful to the Almighty to be where I am, having such an adventure.” The other night, walking home late from work along the quiet streets, looking up at the sky through the telephone wires and buildings, I felt that same rush of amazed thankfulness—there are definitely rough spots to this unconventional existence, but I am so happy that I have been given the chance to experience so much variety in my life.

Because of the heat, there weren’t many other hikers out, and we were surprised to see some farm workers toiling in a field, pulling wide bolts of plastic with rope and tossing shovelfuls of dirt on the film they laid. Reese asked one what they were planting, and he responded that he didn’t know—he said he was Chinese. The old Korean lady in a sunbonnet who was crouched down overseeing their labor said they were growing garlic. South Korean farmers import Chinese labor like American farmers import Mexican workers—they work hard for less in conditions most locals won’t. I hope those guys were being paid on time. Around another bend, we found a really deplorable sight: a tethered dog starving to death, each of its ribs clearly defined, its hip bones jutting through its thin brown fur. It was tied up with a plastic covered metal wire cord in the direct sun with no food and no water, with only enough slack in its lead to let it move in a meter radius. The poor thing wagged gratefully when we gave it some water. We didn’t have any food to offer. A farm truck was parked nearby, but there was no human around to bargain with to free it. There were two other dogs, heavily furred, on the property—they looked to be in somewhat better trim physically than that one emaciated animal, but they, too, didn’t have any food or water. I told Reese that I wasn’t trying to be crass, but a dog like that wasn’t even fit for eating—there wasn’t any meat on it. I later posted to a foreigner-oriented FB message board in hopes someone would be able to rescue it, but no one volunteered anything besides expressions of sympathy. I don’t mind people (swiftly) killing animals for food, but I hate any creature’s life being made miserable. One of the reasons I would like to have money is to be able to rescue people and animals in distress—seeing cruelty cases like this and not being able to do anything is horrifying. And close directly behind it was the magnificent mountain, the rocks frozen in a sideways explosion millennia old.

Jeju construction goes ahead even on the weekends—there was one expensive new neighborhood being built not 300 meters from where that dog was slowly dying. A kilometer farther on was a hideous collection of vacation cabins. Some architect had apparently been inspired by the Auschwitz look (I wish I were exaggerating), creating two story boxes stiff in Victorian austerity, being bricked in as they stood shoulder to shoulder in uncomfortably close formation. It looked exactly like an old prison without the barbed wire. I hate to see the fertile fields and views overtaken by sterile buildings; sadly, the development authority is even now considering a second international airport. 

We had reached the end of the fields and arrived on the seaside, and had just decided it was time for lunch (as it was almost 3 PM), when who should pull up next to us in an airconditioned car but Tom and Jerry, the pair who had dropped us off miles away hours earlier. I darted in to the back seat to get my hat, and they insisted it was too hot to hike—the rest of that Olle route is mostly paved—and that we should all go eat together. But first, they took me to see the site of another airfield, a Japanese-built one with earth-covered hangars that was the site of an infamous massacre of Koreans by others back at the outset of the Korean War. Over 100 people (on the excuse of their having communist sympathies) aged 17 to 55 had been trucked off to be stuffed in a cave and murdered wholesale there with dynamite. Huge numbers of Jeju people died on the island between 1948 and 1950 as a result of related repressions (the stories of and monuments to which were themselves repressed until just recently, when lawsuits by the families finally resulted in an official apology). Jerry, the shorter man, told me his grandparents had died in the incident. As a peculiar compensation, he has a pass that allows him free public transportation. The record inscribed on the new granite monument to the victims is in perfect English, but the larger, older sign on the nearby field is an incomprehensible misspelled mishmash. I told Tom (whose real initials are unfortunately KKK) that if it was ever reprinted, I would like to edit it.







Jerry really liked me (he spoke Konglish, and I have little Korean, but we did OK communicating, particularly after he started referring to me as “America Miss”), and asked enthusiastically if I drank. I said I liked makgeoli, but not soju, so at the cheap but famous and splendid restaurant we went to he insisted on getting two bottles for the four of us to split. We also shared a huge pot of seaweed, shellfish and noodle soup, and a plate of mandu, in addition to pork and other side dishes. Everything was to-die-for delicious and as there was one mandu left, I said I would take it with me. I hate wasting food. This really isn’t done much in South Korea—you just leave the leftovers to be tossed—and Tammy looked at me in horror, “Are you going to war?!” The high schooler serving our table was highly amused by the request to wrap the lone mandu. Then, Jerry (who by then was referring to me as “Miss America” and telling me that he was going to come to the academy with a bouquet of flowers and ask for English lessons) found out I liked pickled radish, and insisted on making a hilarious scene loudly asking the young guy for a bagful of radish for me to take home, too. Tom was so embarrassed that he blushed beet red, and I covered my face as I laughed. I think the notion of the strange foreigner is firmly entrenched in the minds of the server and our fellow diners. And I now have enough pickled radish to last me for months.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Gym Joined, Galbitang

Just joined a gym. Went ahead and paid for a full year (didn’t consider the fact that my current teaching contract only runs another 6 months—just blithely presumed they will renew it). Which meant I got 14 months—two extra as part of a standard bonus—and totally forgot to bargain for more, much to my subsequent disgust (this is a country where even the marked prices in independent “real stores” are often somewhat flexible). They have no elliptical machines, but the atmosphere was pleasant, and if I go there for even 30 minutes a day it will have been worth it. I knew if I didn’t go ahead and sign up, I would continue to procrastinate on my fitness plan. They have free workout uniforms in three sizes that you can use on each visit and dump in a laundry chute in the dressing room. I think I will stick with my own clothes because I’m not a fan of shorts or polyester.

Went to the GP afterwards to reup my sleep meds—no appointment, five minutes’s wait and then less than five at the pharmacy. Need to go to a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to get some moles off—two I have had for a long time (one since birth) are starting to look a little funky.

“Face Coffee,” as June calls it, has opened a second location, this one only four blocks from my house. They have a smaller menu than the original, but a lovely shaded patio with plants, and there are (at least for now) fewer people, so you can actually sit down. I went there after lunch with a Korean coworker today—we had scrumptious galbi soup at a restaurant owned by people from my church. She remarked that I haven’t said much since I returned from the US and I confessed that it had been an overall good trip, but an exhausting one. Like several other Koreans at school and church, she asked hopefully if I had “met anyone” on my travels. I was amused. Truly, when running around like a chicken with my head cut off, how could I? But it’s nice to know that people still care.

The air was wonderfully clear and fresh today. Everyone else was moaning about the heat and humidity, but it was no where near as hot as Georgia, and I found the over refrigerated indoors chilly. I have been sleeping (or trying to sleep) with the “aircon” on, but it’s not turned down low. August may be stifling, but thus far July has been quite temperate. I use my parasol on all sunny days.

My eighth graders are starting a new book series designed to stretch their listening and speaking skills with real world scenarios. They have coped automatically with only reading and writing from one formulaic—and to me, rather dull—series for so long they didn’t seem to be absorbing anything. It’s hoped that this textbook change will shake them out of their routine and galvanize their conversational abilities. Plus, the books are well edited and regularly updated, with high quality audiovisual material that incorporates many English accents. I am pleased with the curriculum thus far.

My precocious ninth grader has opted to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Marissa Meyer’s Renegades as the two selections from her summer reading list. There were even graphic novels on the list. If such lists back when I was in high school had had such an interesting mix of classical literature and modern options, non readers might not have found them so burdensome. Being a bookworm myself, I usually didn’t mind too much, but it would have been fun to read more current books—Meyer’s, for example, was just published last November (I had gotten a notice from Amazon because I bought her Lunar Chronicles, each as soon as they came out). Maybe my own early writing wouldn’t have been so stilted if I hadn’t been uniformly steeped in nineteenth century British three volume novels. I remember my freshman English teacher fussing at me for overuse of the impersonal “one” in reflective essays rather than “you” or “I.”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Notes

Note to self: Do not eat a large quantity of raw carrots immediately before bedtime. This will result in considerable gastric distress and keep you awake all night clutching your stomach in agony.

Besides large quantities of the aforementioned carrots, I have been subsisting on peanut butter and apples and bananas in an effort to recover my waistline. Some people go on the LGN diet before their weddings. I have just come independently to the point of not being able to stand my own reflection in the pre-shower mirror. Saturday I am either supposed to hike an ole trail or two or go snorkeling. I think snorkeling will have to wait.

Along with my regular classes, I am tutoring a lovely young lady who is on the verge of beginning ninth grade in an International Baccalaureate program. She is extremely bright, English fluent, and already has a clear sense of what her life’s mission is: to get as much varied international education as possible and then return to Korea to improve the system here in such a way that it prepares students for real life. If anyone can do this, she can. I expect that in a relatively short period of time she will be someone with whom I will be flattered to say I am acquainted.

The younger of Irina’s daughters is going in person to the office of the Russian publisher of two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands this week to attempt to extract the written document we need to go ahead with the American publication, as all we’ve gotten thus far are verbal assurances. Meanwhile, I have approached an American literary agent to the end of getting another WWII era memoir published. This one has not required my translation, but did require a considerable amount of transcription time by my friend Susanna and me. I need to edit and footnote it. It’s 115 single spaced 12 Times New Roman pages as it stands.

As to my own original work, everything remains in limbo. I sincerely hope that by the time August begins there’ll be some positive news to report. Thus far I have not been much impressed by older, pre-blog material on a hard drive I brought back with me to Korea. I thought for sure there were hidden gems saved on it, but the really clever bits I have found I didn’t write. Most pieces I composed back then are so laden with indigestible words that no reasonable person should have written them, and no one of any mental condition could be expected to endure them.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Junked Male

She rejected him philately at first;
Her friends did not ship them.

But when he returned,
She dropped and damaged him:
“Your address was incomplete, delayed.
And too forward for official use.
Your declared value is insufficient.
Your printed matter hinges
On bulk posts
Stuffed with retail flyers.
You are stuck in a corner,
Adhesive to outdated labels.
Also, your package is standard, if not third class.”

Cancelled so indelibly,
His fragile ego shattered,
He felt forever stamped
And within 5-7 business days was found
In a securely taped box
Lying atop a pile of unpaid bills.

RECIPIENT DECEASED.

--a little poem I composed for those of us still enamored of the USPS!

Tenterhooks

I’ve been completely worthless the last several hours, obsessively refreshing the Thai Navy Seals FB page for news of how the rescue is going. Trapped beneath the earth in pitch darkness, hungry, tired, with depleted oxygen and with the only exit by means of claustrophobic underwater passages is not the way I would want to spend two weeks, and like hundreds of thousands of others I am praying that all dozen children and their youthful coach (not to mention the many rescuers risking their own lives in the process) make it out of that muddy labyrinth alive and well. It won’t be for lack of human effort, particularly by those two British avocational divers who went so far in such remarkably bad conditions to find the team alive in the first place.

I do think my brother Bob would make an excellent cave diver. He’s already a certified diver, and his blood is cold as ice. Furthermore, small spaces—as far as I am able to determine from his submarine experiences—do not negatively affect him. He just needs a similarly reliable buddy to tag team.

My evening has already consisted of one gratuitous cheese run (though, really, is there any such thing as gratuitous cheese?) just to get my unsettled mind off the perilous spelunking operation just a few hours from here. I’m also nervous about the week ahead—I’m scheduled to start teaching two books that I haven’t taught before, and I am also supposed to individually tutor a young lady who has been accepted into an International Baccalaureate English language high school. She’s going from a Korean system into a Western system in September, and my job is to help her get oriented, moving from a lecture-based format where people memorize and regurgitate answers to a more nebulous critical thinking response format. I hope I can be of help to her.

My students said they were glad to see me, and they seem better behaved than before I left—the substitute teacher had them on a tight rein. I want to continue this.

I haven’t had to take any “real” sleeping medication since I got back (it was so nice to lug my suitcase up the stairs and collapse in my apartment last Saturday!). The first night back I got an evening smoothie at Maxwell’s and he vented about the young lady who’s been driving him mad for more than a week, coming by twice a day with her obnoxiously yappy poodle to stare at him longingly. He asked for my advice for discouraging her intentions and I confessed I knew nothing about male-female relationships, and that he could hope the obsession so quickly developed would dissolve with equal rapidity. We’d just finished chatting when he groaned, “There she is!” And her little dog, too, it turned out. And so I introduced myself, and found out we had acquaintances in common. She mentioned that she attended church, and so I thought to sound out her theology on “unequally yoked,” given her claim of Christianity and Maxwell’s avoidance of it. I already knew she was unnaturally intense based on casual chat. I found I was dealing with a peculiar case indeed when I mentioned Grandmommy’s advice since my childhood, “Better to be single all your life than to have an unhappy marriage,” and she blithely responded, “Are any marriages really unhappy?” Good grief,  woman! Her theology basically boiled down to God is a nice guy and whatever you want to do—even in direct contravention of written divine orders—is OK because they are pretty much suggestions (and not too strong ones) anyway and everything may turn out right in the end and we shouldn’t live in fear. I was left mentally sputtering—having flatly remarked “horse puckey” half a dozen times—after a forty-five minute conversation that went nowhere. When I excused myself to head home (by that point it was well after closing time, but she didn’t take the hint), Maxwell remarked in a tone of forced brightness, “Well, it looks like you made a new friend!” “I tried,” I told him, hoping that he understood my meaning. The woman is inexorable. Unless and until she decides to redirect her interests, he’s a sitting duck.

In the month of June I walked three quarters of a mile per day on average, when my average each day last year was 2.1 miles. I have a lot of catching up to do. June and I went on a long walk yesterday, then ate homemade hamburgers and broccoli. I have been eating mostly peanut butter on apples and bananas in the mornings and raw carrots in the evenings, with cheese in the mid afternoons. I must lose weight. I had planned to join a gym right away when I returned, but my Korean sources tell me there are no elliptical machines—the only gym exercise equipment I regularly use—in any of the local places, so it may be pointless. I am doing stretches with my neck rehab rubber bands and trying to avoid sitting all the time.

And... I end the weekend with a rejection letter. At least it was quick—I just submitted a few days ago.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Seoul Searching

I am so grateful that I don’t have a job that requires me to report foreign contacts! A couple of American intelligence workers I’ve met have mentioned that’s something officially necessary, and when they, for example, “coincidentally” meet Russians who know people they know, they know it’s not coincidence. Whereas for me, it is completely happenstance, and it is often I who have sought out the Russians in question, rather than the other way round.

Heaven help someone assigned to do a national security background check on me, since there’s no accounting for all the places I’ve stayed, from random apartments and hotels to houses, or the number of people I have encountered—and mostly forgotten. Thus far, I have been to 44 US states—I’ve missed the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Maine, Alaska, and Hawai’i—and seventeen foreign countries: Mexico, Jamaica, Hong Kong, France, England, Russia (3x), Ukraine (2x), Taiwan, South Korea (3x), Germany, Austria (2x), Poland (2x), Slovakia, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium. I have been to the airports of others (The Netherlands and Japan, specifically), but those don’t count, since those were just layovers and I didn’t go through customs. How can you really get to know other places and peoples without going to see them directly? I remember an elderly D-Day veteran (now long dead) who subsequently worked as a Soviet specialist for the National Security Agency who had never gone to any Russian speaking countries. So sad. And then, on the other hand, there are young members of the American armed forces nowadays who somehow think it’s OK to advocate nondemocratic forms of government and not salute the flag (complaining of these behaviors formed part of an extended rant from an under-forty lieutenant colonel I recently heard, who shared specific examples). Protesting the flag is fine if you are a civilian, but as a member of an all-volunteer military force which is sworn to honor it and defend to the death the country it represents...not cool. It’s deeply ironic that a time in which national security can be so quickly compromised that Americans who are entirely dedicated to their homeland but determined to know other people’s cannot pass bureaucratic scrutiny, while other Americans who seem to know nothing of history, and promise unquestioning allegiance only to soon break their vows, are somehow let through.

During the Victorian period, middle class English people often went abroad for their health, or because their finances were in a sad state. Not only was the climate better on the Mediterranean, it apparently more affordable to live on the continent than in London or its environs. I was always a little envious of this (“Oh, I must go to Italy and live in a villa on the sea because I have a cough and the bills are mounting”), but now I am doing the twenty first century equivalent; though the Jeju air isn’t necessarily better for my health, healthcare itself is certainly more affordable here. Likewise, my income relative to my cost of living is better. Digital nomadism has its perks, insofar as you do get paid for your efforts.

I watched the highly entertaining 2017 French/Polish film “La Promesse de l’Aube (“Promise at Dawn”) on the flight back to South Korea. It was edited for inflight entertainment in that they blurred out the subtitles for racist and crude dialogue, and they also may have cut a sensual scene (although the director could have shot it that obliquely). The real and romanticized stories that great writers recollect and imagine for themselves make for good cinema. But why did Romain Gary kill himself at 66? According to the blurb on “Find A Grave” (I love the app...yes, I know that sounds weird), he was depressed about the suicide of his second wife the year before.

It took twelve minutes from the moment I entered the passport control line at Incheon until I walked out the other side—I timed it. I immediately took the escalator down one floor and walked up to the number seven baggage claim, where my suitcase was—right at that moment—plopping from the conveyor belt onto the carousel. Five minutes later I was on the train headed for my AirBnB. 

Navigating the Seoul metro system is its own adventure. I had been forewarned that there was an express train that stopped at the same platform as the all-stops train (I only had to go one stop on the second line to which I was transferring), but I wasn’t clear on how to tell which sort I was boarding, and ended up—sure enough—on the express. There’s a certain sinking feeling when the train you are on briskly accelerates past the station where you plan to disembark. The first time I did this was outside Chicago, and in that case I had to walk more than two miles back, following the above ground tracks of the suburban rail system, but thankfully in this underground case there were plentiful trains going in the opposite direction, so I was simply able to reverse my trip.

The AirBnb apartment was easy to find, clean and comfortable. I didn’t re-emerge for supper, but took a lovely hot shower and went to bed without eating. I woke up at 3 AM and could not sleep again, but lazed about until hunger drove me in the direction of Itaewon, a foreigner-friendly district in Seoul where I planned to eat something Western and buy bath products at Lush. Getting there proved another exercise in misdirection, but after spending two hours making what should have been a forty minute trip, I reached my goal. I think I now have a pretty decent grasp of how the metro system works. There are nine long lines and a few shorter offshoots. Many, if not all longer lines have both express trains and all stop trains. Signs in the halls of the stations (to lead you down stairs and around corners to the correct platform) tell you the end point of the line you are traveling, and sometimes mention the name of a random major stop along the way. However, signs on the platforms themselves tell you only the prior, current, and next stations. The central green line is a loop with tails, and as I didn’t know which tail was associated with the inner loop and which with the outer, I got to the only platform of that line I could find at a three-line transfer station, and boarded on the next regular train, figuring that if I turned out to be headed wrong I could switch trains at a single linestation (where I knew I couldn’t get too confused) and go back the other way. I was a little relieved to see Koreans themselves asking other commuters for directions—it wasn’t just this ignorant foreigner who got turned around! There’s a Korean language metro navigation app that will tell you exactly what trains to take and even which doors to board for the most efficient trip, but to my understanding it’s not formatted for iPhone. Besides, I like being able to find my way naturally. 

I’m really tired, although my neck brace let me sleep for an unprecedented several hours on the transpacific flight. My flight this afternoon to Jeju was delayed about 45 minutes, so I am going to be suppertime at the earliest getting home. My larder is bare, but I may just crash instead of trying to go grocery shopping. Besides, this may be one of the weekends HomePlus and eMart are closed as a courtesy to small businesses anyway. And it’s the rainy season. Who wants to haul bags of heavy milk bottles over half a mile in the damp?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Home Trip End

Airline peanut packets continue to be designed by sadists. I first tried the “tear here” option, then attempted to tear anywhere and everywhere else, as “here” was impervious. I assaulted every polymer bonded seam with increasingly sore fingers, twisted and even attempted to pop the thing, and it got battered but remained immune to my efforts. After several interminable minutes of struggle I noticed a little kid across the aisle calmly eating peanuts out of her packet, and furthermore that no one else seemed to be having difficulties, let alone sweating and almost swearing over the snack. In a last desperate measure I dove under my seat for my purse and dug out my house key, with which sharp edge I cruelly lacerated “open here” and was finally able to enjoy the vegetable viscera. I felt like a lion who’d slain an antelope.

We were an hour and a half delayed at the gate, after we’d boarded, due to weather—Georgia has experienced increasingly frequent and powerful thunderstorms (nightly the last week, downing trees, setting buildings on fire, and cutting power). And then we began the 14 + hour flight to Seoul. Bella had taken me to the shuttle at 5:45 AM, and I actually dozed most of the way to Atlanta. Waiting the three hours between check-in and boarding, I walked the length of the international terminal several times, and managed to lose one of my new silver cat and mouse earrings. I eventually found it, but it had been stepped on, bent, and the back broken off. They would cost more to fix than I paid for them originally.

The month away from work was exhausting. It was wonderful in that I got to visit many family members and some friends, but the nonstop travel (I drove more than twelve hundred miles in three weeks) and my nonstop efforts to accomplish as many tasks as possible, from jewelry repair to financial meetings and book paperwork (I still haven’t signed the Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands contract, but Irina’s daughters have sweetly, and efficiently, gathered three of the four preliminary documents I need to have in hand to sign it), meeting with editing colleagues and fellow undergraduate alumni, while (of course!), enduring the usual dreadful bouts of insomnia (jet lag only let me sleep drug free for a few delightful nights), left me wholly drained.

I weeded and pruned the back yard, which was a thicket of briars, I culled my closet (I confirmed that I am now too fat to fit in all but one pair of jeans I owned before my departure to work in Korea—these and a bunch of other worn but still wearable apparel I had been clinging onto for no apparent reason I sent off to donation), I traded in some metal scrap, sold two things on eBay, took three lamps to consignment, wrote some more poetry and submitted it to literary magazines (just a few minutes before my Atlanta to Seoul flight, I got my first poetry rejection letter), and tried to organize my prose on my computer, the last without much success. I went to an art pottery and glass place with my mom, niece, and nephew, and then to the plush mini water park pool downtown at the Salvation Army. My friend Susanna bought some Polish pottery from me, and I think I managed to avoid driving Bella nuts with clutter. I finally procured the right size of sisal rope and re-wrapped my cat’s much-abused scratching post. Inspired by the late Barbara Bush, I bought maybe eight choker necklaces to disguise my evolving neck imperfections. Two I had to leave in Georgia because of suitcase weight issues—I also had to cull a pair of shoes, a tin of Bag Balm, a bottle of Acetaminophen, two containers of iodized salted and a bag of dates.

On my final weekend overnight to North Carolina (it took 7.5 hours to drive up and more than five back the next day—I-85 was one long construction zone, on which everybody and their great aunt’s third cousin twice removed was trying to travel), I met a woman named Samantha who regaled me and my friend Amy with tales of how she met her husband while they were in high school in New Jersey. Various unexpectednesses made their Bahamian wedding 15 years ago a memorable event, from the ownership of the hotel changing suddenly (after all the plans were made), which meant that the whole staff was summarily sacked (and all the plans were lost), to the “booze cruise” the night before, where the parents of the couple got hammered, to the cake and flowers chaos, to the reception DJ that showed up without any music to play.

At the alumni meeting, lunch at a locally award-winning steakhouse where my medium well sirloin was as tough as an old boot—I’d never visited the restaurant in the almost 40 decades I have officially lived in the area, and probably will not go again—there were as many women as men, which was unusual given the school only went coed thirty years ago. There was one venerable gentleman there (with a cane and a paid personal assistant) who had been a friend of Flannery O’Connor and Tom Wolfe and wore a white coat and talked about his published “mem-wahs.” I initially wanted to go because I was actually in town, and then felt obligated to attend despite having had very little sleep because somehow the person who had set up the Google event had named me as the organizer, something that I realized only when fellow alums began emailing me directly with questions.

About fifteen people showed, which was a pretty decent turnout, I thought. A considerable portion of the attendees (all Caucasian) were livid and voluble about the changes that had taken place on campus recently, particularly recommendations from a racial reparations-related committee that essentially removed the emphasis on Civil War history (with which the school has been linked since that event). I just sat and listened—I’m not a good debater when I’m well rested, and I was so tired I just hoped I wasn’t visibly drooling. I had read through the committee recommendations myself, and they had seemed reasonable, although I could understand that these alumni were not happy about having not been consulted in the process. Too, I do agree that the current university administration and staff seem determined to make the school like every other pricey small Southeastern liberal arts institution, doing away with its uniqueness, instead of making productive use of its historical associations as a teaching tool. A first year course on honor, contested memory, conflicted people, and racial reconciliation would be great, instead of just determining that such controversial subjects won’t be mentioned henceforth. But they don’t ask me, and they wouldn’t listen to me anyway, because I am not a donor with bottomless pockets.

The whole month, but particularly the conversations on that last day, reiterated to me that peace is impossible without Jesus. There is no possibility of genuine humility and repentance and forgiveness without him. There isn’t even a possibility of reasonable communication without him. We human beings are basically nasty to one another, we don’t listen, we accuse people of being indoctrinated by one sociopolitical faction or another, we are ourselves unconsciously indoctrinated by one side or another, and we refuse to understand that our own experiences, bad or good, may not be typical. Without comprehension that we are personally guilty before the Almighty for countless trespasses of his law, we imagine ourselves to be the arbiters of what is good and right and proper. I am talking about myself, mostly.

One of my fellow alums, a military guy, told a highly amusing story about his turbulent relationship with a legendarily bitter German professor (from whom an older alumna at my table had rented a basement apartment, from which she heard him caustically berate his toddler daughters during potty training). As a freshman, Jim was in first year German—which, not having bothered trying much on the placement test, but having taken the language in high school, he was cruising through—with time to flirt with an attractive young lady in the class. The young lady asked him to a Christmas party at her house, an invitation he was thrilled to accept. Yet, as he approached the front door, he was seized with a sense of impending doom. Then the door opened and it was upon him, inescapable. The young lady had failed to mention several essential details: She was the vicious German professor’s daughter (one of those, actually, who’d years earlier had been yelled at in the hearing of the downstairs tenants). She was still in high school (just auditing the language class). She had not told her father that she was interested in Jim, nor had she told him that she’d invited Jim to the party. It was a bit of a shock to both men. Given the circumstances, Jim resolved to be on his best behavior and then make his escape. Just before he could, the girl waltzed over and announced to her dad that Jim (who’d been unaware of this obligation) was taking her to some parties afterwards. The German prof gave Jim the hairy eyeball and ground out, “Have her home before eleven.” “Yes, sir!” he promised. Well, the girl disappeared shortly after they arrived at the afterparty, and by the time he’d located her and driven her home, it was well into the wee hours...and there was a lighted plastic reindeer inexplicably tied to the roof of his car. He subsequently visited the professor in his office to plead his case (off campus ROTC interfered with exam time) and was unequivocally rejected. Knowing the cause was lost, he snarked about the Iron Cross displayed on the faculty wall: “Did you win that in the war?” To which the professor clipped, “No, I didn’t. A dear friend of mine did, and if you are lucky, some day you could win your own.” Needless to say, Jim flunked that year of German.