Sunday, September 16, 2018

Germs, Not Jinxes

I was just thinking the other day, "Man, what is this? I've been remarkably healthy (always excepting the insomnia) for months." And, BOOM, the hammer came down last night, while I was agonizing over improvements to three batches of rejected poems (the "thank you for submitting, but..." letters started arriving on Thursday). Searing sore throat, congestion, general feeling of ick. All the classic hallmarks of a cold. So instead of going to church for the second day in a row (yesterday was the fundraising bazaar for the Philippines mission trip--I got kitchen supplies and footie socks), I stayed in bed all day. I've just gotten up to have a snack and then I'm going to crawl back into my cocoon.

One of the rejection letters told me that one piece I had submitted had been long-listed, but not short-listed. I like that poem, and didn't see reasons to make changes to it before submitting it elsewhere. Towards others from which I'd been separated for a while, I didn't have the same charitable feelings. They needed to be pruned, tightened, polished. Which is not to say that before they went off the first time they didn't got through countless drafts. But I've had considerable practice in the interim paring my words, to the point that about three of the fifty-odd verses I've composed are, if I say so myself, pretty good.

My memory is getting worse. June told me yesterday about a concert to be held this afternoon. I stared at her in complete bewilderment, and she said it was the exact same reaction I'd given her when she told me about it a few weeks ago. Right then, I decided that the reason I hadn't remembered it was that I had no interest in it, or that I was forgetting it for another prudent reason, and resolved not to go (which I wouldn't have been able to do anyway, given today's infirmity). More disturbing was my complete loss on how to multiply two digit numbers, something I learned in second grade. I was in my eighth grade class on Friday and wrote down numbers on the board, then blanked. And blanked again on my second attempt. It wasn't until I sat down at my desk in humiliation that I remembered how to do it. For a woman who went as far as multivariable calculus, my math skills have almost deserted me. And, I've almost fallen down a lot the last week--just lost my balance on the stairs or even on a flat surface, and tottered. I haven't actually ended up on the floor, but thanks to working out I've got a lot less padding than I did two months ago, and I might really hurt myself if I do.

All of this is probably related to the insomnia, as my brain doesn't get enough sleep to function properly. All non-insomniacs out there should be aware how good they've got it--being able to relax is a valuable gift from the Almighty.

Thursday, September 13, 2018


One more day. I am hoarse from shouting like the bad actor I am at the long roomful of seventh graders that we’re shepherding this month through the basics of opinion essay-writing. I volunteered for two back to back sessions this week (we Western teachers are trading off), and then another two a fortnight hence. I think today went well, but I was so exhausted afterwards I limped through the seventh teaching hour of my day (it was a looong day, starting out with the adults in the morning), which always sucks me dry in anyway, because the kids DON’T TALK. At least the seventh graders laughed at my jokes. The eighth graders sit in their desks like the proverbial log bumps and respond in whispered monosyllables even if I dance in front of them. I have no idea how to “elicit language” from people who are so stubbornly mute. 

Got another poetry rejection letter this evening. Promptly wrote Priya with the determination that we have to get at least one children’s book moving toward print by the end of the year. There has to be something accomplished, one way or the other. I’m too tired right now to edit and resubmit the spurned verses, but I hope to get that done tomorrow. Resolved: no more expensive literary contests! 

I’ve only had time to go to the gym once this week. It was a great workout, but I need another desperately. Especially as I ate a whole block of cheese in my vegetable lentil soup tonight for supper. 
I had an early afternoon nap-mare about two of my senior editorial colleagues conspiring to publish a revealing book about my penniless, phoneless adventures in New York. I was glad I had set three alarms, because I was so deeply engrossed in trying to persuade them to give up the project that I slept through the first two. 

My watch has died, after almost a decade (if unsteady memory serves) of faithful service. I noticed that the crystal was chipped last week, and today, before I had a chance to go to a jeweler to see how much it would cost to fix, the works stopped. I’m glad I hadn’t already spent money on it. Now to use my accumulated eBay Bucks to buy a new(ish) one. 

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Entertaining Devils Unaware?

My filthy dishes have accumulated for two weeks and overrun the sink, so tonight’s insomnia is dedicated to belated boiling. Merely hot water won’t do—they have to be sterilized. I’m on my third kettle, filled to the brim, sitting on a blue ring of fire. I hate washing my own dishes. I don’t mind washing other people’s—it’s easy when they’re fresh and I have someone to talk to—but just turning on the tap and soaping them up when they are my own is a repulsive process, and I put it off as long as possible. I probably vacuum three times for every time I wash dishes. Heck, I’ve even washed my rug since I last washed dishes. And of course my clothes are regularly laundered. I guess dishwashing reminds me of cooking, which I also avoid like the plague.

My fifth grade girls told me that any Korean man who is over two meters tall gets an exemption from compulsory army service. I don’t know how to verify this. Given the comparative rarity of such people, there probably isn’t means to accommodate them (uniforms, hardware, etc.), so it would make sense.

June and I went on a short walk today (three miles) after I finally woke up midafternoon. It rained briefly, but we both had our umbrellas, and the weather cleared for a glorious sunset while we ate at a Thai restaurant on the seaside. I was so tired afterwards I went directly to bed when I got home (to wake up at midnight. Typical.).

Along the hike.

View from the restaurant.

To date I have submitted more than thirty different poems (many composed in the wee hours) to various literary outlets, without success. All the declined ones I’ve edited and resubmitted elsewhere. I’ve gotten one rejection that told me I was almost published (it was a rather odd letter), so to keep trying. After initially hazarding rapidly-accumulating sums on contest entries, I am working my way alphabetically through an impressively long list of (mostly online) magazines that charge no reading fee, or a minimal one.

The Russian permission documents for Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands are now with the American publisher. Priya and I plan to start work on the illustration of the first of my Russian cat tales in October. She said we could get it done in a solid week of concentrated effort, but I only have weekends to give!

Sally, the crazy Canadian with the oddball theology, has moved in with a member of my Bible Study circle, following in the wake of her small yappy dog. I like watching dramas online, but I don’t like living in one, and not usually associating with most of the expats on the island means that I’m not embroiled with the scandals that regularly wash from one end of that small and incestuous pond (it’s like university, with many people bed-hopping—I got an earful of the latest gossip about this at an Italian restaurant where I went with some fellow teachers last week) to the other. But Sally has brought drama to my doorstep. I had suggested we go to Maxwell’s for coffee after church several Sundays ago, and who should be there but Sally and her importunate animal. My study senior immediately fell in love with the creature, and she and Sally agreed over cigarettes out front that she would babysit it for the two months Sally was in Canada, getting paperwork in order (Sally having been sacked--after just a few months--from her previous job). Sally was flying out on Friday. I was a bit dumbfounded by my senior’s sudden decision to host the dog, but she said she wanted to experiment short term with having an animal to see if she liked it. OK, fair enough.

The next thing I know one of my colleagues tells me that Sally has not only not left Jeju, she’s moved herself in “just for a few days” and then indefinitely, with my senior. She’s showed up at my church, clinging to my senior’s arm and calling her “auntie.” I had already had bad vibes—at that point they struck up John Phillip Sousa. Kristen and June and I went over to visit our senior briefly after work last week, bearing sweets and trepidation. Sally was moving in clothes, claiming to have “nothing to wear” and arguing loudly and familiarly with her hostess. She even asked me how I understood the sermons at church, since I don’t speak Korean (which she does). She’s hanging around Maxwell (who has a girlfriend, whom she’s also allegedly befriended) all the time, trimming his hair (!) and smoking his cigarettes. She reminds me so much of my horrible Arlington housemate of ten years ago, albeit with a Christian veneer. I told June (who deplored my language, although she didn’t say this) that “I feel like she’s pissing in my pool.” I don’t have exclusive rights to my senior, my church, or Maxwell’s shop, but they represented some quiet refuges. No longer. I will be spending more time at the gym in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, September 02, 2018


The tops of the waves spilled over the berm of rocks further out to sea, and then rushed towards the opening where I bobbed in the clear water, myopically unaware of the large octopus curled on the stones below my short flippers. I knew, technically, of the octopus, because my two snorkeling companions had exclaimed over it, but as I was without goggles (my new full-face mask proved too heavy to wear free swimming), I couldn’t actually see our proximity, and so I could tread water comfortably. Theoretically, I like the personality of the mild mannered and brainy octopus, but the notion of getting chummy with a large real one didn’t appeal to me.

My new swim shirt worked wonderfully. It was so nice not emerging sunburnt from several hours in the water. My little flippers, too, were fine on their first outing. The shirt also kept me from getting too cold and kept too much debris from getting inside my swimsuit—the torrential rainstorm yesterday had knocked all sorts of leaves, pine branches and other vegetation into the water, though at the place near Oedolgae where we decided to swim it wasn’t accumulating as brown flotsam as it was at the first place Albert proposed—a ribbon of organic scum stretched along the coast on that side of town. I am grateful to have had the chance to swim on the south side of the island at least once this year—to me, the water is prettier here. There were probably a hundred other people at the swimming hole, most in rental life jackets. The sun was out most of the afternoon, though a few threatening rain clouds passed over from time to time. Albert brought a friend of his from Gwangju along. He’s single and 46 (I thought he was much younger), and good looking. I was glad I had been hitting the gym for six weeks. When he found out I was single he said, “You look really happy.” I am not sure that this was an “Of course you look happy, because you’re not married” remark or what. I was happy. I love playing in the waves.

Saturday we had to work to make up for the missed day from the typhoon, and the rain came down so heavily for a while that our unflappable director actually considered canceling classes. I rolled up my jeans to the knee and wore flip flops to walk the two blocks to school, since the water in the streets was running ankle deep, but I was soaked to the thighs by the time I washed up on the front steps, and my bagged socks and tennis shoes were wet, too. So I ended up squishing through my classes in my waterlogged flip flops, which didn’t look or sound professional. Thank God my underwear didn’t get wet—there’s little worse than enduring hours at work in wet underpants.

My niece called me this evening, having been one of the few to read my last (non FB-connected) blogpost. She loves her little happy dogs, played Fur Elise for me, and is planning to read 1984 (I told her to balance out the depressing literature with livelier stuff, since middle school reading is generally grim, right at a time when youths tend to be hormonally tragic). She’s teaching herself Spanish via an online course, because her school has purely recreational Fridays, which she thinks are wasteful. I can’t believe she’s in the eighth grade already. Narcissistically, I assume time stops for everyone when I am not around.

Friday, August 31, 2018


And missing my dad more than I have in a long, long time. I really want to talk to him about some things. I even miss his  “so, what are you up to?” phone calls that I always received with a certain amount of caution, because half the time he would ask me to do some random research project or task for him if I wasn’t booked solid, and sometimes when I was. It’s been years since anyone in my family just called to talk. A few times, when he was in the Navy, Bob called me from Guam. It was the nicest surprise. I could do with good news, of people happy in their jobs, relationships, upbringing, etc. And no more rejection letters. A “great job, keep up the good work” would be nice, occasionally. Heck, even “I miss you,” from folks (I still hope) I am close to would be so welcome, despite their busy schedules. I know I don’t have a spouse and/or kids, but I am so tired. This six-day work week to make up for the typhoon last Wednesday/Thursday is no joke. And I feel so isolated I was close to tears this evening.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

ROK Rocks

Sunday began with the odor of vaporized steel. I unfurled my new parasol—plainer than its predecessor, its ribs are jointed white plastic, which snap like brittle twigs every time I open it; I have to keep my elbows in, because it’s smaller, too—and rounded the corner under the watchful eye of the revolving security camera (it turns in the direction of movement, and the searching lens is rimmed with tiny red lights, which was kind of freaky the first few times it happened at night, like I was being tracked by a cyclops with glowing ruby lashes). A thin, sweaty man was standing in the middle of the road, chunks of thick squared pipe around his electric saw. Sunday was clearly a major project day. The grid of streets around my building has been freshly paved with shiny black asphalt. All the underground sewer work is done, the thin tacked-down blankets of green, blue and white have been taken up, and when the rain pelted down last week the water beaded on the pavement like it was waxed, and the old puddle places had none, as the new road surface shrugged the water away.

Friday, wooden arms lay carelessly discarded on a table in a shop window. The rest of the mannequin was nowhere to be seen, but the table was thronged with shoes. They were pretty shoes. Cannibal shoes. In another shop window, a plastic, headless, topless mannequin was turned modestly away from the glass, waiting for a shirt or jacket.

Traditional Jeju houses had three-barred gates, long wooden poles balanced on either side in stone pillars, each drilled with three holes. Depending on the arrangement of the poles, people knew whether you were home, were in but didn’t want company, or if folks were welcome to drop by. Reese and I took a bus to the Jeju Stone Park Saturday, and toward the end of our visit there was a hut with two of these old pillars set high in its windowless wall. The bottom hole of each pillar was plugged, but adults could look through the higher openings into the building. Yep, there was a reason for the creative gatepost reuse—they didn’t want kids seeing the contents. Reese looked in, gasped, and started chortling. The sign described the contents using scrupulously clinical language.

People were always begging the gods for sons. What about us girls?! So much extremely heavy work was and is still done by women—all those thousands of meals cooked in dark, smoky, dirt-floored kitchens, tons of vegetables and meat hand chopped, grain ground, bowls and utensils washed and wiped, never mind the discomfort of periods and the extreme pain of childbirth. I know I, personally, have it extremely easy, but every time I see one of the traditional kitchens of only a century ago, I am again overwhelmed by how bad women in general have had it. And I resolve to live single, celibate, and on PB&J sandwiches the rest of my days.

I had discouraged June from coming along because Reese had said we’d be walking for three hours, and June has ongoing problems with her feet. In retrospect, it was probably doable physically, given they had benches at regular intervals (many of the picnic tables were recycled millstones), but the numerous idols would have probably given her twitches. Also, the basic narrative of the park was based on the legend of the grandmother who threw herself into a pot of porridge to feed her 500 starving sons, who then all turned to stone in grief. (Again, nothing like a spot of cannibalism to warm the soul. Mmm. Porridge.) The park creators had gone so far as to create a new altar and annual pagan ritual to celebrate this!

When we arrived at the park in the late morning everything was living green and solemn grey, and thick mist gently sifted across the “myth land,” as it called itself. Besides the small replica wattle and daub stone thatched huts, the exhibition buildings were enormous, starkly, severely modern—one, with a large round algae bottomed pool on top, was clearly having leaking problems because pungent white mildew was overwhelming a hemp mat in one subterranean interior corner. Otherworldly vegetation in the form of really rough silver lichen was growing on the rocks above ground, where humanoid figures with tiny terrible heads and big bulky bodies, all assembled of found stone, stood representing the bereaved sons. There were also lots of grave markers like huge chess pieces (some in pairs with carved faces, clutching ritual objects), piles of antique grinding stones, chipped roof tiles, and pottery jars.

Cool tree, weird alien pathway light. It's supposed to represent a goddess, but I think it looks otherwise.

You know you're in South Korea when even the "beware of snakes" signs are adorable.

This lichen looked so soft and fuzzy. It wasn't.

There were huge pieces of ancient pine driftwood fetched from the top of Mt. Halla that looked like modernist sculpture, and sections of stalagmite dribble that resembled Rodin’s Gates of Hell. It was all beautiful and tragic. As we finished our ramble, which had been briefly interrupted by rain (I thought the thunderous rumble from one side of the property was portent of another storm, and then I realized that it was another stadium sized modern building under construction, right next to the traditional village where half a dozen women were sitting indoors, silently, industriously stitching bags made of persimmon dyed cotton) and handkerchief persimmon-dying in the sunshine, a bright complete rainbow appeared, which Reese took to mean she should buy a lottery ticket.

At the bus stop outside the park, there was a young Chinese couple with a little boy who were trying to find their way back across the island to their hotel at Jungmun, so we directed them. They were only on Jeju for two days, spoken no Korean and little English, and had somehow been to Sunrise Peak already in the morning. Over the hour back to Seogwipo, Reese found out that she’d been mispronouncing the Chinese word for bus stop ever since she’d visited the guy’s hometown years ago. She did most of the talking since almost from the moment we sat at the back of the bus I was speechless, bent over from debilitating nausea, then wincing from her generously pressing of points in my palms in an effort to make me feel better. I hate being carsick. But I felt fine within minutes of getting my feet back on the ground.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Forgive Me, NSW!

Ok, I forgot the location of New South Wales in my last post and put it on the opposite side of Australia in my last post. Sorry about that. I have since fixed it, but that doubtless was the reason my readership was below average.