Sunday, May 13, 2018

I Am Discouraged

Some days are like one of those dreadful AdCouncil (or some equivalent organization that specializes in pithy secular motivational messages) billboards featuring a famous face and a single “-tion” or “-ance” word (spellcheck thought that last should be “acne,” which is closer to real life) that is supposed to make you pull up your bootstraps and make a positive difference in the world. Except you’re not achieving anything and all of your get up and go “has got up and went” as the old joke says.

I am really down. Sure, sure, I am supposed to be stateside in two weeks—well-meaning people keep asking if I am looking forward to it; it’s not that I am dreading it, it’s just it seems completely unreal, since there’s so much to accomplish in the meantime—but will I get to see my friends and more than a small subset of my family? I have not worked ahead enough to really relax from my editing job, and the scholarly criticism I have read as part of my work lately has been thoroughly depressing. I really don’t want to know all about how much Mr. X hated this or that group of people and died miserably. I hate to see people absolutely determined on self-destruction and apparently as dedicated to ruining as many others’ lives as possible.

I went to the seashore this afternoon and picked up styrofoam and plastic trash. One cup was so freshly discarded that the outside was weeping from the cold drink inside. How can people just leave their refuse everywhere?! I almost expect smokers to be litterbugs, flicking their smoldering butts out their car windows or dropping them to the pavement and grinding them underfoot, but soda drinkers and fishermen are worse.

I am really sad that Irina’s and my translation seems permanently stalled. Last night I talked to a sweet American friend who hasn’t gotten the promotion to full time employment she was expecting and is now working three jobs just to make ends meet. I am so, so lonely without a close Christian friend here—I’ve started praying for one kindred spirit at least. I love talking to everyone, but when I feel like it’s not safe to show them my heart, the connection falters on perfunctory commonplaces.

I couldn’t sleep until daylight this morning and so didn’t wake up for church. Kristen texted me that the sermon was good.

One of the sweetest girls in my fifth grade class was reading a new book on Friday. It was in Korean, but had the English title printed on as well: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I casually asked her if it was a good book and why she was reading it. She said it was a great book and pointed for proof to a blurb by the actor Chris Hemsworth on the back cover. Her school teacher had given it to her to read. She said it was a little hard to understand. Folks, that’s the stuff that’s translated and published. And what kind of teacher gives that sort of book to an eleven year old?! I wrote down a list of more entertaining (and likely more personally helpful) alternative writers on the board: E.B. White, Ronald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Suzanne Collins, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Some Things Ventured

I have now confused several literary contests with verse submissions.

Instead of bread being cast upon the waters to be later rediscovered, I think mine has sunk irrecoverably or been gobbled up by the local waterfowl. Whether there is to be duck soup won’t be known until the end of the year—these competitions have slow turnaround times.

After I had boldly thrown my lyrical hat into these three rings of circuses, I read one winning submission from last year and it pushed the boundaries of what is considered “poetry” into John Cage symphonic territory. Perhaps I should record my somnolent babbling and win prizes, as anything I have slaved over is guaranteed too staid to please the judging committee.

Meanwhile, what I thought was a rather clever effort posted on Twitter has attracted no notice. Of course, given I have fewer than a score of followers could be a factor.

I think free association wins more official prizes nowadays than anything carefully constructed. On the other hand, my writing may suffer from the same critical impediment that prevents me from being a great visual artist: while technically competent, it lacks the originality and charismatic charm that sets the truly talented apart from the merely well educated. And often I over-edit, removing what liveliness rough edges allows to flourish by pedantic pruning.

But I have to try to fail. Or succeed.

Less than three weeks until I am supposed to be on American soil again. If I survive the discomfort of the trip. I ordered three different styles of neck supporters and all fit awkwardly.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

New Colleague, Old Aches & Pains

A girl who worked in a grain elevator as a clerk was taken out to lunch by her male boss with all the other women—including a lady who worked in the weighing office—on Secretaries Day. Their male coworkers weren’t invited. The boss couldn’t understand when Cyndi, my newest coworker, questioned this. She was settling $10 million a day, but wasn’t called an accountant because then they’d have to pay her more. They wanted her as a permanent employee, but she turned down the offer. She’d had to fight for her salary as a clerk, since previously it was going to be only incrementally increased, based on the wage she’d earned as a simple new hire. Again, she’d had to put it to the boss when he’d attempted to explain this: “Was that what they had offered you as a manager? No?”

Cyndi has sailed around the world on a Japanese peace seeking vessel—the program was created by Japanese who believed that the traumatic effects of their country’s past militarism weren’t being accurately depicted by domestic school texts—teaching English to handfuls of adult students. One older woman fell dramatically in love with another student, and the two seniors stayed on the boat after one circumnavigation of the earth, happy in their late-life romance.

Cyndi is tall, thin, and midwestern. She speaks Spanish fluently, Korean competently, and is “nonreligious” but straighlaced. She went with me to the hospital on Thursday, after we’d seen June safely into a taxi for the airport. The doctor initially was reluctant to run the extended tests I wanted done, warning me that they would be expensive. I had to pay up front. Including his consultation fee, the blood test, urinalysis, EKG, and a chest xray cost a total of $73. He prescribed a five-day course of antibiotics to deal with my throat infection. Then Cyndi and I had lunch, then coffee.

Friday four of us teachers went for shabu shabu, but when we arrived the restaurant was closing early, so we retired to a pork restaurant instead. After multiple experiences at as many restaurants, I have determined that I should not eat ohgapsal (five stripe pork) or samgapsal (three stripe pork). My digestive system just can’t handle the fat of which these cuts are mostly composed; I have spent each successive night after these otherwise enjoyable evenings clutching my belly in agony. There’s one restaurant I like that serves actual meat for grilling, but my colleagues don’t care for it.

I stayed up all Sunday night writing wretched poetry. After I sat on the beach for an hour Monday, surreptitiously picking up ocean-tumbled pieces of old soju bottles from among the stones and snapping closeups of curiously latex feeling seaweeds, I got a proper rest and re-read my verse.

I am neither Bilston nor Tennyson. It was ghastly. To me, poetry is watercolors. Only people who have a natural skill for clever insouciance can move the brush or pen with the devil-may-care deftness those arts require.

I understand why many artists take to substance abuse; it’s not only their real or imagined peculiar sensitivity to terrestrial ills, but also their terminal frustration with their own inability to express the things they want to express. The brain becomes stone, word or paints as easy to shift as lead. If there’s a nightingale whispering in your ear, it’s also busy pooping on your shoulder.

Insomnia, however, is great for attempts to write—your rationality isn’t inhibiting the mad elf (he clothed only in nightingale guano) that chuckles and cracks its toe-knuckles with excitement: this is the night that you’ll finally unleash your inner Tolstoy. The ghost of Steinbeck will bow like a landless serf. This is the year that you are recognized publicly as a real writer. Move over Suzanne Collins.

And then you blither and revise and reorder and write more until the sun is quite high and you are still in your (now slightly rank) pajamas. At which point you know that not a syllable you’ve produced in either poetry or prose makes any sense. So you go grocery shopping, spending more than fifty bucks on dairy products. If you can’t write, you’ll bury your sorrows in brie, crackers, and jugs of low fat milk.

Afterwards all you can think of is that your throat still hurts, and your inner ears pinch painfully each time you swallow. I finished the five day antibiotic regimen this morning, and although my voice has returned, and the white spotting on my tonsils has gone, I am in a fair bit of discomfort. Back to the doctor tomorrow morning.

Although I’m not delighted with my recent efforts at poetry (I am really NOT a poet), I am going to send them off to some magazines and try for publication anyway. They are certainly no worse than some published selections by other people. Staying up all night can get the creative juices flowing, or so addle the brain as to make it believe they are running, and that even the worst dreck is passable. And it may be, and publishable too, when read by a stranger in another context.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Thou, Thee, Auntie

One of the reasons that I was for decades under the impression that no one alive practiced poetry in English was that “thee” and “thou” were to my mind such inextricable parts of poetic language that writing rhyme without referring to them seemed impossible. Oh, sure, there were a couple of ancient modernists such as TS Eliot and ee cummings who had written without these archaic forms (and mostly without rhyme, too), but they were all safely dead, and so had somehow escaped the censure of practicing poetry without a proper license.

Despite having grown up with the King James Version, I was also under the impression that thee and thou were ultra formal, as they were only employed when speaking to the Almighty or of the reverence felt for one’s country—they put a respectful distance between earth and heaven or between individual and federal republic. It wasn’t until high school (or perhaps university) language studies that the long-lost intimacy of thee and thou registered in my dim brain.

In the American South, we have evolved ya’ll (you all) as a definite plural and what I call an indicative plural—you and those of your ilk, whom you represent by proxy—“Y’all need to come around this side,” “Y’all come back to visit.” It means “you and those like you,” even if only one person is visibly being addressed. Y’all is a plural, but it’s also a peculiar effort to build intimacy, as it avoids the pejorative and offensive “you people,” is used by Southerns of all ethnicities, and is inclusive: “We all are waiting on you all” isn’t a phrase unheard. We just want to be all together. Ya’ll softens the abrupt “you.” One of the other ways we get around that difficult designation is by formality—ma’am and sir—or cutesy sweetness: sugar, honey, doll, and half a dozen other diabetes-inducing endearments that are increasingly used with complete strangers in public.

As I’ve griped before, I don’t mind being talked down to by someone older than me, but having some pup try to butter me up with words more comfortably spoken between lovers than among participants in conventional mercantile exchanges gives me twitches. Also, what might non-native speakers understand? They all have relentlessly relationship-defining language patterns, from the formal to the familial. Their tu/ты/du levels are still firmly intact, as are occupation-related titles and surname to first name and patronymic graduations of public address. Sure, there’ve been some shifts over the years—“Fraulein” is now only the youngest elementary school miss, and “Frau,” like “Ms.”, once the exclusive province of wives, refers to most females above age 13. Still, though I am at adjumma and женьшеня age, the implication that such persons are enjoying the benefits of the presumptive married life makes it challenging for me to insist that the terms be applied to me. Some concepts just don’t translate well.

In Jeju, there’s a single all-purpose word for “auntie” and “uncle” with which you can comfortably address almost everyone. The origins of the word come from tragic history, as people would die in the ocean, or simply disappear to a farther shore, and the families they had built would incorporate new members and produce them, I am told. So genealogies ran amok, and the easiest method to avoid offence in case of relationship known or unknown was to have a single polite honorific for all adults. But “aunt” seems to be an appropriate term throughout Southeast Asia for older stranger women whom you wish to approach pleasantly. So Aunt KYP I will be here, too, except to my students and colleagues: older, certainty stranger, but undoubtedly pleasant.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Walking Air Purifiers
PubMed listed an article a while back about the use of kinetic energy to power biomedical devices.

Could not the same concept be extended to small scale air filtration efforts on the streets of the most populated and most polluted cities? Wearing water cooled air purifying backpacks that would not only give the active wearer positive pressure fresh air, but would also clean additional material in the immediate atmosphere could be a great solution to urban pollution. Like they do at Bikeshare booths (the equipment could also be properly mounted on such bikes), wearers could put down a deposit on the free gear, enjoy exercising in it as long as they wanted, and then get points for the overall positive balance upon return, points they could use toward public transportation, or other perks (like coffee!). The filters could be collected and recycled.

I for one would certainly wear a small device like this around if I knew I could breathe clean air for the duration and also contribute a little to others being able to do the same.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Week's End


Nauseated. My neck is really bothering me, but at least I don’t have pain radiating down my arm. I’m really tired in part because I slept badly last night—about three hours. And my first thought upon waking up to teach my adult class was “I get to go back to bed in just three more hours.” And although I usually sleep well during the day, when I got home for that much-anticipated nap, I couldn’t doze off, and kept waking up after having disturbing dreams about aircraft that were either coming in for a landing or having a hard time taking off. I’ve had several nights of poor sleep this week. I’ve been taking the medicine (which has worked fine up to this point) faithfully. I am not getting enough exercise, and I know my vegetable intake is not what it should be.

The new teacher (who isn’t a short-term person as I first thought, but has signed on for at least a year) seems thoroughly nice and awfully familiar. I don’t know that we’ve actually met before (she’s Minnesotan and says she’s been on Jeju three years already). Perhaps she is just a pleasant type—thin, tall, soft-spoken and efficient. She’s trailing June today, as I think she’s taking over her classes come next week, when June leaves for a month’s sabbatical. I think, like me, June is dreading the time off a little bit, simply because it’s relatively short for travelling halfway around the world and seeing everybody she needs to see, and also because it’s likely not to be really restful at all. I dearly hope that by some miracle my economy class seats are upgraded (although Korean Air economy is supposed to be more comfortable than that of most other major airlines’): just the thought of being crushed between strangers and sitting up for fourteen hours twice in a month makes my neck hurt even more in anticipation.

*Warning, Next Paragraph TMI for Guys*

And, if the creasing of my facial skin weren’t bad enough, my boobs are beginning to sag. It is not a pleasant sensation. I don’t like my own skin folding over on itself—it’s hot and sticky and fat-feeling. When I am in the US, I plan to buy a bunch of exercise related tank tops (may the inventor(s) of Spandex be forever blessed!) so I don’t have to endure The Droop every time I remove my brassiere at home in the hours before I go to bed. I know most women who have nursed children have dealt with The Droop since giving birth, but I had hoped to avoid it permanently—there ought to be some physical perks to lifelong chastity.


I haven’t heard a peep from Irina’s daughters after the initial information about her death. I miss her. She’s still the first contact that comes up in my phone. There’s a frustrated, empty pocket in my soul of not being able to email her. I wonder whether that book will ever been published. It’s a good story. My new Russian приятельница (as an American I would say friend, but there’s the whole “proven over time” quality of Russian friendship I’m observing at the moment—I think Irina would have credited us as friends after fifteen years!) on the other side of Jeju messaged me that she’d painted me some little watercolors of haenyeo, which is a really kind gesture.

Was it only just me who noticed that Kim Jung Un has a piercing halfway up the outside of his right ear?! He definitely liked Dennis Rodman’s look. Roxanne went with me to the doctor Friday morning to get a diabetes test (as that’s one of several things my being often cold, energiless, and generally sick-feeling could be), and there was a large flatscreen broadcasting the morning meeting of Kim and Moon.

Aside from all the caricatures of the NK leader, it was instantly clear from looking at the action on the screen that the guy is a master politician. His physical affect is of a jolly guy—it was like WWII “Uncle Joe” Stalin come to life. He was all smiles and gladhanding and hugs and conviviality, while most of his acolytes trail somberly in his wake, their eyes fixed on him, sensitive for the slightest sign of displeasure. If you weren’t already aware of his sometimes spectacular summary executions of even family members who displeased him, and his hand controlling one of the largest national prison systems (to which three generations of family members are dispatched in case of political offences, including trying to emigrate and watching K-dramas) you’d find it hard to believe. His sister behaved like the classic ruling princess (as opposed to the popular type of the last two hundred years in the West who are primarily birth celebrities) she is: it was obvious she was used to being obeyed without question, and smilingly associating peer to peer with world leaders. 

What was remarkable to me—and I ascribe this both to the lasting effects of the sartorial style of the leaders of the American and French revolutions, but also to Lenin, whose sober appearance gave him a popular power that gilding would have stripped away—was how simply everyone was dressed. Kim’s sister didn’t even wear stud earrings. Moon’s tie was an unadorned peaceful sky blue. Whereas worldwide prior to this point in time strength was reflected in intricately embroidered clothing and impressive quantities of jewelry, nowadays national leaders seem determined to eschew, at least on their persons, any indications of pomp. They prefer to show their power in other ways. South Korea’s traditionally dressed honor guard was colorful, and the military band was polished, but what was more meaningful was that everyone was healthy and tall. Likewise, all the members of the ROK government looked like they got exercise and good meals regularly. On the other hand, the members of the DPRK government, though neatly dressed, looked physically and psychologically run down. Kim’s black Mercedes limousine might have been tightly flanked by a score of jogging robust security men in ties and black suits, but the sheer number of photographers energetically clicking pictures from every conceivable angle on the other side was its own message of power.


The diabetes test came back negative, praise God. My mom thinks there’s another genetically shared issue to blame: a dysfunctional thyroid. I hope that I can get a proper diagnosis and treatment soon. I’m tired of being tired, feeling overweight, suffering extreme chills, and coping with recurrent sore throats. I want to sleep deeply the whole night, and not be forced back to bed for hours every midday just to keep functioning. Of course, it would also help if the air pollution index dropped at least into the “moderate” and preferably into the “good” range—today I didn’t even step outdoors because it was a constant bright red, hazardous for all, not just for those with preexisting breathing issues.

June said that the sermon was on Genesis 1:1, and she couldn’t understand a word of it, possibly because the pastor emeritus, who preached, used Jeju dialect rather than standard Korean. She’s been taking language lessons several times a week, and her abilities have improved remarkably. I haven’t, and mine hasn’t. The Korean alphabet is made of rings and tubes, whose meanings are discernible only in context, in collective relationship. Whereas English and Russian letters can be speedily recognized independently, whatever their orientation, most Korean letters have to be in syllable blocks to permit this. An “n” upside down is a “g.” An “o” could be a silent placeholder before a vowel, or it could be an “ng” sound at the end of a syllable. A vertical bar is an “ee” but a horizontal one is a “ue.” And when the long bars sprout little perpendicular ones, whichever way the longer is oriented indicates a vastly different vowel sound. Russian and English have western style writing systems, where each letter stands on its own, although consonant combinations are possible. Korean letters are always in company with others – as aforementioned, vowels can’t appear unchaperoned. However, different consonants cannot in general combine directly (there are doubles) – they must usually be accompanied by a vowel sound which shields them from contact with other consonants, at least within the standard syllable block of 2-4 letters. And those blocks...Some blocks are read clockwise, some clockwise, some zigzag down left to right. And letter sizes change relative to the others included in the syllable block. All this is to say that for me, although I know the letters and their usual sounds, seeing these series of multipart images and then teasing out the pronunciation of the whole word is slow and difficult. And then there are so few recognizable words! There are a few modern imports, like “digital,” “PC,” “coffee,” “donut,” “cake,” “ice cream,” and business jargon, but there’s not much to build on from a root system I recognize.

I REALLY want to go on a slow walk in fresh air and think of nothing but sunshine. On Friday, my little third grader told me that he has four academy (English, Art, Math, and Taekwondo) classes after school every day, and two classes on Saturday (Sports and Golf—I think his mom must want to transform him into an executive). I feel lazy and decadent by comparison, editing work or not. That little guy is going to burn out before he hits his teens.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Two Degrees Superceded

Almost a quarter of a century ago, I was in Russia. There, I befriended Dasha, a girl who ultimately helped me get out of a thoroughly sticky housing situation, and with whose family I lived for the rest of my stay. After I returned to the US, she and I eventually lost touch (that being the dawn of the public internet era when few people even had email addresses), but we reconnected last year via social media.

This afternoon, Reese and I drove across Jeju to meet Lena, a Russian illustrator and animal rescuer with whom a British colleague put me in touch. Lena, who has seven cats and three dogs, runs a guest house with her husband and homeschools their two kids. She was delightful, and we hit it off right away. While she was baking us fresh scones, I stared at the paintings on her bulletin board and noticed that the signature on her watercolors was similar to that on some of the artwork I’d purchased from a friend of Dasha’s back in 1995. It turns out that Lena didn’t know that other artist, but that her best buddy at art school had introduced her to Dasha’s gorgeous and intimidating twin sister! So, after all this time, I meet someone who knew the same people I did my first stay in St. Petersburg—each of us about as far removed from that place as possible.

The world is small. Meanwhile, two of my Prague CELTA colleagues encountered each other in Bangkok.

Lena and her husband are planning to begin a small publishing company here. She has contacts in the educational printing sphere and has illustrated multiple academic books. I told her that I would cheerfully afflict her with successive waves of MS Word attachments in hopes that she would think some of it was publishable—in English, Russian, or Korean. Heck, if my series of historically based cat stories play to the ‘80s nostalgia market in the Russian Federation, I am going to go for it. Lena told me that she honestly thought they sounded like a Russian had written them. But she also told me she ultimately wanted to draw some really original material, timeless and universal rather than anchored in verifiable detail and about a specific country.

Instead of sitting on my bed in the dark and mentally translating from English to French to German to Russian to Korean (very basic vocabulary!) to woo sleep, I should write. If the wee hours don’t inspire me, during the daylight I now can go stand chest-deep in a flowering canola field and pose for innumerable essentially identical photos (the snow is all gone, but weekend couples are still parking their rent cars on the road shoulders and snapping selfies). Or I could risk death galloping on a scruffy steed on a lead held by a self-assured Mongolian horseman (a few minutes of this costs about $100). Really, I can think of less expensive ways to risk my neck. Like snorkeling. I need to buy some goggles and swim fins, and hope that the air outdoors eventually registers clean enough to breathe (today’s public emergency alert was not to go out without wearing a mask—though, thanks to my Biohazard training I must note that most of the masks here are of the “keep from sneezing on other people” cotton cloth variety and won’t actually filter smaller pollutants).