Sunday, March 18, 2018

Happy But Exhausted

My brother is posting “obligatory penguin selfies” from Antarctica. I walked 13.8 miles Saturday, and ate fresh seaweed and sea urchin soup at a seaside restaurant run by haenyeo. There were nine of us in the group from my adult class, and at a coffee shop after lunch we were joined by two more of my students, which made for a full room of conversation around a large table.

Hiking with a gregarious group is thoroughly pleasant—the weather was perfectly clear, the air was fresh thanks to Thursday’s all-day rain, and a muscular wind was blowing from the east, tousling everyone’s hair and dappling the richly blue ocean with whitecaps. Waves crashed against the scattered volcanic rocks, sending spray high. It was beautiful. However, hiking with a group means strolling, and stopping every few minutes to take pictures (some good ones, thanks to one woman's avocational photographer husband), to relax, to snack, to eat. My hopes of slimming vanished quickly as we paused for chocolate, then a huge lunch, then ice cream, then tea with cream-layered wafers at the coffee shop. 

The tea was served in white ceramic cups covered with white ceramic lids. There was a hole in the middle of the lid for the little green silk leaf attached to the teabag with a wired stem to "sprout" through. There were tiny square ceramic dishes for receiving the square-bottomed teabag after the requisite steeping time. I'd glimpsed theatrical tea before--Maxwell's tea is a dried clipping of the actual herb with a little tag attached, and then there are the "blooming" teas that open in glass teapots--but the sprouting leaf and the wee gold-embossed specialized bag disposal tray were innovations. Sitting in this strong competitor's shop (the owner, whom I know, waved at me--he's a nice guy, and I wish I knew his name, since we've been acquainted for a year now!), another woman mentioned Maxwell's large following of young female customers, owing to his good looks. "Yes," I said, "I've even seen adjummas sitting in his cafe, staring at him." We all agreed he's pretty, and pleasant, treating every woman with the same courtesy, offering "service" sweet toast as an occasional treat. I mentioned that last time I was in there, he told me that if his coffee shop doesn't pan out, he'll either open a pizza place or move across the island to the biggest city. "But what about your female fans here?" I asked. He responded that he'd just have to make new ones. This should not be difficult.

There were so many of us we accidentally left one lady behind when we went out of the coffee shop, and several minutes later, as we blissfully walked by the seashore, she phoned us in a panic, wondering where we were. This reminded me of my youngest brother's being lost as a child in similar circumstances. His terrible sense of direction is shared not only by June, but also by Reese, a woman with whom I ended up spending the rest of the day after the other members of the group decided to go home by car mid-afternoon. Reese used to be a personal trainer, and she wanted to get in some real exercise by walking home, but she didn't know exactly how to go. Being a plump homing pigeon, I volunteered to show her.

It was about eight miles' walk, but we made good time, and arrived in her neighborhood as the sun was setting. Her husband had already fed himself, so she and I went to Roost, a Jeju Italian-style chain, and shared a long, relaxing dinner, swapping family/life stories over pizza, soup, and salad. There were tons of small children there with their parents, and all were periodically enthralled by the koi in the pool in the middle of the restaurant. While she sipped a glass of beer and I cupped what looked like a basin of red wine balanced on a weighted pin, we discovered we have a lot of things in common--same birth year, no children, and one sister and two brothers. And her father died six years ago. We plan to do more olle trails together. She said she'd like to invite me and Albert to dinner with her husband. I hope I can get in shape before swimsuit season.

Other small joys of the day included: The small rainbow underneath a waterfall that pours into the sea. A newly-refurbished reading room on top of a cliff, with an awe-inspiring photography exhibition on the second floor (the photographer turned out to be Albert's former diving instructor). Meeting friendly puppies (puppy fur is almost cat-soft--I feel about puppies and dogs the way Victor Hugo felt about kittens and cats, preferring the earlier stage to the latter) who liked being scratched under their chins and who seized my pantleg in their tiny jaws trying to prevent my leaving. The nice girl who sweetly gave me directions at the bus stop (I was silently and slowly sounding out the name of my destination, but I appreciated her coming up to me and offering to help!). And the stone "grandfather" hugging the pig (Jeju is famous both for these beanie-wearing pop-eyed humanoids and for black pork, which is served in varying numbers of meat/fat layers--it's basically thick-sliced bacon--which you grill at your table), whose nose was shiny from rubbing.

It has rained all day today, and I haven't been out, since I was dead tired and slept through all three of my church alarms. I really need spiritual as well as physical exercise, since two chapters of Job before bedtime last night really don't cut it long term. Job was complaining about the fat on the wicked, and his own comparative weight loss. I could do without the heartbreak and physical debilitation, but losing some kilos would be nice.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Prairie Dog Norebang, Zombies

In my seventh grade class of three boys (thankfully the class is due to double in size this week—a class of three tends to rush through the material), one of the short essays we’ve been reading is about prairie dog burrows. Among the rooms dedicated to specific functions in the burrow is apparently a “listening” room where the rodents wait until all is quiet outside before emerging from the hole. A boy who was less than attentive to his text misread “listening” as “singing” and I had a sudden vision of a disco ball descending from the ceiling and a prairie dog standing in the middle of its darkened dugout, clutching a microphone between its front paws and crooning “My Way.”

When the lights are halfway on in my classroom, it looks like zombies are trying to break through the whiteboard to feed on me and my students. There are ghostly handprints in the grey film that covers the surface, where the ink that the erasers merely smoothed, rather than removed, was transferred onto damp fingers and palms. It resembles a scene in Train to Busan. Truly, those little hands can be deadly even when possessed by the living—so many children have offered me snacks over the last week that my immune system has given up being challenged and forfeited altogether. I have a head cold, the sniffles, and am mildly dizzy. I didn’t go to church this morning because I didn’t want to share the joy.

The word “feathers” (깃털) in Korean sounds more than a little like the English word “guitar,” and this led to a short discussion about tar and feathering in my other seventh grade class. I think being hit over the head with an acoustic guitar and then having feathers thrown at you would be a more comfortable form of public shaming than the classic tar/down combo. Not a bass or electric guitar, though.

On the topic of public shaming and probable death (because that’s what my small talk subjects are, not the weather or the possibility that the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates), on my weekly smoothie and avocado toast stopover I told Maxwell about the Russian ex-spy recently being attacked with a nerve agent in England. He asked how one went about these assassination attempts, and seemed rather disappointed that it tended toward the “slip poison into the tea” method that’s been around for millennia—so low-tech for this day and age!—so I told him about the deadly umbrella tip stabbing last century, which seemed to buck him up a bit. I don’t know that he thinks of me at all except that I am odd.

I sat outside in the sun at a park for half an hour this afternoon trying to recharge, but I am still like my (as yet unreplaced) iPhone battery—take one snapshot and I shut down. If only I could get a good night’s sleep and wake up early enough to go to Jeju-si to the “Apple authorized retailer” and back before my classes tomorrow. I might be able to nap on the bus....

Sunday, March 04, 2018


Some people wake up the morning after overindulgence with splitting headaches, wishing for death. It doesn’t take me more than a few hours to regret my consumption, and I don’t wish for death...I just smell like it. Yes, I’ve been binging on garlic again.

It’s the church’s fault, really. The buffets at the last two Sunday lunches have included greens that are positively drenched in garlic, and I haven’t been able to help myself. Or rather, I have been able to help myself to as much as I want. And where garlic is involved my self-control goes out the window (which should be preemptively opened). Again, the herbal pong defeats both my deodorant and the expensive perfume which I gifted myself before Christmas. And do I feel guilty? No, just repulsively aromatic. I comfort myself with the fact that I have no one that I will be kissing.

As to other costly indulgences, I bought myself a new purse Saturday night. The pricey bag I brought with me to Korea had the strap separate from one side—thank goodness I was right outside my front door when it happened! I was/am so disgusted. I have contacted the maker, and they have been less than prompt in responding to my emails, but I hope that they will agree to fix it at their own expense, given I didn’t abuse it. For the last couple of weeks I have been stuffing my wallet and other necessaries into my coat pockets, but now that the weather is finally getting warmer that wasn’t going to be an option. So, as I was walking home with June after dinner, I spotted this pretty black leather purse in a shop window and went in to ask after it. Turns out (of course) it was one of the more costly pieces in the store—I have an exquisite talent for homing in on such items—but they gave me a good discount and I went ahead and got it.

I had planned to go to this year’s Fire Festival, but I overslept the departure time for the shuttle bus Saturday afternoon. I have been tired lately, sneezing irregularly, and feeling generally rundown. It’s possible to feel completely overwhelmed and entirely unproductive simultaneously. My schedule for March is quite heavy, with me teaching four hours of class one day and seven the next. It’s also lasting later into the evening, with my final classes finishing at 8:20. And after the kids leave, I go through my room-straightening ritual and finish writing up my activities and assessments of the day in my journal. I don’t have the most organized life, but my teaching work is, to the best of my ability.
But this all means that I get home at nine, and if there’s any editing to be done, it pushes me into the wee hours finishing up and then settling down to sleep. My own fault—if I got up and got moving at a regular hour I could get my proofing assignments finished earlier.

I realized this morning that I had lost my bank card—I ransacked my apartment looking for it and then figured out I had left it somewhere near the ATM Saturday night. It was waiting for me at the bank this afternoon, as some nice person had turned it in. I was relieved. I paid my household bills and transferred money to one of my US accounts, and now devoutly hope that my paycheck clears before the end of the day, as the remaining balance is embarrassingly skimpy.

My former DC employer has scored a remarkable coup liquidating the estate of a famous retired NASA employee and government official. The sale is guaranteed to be a madhouse, and if I were stateside I would certainly be begging my sweet boss to cameo as a member of the team. I really miss the estate sale business.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Walking Fuel

Thanks to heavy consumption of garlic at lunch, I have achieved a level of malodorousness that requires me to associate only with those who know me very well, or those who know me not at all; those with whom I am only peripherally acquainted would cringe away and never come near me again. I forgot to put on lipstick before I went out again this evening, and my reflection in the mirror above the ATM was as pale as death...matching my corpse-like aroma. Onscreen, my predicament would be illustrated by vivid green digital fumes leaking from around my body, like a demon possession.

I walked more than five miles today. Yesterday, I walked nine, all the way to Jungmun. I started out on an olle trail where the crowing of a rooster competed with the sound of circular saws (at yet another new apartment building swiftly rising) and traffic from the main road. Only a few meters further down the lane, there were orange groves, and frost-burnt roses, soft breezes and sunshine, and the mechanical racket was replaced by twittering in the bushes, although the rooster kept up his strident cries. Beyond the reclining orchards and barrier lines of cedars, a jigsaw puzzle of houses and apartments lined the cliff. Soon, the rooster sounds mixed with bursts of cheering from a nearby soccer pitch, and then both faded altogether. Yellowing ferns sprouted from the earth below walls of stacked porous and jagged grey volcanic rock.

After descending the lane, I emerged into a huge ancient basin—a sign said that half a millennium ago it was filled with a crystal clear lake—the former bottom is now half farmed, half fallow flat land. The path took me along a narrow, trash infested ditch filled with stagnant water. In the distance I could see the pure white cap of Hallasan—although from last weekend I knew the distant whiteness was illusory, that up close you can detect a thin layer of grime dusting even the most pristine snowdrifts. To my right, the weeds were choked with garbage, mostly bright red plastic ramen wrappers. To the left, cracked white industrial paint buckets lodged half-sunken in the swampy ooze. And then, suddenly, there were neat, cleanly-cut acres of dry rice paddies. Surprisingly, the ditch full of slime and refuse didn’t stink at all. But the ditch opposite the paddies, though dry, reeked of swine. It was fetid. Thankfully, that was soon passed, and I was back to fresher air as I climbed out of the crater, listening to the soft sound of wind in the thin bamboo.

One of the more peculiar characteristics of Jeju is the frequency of encountering random gravesites. These man made grassy round hills, boxed in by low, wide stone walls, can be found everywhere—next to houses, in orchards, by businesses, adjacent to scenic overlooks. Some have modern stone markers, heavily inscribed in Chinese characters, while it seems the names of the dead resting beneath others are lost to the living. Last week’s Lunar New Year celebrations were one of the many occasions on which the living pay their respects to ancestors, preparing special tables of foods and bowing deeply to them. One of my seventh grade students told me that’s the reason she hates the New Year, because of all the obligatory rituals for the dead. I mentioned this to a Korean woman and she remarked that the girl’s family must be small—in large families the responsibilities are widely dispersed: her son had only had to make a single bow.

I was tempted to retrieve some of the survivors from an accident at an intersection involving a crate of kumquats—there were three lanes smeared with crushed fruit, with scores still whole next to the curb. One peanut butter apple doesn’t really fuel more than 6 miles walking, and for the two after that energy was expended I was really hungry. As soon as I got to Jungmun, I determined to get calories on board, even if they were 95% sugar, which honey butter toast and a hallabong yogurt smoothie guaranteed. Neither the toast nor the smoothie measured up to Maxwell’s standards, but him I am avoiding until that moment he sends me a text announcement of the availability of avocado toast, as he said he would do. Clearly I am not a VIP client. I miss Eduard, too. A cafe lacks comfort when it lacks a cat.

I am praying that I will have friends here. People who genuinely want my company, not just my custom. Kindred spirits to who I can be open and who will be honest in return, creative characters who will inspire me to better thoughts, words and deeds. People who like to go exploring for miles, with whom I could have shared yesterday’s discoveries: a metal model of the Eiffel Tower, some five or six stories high, in the parking lot of the closed Peugeot Citroen dealership; and two giant stone grandfather figures facing one another in an overgrown field bordered with vaguely phallic stones, like two kings on a chessboard.

The sermon this morning was about suffering, and how easy it is to insult others, to cause them psychological suffering in times when they are already enduring physical suffering. The pastor pointed out that as Jesus himself suffered, we will suffer. I tend to forget that suffering is not always overt, like being cursed at. Sometimes it’s repeatedly thwarted desires for good things, disappointments following upon disappointments when all around you people seem to be achieving their goals. On the other hand, blessings are not to be similarly overlooked. Simply looking around and saying “Thank you, Lord, for permitting me to have this adventure,” is a good place to begin.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Recommended Purchases: My Gun Control Idea

In order to get a job, you need recommendations from people who testify to your competence and character. To get a loan, you need collateral or a cosigner or both. To get married, you need two witnesses. Why shouldn’t the same be true for gun purchases?

I’ve doubted the efficacy of background checks and waiting periods ever since they were first imposed, as they flag only rare cases and don’t appreciably delay planned actions of mass murder. Furthermore, they distance responsibility for authorizing sales to anonymous bureaucrats, potentially thousands of miles distant, who do not know the person who has made the application. Such strategies, it seems to me, have not benefited public safety or the individual. Instead, I suggest a more localized, community-based means of assuring that weapons are acquired by responsible persons.

I should note I think the whole question of whether mental illness should disqualify someone from gun ownership is foolishness. Most people can name intelligent individuals with depression or other mental disorders whom they would trust with a missile launcher, and can cite an equal or greater number of foolish people of supposed “sanity” who ought not to hold rubber bands. I would say the issue is one of character and self-control.

I am acquainted with half a dozen gun collectors, half liberal, half conservative, all men, in several northern and southern states, whom I know to be solid citizens. None of them would ever dream of using one of their firearms against another person, except in a case of self-defense. They are all well-educated guys who are fascinated by the mechanics and history of these items. One key difference between these people who go to the gun range with their ear and eye protectors and blast away cheerfully at paper targets or tin cans, and the people (also almost all men or boys) who go to public places, particularly schools, and mow down children, is social engagement. The latter are typically antisocial loners. My collector acquaintances all have friends. They invite guests of other races and sexes to hang out (and sometimes even to go to the range with them). They are gregarious and cheerful, with long-standing relationships. They do not even joke about using their firearms to assault other people, although one or two of them have been known to punch men out cold when the occasion demanded it. I would recommend any of them to acquire more guns if they chose.

And that is my proposal: toss the official waiting period, etc., and require each firearms purchase to be witnessed and endorsed in person by two witnesses who are not immediately related to the purchaser. If the weapon were ever to be used in a pre-meditated homicide, not only would the purchase witnesses' full names and ages be publicized along with their relationship (how long have you known this person?) to the accused, they could be charged as accessories to murder, or under Federal conspiracy laws. At the time of purchase they should also have to testify that they’ve received no money, favors, or goods in exchange for their endorsement of the buyer’s character. And there should be a local bulletin board (since the FBI seems overwhelmed and bureaucratically incapable of investigating such cases) where people can testify, under oath, that particular individuals aren’t to be trusted with weapons. For each denunciation (as doubtless some people would attempt to misuse this board), another positive witness would be required.

This system would benefit people who feel themselves under immediate threat from an estranged partner—with two witnesses familiar with the situation, they could be rapidly armed, and have in writing that they and their sponsors agreed on the threat. The avowedly violent and antisocial loners couldn’t acquire weapons easily. Teachers and parents and members of the community who didn’t want to acquire weapons themselves, but worried about particular individuals’ getting them (particularly if these individuals have voiced threats!), could report this to the bulletin board on oath, thereby not wholly inhibiting potential buyers, but certainly requiring them to prove themselves with additional on-the-record endorsers. Even the waiting period idea would be satisfied, as most people are too busy to have their schedules sync easily.

So, before another major community tragedy erupts, let’s get the local community involved. New national laws and regulations by people seeking to satisfy whims of public opinion only go so far. Take personal responsibility, and be your brother’s and your sister’s keeper.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Scatological Snow Sports?

I thought the local Google Doodle for today was a cartoon of a dung beetle with its characteristic ball of poop. It's actually supposed to be pushing a snowball, then chased by one, in a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark/The Mummy/Luge/Slalom mashup. Featuring a roach. I think. Clearly, Google didn't pay to use the Olympic logo, but it's determined to get in on the Games one way or the other. And since my Korean isn't up to par, I don't know to what famous character or illustrator this is supposed to pay homage.

Speaking of language limitations, I met my neighbor today for the first time. We've been silently living next door to one another for over a year, but this evening we were going out at the same time. Without preamble, she asked (in Korean) if I liked fruit. I said I did. She rushed back inside and started loading up a shopping bag with oranges and apples, none smaller than an infant's head, from huge containers on chairs and the floor. She said her father is a farmer, and furthermore family brought fruit as New Year gifts from Seoul. I thanked her sincerely. I'm taking it all to school tomorrow. As is the way with life, I just bought fruit last week.

Just this weekend, I managed to part with most of the seaweed I was given as a gift for Chuseok. I had, of course, bought a bunch of seaweed just before this huge box of assorted size laver came into my possession five months ago. The box had been sitting next to the wall of my bedroom ever since. I finally opened it and distributed most of the larger packages among my colleagues as New Years favors. I still have plenty. I'm not going to be making my own kimbap at home, and I have enough to snack on for months. I actually haven't eaten all that I bought yet.

A neighbor a couple of buildings down was moving this morning. Here, at least in shorter buildings, the moving companies don't take things down the stairs or down the elevator. They take the boxes and furniture directly out the windows onto automated lifts that smoothly carry your belongings down to street level. It's very efficient.

My sister recently told me that women in their forties are never cold. This is not true for me. I got so chilly during my seventh grade class this evening that I zipped up my coat and wound my muffler around my head. My students--all of whom had peeled off their outer layers--were already looking at me blankly, but I think this confused them further. When I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, my lips were purple.

My day began with a couple of my third-grade girls applying lip tint in class. They claimed it wasn't makeup, just "tint." Horsefeathers. They are both pretty without cosmetics, but they are both thoroughly girly girls, and so I shouldn't be surprised--just add this to the ever-changing collection of hair bands and other fripperies. One of them has the ends of her hair dyed pink. A significant percentage of my younger students, both male and female, have had extreme (and probably costly) treatments applied to their hair, from dyes and bleach to permanent waves. And then, on the other hand, there's the tall, loose-limbed girl with the wide grin and careless bowl cut who brings her taekwondo gear to class, including her padded chest-shoulder plate, which laces up the back, like Scarlett O'Hara meets Jean Claude Van Damme. They all seem to get on well with each other, and in Korea adults maintain connections with even their elementary school friends (one of my colleagues just got together with her old schoolmates over the holiday); I can only imagine what most people I went to elementary school are doing now, although I have in fact remained in contact with some!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mountain Climbing

Finally, I have ascended Hallasan. We (Albert, his professor friend Roger, and Ida, a sweet girl in her early thirties from Busan who was staying in one of Albert’s pension rooms—she was repeatedly flabbergasted by my apathy towards and ignorance of popular music, as I mistook her reference to John Legend for John Lennon and didn’t recognize some younger relative of a Backstreet Boy) went up the Yeonsil Trail on Friday. This, shortest, steepest route is probably easiest to climb in winter, as we did, strapping crampons to our boots and stomping briskly uphill without worrying about stairs or rocks or other slowing obstacles, which were all buried under 2-3 feet of snow.

And the descent was easy, as I quickly got tired of slipping accidentally and decided to sit down and toboggan deliberately without a sled. The backside of my trousers (and my two layers of long johns beneath) was eventually soaked, but it was loads of fun racing down the steep curving groove that hundreds of hikers had packed with their poles and boots. Ida and I were some of the last people on the trail (while we were eating ramen outside the snowed-in ranger station near the summit, loudspeakers had broadcast an announcement in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese that it was time to leave), and the handful of middle-aged Koreans behind us decided to copy our example, so there was a group of us laughing sliding down the mountain. We occasionally slowed ourselves by throwing gloved hands over handy tree branches or trail barrier ropes sticking out of the snow, so that we didn’t overtake the three people ahead (which included a veiled nun) that were carefully climbing down the conventional way. I figured it would be bad form to run down a nun.

The trek back to the car truly seemed to take longer than the trip down the trail itself. Albert had been made to park on the shoulder of the road well before the lot by the trailhead, which was snowed in, and in our morning fresh haste to make it to the start of Yeonsil by eleven (the latest admission was permitted), we’d covered the distance in less than an hour. But coming back tired (after more than six hours’ walking) we were all convinced that his car had either been towed or stolen before we finally rounded the last of uncountable road switchbacks and saw it parked.

Roger was spending the evening with his mother, but Albert and Ida and I all went searching for a restaurant for supper. It was an extended search, as almost everything in town was closed for the holiday. Albert phoned Maxwell to ask if he’d join us for supper (as I’d been singing his praises to Ida all day, insisting they had to meet), and he said he was eating barbeque…in Seoul. So that was out. We eventually found a good place where we ate a full meal of a bean sprout and veggie and pork stir fry (duruchigi) wrapped in lettuce leaves with delicious sides, and split a bottle of makeoli. Then the three of us went to a cake shop and shared tea and chocolate cake and Key lime pie. I saw one of my sixth-grade students there on a sweet-shop date—he’s such a nice boy (he still pops his head in to my room to say “Hi, teacher!” even though he’s been reassigned to another class for a few months now). He didn’t see me, and I didn’t disturb them.

I invited Ida, who is a sweetheart (she lived in the Midwest, and was totally comfortable talking to me despite our age difference--she pointed out we three were a collection of oddfellows, divided as we each were by a decade), to come to my Lunar New Year party Saturday night. My Korean coworker and I put on the dog (not literally) for the Year of the Dog. She made japjae and two kinds of kimchi and tteokguk (so fresh and tasty—I ate two bowlfuls) and little various fried things. I added my usual sweet potato soufflé, macaroni and cheese, and leaf salad ingredients with fruits. For dessert we had apple cobbler, brownies, and yaksik. Our guests brought beverages (mostly orange juice and soft drinks, but also two bottles each of soju and makeoli). Eight people in all. I think everyone had a good time, though by the end I was so tired I was almost asleep sitting up. Ida kindly invited me to visit her family in Busan—perhaps when I’ve had a chance to recover from this vacation!