Friday, October 21, 2016

Physical & Bureaucratic Discomfort

I don't think Trixie is as worried as she once was that I will dissolve during my evening shower and disappear down the drain. She still usually tucks herself into a cat loaf in the middle of the bathroom floor for the duration, but when I emerge and towel off, I no longer get a concerned meow. She's not sleeping on the ottoman next to my bed either, but instead curled up on a padded folding chair in my dining room. I feel positively abandoned.

Zits are like fire ant beds, my mom says – you can never truly kill them, you can just make them move. Right now the lower hemisphere of my face resembles a pasture plagued with ugly hillocks. In the upper hemisphere, the combination of crows feet and zits is not a pleasant one. The furrows do add to the rural look, however.

I've been in physical therapy for a week and a half for my arm pain, but have yet to feel a significant improvement. At the evaluation last week, I discovered I had lost some sensation in my fingertips--when the therapist asked for a comparison, I realized I couldn't feel fabric as well with my right fingers as I could with my left. After my session this past Monday, my forearm felt like it had been rubbed with a cheese grater--I guess that particular way of moving my neck wasn't the right one. How I've been holding my head the last 40 years has apparently not been correct either, and the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of multiple cervical disc problems. I've been forbidden to watch K dramas on my iPhone while looking down. I need to keep my nose and chin tips over my sternum, rather than thrust out over my toes. I have taken to wearing a lumbar support pillow tied to my waist like a bustle, so I won't have to remember to carry it around from chair to chair.

I ache when I sit for more than a few hours together, but I have been getting my work done. A recent entry I completed was on "Thanatopis." It inspired me to take a nap on the sofa. I assume that my dreams were pleasant, but I don't really remember.

I found myself interacting with a decidedly unpleasant person earlier this week as I roamed miles in order to get notarized copies of my university diplomas. Whereas in the United States notarized copies of your transcripts are considered proof of academic accomplishments, overseas places want to have apostilled copies of your diplomas themselves. In order to qualify for the apostille, a state level stamp of authenticity, my copies had to be locally notarized. And while one of the diplomas--all of which are framed, given that we Americans tend to think of diplomas more as wall decorations than as legal documents – had modest dimensions (about the size of a sheet of notebook paper) the others harkened back sizewise to the sheepskins on which they all once were issued. The copy machines at the library couldn't accommodate them. The librarian suggested going to the local FedEx store to get reproductions. I wrapped and stacked all my items, hauled them back out to the car, and managed to find the one remaining parking spot in front of the FedEx store. There was only one person working, and five people waiting, and when it was my turn, the young man informed me ungraciously that it was "against federal law" to make such copies. Horse Puckey. He could have simply said that he wasn't a notary, and so wasn't authorized to do so, but instead he implied that I was some sort of national-level criminal. So rude. So I picked up my ungainly stack again and drove several miles down the road to the nearest UPS store, having called in advance to make sure they had a notary on staff and that they wouldn't object to producing the copies I needed. There were four ladies working at UPS, all busy with customers, but they welcomed me cheerfully and not only printed out my images, but also notarized them right away. It was such a pleasant experience after the nervewracking confrontation with the man at FedEx. Not only was his information inaccurate, what sort of business that specializes in copying and shipping has so few people working in the middle of the day? And no notary on staff? And employs someone who covers over his ignorance with condescension? None of these are good business practices. I will most certainly drive several miles out of my way to UPS henceforth.

I had to have my fingerprints redone – the one processing company I could find that offers paper FBI reports (most background check contractors only offer digital reports – no pun intended – which can't be apostilled) required that all fingerprint cards not be older than 18 months. This seems a little odd to me, as surely my fingerprints would not have changed in that period! At any rate, I had to go all the way out to the county jail to be printed. When my report is returned, I have to send it up to Washington, DC, to the State Department to be authenticated.

If this all works out--the visa could still be denied because of my OCD--Trixie will be going to Virginia to stay with my brother Bob for the duration. He likes cats, and his house is large. I hate not being able to take her with me, but I did ask the school if they would be willing to pay for her plane ticket, and they refused. And really, the apartment they offer is so small that it cannot reasonably accommodate a pet any larger than a cricket. I would much rather Trixie be happy, with plenty of room to run around. My only concern is that my brother may become so fond of her that he might not want to give her back to me once I return...

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trauma, Paul Newman, & Vintage Bling

Emergency room nurses are a tough lot. There's not much those folks haven't seen. However, occasionally, even they find it difficult to keep their cool. My uncle Monty, who is an engineer by training, worked for a while as a tow truck driver. One day, Monty and a downtown Atlanta EMT were swapping stories of the worst wrecks they'd come across. Some years ago, the other fellow was called to a wreck where a car had careened into the front driver's side corner of an 18 wheeler (it was traveling so fast that the impact knocked the entire cab off the truck), then finished its trip wrapped around a telephone pole. When the ambulance got there, the crew just stood around waiting for the fire department to come pop open the car door--or the crumpled thing that had been the car door--so they could retrieve the remains. The fire department guys got the door open and the body was so broken up that it just sort of oozed onto the street. And spurted arterial blood. Whatever it was – it was so mangled that the emergency responders couldn't tell if it were male or female -- was technically still alive. The EMTs sprinted over with a body bag and a scoop stretcher and got the thing into the bag (so it wouldn't squirt everywhere on the way to the ER), into the stretcher, and booked it for Grady Memorial.

[For those who don't know, 30-40 years ago – when my dad was doing a med school internship there--Grady was basically a battlefield hospital, treating patients from the war zone that was downtown Atlanta. Anything you would find in your regular combat situation (trauma injuries, bullet and knife wounds, and anything in between) could be seen at Grady Memorial. Grady was where people with certain lifestyles found themselves when they had too much fun. That's also where they took the inmates from the state penitentiary–– murderers who swallowed spoons in order to spend some time in the relatively cushy rooms of the hospital.]

The EMTs pushed the stretcher, complete with zipped body bag, into the ER entrance, and the head nurse started yelling at them. "You know better than to bring a DOA into the ER! ""It's not dead," they responded. "What!?" She ran over to the stretcher and they pulled down the zipper a bit. The nurse looked down and the EMT reported later that he could see the color just drop out of her face. She turned away. Needless to say, the thing in the bag died shortly thereafter. It was later determined to be female, and with an extraordinarily high blood alcohol content.

One wreck my uncle himself responded to involved a fellow who had driven under the back of an 18 wheeler and was then propelled into the blunt end of a guard rail on an highway overpass. He was already dead when the EMTs got there. But they couldn't move the car because the "A" post from the guard rail had skewered the guy's head. Monty had to secure the car so they could extract him. My uncle pointed out that if the guy had been buckled up, he probably would have survived that accident without too much injury. Except for his head, which had been shish kebabbed, the rest of his body was in perfect shape. The "A" post had punched through the cab at a height where his head wouldn't have been if he had been belted in the seat.

Speaking of 18 wheelers, did you know that the bar on the lower back of an 18 wheeler trailer is called a Jayne Mansfield? It was given that name in honor of the actress who died in a car accident (I presume an 18 wheeler was involved?) and is designed to prevent people in sedans and such from driving underneath trucks if they find themselves behind one moving at a lower speed than they are. While working his towing job in the years before Jayne Mansfields were required, Monty arrived at an accident scene involving a sedan and an 18 wheeler to find that another towing company was already cleaning it up. (At that time, it was a first-come-first-serve wrecker race – all the local tow trucks had scanners, and whichever driver made it to the accident scene first got the job. Now, they have call lists and rotation schedules, and there isn't a potentially hazardous competition amongst tow truck personnel to get work.) At any rate, the supervising cop rolled up to my uncle and said, "You missed a good one this time!" A woman had been speeding on the interstate and crested a hill only to find a slow-moving 18 wheeler ahead of her, and she had gone directly under it. The lower part of the truck box had peeled off the top of her car, and with it, the top of her skull. She was still conscious and talking to the EMTs as they tended to her, (obviously she was in shock and didn't know what had happened)-- her skull cap was hanging off the back of her head.The EMTs were a little unsure how to stop the bleeding, given that the entire top of her head was gone. It seems, however, that she survived, and without overmuch long-term disability. I'm pretty sure she was wearing a seatbelt.

How all these stories of trauma came up was that my uncle mentioned to me that he is teaching a highway safety course to a bunch of teenagers, the next generation's aspiring drivers. He has been unimpressed by the students – or rather impressed by their lack of common sense. I told him that one of the most valuable things I learned in my highway safety course (25+ years ago!) was when our instructor – a middle-aged police officer – had told us, "In my 30 years of being on the force, I have never unbuckled a dead person." He said he had unbuckled people who were pretty badly injured, but in his career he had never actually taken a seatbelt off someone who was already dead. My uncle, who is also a racecar driver (people who have varied experiences tend to become writers or estate sale workers) concurred. "But when you're 17, you think you're bulletproof," he remarked. "I didn't when I was a teenager," I pointed out. But I am kind of unusual in being a turkey, which doubtless has limited my achievements.

I found out recently that a high school acquaintance of mine now owns a company that organizes red carpet events in California, and he occasionally posts pictures on his Instagram account of him grinning alongside various recognizable celebrities. When I alluded to this, my uncle remarked that he had been in a wedding with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Naturally, I requested more details.

At that time Monty was on the pit crew for a team racing at Road Atlanta, and Paul Newman was there--some people aren't aware of the fact that Newman was an extremely talented car driver (Monty contends that he would have been ranked with the likes of Mario Andretti had he not pursued film acting as a primary career). The emergency medical services team at Road Atlanta was housed in a building with a bird painted on the side. Known familiarly as the Quack Shack, the medical facility was also a major social hub after hours. The evening in question there was a truly happy social event being put together--two of the medical personnel were getting married to each other. The door opened and Newman walked in, saying something to the effect of "I heard this was a good place to have fun"--and one of the nurses – a friend of the bride, who had joked that she would like Paul Newman to walk her down the aisle – boldly asked him if he would in fact give the bride away. And he said yes. Not long thereafter, Joanne Woodward came in looking for her husband. She asked him if they had any plans for the evening, and he said yes, he was going to be in a wedding. She looked the bride up and down and announced, "You need flowers!" The bride was all fluttery--she had totally forgotten about that little detail– and Miss Woodward went out to the Newmans' camper and fetched the fresh flowers that she had just had delivered (apparently a daily ritual) and brought them back as a bridal bouquet. So, my uncle was in a wedding with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He said that Mr. Newman was willing to talk about cars all day long, but not about anything related to his Hollywood career.

We're setting up a decidedly un-glamorous estate sale. Actually the costume jewelry is rather glamorous. It was a surprise discovery Saturday. Everything else is very conventional, not terribly high quality, and we don't expect it to be a tremendous success, but some of the costume jewelry is truly red carpet worthy– signed clip earrings from the 1940s and 50s studded with dazzling rhinestones. Probably a quarter of what we make at the sale will be from the box of jewelry we found. Sadly there were about 10 pairs that didn't have mates (and they were some of the prettiest ones). Another 10 sets needed repair, but that's what I'm here for! I'm also supposed to be doing some repairs for my old estate sale company – just this evening my dear former boss sent me a picture of an art deco piece (in pieces) that she plans to mail to me tomorrow.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Korean Trip, Part III (Final)

We're taxiing out to the runway. I'm at the window over the rear of the wing, so I can only see the ground below by leaning forward and staring backward, which is more challenging when the flaps are down.

We take off. Little kids squeal at the rush down the pavement and sharp angle into the sky. The one in front of me peers out the window at the back edge of her seat, her small face and big eyes rapt. One brown eye peeks at me curiously. Below, it almost looks like China, the landscape is so urbanized, but there are trees everywhere. The air thickens to milky white, and there is only a vague impression of the earth beneath. The ground disappears, the clouds thin to pale grey blue above. Turbulence keeps our seatbelts fastened. Announcements are broadcast first in Korean, then English. The female flight attendants are wearing gravity-defying neckerchiefs which soar upward at a jaunty angle. I had wondered if the Korean Air commercials (which oddly feature a blond haired, blue eyed beauty) were accurate in their depiction of neckwear, and not only are they correct, the ladies have aerodynamic hair ribbons.

The flight to Jeju was uneventful, though trying to find a locker beforehand for the luggage I didn’t want to haul from Seoul to the south and back again proved heart-rate increasing (the automated locker in the metro station that I initially selected, and paid for, was only good for 24 hours, or for month-long rental, nothing in between, and I was only rescued at the last minute from losing my goods and missing my flight by Bess’s discovery of the human-managed airport checkroom, for which I could pre-pay for the three days I would be out of town). I whisked through security (nothing like the painful process at American airports these days—about the level of checks that were in place stateside back in the 1990s) and walked immediately onto the plane. All the passengers were so efficiently seated that we were in flight within minutes.

The gentleman seated next to me was rather excited, which inspired me to type pungent remarks into my notepad, but I ultimately ignored him and dozed off, and the next thing I knew we were descending over the ocean towards the green volcanic island. Bess and Portia had flown separately from me—we were all on flights five minutes apart—and we quickly reunited in the airport waiting area, which was absolutely packed with people, of whom we were basically the only ones of European descent (which at least made it fairly easy to find each other in the crowd). Our T-cards worked here, too, so we got on a bus and began trying to find our way across the island. We got off too quickly, and then hauled our suitcases for blocks before getting on another bus, which we also got off when things began to look unfamiliar. We were all hungry, and Bess had an idea of going to a Mexican restaurant she had liked when she lived nearby, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. It was starting to drizzle.

And then this tall thin blond American guy wearing a torn Camp Pendleton tshirt came running up the hill, and despite the others’ reluctance, I waylaid him. He was very friendly—he’d taught with EPIK, then returned as a contract English teacher—and told us that we’d washed up in Old Jeju City (which explained why the buildings looked down at heel), and he even knew the name of the Mexican restaurant we wanted in New Jeju City and the location of a major department store just half a block from it. We thanked him, hailed a taxi, and were whisked off to the restaurant. Their burritos and their margaritas were quite good. Then, as dark fell, we dragged our luggage another couple of blocks (avoiding a couple of guys who insinuated we were Russians, i.e. prostitutes—isn’t that a horrible ethnic association?! Incidentally, we were dressed in normal casual clothes, and all rumpled from traveling) and got on the right bus to Seogwipo, the town on the other side of the island where Portia is living and teaching. So different from riding across Jamaica at a similar time thirty years ago! The Korean bus was modern, quiet, and comfortable, the highways were straight, freshly paved and clearly marked, and most of the famous citrus trees were enclosed in greenhouses. It was like a cross between Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, with resort hotels and tourist traps (at the airport, there was a huge rack of trifold brochures, all but one or two in Korean, advertizing the local sights, which included a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum and a sex-themed sculpture garden called Love Land). But the whistling of the wind and the weight of the humidity felt quite similar to my adolescent Caribbean experience.

Portia’s apartment had just enough room for the three of us to lie down alongside our suitcases. Bess suffered a mild episode of claustrophobia, and so we girls walked around in the rain to investigate various public lodging places, discovering in the process that many were the legendary “love motels” to which couples go for trysts. One which seemed less salaciously inclined than its neighbors refused to rent us a room, as the proprietress seemed to think that we were a trio of lesbians. The proper hotels were far too expensive for our shoestring budgets, and after a break at a superb coffee shop, we ended up back at Portia’s tiny flat, where Bess chortled diabolically as she beat the other two of us into the bathroom. The apartment and its bathroom were a study in the efficient use of space, like being in the cabin of a boat. The small shower stall tucked next to the toilet incorporated the sink—you had to make sure the knob was properly set or you’d end up deluging your hair instead of wetting your hands. In the main room, a wheeled table for two slid into the wall, which was lined with cabinets and into which was installed both a kitchenette and a miniature washing machine. The only piece of furniture was a small settee, which folded out into an ersatz single bed. There was a large flat screen TV mounted on the wall, though, and the floor to ceiling window at the opposite end looked out onto a tight columnar courtyard lined with hundreds of identical little dwellings.

We took a quick run out to the grocery store across the street, where Portia introduced us to the cashiers she had befriended. In the cold prepared food case at the grocers, there was only kimchi: at least 15 different kinds of it. But they had a great selection of everything else, from cereal to soju. I purchased six small glass bottles of alcohol as souvenirs for my coworkers.

Saturday we went to see the sea. Despite Jeju being far more peopled with foreign tourists than Seoul, the public transportation system is less outsider-friendly than the capital, because you have to tell the bus drivers where you are going in order for them to assess how much you owe for the ride. And this communication is, of course, conducted in Korean. I was glad that the other two girls had taken charge of navigation. We rode to a stop about a kilometer from the seashore and walked down several country lanes before we reached the rocky coast. There was a causeway leading out to a pile of volcanic stone on which a communications tower sat a little ways off shore, where the waves were rolling.

I decided to cross the semi-submerged causeway so that I could get close-up photos of the silvery sea, which was frothy from a passing typhoon closing in on Taiwan. While I was taking off my socks and shoes, a very cheerful dog tried to convince me that I really didn’t need the pastries I had packed in my bag, but I didn’t succumb to its canine wooing. The ancient volcano eruption had splattered stones and natural curves of asphalt out into the ocean, and I climbed carefully, avoiding sharp edges and dangerous trash (rusty steel food cans and the like) that had accumulated in the shallows. It was lovely, though, with the cool water rushing around my ankles and the storm billowing in the sky overhead.

On the shore itself, on the ocean side of the two-lane frontage road, large tarp-covered mounds sat spaced about a hundred meters apart. The tarps were secured with pieces of porous black rock, and I wondered what was under them until a septuagenarian lady came down and parked her bike, lifting the corner of one tarp to reveal an enormous pile of seaweed. She then climbed down to the water’s edge to gather more. The green-brown ribbons of seaweed smelled salty and organic—I figured that she and other local people must gather it and sell it, as Koreans eat an enormous quantity of the stuff in everything from kimbap to soup. There was also a ton of seaweed wind-strewn over the bike path by the frontage road, but it may not have been usable, given that it had landed on the pavement.

After coffee at a shop on the seashore, we girls caught another bus to the town at the base of Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak Crater). Portia was sidelined by grievous stomach issues by that point, and it was spitting rain and chilly. Bess and I bought ponchos at a shop and set off up the mountain. The views were stunning, despite the dismal weather, and the climb was a cardiovascular workout in the best way, with hundreds of stairs leading skyward. The wind whipped around us as we got higher and higher, and I was repeatedly grateful for the fact that my hat was secured by a chin strap. Some sweet Chinese tourist girls took our picture at a plateau and then again at the crater’s rim. The tiered observation platform at the top was well built, but did not cater to the clumsy or to those afraid of heights. The major problem I had with it was that there were no trash receptacles, and so in the gap between the descending stairs and the platform, a large number of visitors had tossed their empty plastic water bottles.

Back down the mountain but still in the park area, we quickly detoured to catch a glimpse of the old “mermaids” (haenyeo) of Jeju, a group of grandmotherly ladies in black diving gear who draw their livelihood from the sea. There was a thick rime of garbage at the waterline all around the cove. Bess told me that the Koreans blame the trash on foreigners. Be that as it may (I doubt that non-natives go down country roads to dump toddler toys, and leave broken fishing buoys and Korean snack packages on rocks away from the resort areas….one of my travel mates saw Korean fishermen tossing garbage overboard), I think a place that relies so firmly on tourism based on its internationally-recognized natural beauty ought to have a significant number of people employed to collect such trash. Like the “one broken window” theory, I think people are more inclined to litter when they see litter being tolerated. If the place were kept pristine, and signs to the effect of “Keep Jeju Island Beautiful” were posted in multiple languages alongside an abundance of waste bins, I don’t think they’d have this problem.

We reconnected with a much improved Portia, I bought Grandmommy a liter of local honey, and we went in search of seafood. At a restaurant where schools of silvery fish and small depressed drab octopi were swimming in outside tanks, waiting to be eaten, we sat down and shared two servings of fried fish and side dishes (including seaweed soup). I didn’t eat a fish eye, even though it is considered a delicacy. We waddled out to the bus stop to join a couple of German tourists, and went back to Seogwipo, hoping to see a waterfall. We found roadside one, and then wandered through the fairytale garden of a midcentury white brick hotel trying to find a cut-through to another (the KAL hotel gardens were an elegant relic of another era, with a lawn that ran down to the cliffs, and an old hidden greenhouse lost among trees that looked to my Western eyes like Martian vegetation, or something from a tropical version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe). We eventually found our way to the other waterfall, but the sun had set by that point, and we ended up ducking through a dark corridor of tropical bushes like vigilantes. I was most concerned that we would run into spiderwebs. The only spiders I saw in Korea were giant yellow-spotted black things, and though they may be the very souls of hospitality, I didn’t want to interact with one personally. After our damp and slightly muddy return from the waterfall, we ate galbi at a barbecue restaurant, cutting and grilling our meat at the table and making wraps of the hot pieces with lettuce leaves and condiments.

Early Sunday morning we took a taxi to a famous swimming hole—I wore my swimsuit underneath my church dress, but the waves were too fierce to get in the water. We climbed out on the cliffs and watched the intensely blue surf crash and boil against the rocks like the water in a giant hot tub. We photographed butterflies, and I bought some chocolate orange candy made on the island as well as some cactus-chocolate. After quickly freshening up at home, we got a taxi to church, where the English-language service was preached by the director of the school where Portia works. Then we all went out to lunch with everyone who’d been at the service, including a girl who is studying to be an industrial designer, her younger brother, who is majoring in culinary arts, and their friend, a Korean naval officer in his early twenties. We ate at a hillside café designed by a famous local sculptor—whose work I recognized from an installation I had admired outside an office building in Seoul. The young naval officer asked extremely good questions—clearly a bright fellow, and I wished we had longer to talk.

We girls then went to an inland waterfall, its lagoon landscaped into a verdant tropical paradise and endowed with a legend of a noble dragon. Portia got free admission, because she’s a local resident. I think that’s a great perk, and so good of the local government to extend it to foreigners who are semi-permanently in the area. Bess had told me that, like in Ireland, there was a Giant’s Causeway on Jeju, and I had wanted to see it, but because of our tight schedule, I didn’t think it would be possible. Quick thinking on Bess’s part and fast driving on the part of an obliging taxi driver, however, made my wish come true—we were able to spend half an hour in the associated park on the cliffs, admiring the neat hexagonal and pentagonal columns of cooled lava descending into the sea, smoothed by thousands of years of seawater cascading down their angles. An irritable middle-aged man shooed us out of the park at sundown, and then curmudgeonly waited for me to exit the restroom (which didn’t do much to salve my aching stomach), but once in the parking lot we realized we were too far from the main road to hail a taxi. So we found a little path through a field to the international convention center parking lot, and then walked from thence uphill until we came to a Chinese restaurant, where we ate huge bowls of seafood-studded brown sauced noodles, and drank Coke. We got a bus back to Seogwipo with no trouble, and watched a couple of Kdramas before bedtime.

Bess and I had to leave early Monday morning to get the express bus across the island to the airport. We arrived hours early for our flight, and after checking in our luggage we had a great meal of hot stone bibimbap at a terminal restaurant. It’s considered rude to blow one’s nose in public in Korea, but I had no choice midway through my lunch. I ate too fast, burped, and seaweed soup ran out both nostrils, trailing green tendrils down my upper lip.

The giant duty-free store at the airport was mind-bogglingly upscale: Dior, Hermes, Longchamps, Guerlain, Coach, Elizabeth Arden …thousands of beautiful things far too expensive for me to even dream about. One powder compact was $153. A purse was priced for $600. And people were shopping like mad.

Waiting in the gate, I saw two little lapdogs being entombed in sarcophagi—the male airline employee was so determined that they wouldn’t get out from their crates that he wrapped an entire roll of logoed tape around each plastic carrier, covering all but a few holes. I would have panicked, worrying they wouldn’t have enough space to breathe. The security people didn’t care about my carrying of several bottles of soju on the plane, in glass bottles.

I’d made another reservation at the hostel where I was supposed to have spent the night before my DMZ visit, as I wanted to stay in Seoul Monday so I could do a little more independent sightseeing and get to the airport easily. Bess accompanied me with my luggage to the hostel, and we had a valedictory snack (she had coffee, I indulged in yet another smoothie) before she turned for home. I went to the nearby Korean War Memorial. Examples of military equipment (mostly US) manufactured since the 1940s were on display, as well as the usual dramatic figural monuments commemorating a conflict that hasn’t officially ended. Evidence of the uneasy truce was comprised by a full-scale replica of a South Korean Navy boat—complete with bullet-holes—which the North Koreans had riddled with artillery fire during a fairly recent exchange (multiple ROK sailors had died). Inside the building’s colonnade were lists of the names of every person who had perished during the UN-associated hot war more than 65 years ago—the long names of tens of thousands of Americans were listed by state (near the far fewer names of people from other countries) in a hall across from the three-syllable block names of tens of thousands more South Koreans. It was a solemn place, but also a wonderful space for bike riding, as demonstrated by a little Asian-American boy peddling briskly while shouting back to his dad--"Dad! Come on!." Life continues.

There was a painting that interested me at the antiques gallery above the coffee shop where Bess and I had stopped before. Clearly 19th century, it was dated “95” and signed “L Castelanelli.” It looked like an impressionistic study for a larger composition—one of those Gilded Age romantic pictures of languid women in drapery sitting next to a marble balustrade overlooking a surreally blue sea. The femme figure was accompanied by what could have been a nude adolescent cherub with dark wings. There was a bush of pastel flowers on the left of the picture, which was set in a gilded frame. After my war memorial tour and some thought, I went back to the shop and asked about it. A nice guy managing the loft—which was mostly stocked with midcentury teacups and bad canvases of polyester flowers—told me it was on consignment from a friend who had apparently purchased it from an antique shop in Incheon (I knew right away that it was out of my price range when he mentioned that), He phoned said friend and told me that the asking price was 250,000 KRW. So, not the last minute coup for which I had hoped!

I did two laps around the block and then went back to the hostel to prepare for bed. I’d gotten used to washing up in confined spaces—the hostel also had the shower nozzle mounted above the bathroom sink, which means everything gets dampish by the end of a shower, no matter how careful you are to huddle under the warm spray and not splash. Portia’s bathroom had had a little curtain, so the toilet wasn’t soaked, but the hostel didn't, so I had to wipe down the toilet seat after I finished bathing, so I wouldn’t get my bum wet when I woke up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Happily, the air conditioning worked, but the mattress felt like it was made of cardboard, and I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours. When I did, I had a terrible and vivid dream.

I had no trouble on the metro Tuesday morning getting to Incheon, where the terminal duty free shops were even more impressive than those in Jeju. There were only a handful of Caucasians at the airport, and I used some of my remaining cash to purchase another smoothie while I waited for my plane and silently reflected that my features are not sought after by Asian society, which values large eyes and narrow, slender cheeks and jaws. Instead, I have small eyes and a heavy, wide jaw. And a wide backside, if the vacation pictures on my phone were any evidence. It was little short of a miracle, also, that I hadn’t gotten sick on the trip, given how many people had been sniffing and sneezing! But it had been a great adventure, and felt as if it were over in the blink of an eye.

Detroit was an embarrassment after the cleanliness and efficiency of Incheon. True, the INS officers were nice (which they weren’t in Atlanta last year), but the airport itself was so poorly run. They took forever to unload the luggage, and when it finally arrived, it emerged on three separate carousels, leaving everyone thoroughly confused. My second bag, which presumably had boarded the plane with its partner, didn’t emerge for half an hour, on another carousel. Then the secondary security lines, crowded with my fellow dumpy, frumpy Americans, moved slowly, and I made it to my connecting flight to Atlanta just minutes before boarding. It would have been possible, were I a gilt-edged passenger in my frequent flyer program, to have caught an earlier flight home from Atlanta, given my layover there was more than 2 hours, but plebes like me are charged $50 for such ticket changes, so I stayed put and attempted to scratch surreptitiously (by that point, it had been 24 hours since I had showered, and not only did my scalp itch, my left calf was sporting a big new bug bite). But the flight from Atlanta to Augusta did leave on time, and lasted only half an hour, and my mother was waiting at the baggage claim. It felt so good to have a hot shower, a thorough toothbrushing, and then be able crawl into my freshly-made bed! I really didn’t want to go back to work the next day…

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Furry Character

Trixie has exhibited two diametrically different sides of her personality this week. I had promised a month or so ago to take in a small four-legged boarder who had been born in the guestroom of a friend's house. Three of his four siblings had already been homed when I finally had enough time to pick Bob up last weekend. He's a  nice baby tomcat, striped like Trixie, and with a robust purr and a sense of adventure. Trixie loathed him. This in and of itself was not surprising, because cats do not frequently welcome interlopers, at least not immediately. I shut him in the upstairs bathroom with his own litter box, water bowl and food so the two felines could get used to the other without directly coming in contact. And poor little Bob was so freaked out by Trixie's unrelenting howling and hissing on the other side of the door that he spent five days curled in a tiny, tiny ball shivering next to the tub wall, hiding underneath the shower curtain. And Trixie herself was furious at me. The first night, I was lying down on my bed, with her curled near the foot when she made direct angry eye contact, reached over and hit me with her paw--claws out--as hard as she could, then bolted. I chased her down in the living room, flicked her ear, and told her that she was a bad kitty. She sulked out in the dining room until I went out again and told her she could come back to her ottoman to sleep. She had never scratched me before. She didn't purr or consent to be petted or held the whole time he was here. I finally gave up, packed him back into his little crate, and took him back to his first home. He was a different kitty the minute he was back with his remaining sister--purring loudly, bouncing around, acting like a normal little fuzzball. Clearly neither he nor Trixie were meant to be together. I think she is truly happy being an only cat. My friend is going to try to find Bob and his sister a home together.

My Savannah friend Audrey and her two children had to evacuate due to hurricane Matthew, and they arrived at my house Thursday night. Audrey's little daughter was instantly smitten with Trixie, who was not quite sure about this golden haired little human at first, especially given her association with a larger, louder, rowdier small human (Rita's seven-year-old brother). But today Trixie consented to be petted, and hasn't made any moves of aggression, which absolutely delighted Rita. I was impressed both by Rita's willingness to woo my cat patiently and by Trixie's willingness to be won over.

I've been offered a job teaching English in South Korea. One fleece I have laid out is the challenge of taking Trixie with me – I wrote the school director this evening and asked him if the school, which would be paying for my plane ticket, would also pay for her to fly with me.  There are a bunch of prayers that need to be answered if I am to take this job. I need a reliable and suitable renter to agree to lease my house fully furnished. I need my current boss to let me telecommute long distance, part time. I need my medical issues not to prevent me from getting a Korean work visa. And so on and so forth. Most of these issues are  beyond my control to address or solve, like finding helpers for my uncle, who would like to perhaps go into the estate sale business full-time, and who was lamenting my potential departure just when we are beginning to settle into a working rhythm.

I never thought I would be debilitated by an office job, but one of the major allures of the overseas teaching gig is that it may be much easier on my body than sitting eight hours a day in front of a computer like I do now. Over the last six weeks (it was growing acute before I left town, then subsided during my vacation, and has returned with a vengeance since) I have developed severe aching  discomfort from the right side of my neck down my right arm. It's not the same sort of pain that accompanied my agony of several years ago, and none of my fingers have gone numb, but it's clearly a cervical disc-related problem. I don't want to have surgery again, if I can avoid it,  but my right arm is getting weaker and weaker because it aches too much to use. Thank God, my insurance says they'll pay for multiple sessions of physical therapy--these are supposed to begin next week--because right now I cannot sleep without taking painkiller.  But I also am worried that continuing the editing job is going to ruin my health. They did get standing desks for us–these arrived just this afternoon--so that may alleviate some of the symptoms, but clutching a computer mouse and hunching toward the screens probably don't do my spine any good whether I stand or sit.


Saturday, October 01, 2016

Korean Trip II--Wednesday & Thursday

There’s a stereotype in the West that all Koreans are short, and a contrary(ish) presumption among Kdrama watchers that almost all Koreans are dazzlingly handsome. Neither of these ideas were borne out by my personal observation. Plenty of Koreans were taller than me—admittedly few were extraordinarily tall (6’4”+), and these had to duck on the metro cars to avoid hitting their heads (nothing like proper nutrition to promote stature—North Koreans are estimated to be on average a full three inches shorter than their southern counterparts!) Appearance-wise I saw plenty of ordinary people, some that were quite attractive, and few that were dazzling—the same distribution of beauty as everywhere else on earth. However, it is true that most Koreans tended to be trim (as I used to be before I reached 40—some of the photos that Ellie took of me touring and hiking this trip, particularly when I am pictured next to locals, highlight the great width of my hips. And they aren't even childbearing hips!). Tuesday evening I was sitting on a crowded metro car, having adopted my “Russian train face,” unfocused, mostly staring at the ground except for the occasional flick of the eyes around the car when we stopped at a station, and a fat white guy got on the train. I knew his ethnicity without looking above knee level. What is wrong with Americans?! Korean men are so fit. Even this fellow's ankles were fat. I could tell although he was wearing jeans, from the way his tennis shoes bulged. God forbid I gain any more weight. Some Kdrama stereotypes held true. The "couple tee" exists! There were indeed pairs of young Koreans walking around hand in hand wearing matching his and hers outfits. And so many people are wearing what Westerners would think were wedding bands, but which were actually couple rings, indicating a romantic relationship if not a legal one. I had been forewarned about the popularity of short skirts and shorts (plunging necklines are frowned upon, but lots of leg exposure is OK). My ankle-length dress with a scooped neck was apparently risqué.

 Wednesday Ellie and I went into Seoul to meet Portia, who was flying in from Jeju Island. Seoul Station, the central train depot, was overwhelmed with people. Standing outside the building the day before Chuseok felt like the incarnation of a Youtube comment I saw on a Psy concert video—“That's a hell of a lot of Koreans!” There were thousands of people streaming in and out of the station, families and individuals traveling for the holiday: grandmothers with tote bags full of kimchi and side dishes, young families with luggage and toddlers, recruits in camouflage and black berets on holiday leave from serving their mandatory military service. Hundreds of the men made a beeline for the smoking shelter outside. Many travelers were carrying satin fabric-swaddled packages of fruits and other edible gifts. We finally met Portia, found a locker for her luggage (there were hundreds, but most had been rented) and repaired to a coffee shop across the road, passing a cluster of about 20 homeless men, all swarthy from sunburn and filthy, who were lying on newspapers and or playing Go-Stop in a circle. A steady stream of taxis and buses whisked people away from the station.

We stopped at Sungnyemun Gate, one of the four surviving portals of the old walled city (and designated the ROK’s “National Treasure #1”), before wending our way into Namdaemun Market, where many foreign visitors to Seoul go to shop. Maybe it was once a bargain fashion hub, but not any longer, so far as I observed. The narrow, winding streets featured everything from placenta cream (and “Aesthetic Squid” hair dye) to furs, most items grossly overpriced—$250 for a mink scarf?! $10 for a placemat? $8 for a hand fan exactly like those I bought on eBay from China for $1 each including shipping?! We did meet some nice girls in hijab from Malaysia shopping—they had only arrived in Seoul hours before. Their voluble leader was visiting Korea for the fourth time; she was a confessed Kdrama lover whose English was superb. After we’d determined there were no great deals to be had, we decided to go to Namsan Tower, but first we needed to eat. We found a hole-in-the-wall place that advertised dumplings (pot stickers), and the aproned male cook waved us down a narrow hall through the steaming kitchen to a small pinewood-paneled windowless dining room which looked (and felt, a bit) like a sauna. We got odd looks from our fellow diners, all locals—it’s possible we were the first non-Koreans to find our way into the hidden room. The dumplings were delicious, served in round bamboo steamer baskets. As always, water was free.

We took the metro to near Namsan Tower, riding the small funicular up to the level of the cable car terminus. On that small parking plateau, which was packed with cars, we found the lengthy queue for the cable car, and though it was moving quickly, we looked at the prices and decided that we could forego that particular touristy experience. Instead, we decided to take a bus up to the Tower, but later—first we were meeting some of Ellie’s friends--a Korean girl and her Midwestern American boyfriend--for coffee.

Once caffeinated (Ellie pointed out that a girl was not only doing her makeup at the café, she had a roller in her bangs!--evidence of her claim that Korean women don't mind doing their makeup in public), we went with Ellie’s friends to Insadong, because she needed to get gifts. As Portia and I perched on pillars on a street corner, waiting for our companions to finish souvenir shopping, a tiny child walked with his mother, who encouraged him to greet us, so he bowed formally from the waist and said “Anyohosayo“ (“hello”). It was adorable. I wanted to pick him up and squeeze him. Incidentally, I think that Koreans developed the "thou shalt not touch the head" cultural prohibition because so many of the men have thick, fluffy hair that just begs to be patted and caressed. Gosh. If I had a Korean boyfriend, there is no way I could keep my hands off his hair.

Down the street, which was thronged with people and lined with shops and vendors of food and souvenirs, a young man was flinging little gyroscopic helicopters into the air. They flashed lights as they whirled down to street level, narrowly missing the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. Further on, there was a man demonstrating traditional Chinese writing, doing calligraphy with a black inked brush on thin white paper and giving it, free, to spectators after stamping it in red ink with his seal. I’d wanted to have my own unique seal for decades (I blame the romantic image of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s distinctive ring, ancient inscriptions on clay, and of course, Asian art), and when we came upon a seal shop selling multiple sizes and styles in wood and stone, I knew the opportunity had arrived. I settled on a middle-range black jade square and drew my copyrighted symbol, along with my English initials. The Korean girl with us remarked that, in mirror image (as engraved into the stone), together my symbol and initials formed the Korean word for "freedom." Cool, eh? Wholly circumstantial. While my seal was being cut back at the seal shop, we watched the street calligrapher, and when he asked for someone who wanted the painting of the character for “Love,” I stepped forward. The ink was wet, but I carefully carried the roll of paper with me so it wouldn’t get mussed.
Portia and Ellie also got characters representing other virtues.

We window-shopped, winding up the levels of a boutique mall to the roof, where courting couples could hang little plaques testifying to their mutual devotion. Near the top of the building was a peculiar restaurant—the Poop Café, where the dishes (spaghetti and meatballs, etc.) were all served in toilet-bowl shaped dishes. There was a giant brown velvet stuffed plushy of poop on a table inside. I thought about getting my mother a toilet-bowl coffee mug, but they were unwieldy, probably not microwave safe, and 35,000 KRW (about $35). More appetizing was the traditional candy that Portia and I watched being made at a shop fronting the street—a man fashioned a “donut” of honey and rice flour, then stretched it into ribbons, doubling and redoubling it, plunging it in a vat of what looked like confectioner’s sugar (fine starch), after each pull. With each doubling, he and his partner chanted the produced number of strands in Korean and English; they reached the thousands in seconds, as the process created a thick skein of white silk-thin strands. The other then grasped this hank of threads from the first man’s gloved hands, spread it over an indented tray, and spooned a finely chopped concoction of seven nuts into the valleys, encasing them in the starched filament. It was fascinating to watch. I wonder if a similar, less starchy result can be achieved with confectioner's sugar, perhaps cut with rice flour? The theatrical appeal of the process cannot be underestimated as a selling point (those guys could probably have done it in their sleep)—and this would be an interesting alternative to fudge candy at an American tourist venue.

We parted from Ellie’s friends and took the metro back to a downtown spot where we could catch a bus to Namsan. As we rode Bus 5 along the skyscraper-lined boulevard, somebody must have called 119 (the fire emergency number in Korea)--five big red trucks screamed by us, sirens wailing. They were followed shortly thereafter by two more from other directions, which implied it must be a bad blaze indeed. Several were ladder trucks, one with mattresses for inflation to catch jumpers.

It was late when we arrived near the top of the mountain, downhill from the tower, which was lit up in green and white. The paved slope to the base of the building was steep, and we were happy (especially given Portia’s sore feet) that we hadn’t tried to hike up the whole mountain. There were tens of thousands of padlocks bolted to the railing around the lower (free) observation platform—layers upon layers, the older ones profoundly rusted, all inscribed with names of lovers who wanted to symbolize their eternal fidelity. The view all around the mountaintop was beautiful, lights twinkling as far as the eye could see in all directions, the river a dark ribbon.

Thursday was Chuseok, but Ellie was determined that we would find Portia the clothes (and particularly the shoes), that she needed. We metroed to Itaewon, a popular shopping district, but much to our chagrin (but not to my surprise) most of the stores and many of the restaurants were closed for the holiday, with the exception of the Turkish ones. Around noon, since my companions wanted Western fare, we found a nice Canadian restaurant that offered hamburgers. An NFL Jets/Bengals game was being broadcast on a wall of screens, and hockey numbers hung around the edge of the ceiling. An American Army ranger was sharing a table with a fellow camo-clad service member. And a whole multigenerational Korean family was across the restaurant, eating their Chuseok meal away from home. Unfortunately, most of the restaurant’s employees were gone for the holiday, and we were the leaders of a huge rush of people, foreign and local, who flooded the place for lunch. My smoothie was served quickly, but I had to wait almost two hours for my burger. The manager apologized and gave us our meal for 70% off.

I was tired of fruitless shopping, Ellie was coming down with a cold. So she decided to go home to rest on condition that Portia and I seek out a shoe shop said to be located near a metro stop on our way home. Having sworn that we would do our best to find the elusive arch-supporting sneakers before bedtime, Portia and I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace (the oldest in the Joseon Dynasty), where admission was free because of the holiday.

First we skimmed through the first level of the neighboring museum, admiring the portraits of past monarchs, and the kings’ huge square gold or jade seals surmounted with turtles. There were also some ungodly heavy hair ornaments and jade belt fobs in the cases—Portia said that probably contributed to a stately gait, as one had to move carefully and slowly to avoid falling over from the weight—and one vitrine where a caption explained that when the king decided to honor someone, he would present the person with a new seal on which a new name, befitting his new position, was engraved (a delightful prefiguration of Revelatory rewards). Simultaneously horrifying and amusing was when a young Korean couple came up to us to talk in English and assumed I was Portia’s mother, when I am only her senior by seven years. I just accepted this sudden parenthood, not wanting to indulge in conversation with folks who seemed too eager to ask personal questions.

We excused ourselves and made it into the gates of the palace just before they were shut to new entrants. Again, there were thousands of people crowding every inch of the courtyards, which continued for acres. Girls and young ladies were wearing hanboks, and many were posing for pictures by walls and other period architectural details, either or professional photographs or for selcas on their handphones (selfies on their smartphones). We peeked into the throne room, where a pair of sky blue cloisonné censers, each a meter tall, sat at the two front corners. Poetic observations and exhortations in Chinese script were painted on signs that were tacked to the pillars of other buildings. A two story pavilion the size of an American high school gymnasium sat next to a pond, providing a pleasant retreat for royal relaxation and entertainment.

Outside the palace was the modern fountain-studded plaza (overlooked by the American Embassy, a building heavily fortified and hilariously retrofitted with external air conditioning units) flanked by statues of the standing Admiral Lee Sun Shin and the sitting King Sejong the Great. Underneath the plaza was a museum dedicated to the men’s achievements. I only had time to visit the King’s section, where he was not only praised for his innovation of Hangul (the Korean alphabet), but also for many other novel ideas only adopted by countries elsewhere generations—or even centuries—later [including maternity leave!—he decreed that female government-owned slaves should be given up to four months of maternity leave (they’d previously been allowed a week), and subsequently ruled that their husbands should get 1 month paternity leave].

When we emerged from the museum, it was almost dark, but we saw an illuminated encampment of yellow tents on the square. They housed a memorial to, and advocates on behalf of the families of, the victims lost in the Sewol Ferry disaster. Two years on, family members and their supporters are still protesting the closure of the government investigation into the ship's sinking. A young woman who tried to gather our signatures on a petition said that the government did not fund the investigation for the first third of what was to be an eighteen-month process, but counted that time as part of the investigation when the inquiry was deemed complete this past June. The ship has not been raised—the protesters claim that evidence was destroyed meantime by divers—and nine bodies are still unaccounted for. The protesters say that government corruption which may reach to the highest levels was to blame for the sinking, and that charging the captain alone with crimes is insufficient. There was some sort of small religious service in progress when we were there, and a traditional memorial table was heaped with food in front of the photographs of all of the hundreds lost--mostly high school students pictured in their uniforms. The signature-gatherer told us that more than half the families had refused the compensation the government offered because it would have voided their right to protest. Orderly protests in front of the gates of power have a long history in Korea.

Portia and I didn’t forget our shoe-hunting vow. We went to the right metro stop, but we couldn’t find the store of which Ellie had told us, though we walked the neighboring streets searching for it. We did find some shoes that would serve the purpose, thank God! This was a less-glamorous part of the city, with tents selling food, and tarp-covered market stalls, and salarymen and laborers staggering along a little worse for drink. But we weren’t bothered, and briefly overheard a blond Russian couple talking on the street, saw an older Korean man with a beard so richly grey and elegantly sculpted that it looked artificial, and spotted a slender calico cat who was wearing a dogtag on her collar. I wonder if they are called “dogtags” in Korean?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lady Heroes

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was raped. She didn't tell me about this for year or more, because she said that she thought I would judge her. I was absolutely horrified, both by what had happened to her and by the wrong assumption she had of my potential reaction. To be sexually violated is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and one which in other cultures attaches as much stigma to the victim as to the perpetrator – witness the so-called "honor killings" of raped women by male relatives in the Middle East. Yet how does being horribly victimized in any justify the reciprocal victimization of someone else?

 Pregnancy is dangerous for many. Delivery has been deadly for generations of women; though considerably fewer in developed countries nowadays than in the past, there are still deaths from the accompanying trauma. To come into a pregnancy not of one's own volition is a horrible stress--fear at the outset, fear of rejection for being victimized (even in Western societies), fear of what lies ahead, from the physical challenges to the financial burdens, fear of being alone. But the old rote caveat to justify even "exceptional" abortion ("except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother") is sophistry, and actually feeds on fear rather than allaying it.

The psychological wounds inflicted by rape will not heal overnight, and may leave scars that linger for decades–the event cannot be expunged by surgery. Likewise, even in the worse case when a young woman has been sexually victimized by one of her own relatives, the evil that has been done to her cries out for legal justice, social compassion and ongoing counseling. Those of us who have enjoyed healthy relationships with male relatives hesitate even to imagine how hard it is for someone to live fearing the touch of a man who should be providing both emotional and physical protection, not tearing it away. After my first round of graduate school, I was in a Bible study with a girl who had been systematically abused by her father for a decade. He had cheated worldly justice, dying young, leaving his daughter shattered. She had no conventional model of a good father-daughter relationship at home; it was not until she became a Christian that she met the real Father, and saw in Jesus someone who like her was a suffering innocent, who knew her pain firsthand. She couldn't undo what had been done to her, but she could intelligently and compassionately reach out to those similarly victimized: she became a foster mother to children taken out of abusive situations by DFACS, and has since adopted several.

 What would you do if you might die in the process of allowing someone else to live? Many months ago now, one Briton and three 20-something Americans received the French Legion of Honor for their bravery in successfully confronting what most consider a would-be terrorist on a train--they are credited with risking themselves to save others. Not all such confrontations end so happily (witness the passengers who attempted to reclaim their hijacked aircraft on September 11, who are memorialized at the crash site in Pennsylvania), nor must needs be in opposition to human violence: every day there are cases of "ordinary heroism." In these situations, strangers pull people (and animals) from floods, fires, and other hazards, and many humbly respond upon public recognition that these were simply matter-of-course actions, the natural responses of any caring individual. And occasionally, such good Samaritans lose their lives trying to save others’, and are mourned for their sacrifice. A missionary named James Elliot once said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." What Elliot could not lose, and what he ultimately was martyred for, was his faith in Jesus as the savior of humankind. But even non-Christians through the millennia have found Elliot's logic persuasive, choosing what they hope is a lasting reputation for honor and selflessness in death over a dubious extension of present earthly life. Isn't withstanding the temptation to sacrifice a fetus in exchange for the possibility of prolonging one's own life a noble action to celebrate?
I hate death. It's an evil, an unnatural blight. We Americans in particular are so afraid to talk about it or think about its reality that when new housing and retail developments are created nowadays, the allocation of space for cemeteries or memorial parks is completely overlooked. We speak about someone "passing away" rather than consider that their bodies are rotting or burnt to ash, and that our own will be, much sooner than expected. We slather ourselves with "youth preserving" serums, covet elective plastic surgery (which most of us can't afford), and gush over celebrities that don't look their age (or, in some cases, their original sex). I don't contend that we each oughtn't to look our best or maintain good health--but it is essential to realize that no matter our best (and costliest) efforts to stave it off, death comes. However, it doesn't always come when medical professionals say it will. For all the advances in medical knowledge and technology, so much about disease and human health is still unknown. My late father was, my stepfather, my sister, my brother, and my aunt are medical professionals (three doctors, two nurses), and all extremely well-informed about what can and will kill someone, and likely when. But each would say (probably gratefully) that the experts aren't infallible when it comes to such forecasts--people get well unexpectedly, just as they fall ill. And some die in a split second, like my externally-healthy father, jogging cheerfully on a gym treadmill.

I celebrate women who have stood strong in the midst of profoundly challenging circumstances, resisting what may seem to be a quick fix to their prior miseries and current ills, recognizing that legendary bravery is not only achieved by the strong, but by those who cherish the least of these while in the throes of weakness themselves.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Korea Part I (Friday To Tuesday)

It's difficult to drink apple juice out of a can when one is being shaken like dice in a cup. The first hour or so out of Detroit wasn't wholly smooth, and I wondered if I would be able to sleep at all.

Several of the movies I'd wanted to see in theaters and somehow never found time for were available as in-flight movies: I watched the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar and the latest James Bond outing, Specter. I also liked the Korean film Violent Prosecutor. Three good films at one go! On this rescheduled flight, I was relocated to the middle seats, on the left aisle. The only other person on my row was a young military man on the other aisle, leaving two empty seats between us. What a Godsend! We each had room to relax, and I was able to lean over on my computer knapsack to doze for several hours.

About an hour before we landed in Seoul, another young military fellow (engrossed in a video game of some sort) who was sitting on the aisle opposite me let me step over him and his baggage to sit by the window. I kept consulting the digital map on the seat back screen, but I think I could have determined our location by what I saw from 30,000 feet.

Ribbons of reflective oil extended from the Chinese coast, and clouds collected over treeless flat street-ribbed islands. A toy ship with a thin line of smoke trailing from its stack steamed towards the mainland. Out above the gulf, the giant wing of the plane wobbled in the clear air, and tiny airliners zipped thousands of feet below us at 1000 mph (relative to our speed) in the opposite direction. White cat fur clouds clumped on the blue carpet of the sea. We descended, and I could see more splinter-sized boats, their reflective wakes curved like fingernail clippings. As we took a deep turn for Incheon, the shadow of our plane appeared below on the water.

Most people had their window blinds drawn—only one other shade was up, on the opposite side of the plane. It was dark and cool inside, the plane ten seats across in coach. I pressed my forehead to the plexiglass, absorbing the rattle and roar of the engines and the bright blue and white of the outdoors. Twenty minutes before touchdown, we banked right, and I knew Korea was ahead of us. Our shadow grew and slowed. A tiny, bald island appeared, then a larger one, with broad beaches and mountains. Then another mountainous island, still bigger, forested and farmed. The water was
teal colored. The buildings on the islands were roofed in green and red and blue. Suddenly, we were over the shore, the edge marked by huge factory towers and white windmills, their trios of blades spinning lazily. A child who had been silent all trip started crying, probably awakened from sleep by the changing air pressure. Below were acres of greenhouses. A golf course. Forests. Mountains. And hundreds more greenhouses—I’d never seen so many! Neat fields, and more blue, green and red rooftops.

Incheon airport was the most modern, clean and efficient I’ve ever visited, all glass and steel. It's enormous, and they are in the process of constructing another gargantuan terminal. We were through customs in a matter of minutes with digital scans of my index fingers and an unflattering photograph. At the baggage claim a polite uniformed airport employee assured us individually (in English and Korean) that our luggage would be unloaded momentarily—which again, was in a matter of minutes. Giant HDTV screens in the center of the carousel showed pretty Hallyu stars advertising various products. Ellie met me right outside the claim area, and I exchanged cash at the kiosk. She took me through a cathedral-like atrium to find the metro ticketing machines. i observed that people simply left their luggage parked outside airport restaurants, not fearing that it would be snatched. One of the shops sold metro cards, and soon we were on our way through Seoul and on out to the village where Ellie was staying.

On the pristine metro, the steel doors and escalators were decorated with an assortment of pretty etched patterns. The cars were lined with seats, with most standing passengers clutching short handled hanging straps. The package rack above the seats was actually used for packages. The only raised voices in the system were the few sellers of small items that boarded and hawked their wares. Everybody else seemed locked into a meditative state. Ellie told me that no one laughs out loud in public, nor do most people talk audibly on their phones, preferring instead to text silently, play games or watch dramas while riding—a whole host of people glued to their electronic devices. As in Russia, no one makes eye contact, and the only noises besides the soft exclaiming of the recorded female voice announcing the next stop in Korean and American English (and, irregularly, in Japanese or Chinese--metro stops were also announced visually on digital signs) was a whisper of quiet conversation and a sniff, cough, or sneeze, to which no one responded. It was like a cat sanctuary—every occupant studiously ignored the presence of every other, conscious that they themselves were well groomed.

Everyone wore properly fitting trousers or skirts, most had sensible shoes, no one with flashy jewelry or bright colors. Relentlessly conventional seemed the common sartorial motif. The only ripped trousers were artfully slashed jeans. Everyone's backpacks were positioned correctly, shoes neatly laced. Hair was combed and clipped, particularly that of the occasional young soldier in camouflage (all males are required to serve two years in the military). It was a preppy atmosphere. There was no aroma of body odor whatsoever, and I saw many younger people wearing braces on their teeth, but only two tattoos. In the entire period I was in Korea, I would see only one case of multiple ear piercing, on a middle-aged man who in bright red pants and matching glasses with shiny alligator shoes. He stood out from the crowd.

Except for in downtown Seoul, the trains ran above ground, and I was busy staring out the gently green-tinted windows. Ellie told me that “yellow dust” from China was blamed for the city's smog. Advertising signs were everywhere. Foreigners were not. If my peculiarly Caucasian face was being stared at, it was too subtle to notice, outside my peripheral vision. Highrises paraded along the Han River, filling up the valleys with tall white columns. A paved bike path ran the entire length of the Han. Every unbuilt and unforested square inch of space was used as a garden, and trees covered the rock-ledged mountains.

We changed trains several times, guided by an app on Ellie’s phone that told us precisely which door on the trains to use in order to position ourselves properly for a quick transfer at the next station. Everything in the stations was handicapped accessible. Even the stairs in older stations had been retrofitted with wheelchair lifts, and textured rubber matting had been installed to guide the visually impaired. All the elevators worked. There was no graffiti. I would eventually see three blind people navigating the metro maze with canes (one was a uniformed student carrying a musical instrument case), and watch several deaf people signing on trains. The stations were full of clothing and coffee shops, all of which took credit cards—many would be shuttered the following week for the Thanksgiving celebration of Chuseok. Every stop had a mirror where people could check their appearance (women frequently touched up their makeup at such points, but almost practically everywhere else)—in Ellie’s town, the big wood-framed cheval glass was sponsored by the local interdenominational divinity school.

Ellie’s village was an hour from Seoul, on the river. Her four-story apartment building stood near a small grocery store and a 7-11, and the single room, which she was subletting while the regular occupant is away for several months, measured approximately 10x10. The washing machine and the heating/ac unit sat opposite ends of the 3x10 enclosed porch, and the relatively spacious bathroom was approximately 3x6. Cozy, with a single eye on the stove in the kitchenette, and a cabinet for shoes next to the door that doubled as a small pantry. In the garden of the house next door, an obstreperous little dog lunged on a chain underneath a fruit-laden grape trellis, wearing a gully into the dirt with his claws as he barked warnings at every passerby.

 After plying me with melatonin (a practice she discontinued after the third night), poor Ellie had to listen to me narrate all my dreams. The first night I woke myself up pleading, “No, Mums, please don’t send my cat to Japan!”

Saturday, the two of us went in to Seoul, where we walked around the Buckchon Hankok Village neighborhood, where a bunch of Joseon-era tile-roofed houses are preserved (many still private dwellings), and then took a free tour of the area. We ended up in a shopping district, where I bought an apron embroidered with cats, and we providentially got a just-vacated table at a popular restaurant, where we ate delicious fried pork cutlets along with the usual side dishes of kimchi, pickled radishes, and other assorted piquant concoctions. Prices include tax and tip, which makes splitting the bill awfully easy. The traditional metal chopsticks weren’t as stiletto-skinny as I’d been led to believe, so I was able to eat properly and not embarrass myself.

Sunday we returned to Seoul with a divinity student friend of Ellie’s, this time to the popular Gangnam area, which because of its reputation for good cram schools, has extremely high rental costs. We went to a Presbyterian church’s English service, a floor below the main sanctuary, and then took an elevator up six floors to the church cafeteria, where ladies were dispensing industrial quantities of soup and rice to a packed hall of parishioners who were eating at long lines of tables. Ellie and I changed into the trousers and tshirts we had brought with us and set out for Bukhansan National Park, a small mountain range where we planned to hike. It took longer than expected via public transportation to get to the park, and most of the local hikers—all nattily kitted out in brand-named hiking gear, looking like models from REI and LL Bean catalogs—were coming down the slopes as we set off into the woods. The trails were well-marked, and many featured stairs constructed over steep stretches of bare rock. As we went up the mountain to stop next to the bell house of a brightly-painted Buddhist monastery, I felt increasing sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Americans who had had to fight on similar, unimproved terrain. It was tropically humid, and carrying more than the small water pack I wore would have been torture. A grey-garbed monk was ringing another enormous bronze bell as we walked down the mountain in the twilight; he struck the embossed side of the immobile instrument with a wooden ram, and it clanged discordantly. A flock of orange and white cats roamed at the bottom of the trail, and the many brand-named outdoor equipment shops in the village below were now closed—all displayed huge posters or cardboard cutouts of particular Kdrama stars wearing their parkas and boots. We ate supper at chicken and beer (we had Coke) restaurant and then rode the bus back to the metro, where we picked up our church clothes from a rental locker where we’d stashed them.

Ellie was tired the next day from my repeated somnolent soliloquizing, and so we stayed in and watched Kdramas, then walked via the bike path to a nearby hole-in-the-wall eatery which served fried tuna patties. I had no idea one of my favorite childhood meals was traditionally Korean—they tasted very similar to my mother’s, although hers were less greasy, and she didn’t serve them with radish kimchi, only ketchup. Most Korean restaurants don’t do take away for dine-in customers (many if not all regular and fast-food restaurants regularly deliver, even McDonalds), but we were happy to find that this place anticipated our not being able to consume the huge stack of patties they served us, and bagged the leftovers for us to take home. Most Korean meal portions are sized and priced to be shared between two or more. There were sorghum plants on the verge of the parking lot outside, and fishing shacks sat along the river that Ellie explained can’t be newly-built—legislation now prohibits construction within a certain distance of the water’s edge—but have been grandfathered in as the legacy of generations. Out on the river, water skiers were being pulled by rental speedboats.

Afterwards, Ellie and I went to a curiously angular coffee shop (owned by a funny world-travelling photographer who mistook me for every other white American he'd ever met, greeting me with a cheerful “nice to see you again”) to meet some folks she knew from the divinity school. One, a middle-aged former missionary to Nigeria, told me that after the Korean War, the whole country was denuded of trees—either torn down by battle or cut down by civilians desperate for fuel. In evidence of good forward-thinking, in the 1950s the government sent out platoons of students to plant trees, which restored the devastated forests of the peninsula. I had a major hot flash while we were talking, and would have doused myself in ice water if it had been available, but I was sipping a tall glass of freshly made golden kiwi juice, and that would just have made me sticky.

The ex-missionary told me that while Koreans may seem German in many respects, their church services tend towards the charismatic. Furthermore, there are more than 100 types of Presbyterianism in the ROK—churches split all the time. Confucian values have transferred into Christian practice, with the scholars at the top of the social hierarchy, which has contributed to a phenomenon of well-paid, but dictatorial senior pastors. This has also affected the appeal of nondenominationalism—if a divinity school, for instance, isn’t affiliated with a particular church, it has difficulty finding funding.

While I was lying on my air mattress that evening, mulling the day, the clothes on the drying rack between Ellie and me began to sway gently. The sensation from the earthquake was a pleasant rumbling, given I was comfortably supine on the floor (rather than standing next to breakables). A second, stronger earthquake shook the building half an hour later, but there wasn’t any subsequent trembling. This was good, because I didn’t know where my anti-nausea wristbands, which I had worn on the plane, were in my suitcase. Despite its most recent nuclear machinations, North Korea wasn’t to blame; the tremors were emanating from around Busan.

The next day, Ellie had to teach, but I went off on my own, sans metro app (it was only available on Android) to find the Korean Folk Village, which some American friends had recommended. The bike path was less traveled than it had been on the weekend, when dozens of cyclists had whipped around the curves in tight pelotons. Is there an unspoken rule in Korea that one’s activities must be clothes-obvious? The bikers were all dressed as bikers (jerseys, spandex shorts, and helmets), just as the hikers had been togged out as hikers (in full mountaineering kit, wearing high-tech backpacks, boots, sporty active jackets, and sweat-wicking trousers, and carrying treking poles, like they intended to scale Everest), and the businessmen were wearing ties and the adjummas were clad comfortably frumpy. When I walked by the minihouse construction site (you can buy prefabricated tiny houses in Korea!) a middle aged employee unzipped his trousers and proceeded to pee off the side of the hill—apparently guys do this everywhere. Must be convenient. But there were restrooms all over the place, and without exception, every one was stocked with toilet paper and soap, which I consider a mark of high civilization. I joined a handful of locals waiting for the train on the open platform, where I sat and listened to a chorus of enthusiastic roosters from the surrounding gardens. The profound humidity had finally broken. A KoRail train of oil cars rushed past us toward the city. Minutes later, a short musical fanfare indicated the arrival of the passenger train.

On the car, where I was relieved to find a seat (being that far out in the country has its perks), a jolly tune on a traditional instrument announced upcoming transfer stations. At the end of each car was an area reserved for the aged, infirm, or pregnant, but if those seats were occupied, people in those conditions had no expectation of seating. Hale and hearty young men remained engrossed in their smartphones while older women stood. Ellie later explained to me that offering one’s seat to and holding a door for someone isn’t done in Korea, because it is perceived to create an obligation on the part of the recipient. Some people were wearing surgical masks—an increasing number had started to cough and sniff. (I kept having to catch myself from saying "bless you" every time someone near me sneezed.) Some of the bikers on the path also had worn masks or bandannas over their faces; the bankrobber-bandanna-with-sunglasses look is more than a little creepy when viewed at velocity—a faceless figure rockets toward you, and it’s hard to merely step out of his right of way and not to run screaming. There were three beggars, at separate points, on the train—the first of the remarkably few I was to see in the city. The first two were dirty middle-aged men carrying hats. Each looked to be suffering from alcohol abuse. One sang an old song, but I didn’t see anyone giving him or the other money. Later, another chanting beggar boarded, this guy a younger man missing most of his fingers, who seemed more professional than the drunks. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed another young man seemed to slip him a bill.

Getting to the Folk Village was an odyssey. It turned out to be clear on the other side of Seoul, and although I changed trains without incident, it took hours to travel the distance. And at the final station I couldn’t find the exit which the website had recommended—it was as if that number didn’t exist. I walked in and out of several other exits and stopped at an upmarket boulangerie for some fresh pastry before I eventually spotted a young couple from another Asian country who looked vaguely confused, and followed them to the correct bus. The bus was a regular city bus, and it paused at every possible point before it finally turned in to the village parking lot. This gave me an impromptu tour of that part of Seoul, which appeared to be an area into which foreigners seldom venture. It wasn’t as gentrified as the tourist sections, but chaotic and colorful with thousands of people in the middle of ordinary life—women climbed on the bus carrying shopping bags redolent of fish and soybean paste, there were tiny restaurants and businesses everywhere along the streets, all bearing large signs, stacked on top of one another—is there anyone in Seoul that doesn’t own a business of some sort?!—creating a messy, busy shopping district jammed with traffic and noise. Stores were dedicated to electronics and hanboks (for both adults and children) and street clothes and vegetables and everything else. There were battered older twentieth-century two-story structures and shiny new taller twenty-first century construction (mostly medical centers) on tiny plots of land. Gas stations sat near auto-repair shops, half-finished highways lunged up, and new posh apartment buildings were gradually replacing older dilapidated dwellings.

The traditional village—to which many of the houses had been imported from their original locations—reminded me a lot of an American “medieval renaissance faire.” The landscaping wasn't dissimilar from the Maryland Faire, with leafy trees fluttering above the streets and old-fashioned houses and people in traditional costume and games for the kids. The historical depth wasn't great—about the level to be expected at a jousting match or archery demonstration. There were few visitors at the village (probably because of the impending holiday) and fewer costumed staff, who were mostly engaged in cleaning or weeding the garden patches. The colorfully clad "magistrate" was sitting in his seat of office on a dias above replicas of traditional interrogation devices and texting on his phone. It would have been interesting to know the history of each house, how much of it was original, how it was disassembled and reconstructed. The wooden beams in them were awesome—hand cut from huge ancient trees. It would also have been interesting to learn what sort of wood was used. Too, how often did thatch have to be replaced? Was there a particular manufacturer of the aristocrats’ decorative roof tiles, or like southern American plantations and their bricks, were these all usually manufactured on site? And there was one persistent puzzle: I was awed by the sizes of the earthenware fermentation jars which sat by every house (from peasant to lord, there doesn’t seem to have been that much fundamental difference in diet or the basic layout of accommodation—the dwellings for those higher up the social scale were just bigger and somewhat finer in construction materials). These jars were too large for a single person to throw--many reached my chest. Were they coil built? How were they fired? Were they imported? They looked like rough domestic ware, certainly far removed from the fine porcelains of China. Although the village usually featured small demonstrations of crafts from metalworking to silk-spinning, pottery making wasn’t among them.

There were signs at intervals in the village listing (in Korean) what Kdramas had been filmed on site. I got my picture taken with a cardboard cutout of the four friends from Sungkyunkwan Scandal (which I liked a lot, despite the fact that one of the lead actors has since proven himself to possess the sexual hubris of many others in his profession). One large circular clearing was dedicated to a display about locally-filmed dramas: gilded casts of the actors’ hands filled two cases, there were examples of costumes, and a set of cutouts and then huge reproductions of posters from famous shows recorded at least partly on site curved around the circumference. Yes, I recognized almost every drama. I hope that I don’t experience the Chicago problem henceforth: I may be failing in all other mental areas, but I have an almost photographic memory for places and objects, and so didn’t much enjoy the Batman movies filmed in Chicago after my visit to that city, as the director played fast and loose with the geography, relocating bridges I knew well and creating a tossed salad of the downtown layout.

Throughout the village there was no mention of slavery or the feudal system, though there was a folkways museum with elderly animatronics and minimal English captions which discussed varieties of kimchi, the multiple festivals which dotted the lunar calendar, the communal building and communal farming practiced by the peasantry, and the worship of ancestors as a key part of life. Domestic cooking and the innovative Korean floor-heating systems were depicted as relatively static, with everybody having an identical buried iron cookpot. Truly? Who made these pots? How often did they need replacement? How much did they cost? On the porch of one house was a small display about the woven straw shoes of the peasantry--how often did they wear out? And who made those impressive black scholarly hats, and how did their shapes evolve? What jewelry makers were there? Were there cobblers who traveled as in frontier America, or did they live in particular communities? Since last year, the traditional stepping-stone bridge across the village's small river has been closed for safety reasons—I guess they got tired of clumsy tourists falling on the rocks or into the water and threatening to sue. Besides cooped chickens, a lonely cow with a large wooden ring in its nose and a pungent and anti-social donkey in a pen, there were two depressed looking dogs (examples of native Korean canines) were chained in a small concrete enclosure, where they had relieved themselves. On the other side of the folkways museum was a courtyard with a collection of more than a hundred fermentation jars, all tagged with their contents and thankfully capped with modern tops, which minimized the pungent aroma. I didn't eat at the food court, though I'm sure they had some tasty offerings--I was happy with my previously-purchased pastry.

I had found there was a free shuttle from the village to a much closer metro station, but I missed it. Meanwhile, my phone charge had dropped to 7%, which was certainly not enough to get home. So I wandered along the road until I spotted a café with an open electric outlet and stopped in to buy a tiny bottle of apple juice for $4 (and juice up my electronics). Then I found a bus stop and started homeward. Which trip took even longer than the outbound journey, because I found myself on the wrong train, twice. The first time, a nice Korean infantry officer who had been to Fort Benning and visited Atlanta got me turned back in the proper direction—he told me all about his trip with his wife and daughter to New Zealand), and the second time I accidentally boarded an express train for the end of my metro line, so a sweet family at the station got the local officer to point me to the platform for the all-stops train heading back in the opposite direction. I was dead tired by the time I got home, and so infinitely grateful that I’d had a chance to recharge my phone, as by that time in the evening, Ellie had begun to message me, asking where I was!