Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve At Grandmommy's

We are having ham, and hen (as Grandmommy always refers to chicken), and beef meatballs, and pork. There's enough yellow corn to feed a stable, and beans and peas and sweet potato soufflé. And new potatoes, but sadly not those grown by Granddaddy and kept in the cool space underneath the house--those always tasted so fresh! And cake and two kinds of pie for dessert. We're celebrating Christmas today in Dublin--just me, Mums, John, Grandmommy, and my brother Nate, whose arrival from Atlanta we anticipate in the next hour. Grandmommy is busy in the kitchen, all four curled mazes of electrical eyes on her stove crowded with cooking pots and the pressure cooker Presto Model 40 she bought about 70 years ago. This morning we ate homemade biscuits baked in two even more ancient round aluminum cake pans, which her mother used to make four layer cakes in the wood-fired oven at the old homeplace. We always say that one reason Grandmommy's biscuits taste so good is because of those pans. It was the children's responsibility when she was growing up to fetch the kindling in for the stove. I asked Grandmommy how her mother knew how long to bake things, given there was no thermometer, and she said she had to guess.

Grandmommy and Mums are debating the use for the probable leftover broccoli, potentially in a broccoli chicken casserole. It's a beautiful sunny day outside, and is forecast to warm to seventy. John was strolling outdoors and came in to remark on how pleasant it is, and so we're going to have the doors open. Mums is washing the dishes and Grandmommy is concerned about there being too much water in the potatoes. I am sure they'd be delicious even if they were swimming. Grandmommy's cooking is superb. She claims to be just a "plain cook," but her plain food is far better than much fancy stuff. I wish more of the family could be here, but a large proportion of those who had planned to come are sick with either colds or the flu.

It's quiet except for Grandmommy's narration of her cooking process--I'm glad I am not the only one in the family who talks out her planned steps--the rattle of lids on pots, and the swish of water as dishes are washed. Everything is cooked and maneuvered into the oven to keep warm, ready to be placed on the counter for serving at dinnertime. My cousin once referred to Grandmommy's "magic oven, noting that she'd never seen her cook, but that she just would open the oven and a multiple dish meal was there to eat. And the oven itself is like the Weasley's tent in the Harry Potter stories--it's bigger on the inside than in is outside--into than one small space, an incredible number of covered Corningware dishes and tinfoil wrapped plates can fit.

The Christmas cactus is blooming on the back porch, and I just heard Grandmommy wondering where I have disappeared to as she went to turn off the heat, the doors being open for fresh air. The aroma from the kitchen is making my mouth water. And my mother is doing leg lifts as she waits for my brother. He'd better get here soon. I'm hungry!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Bright Stars, Painful Memories, & Beautiful Ambitions

I love beautiful things. I wonder sometimes that it may be the desire to possess beauty that has kept me single. On the one hand, one does not, or rather one should not, possess another person--when I was psychologically possessed by another person, it was the most miserable and unhealthy state in which I have lived. Moreover, a spouse is not a curio cabinet treasure, to be admired as an object, dusted off and displayed. But I do like male pretty, and I have a collector's eye for fine examples. Too bad the transient superficial is often all there is, or connected to selfish pride, and that men are often attracted to women as beautiful or even more so than they, all of which suggests that I am doomed in the spousal pulchritude department.

I just finished listening to Edith Wharton's "The Dilettante," which I wish I had read decades ago – as I have myself been the emotional victim of dilettantes such as that so ably portrayed in this incisive short story. And at least once I have likewise proven unable to invest my emotions in a romantic relationship. While I was dating my only boyfriend (a score of years ago!), I still remember my father almost busting a gut with laughter when I mentioned to him that I was concerned that the boyfriend in question had a heart ailment, because when we kissed his pulse would race. Apparently this is normal. My heart, on the other hand, thudded along at its usual dull rate because I was not in the least emotionally engaged, and I soon realized that the apathy that suffused all of my interactions with this otherwise estimable character was not going to lift.

A sylphlike colleague at the museum where I was working at the time told me that she had had sex simply to see what it was like. A friend had lent her her boyfriend for the experience, which I found odd on multiple levels. But later, I realized I had no room to talk (in kind if not in extremity), as I had kissed somebody I didn't have any feelings for simply because he had expressed an interest in kissing me, and it seemed the sort of "normal" thing to do. When I discovered that he actually loved me and was planning to propose to me, I realized I couldn't continue the charade into matrimony. Perfunctory marital relations would have been ridiculous. I had thought that I would eventually begin to feel something if we dated for a while, but six weeks passed, and then 12, and though I certainly appreciated the man on an intellectual level, I was simply going through the romantic motions, absorbing his devotion without returning any, which filled me with guilt. He deserved better. So I broke up with him. He was crushed, and went off to France for a year on a Fulbright. Then he met and married a nice woman. Their children could be teenagers by now, for all I know.

My heart has been touched deeply twice, once by someone who was a dilettante, and the other time by one of whom I was mistaken. The former left me badly wounded, while the latter had the courtesy to wait offstage until I was recovered (and a few years later I had totally forgotten that I had any attraction to him whatsoever, which was a comfortable and pleasant realization). So it is possible for me to be emotionally engaged, but I wonder at the miracle it must take for me to come to like someone who is reasonable and for him simultaneously to like me. I think that most people must take this as a matter of course, but I don't.

My ability to communicate my feelings, or lack thereof, has definitely improved as I've gotten older. I hope that my spirit has gotten both stronger and softer, that the worst of the psychological scars of a quarter century ago have faded while the lesson of not being drawn into an exploitative relationship has ingrained itself into my marrow. I thank God that that first fellow whom I adored one-sidedly was an effectively asexual dilettante, given that I have since seen other controlling people introduce elements of romance into their power play and thereby brutalize their victims even more thoroughly.

I can see the point of perfunctory affection if one is in a marital relationship. There is duty, and the heady emotional involvement that accompanies early infatuation does not typify day-to-day existence over the long run, though Lord willing it will return regularly. I do earnestly desire a marriage grounded in comfortable, pleasant coexistence, but I also want to like to be touched by my spouse. Not just sex and kisses, but having his hand over mine, his arm around my shoulders. Hugs are awesome when they are from someone you love. Being able to snuggle up to someone who doesn't consider me physically repulsive, who doesn't withdraw unconsciously, and about whom I feel the same…that would be so nice. Someone whose face will crinkle into further little smile curves over the years, so we both can beam companionably at one another over the breakfast table in our old age. That's the sort of relationship that I really hope and pray God grants me. Someone who finds me admirable and fascinating, and someone whom I likewise admire and with whom I am fascinated. One of the things that I have observed in successful Christian marriages is that each spouse is impressed with the other's skill. They clearly enjoy the other person's character, and his or her being able to do certain tasks, from building things to sewing things, from cooking things to arranging things, from writing things to thinking things. They see beauty in the other person and his or her handiwork and celebrate it.

The past three years have been a humbling experience for me. I have glimpsed (and repeatedly shut my eyes to!...there's a limit to how much realistic self-assessment I can handle) how small I am in the face of the universe, and how little my gifts account for relative to the broader population. My current job has been particularly illuminating in this regard: I have overseen the editing of about 100 biographies of people who exhibited both great and lesser literary skill, the one area of ability in which I have always aspired to excel. God has given me a better sense of where I am to fit, and has encouraged me with the realization that even small spheres prudently occupied can be far more beneficial than large swaths of power mishandled. A beautifully influential life resembles a star in space. From our terrestrial viewpoint, in that empty stretch of infinite darkness a comparatively tiny glimmer shines across vast time and distances. In notes too deep for the human ear to hear, the star's voice throbs through the reaches of the universe. The human eye is naturally drawn to the light, however infinitesimal it may at first appear, and even at its death, it yields spectacular beauty. Thus, I will subscribe to what I call a "little woman" theory of history rather than to the "great man" theory of history. Even if I cannot enjoy the beauty of a beloved spouse, I can, through God's grace, be a twinkling (if slightly batty) inspiration to a small circle.

If I may continue to indulge in free association ("like a tea-tray in the sky..."), Lewis Carroll is prompting me to a bedtime cuppa. Maybe the chamomile will let me enjoy a solid night's sleep!

Granddaddy's Centenary

Today would have been Granddaddy's 100th birthday. When he was born on the family farm in Alabama, the US had yet to enter the Great War. His own grandfather, a Southern veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic in the American Civil War, was alive and telling stories of his youth, declaring when invited to speak of his wartime experiences at my Granddaddy's elementary school that if a certain neighboring Confederate veteran had been invited to speak too, he wouldn't: "I already whupped him once, I ain't gonna whup him again!" Granddaddy once asked him what prompted him and his six brothers, all Southerners, to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers, and he responded simply "I don't believe one man should own another man."

Granddaddy himself fought tyranny on the international and local level, from his service in the US Navy during World War II to his insistence on honesty while serving on the city council of his small middle Georgia town; the refusal to kowtow to the ol' boy network limited him to a single term, but he managed to achieve the approval of key initiatives in that short period whose positive effects are still felt. He worked hard and steadily, and despite ongoing struggles with severe PTSD, his affection for his family was unwavering. He made a wise choice in the selection of a wife, for one! I miss him, oftentimes badly, but I look forward to seeing him again. I expect even in the company of the Almighty, he's still got a crew cut.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Outbound Stretch

While outwardly I have been calm about moving halfway around the world, I have reason to believe that my subconscious is not enjoying such equanimity. My ability to sleep has been vastly affected, as has my ability to speak in complete sentences and to remember basic vocabulary words in English. These symptoms imply that I am under a great deal of stress, and it is only perhaps being overcommitted timewise that is keeping me more or less operating in what superficially appears to be  a normal range.

Several friends have expressed an interest in talking to me on the phone before I move, but I've been so busy, finishing either conventional job assignments or setting up for the estate sale so late into the evenings that we haven't been able to talk. I told the Hungarian computer guy at work that I was burning three candles, and he asked me if that were the typical American phrase, and I admitted that it was not, but that two candle-ends seemed insufficient to depict the level of distrait in my life right now.

The estate sale that my uncle and I have worked so hard and so swiftly on opened for business today. The revenue was respectable, but not at the spectacular level that the location and the contents implied was possible. Tomorrow everything is marked down some percentage, and I hope and pray intensely that it will be far more successful than today was, as I have not only medical bills to pay, but also two months of living expenses to have in hand (I won't receive my first Korean paycheck until the end of February), and my car brakes had to be replaced this past Monday. And the aforementioned computer guy told me that I ought to get a new computer before I head overseas, as while the one I have now is working perfectly fine, it is reaching the end of the average lifespan of the typical laptop.

My three suitcases are open and lying semifilled in the middle of my living room, and as yet I haven't put but few clothes in them, just the needful accoutrements of housekeeping. Measuring cups, a tablecloth. Pantyliners, a shower curtain. My scooter, toothbrushes. A sewing kit, language textbooks.   A sleeping bag, sandals. Umbrellas, cold medicine. I am packing a box of lighter items that I intend to mail to myself--powdered peanut butter being the most important. I have already purchased 2 computer  monitors and a stand and had them shipped ahead of me – the process was moving smoothly, oiled by generous quantities of money, when it ground to a a sudden halt – the international UPS affiliate sent me confusing "we need information" messages linked to an all-Korean website demanding a number that I did not have, and which I must acquire or the shipment could not proceed –which issue was only ironed out after a week and remote  interaction with three Amazon staffers [and my actually breaking down into tears on the phone (another manifestation of my subconscious stress level].

One of the several pleasant things that happened this past week, however, was my niece Rita sending me a Facebook message – through her paternal grandmother's account – asking me what the address for this blog was. And one of my cousins told me that he often reads Rummynation when he has downtime from medical school. And my mother made sugar cookies. And I had a good conversation with Grandmommy. And things are being bought out of my consignment booth--which I will be emptying, Lord willing, Christmas Eve morning. And my plane tickets for Seoul (through Atlanta and Tokyo) are bought. And I mailed off my passport to the Korean Consulate for my visa to be affixed. And my garage is now empty enough that a car can be parked in it. And my sweet friend, who is house and cat sitting for me is moving in December 30, the day before my departure. I know without a doubt that the Almighty is sending me to Southeast Asia, but it's all unreal and theoretical  right now. I'm as jittery as a bride, and more than a little terrified of the responsibilities that I will be assuming.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Fire, Angels, & Demons

The president of my Sunday School class was caught in the Gatlinburg, TN, fire last weekend. He saw a wall of flame rushing across the mountain—he said the air was so hot that the dry brush in the fire’s path spontaneously combusted before sparks even reached it, bushes and trees popping into flames one after the other in a series of quick explosions. The fire came within 15’ of their house, then turned and went around it, raining blistering cinders as they sprinted for their car. They barely made it out in time. Two of the three roads off the mountain were blocked with debris, and thick smoke boiled over everything. In the grocery store parking lot in the valley where they rendezvoused with their son and his family, the wind gusted between 40 and 80 mph, lifting one side of their SUV, and flinging shopping carts (and the steel corrals meant to contain them) against the cars.

I spent yesterday breathing third-hand smoke; the interior of the house where we’re putting together an estate sale had been scorched by a fire (from an electrical spark under a sofa) two years ago. The surviving contents were professionally cleaned and boxed by the insurance company, which paid for the full restoration and furnishing of the place, but the single female homeowner hadn’t been back in residence but months (and few boxes were even unpacked) before she succumbed in September at the tender age of 60 to a lifetime of chain smoking. We opened most of the windows (despite the cool drafts) to air out the place, which reeked. My uncle climbed up on a ladder to examine the HVAC intake vent, and found that the filter was not grey from dust but a nasty nicotine brown. He installed a fresh filter and saturated it with Febreeze, a treatment which he also applied to most of the living areas. I sound like a 20-year smoker myself today; breathing all that junk was miserable. Every time I blew my nose, I was convinced I would snort out soot. Despite the comprehensive house restoration, and the “professional” cleaning—they definitely didn’t sponge off the books--I had to wash the smut off my hands so often than my knuckles were bleeding by midafternoon. The cold air circulated chapped my lips thoroughly, so this morning during the early service “greet your neighbor” time I found that I couldn’t smile pleasantly without pain. But I considered the day a complete success—in almost exactly twelve hours of working flat-out, we sorted everything and started staging. We unpacked every single box. I actually thanked God for the house fire, because it undoubtedly cut down on the clutter—there remained over 50 purses, and more than 200 pairs of shoes. I hope someone with a sock fetish shows up weekend after next.

The books displayed a curious eclecticism. There were probably a gross of newsprint bodice-rippers with semi-pornographic covers, twenty years of the Southern Living cookbooks, Bibles with bookmarks, self-improvement and relationship guides, a hundredweight of textbooks on law and finance and banking regulations, shelves full of classical literature, and just about every work Ayn Rand had typeset. 90 Minutes in Heaven was next to an evangelically secular Stanford University Press book on how to debate creationists. Elsewhere were dime store angel figurines. Twee, delicate, and female, all of them. I loathe mass market figurines in general and representations of angels in particular. When an angel appears in Biblical accounts, he tells the human person or persons being addressed, “Do not fear.” Which implies that real angels are terrifying, and your natural instinct on encountering one is to want to hide under a rock, or bow down and worship. These pretty plastic ladies with feathery wings correspond to pictures of the Devil in a red suit with little horns, a smart goatee, and a pointed tail—and these silly, safe, cartoonish images seem to be the bread and butter of popular American religiosity. Jonathan Edwards’s  sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sit well with the “All Dogs go to Heaven” and Chicken Soup for the Soul mentality of the average nice modern person. Whether our late client evidenced this typical affinity was hard to tell, given the wide range of reading material she apparently enjoyed. One of the many results of doing estate sales (though it is not infrequently depressing) is developing a character sketch of the person who lived in the house, even without any photographs to guide me. It is my contention that your estate sale agent learns as much about you as your lawyer, your priest, and the IRS, and sometimes we find out more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

It Pressed Out Clear

...or such was the pithy assessment that the radiologist gave of my second mammogram in three weeks on the morning of my 42nd birthday, Monday. Pressed, mashed--if you flatten something sufficiently, it does become translucent. I wasn't concerned by the need for a second test, as if they had found something truly to worry about, surely they would have scheduled it much sooner (though I did find it just a wee bit tacky that they picked that particular day). However, the bill for this visit is to be paid out of my own shallow pocket, and that has driven me into the bosom of one last estate sale before the end of the year.

My uncle and I weren't planning to do another estate sale in 2016, but before we finished the last one, he got called by a former client, whom he has known for many years. Her sister died suddenly in September, and the family needs to liquidate the estate as soon as possible-- the house is still mortgaged and payments are having to come out of the surviving siblings' pockets. And I need to do the sale prior to the holidays because of my lurking medical bills and the prospect of being in Korea penniless for two months before my first teaching paycheck comes through.

I haven't had my visa interview yet--my documents are all in a packet on their way to Jeju, but thus far all systems are "go" for my beginning my contract there on January 2. My one friend who worked at the school assured me that barring some catastrophe, it is highly likely that I will be moving over there in just four weeks--"if they want you, they'll get you there," OCD or not. In fact, Mona, my friend currently at the school, called me this evening at work to tell me that the school director was possessed of the notion that I would be over there for the last week of December! No can do, I told her, and emailed him that I was subscribed to my current employer through the end of the year (which I had mentioned before...). I certainly won't have time to pack or turn around properly until that final week of this year--although I have heard that usually my boss releases everyone for the week between Christmas and New Year's, it is by no means required of him, and I don't have any other time to get my powers of attorney together, or house clean, or my consignment booth emptied, much less see Grandmommy. Particularly if my next three Saturdays are dedicated to organizing and running an estate sale!

Time is getting short. I have arranged, at least in theory, to be a part-time contract editor for my current employer. My boss said we would try it out to see how it worked. One of my two editor sunbaes (seniors) and I sat down this afternoon and divvied up the literary criticism entries for next year, so my assignments are neatly laid out for me. The stack of items I must take to Korea is already overflowing one of the armchairs in my living room. I have cleaned out my guest room so that Bella, who will be housesitting for me and caring for Trixie (for whom I just purchased another 9 catnip mice as an early Christmas present), can move in her own furniture. I have winnowed a handful of items from my closet, but I'm aghast at how many clothes there still are. What should I pack? I bought a stack of Korean vocabulary cards, a shower curtain and a duvet cover, a reflective vest and a clothesline. And a kick scooter. It's collapsible. I think it won't strain my neck like a bicycle, since I don't have to lean over. I need a new pair of tennis shoes. And allergy medication. And powdered peanut butter. And new unmentionables. Gosh.

Nothing like a time crunch to encourage efficiency!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hot News

The end of November and I just put my air conditioning on because it is too warm to sleep, and not cool enough outdoors to make opening the windows useful. And no, I am not having a hot flash.

My background check came back apostilled from the State Department today. Tomorrow my documents shall be sent to the hagwon in Jeju. I am nervous and excited at the possibilities of the next month. Il is peculiar to think that I could be settling overseas in five weeks, just casually tossing items into a couple of bags and moving to the other side of the world. But because of South Korea's amenities, it's not like I have to pack a safari trunk. If I forget something, I will just go to a store and buy it. I shan't be beating my laundry on rocks in a stream, as my former art teacher had to do when she visited the country back in the early 1970s.

Yesterday, my paternal extended family's Thanksgiving celebration was in North Carolina. With me being the sole representative from my immediate family, were 30 people there, only two of whom weren't relatives, including a delightful young lady from Russia, the best friend of one of my cousins. I understood 90-95% of what she said in Russian, but my tongue was like lead, and I just couldn't make the words come out in response. Her English was as good as mine, and I awkwardly responded to her Russian remarks in English. She's a good cook--she added shchi and baked apples to the smorgasbord we assembled. Daddy would have loved it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Getting Rid Of Bots

For 24 hours now, I have restricted access to my blog to my eyes only, in hopes that the automatic systems crawling about the web will cease to visit if they are repeatedly stymied. Allegedly, I had 3000 visits in the last month, a pitiful amount for a truly popular website, but an impossibly astronomical one for a personal blog written by an obscure person without any famous contacts.

If I did have strings to pull in influential places, I wouldn't still be waiting on my paperwork to return from DC. But I don't, and I am.

I'm reading Edith Wharton's short stories for the first time. The plot of Ethan Frome always put me off, and though I was able to make it a good portion of the way through The House of Mirth, it could hardly be considered cheerful, easy reading. I have long liked Wharton's style, but the remoteness of cold New England misery and even colder New England aristocracy meant that I failed to engage with characters in her novels. Her short stories are much more entertaining, passionate and personal, even if her linguistic skill and subject matter tacitly reminds me that I shall never attain the intellectual acuity or elevated class standing which would qualify me to appear in Wharton's presence comfortably, were she still alive. I have shared the experiences of several of her characters, though, particularly that of the art expert called upon to assess a painting the owner thinks is a masterpiece. Well I know the conundrum of being caught between politeness and honesty when it comes to letting people know that their cherished treasures are commercially worthless.

The estate sale this past weekend went well. We didn't have a single stinker, and traffic was high the whole two days. Surprisingly, both furniture and clothing sold well, and we ended up making a third again as much as we thought the event would bring. I had really bad arm pain on Friday, but Saturday I was comfortable, which was a blessing given I was in front of my laptop with few breaks from 8 AM open until twenty minutes before closing time at 4 PM. I was surprised at how much jewelry was left over; my uncle and I had thought that it would be the backbone of the weekend. It just goes to show that there is absolutely no way to tell how a given sale will perform.

I may have a house sitter if I do go to Korea in January – a friend of mine has told me that she's theoretically willing to take up residence in my guest bedroom and take care of my cat, which would be wonderful on several counts: Trixie wouldn't have to move to Virginia, I would get regular updates on her, and I would know that somebody obsessively tidy was enjoying the stuff I have accumulated. I hate having things effectively stored that someone could be using meantime. My mother likes the idea too.

Monday, November 14, 2016


A week ago, I got one of those telephone calls that one doesn't like to get. Specifically, it was a call from my OB/GYN's office saying that my most recent mammogram was inconclusive and they needed to do another one. They had already scheduled an appointment for me, on the morning of my birthday. What a lovely way to mark the end of one's forty-second year. My insurance won't pay for this one – they said that they would pay for the first one, but the second is mine to afford. Of course, one does not just opt to forego tests like these, even though odds are decidedly that the first was merely misread, not a real problem. If there's an issue, I would rather catch it sooner than later.

Two weeks on, and I still haven't gotten back my apostilled background check from the State Department. Argh.  It's the Ides of November tomorrow, and I still need to send all the paperwork off to South Korea to see if it gets stuck in their bureaucracy, and for how long. I did email the school director  to let him know what was going on.

I ended up eating consecrated bread last night after communion. Historically, they just toss the loaf that the pastor breaks up at the table, but one of the elders decided this was wasteful and insisted that my friend and I take it home. I don't think it had any salt in it. I actually did a lot of soul-searching before I decided to go ahead and chow down – you have that example of the fellow in the Old Testament who reached out a hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen pulling the cart it was on stumbled, and was struck dead on the spot for his irreverent practicality, and then on the other hand you have the Reformed understanding that the bread isn't transsubstantiated. Still, it's consecrated--but the elder pointed out that given that I'd already taken communion, I had already eaten some of it. And I considered that it was given to me by an elder, I hadn't spontaneously decided to take it; I figured if anything it would be good for me.

I also was anointed with a small vial of oil after the service, as I asked another trio of elders to pray that my neck and arm would be healed. I have had good days and I have had bad days, but the pain during the latter has left me absolutely miserable and unable to work effectively. Physical Therapy has not yielded any miracles. It's such a blessing to be pain-free.

I have a cold. I've been swilling hot tea all day, and eating large quantities of carbs. I'm not sure that carbs are a standard form of cold treatment, but Trixie gets quite distressed when I eat chicken, because she's not allowed to have any. I wish I could spend the next three days in bed, but I have work to do. Outside, there's a haze of smoke from the not-too-distant wildfires. Today I spent shivering in a sweater and swaddled in a scarf, researching Karl Marx. Of his three legitimate children who survived childhood (out of seven born) one died of cancer before the age of 40, and the other two committed suicide. Good grief. Later this week, I get to tackle Edith Wharton. I could really use some lighthearted humor after all of this real and imagined misery. I think I will sit in a sunbeam during tomorrow's 90-minute conference call.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


I didn't watch the election results come in last night. I forebore to check the news or Facebook, both of which have been full of vitriol and largely unsubstantiated rumor for weeks now. Given that I had voted for a write-in candidate for the primary office, I knew there was not even a snowball's chance of that person winning, so I ate dinner, took a shower, watched a K-drama, and went to sleep. And my Internet connection this morning was gummed up, and CNN wouldn't refresh, so it looked like the vote counting was still going on… Until I got into the kitchen and sat down for breakfast, and the website updated. And then I shook for ten minutes in shock. Holy cow. I knew it was close. But the (mostly liberal) intellectuals seem to have deluded themselves with their polling. It's our version of Brexit. Or a national recapitulation of Jesse Ventura's election as governor of Minnesota.

I hope our president-elect will do a better job than I expect. When circus impressario P.T. Barnum, notorious for his exploitation of the gullible and the grotesque, served on the state legislature, he was an ardent civil rights advocate. I will continue to pray. The VP seems like a genuinely good egg. The criticisms that I have heard of him make him sound like he has made all the right enemies, which does signal some hope for the new administration.

About a month ago I was assigned to edit an entry on Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays. In the second, there is a peasant uprising. The rhetoric sounded quite familiar. Human nature fascinates me--and Shakespeare had a divinely imparted gift for capturing it.

We truly have no idea what will happen after January 20. This campaign has been so fraught with personal and legal scandals that I don't recall a single substantive promise made by the triumphant candidate aside from the southern border wall. I mistrust the man's wisdom and sincerity, never mind his morals, but there's no telling but that he may be a Thomas Beckett for our time. Here's hoping!

Friday, November 04, 2016

Attack Of The Web Crawlers

Over the last several days the traffic to my blog has ballooned, according to one set of metrics, but given that all my recent posts are getting exactly the same number of hits, at improbably regular intervals, and the referring sites are minimal, I suspect a bot is to blame. It's very annoying. It would be one thing if people--actual flesh and blood human beings!--were reading, but on the blog itself I've only gotten spam comments – some obscene--and this sudden superfluity of alleged pageviews. And I haven't said anything particularly controversial of late.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Source Checks Necessary

I have friends of all political stripes, spots, and blotches. I urge them: Please, folks, check your sources. Reference one or more major news outlets, no matter whether you consider them skewed to the right or the left, to see if and how they are reporting the story. Check Snopes. If it seems too good to be true, or conversely too bad to be false, it may well be unsubstantiated.

If it is a quotation--no matter how pithy or seemingly apt--from one of your favorite or least favorite people, please check to see if they actually said it, and in what context. I speak as one has been caught out herself before, reposting something that I did not check, and ending up with egg on my face. I know ours is the age of the soundbite, but the context in which someone said something is central to understanding what they said. Are these the words of a bad character in one of their novels? Or are they quoting someone else? Were they being sarcastic or sincere?

Don't be a rumormonger. Your opinions are valuable. I may not agree with them, but I want to know that you have good reasons for having them. When any of us posts fake news, we can lose the credibility that all of us earnestly seek. Beware of flashy, click bait headlines. Yes, as an historian and editor I can assure you the truth is frequently stranger than fiction, but why succumb to the medicine show allure of what is essentially the digital version of the supermarket tabloid?

Get a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Go directly to the works of the particular author whose silhouette is emblazoned behind the words that your itching ears so long to hear. Why should you be guilty of bearing false witness, of spreading misinformation? Just because a person you like put it on their Facebook wall doesn't mean that you must. If you find out it is misattributed or outright fabricated, you can send a kindly worded, private message to the person to tell them what you discovered. Or you can simply not pass on what you now know isn't true.

If you stand up for truth, however seemingly insignificant, you are supporting your own dignity and that of other people.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Upwards, Onwards

I may be only nine weeks away from moving to South Korea. Today, I mailed my FBI background check to the DC State Department to be apostilled, and once that returns, I will send the packet of documents to Jeju-do. After that point, I wait.

A friend's mother died Sunday. He was in my high school class, and his mother was two years younger than mine. A heart attack. I know how something like this shakes you to your core. He's a good guy, with a wife and four children, and his mother was taking care of his ailing father. I went to the visitation, gave him a big hug, and told him we are praying for him. I know from personal experience that God is near to the brokenhearted.

Ovid advised, "Call no one happy until he is dead," with the implication that no matter how good someone has had it for most of their life, the other shoe could always drop. (This is the same guy who recommended his married male readers have more than one mistress, who advised women to fake orgasms and to giggle and simper instead of laughing out loud, and who spent the entire last part of his magnum opus brown-nosing Augustus Caesar. I think this helps to put his opinions in perspective: Great poet, lousy life coach). How about, rather than warning of potential sorrows, anticipating future joys?

On Sunday mornings, we are reading through Exodus, focusing on the life of Moses. The common practice is to divide the prophet's life into sections, with the education and experiences he accumulated during the first two contributing to his successful leadership in the third. Our pastor made three points (not the presumptively alliterative ones on the outline) in this last weekend's sermon which struck me deeply:

One: we become the gods we worship. The biblical example is the Israelites' choice of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, at which point they were behaving in a beastly manner themselves. But there are infinite ancient and contemporary examples--mostly idols, desires, and habits that tend to undermine our humanity and compassion for others.

Two: Moses's story culminated on Mount Horeb, not at the parting of the sea. His whole life was preparing him to die well, pointing forward to the Promised Land even as he took his last breath. This was a good reminder to me of what I should be pressing toward, even as I want to laze about, telling myself the untruth that I don't need to keep striving.

Three: Only go and do if God is with you. Don't decide the direction your life should take and then retroactively ask the Almighty to sprinkle holy water on it. On the other hand, follow God's direction and leading. The number of times I haven't asked for God's leadership and ended up flat on my face is astounding, as are the number of times that I have sat on my tail and done nothing when I most certainly was called to act.

Violette Leduc (1907-1972), French autobiographer and novelist, was an excellent (horrible) example of how not to live. Not so much because of her bisexuality as because of her poisonous narcissism--oddly, because she was convinced she was hideous and unlovable. And yet there were people who loved her, people who cared for her--most of whom she relentlessly drove away. She was a miserable human being, always tormenting herself and others, a black hole of emotional need who wrote books that repetitively recited her felt traumas and laid bare her past misdeeds. She didn't look up, out, or forward. Her affections were tiring and frustrated, and she felt lonely from childhood until death. Nowadays she is read only by handful of lesbian scholars and by researchers interested not in her but in her patroness Simone de Beauvoir.

Blogs are peculiar real-time memoirs. Intended for the public, or at least a public (of selected readers), there is a temptation on the part of the writer to present herself in the best possible light. Trying to be honest, she deliberately records some of her known misdeeds. But both her virtues and her sins aren't necessarily obvious to her at the time. Maintaining this effort for over a decade (it was twelve--or was it thirteen?--years last month) has shown me in many emotional states and fits of intellectual activity and lethargy. Recently, I've reread a scattering of old posts and been struck by how naïve I was at particular points in time (and how unconsciously ridiculous I sounded), and at others wondered how I managed to come up with such a good turn of phrase, since I don't think I am so capable now. One thing I do hope is that not only I but other readers will be able to see my maturation, however gradual, in this chronicle. And a growing sense of humor and gratitude. I want to finish well, whenever that day comes. Further up and further in, fellow Narnians!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Odious Ovid, Avian Aficionado

Ovid liked birds. He wrote an elegy on a dead parrot (I couldn't help but immediately think of the Python sketch) which he imagined going to bird heaven. Or to an avian Elysian Fields, rather. I swear, half the people in the Metamorphoses transformed into birds. I think he had an story for the origin of every single winged species, including bats.

And George R.R. Martin ain't got nothing on Ovid when it comes to blood weddings. Talk about all the gory details. After the first time everybody but the bride and groom got decapitated, skewered, eviscerated, and/or was ripped limb from limb in a dramatic reception tiff, you think you'd require the guests to check their swords and pikes at the door. Then again, the heroes and demigods were a resourceful lot, and knew how to use punch bowls as devastatingly effective offensive weapons.

I wonder if anybody has actually tried to mix up the facial mask recipe that Ovid included with his love poetry. There are actually two recipes, but the other contains white lead, which I understand is frowned upon by the dermatological community these days. He promised both concoctions did wonderful things for the skin. The ingredients are all natural, and not exactly on the eye of newt level – stag horns may a lot of collagen in them.

 Ovid's love poetry is definitely R-rated, quite modern. Lots of bed scenes and the anticipation thereof. You can visualize the guy – a skinny scholar with lots of winsome words and little cash hitting on girls. His (possibly married, or possibly a prostitute) girlfriend had an abortion, which really upset him. And he suffered from ED at least once. Of course, he could've been writing from different creative perspectives, not all his own, but the emotions feel raw and real, and doubtless the scenarios are representative. One poem describes his remorse over beating his girlfriend (!). Another talks about witnessing a traditional religious festival in his wife's hometown. Still others lament not being able to gain access to his married lover's bed.

What I found interesting and did not expect in Ovid's love poetry was the echo, or rather the original, of some phrases I associate with St. Paul. Ovid preceded Paul by a generation or so (the poet was exiled to the Crimean peninsula and died there c.17-18 AD), and clearly Saul of Tarsus was up on his Roman bestsellers, because there are phrases that, at least in translation, come across as almost identical to those in the epistles, though used in diametrically different contexts (for example, when Ovid was talking about doing what he didn't want to do, and not doing what he wanted to do, he certainly wasn't talking about his personal struggle with his sin nature). And there is the mention by Ovid that "not all Cretans are liars" (the original claim that they are is attributed to a Cretan by the name of Epimenides, generating one of those paradoxes of which logicians are so fond), which Paul referenced in Titus 1 in affirmation (or so I have read it) of regional-cultural tendencies to particular vices.

In his "how to get laid" manual for guys, Ars Amatoria, Ovid talks about various promising locations for seduction, and then various means of doing so. In that book, "no" meant "yes": he recommended if men got a chance to kiss the girl they liked, they might as well go ahead and rape her, because she would like it--he quotes a whole host of mythological examples to support his case. What the hell?! That's seriously sick. Of course, he also said that suitors shouldn't pass up the opportunity to sleep with the woman's maid, either. Cuckolding husbands was a really involved process. In one of his early poems, the poet pled with a husband to be more suspicious, because it wasn't any fun to seduce a woman who wasn't kept under close watch. Only the forbidden enticed.

Speaking of forbidden and enticement, having a cat is a lot like having a toddler. I end up talking to Trixie like she's a misbehaving two-year-old: "Get off the counter! You know you're not allowed up there." The shiny objects (a bunch of semi-finished necklaces) had drawn her attention.

When she flops on the floor like an odalisque and looks seductively up at me through hooded pistachio colored eyes, it's hard to fuss. Still, as I got out of the shower this evening, I managed to resist the allure: "I may be willing to bury my face in the tummy fur that you licked with the same tongue that you just licked your butt with, but I refuse to rub your tummy next to your litter box. I have standards, you know."

They are low, but they are standards. Which is why I need to decide whose name to write in the ballot's presidential slot before Tuesday week. I was disappointed to find that we can't spontaneously name someone on our Georgia ballots; rather, write-in candidates have to be pre-approved with paperwork. This is clearly no obstacle, as it's quite a slate...more than forty individuals, including Jesus Christ--allegedly of College Park--and Ming the Merciless. And some dude whose given name is "Damn." I hope I can find someone who's reasonable. Reason seems to be pretty thin on the ground lately.

I do pray for my country. And I ask the Almighty's guidance as I continue in my quest to go to South Korea. Come Monday, I'm sending my background check off to the State Department to be apostilled. When that is returned, I'll put all of my documents in a packet and mail them off to Jeju Island. We shall see.

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?