What Does It All Add Up To?

One reason people stay infernally busy is to avoid the gnawing emptiness devouring their lives like nanobots nibbling a bowl of kibble.  Whereas emptiness has positive connotations in Eastern thought, namely liberation from attachments, open space, and freedom of movement, in the West it has a bleak flavor.  Yummy it is not, as Yoda would say.

Yesterday after frittering at a bookstore for about an hour without buying anything (a rare victory over the desire to consume entertaining rectangles), I saw a young Korean woman with a T-shirt that read:  “Change Is the Key to Success.”  I didn’t have time to stop and ask her what the statement meant to her, which was just as well as if I had she probably would have taken me for a stalker.

T-shirts are usually too preoccupied with being fashion statements to speak the truth, but I wanted to check it out anyway, kick the tires of the idea and see if it was worth taking it out for a spin.

So does that mean I should get a divorce?  That would be a change.  Having children would also be an enormous change, but you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.  Knowing me, I’d probably end up getting divorced afterwards anyway.  Then I’d have to devote a huge amount of income to alimony and paternity payments, unless I got custody of the kids.  Having joint custody would involve either staying in Korea or persuading my then-ex-wife to move to the United States.

See how complicated life can be?

Yesterday morning after teaching a one-hour class at eight o’clock, I went into a men’s rest room to change back into my shorts from the slacks I was wearing so I wouldn’t drown in a sea of sweat, then got into an argument with the faucet when the sensor didn’t work.  It reminded me of something an old friend of mine once said:  Everything is designed to torment.

Last week on the days when I was subbing, I had to commute four and a half hours each day, even though I was only teaching four.  I also had to do battle with a minor urinary tract infection by taking Cipro, which entailed eating enough food at both the beginning and end of the day in order to keep my stomach from turning into a wiffle ball made of Swiss cheese.  So much for losing weight.

Because of having to shlep around so much, mainly by subway, I avoided eating meals at home, resorting to what was available at bakeries, convenience stores, and Korean-style fast food joints (not a reference to marijuana, although I’m sure some resourceful young entrepeneur could do something with the concept in Colorado, Washington state, or Uruguay).  My health eroded as a result, even as my belly grew.

My friend Ben pointed out the other day that before the Age of Smartphones, when he first came to Korea, commuters used to chat with one another on the subway instead of sitting in identical postures of mesmerized stupefaction.  I’m too numb to remember those days; it may be that working a split shift for four years wrecked my capacity to form new memories.  My brain has become like an Etch-a-Sketch, enabling me to be duped easily by presidents, news anchormen and the retired generals who love them, televangelists, and other snake-oil salesmen.  (Can the global economy run on snake oil?  I believe so.  Hell, it already does.)

Later yesterday I saw another woman with a T-shirt that read “Clowns Are Eating Me.”  I know how she feels.  Unfortunately, I was unable to read what was written above it, and running after a strange woman to examine her torso is not the best way to endear yourself to her.

As I’d put off reading my students’ speeches until the last minute–or the last hour anyway–I had to read them on the subway while standing up, cradling a cup of iced tea.  Then Jina called me for some reason, and I got a case of phone neck talking to her and bounding off the train, even though I was using my neck to hold the iced tea instead of the phone.

Monsoon season has kicked in in Seoul.  Doing laundry requires careful planning and vigilant attention to weather updates.  You should always bring a spare pair of socks with you in a plastic bag inside your backpack in case you get caught in a squall.  I used to carry my black leather shoes and wear flip-flops, but it’s too much crap to lug around, especially when you’re standing on a crowded bus or zooming subway car, trying not to lose your balance and stub your nose against the back of some old lady’s head.  If your shoes do get soaked, the best way to dry them out is by stuffing crumpled newspaper pages in them when you get home (a trick my wife taught me).

I use a shitty little umbrella, mostly because if I bought a bigger one, I’d probably leave it behind on the bus or subway.  I actually did leave my umbrella on the bus last week, then remembered just as I got off, leapt back on, and grabbed it from a considerate commuter who handed it across the throng to me.  The other problem with using a big umbrella is that when it does rain, there are so many of them already sprouting from the sidewalk, you have to do what amounts to a limbo dance on a Twister mat to weave through the human obstacle course.  If you’re feeling brave, you can throw your umbrella ahead of you high in the air, sprint past soggy pedestrians, and perform a diving catch before scraping your face against the wet pavement (not recommended), shining strangers’ shoes with your cheek. 

Yesterday as I was walking in the rain my hair got caught in the junction between the two stainless steel tubes of the umbrella–twice.  Ow!  Whoops–forgot.  “Everything’s designed to torment.”  Later, after the rain had stopped, I passed an old man swinging his umbrella in circles like an airplane propeller.  At night I walked by a woman doing the same with an ID card hanging from a lanyard.  What was the source of this random aggressive behavior?  At least they didn’t have guns.  I wasn’t in the mood to get shot.

Needless to say, living in the city is a hell of a lot of fun.  

Not that I’d like to have to be in Iraq right now.  Sorry about the war.


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