Confessions Of A Human Pinball

It feels good to be back.

In the fall I was underemployed, and it seemed all I did was sit around reading books.  That was okay.  At least I learned something.  Of course, by now I’ve forgotten it all, so I guess I didn’t learn anything after all.  Reading can be inefficient that way, at least when it comes to nonfiction.  The only way you can retain information is if you go back and review, take notes, and memorize passages, and who has time to do that?  Or else you can share what you’ve read with others while the material is still fresh in your mind.

These days I have little time to read and hardly any energy to write.  I teach English in Korea for a living, and since I’m a freelancer my schedule fluctuates from month to month.  To avoid another dry spell like the one I had last fall, I try to be vigilant about picking up new jobs whenever old gigs expire (also to humor my wife Jina, whose arm must be getting tired from holding a gun up to my head for all these years).

Anyway, I lost a good gig a few weeks ago.  Although I wasn’t exactly fired, I’d been expecting it to continue for a whole year, but the students only let me teach them for three months.  I’ll tell you why I think so in a second.

It was a sweet deal, considering it wasn’t that far from where I live–only one bus ride and two subway rides away–and I got paid fifty bucks an hour, the going rate for teaching classes of adults in a Korean company.  Because the students are so busy, they’d often only wanted to study for the first of the two hours they’d signed up for, but I still got paid for both hours.

My kind of job.

As with this blog, I have a tendency to sometimes put my foot in my mouth when I teach and bite my toenails.  It’s a little awkward, especially when I don’t take off my shoe, but the yoga classes keep me from getting a Charley horse.  In this case the boo-boo I made was saying something that wouldn’t have elicited any gasps or sanctimonious horrified shudders back in New England, but in modern Korea proved a premature announcement.

We were talking about differences between men and women, and somehow the subject of gays came up.  I said that as far as I knew, people were born gay and could not change their sexual orientation.  I added that it was wrong for others to try to change them, regardless of what the Bible (or the Koran, a book I didn’t mention at the time) says.

I noticed a few of my students exchanging looks, and the next day I received a phone call from my recruiter, who said the students wanted to bail on me after my initial three-month period was up two weeks from then.  I ventured to tell her why I thought they wanted a different teacher, and she sounded sympathetic–to me, not them.

The remaining two weeks of the class went all right, even though one especially religious student stopped coming, reinforcing my assumption about what had happened.

Of course, when you work as a foreigner in Korea, you can second-guess until your ass flies off your body and goes into orbit around Jupiter and still never figure out why something went down.  After awhile, you just get used to not knowing and shrug it off.

Obtuseness is bliss.

I have a new job in the same time slot–well, that’s not quite right.  I picked up a job for five hours a day that pays approximately half as much per hour as the previous gig, teaching kids.  It takes about an hour to get there.  It’s in the boonies.

That job is from one pm to six pm, twice a week.  What sucks is that on the same days I have to get up and teach a one-hour class in another part of town at 7:40, then go back home, grab a shower and a ten-minute nap if I can squeeze one in before taking a taxi to the train station.

Those days I spend about four hours shlepping back and forth, using a complicated network of buses, subways, and taxis.  Waiting is always involved, whether for one of the above conveyances or for a streetlight to change.  Patience is not always my strong point.

On alternating days I teach a class from 7 am to 8 am in yet another part of town.  That one’s not too far away, although it entails a short cab ride to the station.  (I could take two different buses instead, though that would entail getting up even earlier in the morning.)

After class I walk past the restless river of cars and wait for one of the local bookstores to open, usually stopping for a bite to eat in the meantime.

Then I go home and take a long nap while my wife goes off to teach kids all afternoon.  All the constant movement (which miraculously leads to an incredible absence of weight loss, probably because I stuff my face with too many carbs throughout the day to keep my energy level up) means more showers and changes of clothes, which means having to do the laundry every other day, usually as a way to punctuate the epic naps.

In the evening I take a bus to the subway station, go down to the far end of the platform to reduce the distance I’ll have to walk when I make the transfer at the station where I pick up the connecting train, take that one to my destination, and walk to the building where I teach four times a week (including Saturdays).

The commute home from there is twenty minutes shorter.  Since rush hour’s over by the time the class ends, I can take the bus most of the way home, then transfer to another bus, then another, or else skip those last two transfers and walk.  I’m happy to do that on those nights when the air has the decency to be breathable.

Mind you, the work itself is satisfying, but all the commuting is for the birds–or would be if they didn’t have wings to fly.

It’s an absurd way to live, but at least it makes the absurdity of death that much more comprehensible.

And that’s something.

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The Storm Before The Calm

Last Sunday after my holy colleagues and I dispatched our lunch, while I was groaning on my haunches, trying to reassemble my scrambled vertebrae, the geeky pastor who’d be harmless if he weren’t a skilled manipulator of toddlers’ tender young minds distributed documents to us teachers (I don’t know why I’m counted among the teachers since I don’t believe in God, don’t understand Korean, and would prefer to let all the kids go out and play instead of wasting their time listening to a lot of high-falutin’ fictitious pre-masticated infinitely recycled mumbo-jumbo) and went over them with us in detail.

My wife Jina had somehow escaped the proceedings (not that, unlike me, she’d wanted to), and I couldn’t understand the pastor’s mumbled explanation of where she’d gone.  I took it she had other pious duties to attend to, like giving Christ a tetanus shot to prevent his ghost from being infected by those pesky nine-inch nails.

Since the deathless text, edited by God Himself and jizzed upon by Jesus to invoke his seal of approval, was written in Korean, a language that remains incomprehensible to me, I was under no obligation to either read or understand it, at least in my view, the only one available to my eyes when it comes to these infinitely mysterious, somberly ludicrous matters.

In my case, the dorky pastor’s kindly presentation likewise fell upon trampoline-like eardrums, even if it was digested more tenderly by the Korean teachers, who have both the wherewithal and the presence of mind to take these sacred matters seriously instead of responding with a symphony of raspberries and armpit-farts (something that might inspire the children more, and that would be more in tune with contemporary Korean corporate culture, a watered-down Asian version of what’s available in the United States, only that much more sanitized and gutted and lacking in any edge whatsoever–cardboard entertainment with a styrofoam heart).

The stapled document he gave us was no fewer than seven pages long.  Seven pages!  It’s fucking Sunday school, for Christ’s sake.  Next time he’ll give us a list of topics for the kids to write their dissertations on.

Respond to the claim that Jesus was actually crucified at Herod’s department store.  Provide existing evidence, cogent counter-arguments, and a hermeneutical analysis of the exegetical dichotomy implied by Dorothy the dancing dopy diplodocus.

Korean people generally don’t say much during meals, unless there’s alcohol involved, so most of the sounds produced during the lunch we’d eaten before this pseudo-academic assault involved steel chopsticks clinking against steel bowls and the muffled slurping of noodles.

For some reason–probably just a valiant attempt to break the ice–the pastor asked me about my work.  Although I’m a ham and don’t mind being the center of attention during social gatherings due to gnawing neediness and a morbid desire to be liked even by people I respect even less than myself, it’s not always my bag, and at these kind of manufactured proceedings I prefer to blend into the plastic woodwork and be a fake fly on the wallflower.

But since after three months of financial constipation my teaching schedule is finally starting to pick up, I didn’t mind telling my fellow mortals a little about what I’m doing to make a living these days (not that they’d return the favor, either because they were too insecure about their English ability or since it’s considered impolite to say much over meals in this culture unless everyone’s getting shitfaced–and fat chance that’s going to happen in a fucking church).

When Jina finally appeared--deus ex machina, if you’ll pardon the blasphemy–and please don’t go all Islamic State on my Charlie Hebdo-ish ass–that was my cue to get up and leave, which I did with considerable difficulty, considering we were sitting on the floor.  I felt like someone untied from the rack.

Besides, I had to go dictate a page from a religious article to a group of old guys whose hobby is studying English once a week after church.  It only takes twenty minutes, so I don’t mind doing it too much, and they’re always gracious and appreciative, apart from being condescending due to their choice to be among the chosen.

I felt like asking them, “Why do you guys believe in God?  Don’t you realize it’s all just a bunch of bullshit?”  But I thought it might come across as disrespectful and they could take it the wrong way.  Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses, but it’s never done much for me.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s all one long bad acid trip.  I guess what makes it popular is its communal nature, even though that’s the same thing that makes it so corruptible and so dangerous.

Insane, in fact.

I believe in my wife more than I could ever believe in God, if only because she sometimes scares the living shit out of me.

For instance, a couple of days ago she freaked out all over again about my anal-retentive collection of photocopied teaching materials I’ll probably never use again, stored in cardboard boxes in the corner of this room, and the double rows of paperbacks on the shelves, many of which I haven’t even read and may not live long enough to get around to unless I can get my hands on some telomerase (no, thanks; seventy or eighty years, assuming that’s the number I’ve got, is long enough–let someone else take my seat on the roller coaster for a change).

“Get rid of these books or I’ll burn them all!”

Whatever you say, Gregorio Cortez.

As if to underscore her point, she proceeded to hurl them from the shelves onto the floor.  Luckily she stopped short of sabotaging the lion’s share of my library, even though she demanded that I pick the books up and trade them in for cash.

Two days later I chose twenty titles to part with, stacking them on the table and placing them in bags to take down to the bookstore.  It wasn’t easy to do, since there were a few things I would have liked to re-read (for example, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainvillea, Jonathan Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Richard Price’s Lush Life, and Antonio Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World.  There were even a couple I would have enjoyed reading at least once, such as Stephen Wilson’s The Bloomsbury Book of the Mind and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.  

(I couldn’t get into Sweet Tooth–through no fault of the author, as McEwan’s a great writer–because I have a mental block that doesn’t allow me to read serious fiction written by a man in a woman’s voice.  I just can’t “hear” the woman’s voice, for some reason.  I have no problem with it the other way around; Gillian Flynn’s Nick Dunne is a convincing narrator in Gone Girl, although I thought the chapters written in the second half of the book in Amy Elliott Dunne’s voice were much stronger.  Maybe we’re all prisoners of our gender to a greater extent than we’d like to admit.  Or maybe I’m just a sexist shithead.

The same thing happened to me before when I tried to read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.  Again, a great writer–and a phenomenal creative writing teacher–but when I tried to read it, all I could hear was Golden speaking in a high-pitched imitation of a Japanese woman’s voice, which sounded silly in my inner ear.

As John Cleese of Monty Python would say when asked if the rumors that Dimmesdale Piranha nailed men’s heads to the floor and stitched people’s legs together, “Well, it’s better than bottlin’ it up, innit!  Dimmesdale was a gentleman.  And what’s more, he knew how to treat a female impersonator.”)

When I came home from trading the books in, I told Jina how much the clerk at the store had given me.  She looked at me sadly and apologized, contrite about her outburst a few days before.

But she’s right–I do have to get rid of some more books, because, like a couple of claustrophobic astronauts, we’re running out of space.

(P. S.  I’d like to apologize for the two typos in the previous entry.  I didn’t have time to go back and proofread it before hitting the publish button as Jina suddenly popped up out of the bedroom like a Jacqueline-in-the-box.)