Korea’s Still A Safe Place To Live

I’d like to comment briefly on the recent attack the other day of the U.S. ambassador to Korea.  I was saddened and shocked to see the photo of the stunned Mark Lippert stanching his bleeding wound during a public forum.  Later on I gasped out loud at an image that revealed the gash in his cheek, a long and deep trench that looked exceedingly painful.  I wish him a speedy recovery and hope he never has any further run-ins with knife-wielding extremists or violent lunatics.

I haven’t had time to read the details of the story, but apparently Lippert’s assailant has a history of violence.  He once threw a chunk of concrete at the Japanese ambassador, narrowly missing him and hitting a woman in his entourage instead.  It’s a little hard to understand how he can reconcile his idealistic vision of a reunified Korea with violent attacks against visiting diplomats and well-meaning expatriates, but nobody could accuse human beings of being rational.

Having said that, it’s safe to say that Korea is still a safe and comfortable place to live, at least for most of us foreigners.  I’ve heard that it helps if you’re white, as long as you don’t mind having people stare at you on a daily basis in a way that can seem unfriendly, but in all likelihood is more akin to the absolute bafflement one would assume upon meeting an extraterrestrial on one’s own turf.

I’ve read that a lot of Koreans expect foreigners to smile at them and say hello without feeling the need to respond to the courtesy, which is bullshit, not to say incredibly condescending.  Two days ago while waiting for the subway I was glared at by a white foreign young couple, who may have been understandably appalled by my grotesque and cadaverous visage.  It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that I may well unconsciously resort to an unapproachably hostile expression myself while in transit.  In the mad rush to get to work on time, other people are reduced to obnoxious moving barriers in a complicated obstacle course.

Since I haven’t had enough teaching work to feel chipper in the past several months, I’ve also been more cynical, misanthropic, and gratuitously bitter than usual.  Nine years in this country have made me homesick and defensive; I’ve likewise succumbed to the condition known as S.A.D., or seasonal affective disorder.  Winter’s a good time to come down with concrete cabin fever.

But I’m happy to say that I’m finally starting to pick up some more hours, enough to feel more connected to the world around me and more productively a part of it.  I know I’ll always be a stranger here to a large extent, and some people will continue to regard me as a freak, regardless of where they come from.  The vast majority will ignore me, insuring a steady supply of loneliness for years to come.

I’ve tried to master the art of meditation in order to break through the pesky and persistent and pertinacious delusion of the self, the ignominious ego, source of all human suffering.  Easier said than done.  Much.  Buddha was wise to pinpoint this problem thousands of years before neuroscientists confirmed his observations.  The modern world is designed to celebrate the narcissistic nightmare of the superficial self. That explains the worship of celebrities and the conversion of flesh and blood politicians to awesome and immortal rock stars (thanks for setting the first example of this trend, Sir Adolf Hitler, you excitable shmuck).

But despite my own ferocious and feverish foibles, I don’t expect to be greeted by someone saying, “Have a knife day,” or having to duck like George W. Bush accosted by the Iraqi shoe-bomber as a cement projectile sails past my right ear.  Like folks everywhere, most Korean people keep their rage in check or else express it in a more passive-aggressive fashion than the nutjob who had it in for Mark Lippert.

And while living in this country (despite Seoul’s overall unfriendliness), I’ve regularly been left with the impression, after being served a cup of coffee by a cheerful barista or graciously thanked by a grateful student, “That’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

I don’t expect that experience to discontinue any time soon.

At least not until the famine commences.


It’s No Fun Being Stupid

One of the joys and wonders of aging is you can’t remember a goddamned thing.  On New Year’s Eve I lost a new pair of ski gloves my wife Jina bought me (even though I haven’t been skiing in twenty-five years) and a wool cap I used to wear in our freezing apartment as a way to expedite encroaching baldness.  (It’s easier to let your hair down that way.  Sorry to disappoint you, Hair.)

I think I left them on a shelf behind the toilet in the subway rest room, unless I put them on top of another shelf at the bookstore.  It wasn’t worth trying to track them down afterwards.  At least I still have my scarf, along with a spare pair of gloves and an extra cap.

As the Gloria Gaynor says, “I will survive.”  Temporarily, of course.

On the bright side, although the new gloves were warm, they also chafed my knuckles and made me have to use stinky hand cream.  Now my hands are free, if frozen.

Another great thing about getting older and more set in your ways is you become less observant.  At least I do.  Or maybe that’s because I’m always in a rush.  City life makes you that way.  While my wife tells me to chew my food twenty times before swallowing it, these days I tend to choke on my rice so my throat becomes ragged.

Regarding unobservant-ness, if you’ll excuse the coinage (sorry I can’t give you dollarage instead), it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I alighted on a shortcut to my workplace, after teaching the class for over nine months.  Until then I’d been going the long way around the block, passing through a cafe before entering the main lobby of the building where I work.  All I had to do was take a right at the entrance to the parking garage halfway down the block, then hang a left at the entrance of the building.  A few days later I found an even shorter way, walking past the glass doors to the mall and taking a left past the smokers’ oasis.

Damn, I felt dumb!  Still do, now that I think about it.  I’ve got to cut that stuff out–thinking gives me a headache.

A few times on my way to teach these silent, impassive businessmen whose interest in English rivals that of mine in baseball statistics (in other words, it’s nonexistent)–either because it’s eight o’clock in the morning and too early to be alive, or else because they don’t have to pay for the lessons and probably have no incentive to learn the language whatsoever, which is often how I feel about learning Korean, if only because, as I mentioned before, I can’t remember a forking thing anymore–

–Anyway, twice on my way to work I’ve nearly been run over.  Maybe I should pay more attention to those “no jaywalking” signs.  Too bad they’re written in Korean and I’m illiterate.  Another time as I was on my way to get coffee, a driver honked at me because I was in his way.  I turned my head and yelled, “Fuck you!”  I’m not a morning person, and I object to people driving cars in a city that’s already lousy with smog.  Besides, if he’d waited a millisecond, I would have been out of his way.

In fact, the other day I got up and threw my coat on over my pajamas, stuffed my feet into my boots, and went up on the roof to check out the weather.  It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day.  The wind of the previous day had blown all the crap out of the sky so I had permission to breathe for a change.  I surveyed the vast urban landscape, the land festering with cement and cluttered with concrete rectangles that appeared to have been dropped out of a mammoth cloth bag by a colossal toddler, and thought:

“Man, this city is fucking ugly!”  Make that fugly.  Come to think of it, it’s probably the ugliest place I’ve ever seen.  (Granted, it probably looked a lot better before my country bombed the shit out of it during the Korean War.)  And I live here!  Maybe that’s why I’m becoming so ugly!  And the uglier I get, the more beautiful women become.

Getting old is a ridiculously protracted punishment for a crime that happened so long ago you can’t even remember when or whether you even committed it.  As that old, misogynistic asshole King Lear would say before he finally becomes wise (when it’s too late), “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”  At least it sometimes feels that way, so you can lavish in the luxury of being a victim instead of an incorrigible shithead (something my wife is all too happy to remind me of on a regular basis).

As for Lear’s misogyny, anyone who can refer to a woman’s vagina as “hell” has a serious attitude problem.  From a fetus’s perspective, it might be the entrance to hell, or else to heaven, depending on the cards you’re dealt and how you play them.  But as far as being able to return there, it’s always been heaven to me.  Of course, if you’re a woman and your vagina is in pain, that must be hell.

Let’s see–where was I?

On the morning of New Year’s Eve I flagged down a cab and took the short trip to the subway station.  I handed the driver, an old Korean man, a ten thousand won bill and he gave me several singles as change.  I gave him a thousand won tip–even though this isn’t the preferred practice in the culture–got out, and as I boarded the escalator into the bowels of the subway, counted the change he’d given me.  It turned out he’d only given me six thousand won instead of seven (it was a 3000 won ride–the lowest possible fare), so in addition to the gratuity I gave him, the guy had ripped me off.

Maybe that’s why his “thank you” smacked ever so slightly of insincerity.  I hope he wasn’t so guilt-stricken and blinded by tears that he plowed into an oil truck.  That would have been sad.

Later the same day (this was also the day I lost the cap and gloves), I almost left my laptop in another cab, failing at first to recall it under my distracting backpack. That wouldn’t have been the first time it happened–I did lose one about five years ago and never got it back.

While having dinner with my wife and one of her church friends last night, I daftly asked Jina what we were supposed to wrap in the leaves provided for us on a large plate.  Instead of mocking my stupidity, as she’s usually all too happy to do, albeit in Korean for the benefit of eavesdroppers, she shrugged off the stupid question; I was able to answer it myself a moment later:  we were having shabu-shabu for the second time in a week, and we were meant to boil the leaves in the pot of broth at the center of the table, as I should have recalled.


Remember how I told you before how I’m always in a hurry?  Well, Jina’s worse.  She sometimes pulls open the door to the microwave oven before it’s finished cooking something without pressing the stop button first.  Now when I open the door to the oven to cook something, the motor starts running and I’m met with a radioactive blast.  I have to put whatever it is I’m heating up in damn fast and close the door so I don’t end up with a second head growing out of my face.

There was something else I wanted to tell you, but I’ve forgotten what it was.

Oh, yes–


‘Tis The Season To Be Noisy

Sometimes–okay, always--I wonder if I’m losing my mind.  (Or, as my old former manager Tony would say, “That’s one problem you shouldn’t worry about since you don’t got a mind to lose.”)  For instance, the other day I left my phone in a cab on my way to teach my wife Jina’s elementary students.  She asked me to pinch-teach for her–at the last minute, of course–as she had to take care of something at the bank.

I thought I’d left the phone at home since the zipper to the pocket on my backpack where I keep it was down, or that Jina had forgotten to put it back after texting me instructions on what to do with the students.

As it turned out, she hadn’t touched the phone and I was merely being paranoid.  I was able to contact her by borrowing one of the student’s phones, and she managed to reach the driver, who offered to come back to the spot where he’d dropped me off and return it to me.

“Heavens, that’s awfully decent of him,” I thought in my best posh English accent.

I asked the students to wait for me, went outside to the corner, and kept an eye out for the taxi in question.  When a cab pulled up to the curb ahead of me, I ran up and started to talk to the driver, then let him go when I saw that it was someone else.

The driver had given me a funny look; he probably thought I was an Amway salesman.

Then I noticed a little boy running down the sidewalk on the other side of the street.  He looked like one of Jina’s students.  I thought he’d escaped from the classroom.  I yelled out his English nickname (Roger).  He paused to glance at me, then ran on.

“What’s he doing?!” I thought.  I felt like Alexander Haig temporarily assuming the U.S. presidency after Ronald Reagan was shot, insecure despite my assertion that “I’m in charge here.”

Suddenly the driver I was waiting for appeared.  He said he wanted 10,000 won (about 9 bucks) in exchange for the phone.  Who was I to argue?  I was lucky he’d gone out of his way to return it.  Only I didn’t have any bills smaller than a fifty, so I asked him to wait while I went and bought a couple of pastries at the bakery across the street in order to get some change.

I decided to give him an extra five thousand won out of gratitude, and he seemed to appreciate that.  People tend to like money–a lot.  I know I do.  I just wish I were better at making it, but we can’t all be Lloyd Blankfein, the corrupt, guardian angel-flanked president of Goldman-Sachs.

When I got back to the school, one of the kids had locked the door.  Fortunately, I had the key.

I surveyed the faces of the four children in the classroom and was both surprised and relieved to see Roger’s among them.  The instance of mistaken identity outside must have been that old devil paranoia at work again.

One of the good things about being absent-minded is it can make you more forgiving of other people’s oversights, even those that could prove fatal to you.

About a month ago I woke up to a funny smell that reminded me of smoke.  The smoke detector on my ceiling, which always reminds me of the earth orbiting the large round light of the sun in the middle, made no comment.

I got out of bed and opened the door to find a sea of smoke flooding the apartment.  It  started at the ceiling and came all the way down to waist-level.  I dashed to the stove to remove the offending frying pan of king crab soup, transferring the funeral pyre of smoldering blackened crustacean to the stove in the alcove where the washing machine lives and sliding the window open wide.  I poured water on the crab to stop it from smoking then ran around and opened all the rest of the windows.  The freezing outdoor air thanked me and rushed into the place like a horde of lost door-to-door Mormon missionaries.

It took about a week to get rid of the stench.

There’s absent-mindedness, then there’s being an asshole.  The other night while Jina and I were lying in bed getting ready to go to sleep, she asked me if I knew the source of a rumbling sound.  I said it sounded like someone’s car engine idling.  Sure enough, when I went to the window, slid it open, and took a look outside (but not before going to the kitchen to get my glasses since I can’t see shit without them), there was a boxy white truck parked down on the street with smog pouring from its ass-pipe.

“Do you want me to go talk to him?” I asked her.  Notice how I used the pronoun him, and not her.  I knew the offending party had to be a man.  What woman would ever do something so dickish?

As Veteran for Peace and happy-go-lucky, sex-loving, ukelele-playing folkie Emily Yates would say, “Try Not To Be A Dick.”

Jina said not to bother and we found our way towards slumberland.

But then, on Sunday, a similar-looking truck appeared while I was getting ready to take a nap after finishing my obligatory idiotic church-going ritual, or shall I say it appeared in the wake of the noise blaring from a megaphone mounted on its roof, which had announced its arrival several minutes before (these drivers tend to move very, very slowly).  There were boxes of apples and other produce stacked in the bed of the truck.

My neighborhood seems to be a hot-spot for these pernicious vehicles.  Although it’s technically illegal for people to hawk their wares in this manner, it’s a law more honored in the breach than the observance.  And, to quote an old friend of mine, “My ears are more sensitive than my dick.”  (Actually, make that “balls,” even though “sensitive balls” sounds like an oxymoron, like “valiant pussy,” or “compassionate torturer.”)

So you can imagine how un-delighted I was by the advent of this obnoxious obstacle to my peace of mind.

Without further ado, I peeled open the window, pulled the screen free, stuck my head out, and screamed, “Shikeulo!” (That’s the Korean word for noise.)  I yelled it again, even louder, for good measure, then added the following words of advice:

“Get the fuck out of here right now!”

Despite the throbbing in the left side of my neck, which was probably my carotid artery signaling the approach of a stroke, the tactic worked.  The truck meekly slinked away, though it took a few minutes for the noise to die off completely.

Another time I just went out in my pajamas, recorded the driver’s license plate number, and asked him to turn his “announcement” down.

Last Friday while I was on the subway, I was tempted to ask a jerk yammering on his phone to shut up, but instead I moved down to the other end of the car.  For all their complaining among friends and family, Koreans tend to put up with a lot of shit in public, which lets the assholes get away with being themselves.  My boot camp-like marriage and its attendant assertiveness-training have made me more outspoken in responses to such disturbances than I used to be, even though I sometimes add my own annoying texture to the atmosphere by whistling random tunes in public stairwells or on subway station escalators.

Maybe one of these days my doppelganger will accost me and shout “Shikeulo!” in my face.

How can you live in hell without becoming a devil?

I Shop, Therefore I Am Not

Is shopping fun?  It’s certainly a ridiculously popular activity all around the world.  I wonder why so many people love it.  Are we crazy?  Or just crazy about buying stuff?  At least we know that everything gets recycled and doesn’t end up in the dump or the ocean–

–or does it?

Hmmm. . . Well, according to the December 12, 2014 issue of The Korea Herald (the world’s greatest newspaper), “269,000 tons of plastic litter chokes the world’s oceans.”

“There are plastic shopping bags, bottles, toys, action figures, bottle caps, pacifiers, toothbrushes, boots, buckets, deodorant roller balls, umbrella handles, fishing gear, toilet seats, and so much more.”

It’s nice to know we can share mass production’s never-ending bounty with all the fish, octopi, sea turtles, terns, manta rays, sharks, whales, dolphins, and the rest of our aquatic brethren and sistren.  How magnanimous of us that we deign to do so in light of these poor creatures’ inability to drive down to the local strip mall or department store and stock up on clothes and robotic toys paid for with a credit card.

(In Korea there’s a store called Plastic Island.  They know how to plan ahead here.)

Anyway, my wife Jina compelled me to go to the combination supermarket-department store yesterday for what she said would be a short visit.  We ended up spending four hours farting around in the damn place.

Lately she’d gotten out of the habit of dragging me to the supermarket, but must have remembered how effective it is as a torture device after forcing me to go to church with her all these years (when will I see the goddamned light?  Does it always have to be so dark in here?  I can’t even see my beer).

Then again, I should be grateful, as she immediately asked me to try on several parkas to help survive Seoul’s brutal winter.  I’ve lived in a lot of places, and this one has to have the most inhospitable climate of any.  No wonder so many of the people who live here are so grumpy (including me, in case you hadn’t noticed).

The clerk who helped us was a tall, elegant woman who wore lots of jewelry and too much make-up, but she had an engaging smile that made us open our wallets.

The funny thing is that Jina has been on my case about not having had enough teaching hours over the past several months, implying that we’ll soon have to acquire a taste for cat food if we want to survive, but as soon as she enters one of these places, frugality goes out the window.

Jina made me try on about five different coats before helping me make a decision, then tried on several herself.  I was pleased to see her buy something for herself for a change; she usually just spoils me (maybe to compensate for the lack of other kinds of affection I receive from her) and martyrs herself like her hero, J.C. (Hello there, birthday boy!  And what would you like for Christmas?  “Anything, Santa.  Just please don’t nail me to a cross.”)

While I was holding the coat she’d worn into the store, a few objects fell from one of the pockets into a box of packaged T-shirts arranged vertically at my feet.  I hunched over to pick up what had fallen out–her phone and a set of keys to her school.  When I handed them to her and asked if there was anything else, she said no.

Meanwhile, adventurous shoppers filled their carts with shoes and Transformer toys and Leggos for their semi-Americanized kids, who accompanied them on their heroic mission.

Jina and I went downstairs to the supermarket region, where she bought several boxes of cookies, and also some muffins, to distribute to her students on Christmas Eve.  We jockeyed past the hungry young couples to grab a plastic container of sushi; Jina persuaded a nearby clerk to mark it down for us.  I wanted to get some sashimi instead, but Jina said it was too expensive, and I couldn’t argue with that.

Maybe we’ll win a prize if we eat the last bluefin tuna ever caught!

She found a box of mandarin oranges she liked and put them in the shopping basket.  We went to the cashier’s lane where the one of the store’s humble representatives tallied up our goods, then Jina found she’d lost one of her credit cards (she has several; I have none).  She panicked and started to freak out.  The clerk kindly told her to just type in her phone number on the device provided for the customers instead of using her store card, so she did.

Afterwards, she told me to go and wait for her in the food court while she tried to track down the missing card.  I found an empty table and parked my butt on one of the plastic chairs next to it after putting all the groceries down, heaving a mighty sigh.  I unwrapped the box of sushi and filled one of the little wells built into the shiny speckled black plastic base of the box with soy sauce, emptying a packet of ginger into the other.

There were several pretty young women roaming about, and I suddenly had a craving for a burger from the fast food joint in the corner (not that I connected the two types of cravings).  I decided to wait till Jina returned so I could get clearance from her.  I also figured it would be wiser to buy something from one of the other counters, since they sold more healthful, traditional Korean food.

So that I wouldn’t be too obvious about ogling the breathtaking beauties and mistaken for a slightly younger, white version of Bill Cosby, I closed my eyes, sat up straight, and breathed.  When I opened my eyes a few minutes later, the bright colors of red, yellow, and green filled my perspective–not so much a vision of Christ as an artificial epiphany.  Thank God there are so many fetching, beautiful colors in our world that don’t exist in boring old nature.

Jina appeared, empty-handed, and ate a few pieces of sushi.  When I asked her about getting a burger, she frowned.

“We had a big lunch–remember?” she said.

She had a point.  We’d eaten spaghetti and pizza at an Italian restaurant.

I asked her if she wanted me to go look for the credit card, but she went instead.  She re-emerged several minutes later, saying she’d decided to cancel it.

Back upstairs, she asked me what had happened with the other key.  I didn’t know what she was talking about, but suggested we go look at the place where I’d dropped the stuff from her pocket earlier.  Sure enough, I found it tucked between the T-shirts.  She chewed me out for being so careless, evidently unable to see how hypocritical that was, considering she’d just lost her credit card.

(The key she’d been referring to was the one to the locker where she’d left her pocket book.)

I sat down in a massage chair that refused to be activated by the remote control while Jina went to pick out a winter cap for me.  She returned with several caps, none of which I was crazy about, then asked a store clerk for the time.  Since it was nearly 10:30 pm, Jina said we could buy some discounted sashimi.  She told me to go back and wait for her again.

When she returned, she asked me to come with her to check out the rest of the display.  I went and tried a few on, quickly making a choice, but she wanted to continue, as if we had all the time in the world and weren’t mortals subjected to the laws of dissolution and decay.

She directed me to the bus stop, and I suggested daftly we walk down the median strip of the busy street along the tapered white stripes that indicated where the buses went, between the two lanes of car traffic going in either direction.  A driver honked at Jina on her side and a bus driver nearly made road pizza out of me.

We stopped at Jina’s school to eat the sashimi.  She dropped off the cookies and muffins and brought the new clothes and oranges with us on our bus ride home.

As we were walking towards our apartment, Jina asked me to put on my new cap, which had a pompom at the top she’d offered to cut off for me.

“You look cute!” she said.

“So you like it better with the nipple on top?”

“You’re bad man!”

I burped sonorously in reply to prove her point.

By the way, when I wrote yesterday’s entry, I forgot that there were several female guests at Stephen Colbert’s sing-along, including legendary feminist Gloria Steinem, Arianna Huffington, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Pardon the oversight.  And apologies to those male celebrities I neglected to mention (nothing is sadder than a neglected celebrity), including, but not limited to:  Dave Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Clinton, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and–and–I forget who else.  I was going to go back and watch the clip again, but life is too short, as I’m sure you’ll agree, unlike this long-winded blog post.

I appreciate your patience.

I Can’t Wait For Christmas

Why is Christmas called a humbug?  What the hell is a humbug, anyway?  Shouldn’t it be “buzz-bug”?  That sounds like a bug that gets you high (heads up, NASA and DARPA, which is what I call my two cats; they like catnip).  Or else some kind of secret governmental listening device.  (According to J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King’s favorite song was “Someone to Watch Over Me.”)

What kind of bug would hum?  I imagine a tick probably would–until you rip him out and set him on fire.  Then he’d go pop.  I’ve heard that Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (no relation to Goldie or Jessica) has the nickname Papa Thich.  Either he’s not familiar with the English term for these pesky parasites, or he has a sick sense of humor.

(These days my family doesn’t pop ticks anymore; we just drown them in alcohol.  That way they can go out with a buzz instead of a bang.)

I wonder what song a tick would hum.  Probably “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” just to be ironic.  That’s a love song Frank Sinatra sang to a tick.  He must have been a lonely guy.

A fundamentalist Christian firefly might hum Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” at least until his friends told him to shush.

The reason I can’t wait for Christmas is I’m really tired of hearing cheesy, schmaltzy Christmas songs everywhere I go.  Aren’t you?  I actually like most of the Christmas hymns my family and I used to sing together during our annual pilgrimage to the local church to do obeisance to Santa Claus.  The pastor there had bad dust mite allergies; whenever he sneezed, he’d shout, “WORSHIP!”

Korea is a heavily Christian country–I think about thirty or forty percent of the population consumes Vitamin J–for Jesus, and believe me:  a lot of them are heavy users.  And that explains why Christmas here is celebrated in a way that’s similar to–yes–Valentine’s Day.

In other words, in an act of kitschy one-upmanship, the public relations people who devise contemporary Korean culture have gone beyond all-American tackiness to make Christ’s birthday even less about Christ, and more about shopping for gifts–but not for your family, but in the name of sappy young romantic love.

Besides, why does Christ’s birthday get to be a (mainly) international holiday anyway?  I never asked for my birthday to be one.  A lot of good, decent, hardworking people have been sacrificed in the name of happy-go-lucky, indiscriminate bloodshed, but they don’t get to be the focus of so much fetishistic, commercialized attention.

I vote that since it’s 19 degrees Fahrenheit outside (and not much warmer inside), and that the sign I saw in a nearby shopping mall that said “Wishing You Warmth and Wonder in This Holiday Season” reads like a cruel joke, that we consign the following songs to the memory hole:

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and especially “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

All I want for Christmas is never to have to hear that fucking song again.

Amen, hallelujah,shalom, Allah akbar, namaste, and have a merry cockamamie Christmas.

What The World Needs Now

It’s easy to get grumpy when you’re living in a distant land, far from friends and loved ones, and the cold, bitter weather starts to bite your bones.  It’s even easier when you’re stuck in an interminable mid-life crisis that appears to be an end-of-life crisis, and when your whole life looks like a microcosm of the nightmare unfolding all around you, in your kitchen, in the zombie-infested streets, and on the screen where you’re reading about the latest atrocities committed by a bunch of superpowerful cowards and bullies.  (Gotta love those white American cops!)

South Korea is often praised by the Western media for being an economic miracle, and the country deserves credit for transforming itself from an impoverished, war-torn hellhole into a sleek, high-tech, congested, modern one.  For all its miraculous charms, South Korea also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, due to the pathologically competitive culture, along with the biggest percentage of smokers, an epidemic of smartphone addicts, a disturbingly high concentration of alcoholics (no wonder I feel so at home here!), and a patriarchal system that continues to subjugate women, which would explain how some of them have gotten to be so tough–they have to in order to survive.

Since I don’t know the language, it’s easy for me to resort to stereotypes and condemn what I can’t understand, but it feels good, so what the hell.  I’ve mentioned to you before how a lot of middle-aged South Korean men come across as snarling, savage beasts who make gratuitous noises in their throats and push people around with their faces and mouths.  A former female student of mine (meaning formerly a student, not formerly female–that she still is, at least as far as I know) who used to work in a room salon entertaining men for a lucrative living told me that Korean men were vicious to women and unpleasant to be around.

So at least I have some authoritative corroboration to fall back on for my knee-jerk, ethnocentric intolerance.

Speaking of authority figures, did you catch Barack Obama on The Colbert Report the other night?  I have to give the man credit for being a good comedian, which is the main criterion for being a good president.  He has a great deadpan delivery; that’s how he got elected–twice (not that the competition was anything to lose sleep over either time; Al Gore did beat George W. Bush, and we’d probably be living in a slightly less insane world now if the Supreme Court hadn’t stolen his promotion from him, but John Kerry?  I mean, come on.  True, Bush did steal that election too, but Kerry didn’t even put up a fight; maybe he just didn’t want the job.  I wouldn’t).

As a grammar nerd, I derived secret joy from Obama’s mispronunciation of “divisive” (the middle syllable is pronounced vice, not viss) since he prides himself on being an egghead, unlike Bush, who prided himself on being a dunce, along with a so-called decider.  But I recoiled when he closed his sit-down monologue by saying, “We’ll be back in a moment with more from the leader of the free world.”

“The leader of the free world.”  Now there’s a phrase that should be retired at once.  Not only does it sound ridiculously arrogant, but it’s also meaningless.  The world has no real leaders, and it sure as hell isn’t free.

Jon Stewart kindly pointed out on The Daily Show the following night how Obama’s appearance on Colbert’s show was strategically timed as damage control to pre-empt the disclosure to the press the following day of the Senate’s 6,000 page CIA torture report.  You’ve no doubt already heard about the imaginatively sadistic techniques developed at Guantanamo, including the horrific practice of rectally feeding prisoners, all approved by attendant qualified physicians who were in on the gag.

Don’t hold your breath if you think the masterminds behind this grotesque factory of ghoulishness will ever do a minute of time for their incalculable crimes.  Even though they were the product of the Bush Administration, the Obama clan, with the help of human soporific John Kerry, tried to bury the story–alive, as it were.  I’ve heard reports that the Obama Administration has condoned torture elsewhere, though I’d have to look that one up for you.  As funny as the current commander in chief can be, he’s also a terrifying drone assassin who reserves the right to take out anyone in the world he suspects of terrorism, a psychotic privilege he’ll pass on to whoever inherits his shiny shoes, whether it be Jeb the Florexectioner Bush, Hillary Clinton, or whichever other amoral mediocrity can elbow his or her way into the Oval Office with a little help from glad-handing conspiratorial corporate friends.

Finally, let me say in parentheses that I’m sorry about one aggressive thing I wrote about my wife in the previous entry, in which I made an off-color joke about contemplating crushing her skull underfoot.  It was not nice, and I felt guilty about it after publishing the post.  I’m sure if I went back and re-read some of the things I’ve written here over the years, I’d cringe and wish I’d deleted a phrase or a sentence–or even an entire post–here and there.  But I think one of the virtues of blogging is providing readers with the unvarnished truth, and self-censorship can go too far until it reaches a kind of Politburo-like level of redaction.

The other night, during a peaceful domestic interlude, I woke up in the wee hours to use the toilet, taking a book and a notebook with me.  My wife Jina, who’d been up late sitting at the computer, asked if she could go first, not without hectoring me–but in a mildish tone–for bringing reading (and writing) material with me.  I impulsively jumped down her throat and essentially told her to get off my back.

She stood there frozen and started to pout.  I went up to her and noticed that her tired and puffy eyes were starting to water.  I said sorry and gave her a hug and started to cry myself.  We stood like that for several minutes, and it felt good to receive each other with love for a change instead of hate or recriminations.  Too bad we don’t do it more often.

I want you to know that whatever happens to me is my own fault and responsibility, not hers.  I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to survive the health problems I’ve been grappling with for the past several years.  But her life without me will be hard enough–maybe even harder than it’s been with me–without having people condemn her or welcome her side of the story.  She’s actually a good woman who has made the world a better place, just like Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and the rest of the “We Are the World” gang.

Maybe on my deathbed I can encourage her to start a blog of her own as a rebuttal.

Have A Ball

While waiting for the bus last night in Seoul, I saw a soccer ball bounce on the street before my feet and land in the bed of a pick-up truck in front of me stopping at a red light. The whole thing had seemed so natural, I wondered whether the two men in the truck were involved in the game too.  Were they using the vehicle as a winning strategy?  How could their opponents’ goalie be expected to survive such an automotive onslaught?

I came to from my reverie in time to snatch the ball from its accidental–if temporary–destination and peered up the hill from whence it had flown.  An old man at the bus stop directed me to set it down on the ground, so I did.

Suddenly, a teenaged boy appeared and scooped the ball up.  Goaded by his elders, he thanked me meekly from a distance, until they cajoled him to into approaching me.

Hey, come on–do the polite thing.

Although I signaled that everything was cool, I shook his hand and patted him on the back, saying, “Don’t mention it” in Korean (“Kenchana, yo.”).

And we all lived happily ever after–at least as far as I know.