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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Yoga Driving Tips

Remember, a relaxed driver is a safe driver.  And the best way to relax is to take a deep breath and close your eyes.  Put on some New Age music if you have any, preferably Ravi Shankar on the sitar or George Winston if that’s more your bag, something you can easily drift off to.

In order to fill your lungs to their maximum capacity, push your abdomen out as far as you can while inhaling slowly and deeply through your nose.  Make sure to undo your seat belt so your diaphragm muscle can descend and your chest cavity takes in as much air is it can hold.

Your feet are crying out to be liberated.  Can you hear them?  That’s good.  That means you’re attuned to the music of the spheres.  Now your toes can finally feel the gas and brake pedals underfoot.

It’s time to stretch your arms and legs as far as they can go.  Feel the blood tingling all the way up and down the length of your body?

Let go of everything that’s been burdening you for the past few days, weeks–even your whole life.  Let go of your fears about the future and the steering wheel.

Try not to get attached to the squeal of tires against the pavement or the screech of other drivers’ worn-out brake pads.  Don’t feel you have to judge other motorists swearing their heads off at you.  Let them work out their own unresolved issues themselves.

Soon you will feel oneness with them.

Just live for the moment, knowing it can’t last long.

Who knows?  You may never get another chance to be present again.

War The Omnivore

You eat time, men, women, children;

suck science, gobble God,

gnaw on nature, vomit technology.

Is there anything that you won’t eat?

Blown-up buildings, bombed-out trees,

murdered mountains, oil-choked seas.

Grassy graveyards that ricochet with green

grenades, art museums, libraries

made mausoleums; ants and horses,

elephants, deafened dolphins, hanging

plants.

Although you never stop

devouring everyone in your path–

village, forest, clinic, market,

bloodbath’s aftermath–

you never gain an ounce in weight

(and yet you’re plenty big enough).

You’ll always be in tip-top shape

as you lay waste to all we’re worth,

our bloated, turgid, morbid scourge,

creation of the human race.

Shedding

Although I’m still a bit

too young to fill my days

with funerals, I’m learning

how to fail, decay, and fall

apart for starters.

I move less quickly than I did

when I was a young lad.

The time goes faster all the same–

you lose your mind to age’s axe

instead of going mad, the way you did

back when you knew how

to make yourself youthful.

I’ve grown too tired to make new friends,

too comfortable with loneliness

to stop talking to myself,

having no fear I’ll be overheard

or understood, a foreigner surrounded

by pedestrians dressed in earphones

and faces that reveal nothing

in eloquent silence.

My hair falls with the autumn leaves,

swimming semen soaring like salmon

before performing a splattering pratfall

on the table.  Desire continues

despite rejecting fatherhood,

reproduction thwarted and aborted

in favor of futile fantasies,

the fiasco of the future.

Besides, I’m too childish

to raise those who’d continue

antagonizing Earth

in the nickname of progress

and too aware how near the end

now feels as I am gently crushed

by the sundial’s shadow,

my grief ground down to sand

fine enough to fill a grave

yawning with either boredom

or fatigue–it’s hard to tell

from here, now that my eyes

are broken, dissolving as they shine.

Armageddon Old

Today I hurt my lungs by breathing too much dust.

My heart is happy now to have a pal in pain.

I’m eating almonds on the subway,

trying to remember why they’re good

for you.  I think, like onions, they clean

your blood; that’s awfully nice of them.

 

The human body is a crusty customer,

a persnickety old coot that’s 

crotchety to boot.  Being a body

ain’t always a hoot, especially when

you know you’re going to croak

(laugh if you like–it’s not a joke).

 

The one thing I do like about death,

though, besides its hilarious hairstyle,

is that it happens to everyone.

“No matter how we struggle and strive,

we’ll never get out of this world alive.”*

It teaches us how to be quiet for once

how to settle down for awhile

how to grow

everlastingly

detached.

 

*That’s a paraphrase of Hank Williams, although the thought was initially triggered by Jim Morrison of the Doors’ line:

“No one here gets out alive.”  Needless to say, both men went on to prove this fact, at least in terms of their own individual incarnations.

Play Hard-to-Get With Death

Suicide is not at the top of my to-do list; it’s too much of a commitment.  I don’t normally watch TED talks (I usually watch them suspended from the ceiling with my feet crammed in a pair of matching goldfish bowls), but I saw a good one yesterday featuring a man named Kevin Briggs.  He works for the San Francisco police force in a life-saving capacity.  His job involves trying to dissuade people from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Briggs, who has saved two hundred people from taking their lives and lost only two, says that a leap from the bridge is no walk in the park.  After a brief fall of four to five seconds, you hit the surface of the bay at a speed of seventy miles an hour.  You might as well be colliding with concrete.  The impact shatters most of your bones and makes mincemeat of your internal organs.  He says those who are “lucky” enough to survive the crash usually end up drowning amid fruitless cries for help.

No fun.

He says that the thing he does that changes people’s minds and gets them to climb back over the railing from the narrow pipe on which they have to stand before plummeting to their demise, is listen.

It’s kind of sad, when you think about it, that what might drive a lot of people to top themselves is the thought that no one cares enough about them to listen to them describe their problems.  I certainly don’t.  (Just kidding.  I hope I do.  But that’s only partly a punchline, as I don’t always give money to panhandlers–it depends on my mood and their attitude.)

As for my own aspirations to discontinue this absurd preoccupation with existence and become a fast food extravaganza for worms, I can tell you that being married to someone who once threatened suicide in a convincingly earnest fashion is enough to prevent me from going out of my way to seek that kind of attention–at least not as a cry for help.  I also know enough people with loved ones who’ve done themselves in to realize that self-extermination is a woeful disservice to the people who love you.  

Although I was not raised in a particularly religious household, one thing that keeps me going, despite certain melancholy tendencies, is a sense of duty to the people in my life who care about me.  I’m not as idealistic as I used to be.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to achieve my dreams of success in this lifetime, and forget about achieving them afterwards.  No such dice, Jose.  I’m also dubious that our species can outgrow its more self-destructive and aggressive inclinations, if I may wax wordy.  

I don’t know whether it’s an overstatement to dub the machinations of governments in collusion with corporations who achieve their goals through coups d’etat, sabotage, warfare, and murder as evil.  Or maybe it’s just human.  Despite what Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltcheck suggest in their book On Western Terrorism:  From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, I’m not sure if the more quixotic elements in society can overcome the demons at the helm.  More than pure and plain good and evil, it’s more like the disease of desire pervading the way most of us live.  Who among those of us who live in the wealthiest countries in the world isn’t at least partly culpable?  I know I am, and in a big way.

So maybe I should kill myself after all!  That way I’ll be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Hey, thanks for helping me figure that one out.

In other words, thanks for listening.  Now I can get off this bloody bridge before it gets taken over by hooting troops of chimpanzees led by Godzilla twirling a baton in the foggy air.

A Fatal Mistake

Look up the phrase control freak in the dictionary and you’ll see my wife’s picture.  (It’s a selfie, naturally.)  She’s a control freak controlled by control freaks leading all the way up to God, the ultimate control freak of them all, the remote control freak.  Okay, I promise I won’t use that phrase for the rest of this entry, except to say that who knows?  Maybe I’m a control freak too.  As Jesus Christ, the man I’ve been cuckolded by, would quip, “How can you point out the mote in the other guy’s eye when you can’t even see the beam in your own eye?”

I’ve got a beam in my eye?  No wonder my neck hurts so much.

On Saturday night after Jina and I had dinner together at the same Italian restaurant where I’d eaten with my student a couple of days before, she insisted we go to the supermarket to do some errands.  As it was an unseasonably hot day and my trousers were sticky from dried sweat, I asked if I could go home and take a shower first.  She said that would be okay, and I could come and meet her in half an hour at the little school where she tutors elementary school kids.

I thunk her and went back to bathe and change into some shorts and other informal garb.  Once we were reunited, we hopped on the bus (not recommended unless you want to sprain your ankle) and got off (figuratively speaking) at the subway stop connected to the superb market.  When I went to use the loo, I was annoyed by a voice-over announcement delivered in English by a preternaturally white-sounding American male, or else a Korean guy doing his damnedest to sound like one, about the benefits of the supermarket to newcomers that went on for several tedious minutes.

Jina, meanwhile, gathered an array of plastic items for use in her hagwon (school).  Frankly speaking, as my students like to say, I didn’t pay much attention to what she accumulated in her shopping cart.  As usual, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.  I’d been up since five in the morning, blogging, writing questions to give my students, and teaching, and I wanted to go home and crash, preferably in bed.

Our mission accomplished, we went out and waited seventeen minutes for the bus and got home shortly after midnight.  I took a shower, read for about twenty minutes, then went to bed.

At seven-thirty the following morning the alarm on Jina’s phone jolted me out of bed like a cattle prod.  

“Time to get up,” she said.

“Why?”

“We have to go teach the Sunday school kids.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”  

Jina has a way of roping me into commitments by asking me to do something when my guard is down or I’m not really listening to what she’s saying.  When I balk later on, she cries foul and rakes me over the coals with her accusatory voice.  This was one such commitment.

I got conned into going with her to church years ago, just as she also wheedled me into letting her commandeer my bank account.  As I don’t trust myself with a credit card, that means she also gets to manage the procedure of buying plane tickets for my annual visit back home and reunion with my family.  She can always use this for leverage as a way to threaten me during arguments that happen in midsummer, before I get to escape from her clutches for a few weeks before she (almost) invariably joins my folks and me to cut the festivities short.  This also gives her something else to complain about later, lamenting that it was too expensive for both of us to take the trip.  But if I go alone, of course I’m being selfish.

In other words, I can’t fucking win.  Ever.

At least she lets me change my own diapers.  (I must say I’ve gotten awfully good at it.  I no longer jab my thumb with the safety pin–or “close pin,” as Korean people call it–as I used to.)  But it’s my own fault.  I’ve dug my own grave.  And what a lovely plot it is.  I hope I didn’t maim any maggots with the shovel in the process.

If I ever decide to put a gun up to my head, she’ll probably say, “No, let me pull the trigger!” 

Being a gentleman–er, spineless worm–I will.

Sometimes I feel like a horse who’s been made to wear one of those silly colorful get-ups (have you seen the things they have to wear on their heads?  It makes them look like gay Klansmen) and made to race until the time comes for him to end up on the buffet table at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Anyway, the Sunday school class proved relatively painless aside from the twit who led the children through a series of gestures intended to reinforce their budding faith in the church and its steely clutches, at least in contrast with the idiotic service upstairs, in which the minister cited a passage describing in Yahweh’s words how He would destroy the Egyptians for not believing in Him and rescue the Israelites who toed the line (sorry I couldn’t decipher the Korean heading for you; I’ll try to look it up later unless I forget, which I will).  The service closed with one of Jina’s favorite hymns, “Trust and Obey.”

Obey this.

Also during the class with the kids, I helped some toddlers cut out pictures that they folded into a little house.  The outside panel featured a man who needs no introduction, Mr. Jesus Christ Himself.  When you opened the door he represented, you beheld an automobile (what else?).  Lifting the opposite flap revealed a still life of a stack of greenbacks held together with a rubber band and a serpentine necklace slithering beside it (the Lord’s loot?).  Then you saw a happy family–people!  actual human beings!  I thought we were supposed to be the point.  Sorry, guess not.  And the final frame showed the same people squabbling with each other (I must say the artist captured my wife in cartoon form beautifully).

I tried to help the children peel the backs off the stickers made to look like clothing for these pious cartoon characters to wear, but it was absolutely impossible.  I’d just cut my fingernails the day before and I had to give up and let the women in the room take over.

(Something I’ve at least had a lot of practice with.)

Since I’d gone to use the rest room during the young junior apprentice preacher’s spiel to the children, after briefly becoming a whirling dervish and spinning some toddlers around until I got dizzy instead of following our young host’s Simon says-like, ridiculous directions, I got separated from Jina for several minutes.  Thinking the class was about to wrap up, I went from the rest room directly to the cafeteria.  (It turned out the class went on for another half hour–to ensure Sunday school follows the ancient rule of being just as boring as church.)

At lunch I was greeted by a friendly woman I couldn’t place.  It was weird.  She looked so familiar.  She was armed with a small child.  When her husband finally appeared to join us at our table, my memory snapped into place.  They were the same people who’d invited Jina and me over for lunch about ten days ago.

“Thanks for your hospitality the other day,” I finally blurted out.

Hello, Alzheimer’s! 

When I was finally able to escape after the church lunch, I napped for twenty minutes then went to meet some friends at a used bookstore.  We proceeded from there to a Greek restaurant where all three of us ordered felafel wraps.  They were tasty but filling–a barrage of starch.  Just in case we hadn’t had our fill of carbs, we adjourned to a local watering hole and drank several pitchers of beer over the next several hours.  My friend’s wife surprised him with a friendly ambush, having the server present him with her, his wife’s, business card.  She’d been sitting at a table near the back with some of her friends and none of us had spotted her when we came in.

Between games of chess he went back and forth between the two tables to chat with her.  Sometimes she came over to join us.  All in all, a delightful time.

Until I got home, that is.

Jina was livid.  She hates it when I drink.  I used to be a bit of a lush, especially several decades ago, but these days I hardly ever actually get drunk, and I didn’t last night, despite the liberal intake of suds.  The problem was that my breath stank to her, apart from the pizza I’d eaten to camouflage the stench of beer.  I should have known it wouldn’t have worked.  Not with her omnivorous nose.

I’m married to a bloodhound.

She said, “Get out!”

I felt like John Lennon being evicted by Yoko Ono and going on a bender for several years with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon.  Too bad all three of them were already dead; otherwise I would have looked them up and joined them.  (Maybe I’ll be joining them for too long anyway.  A man can always dream.)

Since the class I’m teaching at lunchtime today is going to be observed by my recruiter and I’ve yet to prepare anything, I didn’t want to stray too far, even though Jina threatened to change the combination on the door lock of the apartment.  When she gets mad, she’s convincing enough to make these threats sound real.

So I trundled off like Oscar Madison to a nearby playground, pulled my long-sleeved shirt and trousers out of my backpack, assembled them into a pillow, rolled up into a ball like a pillbug, and tried to sleep.

About fifteen minutes later my phone sang its jingle.  I answered it.  It was Jina.  She sounded a little less Godzilla-ish, but reiterated her threat about changing the secret code on the lock.  I didn’t say much, clinging to my Miranda rights.

She asked me to call her back after I’d had time to reflect.  I made an abortive attempt to sleep for a few minutes, sketched out what to say in my head, then called her.  

“I understand why you’re mad at me.  You have a right to be.  I know you hate it when I drink.  I’ll really try to avoid it from now on.  I know it’s bad for me and I need to lose weight.”

That’s an abridged paraphrase of my statement, but you get the gist.

She said I could come back home.  Yippy.  

Having entered the domestic sanctum, I humored her by brushing my teeth again and gargling with mouthwash, even though she’d taken up her position on the sofa.  I offered to sleep there instead as an act of contrition, but she was too serene and subdued at that point (or else just enervated from the demands of rage) to require that I do.

The good news is that at night when I lie down in bed, my heart beats so fast I wonder if it’s powered by hummingbirds.  I may be too much of a chickenshit to get out of this hazardous marriage (it’s much easier to fuck yourself than anyone else), but if the dream I had the other night involving a funeral that might have been mine, though the pale-faced corpse didn’t ring a bell, is any indication, I might finally have drawn a Get Out of Jail Free Card.

Please drag me from this cell and drop me in my coffin.

Much obliged!