It’s For You, Hamlet

The phone call’s for me?  Hmm, that’s funny.  Thanks, Horatio.

Hello?  May I ask who’s calling?  Dad, is that you?  Your voice sounds strange.  Aren’t you dead?  What’s up with the phone call?  I thought you people were supposed to rest in peace. . . Of course the funeral was sad.  Why wouldn’t it be? . . . Yeah, I know she got married only a month after you died, but who could resist a guy like Claudius?  Mr. Super-Stud. . . . Dad, there’s no need to become apoplectic.  Just chill. . . You’re going to have to slow down.  I can’t follow your train of thought–you’re spluttering too much. . . Take a deep breath. . . What?  He poured poison in your ear?  What for? . . . I know, I know–stupid question.  So why are you telling me this? . . . You want me to get revenge? . . . But how can I be sure it’s really you?  Can’t you show yourself? . . . That’s not how ghosts operate these days.  Figures. . . So I have to go on a phone call. . . You always told me never to trust someone who tries to sell you something over the phone. . . Hey!  There’s no need to shout.  Keep your jaw attached to your skull, Jacob Marley. . .  I guess that reference is a little too advanced for you. . . I know it’s irksome that she married your brother. . . yes, yes–and your murderer–I was just getting to that. . . how is it incest?  He’s not her brother. . . That’s right–I forgot.  We live in the Elizabethan world. . . Okay, so what’s the best way to kill him? . . . Any way that works. . . But just not while he’s praying.  Thanks; I’ll make a note of that. . . Put on a play that recreates your death?  Dad, don’t you think you’re being morbid? . . . Of course I want some evidence that he really did it. . . What do you have against Ophelia?  She’s perfect for me. . . She’s daddy’s girl, eh?  At least she’s not a windbag. . . All right, Dad.  I’ll do what I can.  But between you and me, I have a hunch this isn’t going to end well. . . Yes, I look forward to seeing you soon, too.  I love you, Dad.  Tell God I said hi. . . He changed his name to Satan?  Well, you’ve got to admit it’s a more marketable alternative. . . Don’t go changing. . . Father, compose yourself! . . . Okay, sorry–bad joke.  Keep in touch.

Here’s your phone, Horatio.  No, no.  It was a wrong number.

Thanks to Bob Newhart for the idea.  His autobiography, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!, is worth reading.  I’ll share a couple of anecdotes from it in another post.

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What’s the Story?

One thing I both like and don’t like about movies and conventional novels is that too much happens so that everything makes sense, every scene fits, there’s not a word wasted or a superfluous moment.  Maguffins and coincidences abound.  Things are resolved.  Characters learn from their mistakes and eventually stop repeating them.

In other words, they’re nothing like real life.

The other night I showed my students the movie Crazy, Stupid Love, which is one of the few romantic comedies it’s safe to say I like.  If you haven’t seen it yet, please do.  I don’t want to give away too much of what happens.  Suffice it to say there are a lot of surprises and the overall character development is rich, despite a few inescapable contrivances that go with the genre.

It was fun to see my students’ reactions to the highlights and turnarounds in the film, even though I spent most of the time busily scribbling lines like a stenographer to go over with them in Monday’s class.  I also had to get up to use the rest room in the middle, and I’m not sure what happened in the short scene I missed.  (It was the second time I’d seen the movie.)  So now I’ll have to see it again.

Have you heard of the novel Look Who’s Back, by German author Timur Vermes?  I spotted it a few weeks ago laid out among an array of other trade paperbacks at a bookstore in Seoul and was startled by the cover.  It’s a glossy white book depicting a familiar black hairline and the title scrunched in a little square in the middle of the missing face.

I thought, “Good Lord, it’s Hitler!” 

Sure enough, when I read the plot description on the back cover, it turned out to be a story about the Fuhrer’s re-awakening in the year 2011, still miraculously only fifty-six years old.  Once you can suspend your disbelief enough to jump beyond the impossible premise, you end up buying into the story, which is well-written and compelling.  Mind you, I’m not a Hitler fan by any means, and neither is the author (unless he’s hiding something, but I highly doubt it).  Despite (or because of?) the taboo subject matter, the book was a big hit in Germany, selling over a million copies.  I don’t know whether there was any consternation or outcry surrounding it, a la Martin Scorscese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Regardless of the book’s impact on German citizens, whether survivors of that tragic time or descendants of those either terrorized or hoodwinked by Hitler, Vermes presents a convincing portrait of the man without turning him into a caricature, capturing both his perfectionism and his absolutely rigid fanatical dogmatic insanity with panache.  It helps that the story is written in the first person from the Fuhrer’s twisted point of view.

It wouldn’t be giving too much away to say that he ends up learning how to make the media work to some extent in his favor.  A subheading at the bottom of the front cover reads:  A Merciless Satire.  And so it is.

I don’t imagine everyone can stomach a story written from Hitler’s imagined perspective, but if you don’t mind entering the mind of a maniac for a few hours or days, depending on how fast a reader you are, you might want to give it a go.

An even richer read is the most recent (?) novel by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.  Because I suffer from periodic seizures of ADD, for some reason I put the book down after reading the first sixty-something pages of the book, getting sidetracked by any number of distractions vying for the shark-eaten carcass of my attention.  But when I picked it back up about a month later I plowed through the book to the end and found it alarmingly satisfying.  I’m not going to get into the plot and all the various things that happen (more out of laziness than anything else), but I don’t think you’d be disappointed by it.  If this plug isn’t enough to convince you, there are blurbs written by Philip Pullman and Dave Eggers on the back cover.  For some reason Hamid didn’t contact me to request I read the manuscript and submit a blurb to him.  I wonder why. . .

Finally, I did the same thing with Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, which I started reading probably a year ago and abandoned after the first thirty-four pages.  Little either annoys or saddens me more than not finishing a job I’ve started (a lesson my father taught me during the years I managed to pry myself away from the TV long enough to mow half the lawn), and Nicholson Baker is not someone you want to do that with.  Don’t misunderstand me; as far as I know, he’s far from a violent man–on the contrary. (He suggests in his nonfiction history work Human Smoke that World War II could have been avoided.  I’m not sure I agree with him; once again, indomitable ignorance prevents me from forming a firm opinion on the matter.)

It’s just that he’s such a great writer that if you don’t finish one of his books, you’re cheating yourself.

Whoops–gotta go.  More soon.

A Beautiful Day to Learn

Tom had to teach all day on Saturday, but his students were agreeable and eager to learn English.  It could be rough going sometimes, especially as it was a five-month course and they weren’t even halfway through yet.  Spring fever had hit, and everyone commiserated about having to spend every Saturday high up in an office building, instead of frolicking in the park nearby with the children flying gliders and kites, and operating remote-controlled dune buggies that rumbled intrepidly over the helpless grass.

When Tom was but a wee boy himself, knee-high to an aphid, he thought Cat Stevens was asking not “Where Do the Children Play?” but why do they play?  Perhaps that accounted for his pseudo-philosophical disposition.

He’d found it funny that not only did visitors to the park all walk in the same direction around the track, as if it were some kind of unspoken rule, but also that no one ventured out onto the grassy zone about the size of an American football field.  But then, to his delight and relief, he saw from the window of the building at the end of the workday that people had flooded the space, no doubt obeying an instinct to connect with what remained of nature. Maybe they’d just been giving the grass some time to recover from the cruel, vicious, savage winter (pardon this histrionic use of the pathetic fallacy).

The students had to give two speeches every week–one for Tom’s class, and one for another teacher’s–which they wrote and prepared the week before.  They emailed Tom and his manager the rough drafts of their speeches, and Tom sat down with each one and performed whatever surgery was needed to make it sound more like native English.  At first he’d balked at this task, finding it onerous and thankless.  After having taught for so many years, Tom was bitter and jaded.  Since he was also a failed and unpublished author, he resented having to devote time he could be spending generating his own work to “changing dirty diapers,” as a friend of his had put it (although the friend had been referring to American college professors having to wrestle with hackneyed or sophomoric student prose).

But later he changed his tune or gave his attitude a tune-up, as he realized he could benefit the students and they were making a noble effort to improve their English.  They also seemed to appreciate his input, and they followed through when he asked them to copy the speeches over with his corrections and changes.

Each speech was only meant to last three minutes, but most of them dragged on longer than that, usually because the speaker hadn’t practiced reading it enough times to memorize it, or because he choked and ad-libbed irrelevant non-sequiturs as padding long after he’d flatlined.  And yet, they managed to pull through every time, often beginning by saying “Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” and concluding by saying, “Thank you for listening to my speech.”  Tom was inclined to dissuade them from using this formula, but his colleague said he let his own class use such lines, as it gave them something to hold onto.  Tom then figured they already had enough on their plates to write, revise, and memorize two speeches every week without his having to turn into Mr. Heimrich Himmler of the Grammar Brigade.

After the students had all had time to give their speeches, Tom had a private conference with each of them for five minutes to provide them with feedback and ask if they had any questions.  Since they were lower middle-aged Korean males, and therefore reticent in such situations, they usually didn’t.  By that time of day, they were just happy to have gotten the whole thing over with and probably wanted to get the hell out of there so they could kick back and relax with their families or go out eating and drinking with friends.

Tom’s wife Soonhee called him while he was standing in the park, having just said goodbye to one of his students, who was walking away with his wife and bearing their three-year-old son on his shoulders.  The boy knew one word of English–hello–which he must have said to Tom at least twenty-five times in the course of their brief walk.  Out of courtesy Tom said hello back every time.  The kid was cute, but the maddeningness of the exchange led Tom to make a mental note not to have any children–at least not directly, Dustin Hoffman be damned (Hoffman said he envied women the ability to get pregnant and give birth and wished he could do so himself).  The boy also kept repeating the letter “W,” evidently referring to the robotic anthropomorphic automobile he held in his hand, a toy that looked capable of singlehandedly either starting or ending a global thermonuclear war, depending on its mood.

Soonhee was mad at Tom for not calling him first.  She wanted to have dinner together.  He moseyed back to the subway station and stood the whole way home as sitting was a pain in the ass.  On the train he read Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s final novel, written when he was in his late eighties, an iconoclastic tribute to the Old Testament, Cain.  Tom appreciated Saramago’s going for the jugular by having Cain call God on his bullshit every time–from inciting Cain to murder his brother, to bringing down the walls of Jericho, from laying waste to the Israelites for making a golden calf to punishing Job as part of a deal made with Satan himself.  God was, as an old friend of Tom’s had put it, “a ubiquitous fascist.”

Tom looked forward to reading Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

Although he could just as easily have walked to the bus stop where he was due to meet Soonhee, Tom was too knackered from lugging a weighty backpack around for an hour and his suit was sticky from the unseasonable heat that had infiltrated this sunny may day.  He decided to wait for the bus, reading in the twilight about Cain’s imaginary encounter with Noah (who, oddly enough, resembled Russell Crowe).  One short ride later, he got off, sat down, and read some more, waiting for Soonhee to call him.

When his phone played its little jingle, he picked it up and dragged his finger across the screen to activate the sophisticated electronic mechanism as his manufacturer had trained him to.

“Hello?”

“Where are you?” Soonhee asked.  “Why didn’t you call me?” 

“I’m at the bus stop in front of the Kimbap Cheongguk.  I thought you were going to call me.  I told you I’d be here in ten minutes.”

“Come to the restaurant we usually go to–no, I mean the one next door to it.”

“Okay.”

Tom pressed the red hang-up icon and continued reading the book.  Another couple of paragraphs couldn’t hurt.  A few minutes later the phone rang again.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just reading a book.  I’ll be right there.”

When Tom found Soonhee waiting impatiently for him in front of the restaurant, he apologized and said he’d been reading about Noah.  Since she was a gungho fan of the bible and Christ, a woman for whom life couldn’t be Jesuzzy enough, he thought she’d be impressed.

She wasn’t; she was pissed.  Off, that is.

They sat down on some molded red plastic stools with black seats with holes in the middle around a round stainless steel table that also had a hole in the middle.  A man came over and lowered the telescopic stainless steel elephant’s trunk that sucked up the propane gas fumes from the grill as he used a pair of tongs to insert a bucket of hot coals into the hole in the table, replacing the grill on top of it.

He then brought them a stainless steel platter with a mound of raw pork on it and left it on the table.  Soonhee did the honors of cooking the meat, snipping the slabs of carnage with a pair of scissors devised expressly for the purpose.  As the smell of sizzling pork filled the air around them, competing with the sound of boisterous Korean men trading stories and boozing it up over bottles of soju at the next table, Soonhee’s mood softened, at least for the moment.

Tom found it curious that while Muslims eschewed pork because they found pigs unclean animals (not so, although certain dogs are–sorry to some Koreans–why not eat cats?  They’re clean as hell), Hindus didn’t eat beef since they deemed cattle sacred.  He wondered if there existed a species of shark that refused to eat people because they considered us humans unclean animals.  What would have been even funnier would be if they were dumb enough to think we were sacred.

After they’d finished their meal, another nail in Tom’s coffin as far as he was concerned, they proceeded slowly up the stone staircase that led to their home, otherwise known as the stairway to heaven on the highway to hell.  Having recently gotten into the habit of going for short hikes, Tom went up the steps at a brisk clip.

Soonhee, meanwhile, trailed behind him.  She raised her head and gave him a resentful look.  She didn’t appreciate his not waiting for her, even though she was as slow as a sleepy slug pushing a boulder the size of a pebble up a mountain of molasses.

“I smell like meat,” she said.

Tom thought that sounded like an odd choice for a come-on line.

“That’s okay,” Tom said.  “Just tell people you washed your hair with shampoo made of pig guts.”

“That’s a dirty joke!”

“No, it’s not.  A dirty joke is about sex.”

“It’s not funny.”

“Well, I bet the pig we ate didn’t think that was funny either,” Tom said with a smile.

“Don’t try to make me feel guilty.”

“I’m not.  I just don’t see why we should sugar-coat the truth.”

Soonhee wanted to go buy food at the supermarket, but Tom had been up since five in the morning and needed to get some sleep.  Soonhee was not pleased at his failure to acquiesce to her demands.  Tom decided to give her as wide a berth as possible, letting her commandeer the computer while he finished reading the Saramago book.

Cain, the first murderer according to biblical history (oxymoron?), turned out to be the hero the human race had never had, the man who had the guts to defy God, the biggest and most shameless mass-murderin’ genocidal wackadoo of them all and of the mall.

Too bad we couldn’t have elected Cain to be God instead.  He couldn’t have done a worse job than that yahoo Yahweh.  

 

The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves (to Other People’s Money)

A mind is a terrible thing to lose.

Thus spake Dan Quayle.

My wife announced yesterday that she plans to give ten thousand dollars to her church.  Once the numbness that filled my ears passed, I suggested she might not want to do that.  She said it was money she’d earned herself from teaching kids.  Although I didn’t exactly congratulate her on her decision, I realized it was useless to attempt to dissuade her and didn’t even bother.  She’s too far gone.  It’s a good thing we don’t have kids or they’d probably starve to death.

She also asked me if I wanted to apply for another teaching job once a week in Incheon.  As it takes about an hour to get there and I’m already doing a shitload of commuting, I said no.  I was also feeling logy as a side effect from the saw palmetto I’m taking, since it appears to reactivate my Lyme disease symptoms.  To quote my brother, my body becomes “a network of sheer pain.”  Not much fun.  The only problem is that if I don’t take the saw palmetto I have to go to the bathroom a lot more often.  Maybe the solution is to cut out coffee.  Unfortunately, both my job and my marriage are so boring that if I did that, I’d have to do everything in my sleep.  Caffeine provides me with an illusory will to live, even though it also irritates the urinary sphincter muscle traumatized during a visit to a bayonet-fingered urologist many years ago, at least according to another, more benign doctor I saw to address the condition after the initial wound had been inflicted.

Caffeine likewise can compound the Lyme symptoms, which include joint aches and soul-weakening fatigue.

Jina is unsympathetic about my health problems, fancying me a whiner.  She also thinks I can overcome them through the power of prayer.  I don’t swing that way, not that I haven’t tried it as an experiment in futility.  Prayer always feels silly to me, not to mention undignified.  It is the atheistic Ahab who threatens the lives of his crew in Moby Dick (one of the sailors–Stubb, I believe–says “I’ve never seen him kneel”), but as far as I’m concerned the church my wife knows and loves is a racket.  The problems of the world need solving, not ignorant flight into magical thinking and babyish reliance on an imaginary superdaddy (who’s both a badass and a sugar daddy by turns).  This kind of passive reliance on God is about as effective a solution to the crises that will soon face us all as lodging one’s head up one’s ass.

I once saw a Korean teenage boy wearing a T-shirt that read Jesus Loves Even Me.  My first response was to laugh (though not in his face), then shake my head at what a pathetic statement he was making.  He either suffered from infernally low self-esteem or else had a neurotic overestimation of the value of his own “sins.”  He looked like a harmless kid to me, not a goddamned serial killer.  Maybe his pastor had planted the fear of God in his heart by telling him that burping the worm while perusing salacious images and passionately mechanical scenes of people having sex would land him in the fieriest regions of hell.

Another time, in some other city–I forget which, although I think it was London–a woman came up to me and said, “Jesus loves you.”  As well-intentioned as I’m sure her words were, I had to disagree.

I’ve got news for you:  Jesus doesn’t love anybody.  It’s not his fault, though.  After all, it’s hard to love people when you’re dead.  That’s a trick no one can pull off.  Not that you can’t love dead people–just not carnally.  That’s against the law.

I had a dream earlier this morning that took place in a convenience store in which I was complaining to my late English professor about Lyme disease.  I asked him if he’d ever suffered from an autoimmune disorder.  He nodded and said, “I’m going to wait outside, okay?”  Out the window I could see a lovely blue sky and green grass and I gave him my blessing.

When I woke up and mulled over what the dream meant, at first I thought it was a harbinger of my own approaching death.  The saw palmetto does jack up my heart rate, and in an earlier dream I could hear the ticking of a stopwatch that was probably inspired by my actual accelerated heartbeat.  Maybe if I could get up and do a dance in my sleep I could shed some pounds and solve the problem that way.  (My wife thinks I may have developed type 2 diabetes, which is possible as I have become more blob-like than before.  Since the yellow dust-infested air makes outdoor exercise a non-option, I guess I’ll have to either join a gym or take up swimming in a local pool.)

But then it occurred to me that Professor Kirk, who was a literary medicine man with Native American blood, was reminding me not to be like the eponymous character in Joseph Conrad’s The ‘Nigger’ of the Narcissus who tries to stage a mutiny and sees himself as a victim.  

Mr. Kirk also taught a lesson on W.B. Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli,” in which he pointed out the appropriateness of the lines about how Hamlet and Lear “do not break up their lines to weep/If worthy their prominent part in the play.”  

I’ve been trapped in a vicious cycle for awhile now.  I do love my wife when she’s not being a shrieking harpy.  Last night I said I was sick of living in Korea and teaching Korean students (in fact, I have one class I really enjoy teaching, and one good private student, but my third class is a bunch of robotic vegetables.  Their level is low and they’re only studying English because the company’s forcing them to.  Admittedly, the class does take place at eight in the morning, and I’m hardly a morning person myself.  But when I ask, “How are you?” and no one even returns eye contact, I wonder what we’re all doing there.  The whole world is going to hell and nobody cares.  I’m also not sure how much use the world is going to have for teachers of English as a foreign or a second language in the not too distant future.  One company I work for has three times as many Chinese teachers as English teachers.  Maybe if China takes over the world, they can start to undo some of the damage my country has done; considering how rapidly they’re contaminating their own land, that’s about as unlikely as the Second Coming of Christ).

Whenever I tell Jina I want to leave, it results in a huge emotional meltdown on her part–usually manifested as rage–and her threatening behavior helps keep me in check.

If you’re single and planning on getting married, go for it if you’re in love.  But do yourself a favor and never marry a bully.

You’d be better off dead.

And that’s what I’m going to be soon, God willing.

Thank God Life Is Absurd

Hello!  It’s been a long time since I’ve entered anything on this space.  As Elvis Costello would say, “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin.”  First off, my wife Jina and I moved five days ago to an apartment about five minutes away from the place where we used to live.  Second, I’m doing three new teaching jobs.  The workload itself is on the light side; I’m only teaching three hours three days a week, plus one hour on intervening days, along with a full load on Saturday–today!  So much for Saturday being my favorite day of the week.

Before you scoff at what a lightweight I am (and I sit more than stand–nay, lie–accused), the catch is that those three teaching hours I mentioned are in totally different parts of town, so I end up having to commute four hours on those days.  Kooky, huh?  And my commutes are complicated.  The spot where we moved to is slightly farther away from the subway station I need to go to to get to at least two of the teaching jobs, which tacks on another five or ten minutes to the commute.  The other day I made the mistake of cutting it too close and leaving my apartment at rush hour, so I had to jostle with the multitudes waiting on the subway platform and wasn’t able to get on the train; hence, I had to wait for the next one, muttering a plethora of expletives for the benefit of the elderly gentleman standing in front of me in line.  I didn’t know how to tell him in Korean I had Tourette’s Syndrome.

Also, even though at times she pisses me off so much, pressing my buttons like an ADHD-riddled kid addicted to an alien-incinerating computer game who’s given himself a premature case of carpal tunnel syndrome, or a woodpecker with a chronic case of hay fever who sneezes her way through redwood forests on a daily basis, that I feel like beheading her with a machete, I must say Jina has been much more proactive than I have about moving.   She used her engineering genes to construct a cellophane gutter to collect the water that was incessantly dripping from the ceiling of our old apartment, and after we moved into the new place, she didn’t waste any time seeing what needed to be fixed, changed, or replaced, including the skanky-looking toilet seat and rusty toilet paper holder.

Meanwhile I was preoccupied with the demands of tenacious laziness, and though I pitched in a bit here and there, agreeing to unpack the foldable nylon boxes that contained my clothes and hang them up in our wardrobe (luckily, the movers did almost all of the heavy lifting, along with the packing and unpacking, on both ends of the moving process), instead of being a good husband and responding to the clarion call of domestic duties, I mainly shirked and avoided even coming home between gigs.  Instead, I dawdled in bookstores, met with some friends on a cafe rooftop and breathed in enough toxic dust to ensure my own infantile mortality, and shot the shit with a fellow foreigner in an all-you-can-eat buffet, quaffing red wine with the leisurely-eaten meal to while away a couple of hours instead of racing home to address the boxes of paper begging to be recycled instead of ignored in their cardboard coffins.

One of my friends and I were dismayed to see that a beloved Italian restaurant was suddenly gone, boards on floors rising halfway up the now glass-less windows.  That’s the way things are here in Seoul.  Blink, fart, turn around, or look up from tying your shoelace and the place you frequented as a favorite haunt has been replaced by some generic, soulless, dime-a-dozen, overpriced corporate piece of shit.  I quipped that if we turned around, the bookstore we’d just emerged from would be missing (perhaps in favor of a combination megachurch/fast food emporium/internet cafe).

Speaking of books, have you read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid?  I  just read it the other day and was nearly blown away by how well-written it was.  It’s a seamless work of fiction about a young Pakistani who gets a job at a valuation firm in the United States and falls in love with a troubled woman obsessed with an ex-boyfriend who died.  The story is told in the first person in a startlingly apt voice.  It pulls you right in and doesn’t let you go until the end.  As the book is only 184 pages long, it will take you no time at all to read.  It’s also intriguing to read an account that touches on U. S. foreign policy from the point of view of one who hails from a country whose stability has in part been compromised by American military and “intelligence” hijinks [gotta love those euphemistic dismissals of war crimes in progress–whoopsie, sorry Uncle Sam!  Please don’t drag me off to Guantanamo in red, white, and blue chains.  And before you say I don’t love America enough, I’d have to contend that I love it a hell of a lot more than someone who’s willing to jeopardize the lives of U. S. citizens by capriciously taking out innocent people elsewhere in an ostensibly haphazard, dysfunctional, and preposterously counterproductive “war on terrorism” (don’t you love that phrase?  It’s as ludicrous as saying “crime-fighting criminals,” or “Marxist investment bankers.”  By the way, have you heard that the NRA has come out against firearms?)].

I haven’t read any of Hamid’s other works.  The novella described above was published in 2007, before drone attacks on his home turf became de rigueur, so the narrator, whose allegiances are jarred by the September 11th attacks, has nothing to say about them.  Just so you’ll know that Hamid himself isn’t some kind of fanatical fundamentalist blowhard–the Wahhabi equivalent of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Bile-y, or Rush Limbergher–he did reap the benefits of an Ivy League education, attending both Harvard and Princeton Universities, so I’m sure his own feelings about the United States are conflicted at best.

Speaking of big, powerful countries that do stupid things to other nations trying to mind their own business, the wave of yellow dust that hit Seoul several days ago was the worst it had been since I came here eight years ago.  During that time, while I was riding with my wife and her family in their car across the country, trying to make out the mountains through the bird-choking toxic haze, Jina said vehemently, “China has ruined my country!”

From what I’ve heard, China has also ruined China, but I’m only going on what I’ve read on the internet and in books.  Please understand that Jina has a tendency to make these kinds of generalizations when she’s mad about something (she can be awfully hard on Japan sometimes too).  When it comes to meeting people from China or Japan, she’s invariably a gracious host(. . . ess?  Twinkie?).  I’ve been to a lot of places myself, and in my experience, wherever you go, people are people.  (Except for the ones that are human beings–filthy, disgusting, excrement monuments.  Just kidding, Jesus.)

Finally, the other day while we were walking up the hill en route to the apartment of God, during a blissful ceasefire from the usual symphony of mutual hostilities, I asked her if she wouldn’t be happier if she were married to a Christian guy who shared her beliefs.  (Never stop planting those seeds.)

She said in a voice utterly devoid of rancor, “No, I don’t think so.  He’d probably be even worse than you.”  I was laughing too hard–to myself–and shaking my head in disbelief to hear whatever it was she said next, although it had something to do with sinful behavior being hard to eradicate regardless of the doggedness of one’s piety or the unflinching comportment of one’s dogmatism.

The reason I was laughing was not just because the remark was so effortlessly rude–an insult worthy of Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, or Humphrey Bogart saying something drunkenly and off-the-cuff at a cocktail party to some fawning paparazzo–but due to how oblivious she appeared to be about the advisability of staying married to someone you have such a low opinion of.

Before you go handing me a mirror or a handkerchief to wipe off the egg on my face, one reason it’s been so hard for me to extricate myself from the marriage is her squid-like attachment to my sperm whale’s blubbery integument (a word I learned from good old Melville).

That’s why I’m waiting for Captain Ahab to come along and do me in with an exploding harpoon to put me out of my misery (not to mention hers).  

Incidentally, did you know that Jack Kevorkian’s business card read:  “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”  (But Only If You Want Me To)?

That’s funny; neither did I.

 

La Mierda Loca

Right now my fridge, whose name is Dios, which means God in Spanish, is beeping out of context.  It appears to have lost its mind.  My wife Jina and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.  Maybe it needs a doctor.  Perchance it’s crying, “Help me!  I’m freezing to death.”  Or else it wants to retire and move to the Bahamas.

The wonderful Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano has a book entitled The Upside-Down World.*  His most famous work, Open Veins of Latin America, I’ve yet to read.  He has a clean, simple style that manages complexity well with a healthy dose of irony.  I saw a clip of him being interviewed once, and although my Spanish is as rusty as a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuely heads and a Hurst on the floor (I’m simultaneously quoting Bruce Springsteen and speaking in tongues, as I have no idea what any of that means), I did know what the following words meant:

“Este mundo es de mierda.”

Essentially, “The world’s a piece of shit.”  

So is my new smart phone, by the way.  I can’t figure out how the gosh-darned thing works.  I’d throw it against the wall if I thought it would help.  My old phone let me send text messages regardless of length; the new one is picky and doesn’t even show me the phone number of the person who’s left a message, so I have to look it up if I want to call them back instead of texting.  My wife claims it’s because the new model was put out by a different company.  Put out, indeed.  She says I have to wait until the new policy kicks in before it will start functioning properly.  But she added that I should start sending shorter messages.  I told her that was impolite, that a lot of the messages I receive are work-related.  I.D.K.  mA-B shs rght.

In yesterday’s entry I mentioned a momentous conversation we had over breakfast the other day in which she lamented that we didn’t have a baby ten years ago, back when we were both young enough so that we wouldn’t have to worry that she’d give birth to a Chimera (according to the Random House Word Menu, that’s a “flame-belching monster, part goat, part lion, and part dragon”).  Well, maybe we would have anyway.  And if we had, Jina would tell the baby, “You look just like your daddy.”

Remember the downstairs neighbors I told you about a few days ago who like to assemble and say “Hallelujah” as fast as they can over and over again until they sprain their tongues?  They’d woken me up and this time I was in a less charitable or forgiving mood, so I went downstairs and rang the doorbell.  No answer.  I rapped on the door with my knuckles.  The door opened and two women stood before me.  They looked friendly, so I decided not to wax too indignant.  I asked them semi-politely if they could stop making so much noise.  They explained that they were praying (as if that made it all right to be a public nuisance); I told them I was very sick (an exaggeration:  I had a slight cold) and needed to get some sleep (mission afterwards aborted).  I probably looked a little scary with the black eye and evil face of a foreigner from hell (and a heretic, no less).  

I asked them if they could please pray more quietly, as the racket they were generating was annoying.  At first they seemed nonplussed by my request, but at last they acquiesced.  I thanked them and went back home. 

When I mentioned the above incident to Jina, I expected her to be a bit annoyed herself–not by the neighbors, but by me for being so presumptuous and un-neighborly.  Instead, she surprised me by saying she wasn’t angry, although she was embarrassed.  She went on to say quietly that she wanted a divorce.

As the words leapt from her lips, I couldn’t help noticing how good the orange I was eating tasted.  But I thought it best not to bring it up at that moment.  Instead I asked her why, just to be polite.

She said if the neighbors’ manic hallelujah chorus got on my nerves, her own speaking in tongues must have made me likewise uncomfortable.  I said it didn’t bother me much, as I knew how important it was to her.  (In order to be sustained, brainwashing must maintain a meticulously methodical, painstaking ritual; once you get used to acting like a robot, you forget how and who you used to be and don’t mourn the loss of your humanity or the robbery of your soul–at least that’s been my experience.  If only Gregor Samsa, the man in the Franz Kafka story “The Metamorphosis” who wakes up to find he’s been transformed into a giant cockroach, had the presence of mind to find Jesus.  Then he could make his peace with the world as his sister tries to stomp him to death.)

She asked me for the four-hundred zillionth time if I believed in Jesus.  As usual, I hedged, being coy.  

“Sometimes,” I said, so as not to hurt her feelings.  (The following morning while we were lying–not to each other, only ourselves–in bed, she asked me if I wanted to be baptized–again.  “Maybe,” I replied in a tone that said, “Hell, no.”)

She asked if I believed in the resurrection of Christ.

“Not really.”

Somehow, we managed to change the subject and move on, and suddenly everything was hunky-dory again.  I guess she figured, “Well, at least I gave it another shot.”  It’s touching, in a way, when someone goes so far out of their way to share their delusions with you.  I’m truly grateful for the attempt–failed though it was.

As usual, I haven’t written what I set out to, so I suppose I’ll have to save it for the next post.  My health woes continue to plague me, and my moods bounce up and down on a Willy Wonka-like glass elevator between heaven and hell.  But most of the time they’re lodged in purgatory.

In case I do drop dead today–which always feels like a distinct possibility these days–feel free to check out my other WordPress blog under the pseudonym Mort Hawsen (an anagram of my name, Stew Harmon), mortalchortle.  I haven’t added anything to it in a long while, but most of the contents aren’t time-sensitive anyway (poetry, short fiction, plays, etc.).  Not to toot my own horn too much, but there’s also a Simpsons parody there you might like.

If not, please don’t waste your time.

Take care, have fun, toodle-oo.

By the way, do yourself a favor and check out the interview New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert gave Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about her new book The Sixth Extinction.  Suffice it to say, the planet is absolutely fucked**, thanks to us.  (**which means we must be too–funny, I don’t feel fucked–unless I was speaking figuratively.  Maybe if I were, my heart wouldn’t be in such rough shape.)

As Dana Carvey would say in his incarnation as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, “Well, isn’t that special?”

* More proof that the world is upside-down in the next entry!

How to Close the Gap Between Long-Distance Loved Ones?

Nobody has time to solve all the problems in the world; we’ve only got time to create them.  No, that’s not strictly true:  some of us do have time, but we waste it, if by we you mean I.  It’s tricky striking a balance between solitude and society (as Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Soul Keeps Its Own Society,” although I’ve probably botched the title; I’ll have to fix it with some Botch Tape).  Andy Warhol said that it takes energy to spend time with people.  You need clean air to have energy.  Some food would also be nice.  

Now that I finally do have some time on my hands–not that I’m fit enough to do a handstand (whereas my college roommate claims he can still do handstand pushups; when I tried to do one, I nearly broke my neck)–it occurs to me that life in today’s world is lonelier than it has to be.  Since I seem to be in a derivative mode, I might as well get another quote out of the way, even though Cristian Mihai already beat me to the punch with this one on his blog, but when I read it there it stood out for me, as I remembered when I read it many years ago while living in Japan.  It’s spoken by the Chinese character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  He says, “All great things are lonely.”  So are some shitty things, by the way.

Sting claims that everyone he knows is lonely and God’s so far away.  Carole King asks if anyone stays in one place anymore.  The answer is probably no.  I’d tell her myself but she appears to have moved.  Didn’t even leave a goodbye note.  Thanks a lot, Carole.  I’m never going to listen to your music again.

Richard Yates wrote a collection of stories entitled Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.  I’d venture that today there are more than that.  This might sound masochistic, but sometimes I miss the deep, harrowing, visceral loneliness I sometimes felt living back in the US when I was in my thirties, usually during a time between girlfriends, those precious short-lived relationships that usually ended either badly or abruptly.  The reason is that at least that way I knew I was alive.

These days I don’t feel lonely in the same way.  Sexual frustration without the hope of release from a new relationship around the corner is a different kind of loneliness (hey, Richard!  Collect the set!) from that which I knew before.  There are other kinds of comforts provided by married life, at those blissful interludes when my wife and I aren’t shrieking at each other.  Right now I feel more guilty than lonely for depriving her of her dream to have a child.  She reminded me at breakfast the other day of the time long ago when she told me she wanted to have my baby, and I said I didn’t want one.  That hurt.  I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I was afraid to take on the responsibility at the time (besides, we weren’t even married yet).  Or maybe I was waiting for someone better to come along.

Better for me that is.  I don’t mean to imply that my wife is not a good person, or without her charms.  We’re just incompatible in certain ways.  I suppose most married couples probably are.  

When she said that, I apologized for having disappointed her and went over and gave her a hug.

Anyway, I made the mistake of listening to a few James Taylor songs a few days ago, including one in which he asks, “Where are you, someone?”  (Nothing against Jim Taylor; it’s just that his music can be gratuitously depressing.)  

Back to the Andy Warhol quote about requiring energy to be with other people (whom Jean-Paul Sartre accused of being hell):  yesterday I was knackered at church and I left the service early so I could grab my grub at the cafeteria before the rest of the troops appeared.  One of the advantages of not knowing Korean is that most members of the congregation who join you at your table don’t expect you to make conversation with them.  Few Korean people like to chit-chat while they’re eating anyway, although I notice that the church crowd can be gabby.

I don’t dislike them, but I was too enervated for small talk and kept my eyes on my noodle and kimchi soup.  I was suffering from a brief spell of anthropophobia.  Luckily, they didn’t bother me, which is fortunate, as otherwise I would have had to slay them, another energy-demanding activity.

I worry about my wife’s loneliness.  At least she has Jesus, along with God, his venerable, shaggy-jowled dad.  As I don’t believe in any of that crap (no disrespect intended), I have to rely more on the voices of characters in books and songs, and the people I’ll never meet.  I’m not immune to the disease of forming vicarious friendships with celebrities or the parts they play (not that I’m deranged enough to become a stalker).  I watched an interview Philip Seymour Hoffman gave George Stromboupoulis (sp?) and thought, “What a great guy!”  Actually, they both seemed like great guys.  It’s funny how you can get that feeling about someone you’ve never even met and and never will.  And people’s public personas can deviate from who they really are.  Still, Hoffman came across as a mensch, a goofball with a heart of gold.  (That reminds me:  I’d like to read Neil Young’s autobiography one of these days too.  Let me know if you recommend it.)

Obviously, the blogosphere is a virtual community of strangers, many of whom will never meet in the flesh.  I’m grateful to those of you who’ve become loyal readers of this blog, and I appreciate the good work you do as well.  I used to write without sharing my work with much of anyone, except for a few precious friends while I was drunk, reading to them out loud and boring the shit out of them (hey, what are friends for?).  It’s an honor to be able to bore you in turn.

I’m also concerned that my folks might be lonely, even though they’re strong people.  I love them and wish them well, but that’s not the same as being there.  An old professor of mine once said, alluding to a character named Rhoda in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, “She realizes that all the love and friendship and relationships in the world are just so much tenuous little bullshit–at least in the eyes of a higher reality.”  I used to think that was true, back when I was young and cocky and more inclined to take people for granted.  I was also perhaps more defensive and less willing to open up about my weaknesses.  

Now I think he’s wrong.  But he said something else that was less cynical and nihlistic, a quote I can get behind:  “We feel incomplete because our minds, our imaginations, are in excess of the circumstances of our lives.”  That’s definitely true for everyone.  It’s the root at the heart of desire.  The only trouble is we appear to be going about completing ourselves in the wrong way.  Filling our lives with stuff, driving everywhere, and generating mountains of discarded electronic gadgets and skeletons of televisions is not the best way to fulfill ourselves or to provide our lives with meaning or value.  Neither is turning ourselves into robots, as I’m sure some people alive today will live long enough to learn.

I hope I’m not around by then.  It’s nothing personal.  I’d just rather be an animal than a machine.  Animals are better at generating onomatopoeias.  Hence, they get my vote.

As do you.

Thank you.

P. S.  Nature’s where it’s at.  As are the usual suspects–love, friends, family.  But go all out–don’t just send each other text messages or pow-wow through Twitter and Facebook.  Get together and have fun.  Life is one long balancing act.