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.


All Systems Stop

Hi everyone.  How are you doing?  Me, too.

I just wanted to apologize for the humpteenth time for being out of touch lately.

I’ve been super-busy.  My three hours a day of commuting is killing me–not literally, unfortunately.

But I feel guilty for not writing anything lately, which is why I’ve asked a member of ISIS to come to Seoul in order to behead me in person.  Unfortunately again, I can’t afford to buy him a plane ticket 😦

Uh-oh–now I’m repeating myself.  I promised I’d never use an emoticon again and have broken my promise.  I guess that means I can’t join the Promise Keepers, so that’s something anyway.

Another problem is my prime blogging time has been eaten up by the demands of my new schedule.  I usually like to post stuff at around five in the morning, then go back to bed for a few hours as a reward.  It’s the best way to make constructive use of my insomnia.  But these days I have a class at seven in the morning so I don’t have time to write then anymore, and I can’t get up before then or I’ll interrupt my wife’s insomnia (we work in shifts).

It’s now afternoon here in Korea, so I guess I’ll make this my new writing time, except for the times when my wife takes the computer with her to work.

It feels good to get the fingers moving again after such a long absence.  I feel like Fred Astaire born again as an octopus.  No–make that Gene Kelly.

I guess only other old folks like me will get those references.  Cultural solitary confinement is the best way to get out of touch.

Anyway, that’s all for now as I have to correct a speech written by one of my evening students, then mosey across town on the underground jointed silver serpent from hell.

I hope you’re doing well, and I appreciate your taking time to read this.  Now you can go back to the arduous demands of being an air traffic controller.

Vaya con chili con carne!

The First Time Ever I Faced Your Saw

The nanosecond of truth has arrived.  My wife Jina and I have just about finished renovating our new school.  She’s put a lot more hours into the project than I have, although I did help her for several hours on Thursday.  I built wood decks as a carpenter’s apprentice for three weeks twenty-five years ago, quitting as soon as I got tired of the commute and the increasingly chilly weather, not to mention the ignominy of getting sawdust up my nose (otherwise known as Amish cocaine), along with the maddening sensation of having George Harrison’s overplayed song “I Got My Mind Set on You” stuck in my head like Steve Martin’s arrow for the whole time I worked there (the foreman liked to have the radio on non-stop).

That said, I know fuck-all about carpentry.  And that despite having had to endure a fusillade of Carpenters’ songs while trying to grow up and survive the dress rehearsal for the holocaust that was junior high school.  (A few years later, in a high school in a midwestern town that got so cold in the winter the building had hardly any windows, except for a few narrow numbers adorned with chicken wire to repel overzealous simian adolescents like me, I contemplated compiling a list of girls I liked, walking around with a clipboard, and asking them out, anticipating relentless rejection and a future career as a telemarketer.)

Nonetheless, I managed to assemble four identical chairs made of pine Jina ordered online, while she put together a couple of tables that were more challenging to build, requiring a more experienced craftsperson.  The result of our steady labors was a handsome set of durable furniture ideal for smashing windows and the heads of students with.

The previous evening she’d enlisted the help of three of her Christian colleagues who chug the same visceral venom of God-fearing propaganda Jina does and attend the same church.  (One of them is to the pastor as an overworked nurse is to a doctor riding on his reputation; “I graduated from Harvard, MIT, and Columbia–I’ll have the nurse cut you open so I can get in eighteen holes of golf with one of my fellow saviors.”)

These Christian mensches devoted themselves to helping Jina glue plastic strips of fake wooden flooring onto the fake plastic floor that was already there, much to the dismay of the mold that was growing in the corners.  When I arrived they were merrily squatting away and laying town the floor segments, happy as a bunch of kids doing a jigsaw puzzle together.  I had to admire and envy them for their pluck, especially considering what an inveterate shirker I am.

Jina told me later when I suggested we repay them with a generous meal at a fancy restaurant that she’d already done them lots of favors, but agreed that it would be nice to take them out and treat them to a feast.  (Another Last Supper, anyone?)

One of the more annoying tasks we had was putting up the molding, as it involved making precise measurements ahead of time.  I’d somehow managed to break the plastic switch that locks the tape measure into place, so keeping it from getting sucked back into the housing like a tinny metallic frog’s tongue posed a challenge.  One thing I hate about tape measures is that the steel hook at the end you use to steady the thing makes it hard to lay it flush against the surface, so it’s all but impossible to get a precise reading.  Another factor is being a late adapter to the metric system and going through withdrawal from inches and feet.  Yet another is having to squint at the teeny rows of lines and make sure I’m counting correctly so everything fits.

I was using it to measure the walls for the wooden molding Jina had ordered, then the boards before sawing them and helping her glue them to the wall.  A few times I got it wrong, but luckily she’d gotten plenty of wood, enough to crucify a modern Korean Christian family (Jesus would be proud, if pride weren’t a sin).

Jina doesn’t approve of profanity, whereas I do.  I find it especially helpful to express my dismay in frustrating situations.  For example, several days ago when I was already running late for work, I had to try on three pairs of socks before I could find one that didn’t have holes in them.  This required the recitation of trusty oaths from the salty lingo catalogue.  It probably wouldn’t amuse Jina if she knew that my favorite curses are “God damn it” and “Jesus Christ.”  Maybe I’m just fed up with having been force-fed her evangelical cud to chew and spew for so long.

The holy sock problem had a silver lining, however:  last Sunday when we arrived twenty minutes late for church (Hallelujah!  We missed the beginning!), we went up to the balcony where the tardy parties have to sit on the floor like livestock in the manger where Jesus first soiled himself with holy shit.  When I took off my shoes to enter the stultifying sanctum, Jina eyed my foot and noticed a hole in my sock.

“Go downstairs,” she said.

I didn’t quite make it downstairs, though.  Instead, I went for a nice walk, buying an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee, despite some stentorian throat-clearing from God the voyeur in the heavens.  It was a clear and beautiful day in Seoul, and we get so few of them, I had no choice.  Besides, if God loved his creations, He wouldn’t insist that they waste so much time listening to some wanker with snake oil running through his veins.

After that I had to consume some more food in order to keep up appearances and thwart any countervailing impulse towards losing weight.  I was one of the first members of the flock to arrive before the bleating multitudes poured up the stairs and baaa-baaa’ed up to the cafeteria counter.  Despite the rare moment of both solitude and silence in the dining room of God, I ate my noodle soup seasoned with kimchi and a salty brown concoction of soy sauce and sesame oil more gradually than I otherwise would have.  (Usually when I eat alone, which is most of the time, I scarf my food down with reckless abandon–choking is a surefire way to lose weight, especially if whatever it is that’s lodged in your throat stays locked in your windpipe long enough to permanently separate you from consciousness.)

Then I played ping pong with a friend in the church basement.  But something else happened in the interim.  When I approached the table tennis zone, I heard the awful, cloying sounds of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) pouring like sap from the instruments and mouths of some kindly yet deluded teenagers whose early exposure to rigid indoctrination has hamstrung their capacity to rock out and cut loose like Dionysian wild men and women.

As a lark and a piss-take, I lapsed into my Elvis impression while coming down the stairs, singing:

“Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell.  It’s down at the end of lonely street, that’s Heartbreak Hotel. . .”

I sang a bit more but decided to cut my own virtual mike when I noticed the kids looking at me as if they were preparing to throw tomatoes and hand grenades to get me to stop.  I guess Elvis wasn’t white enough for them.  (Elvis was a white man with black bones, at least until he joined the army, filled out, grew sideburns, donned sequins, and started singing the likes of “It’s Now or Never” for tourists in Las Vegas too shy to kill themselves.)

The good news is I may be in love.  But I don’t want to jinx things.  Besides, as you know, my situation is incredibly complicated.  Crazy little thing called life.

The other good news is that thanks to my brother, I’ve discovered the funniest man in the world.  His name is Mark Peters and he writes a never-ending Twitter feed that’s absolutely hilarious.  He recently interviewed Jack “Call Me John” Handey, but I daresay Mr. Peters is even funnier.  He’s also formidably intelligent and voraciously veracious.

Please check out his work.  He’s at the cutting edge of the cutting edge.  The easiest way to access the link (pardon my tech-unsavviness) is to type in “Mark Peters Wordlust” in your Google search window.  Then click the first thing that comes up.

Otherwise, I’ll post it for you tomorrow.

I guarantee you’ll soon be laughing so hard you’ll wet your pants.  If not, you’d better contact your doctor, as you may have an enlarged prostate gland (having a constipated bladder is no laughing matter–unless you’re someone else who doesn’t like you).  But don’t despair.  If you keep reading and end up laughing your ass off, you won’t have to get prostate surgery–just a prosthetic pelvis).

Also, if you don’t have a nice weekend, I’ll kill you.

(How’s that for hospitality?)

Supergirl Vs. the Gutless Wonder

What kind of stuff have you been reading lately?  I try to vary fiction and nonfiction (using one eye for the former and the other eye for the latter for optimum efficiency as well as confusion).  Right now I’m reading two books at once:  Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory and Oliver James’ How to Develop Emotional Health (another title from the excellent School of Life series).  Baker’s story was published in 1997 and even though it’s written in the third person, the narrative revolves through the mind of his nine year old daughter (it’s a work of non-fictitious fiction).  It’s also funny as hell–maybe even funnier; I don’t know–you’d have to ask Satan.  He’d probably say, “That joke is so old.”  The James’ book is useful and informative; it’s in the self-help genre (otherwise known as the literary buffet table).

Anyway, before that I read The Dude and the Zen Master, by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, a conversation between two old friends.  It’s a rambling dialogue that touches on Buddhism, current events, and the lives and loves of the two in a highly readable format, at least if your native language is English.  Unfortunately, as soon as I finished reading it, I was unable to retain much, which is usually what happens these days, especially when it comes to nonfiction.  I don’t know whether it was all those decades of alcohol abuse (I beg your pardon–these decades) or the sleep deprivation induced by working a split shift for four years, or just your garden variety brain damage (I grew up in Braintree, Mass., after all), but nothing seems to stick to the old dried-out sponge known as the noggin anymore, except for all the petty little shit I get obsessed with, all the persnickety synaptic fixings that piss me off the face of the map like a fly pausing for station identification on a urinal cake.

The past several weeks have been especially harrowing in some ways, underscoring as they have the essential futility of my life and my own inescapable irrelevance and infinite replaceability in the job market and dating scene by other yutzes.  When I lived in Boston, I was in my thirties, so even though I felt a little older than your average Joe in that city (keeping in mind that it’s a college town), I was still able to have lots of fun enjoying my extended adolescence, playing the field and hitting the occasional home run.  

These days I’ve been put out to pasture and if I got a chance at bat I’d probably strike out anyway, or else take a pitch to the side of the head and lie down and croak.  One problem with being a middle-aged man is that unless you’re either rich or famous or incredibly good-looking or lucky enough to have a wife who loves sex as much as you do, you can’t help feeling like a creep half the time.  (Have you ever noticed how there are no female creeps?  Think of all the creeps you know–whether real or fictitious.  What sex are they?  I rest my case.)  

As I mentioned in my last post, compounding matters is that I have no female students these days, and no close female friends apart from my wife, who’s more of a frenemy (although we have been getting along better for the most part lately).  Seoul is replete with beautiful young women, and even some stunning middle-aged ones, although a lot of them tend to “hit a wall” as a friend of mine put it once they reach fifty or sixty: their voices deepen and grow gravelly, they get perms and dye their graying hair, and the swaying walks they once had turn to swaggers.  In other words, they undergo natural sex change operations and their ovaries turn to bowling balls.

Not that I can’t speak for myself in that area, at least to some extent.  My wife Jina claims that my butt has taken on Homeresque proportions and my man-boobs (or “moobs”) put Lord Simpson’s Duff Beer-enriched rack to shame.  I already told you about the time Jina and I dusted ourselves off for a sexual encore a few weeks ago and I couldn’t get it up due to having taken too many ibuprofen earlier in the day.  I hope I still have a job in ten years so I’ll be able to afford a regular dose of Viagra if my dick decides to resume its primordial life as a clitoris.  (As Grace Slick would say, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.”)

The other thing is that for a guy who’s grown as far as you can get from Mel Gibson–meaning what women want (that’s meant to be a joke, by the way; if you tell me it’s not I’ll send you my mailing address so you can buy me a gun to blow my brains out with)–I can’t say I’m exactly bursting with virility when it comes to some of those other stereotypical skills my gender’s supposed to have, meaning a vital knowledge of how to use certain other kinds of tools besides the replicas of ourselves we hide in our trousers.

Jina, on the other hand, is a handywoman.  She’s got a knack for fixing things when they break and a fearless approach to turning around a fixer-upper.  I’m more geared toward cultivating dust bunnies.  Several days ago she had me help her prepare some wallpaper to put on the walls of the three-room apartment we’re renting so she can set up some after-school classrooms for elementary school kids to practice their English in.  (She decided to bail on the other place she was teaching in after a conflict over a “stolen” student with another teacher, the one who owns the place.)  

I’m so unsure of myself and afraid I’ll make a mistake, particularly when it comes to doing anything practical for the first time (“Are you sure this is the right way to tie a shoelace?”), that I had to keep asking Jina if my measurements of the wallpaper I was cutting for her into strips were correct.  At least that’s how she made me feel by lashing out at me enough to re-open a treasure trove of childhood wounds.  She reminded me out loud that everyone has to learn these things on the job (maybe true, but she had put up wallpaper before, whereas I’d only taken it down, a far more thankless job), and accused me of being passive and called me a coward.  I had to raise my voice to match her temper, even though I thought I’d better not overdo it since we were both holding razor knives and I didn’t want to besmirch the new wallpaper by daubing it with huge crimson letters that spelled “HELTER SKELTER” and “PIGGIES” (these Beatles song titles used with the kind permission of the late Michael Jackson’s estate and the Charles Manson Corporation).

I also had to get up early and go to work in the morning.  It was getting late.  We’d already been there for several hours.  Jina showed me how to daub the inner surface of the wallpaper with a mixture of glue and water I’d prepared by stirring it in a bucket for an hour in the kitchen sink.  She said I could fold each sheet of wallpaper twice lengthwise and stack them on the floor for her to put up after she got back from church.  My plan was to get the job done soon enough so I could get the hell out of there before she returned.  I even said to her, “I’m scared of my wife” (quoting Barack Obama).  That made her feel a little guilty, if only for a moment.  

After she left, I did my best to coat each sheet of wallpaper with glue, although it was hard to see whether it was covered, since the glue and the surface I was treating were both white.  I kept going when I’d finished the first set, deciding to use up the rest of the glue in the bucket and do Jina proud for a change. 

She got back from her mid-week religious brain-beating treatment, accompanied by a friend, in what couldn’t have been more than an hour after she’d left.  Jesus was also with them, dressed in his usual invisible garb (it’s always wise to bring an experienced carpenter along for these kinds of jobs).  Jina showed her non-imaginary friend the work she’d done and they commented on it in fluent Korean, a tongue that remains incomprehensible to me.  I asked her if she minded if I left; she said that was fine.

The only problem was that I hadn’t done a thorough enough job baptizing the wallpaper in glue, and Jina had to stay up all night compensating for my shoddy work.  She was nice about it when she got home the next morning, though, unless she was just too exhausted to chew me out.  I rationalized my incompetency by mentioning the difficulty in discerning whether the glue had reached all the corners and edges due to the camouflage effect alluded to above.

Yesterday after work I went to meet her at a huge outdoor market, standing around wearing a suit and a backpack while she talked shop with some craftsmen about what kind of wood to buy for the wall paneling.  (She wants to put up a kind of waist-high boundary between the two levels of wallpaper on each wall.)  I contributed exactly nothing to either the conversation or the project, and even had the gall to gripe about nearly being made late to meet a friend for beers in the evening.  (Jina also later pooh-poohed my decision to tip the cabbie two thousand won–she got out early to do some more work on the place while I went the rest of the way home–saying the eight thousand–about eight bucks–I already owed him for the ride was enough.)

As soon as she got home, while I was hanging up a sea of wet socks on the stainless steel laundry rack on a balcony between two windows, she asked the immortal question:  “Did you fart?”  I promised her I hadn’t, unless I’d done it unconsciously; and since the sense of smell is the most evocative of the five, I didn’t think I could lie about something so unforgettable.  “Did you burp?”  The answer remained no.  I told her the flatulent aroma may have emanated from the Great Outdoors outside the open window.  

Finally, she solved the mystery when she opened the styrofoam boxes full of homemade food her mother had lovingly prepared and sent us.

“Oh, it’s the kimchi!”

Can you think of a more appetizing description?  If I weren’t already hooked on the stuff, I would have been inspired to vomit.

According to a friend of mine, there’s a place in Arlington, Massachusetts called Rent a Husband.  It’s evidently a place where single women can hire guys who know how to build and fix things, solve minor plumbing problems, do routine car repairs, change flat car- and bike tires, etc.  Maybe if we ever move back to the States, Jina can make use of their services.

Who knows?  Perhaps they’ll even offer her a job.

A Brand New Moment

Every morning when you get up, it’s like being born again.  The only difference is that this time you’re aware of what’s going on, so the agony is either mitigated or worsened by its predictability.  It’s a good thing the hippocampus doesn’t finish developing until we’re around three years old; otherwise our earliest memories would involve crying in a puddle of our own shit.  (For some, of course, extreme old age affords them a second infancy, and they’re able to relive those special moments, again without the aid(s) of memory, and with the same burdensome impact on surrounding loved ones, assuming any of them have stuck around to clean up the mess.)

Yesterday when I woke up at six-thirty, having gone to bed after midnight, I had trouble getting my ass in gear and shifting into robot mode, a necessary survival strategy when you live in the city of modern madness.  I also feel depressed if I haven’t gotten in my morning writing session, which had become a daily endeavor but has slipped lately due to the exigencies of my schedule.  

I’d been a little startled by my wife’s initiation of sex the night before, coming as it did out of the blue–or the black, as it were, although that’s a bit of an overstatement considering the inescapable light pollution–but I was unable to perform on account of having taken some ibuprofen earlier in the day for prostatitis incurred by sensitivity to the lube I’d used to pleasure myself in order to alleviate the pain in my ass exacerbated by caffeine from the coffee I’d drunk to give myself enough energy to teach my sole student of the day at lunchtime, although the pain was originally initiated seventeen years ago by an overzealous urologist’s penetrating probe (pardon the redundancy, but it fits, seeing as he did it twice–once from the left, once from the right–luckily (?) only the left side hurts), and has been haunting me daily, pretty much ever since.

To her credit, Jina was understanding of my failure to conquer gravity, and I was grateful for that.  One of the supreme humiliations of being a man is this piecemeal breaking down of the body; since external factors were involved in my genitals’ deflated defeat, I can blame it on the pills I took, although I suppose it’s only a matter of time before I’ll have to say, “Sorry, honey!  I guess I’m just over the hill.  Want to play checkers instead?”

Getting back to that harrowing episode of the morning frenzy of getting ready for work, at least I didn’t have to shave, having subdued the relentless onslaught of bristles the night before.  A shower was mandatory, however, as I find it always is both in order to tame my Einstein’s mane of thinning hair and to help wake me up.  (A new routine involves washing my eyes under the tap to get the yellow dust out–a fool’s errand, I assure you.  Yesterday evening I went so far as to buy some eyedrops at a drug store, but I think they contain preservatives as my eyes are even more irritated than before.  Maybe I should just gauge them out–that should do the trick.)

I was hoping JIna wouldn’t wake up, as when she does, my pace tends to slow down.  I need to become a human cannonball in order to get the hell out of the flat as rapidly as possible, not engage in gratuitous dialogue and choke down a complimentary breakfast instead of picking up some “emergency crap food” (Douglas Coupland, Life After God) along the way. 

Since I just started this new gig fairly recently, I still haven’t figured out the ideal time to get up, and have started to wear out the snooze button on my alarm clock.  Time management has never been one of my strong points.  (As an old professor of mine once said, “You think you are killing time, but time is killing you.”)  In fact, I was even complacent enough to scramble some eggs for breakfast instead of bungee jumping out the window immediately or using the fire ladder as I ought have done.  This was before I’d taken a shower, as Jina gets on my case if I go near the stove wearing a suit.  (Jeez, I wonder why.)

After performing my ablutions, I blow-dried myself following the old towel treatment, finding it as usual a major production to get the groin, armpits, and feet completely dry.  The human body is, if nothing else, a practical joke.  Jina had augmented my breakfast with fresh strawberries and sauteed mushrooms and onions, along with a small plate of sliced tomatoes and wedges of red and yellow bell pepper.  Instead of thanking her for her pains, I ended up protesting as I didn’t want to be late for work, then blurting out an apology for being such an ingrate.  I noted how unduly stressful life was and made the usual garden variety complaint about how much it sucks.  Then I apologized again for consistency’s sake.

When I finally got out the door, dust-proof breathing mask in place, I saw the big green bus roll past and flagged down a taxi instead.  I tipped the driver, who was practically old enough to be my grandfather, as I invariably do, even though you’re not supposed to tip in Korea.  (It’s worth it just to see the huge smile that forms on the driver’s face when you do.)

A trundle down the subway steps led me to observe the doors of the train sighing shut just as I alighted on the platform.  I cursed softly and sat down on a bench.  When another train arrived five minutes later I got on, just as quickly getting off, as I only had to ride it three stops before making a transfer.  At the transfer station, I avoided the urge to join the running herd, walking instead at a brisk pace.  The second train disgorged me at a station connected to a subterranean mall, which enabled me to avoid the yellow dust enveloping the city.  

It took ten minutes to get from the subway platform to the eleventh floor of the building where I teach.  Fortunately, I was the first one there so I had time to catch my breath.  Half of the students arrived five minutes late, which made me wonder why I bother engaging in such a rush.

(To be continued)


Survival’s a Pain in the Ass

What do you need to survive?  The basics are fairly obvious:  food, sex, shelter, some connection to what passes for nature these days, however tenuous, and the company of friends, loved ones, or people you feel you have something in common with, in whatever format is available–direct contact being the preferred method, of course, but other means can comprise a semi-reasonable substitute for some of us, whether they’re in the form of recorded music, dog-eared paperbacks, text messages, email, or social networking sites like zeece one heeya.  I’m grateful that today the technology exists for me to be able to communicate with my parents for free from afar and even see their faces at the time, saddened though I am that circumstances have, through my own painful choices, drawn us apart in the literal sense.

I hope I can stick around long enough to say goodbye to them, much as I would prefer to say hello again instead.

The problem for so many of us today is that we have to devote so much time to making ends meet, getting an education, feeding ourselves, humoring our dogged sexual appetites, juggling the ever-growing array of artificial needs generated by our spiritually anemic excuse for a global culture (a euphemism for endless consumerism and the guaranteed wholesale contamination of the planet, especially the ocean), that we don’t have time to just fucking be.  Being is out of style.  Especially if you live in the big, big sitay–as Taj Mahal would say in his immortal ditty, “Annie’s Lover.” (To wit:  “All he did know about was the pigs and the chickens and the geese and the goats and the cows and the horses and the blue skies and the water and the ducks they fly.  He sat on a hillside, playing his guitar, watching the whole thing come down in harmony.”).

And even more especially if you live here in Korea, where people hardly even have time to wipe their asses after they poop.  But that’s not exactly true.  In fact, after seven years of blinkered ingestion of the prevailing stereotype that every single Korean on southern half of the peninsula is a non-stop, gung ho workaholic, I’ve finally observed that a lot of them are just as lazy as anyone else.  They just know how to keep up appearances.  It’s a point of pride of a lot of Korean office workers that they work long hours, but many of them abide by Woody Allen’s edict:  “Showing up is 80% of life.”  (The other 20% is reserved for masturbation.)  This revelation has been disappointing yet bracing; it means I have to be less accommodating of my students sometimes, as they know how to manipulate me to do their bidding, since I’m no good at being a disciplinarian.  

(Besides, since when are teachers supposed to discipline adults?  Isn’t that condescending?  By insisting on shirking, some of my adult students seem to be inviting me to treat them like children, which seems masochistic, unless they’re convinced I don’t have it in me to be a hard-ass.  We’ll see about that.  Then again, since I may be dead soon, it’s kind of hard to give a damn about such petty matters anymore.  Jesus said to let people walk all over you while he was walking on the water; had he done it himself, I guess that would have made him a human surfboard.)

A lot of it boils down to not wanting them to dislike me, but this approach tends to backfire as my spineless attempts to ingratiate myself end up making them not respect me and try to take advantage of my by turns uptight and easygoing nature instead.  It’s a tad maddening, especially since they seem to enjoy collectively taking the opportunity to stab me in the back at the end of the month when they write their evaluations of my performance (though the word “write” may be an overstatement, since it’s more a matter of putting check marks in boxes, a far more efficient means of determining the fate of someone’s career).

The irony is that I don’t think they’re being disingenuous when they’re polite and friendly in class (although I could be wrong about that), but I do think they’re just as spineless and unable to stand on their own two feet as I am, only for a different reason–that they’re addicted to groupthink.  Again, I could be wrong about that too, considering the culture appears to be moving in a more individualistic direction, if by individualism you mean publicly isolating yourself by burying your brain in second-hand sensations provided through earphones and twinkling self-centered screens, or else by quacking at someone not physically present through your exclusive microphone for VIPs (Vampires Impersonating Presidents?).  

As in the West, here they appear to have mistaken solipsism for individuality–hence the ever-growing popularity of the motorcar, not only here but in China and India, along with just about everywhere else, much to the atmosphere’s dismay.

One of my students a couple of months ago (and forgive me if I already mentioned this in an earlier post) was brave enough to admit that a lot of Koreans were xenophobic, and that was one of the reasons I sometimes had to shoehorn a reply out of the class when I entered the room and asked, “How are you?”  He added that they were generally comfortable with me, but that if they saw a foreigner on the street, they might avoid him.

I wish I’d asked him why.  When I broached the subject to my wife Jina, she said it’s because Koreans are nervous that their English isn’t good enough to put to the test with us natives.  A Korean friend of mine told me that one reason that few Korean students will volunteer to make a selection of activities if their English teacher offers them one is not because they’re terrified of the stinking hairy beast sweating and grunting noisily before them, but because they don’t want to piss off their classmates by choosing the wrong thing.

In Japanese there’s a proverb that translates to “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  This saying has more than one implication:  it evinces the power of peer pressure in Japanese society (hey, if you’re going to be a show-off, we’ll shun you), but also means that from the boss or teacher’s point of view you’ve got to stay in your place.  In other words, don’t be so uppity by trying to stand out and be the individual you’re not allowed to be.  

Not to sound too mealy-mouthed, but what I said about peer pressure in Japan could actually be erroneous; I have a friend who’s lived there for nearly twenty years, so I’ll ask him what he thinks and let you know later, okay?  But it’s definitely true here in Korea, and the two countries have an alarming number of similarities (granted, as a Westerner and permanent outsider I’m biases, but I have heard confirmation on that point from Korean students who’ve lived in both countries). 

Back to what I said before about being.  When you realize more vividly and viscerally through the alarms that start going off in your body during the sickening transfiguration of middle age the pending inevitability of not being, you tend to grow philosophical in a big way, and in a hurry.  (As if I weren’t already philosophical enough to begin with!  Talk is cheap, eh?)  Canadian artist Jenny Holzer (sp?) says you should listen when your body speaks to you.  True enough.  Last night after work, while I was on my way to buy a vegetarian enchilada for dinner to make up for all the carnage served at the cafeteria where I’m forced to eat lunch every day due to time constraints and the lack of other available options in the vicinity, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the left side of my chest.  It felt as if Cupid had pulled a John Hinckley on me.  (I hope I don’t live long enough to compare myself to Ronald Reagan ever again, although as awful as he was, at least he had the sense to put a dent in my country’s monomaniacal nuclear ambitions.)

When I mentioned it to Jina at a cafe a few hours later, she pressed the left side of my thorax and asked me if it hurt.  I told her it did, and she said maybe I had a broken rib, since the pain was not in the same department as the heart.  I didn’t want to alarm her by saying my days or maybe even hours are possibly numbered in the single digits, mainly because I knew she’d overreact.  It’s also not the best idea in town to conjure such a ghoulish self-fulfilling prophecy.  Still, it’s not good to be too cavalier either when you’re pushing fifty and out of shape.  I’m going to see my old doctor today, and the guy even has the decency to speak English, for Christ’s sake (luckily, I don’t think he goes in for that J. C.-related nonsense).

As this entry has already gone on longer than I’d intended for it to, I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to tell you about two dreams I had the other day that I afterwards gleaned some valuable insight from.  These were not premonitions like the dreams I mentioned to you the other day, but wake-up calls of a different kind.

May your weekend groove to the max and achieve mellow heights of super-swell, peachy-keen, boss-a-go-go, wicked pissa awesomeness (I hope I incorporated a wide enough range of slang expressions to appeal to members of every generation; that would be just brilliant, mate).

Memoirs of a Dangerous Beverage

In case you think this post is going to be about alcohol, brace yourself for a surprise.  It’s not.  It’s about coffee–or the effects thereof.

And before you arrange your arms before you and stand ready to engage in fisticuffs, let me say that I’m not about to slag java as something that’s bad for your health.  I happen to agree with those who say it’s good for you.  But if you like to drink the strong stuff, as I do, proceed with caution.

Yesterday morning as I was finishing up my last blog entry, I noticed I was running later than usual, and would have to take a quicker-than-thou shower and dive into my clothes if I was going to make it to work on time.  Luckily, I had enough coffee left over in the pot I’d brewed the day before to fill a small thermos.  I didn’t bother to heat it up and topped it off with enough milk to give it a nice tan.  

My wife Jina woke up and asked me, “Are you late?”  I didn’t need her to interfere with my concentration.  I had no time for breakfast, which I knew she’d insist on preparing, and didn’t even have time to brush my teeth (something I never do on an empty stomach anyway).  She heated up a slice of leftover pizza for me and put it in a plastic container for me to bring along.  I thanked her and split without a further word.

It was the last day of the two-week teaching session, and also a Friday, which meant the traffic might be worse than usual.  I grabbed a cab outside my favorite restaurant, which the owner had to close without explanation earlier this week.  It’s been like a death in the family; I’ll tell you more about it later.  

Despite being a middle-aged Korean man with a mustache (a rarity), the driver had photos of his favorite female K-pop stars adorning his dashboard, and was singing along to an insipid jingle fortified with a soul-deadening drum machine and/or synthesizer.  The “girl” who sang the song sounded as if she were just going through the usual meretricious motions in order to sustain her tenuous celebrity in the world of the short attention span and desperately competing specimens of mainly interchangeable semi-entertainment.  I was worried the song might get stuck in my head like a brain tumor, but fortunately it was vapid enough to evaporate shortly after I paid the driver and disembarked at my stop outside the subway station (although it did have the gall to re-emerge later in the day, to remind me that mediocrity almost always triumphs in popular pseudo-culture).

On the train I had to shed my coat and sweater, tossing them on the stainless steel pipes of the overhead rack and wedging them underneath my backpack so they wouldn’t go sliding back and forth and fly into somebody’s horrified lap.  I fitted my special symbiotic reading glasses behind the regular ones so I could proceed down the home stretch of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  The memory emerged that I still had to write brief evaluations for each of my seven main students (in this instance, seven turns out not to be such a lucky number), but I didn’t want to risk writing on the train as the movements of the conveyance threatened to jeopardize my already impenetrable handwriting.

I downed the cool thermos of Colombian coffee in one gulp, put away the reading doodads, took down the sweater and coat, put them back on, strapped on the backpack, and got off at my stop.  I noticed Jina had called, so I called her back and told her I’d made it all right and wasn’t going to be late after all.

At the bus stop I only had to wait a couple of minutes as female university students streamed past, pursuing their respective heroic academic destinies.  I got a seat on the bus and reassembled my reading gear, then hopped off the vehicle at my stop.  One five-minute stroll across a tree-lined path, then into a building and up three flights of stairs later I was in the teachers’ room.  Cheryl, the head teacher, was there to say hello and announce that she needed the student evaluations as soon as possible.  (Grace, the other teacher, didn’t go out of her way to greet me, as is her custom, riveted as she was to the contents of her computer screen.)

I said that would mean I’d have to do them during class time, which would probably fuck up my student survey results.  Mind you, Korean students are usually a dream to teach, at least in some ways.  The culture values education, and teachers are generally treated by their students (at least the adults) with respect.  A few weeks ago, however, one of my students volunteered that a lot of Koreans (he bravely included himself) are xenophobic, and that it takes them awhile for them to get used to the presence of us freaky foreigners.  I thanked him for his honesty, then ordered him to leave the classroom and never come back again (just kidding about the second clause).

All this is by way of saying that the group I was in charge of over the last two weeks was in some ways an exception.  Their counterparts in the other group were a wonderful bunch–always enthusiastic and willing to speak. They even sang along to Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution.”  But my class was, for the most part, a pain in the ass.  Even though at one point I was paranoid enough to flatter myself with the self-loathing suspicion that their passive-aggressive attitude was directed at me in particular, the other two teachers had the same problem with them.  Individually they were fine, more or less.  Collectively, they sucked.  (The other class, meanwhile, had almost miraculous chemistry.  Maybe that’s why they enjoyed Tom Lehrer’s song about the elements so much.)

So I was in no mood to make nice with them when I entered the room.  I also felt damned if I did, damned if I didn’t, since if I kissed their asses on the day of the survey, it might appear too obvious.  But I didn’t know what else to do besides tell them I had some important paperwork to take care of.  I thought they might even have the decency to cut me some slack.  I also had to excuse myself to go and brush my teeth (several years ago a Japanese student I’d taught back in the U. S. had asked me, “Teacher, did you brush teeth?”  “No, I didn’t.  Why?”  “Smell.”).

I was officially fucked, and of course it was my own stupid fault for blowing off the evaluations until the last minute.  You can accuse me of unprofessionalism, or being jaded from having done this shit for over twenty years, but after awhile you run out of euphemisms when you’re writing watered-down comments about students who are not exactly going out of their way to distinguish themselves as intrepid explorers of the English language frontier, and certainly not pioneers.  For all the popularity of English words such as “creativity” and “imagination” in Korea today, the culture worships conformity more thoroughly than originality, which is one thing it has in common with the United States, I suppose (although I’d like to think my own culture does a bit more to nurture individual innovation, at least on paper). 

Besides, most of them don’t even want to be there anyway.  They’re there because their bosses forced them to sign up for the program.  It might not even be an exaggeration that the whole experience doesn’t mean shit to them (again, I’m referring only to the group I just taught; to leaven the attack slightly, they weren’t really all that bad; I’m just a crank who tends to slag people when I’m pissed off–unless it was just the coffee, and I haven’t had any yet today, so I guess it’s safe to say that my wife’s diagnosis is accurate and deep down I’m an absolute heartless prick).

When I got back from brushing my teeth, the students were all still sitting there, not saying a word to one another.  I needed to activate them.  So, even though I’d already distributed the sheets of questions on the topic (“Men, Women, and Relationships”), I added a few more questions to the board, modeled an answer to one of the questions for them, apologized again for having to resort to bureaucratic grunt work, and marveled as their jaws actually started moving and English words proceeded from their mouths in exotic and unorthodox displays.

I hadn’t specified that the paperwork I’d referred to consisted of my evaluations of them, the students, although I’d considered saying something nasty like, “If you guys don’t start talking to each other, it’s going to be hard for me to praise your efforts in these evaluations.”  I also didn’t want to give them any advantage over me; if they knew I was writing the evaluations (and I think my sole female student was perceptive enough to figure it out as I was trying to define the word “flirt” for her, as it appeared in one of the questions on the sheet from the legally photocopiable book Conversation Inspirations; I noticed her glancing at the documents in my lap, and as she’s no dummy, I think she was able to put two and two together; whether she shared her observation with her classmates is another matter), then it would mean they’d be home free to write whatever they wanted in their surveys of me and the other teachers (which they wouldn’t be receiving until later in the day from the human resources guy who works for the company that recruited me).

(While I was writing the questions on the board, I grumbled about the student who was absent, then snapped at him when he got to class, asking why he’d missed so many hours yesterday.  He reminded me that he’d been sick, then I apologized for forgetting, pausing to remove my foot from my mouth.  The only reason I’d asked him was that Cheryl had asked me which classes he’d missed and what his excuse had been.  I’d been too numb to remember either piece of information.  The excuse may well have been bullshit, as his attendance had been appalling, even though–or because–he was one of the better students in the group.)

This entry has already gone much longer than I’d planned it to, so I’ll wrap it up by saying that the worst is yet to come.  If I’m not too traumatized when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll let you know what else happened there and then.

Thanks for your patience.