Sunday, December 28, 2008

yes I said yes I will Yes

... as Joyce wrote in the last line of Ulysses.

Last evening after work I went to see Yes Man, the new Jim Carrey movie. I've never been a big fan of Carrey, because like the early Robin Williams he's never seemed to be able to turn it off. I always have found him very funny for about five minutes, then I want to lie down. But this movie looked a bit more restrained, and it is. It's also aroused great interest here because Carl, Carrey's character, learns Korean. (Say that five times fast.)

Just getting to the movie was an adventure. The ticket, of course, is all in Korean; the sign had the movie listed in theater three, so I hopped into a crowded elevator as the doors closed and tried to hit the "3" button, but there wasn't one, and I had to ride to the 14th floor. On the way back down, a woman with excellent English explained that the elevator didn't go to the lower floors so I'd have to take the escalator. So I did, only to find little shops, no theater. I went back down to the first floor and asked someone who had very little English where the right theater was and he said it was on the fifth floor. I rode the elevator up, bought some popcorn and Coke, and couldn't find the screening room, just seats, a concession stand, and a clothing store. I asked the concession attendant where to go and she told me the ninth floor. I went up the stairs to nine and found a lot of people sitting in the lobby watching trailers on a monitor, in front of two doors marked "1" and "2". The doors to "2" opened and I went in, caught the end credits of something, and the attendant looked at my ticket and said "up". I went back out to the lobby (in front of all those people staring at the crazy American) and saw stairs up to the second floor of the ninth floor. (Yeah, doesn't make a lot of sense to me, either.)

But my point, and I do have one (to quote Ellen deGeneres) has to do with the movie. It's certainly no classic; it's not hilarious and it is a fairly predictable romantic comedy. (It's not as much like Liar Liar as the commercials make it seem.) But I genuinely enjoyed it, I developed a healthy crush on Zooey Deschanel, and it really spoke to me. I've said "no" so many times to different things, scary things, exciting things, everything. I remember repeatedly turning down a chance to go to the lake with friends of the family when I was eight or so; I told my mom, "I'm shy.") Shy of life.

In the movie, Carrey goes to a seminar and decides to say "yes" to every single opportunity he's presented with: do a bungee jump, learn Korean, take flying lessons, fall in love.

I said yes to being here, dangling off the edge of Asia. This is the most amazing reversal of form in my life.

I said yes to free tickets to a drum concert by a famous Korean percussion group and four of us teachers are going tonight (assuming we can figure out where the theater is).

I said "yes" to adopting the cats. (They're fine, by the way.)

Luke and I had considered going out for a drink when I got out of the movie, but I'd said probably not, don't wanna spend the money. After the movie, I had to say yes, and we had a good time, though 24,000 Won for a bottle of Australian blueberry-vodka mixer and a big plate of fries seemed a bit steep. (I guess they charged me for the full appetizer, even then I told them to hold the squid. [I am not kidding.])

I said yes to hiking up Palgongsan (repeatedly) and yes to coaching Anna in running a 5K and yes to the Christmas buffet, hoping to meet a lot of strangers. I didn't meet any, but it was worth it.

Oh, and no to doing the Sky Jump off Woobang Tower.

yes I said yes I will Yes. Mostly.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

God bless us, every one

My Christmas in Korea started off with two strikes against me. Three, really, but that messes up my metaphor. (My alliteration is magnificent, however.) About 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, my heating oil ran out. As it was (and is) below freezing, this is not so good. But people were still at the school, and I called, and they called, and the tank was filled again within a half hour. Then my electric heater, which sits two feet from the computer when I'm at the computer and two feet from the bed when I'm in bed, died. Then this morning, stumbling around fresh out of bed, I hit the coffee carafe on the cabinet and smashed it.

(The day before, the mother of a girl we'd helped with her college prep and the admission process-- my contribution was to edit [well, practically rewrite] her essays- was so happy that her daughter was accepted at both Caltech and Penn that she dropped by with a big thank-you gift to the school, and Heeduk gave me 300,000 Won from it. That's about 210 bucks and it paid for the heating oil.)

I'd planned to go with friends to see "Australia" at the IMAX downtown, then to Hami Mami's for the big Christmas buffet, but Heeduk emailed me on Christmas morning, asking me to come to work for three hours, for which he'd pay me 100,000 Won. I didn't want to, but I had a heater and a carafe to buy, so I made my apologies about missing the movie and went. (It turned out that I ended up watching kids take the SAT practice test for half the time, so in a fit of temporary Yuletide insanity, I told Heeduk he might just as well just pay me half. He took me up on it, which frankly surprised me a bit. In retrospect, that's really only about twelve bucks an hour, which isn't enough for going in at the last minute on Christmas. Ah, well, maybe he'll think well of me... or maybe he's going "Sucker!")

The buffet (with my friends Raymond, Luke, and Sandi) was terribly disappointing for awhile; it was poorly run and chaotic, they'd run out of turkey and were an hour late getting more shipped in from the other Hami Mami's near Camp Walker: it was a huge, tense mess. The only good thing was hearing so much English spoken; I may have seen more Americans there than I have cumulatively seen in nearly four months here.

Finally, though, the new turkeys were brought in from the bullpen, I saw them being carried in and told my friends and they didn't have to wait in the line that snaked all the way up the stairs, I had some coffee and dessert, and I felt much more mellow. (Oh! And last night I was sad that there are no Christmas cookies-- pine trees, angels, bells-- in Korea, and today one of the Korean teachers, not knowing of my feelings, brought some in that she had made! But I digress. And digest.)

When we went back to the dorm just past dark, Sandi insisted on lending me some cd's to transfer to MP3 and some books, I found the excellent little lending library the teachers had set up at the dorm, and I began to feel a lot better. The cold, cold air felt so good that I didn't put on my gloves or hat, and then, walking to the bus stop, I came upon the Bell Park and its decorations: rows of trees wound about with white lights, with hundreds of cobalt blue lights hanging like a canopy between them, making a kind of lovely bower; reindeer made of white lights; Santa's sleigh, highlighted with lights, with young couples and families lined up to take pictures of themselves sitting on the sleigh. And then I offered to take a young couple's picture with their camera. And the air was cold and crisp and clear and fresh. And a star (Venus, actually) hung in the East.

And then it was Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Peace on Earth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This post is rated XX

In the last 90 years, only one young son of a President has lived in the White House: JFK, Jr. Since then, we've had ten First Daughters in a row: Lynda Bird and Luci Baines Johnson, Tricia and Julie Nixon, Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, Barbara and Jenna Bush, and Sasha and Malia Obama.

I guess adopting Tug and Tiki eliminates me from the 2012 race, then...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Song Watermelon

In two weeks on Facebook, I've accumulated 78 "friends", most of whom are ex-students of mine who asked me to add them. (A select few of them are actually friends, including former students, to whom I gave the blog address.) (Hi, guys!)

Somebody local sent a friend request: a girl named "Song Watermelon". It may be her real family name, but I don't think "Watermelon" is common here. She sent a message: "i dont care that meet old people."

Thanks, Melon.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fighting the blahs (blah blah blah)

It's the Sunday night before Christmas and I'm battling the blahs, the blues, and the bleeeeughs. Nothing big; it's just that the newness has worn off. Funny: six months ago, Korea seemed so exotic, such a huge adventure, and now it's just where I live. It doesn't seem a whole lot more exotic that a drive to Wal-Mart back home.

I realize that the corollary is that the blog hasn't been too fascinating lately. Maybe I need to break my face again...

It's okay; it's just life. The weather's turned cold and nasty and I work six days a week, so I'm stuck inside most of the time. Also, today is officially my last anniversary as a married man, and it's almost Christmas and I don't even have a chimney. Ray's gone to Seoul for Christmas with his son's family and Anna's tied up with her mom and sister. Anybody know "The Only Living Boy in New York" by Simon and Garfunkel?

Today was actually pretty nice. I met Kristen and James, the new teachers (a young couple who met at McGill U) and we had a nice lunch at Italy and Italy and I showed them around downtown, just as Ray did for me on my first weekend here. It's nice to pay it forward, as they say.

I've had the cats for four weeks and Tiki let me pick him up for the first time yesterday. You probably have guessed he's named after my favorite football player... I just discovered he's got a chinstrap! He has a thin orange line right across the white under his chin. Tug wants up in my lap a lot while I'm at the computer, which is really nice, except he pushes my hands with his head while I type and he gave me a little love nip on my throat today. Don't like that so much. (And the expression is vampire BAT, not vampire CAT.)

I'm actually doing fine; my lows are higher than my every day used to be. And today's the solstice, too, the day with the most darkness. There will be a little more light every day from now on.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Get thee behind me, uh... me

Forgot to blog this: several weeks ago, I was in my running gear, doing a warmup walk, when a middle-aged Korean lady, walking in the opposite direction, came abreast of me, immediately knelt on the sidewalk, made the sign of the cross five times, and got up and walked on. I have no idea what that was about.

Maybe she's a friend of Sister Suzan at St. Joe...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tiki time!

Big deal chez moi today... I've had the cats for three weeks, and Tug is usually affectionate. Sometimes if I approach him and he's near the couch, he oozes under it, but usually he likes being petted and picked up. Tiki, though, has been much shyer. It's been really frustrating to have him with one paw out for a handout and the other flipping me the bird. (It's a metaphor, kids; a cat doesn't even have a middle finger.)

But Tiki let me pet him today! This is a big deal; just like Mary Richards, we're gonna make it after all.

(Yeah, pretty weak blog entry, but nice double tie-in with the picture, don't you think?)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Come Saturday morning

It's 10:20 on Saturday morning, and I'm slumped like a zombie on Prozac in front of the computer, desperately sucking down coffee and trying to revive enough to do something more useful than cruising Facebook. (Not to knock it, though; I keep finding friends and remembering that life is a web of relationships, not a few tenuous strands to just a few people.) That would be more poetic if I were awake. Still, a simile and a metaphor in the first paragraph: not bad.

I end up going to bed around 2 every night, even though I'm not drinking. So no hangover; there's that, at least. I did find the Daegu Friendship Club on Facebook, so maybe I'll meet some more Anglos locally. Also, I got a link to a blog by one of my former students, which is very nearly as delightful as mine (j/k, omg, lmao!) -- (btw, I HATE it when people use Internet initialisms in practically every sentence, and I don't believe you're l'ing your a off; you're probably barely smiling. And it's spelled "heeheehee", morons!)

Grumpy, much? I need more coffee. brb.

I've constructed quite a series of lifelines; I don't know another English speaker within a mile of my apartment, and I could get lonely, but I have Skype and Facebook and Windows Messenger and the Web, and I'm doing fine. The furboys might as well not exist till noon or so; they sleep silently under the couch, and if I didn't have a catbox to clean, I'd forget they were here. But all these communications apps help me remember that I'm only alone in a geographical sense.

I did have some good news this morning; Heeduk contacted me via Messenger to say that two students with whom I worked (for hours) on their college application essays have been accepted, Dohoon to Seoul University, one of the world's elite schools in genetics (his specialty), and Jungmin to both Caltech and Penn! I had very little to do with their success, but Heeduk's impressed. And he's bringing cake today!

And now I'm relatively cheerful, so I'll stop writing and get a life. lol!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Antic furniture and instant noodies

A couple of months ago, I posted about the mangled and nonsensical English that abounds in Korea, which I call Eanglish. Oftentimes it's on store signs and such, but more often you find it on t-shirts. Everybody wears clothing with English (more or less) on it. (I'm literally the only person I've ever seen here with a t-shirt in Korean writing: letters spelling "Ee-tay-ka"- Ithaca- which was a present from a good friend from Eetayka. What's funny is that the Americans can't read it and the Koreans don't know what it means.)

Anyway, submitted for your approval:

Online, I found a t-shirt that (in Korean) says "Do you know what your t-shirt says?"

A little shop near the school advertises vintage clothing and "antic furniture". That's false advertising; the furniture doesn't even move.

The luxurious Dong-A department store's grocery section has an aisle marked CANNES GOODS, but there's no film festival memorabilia. And, sadly, the INSTANT NOODIES turn out to just be ramen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Please don't tell your friends

If you enjoy my blog, please do the opposite of what everybody else on earth tells you to do if you like their stuff: don't tell your friends! My friends here haven't volunteered to appear on the 'net and the only way it's okay, as far as I'm concerned, is if this blog is basically a blanket email to my friends, not a general post to the world.
Throwing some stuff against the wall:

At the urging of my friend Ray L. (big, friendly, warm, Christian, Hispanic guy- he will hereafter in this blog be called Ray, as opposed to Ray C., the small, older, progressive guy just transferred to the Manchon school to work with us and who will be called Raymond- got it?), I joined Facebook today. I quickly got in touch with a bunch of friends (16 in the first four hours). I'm tired of living my whole life locking myself in my room and wondering where everybody is. I'm coming out (not like that) to build and rebuild as many friendships as I can.

(If you're already on Facebook, find me!)

I strongly recommend Facebook, btw. And Skype. Also Krispy Kremes. But I digress.

The school has set up tickets for a concert by a famous Korean drum ensemble for a few days after Christmas. So if you want to Skype me, do it soon, while I can still hear.

Most Koreans take no notice of me as a foreigner, even though I live way to the east of downtown and all the other teachers and I rarely see other Westerners. But one day last week, a guy across the street from the bus stop saw me and shouted, "Hello! Show me the money!" And the little kids love to go, "Hello! Hello!"

I walked past a little family restaurant last week and saw two teenage girls working at the counter. No customers were ordering, but some were eating nearby. One of girls was leaning over the sink for dishes and vigorously brushing her teeth. (She was foaming like a cartoon mad dog.) Dunno what to say about that.

They have second- and third-floor shops downtown with neon "DVD" signs out front that I'd assumed were sales and rental places, but they're actually something new and clever: private theaters. You go up, rent one of a video-store-quality selection of movies, and get a private room, with couches and chairs and a giant screen tv to watch it on. I'm looking forward to it, as there's only been one movie I wanted to see since I got here (Quantum of Soulless) and I wished afterward I hadn't seen it.

Ray and I went to a little restaurant downtown called Italy and Italy. It was really nice; the seats are little two-person comfy couches, you pick your own pasta or pizza by checking off items on a slip, and the food is really good. It's also only a block from Hami Mami's, so all of the four food groups (pizza, pasta, French toast, and coffee) are right there.

Speaking of restaurants, on Friday night the school hosted a staff get-together at a little traditional Korean restaurant nearby. You take off your shoes at the door, pretend you're twenty years younger and hunker down on a pillow and stick your legs under Pippin Took's table, and watch as the staff brings fifteen tiny bowls of various mostly unidentifiable stuff to be shared and rice and soup for each individual. Then they heat up the grill on your table, wipe it down with fat, and throw pig (sort of in between ham and bacon, I guess) and onions and such on it. It was nice, aside from the pig smoke in my face.

I also had my first-ever shot of whiskey. (Yeah, I know. But I'm a beer and wine-- but not mixed together-- guy.) It was good. George brought his friends Johnny, Jack, and Jim with him (family names Walker, Daniel, and Beam), and I said hi to Johnny. Evidently George spent a long evening with all three friends; at work on Saturday he looked like he'd been dragged behind Ben Hur's chariot. If he had a cat, on Saturday morning he'd have been muttering for it to stop stomping around.

Which reminds me: Tug is turning into a furry purry housecat. (Dang, I wish he had learned to play; I could call him a furry purry flurry.) Last evening he jumped into my lap for the first time, gave my hand one of those little love nips (I hate that!) and licked my chin. I may train him to be more thorough with that so I can save on razor cartridges. Tiki is still super shy, but he has come out from under the couch a few times when I'm at the computer. Of course, if I sigh or shift my weight he's under the couch again in a nanosecond, but it's a start.

In conclusion, the Koreans and I don't see eye to eye on the whole bathroom thing. I can deal with the lack of euphemisms: they don't have restrooms, bathrooms, comfort stations, water closets, or loos; the signs all say "toilet". Fine. But.

In a lot of public bathrooms, the doors are open, or the urinals are in clear view of people passing by if anyone should open the door at an inopportune moment.

Many bathrooms have a bar of soap and a hand towel by the sink.

Some toilets make you buy toilet paper from a dispenser.

The cleaning ladies will walk in at any moment, without knocking, and start work, no matter who's in there or what his current activity.

Some of the older facilities offer you a kind of porcelain trough to crouch over. No railing, even. When I was ten, I wanted to be the Mets' first baseman. At twenty, I wanted to be J.R.R. Tolkien. Now my life's ambition is to never ever ever use one of those things, however long I'm in Korea. As we get older, we adjust our goals.

I choose my facilities by a process of elimination.

Sorry about that line; couldn't help it.
(If Larry King can make up a whole newspaper column of nothing but unconnected, irrelevant little snippets, I can blog the same way. I'd like to live to be 150, too.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thanksgiving's the picture from our 78-course Thanksgiving dinner at the Novotel:
Luke (Manchon LIKE), Sandi (Samduk LIKE), Cliff (S), Me (M), Alex (S), Anna (M), Robert (S), Ray C. (S), Ray L. (M).

It was a good day.

(Hey, I just figured out that if you click on a picture in the blog, you see an enlargement. It might be worth your time... some of us rarely get out pictures taken without a complementary profile shot and a little black sign held under our chins...)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cats, calves, and Christmas

(At least the cats emerge once in awhile; the tree never comes up from the subway.)

The preponderance of my nerves has officially been wracked by the cats. It's been ten days now, and I've been mulling over my options, as the boys were clearly not settling in and their yowling and crying was driving me crazier and waking me at night. Tiki (the orange guy) is still so scared that he almost never comes out from under the couch unless I'm gone or asleep. Tug is less shy and has let me pick him up, but never purred or seemed affectionate and spent a lot of time with his brother subdavenportally.

The mullables were fourfold: keep the cats and tough it out, trade Tiki for the boys' other brother, as suggested by the cat ladies, return Tiki and keep Tug, or return them both. (A reminder: back on the streets is a bad, bad place for cats in Korea.)

But then Tuesday night we had a bit of a breakthrough: I had found some Jinny brand cat treats from Thailand ("Great Taste for Great Happiness!") at Home Plus; I held Tug on my lap and scattered the treats on the computer desk and he went nuts for them. When I put him down he kept jumping up on the desk and walking across my keyboard (completely ignoring the mouse!) to look for more. Then he purred, loudly and beautifully, and kept leaning his head back into my hand and closing his eyes in bliss. Also, eventually Tiki came out from under and within a foot of where I sat on the floor to get his Jinny fix. (Tug's also a furry little stoner; I found catnip, too.)

So I'm keeping them. We'll work it out.

Meanwhile, I've enthusiastically taken up running again, now that I've found a good venue. For the last couple of days, my calves have been so tight I walk like Grandpa Amos (ask your own grandpa for an explanation of the analogy, kids), but still it feels good. My new bestest possession, an iPod Shuffle, goes with me, and Pink and David Bowie and Bon Jovi really do make the miles (or in my case, the yards) fly by.

On Saturday, running down by the river, I inadvertently became a scofflaw on my second continent, as I ran across the wood-planked footbridge over the river only to find a booth with a collector at the other end; the guy was holding his hand out and saying something gruffly, but, not having any money on me, I had to ignore him, choose to be deafened by the iPod, and just keep running. Can't hear ya, Mac: they're paving Paradise and putting up a parking lot. (They are, too, in Daegu, every minute of every day.)

I also stumbled upon the end of a marathon; at least I think it was a marathon, as the electronic clock was reading two hours, thirty-nine minutes; it may have been a 10K for people as fast as I.

It's getting Yulesque here; it reminds me of the Christmases of my childhood (Yules of Yore?), when the retail festivities were more restrained, before Wal-Mart started putting up the plastic trees as they took down the Valentine's Day stuff. There are decorations in the underground shopping areas and the department stores, and displays of artificial trees and their trimmings for sale in all the stores. The school has put up an artificial tree with dozens of little slips for the students to hang on it for the teachers. Unfortunately, they all write their greetings in Korean, but I'm hoping they're saying something nice.

Puss on Earth, everyone.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Yes, it's like this

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

-William Butler Yeats came over me today, searching for deodorant in the tiny dark shops (separated by shoulder-width aisles) peddling Williams Lectric-Shave and Aqua Velva in the black-market alleyways, as the neon and Christmas tree lights of downtown came on and the air grew chilly, that I could say something I haven't said enough in my life: I'm happy.

More and more often, over a cup of coffee and a book at Hami Mami's, or running in the little park on the hill above the swan boats, or waiting for the 508 bus with the sun in my eyes and the wind in my face... I get a moment of grace, and I am blessed and can bless.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Finally finding me

It's funny. At age 55, after two marriages, two dozen pets, and too many jobs to count, I feel as if I'm finally finding myself, ten thousand miles from home. Why the heck I've been hiding over here all these years is a mystery to me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Nofurky Day

Hi, everybody. Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is raw and wet in Daegu, just exactly the kind of family holiday not to spend alone in your dark apartment thinking of family and pumpkin pie. Fortunately, a teacher named Robert at the Samduk branch has a lot of money and is very generous; he hosted Thankgiving lunch for us at the newest, fanciest hotel downtown. There was a nice eighth-floor view of downtown, though the clouds and haze hid the mountains.

And, OMG, you guys, the food! He had ordered two whole turkeys for the ten of us, nine if you don't count me, the carnscientious objector. (Too big a stretch there?) A waiter came and carved the turkey at the table. But also there was a buffet with clams, oysters, mussels, escargot, shark steak in cream sauce, assorted roast beasts, green beans, salad, fresh fruit, and about a dozen fancy desserts, including a passable pumpkin pie. I never met a carb I didn't like, so I made out great, though I have to go to work shortly and the sugar high is wearing offfffffffffffzzzzzzzzzzzz

No smashed or sweet taters, no tofurky, but still, wow. It's probably the nicest hotel I've ever been in, and that includes both the New York Hilton and the Fredericksburg Red Roof Inn. Mostly, it was nice to be with friends on the holiday. (If Luke e's me a photo, I'll put it up here.)

We're starting to plan some sort of a Christmas get-together. Anna is so lucky; her mom and sister will be here for Christmas. I hope we can all join in and keep the 10,000-miles-from- home Christmas blues away. Stores here are selling and displaying tinsel and lights and angels and such, and there are lovely, decorated trees in the underground shopping areas downtown.

At Costco yesterday, I saw a young Buddhist nun, gray robed, shaved headed, picking out Christmas decorations.

On the home front, Tug and Tiki cry and moan much of the time. They look at me and yowl. I give them food, they eat and yowl. Milk: drink and yowl. I guess they're just still freaked out by being closed up inside. (For an urban cat in Korea, outside equals danger, hunger, and misery.) I'm trying to keep my attitude aligned to "It's okay, guys, I'll make sure nothing ever happens to you" and away from "Shut up, you furry little bastards." It's hard on the nerves, though.

They are letting me sit within three feet or so when they eat, and have both resentfully (but without hissing or swatting) let me pet them a little, so we are making progress. Faster would be better.

At any rate, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, or if you don't see this till afterward, Happy Yemeni Independence Day.

There's always something to celebrate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scaredy cats

It's been a tough couple of days at the cathouse.

Tiki (on the left) and Tug (on the right) have made their den in the furnace room. They spend just about all of the time, when I'm home anyway, on the cement. I bought a blanket and laid it down for them just in front of the tubing, as it won't fit behind it; they prefer to stay sheltered by the tubing.

What's really a pain is that Tiki kept mewing piteously and incessantly most of the night; on the rare occasions when his noise was cessant (English teachers are too allowed to make up words), I couldn't relax, counting the seconds until he... ah, there he goes again. He had wedged himself on the window ledge behind the furnace door and he was letting the world know he wasn't happy. Finally, either he got sleepy or my machinations (close the furnace room door a bit so he can't wedge himself in, leave the kitchen light on, shut my bedroom door, pray for death) worked, because he shut up about 4 a.m. I woke up at 8, full of vim, vigor, and I'm totally lying.

I did get them to eat a little this morning, putting the bowls just inside the furnace area, but with the door propped so they could see me sitting calmly ten feet away. It's a start. I think Tug might be venturing out by now, if Tiki weren't freaking him out. They do come out when I'm not here; a bunch of my toiletries was lying on the bathroom floor when I got home last night, and somebody'd been playing Minesweeper.

In a freak of scheduling, I have today off, and I'd planned to go hike Palgongsan. Right now, however, I have just enough energy to maybe make it down my stairs. I'm going to take the bus to Costco for cat and people supplies, then come back and take a nap, if it's pussible.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Posse cats

(Some of this post is graphic and shocking.)

I made a huge change in my life today, one that will affect me for many years: I have two cats now. I'd show you photos, but they've been here for two and a half hours and they haven't come out from under the couch yet.

On Friday, I thought I'd check out the little pet shops across town near the big Banwoldang intersection, just to see how much they charge for cats. (Ordinarily, I would never, ever buy an animal from a pet store, but there simply are no shelters here. None. Not one. And there's no way I, in my situation, could lure a stray and domesticate it.) Turns out that the pet shops just have dogs: tiny pups the size of your fist, from little breeds; the puppies are kept one per little plastic cubicle. There was one sleeping pup, a terrier I think, that may not even have his eyes open yet. This is a cruel, cruel country for animals, and I will have much more disturbing, disgusting information a few paragraphs down.

But this part of the post is light-hearted: I went to Hami Mami's, the American-style brunch restaurant inside Club That, the downtown jazz club/bar. As I was leaving, I asked the cook, whose English is pretty good, "Where would you go to adopt a cat in Daegu?" She said that less than ten minutes before, a woman had been in, asking if she knew anyone looking to adopt a cat! I left my phone and email with a vague hope that they might call me and headed to the bus stop. Two blocks down, I realized I had left my Mets cap and turned back. When I returned, the cook said the woman had just called, was right downtown, and would be back in five minutes. (I know the universe tugging at my sleeve when I feel it.)

When the woman got there, we did some pidgin communicating (cats among the pidgins?) and she showed me online photos of four six-month-old cats, from the same litter, that her friend was fostering, street cats she had been feeding that had finally allowed her to pet them and pick them up. One of them is nearly an identical twin of JP, my beloved tiger cat who died 13 years ago. The cook translated for me that that one "is friends" with the orange one, and that "they are man". I told her I was very interested in taking the gray/brown tiger, and maybe his orange brother to keep him company, and she said someone would call by Sunday (today).

Later that day, Heeduk told me that landlords don't rent to people with pets, although if you sign the lease and just move in with pets unannounced, they can't do anything to you, as the leases don't have no-pets sections. (Apparently they're not familiar with the concept of the damage deposit.) The thought of the difficulties of moving with a cat in Korea, perhaps several times, and eventually returning to the States with them had my head saying it would be nuts to adopt one, and totally insane to get two. My heart wanted the company, though, and I went around and around with it.

This is what I found out on the Web on Saturday: though many Koreans love dogs, there is a folk belief that eating dog, in addition to being a great meal, is a cure for impotence. Also, they believe that if the dog is in horrible pain for a long time, it enhances the flavor and the potency, due to the adrenalin in its muscles. So dogs, especially big yellow dogs (which are considered especially tasty) are generally tortured to death. I won't go into details.

Cats, as a species, have it worse. Folk belief is that cats are devious, hateful animals, and strays are fair game. They are no laws protecting them, and Korean men especially (I read) enjoy killing them. I know that every single cat I've seen on the street slinks away when a person comes near. In addition to everything else, cat soup is considered a rheumatism remedy, and they are commonly stuck in a bag, smashed on the head, and, conscious or not, boiled alive.

I believe these things, because everyone has told me Koreans hate stray cats, these statements were posted by both Koreans and Westerners, and one posting had links to YouTube videos. I didn't watch them, of course.

At the moment, this country seems like a medieval third-world hellhole covered with a high-tech Samsung-LG-Hyundai veneer.

As you might guess if you know me at all, I could not not adopt a couple of cats after reading that information. Everything I believe in would be a lie if I didn't do so.

Today I got a call from a young woman who speaks excellent English and we made an appointment to meet at Club That this afternoon. I busied myself at E-Mart, buying food and supplies; there are a few people here who love cats, and the store's cat section if five or ten percent the size of its dog area.

When I got to Club That, two women were waiting, neither of whom spoke more than a few words of English. But within five minutes, Hyunjong, the young woman who had called me, arrived, and I heard the background information. There's a tiny, loose coalition of animal lovers in town who make it their business to TNR (trap, neuter, release) street cats. One of their friends, who was not there, had saved these four, paid to spay or neuter them, and has been feeding them for weeks.

After an interminable time over coffee, the four of us took the long drive to her house, where I met my new posse, my friends, my kids. Both the boys have rounded left ears, as Korean law says that the vet must clip the tip off the ear of a cat when it's neutered: it's against the law to harm a neutered cat, and the ear is how people recognize one (as if they would notice or care that it had been fixed.) I signed a contract saying that I would never be cruel to the cats or abandon them, paid 60,000 Won (a fraction of what she'd paid to get them neutered) and agreed that she could call periodically and come visit them to see that they're being treated well.

And so, eventually, Hyunjong and the two other women I'd met at Club That came back with me to my apartment, where we let the guys out of their carriers. That was three hours ago now, and they still haven't come out from under the couch. (After all, they're strays who had just learned to trust one person.) Once in awhile I hear a tribble noise. Sooner or later, they'll come out for food and we can begin bonding.

I know from experience that a cat has to grow into a name; the right names will come in a little bit. For the moment, I'm calling the brown-gray tiger Tug; it reminds me of the way JP would lie on his side and bat dry food to his face, and is the name of my favorite baseball player. The orange guy, for now anyway, is Tiki, after my favorite football player. Tug and Tiki: has a ring to it, I think, but maybe other names will present themselves.

I believe in spreading kindness and healing, though I have failed so many times to live up to it. This is one way I can act on what I believe in. I look forward to years of sharing my life with these guys. But first they have to come out from under the couch.

Update: bedtime, midnight, seven hours in: not yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mostly toasty

I feel better now. George arrived with two of the school's managers today (with a special guest appearance by George'e wife, Glory, as interpreter) to rig up my windows with heavy-gauge clear plastic. Now the ones in the two main rooms, including the one that doesn't close, are completely covered. They left enough materials that I can do the other, smaller ones if I want. Yeah, it was nice to be able to see out (the tinted inner sliding windows are behind the plastic), but I'll trade that for warmth and a bearable heating bill. All I could see was a school and a bunch of apartment high-rises, anyway.

George also showed me how to use the thermostat. I know that sounds stupid, but there are three dials and four buttons (that have to be punched in just the right conjunction), and of course they're all in Korean. I also couldn't figure out where the heat comes in: no vents, no radiator, not a single luxury. Turns out the heat runs under the floor.

Anyway, it works; it was 14C (57F) in here this morning, but 20C (68F) tonight. (You'd be surprised how quickly you can shower and dress when it's that cold, you have no carpets, and you can't stand under the spray. Vern Troyer, I ain't.)

In other news, the fridge freezes everything: I have tomatoes the consistency of lacrosse balls. George says they'll get it fixed. The microwave hasn't worked for six weeks, but Heeduk's going to reimburse me for one I just got at E-Mart; my contract says they provide a nuker. (Bonus ego-lifter: I was able to tell the cabbie "Tongbu Chung Hak Kyo" -Tongbu Middle School- and get him to bring me home with my new Zapmater 3000!) And the way is clear for me to get a cat, if I decide to. Most landlords in Korea, including mine, have no problem with pets; I wouldn't get one if I had to ever abandon it. (A cat, not a landlord.)

I do think it would be nice to come home to somebody, especially in a warm home.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Who wants to be a frigidaire?

It's frickin' frigid, friends. The high temperature today is in the upper 30s F, but don't let that fool you; the wind cuts through like a ginsu knife. The windchill is in the mid-20s, but it's a damp cold, so it's worse. The windchill tonight will be in the teens. And it's only November.

It's not much better in the apartment. I've looked and looked and I can't see where the devil the heat's supposed to come in from. I have a thermostat, but nothing seems to get warmer when I adjust it. As you may remember, my windows slide but don't seal, and there's a two-inch gap to the outside to allow cables to come in. George from school is supposedly coming over tomorrow or Friday to help me put up plastic sheeting. I hope so. Right now, the pedestal heater will keep any one part of my body warm, as long as I'm within a foot of it.

At this point, I'm thinking that I can't eat any ramen soup because all the varieties contain meat, but I could soak my feet in some...

Friday, November 14, 2008

This is NOT good

...this is scary, and I feel so helpless about it:

(Now I know why it's horribly smoggy even out in the countryside.)

See that tiny dash of white cloud running east to west, toward the southeast of Korea? I'm right on the right-hand tip of it.

No wonder I see a dozen people or more every day wearing face masks.


There's nothing amusing about that, but I've been meaning to post the number one song in Korea this year, so you can get an idea of K-pop and how so much popular culture throws in a few words of English.

So, to distract myself from the killer air, ladies and gentlemen, the Wonder Girls: can't go a block downtown without hearing this song blasting from a store.

I'm listless and achy with a cold, so a couple of links is all you get today. Sorry! At least I hope it's a cold...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Autumn leaves must fall

(I took this photo... it's possible, if you're lucky, to get a great shot with an inexpensive camera.)

Yesterday, on the most beautiful, sunny, brisk fall day imaginable, I went to the Daegu Arboretum. It was a major endeavor, involving a bus ride, a subway trip all the way to the end of the line, and a mile walk, but it was worth it.

There were probably literally a million flowers there, and gorgeous autumn leaves (although they don't turn the brilliant reds and oranges see in upstate New York), and lots of local couples and kids and cameras. (Koreans say "kim chee" to smile for photos, by the way.) And a very patient flutterby with a two-inch wingspan.

It's a very peaceful place.

It reminded me so strongly of my childhood, with my dad at the Plant Science greenhouses and gardens at Cornell, and walking to football games amid the crisp air and the reds and oranges on the trees.

I want some apple cider.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I know I'll get home

Hey you guys! I found the coolest things this morning.

Before last weekend, I had only been out running once since I got here, as the city seems to be made up entirely of dangerous main roads, little winding back streets with no room for both pedestrians and drivers, and (on the main streets) sidewalks with a lot of uneven and missing bricks. Sidewalks can rip up your knees pretty darn good anyway (or at least my knees, which are already arthritic). Getting hit by a car ain't no Whitman's sampler, neither.

Running with Anna on Sunday (as well as finding out that my scale is off by five kilos, so I haven't lost 11 pounds-- or 11 ounces-- after all) inspired me. But I'm not about to walk 20 minutes each way and take the subway twice to get to the river near downtown (and back) every time I want to run. This morning, I went out in my new warmup pants (I'm not so very brave that pj pants seemed like a good longterm solution) and headed east, away from the city center, toward the amusement park area I wrote about several weeks ago.

But this time I went a little farther, and I couldn't believe what I found. I came to a river, of which the one toward downtown is a tributary. It has miles of untrafficked road next to it, and paddle boats shaped like swans moored along the waterfront. I found a huge statue of some ancient hero (not John McCain) on his noble steed, and I saw a huge marble-blocked building (a ziggurat? a ziggar?), with an elaborate pagodaesque building on top. (When I went back to take these photos, an old man was beating a drum and another was playing cymbals, so I'm guessing it's something Buddhist.) I went toward the tall, pale tower I see every night when I come home; it has a big diamond-shaped space near the top that at night glows with ever-changing pastel neon lights. I had assumed it was part of some business complex; it turns out it marks a massive war memorial plaza with a black granite wall that has thousands of names carved on it, flanked by bellicose friezes and backed by dozens of Korean flags. It will mean something different now when I see it every night; appropriately, today is Veterans' Day in the US.

And best of all, I found a park! There's a long hilly strip, fifty yards wide and maybe miles long, up above the river, with dirt trails and grass and trees, all just about ideal for running. This is wonderful new knee news. My biggest complaint about Daegu, other than the air quality, is the nearly complete lack of parks, green space, and nature. I found some! I'll be out there running often.

And, maybe more importantly, I confirmed something that's been coming on for awhile now about timid little me: I should take some chances, try something new, let myself blunder about, and see what I find. (I think I mean that in more ways than just physically.) I have a decent sense of direction and I know some landmarks now, and I'm not afraid to strike out in some direction to see something new, come to an intersection, and take a guess which is the better way to turn. (As Yogi Berra said, "When you see a fork in the road, take it.")

I know I'll get home.

Today, once I was out of sight of anything I knew, I just headed westish sometimes and northish sometimes, ended up taking a tunnel under a railroad bridge, seeing a high school with an artificial turf soccer field (other schools have dirt), and inching and oonching my way back down alleyways and across eight-lane roads till I knew where I was. I ended up running ten minutes longer than I thought I could, but I made it.

I know I'll get home.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

This post has been approved for mature audiences only

...that title may be a trick to get you to read this, but it worked, didn't it? And any twelve-hour period that involves both an encounter with a hooker and running around halfway across a city in pajama pants has to be considered a little racy, doesn't it? Maybe not...

Last night (Saturday), a bunch of us from the Samduk and Manchon LIKE schools went out to dinner at The Holy Grill, a Canadian-owned restaurant. Originally, those of us at the Obamathon had planned to go there for drinks on Wednesday night, looking for similarly elated Obamericans, but we all pooped out. For Saturday, we opened it to anybody who wanted to come, and avoided political talk. There were seven of us; we ordered drinks and various burgers and cheesesteaks and (for me) a nacho platter the size of a manhole cover.

Afterward, we wandered off on our separate errands. My inexpensive wall clock had stopped working and E-Mart no longer carries them, so I wandered a half-dozen blocks north and west to Daegu (train) Station, then another half-dozen to HomePlus, the department store owned by Samsung and Tesco. I found me a clock, which even as I type is driving me a little nuts because I didn't think to get a sweep-second-hand clock and it's tick... tick... ticking in my ear. Maybe I can get a replacement at a second-hand shop. (Ba-dum-dum.)

On the way back to the main drag downtown, I ended up cutting through the back streets. It's pretty dark and almost a little third-worldy back there, though you can always see a sea of neon a few blocks away.

I was most of the way back to the bus stop when I was tapped on the shoulder. A really pretty, fresh-faced Korean girl, her face lighting up like I was her best friend, said, "Hi!" I knew she wanted something; Korean women do not just greet unfamiliar men, even if the men are quite extinguished- looking. Make that "distinguished".

My first impulse was that she was a hooker, though she was much more attractive and well-kept than I'd expect (quite a bit more so than Julia Roberts in that movie, actually), and the only hookers I'd seen in Korea were some rough-looking Russian women in Busan. Then I thought maybe she wanted a handout, but she was too well-dressed. I said "Hi" back, and kept walking; I figured that, if she really wanted something, she'd call out or follow me. She didn't.

I did a little research when I got home; turns out I had cut through Gyodong Market, which is full of little stores with great deals on electronics and tiny back-alley black market shops that specialize in Western goods you can't get here (like deodorant!). It's also a hotbed (ooh, bad word choice!) of prostitution. Yike.


This morning, I went out to run with Anna, a friend who also teaches at Manchon LIKE. She wants to run a 5K and had asked me to coach her. I only brought minimal running gear from the States: shoes, shorts, shirts. Unfortunately, "warmup suit" does not begin with "sh" and I had limited capacity in packing, so I didn't bring one. (Ah, crap... "socks" doesn't begin with "s" either. Well, it does if you're Sean Connery.) Onward.

What to do? Run in Dockers or jeans? No. Walk a mile to the subway and take the train two miles to the river, where we were going to run, in shorts? No; it was 50 degrees, windy, and damp. I know! I'll wear my plaid flannel lounge pants over my running shorts! (They're supposed to be for kicking around at home, but... don't tell anyone... they're my jammies pants too.)

I figured that: a) people would think that the American style is to run around in your jammies, or b) they think all Americans are crazy anyway, or c) they'd think I was just wearing plaid warmup pants. Oh, and d) nobody knows me anyway, and e) joke 'em if they can't take a... never mind. I will say I never would have dared do this till recently. I don't care too much what strangers think anymore. (Sandi's email signature is a quote from Einstein: "I'm at the age where, if people tell me to put on socks, I don't have to." Smart man.)

The lounge pants actually are great to run in. Turns out there are lockers at the Daegu Bank subway station where I met Anna, so in future I can wear jeans, go into the men's room to take them off, and stow them.

But you know what? It was kind of liberating to wear my jammies in the subway. I recommend it highly. The nightie should stay home, though.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Quantum of Soulless

...okay, the post's title should say something cute about Abba, too, but if some critic doesn't steal my title for the new Bond flick, it'll be a shame. I'm kinda proud of this one.

Anyway, I saw the two most opposite movies ever made. The first was so testosteroney (beefaroney?) I actually grew a chest hair. The second estrogened my moustache off.

Ray, Luke, Alex and I went downtown to see Quantum of Solace, the new 007 movie, which hasn't even opened stateside yet. I disliked it fairly intensely. It was loud and brutal and full of plot I couldn't follow and action scenes I couldn't decipher, because not a single camera shot lingered for more than a second and a half and the sound system was dialed to 111. The movie was dark and gritty and had not one hint of a smile, a heart, or a soul.

The price was right, though: eight bucks for a ticket, popcorn, and a Coke. And as a small-town boy, I'd never been to a theater with a different screen on each of ten floors.

When I got home, I wanted something light, the same way I need something sweet after a spicy Korean meal. I found Mamma Mia online. Gale, who went back to Oklahoma a month ago, said it was the worst movie she's ever attended, and I can understand that. It's certainly goofy and dumb. But it is the brightest, sunniest movie I've ever seen, not counting Jesus Christ, Superstar, which doesn't count due to its rather... downbeat ending.

Speaking of 007, however, whoever decided that Pierce Brosnan could sing should have his brosnan pierced. He's a musical comedy star to the precise extent that I'm James Bond.

The thing is, everyone in the movie obviously decided this is just a crazy, dumb over-the-top campfest, so I'm going to say screw it, let's have fun with it. And they did.

I didn't know my face could wince while my toes were tapping.

And nobody got his head slammed through a plate-glass window. That's always a plus.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Oh, happy day

(Feel free to skip this post if you voted for McCain.)

We had a little Obamarama at my apartment this morning. Anna (alone in picture) and Micah (young guy) from the Manchon school and Ray C. (not the Ray I spend a lot of time with) and Sandi from the Samduk branch came over and we huddled around my laptop talking and laughing and noshing on fruit and cookies and Cup Noodles and tensing up and relaxing and finally celebrating.

Gee, it was nice to have guests! I had never had anybody in the apartment before; I'm miles from any of the other teachers. It really invigorated me, and so did the result.

I believe Barack Obama may become a great president. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe he's all words, maybe the lefty base will desert him when they find out he's neither a saint nor a wizard. He's a true politician, and you can't get out of a hole this deep very quickly. But I think that maybe he has just the temperament and the brains we need right now, and he could be a transformational figure like Lincoln or (either) Roosevelt or Millard Fillmore. (All right, now I'm just trying to find out who reads these things all the way down to the bottom.)

...and tonight we're going downtown to the Holy Grill to find a celebration. Hooray!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Boos, shoes, 'n' blues

None of the Korean kids had much idea about Halloween. George supervised the preparation of the school for the holiday, hanging shredded streamers at the head of the hallway, putting black construction paper over our classroom windows and purple construction paper over the overhead hall lights, and hanging a few bats and spiders at strategic spots. It all looked pretty spooky. I brought in mini-chocolate bars for the kids and had to teach them all that you don't get a treat by shouting "Teacha! Candy! Candy!" So now they know about Trick or Treat. A few of them had witch hats or capes on; I predict that Halloween will be big here in five or ten years.

Today, Sunday, I was supposed to go hiking on Palgongsan with Micah, but he canceled at the very last minute. Actually, that's just as well; I'm still pretty beat from going up the mountain several days ago and I was mostly going to go to show him around. I was already partway downtown, having taught a class for the absent Heeduk, so I decided to go on down there and find some running shoes. Mine have worn down pretty quickly; the sidewalks here are bad for me, literally from head to toe. (Ha!)

So I located some New Balances at a smallish shop and then found Hami Mami's for some French toast. (It's okay now to not call it Freedom toast, isn't it?) I'd been to the little Hami Mami's Western-style brunch restaurant by Camp Walker a couple of times, but this was the real thing, the one run by Hami herself. It's in Club That, the jazz bar/restaurant that draws a lot of English teachers and other Westerners. There were a few Yanks there today, and to tell the truth it was nice to hear American spoken. I had actually been there once before, saying goodbye to Curtis, up at the tiny third-floor bar. The place is kinda mismatched and funky in a way I like, sort of like the Rongovian Embassy back home, all grown up. I'll be going back to Club That some evening in hopes of making some new friends.

I'm planning a get-together with some of the friends I've already got, Obama supporters who work at LIKE. On Wednesday morning, we're having an election-watching party (a Democratic party) at my place. Maybe a half-dozen people, which is all the apartment can hold, will come. I found a site that streams MSNBC and CNN (and F-word News) live and one of the guests is bringing a wireless router so we can set up several laptops. We'll have brunchy stuff and maybe, I hope, a little champagne. It will be a great party... if we win.

To tell the truth, I'm a little worried about the election; Obama's way ahead in the popular vote, but that includes huge margins in New York, California, and Illinois. He's only a little ahead in a lot of battleground states, and between the hammering about taxes and the (incredibly suspiciously timed) illegally leaked info about his illegal-resident aunt and possible buyer's remorse by the undecideds, they might flip. It's just possible he could get 52% of the popular vote and lose the electoral college. I don't expect it to happen, but it might. I'd like to say that I'd just die, but I already died in the last two elections.

Anyway, I went looking for mugs and glasses. I walked several blocks west of downtown, where I had never been before, to the huge Seomun Market, and found something I'd rather not have seen (see the post below this), which is still haunting me, but no mugs. I took the bus back and stopped at E-Mart and found the most darling mugs on special. (That adjective was in solidarity with those opposing the anti-gay measures in California and Florida.) They have happy cartoon donkeys on them! (The mugs, not the people opposing... oh, never mind.) If our side wins, I'll give the mugs to my friends as souvenirs.

It will be a great time if we win. We'll paint the town Democratic blue. If not, we'll be the ones who are blue.

I'll never go into a traditional market again

In planning for Wednesday morning's election returns get-together at my apartment, I went looking for mugs and glasses. (I have two of each, and I expect a half-dozen guests.)

I ended up 'way on the other side of downtown, at Seomun Market, the biggest traditional Korean market between Seoul and Busan. I was leery of going anywhere near a market after seeing the dog carcass at one of them, but I know that you can find nearly anything there, for much cheaper than in department stores, and I planned to steer clear of any dead animal stalls, which are always grouped together.

The market is amazing, a giant labyrinth of dark, tiny little shops with four- or five-foot aisles between them, with many thousands of people trying to elbow through each other, sometimes motor scooters plowing through the crowds, and literally millions of items for sale. The photo above is of the widest, brightest, least crowded area there, and at that I waited for a dozen people to pass me before I took the picture.

I had just entered an area with a lot of dead fish and decided to turn around when up ahead I saw a gorgeous little fluffy white dog the size of a purse, in a cage barely bigger than he was. He was panting happily and wagging at everyone who walked by. He was so cute and happy that he should have been in a Mighty Dog commercial.

He was food.

No doubt they'd sell him as a pet if you wanted, but he was there next to a lot of little cages, each with a half-dozen chickens jammed into them. (If I had seen them earlier, I would have turned around then.) He was food.

I just do not understand how you could kill and eat something that's wagging its tail and smiling at you.

For a moment I thought wildly about buying him. But I can't have a dog where I am. It ran through my mind to buy him and just let him go on the street to take his chances. But I've seen half-starving cats on the streets, and I haven't seen any hint of an animal shelter in the city. It seemed even crueler to turn him loose to suffer, and all that would happen then is that they'd bring in another dog tomorrow to take his place on Death Row.

It hurt badly, but I turned around and walked away as fast as I could. Did I do the right thing?

Tanks of fish and octopi and squid are in the windows, or on the sidewalks out front, of restaurants everywhere here, and I always feel terrible thinking about their waiting all unknowing to be grabbed and killed at any time. I know that animal cruelty is just more open here than in the U.S., and I know that ignoring the situation doesn't make it go away. But focusing on it doesn't make it go away either.

Did I do the right thing? I don't think I'll ever know.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pop Goes the Weasel

I went back to Mt. Palgongsan and Donghwasa Temple on Wednesday. (Actually, that sentence belongs in the Departmental Bureau of Repetitious Redundancy Department, as those names mean Mt. Palgong Mountain and Donghwa Temple Temple, and you can see the photos.) (And yes, that's a picture of the spot where I tripped; I told you the sidewalk was bad.)

I was supposed to go with Micah, the newest guy at work. For me, teaching in Korea is a huge adventure; for him, it's the Ritz: he's spent several years tramping around Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a bunch of other places that end in stan, sleeping on the locals' floors. Be that as it may, Micah contacted me that he'd barely slept the night before, so I went alone.

I learned something about myself on the ride out. The bus was packed to the gills, and I ended up standing down in the stairwell at the exit door. Every time we came to a bus stop, I'd come up off the stairs to let people out; at one stop, everyone around me (but me, for a moment) noticed that I'd step up, someone would disembark and the door would start to close, I'd step down, and the door would open. I'd step up, it would start to close, I'd step down, it would open. This happened three or four times. Inside of five seconds, everybody in the back of the bus was laughing.

I thought it was funny too, and I was laughing as much as anybody. Not long ago, I would have been humiliated because I thought they were laughing at me; now I just felt how funny it was. So here's what I learned: I've shed a lot of my defensiveness and ego. Knowing my ego is shrinking makes me so proud of myself! (Wait; what?)

The trip up the mountain was challenging and uneventful, so I'll skip to the trip down. I just kind of struck out on a new trail, which ran out, and I blundered about a bit, sharply rightward and steeply downward (kind of like the Bush administration).

Within ten minutes, I made two unexpected acquaintances. A big ol' ferrety animal popped out from under a rock and froze when he saw me. I froze too. We stared at each other for quite a while, then he skittered under a log. When I came home, I searched the 'net and determined he's a Siberian weasel; I don't know if he tried to google me. (I've been trying to upload a picture from the Web, but apparently the tech department at Blogger is also run by weasels. You'll have to search for Siberian weasel images yourself, or take my word for it: he looked like Frank Burns.)

Then, way out in the woods, I was greeted by a Korean lady who knew some English. I thought at first that she was taking pity on my befuddled expression and was going to help me find my way, but then she said she was Jehovah. I was pretty impressed till I realized that none of the bushes was burning. She meant she was a Witness. She asked me if I could read Korean and wanted to give me a J's W tract. I played dumb (that is to say, acted naturally) and went on my way.

I finally found a real trail and the way to the Donghwasa complex. It's hard to encapsulate how I feel about it. There are many buildings of various degrees of religious importance, and a mixture of worship and rubbernecking going on. I saw a monk in an Adidas track suit, and people touching their heads to the floor in a pavilion facing the giant standing Buddha (which, the brochure says, encases two pieces of the historical Buddha's bones.) As I've said before, I find the icons and music offputting, and there was a deep tuneless chant, which I thought sounded vaguely menacing, playing over loudspeakers the whole time.

But I still feel very peaceful there; I don't know if it's the setting, with the mountains looming above and all around the courtyard, or the earnest belief of the pilgrims, or what. But, for whatever reason, it's one of the most serene places I've ever been. Afterward, on the walk down to the main road, I passed three women kneeling in front of a Buddha image carved into a boulder; the sign said the image was carved between 1200 and 1400 years ago. St. Augustine calls itself the "Ancient City" because it's 443 years old; I guess it's all a matter of perspective.

Then I walked down to the bus stop, checked for blood on the sidewalk and found none, and came home.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

... I look like a monkey, and I smell like one, too.

Ninety percent of my birthday on Sunday was really frustrating, mostly due to me. But I confirmed something important... I just don't get really down anymore. For many reasons, I guess, my downs are better than most of my ups used to be. And the day turned out well, anyway, so hurray for me.

Heeduk's away for three weeks doing mandatory military service, and he asked me to cover one Sunday morning class for him each week. So I did. On the walk back, I stopped at E-Mart for a few groceries, wandered into the CD department, and found a two-disk compilation for 7000 Won. (These days, that's about five bucks.) The labeling was all in Korean, except for the song list: Desperado by the Eagles, Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton, Yesterday by the Beatles... thirty songs in all, half of them favorites of mine. So Happy B to me! Visions of a loaded iPod dancing in my head (wait... that's from a Christmas poem...), I hurried home with my find, stuck it in the computer... these are not the original artists; they're imitators.

I got a birthday call from the New World and talked to my best friend for awhile.

I knew I was supposed to meet Ray at 6 p.m. for dinner, but I couldn't quite remember what the rendezvous point was. I tried to call him, but he was out for the day with his church activities. I had a vague memory that he'd said to meet him by the Beomeo subway station, but that didn't make sense... must have been from earlier in the week, when we'd planned a walk to a lake... must be at the dorm... I think... maybe... yeah, that's the ticket.

I'm not embarrassed that I couldn't remember where to meet him; I'm the spaciness champ, a regular ADDeity. But I am embarrassed that I know that and hadn't written down the location, or remembered to double-check with him on Saturday.

Armed with a pretty good map, I headed out, via 20-minute walk, long subway ride, and 15-minute walk uphill, to find the entrance to Apsan Park, at the base of one of the mountains on the southern edge of the city. I wanted to check out the Korean War museum and then take a nice mountain hike. Got there; no entrance, no signs, no hint, nothing but a green mountain completely blocking the view to the south. Walked along the sidewalk two hundred yards to the west: library, no park. Went back four hundred yards to the east: enormous stone staircase, like the Lincoln Memorial's, but longer and steeper; at the top, a surreally vacant plaza with an oddly shaped memorial tower of some kind, with no entrance, no signs, no pictures, no park entrance.

We now return you to complete sentences, already in progress.

I walked back down to the subway station, took the train downtown, lost 1000 Won in a coin locker setup that turned out to be indeciperable, walked to Kyobo Books, and sat down at their Starbucks for awhile for 3000 Won's worth of bitter coffee. Then I headed over to the dorm, went up to the third floor to Ray's apartment (6:00), but it was just me and my shadow. I jogged a block to the nearest subway stop and took the train to Beomeo (6:15), just in case he was there, but there wasn't even a shadow. Took the subway back to the dorm (6:30), in case he'd just been late getting home: nope.

So I walked a half-mile, took the bus home, and Skyped him the moment I walked in the door (7:00). He picked up right away; we were supposed to meet in front of the DongA department store, and he'd waited till 6:30. Fortunately, Ray is easygoing and forgiving, so I was at the apartment for five minutes and headed back out to the bus and reversed the route.

We wandered around the neon-lit, thronged downtown and ended up at Pizza Hut, which is pretty pricey here: 17,000 Won for a smallish garlic pizza that was so thin it only had one side. Had a good time, though, and a glass of sangria helped. Then we walked over to the incredible waffle place with the incredible waffles and had one o' them big hot incredible waffles with scoops of vanilla and green tea ice cream, chocolate sauce, banana, kiwi, melon, grapes, and a tomato wedge. Wow.

We hung out awhile longer, Ray bought some winter boots, and I came home.

I got another call from my friend, which ended the day very nicely. Mostly I didn't want to be alone all day, and I wasn't. So it all worked out, but maybe most important of all, when I dragged my exhausted carcass up my stairs, after everything had gone wrong and I'd missed Ray and would spend the evening in the apartment... I was okay with that. And that was my best present of all.

(And the next morning I got the world's funniest e-card from my grandboys in California, where it was still my birthday.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I can't survive 55

(Above: at the entrance to my apartment: Tigger, Florida shell that was my mom's, Samwise Whale.)

Today's my fifty-fifth birthday, and I do expect to get through this year and many more. But you know me: always go for the cheap pun and the pop-culture reference. It by some chance the title of this post is a self-fulfilling prophecy, we'll all have a good laugh.

Actually, I might be 54 or almost 57... it's not my birthday for another 32 minutes in the time zone of my birth, and the Koreans count you as one year old when you're born and everybody officially ages a year on January 1, so... ah well, age is just a number. (Sometimes a really high number.)

I confess to being a little blue around the edges this week. I think I've settled in, and it's getting rather routine. Sometimes I feel about as I often have, as we all do sometimes: "Oh crap, I gotta go to work today." On the other hand, my face is healing up pretty nicely and I finally got into the twenty-first century when I found a cute little iPod Shuffle for 30 bucks. I'm listening to "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" from NPR a lot. Also, the World Series is on, although having the commentary in Korean is disconcerting. Besides that, there must be some glitch in the satellite, as the Mets' uniforms look oddly like the Phillies'.

I have schoolwork to catch up on and a little later I may go for a mountain hike at Apsan Park on the edge of the city; it's a gorgeous fall day, sunny, breezy, not quite 70 degrees. Fahrenheit, that is. My friend Ray asked me to dinner at 6 tonight, so that will be nice. I'm thinking pancakes, or possibly octopus. It's a tough choice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Vote early and often

I went and voted today. Sorta. I think. I got my ballot via email, printed it out along with the cerificate that said I wasn't cheating (because if you were going to cheat on your ballot, you wouldn't dare lie on the certificate), then got two envelopes, stuffed the ballot in one, then that one in the other one along with the certificate, then unstuffed everything because of course I'd addressed the inner envelope, then did it the right way around.

Then I walked it four blocks from work, through the traditional market full of radishes and mystery meat on a stick and a guy carrying a pan of still-alive, wriggling, suffocating, piled-up-like-sandbags fish-- I'm afraid I'm going to have to alienate everyone sometime by writing more about that general topic-- to the post office and handed it and some funny coins to the nice young lady behind the counter.

Even though I vote in Florida, I'm hoping against hope that my vote will count. Apparently I learned nothing from the 2000 election.

In the end, though, I haven't had a satisfying voting experience since 1994. Back home in Ithaca, you went into a real booth with a curtain and a big red wooden lever. Pull it to the right, you hear a satisfying clunk and the curtain closes, you push down the little metal levers with a nice little click next to the cute little logos for the parties (eagle and star and liberty bell and torch) and the candidates' names, pull the lever to the left- thunk- and the levers reset, the curtain opens, and your votes register.

Now that's votin', you betcha!

Sorry... too much Sarah Palin on the 'net. Anyway, in St. Augustine you just take a pencil, go to a little six-dollar plastic table, connect two halves of an arrow to register a vote for a DEM or a REP, and stick it in a machine that may have been recycled from Lucy and Ethel's candymaking adventure. Not nearly as satisfying.

The absentee way is even less so. I just want it to count. If the Republicans win again, I swear I'll leave the coun... ah, never mind.

Odds and... well, frankly, odds

It's been an interesting few days, at least if you're living it. As you're only reading about it, I make no promises. Actually this is probably going to be pretty dull. I hope I don't lose either of my fans.

It's been a week since I decided to take a really, really close look at the local sidewalks, and I've healed up remarkably well. I had my stitches out yesterday, although it will be a couple more weeks before the doc wants to stop covering it. He told me to not get it wet for a week. I suspect that if I don't shampoo for that time, I'll look like Larry from the Three Stooges, or maybe like our friend in the picture above.

The purple has receded under my eye to the point that it's only visible in a thin line where I have a wrink... a wisdom crease. The doctor says I'll have a small permanent scar, which bothers me, as it may cut my appeal with the local chicks. Maybe if I say it's a dueling scar...

I wore my new glasses for two days, feeling drunk, before I had to conclude that the lenses weren't right. (I have astigmatism, so if they aren't at precisely the correct angles, you might as well be wearing SADD drunk goggles.) I went back to the optical store and, through the saleswoman's extremely circumscribed English, my gestures, and a little diagram I drew showing my pupillary distance (needed to get the focal points right), I hope we got it right. I'm supposed to get them back in three more days.

I expected to go back out to Palgongsan today to show off my not-running-for-the-bus skills, but woke up with my body saying, and I quote, "Who you kiddin'?" My schedule's shifted so I don't have to go to work till dinnertime most days, so there's no rush. Especially for the bus.

As you may know, I can be pretty indecisive. Or maybe not. Anyway, on Sunday I couldn't decide if I wanted to go to the Samsung Lions' playoff game or just take it easy and check out a department/grocery store I hadn't been to, HomePlus (which is a branch of the British Tesco chain). Fortunately, as both destinations were north of downtown, I headed in that direction and waited for serendipity.

I decided that the ballgame was too much hassle, went to HomePlus (well worth the trip: a bottle of pomegranite juice and some English shredded wheat/cranberry cereal!) But when I came out, it was an hour to gametime and there were the ballpark lights RIGHT... THERE...

Tickets were all sold out, and I thought it might be just as well, but then a scalper buttonholed me and sold me a 15,000 Won ticket for... 15,000 Won. (I'm not entirely sure how Korean scalpers make a profit.) When I got inside, every single seat in the park was taken, and I ended up standing the whole time on the concrete walkway separating the lower from the upper seats, over on the visiting side along the first-base line. On my way there, I saw three Americans, one wearing a Phillies cap, who, seeing me wearing the blue and orange, graciously taunted me on the Mets' collapse.

Speaking of Mets vs. Phillies, I've been to games in Philly where a third of the fans would be rooting for the Mets, which led to cursing and the occasional drunken brawl. I once had a cup dropped on my head from an escalator at Veterans' Stadium. In contrast, here the sets of fans just ignored each other; in front of me were a few thousand Doosan Bears fans with their cheerleaders and flags and signs-- I was even given a kind of Karate-Kid-head-sash reading "Let's Go Doosan" in Korean. Behind and all around me were the Lions' fans. I never heard a harsh word between the two groups.

They'd tarted up the place (and the prices) for the playoffs, with two huge Lion statues in the stands, flame- and smoke-emitting nozzles for when the Lions scored, and a huge banner, twenty rows high, that would unfurl down the stands at opportune moments. The Lions won, my back decided that seven innings of standing on concrete were enough, and I went home.

I received my absentee ballot via email and want to mail it back today. However, I have to print out a certificate swearing I filled out my own ballot and so on, and I can't get it to print. That's odd, considering that the ballot printed. I blame Karl Rove. I hope that Manager Park at school, who speaks no English but is an electronics whiz, can fix that... I would truly hate to not get to vote.

Please insert your own snappy ending here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Anybody got a chainsaw?

(This picture is two days after the recent unpleasantness. Six stitches lurk under the bandage.)

On the brighter side, I've found out that the prices here for healthcare and the services rendered can be amazing.

When they took me to the hospital, they cleaned me up, examined me, took x-rays, stitched me, gave me an antibiotic shot and wrote me a prescription. Out-of-pocket cost: $19. Cost of one day's pills (nine pills in all): $2.

Each of my follow-up visits: in and out in 15 minutes, checking the stitches, short consult, change the dressing, new prescription: $3.20.

I went to replace my glasses today; I picked out a titanium frame, which is very very thin and tough. The total cost in the States, even at Wal-Mart, would have exceeded $300. Here? Eighty-six bucks. I could have had them in ten minutes, but since I'm astigmatic, they had to order the lenses. At home, it would take a week. I'll pick them up tomorrow.

(Now, if you see the guy in the photo in your neighborhood, lock up your daughters, your sons, and your small animals... and hide the sharp objects.)

This has nothing to do with Korea...

...but it is the best photo in history. And, no, it wasn't Photoshopped.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Don't fall off the mountain

(The bottom two photos are part of the "trail" up the mountain.)

My first class wasn't until 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, so I decided to go back out to Mt. Palgongsan, 15 miles north of the city, and hike by myself. I had just read a quote by some old dead white Romantic poet who said that if you walked with somebody, you weren't really walking, you were chatting. Sounds good to me. I believe I think I'm considering mulling over hiking Palgongsang or Apsan every week; I always feel alive when I do.

(For what it's worth, I bought a scale today from a street vendor for about six bucks, and it claims I've lost 12 pounds in the six weeks I've been here. Despite all my walking, that seems ludicrous, as my four food groups are carbs, carbs, carbs, and really really sugary carbs. But Ray tried my scale and his reading matches the one on his, so I guess walking really is a miracle remedy for pudge. I don't look any skinnier, though, as far as I can see. But as the saying goes, I'm in shape; round is a shape.)

The friendly lady at the visitor info phone number had told me that not only the #1 bus with the pink sign (with which I'm familiar), but also the red #1 (which goes within a block of my apartment), goes north to Palgongsan, albeit to a different temple area. So I hopped the red #1, which promptly set off to the far south. This is a big, big city and I'm not sure how far south we went before I gave up and hopped off, but the people all had Australian accents. (Hey, I can get lost going through Palatka, Florida, and people there speak English.) (Sorta.)

So I got a bus and then the subway back north to downtown and got on the pink #1. It got pretty crowded on the bus, but nothing like when I went before, probably because this wasn't a holiday weekend. The old coots will go any day of the year, so the bus was still pretty crowded, but I was able to get a seat.

The weather, as it has mostly been lately, was fall gorgeous, and the air outside the city was as clear as it's likely to get. On the lower part of the climb, your ob't svt., armed with his trusty aluminum walking stick and wearing his lovely new hiking boots, sailed past a lot of people; all those years in Ithaca are still paying dividends. The walking stick really does make a difference in negotiating the steeper bits; nearly everyone on the mountain had one. Higher up, amid the rocks. most of the people whom I'd passed returned the favor.

Palgongsan is easily the hardest uphill climb I've ever done, if you don't count marriage. Long ago I did the three-waterfall climb in Yosemite, and that probably had a bigger vertical rise, but Yosemite doesn't have boulders and loose rocks all over the trail or a section with a rope to help you along. For that matter, Yosemite has a trail; about halfway up Palgongsan the trail is mostly a rumor.

In a warmup for what was to happen after I came off the mountain, I bashed the top of my head pretty good on one of the aforementioned boulders. On a particulary steep, rocky stretch, I had to look down to negotiate a tricky, twisty area of rocks and didn't notice the huge rock bowing out just above. However, it noticed me. My head hurt like hell, but I checked, but I wasn't bleeding. I don't think it caused any dain bramage, but I've noticed that I can no longer type the letters and .

The weather, as I've said, was beautiful, mid-seventies and sunny, and I was the only person on the mountain appropriately attired: t-shirt and shorts. Everyone else was wearing long pants and windbreakers or sweaters. It might be because 75 degrees for me is 24 for Koreans; who knows? Also, every single woman on the mountain was wearing some shade of pink or purple, for some reason.

At the restaurant that was the terminus for this "trail", I began to appreciate the warmer gear; it's kinda windy up there. I settled down to a lunch of bibimbap and a bottle of well-earned beer and marveled at the view, which included much of Daegu. The city sprawled out under its own soup of smog: you could literally see a blanket of haze, held in by the mountains, sitting on the city like a blanket. The air was much cleaner over the first range of hills around the town.

The restaurant is also the upper end of the gondola ride, which in a moment of madness I considered taking back down. Then I recalled that I get nervous standing on a chair and decided to pass. So I headed out and around and down. (My odds of surviving the descent on the same route I ascended would be about the same as my chances of being voted Miss America.)

I struck off up and down and up and mostly down a different trail. At a couple of points, squirrels let me know in their best rodent Korean that they didn't want me in their neighborhood. Korean gray squirrels look like American gray squirrels with just a touch of Romulan. Their fur is a dark charcoal gray, their bellies snow white, and their ears long, pointy, and tufted. They look as if they're wearing two little party hats with tassels. (Sadly, I didn't take the squirrel picture above.)

I had gone 95% of the way down toward Dongwhasa Temple, the place I mentioned in my last Palgongsan post, close enough to photograph some of the temple complex's roofs from just above them, when I came to plastic tape across the road and hundreds of yards of fresh cement, covered in plastic. There had been no sign in any language on the descent to say the temple was off limits. So I had to climb back up for three-quarters of a mile, cross the dry river bed, and head back down again toward my original route.

I saw something really touching on my way back: a fortyish woman was backing down a steep, rocky stretch, holding the hands of a twentyish man, presumably her son; he was blind. They were going at a decent clip, too. I almost got a little tear in my eye, then I laughed out loud: as they neared me, I called out "AnnyeongaSEYo!" (hello) in my best Korean. The blind guy's face lit up and he said, "Hi! How are you?" in English. Apparently my accent isn't fooling ANYbody.

I finally made my way back down. I had a very strenuous workout, and a wonderful, interesting time, until...