Sunday, September 27, 2009

Raccoon oar dog?

It's been a long day, as 16 hours ago (at 4:30 a.m.) some neighbors decided it would be a good idea to sit on the park bench 50 feet from my head (and I like to sleep with the windows open) and have a loud long conversation. When I finally drifted uneasily down into sleep again, Tug McClaw commented loudly every 20 minutes or so about how I was going to miss my ride. I think that's what he was saying; I was begging him to shut up too much to really decipher his message.

Anyway, I finally dragged my carcass out of bed (I won't say up) at 7, and at 8:30 was joining seven of my SPPA compatriots in a three-hour van trip to go... white-water rafting! We were actually north of the 38th parallel, the one-time border between the Koreas...
and just a few miles from the DMZ and the worst country in the world.

We had lunch, put on our life preservers and helmets, grabbed our paddles, got a quick lesson in how our guide would guide us (left one two, right one two, boce one two [that's "both"; they don't have "th"s in Korean], back one two, boat down [grab the rope and jackknife your body forward, 'cause we're all gonna die oh God oh God]) and we were off.

Tony, the head teacher, arranged the trip and I wasn't going to miss it; I've been so cautious my whole life, and it was about time to change that. I was a bit apprehensive, but actually the water was low, now, at the end of the season and the trip was pretty mild even by my standards. (If I'd known how it was going to be, I wouldn't have worried about taking my camera and I'd have some nice pictures for you.) There were white things tangled in a great many of the trees fifteen feet above us, and I was cooking up some romantic story about native customs, when the guide said, through Tony's girlfriend (our interpreter) that they were all trash bags... that line fifteen feet up is where the water rises to.

Still it was so much fun, and it did have some rapids, a lot of splashing, and a plenitude of rocks. At one point, we had to all repeatedly jump up in the raft on the count of three so our guide, in the water in his wet suit, could free us from the rocks; mostly we just had a lovely time paddling and looking up the steep cliffs, topped with impenetrable forest, on both sides. We were accompanied the whole way by a flight of dragonflies, who liked to perch on our heads and our paddles. On our break halfway down the river, we found a lot of lime-green frogs, the size of my little fingernail, in the sand. (Frog pee is actually quite cool to the touch, by the way.)

But for me, the highlight of the trip was when we saw an unusual animal staring down from far above us: it was too big to be a raccoon, which they don't have on this side of the marble anyway; it wasn't a badger or a wolverine; what the heck was it?                                                                                                          

Later research at home proved it to be a raccoon dog, which roams eastern Asia apparently unable to make up its mind what the hell it is, sort of the oriental version of Senator Arlen Specter. Actually, though it looks pretty darn coonesque, it's a member of the dog family. Different pictures of them look quite different, and ours was closer to a brownish red, so much so that I wondered if it was a red panda, but... uh, no, no bamboo 'round here, and this ain't the Himalayas. It was a raccoon dog, all right. Do you recall a couple of years ago when it was uncovered that the faux fur in Sean Combs' clothing line was in fact, faux faux, that is to say real? Well... that was raccoon dog. Fortunately, this guy still had his own coat on.

So, anyway, I'd like to go back sometime when there's a bit more water and they gots it turned up a couple notches, but we had a wonderful time, I did something I should have tried long ago, and I'm tired. Everyone at school was supposed to fly to Jeju Island tomorrow, but overblown fear of H1N1 axed that, so I guess my little bi(ologically)curious friend was all the adventure for this week. Aside from the Seoul weekend traffic, that is.

But... coming in January... maybe Japan.. maybe Thailand... stay tuned!

Friday, September 18, 2009

H1, NE1?

Jeju Island is known as Korea’s Hawaii. That sounds rather like being Alaska’s California or Denver’s San Diego, but it is supposed to be quite lovely. I’ve been hoping to go there ever since my first week over here, when Heeduk told me his father sometimes closes LIKE School and takes the faculty there for a vacation. He didn’t in my year at LIKE. Some of my friends who worked at the Samduk location got free trips there, but neither I nor anyone else at the Manchon school did.

…so you can imagine my anticipation on my first day at SPPA, when I found out that on the last couple of days of this month we’d be closing the school and everyone, faculty, kids, and all, would have a three-day trip to Jeju.

…only of course we’re not. Mr. Park, the boss, has canceled it over fears of H1N1. I don’t understand how an airplane trip and a little time on a semitropical island would be more dangerous than staying in a metro area of over 20 million people. But many Koreans have a lot of irrational fears of lethal menaces: American beef! Sleeping in a closed room with a fan running! The number four!

So our three-day trip to Jeju has become two days of classes and a day trip to a nearby island for a sports day; the island doesn’t allow its visitors to bring any balls (wouldn't want to bruise the trees, I guess), so we’re going to have a lot of Frisbee games and three-legged races and such.

That's a poor substitute, but at least I can sit at home at night, drinking my E-Mart Jeju mandarin orange juice and wiping my tears on my cat.

He’s soft and silky.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where have all the flowers gone?

I was mildly saddened today to read of the death of Henry Gibson, who forty years ago  delivered whimsical little poems on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" while holding an absurdly big flower. I always liked him and his gentle, offbeat viewpoint.

An hour or two later I was saddened to a greater degree to learn of the death of Mary Travers. Peter, Paul and Mary were special, especially to me. They were my first concert, when I was nine or so; I overheard a student at a Cornell football game say he had an extra ticket, and in a move stunningly unlike the shy, self-conscious kid I was, interrupted him, bought his ticket, and went to the show alone. Some years later, I also saw Mary in concert as she attempted to launch a solo career, though she was overshadowed by her then-unknown lead-in act, Seals and Crofts. Also, Ithaca was the birthplace of Puff; if we were there, I could point out the house where the song was written.

Mostly, though, P, P and M were good, and they were brave: they marched in Selma and sang at Dr. King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. They brought the civil rights and antiwar movements into people's living rooms. The men had beards, Mary had long straight hair that became the model for antiwar women and hippie chicks, and they weren't afraid to be earnest about things that mattered.

The world turned more cynical, to the point where people insisted, against all evidence, that Puff was a song about marijuana. Peter, Paul and Mary never became cynical.

I'm going running later, and I'm going to listen to If I Had a Hammer on my iPod, not because Mary Travers has passed, but because it's a song I listen to. A lot.

I still believe in it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday rotogravure can ask your grandparents what that means, kids.

I had a busy, sociable Sunday. It started with a Skype conversation with my BFF, followed by a solitary run down by the stream...                                                                                                                                              

...and in Alice Park, where there was a magpie:
They have a harsh cry and gorgeous, iridescent feathers (which the photo barely hints at), and that dichotomy fits their names: "mag" reminds me of maggots, and "pie" reminds me of... well, pie.
When I got back home, Lauren, who lives three blocks away, was looking up at my balcony; she and two friends visiting from Daegu had come to take me to a French pastry shop she promised was heavenly, et mon dieu, mes amis, c'est vrai. Paris Croissant (not to be confused with the thoroughly pedestrian Paris Baguette chain) is incredible... ooey gooey oozing cinnamon rolls and creamy choux and orange (fruit) French toast and blueberry yogurt and... I'm glad I don't know how to get back there, or I'd be lighter in the wallet and heavier everywhere else than I already am.

After that, I went to school to do some work and talked awhile with Chris, then caught the bus to the subway to the other subway to the other other subway to Olympic Park...
It's a huge plaza, open to the sky in a way that nothing in Daegu is, leading to a big grassy park with a lake. But I wasn't there for the landscape, I was there to have dinner with my ex-student and runner at St. Joe, Margaret Baker, who is almost done with her year in Seoul. We hadn't seen each other in years; she's gotten taller head-to-toe and I've gotten taller side-to-side. She and I look something like this:
We had a lovely time catching up, and I made the long trip home, passing the LG R and D building down the block from the apartment...
...back to the enthusiastic welcome of Tug McClaw...
...who, as you can tell, was ecstatic to see me., all in all, it was a good day, though now it's 11:15 p.m., I need to get up at 6:30 and my delightful neighbor across the hall is practicing his electric guitar, amp and all. Unbelievable. And Blogger's screwing up the formatting and Tug's yowling and I'm wide awake...

I do like "Tug McClaw", though. It just popped into my head. So the day was worthwhile.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A trivial triumph

...and for once I don't mean winning a trivia game.

As I have been posting, I had no closet in my apartment and then I was delivered a fine wardrobe, which had only one drawback: the bar that they delivered with it is a foot too long to actually fit inside. Although Mr. Jang, the school's Guy Friday, was quick to get a new stovetop delivered when only one burner on the extant one worked, my hanging up my clothes seemed to be 27th in his alphabet. (Hey, I just made up a new metaphor... what do you think?)

Well, it's Saturday morning, I just got back from a lovely cool damp run along the stream, guest-starring magpies, egrets, mourning doves, pigeons, and one very disgruntled-looking great blue heron. I walked in the door, glanced in the corner with  my umbrella, broom, and such, and said "Eureka!" (Actually, somebody might have said it to me; I was pretty sweaty.)

...I grabbed my Grab-It/Swiffer Sweeper device, unscrewed the sweepy part, unscrewed the shaft, shortened it, tightened it again, and... my shirts are hanging up, with no help from anybody.

If you don't know me really well, you're thinking, "Big whoop", or whatever words you, who are hipper than I, choose to express that same thought. But for me, someone who has always defined himself as totally incompetent with all kinds of three-dimensional/mechanical/practical/hands-on matters, it's a real breakthrough. I feel an odd and probably totally unjustified sense of satisfaction, even pleasure.

Of course, I defined myself as terrified of flying, but I got here, and shy, but I talk in front of dozens of people every day, so... maybe my walls really are self-imposed, insubstantial, and finally illusory.

Maybe yours are, too.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Naengmyong, maekju, and 10,974 days down the drain

You know that invisible sign I have over my head that reads, "Hasn't been drunk in _____ days"? Yeah, well, reset it... from 10,974 to 4. I had said for thirty years that I hadn't been drunk since my friend George's and my bachelor party... oh, chill, we weren't marrying each other... on May 12, 1979. I guess once every thirty years is okay... isn't it?

On Friday after work, my new friends and colleagues Tony, Chris, Zach, and Lauren (as ordered in the photo below) and I took the bus over to Bundang, the area where the school used to be, and drank and ate. And drank. And drank. And drank. And I could keep going, but I don't want my laptop to run out of pixels. There were gallons of maekju (beer) and shots of soju (aviation fuel mixed with sugar) and baeksaeju (like soju, but gold-colored and with some actual flavor). And there was a lot of food, some of it identifiable, and more laughs (I think I told every off-color joke I've heard since I first understood what the terms in the jokes were talking about-- that would be 1985 or so), and just so much fun. I completely blew away my self-imposed temperance rules and we all had a wonderful time.

The meat issue aside, as I've written before, this is a wonderful way to share a meal. Ninety percent of the food is just out there on the table, communally available, you cook your own food right in front of you (pork and sprouts and hot peppers and onions and cloves of garlic), nobody pours his or her own drinks and nobody's glass goes empty for long. We each had a wonderful little dish of onions soaked in a piquant wasabi juice, and Tony was kind enough to order for me, the veghead, some scrambled-egg soup and something that sounds atrocious but is delicious, naengmyong: ice noodles. Frankly, I thought I'd taken a picture of it for you but apparently my concentration wavered for some reason, as I don't have one. It's a huge bowl with kind of rubbery, thin, greenish-gray noodles, a hardboiled egg, some miscellaneous beanish things, and a lot of ice cubes. Disgusting, right? Actually, against all odds, it's wonderful.

Finally, we were ready to move on and against all odds I managed to stand up. I suggested we all go to a noraebang, a private karaoke parlor, and we had a great hour, fortified with another libation or four, sitting under the little disco ball and belting out Jump and It's My Life and Panama and Born to Run and Sir Duke and, well, the first few bars of I Believe I Can Fly, until I gently remonstrated with Zach for mellowing my harsh, upon which he saw the error of his ways.

Well, by the end of our hour there we were all pretty much quarter past drunk and I was ready to head home, but I had no idea how to get there, and a couple of the guys wanted to go to this other bar where there were pool boards and dart tables... I may have gotten that mixed up, I was pretty far gone... and after that somebody or other had the bright idea of having a pitcher of beer at some seafood restaurant where Tony ordered me a big bowl of watermelon balls and tomato slices floating in skim milk and ice. I'm not kidding. But by this time, for the first time in my life, I was actually full. of. beer. Couldn't take another sip.

We had started at 5:00 and it was 2:15 when finally Tony headed back home and the rest of us oozed into a cab for the long ride home, while Chris and Lauren conked out in the back seat. I'd never before actually watched any of my colleagues sleep together; is Penthouse Forum still in business?

At any rate, I'd had more booze than I usually ingest in five years, but my stopping drinking at the seafood restaurant, the long ride home, and my natural resistance to all kinds of moral turpitude allowed me to go to bed nearly sober and wake up without a hangover. The Age of Miracles is not over. my count I need to not get drunk again until February, 2040 in order to beat my old record.

On Saturday afternoon, Zach, Tony, Chris and I went to a expat pub/restaurant, Gecko's, in Itaewon, the notorious foreign bed of iniquity. The place was flowing with buzz-cut young American soldiers and testosterone, but I was temporarily in gastronomic heaven to find that they had veggie burgers on the menu! I say "temporarily" because the burger turned out to be one of those beige monstrosities with grains freckling its surface, not a nice juicy fake hamburger as God intended. But it came with lettuce, tomato, onion, and ketchup, so it'll do.

I also had one beer. One. Then I headed back home via subway while the guys went out for more liquid refreshment.
For Sunday, I'd asked around about who wanted to go to the ballgame between the two teams that share Jamsil Stadium, the Doosan Bears (huzzah!) and the LG Twins (meh.) Tony, Nikki, and Chris said sure, they'd go, but didn't. Lauren said she'd love to but couldn't, but did.

It was her first time at a Korean game, and it's fun to go with a newbie. I've posted quite often about the spectacle of Korean games, so I won't, but a KBO virgin is always wide-eyed and grinning,.at the noise, the enthusiasm, the sheer energy of the crowd.
I will say, though, that the games at Jamsil, which is so much bigger and louder than the ballpark in Daegu, are exhausting. KBO games tend to run really long, with a lot of time between pitches and a lot of full counts, and it isn't the 25,000 people constantly chanting and singing and thwapping thundersticks that wears you down, it's the little kid right behind you. We left in the fifth inning, with our newly beloved Bears up 5-0; We taxied home, I stopped at E-Mart, went back to school for a half hour, walked home, and the game was still on; I got home just in time to see the Twins win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Four and a quarter hours for a nine-inning game.

I had a Coke.

I'll take that as a compliment

Several of us were going down the stairs into the Yangjae subway station on Friday evening, on our way to the Night of Enough Alcohol to Kill Foster Brooks-- which I will write about later, when I have the energy, assuming my memory comes back-- when I casually said to my fellow English teacher Zach that I've been somewhat sheltered and extremely cautious about new things all my life.
Zach turned to me and said, "That's funny; that's not something I've seen at all."

It was the nicest compliment I've had in a long, long time. And in fact I think I've chipped pieces out of that thick yet brittle shell I started sealing around myself fifty years ago.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Life without hangups

It took ten days living out of bags in my new apartment before Mr. Jang, the school's ěž­-of-all-trades, brought me a wardrobe. This is what he brought me.

Now, I never was any good in geometry, but perhaps my friend Pete, the science and math wunderkind, can explain to me how this bar is supposed to fit into the brackets on the inner walls.

So I'm still living out of bags. I suppose the bright side is that my clothes make my forehead seem smooth in comparison.

Oh, they ripped a bit of a gash in my floor when they moved it in, too.

(Do you think "Out of a closet" would have been a funnier title for this post?)