Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh, oh, what I want to know is are you kind?

My friend Ray sent me this image with the suggestion that I might want to use it in class. I think I will, as something to spur the kids in my creative writing, where, frankly, I'm scrambling for ideas. (Thanks, Ray!)

More to the point, though, this picture, which was taken in Indonesia, is everything I wish I could stop in the world. The sheer unkindness and lack of compassion in the human species overwhelms me sometimes, and it's why, I think, what Mark Twain called "the damned human race" has caused suffering to itself and other living things since, well, forever.

In St. Augustine once, I stopped a bunch of boys from throwing rocks at a cormorant in a lake. In Daegu, I tried to stop a boy and girl from throwing rocks at a birds' nest. Under a bridge on my running path here, there's a graffiti of somebody giving the finger to the world. Boys beat homeless people to death and men use rape as a weapon of war. At this moment, billions of animals are living gruesome, horrible lives so that people can eat their bodies. Down the street from me, people chop up live baby octopi for dinner. It's all the same thing. We, the damned human race, have to stop inflicting pain, death, and sheer meanness on the world.

I recently taught The Catcher in the Rye to my American Lit Honors class, and in doing so I found that for the first time I really like Holden Caulfield. Like me, he is enormously self-centered and builds walls around himself as he longs for companionship. Holden seems so jaded, but gets tremendously upset when he finds "FUCK YOU" scratched into the wall at his little sister's school, and he worries about the ducks in Central Park when the winter comes.

All this may seem condescending, and I apologize. But it's what I think about a lot. People I respect highly think that I'm being immature or simplistic. Maybe they're right (they usually are) but I think that, deep down, it really does come down to whether we are compassionate or not. Buddha said it. Jesus said it. They were right.

Here's an image to close with: 8 a.m. on a November Sunday morning, 30 degrees Fahrenheit, windy... a man kneels on the stone landing on the steps going down into Yangjae subway station, head touching the stone platform. He's barefoot. A little box rests by his head. There is 300 Won (about a quarter) in the box. People go by without acknowledging him.

I drop all my change (a dollar's worth) in the box and go down into the subway and feel a little better about myself.

Is it enough? No. Nothing will ever be enough. All we can do is something.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pi r not square, pi r round

Today is, theoretically at least, Thanksgiving. Last year, Robert, one of the teachers at the Samduk LIKE School, laid out big bucks for a whole bunch of us to go to the ultra-fancy dinner at the Novotel; it's funny now to look at the photo on this blog and realize I'm the only one still in Korea.

Anyway, no such luck this year; it's just another working day for us. Some of my coworkers are going out to a big "Thanksgiving" dinner on Saturday, but I'm not paying 35,000 Won to eat side dishes. And Thanksgiving is today.

I have always really loved Thanksgiving, with the family together but without the hype and pressure of Christmas. I say that knowing full well that there was no pressure for me because, having a mom who never taught me anything in the kitchen other than which half of the big white box the ice cream goes in, I never had to do anything but watch balloons and then football and then eat. We had traditional male and female roles in my family, and I'm still totally incompetent when it comes to cooking.

On Cheosok, Korea's Thanksgiving, the women not only do all the work but also wait till the men have eaten, including dessert, before they sit down to eat. So I guess the Cornman family was enlightened in allowing the women to eat with the men.

Anyway, I was at Costco last night and on the spur of the moment grabbed a pumpkin pie to bring to work and share out at lunchtime. It's the only thing at Costco here that's a bargain, under seven bucks for a pie the size of a Mack truck tire. With luck, it will be tastier than that, however.

So... Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. It's ironic: I'm more thankful than ever in my life, but I guess I have to do my thanking unofficially. Thanks for being in my life.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Your text here

I wanted to call this post "You can't go home again", then a couple of hours later I was going to title it "What's eating you?" and finally I just had to settle on "Your text here". All shall be (slightly) clearer shortly.

I'm just back from Daegu for one more Sunday evening with Joanna before she goes home; the impromptu week off is over and I have to get up for work in six hours, but I need to unwind, so...

Six months ago, Joanna invited me to return to Daegu for her Thanksgiving spread, but-- huh-- I'll be working. When I was at LIKE, she and I developed quite a nice little tradition on Sundays, usually dinner, usually ice cream, often both. I needed that one more time. Also, though I said my goodbyes to Emma a few weeks ago, I was delighted at the thought of seeing her one last time. Also, Jesse, though I'll be seeing her again in January, is also one of my favorite people in the Eastern Hemisphere, so...

I caught the KTX bullet train this morning. It's a cold, bright, windy wintry day all over Korea; on the trip down, I saw my first snow on the ground in the last 15 years. Yeah, it took that long for it to look good to me again.

When I got to Daegu, I walked from the station to LIKE and worked out a schedule for me while St. Paul is on winter break: the week after Christmas and two at the end of January. I'll be teaching one-on-ones and small groups and doing videos, all on how to write an independent essay.

Then I walked to my old apartment. I felt I needed to walk around the neighborhood on the one-in-a-million chance that I would find Tiki. I didn't find him for the last three weeks I lived there, and that was nearly three months ago, but I've seen miracles before so I couldn't fail to take the time.

I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got there. My apartment, the landlord's apartment, the egg-shipping business downstairs: all gutted, the window glass removed. The red-and-white striped awning: gone. (For a moment, I wasn't sure I was standing in front of the right place.) The yard where I spent hours and hours waiting for Tiki to show up: impassable, thigh-deep in debris.

No one was around, so I went up the steep stairs (now with no railing) to the apartment. It's an eerie feeling, having the biting wind whistling through the place you happily spent the last year.
It felt like the closing scene in some downbeat movie. And there was no Tiki around.

I had arranged to meet Emma downtown at 1:30 and Joanna and Jesse at 4:30. As it turns out, it was so cold that there wasn't much to do but stay inside and eat. Emma and I started at a new, fourth-floor organic restaurant/used book store. The place may be something special in awhile, but they've only just opened; the only books they had were the proprietor's, and she got screwed over with their heating: it doesn't work at all. So we froze-- I sat there in my long-sleeve t, cardigan, and windbreaker and shivered. The food, veggie lasagna for me, was good, though; it reminded me of Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.

When we were through, we just wanted to get warm, and Emma steered me to an amazing coffee shop. Starbucks and other similar shops will charge 4000 Won ($3.50) for a single paper cup of coffee; this place was warm and sunny, and for 3500 Won you get unlimited coffee, in real mugs, and equally unlimited bread and dinner rolls that you pop into a toaster oven; they come with butter and jam. And... for 2000 Won more... a fifteen-minute appointment with the doctor fish!

 (These are not my feet; I had brilliantly left my camera across the room and, inexplicably, my feet were wet. This is a photo from the Web. Close enough, though.)

Doctor fish (garra rufa) come from Turkey and make their living eating rough skin on people's feet. (Some people at some spas immerse their entire bodies into tubs of doctor fish; not me, pal, not now, not ever, never.) It was such a delight sitting next to Emma, who covered her face and giggled and giggled and giggled. And squealed, just a little. This was in spite of the fact that she had had a pedicure quite recently and only attracted a few fish while I-- the runner without a bathtub or a way to sit down in the shower-- had literally a couple hundred, all over my feet. How does it feel? Somewhere between a tingle, a very mild electical current, and 7-Up.

Frankly, with my distaste for fish-- THEY'RE CREEPY, DUDES!-- I was amazed I went through with it. I remember seeing doctor fish on The Amazing Race a few years ago and just knowing that was something I'd never do. However, I'm still not eating live octopus, which the Race had contestants do right here in Seoul. So don't invite me to your next raw octopus gala, please.

Then it was time to meet Jesse and Jo. They were starving and led us to a new pizzeria, where I saw the single best sign I have ever seen in my very long and now widely-traveled life:

I'm laughing at it now, seven hours later; I think they could have used a little Anglophone help.

Having had veggie lasagna, salad, and a half-dozen dinner rolls in the last two hours, I only had some garlic bread and enjoyed the company of three of my favorite people.

And then it was time for Jo and Steve's Last Ice Cream Social. We all went to Baskin-Robbins, just like old times. You know, even when the air is colder than the dessert, ice cream is goooood.

Finally they went their ways and I caught the subway to Dongdaegu Station and came home. It took 100 minutes from Dongdaegu to Seoul Station and another 80 from there to the apartment, and that would have taken longer if I hadn't gotten tired of waiting for the bus-- the temperature was 28 Fahrenheit, the wind about 20 miles per hour-- and taken a taxi on the last leg home.

So, as Samwise Gamgee said, I'm back. Tug is warming his shaved belly on my lap but it's past time to go to bed. I doubt that I'll ever see Emma or Joanna again; the trip was worth the money, the time, and the fish. Good night, friends.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ith a small world, after all

Yesterday, I made a grand and massively crowded tour of half of the Seoul subway system, First, I visited Tug, who's in the shop having his oil changed. (Actually, he has a bladder infection; I'm going out on a limb and saying that cats, unlike Robin Williams, look better before their bellies have been shaved.) Then I went to Seoul Station to buy a KTX ticket for a trip tomorrow to Daegu; I want to visit Emma and Joanna before they fly away to their nearly antipodal homes, in New Zealand and Alaska, respectively. Then I met Murphy, who's up from Daegu visiting a lady friend, for a vastly overpriced dinner at a fifteenth-floor restaurant where you can see the skyline a lot more clearly than your dinner.

Koreans don't have much of a personal space, and when the tube is so packed... let's just say that a couple dozen people, according to the rules in some societies, have to marry me now.

Anyroad (very British word, but I love it), in one of the mobbed subway stops, I was going up a long escalator and a friendly-looking, middle-aged Western guy was hurrying down the stairs. He saw my "Ithaca is Gorges" hoodie and called over his shoulder, "I went to school there!"

In a day so far from home in which I saw perhaps ten Westerners out of 10,000 people, it made me smile. Ith a thmall, thmall world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Days of swine neurosis

...wasn't Jack Lemmon in that movie?

Anyway, this is my 200th blog post... where's my cake?

It's dinnertime Tuesday and we were supposed to be back at work at 1 today, with parent conferences tonight and classes resuming tomorrow after our short swinish break, but I just got email saying that we'll be closed all week, which will certainly muck up our vacation schedule. The last numbers I heard indicated that five of our students (out of a total enrollment of 80) have been confirmed with H1N1, as has the principal. Me? I feel fine. Too lazy to go to the effort of contracting the virus, I guess.

Speaking of health, last Monday I finally reupped my bp meds. In Daegu, I had a little clinic/hospital just a few blocks from my apartment with a friendly, English-proficient doctor. Here, I did a fair amount of research and finally got an appointment at the nearest hospital that promised English competence, St. Mary's Hospital, which is linked to the Catholic University of Korea, in the Gangnam area.

I got off work at 4 and theoretically had to be there by 4:15, which necessitated a hectic search for a taxi, an eight-buck, frustrating cab ride in rush-hour traffic, and an intimidating search through the massive hospital itself, where I only found one person besides the doctor who spoke English. The signs were all in Korean, and I can read the letters just dandy, but unless they spell a word that's basically English (such as the little Hershey's foil packet by my elbow, with Hangul letters reading "kee-sae-seu" but which sadly now has only empty wrappers and little discarded paper flags left to offer), it doesn't help much. Trying to follow the directions of a lot of staffers pointing in general directions across a huge lobby with lots of branching corridors is more frustrating than you might think.

My doctor was surprisingly young (I think I may have been her first patient ever) and, judging from the top half of her face, cute. However, the mask covering the bottom half of her face was quite ordinary. She was quite accommodating and, once I returned to that receptionist to point me to the machine to feed my ticket into to get my prescription to take across the street to the yakguk (pharmacy), it all worked well. Then I looked at my phrasebook and said "Where is the subway?" only to have the pharmacist point down. It turns out the hospital is right on top of a subway stop, just three stops away from our nearest one. So I'll schedule my next appointment, in three months, when I don't have to get there in a rush and ride in relaxed subterranean comfort.

The next night, the PTA had the faculty out to dinner. The family of one of our students owns a galbi (short ribs) restaurant a half-hour south of the city. The property is an amazing mix of lovely park and ticky-tack; the grandfather showed us a tree he planted fifty years ago, there were big pools full of koi the size of your forearm, and there were lotsa nekkid women statues. Apparently it's a big place for weddings. I didn't want to make a fuss or stand out in front of the PTA, so I decided to just eat the multitude of veggie side dishes. Unfortunately, Zach (half of the most awesome department at any prep school in Asia) tried to be nice and told them I'm veg; I tried to tell them don't bother, I'm fine, but they brought me a lovely "vegetarian" plate... tuna. With a side of oysters. Oy.

More successful gustatory endeavors... I found a place called Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam, and on Sunday Lauren and I had brunch there. Oh, lordy, lordy... a Village Inn garden skillet, if God were the short order cook! Pancakes with three choices of butter (reg'lar, honey-, and I Can't Believe It's Not) and syrup, a massive omelet subsuming a pound of roast veggies, and a Matterhorn of roasted hash browns redolant of rosemary and delight. And lots of coffee. And last night, I joined Lauren, Susan and Chris from work at a little Mexican restaurant in Gangnam. Dos Tacos is down a wide alley from the main street, hard to find, but worth the trip; I'm pretty sick of the two Korean dishes I know I can order, and a delicious veggie burrito, hot, fresh fries, and a lime margarita... muy, muy bueno, ajosshi! It's a bit of a trip to Gangnam, but my culinary horizons just got a lot wider. As did I.

I have no clue what to do with the next five days. I may chase down to Daegu one day to visit Emma (returning to New Zealand shortly) and Joanna (Alaska, ditto). I think Daegu will always have a bit of a pall for me because I lost Tiki, but I want to see both of them again, and see Heeduk to negotiate terms for me to tutor in January... if these autumn days off for H1N1 don't completely eat up our winter break like me engulfing pancakes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

She drives me crazily

I taught driver's ed back in St. Augustine, but I decided in my first couple of days in Korea that I'd never drive here. Turn signals are unheard of, lane markings are vague suggestions, and in Daegu, buses slammed up to stops at high speed, taxi drivers got bonuses for flipping pedestrians in the air, and cars are always driving on sidewalks to get to parking spots up against stores.

It doesn't seem quite so insane in Seoul, if only because the streets are too congested for anyone to go fast, but where I cross the main street on my way to work, the two side streets are off plumb by about five feet, people park in the intersection, drivers turn left out of the side street and are stuck all diagonal-like as pedestrians cross with the "walk" signal, and there's always a driver pulling a three-point turn in the intersection.

Korea has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the world.

And now this, from

SEOUL, South Korea — A woman in South Korea who tried to pass the written exam for a driver's license with near-daily attempts since April 2005 has finally succeeded on her 950th time. The aspiring driver spent more than 5 million won ($4,200) in application fees, but until now had failed to score the minimum 60 out of a possible 100 points needed to get behind the wheel for a driving test.
Cha Sa-soon, 68, finally passed the written exam with a score of 60 on Wednesday, said Choi Young-chul, a police official at the drivers' license agency in Jeonju, 130 miles (210 kilometers) south of Seoul.
Police said Cha took the test hundreds of times, but had no specific total. Local media said she took the test 950 times.
Now she must pass a driving test before getting her license, Choi said.
Repeated calls to Cha seeking comment went unanswered. She told the Korea Times newspaper she needed the license for her vegetable-selling business.


Even the 1962 Mets didn't go 1-949.

Friday, November 6, 2009

One flu over the cuckoo's nest

The inevitable has happened; our school's closing for a couple of days due to the "epidemic" Yesterday we had seven kids absent (out of 80 or so). One was out with a broken hand, and I don't think we can blame that on H1N1. Today, the same seven kids were out. There's one funny thing about this horrible, horrible pandemic... apparently it only strikes boys. In my creative writing class today, all four boys were out sick. All seven girls? All feeling fine, all present. Hmm. (Also, one boy yesterday wanted to go home with a temperature that was elevated by 2/10 of a degree.) Anyway, we had been in the middle of a story-writing project and there was no way to continue it with 36.4 percent of the kids missing from their groups, so... we watched Grease. (I was amazed; the girls all knew the song Summer Nights!) It was my only class today. Tough, tough Friday at work.

At noon, the principal made the announcement that the kids would go home two hours early today and that we would be closed on Monday and Tuesday, as a prophylactic measure. (We were supposed to have had three days off for the Jeju trip in October and only had one, to go to Nami Island, so it works out.) The teachers have a three-day weekend and have to report at lunchtime Tuesday for a work day; the endless dreary parent conferences are still scheduled for Tuesday night. I'm thinking of returning to see my friends in Daegu on Sunday.

We have no documented cases of H1N1. Say it with me now, the unofficial motto of this blog: "Everybody here crazy."