Friday, January 20, 2012

Front to the Future

When I was a kid, I thought about living to the year 2000, which seemed impossibly far away. It never occurred to me that 2000 would once be considered the good old days. The actuarial tables of the time said the odds were I'd die in the year 2020, which was impossiblier farther away. Don't seem impossiblier anymore, but at this point I think that by 2020 I'll finally get my act together and start accomplishing stuff.

Me, 2012.

I've been thinking this morning about what my Android smart phone represents. Not many years ago, if you'd told me I could use a device smaller than Tom Cruise to do a thousand things, I'd have told you that you were crazier than Michele Bachmann... if, at that point, I'd ever had the bad luck to have heard of Michele Bachmann. I can Facebook or Twitter (while rationalizing Facebook and Twitter as verbs); take photos and send them around the world; catch up on email; listen to music; read whole books; translate from English to Korean or vice-versa (although I happen to know that"식 당" means "restaurant", not "per equation", as Google thinks); record my deathless thoughts (usually along the lines of "soy milk, bread, bananas"); zoom in on a map of Seoul; plot my subway route; and, most importantly, evaporate little green pigs with exploding irate, though naturally flightless, birds.

I've been told I could even make a phone call if I ever wanted to.

All this on a phone that was free and service that costs me a dollar a day. And I live in what many people say is the most wired city in the world. Here, everybody on the subway is mesmerized by their electronic devices and I'd worry whether the driver is paying attention to his job... but there isn't a driver. On the new subway line, you can look out the front of the computer-driven train and feel like Mr. Sulu as you zip through the tunnel. (I think I'd prefer a human driver, but at least the train is going to be tough to hijack.)

I know what we were all thinking back in the day: flying cars! But I've seen a lot of Koreans drive in two dimensions; I'd say the last thing we need is to add a third.

So, despite the melting polar ice caps and the career of Ke$ha, I've decided to spend the rest of my life in the future.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

"...and, doggone it, people like me."

You know that stuff I wrote two entries ago, "I'm not alone"? Yeah, well, never mind. I was only kiddin'.

Seems I'm a ramblin' guy again; Kyung and I are off. I won't pretend I'm not disappointed, but I'm fine. Maybe I am alone, but 2011 was still a success because I learned I don't have to be alone.

Anyway, we're three weeks into our four-and-a-half-week winter break (necessitated by Korea's biggest holiday, Seollal-- Lunar New Year-- coming so soon after our usual two-week break). My colleagues are beginning to trickle back from their excursions to such strange, exotic locations as Vietnam and California, but most won't be back for another week.

I've been keeping busy writing, hiking, milling on the tread at the gym (shut up, I'm an English teacher), going to a movie, soaking in hot tubs, and hashing. During the school year, the Saturday morning Yongsan Kimchi hash is about all I can commit the time to each weekend. Now that I'm on vacation, though, I'm hitting both YK and Southside HHH on Sundays. It's a delicate balance, trying to keep the January cold out without being so bundled up I sweat through all those layers while running. Usually I fail.

Yesterday's YK hash, going all the way up and over three mountains while covering six miles in two hours, was epic, but it was last week's Southside that I'll really remember. We clambered over and between and around boulders all the way to the top of a mountain so high that even the traffic sounds of this metro area of 22 million completely faded away.

Halfway up: Headshot, Burt Reynolds, Mr. Blister, some guy, 
Dead Porno Society, Corndog Millionaire.

Top of the World, Ma! (The escalator was out of order.)

The long, long way down was enchanting, with a beautiful little stream frozen solid all the way down through the silent woods. Maybe the best thing about Seoul is that spotted all through this huge city there are the hills and mountains, so natural, so peaceful, so quiet.

But in case one is ever tempted to forget that this is still Korea, near the top of the mountain is a bunker, built after the war, that's used by the army to train their men how to watch out for invaders from the north.

Still, it was a lovely day, and the hash means so much to me in terms of conditioning, friendship, and self-esteem.

And you know, though it seems improper to say it... friends and acquaintances tell me it's impressive that someone my age (58, if you're keeping score at home) has run over 80 hashes, and completed two marathons, in 15 months. And I always go, aw shucks, tweren't nothin'. But you know... it is impressive. I rock. In some ways.

And now for something completely different.

When I was new in Korea, every day brought something funny, or sad, or odd enough to want to blog about. After a couple of years, though, I stopped noticing as much, or caring as much to post it. And there is a lot of funky stuff here. For example: 

-The underground shopping malls have so many rotundas and stairs and corridors branching off in all directions that they were apparently built by gophers with architectural degrees.And then there's inexplicable stuff like this:

-One of the moms in the English club I emcee at school gave me a Christmas present: a shocking-pink bow tie with gold filigree. (She knows me so well.)

-There are always so many salespeople standing around in stores that you can't twitch without having someone suggesting stuff you should buy, but for Seollal they're mostly decked out in lovely, traditional hanbok outfits. And you can't find half the stuff in its usual place because of all the gift packs on display, including Korea's favorite holiday delicacy:

-Close your eyes, delicate readers: as written in Korean characters, hope and hof (beer hall) are spelled identically; so are rub and love; so are park and fuck. (It's important to remember the difference in a no-parking zone.)

-There is actually in Korea a "free" cat who cost $1200 at the vet's due to nasty plumbing problems, an eye infection, and fluid in the lungs. Unfortunately, he lives with me.

If he wants legs, too, they're coming out of his allowance.

...and so, as Nick Carraway said, I beat on against the current, and survive the winter, and occasionally remind myself that, though I may be thoroughly single again, doggone it, people like me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Don't mess with techses?

Everyone's Gone to the Moon, The Only Living Boy in New York-- choose your favorite old song about being left while everybody else is away-- heck, choose I'm So Ronery, the Kim Jong Il puppet's song from Team America, I don't care. Point is, everybody's away. People from school are all either in the States or lying on some Southeast Asian beach during our 4 1/2-week winter break. I've gone to hashes, but between people's vacations and bone-chilling weather, they've been sparsely attended. Kyung's had house guests and spent the New Year with her daughter, so it's been ten days since I've seen her and it'll be four more before I do again.

Even Tug was back in the shop for observation for a bit. Selfish little creep.

So I've had lots of time to reflect. (However, I have not been refractory.) What I've been reflecting about today is tech, what we've lost and what we've gained.

What happens when we're left to our own devices? So to speak.

A packed Seoul subway car is quite a sight: 40 or so people, none talking to anyone else, 35 of them absorbed in their iPads and iPods and iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S's and Android phones. I'm not making fun; when I'm on the subway, I'm probably listening to a podcast or checking my Facebook or Angry Birding, too. (Did it ever occur to you that maybe the Birds are so Angry because they need a giant slingshot to fly?)

The locals' absorption in their tech dovetails with the facts that-- how should I put it politely?-- Koreans have a much narrower conception of personal space than Americans do and many have no sense whatsoever of who's near them. The result? Many near-hits and the occasional near-miss (that is, collision) as they stroll through subway stations and down streets sending texts, playing games, and watching Korean soap operas. (Costco has a sign prohibiting cell phones on the moving sidewalk.) For that matter, a lot of the cab drivers have GPS's that double as TV sets; you're as likely to ride with a TV watcher as a GPSer.

One example of personal tech making us more separate: I remember when I first started coaching cross country in 1999. We'd rent vans once a year, or twice if we advanced to the regional championships, and head over to Gainesville or Tallahassee, seven kids with me driving and seven with my friend and co-coach Brian. We'd talk and joke and laugh and rag about each other's musical taste as we swapped CD's in and out of the player, and we'd build a real team (it might not be too much to say a real family) atmosphere. But within a couple of years, everybody in the van but me, the driver, would be lost in his or her own earbudded world, and from five minutes out of St. Augustine to five minutes before Gainesville, I would in effect be driving alone.

And of course we could all name lots of other examples of how tech separates us from the people we're near, even as it links us to people far away (...he said, sitting a Pacific away from most of his audience.)

The proximate cause of this perhaps-not-entirely-original musing is the fact that I've finally given in to the e-reading wave. I've been resisting out of loyalty to the idea of The Bookstore-- I love a place where you can go and pick up any book, read the blurbs, open a page at random and skim a paragraph or two, and buy a book (even though said book often doesn't look as appealing sitting on the nightstand as it did the moment I decided to pay for it). I love being around people who love books.

Heck, I've owned a bookstore. And worked in a newsstand shop. And at the public library. And, back in Florida, run my school's textbook sale. And I hate to see the bookstore wither away. But it is, just as the newspaper is. And the record store and the abacus and buggy-whip industries did.

Still, I need to read more books, especially as I'm working on my own fiction, and it's a heck of a hassle to have to travel an hour each way to buy one. Also, I've been reading a blog about self-publishing e-books; the author (admittedly one who is experienced and prolific) earns six figures a year without ever paying a publisher or an agent. And on an e-reader, you can download entire out-of-copyright books and sample virtually any book for free, as well as checking out books from libraries. (Yeah, not sure yet how that works.)

The Mom's English Club, which I emcee on Thursday evenings at school, was reading Because of Winn-Dixie when I took the club over with four hours' notice. There wasn't a spare copy to be had in the Republic of Korea; I downloaded it onto my Android phone for three bucks. A hashing friend, who came back to Seoul to cover Kim Jong Il's death, showed me her Kindle and I was impressed, but she told me it was her second device and she liked her Nook better. On my phone, I read Tom Sawyer and I'm in the middle of Connecticut Yankee and sampling the first chapter of Stephen King's 11/22/63. All for free.

The prices have come way down on the infernal contraptions, and I've finally given in; frankly, reading a novel on a phone is less than ideal-- you have to hold it close to your face and turn the page every five seconds. So I asked my friend and colleague Bob to pick me up the low-end Nook at Barnes and Noble while he's in the States this month. (The import fees and shipping on American goods are prohibitive.)

Why a Nook and not a Kindle? Well, the reviews are slightly better for the Nook; I'd have to have Amazon ship a Kindle to somebody in the States from whom Bob could pick it up; Amazon is evil (it's a terrible employer and is engaging in Walmartian levels of undercutting brick-and-mortar stores); and I'd rather support a real bookstore chain, even one that's driven googols of little stores out of business, than a place whose entire physical presence is the warehouse we last saw at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Apparently the Nook is keeping Barnes and Noble from Bordering on bankruptcy.

I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my little darling in two weeks or so. It already has a pet name... I was considering calling it Da Nook of the North, but that's too much of a stretch even for me. So I'm calling it Nookie.

Don't you judge me.