Tuesday, April 30, 2013

another failed quest

My buddy Tom called me up early this afternoon to see about doing lunch. He was in the grip of an idée fixe: he wanted Mexican, and since he was in the Gwanghwamun area, he wanted to go to Dos Tacos. I took the taxi over to Gwanghwamun and met Tom at an Olleh coffee shop next to the Kyobo Building. We hiked the better part of a mile to Dos Tacos's tucked-away location, and... it turned out they were closed until 4:30. Well, shit. Since we were basically in the Chongno district, we knew there were tons of restaurants everywhere, so we wandered around randomly until we found a curry place (karae-jip) that had a wall socket where Tom's cell phone could recharge.

Tom then declared he had to take a mighty post-pranidal dump, so I suggested we mosey over to the posh Lotte Hotel, where the restroom stalls are about as luxurious as it gets, and the dumping is blissfully comfortable. While I waited for Tom to do his business, I wandered into the souvenir shop and struck up a conversation with an older woman who was, I imagine, the store's proprietor. I shocked her with my Korean ability (see? what's my problem talking with Grandma??), and we discussed my job prospects. She was hopeful for me: "You've got skills, so I'm sure things will turn out fine," she said. I thanked her; not long after, Tom reappeared and proudly declared he had launched a three-log flume. We walked out of the hotel, passing a high-end buffet called, pretentiously enough, La Seine, where the lunch and dinner prices were a ridiculously inflated W100,000 per person. What sane individual would pay that much for a damn buffet? I'd rather get a burger.

Tom and I hung out for a few minutes in front of the Lotte Department Store, which is attached to the hotel, then we went our separate ways. Dos Tacos will have to wait for us to strike another time.


need to work on listening skills

Apparently, Grandma and I had another misunderstanding, which I discovered only after taking a long, uphill hike toward her apartment building: we weren't meeting today. You see, Grandma was coming back from a family burial plot, and she had invited me, the other day, to go along with her. On the day she invited me, I'd understood her simply to be asking whether I'd care to join her for a quick outing in the countryside. But today, Grandma said she was coming back from her trip, which meant she had intended to spend several days out in the sticks. Had I properly understood that that was her intention, I'd have said no to her offer even faster. (I had originally said no because of YB-related remote work.)

Around 11AM today, and assuming Grandma's place was a mere walk across the street, I tried calling her to confirm directions to her place. No answer. (I now think she didn't answer because she was either in transit or was on the line with someone else.) So I went to Google Maps, did my best to look up Grandma's apartment, saw that a certain Building 101 wasn't far from the main street, and headed out around 11:45AM.

But as I got closer to the Building 101 I'd seen on the Google map, I saw that it was for a different apartment complex. Shit. Sagging, I turned my gaze uphill to the arduous trudge that lay ahead. In the distance, I saw Samsung Apartments, Buildings 108 and 109, so I assumed that Samsung Building 101 lay in that direction. The weather was sunny and cool, but I broke into a sweat as I dragged myself ever upward. Upon reaching Buildings 108 and 109, I looked for a map of the entire complex, but found only a map of Buildings 108 and 109. Great. So I brought out my phone and tried calling Grandma again.


"Hello! This is Kevin. We've got a noon meeting today, yes?"

"Oh, no! I'm just coming back from visiting the family plot. Last time I called you, I had invited you to come along. I'll call you later about meeting."

"Uh... OK."

With that, I started back downhill.

I really need to improve my listening-comp abilities. All that sweat for nothing, and I never found the apartment building.

In my defense, I'll say that I don't normally have this much trouble communicating with Korean folks. Grandma and I just aren't clicking, I think; it may be that we're on different discursive wavelengths, approaching conversation with contrasting ideas and intentions, and perhaps not hearing each other as well as we could. I'll just have to make extra sure, next time I talk with her, that I get absolutely every detail about a future meeting exactly clear and correct, reciting it all item by item if necessary.


lunch with Granny: before

Today at noon (it's a bit after 8:45AM as I write this), I'm meeting the grandmother of Sohee, John McCarby's daughter-in-law and the girl whose apartment I'm currently using as a base of operations. I had been hoping to meet Grandma since my arrival in Seoul, if for no other reason than to pay my respects and to express my appreciation for the family's generous permission to use Sohee's apartment. Today, finally, I'll have that opportunity. From what I've heard from John, Grandma is quite nice. I've spoken with her on the phone, and she seems like a kind-hearted, solicitous person. As a gesture of respect, I cooked up a batch of budae-jjigae last night. I have no idea how Grandma will take this, but I'm hopeful that my recipe will wow her: my eighty-year-old aunt in Texas was impressed the last time I made budae.

So this is the "before" blog post. I'll meet Grandma in a couple of hours, then write an "after" post to talk about how the encounter went. Other blogging projects include writing reviews for Denzel Washington's "Flight" and Bradley Cooper's "Silver Linings Playbook."

More later.


Monday, April 29, 2013

...but some things are the same

You know what unifies my experience of living in America and, now, living for a short while in Korea?

I'll tell you: grocery receipts.

Yes: grocery receipts are the same everywhere, aren't they? There's a comfort in that insight. It's not the Force that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together: it's ticker tape. A machine prints the receipts, cuts them, and spits them out; a lady briskly hands the shorn paper to you, and you stuff the receipt into one of the plastic grocery bags you're carrying, or you do what I do and gingerly fold them into your wallet because of some innominate hoarding instinct.

Shopping at the local grocer here in Seoul (thanks, John, for pointing me to DC Mart) feels almost exactly like shopping for groceries at home. The aisles are a little tighter, the obnoxious dude with the microphone/bullhorn is a pain in the ass, but the Korean meat counter attendant is just as willing to grind up some beef for you, if you request it, as the butcher back in the States is—and when you get to the cashier, you can expect her to hand you a good old familiar receipt: a glorious white ribbon that catalogues all your consumerist sins.

Tonight's sins were legion. I spent over W80,000 on budae-jjigae and ddeokbokgi ingredients. The plan is to make meals that'll last me several days, if not a couple weeks. I'm going to take some budae over to Grandma tomorrow for lunch. Maybe she'll try it; maybe she won't. She may pride herself on her own cooking, and may want nothing to do with my offering. If so, that's fine: more for me to eat.

But it's nice to know that, however different, however strange, however foreign life in Korea might seem, there are always grocery receipts to remind me that Koreans and Americans occupy the same good earth.


reopening the chicken/egg controversy

My online friend Malcolm Pollack of the most excellent Waka Waka Waka thought he had settled the "Which came first—the chicken or the egg?" controversy long ago. "Which came first? The egg. Move on," wrote Malcolm. Why? Malcolm explained:

How does speciation occur? Is it by some creature starting its life as one species and ending up as another? Obviously not. New forms of life arise through mutation, through the imperfect transfer of genetic information from parent to child. So in this example something that was not-quite-a-chicken laid an egg containing the world’s first chicken.

I was happy with this explanation for a long time. But in trolling the archives of Lee Farrand's blog (and you'll recall that Lee is a biologist), I found this:

When referring to a situation in which the original cause out of two likely explanations is unknown, many people like to use the old chestnut:

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

This is an example of metacircularity and is designed to be unanswerable. But the biological answer in terms of evolution is: the chicken.

The reason for this is [that] the egg is part of the chicken's reproductive strategy. If you traced the chicken's ancestors back in time throughout evolutionary history, you'd find that the eggs were more watery, from the amphibian lineage that we all share. If you went back further still, to simpler and primordial ancestors of the chicken, which were aquatic plankton, you'd find that eventually there was a point where sexual reproduction began. Before this time, the modus operandi of all reproductivity was binary fission[, i.e.,] one cell dividing into two - in which case, there were no eggs to speak of. Eggs arose after the first organisms developed meiosis, the ability to divide chromosomes between gamete cells.

So the answer to this question is that the chicken came first, although the ancient 'chickens' we are referring to are quite different to the chickens of today.

So... which came first? The chicken or the egg?


Sunday, April 28, 2013

social engagements

1. At some point, I'll be hanging with Tom, Charles, and Hyunjin again, probably at Braai Republic, the South African BBQ restaurant.

2. I've just penciled in a meeting with Dr. Jeff Hodges for May 3.

3. For my friend Sperwer: I'll be attending his May 5 Mr. Seoul bodybuilding competition, and he's expressed an interest in throwing a post-competition party to which I and Charles will both likely come.

4. I'm scheduled to meet with author Holden Beck on May 8, when I'll likely be visiting Seoul National University as a follow-up to having sent SNU a job application.

5. Although a meet-up was proposed in the blog's comments section, I still haven't fixed a date to meet with resident Toastmaster and inveterate Aussie Lee Farrand. But it'll happen.

6. This coming Tuesday, I'm meeting up with the grandmother of the girl whose apartment I'm staying in. She called today, around 4:30PM, to invite me, rather suddenly, on a jaunt out into the countryside. I had to turn her down because I'm busy with YB-related "remote" work, but I'll be meeting her for lunch on Tuesday.

7. Promises to keep: I had told both Joe McPherson and Lokie, my former supervisor, that I would meet with them once more before leaving the country. No dates fixed.

I hope soon to include some dang job interviews in the above list, but I don't really expect to hear from any campuses until we're well into the first week or so of May. If I don't hear from certain universities, I plan to visit them, anyway, because I will not fucking be ignored. That's one of the reasons why I'm here in Korea: to foist my presence on slow, stupid bureaucrats who (quite unprofessionally) fail to reply to my correspondence. I was ignored twice last year. Never again.


my next target

I'm applying for a teaching position at Daegu University, which promises only modest pay but a fantastic teaching and vacation schedule (12 hours per week of teaching, 4 months' vacation per year—incroyable). I just sent off my application, which is missing only one document: a go-yong-injeung-seo (고용 인증서), or "certificate of employment." This is a Korean document that most US employers don't give to their employees (for us, it's enough to sign an employment contract); nevertheless, I've sent an emailed request to YB to provide me with some sort of American equivalent to the Korean document.

It's a bit annoying that Daegu U. is asking for this certificate; no other university that I've applied to is. Still, I'm looking at this requirement as a minor inconvenience, and am hoping that my current employer will come through for me in the next couple of days, so that I can send the document to DU separately. And despite the low pay that DU is offering (see the ad here), everything else about the job sounds fantastic, and I wouldn't mind teaching in a city that's close to one of my all-time favorite Zen temples: Haein-sa, which sits on Gaya Mountain at about 90 minutes' bus ride from Daegu.

I think I have a good chance of being tapped by DU for an interview. Here's hoping.


why wiping my ass is suddenly disconcerting

[Master Hakuin] asked the crazy monk, "They say you are using Buddhist scriptures for toilet paper. Is that so?"

The crazy monk said, "Yes. I myself am a Buddha. What is wrong with using Buddhist scriptures to wipe a Buddha's ass?"

Hakuin said, "You're wrong. Since it's a Buddha's ass, why use old paper with writing on it? You should wipe it with clean white paper."

The crazy monk was shamed, and he apologized.

--from Zen Antics, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary

Like you, Fellow Human, I have an asshole. Shit comes out of it periodically, but as is often the case with vomiting, shitting is a messy process that requires, at its conclusion, a bit of orifice-wiping. I haven't puked in decades, so my memory of the event is a bit faded, but I do recall the combination of an acrid, bilious taste in my mouth and a feeling of overwhelming relief once the puking was done. Immediately afterward, I would rinse my mouth out and wipe my lips with a paper towel. I can't do that with my asshole, unfortunately: not being Le Pétomane, I can't make it gargle. So that leaves only wiping.

Normally, like you, Fellow Human, I sit on that Great White Bowl and do my business, perhaps with a grunt here, perhaps with a heave there, and almost always with a feeling of dissatisfaction because I know, like Mr. Creosote, that There's Still More. I'm convinced that I'm afflicted with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a condition that normally strikes women. People with IBS normally shit part-way, then can shit no further until a few minutes or a few hours later, when the urge will suddenly strike again. This can happen several times before the victim feels quite empty, and it makes for highly inconvenient interruptions at meals, social events, and the like.

Aside from the above discomfiting biological fact, though, I think I'm like most people: shit, wipe, flush, leave. Personally, I'm a back-to-fronter, which means that instead of reaching behind me to wipe, I lean forward and plunge my hand betwixt my hams, dragging that wad of tissue perineum-ward. I do as thorough of a job as I can while leaning forward, then flush and call it a day.

It's the leaning forward that has become problematic since my arrival in Seoul. You see, the apartment I'm in has a very nice full bathroom (i.e., toilet, sink, and tub/shower) surfaced with shiny tiles on the walls and floor.

And floor.

Starting to see the problem? Me, I see it every time I go to take a dump. I lean forward to wipe... and see myself staring back at me. This is unnerving, to say the least. I feel a bit like the kitten or puppy that, not understanding mirrors, sees its reflection in one and thinks it's seeing a completely different animal. Who is this large man ogling me while I scrape tissue across my crotch?

There's a special sort of shame felt by people who catch themselves in the act of doing something naughty or otherwise embarrassing, be it crying, eating messily, dancing badly, or whatever. That's the shame I feel every time I catch myself in medias wipe. I don't have this problem at my apartment in Virginia because those bathroom tiles aren't reflective enough to produce a clear image. But here, in this Seoul apartment, I see the large man and cringe.

Just thought you should know.


trapped in the time-zone demimonde

It's Sunday morning, but because I haven't adjusted my computer's reckoning of my current time zone, the MacBook is still claiming it's Saturday. And dammit, it still feels like Saturday, despite its being Sunday. Is time really flowing forward that ineluctably?


Saturday, April 27, 2013

close encounters

Some reflections from this week about the people I've met.


This past Thursday, my day of shopping, one of my errands was to the grand mansion of my friend Sperwer, who has had the good grace to store a pile of my boxed-up possessions for the past five years in his basement. Yes, that's right: Sperwer's living in a house large enough to have its own basement—something of a commonplace in America, but quite significant here in real-estate-strapped Korea.

I took the subway to Gyeongbok Palace Station, then grabbed a cab from there to the district office, near Sperwer's home, that served as a landmark. Sperwer asked me to wait at the Starbucks across the street from the district office; he planned to pick me up, probably because he knew that the hike up to his place was a hellaciously long and steep uphill trudge.

It was gloomy and rainy. Sperwer arrived in his limousine-like luxury car, and off we sped. His neighborhood is something of a mountain aerie; as I mentioned previously, he lives a sniper-shot away from the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House. The upward road was winding and narrow, reminiscent of European streets; it slalomed side to side, undulated up and down past various large and expensive properties, and eventually led us to my friend's impressive house.

Sperwer himself looked great—trim, fit, powerful, and alert. Over the past few years, he has dedicated himself to bodybuilding, and in just a few days, he will be participating in the Mr. Seoul bodybuilding competition. Despite the fact that he's 63, Sperwer seems much younger. It could well be that his dedication to constant training has reversed many of the normal effects of aging. I'm reminded of how, in 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard gained fifteen pounds of muscle, and reversed his own aging, to be able to fight the larger Marvin Hagler (Leonard won that bout by split decision). Sperwer was undeniably in fighting shape.

I followed my friend down into his basement, where I saw an old, familiar pile of boxes: my 2008-era supplies, books, and knickknacks, waiting patiently for me to review them. I took out a knife, sliced through packing tape, and started looking through box after box; Sperwer would periodically heave up yet another heavy container for me to inspect. I joked that I was tempted to take everything with me right then and there; Sperwer laughed good-naturedly. But reality constrained me: I knew I should take only what I absolutely needed for my month in Seoul. Sperwer, a practicing Buddhist, got a kick out of witnessing my pain as I sadly said "no" to item after item, tearing myself away from my attachments.

In the end, I took only four items with me: three small books having to do with linguistics and literature, and a metal rice bowl with interesting resonant properties. We put the boxes back into their pile, then retreated upstairs to hang out for a bit in the kitchen/dining-room area. Sperwer introduced me to fresh, unfiltered pomegranate juice; it was startlingly delicious. He talked about his bodybuilding regimen and the upcoming Mr. Seoul (and, eleven days later, the Mr. Korea) contest, and then he gave me two containers of Herbalife protein and nutrient powder (one is more of a protein booster; the other is more of a meal substitute), probably in the hopes that I would get my lazy ass in shape faster. I have to congratulate my friend on not having become a boorish proselytizer: Sperwer could easily have taken the self-righteous route and loudly preached the gospel of healthful living and bodybuilding at me, but he showed remarkable restraint. Thank goodness for that.

Our brief time together ended when Sperwer, on his way to pick up his daughter, drove me back down the mountain so I could take a cab to my place. As we discussed Seoul's geography, it became apparent to Sperwer that my current digs were closer to his place than I had originally reckoned: I'm a very short cab (or bus) ride from that nearby district office and the Starbucks where we rendezvoused. There was never a need to take the circuitous subway route that I had taken. Ah, well: live and learn, right?

I wish Sperwer well as he faces his upcoming challenge on May 5. I'll likely be there to cheer him on as he competes in what he joshingly calls "the geezer division."


This past Friday—yesterday—turned out to be a busy day. First, I had arranged to meet my old Sookmyung Women's University supervisor, whom I'll call Lokie (for her Korean initials LKI, and since Loki is a god and not a goddess, I've added an "e"), at noon on Sookmyung's campus. Next, I had planned to meet up with my friend Tom for dinner at my buddy Charles's apartment on the HUFS (Hanguk* University of Foreign Studies) campus.

The subway ride back to Sookmyung brought back memories, as did the ten-minute walk from the subway station to the campus's two main gates. I took note of how much had changed: quite a few old shops, services, and restaurants had disappeared, including, sadly, a landmark bakery called Bbang Ggoom Teo, which used to sit at the intersection of my residential street and Sookmyung's main drag. What a shame, that: BGT made the best baguettes this side of France. A cosmetics shop stood in its place. Up the street, a Paris Baguette chain bakery still held its ground—a fixture from my days of teaching at Sookmyung. I stalked inside, sweating from my uphill hike, and bought gifts for Lokie and Charles.

Lokie used to be my supervisor, but she had changed offices a few years back and was now across campus in the Administration Building (haeng-jeong-gwan). I walked the final, steep path to her building, found the elevator, took it to Lokie's floor, and stepped into her office.

The office turned out to be wide, open, and quiet. Lokie herself was hunched over some paperwork when I peeked in; she didn't notice me at first. When she finally looked up, she brightened. We leaned awkwardly across the massive desk between us and gave each other "shoulder hugs." Lokie, ever the ajumma, tartly noted that I had gained weight since my walk: she had followed my walk blog and had seen the pictures of my massive weight loss. I sighed and admitted that I had indeed regained the weight I had lost during that 600-mile trek.

We stepped out into the bright sunlight and began walking downhill. Since I had joked with Lokie about eating expensive French food, she suggested an Italian place close by: La Lieto (which probably should have been "La Lieta," the happy woman). The place turned out to be a second-floor restaurant that served Italian food in the typical Korean style. We ordered a "couple set," i.e., a prix-fixe menu for two: Lokie got the spicy penne all'arrabiata, and I got the salmon Alfredo pasta. Koreans are an onion-loving people, which makes life difficult for us onion-haters. They adore adding massive amounts of onion to their Italian cream sauces, and I knew that that's what I was in for. We shared an insalata mista with buffalo mozzarella, as well as a not-bad plate of bruschetta. The pasta plates came out later on (yep: lots of onions) and, true to Korean form, so did the small dishes of sliced pickles, serving their humble function as a kimchi analogue. That's what I mean by "typical Korean style," you see: in a Korean-style Italian restaurant, you can be sure to get way too many onions and a side of sliced pickles.

We talked about staffing changes at Sookmyung. Most of the Korean English-language teachers that I knew from my 2005-2008 stint were now gone, and all of the Western staffers were new. Many of the Korean ladies from the floor below me, who taught Korean, were still there, though. We reminisced about some of my former Western coworkers—the nutty ones, the ones who had problems with punctuality, and so on.

Lokie has a daughter named Hyeon-chae, a name whose hanja (Sino-Korean characters) etymology means, according to Lokie, something like "gathering/collecting brightness." Hyeon-chae is four in Korean age, but only two-and-a-half in Western age.** I asked Lokie about how motherhood had been treating her, and she said that that was all she ever did these days: work at the office, then go home and be a mom. No time for anything else, except maybe for a bit of reading on the subway on her way to work. Yeah... babies are a definite time sink, and it's never easy to balance motherhood with a career.

We also talked about our respective moms. Lokie's mother had been misdiagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease; it later turned out that the Parkinson's-like symptoms were the result of certain medication she had been taking to relieve abdominal distress. I told Lokie a bit about my experience of taking care of Mom during her nine months of brain cancer, but I didn't want to dwell on the topic and make lunch into a mawkish weepfest, so I kept my reminiscences brief.

So we caught up a bit with each other's lives. Lokie had been a good supervisor back in the day; I liked her. It was pleasant to see her again. We dug into a single, tender slice of tiramisu, left the restaurant, and bowed our goodbyes to each other on the sidewalk. I promised I would drop by to see Lokie one more time before I left for the US.

It was 1:25PM. I walked downhill toward the subway station, seeking out a Wi-Fi-capable coffee shop. I soon found one: a bright, spacious, white-tiled establishment called Cocobruni, whose name immediately evoked Carla Bruni, wife of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Like most Korean coffee shops, this one was based at least partly on the Starbucks business model, providing customers with a relaxed atmosphere and a welcome place to crack open their laptops and surf the Net at leisure. I bought a small, frou-frou slice of cake and a way-too-expensive glass of lemonade from the delicate lady-boys behind the counter. At first, I was unsure how to get into the cafe's Wi-Fi service since the connection required a password, but in a flash of Zen insight I realized the passcode would be written on my receipt. I looked at my receipt, and sure enough, there was the code. Login was simple enough, and within seconds I was once again plugged into that pulsating, planet-spanning nervous system. I contacted Tom, who had texted to say he was close to the Chongno district. Tom and I had originally arranged to meet at 3PM in front of the building that used to be the old hagwon (cram-study institute) that he and I had worked at from 1994 to 1995, but he had arrived early, so he wanted to change our meeting time. "2:15? Email me," I emailed back. Texting, emailing... on a smart phone, what's the difference?

Ultimately, I decided not to wait for Tom's reply; I struck camp and headed to the subway. It was a short trip from Sookmyung University Station to Seoul Station, then from Seoul Station to Jonggak Station. While I was en route, Tom texted that he was in a "Starfucks" near one of the Jonggak Station exits. I found the place with little trouble and settled down next to Tom, staring out a first-floor vitrine at all the crisscrossing humanity. Tom and I ogled some miniskirts; my own aesthetic sensibilities had not yet recalibrated to Korean proportions, which made it hard for me to be wowed by Korean women's asses. I tend to favor more curvaceous dimensions, which makes Korea something of a desert for me: it's the flatlands here in Seoul.

Tom had thought ahead: knowing I'd need to recharge my phone and computer, he had selected seats that were near electric sockets. I gratefully plugged my phone in and got it charging; I was a bit more cautious about plugging in my laptop, given that Koreans use 220 volts as opposed to the American 110 volts. The big question was: did my MacBook's plug contain its own voltage converter? As it turned out, it did. Tom had given me a black box that served as a universal adapter; I plugged my Mac's plug into that, then plugged the black box into the Korean socket, and... no circuitry started frying, so I knew we were OK.

Logging into Starbuck's Wi-Fi proved problematic, however. I was unable to use my passport number to register myself; the web page simply wouldn't allow me to key anything in. Tom had the idea of using his own name and the foreigner ID number on his ARC (alien registration card), and that turned out to work just fine. As always, Korea may be one of the most wired countries in the world, but it's not ready for international prime time: Tom's login worked because it was data that was more fully integrated into Korean databases; my passport number was not. Tom asked me whether I needed to record his ARC data should I ever find myself in another Starbucks. Rather unwisely, I said no, assuming that I was unlikely to find myself in a Starbucks again anytime soon. (I normally avoid the hideous mermaid.)

In terms of tech, that Starbucks session with Tom proved educational. I verified that my Mac did indeed come with its own voltage converter, and thanks to Tom's black-box universal adapter, I now knew I could power my laptop at any Korean electrical socket. It was simply a matter of obtaining a decent Wi-Fi signal to be able to surf the Net.

So we hung out. Tom made me watch two YouTube clips from Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke": the first clip was about Chong passing Cheech a gigantic blunt made from dog shit: the dog in question had eaten Chong's pot stash, so Chong followed it around for a day, collecting its droppings in an effort to recuperate his lost pot. Cheech then accidentally ingested a huge amount of Chong's coke; the two were soon accosted by police and brought into court. The second "Up in Smoke" clip was about the lady who snorted Ajax (an abrasive household cleaner), thinking it was coke. That was kinda funny, but I'm not generally a big fan of stoner humor (unless we're talking Harold and Kumar).

I, in turn, made Tom watch the preview trailer for the upcoming Superman movie. The trailer features American actor Michael Shannon in full-on rant mode as the new General Zod; after that, I made Tom watch the Funny Or Die video of Michael Shannon's hilarious dramatic reading of a crazed email from a sorority president to her sisters (watch it here). I followed this up with a slew of Dane Cook's recent Vine videos, in which Cook has a solipsistic, Gollum-like exchange between his good and evil selves, but judging by Tom's "meh" reaction to those clips, I think my friend is ready to join the legions of Dane Cook haters.

And thus we whiled away the time: talking, watching videos, and sucking down our expensive drinks. I tried to get Tom to say something clever, something I could immortalize on the blog, but that didn't work out so well. Over the years, I've tried to sell Tom on blogging, but he's just not biting.

Right as I was thinking of texting Charles to give him an arrival time, Charles texted me to ask when we were coming. Since Tom and I had met up early, and since Charles had previously said we could come early and just hang if we wanted, I texted that we'd be at his place around 5PM. Charles texted with a counter-proposal: how about 5:30? The Missus would be getting home from work at 5, and she wanted to give the apartment a final once-over. I shrugged and texted that that would be fine, so around 4:50PM, Tom and I set off from Starbucks for Charles's place. Charles teaches at HUFS, as I mentioned; the HUFS campus was just off Line 1, which was a straight shot from Jonggak Station.

Tom and I found the place with no problem, but when we got to the campus's main gate, I hesitated, having only a vague memory of where Charles's on-campus apartment building was. Tom suggested that I ask the lady minding the exit gate; she told me to go left and find the last building. That accorded with my shaky memory, so off we went. The next hurdle, once we had arrived at the apartment building, was figuring out which elevator to take. I remembered hazily, from my previous visit to this place years before, that the most obvious elevator wasn't the one we needed to take. So of course, Tom and I stepped into the most obvious-looking elevator in the lobby and hit the button for Charles's floor... then nothing happened. We went back into the lobby; I stopped in a ground-floor faculty office to ask how to reach the foreign profs' domiciles, and was pointed to a hidden elevator, tucked out of sight from the general public, that led straight to the asked-for apartments.

A knock on Charles's door summoned Hyunjin, Charles's lovely wife, who greeted us with a smile and beckoned us inside. Charles was in his apron, every bit the chef, prepping bread and lasagna. The apartment was redolent with the aroma of tomato sauce. It occurred to me that this was a revolutionary moment: although Tom was my close friend, and Charles was also my close friend, Tom and Charles had never met each other. I admit I was, initially, a bit worried about how well Tom and Charles were going to hit it off; temperamentally, Charles and I have a lot in common in terms of our overall worldview and scholarly approach to life's problems and mysteries; Tom and I, meanwhile, share a rather regressed sense of humor and, on occasion, a mercenary, ethically dubious pragmatism that is most decidedly un-Charles-like.

As I wrote to Charles later on, I needn't have worried. Tom and Charles got along famously, connecting as old Korea hands (both have lived on the peninsula for around two decades, making me, with my eight years in country, very much the freshman member of the group) and as people who have traveled to Southeast Asia. Most of the ensuing dinner conversation was, in fact, focused on topics that were beyond my own experience: travel in Cambodia and the Philippines figured largely in the exchange, and when it became obvious that both Tom and Charles were disciples of beer, conversation shifted to yet another topic on which I had pretty much nothing to say (longtime readers know I'm a teetotaler). That suited me fine; in group settings, I tend to be quiet, anyway. No one has ever accused me of being the life of the party. I'm more vocal in one-on-one contexts, but feel little need to keep up my end of a conversation when others seem to be doing just fine. Hyunjin had a lot to say, especially about her experience with Charles in the Philippines; it was the most English I had ever heard her speak, and I was impressed by how well she spoke it. Normally, when it's just Charles, Hyunjin, and me, conversation tends to be in Korean, with Charles reverting to English when it's become obvious that I'm not understanding the gist of what's being said. I often think that Charles and Hyunjin's use of Korean around me is just a way of mocking my poor Korean ability. A form of torture, if you will.

Conversation was desultory. It even included some show-and-tell elements, as Tom showed off photos on his cell phone from his time in Cambodia, and Charles brought out Cambodian peppercorns, the gustatory experience of which had opened his eyes to new vistas of culinary possibility. Talk wandered over to the topic of North Korea, which Tom had visited on a group tour some years back (and had written extensively about in a series of Korea Times articles); it was an easy segue from North Korean totalitarianism to my memories of a 1989 visit to a depressingly gray East Berlin, barely a week after the Berlin Wall had come down. Charles brought out some East German money for us to ogle at. Tom talked about some of the larger-than-life people he knew, Jim Lundberg and Scott Fisher among them. (Scott, a fluent Korean speaker who also went to North Korea, is the author of Axis of Evil World Tour, available on Amazon.com. Jim, meanwhile, is an intimidating linguistic genius, world traveler, entrepreneur, and irrepressible ball of energy.)

Dinner, entirely homemade, was fantastic. Charles was worried that I might offer a bad review if the amount of lasagna proved to be insufficient, but I ended up well-nigh stuffed. Charles's baked bread (baking is a hobby of his) was excellent—much better than anything store-bought, and well conceived, too: he had made "garlic bread," but in this case he had laced the dough with actual garlic. Little bits of it were visible inside the bread, which needed only butter to complete the picture. The lasagna was a Meisterwerk of epic proportions: when Tom and I arrived, Charles was in the midst of building it, layer upon layer, until it had become a veritable ziggurat of pasta, meat, cheese, and sauce. Because Tom hates vegetables, Charles had mindfully constructed a sort of DMZ—a de-mycological zone, i.e., a zone free of mushrooms. Upshot: the lasagna was huge and heavy when it went into the oven at 6:40PM, and was overpoweringly seductive, like the world's sexiest fat lady, when it emerged from the oven a little after 7PM. I had fantasized that Charles was simply going to cut the thing into four gigantic pieces, one massive hunk for each of us four diners... and by Jesus, that's exactly what he did. My piece was delicious, from the top layer of cheese all the way down. Charles later admitted that he had added onion, but had ground it up finely. I thought the Gestalt tasted magnificent; Charles said that this recipe was closer to his father's (and by extension, his grandmother's) more American-style version of lasagna.

Hyunjin contributed a light, well-constructed salad with various greens, cukes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cheese. It was a great follow-up to the lasagna; some time later, she brought out succulent oranges and plump grapes, a more Korean way to end a meal.

The night went well. After we had said our goodbyes, and Tom and I were in the elevator, Tom turned to me and said without a trace of sarcasm, "That was fun." I think he had discovered a new friend and drinking partner in Charles, and it was obvious that Tom was ready to repeat this night all over again. I got the sense from Charles that the feeling was mutual. In that spirit, before we left, we all agreed that we should meet up, sometime before I leave, at Braai Republic, a South African resto about which Charles has written. So it was that, tired, stinky, and happy, I made my jolly way back to my apartment, proud of my taste in friends.

*Sorry, Charles, but I can't bring myself to romanize it as "Hankuk." Sounds too kooky.

**By Korean reckoning, you're one year old the day you're born because you've gestated for ten lunar months (that equals nine solar calendar months). When the lunar new year comes around, you automatically turn two, and that can happen within just a few months. After that, according to tradition, your age ticks upward by one every lunar new year (although in practice, many Koreans do the Western thing and celebrate birthdays according to the solar calendar). Upshot: the difference between a person's "Korean age" and "Western age" can be up to about two years. When Koreans say they can legally drive at age 20, for example, that really means age 18 by the Western reckoning, which makes the Korean driving age the same as Europe's.


coming soon

It won't happen tonight, because I'm too damn tired, but I'll need to blog about the meetings I've had with old friends and acquaintances over the past few days. On Thursday, I went to Sperwer's palatial residence; on Friday, I had lunch with a former supervisor, then went and had a lovely homemade dinner prepared by my buddy Charles and his wife Hyunjin. My other buddy Tom was a fellow dinner guest. Plenty was talked about.

More soon.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Tom say

Friday, 4:15PM. My buddy Tom and I are sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Seoul. I press him for something to say, his first-ever blog post—

He appears to be at a loss for words. Silence descends. He may be attempting to fuck my mind. He tells me that's what he's doing. "Did you come?" he asks.

Tom can't seem to conjure up anything more original than "Why do they have sweet potato pizza? With corn? That stuff is nasty."

Tom looks at me. He sees I'm not happy with his output. He tries again:

"How can one Venti Starbucks make you have to take three full-on pisses?" He gestures at his empty cup, measuring it on the sides. "Because when I get a Venti"—he points at a certain level on the cup—"that's the first piss"—he points again, farther up, near the top of the cup—"that's the second piss. So where's the third piss coming from?"

Tom thinks a bit. "What if we renamed people like Gomer Pyle as 'Gomer Pile of Shit'?"

Tom's obviously having an off day. "You're putting me on the spot," he complains.

"But you've been on Leno," I riposte. "You've been to the mountaintop! This should be nothing for you."

"It is nothing," Tom says, obviously not into this conversation.


Korea and the river of Heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that it's impossible to step in the same river twice. The notion of reality as process has been around for millennia, finding one of its most popular expressions in Buddhism. As Buddhists would note, the ground is ever moving out from under our feet—is doing so even now. What applies to Heraclitus' river applies equally to cultures, societies, languages, and beliefs. Change is a feature of the cosmos.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when one returns to a country one used to know well. I've been away from Korea for five years, and now that I'm back, I've been busy tallying what's changed and what's remained the same. T-Money cards have replaced the old green gyotong-kadeu (traffic farecard); they're a bit more versatile than the green cards in that they can also be used for taxis. The old, obnoxious klaxon that announced the arrival of a subway train has been replaced by music that is either cutesy or triumphal, depending on the subway station, or perhaps depending on the side of the station one is standing on. Taxi fare now starts at a minimum of 2400 won as opposed to the 1700 won of five years ago—a scary 41% change in only half a decade. I have no idea where movie ticket prices are at now, nor do I know what bus fare currently is, but I'm sure both of those have gone up. I've also noticed that ever since Korea, like America, made the great switch to smart phones, those devices are now ubiquitous on subways. Gone are the days when subway riders would either bury their noses in books or stare into space. Now, one stares lovingly into a smart phone or a tablet.

But some things are resolutely the same. A taxi ride in the evening, just after rush hour, remains a highly entertaining way to spend a few minutes. Street food is still cheap and good. In fact, some street food has gotten arguably cheaper: last week, when I arrived in Seoul, I noticed a rotisserie-chicken truck selling birds at three for W10,000. That was astounding to me: when I used to live in the neighborhood of Korea University, such trucks sold their chickens at two for W10,000. I need to go get some of that three-bird action.

Seoul's general ambiance hasn't changed, either: it's still that heady combination of youthful, modern rush-rush and superannuated, slow decrepitude, the latter evinced by the city's stalwart Buddhist temples and the slow, deliberate progress of its older senior citizens, plodding purposefully in the midst of racing teens and thirtysomethings. Trucks still belch their fumes and sewers still breathe out their noisome halitus. The mountain-influenced weather is eternally capricious. Yes, some things don't change as fast as others.

So from my perspective, Korea is a smorgasbord of sameness and difference. Perhaps life evolves more slowly out in the quiet provinces, but I'm sure that, even there, people have their smart phones and their internet connections. Society's tide tugs its citizens ever forward into the future. What new marvels, what new changes, will I discover today?


Thursday, April 25, 2013

these shoes were made for shoppin'

Today, Thursday, was a day for shopping. While it pains me to use up precious funds, today's foray into groceries, electronics marts, basements, and big-and-tall stores was a necessary one. I hit the grocery to buy some bathroom-related items as well as a bit of food to replenish the supplies I had eaten (a can of spam here, some eggs and snacks there).

I then went over to my friend Sperwer's house and rummaged through his basement to see whether there was anything I truly needed during my month here (upshot: almost nothing, but I was tempted to take half of my old crap with me—long-forgotten books and such).

After that, I dropped everything at the apartment, waited a bit, then went out again to Yongsan's Electronics Market to find a long CAT-5 Ethernet cable for my laptop. Found it quickly, a 5-meter cable, then hopped in a cab for the short ride to Itaewon, where I went into a big-and-tall store and bought a white tee shirt (forgot to bring some tees from home).

At the end of a long day, I stopped at the local eyewear shop and got myself a set of new contact lenses. As expected, the whole process was amazingly inexpensive and took only about 25 to 30 minutes: I paid nothing for the eye exam, and paid only W70,000 for the lenses. That's about $63, US. In the States, those same lenses would have cost me $260: $90 for the eye exam, plus $170 for the lenses. I suspect that part of the reason why eyewear is so cheap in Korea is that a high proportion of the population has very bad eyes. There are glasses/contacts shops on almost every street corner here.

The most important purchase, though, was the CAT-5 cable. I can now sit and blog at the kitchen table while parked in a regular old chair—no more cross-legged nonsense, no more excruciating back pain, praise Allah.

PS: Sperwer has been working freakishly hard at bodybuilding for the past couple of years, and he's participating in the Mr. Seoul competition this coming May 5th. I plan to be there to root for him, despite my awkwardness at the thought of hanging around a bunch of greased-down musclemen. Since I just learned how to take pictures on my antiquated rent-a-phone, I may soon have something horrifying to put on the blog.


most intellesting

Sam Harris talks with Graeme Wood about martial arts, atheism, and meditation.

Q: Does meditation conflict with productive thinking?

A: No. Your mind will be active in any case, no matter how much you meditate. The goal is not to be without thought, but to be aware of the character of your experience in each moment and not suffer unnecessarily. Almost all our suffering is the product of our thoughts. We spend nearly every moment of our lives lost in thought, and hostage to the character of those thoughts. You can break this spell, but it takes training just like it takes training to defend yourself against a physical assault. You are thinking every moment and not aware of it, and the initial experience of anyone who seriously tries to meditate is one of discovering how incessant this cascade of thoughts is.


today's missions, should I choose to accept them

I've got quite a list of things to buy—among them, new contact lenses and a much longer CAT-5 Ethernet cord that will allow me to set up camp at the apartment's dining-room table (my back is hurting again, despite the pillows, so I'm going to need a normal chair to sit in). I'm also visiting the fortress home of Sperwer, who lives within sniper-shot of the Blue House in a rather well-heeled neighborhood that sits above and behind the Korean president's residence. Years ago, Sperwer and one other friend, Joe Walther, took upon themselves the burden of storing my mortal possessions when I left Korea in 2008. They've been holding those items in trust for five years. Sperwer recently invited me to visit his home and take a look at my possessions to see whether there's anything useful for my current sojourn packed away in those boxes. So that's on the agenda for today.

My other shopping is going to take place in Itaewon, Yongsan's Jeonja Sanga (Electronics Market), and right around my apartment's neighborhood (notice how I've taken to calling it "my" apartment!). Sometime before or after my visit with Sperwer, I may also fit in a hike up Namsan from Beotigogae Station, as I did years ago.

Full day ahead. No YB-related work today, though; I emailed YB my timesheet and can't restart work until the new pay period begins, which won't be until Friday, Virginia time. Thursday, then, is a day off. I'm also taking a break from job-hunting: I've sent off several applications already, so now it's largely a waiting game. At some point, I may pay Tom's school, Sungkyunkwan University, a visit, just to show my face, banter with the natives, and give their hiring office an idea of what they've been missing when they ignored my goddamn emails to them.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the road goes ever on and on

My relationship with YB has by no means come to an end. In fact, I'm expected to continue fulfilling my content-creation duties even while I'm in Seoul. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: it is money in the bank, after all, and it stanches the hemorrhage of money out of my account while I tool around Seoul. The fact that I've been going out to eat as much as I have is somewhat problematic; at the rate I'm going, food alone will cost me several hundred dollars by the end of my month here. Buying various household supplies and personal gear is also costing me; I feel as if, by the end of my 31 days, I'll finally be ready to settle down.

In any case, I'm working on stemming the outflow of money by (1) continuing to work for YB—work that goes ever on and on—and (2) finding some (sshhh! illegal!) tutoring work while I'm here. A certain Mr. Choi (pronounce it "cheh") is supposed to call me this afternoon, in fact, to talk about some private tutoring. I'm not sure he realizes that I'm here only until May 19; he may balk at taking me on for only a few weeks. Students crave stability, and switching out their teachers too often is never pleasant. (One of my YB students, Parvati, is a lot like that. She was upset when she found out I'd be gone for six weeks—not because she was going to miss me terribly, but because my absence represented a disruption for her. "Why can't I keep the same teacher for a long time?" she moaned upon hearing of my trip to Korea.)

Maintaining a certain bank balance is like finding yourself in hell, and having the Devil order you to piss constantly into a bucket with a hole in it, the task being to keep the piss always at a certain level. So you piss desperately, earnestly... but at some point you know your bladder's going to run out of piss. And what happens then? A similar anxiety, financial and not physiological in nature, haunts us inhabitants of this terrestrial realm.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

another application down

I've just applied to Chonnam National University (see its ad here). The uni's not offering much pay, and it's located way, way, way south on the peninsula—right at land's end, in fact, in the small city of Yeosu. But as my buddy Tom says, I shouldn't be too choosy: the object of the game is just to get my ass to Korea right now.

We'll see what happens.


meeting ZenKimchi's Joe McPherson

With sincere apologies to Yann Martel for what follows...

This evening, I met Joe McPherson of the famous ZenKimchi blog. This was, of course, something of a brush-with-fame moment for me, since meeting Joe McPherson meant that I would be only two degrees of separation from "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern (with whom Joe has worked), and thus three degrees of separation from Anthony Bourdain. I had no idea what Joe was going to be like, so I admit I was nervous. I took Joe's surname, "mack-FEAR-son," to be a bad omen: the prefix "Mc" means "son of," as does the suffix "-son." So: son of son of Fear, i.e., the Grandson of Fear. I felt as if I had arranged to meet Lord Voldemort. Or Satan.

Joe arrived wearing a rather distracting outfit that consisted of little more than zippered headgear, leather straps, nipple sparklers, and a studded thong-cum-codpiece that had been slit down the middle to allow a massive third testicle to hang freely. Joe seemed completely unaware of the looks he was getting from the Koreans around him; he had obviously become inured to the effects of his self-expression. Joe beckoned me into our chosen restaurant, Vatos Urban Tacos in Itaewon.

Vatos was both crowded and warm. The young lady standing at the host's podium stopped what she was doing and stared openly at Joe when we stepped inside, doubtless intrigued by all those straps and that one dangling gonad. With subtle lust, she ran a perfectly smooth, pink tongue across her lips, snapped out of her ball-induced fugue, and showed us to a table. The decibel level of the ambient human noise went down by half as Joe and I made our way to a square two-top. Joe's nipples flared, showering the tableware with sparks, as he expressed his delight at finally meeting me. Still dumbstruck, I merely nodded. We turned to the Vatos menu, which represented an impressive gamut of both traditional and fusion Tex-Mex items. Having seen a Vatos-related YouTube video, I knew that I wanted to try the kimchi carnitas French fries and the galbi tacos. Joe, staring at his menu with murderous intensity, ordered a quesadilla that he hoped would be packed with anus-withering bul-dak, i.e., "fire chicken," one of the spiciest forms of chicken in Korea.

The other diners had stopped staring at Joe; Vatos was loud again. Conversation was, as a result, a volley of back-and-forth shouting between him and me. Joe's voice alternated between a grating, demonic parrot's squawk and a basso, subterranean boom that shook the restaurant's brick walls. His reverberating laughter at my little jokes frightened the male customers and caused some of the women to lactate uncontrollably. At least one baby, sitting in a high chair, exploded into bloody spray at the sound of Joe's harsh, barking mirth.

Joe proved remarkably knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. I already knew he was a foodie, so it didn't surprise me when he launched into a passionate disquisition on Japanese food done well or poorly. I was, however, impressed when he spent twenty minutes shouting at the top of his lungs about the judicious use of the humble kitchen fork as an aid in clitoral stimulation. I came away from that lecture armed with about twenty or twenty-five new techniques that I'm now eager to try on someone. Joe's political views, as it happens, are all over the place: he's done both the ashram thing and the mountain-survivalist thing, so he confessed, with some embarrassment, that he's got a garage piled high with sandalwood incense and helicopter miniguns. When I asked him how he'd voted in the most recent election, he crossed his eyes and belched out an unearthly, sonorous vowel I had never heard before. That was his only answer.

Watching Joe McPherson eat a Vatos quesadilla is a bit like watching a Kodiak bear rape a goat. There was a great deal of flying blood, mucus, and semen. There were shouts of terror and glee. The slices of quesadilla seemed to be actively struggling in Joe's mighty, merciless grip. The table became scored with the weird hieroglyphs of Joe's prandial exaltation. With every horrifying bite, his nipples vomited gouts of fire and lightning. By the time Joe was done with his quesadilla, his immaculately manicured fingernails had become ripped and bloody, and torn flaps of skin hung from his forearms, cheeks, and scalp. Joe stared across the table at me with red-rimmed, battle-frenzied eyes, his chest heaving in the aftermath of that awe-inspiring orgy of consumption. Steam rose from his head. For a moment, I was convinced that the quesadilla wasn't enough and that he aimed to eat my brain, zombie-style. But after a few minutes, Joe's ardor faded and, becalmed, he resumed his shouted conversation with me, now turning to the delicate topic of neo-Confucian cosmology and its application to African-American rights issues. He has been touched by God, I thought.

We parted amicably enough. Joe's massive hand slammed my shoulder several times in fraternal affection. We promised to do this again at some point soon, and then Joe, true to his larger-than-life persona, gave a high, trilling whistle. His call summoned a gigantic, glistening, tentacled beast, a molluscan horror that looked as if it had crawled straight out of a Lovecraftian abyss. Completely unaffected by the barrels of alcohol he had consumed in Vatos, Joe leaped nimbly onto his fell destrier's back. The beast grunted, rolled its bloodshot eyes, then farted once, heaving itself skyward—and just like that, Joe McPherson was gone in a rocketing cloud of methane.

...Or perhaps you do not believe the above story could have happened. Perhaps I should tell you another story...

I met Joe McPherson at 7PM at Vatos Urban Tacos yesterday (Monday, Seoul time). Finding Vatos was a bitch because the website doesn't really offer a clear location on its Google map. The location I did find, based on information from the Vatos website, was Vatos's old location in a back alley. The restaurant, which has received stellar reviews from the likes of Joe and other prominent foodies, had relocated to a much better, more visible spot near the entrance to Itaewon on the Noksapyeong side of the district. In preparation for the meeting, I had watched some YouTube videos about Vatos—its construction, its culinary philosophy, etc. (See here, for example.)

Joe texted to ask whether I knew how to find the place. I had just been talking with my buddy Tom on the phone, and Tom gamely guided me out of the back alley and onto the main street, where I looked up and saw Vatos's new location, just up a short, steep hill. I thanked Tom, then texted Joe that I had found the place; he replied by saying he was "the lonely guy at the bar." Joe's not really lonely, of course: it turns out he's married and has a two-year-old daughter. Joe expressed his delight at finally meeting me, claiming that he saw me as a "celebrity." I'm nothing of the sort, being the owner of a rinky-dink blog read by three people, getting only 150 unique visits per day (a severe drop from the 350 daily unique visits I used to get before 2008).

Joe, as it happened, was a relaxed, cheerful fellow wearing an artisan wristband and neckband, and Vatos was probably a good choice because Joe felt at home there, loved the food, and knew the staff and owners. The Vatos staff turned out to be almost all gyopo (i.e., Koreans who have grown up, or lived a long time, outside of Korea), so almost everyone who served us spoke English with no discernible Korean accent. The place was crowded and warm, but not oppressively so, and the ambiance was lively. Vatos is a bar/restaurant, so Joe and I began our dinner at the bar before moving to a table. I was impressed by how watchful the serving staff was; the various servers all seemed to be in communication with each other, knowing whether we had ordered anything other than drinks (margarita for Joe, Coke for yours truly), and keeping real-time updates on how we were progressing through our dinner.

Our appetizer was the much-ballyhooed carnitas kimchi fries, and my main course was a "threefer" plate of galbi (Korean short ribs) tacos. Joe ordered a fire-chicken quesadilla. We slaughtered the fries first, then each shared one element from the other's main course: Joe took a galbi taco and I took a slice of quesadilla. The food was great, but if I have one complaint, it's just that there wasn't enough of it for the price we paid. This isn't really a dig against Vatos: Western food in Korea is generally much more expensive than Korean food, as is only natural: the reverse is true in the States, where a humble bowl of bibimbap, no more than $3-$5 in Seoul, can set you back $8-$12.

My only basis of comparison for Korean taco-truck fare is my awful experience with "Korean" tacos at TGI Friday's out in Appalachia. There, the meat was flavorless, and the taco shells couldn't withstand the soaking they received from the meat juices. Not only that, but those shells tasted like drenched cardboard. Armed, now, with a clear idea of what I didn't want to see in a Korean taco, I bit into the Vatos galbi taco and was rewarded with all the flavor that had been missing from the TGI Friday's version. The tender shells held up well against the meat juices, and the vegetable toppings were assertive enough to make their own statement in contrast with the meat. Fantastic. Too bad I ate only two; I could have eaten ten.

Joe, ever the foodie, regaled me with his extensive knowledge of different sorts of food, focusing at one point on Japanese cuisine as it's done in Korea. He named a few restaurants that were way, way out of my price range, but it was interesting to listen to him and fantasize about eating their offerings. Joe also talked a bit about his experience with Andrew Zimmern and other media figures; he groused about the food reviewers who demand free food to review; he talked about expat life in Korea, and how wonderful it is that expats of different political persuasions can discover that, despite their differences, they have so much in common.

Not long after we sat down at our two-top, Vatos co-owner Kenny sauntered over and engaged Joe in lengthy conversation. Joe and Kenny obviously knew each other well, and Kenny was kind enough to include me in the exchange. He told one funny anecdote about a Japanese chef (I'm unsure whether the chef was Japanese or whether he was a Korean chef who prepared Japanese food) who had seemingly lost his passion for making Japanese cuisine, and had attempted to serve Kenny and his date a rather limp platter of goods. Kenny complained about this, citing his own extensive experience with eating high-class, traditional Japanese cuisine, and this seemed to light a fire in the old chef's heart, because he then brought out an amazing array of "real" Japanese food for his guests. Later on, Kenny came back and presented Joe with a special dessert concoction—something alcoholic made with a red berry syrup that, in the taxonomy of drinks and desserts, sat somewhere in the neighborhood of a daiquiri, a margarita, and an ice-cream float. I, meanwhile, couldn't resist ordering the Nutella nachos for dessert, and they proved fantastic: puffy chips drizzled with melted Nutella and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. How awesome is that?

Joe told me he was using me as an excuse to have a good time that evening, so he downed his margaritas and spoke with loud ebullience. I don't think I held up my end of the conversation that well: jet lag had me fading away. That's a bad combination, having a full stomach and already being tired. So at around 8:30PM, we finished dinner, strolled out to Itaewon Station, and went our separate ways. Before we parted, we promised to meet up again. I think I may have made a new friend in Korea.

Joe's ZenKimchi website, which is much more than just its blog, represents Joe himself—his cheerful optimism, his can-do spirit, his writerly talents, and his wide-ranging culinary knowledge. Last night proved to be an interesting brush with fame; Mr. McPherson is definitely a man who makes and works with ideas. Joe mused, at one point, about what it'd be like to get a few of us old-school Koreabloggers together for dinner. I replied that we'd better bring an omnidirectional mike to record that conversation. Joe's eyes lit up and an impish smile dawned on his face.

I ask you now: which of these stories do you choose as the real one, the truer one? Are "real" and "true" the same? Make your choice... and so it goes with God.


Monday, April 22, 2013

backache (and the solution)

I've suffered an almost paralyzing backache since installing myself in this apartment. It has nothing to do with the apartment itself, and everything to do with how I've chosen to set up my laptop. Because I've attached a CAT-5 Ethernet cord directly to the router in the master bedroom, and have a "down" transformer sitting nearby to feed my laptop its power (the transformer, you'll recall, has a US-style socket on its front), I'm somewhat limited as to where I can sit and type. As a result, I've set up camp right on the bed of the master bedroom. This isn't a bad arrangement, but sitting cross-legged for hours, with the laptop flat on the bed in front of me, is murder on my lumbar vertebrae. I sometimes change posture and lie on my side in the "recumbent Buddha" position, but this merely shifts the ache to other parts of my body, like my neck, which is now forced to keep my large, hydrocephalic skull upright.

It was only just now that I arrived at a solution: first, prop pillows under my ass to relieve pressure on my lower back. Next, bring in something, like a box, to raise the laptop and allow me to type as if I were sitting at a kitchen table. Luckily, the apartment's regular tenant has a styrofoam box and an extra styrofoam rectangle (packing material for some strange device... a Slaver disintegrator, perhaps?). Once I stacked these on top of each other and topped everything off with my large, flat portfolio (in which reside my various personal documents—diplomas, FBI background check, official transcripts, etc.), I had the perfect little laptop table. Right now, as I type this, I am blissfully pain-free.

It's all about the problem-solving here at the Hairy Chasms.


things I be a-doin' today

According to my blog's time stamp, it's Sunday, but here in Seoul, it's Monday morning. I've got a few things to do today:

1. Call John McCrarey's mother-in-law, who lives nearby, and drop by her place to pay my respects.

2. Call a Korean dude who is, from what I understand, looking for a private tutor, possibly for himself and/or for a group. Tom relayed this info to me and told me to call him "ASAFP." You can guess what the "F" means.

3. Buy new contact lenses. As I've noted, the process is much cheaper here than it is in the States. At a US-based Costco, which is supposed to be cheap, the eye test alone costs $90, and then I have to pay $160—plus wait three business days—for a year's supply of disposable contacts. In Korea, in December of 2006, I paid $60-some for a pair of yearly-wear contacts after waiting only fifteen minutes. Yes: $60 for both the eye test and the lenses. How nuts is that?

4. Meet Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi? I'm still working on this. Joe and I have exchanged phone numbers, and I've promised him a "test" text. We'll work it out from there.

5. Do a bit of shopping for the apartment.

I've got some other good folks to meet, probably later in the week. My buddy Charles has kindly invited me and Tom to dinner at his place, and friend/commenter Sperwer also wants to meet up at some point. I'm also hoping to have lunch with a former boss of mine. My biggest disappointment, though, is that I've tried to contact an old student of mine several weeks before I came to Korea, but because she's horrible at checking her email, she hasn't responded. Lame.

Another possible project in the pipeline is the prospect of employment at Angelo's school: Gacheon University in Seongnam, just outside of Seoul. You'll recall that I met Angelo, Tom's Canuck friend and ex-colleague, yesterday. He works at GU (strange... I normally reserve that abbreviation for Georgetown), pulls in a decent salary, works 12 hours a week and gets four to five months' paid vacation. There's a huge foreign staff at his school, which is run by one of the richest women in Korea—and the world. The work sounds about the same as, if not better than, work at Sungkyunkwan University (Tom's school), so I'm eager to throw my hat in the ring, assuming Gacheon U. is even hiring. Angelo says he'll have his ear to the ground.

I've also fired off my application for Seoul National University. Here's hoping they receive it and reply. In case they don't reply, however, I've noted in my email and my cover letter that I plan to visit their sorry asses on May 8, five days after the application deadline. I'm not on the peninsula for a month just so I can be strung along. I will see these people.

SNU's application had one interesting requirement: the applicant has to send in a full-blown course curriculum to prove s/he knows what s/he is talking about. So last night, despite being cross-eyed with jet lag, I drew up a full, 16-week curriculum on persuasive essay writing. I checked it over and found no typos, then fired my email off. Here's hoping I get a reply from SNU. Soon.

So that's the agenda for today, and the partial agenda for the coming week.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

regaining my sea legs

If you've been away from Seoul for a while, it's easy to forget how much walking is involved in getting around the city. The stairs that lead deep into the subterranean bowels of Seoul's massive subway stations are, in themselves, a great workout for out-of-shape thighs. So I've had to re-familiarize myself with that aspect of Seoul life.

At noon today, I met up with Tom again, but this time he wasn't alone: with him were his lovely wife, Sherny; their son, Thomson; and Tom's friend and former colleague, Angelo the Canuck of Greek extraction. We strolled along one of Itaewon's back alleys until we settled upon a very nice Bulgarian restaurant that served a decent lunch menu for almost W20,000. Tom told us the story of why he refuses to eat vegetables; Thomson squirmed and cried a bit, but was otherwise very well-behaved; Angelo and I traded some Tom-related anecdotes. We left the restaurant and strolled for a bit, finally entering a Syrian (or was it Turkish?) confiserie where I bought two varieties of baklava. Angelo left us soon after; Tom, Sherny, and I wandered over to a café-cum-chocolatier, where we chowed down on our Syrian/Turkish treats and talked business.

Around 4PM, we said our goodbyes. It had been a fun outing on a bright day—quite a contrast with yesterday's miserably English weather. As Angelo pointed out, a lot of the seediness has left Itaewon (although, in my opinion, the neighborhood still has plenty of ratty sections); it was interesting to see how much the place had evolved in my absence.

It's almost 9PM, and I once again feel the jet lag tugging seductively at my consciousness. I'm trying to send out at least one job application this evening; wish me luck. We'll see whether I can do it before I fall asleep at my keyboard.


about my trip

It's after midnight in Seoul, and I can't decide whether to sleep or stay awake. Some moments I'm tired; at other moments, I feel perky and just dandy. My body's still adjusting to the new time zone, I guess. Today, I had promised myself that I'd do a good bit of work (writing job applications and such), but around 6PM, just a few hours after hanging with my buddy Tom, I decided to take a nap that stretched into a four-hour sleepfest. So: nothing of substance was accomplished, although I can take comfort in having done some crucial shopping with Tom earlier in the day: I've got a new button-down shirt and a new jacket; Seoul is remarkably cool and rainy at the moment, and I hadn't packed any sort of outerwear at all. Also, thanks to Tom, I've got a cell phone, which makes me reachable on the peninsula.

Since I'm up and can't seem to get back to sleep for some odd reason, I thought I'd write a bit about my trip over. As you know, I programmed some "scheduled" posts to appear while I was en route to Seoul. I had written them on Wednesday, the night before my early-morning departure this past Thursday. What did I get right and what did I get wrong?

I was largely correct about my travel schedule, but was off a bit: my flight to New York arrived twenty minutes early, and my flight to Seoul arrived thirty minutes late because of serious headwinds, or so we were told. All in all, though, I was basically on schedule.

One thing I got completely wrong was the size of the restroom stalls. On the flight from New York to Seoul, I rode in a Boeing 777-200; during the flight, I got up to use the restroom exactly once—just to pee—and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a large, roomy stall with plenty of space for knee-swing and leg spreadage. That fact alone made me wish I'd been in there to take a shit, but something weird almost always happens to me on long flights: the urge to drop a steamer disappears. Maybe it's because I'm so tightly squished into my chair that my intestines are scrunched into submission. Who knows? Whatever the reason might be, the result is the same: long flight, no dudu (I'm sure I can figure out how to render that as a 4-character Chinese proverb).

But all was not pleasant surprises. The constant presence of a gentle, air-conditioned breeze on the Boeing dried out my nostrils and gave me enormous, crusty, itchy boogers. On my lone trip to the bathroom, I blew my nose and was shocked to see these awful, asteroid-sized chunks of snot—some of them rather bloody—blasting into my mouchoir. Another inconvenience was the presence of a girl, maybe two years old, who cried and screamed for hours, punctuating my already-arduous journey with her intolerable noise. Now, some kids look cute when they cry, and some kids look ugly. This girl, who sat on the opposite side of the plane and several rows ahead of me, was the second type. Her face twisted in a grotesque manner that revealed her lower teeth, and nothing her poor mother did could assuage her misery. If character is written in people's genes, I'd say that this kid is destined to become a whiny, insecure, fearful bitch: a pessimist to the core. God help her future husband.

My seatmates were two older folks. The man next to me was Korean; we spoke perhaps two sentences in Korean to each other at the beginning of the flight, then said nothing the rest of the time. Introvert that I am, I was fine with that. The lady at the window seat looked Korean—so Korean, in fact, that the flight attendants kept addressing her in Korean—but she must have been some other sort of East Asian. She replied to the flight attendants in accented English. Both of these good people kept getting up at regular intervals to use the restrooms during the flight; I'd say they went on their forays about every two hours or so. All I could think was: that's me in the future. Ten or fifteen years from now, I'll be unable to hold anything in, and will have to visit the bathroom every ten minutes. Just sew on my colostomy bag now, why don't you? Luckily for me, I didn't feel all that inconvenienced every time they got up: standing up was a welcome break from the slow torture of sitting, cramped, for hours.

Disembarkation at Incheon was as smooth as always. Passport control now has a nifty biometric procedure that we arrivals have to go through: you stare into a camera while placing your two index fingers on tiny oval scanners. In this way, your face and fingerprints are recorded along with your claims-form information. My bag wasn't the first out of the carousel, but it wasn't the last, either, which was a welcome change from the usual predominance of Murphy's Law (to wit: "Your bag will always be the last one to appear on the baggage-claim carousel."). Wi-fi service at Incheon International Airport is both powerful and free, unlike the Wi-fi at JF-fucking-K. I whipped out my laptop and sent a few "I've arrived safely!" emails. The urge to dump finally hit me from behind, so I lugged my bags into a nice, clean restroom stall, the kind that makes you feel secure and private thanks to floor-to-ceiling walls and no obnoxious, peeping-Tom gaps at the door.

The next step, post-defecation, was to exchange the $600 in cash burning a hole in my pocketses, Precious. That was easily done; the won-dollar exchange rate remains steady, as it has for the better part of a decade, at about 1100 to 1. After that, I needed to search for the limousine bus that would take me to John McCrarey's daughter-in-law's apartment. I spoke with a lady at the transportation information booth; she complimented my Korean, and I told her, by way of justification, that I had lived in Korea for eight years. I know to take such compliments with a grain of salt; Koreans have very low expectations of foreigners' Korean ability, so they're invariably surprised to hear a foreigner string together sentences in more or less clearly pronounced Korean. I know my own skill level well enough to know that I rarely earn the compliments I receive.

I found the bus stop, bought a ticket (W14,000, so I was about right in my prediction of the current price), then got on the bus. It was a struggle to stay awake: at that point, it was sometime after 5PM, local time, which meant it was 4AM back in Virginia, and my body was telling me to get some shut-eye. I'd slept a bit on the plane, but the trans-Pacific flight wasn't as comfortable, this time, as it had been in the past. I may have to shell out for one of those nifty neck-support pillows that a lot of travelers have.

The bus charged down the freeway toward Seoul, then wended its way through Seoul's congested traffic to my destination. I got off the bus, breathed in the familiar exhaust fumes of one of the most populous cities on the planet, and took stock of my surroundings. John McCrarey had very kindly sent me not only his daughter-in-law's apartment key, but also a note with a very detailed set of handwritten directions on it. With that note in hand, and feeling embarrassingly like a tourist despite being an eight-year veteran Seoulite, I found my way to the apartment with no trouble at all, then went back out to get myself a haircut.

The apartment building's ground floor is stuffed with various shops and services: laundry, beauty salons, restaurants, and a convenience store among them. I lumbered into a beauty salon and asked how much a regular haircut was. "8000 won," was the answer. The tiny shop was crowded with a chatty gaggle of ajummas engaged in the globally known ritual of femme-bonding. I was once again impressed with what you get for W8000, which is not even $8: a full haircut plus a thorough shampooing. Where I work in Centreville, Virginia, the barbershop next to YB charges $10 for a simple cut—no shampoo.

When we were finished, I asked the lady how well she knew the neighborhood, then asked her where I might buy, locally, a "down" transformer, which is to say, a shoebox-sized piece of equipment that plugs into the Korean-style 220-volt wall socket, but converts the electricity ("down") to 110 volts and has US-style 2-prong sockets on its face. She brightened and told me not to move: she had an old transformer right there that she was willing to sell me for W10,000, not even ten bucks. She ran out of her shop, then came back with the old, beaten-up transformer. There were a few parting questions from some of the ladies, now that they knew I spoke Korean: the typical "Where are you from? Why are you here?" kind of topics. Triumphant, I took the transformer back up to my new temporary digs.

The apartment itself proved spacious for a single guy. Its occupant was obviously not a scholar; unlike my own apartment, there were no walls lined with bookcases. An imposing treadmill hunkered down in the kitchen/dining room area; a green Jogye Buddhist prayer book-cum-hymnal sat on a perch in the living room. Both the living room and the master bedroom were dominated by hulking TVs. These distractions were all well and good, but the bed—ah, the bed was firm and tempting, and after I had set up my computer and sent off another set of emails, I could resist the sandman no longer, and off to sleep I went.

One of the emails I'd sent was to my buddy Tom; we arranged to meet in the dreaded Itaewon (I've written about my feelings toward Itaewon before) at 11AM in front of the Hamilton Hotel, a nondescript red-brick building that has nevertheless somehow managed to reach iconic status among old Korea hands. Say "Hamilton" to any Seoul-based expat who's been in country more than a year, and he'll know just what you're talking about. I got up around 8AM on Saturday, having had about 5 or 6 hours of sleep, then dithered a while on the laptop and eventually made my way over to meet Tom.

Saturday morning was cool, gray, and rainy. Tom looked about the same as he's always looked: shorter than me, a bit boyish in face and voice, with a sly grin always hiding somewhere around the corner. We ate lunch at a local döner kebab joint, then went to a sleazy-looking cell-phone shop in one of Itaewon's seedy back alleys; the shop was run by a Bangladeshi Muslim who spoke Korean quite competently (I know this mainly because I overheard him on the phone; he spoke to Tom and me in English). While we waited, I slipped Tom 500,000 won as payment for the extra fees surrounding the air-miles purchase of the plane ticket that got me here to begin with.

I ended up getting an old Samsung "slider" phone—one with no frills or gewgaws, just voice and texting, period. I'll likely keep the thing for the month I'm here, then give it back. Next, we hopped over to charge the "T-money" transportation farecard that Tom had given me (along with a slew of other needed items, like a plug adapter, an umbrella, and an optical mouse); I took out some extra cash from a "global" ATM ("global" means that the ATM has no trouble accepting foreign credit and debit cards; many local ATMs are less compatible), then we walked down the street, did a bit of golf-paraphernalia shopping for Tom, then headed over to the keun-ot-jeom (big & tall store) to buy me some clothing. I purchased a tie, another comfortable button-down shirt, and a jacket appropriate to the weather. The shop ladies cooed over Tom's voice, which they found very handsome. I rolled my eyes. To me, Tom sounds a bit like a cartoon character. (Sorry, dude, but you know it's true.)

We took a taxi downtown, where Tom picked up a backpack-style baby carrier that had been on sale for 70% off. Walking a few doors down, we stepped into a shop that sold, among other things, cheap alarm clocks. I bought one of those, knowing full well that my jet lag could, without technological intervention, make me late for crucial business appointments. Our shopping completed, Tom and I went our separate ways. I got back to the apartment, then went out to do a wee bit of grocery shopping at a shop that John had recommended in his very informative letter.

Tired, I did some laundry, then around 6PM, I put myself down for what I had hoped to be a short nap, but which turned out to be a full-on sleep session. I woke up around 10PM, wondering whether I was still tired or not, then decided to bang out this entry on the laptop.

That about catches me up. I can only add these two points:

(1) one gentleman, who runs the laundromat on the ground floor of this apartment building, called me over and asked me whether I was the American dude he'd heard about. I was surprised, but he then told me that he'd spoken with the beauty salon ladies, and they had told him about me. Word gets around, I guess; I'm already on my way to becoming a local attraction.

(2) when I look across the street from my current digs, I see another apartment building whose name has been painted onto its side in both Korean and English. The English name: Centreville. It's almost as though I'd never left America.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

was there ever any doubt?

As I tried to say earlier, theories that the Boston Marathon bombing were somehow linked to home-grown Tim McVeigh types or to Kim Jeong-eun (for God's sakes, what??) were asinine, as were the calls for "open-minded" consideration of who the guilty parties might be. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this was another instance of Islamic extremism, and sure enough, the perpetrators—caught with incredible swiftness by local and federal law-enforcement authorities—turned out to be two disaffected Chechen Muslims who were both biological brothers and brothers in arms. One sibling is now dead; the other was caught while bleeding from wounds suffered during a firefight.

I do respect the folks who caution us about jumping to conclusions. A witch-hunt mentality is never constructive. At the same time, when something is so plainly obvious that the only reason to turn aside from the obvious has to do with one's delusional ideology, well... that's not very constructive, either.

There's no triumph or Schadenfreude in saying "I told you so" here. I only wish certain politically correct folks would wake up, put aside their blinders, and stop pretending reality isn't real. These types are the ones written about by Douglas Adams: they'll go on to prove that black is white and get themselves killed on the next zebra crossing.

UPDATE: Comedian/provocateur Pat Condell on the distinction between "liberal" versus "progressive," a spiel that deals in part with the degree to which progressives are (willfully) divorced from reality.

UPDATE 2: Malcolm writes on how the plot has thickened around that "person of interest," a Saudi national tackled on the scene by authorities soon after the Boston Marathon bombing.

UPDATE 3: a quote found on Instapundit that seems relevant to the issue of reality-distortion:

So, the reason why conservatives get irked when “right wing” is used in reference to major acts of violence — often without an iota of evidence to back it up — is that the term “right wing” is broadly applied by the media to the entire conservative movement. I don’t think “right-wing” Jennifer Rubin and Sheldon Adelson get pumped every April for Hilter’s birthday, that “right-wing think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation burst out the champagne on the Columbine anniversary, or that “right-wing rock star” Scott Walker is a big fan of the Oklahoma City bombing.


Ave, John!

John McCrarey, in whose in-law's apartment I am currently residing, talks sense.


Friday, April 19, 2013

time stamp weirdness

Since I'm in Seoul with my new laptop, I need to decide whether to reset my "local time" configuration to reflect Seoul time. Decision: nah. You guys will just have to put up with my posts' appearing at what will seem to be weird hours.

More later. Lots to talk about, but I'm jet-lagged and unsure how focused I can remain at this tiny keyboard. I must say: owning MacBook Air is a lot like owning my old Asus Eee netbook, which was also tiny and awkward and made women point and laugh.


landed (scheduled post)

One final scheduled post to keep you up to date with my travels.

Assuming I'm not dead from a North Korean missile or severely delayed because of a passenger freakout, I am, in theory, now on Korean soil. We've just landed. It's 3:10AM, DC time, on April 19; here in Seoul, it's full-on afternoon: 4:10PM. Seoul is currently 13 hours ahead of DC; in the fall, that time difference become 14 hours.

At this point, I'm assuming we've taxied to a halt and are waiting to deplane. I'll file out with the other tired passengers, rumpled and redolent in my now-stinky shirt and pants after 14 hours of sweating into an airline seat. I'll then line up at passport control to get my passport stamped and have some questions thrown at me in Korean (once the official discovers I speak Korean; I usually initiate the conversation in Korean), quietly scan the lines for any hot-looking women, then proceed to the baggage claim to grab my backpack. I'll once again try to quietly slip, Jedi-like, past the customs folks on the airport's lower floor; they normally don't stop you unless you've got the sort of baggage that looks as if you've got something to declare: people hauling overstuffed suitcases or stacks of boxes are much more likely to be stopped and questioned than people like me, who have only one carry-on and one backpack.

Once I step outside the airport, I'll have to hunt down the proper limousine bus to take me to the part of Seoul I need to go to. I'll pay the bus fare—it used to be about 12,000 won, but is now more likely W14,000 or W15,000. Like movie ticket prices in the US, bus fare in Korea rises steadily year after year.

I won't rent a cell phone at the airport. My buddy Tom, who will meet me later in the evening, has promised to help me cadge a phone from a vendor in Itaewon. While I'm in Itaewon, I'll also need to find someone to look at my new MacBook. The MacBook itself seems to work just fine as long as it's in a Wi-Fi hot spot: I tested it at a local Starbucks in Appalachia before I left on this odyssey. The Wi-Fi functionality is perfect. Unfortunately, the Ethernet hookup doesn't seem to work, and the optical CD/DVD drive keeps spitting out the CDs I've put into it. Double-plus ungood, that. But I'm not overly worried: Korea is the Land of the Morning Tech, so I'm sure I'll find a decent computer-repair place that'll get my machines behaving nicely in a jiffy.

This is the final scheduled post predicting, in rough form, what I'll be doing and when. The next post I write won't be scheduled: it'll be "live," or as live as live can be when it comes to blogging. It's been fun pretending to be Hari Seldon for a few hours. See you soon.


halfway there (scheduled post)

Another scheduled post, written Wednesday night, that attempts to predict how things are going.

At this point, seven hours will have passed. It's 8PM, East Coast time, in the US. I have no idea what the local time is, but I know it's not 8PM wherever I am over the shark-infested north Pacific. 8PM is the seven-hour mark, about halfway through this 14-hour flight. In another seven hours, it'll be 3AM in Virginia, which translates to 4PM Seoul time. In theory, we'll be arriving at Incheon International Airport at 4:10PM.

What will I have done by now, now that seven hours have passed? I imagine I'll have gone to the head at least once, despite my best efforts at pooping-avoidance. Huge as I am, I know that trying to wipe my ass inside that tiny, cramped toilet stall is one of the greatest logistical nightmares of my life. I usually have to stand up, take off a shoe, pull one leg out of my trousers, rest that foot on the toilet, bend my knees to spread my ass cheeks, then wipe while standing. So humiliating, and all because the stall isn't wide enough for me simply to spread my knees and reach between my thighs. (I'm a back-to-fronter, you see—not a front-to-backer. I bet you've always wanted to know that.)

By now, I've probably enjoyed watching a movie or two without any sound. It's something of a game for me to try to figure out what the hell is going on when I watch movies this way. During the next hours, I'll doubtless watch a couple more films. If I haven't been watching any movies, I'll likely have been watching the GPS map of our plane's steady progress across the earth's surface. What would the navigators of old think of today's navigation technology? Would they understand how crucial it is to factor Einsteinian relativity into the proper transmission of real-time GPS data? Satellites orbit the earth at about 18,000 miles per hour, which produces perceptible time-dilation effects. This time distortion has real consequences for the information the satellites send groundward. By comparison, the navigators of old had it easy, what with their astrolabes, crude maps, spyglasses, and basic knowledge of constellations.

After seven hours of flying, my ass will doubtless be hurting like a motherfucker. It always does on long trips. I often find myself leaning forward to take pressure off my beleaguered coccyx. Occasionally, I stand up. A lot of Asian passengers around me will probably continue to stand even if the "fasten seat belt" sign comes on. Asians, despite the rigidity of their social notions, are uncommonly good at ignoring impersonal rules and regulations when it suits them. When we land, you can be sure that many of the Asians will unbelt themselves and grab their bags long before they've been permitted to leave their seats. This will drive the flight attendants batty; I'm sure a lot of them hate flying the Asian routes because of the obnoxious behavior of so many passengers. Why East Asians are so obedient in a classroom or a boardroom, but so annoyingly disobedient just about everywhere else, is a mystery to me.

Seven hours done. Seven more to go.


departure from JFK (scheduled post)

Another scheduled post, written Wednesday night and predicting, Hari Seldon-style, how my Thursday is going.

Barring any sort of aviation disaster, delay, or other New York weirdness, I'm boarding my flight to Korea at this very moment. They're announcing the set of rows that includes my seat, far in the back of the plane. I'll be engaged my usual flight ritual: smiling blandly while preparing to walk down the jetway, waiting patiently inside the plane (still smiling blandly) while the passengers ahead of me take their time and settle into their places before allowing me to get to my own assigned seat. Adjusting the seat belt with difficulty, stretching it out to the maximum, and snapping the buckle home with sweaty, grunting effort. Hoping I won't have to take a crap while we're in flight (I hate those tiny bathroom stalls). Waiting patiently (probably still with that damn smile pasted on my face) while we do the preflight check and then taxi out to our runway. Anticipating the awesome acceleration of an aircraft that weighs more than several tyrannosaurs put together. Being pressed back into my seat as we take off. Looking down and watching my country dwindle into insignificance, feeling the problems I associate with home disappear. Looking ahead—physically looking toward the head of the cabin, but mentally looking toward the future. Flight is both concrete and abstract, action and metaphor.

I'm on my way. In more ways than one.