Wednesday, May 08, 2013

an afternoon with Holden Beck

I was over 40 minutes late to my meeting with author Holden Beck. I'd had the best intentions of meeting on time, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men and how the road to hell is paved. This morning, I got wrapped up in sending off two job applications. The process takes longer than one would expect, and before I knew it, it was 11AM and I hadn't even showered for my noon meeting. I didn't get out of the apartment until 11:20AM, at which point I knew I was screwed. So I texted Holden about being late, and he called me back while I was trundling along on the Light Blue Line (Line 4), heading south to Sadang Station where, as I told Holden, I was going to jump into a cab and head over to Seoul National University. Alas, the walk from the subway train to the station took several minutes; Korean subway stations are huge, labyrinthine affairs, and it's easy to underestimate how much time it takes simply to exit one. Once on street level, I tried to get into a cab, but the driver told me he couldn't take me to Seoul National: he was an Ansan cab, not a Seoul cab (which I suppose means he came into Seoul from Ansan, and was willing to take only those folks going back to Ansan. So I walked a bit down the street and tried to flag another cab. One came, but he, too, said "no" when he heard where I was going. On my third attempt, I managed to snag a cab, after which I tried to call Holden to tell him I was on the final leg of my journey. But Holden's line was busy for several minutes.

The cabbie was quiet, but when I told him which building on SNU's campus I was trying to reach, he gamely (and competently, unlike that other dude) punched in the location on his dashboard GPS and was rewarded with a specific route. I texted Holden that we'd be navigating to his building via GPS. Holden eventually texted back that he'd been talking with his boss, hence the "busy" (tonghwa-joong) message I kept getting.

Since Holden would prefer that I not identify which specific SNU department he works for, the next part of this account is going to have to be somewhat elliptical. All I can say is that Holden and I met at a section of the SNU campus where Korean dragons streaked across the sky or tussled with each other on the ground; jellyfish floated lazily in the air, pumping rhythmically; and the ground was covered with erect female nipples that were soft and springy under our feet. The breeze brought us the pleasant odor of angel farts. You know that part of campus?

I wasn't sure quite what to imagine before I met Holden. He turned out not to be the stumbling drunk he makes himself out to be on his blog. If anything, he struck me as alert and, well, busy. His phone kept ringing during our meeting, so I surmise he's also a hit with his rather needy boss.

Lunch was at a third-floor dining hall not far from where I met my interlocutor. The place was obviously popular; there was a line (well, more like a bench area), and we had to wait a few minutes for a seat. For a campus restaurant, the place was pretty impressive. As we waited, Holden told me a bit about himself. He's been working at SNU for about seven years, if I recall correctly: he came to the campus in 2006, and has enjoyed his existence ever since. He describes himself as averse to real work, but in truth, he's been working hard on the manuscript of his autobiography: a story that focuses on his time in the Korean Army. Holden's lived enough adventure for at least two lifetimes, so I'm hopeful that his story will eventually be published. He's going the traditional publishing route, largely eschewing both the e-pub avenue and the Korean markets.

Lunch for Holden was a modest-sized ddukbaegi bulgogi, which smelled quite nice when it reached our table; my lunch was a salmon ensemble, done up quasi-Japanese-style, with a light salad and miso soup. The salmon was cooked perfectly. I could have eaten a whole salmon steak. (You'll recall my own foray into Salmonville here.)

After lunch, we walked past the dragons, angel farts, and field-of-nipples over to a coffee shop. I noted all the foreigners we passed, lending Seoul National University a cosmopolitan air. Everyone seemed so... casually international. SNU's campus is a real campus, by American standards: it's large, and it's its own little world, bounded by a very hike-able perimeter road. Holden and I sat in a courtyard crisscrossed by an assortment of elves, unicorns, and the occasional Uruk-hai. I snapped a couple pics:

The first pic was sort of lame; I had originally wanted to catch Holden with a cig dangling from his lips, glaring at the camera with world-weary cynicism (aren't all writers and journalists basically cynics and drinkers?). Holden showed me an iPhone pic that a friend of his had snapped. I saw it and knew that it captured the essence of who Holden is—keyboard-pounder, coffee-drinker, and smoker. I asked Holden to email it to me, because it was so much better than the pics I had taken. Here it is, done up in black and white—the real Holden Beck:

The coffee cup in the above image says it all, I think: "Angel in us." It provides an ironic counterpoint to the serious guy at the table, brow furrowed in concentration as he lights up.

We talked for over an hour, I think, and then Holden offered to drive me to a subway station. His car, which he says he bought used, is a comfortable ride—a lot like my Honda Fit back home. Unlike my Fit, however, Holden's ride was equipped with its own GPS navigation system; I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit envious. We promised to meet up again, hopefully with a couple extra people next time around, such as Holden's friends Joel (of the excellent but now-defunct blog About Joel) and Frédéric.

As happened with Joe McPherson, I came away from today's meeting thinking I may have made a new friend. Holden's still young—he's in his mid-thirties and I'm (Jesus Christ) in my mid-forties. But we connected as writers and teachers, and as people with our feet in two different cultures. I wish Holden the best as he finishes up his massive editing job; he wants that manuscript to be super-polished before he starts submitting it. I don't blame him.


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