Friday, December 9, 2011

Falling asleep happy

I've been attempting the mastery of falling asleep happy for a while and the past two nights I was successful. I usually try clearing my mind of everything except for one thing that makes me happy. This thing is usually a whale or a wolf, and come to think of it, that's probably why I have so many animal dreams.

Two nights ago, I drifted off imagining myself under a fortress of blankets in a bedroom loft with stacks of books all around me and a flying shark watching over me while I slept. I'm a kid at heart and generally easy to please, so the news that I was getting a flying remote control shark for Christmas sent me over the moon, even though I won't be able to play with it until my return to Portland in May. My mind spins imagining all the crazy flying shark shenanigans I am going to have.

Then last night, I fell asleep on my friend Nomthi's couch while watching Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." She let me soak in her tub before that. The blissful sensation of being submerged in warm water made me feel at peace with everything and everyone. My friend Nomthi is my emotional support and the kindest friend anyone could ask for. The sad part of making friends in Korea is that our contracts end at different times so people are always coming and going.

I wish I could give a review of the Werrner Herzog movie, but I was alseep for half of it. I walked home at 1 AM with snow flakes falling on me, imagining I was one of my European ancestors 30 thousand years ago, wearing reindeer fur and that all the drunk men stumbling from one bar to another were dueling rhinoceroses and woolly mammoths. When I crawled into my bed, I fell into a fairly deep sleep, only being woken up a few times by drunk people in my apartment building returning home and slamming their doors and someone sticking advertisements for take-out restaurants on everyone's door. I just imagined they were cave bears scratching on the walls and fell back asleep.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Marwencol


My idea of a perfect documentary is Marwencol. This movie teaches us that pain and suffering can be useful. Marwencol is an imaginary town, created by Mark, a man recovering from trauma after being severely beaten. Mark was an alcoholic cross dresser and a gifted artist, who was beaten by thugs after revealing that he was a cross dresser. He had to relearn everything and find an artistic coping method after waking up from his coma. In the town he created good always triumphs over evil and Mark’s alter ego is always in the company of beautiful women and loyal friends. Mark’s memory loss purified him, erasing his alcoholism but preserving his true spirit. He remained an artist and a cross dresser, learned to express his true self without fear and received deserved praise and attention for his art.  Marwencol is the story of how a man overcame his obstacles through the power of creativity. I felt proud of Mark and indebted to the filmmakers for bringing to light this amazing story.

Here are some other documentaries I loved. If you think I should add to this list, please tell me what I’m missing.

Grey Gardens
Bill Cunningham New York
Babies
Shakespeare Behind Bars
The Queen and I
Exit through the Gift Shop
The Weeping Camel
Capturing the Friedmans
Encounter Point
Born into Brothels
Why We Fight
Grizzly Man
The Up Series
Genghis Blues
Man on Wire
The US vs. John Lennon
Jesus Camp

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misleading photos

I don't take taxis very often. I prefer walking. But I have noticed in every Korean cab I've ever ridden in that the driver's picture on the laminated copy of his license does not even vaguely resemble him. When I had my photo taken for my alien registration card, the photographer touched up my picture in photoshop, whitening my skin, erasing wisps of hair and elongating my neck. He also opened up a folder full of what appeared to be printable paper doll clothes and selected a frilly blue shirt to match my eyes. Last week I had new passport photos taken and the prints just arrived. My skin has obviously been whitened, which is not the look I'm seeking.

Koreans' obsession with appearances has been the biggest cultural hurdle for me. Plastic surgery here is rampant. Whiteness and round eyes are revered. In some extreme cases, parents even have their children endure leg lengthening surgery, in which children's legs are surgically broken and stretched. Complications probably account for the number of young people I see limping around. Thinness is another important asset in Korean culture which I couldn't forget even if I tried.

One of my Korean friends told me that she is afraid to eat a lot in front of men because they might make critical remarks. Well, yesterday I devoured most of a pizza at my desk. But even though the coast was clear as far as men go, a female teacher criticized my eating habits. Trying to see the humor in this situation and not get annoyed, I said, "One slice is not enough." She cocked her head to the side, thinking, before offering what she thought was a good solution. "One slice and fruit!"

I'm definitely becoming a more patient person here in Korea. My last New Years' resolution was to be more patient and be better with money. I'm not tearing my hair out and I'm not penniless, so I must be doing okay.

Monday, November 28, 2011

We the Animals

"We the Animals" is Justin Torres' novel based on his life of growing up poor in upstate New York, the youngest of three brothers and the offspring of a white mother and Puerto Rican father. The chapters are like snapshots of memories, all told from the perspective of the young narrator. The brothers are a pack, hunting together, playing together, sleeping and eating together.  The novel is told in first person plural. Gradually, the main character ages and drifts apart from the pack and the voice of the novel breaks off into something hysterical as it tries to reinvent itself as an individual voice.

The child narrator is so convincing. I loved how the reader is fed all the child-like observations without an adult filter. I was unsure of the time or setting in the beginning and I, being very gullible, believed the narrator’s immature perceptions of his world, even if the world he presented was confusing and didn’t add up to much sense. When the mother was badly beaten up and the father told his sons the dentist punched her in the face to loosen up her teeth, I just thought, “Okay, that sounds like the kind of health insurance I can afford.” But instead of realizing the father’s lie and placing responsibility where it belonged, I naively thought the family just lived in some strange world where dentists punched their patients in the face.

In a beautiful chapter titled “Seven,” the mother tells her youngest son she wants him to stay seven years old forever. I shared this opinion, but not for the same reason. Perhaps because the novel is so short I felt like the narrator grew up too fast. The way it ends with the main character being hospitalized and disgraced for being gay seems like the beginning of another book.


Justin Torres is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I was awed when I learned he has two of the most prestigious honors available to writers. He definitely has a passionate and original voice. "We the Animals" is something magical and I look forward to Torres' next book.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Seoulful Weekend

I am impressed with aspects of Seoul, but after my weekend in Korea’s capital, I’m glad I chose to live in the countryside. Most of my time was spent in Itaewon, a neighborhood frequented by foreigners, adjacent to the army base, Yongsan Garrison.

My primary reason for going to Seoul was so I could attend the publication party for “Out of Place,” a literary journal in which I was published. The pre-launch party on Saturday night was at a bar called The Orange Tree. My friends accompanied me for a night of poetry and beer. I took my turn at the microphone to read from my short story “Speakeasy,” about a distracted girl who breaks down and confesses her secrets in a bluebook essay, which is supposed to be about the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Afterward, we went to a party with new writer friends at a place called Moon. I took part in a competition, pairing up with a handsome man I had just met. The object of the game was to roll a coconut from our bellies to our mouths without using our hands. I had to kneel down to tuck the coconut under my chin, which looks pretty scandalous in the pictures my friends took. :/

The actual publication party was on Sunday at a chic restaurant called Berlin. It was so nice having a glass of wine and eating non-Korean food for a change. Drinking good wine, beer, coffee, chai, Turkish tea and ayran are pleasures I will never take for granted. I like a variety of beverages and a variety of people, and this weekend I got both. I just wish I could live in the peaceful countryside and still be close to Seoul.

I indulged in buying used books at “What the Book” and at another compact bookstore in the same neighborhood.  I bought a Mongolian phrase book and a Turkish phrasebook to prepare me for upcoming adventures. At one of the many Turkish restaurants in Itaewon, I was so happy that my “Merhaba” directed at the server sparked a lengthy response in Turkish and then a surprised reaction when I told her I’m American and my Turkish language skills are minimal.

My only regret is that I did not go to a jazz club in Seoul. I’m happy to be back in Mokpo, even though I am deprived of variety here. I realized today when I got a thrill from watching 60 Minutes online that I am a bonafide fuddy duddy. But it’s nice to have a weekend of excitement every once in a while.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maus

A male student just paraded down the hallway brandishing a dead mouse rolled in paper, reminding me that I need to write a review of "Maus" by Art Spiegelman.

"Murderer" is the word that sticks out in this book, but it's applied to unexpected people, not the Nazis or Nazi collaborators, but Art Spiegelman's parents. I'm confused and intrigued. I need to read the 2nd Maus book and hopefully Spiegelman's complex relationship with his parents, who survived the Holocaust, will become more clear.

"Maus" is a graphic novel, originally published in 1973. People always put it on a pedestal as one of the essential graphic novels, probably because its success catapulted graphic novels to a new level, gaining higher respect for this important art form.

In the book, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs. I read on Amazon that many reviewers were offended by Spiegelman's choice of animal to represent Poles. In my opinion, if people blow up minor details and choose to be offended, those details will overshadow the ones people should pay attention to, like the emotion conveyed on the faces of the athropophormic animals, the undying love the father feels for his wife, and the beautiful broken English the father employs, adding to his impish childlike demeanor.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York



The documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” is an amazing achievement. It has changed the way I see the world. I wish I could be more like Bill Cunningham, delightful and modest, able to make friends with everyone and see past phony surfaces to the real innovative fashion that cloaks pedestrians on the street. But I’m not. Very few people have the vision to see beauty in such fleeting moments.

Since 1978 Bill Cunningham has ridden his bike all over Manhattan to capture photos of interesting fashions for the New York Times' "On the Street" photo feature in the Style section.


Watching this movie is almost like reading a recipe for happiness. I laughed several times when Bill would squabble with his assistant or with the other elderly photographer who lived in his building. The assistant’s job consisted of taking film out of boxes and moving images around on a screen, meanwhile listening to Bill Cunningham tell him what to do. I thought it was hilarious when Bill described a woman’s garbage bag dress as looking like a black rose. The assistant replied, “Looks like a black garbage bag to me.” After making another insightful fashion observation to the assistant, Bill jokingly said something along the lines of, “Why am I taking to you about this? You’re a lumberjack!”


Bill Cunningham is an honorable man who should set the moral code for all photographers in the fashion industry. While people are struggling to redistribute wealth, Bill Cunningham is redistributing beauty where it belongs: in everyday people, not in sickly skinny models or surgically configured faces. He doesn’t care about celebrities and he doesn’t accept money for his work. He does what he loves and lives meekly.


While watching this movie, I remembered hearing a song by Jens Lekman about waiting for Kirsten Dunst to arrive at a club in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. She could not get into the club, even being Kirsten Dunst. In this song, Lekman takes pride in his town’s down-to-earth sensibility and disinterest in celebrities. That’s the way it should be everywhere, if you ask me.

Alex

Here's a drawing I did last summer of my friend Alex. We met in Korea and he is one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people I've ever met.

Old drawing of my mom

This is a drawing of my mom I did about eight or nine years ago. I remember we were at a party and I was phenomenally bored out of my mind. Usually, it's hard for me to draw my mom, which is strange because she looks like me. But I think this drawing looks like her.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi has a gift for exposing frail, laughable humanity in very bold drawings. She packs humor and tragedy into her books, throwing witty punches and allowing for sympathetic pauses. I cannot express the gargantuan importance of this book, nor my infinite gratitude that it exists. In this tale of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Satrapi offers the comic book equivalent of a symphony. The drawings are vivacious, ascending and descending, ever changing, like a complex piece of music.

Being a good drawer doesn't necessarily make you good at drawing comics. Readers of Marjane Satrapi’s books will appreciate the clarity, how their eyes glide easily across the page, from beginning to end. Each box is a different lens, giving readers a fresh take on this historic time, which happened to coincide with Satrapi’s childhood.

Most importantly, people worldwide have an opportunity to look into a mysterious, often misunderstood country. Instead of seeing Iran as a demonic nation in the Axis of Evil, we can see that the people of Iran have suffered greatly. Rather than only learn about Iran from biased media, we can focus on our shared humanity through art. We need more creative visionaries like Marjane Satrapi to deepen human understanding.      

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NaNoWriMo. Day 3.

What is the point? Hopefully, you won’t ask this about your writing, but chances are, you will have an off day and ask yourself just that. From what I understand about NaNoWriMo, the point is just to write and not let doubt weigh you down. Save the editing and doubting for December.

Last night, Holly, my upstairs neighbor came over for a writing sprint. That’s when you write for a designated amount of time without pausing. At my suggestion, we listened to the “The Marriage of Figaro,” because Mozart is significant in my novel. After our 15 minute writing sprint, we chatted and wolfed down chocolate cake.

We were going to do another writing sprint, this time listening to Strauss, but our conversation got carried away. We discussed our associations with people, how we are repelled and attracted to certain people based on past experiences. I told her about men who remind me of boys from middle school, never a good sign, and how, based on that connection I made, I try to avoid their company.

Then I talked about one person in my life who I hope will be a surprising character. In fiction, characters who act in surprising ways are wonderful. But this is not fiction. This is my life. I can’t control this guy’s actions like I could a character. I guess when you have both negative and positive associations with somebody that just makes for more complicated characters and richer writing.

In the middle of one of my stories, Holly said, “I want to find a song that fits the mood of your story.” Of all songs, she had to pick “I’m on Fire,” by Bruce Springsteen. This song has powerful memories attached to it. 

SO weird. 

Earlier yesterday, I was walking and trying to figure out a stripping scene for my novel. Then I heard the song, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” playing as I passed by a restaurant. I thought that was a sign, even though I don’t really believe in signs.

But I have revealed too much. Now you know my novel involves Mozart and a stripping scene. This exhibition is over.

Happy writing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo. Day 2.

Last night I busted out 1,718 words. Now I just need to do that 29 more times.

Because I am teaching online classes in the middle of my work day, I leave my laptop at school to make my life easier. So last night I was determined to finish my 1667 words that are recommended in order to reach the 50,000-word goal at the end of the month. I had reached 1,000 at school and I thought it would be easy enough to stretch that out, but when I lay down with my notebook and pillow on the floor of my apartment, I almost fell asleep. So I left my warm, garlic- and cheese- and perfume- and incense-smelling apartment and took my work to a nearby coffee shop.

Korea is a loud country. I notice noises other people don’t and I’m gradually adapting to working in a loud environment and tuning out the commotion around me. The man on the computer next to me felt the need to play music on his computer to compete with the Korean ballads blaring from the coffee shop speakers. 

Writing a novel in one month is going to be difficult, but I have no excuses not to finish this year. Here's to a happy productive month of writing. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

“It was a laugh riot” is not something you expect to hear yourself say when referring to a book about North Korea. But Guy Delisle’s comic book account of working for two months as an animator in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a delightful romp with appropriate bits of sadness and seriousness.

Only the privileged North Koreans who demonstrate their devotion to the Dear Leader by snitching on their neighbors get to live in Pyongyang. Guy Delisle notes the fear people live with on a daily basis. His hotel, which is eerily empty except for a few other foreigners, is on an island. Delisle is not permitted to speak to North Koreans or go anywhere without his guide, but when he bravely sneaks out to wander the streets, he is astonished by people’s indifference to his presence. They barely glance at him, perhaps out of fear that they will be corrupted by his western wickedness or that they might be accused of conspiring with the enemy.

Delisle brings his copy of 1984, which he loans to his guide just to see his response. His brazen rebelliousness is really shocking at times. He sings Bob Marley, makes sarcastic remarks about the Dear Leader, and does not condemn Americans during a discussion on how evil Americans are. He drags his feet through all the propaganda museums and museums dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and when he’s asked to write in the guest book about the wonders of one of the museums, he writes, “I’ve never walked down longer hallways in all my life.”

The scariest part is when Guy Delisle inquires about the absence of handicapped people and his guide responds that North Korea has no handicapped people. He balances these terrifying revelations with the ridiculous restrictions in North Korea, such as women being forbidden to ride bicycles because it would be “hazardous.” Therefore, women are only allowed to ride tricycles.

Humor is a gift and finding humor in depressing situations is a rare gift. I’m not sure how I feel about laughing at a book about North Korea. I feel slightly ashamed, but nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hungry. Anything Helps

Years ago, on a downtown street, I saw a wheelchair-bound man. The cardboard sign on his lap read, “Hungry. Anything helps.” Angling his apple with one hand and holding the sign with the other, he lost his grip. The apple fell and rolled in front of me. I picked it up. Dirt clung to the apple’s exposed flesh. “Do you still want it?” I asked him. The man’s lips quivered into a frown. “No, just throw it away.” He stared at the sidewalk. The hopelessness on his face was heartbreaking. That wasn't just an apple. It was a source of enjoyment and it was ruined. I tossed the half-eaten apple into a metal garbage can. “Do you want me to buy you lunch?” I asked. I pointed to a Mexican restaurant across the street. “Yes,” he answered in a flash. To my surprise, the man stood up and sprinted diagonally across the intersection. By the time walk signals permitted me to catch up with him, he had already ordered a meal at the counter and was waiting for me to pay. He smiled and said, “Next time. I’ll buy you lunch."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Coffee

This is a poem I illustrated for the poet Carl Adamshick. I dyed the paper in tea and used white watercolor and black micron pens to make the images pop off the page. I also made a coffee cup stain on the crossword puzzle. I really enjoyed collaborating with Carl on this project and I hope I get a chance to illustrate more poems in the future.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kim Bob? Back to the drawing board!

Organizing a project runway competition between my high school students this past week gave me some insights into gender differences in Korea. I drew the outline of a man’s body on the blackboard. Then I drew the outline of a woman and as soon as the boys saw the shape of breasts and hips they let out oohs of anticipation. I told the class, “These people are going on a date and they need to get dressed.”

“Couple?!” some students asked.

“No, this is only a date,” I said. “They might not like each other. We are going to have a contest to see who is more fashionable. Let’s play boys versus girls.”

In one class, the girls named the chalk figure Meri, after me. The boys picked the name Kim Bob for their eligible bachelor. “Great,” I thought. “I’m going out with a Korean redneck.”

I asked students to draw articles of clothing. “Harry, will you please give Kim Bob some PANTS?” I’d say, emphasizing the most essential word.

The boys did such a slap dash job of getting Kim Bob dressed, I was thinking, “Kim Bob better have an amazing personality.” For Meri, the girls painstakingly drew a mini tube dress with a flower pinned to the front, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. They got my hair right, but they made me look like a cheap whore. The girls were taking such a long time getting Meri dressed, I had to think of extra accessories for Kim Bob’s outfit just to kill time.

To convey the meaning of suspenders, I had to walk around jauntily with my hands holding invisible straps. When both Meri and Kim Bob were finally ready for their date, Kim Bob had tattoos, suspenders, lots of bling bling, glasses, a scarf, mittens, a mustache and beard, a belt, three watches, clown shoes, cut off shorts and fishnet stockings inspired by my outfit. At my suggestion, the boys also drew Kim Bob holding a bouquet of flowers.

I was the judge of the fashion contest and I hesitantly gave the award to Kim Bob, basing my judgment purely on creativity. I asked students about the date. Unless it was Halloween, I had a feeling this date would be a disaster.

“Where are they going on their date?"

“Circus!”

“Okay, that’s great. What about dinner?”

“Gangster circus!”

“Cool. What is Kim Bob’s job?"

“Gangster CEO.”

“Does he give Meri compliments, like ‘Meri, you are so beautiful’?”

“Hot!”

“Does Meri like him?”

“No!”

“Okay, I think this is their last date.”

In every class, the girls took the assignment seriously and the boys tried to create the most ridiculous outfit and distorted face imaginable. I thought of all the stories about ugly men who prove themselves endearing to the women they are pursuing: Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Cyrano de Bergerac. I have never read a love story about an ugly woman and a handsome man living happily ever after. The closest thing I can think of is Calypso and Odysseus in The Odyssey, but Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner, so that’s not a good example. In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story" by Russell Banks, the narrator admits with embarrassment that he dated an unattractive woman, but he turns out to be cruel.

I have to turn to the songs of the 60s like “Happy for the Rest of your Life” by Jimmy Soul and “Beauty Is only Skin Deep” by The Temptations to find evidence of men seeing past a pretty face. But in the Jimmy Soul song, he seems to be telling men that being with an ugly woman has its benefits, because then you can treat her like dirt. “An ugly woman puts beers on tap. She will give you peace of mind.” Not exactly on par with Rumi’s poetry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is a modest title. This book is extremely funny. Ned Vizzini writes from the perspective of Craig, a 15-year-old who attends Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. Craig is average but he wants to be exceptional. He suffers from depression and anxiety. How Vizzini turns topics like depression and suicidal thoughts into comedy beats me. At the end of the book, Vizzini reveals that he spent a month in an adult psychiatric ward in Brooklyn and that he wrote this book between12/10/05 and 1/6/05. That tells me that Ned Vizzini is like Craig in more than one way. Apparently, the author is also an overachiever who likes to show off that he wrote a novel in less than one month.

This YA novel can be enjoyed by older readers as well as teenagers. The dialogue is spot on. Vizzini makes his characters funny without making fun of them. One thing I admire besides Vizzini’s strong voice and talent for writing humor is his ability to write lists. Take this passage for example:

The party was like a movie-it should have been a movie. It was the best movie I'd ever seen-where else did you get shattering glasses, a kid trying to break-dance in the living room, a dictionary being thrown at a roach, a kid holding his head in the freezer and saying it could get you high, orange vomit spread out in a semi-circle in the kitchen sink, people yelling out the windows that "school sucks," rap music declaring "I want to drink beers and smoke some shit," and one poor soul snorting a Pixie Stik, then hacking purple dust into the toilet . . .? Nowhere.

"It’s Kind of a Funny Story" was made into a movie, which I am going to watch one of these days, but after this book, the movie will be a tough act to follow.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Friends (Not the TV show)

Forcing myself out of my apartment is a good thing. After dinner with a friend on Friday night, my neighbor called to tell me she had just ordered a bunch of fast food and that I should come over. I joined a group of girls sitting around a table heaped with hamburgers, fries, cheese sticks and chicken tenders. A little dog and a cat ran around her apartment attacking each other. The dog would hump the cat and bite down on the cat’s head and the cat would retaliate with its claws or a surprise attack from above. A hideously violent film played in the background, but instead of turning it off we all just continued eating, going “Ewwwww!” every time someone was sawed in half.

My neighbor, who is Korean-American, studied literature at Harvard. When I heard that, I got so excited, but she said she refuses to even look at a book for another 6 months. Hmmmm. Maybe I don’t want to go to Harvard if I’m going to want to avoid books afterward. She said that even though she went to Harvard, her last employers would have gladly traded her for a blond, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, mediocre teacher. This isn’t just supposition. She actually heard her co-teachers say they wanted to replace her with a blond teacher.


In addition to severe cramps, I have a pain in my neck that won’t go away, which I think happened as a result of uncomfortable sleep, or me doing backward somersaults on my bed. Despite these ailments, I still managed to have a good time yesterday and today with my new friends, Jihoo, who is Korean, and Nomthi, who is Zulu South African.

Nomthi is very insightful. She has a deep stare that sees past surfaces. Chilling at her place last night, she said to me, “You’re a very loving person. I get the feeling that you love people a lot, and you are very sensitive.” Yes, this is true, but I don’t think she sensed my jealousy over her huge apartment with multiple rooms and a balcony until I told her how raving jealous I was.

She stared at me knowingly and said, “You’re different. Very gentle, especially in a relationship, you’re a very soft person.” Soft is an accurate descriptor, both physically and emotionally, although my body can be toned with some more nature hikes, like I did this morning, and saying no to fast food binges with my neighbor. Hmmmmm. This is going to require discipline.

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Praise of Dreams

In my dreams
I paint like Vermeer van Delft.

I speak fluent Greek
and not just with the living.

I drive a car
that does what I want it to.

I am gifted
and write mighty epics.

I hear voices
as clearly as any venerable saint.

My brilliance as a pianist
would stun you.

I fly the way we ought to,
i.e., on my own.

Falling from the roof,
I tumble gently to the grass.

I've got no problem
breathing under water.

I can't complain:
I've been able to locate Atlantis.

It's gratifying that I can always
wake up before dying.

As soon as war breaks out,
I roll over on my other side.

I'm a child of my age,
but I don't have to be.

A few years ago
I saw two suns.

And the night before last a penguin,
clear as day.

From "Poems New and Collected" by Wislawa Szymborska

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Carriage ride

Yesterday, my friend Sylvia and I rented a carriage and rode it around a park in Gwangju. She told me in Korea whenever couples ride in carriages or double bikes it is the man's job to pedal and the woman can just sit and relax. On our carriage ride, we both did the pedaling. My steering wheel didn't work, but I kept turning it anyway. We only crashed once, but we were going down narrow paths, under low branches, making sharp turns. Sylvia kept saying, "This is so romantic. I have to bring my boyfriend here." We passed some other rental carriages, but she said ours was better because we had flowers laced around the top.

We turned onto a soccer field and rode around the track while a game was in session. Men sitting in the stands crossed their arms when they saw us, a gesture that means "no," and told us to get off the track because we might get hit by the soccer balls. Men in Korea are a lot more vocal about telling women what they can't do. I didn't see any "No Carriages" sign, so I think it was okay and besides, it was none of their business. We wanted to try going uphill, but  a row of parking cones blocked the road. We decided that it might be too difficult riding the carriage uphill anyway, and that we might accidentally roll backward.

We had delicious Vietnamese food, but while we were waiting for a parking space at the restaurant, an old man cut in front of us and stole the next available spot. "This is why I hate old men," Sylvia said, and I endorsed this sentiment. Overall, a wonderful day in Gwangju with a terrific friend.

Waiting Room by Meriwether Falk

A sharply dressed woman in her 30's looks around a waiting room at other people sitting in a circle. She approaches the receptionist’s desk.

Irene-My name is Irene Catherine Engelbright. I have an appointment with Ms. Falk.

Receptionist-Please be seated. Ms. Falk will see you when she’s ready.

Irene- When she’s ready? I’ve been waiting for over a month.

Receptionist-Ms. Falk is a very busy woman.

Irene-That’s bullshit. Ms. Falk has been listening to the same Billie Holiday song and watching episodes of the Daily Show online. I can hear her.

Receptionist-Now Irene, I've told you before if you don’t calm down I’m going to tell Ms. Falk to write more likable protagonists.

Irene-Is this the way you treat your characters in this crap hole? Like they’re insignificant? I know I’m more interesting than these people! (Irene gestures to the people sitting around the waiting room.) These ignoramuses don’t even know their names! Have you tried having a conversation with any of them?

Receptionist-Please, Irene. Ms. Falk will see you when she’s ready to give you the attention you deserve. She’s working on a book with scenes set in Auschwitz right now. She’s preoccupied with that. Don’t worry. She hasn't forgotten about you.

Irene sits back down.

Irene-Well, at least I have a name. First, middle and last.

An old woman wearing a lab coat, eating from a plate of meatballs, scrutinizes Irene from a corner.

Old Woman-I will have a name soon. Don’t know what. Something long and German sounding.

Irene-Good for you.

Old Woman-And I have a thick comical German accent. Ms. Falk thinks that because she has German ancestors, she’s allowed to make fun of German people.

Irene-Swell.

An androgynous teenager sits cross-legged on one chair, head down, reading a book.

A teenage boy sits, looking uncomfortable.

Teenage Boy-I learned about sex from watching guinea pigs. I have a crush on a girl who’s into old Greek stuff. She’s really smart and beautiful and I’m awkward. Do you know what I can do to impress her?

Old Woman-How about you win the Nobel Prize for physics? That’s what I’m trying to do. I am the world’s authority on black holes, you know.

The song “The Very Thought of You,” sung by Billie Holiday, drifts from the next room.

Irene-Great. This song again!

Old Woman pulls an ABBA Greatest Hits album from her lab coat pocket. She walks up to the receptionist’s desk and sets the plate of meatballs down.

Old Woman-How about we listen to ABBA? I love ABBA.

Receptionist-I know you love ABBA, but Ms. Falk does not. She simply gave you an ABBA obsession to try to make you funnier.

Old Woman-But I’m not funny.

Old Woman pulls some pages from her lab coat pocket and shows the receptionist.

Old Woman-There are no jokes. Ms. Falk has just scribbled all over the manuscript, “Make funny.” I don’t think she knows what she’s doing.

Receptionist-You will be funny, Ms. Whatever your name is. Now please have a seat.

Old Woman returns to her seat with her plate of meatballs.

Irene picks up a book from the pile belonging to the androgynous teenager.

Irene-Hmmm. ‘Mr. Peanut’ by Adam Ross. Looks interesting. And it got good reviews. Maybe I’ll go see if this Adam Ross wants to write about me, seeing as how Ms. Falk is taking forever!

Receptionist-Actually, Ms. Falk owns you. If you go to another writer, she could take legal action.

The song “The Very Thought of You” ends. The characters all hold still. Then “The Very Thought of You” comes back on.

Receptionist-And try to be patient, Irene. You haven’t been waiting as long as this girl.

Receptionist gestures to the androgynous teenager.

Irene-At least we don’t age here. Who is she?

Receptionist-That’s Ms. Falk’s inner anguished teenager. She’s very important too. But I think she’s a painful subject.

Androgynous Teenager flips everyone off, but doesn't look up.

Irene-Do you know if we have happy endings?

Receptionist answers the phone.

Receptionist-Thank you. I’ll let her know. Irene, Ms. Falk will see you now.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Proust Questionnaire

Where would you like to live?

Iceland, The Netherlands, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

A mixture of solitude and social engagements, going to the opera, walking on the beach.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
Impatience.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

Atticus Finch, Hamlet.

Who are your favorite characters in history?

Ghengis Khan, Orson Welles, Gertrude Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great.

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?

Helen Thayer, Isabelle Allende, Prudence Mabhena, JK Rowling, women who refuse subjugation.

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Medea, Antigone, Lysistrata.

Your favorite painter?

Caravaggio, Chagall.

Your favorite musician?

Tom Waits, Rachmaninoff, Cassandra Wilson.

The quality you most admire in a man?

Intelligence, sense of humor, accountability.

The quality you most admire in a woman?

Intelligence, bravery, confidence.

Your favorite virtue?

The ability to debate without succumbing to emotion.

Your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one?

Faith, and unconditional respect for elders.

Your proudest achievement?

My realization that I can draw well.

Your favorite occupation?

Working with children.

Who would you have liked to be?

Giulietta Masina or Shirley MacLaine, the right combo of funny, adorable and sexy.

Your most marked characteristic?

Sincerity.

What do you most value in your friends?

Kindness, loyalty, honesty.

What is your principal defect?

Dwelling on past grudges.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

Going blind, suffering from an incurable mental illness, losing loved ones.

What would you like to be?

An astronaut and a filmmaker with the best film equipment and space traveling technology.

What is your favorite color?

Red, green, orange.

What is your favorite flower?

Roses, tulips.

What is your favorite bird?

The owl.

What word or expression do you most overuse?

Okay, like, really, very, weird, creepy, yeah.

Who are your favorite poets?

Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare.

What are your favorite names?

Daphne, Saffron, Winfield.

What is it you most dislike?

Greed, arrogance, stupidity.

Which historical figures do you most despise?

Ayatollah Khomeini, Pol Pot, Rasputin, Kim Il Sung.

Which contemporary figures do you most despise?

Kim Jong Il.

Which events in military history do you most admire?

The Libyan rebels taking their country back.

Which natural gift would you most like to possess?

A talent for learning languages.

How would you like to die?

Fully conscious, fully sane, fully satisfied.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

Everything that attracts unwanted attention. I wish I had an invisibility cloak sometimes.

What is your motto?

Keep calm and carry on.

My brother looks like Proust.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Appointment with My Brother.

"An Appointment with My Brother" is another great novella by Yimun-Yol, author of "Our Twisted Hero." Again, Yimun-Yol blends political issues with personal stories to make a compelling read. In "An Appointment with My Brother," the author gives an account of an imagined meeting with his North Korean half brother. The author's father defected to North Korea in the early years of the regime, leaving his South Korean family for North Korean political ideology. As an adult, the narrator hires a "unification man" to bring his ailing father to China so he can see him one last time. The father dies before they can meet, so the author settles for a meeting with his younger half brother. The writing is saturated with sympathy and reverence for North Koreans. The conversation between the two brothers changes both of their ideas about the other's country. The North Korean brother admits to his South Korean brother toward the end that he had hated him most of his life. Because of the North Korean government's distrust of well-educated defectors, his family was cursed with a low status and lost opportunities.
Yimun-Yol's method of slowly revealing cautious characters is a clever component in his books. I really like this author.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do I look like Marmaduke to you?

I am such a fan of sticker booths. Yesterday, my friend Milly and I made these stickers that look like magazine covers! It's pretty exciting, I know.





Thursday, August 11, 2011

Humiliation


Humiliation is one of the hardest feelings to write about. It's different for men and women, children and adults. The essence of humiliation changes over time, with the shifting of values and with new inventions, such as the camera and social networking sites that make public humiliation so much easier to accomplish. Humiliation is a powerful and destructive force. Humiliation can turn people mean. A humiliated person might do something evil just to have the humiliation spotlight shine on someone else. Some exhibitionists might enjoy humiliation. Even today, some people approve of public humiliation being used as means of punishing criminals. Humiliation is inescapable. We even experience humiliation in our dreams.


Most people are passive-aggressive revelers in Schadenfreude. That is why so many people love to gossip and watch reality TV. If someone is betrayed, a natural response is to want to expose the betrayer. A more enlightened person will learn from humiliation. If a girl is dumped by her boyfriend in a bar in front of all his friends (this was one of my friends' facebook updates), she will learn to treat people with more respect.

But what about mortifying, life-destroying humiliation? For example, scoring a goal for the opposing team in World Cup Soccer, or being exposed in a sex scandal.


In his book, "Humiliation," Wayne Koestenbaum writes about his own life as a humiliation magnet. According to the review in the New York Times, Koestenbaum is more interested in humiliation suffered by men. Perhaps because men in most scenarios possess the most power, they are believed to be more susceptible to humiliation. Still, I wouldn't underestimate or show less interest in the humiliation of anybody, regardless of age or gender. I don't think I will read the book, based on the review. Getting that review must have been humiliating! But I am interested in writing about humiliation, something that will make readers uncomfortable . . . in a good way.

Listen to Wayne Koestenbaum talk about his book on Talk of the Nation. It's pretty interesting.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gone With The Typhoon

In Jeju this weekend, a typhoon kept me corralled indoors for most of my trip. Relaxing in a chic little restaurant one night, I drank wine and drew in my sketchbook and talked to the guy working there. He asked me where I was from and I said, "Oregon, next to California." I always put Oregon in a California context so people will nod knowingly. This guy said, "Portland, Oregon," and I said, "Yes." I guess there was no need for a condescending geography lesson. Then he totally blew me away when he said, "Jimmy Maks." We got to talking about jazz. He plays the upright bass and has been to Portland. I think he might know more about jazz than I do. He told me which jazz clubs to check out when I'm in Seoul: Evans Jazz Club and Palm Jazz Club. I am so thankful I met that man.

I explained to my travel companion, Asia, that I required alone time so I could draw. She asked me during our trip, "How can you live if you're inspired every five minutes?" I know I'm not the most entertaining person to travel with. During a cab ride, I mapped out a crime story. I remained silent for most of the trip, thinking about scenes to write and draw. Maybe I'm turning into Barton Fink.


To show my gratitude for granting me alone time, I brought Asia a milkshake when I returned to the bed and breakfast one night, only to have her remind me that she's lactose intolerant.


We stayed at the Tae Gong Gak. The owners, Sylvia and Peter, are the nicest people in the world. I didn't get to see much of Jeju because of the typhoon but I did get to walk along the beach and sit on some rocks and read during a sunny couple of hours. I'll definitely return to Jeju. It's very easy for me to get to. And next time, I'll climb Mount Hala, the tallest mountain in Korea. Now I really wish I had some challa bread, the other thing I miss just as much as jazz clubs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Three Days in That Autumn

Not the best title, but "Three Days in That Autumn" is a fantastic and unforgettable novella. Park Wan-suh, one of Korea's most revered writers, takes us inside an abortion clinic in 1950s Seoul. The narrator is complicated and mysterious. After being raped and impregnated during the Korean War, she knows what it's like to carry an unwanted child, so she becomes a savior to other rape victims. She grows accustomed to taking bribes and seeing women shamed by their families. Sometimes she takes pride in her work and other times she's on the brink of madness and thinks she hears babies screaming in her garden. She's about ready to retire, but she has one wish: she wants to deliver a living baby before she retires. But how can she convince someone to let her deliver a baby when she's been ostracized by hypocrites and seen as a butcher?

In one memorable scene, Park Wan-suh describes women eating umbilical cords after having had abortions, in the belief that this practice will make them more beautiful. They wash the cords down with soju and become vulgar drunkards in the doctor's office. This book reveals the pathetic and pitiable side of humanity, where beauty and goodness are the runaways you don't wait up for anymore, but you still keep the porch light on, just in case.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Oh, Cactus Skirt.

I did not feel the full extent of my love for you until you were almost taken from me. I got into a cab with some lovely ladies from Arizona and we listened to the driver talk about Steve Jobs and Buddhist temples and living in Tokyo. The driver kept saying, "My wife talk talk talk talk talk," while making the blabbing motion with his hand. I wondered if his wife was just his alter-ego, like the guy in the movie "Psycho," who dressed up in his mother's clothes. 

I had put my little suitcase in the trunk with you inside, but as soon as we got out, the driver sped away. Julie said, "I feel like this is all my fault!" She seemed more distraught than I was. "It's okay," I assured her. "Why would this be your fault?"


"What was the most valuable thing you had in there?" Ginny asked. "Make-up," I answered. On second thought, I said, "My cactus skirt." I let out a sigh. The make-up was replaceable. The suitcase I won in a raffle. My underwear had been discolored in the wash. The shoes were beginning to fall apart and the pair of jeans made my butt look big. I was happy to be rid of those other items.

But you, cactus skirt, I made you. I picked out the bright green fabric. I altered the pattern so you fit me perfectly. Every time I zipped you up, I thought, "Oh, cactus skirt, you know me so well." When we were together, we made people jealous, whether they were sartorially-challenged or fashion-savvy, male or female. They all wished they had cactus skirts too. When I washed you, I gave you extra fabric softener to show my appreciation.

Now the cab driver was going to wear you and pretend to be his wife when he got off work. His hairy man legs would compete with the prickly needles on the pattern. Ugh. The thought of you with someone else bleached my outlook on life.

I told my friends I needed to run some errands, and I'd meet them at the arched entrance of Rose Street for dinner at 7. I did my errands and tried to comfort myself. I had huge bags of fabric at home. I still had the altered pattern, the tissue paper folded in the envelope somewhere. I could make new skirts that fit me perfectly. I reminded myself of the blue velvet I bought years ago. I imagined a blue velvet skirt with two silk pleats in a different shade of blue. I still had that black and gold cashmere. But cashmere wasn't cacti. Not even close.

I sat on a bench at the archway of Rose Street and fell backward in a bush. The cactus-shaped void in my life had thrown me off balance. I pulled myself up and assumed my normal posture, like, "Yeah, I meant to fall in the bush, so what?" I read my boring book and waited for my friends to show up. I looked up from some drab paragraph just as Julie was getting out of the cab, and she was holding my suitcase! She bounded up to me. It was like the final scene of a romantic movie. Out of all the cab drivers in Mokpo, she happened to get the same driver twice.
 
In the most barren landscapes, life prospers. Prickly situations can end smoothly. Cactus skirt, you came back to me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Brief Encounter: Keanu Reeves' elbow and my boob

This is why I will never be an extra in a movie ever again.

The summer I turned 21, my marathon training group was asked to be in a film with Keanu Reeves called "Thumbsucker." We were told to dress for October weather. When we arrived on the set at 7 am, we stretched and waited for instructions. I wore Lolita heart-shaped sunglasses, thinking I might be a little more conspicuous in the film. Keanu Reeves emerged from his trailer, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. The people in my group burst into applause and I imitated them, but with less enthusiasm. I liked Keanu Reeves in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," but I fell asleep during "The Matrix," and I usually need a reason to applaud.

"I hope you're all having a thumb-sucking good time," Keanu Reeves said.

We all laughed, as if he had said something funny, but maybe we were just surprised to hear his actual voice. I took in Keanu Reeves' bedraggled appearance. His shoulder-length hair looked greasy, his skin looked sickly, and his face and physique looked haggard. I wasn't expecting him to be wearing a tuxedo, but I expected him to look presentable. This is why I would hate to be famous. People expect celebrities to look good all the time.

Keanu Reeves said, "I don't know how to run," and a couple guys in the group showed him the proper form. I watched him pump his arms, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. As he lumbered along, wheezing with every step, it was hard to believe he was ever in a movie called "Speed."

For the scene, we all had to run uphill across a finish line and let Keanu Reeves beat us. Spectators cheered from the sidelines. After hours of running in the heat, the people in my group were growing bitter and a rumor circulated about how those extras were getting paid. Hmph! We grumbled about how we weren't getting anything for our trouble, and we were doing real work.

Getting defeated by Keanu Reeves repeatedly started to wear on me. He ran so slowly and was so unconvincing as an athlete, I was skeptical as to whether this scene would even be used in the movie. The sunlight was shifting and I thought, unless some camera tricks were applied, this day would not pass for a day in October.

I blamed Keanu for the length of time it took to film the scene. Every time I saw him getting sprayed with fake sweat, my anger swelled. After crossing the finish line, we would have to run back to the starting point while Keanu Reeves was driven back in a car. After a few hours I snapped. I ran as fast as I could, trying to catch up with Keanu Reeves. I passed everyone I was supposed to stay behind. I was gaining on him, but he still passed the finish line before me. He knelt down and did a victorious elbow jab, hitting me right in the boob. I rubbed my boob and looked at him aghast, and he just stared blankly at me. I ran back to the starting point and did the scene again. Nobody said anything to me about running too fast. I think everyone had stopped caring and just wanted to go home.

During dinner with friends last night, the conversation somehow transitioned from tornadoes to celebrities. One girl said, "I haven't met any famous people."

"I've met a few famous people," I said. "I met Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Hitchens and Julia Sweeney, the woman who played Pat on Saturday Night Live." Then I suddenly remembered, "Oh yeah, and Keanu Reeves elbowed me in the boob once."