Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just Kids

Patti Smith's parents worried she wasn't pretty enough to snag a husband. They encouraged her to become a teacher so she would have security. Instead, she moved to New York. She struggled, starved, occasionally stole and had the most amazing experiences, all of which are presented in this highly readable memoir. Smith fell in love with artist Robert Mapplethorpe after they were both attracted to the same violet Persian necklace on display in a shop. Patti couldn't afford it, and when Robert bought it, she told him, "Promise you won't give it to any girl but me." What ensued was a passionate friendship where they lived together, collaborated on art, supported each other through hard times and evolved as individuals, blazing their own trails and soaring from poverty to fame. This is one of the most amazing books I've ever read. "Just Kids" gives a historical look at New York and Paris in the 60's and is a testament to the importance of art in advancing civilization. Patti Smith honors all the artists she admired. She gives Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud special recognition, like ornaments on a mantel above her own fire. Her love and appreciation of art is the Miracle-Gro she needed to create her own art and music.

To be an artist, you need more than a room of your own and some money, contrary to what Virginia Woolf believed. You need love, inspiration, support and excitement. A room of your own and some money is like giving a farmer 500 acres of infertile land.

Recently, in The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen faulted the great American novelist Edith Wharton for not being pretty. In "Just Kids," Patti Smith doesn't bemoan her plain looks and gangly physique. Even when Alan Ginsberg hit on her, thinking she was a boy, she never became preoccupied with her looks. She wrote about other people trying to turn her looks into a disadvantage because it shows the time she was living in. But other people's limiting beliefs did not hold her back from fulfilling her potential as an artist. With almost no money and moving around like a vagabond, Patti Smith knew what she wanted for herself and achieved it. I know in the future more and more people will give female artists the recognition they deserve and there will be fewer superficial idiots criticizing their looks. Reading this book and seeing the world through Patti Smith's eyes for 300 pages served as a filter, ridding my mind of all shallow judgment and reminding myself of what's really important -- art and love.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Welcome/Going Away Party

Three of my friends are leaving. My friends have been the best part of coming to Korea and I know I’ll stay in touch with many of them and possibly meet up in other countries. One friend who is leaving soon asked me to organize a welcome/going away party because I’m fairly well-connected in this little town. 

Because my friends are from all over, I feel well-connected, not only in the town, but in the world. I invited all the nice people I know to a Vietnamese restaurant last night and I was pleased to see that all but a few of them were able to come on such short notice. The woman we welcomed is brand new to Korea and I was a little worried she might feel discouraged after hearing stories from a few teachers. But her school is one of the best, so hopefully, some horror stories over dinner didn’t scare her too much.

My friend, who is 5-months pregnant, works at the worst school imaginable and although I will miss her, I’m glad to see her go back to Australia, just for her own well-being. The school is called Wonderland and I mention the name so that, hopefully, this post will come up in searches and other teachers won’t make the same mistake of working there. The staff is verbally abusive and won’t pay English teachers for months at a time. The fact that my friend is pregnant out of wedlock brings even more of their ugliness to the surface. They don’t try to hide their disapproval or even pretend to be supportive. Instead, teachers yell at her in the bathroom doorway when she has morning sickness and continue to make ridiculous demands, such as telling her she must stay in Korea and not go to Australia to have her baby. My friend was informed by her Korean co-workers that several parents have pulled their children out of the school because an unmarried pregnant woman is a bad influence on children.

Anyway, if that story made any readers throw up, I apologize. Going out last night with all my friends gave everyone the opportunity to meet nice people and forget their frustrations. I first had some friends over for red wine, homemade chocolate cupcakes and Ella Fitzgerald music at my apartment. The Vietnamese food last night was exquisite, as was the strawberry-flavored hookah that followed.
Tonight a friend will stop by my apartment for knitting and watching movies. I think I might suggest we watch “Lost in Translation,” a movie about Westerners feeling frustrated in an Asian country. When I first saw the movie, I wondered how anybody could be interested in watching a movie that seemed to be about jetlag. Now I get it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Maus II

For his enduring love of his wife, Vladek earned my respect, but his faults are numerous. He's not depicted as an angel by any stretch of the imagination. He is racist, manipulative, and at times unbearably rude to those who try their best to tolerate him. I wish the mother's experience could have been included in this book because I am currently writing a book about a 14-year-old girl's survival at Auschwitz. I know the mother's experience would have been more similar to my character's. Writing about hideous acts fuelled by racism is a huge challenge. The racist characters I've read in Faulkner's stories are cretins, if I recall, but the villains I'm describing are more cultured. They have rationale behind their racist ideology, which makes them more complicated and contradictory. Last week I read an anti-Semitic blog for hours, trying to get an idea of why some Norwegian blogger felt compelled to dedicate a whole blog to his hatred of Jews, but he didn't give any personal stories. The blog gave me some good ideas, and I'm glad I read most of the entries in one sitting, because now I can't find the blog again. I keep running into racist people and I am usually quiet when I am confronted with such a person. My most recent encounter gave me some good practice for speaking up when I'm uncomfortable because I couldn't not say anything. I'm going off topic. This was really supposed to be a book review but now I want to tell a story. The story is called: 

Oh, the racists I meet.

This man seemed intelligent, and I suppose he was. I met him at a coffee shop. He was reading a philosophy book. He told me he was from Connecticut, so my mind associated Connecticut with Yale. Then he told me he lived in Boston for several years, so my mind associated Boston with Harvard and M.I.T., even though he did not go to any of these schools. When I met up with him for dinner, he told me about the book he's writing, titled "Confessions of a Racist," which he conceived while working in the Peace Corps in Namibia. He is not trying to reform and he's very satisfied with the superiority he believes his whiteness and his xy chromosomes give him. 

We sat on the floor at a low table and waited for his friend to join us. When his friend, a man I'd met earlier at the coffee shop and nicknamed "Swastika guy" showed up, I knew I was in for an interesting evening. I had nicknamed him "Swastika guy" after he showed me his paintings of colorful swastikas. I asked him if it was the Buddhist symbol or the Nazi symbol, and he said something about there being too many negative connotations with swastikas, so he wanted to make them pretty. 

Over dinner, they talked about electronic music and other boring topics. I wish I had something more interesting to report, but the dinner was boring. 

Later, I told the female group members of my writing group and they thought it was pretty funny. Horrifying, but funny. According to one of the members, Swastika guy occasionally goes to one of the bars English teachers frequent and hovers over the iTunes library, not letting anyone else play a song. I had heard a story months ago about a man hitting a woman for trying to play a song. Now I can put a face to the crazy violent guy in the story and say I even had dinner with him. I never met the woman who got punched and I never asked what color her skin was. 

After my contract is over, I'll go someplace else in the world and probably meet all new racists. I'll try to avoid them, but considering my record, I think I'll have more bizarre and uncomfortable conversations to look forward to.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Love Day

My year in Korea has been a healing experience. I came here brokenhearted, but despite coming to a very unromantic country, I have recovered and I'm in better shape emotionally than I was one year ago. The more time passes, the more my old relationship crosses into cliche territory. 

This Valentine's Day, I'm thankful for singlehood. Dates have been fun but people don't stay in one place long enough for anything substantial to form. I've made new friends from all over the world and said good-bye way too many times, but it's always good to make connections with people, even if our time together was brief. 

A Korean friend told me she wants to date an American man because, judging from movies, American men are very romantic. She told me she imagines dating a man like Jerry Maguire, a man who will say things like, "You complete me."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gee Whiz. Reminiscing about the old boxing gym.

I miss the sport and the regulars at the gym. Chuck, my old boxing coach, was a smooth-talking, strict and brutally honest man. He used to stand by me while I pummeled the heavy bag. He would glare at me if he caught my arm sagging in a vulnerable position or he would kick the sides of my shoes to knock me off balance. As much as he found fault in my performance, he also praised me for being a ferocious fighter and daydreamed about me being a famous boxer someday. He told me stories about growing up in the 30's in Texas, fearing terrorism from white neighbors. He grew up to become a boxer who worked with some of the greats.

These stories were invaluable history lessons. I respected him and I respected the sport he loved so much. Boxing was built into him. Sneaking up on him was an interesting, possibly dangerous experiment, as his fists would fly up and he would immediately assume his fighter's stance.

If I hear music that we used to play during my workouts, I'm taken back to the gym. Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Howlin' Wolf, and the Staple Singers all make me terribly sentimental. I just learned that Don Cornelius, the host of the show "Soul Train," passed away. Watching youtube videos of "Soul Train" is a kind of portal to the past for me, not to the 1970s (I wasn't alive then) but back to my teenage years, when that music played in the background as I sparred and shadowboxed.

Whenever the song "Gee Whiz," by Carla Thomas, played, Chuck used to turn the volume up for me. I was infatuated with a certain man who lived in Seattle and Chuck knew it. He supported my boy-craziness on one condition -- as long I stayed tough.

Friday, February 3, 2012


After reading Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road," I've pondered my ability to survive extreme circumstances and I've felt confident, based on irrelevant aspects of my character, such as my eschewing of cardboard sleeves for my coffee and dismissal of unnecessary utensils. For example, while eating pizza, I might think my chances of survival are superior to my friends' because I’m holding my slice in my hands instead of eating with a knife and fork. When smothering a piece of bread with a packet of butter, I might silently judge the person sitting across from me who is delicately patting his butter with a knife. Then when I analyze my empty reasoning, I realize that the Apocalypse would create more grilling tests of human survival than a surplus of bread and butter packets and an absence of knives.

This hyper-confidence I’m sure has something to do with being American, as well as just being a naturally competitive person. I don’t recognize this hubris in any Koreans I meet or see it at the same level in other foreign English teachers. I’m glad I possess this ability to leap to such great heights of imagined heroism, even though I can at times be out of touch. My self-reliance and stubbornness can create problems, such as suffering through menstrual cramps and headaches when I can simply take a pain pill and feel better. Bearing the pain only elevates my confidence until I start imagining myself as a medieval knight on a horse wielding a lance and charging after some frightened opponent. When I wake up I will sometimes start my day by reciting some inspirational quote about perseverance meant to motivate a country to go to war, not to motivate me to draw cartoon sharks and dinosaurs, but that’s how I like to start my day.