Monthly Archives: August 2013

Life Really Sucks Sometimes or; The Parting Glass

Well, I woke up early this morning to the news that my grandpa passed away around noon central time.  It seems like he probably had a stroke and passed not too long after.  My uncle and aunt were there with him, which is a blessing.  Like my grandmother, he lived a long life – 90 years, with almost no real health problems.  He did pretty much everything he wanted to do, and he always lived a comfortable life.

Grandpa served for three years in World War II.  He was an engineer in charge of explosives for his unit, which was part of the 14th Armored Division, “the Liberators.” He landed in Marseille, drove up through France, was part of the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and was on the third truck that drove through the gates of Dachau.  I remember him telling me how the commandant’s wife had a penchant for lampshades made of human skin.  He told me that when they took the camp, she came out of the commandant’s house, screaming at them in German.  One of the guys in the unit spoke German, and he yelled at her to shut the fuck up or take a bullet between the eyes.  I guess she shut up.  He had pictures of Dachau that his friend from The Stars and Stripes developed for him, but in the night, someone burned down his friend’s portable darkroom.  Grandpa’s camera went missing that night, along with the pictures and all the negatives.  He guessed someone didn’t want the pictures of those prisoners getting out, as his friend wanted them for Stars and Stripes.  My grandpa fulfilled his obligation to his country, and he fulfilled it honorably.  I will always think highly of him for that.  He saw a lot of horrible things, and he told me about a lot of them.  It was truly a privilege to have heard of his experiences first-hand.

Probably more than just about anything else, my grandpa loved to hunt and fish.  He spent a lot of time in Canada and Minnesota over the years.  He hunted just about anything that moved – moose, deer, rabbit, squirrel, quail, doves, rattlesnakes, and bear.  Yes, we have deer and moose heads hanging around.  The moose is named Old Jerome.  He had a bearskin rug that he gave to my cousin, but I think Ike put it into storage when the claws started falling off.  That bear’s been dead a spell.

I remember my grandma telling me a story about how Grandpa and his friend Hank disappeared into the Boundary Waters for several weeks.  They were supposed to be gone for about two, but when Grandpa never came home, Grandma sent the Mounties after him, figuring something had happened.  But he just showed up something like a week and a half late.  They’d just decided to stay and, since there are obviously no phones in the backcountry, he couldn’t call.  Grandma was mad about that one, and she was pretty tolerant of the fact that he was absentee every year during hunting season.

Grandpa taught me a lot of things over the years.  Don’t take crap off of people.  Play your hand close to your chest.  Whiskey makes everything better.  (He never said that but frankly, it was implied.)  There’s nothing wrong with eating squirrel meat.  Every once in awhile, even a blind sow finds an acorn.  Enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.  You’ll never understand the Oriental mind (direct quote).  My grandpa had a lot of wise words for me over the years, but I guess the main thing I probably took away from him was that I shouldn’t be stupid, and that I needed to look after my own interests, since nobody else was going to do that for me.

Like my grandma was my mom, my grandpa was my dad.  I’m not surprised at his passing, since Grandma’s death really took it out of him.  September 6th would’ve been their 70th wedding anniversary, and they were together in high school, too.  That’s a long time, friends and neighbors.  It’s not unusual for people who have been together that long to pass away close together – sometimes even within days.  So no, I’m not surprised.

But I’m going to miss them.  God, will I ever.  I know it’s ridiculous to say this, but I feel a bit like an orphan, even though I’m nearly 30 years old.  My parents are both gone, and now the people who raised me are  gone.  I have my own family now, but somehow, knowing that my grandparents were still at home, that made it seem like home was always there.  That’s no longer true.  The house is there, but it’s not home – not without them in it.

I can hear Grandpa coming in the back door from work almost like it was yesterday.  You always knew he was home because he had this cough – almost everyone in our family does.  I’m not sure if it’s because we’re all former smokers or if it’s just an obnoxious habit.  Maybe both.  That at the Suburban door slamming – that was how you knew he was home.  He’d come through the back door, and in the winter he’d put his cold hands on our necks.  He never minded the cold.  He’d sit in his chair and read all day on Saturday sometimes.  He ran the TV so loud that you’d think he wanted the neighbors to hear.  In truth, he only had about 15% of his hearing even when I was in junior high, a result of the shelling in the war and the fact that he never wore earplugs when he went hunting.  He mostly read lips in his later years, I think.

We were planning on leaving soon anyway, but the days are numbered now for certain.  I know that we won’t make it for the funeral (again), since we have too much to finish up here, but… I’m angry at myself for staying as long as I have in a country for which I have little but contempt.  I can’t figure out why we’ve stayed for a job my husband hates.  We should have gone a long time ago.  It’s just hard not to be mad at myself for not leaving and annoyed that he couldn’t have hung on until October.  We had it mostly worked out.  I really thought I was going to get to see Grandpa again and have another glass of whiskey with him before it was all said and done.  But alas, it was not to be.  Homecoming, at this point, is going to be a bittersweet affair, at best.

I guess my parting thought for the day is that if you have your parents and you’re on decent terms with them, give them a call.  See how they’re doing.  Be thankful that you still have them.


Hacking Your Lungs Out

Does anyone else remember when Homestarrunner was the big thing?  I remember checking that site every few days to see if there was a new Strongbad email or a Teen Girl Squad cartoon.  The Cheat Commandos were one of my favorites.  There was one that featured “Commandos in the Classroom,” and their grand advice to keep others from cheating off of you was to tell them that you had some sort of debilitating Gold Rush-era disease.  I found this incredibly entertaining.  Dysentery and cholera are a hoot, right?  Well, unless it kills half your family on Oregon Trail.

Fast forward about ten years.  Homestarrunner has been pretty much defunct since 2010, and I have a kid.  Gold Rush-era diseases are slightly less entertaining when you’re trying to prevent your human germ bag from contracting one or all of them.  Seriously, kids are dirty.  Colds and flu are the norm, especially if your kids go to daycare.  Thank God, our little lady has only been sick once, it was incredibly short-lived, and the biggest side effect was a mild fever and sleepiness.  Sleepiness is awesome, in case you were curious.  It didn’t last.  Actually, she tried to stick her finger in a light socket just now.  Yes, we have socket guards, and yes, kids come out with a death wish.  Maybe Freud was right…

Of course, there are bigger, badder diseases than the common cold and chicken pox.  Most kids get vaccinated for about a million different diseases, including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella (the MMR), tetanus, and even chicken pox now.  Man, when I was growing up, chicken pox was just part of growing up.  It went around twice in my class, once in kindergarten and again in third grade, which is when I had it.  I remember my aunt sending my cousins over to play with me.  That was how it worked back then: when one kid got the chicken pox, they suddenly had a shocking number of play dates, regardless of how unpopular they were normally.   I guess this isn’t a thing anymore.

My husband and I haven’t vaccinated our daughter.  No, I don’t want to hear your opinion about how we’re damaging herd immunity or dooming our child to a horrible, Gold Rush-era death.  I really don’t.  Like, I will not post comments giving me grief about this decision.  Seriously.  We made a decision based on research and on the experiences of others.  Vaccination can be and is dangerous for some.  Introducing foreign substances into one’s body, especially when they include toxins and RNA from other humans and animals, can potentially produce unknown and unwanted effects.  This is known.  (Side note: I feel like I just kind of inadvertently quoted Game of Thrones.  “It is known, khaleesi.”  God, I have to stop reading those books and watching that damn show.)  It’s on the warnings issued by the drug manufacturers.  Nobody knows who is going to react badly.  It’s something you risk when you take vaccines.  That’s just the long and short of it.  We decided that, should we vaccinate our daughter, we will wait until she’s older and has had time to develop her own immune system.  In the meantime, we have kept her home with me and not in daycare.  We don’t let sick people around her.  Actually, we don’t really let anyone else play with her.  That’s harder than it sounds in Korea.  An old ajumma in our complex opened our car door and tried to remove the baby from her carseat one day – without asking permission.  Who the hell does that?!  Koreans seem to really like kids, as a general rule, which is cool, but the older people particularly seem to think kids are public property.  Not so, people.  Not so.

BUT.  But.  Coming back around to those debilitating diseases, I was doing some additional research today after reading something on a Facebook forum, and I found out some rather interesting, even disturbing news.  Did you know that Korea has the highest rate of tuberculosis (TB) in the OECD?  Yeah, neither did I.  There are something like 40,000 reported cases of this every year in Korea.  I mean, really?  TB is something you think of as being prevalent in places like India or sub-Saharan Africa.  But no.  Korea: tuberculosis haven.  North Korea is even worse and has reported strains of multi-drug resistant TB.  Good luck curing that shit.

Korean kids do get vaccinated for TB.  It’s called the BCG shot, and it results in those nine-hole grid scars that you see on kids around here.  Japan has been using this method for about 30 years, and Korea latched on about 20 years ago.  The older version of the vaccine left a big, bullet-sized scar not completely dissimilar to the scar left behind by the old smallpox vaccine.  It’s pretty brutal looking.  That said, the BCG vaccine doesn’t prevent all forms of TB, and I think it’s only effective within a certain time frame.  If someone has better info – I’m too lazy to go look again right now – you can correct me, but I think the vaccine has lost efficacy by adulthood.  This is quite common for vaccines, it seems like.

The problem now isn’t so much with the younger generation; it’s with the old folks.  As most of you know, Korea was pretty much a Third World country prior to, during, and after the Korean War.  A lot of people became infected during that era, and the result is that a bulk of the old people in this country are carriers of TB, even if they’ve never developed an active version of the disease.  Of course, the disease can activate later in life and does, in some cases.  It’s made worse by smoking and drinking…  Anyway, I read an article that essentially stated that Korea’s TB rates won’t decline until the older generation dies off.  Whether that means they account for the bulk of cases, they infect other people even as carriers who don’t actively have the disease, or both, the problem seems to be with the older generation.

The thing that sort of worries me about that is the propensity of the older people to hork and spit.  Don’t tell me they don’t do it.  They do.  Constantly.  There is a guy upstairs who can’t even approach the stairwell without bringing up a lung biscuit.  You can call me paranoid, but I’m never going to hear someone spit like that now without wondering if they’re TB carriers or even if they have active TB.  Statistically, one in three people in Korea are carriers.  Think about that.  That means that every third person you pass in the street could be a carrier.  I think the carrier rate in the US is less than 10%.

In fairness to Korea, the reason the TB rate is so high is because the country was so damn dirty years ago.  TB is a disease that comes from filth, as are most infectious diseases.  Countries that have high standards of cleanliness and healthcare don’t tend to have these problems, but cleanliness seems to be the defining factor, more than anything else.  The thing is, I still don’t consider Korea to be a clean country.

Don’t agree with me?  There are no trash cans.  Oh, okay, there are some in the big parks in Changwon, but they’re relatively few and far between.  There are certainly none on the sidewalks, and people just throw their trash wherever.  Everyone spits, and this is especially true of men over a certain age, but I’ve seen women and kids do it, too.  I would imagine that has something to do with the prevalence of Hep B here, but I digress.  Our apartment complex has no dumpsters; people have to just throw their trash bags in designated spots in the yard, and those are right next to the car park.  Our bathroom has a gray water drain that takes literally hours to empty the shower water during the rainy season because the drains back up.  Spiders, mosquitoes, and rats have all come out of those drains.  I have yet to encounter a Korean apartment that didn’t have some sort of mold problem.  Maybe the newer ones don’t, but I haven’t been inside many of them – not long enough to evaluate the mold problems, if any.  The bottom line is that Korea isn’t as clean as the North America, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or any other developed country I’ve been to.  Europe has old infrastructure, but it’s far cleaner than Korea.

If we weren’t leaving Korea sometime in October, I would strongly consider getting my kid vaccinated for TB.  I was just honestly shocked to learn that the rate of infection and carriers is so damn high here.  Do you remember the chest X-ray that you typically get when you get that good old E-2 visa health check?  I always heard that was for TB (disabuse me of this notion, if I’m wrong), but knowing what I know now, I find it rather ironic that Korea feels the need to test people from countries with negligible TB rates because they fear that we’re going to infect their citizens when the opposite is more probable.

Anyway, I’m not sharing this to bash Korea or to push any sort of vaccination agenda one way or the other, but I was legitimately surprised by my findings.  Still, it doesn’t paint the rosiest picture of Korea, does it?  Highest TB rate in the OECD, highest numbers of fatal car accidents in the OECD (or it was), and the most suicides per diem in the world, excepting Lithuania, I think.  It’s just one more reason I feel the need to get out.  The US has a lot of faults, but a high TB rate is not one of them.  And actually, I’ve never seen an open gray water drain in a bathroom at home, either.  Oh, how I long for a real bathroom, one that less closely resembles the Hellmouth.  Also an oven.  Good God.  An oven.  One that you can fit a 25-pound Thanksgiving Turkey in.

In slightly related health news, I ran across an article yesterday on the expat parents forum that I belong to on Facebook.  I thought I’d share it, since the family still needs help.  There is a former teacher from Gyeonggi-do named Sean Jones who suddenly and unexpectedly developed a rare form of encephalitis caused by an autoimmune disorder.  The disease is debilitating in the extreme and causes hallucinations and psychotic behavior.  There have only been a few hundred reported cases in the entire world.  This guy has basically lost three months of his life and has dropped from about 185 pounds to around 90.

The twist is that Yonsei Severance Hospital has stopped treatment for him because he racked up a bill equivalent to about $40,000 USD – a bill he was no longer able to pay.  He no longer has insurance, since his boss fired him.  He developed bed sores after the hospital stopped caring for him, and his mom has been here since early July to be his bedside nurse.

The US Embassy has arranged a flight for him for September 4th, and a professional carer will fly with him back to Indianapolis, where treatment has been arranged at one of the university hospitals – I’d guess Bloomington, maybe.  The second twist is that the hospital has threatened to block his exit from the country until the bill is paid.  Another article I read indicated that maybe the hospital is rethinking that, since the family is fundraising (successfully) to get money to pay down the bill, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also because the media has gotten hold of the story.  I just wondered if they can actually do that.  I know the Korean government can detain you at the airport, but can a hospital seriously put a block on your passport?  Can companies in the US do that?

Anyway, there’s no much in the article beyond what I’ve written here, but this story was disheartening to me.  I know that health care is a fucking mess at home, but at least hospitals can’t refuse you treatment, if you’re in really bad condition like this guy is.  Yonsei is supposed to be one of the top hospitals in the country, and it seems like a real fail that they haven’t done better by this guy.  I’m sort of shocked that he isn’t dead, to be perfectly frank.  The comparison pictures are stunning.  I find it rather inhumane that doctors would refuse to treat someone in such dire condition.  It makes you wonder how seriously they take that oath to help people…  But before anyone accuses me of bashing Korea, again, I know the US has serious problems with its health care system.  I know.  Believe me.  But this guy will be getting free healthcare when he goes home.  Just saying.

The whole scenario kind of drives home how ultimately precarious the situation can potentially be for English teachers here.  When everything’s going fine, it’s great – easy job, decent healthcare, free apartment, and few responsibilities.  However, when anything goes wrong, it can turn ugly fast.  I’ve had friends get sick or injured over here, and it ain’t pretty.  If you have any legal disputes with your hagwon, well, in my experience, it’s pretty hard to get much in the way of help from the Labor Board.  Hell, the Labor Board gave me false information about maternity leave.

Foreigners always have a harder time than natives, regardless of what country they live in, but sometimes I feel like Korea is worse than boston this count.  I didn’t have these problems in Germany, and I never heard about anyone else having them, either.  Don’t get me wrong, Germany was far from perfect, but I never felt that there was a possibility of being left to rot in a hospital or anything like that.  Maybe I too young and stupid to think of things like that.  Whatever the case, I think it’s hard to ignore the fact that foreigners don’t enjoy the same protections that native Koreans do.  You’re basically at the mercy of your boss and his/her goodwill – something my husband and I have found over and over again.  In a country where contracts aren’t worth much and the locals don’t seem to do well handling cases outside the norm, it’s not an encouraging scenario.

Anyway, give the original article a read here at The Korea Herald, if you get a moment.  The family is running a fundraiser on, and I think his mother is accepting donations directly into his Korean bank account.  I hope things turn out okay for this guy and he can bust out of Yonsei without the administration kicking up too much or blocking his passport or whatever.  Take care of yourselves, people.



I was telling my husband about my findings related to TB, and he reminded me of something we saw last year that I had completely forgotten about.  We were driving around last summer, looking for a bit of seashore near Masan where we might dip our feet into the water.  We never found such a place that was clean enough for a swim, but we did find a tuberculosis sanatorium.  No shit.  It’s right outside of Wolyeong Dong, on the way down to Gapo, the little village that’s just past the city limits.

We saw it, and I pointed it out.  It sits up on a hill by itself, and the title is written in Korean and English.  It said “tuberculosis hospital” or some such, and I said something to my husband like, “Is that a TB sanatorium?  Surely not!  I haven’t seen one of those… ever!  The only one I can even think of in the US is the old Waverly Hills place that you see on all those crappy ghost hunting shows.”  There was one in my hometown, and it wasn’t that far from my house actually, but it’s been gone since the Sixties, at least.

My husband, for his part, disagreed with me.  “It wouldn’t be there for no reason.  It must be what it says it is.”  I still had a hard time believing that we had a TB hospital around here.  I couldn’t really imagine that there were enough confirmed cases of it to warrant TB-specific hospitals.

Well, friends and neighbors, I think I was wrong.  We have a TB hospital outside Masan.  I guess if I get consumption, I’ll know where to go.  I’m kind of tempted to drive out there and look again, just to confirm that it’s actually a treatment center.

Clay Pigeons

Ah, another day, another morning where the baby has woken me up at the crack of dawn and I can’t get back to sleep.  Go me.  I know I just did a music post like a month or two ago, but this has really been a summer of seeking out new music for me.  I’ve made a few pretty good finds, and some I’m honestly amazed that I didn’t know about before.   Here are my new Indian summer music picks – enjoy!

Blaze Foley – “Clay Pigeons”

Blaze Foley, or Michael David Fuller, was a Texas singer-songwriter who, like a lot of my favorite musicians, never really got the recognition he deserved.  He was friends with Townes Van Zandt (!), and he hung around dive bars in Austin, a town long known for its excellent music scene.  He lived like a pauper, and he has been alternately described as a gentle, humorous soul and, frankly, kind of an ass.  He lived like a pauper, had a strange obsession with duct tape, and to the best of my knowledge, only recorded two albums – one live at the Austin Outhouse and another in a studio.  Both are extremely hard to find.   These days, your best bet for a legitimate Blaze Foley album lies with Fat Possum Records (brilliant label and home to the Black Keys – never listened to an artist from them that I didn’t like).  They got hold of some old reel-to-reel tapes found in an old closet from his early years, and the album is called The Dawg Years, a nod to the days when Blaze used the name Depty Dawg (I’ve read Dusty Dawg, too).  Blaze died at the age of 39, shot to death trying to defend an elderly friend.

His finger style is clearly reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt, who was probably his greatest influence.  There are definitely worse influences to have, musically speaking.  They chummed around together, part of a set of hard-living artistes who flaunted the fact that they weren’t mainstream.  Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard did a cover of his song “If Only I Could Fly,” however, and to the best of my knowledge, that was the only song he ever received royalties for.  He never achieved any fame within his lifetime, and he’s undeniably better known now, more than 20 years after his death.

If, like me, you have a serious hard-on for drunk, morose folk singers who effectively spent a good portion of their productive years looking for their own demise, you’ll like Blaze.  Any fan of Townes should definitely be listening to Blaze, too.  His catalogue of recorded music is painfully sparse, but YouTube has a fairly decent selection of his works.  “Clay Pigeons” is probably his best-known song now, but I might also recommend “Moonlight Song” or “If I Could Only Fly” as good starting points.

The Dogbones – “All Your Friends (Are Going to Kill You)”

I’m still hung up on Queenadreena.  It still pains me that they’re likely never going to get back together or record another album.  Katie-Jane Garside and Crispin Gray have both moved on to new projects – KJG to Ruby Throat and Crispin to this band called The Dogbones.  Now don’t get me wrong – I adore KJG, and she has been my girl-crush for years.  I heartily enjoy Ruby Throat, but Queenadreena will always be my jam.  I prefer Katie when she’s writhing around on stage and alternating between cooing and screaming.  Alas, those days are no more, it would seem.

BUT.  But.  Crispin’s new band with this girl called Nomi has proven to be a reasonably acceptable replacement.  Nomi’s vocal stylings are reminiscent of Katie, at least as far the screaming goes.  Crispin has a very distinctive guitar style as well, and it’s evident here.  The result is that The Dogbones sound a lot like Queenadreena, at points, and that makes me happy.

No, the lyrics aren’t nearly as good as KJG’s, but if you like that sort of thrashing, manic, semi-punk sound, this band will do it.  They have a self-titled album out, but I haven’t really found any additional songs of theirs, so I think their catalogue is still a bit bare, but I don’t think they’ve been together all that long.  Anyway, I like them, and they do a little bit to fill my Queenadreena void.

Oh, and if you have epilepsy or get car sick, you might want to look away from the video.  It’s very herky-jerky.  Seriously, it gave me a mild headache.

Gurf Morlix – “Voice of Midnight”

This guy’s name cracks me up.  He’s another grossly overlooked country/folk singer-songwriter.  Stop judging me for liking these guys.  Gurf isn’t nearly as tortured as Blaze and Townes.  He actually played mostly in bands, I think, as far as his recorded works go, and he’s only recently started doing more solo things.  Feel free to correct me on that, if I’m wrong.  He was friends with Blaze, and I think he probably knew Townes and the rest of that crew, too.  His voice is rough as hell, but I really like a lot of the stuff that he’s written.

Anyway, Gurf wrote this song for a couple he knew, which he explains at the beginning of the video.  If you want to skip his chit-chat, go to 1:07 on the video to hear the song alone.

Jucifer – “Sea Blind” 

Jucifer is kind of an old favorite of mine.  It doesn’t feel like I’ve been listening to them for going on 10 years, but I have.  They’ve got a pretty decent catalogue going now, which wasn’t so true when I first started listening to them at the suggestion of a friend of mine.  They’re probably the only “metal” band that I really like, and it’s one of my musical regrets that I didn’t go see them when they came through Columbia when I was a super senior, but I was in one of my moods, and I was all, “Oh, I can’t be fucked to hear some shitty metal band, all those people touching me – fuck that!”  So I missed the concert, and… It would’ve been awesome.  Amber Valentine is a beast on stage.

The band only has two members, Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood, a husband and wife duo with him on drums and she on guitars.  I guess you could count the wall of amps and speakers as a third band member.  From what I understand, their live shows are not much like their studio albums, and “auditory onslaught” might be an appropriate description for a Jucifer concert.  Maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t go.  My hearing is shot to shit, anyway.

This song is from my favorite album of theirs, I Name You Destroyer.  Last time I checked with my friend, she still liked their first album best, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip.  “Sea Blind” was my one of my anthems for quite a while.  It resonated with me.  I guess it reminded me of myself, at various points in my young adult life.  Anyway, I would also recommend “Lucky Ones Burn” as a good starter song.

Mike Doughty – “I Hear the Bells” & “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well”

I got acquainted with Mike Doughty when I was back at my old summer camp, working as a counselor.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not generally a “jam band” person.  Dave Matthews can kiss my ass.  I put Mike Doughty solidly into the jam band category, but he’s not bad.  Actually, I rather like some of his stuff.  Not all of it.  But when he gets it right, his songs sound like they should be the title songs or maybe the credit songs for movies.  The one that got me started was “I Hear the Bells.”  A couple of the girls I was a leadership with used to get up and sing it.  I loved it immediately.  It’s a fantastic song.  Apparently it was on Veronica Mars.  I don’t know anything about that, since I don’t really watch TV.

Both of these songs are off of the album Haughty Melodic.  I’ve never listened to another Doughty album and don’t have any plans to.  It’s generally a good album, but it definitely has a few standout songs that kick the rest of the album’s ass.  That’s not uncommon, but the mediocre songs don’t keep my attention.

Nine Inch Nails – “A Warm Place”

I read part of an interview with Trent Reznor the other day recording NIN’s new album.  I haven’t liked a thing I’ve heard off of it so far, but damn, don’t you remember when NIN was amazing and Trent Reznor was the poster boy for depressed, skinny white boys who couldn’t get laid?  I do.  I miss those days.

I maintain that Pretty Hate Machine was NIN’s best album, but The Downward Spiral was pretty kick-ass, too.  “Closer” was the first NIN song I ever heard, but I think the first song of theirs that I got into was “The Perfect Drug,” which was featured on the Lost Highway soundtrack.  That’s a great movie, by the way – David Lynch at his finest/weirdest.  I was a freshman in high school, and I thought Patricia Arquette was one of the most beautiful women in the world.  Anyway, I think the days of that particular incarnation of Nine Inch Nails is gone.  But, you know, in fairness, Trent Reznor is 48 years old now.  It would be a little bit silly to expect him to be writing the same stuff at 48 that he was at 25.

Regardless of how you feel about the old or new NIN, you have to admit that The Downward Spiral still stands the test of time as a fine album.  “A Warm Place” is probably my favorite song from the album.  I know this will sound like canned cheese, but it honestly reminds me of teenage angst.  And really, isn’t that how it should be, if you were young when this album dropped?  Also, if you’re like me and you were young when NIN was still the thing, doesn’t that make you feel fucking old?  Damn.  That album will be 20 years old next year, I think.  I’m not going to lie – that kind of bothered me when I realized it.  That’s the kind of thing that makes you realize that someday, you’re going to wake up, and your kids (if, like me, you have them) are going to say something young and arrogant like, “Gawd Mawm, you remember when Trent Reznor was hot?!”  It’ll be like how I feel about my aunt and Mick Jagger.  Except he was never hot. 

Ani DiFranco – “When You Were Mine (ft. Maceo Parker)”

I’ve never been a Prince fan.  The honest truth is that I wouldn’t know a Prince song if I heard it.  I only realized that this was Prince because of the “purple man” reference.  Ani must have been in Minneapolis/St. Paul when she did this cover.  For the record, I have no idea who Maceo Parker is, except that he plays the sax on this cover.

It’s a grand song.  I listened to the Prince version after I heard it, and Ani’s version is about 80 times better.  Mitch Ryder has a version that I also think is better than the original.  Like I said, never been a Prince fan.  I guess I missed that craze.

Sage Francis – “The Best of Times”

I got this song from my friend, Dave.  I wouldn’t really call it a song, as such – it’s more like spoken word set to music, sort of like Andrea Gibson’s album stuff.  If you were ever a fat, picked-on kid in school, or if you ever just sort of hated being a kid, this is a fantastic song.  It’s fantastic anyway, but it definitely speaks to all the losers and misfits out there.

Yann Tiersen – “Goodbye, Lenin”

Yann Tiersen is a fabulous composer – grossly overlooked by Americans.  I would imagine that the soundtrack for Amelie is his best known work on our shores.  However, every good Germanophile out there should recognize this song from the movie of the same name, Goodbye, Lenin!  It plays at the climax of the movie, which is really quite moving.

The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bird Song” 

The Wailin’ Jennys came on recommendation from another friend of mine.  I haven’t come close to making it through their catalogue yet, but a lot of their stuff is covers.  “Bird Song” is no exception, but I have to say that their arrangements and voices are bloody brilliant.  They harmonize like no other.  Harmony is something I feel like you don’t hear enough of these days.

Anyway, they are a Canadian trio, although they have a guest violinist for this song.  It seems like most of the girls have solo albums, as well.  There is a very church choir, pastoral quality to their music.  It’s quite enjoyable, though perhaps not for everyone.  It’s worth it to give this a listen just for their voices, though.  They all have a clarion tone to them which is, again, something that you don’t hear that often.  There aren’t that many performers who have this kind of vocal talent.  Miranda Sex Garden is the only other band I can think of off-hand that would be competitive, vocally.

“Where Is My Mind?”

“Where is My Mind?” is one of my very most favoritest songs.  I don’t know why; something about it just appeals.  I think it’s the electric guitar.  I would kill to see the Pixies live, and I’m bummed that Kim Deal just quit that bitch again, right before they’re about to go on tour.  My cousin saw them a few years back, and she met Frank Black/Black Francis earlier this year.  So jealous.  Most of the musicians I would fangirl for are dead, but I would fangirl hard for Frank Black.  It seems like most people I know that know of him either love or hate him, but the fact that a fat, not-that-attractive bald guy can make it as an international rockstar gives me hope.  No, not hope that it’ll happen to me, just hope.  Maybe sometimes fat kids can fly.

These are two covers of “Where is My Mind?”  One is by Placebo, and I’m honestly not even sure if you can call it a cover, since Frank gets on stage to sing and play acoustic with them.  It’s a good, true-to-the-original rendition, anyway.  The second is a piano solo, and I find it oddly romantic.  I always thought that “La La Love You” was the closest that the Pixies ever came to writing a love ballad, but slowed down and done with a more classical bent, “Where is My Mind?” can pass.  I only know the name of the guy who recorded it, Maxence Cyrin.  I know nothing else about him except that he’s got some good piano skills and his video is cool.  You know how I love my unknowns.

Catfish and Dog Days

It is fucking hot.  No, scratch that.  It is fucking hoooooot!  That’s better.  For the last week or so, the heat index has been about 105 Fahrenheit down here in old Changwon.  The dog days are here in full force, and the city has been flopped over on its side, panting away like a miserable mongrel.   Nobody goes out, except for beer and ice cream, and most of the neighbors seem to stay inside until evening.  The old folks who really have their heads in the game hike down to Lotte Mart and hang out under the A/C vents.

I vastly prefer summer to winter, although I’m not overfond of 100+ temperatures, especially when the humidity is up.  But I’m used it.  The Midwest is no stranger to heat and humidity, and I spent my summers out in it.  I usually spent early summer at camp in Wisconsin, and the nights there were often still cold, and the water was chilly from the ice that perhaps didn’t go out until April or May.  But Illinois?  It can get hot fast.

One of the best parts of summer, besides camp, was going up to the cabin.  My family had a summer cabin up on a lake next to the Illinois River about an hour north of town.  Don’t go thinking we were all fancy, like those Chicago people who vacation at Lake Geneva.  Lake Matanzas ain’t Lake Geneva, and Howe’s Riverview Lodge sure wasn’t a “summer home.”  It was a cabin.  It wasn’t winterized, unless you consider a wood stove and a fireplace to be adequate heating.  There was one air conditioner, and half of the beds were out on the huge screened-in porch (where there was no A/C).  The porch screen windows had awnings that you had to open with an oar while you put the stilts up so they wouldn’t fall down.  The floors slanted in all directions, the shower emptied out directly onto the ground, and my grandma was the dishwasher.  The place was kind of a mess.  We loved it.

We’d go up every year in late spring to clean it out.  My grandpa would make me climb down into the scary well to turn the water on.  It was about 15 feet down into the ground, and I had to climb this rickety old ladder.  I hate heights, and it scared me to death to it, but I managed, mostly because I didn’t want my grandpa to think I was a coward.  We’d sweep and vacuum the dead bugs and dirt that would invariably get inside in the fall after we’d closed up for the year.  Sometimes Grandpa would have to knock down wasps’ nests from the side of the house – always a good time and a good recipe for a round of stings that would make you sick.  We’d go through and dust everything off, put clean sheets on the beds, vacuum the carpets, mow the grass, clean up the beach, and do whatever else needed doing to “open up” for the season.

But when summer rolled around, there was no place better than Matanzas Beach.  The water, like all water that feeds from the Illinois, is murky and muddy.  The bottom of the lake was sandy near the shore but more silt-like, the further out you went.  Barges passed up and down the river, and there were fishing boats, jet skis, pontoons, and ski boats aplenty.  It wasn’t fancy, but it did the job, and we loved it.

I slept out on the porch so that I could listen to the water and the barges and the owls and bats outside.  I guess I was a nature girl, growing up.  I still am, in ways.  Grandma would get up early and sit on the big, green indoor swing that we had, drink her coffee, and watch the johnboats putter by with the morning’s catch.  She’d always buy Entenmann’s crumb donuts, and she’d let me dunk them in her coffee.  I caught my first fish there with my mom – a catfish.  She told me not to drag it in the sand, but I did.  I was only three or four.

My cousins would come up, and we’d spend the bulk of the day in the water, getting dirty and sunburned.  Like I said, the lake water wasn’t exactly the purest you’d ever come across, and when we got out of the water, there would be dirt particles in our arm hair.  We’d traipse back up the hill through the sandy dirt, and Grandma would make us stand in a washtub at the back door, where she’d hose us down so that we didn’t track in too much.  That hose had an old pressure handle on it, and man, it hurt!  She’d spray us all over with that thing and then we had to take a shower.  Grandpa would cook burgers or fish on the grill in the evenings, and then we’d set off fireworks on the beach.  When the mosquitoes got too awful to tolerate any longer, we’d go inside and play Old Maid or Gin Rummy.  There was no TV set, so we had to make our own fun.

As I got older, I’d bring my friends up instead of my cousins.  We’d drink the cheap wine that my older cousin and his friends left in the fridge.  My grandparents put in a dock, finally.  It was small, but it did the job, and we’d lay out on the dock and get tan and talk about boys.  We’d take the canoe and the paddle boat out.  We had a jet ski for awhile, but it never ran that well, although when it did, it was the fastest one on the lake and was seriously fun to ride.  My older cousin would bring his college friends up, and best I could tell, they’d get rip-snorting drunk and have a grand time, too.  You could always tell when they’d been there because someone would leave an ashtray out or something.

The dog days of my youth were spent up at that cabin, and they were well-spent.  I loved that place.  Like I said, the place was kind of a wreck, and it didn’t look like much from the road.  The houses around it were all nicer.  That didn’t affect how we felt about it, though.  It was great because it was a place you could go and get dirty.  It certainly wasn’t the jewel in even Matanzas Beach’s crown.

Grandpa sold the place when I was in Germany.  The taxes on lakefront property are astronomical, even in places that aren’t that desirable, and we weren’t using it as much as we used to.  (In fact, lakefront property taxes are the reason my old summer camp became a nonprofit – it was the only way it could stay open.) Nobody in the family really wanted to buy it and continue paying those taxes – nobody who had the money, anyway.  So the place was sold.  The Howe’s Riverview Lodge signs came down, and I still have one of them in storage in the hopes that someday I’ll be able to afford a summer house of my own and hang the sign up again.

The place was back on the market a few years ago, when I first came back to Korea, and my cousin’s wife sent me the blurb about it from the realtor’s website.  I wrote her back and said that we should all pool our money and buy it back.  She said I sounded just like my cousin and that we were both nuts.  He’d wanted it back, too.

Of all the things that my grandpa ever bought and sold, the cabin is still my greatest regret.  Even in Korea, thousands of miles away from the Illinois River and Lake Matanzas, the sound of the cicadas and the blistering heat makes me think of running down that hill, straight into the water.  I keep thinking of the fun, beer-soaked times we could still be having there, and it makes me sad.  I know that, at the time, there was no point in keeping it, but there would’ve come a time again when we were out of college and would want to come back.  I doubt that would’ve swayed my grandpa any, since he was the one maintaining the place, but nevertheless, it would’ve been nice.

Alas, the cabin is gone, and I doubt we’re ever going to get it back.  Actually, with the horrible epidemic of Asian carp in the Mississippi and Illinois River systems, swimming in the lake ain’t what it used to be, anyway.  But I’d like to have a summer house again someday.  Or, you know, just live on a lake.  I’d like to have somewhere to hang my sign again.  It might never happen, but it’d be nice if it did.

And the Children Go to Summer Camp, and then to the University…

Like most American kids, I spent the bulk of the school year waiting for summer vacation.  Oh sure, winter was okay, when I was little.  There were snow days most years, and there were occasionally fun moments at school: Christmas parties, movie days, dodgeball in gym… But the honest truth was that I never liked school.  School is mostly nothing but a torment when you’re a fat kid who raises their hand too much in class.  Summer, though?  That was different.  Summer was my time to shine.

I was one of those kids who went to an expensive summer camp.  It was, in all honesty, the best thing that my grandparents ever did for me.   Summer camp forced me to make friends with new people, and I know this sounds cheesy, but it really did teach me life skills that I likely wouldn’t have learned as quickly otherwise.  I went on trips in the backcountry, learned to sail, canoe, jump horses, and use a compass.   My leadership summer was hands-down one of the very best of my life.  It was like something out of Dazed and Confused: guys from the boys camp sneaking into our cabin, getting drunk at our friend’s summer house down the road, and going skinny dipping at 1 a.m.  That was summer.  That was life.

Korean kids will never experience anything remotely close to that, so far as I can tell.  I’ve been helping my husband grade his students’ God-awful journals this evening, and I have to tell you, it’s fucking depressing.  They’re all the same.  “I went to the beach for one day.  We swam.  I ate ramen.  The water was cold.”  “I went to my grandmother’s house.  We ate meat.  I sat in her rocking chair.  The chair was fun.”  “I didn’t do anything.  I have academy every day and lots of homework.  I hate vacation.”  Note that these sentences have been adjusted for readability.  Basically, pouring through these things will make you want to kill them so that they don’t have to do the deed themselves.  Actually, suicide was as topic for my middle schoolers once, and one of the questions concerned how they’d counsel a friend who wanted to jump off his apartment building.  One of my boys answered, “Actually, I agree with him, but I guess I should try and talk him out of it.”

It’s bleak.

Sometimes I really hate Korean kids.  Or maybe I just hate kids in general sometimes.  But I do feel sorry for these little buggers.  They go to school from dawn to dusk and beyond, regardless of what time of year it is.  Even in the sumer, many of the elementary school kids go to school in the morning for English camp or computer class or some such nonsense.  Many academies have supplementary classes during the breaks to “keep the mothers happy.”  My boss offered it at our academy free of charge.  He hated vacation as much as the kids.

As far as travel goes, well, that’s not much better.  Several of my kids never went anywhere because their fathers had to work constantly because it was either expected of them or their mothers were spending it all on handbags and whatever other crap that ajummas buy.  The rest of them mostly go to Caribbean Bay, California Beach, Haeundae, or Jeju.  Fucking Jeju.  It’s like the Hawaii of Korea, if Hawaii sucked and it was the only place to go.  I had one student last year who went to Cambodia (awesome place), and everyone thought that was weird.  Another family went to Hong Kong, but the older brother hated it because the food was weird and it was full of Chinese people.  Of course.

I know Americans tend to go to the same places somewhat, but honestly, most of us mixed it up a little.  I always went to summer camp, but I had friends there, and I wanted to go.  My other friends went to the Ozarks, Dauphin Island, Disney World, Michigan, the Caribbean (the real one), and lots of other different places.  You know, interesting places.  Some of them even went abroad.  I feel like the concept of anything outside the norm here is nearly unthinkable.

Granted, some of that is probably down to expense.  Most Americans don’t travel overseas, and that’s largely down to geography and expense.  But Korea?  Hell, it’s a small country, and it’s not that far from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.  There are lots of places to go.  It just seems like most Koreans don’t give a crap about every going.  My former boss went to Thailand for his honeymoon, and his review on it sounded like this: “Yeah, it was fun.  I guess.  I ate Korean food the whole time I was there because Thai food is awful.  And it was so dirty.”

I wanted to ask him what was good about it.  Did you see any temples?  Go to the beaches?  Hit up the little bars in the side streets?  Rent a motorbike and putz around Phuket?  Isn’t that what a good tropical vacation is all about?  Well, that and getting messed up.  But Koreans seems to just get drunk and go whoring, which is pretty much what they do in Korea.  I never dared ask if he smoked a fat doobie or went to the full moon party.  What would be the point?  He wasn’t there to have fun.  He was there to take pictures of stupid things, complain about the food, and then go home.

I guess this is another pet peeve I have about Korea.  A lot of my students complained incessantly about how boring Korea was, but when confronted with something new and different, they’d balk and act like it was something awful, to be feared and shunned.  I mean, that’s how the crazy groupthink works here, but it’s phenomenal to see it in action.  It’s like they all know what’s wrong, but when given an opportunity to change their condition, they laugh and point at it and then kick it in the face and run back into the arms of the parts of their culture and lifestyle that they claim to hate.  It’s like cultural Stockholm Syndrome.  You’d think these little fools would want something actually fun and exciting before they’re forced to grow up and take part in the mind-numbing crush of Korean adult life, but no.

For my part, I wish summer in Korea was more like summer at home.  I wish there were porches for cookouts.  I wish the kids could go to camp.  I wish everyone in Korea didn’t descend on Haeundae on the same fucking weekend every year so that I could actually get in the water without having to wade through a sea of umbrellas and drunk idiots with kids first.  I’ve never even attempted a water park here for two very good reasons: 1) I saw and got pointed at by enough misbehaving brats around the neighborhood without inviting it during leisure time, and; 2) I have zero desire to stand in hour-long lines getting sunburned so that I can go down a 30-second water slide.  I’m the person who will be in the lazy river all day, thank-you-very-much.  

I know I say it every year, but I miss summer at home.  I miss sitting in the backyard with a kiddie pool and a beer or five.  Or in a real pool.  Had one of those once, too.  I miss nights out on real porches and patios, drinking with friends and having a good time.  I miss the Fourth of July and back-to-school sales and the first smell of autumn that wafts through the air sometime after school starts.  In Korea, it’s all kids crammed into hot, smelly academies, old people crammed into hot, smelly Lotte Mart (ostensibly for the A/C that they never run), and office workers crammed into hot, stuffy business suits when the heat index is 105 F.  Yeah, Korea is as miserable in the summer as it is in the winter.

I haven’t gone anywhere this summer and don’t intend to.  I’ve been lying under the A/C, reading Game of Thrones to my kid (I know, fucked up) and going out at night, when the sun’s down.  We might hit the beach again before we leave, since once we’re home, it’s going to be a long time before we see the ocean again, unless you count the ocean of corn and beans in the Midwest.  I’ll miss the beach, although I won’t miss the hordes of unwashed masses who congregate there in July and August.  I figure if I start to miss it that much, I can get myself a striped umbrella, pour some sand into that kiddie pool from the sandbags I usually put in the back of my car in the winter to weigh it down on the ice, put on some crappy K-Pop, pop open a can of really shitty beer, and pretend I’m back in Korea.  You have all the elements there of a trip to Haeundae, but the water will be cleaner, and there won’t be scads of people around trying to simultaneously worship the sun and stay as far away from direct contact as possible.

The Art of Procrastination

My husband has had vacation from his hot box of torture (read: hagwon) for the last four days.  The first week of August always seems to be the big holiday bonanza time for Korea.  Half of the Mom ‘n Pop shops have closed up for the weekend with signs on the door stating their intended dates of return.  You know, I remember the same thing in Paris, but they took off the entire month of August.  Lazy socialist bastards… Anyway, as usual, we didn’t do jack because traveling at the same time as every other sad bastard in the country does nothing to make you feel like you’re escaping from the daily grind.  We’re at the stage where near-total isolation is preferable to going out and mingling with the locals, and that is just pathetic.

My husband has been butting heads with his new boss.  His academy is family-owned, and the owner parades his sons through as managers like clowns at the circus.  The younger one was nice and mostly harmless.  He walked around in a T-shirt and basically let the general manager, whom my husband actually likes, run the show.  Everything was great.

Then the oldest son came back from running one of the family’s factories in China, and the younger one was sent over there.  (The youngest is still in high school, apparently.)  This guy is a whole different story.  He struts around with his hands behind his back like your typical ajeosshi, and he seems to delight in setting standard mutually exclusive goals (a Korean favorite) and giving vague, worthless answers.  When pressed for a definitive response, he gets all irritated and acts like you’re the one with the problem.  I’m pretty sure this points to some sort of personality disorder.  It affects most of the Korean population.  The other foreign teacher there thinks that he’s too used to ordering compliant Chinese around.  I maintain he’s your typical hagwon boss.

We’re trying to set a date to leave Korea.  When I stopped working at my last job in the US, setting an end date was no problem.  I gave appropriate notice, we agreed on a final work date, HR told me when I’d get my last pay slip, I said adios to the co-workers, and that was it.  Everyone was happy.  Here, setting an end date that isn’t in your contract (yeah, my husband quit – he hates the boss) is like pulling teeth.

Initially, my husband asked to work until the start of November.  The boss said that he’d “get back to [him].”  That’s Korean for, “I’m not going to give you an answer until I’ve hired your replacement, at which point I’ll tell you that you have a week or two of work left.  If you complain that I’ve violated the notice period, I’ll explain that the notice period started the day you said you’d like to leave in November and asked for a minimum of two months to get your affairs in order.”  The boss initially promised that he’d give my husband two months from the time he knew the exact end date.

Well, much like we both predicted, he’s gone back on that.  Now we’re thinking mid-September will probably be the hubby’s forever quittin’ time.  The boss wants to replace him with a Canadian who has, according to him, already quit her job in Canada and has got her visa number.  He stated that, “Koreans never do this.  Foreigners are silly.  They often do this.”  Yeah, because Koreans never do anything illogical or ill-advised.  Point is, my husband will likely be leaving on the boss’s arbitrary terms and not the ones agreed upon.   Welcome to Korea.  Where neither contracts nor gentlemen’s agreements are worth shit.

The thing that goads me, oddly, isn’t that this happened.  I was positive it would turn out like this because it’s Korea.  Koreans seem to be physically and mentally incapable of planning ahead.  As I’ve said before, everything molders on their desk until it’s either a five-alarm emergency or a moot point.  Once you start viewing them all as moot points, your life gets easier.  What goads me is that he had the brass tacks to act like my husband was being dramatic for wanting an absolute end date for his job.  That’s too much to ask, apparently.  People who make plans are dramatic and demanding.  Fuck planning ahead – let’s all just pretend that nothing is happening and then, when it happens, we’ll run around like chickens with our heads lobbed off by Marge’s great-grandma and wonder why the hell this is happening to us.

Unfortunately, booking plane tickets and stuff, if you want a fair-ish price, depends on some foresight.  Koreans don’t care.  They only ever fly to fucking Jeju Island anyway, and those tickets can be had for the price of a Changwon “hooker alley” prostitute.  Actually, I think they might be cheaper – the tickets, not the hookers.  You get what you pay for.  In any event, the hubby’s boss doesn’t care about such things.  Actually, if he does anything right, he pretends like he’s doing us a big, bloody favor and says it’s “because you have a child.”  Translation: “If you didn’t have a child, I’d bend you over and anally rape you with no lube.  I’m still raping you, but now I’m at least displaying the courtesy of a little reach-around.”

My husband and I are both apprehensive about leaving Korea.  We’ve both been here for a spell – a long spell, in his case.  He’s wary of America, with its crap health insurance, big government, and petting zoo atmosphere.  (As I’ve said before, there are coyotes by the railroad tracks in my hometown, and it’s not uncommon to see deer, hawks, and other miscellaneous wildlife in backyards in the middle of town.)  I think he thinks we’re going to be mauled by a bear, if we aren’t poisoned to death by brown recluse spiders.  That’s ridiculous.  You’d have to go at least as far north as southern Wisconsin to be mauled by a bear.

It’s time, though.  We’re both happier when we aren’t interacting with Koreans.  We’re both sick of dealing with the insanity of the “culture” and the people and institutions that perpetuate it.  Sometimes, you really have to take stock of your situation and ask yourself if it’s worth it.  There was a time when Korea was worth it.  We lived off of half of my salary and saved the rest, plus all of his.  We made bank here.  We had friends, we went out to dinner and drinks, had fun, saw some sights, and traveled around.  Those days are over.  The shine is off the penny.  We’ve milked the cow, and now that the cow is trying to kick us in the face and gives next to no milk, it’s time to sell it to the slaughterhouse for whatever you can in a fire sale.

It might take me a bit to find a job back home, but good God, at least I’ll know that if I want to bloody well quit, I can hand in my notice and say, “This is it.  We’re breaking up,” and I can reasonably expect to get a finish date and a firm pat on the buttocks from HR as I walk out the door.  Even if they’re telling me not to let the door hit me in said buttocks on the way out.