My Top Ten Best Places to Swim in the World

Ocean creatures nibble on your feet as the wide expanse of seawater pulses with waves for bodysurfing. Nude night swimming as a teenager felt like breaking rules that weren’t meant to be followed anyway. Sunday night swims at the Y.M.C.A, when we were still a family of four, with vending machine ice cream followed by the classic show by the formerly virtuous, presently vilified Bill Cosby.

Swimming was always a part of my life. There are soundless, grainy videos of me as a chubby baby splashing and floating in Styrofoam tubes, later, flat chested, sun browned and endlessly chasing waves and catching rides, picking up horseshoe crabs to scare girls. We would spend every summer weekend and our big two-week vacation at the beach. I remember the crispy crust of seawater kissed skin, the smell of barbecuing meat and steaming corn as we ran around the yard. I remember barely being able to sleep out of excitement the night before we would go to the Wildwood, NJ water parks.

They were the days of pre-9/11 America. They were the days before any premature deaths had forced me to reckon with life’s brief candle. They were the days before girls were significant, when we all looked the same. They were the days of wonder and sleepover nights, before jobs and bills. They were the days of best friends, talking on the phone, riding bikes. This is a list of memories, a catalog of subjective experiences, a way to look back while wondering what is still to come.

I read a story in the New York Times by Loudon Wainwright III, an American troubadour, who has similar feelings for the water. He put down his top ten swimming places in the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same.

Here are my top ten most memorable water filled places:

10. Stuttgart Mineral Baths, Germany—I love a good sauna. When I first arrived in Korea, I’d spend hours slipping in and out of the hot and cold baths, hopping between the steam or the cool showers. But my love for saunas started here, in Germany’s Black Forest. I got naked in front of strange Germans, suntanned unabashedly and relished the nude joy of the healing waters. (I should include that Budapest and Sevilla also had amazing bathhouses, but as a bathing suit was required, it just felt more like a fancy pool with beautiful mosaic tiles.)

9. Lagos, Portugal—Although this was the most hungover I’ve ever been as the local bars offer 2 for 1 everything, the crisp seawater was a lifesaver in the morning. I found some crepes and a bucket of ice water and stared at the shimmering Atlantic Ocean. The massive cliffs beside the beaches make for a spectacular backdrop. I remember swimming out with some friends to a natural bridge in the rocks before remembering a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of manta rays gathered in a place just like that.

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Courtesy: Western Australia Pinterest

8. Karijini National Park, Western Australia—Hidden among the baked red earth of Australia’s outback was a bright blue pool dotted with waterfalls and trees. There was a good hour hike down the rocks to the pool, heating you up for the cool down. There was a 20-meter cliff jump, shady spots to have a drink and some rock climbing inside the waterfalls. We camped in this remote park, and it remains the most stars I’ve ever seen.

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7. Gwangalli Beach, Busan, South Korea—It’s one of the most famous beaches of Korea and insanely crowded for 6 weeks in July and August. But in any season, you can get some Ramen noodles, beers, chips and shoot fireworks into the placid waters. There are no waves here, but the scenic Gwangan Bridge makes a glimmering seascape come alive at night. (Most of the Korea’s east coast has lovely blue water, white sands and nearby 7-11’s. Plus, the island of Jeju is full of amazing waterfalls, beaches and sex museums.)

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6. Mekong River, Laos—Although the Mekong runs from China to Vietnam, my favorite spot was in the Thousand Islands of Don Det. It’s not easy to get to, as you must ride a shaky diesel-powered longboat with a draft of a few inches to the water. Animals run wild, people are friendly and there is a small swimming spot at the end of the island. It was amazing to walk out a few feet and feel the current begin to take you downstream. A few more feet and you’d need to paddle hard to get back in. (In Kratie, Cambodia, I found a cool spot with thatched huts on pylons where the locals drank and cooled off.)

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5. Otres Beach, Cambodia—This is my ideal paradise beach. It’s quiet, chill, beautifully set on the Gulf of Thailand with a few beachside bars and pubs pumping quiet house music. There are French expats who’ve opened some decent restaurants complete with a boule lawn. Every day, the local women sold me fresh mango, watermelon and a back and foot rub for 10$. I also did a great scuba dive here. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to solo dive with the instructor. Sitting under a thatch umbrella, mangoes, cold beer, burgers and a Kindle. (There are Happy Pizza restaurants and tons of bars in nearby Sihanoukville, the backpacker party town.)

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4. Trieste, Italy—This little enclave of an Italian city with an Austrian heritage has a small sidewalk with access to the Adriatic Sea, called the Barcola. If you remember to bring a cushioned mat and towel, relaxing on the cement will be a breeze. The sea is beautiful here, flat and blue out to the horizon with tree covered mountains behind. (Nearby Croatian beaches are similarly wonderful.)

3. Barton Springs, Austin, Texas—A spring fed pool in South Austin, with lax clothing requirements, few personal restrictions, naturally cold water and a diving board. The only negative might be that it is set upon a grassy hill, which just isn’t as nice as sand. (If you catch the right day, McKinney Falls can be spectacular. But a real gem is down in Wimberley at the Blue Hole or chilling near the Blanco River.)

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2. Phuket, Thailand—It was near the end of a four-month journey in SE Asia, and our last day in Thailand. Jordyn and I wanted to swim. We could see heavy, dark clouds shooting lightning in the distance. The rain was falling, the waves were high and we jumped right in. Walking back, people were covered in rain gear, umbrellas and galoshes, we wore only bathing suits and sandals. (Phuket is nice, but the islands like Ko Lanta, or Ko Tao are much more stunning.)

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1. Avalon, NJ—It’s not the clearest, cleanest or nicest water. It’s not always the most peaceful environment. It’s not the most reliably wonderful weather. And although things are changing there, as it’s become a playground for elites with multi-million dollar houses, and there are sound ordinances where police will shut you down for singing after midnight, and extreme weather pushes the storm surges ever closer to the doorstep, and the restaurants are overpriced, and the bars full of college meatheads, khaki shorts and high heels…well, damn, maybe it’s just our little house there. The little cinderblock paradise on the bay, where so many memories were made, remains my favorite place to swim in the world.

 

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Everybody Is a Winner

George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. We used to ask, “What’s on TV?” Now, we ask, “What should we watch?” The former reveals our passive helplessness to the TV gods; while the latter gives a power punctuated with the anxiety of too many options. We are the catalyst of our entertainment. We see the next two hours of our lives determined from algorithms selected to help us make the click. We stand astride the abundant mountain of mirth, murder or mystery. We sit in Plato’s cave with shadows so enjoyable, so personalized and so dynamic, there may never be any reason to turn around.

Yet within the immensity of amusement available to us, it appears some have sunk into a morass of moronic distraction. I’m aware of tastes and preferences. I’m aware of age differences, motivations and political affiliations. I’m aware that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Real Housewives are as (if not more) popular as what I’d consider quality programming like House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Reality TV finds the untamed characters from Rodeo Dr. to Main St. to MLK Blvd. and puts their faults and charms on display. They are, ostensibly, real people “acting” like themselves. The episodic shows mentioned above find actors acting. But the aims of all producers remain the same—make it watchable, make it interesting, make it dramatic. Whatever you choose to watch, there is a reason to watch—namely, some story or problem that must be solved in a predetermined amount of time. Thought was given, production values were managed, behavior was defined in a way to help the viewer enjoy their valuable time spent inside the magic screen.

Here, we find the younger generation who have come of age with closets full of plastic participation medals, teachers offering safe spaces for reflection on Mark Twain’s language and a siren calling smartphone in the pocket since 12 years old. James, my 14-year-old stepson, godson, protégé, mentee, ball of irrepressible energy and general frustration factory, has hipped me to the videos he likes these days. He likes watching people destroying iPhones, computers and electronics in various ways. He also likes watching people eat various foodstuffs, piano tutorials and the ever-present animal videos of the internet. The bulk of his YouTube time is watching videos of other people watching themselves playing video games, commenting and cursing profusely. I watched one where a guy with a heavy Cockney accent cursed an impressive nimbus cloud of ‘f’ words around his first-person shooter character. It was objectively unwatchable; however, 1,650,423 people disagree with me as that was his watched count. I asked James why he likes it. “Because it’s on, and it relaxes me.” He said as a giant robot was disintegrated in a hail of lightning fast bullets, action darting across the screen in a rapidly rotating dizzying display. Yeah, looks relaxing.

There may be quite a bit more that James doesn’t show me, doesn’t know about or doesn’t watch. The internet is like our hive mind buzzing with relentless diligence to satisfy the unique queen bees inside all our heads. Why produce a show when people will watch a cell phone crushed in a vice? Why work hard on a story when people will watch you curse while playing Bonestorm? Why create dialogue when millions will watch you putting on makeup? So, who am I to judge why one thing is quality and another is crap? Who am I? I’m not the universal judge. I’m from the generation between sit-com and webcam. I’m from the generation between pay-phones and smart phones. I am from the generation where the wave broke on the championship trophy, cascaded back in sullen pieces and reformed into those terrifying “awards” for participation.

I’m old enough to remember ribbons only for first, second, third and in the case of middling talent but above average achievement in effort, honorable mention. Hundreds of us plebs used to go home empty handed after elementary “field day.” I remember such enormous friggin’ pride when I finally won third place in the 50-yard dash in 5th grade. I was like, “Okay, I’m not Rich Luckowski, but I am third fastest and also not a jerk.” It was a bronze, but felt good. Everyone tried, but I tried better. It seems natural. Who wants to go home and show their parents a ribbon for existence?

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The transferred disappointment can lead losers to greatness through determination (as well as the possibility of mental turmoil, lifelong anxiety, personality disorders, or unstable relationships). Contrasted with the current crop of kids who attain an award for participation or certificate of achievement by not crying and kicking the winner and taking his blue ribbon (which in less moral, less evolved days might have been the Darwinian winner) it appears we merely switched one undesirable result for another.

From the age of four, when personality is established, humans know winning is everything. It is the basis of evolution, conflict and survival. Our enlightened minds may try to jam inclusion into the equation of a solo victory, but that just skews the results, creating a domino effect that leads to confusing trophy ceremonies, such as the one I saw in my kindergarten spelling bee yesterday.

We passed out 24 Spelling Bee Champion certificates to all 24 participants. Not everyone acted like a Champion. The kids who won jumped for joy. The losers hung their heads in discontent. This is as it should be. The teachers cheer the winners, console the losers and assure everyone that life goes on and we will all enjoy the pizza party. The feeling of, and getting over loss, without hostility, is as important as being a congratulatory and appreciative winner.

I was in 3rd or 4th grade when they piled all the kids into our tiny auditorium for a spelling bee. I was a great speller and stile 😉 am. Earlier in the year, the teacher asked me how to spell school, and I flubbed it. The children all laughed at me, and eager to explain how I could misspell something that hangs above the entrance of which I see every day, I exclaimed, “I had a fun summer!” I guess the carefree memories of a ten-year old’s summer vacation of night swimming and ice cream had pushed out all the practical knowledge of addition and grammar. So, I was hyped up to prove my spelling acumen to my class of ball-breaking chums. I made it through round after round with easy words until I got a stumper: cushion. I’m pretty sure I spelled it with a ‘u’. I finished in 9th place, which is decent, but there can be only one winner, only one champion; lest we engage in “excellence bias.” In the never-ending lesson of “Simpsons Did It!” This season The Simpsons tackled the issue…”with sexy results.” Lisa won and got the smallest trophy. When she complained, poor Ralph Wiggum cried that she was “loser shaming” him.

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Thank you Simpsons (Season 28 Episode 18)

That idea, a zero-sum game of a winner and a loser is usually applied to sports or contests, not to modern politics. Our president, who dominates headlines with his special brand of idiosyncratic vulgarity, conforms to the zero-sum idea. “So much winning.” “[Other countries] won’t be laughing at us anymore.” The “Benito Cheeto” (thanks @GregProops) shows his commitment to America first by making the world last. Pulling out of a voluntary agreement to decrease carbon emissions (which might not even be enough to stop the destructive forces of climate change) leaves U.S.A. alone, but “winning” by being the first to quit. The global embarrassment that “Sweet Potato Stalin” (@GregProops) has become, won’t result in a natural win or loss scenario, because 21st century political ideas are blended; Trump’s are welded shut. Personality is formed at a young age, and we must ask ourselves, was Trump a habitual winner, timid loser or a cautious participator? What made him Trump? Did he love to win or hate to lose more? Would a participation trophy from his 2nd grade science fair stopped the cackling monsters in his head from laughing at him and insulting his smallish inept hands? If his mother had shared the vanilla ice cream (because of course the Trumps ate vanilla) evenly when he was a boy, would he still be proving triumph over others with a second scoop at dessert?

It’s admirable that our society has tried to find a place for everyone on the victory platform. But, there’s simply no room for seven billion people on the podium. For millennia, there have been evolutionary winners and losers. Homo sapiens are the indisputable winners. We live on all seven continents and in space. We are the apex predator and the pinnacle of organic creativity. Couldn’t we all be participants, equal parts winning (birth) and loss (death) in this experiment of being? As humans cultivate our android world of Google blood cells, gene editing, neural uploads and artificial organs, will we worry about rewards, equality and doing our best if everyone thinks on the same software program? Perhaps, “Who is the best ______” will be an irrelevant concept as we become a singular mind—a non-competitive human union.

 

Park Geun-hye’s Troubled History Led to Her Impeachment

To begin, we go back in time to the end of WW2. The Japanese lost the war and were forced to relinquish control of their annexed Korean territory which they had established in 1910 and cruelly administered. The Soviets, who had only entered the Pacific theater of the war weeks before, were given temporary authority over lands north of the arbitrarily decided 38th parallel whereas U.S.A. was given the lands to the south. The Soviet prop was Kim Il Sung, a revered Communist figure from the peasant class, having served in the Red Army as well as due to his bona fide anti-Japanese record. He had fought guerilla battles against the Japanese imperialists through Chinese aegis since his teens. The U.S. army found their own man, opposite in almost every way. Syngman Rhee was highly educated, of royal stock, virulently anti-communist and had spent years in exile in the States and China away from the horrors of Japanese colonial activity in Korea.

This cursory glance at the past provides so many gaps needed to fill in to get a full understanding, nevertheless, we move on. Both countries were keen on reunification in their own guise. But with incompatible ideas of government, conflict was inevitable.

The Soviets provided enormous military contributions to the emerging North Korean state. America was more focused on re-building a destroyed Japan across the water leaving an opening that was breached in June 1950 when the North Korean tanks steam rolled across South Korea in mere weeks.

After three years of brutal fighting and devastation, leaving millions of dead in Korea and China plus thousands of others from the U.S. and U.N. contingent, the DMZ was established, nothing gained but much lost from the initial 1945 treaty and the cold war had begun.

Into this arena stepped Park Chung-hee, the currently impeached president (Park Geun Hye’s) father. He was an autocrat intent on transforming the decimated country. From 1960-1979 he ruled with a contrasting iron fist and a golden touch. Although authoritarian and unelected, Korea began to build a modern country with skyscrapers, highways, trains, and new manufacturing jobs focused on exporting. Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and LG were born, becoming known as “chaebols” which translates to “wealthy clan.” These chaebols were and continue to be completely rife with nepotism and historically resemble the ancient “yangban” (educated class) of men who were from wealthy families and were able to pass the rigorous government tests giving them high places in the old Joseon kingdom.

In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer assassinated Yuk Young-soo, the wife of Chung-hee and mother of Geun-hye. Geun-hye became the de-facto first lady at 22. Her father was then killed in 1979 by a South Korean CIA agent, largely in part to his intense relationship to a shady cult leader and mentor to both Parks, named Choi Tae-min, a central figure of this current political catastrophe.

Choi was a five times divorced Buddhist who converted to his own form of Christianity blended with shamanism. Following the death of Geun-hye’s mom, Choi told the young first lady that he could convene with the dead via dreams. Eager to talk to her deceased mother, she invited this shadowy fellow into her inner sanctum where he quickly filled the void of two murdered parents with visions and rituals. Having spent the majority of her life in the gated, insular Korean presidential residence: “Blue House,” she wasn’t very cognizant of con men and trusted the man whom her strongman father trusted.

After the 1979 assassination left her without a family, Geun-hye retreated from public life, but remained close to the leader Choi Tae-min and his equally suspicious daughter Choi Soon-Shil. Right wing generals ruled the country for years as Korea grew into a tech powerhouse. They held their first democratic election in 1987, hosted the 1988 Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and joined the “Asian Tigers” to become a top 15 economy.

Geun-hye was elected to Korean Parliament in 1998, slashed in the face by a madman as she unsuccessfully ran for president in 2007, before winning in 2012 and becoming the first woman president in a highly male-centered country. No doubt she held additional prestige from her family name, but she had also, unknown to the populace, held onto her ties to the Choi family.

I was in Korea at the time of her victory, yet unconcerned with regional politics except for the recent death of Kim Jong Il and his baby faced, pudgy successor. However, it was impressive to see a woman president who seemed to have a certain polite gravitas below her pant-suit exterior.

In April 2014, an overloaded, under-regulated and mismanaged ferry (Sewol) left the northern port of Incheon bound for the magical island of Jeju in the south. After leaving late, they rushed the transport through faster but rougher waters. The captain retired for a nap. The unaccompanied rookie third mate turned too fast to overcompensate for choppy water, the ship listed, capsized and eventually sunk. Park Geun-hye was nowhere to be seen for hours. Speculation ran wild. Anger intensified. Without proper rescue efforts, the passengers were doomed. The passengers included hundreds of high school students going on an extended field trip. Things got worse as investigations went up the crooked ladder of responsibility.

The “Quick, Quick” culture of Korean business led to poor choices on the part of the captain to rest before escaping himself after ordering everyone to stay onboard, the ferry operator to overload, the port authority to fail to check weight regulations, and ultimately the government to moderate them all. Park was seen as obliquely culpable or at least ineffectual. She responded to this criticism by invoking her father’s strongman tactics and blacklisting artists, musicians and movie makers. The Busan Film Festival, Korea’s largest international festival, lost half of its government subsidy after screening a documentary about the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

Two years later, a portable hard drive was discovered in Choi’s office containing secret state documents, revised speeches of the president as well as the daily schedule of meetings to be conducted with the president. Choi was unelected, unknown and unconnected to the government yet she had improper, profound knowledge and influence upon an increasingly unpopular president who had seemed to be listening to this woman as a magic 8 ball of poor decisions.

It was particularly embarrassing to proud Koreans that their president could be abused and manipulated by a glorified tarot card reader. Then it was revealed that Choi solicited donations from the giant Chaebol companies to her private charities in return for favorable government regulations. Then it was revealed that Choi bought Park’s cheap clothes with government funds and kept the change. Then it was revealed that Choi edited Park’s speeches. Then it was revealed that Choi’s daughter was given unearned entrance to a prestigious university, EWHA, and concurrently given passing grades despite lack of attendance. At the time of the scandal, the daughter was living like a queen in Germany riding million dollar horses basking in the glow of an Asian Games gold medal and swimming in millions of elicit euros.

Every weekend, for months, millions of Koreans descended on downtown Seoul with candles, masks, effigies, signs, and a singular desire to oust the weakened leader. It came to a head this week as the Korean parliament confirmed her impeachment.

Choi is currently in jail awaiting trial, as her daughter waits for extradition orders in Denmark. Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung was also arrested for his role in the scandal. Korean law prevents a sitting president from trial. But, in two months, she will be a private, pension-less citizen and presumably will face trial.

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Losing a Pet

 

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Her name was Hanil (하늘). In Korean, it means “sky.” She was a Shih Tzu, which in Chinese, I imagine means “Sits on You.” She loved to sit on me. If I was on the couch, she was on the couch; if I was in bed, she was on my foot mat. Before she got sick, she would try with grunty zeal to jump up on the couch or bed. She followed me around the house and barked if I closed the bathroom door. She followed only me on dog walks. She needed no leash, because she never strayed from my feet. When we drove, she would jump across the dead man’s zone of used cups and chocolate wrappers in the elbow console just to get to my warm lap. She was brown and white with big black cataract eyes. She used to roll and rub all over my scattered clothes trying to absorb the smell. She loved me and I loved her back.

Hanil was fifteen when she moved into our new apartment this March. Jordan’s mom couldn’t take care of three dogs alone, so Hanil came to live with us. She got along with the two boys, Hershey and Alvin, but used to try to eat their food if they were too slow to the bowl. She loved food. She ate in gulps. She ate everything you put in front of her. She had recently gotten mouth surgery to fix a broken jaw. Now, all her food had to be soaked in water to allow it to soften because chewing was no longer an option. She still ate well for a while. Then, when she stopped voluntarily eating, we had to feed her with a small syringe. Jordan would cook vegetables, eggs, and meat, then blend them into a healthy slurry. I’d hold her head tight as Jordan tried to slyly sneak the food into her growling maw. We knew she was really sick if she didn’t want to eat.

She got sick in the kidneys and used to pee almost hourly on the tiled bathroom floor so we could wash it down the drain. I’d hear her little feet with overgrown toenails clicking her way on the hardwood floors to the bathroom. We’d have to wipe up her feet after to prevent pee prints, and that includes the midnight hours. She was so sick and could barely jump up the raised step out of the bathroom. I’d give her a little push from her belly.

The vet said she had very little chance to live because of how far along the kidney disease was. We took her for a last trip to the beach. She did okay with the heat of the day and chill of night and relished the chance to sit on my lap for extended sessions of Korean weekend traffic. I complained about the traffic, but should have just enjoyed the lap time. We don’t always realize the impermanence of life while stuck in traffic. When we got home, I researched the internet and found a cocktail of Azodyl, kidney purifier, and vitamins B & C could help. After one day of treatment, her faced perked up, her step got bouncier, she started eating again. She still looked old, but was acting young. We got our hopes up.

I ordered another three-month supply of everything, since she was doing so well, I could save on the shipping. The hot summer days and humid nights passed as she snoozed in the A/C, she slept by my bed, sat on my lap for preseason football, we went to the park, we walked at night, she barked for me to open the bathroom door, and things seemed normal.

The disease was stronger than the medicine. On Thursday night, I took her out for a moonlight walk. She used to keep up with me, only stopping to pee or poop. This time, her head was down and she was just going through the motions, a sort of mechanical walk. She wasn’t sniffing the bushes or wandering around, she was just trying to keep up. She didn’t pee or poop. I picked her up, rested her on my arm, she wrapped her front paws around my wrist and we went inside.

Friday morning, I’m rushing around after walking the boy dogs, brushing my teeth, styling hair, drinking coffee, taking morning pills, eating yogurt and getting dressed in my daily rush of daybreak. Hanil usually followed me from task to task. That day, she only made it to my closet to say good morning before laboring back to her bed on top of my workout shorts.

At work, I got a message that Hanil was very sick and needed to go to the hospital. She’d been to the hospital a few times before, got an IV drip and was released. Cautiously optimistic, I went to my Friday night work dinner with all the teachers, but left early to try get to the hospital. Hanil was resting.

Saturday afternoon, we got to the vet clinic after a big pizza lunch. It was clear something was different. Her head didn’t leave the pillow when I touched her. Her back didn’t arch when I rubbed between her shoulder blades. She was very still save for breathing.

We sat for a few hours beside her little cage. I was under the impression she was going to get better again, so we went upstairs to hit golf balls at the fenced driving range to relieve some stress. Later, I took Hershey and Alvin, who had been patiently waiting in the parking garage all day, out of the car for their night walk. I got slightly lost meandering thoughtlessly, thinking of the little pup’s life with us. I thought of how, years ago, when Jordan and I were first dating, Hanil sat with me, creating a calming influence for me in a strange new house. I remembered, during my interview for James’ TV show, Hanil sat with me on camera, giving my nervous hands something to do. I thought of all the naps I’d taken with her as an armrest. Basically, if I was in her vicinity, she was next to me. She’d given her love, affection and attention to me constantly. That’s the thing with love from pets, it’s always there, so you think it will always be there. I got back to the clinic around 22:00. Jordan managed to get us a private room. Hanil was still hooked up to the machines and randomly twitching from the ammonia poisoning that was now soaking her insides. The odor was pungent and upsetting.

An hour passed, I had to move the car out of the garage and feed the dogs dinner. Moments later, I got an urgent call beset by panic. “Come in, Hurry!” The mind doesn’t prepare you for death’s horrorshow. Hanil was receiving CPR and in the process, her eye had nearly burst out of its socket, her white tongue hung listlessly out of her sad jaw and they were pressing upon her chest in a brutal, rhythmic pulse. I exclaimed curses and begged them to stop. The last few minutes were terrible as I waited for someone to translate to me what happened. But, I knew.

Back in the little private room, we wrapped her in a blanket and sat sobbing. I wanted this terrible day to end, so we began the 70-minute journey to World Pet, a crematorium near the ocean. In the countryside, crying and confused, Jordan asked, “Where is she now?” I began a sentence when from our right, out of the cornfield, a meter-wide wing span swooped in front of the car, forcing us to brake in terror amid our stunned screams. It was a beautiful owl. We cried and trembled in fear before imagining a wonderful thought. It was our hope than Hanil traded in her sub-par eyes through re-incarnation for the animal kingdom’s best.

World Pet had a nice, clean candlelit altar, incense hung in the air. The man brought us a small box into which we placed a flower and her body. A long, lugubrious half hour later, we had a tiny urn and box which read “Hanil is in the origin of the soul. September 11, 2016.” The general burden of that date was not lost on me as we exited to the sound of deep rolling thunder. There was distant lightning as a misty rain fell. The rain fell harder as we drove away. It stopped suspiciously quickly after we mentioned how it felt like Hanil was crying with us, and the road was dry the rest of the way home.

Our little apartment was full of painful reminders: Tupperware full of blended foods, medicines and syringes scattered on the table, mesh shorts piled in a cozy circle beside my side of the bed, wet tissue for cleaning up accidents. I was home, and finally able to cry, unabated into my pillow.

The sun rose in a gleaming yellow flood upon our living room. We hugged and stared the distant gaze of loss that all pet owners feel at some point. We whimpered in sadness and tried to assure ourselves of her good life. We grieved and thanked her for her love. We wondered if she heard.

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A Short List of 20 Little Differences

When I returned to Korea after a year traveling SE Asia, Italy and USA, I was curious what I would notice, what changed, what feelings I’d re-experience, what would bother, excite or challenge me this time. Turns out, it’s the same same but different. The language is a hard barrier, but comforting in that you don’t have to constantly eavesdrop out of curiosity. The public transit is fantastic. The food, as referenced many times before, is outstanding.

So I realized, it’s the little differences. Example. Well, you can go to McDonald’s and order a quarter pounder with cheese, but they don’t have any real hard “R’s” in their language, so you have to say, “Qwatah poundah wis cheejuh.” It’s not that difficult, but you feel slightly condescending and infantilizing to the counterperson, who is probably grateful that you spoke in a dialect they can understand. I’ve approached the counter and seen waitstaff run to grab their colleague who speaks English and then giggle along as I give my order. Therefore, here is a completely random: “short list of little differences in Korea”.

  1. Bathrooms have bar soap. This is not exclusively true, but in any random public bathroom you can expect to see a bar of Irish Spring sitting in a putrid marsh of ancient bubbles and stagnant water. Sometimes it’s jammed onto a small pole so you just kinda grab it like a “you know what” and get a little soapy.
  2. Old people can be either extremely cute, lovely and helpful OR mean, rude and disrespectful. But I imagine they feel the same way toward us foreigners. It is also highly dependent on how you are behaving at the time.
  3. There are NO public trashcans. This is incomprehensible. Trash is laying all over the place waiting to be picked up by neon vested men when they could just put a big black receptacle on corners to assist the 10 million Seoulites who need to toss their granola wrapper and coffee cup.
  4. Karaoke is a private, not public affair. In the U.S. I remember singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and thinking, “I’ve made a huge, tiny mistake” as I bored the drunken crowd with my somehow off-pitch falsetto and histrionic gyrations. In Korea, you pay 20$ and 5-10 friends sing and dance together with plenty of soju libations.
  5. School NOT sports. Kids don’t play after school sports. They go directly to hagwons, i.e. “cram schools.” They may play some pick up games on Sundays in tiny playgrounds, but I rarely see a ball in hand without a bag on back.
  6. TV is all undisguised reality and cooking/eating. The reality shows aren’t beautiful people in beautiful places. It’s a Dad feeding ramen to his baby. It’s a guy who owns a pig and a dog. It’s an old man hiking. It’s old ladies making kimchi. The cooking shows are kind of commercials for a restaurant or locale in Korea with everyone slurping and exclaiming, as far as I can tell, the only compliment for food, “mashida”–which translates loosely to “has taste.”
  7. Baseball is a crazy event with hot cheerleaders, constant singing/chants and balloon waving. In USA, it’s called the national pastime and according to George Carlin, “a 19th century pastoral game…where the object is to go home and to be safe at home!” Here, it’s like soccer hooligans switched sports.
  8. There are no dryers. Yes, laundromats have them, but who will walk down the street to do a load? With apartment space at a premium, they just use the drying racks. I wonder if they know about the stackable washer/dryer.
  9. Fans can cause death. This is an old wives tale, and completely ridiculous. I lived in Texas where you use both A/C and fans. The fan didn’t push the air away from my mouth thereby rendering me unconscious leading to eventual snoozing asphyxiation.
  10. Food trash is separate. This makes sense. I’ve heard they used the methane from food trash to make energy. And if you’ve ever smelled week old, laid out in the humid summer kimchi, you’d want that smell working for you.
  11. Shoes come off inside. I tried to maintain my shoes off routine back in Philadelphia, but my socks kept getting so dirty! With small apartments (my bed is literally 5 steps from the door) you need to maintain cleanliness.
  12. People are terrified of dogs. My dog does look like a wolf, but my friend walks her 12 year old spaniel and says she sees the faces of terror from Koreans as they sprint away. I think they’re afraid of the returning karma for eating dogs for so long.
  13. Parks have exercise equipment. Lots of parks have only old lady type machines for stretching and pseudo toning, but some have pull up bars, body weight machines or an actual bar with plates for bench press. How long before those weights got stolen in America?
  14. Every activity requires perfect “gear.” This is a bit of the conformity complex of Korea. They can choose the color, but the style is the same. If you’re hiking, wear the cool mountain trekker get-up. If you’re biking, spandex and fancy shoes. If you’re swimming, cap and goggles. If you’re riding the subway, earplugs and smartphones.
  15. Diversity is basically non-existent. Sure, there are a few hundred thousand foreigners in Seoul, which is maybe 5% of the population. That means that at any given street corner, subway platform, ATM, food stall, music performance, park or beach, you are usually the only one with natural brown hair or blue eyes. And if not, you eye that foreigner with suspicion.
  16. Girls show legs but never cleavage. The girls have long, soft, shapely legs and generally less up top. Work what your mamma gave ya. This is best evidenced by K-Pop girls.
  17. Men like to dress preppy. No socks, rolled cuffs, button down, sweaters tossed purposefully casually over the shoulders, shiny watch and clean shoes. It’s like they saw that poster from my Catholic prep high school and made it the cultural norm.
  18. Side Dishes are free and unlimited. This goes along with the outstanding food tradition of Korea. The kimchi is free and delicious–mashida! Ask your waitress at Applebees for more vegetables for free and see if you get it.
  19. There are 3 kinds of beer, all with the same taste. Drinking is mostly obligatory and since all three kinds of beer suck, and soju is flavorless rubbing alcohol; it makes partying more of a chore than a tasty accident. To be fair, micro brews are booming and soju is now flavored…they’re learning.
  20. Men smoke the equivalent of Virginia Slims like a gangster. They have these little slim 100’s and hold them like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Smoking is already not cool, and the thin tobacco holster isn’t helping.90_pulpfiction_royale

Why MERS Matters

A new lethal disease from some far-flung corner of the world has made its way into the headlines again. MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) has invaded Korea and set the country in a minor panic as it has killed two people and infected dozens in only two weeks. In 2003, SARS became a major concern when it killed over 700 people in six months before finally being contained. There are hundreds of epidemics throughout recorded history, with the deadliest coming before the age of modern medicine. That knowledge gives us an unjustified confidence that with science, we will always be able to contain these pathogens.

If we can learn anything from Hollywood movies like Contagion, Outbreak or even the fictional zombie apocalypses, we know that eventually, some badass virus with a malicious swagger will come along to remind us that nature’s innate, self-sustaining cruelty doesn’t respect our revolutionary medical remedies. These biological anomalies, these parasitical, self-driven monsters can be seen as nature’s cure for overpopulation. In the same way that there is a food chain to maintain balance, viruses have or will one day have transplanted themselves above humans atop that sequence.

Our precarious global population explosion of the past two hundred years, most notably since the 1960’s at around a one billion-person increase per 15 years, must be unsustainable. Climate change, as effected by massive deforestation, factory farming, unsafe pollution levels, melting glaciers and humanity’s unwillingness to observe let alone reduce the causes could be influencing both the macro and microscopic levels of life. Not only could many coastal cities be flooded within a century at current levels of sea rise, but also the tiny organisms surrounding us may become more malevolent and destructive.

Why should we be so arrogant to think that nothing could stop these paradigms of perfection known as people? Why should we believe in the power of science to save these specimens of superiority from disaster? There is no cure or vaccine for MERS. Fortuitously, it isn’t highly contagious and we seem to be able to contain it due to fairly quick (less than a week) symptom detection. What happens when there comes along a little bug, a little bug who studied human behavior, and learned how to be passed along through the air or through skin contact or how to stay dormant for weeks? The idea should be terrifying. Barring a calamitous, yet nevertheless inevitable meteor strike, a pandemic is the next most believable end for modern society.

I see my confusingly confident friends haughtily lambasting Korean parents for keeping their children home from school. I see Facebook hater groups laughing off school closings due to this serious disease as if it was a pre-cancellation for a typhoon that never arrived (see: Typhoon Bolaven). Yes, Korea will probably quarantine the right people, an unlucky few will die and the panic will subside. I’m just worried about the time when quarantine becomes numerically unfeasible, the unlucky become the majority and the panic becomes hysteria. Until then, maybe we should cancel school this week. It’s better to be safe than sorry. <wink>

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Top 6 Responses When I Tell People, “I Live in Korea.”

I’ve lived in Korea for five calendar years and have traveled around the world as well as come back home to the USA a few times. People sometimes ask me where I live, and I noticed that there are a few questions people ask when they hear the words, “I live in Korea.” Centuries ago, it was called the “Hermit Kingdom” as there was so little known of the oft forgotten peninsula between the two formidable Asian giants, China and Japan. Before I came here, I didn’t know much either and probably would have asked these same questions. So, this is not a post designed to shame the clueless or disgrace the inexperienced. After all, we’re all experts and idiots in one area or another.

1) “North or South?” OR “Aren’t you afraid of North Korea?”

Although Kim Jong-Un is a plump, egomaniacal, scion of brainwashing zealots and a perfect case of foolish nepotism, his nation is of no more concern to South Koreans than Americans are afraid of a Canadian military attack. I’m greatly exaggerating the point; however, North Korea’s craziness remains north of the 38th parallel. Because of the war in the early 50’s yet despite the historical relation, today’s North and South are polar opposites. The yearly U.S.-Korean joint war-games usually pisses off whichever rotund Kim happens to be dictating at the time and some military posturing ensues.

Where South Korea has TV, Internet, excess amounts of delicious food, political and for the most part (Confucian society (i.e.: collective hierarchy) is deeply ingrained and restrains many social processes)) societal freedom, North Korea has none of that, and instead has statues and framed photos of their god-kings. It’s a stupid response but even stupider and hurtful when posed to an actual Korean. My Korean girlfriend hated when we traveled through SE Asia and people would ask her, “North or South.” North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave the country for fear of them never returning, or worse, returning with a tacky t-shirt and knowledge of an open and free world outside their tiny half peninsula of despotic tyranny.

*A better question: “How is the South Korean government changing their policies regarding maritime guidelines in response to the Sewol disaster?”

 2) “Do you eat a lot of sushi?”

This one isn’t really that bad, because there is sushi in Korea, but it is more of a Japanese dish, not Korean. The sushi in Korea is expensive, but can be found anywhere. It’s a dish that is too clean and polished for normal Korean cuisine. Most Korean food is in combination or mingled form, like soups or the numerous side dishes called “banchon.” Japan is orderly and beautiful, like sushi. Korea is rushed but satisfying, like BBQ. Obviously comparing a country’s attributes to food is a generalization, but sometimes apt.

*A better question: “Do you eat a lot of kimchi?”

 3) “What’s the weather like?”

This one has an easy answer for me because Philadelphia is on the same parallel lines of the globe as Korea, so we have similar weather, vegetation and trees. But not every foreigner is from my latitude, so this one can be a good question for those from the southern climes or another hemisphere. Technically, the weather has four seasons, but winter is the boss. He arrives in time for Halloween in an angry, horror show snowman suit complete with whistling Siberian winds and bone chilling temps. Summer is sticky, hot and humid and has a month of almost perpetual rain, whereas spring and fall are completely wonderful with blooming flowers or flamboyant colors of autumn foliage respectively.

*A better question: “Does Chinese pollution affect you?” (Yes, it does.)

4) “I have a friend/relative who teaches in ___________.” (Not Korea, but it’s their only contribution to such an outlandish statement and a mild confusion of all Asia as one.)

I actually find this one to be endearing. Asia isn’t a place many people will visit in their lives. It’s literally on the other side of the world from the Americas. The follow up to this question is, “Do they like it?” And the answer is usually affirmative, which makes for an easier introduction about my reasons for living here. Asia opens up new possibilities and increases cultural awareness. Smelling the street fires of Cambodia, partying in Thailand, feeling the history of Vietnam and Laos, bowing in Japan, people-watching in China or laying on the beaches of the Philippines seems like such a distant dream until you live within one hour of the immaculate Incheon airport. Traveling is a major perk for expats. The road is a liberating place to feel comfortable inside of your own anxiety. Since you are a foreigner, there is a certain amount of exemption from the strict societal frameworks of some Asian cultures. You can get away without bowing, but if you do, you’re golden. You can get away without speaking the language, but if you do, you’re heaped with praised. Which brings me to the next point…

*This one was a statement, but anyway—a better question: “Why did you move there?”

5) “Do you speak Korean?”

When asked this, I inevitably ask myself, “Why don’t I speak Korean?” I’ve lived in Korea for several years and I’ve just never committed to fully learning the language. There’s many excuses: difficulty, lack of time, everyone speaks English, but they’re not good excuses. Some foreigners will devote some time and get decent or even fluent enough to be a part of the crazy Korean reality TV scene. I fell into each category. The Korean alphabet took me one day to learn, but the speaking part is not so quick to absorb. After work, I barely have time to juice my biceps at the gym, shower, eat a meal and watch a quick Daily Show before it’s time to hit the sack and do it all again! Also, it’s true that anybody you hang out with will speak English. Yet, the inherent truth is that maybe you could meet new (non-English speaking) people if you could communicate in their language.

*A better question, so that you won’t make me feel apathetic and lazy: “How do you say, ‘Thank you’ in Korean?”

 6) “I’ve always wanted to do that.” (You can.)

This is the rare response from the person whose eyes light up with the phantasmagorical dreams of Oriental life with bustling floating markets, neon-lit crosswalks, bizarre street foods, copious rice paddies, or sparkling emerald waters. These people are genuinely interested in your experience. They want to know more. They want to know how you did it. OR, they are not interested at all, completely happy in their life and had thought about it once in passing during a sunny happy hour in the week after university graduation. The fact is, anyone with a college degree can teach in Korea or Japan. Non-college graduates with at least a desire to teach, travel and live abroad can go to Thailand, Vietnam or China. It’s a wide-open world for English speakers. I’ve even met Filipinos, Germans and Dutch who speak such good English that they get hired as “Native Speakers.”

*Again, another statement—but a better second question is: “Do you think I would like it?”

I recommend the experience to most people. One-year contracts go really fast; and a friend of mine told me long ago that everyone should teach at least once in their life. If you are working in a job that isn’t your career, recently had a bad break-up and need to get away, living at home and don’t know how to move out, desire travel opportunities or simply crave an adventure, this is a good choice.

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Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

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What Happens When the Person You Love Is Abusive?

I tried to write about this before and didn’t like the outcome. But, the fact is, this issue is important to me. Today, October 1, marks the 3-year anniversary of when I landed in Seoul, Korea. I wasn’t just a post-grad looking for teaching experience abroad. I’d lived abroad, I’d been a teacher for years by then, I’d also recently escaped a tortured relationship. I was looking for a place where nothing would remind me of the past. I found it. I found good people who thought I was good, despite what I had come to believe about myself. I found my own feet not covered with eggshells, I found my own ideas not littered with scorn, and I found my sense of humor (repressed for fear of reprisal) again. Although I could have gone anywhere, I went to Korea. Within a month, I met the most beautiful woman I know, and now our 3-year anniversary is approaching. 6 years—broken into two parts, have given me a picture of what relationships can be.

This is a personal blog. Yet, this particular topic is personal to a depth that I might never fully devolve to anyone. But the superficial details are necessary to continue. In 2008, I met a girl, we argued constantly; the stock market crashed, my job sucked; she didn’t want to break up, there were no other jobs, therefore, I stayed in my belligerent relationship and stayed in my sucky job. I lived that life for three years. Finding solace wherever I could, video games, sports, cooking, exercise but mostly in three of the best cats I’ve ever known.

This was not a one-sided abusive relationship to be clear. We tortured each other. We loved each other in ways that made no sense to someone outside the situation. We hated that we loved each other, we hated that we fought so much, we hated that we disagreed on almost everything, but we stayed together. The moments of good could get us through the moments of bad. It was verbally and physically abusive on both sides. It was mentally and spiritually draining. It was scary, stupid, but mostly boring. Who wants to have the same argument ad nauseum? Cops would arrive at our door responding to a neighbor’s complaint. Plans would be cancelled with terrible excuses because we couldn’t be seen in public. No security deposit was ever returned back from either of the two apartments due to the broken doors and holes in the drywall. The cats would run into the other room and sit right next to each other in a row with ears tucked back, eyes fully alert in our direction. It makes me cry to think about those gentle little furrballs who loved us and just wanted to lie in our laps as we all watched an “X-Files” re-run. There are more nights than I can remember of staring at the clock, after scream arguing until we both lost our voices, when no alarm clock was necessary, I couldn’t wait to go to my crappy job. Family, friends and dreams became weapons. Hopes and aspirations could only go one way—there was only enough support in the relationship for one person to succeed at a time. Someone had to constantly give and someone had to consistently take—and that is a precarious, unsustainable balance. There was never compromising, only sour capitulation.

I reached a personal limit when I literally heard both the girlfriend and my mother say to me on the same day, “Don’t you f@#%ing do this to me!” I realized when given the option to choose. I must side with my loving, caring, supportive mom. I left the relationship with a battered soul. It took years to get past the derision and contempt spouted at me with spiteful eyes from someone who I used to love. It took a brave, beautiful woman’s love and many nights spent venting over cheeseburgers with patient, tolerant friends to move in my own direction.

Then I saw Ray Rice’s elevator punch, followed by the hollow eyes and callous behavior. I knew those hollow eyes. I knew that feeling of not caring. I don’t know the immense anger to resort to full out haymaker. I would never support his actions. I also don’t think the question, “What did she do to deserve it?” or “Did she provoke it” are applicable. In those relationships, anything or even nothing can provoke abuse. Any misstep, any miscalculation of mood, any eggshell can break leaving both in a terrible mess. These terrible relationships are all over the world. 25% of women, and 8% of men in America have dealt with physical violence. I can only imagine the numbers are higher for verbal abuse. I hear people say, “Why doesn’t he/she just leave her/him?” Leaving isn’t easy. Suicide threats, homicide threats, casual threats, nasty threats, loss of children, loss of property, loss of pets, and the unknown, frightening future among others are all featured prominently in a decision to leave. That strange world of abuse has become your world, and the picture of security isn’t easily imagined. Remember, a person is at their weakest at the moment of trying to leave. The strength you feel today if you are in a solid relationship; it’s the opposite if you are in an abusive one. That’s not even mentioning the religious factor in some relationships.

Where does one turn in those times? Some have alienated their friends and family from years of defending the abusive partner. Some don’t possess friends and family. Some live far away from a support system. Some, despite knowing better deep in their heart, keep hoping for the best, that maybe, their partner will change.

Abuse lives and breathes, grows in private and rots from within. It doesn’t respect gender, race, size, wealth, or religion. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need motives. It simply exists in the dark, shadowy spaces of previous abuses, unreconciled losses, persecuted minds, arbitrarily punished, systematically brutalized and mistreated souls within us all. There is not one soul inside. There survives the amalgam of all our choices, our memories, and our awareness. The duality of dark and light lives in all things. Some push that evil darkness on others. Many lights are extinguished. Some lights escape. But the light that escapes, gains strength while always cognizant, that one heavy, horrible gust can put that light out again.

Happily, my battle ended in the light. My last three years have been as memorably joyous as my anxious brain and pessimistic outlook will allow. New and old friends seem to enjoy my company thereby giving me confidence that I may still be fun to be around. My adorable and amazing girlfriend continues to shower me with affection that I contentedly return. My wonderfully weird family is a never-ending source of strength. So, I remain forcefully hopeful with grateful moments of acceptance that such a painful past provides the prudence to part with agony, seeking the inclination to limitlessly love the who, what, where, when and why of my life.

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Super Bowl Surprise

It’s my third Super Bowl in Korea. My third big game watched after work on Monday night like some kind of schnook eating spaghetti with ketchup and imitation Doritos, washing it down with a Ramen Cup. Football is the most American of all sports. Like most of us mutt based Americans, it’s a mixture of lots of different sports. But, it was always the sport that brings young boys desperate to hit each other a chance for semi-organized mayhem. Therefore, it was one of my favorites. Like soccer, all you needed was a big field and the requisite ball. But the big difference being in football you can smash your friends once the game starts.

My British and Canadian co-teachers didn’t understand my desire to go Internet, Facebook and cell phone blackout so as to prevent seeing the score before actually watching the game. Alexander was the prime mover of this little charade. “Oh, yeah, the Super Bowl. Broncos won in a nail-biter. You mean you didn’t watch it! Oh, sorry bro.” He was also the same mugg who robbed me of being unsurprised when the Eagles lost their playoff game in true Philadelphia fashion a month ago. It’s okay. I was expecting it being the only American at my school. I just kept my head down and put in my 9 hours.

I left a rather enjoyable day at school (my first day in two full weeks without feeling the effects of the nasty Korean flu) and headed to the chicken wing shop. I was surprised to hear the man spoke decent English. I put in my order for “red wings” and virtually sprinted down the street to pick up my cheese crusted pepperoni pizza. I had planned everything so that I could get the pizza just in time to run back down the street to pick up the wings as they were being individually and lovingly dusted with spicy sauce. Everything was coming up Milhouse!

The Jack Frost infused wind was biting my nose with the last breath of winter. BBQ meat, the ubiquitous perfume of Seoul, was wafting all around me in a warm smoky way. My pizza’s steam was heating my right hand and I had that anxious yet comfortable pre Super Bowl tension. Will Manning be able to handle the Seahawks nightmare secondary? Will “Beast Mode” come out running hard? Will Richard Sherman get a pick-6 to silence the haters? Will the big running attack of Denver bust up the Seattle D-line? Whatever happens, I’m ready because I don’t know and surprise is the element of sports that I crave. The revelation of winning is always surpassed by HOW they win. In every game, there is a winner and loser, but what will happen before the final buzzer?

So, my natural high of anticipation carried me, slightly panting, into Kyochon Chicken, a little hole in the wall delivery place to pick up my overpriced, but satisfactory wings. I had managed to avoid the KBS news broadcast in the pizza place and waited outside until the ajumma walked out my pie with a mixed smile of confusion and generosity. I had made it the whole day not looking at a computer or a cell phone and was almost home. I had 20 wings being put into a box, a pizza, chocolate, corn chips, an apple and beer. The game was queued up on the website and everything was ready to go. It’s a feeling American Football fans only get once a year. It takes patience to recreate it in a foreign land. I handed my card to the young man who was, as some are wont to do, eager to practice English. He said, “Hey, Shehawkuh! Football. Shehawkuhs win! Right?”

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