Sunday, December 25, 2011

Semisweet

Perhaps it was an inherent sense of masochism that led me to do some of the things I do; however, I still did them.

So, while I had finally recovered a little from the cold and was happily getting ready to spend my last week and a half in the states, I figured it was as good a time as any to embark on a frivolous self-improvement project.

I liked frivolous self-improvement projects and this one is a doozey. I’d been reading for a while about the impact of sugar on the body. Seeing as how I had given up red meat, pork, pasta, rice, and potatoes, already, taking the leap off the no-sugar cliff really didn’t seem like all that big a deal at this point.

As it was October first I decided to go for it and just stopped eating sugar. To prepare for this I spent the better part of the road trip really enjoying sugar. Each time I stopped to enjoy the sugar I would read the label, just to let myself know how much sugar it was I was enjoying. Each time saying goodbye to some food that I really didn’t want to give up, but you know, the sugar thing; maybe it’s just that I like to be impossible to eat out with.

Overall my experience had been positive. I stopped basically all grains, fruit, and processed food. My diet consisted of lots of chicken and fish when I want it, green veggies that I enjoyed, and cheese. Toss in some wine every now and again and you have happy me! In reality it wasn’t that much of a change. The worst week, was in fact, the hardest.

There was something about sugar, that sweet syrupy mistress. She was always there to comfort you, beckoning your taste buds with promises of the sweet, sweet reward that she had just in reach for you. Oh, sweets...you could smell her everywhere you go, that wispy warm perfume rising up from baked goods, sweetened coffee, and thickened sauces.Your mind just salivates with the potential of such saccharine succor. Mind and tongue, to be true, and without thinking it was easy to find oneself reaching forward to pick up just the tiniest morsel to prove your love once again and cave into sweet comforting satisfaction.

This was was struck me the most about the first few days without sugar. That sugar was just simply everywhere; it was as unavoidable as the rising sun. It could not be avoided, around you everyone else was enjoying it, and you alone are sitting there, neglecting that simple satisfying sanguine release that sugar is most sure to provide. Since I had spent a week reading labels and before that a good three weeks researching sugar, I knew what I was getting into. I trained myself to think about all the foods I was eating as a form of non-food. Sure, I will see people eating them, but I will remind myself that there is nothing in those things that is actually representative of food.

The first day this worked well. The second day I avoided it by barricading myself in my office and being offended at my unsweetened naked coffee. The third day I wanted to sell the monkey for a little bite of sweet. That’s when I realized the most intense grip of the sugary addition. I love the dog to tiny little judgmental pieces, but the thought of trading him in a heartbeat for some pecan pie occurred to me several times throughout the day. The fourth day it just stopped.

It was an odd and unexpected thing, in fact. Everything just stopped. Craving food, food desires, food dreams, hunger pangs, all of it was just gone. There was sort of a patina on the world that made everything a bit dull. I ate because I knew I sort of needed to, but there was not sense of desire or frenzy in it. I looked at sugary, lovely, processed, foods and felt nothing. All things considered, my break up with sugar had one of the shortest mourning periods ever. By the weekend I was ready to go to a restaurant, and did so, having amazingly good Greek food with the Bard at Santorini’s downtown. I picked a meal that was in line with my new found look at life, and enjoyed eating out for the first time that week.  I explained to her what was going on.

“You know, with this, it means there is basically only one person I know who is not on a restrictive diet,” she told me. As a gang we really do take the fun out of eating together.

Since then I had had many more meals both in and out and all of them lacked that sweet undercoating that girds the world. There were days now when I could say with honesty that I missed sugar, but what I missed was not the taste, but the convenience. When you stopped eating sugar you gave up the convenience of being able to eat when you want to eat, what you want to eat, what you can eat. Eating on the run was a handful of almonds and a hope for some cheese. There was a great deal of water and a great deal of waiting. There was also the patience and the sometimes heartbreaking trauma of watching as everyone around you enjoyed food they could eat while you realized you would have to make do on sparkling water and coffee until you could find a tin of tuna somewhere to break into.

As a grand experiment it was going about as well as can be expected. Because I do nothing half-assed, I expected this one to last from anywhere from six months to a year before I re-evaluate and determine if I missed sugar enough to give her another chance to be a part of my life. In the meantime I would continue to getting by as best I can while comforting myself that it is all for the best.

The inherent masochism continued to present itself as a much more understandable reason.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Aftermath

The Tapes and Tapes show was so good, I figured that being sick was mostly a result of having walked around a very chilly Chicago during the late fall.

On the train after the show my head hurt a bit, but I chalked it up to general tiredness and went off home and slept. By the next day I had lost all hearing in my right ear and my ear was very tender. I wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong, but being that I was in the US I knew that I couldn’t afford to do much about it.

The earache turned into a right proper head cold and for the next week I went through the thrashes of a full-on sinus infection. My worry was mounting as I was about to board a plan for Korea and wasn't sure if I would still have a stuffed-up head for the flight. While I still felt punk during my trip, for the most part I was okay.

However, once in Korea the hearing did not improve. Nor did the low-level earache that seemed to have decided to become a constant thing. I wanted the earache gone, which meant it was time to go see my friendly ENT.

The last time I had been to the ENT was for the final checkup after having had my tonsillectomy back in 2009. They took great care of me for the months of catastrophic tonsillitis that eventually lead to the loss of tonsils, and I knew they would do right by me in regards to the earache, so I went there.

Being between health insurance cards did not bother me in the least, I knew the price would be more than a little affordable, so I went. It was a late-evening visit because the office would not be so busy. Today I had the older doctor, who spoke great English and looked like he was 90. He took at a look at my ear and said, “There is a some kind of bad waxy buildup.”

He filled my head with ear drops and asked me to come back the next day to get the earwax out. After the diagnosis I was more than a little embarrassed. I tried to keep my ears clean, so I was surprised to learn that I had very alarming waxy buildup that had caused deafness. However, to keep my spirits up, I reminded myself that I had had a rather nasty sinus cold and whatever it was could be left over from that.

I went back the next day to see the ENT and was greeted by the younger doctor, who was happy to see me alive and well after the tonsil debacle and asked how I was doing generally. He looked in my ear and said, “Yes, I can see the obstruction. We need to work on that,” and put me up on the table.

They laid me out on a table and stuck long sharp instruments that I don’t want to imagine in my ear and pulled things out of my ear.

“Have you been putting things in your ear?”

“No?” I said confused.

“No, you put something in your ear.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“All finished.” I sat up and he showed me the  pieces of ear plug that I had used during the Tapes and Tapes concert. The doctor also thoroughly scolded me for putting things in my ear, even after I tried to explain it was a really, really cheap ear plug. In the end, I was just happy to be able to mostly hear again. It took a few days for the ear to totally start doing its job again, and I still have a little trouble, but over all my general health has returned.

The show was still worth it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tapes 'n Tapes Again, My Love of Music

Is my writing out of order?

No, you’re out of order.

Ridiculous to say, since you, dear reader, have nothing to do with the order in which I write and couldn’t really be out of order if you tried. Well I suppose you could if you wanted to comment upon it, but I’d probably not respond because I am entirely wrapped up in myself most of the time. I also realize that this journal is my own little universe and I am at the center of it.

While in Chicago, and just before the crazy randomness that was my departure, I did get a chance to go to at least one rock show, and this was important because I need my concerts. It makes me so happy to join with a happy group of audiophiles and just simply geek out to my favorite bands.

This was a second take on a favorite band, Tapes 'n Tapes. Just like the first time I got to see them live they released a new album. Oh, Tapes 'n Tapes. Theirs is an album of transcendent, swinger, guitar bliss that occasionally included trumpets. The trumpet is an under-appreciated instrument and more people should include them in bands. So when I saw that just before I was flitting out of the country again I’d have a chance for Tapes 'n Tapes, well it was a chance I would have to take.

I went to the city a little late for the show. It was cold and I was wearing a fairly warm hoodie, but the weather for some reason began to put me off. My magic box of knowledge was not helping matters by leading me in all the wrong directions when I was out and looking for a coffee shop to write in before the show. I eventually ended up walking a good mile the wrong way before walking a mile back the other way to find a Starbucks. On the walk I started to feel more than a little dizzy and unsure as to the exact nature of the dizziness. A cup of coffee later and I was feeling more like myself, with writing almost completed. To finish up I took a quick break in a bar and then headed off for a lovely dinner in a fabulous Mexican place where the bartender politely hit on me and bought me a couple of drinks. Always appreciated.

The show started and it was…

Imagine these tall lanky men on stage with their guitars, but the guitars are not just instruments but extensions of their bodies. The keyboard is a tool that expresses in musical notes words that express joy and pain and sorrow and absolution all at once. The words are so real, and so deep, and so pressing, that you are lost under a pressure of appreciation. The voice is loud, and just slightly off, with a subtle growl and nasal twang that rides under the notes and yet this only works to give the artist more character and the lyrics more meaning. They don’t play the music, they are the music, the audience is the music, there is nothing but the most transcend appreciation for what they play. They love what they play, and you can tell as you watch them work the instruments and play the songs, and sing, and jump, and dance, that they love it. They love every minute of playing and the audiences joy.

I will admit to putting in some cheap ear plugs, but only because I was standing dead in front of the front of the stage and didn’t want to be entirely deaf at the end of the show. After finishing the show they gave me the set list, and that didn’t hurt, but that wasn’t why I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because it moved beyond merely enjoyable to a most satisfying musical experience. 

The show was more than worth the punishment I later endured for it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Six Days Later

The sun is really shining this morning. It’s Friday in Korea, and Monday's news has interrupted the other blogs I still need to post. I'm getting around to it, I promise. In the meantime, since there is some curiosity as to what is going on in Korea, I thought I might mention a bit more.

On Monday afternoon while I was trying to finish up work so I could go have lunch, the reports started to role in that Kim Jong Il had died. I waited until there was confirmation from at least three other news sources to believe it.

I was sitting with the Irish and we were about to have lunch, so a quick discussion ensued.

“What happened?”

“Kim Jong Il died.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“What should we do?”

This was a pretty reasonable question because, sitting in South Korea at the moment, a moment that many world leaders have had high-end think tanks trying to work out for years, was suddenly very uncomfortable.

So, I called people. I was trying not to freak out, but it was kind of freak-out news.

“I want to run into the street and tell every foreigner I meet the news,” The Irish said. It was that kind of news.

A quick call to the Kiterunner brought no new news.

“I left my bailout bag at home. Bad day to do it.”

“You think the shit is going to hit the fan that hard?”

“Probably not, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep your passport on you for the next few weeks. I’d put in water and some food to.”

“Yeah, we will stock up on that.”

“Anyway, you guys have much less to worry about, that far south. Much closer to the bailout point if it comes to that.”

The bailout point was Busan to Japan and then to America. It was a route we went over every couple of years just to be sure.

After the phone calls we went to lunch. Life in Daegu was pretty much normal. Then we went to a movie, which seemed like a good way to distract from the news.

The next day I was talking to my business partner and I asked what his wife thought of all the goings down, her being Korean and all.

“Mostly she couldn’t understand why there was nothing else to watch on TV.”

The Korean on-the-street reaction is about the same. For the most part, people just didn't care that much. We knew it happened, we knew it was important, and the South Korean government was taking some flack for not knowing that Jong Il had died on Saturday, but other than that, things had gone smoothly.

Since the transition to Kim Jung Un’s regime was holding up, everyone just wanted to remain calm. It seemed that Jung Un’s first official act as head of the military was to have the military stand down. The morning of his father’s death troops were ordered to basically stay put and pulled back a bit from the border. There could have been a number of reasons for this, but the primary one appeared to be to prevent defectors during the transition. South Korea expressed its condolences to the people, something that did not happen when Jong Il’s father died which increased tensions for a while.

In all, Jung Un’s control of the military seems firm. The unofficial but reliable source in North Korea is saying that Jung Un does not have an iron fist, his youth being part of the problem. Instead he is sharing power with a cabal that includes his elder uncle. However it also looks like the younger generation is beginning to move into power gaps to shore up Jung Un’s control in the country and legitimize his claim a bit more.

The North Koreans are mourning. The screaming, shouting, falling down, that can all be pretty typical of mourning; even in South Korea we see that kind of display. In the North the rumors that many are faking it to prevent themselves from being disappeared; is most likely true.

Interestingly enough there has been absolutely no word from the US Embassy to those of us living in South Korea, which means that either the Embassy doesn’t think it’s that big a deal, or doesn’t want American citizens freaking out and jumping the country for any number of diplomatic reasons. It’s hard to say.
I’m trying to sort out work things and watching the moves China makes closely. Since China is the only country that has real diplomatic relations with NK, they are a pretty good predictor. At the moment they are expressing condolences, and imploring everyone to remain calm. Until further notice that is what I’m going to do.

With my passport on hand, of course.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kim Jong Il has died

While workingafter a weekend of nothing but workingI was sitting in a coffee shop when my virtual co-worker mentioned that State TV was reporting that Kim Jong Il had died.

So far it has been confirmed now. This all happened about ten minutes ago:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2011/12/201112193620221153.html


I like Al Jazeera. CNN, Reuters, and AP are all confirming, as has Yonhap.

I have a feeling we are about to have exciting times in Korea.

The funny thing is, as I look at the window on this bright and sunny day it all just looks like business as usual.
Life, in Korea, goes on.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Take Off

A road trip later and I was back in Chicago. I barely touched the ground, had some Greek food, and saw the Balance with a small contingent of house guests before I headed back on my way to Korea.

It does sound rushed; it is. It felt like a blur and during it I had no time to think about much anything at all. I was getting my bags packed at the very, very last minute and trying to figure out the best way to get to my plane and to get back on the ground in Korea.

Again.

It seemed like after all this time getting on a plane and taking off should be the most uneventful thing in the world, but it still, after all this time, amused some part of me. Ten years ago I got on a plane for the first time, and now getting on a plane to head to Korea was just the most normal thing in the world. The seats were comfy enough, and while I was supposed to bring my dog, alas, the monkey decided to come down with the kind of cold that would not pass quarantine so I could not bring him back on this trip. He shall visit a vet again soon, and should be all clear to return to the ROK in late December. This is a day that I am much looking forward to; the munchkin is missed.

As it was, since I did not have my dog, it seemed that the airline decided that I would be a good choice to sit with a dog owner who was flying with her pet on the trip. The very polite Korean girl had a three-year-old miniature poodle in the case under her seat, and he was a rambunctious dog. What he wanted, more than anything else, was to be in her lap. And he was more than happy to bark to make that happen.

The girl very politely kept apologizing for the barking dog. The dog kept barking, escaping from his crate and crawling up to her legs. This went on for about five minutes before she finally just put the dog in her lap.

“The stewardess will want him in the case for take off.”

“Oh, yes, of course, for take off.”

That dog never went back in the case. He did stay warm and snuggly on the flight, did not bark or make a stir aside from a bit of snoring, and everyone seemed happy to ignore his presence.

I landed in Korea feeling both happy to be back with a sense of homecoming, and sad, with an odd wave of homesickness that has yet to shake me.

I kept reminding myself the monkey would be coming soon.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Road Trip

We took an extensive road trip while in the States. The purpose of the journey was to see family on the east coast that is getting frailer as time passes. It’s amazing how quickly time can pass. I think of time in Korea as a drop in the bucket, but ten years have come and gone here. There are pieces of me scattered all over multiple countries now. Time keeps moving, and one day you stop to realize everyone else has gotten older, and everyone else has changed, and every place else has changed, and even more surprising, you have changed. I look in a mirror and see the same person, but with subtle little signs that tell me I am not the 25-year-old that landed in Korea ten years ago.

Packing the car with the dogs, a tent, a boy, and myself, with a few suitcases and a unicycle for good measure is fun. Leaving at six a.m. is less fun. I didn’t sleep well the night before, constantly tossing and turning. When I woke I was frightful and not well put together and my mind was fuzzy, but I insisted on driving at least the first leg of the trip. This was a bad idea.

I’ve been driving a bit more now every time I go to the states. Getting used to the practical application of it again. The entire act of driving has come back to me much as it was expected that it would, but there is a part of me that still prefers to passenger. Perhaps it is just that I would prefer to be in the car alone. I remember when getting in the car and going was absolute freedom. Constantly being saddled with an observer removes some of the element, which may be why I would rather ride. Hard to say.

As it was, I took the first leg of the drive through the long, endless Indiana highway. My eyes were burning and we had failed to get coffee on the first try. I should probably have forced the coffee issue but a little over an hour later we finally managed to find someplace to get coffee.

We stopped, I walked in and asked for four shots of espresso on ice. The girl behind the counter looked at me like I had lost my mind.

“You..basically you just want four shots of espresso on ice?”

“Yeah, with a little water to top it off, if that’s all right.”

“Four shots?”

“Yep.”

“Do you want sugar in that?”

Not a trace. Not me. Black as death and strong as the hammer of Thor to my brain is what I desired. She smiled and laughed uncomfortable as she told her assistant what she was doing. When they passed the cup back to me I took a sip. I think she half expected me to spit it out.

“Perfect.”

“I…I just could not do that.”

“Thanks.” I smiled and walked away, happily sipping until I got back to the car and realized that I could not walk in a straight line. I abdicated the driving then and basically rode along for the rest of the trip. Each time I do this trip I realize just how much road there is in America. This endless, never-ending road. I begin to feel a kind of sympathy with settlers from once upon a time. There is just So Much Road. This never-ending, never-stopping America and it just goes everywhere. Each mile is a mile taking you to anywhere you can imagine going. Highway after highway, connected to interstate, or turnpike, or street, and all of them leading to a door somewhere.

In a single day we passed through sunshine, clouds, violent thunderstorms, rushing gale-force winds, back into sunshine, and back into rain. I packed a lunch so we could pull off when we were hungry and have a picnic. The rain haunted us the whole time, so in the end we ended up having the picnic in some highway oasis spot, but enjoyed it, none the less. We talked, planned routes, discussed the drive, the timing of it, the paths that we would take. A kind of old-fashioned driving. As GPS becomes more popular it is so easy to fall into the trap of constant navigation that actually having to plan seems almost a silly waste of time. I admit that even I am spoiled, with my magic box of knowledge I could look up routes, find upcoming coffee stops and pit stops, and look for places that would be good to walk the dogs. Still, there was a rather amusing blend of both old and new as we drove through the endless amount of America.

There is something about being in a car that I completely enjoy, and maybe that I miss. You’re brain does nothing but drift on the clouds that are passing outside the window and scenery. I remember being a child in a car on long seemingly endless road trips through sprawling Americana. For all the technology that intercedes there is still something so archaic about driving through small towns and small cities. Time doesn’t seem to touch things as deeply on the road. I imagine what it would be like to be in these small places, to be born, grow up, live, love, and die in that same place without any change. Maybe there is some envy in my contemplation as the roads unwind.

Somewhere in the center of Pennsylvania we had to give up the ghost. Both of us were tired, the dogs were annoyed, and it became abundantly clear that we were not going to get out of the most recent rain we had driven into. The magic box of knowledge pointed out likely towns and we finally managed to find the type of motel I wanted. What happened to the classic Bates-style drive up, where you could park away from the office and have a space all to yourself? Most places seemed to be way too bright, or require way too much entering, and it would make smuggling the dogs in damned near impossible. However after a shot, we managed to find just such a place, off the beaten path, and with a room we could drive up to. The dogs made it in quickly enough and we were finally able to get out of the car and spread out on an engulfing bed, to enjoy just not being in a car anymore.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Cranes

Up in the air is probably the easiest way to describe my life at the moment, which may explain why I have not been describing it. As it stands I have more than a dozen stories to tell. Sometimes the best place to start is in the middle and just jump back and forth until I am caught up and then move forward.

It was the time of year in America when the sandhill cranes migrated from one area to another. The migration took place twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. In the spring, the cranes would fly over my section of the Midwest on their way back north. In the fall, the same on the way south to luxuriate in the warmth of Florida or some other milder climate than the bitter cold that is the northern winter. While I would love to be able to see them every year on their migration, I’ve only managed to visit maybe three times.

The place to go is Jasper Pulaski park about an hour and a half south in Indiana. The park is surrounded on all sides by farmhouses and cornfields. The drive, once off the expressway, feels like a drive through corn country. There are fields and fields and fields, and where there are not fields there are quiet rows of trees standing guard over the land.

I learned about the crane migration from the Boy, who also took me on the first drive down to see them. It is an experience that I’m not sure I can do adequate justice to, with my poor fingers. You park in an open lot, and as soon as you step out of the car you are flooded with the noise of the birds talking to each other in the field. A lilting call begins, which at first makes you quiet, whispering to talk, but as you get closer the birds become a louder cacophony of sound and you would have to shout to be heard over them.

You walk down a windy path from the parking lot. Along the path there are a dozen signs, each with a question about the cranes. Some true and false, some general knowledge; a pop quiz. You can imagine parents stopping with children and holding them up to read each sign while trying to puzzle out the answer together. The signs are a bit ragged and warn, paper under plastic to protect them from the wet weather, and doing only so well. I have read the questions and have few answers, but the Boy can answer each one. At the end of the trail an arrow points to a master sign that has facts and truths and you feel like you have learned something for going through the experience.

You get to the end of the path and there is a wooden fort in front of you. You almost feel like a sentry about to go on duty as you climb up to take post overlooking the field below. At the top it is thin and narrow. There are three magnifying sights mounted for looking out into the field at the birds. Now, you are right in the thick of it.

I still remember the first time I went. An hour before sundown, climbing up the stairs to look out into a field on a cool spring day. I skipped work to go, I needed to do something to live. When the Boy suggested it, it was all I could think about. So we went, and there was magic and wonder as I stood in the middle of the tower and looked out on thousands and thousands of birds, dancing, and whooping, roosting, resting, after their hundred miles flight that day. Overhead they fly in, sweeping down in well formed lines until the very end when they are cocking their legs down to come in for the touchdown.

There is a simple quiet majesty about it, that is beautiful.

Recently I had been doing some writing. I feel like I am always doing some writing. For some reason I was looking up dinosaurs or writing about dinosaurs. The thing about dinosaurs is that they don’t exist and they do exist. Dinosaurs have essentially evolved into birds. The writing was something about modern-day dinosaurs, and birds are basically the only modern-day dinosaurs that we have. This is important because it is hard not to think about dinosaurs when you are watching the cranes fly in.

We drove down to Jasper Paulaski after a long day of work for both of us. The dogs came with us making it rather an affair. Tino, of course, demanded to ride in the driver's seat, even though I’m terrified he is going to cause a car accident some day with his insistent lap riding. Gracey, however, being the size of a dinosaur herself, rode in the back.

The air was crisp and we listened to Phil Ochs and John Prine as we went down the quiet country roads. The music fit the setting and the sun began to hang low as we reached our destination. We parked in the mostly empty lot. The birds were loud, a noisy volume that just hands in the air. The dogs were excited, I was excited. I found that I couldn't help but to look up and around and behind me to see if there were birds coming in.

We walked past the tattered quiz questions and up to the overlook, pushing mosquitoes out of the way. For the most part we were alone, aside from a lone biker couple that came in later. It was me, the Boy, the dogs, and the birds. I took pictures with my camera phone as they swooped in over us. With each well-conditioned V that entered our view we watched with quiet amusement as during the approach the formation got sloppy and eventually dissolved. I thought of dinosaurs as I watched the legs extend out in front of one bird, and fall behind another. Each bird had a different thought on how to come in for a landing. Each executed it differently. However, we could agree that it did seem fairly accurate that the birds were saying “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap,” until they finally hit the ground.

I could see by looking out over the fields where the hot spots for landing were. The sound of the the cranes grew louder as they begin to whoop and dance, tossing bodies up into the air in the most carefree ritual ways. Finally they had a chance to stop and rest after a long day of flying. In the field there were about twenty deer scattered about and relaxing in the side of the park that was strictly off limits to hunting. The birds twirled about. Gracey, the large dog, really wanted to go down to the field and say hello and investigate the noise a bit further; however, we were content from our perch to look down.

The moon broke into the sky to hang opposite the sun, and for a while it was bright blue sky, with an orange glow in the distance, the moon on one corner, and hundreds of birds overhead. It was beautiful and I was lost in it.

The sun set on us as we walked out of the woods, all our speech was overwhelmed by the whoops of boisterous dancing birds in an expansive field.