Tuesday, September 30, 2014


When I was in the fifth grade, I took an aptitude test, as did the rest of my classmates. One day after lunch, we were brought onto the gymnasium-slash-auditorium's stage (which was also the Music and French room -- it was a small school*),  and told we were writing a test. Private desks were arranged neatly and far enough between one another to discourage cheating. The exact date, the name of the test, and its purpose eludes me now, but I do recall two things: 1) there was no preparation for this test, and, 2) I got a very high score.

What my actual score was was never disclosed. I can't imagine that I got 100% on an impromptu test that included math, my weakest subject, but maybe I did. When it comes to multiple choice questions, there's always a chance that blind guesses can beat the odds, like a person hitting the lottery. Unlikely, but possible.

I was selected to attend an enrichment school. I didn't understand what that meant exactly, but I got the gist. I was deemed "smart." This was weird to me. I've never considered myself stupid or even of average intelligence, but neither have I -- not then, not now -- thought of myself as "gifted." It's one thing to be thought of as intelligent, but it's another to be perceived as a prodigy, which I knew I wasn't, and I didn't want to pretend I was one.

I think my mother would have been ecstatic for me to attend a school for gifted children. What parent wouldn't be proud that their child was among the best of their peers? But, god bless her, she left the final decision to me.

I'm not sure how much thought I put into my choice, whether I considered the pros and cons carefully and weighed each. I don't think I did. A ten-year-old doesn't have a lot of wisdom to work with, nor can he predict the outcome of his actions. I know this now, twenty-six years later, but at the time I chose to stay where I was. Because I was already being enriched by my deskmates.

There were twenty students in Ms. Hawthorne's fifth-grade class, and ten or so sixth graders whom, for whatever reason (school budget, learning difficulties, over attendance; you got me), would pop in and out daily. We sat at personal desks at the start of the year, then moved to four round tables, each comprised of five students, after Christmas break. I didn't think much about it then, but I realize now that each group of five was seated according to the students' learning level.

I and my four deskmates were the top of the class. I knew this because our shared desk was the closest to the bathroom, Ms. Hawthorne's desk, and the "cubby-holes," where we stored our boots, lunch bags, and all the other detritus kids of that age lug around.

We couldn't have been an easy bunch to put up with, each one of us special in his or her own way, all of us smart and starting to pick up the locomotion of adolescence. Ms. Hawthorne was a first-year teacher, and while we were never rude or vicious, we were kids, and kids can be cruel, even when they don't mean to be. A long time has passed since then, and now I can admit that we were often little jerks.

Except for Penelope.

Penelope Phillips was the only girl at our table. She wore thick-rimmed glasses and had a haircut two decades out of style. It might be in style now, for all I know. She talked in a subdued monotone that conveyed her intelligence and her reticence. She might have been classified as a nerd, then and now, but we never thought about her that way. I was ten, going on eleven, and preoccupied with being "cool," but for me and the rest of the boys at our shared desk, Penelope was an essential part of our mechanism. She was the axle around which we spun.

I'm not sure which part I played in this dynamic, but I knew then -- and know now -- that it was an essential role. Every day the five of us, together, would sit at our table, our wheel turning at a fast pace, revolution after revolution. Colin Creighton was the engineer, always the first and last to speak. Whenever he was silent, I was scared that he was choking, because that voice needed to be heard like plants need water. Stephen Forget was second-in-command. He'd get mad when we teased him about his surname, calling him "Stevie Forget" without the French pronunciation. We always made up afterwards, though, and the biggest laugh I've ever heard came from him when Stephen left a science binder behind in class at the end of the day. He ran back to retrieve it, and Colin shouted "Stevie remembers!" Stephen was at least fifty yards away, but his laughter flew back on the wind and caught in our ribs like a colorful kite stuck in a tree.

The other boy at our table was George Cross, a taciturn boy with cheeks like red plums. He was always making plans, always thinking about the future. At 10, he was going to open a comic book store. At 20, he was going to open an art exhibition showroom. George was a true genius. He showed me his sketches one day at lunch, and looked frightened when I said they were remarkable. "George, these are incredible!" I exclaimed, and I meant it. But George looked disappointed, embarrassed by my enthusiasm of his art. This is only my conjecture, but I think there was something inside of him that rejected praise, like a rose of Sharon trying to hold a baseball in its petals. He couldn't bear the weight. He committed suicide two years ago. I didn't attend the funeral. I hope he knew, before dying, how special he was.

Why am I thinking about this now, so long after our young lives took such different turns and paths?

Yesterday, I read in the English version of Der Spiegel that a 36-year-old Canadian woman named Penelope was found by a fly fisherman in Bavaria, in the Igelsbach. She was floating down the river, and she was dead.

I hope that isn't our Penelope. There could be a thousand or more Canadian women born in 1978 named Penelope, right? No need to overreact.

But I can't help it. We didn't tell Penelope how important she was when we were kids, and if she's gone, we won't ever be able to.

We used to call her LMNO-Penelope. And her smile was like a lunar eclipse: rarely seen, but always cherished.

* The next year we would have a separate building for French that was called a "portable" and looked like a cream-colored shipping container. I still find it strange that an ostensibly unmovable classroom was called a "portable," but maybe it really was a shipping container, and a truck could stop by anytime to haul it to another location if so required. For all I knew, it could have been a robot that awoke at night to battle interplanetary threats. There were a lot of things I was ignorant and unaware of at that age.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jamón It

Yesterday my wife and I celebrated our 5th wedding anniversay*. At 36 (me) and 33 (she), we're both pretty much ready for retirement, and we spend most weekends at home doing crossword puzzles and knitting winter hats for orphans, but five years is a special number**, so a few weeks ago I started looking into places to take her for dinner on our anniversary.

I thought a Spanish tapas restaurant might be a good choice. They've been popping up all over Seoul in recent years like spawn from a wet Mogwai. I did a Google search (it took all of 0.37 seconds) and found a place in Itaewon named Tapeo that opened last year.

And so it was that we ventured into Itaewon yesterday afternoon. I made sure to wear a Kevlar vest. I'm joking about that, of course. Itaewon has somewhat rehabilitated its image as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Traces remain, but the Korean Tourism Organization's strict no-stabbing-before-sundown rule seems to have been enforced.

Then again, everything is overly expensive and gentrified. I'm not sure which is worse.

I became most aware of this juxtaposition between the Old Itaewon*** and New Itaewon in the countenance of street vendors. They seemed defeated. When I saw a T-shirt I thought I might buy, or my wife saw a tchotchke she found interesting, the vendors seemed put out and tired, as though they would have preferred to pay us not to waste their time****.

We walked up the hill behind the Hamilton Hotel, and that's where the New Itaewon is most noticeable. It looks like a place normal people might like to hang out. The facades of the bars, bistros, and eateries***** actually look nice. (Except for Sam Ryan's, in front of which a group of daytime drunks stood and smoked, and one vociferous patron claimed that he was "totally about to nail that bitch.") But even that stretch isn't a paradise. Cheap plastic streamers of the flags of various countries hang above the walkway. I see the same decorations at a Hi-Mart opening.

We went into Prost for an aperitif. It's a spacious place, very well designed, and the music was good, the waitresses comely. But it cost me 8,000 won for a 350ml glass of Bitburger. This seemed to be a trend: bars not offering pints. If I order a beer, I would like an actual beer, not some sippy-cup facsimile. As an old man, I think I've earned that right.

Afterwards, we headed for Tapeo.

I am a man of simple pleasures. I enjoy sunsets, walks on the beach, and meat, especially of the cured variety.

When I read online that Tapeo serves jamón ibérico de bellota, I had to try it. I remembered an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain had a mouthgasm over the thin, cured ham. In a way, I did to my wife what Homer Simpson did giving Marge a bowling ball for her birthday, because my sole purpose was to taste that delectable cured ham, but I regret nothing.

I wasn't as selfish as Homer, however. I knew my wife would enjoy the other plates and libations on the menu, the atmosphere, and so I looked online to see what other dishes were available. The squid-ink paella looked up her alley. I enjoyed it too, although I've been pooping black all day. That's the contract you sign when you eat squid ink, I suppose.

Tapeo's croquetas were also phenomenal. We both agreed on that. Fluffy, crunchy, like little clouds of Heaven sprinkled with bread crumbs.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to the absolute bliss of the jamón ibérico. I have never been to outer space; I have never skydived; I have never watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.

But I have eaten jamón ibérico de bellota. It's like LSD for your tastebuds.

* I broke my old record!

** not to be confused with 3, the magic number; or 32, the Magic number

*** Full disclosure: The first time I visited Itaewon was in 2000, 14 years ago. The last time I went there prior to yesterday was in 2007. I'm obviously not an authority on the character changes of the area's character changes, although I play one on TV.

**** I bought a Hard Rock Cafe Seoul T-shirt -- obviously counterfeit and possibly made by a 4-year-old slave laborer -- because the shop owner was friendly.

***** I don't know the difference between the three -- just that it's a fancier way to say "pub" or "restaurant."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Squeebler

This is a story for children. Actually, it might be better to describe it as a story for some children. It may be frightening. It may cause bad dreams. Nevertheless, it is an important story. A "warning" might not be the best word to use in this case, and "caution" might not be good enough. It's probably somewhere in between. "A beseeching suggestion" is probably as close as I can get to properly labeling the tale you are about to read, but this is a children's story, after all, and that just muddies things up further.

So, with that out of the way, let's get on with it. I would like to tell you about the Squeebler.

I only saw the Squeebler once, many years ago, when I was a child. His horrendous, menacing face still haunts me, even though I am an adult and far too old to believe that the dark imaginings that keep little children up at night are real. I know what I saw, though, and to this day I sleep with my bed cover wrapped over my head and tucked under my feet.

But before I explain what the Squeebler looks like, please allow me to explain what the Squeebler does. And here I must be careful, because I'm not sure if you could call the Squeebler evil. He certainly looks scary -- but so does a cockroach or a spider, and I don't think it would be fair to say that a cockroach or spider is evil.

The Squeebler takes wax from the ears of children. Whether he uses the ear wax as a food source, some type of fuel, or for some other purpose, I'm not sure. All I know is that he appears when children are fast asleep and extracts the wax from their ears.

The ear wax may be essential to the Squeebler's survival. Without the ear wax of children, perhaps he might die. This I cannot say for sure. However, just as a mosquito's bite leaves behind an itch, children who have had wax taken from their ears by the Squeebler are left with painful earaches.

And that is what happened to me when I was eight years old. One Sunday morning when I was in the third grade, I woke up with an awful earache. It felt like my eardrum was being poked by a knitting needle over and over again. My mother gave me two Children's Tylenols, and while the rest of the family were at church, I stayed at home, watching cartoons on the sofa with my head laid on a hot water bottle.

By the time they arrived back home, my earache was nearly gone. But every two or three weeks afterwards, I would wake up -- sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the early morning -- with the same throbbing earache. I was taken to probably half a dozen doctors and specialists, but none of them could figure out the cause.

"It's not that uncommon," I remember one doctor telling my mother while I sat on the examination table, its paper rustling noisily as I shifted uncomfortably. "It's part of growing up," the doctor said. "Eventually, the earaches will go away."

I, however, was not as optimistic. I had begun to think that this was a problem that had a source outside of the realm of medicine and human biology. This was because of the odd dreams I would have on nights when I'd wake up with earaches. They were all pretty much the same. In every dream, I would be standing in the corner of my darkened bedroom, looking at myself sleeping. Sometimes the room was illuminated by a TV test pattern because I had fallen asleep with the television on. Other times, the room was almost completely black, only the light from the upstairs hallway providing a faint, yellow glow around the frame of my closed door. I would stand in the corner and wonder how weird it was that I was looking at myself, and then a round shape the size of a manhole cover, blacker than the darkness of the room -- blacker than anything -- would form above my bed. Something appeared to be coming out of that black hole.

Then I would wake up, my ear screaming in pain. If I fell asleep on my right side, it would be my left ear that hurt. If I fell asleep on my left side, my right ear would hurt. That wasn't the only weird thing. My parents let our bloodhound, Cooper, sleep on the floor next to my bed, and every time I woke up after having the same dream and my ears stinging, Cooper would bark so loudly that he woke up the entire family.

"Coop's just worried about you, buddy," my father said when I tried to connect the two occurrences: my dreams and Cooper's barking. Dad was making omelets in his boxers. "He probably hears you moaning in your sleep, so he starts barking because he thinks he needs to protect you."

I didn't tell my father that he was wrong. He wasn't. Cooper was trying to protect me. But it wasn't from a bad dream I was having. It was from something real. Something that came out at night.

After my next "episode," my father put his foot down: Cooper was no longer allowed to sleep in my bedroom. My father was sick of getting woken up in the middle of the night when he had work in the morning. Also, my older sister had to study for high school exams. I protested, but the youngest child's opinion didn't carry much weight.

For a time, things were calm. I went two months without an earache, my sister passed her exams with flying colors, and my father was able to sleep soundly without Cooper waking him up with his barks. Then, on Labor Day, the night before I was to begin fourth grade, the Squeebler returned.

And this time I saw him. And it wasn't a dream.

I'd fallen asleep earlier than usual. The Labor Day weather was perfect, and my father had invited over some friends from work for a barbecue. I stuffed myself with hamburgers, hotdogs, corn on the cob, and lemonade. Tired, I packed my school bag, set out my new school clothes, and went to bed before eight o'clock. I hoped that Mrs. Jensen would be my teacher. She was pretty.

I don't know how long I was asleep for, but when I woke up the light outside my bedroom window was a shade of blue that suggested it was still a long way from midnight. My window was open, and I could hear my father and his friends talking. Every couple of minutes, they'd all laugh about some amusing joke or story. I couldn't hear what they said, and I likely wouldn't have understood what they were talking about even if I could.

I was no longer sleepy, so I folded my hands over my stomach and stared at the ceiling as I lied in bed. The darkening light was playing with my eyes as they moved in and out of focus. Various shades of black, white, and gray danced in my vision. It looked like a horde of houseflies scurrying over the corpse of a dead fish.

Then a familiar black oblong shape formed above me. It was so black that it looked like a bad computer effect, something out of line with the reality of my world. The hole vibrated quickly, like a stereo speaker playing loud music, contracted, and then a foot appeared.

The foot was long and gray. And shiny, as though it was covered in mucous. There were eight toes, each one pointed, each of the same length. I pretended to close my eyes and, horrified, watched through my slit eyelids as the rest of the creature emerged.

The Squeebler dropped down from the hole and onto my chest. He didn't make a sound, nor did his mass disturb my bed cover the slightest. Whatever dimension he came from -- and I believe he came from another dimension -- the physical properties of our world didn't seem to apply. He looked around, craning his neck from left to right, then all the way around in a perfect 360 degrees, and settled. Then he slowly crept up my chest until he was within less than an inch in front of my face.

I tried to control my breathing. I was scared, more scared than I've ever been, both then and now. But I was also curious. I wanted to know what this thing was. I think that's a particular form of courage that only children possess.

The Squeebler stood upright, still devoid of weight, and extended both of his arms at his sides. I was familiar with this pose because I had seen it every Sunday morning at church. He wasn't wearing a crown of thorns, but the Squeebler looked like Christ on the cross.

Those arms started to stretch and bend, and the Squeebler's hands-- on which, like his feet, there were eight digits -- transformed into two long tubes that looked like water hoses, or maybe gasoline pump nozzles. But I was sure that, instead of putting something into me, their purpose was to take something out. They wiggled and writhed in the air, then crept into both of my ears.

I wanted to scream. I desperately wanted to scream. But I couldn't. My whole body was numb, and my voice was stolen, as though I was under anesthesia. Those cold arms went into my ears and started digging, like a miner searching for coal.

It was then that I opened my eyes and saw the face of the Squeebler. He was hideous. His mouth was open, and his teeth looked like the burnt tines of a plastic fork, twisted and misshapen. Something pink that might have been his tongue flicked behind that gross set of teeth. And his eyes were as big as grapes. I will never forget that, no matter how hard I try. His eyes looked like two fat Concord grapes.

I couldn't move or speak, but I was able to open my half-shut eyes and stare into the monster's. Please, leave me alone. I don't know why you're coming here, again and again, but I don't like it. Maybe you're not such a bad guy, maybe you just need to feed your family or something, but it's bugging me, so will you please knock it off?

That was when the Squeebler spoke. His arms came out of my ears, and feeling returned to my body. I could move again, but I didn't.

The Squeebler looked ashamed. He fidgeted on my chest for a minute, sat cross-legged, stood up, then said, meekly, "Squeeble." He didn't speak a human language, so that's the best way I can describe what he said.

I may have missed some nuances, though, because when I reached out to touch him he shrieked, "Squeeble!" Then he jumped back up into the same portal he came from.

That was twenty-six years ago. I don't know if there is one Squeebler or many. I don't know how or why they appear in children's bedrooms and try to take their ear wax. There's a lot of stuff I don't know.

But last night I had a familiar dream, and when I woke up, my dachshund, Wendel, was barking.

And I had an earache.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I used to do stuff by myself. As a young adult still living with my parents, I'd sometimes take their car out for rides, nowhere too far, just to clear my mind. I'd put a cassette tape into the car's stereo -- or a CD; because, in 1997, my music collection was an amalgamation of both formats -- and drive around. I'd occasionally stop at a comic book or music store to browse around, but usually I'd just drive and think. It wasn't always cathartic -- it sometimes was -- but it was always calming. Growing up in my parents' house was never too chaotic or stressful (at least I tell myself that now), but it wasn't an environment conducive to reflection. So I'd drive around, aimlessly, listening to music and considering where I'd been, where I was, and where I might go.

Returning home, my father would bitch about the gas and mileage I used. It wasn't my car, and I rarely paid for the gas, so I saw his point. Still, at nineteen, those solo drives were my refuge, my only way to contextualize myself as an individual apart from my family.

After moving to Korea in 2000, whenever I wanted to take some time to reflect on life I'd take the subway to the Kyobo Book Store in Gwanghwamun. I'd purchase a few books and magazines, take them home with me, and discover the secrets they held within*. I got married in 2002, had a daughter, and moved to Bundang in 2003, but every other weekend, for the next two years, I would take an inter-city bus into Seoul, usually on Sundays, to buy books, magazines, and music. It wasn't the shopping that I enjoyed but rather the process. That was my time. To be by myself. To really think.

Perhaps that sounds selfish. Maybe it is. It definitely is, actually. But as Axl Rose once sang, everybody needs some time on their own. All alone.

I don't know if I crave solitude more or less than the average person, but I do know that it hurts the people I most love. In October of 2003, only two months after my daughter was born, I booked a trip to Fukuoka, Japan. I was 25 years old, a young father, and I needed to recharge my batteries. My daughter's mother, my ex-wife, wasn't handling motherhood very well, and so I extricated myself from the equation, hoping that two days would be enough time for us to catch our breath and think things over. Ah, how naive we were. Something fundamentally broken will never be fixed. Yet still we try, like artists painting over ill-timed brush strokes. Just as I used to do as a nineteen-year-old living with my parents, I had to take a time-out to think things over, this time a cramped Japanese hotel room being a simulacrum of my folks' Buick.

It worked for me in the short term. I stayed in my hotel room most of the time, contemplating life, reading SLAM (cover story about Alonzo Mourning's kidney disease, headline reading "Stronger than all"), Murakami ("Landscape with Flatiron") and taking belts of the 26 Oz. bottle of Jack Daniels I bought from the duty-free shop. On the morning that I was set to leave, I bought a ham-and-cheese sandwich from Lawsons, and ate it while sitting on the hotel floor in my boxers, watching the infamous Steve Bartman Marlins-Cubs game. Then I pooped and took a train to the airport.

When I arrived home that night, my daughter looked at me as though she'd never seen me before. She cried, wondering who this strange person was. I remember thinking that I wanted to know the answer to that question myself.


I don't do much stuff by myself anymore. Any book or article I'd like to read are available online, so instead of browsing book stores, I find myself purchasing -- or pirating -- material online. It's very convenient, but it lacks effort, like buying fish from a wooden stand next to a lake instead of going out in a canoe and catching them yourself.

That's sad. I used to enjoy shopping. Or at least the concept, the procedure. The method.

 * Some have had a profound influence on my life (Dostoyevsky, Maugham, Dumas, Kipling, Murakami); others were pure garbage, particularly mags like Maxim and FHM. What can I say -- I was still a young man; in other words, an idiot.