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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Grandma Sack

It's been ten years, seven months, two weeks and four days since Kathleen Lucille Matlock Sack officially stopped living.  That's what it says on the somewhat morbidly named website "Find a Grave," but I know better.  I know that the end of life is not always marked by the cessation of breathing.  Whatever the case may be, it is well past time that I shared some of my memories of her with you, because she is a big influence in my life, and I want to make my life worthy of her memory.

What I remember most about Grandma Sack was her cooking.  She made the best egg noodles, thick but not doughy, just mild enough to take on the flavor of the rich beef broth she often cooked them in.  Whenever my brother Chris and I stayed with Grandpa and Grandma Sack, we could count on eating those noodles at some point.  And Grandma's monkey bread was unbelievably good.  I have no idea whether her recipe was as decadent as the one I just linked to, or whether she used canned biscuits and a jar of caramel topping, because I was a stupid kid who never even thought to follow Grandma into the kitchen to learn her secrets so that when she was gone I would be able to cook up those memories on my own.  And the phrase that I remember being constantly spoken during mealtimes was, "Sit down, Grandma!  Enjoy your meal!"  Because the woman lived to serve.  She simply couldn't sit still if there was the remotest chance that someone at the table was missing something that would make their meal less than perfect.

In the 1960s my Grandpa Sack got bladder cancer.  He stopped smoking around that time, but continued chewing tobacco.  He had a cystectomy (bladder removal surgery), and radiation and/or chemotherapy. My Dad and Uncle Tom had driven to Emporia a few times when Grandpa had sudden health issues, so the family decided to move Grandma and Grandpa to Leavenworth in 1983.  I was 13 years old, and Chris was 11.  To my brother and I that just meant that we could see them more often, so we were pretty happy.  I didn't really understand at the time that Grandpa and Grandma were transitioning into the end of their lives.  Grandpa died in the fall of 1988.  I was in my first semester at K.U.  I came home for the funeral

Grandpa was more enigmatic.  He didn't talk a lot, and came across as being kind of grumpy.  In hindsight, I'm sure that his health had something to do with that.  Nonetheless, I still remember him laughing and smiling.  And I remember that he was still growing as a person.  I have a very clear memory of Grandpa taking a walk with my brother Chris.  When they got back, Grandma told Chris that it was really hard for Grandpa to apologize: Talking about feelings and such just wasn't what men were taught to do growing up in his family.  I have no memory of what the previous disagreement was about, and Chris never talked with me about any of it.  But Grandma made it clear that Grandpa apologizing was well outside of his comfort zone.  He was a good man, and a product of his time.

I wasted so much of this opportunity.  I am ashamed to say that I can count on one hand the number of times I went to visit Grandma for no reason at all, just to spend time with her.  Yes, I was a teenager.  I was making decisions that I really didn't understand.  Those non-decisions to not go visit Grandma are the ones I now regret.  Because that evil bastard Alzheimers was starting to sink his claws into her.  She had always been forgetful, so it was difficult to tell that her memory lapses were becoming holes.  Holes that would never again be filled.  But at that time her memory was like Swiss cheese, still more substance than holes.  She held the keys to unlock a wealth of stories and memories, and she was always willing to share.  But she was devoted to her grandson, always willing to listen.  She never pushed her treasures on me, and I didn't know well enough to ask.

Grandma's laugh is a deeply embedded part of my soul. Grandma wore her joy like a comfortable sweater.  She was built like Santa Claus, with a spirit to match.  She would, in her words, "get tickled" over the slightest thing.  I don't remember any specific situations or jokes, just that her laugh was ready to go at any time.  When she told stories about something that had happened, especially involving children or her dogs, that laugh would pop up and make it almost impossible for her to continue.  It had a bit of a wheeze to it, not entirely unlike the gasping intake of breath that my son Quinten sometimes does when he laughs, or the snort that makes its way into mine.  Out of control, shameless laughing.  Not loud, or disgraceful, just unstoppable.  A celebration of life.

Then I joined the Peace Corps and went off to see the world.  Well, Nepal anyway.  And a bit of Thailand, and my introduction to Korea.  I came back in time for Christmas in 1996.  By then Grandma was living in Mt. Hope in a retirement community for people who could not completely take care of themselves.  I didn't know much about that when my family drove to the home of Uncle Bob and Aunt Charlotte, Grandma's surviving daughter.  I was so happy to see these people for the first time in more than two years, especially Grandma.  I gave her a hug, and she hugged me back, but not very strongly.  When she said, "It's nice to see you, too," the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice told me that she had absolutely no idea who I was.

Grandma's stories were not epic, but they were amazing.  She and Grandpa raised their own four children, Opal, Charlotte, Richard and Tom, but also took care of foster children for many years.  Some kids stayed for a few days, some for months.  She told us about one boy who she felt so sorry for.  He would only eat cereal from a cup, not a bowl.  As he ate, he would cover the cup with his hand as everyone else sat eating their cereal normally.  When she asked why, he explained that where he came from if you didn't keep it covered, the bugs would fall in it.  Grandma told us about how if a poor person came to her door, he was invited in for a meal.  It didn't matter if they were colored, because that didn't make any difference in how a man was.  (Kansas! 1940's!)   I can imagine that meals at her house must have occasionally been somewhat out of the ordinary.  This may account for her later tendency to cook army-sized portions, and to leave food out for us to "piece on".  No one left Grandma's house hungry!

I made it back outside only just before the tears started flooding down my face.  My Uncle Tom, Grandma's youngest son, held me as I sobbed uncontrollably.  It was cold, there was snow on the ground, it was a few days after Christmas, I was home in America, and my Grandma was gone.

Grandma told me about when she and Grandpa would go to dances together.  He played the guitar with the other musicians, and she would dance with any boy who wanted to dance.  Melvin loved playing, but had to stop from time to time because it drove him crazy to see Kay dancing with other men.  I imagine a VFW hall, a church basement, maybe even a barn.  The music lively, the crowd even more so.  They lost most of their early photos in a house fire sometime in the 1940's, so it was difficult for me to imagine Grandma as a pretty young woman and Grandpa as a dashing young man.  As I mentioned, she was built like Santa Claus, and swayed a bit when she walked.  Dancing just didn't seem possible, and jealousy seemed ridiculous between these two people who existed as one in my mind.  Now that I have talked with my own daughter about the times before she existed, it is easier for me to believe that it happened, though I still have trouble picturing them as a young couple.

Three months later, in March of 1997 I returned to Korea, to give living overseas a second try, and Grandma moved into an assisted living environment in Mt. Hope, KS. I met my future wife, Horyon in February 2000, as Grandma was forgetting how to get dressed and feed herself.  We were married in February 2001, and traveled to America for her to meet everyone who couldn't make it to the wedding in Korea.  In other words, to meet everyone other than my parents and Jon VanHoose.  Including Grandma.

When Chris and I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, we loved the trailer park in Emporia where they lived.  It was a quiet neighborhood, and Grandpa had a giant tricycle that he rode to get the mail and such.  Chris and I raced that three-wheeler up and down those little streets, staying off the main road of course.  Our favorite destination was a mulberry bush on the next street over.  We would come back with our mouths, fingers and clothes stained purple, scratches all over our arms, and thrilled with a snack that we had to work for.  We never got in trouble for getting messy, because Grandma!

We sat together for a while, each of us holding one of her hands.  Horyon talked to her, about what an honor it was to meet her, and how beautiful she was.  Grandma was no longer built like Santa Clause.  She would eat if you put food in her mouth, but wouldn't do so by herself.  She couldn't walk, but she would use the toilet if put there.  My cousin Mike later swore that from time to time you could still see glimpses, glimmers of her in there.  I saw the smile that I loved so dearly, and she mumbled in that lovely voice, but the laugh was gone.  I let the tears run down my face as I watched the woman I would spend the rest of my life with reach out to the shadow of a woman whom I had loved as I could never love another.

Grandma's handwriting was a bit difficult for me to decipher (I know, pot, kettle, etc.).  It was an old school cursive, quite narrow, and slanted to the right about ten degrees.  She wrote to me in college, telling me that she was so proud.  She hadn't gone to college, but she learned more from life than many college graduates I've met.  Every letter from her reflected her positive attitude and her joy in life.  She even sent me a small gift or two.  She couldn't afford much, being on a fixed income, but a little aluminum bird mobile (or maybe it was a wind chime?) is still packed away in a box in my parents' basement, waiting to remind me that Grandma loves me. 

I didn't know that our first visit with Grandma would be our last.  Three years later when Horyon and I visited America we took a road trip through Colorado, New Mexico, and the northern bit of Texas, planning to stop by Mt. Hope and visit Grandma and Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Bob as well.  But before we could start we got the news that Grandma had passed away.

So many good memories.  The time Grandma was with our family driving through a torrential storm, and she was sort of driving my Mom a bit crazy.  I let Mom listen to my Walkman as a distraction, and I think she still remembers that long evening when she hears Billy Joel's song "You May Be Right."  ("It just might be a loooonatic you're looking for!")  The time Grandma visited us and left her slippers, so we wrapped them up and gave them to her the next Christmas.  The luggage set that she gave me as a high school graduation present, maybe knowing better than I did that I was destined to travel.

I don't usually like the euphemism "passed away," but it feels appropriate for this ending.  Grandma's body finally just stopped working.  No struggle, no disease, no accident.  The funeral was sad, but also relieving.  In the most important ways she was already long gone.

Until I was 13, Grandma and Grandpa lived far enough away that we only saw them two or three times a year.  Every summer my brother and I would stay with them for a few days.  I didn't realize until much later that this was as much about giving my parents a holiday as giving us a special trip.  We looked forward to these long visits, and there were some tears when it was time to say goodbye, but always with the expectation of seeing them again at Christmas. 

Goodbye, Grandma.  Until we meet again, thank you for everything.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Incident at Songjeong Beach

This trip started badly: a scooter was sort of blocking my way out of my parking space, but I thought I could get through.  Horyon told me to be careful not to bump into the car on her side, so immediately after telling her I would be careful, I scraped his bumper.  I was so angry.  I wanted to kick over the scooter and slap Korea across the face for its universally poor parking lot designs.  Of course it was an imported car.  The owner was very kind, and told us he would have the paint retouched rather than replacing the bumper.  He was more interested in having harmonious relationships with his neighbors than profiting from their mistakes.  I was grateful, but before he came to look at the damage I paced back and forth like a caged tiger, ready to call off the whole trip.

I didn't.  I couldn't have without making many, many people very annoyed with me.  So I calmed down and tried to pray a bit while I waited for Horyon to program the GPS.

We went to Songjeong Beach here in Busan with some of Maxine's classmates and their families.  It was kind of rainy and cloudy on Friday, and it never completely cleared up.  Maybe it's because I'm from Kansas, but I don't really enjoy the beach that much:  the sand gets into everything, the crowds are annoying, and the need to keep an eye on my kids takes away from the experience.  I would rather be hiking in the mountains.

Still, the kids had a good time, and built up a serious appetite.  

We were prepared for that.

We stayed at a "pension".  In Korea, this means a large room that you can rent for the day, or overnight.  They typically have only tables for eating off of, and mats and pillows for sleeping.  This one had the thinnest mats ever, and funky blocky pillows that did not ease my weary head.  This pension also had a rooftop space for grilling and eating.  In the days before we went I bought sausages and made hamburgers with beef, ground onion and garlic, and spices.  I grilled them, and was hailed as a master chef.  Granted, most of them had never had a hamburger better than a Big Mac, but I will take whatever praise I can get.  We also cooked some small pork ribs and sam-gyap-sal, the bacon cut of the pig.  We also had soup and rice, because otherwise it wouldn't have been a meal, right?

The next day we hit the beach again.  The weather was much more cooperative, sunny but not too hot.  Around noon Quinten needed to go to the bathroom, so I took him to one.  On our way back, I was walking behind Quinten, and stepped around some people who had walked into my path as a wave approached.  I started walking again, then looked around for Quinten.  He was no longer in front of me.  I looked out into the water, but didn't see him.  He wasn't behind me, and upshore was so crowded with people under umbrellas that I couldn't imagine him making his way through that.  I walked back to our group, looking for him the whole way, but didn't see him.  So I turned around and walked back to where we had re-entered the beach after using the bathroom.  No luck.  I walked back and forth a couple of times, then went to our group and asked if they had seen Quinten.  Someone told me that Horyon had taken him to the showers with Maxine.  I was a bit upset that Horyon hadn't told me, but also relieved that I hadn't actually lost him.

So I ate some fried chicken and relaxed.  And wondered if the language barrier had just bitten me in the butt.  I shouldn't have wondered.  I should have just assumed that it did.

A few minutes later our group and I noticed that they were making an announcement over the loudspeakers about a lost boy, six years old (Quinten's Korean age), wearing a blue shirt, and attending Quinten's kindergarten.  So some of us started walking to the police station to pick him up.  My feet were a bit tender the next day because I didn't notice until I was halfway there that I hadn't put my shoes on, but there was no way I was going to go back at this point.

In the first picture below, you can't see the police station because it is behind the picture of Horyon and me.  It took me more than 10 minutes to walk/jog there.  It was easy to find because there is a big 119 on the outside of the building, and I could hear Quinten crying from outside across the street.  When we got inside he couldn't stop because he had gained so much emotional momentum.  I picked him up and held him as he sobbed on my shoulder.  

My emotions at this point were mixed.

I felt sympathy for Quinten, but it was a very tempered sympathy.  Every child needs to learn how it feels to be lost, go through the tears, the certainty that Mommy and Daddy are gone forever.  It teaches us that our actions have consequences, a lesson that Quinten is still working on.  One of his favorite expressions right now is, "It's all your fault!"*  I don't think that he views the consequences dealt by me as being independent of his actions, but he does sometimes think that these consequences are unfair.  It's difficult to convince a child that parental consequences are honestly designed to be far less severe than worldly consequences.  When I held him in my arms, he was wetter and sandier than I expected him to be.  He confirmed that he had gone back into the water, and I came as close to lying to him as I dared: I told him that he got lost because he walked away from me.  I left out the part about how if I had been watching him more closely, he probably wouldn't have gotten lost.  I will tell him that sometime, but when he was feeling scared and alone, I wanted him to understand his part in that, without letting him shift the blame to me or anyone else.  I want him to remember that feeling the next time he thinks about taking off when there are a thousand people around.

Another feeling I had as Quinten cried in my arms was a kind of nostalgia.  I can't remember the second to last time I held him as he cried like that.  The last time was just two weeks ago when we said goodbye to my parents, but before that...?  It seems like only a few months ago that he had no words at all, and holding him was the only way to make him understand that I love him.  I don't miss the diaper changes, or the feeding hassles.  I still rejoice that he puts his shoes on the correct feet all by himself.  But the simplicity of the emotional relationship with a baby is undeniable: you offer unconditional love, and do your best to train the little beast to become a human.  Granted, the end of this training is still under the distant horizon.  For all I know, my parents may still consider me incomplete in this regard.

Of course I also felt relieved, grateful that he hadn't drowned, or been picked up by a statistically insignificant kidnapper working the beach, or suffocated under the hoards of beach goers.  My relief was oddly spread out, not really spiking until the unpleasant possibilities came to mind after Quinten was already in my arms.  As soon as I understood the announcement I had a simultaneous jolt of panic and relief.  That one kept popping in and out of my mind for the next half hour, especially when they announced that he was uncomfortable (or perhaps inconsolable?).

And I was angry.  At myself.  My moment of inattention could have cost me one of the most valuable things I have been entrusted with.  I was acutely aware of my language limitations.  I felt like an idiot for trusting anyone else to tell me where Quinten was.  I was angry at the situation as well: I hadn't really wanted to go on this trip, don't like the beach, and quickly grow tired of crowds.  I flashed back to the fender bender that started the trip, my lousy night of sleep, the yap and chatter of the kids who came along.

Anger.  Relief.  Nostalgia.  Sympathy.  If you had asked me at that moment how my weekend was, I probably would have said something rude.  I was so quick to set aside the positive experiences of the trip.

I got to be the head cook for Friday night's dinner, and it was fun!  I was back and forth between two grills that had very uneven heat, moving burgers and sausages so that they would be properly cooked.  I love a challenge like that!  I served up burgers and sausages to almost everyone there, and nothing makes me happy quite the same way as giving people food that I've made.  Especially when their reaction is to eat with gusto and tell me that it is all delicious.  I had some beer as I cooked and ate, adding a lovely buzz to the mix, loosening my tongue, and making me more pleasant company.  Later in the evening we opened a bottle of wine, and I got to be the sommelier, pouring plastic cups for all the adults interested.  My kids had a great time, playing in the sand and water, being with friends.  Even getting lost only brought Quinten down for about an hour.  The rest of the time he was on top of the world.  And it was Maxine's first time to see a lot of these friends since we left for America a month and a half previously.  She was the main reason we planned this outing, and I don't believe she had a single discouraging word to say about the trip (if I don't count "Are we there yet?").

As with any event, the details fade with time.  It's up to me to decide which gems I will sift out to keep.  I could very easily hold on to the annoyance, the bitterness, the anger.  They are kind of sticky, and require some effort to leave behind.  I choose to hold on to the smiles, the tasty burgers, the smiling kids, and the lessons learned.

*Expressions like this are so adorable coming from him that it is difficult to avoid smiling.  When he constructs his own sentences they are not so precise, so these perfect chunks are out of place in the cutest way possible.

p.s.  Photos for Uncle Bob.

Postcard mode is fun.  Simultaneous selfie and surroundings.
One of my cooking partners.

Eating dinner on the roof.

The later stages of cooking, involving vegetables.

Breakfast on Saturday.

Quinten making something on the beach.

We got more sun on Saturday.

Maxine got too much sun.  Cucumber face!
Don't worry, it's not a permanent condition.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Goodbye

When we arrived in Kansas, the way Quinten ran to his Grandpa, jumped into his arms, and held his hand without even looking back at me brought tears of joy to my eyes.  Today, when he realized that we were saying goodbye to Grandpa and Grandma, his sobs tore me apart like nothing ever has before.  I had no idea how hard it would be for him to leave, and for me to take  him away.  The relationship between my father and my son was more beautiful than I could have imagined.  They made things together, swam together, and sat by each other at meals without fail.  Every day I saw five years old and 71 years old connect in the way that only happens when each calls the other "Grand."

"We say goodbye to Grandpa forever?"  Choke.  I must answer without sobbing.

"No.  We'll see Grandpa and Grandma again."  But there is a lie in this truth: in no time at all, five-year-old Quinten will be gone forever, replaced by six- and then seven-year-old Quinten.  The next time he sees Grandpa and Grandma it won't be the same.  It can't be the same.

"The day after the day after tomorrow?"  He's only recently learned this phrase and the meaning behind it.  This is the furthest he can conceive of the future.  More than a week might as well be a million years to him.

"No.  It will be longer than that."  I don't lie to my kids.  Delaying a painful truth doesn't make it any less painful.

"I HATE saying goodbye to Grandpa and Grandma!"  I've been trying to strike the word "hate" from our family vocabulary, but I can't correct him on this one.

"Me too, buddy.  Me too."

We share my handkerchief, soaking it through.  My sleeve is soaked with tears, and I don't even try to hide it.  We are the last passengers to get on the plane, and the stewardess asks if he is ok.  I say yes, because even thinking of a longer, more honest answer, threatens to shatter the veneer of control barely covering my grief.  Later I manage to get as far as, "We just said goodbye to Grand... my parents."  Deep breath.  Blink away tears.  Let the nice lady get back to her work.

Quinten continues to cry for the next hour.  He stops for a few minutes, then resumes again. I wouldn't stop my tears if I could, but I hold back my sobs until he is asleep, leaning on me, still holding on to my arm.  I know that if I let it all out in front of him Maxine will join us in breaking down completely.

Maxine is sad as well, but she remembers saying goodbye; she knows that reunion is possible.  She has just experienced it, and loved it.  At eight years old she has a broader perspective of time than Quinten at five.  This was painful, but she clearly remembers her friends and home.  Quinten's universe barely spans a few weeks ago to a few days from now.

My parents wait in the security check line with us for a while, but when Quinten start crying, and Maxine joins in, my Mom has to leave, and Dad with her.  The gravity of a five-year-old can only be overcome through distance, and the tidal forces after one hug will rip you apart.

It doesn't help that it is five in the morning.

It doesn't help that I had set my alarm wrong and only woke up when Dad knocked on our door.

It doesn't help that I had slept less than three hours.

It doesn't help that I don't want to go either.  I want so badly to stay with my parents, to not take Maxine and Quinten from their Grandpa and Grandma.  I don't feel like I am going home, I felt like I am leaving home.

I tell myself that this wouldn't hurt so much if the visit hadn't been so good.  If we had stayed in my parents home instead of renting a condo, we would all be so sick of each other that we would be sighing with relief at this moment.  If I had brought the kids to Kansas out of a sense of duty I would be satisfied with a job well done.  If we had come just to see the sights we would be taking all we need in our cameras and eyes.  If we had only planned to eat American food until we couldn't eat any more we... Well, I am pretty much satisfied on that front.

What I received from this trip was something that I can't put on an itinerary, and can barely put into words: it was like I got to hug my grandmother Maxine again, though she's been gone since I was in junior high.  I got to hear my Grandma Sack laugh again, though her body followed her mind into darkness shortly after I got married.  I got to walk with Grandpa Sack again, though the cancer finally took him my freshman year in college.  I got to visit Grandpa Euler in his office at Goodyear Roofing and Heating again, though both Grandpa and the building are gone.  There is such joy in this that my heart can barely hold it, as well as a mourning of both the past and future.  Some day my Mom and Dad will be gone.  Quinten will miss them terribly, but if God wills it I will hold his children and be their Grandpa before it is my turn to move on.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


So I finally have some time to sit down in front of a PC and let you know how the trip to America went.  In brief, it was long.

We left our home in Busan at 7:30, and found the traffic to be lighter than expected.  We were at the airport in less than an hour, so we had two hours to wait for our flight.  We wandered around, had some juice for the kids, coffee for me, bought snacks to eat on the plane, and sat and read until it was time to go.  One small snag: my name was spelled incorrectly, so I had to go back to the check-in desk and get it reprinted.  So that used up five minutes of the two hours.  As it turned out, that was the second biggest mishap of the entire trip.  The largest involved two sandwiches with a side order of sadness.  We set the pattern for the trip by boarding almost last, to avoid standing in line and spending any more time in the airplane than necessary.  Though this was only a one hour flight, I could already anticipate not wanting to be in the plane.  Maxine and Quinten, however, were super excited.  Maxine couldn't remember taking this trip, though this was her fifth trip across the seas.  (The first when we moved to The States in '06, a round trip with Horyon in '09, and our move back to Korea in '11.)  When the plane took off, Quinten actually howled with delight.  Little did I know how far his enthusiasm would wane.

Airports: 2 hours
Planes: 1 hours
Total: 3 hours
Enjoying a beverage at the Busan (Kimhae) airport.  Horyon's father took the picture.

Love those comic books.  Look how helpful Maxine is pretending to be for this picture!

Quinten pours tea for King Sae-jong, the most awesomest king Korea has ever had.  That's my boy!

Look how excited they are to get on this airplane!  We are going to America!  Yeah!

After an uneventful flight, we arrived in Seoul's Incheon Airport, a lovely place.  We ate at KFC in the airport.  It had been a long morning, four hours since breakfast, and KFC was the first place we spotted.  As I was eating I found myself praying that the Colonel would not give me a rumbly tummy, as he sometimes does.  I try to live my life without regret, and this time I was allowed a poor decision with no cause for regret.

After lunch we came back to something we spotted after getting off the plane from Incheon.  There were some couples in very formal Hanboks (Korean formal traditional clothing).  They were clearing out, so I didn't get any pictures.  There was a souvenir shop that they had been in front of, so I went in to check it out.  I ended up buying some cool stuff, but more importantly than that, there was something to occupy the kids:  Free Art Activities!  The kids painted wooden figures in traditional Korean colors to make refrigerator magnets.  I did a wood block print of a tiger.  Traditional style.  It was all very traditional, though we have never done anything like it before, especially in an airport.  So yeah, ironic, I guess.  Because traditional but new... Whatever.

The four hours at Incheon Airport were not so bad.  We had to take a little 2-stop subway to get from the domestic to the international terminal, but our single suitcase was checked back in Busan, so I only had to handle the two kids and our carry-ons.  I made them carry their cute blue backpacks everywhere, as my backpack was plenty enough to carry.  After all, it was packed full with an extra set of clothes, medicines for common travel issues (bandages, ointment, tummy medicine), wet-wipes (water tissues), and a bunch of TOP SECRET PRESENTS FOR THE KIDS!!!  Yes, I did the prep work of buying a bunch of little presents, wrapping them individually, and keeping them absolutely secret from the kids until we were well into the second flight!  I am seriously proud of myself, even though Horyon did almost half the wrapping.

In the airport I sat next to one of the charging stations long enough to top off the juice in my phone.  I then politely moved to another seat so that someone else could use the rare electricity (about one set of outlets, 110 volt, 220 volt and USB for 50-60 seats).  I decided to not pay attention to anyone sitting there after me.  Why add stress to an already difficult day?

I chatted for a while with an American high school student heading home after three weeks with an older brother posted in Korea with the American military.  The kids found a t.v. tuned to a kids station, and enjoyed their last Korean t.v. shows for a while.  (I don't miss Bbororo the little penguin, but I am not five years old.)  At this point, it was mid-afternoon for us, and we were doing just fine.

Airports: 6 hours
Planes: 1 hour
Total: 7 hours
Painting birds for Grandma and Grandpa's refrigerator.

Quinten helped on this one for about three minutes.

Traditional music ensemble, playing "My Way" I believe.

The ladies who helped us do crafts.
Finishing the Oreos and Pringles left over from the first flight.
Did someone say Oreo?  Oh yeah, baby!
Our old frienemy, TV.

Then we got on the plane.  Again we waited while the line to board stretched out through the terminal.  I'm not sure what people are thinking, hustling to be at the front of this line.  I'm pretty sure these are the same people hustling to get off the plane, so what exactly is the goal?  Reserving space in the overhead bin?  We only put one bag up there, no problem.  Getting a good seat?  My ticket had a seat number.  Perhaps the rest of the plane was festival seating?  Rushing to get one of the few English newspapers they had to offer?  I got one on the first flight.  It killed 15 minutes worth of reading, and maybe 45 minutes worth of crossword puzzle.  (I haven't done a crossword in a long time, so it made me feel pretty clever that I could actually make progress on it, especially considering that I was unable to Google any answers.)

We had three adjacent seats by the window.  There was no cheering from Quinten on this take-off.  He was still interested, but it was no longer the thrilling experience it was that morning.  "Are we going to America?" was his constant question.  "Yes, Quinten.  This airplane plus one more, and we will be with Grandpa and Grandma!"  Three plane rides.  Three.  Plane.  Rides.

From our seats we could see one of the smaller t.v. screens.  The main screen at the front of the cabin had some color issues that made everything look like   Maxine and I watched some of "Divergent."  I think she gave up on it because she couldn't understand it, and I gave up because I could.  (Just kidding!  It wasn't bad, but I couldn't pay attention to it because Quinten kept wanting my attention.)  Maxine watched an episode of some sitcom, "Friends" I think, maybe a "3.5 Men".  At the end of the flight I watched almost all of "Mr. Peabody and Sherman."  Unfortunately, our flight ran quickly, so we missed the last 10 minutes of the movie.

By "we" I meant "me".  Maxine and Quinten slept for about the last four hours of that flight.  In Korea their nap would have started around midnight, way past their bedtime.  We were flying East, so the sun set rather quickly on us.  

The present idea got rolling for me a couple of weeks ago when my friends, Justin and Chelsea Hartzell handed me a couple of coloring books, some colors and stickers, and told me that they had read online about some ways to keep your kids happy while travelling.  Horyon and I wrapped about 7 presents for each of them, and one to share (a package of paper for folding projects with glue sticks for making it more awesomer).  There were some little toys, blank sketch books, more stickers, bracelet kits, and some little hand powered fans that I have not yet given to them.  They never really got hot, and in fact were often chilly, so I figured the fans might be better received in Kansas.  If you haven't tried summer in Kansas, but you have been to a sauna, it's pretty much the same most years.  Fortunately, the heat broke the day before we arrived, and we have been very comfortable.

We flew with United Air, and I have a couple of things to say about that:  first, it would be nice if they could put entertainment units in the seats.  Or at least outlets to recharge devices.  On an 11 hour flight, with only one choice of entertainment, it is difficult to keep kids from going absolutely bonkers.  Of course, if I were to upgrade to business class I would get all that, plus enough leg and hip room to start thinking about being comfortable enough to sleep.  I did not sleep at all on this flight.  I think I had some stretches of delirium, but no real sleep.  I know, I know, first world problems.  "I am crossing from one side of this planet to the other in one five-hundredth of the time it took my great-great-aunt Maxine, but I can't plug in my phone!"

But I have decided it is worth it to be with United employees.  They were unfailingly courteous, chatted with me about our travels, asked if the kids needed anything, and they laughed.  They didn't have lots of food to offer, but they scared up some bread for my kids well after the set meal that they only picked at.  (And yes, I ate more than I really needed, finishing off most of their meals.  It wasn't great food, but boredom and hunger team up to whoop my will power.)  They also said nice things about my kids, which is a shortcut to getting on my list of people I do not want to just go away, please.

I didn't take many pictures on this flight.  The lighting wasn't great, and I was starting to run out of steam.

Our last meal was breakfast.  I ate my breakfast sandwich, and kept the kids' in a bag for later, along with some individually packaged yogurt.  This plan was completely destroyed by U.S. Customs.  Thanks, guys.  You see, there was ham on the sandwiches, and you can't bring foreign meat into the United States because it might be a terrorist or something.  The yogurt was okay, but I forgot to pick it up after our bags got x-rayed.  So I showed up in America with no food to feed my children.  Tragic.

Airports: 6 hours
Planes: 12 hours
Total: 18 hours

Thanks Justin and Chelsea!  The presents worked!

The last leg of the journey began in San Francisco.  We arrived at the airport early, around 11:30, with our flight for Kansas City leaving at 4:30.  Ordinarily, I'm happy when my flights arrive early, but this time I really could have done without it.  It just meant one more hour in an airport.  SF airport had one runway shut down, so no one could tell us what gate to be at until an hour before our flight.  We settled in to the originally scheduled gate, and were lucky enough that it was only moved to the next gate over.

I found myself explaining over and over to Quinten that we were, in fact, in America, but we were not finished travelling.  I was made to understand that he did not want to get on one more airplane.  I was informed of this desire many, many times.

For us, it felt like the middle of the night, even though the sun was shining, and the kids were in a manic state.  For example, they insisted on sitting next to the Sprite bottle in the waiting area, and demanded that I take their picture with it.  There were tears, some running around, many reminders to use indoor voices, and a lack of focus from all concerned parties.  Fortunately, my senses returned in time to ask the desk clerk to seat the three of us together.

When the kids started to get bored I broke out a couple of presents.  This kept them in their seats for 20 or 30 minutes, but soon they were on their feet again, chasing each other around the gate waiting area.  I gave them some paper and glue, and they made paper airplanes.  Which we threw back and forth, and ran around to catch.  I couldn't say whether or not I got dirty looks for entertaining my kids, because I was too tired to give a damn.  Part of me felt like explaining to every person that Quinten almost ran into that he was a very tired little boy who had been travelling for the past 18 hours, and to please cut him some slack, but mostly I just didn't care.

We got on the plane towards the end of the line, but when there are less than 100 seats it doesn't really matter.  Maxine introduced herself to everyone official looking on our way in.  The two flight attendants were top-notch, inserting just the right amount of attitude into the seat belt and life vest demonstrations, and complimenting me on my wonderfully behaved (especially considering how long they had been travelling).

Once on the plane, the kids sat next to each other (window and aisle) and I sat in the aisle seat across from them.  We didn't have long to wait before we started taxiing to the runway.  When I leaned over to tell the kids we were about to take off, I found that both kids had fallen asleep.  Thankfully, they stayed that way the entire flight, including the meal, which was... oh wait.  There wasn't a meal.  Because 4:30 San Francisco time until 10:15 Kansas City time doesn't overlap any meals, like dinner.  We got beverage service twice, and a cookie.  Once again, the flight attendants made up for it.  They seemed kind of embarrassed about it, like you would feel if a friend showed up unexpectedly and you didn't have any drinks to offer them.  It didn't matter much, as the kids slept through the whole thing and I was in that rare state of being too tired to be hungry.

SF Airport. We seem cheerful, but if you look closely you can see quiet desperation in my eyes.
Wait.  That desperation isn't really very quiet, is it.

Last flight, from "Prepare for takeoff" until "We will be landing shortly."
I don't have any pictures of our arrival in Kansas.  The kids woke up about 20 minutes out of Kansas city, and Quinten started whining.  At this point I could not blame him.  We were on our approach, so they couldn't get drinks.  There was no book, toy or activity that could improve the situation.  The only thing we could do was put up with it.

Airports: 10 hours
Planes: 16 hours
Total: 26 hours

When we landed, a bit ahead of schedule, I was a bit disappointed that Mom and Dad weren't right there waiting for us, but after three and a half years, I decided I could wait a bit longer.  We hunted down the rest rooms, then the baggage claim.

I spotted my Dad while he was more than 100 feet away.  I bent down and told Quinten, "There's Grandpa!  Go give him a hug!"  Quinten was off like a tired, slightly drunken shot, wrapped his arms around Dad and yelled, "Grandpa! Grandpa!"

I can't explain how this felt to me.  It was the moment that made the previous 26 hours worthwhile.  We had Skyped with my parents, and Quinten had seen pictures of them, but we moved back to Korea before he turned two, and I wasn't sure how well he would do with my parents.  Maxine remembered them.  She was five years old when we moved, and she had spent the night with Grandma and Grandpa, and had many good memories to build on.  But Quinten felt like a gamble that I had no choice to make.

We won.  And not just on the day we arrived, but in the days following Quinten has taken to my Dad as though we had never left.

But that's another blog entry.  In the mean time, the trip is not quite finished yet.

Mom and Dad took us to the Condotel where we are staying after stopping at McDonalds to get the kids some comfort food and play time.  They took us in and showed us around.  They had bought us some food and toiletries.  It was almost 11:30 by then, way past my Mom's bedtime, but they stayed until they were sure we were comfortable.

After they left I ran a bath for the kids.  A cold bath.  Because the hot water wasn't working.  I looked at the hot water heater, but no luck.  I called Dad and he came out to look at it, but couldn't get it working, so he took us back to his house.  Once we were all showered, he took us back to the condotel, and I got the kids in bed by 2 a.m. (which is like 4 p.m. in Korea).  They settled down and went to sleep pretty quickly, I guess.  They could have been jumping on the bed singing, "Let it Go!" at the top of their voices for all I knew, because the moment I got into bed my day of travelling was finished.

Like this blog entry.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Another Guilty Post

So I just added my summer vacation calendar to my Roblog (1 minute to do, 10 minutes to tweak it so it looked good).  Something possessed me to click on the "Next Blog" button at the top.  I stumbled on to some interesting things.

I really liked Thank God for the Women!, a post from a pastor living somewhere on the Internet.  It made me think of my friend, Elaine, over at the Bear of Little Brain.  Good stuff.  She's currently travelling, so even better than usual.  And she's done with grad school, which hopefully means she will be communicating with us more often.  Maybe

I also found a bizarre space baby poster.  If you browse this blog you will find lots of weiner dogs, and a Youtube link to a fantastic tuba rendition of Vivaldi's Winter.  Mr. Baadsvik totally rocks it.

There was also the usual assortment of blogs in other languages, one or two that were from people whose first langue was not English, and other fun things. I didn't go too far down the rabbit hole (which inevitably leads one to conclude that humanity is both amazing and amazingly stupid), but I did notice one thing: the majority of the blogs I looked at have not posted this year, and a few showed most recent posts of 2012.  I had to look at my blog to double check that I was not in this boat.  I wasn't, but I am in pretty bad shape for the year: only 5 posts, and one of them is just a Sunday School lesson handout.

What happened?  I remember posting pictures and stuff?  Aha!  I've been posting to the blog my students have access to!  I would post links to them, but they will go down by summer, to make room for the fall blog (during which I will probably recycle them).  So instead I will try to paste one here:

This is not homework.

You do not have to read it.  You may just look at the pictures.  You may also ignore (not look) at it.

This is my son, Quinten.  He was born in 2009, and he loves this predator that stands in the window of a massage shop near our home:

His birthday was March 9th, but we had his party almost a week later.  He was very excited about the presents.  In fact, he sat with them while waiting for our guests to arrive.

Here he is blowing out the candles on his cake.  It was a good day.  Everyone had fun, and the cake was delicious.
Quinten is a good singer.  These days he sings two songs:  "Let it Go" from Frozen, and the theme from the Dobots t.v. show.

Next week I will write about Maxine.  You can see her in the bottom left of the picture with Quinten's birthday cake.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Kansas Calendar

So I'm going to try using Google Calendar to schedule what Maxine, Quinten and I do while in Kansas this summer.  I will try to keep this updated, so that you can see when we have free time if you want to invite us over.

I seem to be having trouble with the time zones!  If you see your event at some early hour in the morning on the wrong day, just subtract 14 hours.  That should fix it.  For example, RCCP is on the 25th in the evening, and Townsend is on the 30th in the evening.  Trying to fix it!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday

This isn't really about the Christian events of Good Friday, but about how this Friday was a Good Friday for me.

My last class of the week is a night class on Friday night, meets from 8:40 until 10:20.  The students are English Tourism majors, and you can tell this is a frighteningly popular time for class, because I usually have five out of the six students enrolled.  The class is supposed to be an extra conversation class, in addition to their regular conversation class, so these students have two-hour classes twice a week, with a different foreign teacher each time.

The third week of class I had a student show up for the first time.  This is not at all unusual for my university, though this class was regular enough that we had gotten into a rhythm, in which the students were comfortable with my speaking speed, and I felt like they were understanding a reasonable amount of what I was saying.

But this new student, I will use her initials: EK, was working at a different level.  A much lower level.  Much.  Lower.

She was the kind of low that required translation.  I couldn't speak English slowly, simply or clearly enough for her to understand it.  And if you've never met me, please believe that I can do slow and simple, though the jury is still out on clear.

She was literally afraid of me; she said so.  (In Korean, of course.)  I tried to gear the class down to her level, but it was like hitting the interstate in 1st gear, including the loud whining sound and the smell of burning oil.  (That smell may have been in my imagination.)

I did find out about her situation: like the other students, she is in her sophomore year.  However, she was a freshman six years ago, so it's safe to say she didn't remember much from her previous English classes.  Frankly, I wonder how she passed back then.  Probably a combination of cuteness and persistence.  Currently she is not working, just taking some night classes to finish her degree.

I told her the painful truth: I'm a pretty decent teacher, but my class and one other two-hour class per week just aren't going to boost her (or anyone else's) English level significantly.  Not without some significant participation from the student, anyway.  I suggested that she should enroll in an English conversation institute (hagwon) that has classes every day for an hour, maybe even two.  I guaranteed that if she did so the improvements would be quick and noticeable.

She has been in class since then, but I've mostly left her to her own devices, occasionally startling her with a "Boo!" because how awesome is it that someone in the world is actually afraid of me?

This past week was my midterm.  One other student was absent, but EK showed up.  I was feeling pretty pessimistic, and so was she.  She finished last, and I tried to reassure her that just glancing over it, it seemed very likely that she passed.  I offered to grade it on the spot, and she stayed.

She got an 89, which surprised the heck out of me.  And her!  (It turns out she had the lowest grade in the class, though the absent student may give her some competition in that respect.  I believe the others scored 93, 96, 99 and 100.  But there is no student I am more proud of this semester than EK.)

She told me she had taken my advice, and was attending a 3-month course at a popular English conversation institute. (Jeong-Cheol, if you are interested.)  She had also spent the past week preparing for my exam.  So far it is working.

This made me (perhaps) unreasonably happy.  Seeing someone improve at my direction, even if I am not the main tool to evoke that change made me happy, almost giddy.

When she left, I stayed to grade the rest of the papers.  After she closed the door behind her I heard her footsteps as she ran down the hall.  I imagine she was proud, perhaps still a bit nervous, and maybe as giddy as I was.

That was my Good Friday.  I got one of those rare moments in teaching: evidence that I am effective.

Happy Easter to you all.  American culture has it all wrong: Christmas is not really about giving, it's about hope.  The biggest gift ever was given on the cross, and Christians are called to give of their own lives, (though seldom in as dramatically) as Jesus did.  I could have encouraged EK to go home, settle for a C.  I could have even promised her a B if I never had to see her again, and believe me, the thought did cross my mind.  Instead, I went past the easy way out, the cruel and simple option of telling her to give up.  I gave her my attention.  I gave her the best advice I could.  I gave her encouragement whenever she came to class.  So even though this story came to fruition on Good Friday, it's appropriate that I am posting it on Easter, a day of new life and some serious giving.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My reaction to stress

I have decided that on this occasion of my 24th birthday, instead of spending the next 30 minutes doing the dishes before going to work, I will do the Roblog:

In times of trouble I tend to stop communicating with the people around me.

This is not because I don't need people in general, or want to keep my problems super-secret, but because I am more introverted than I usually show.  Dealing with people is draining for me, though not as much as with the serious introverts.  (They are the ones spread out over there not looking at each other.)

As much as I like writing, sometimes the idea of spreading my mind out on a board and pinning it up for display is not as attractive as it sounds.  But I believe that doing so lightens the soul, and perhaps helps to lighten the burdens of others.  So...

In October Horyon found out that her teaching contract would be renewed for at most one year, perhaps not even that.  She also found out that there was another job opening at the school at which her father used to be the principal.  Check my post from November for details.

From the time of that posting, the stress kept building.  She passed the history test (short lived relief), and started prepping for the English and Teaching Pedagogy tests, which were scheduled for the same day and made the history test seem relatively simple.

When she came home from the big test, I thought it was behind us, but it clung to us like a vicious spider monkey, pulling our hair and snatching the food out of our hands.  For starters, the online forum in which the people who took the tests discussed their answers, the grading, and all the other details of the test.  The test-takers were allowed to keep the pages with the questions, but the grading of the test is a black box out of which comes only a score.  If I hadn't been living in Korea for so long, I would have called it unbelievably unprofessional.  So call it cungly unprofessional.

I felt like we had just finished a marathon, stopped for a breather, and heard the sound of hounds at our heels.

Eventually we found the the results were a typical mix of good news and bad news:  the bad news was that her score was not good enough to be hired as a permanent teacher.  The good news is that none of the candidates were good enough to be hired as permanent teachers.  The resulting bad news was that three or four of them were hired, and the administration decided to make one or two of them permanent after a year of seeing how they work.

As a mother who wants to spend some time with her children during the week, Horyon is at a disadvantage.  Some of those candidates are staying until 9 p.m. every day to show their dedication.  Horyon has been put in charge of testing for freshmen, a data analysis and preparation job that will keep her busy this year.  It seems that if she knocks this one out of the park she may be made permanent.  She found a way for me to help her chances as well:  twice a month I will be teaching a Saturday "club activity" class at her school.  It will be students who signed up for it, but everyone has to sign up for some activity.  I have no idea how this will be, other than busy.

My goal is to take this job as a blessing, and a chance to bless Horyon.  If I am there, she can be home with the kids, and her school won't ask both mother and father to come on the same Saturday.  I haven't had to wake up early on a Saturday for that yet, so it's still pretty easy to be positive about it.

Just stopping to breathe here.  I hate going whiny on you like this, but I promise that there is a silver lining coming up.

In addition, God has taken an opportunity to teach me about what I should pray for, and which problems I should not worry so much about and trust to God's good will:

I am planning to take Maxine and Quinten to Kansas this summer.  By myself.  Horyon just can't get away for long enough during the summer to be worth an $1800 plane ticket.  Even so, I had little idea how to pay for the tickets.  We have money in the States from the sale of our former home, but spending a big chunk of it like that is tricky, and our credit card here was maxed out.

Did you catch that "was"?  It's important.

So instead of praying about it, I decided to do something about it:  I committed to teach at an elementary school this year, twice a week for four hours at a time.  It would have enabled us to save enough money to pay off the card, freeing up the card to buy plane tickets, and pay off the plane tickets by mid fall.

One week into the semester and elementary school job, Horyon got her severance pay from the high school at which she just finished working.  It was almost $9,000.  Enough to pay off the card and pay for most of the plane tickets.  It took a few days for it to sink in, but I eventually realized that God had answered the prayer that I was supposed to be praying, providing for a need that I took upon myself to take care of.

And now I am paying the price.  The elementary job is not too hard, but eight hours of teaching each week, plus an extra hour or so of commuting by bike (doubled if it's raining and I have to take the subway) means that I have to teach two night classes at KIT, so Maxine and Quinten are spending more evening time at Horyon's parents home, not with me or Horyon.  It's actually more accurate to say that my family is paying the price for my lack of faith.

Now for the silver lining:

The stress of the past six months was becoming unbearable.  I have also been witness to two more couples, friends of mine, going through marital difficulties.  I was crying out to God, gravitating to the Psalms about how much life sucks, but also how gracious God is through suckiness (my paraphrase), when a friend recommended a book called Sacred Marriage by Gary L. Thomas.  (It's only $3 for the Kindle edition at Amazon right now!  I paid $8 for it!  If you are married, or think you may be married sometime, go get it!).  It changed the way I viewed marriage in general and my marriage specifically.

I'm not sure if I ever thought of my marriage as a chance to be a servant. I considered serving my wife to be something done as a quid pro quo, part of "the deal" of marriage:  I serve you, you serve me, we serve the kids, and hopefully they take care of us when we're old and even more feeble than we are now.

Just a contract, of sorts.  And of course it was built on love, and in front of God, and all that, but those were just details.  During the past few months I have come to learn that those details lead to the greater potential truth of marriage: it is a series of opportunities to better see myself and my sins, my selfishness, my pettiness.  The way Horyon knows me is still just a shadow of the way God knows me, but it's closer than anyone else has known me since I was young and living with my parents.

Let me reassure my single friends that it is not my intention to say that you cannot reach spiritual maturity without marriage.  But for me, living single was leading me down some self-destructive paths that I may never have left without Horyon.

I am having serious trouble putting this revelation into words, people: I am finding that stress on our marriage is breaking me to God's will, rather than just breaking me.  I am turning to God, rather than my wife for basic sustenance.  And I know, I knew that depending on people rather than God was a recipe for disaster, but there is knowing at an intellectual level, then there is knowing at the gut level, where you make the snap decisions.

Our life is not perfect, but God is good.

I still have no claim to understand God.  Now we see God dimly, as in a dirty, scratched bare metal mirror.  Then we shall see God face to face.  But prayer, reading the Bible and taking counsel from those wiser than I helps me to polish the mirror, maybe bang a dent or two out.

I need to get going.  I've gone well over my allotted 30 minutes, and will have to rush some food before starting class in 42 minutes, but my birthday feels more complete for taking the time to let you know how I am doing.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Random Pictures

This is not my usual style, but from time to time I feel inclined to throw Uncle Bob a bone.  In spite of being on vacation, I have not felt one bit inclined to write.  But if a picture is worth a thousand words, I've just racked up 20,000 right here.
Quinten enjoys chocolate.

I enjoy a burger so large I had to use a fork and knife to eat it.
Yes, there is an over-easy fried egg embedded in that awesome burger.

Maxine enjoys (?) a boa constrictor.
Horyon didn't enjoy this very much either.

Not sure how this summer pic got in here,
but doesn't it warm your heart?

Maxine's teacher for the past two years, Aran.

Chinese candy: better for photos than eating.

Souvenir of our vacation, enjoying cho-bap with Maxine. 

Outfit by Horyon.  Yes, she spent an evening sewing!

Not as charming at this scale,
though Quinten is willing to give a high-five.

I can't believe my little boy is already driving!

I love horses.

Riding the train.

Just plain cute.


Love those giant teddy bears. Really.

End of the day at the water park.  Anyone look tired?

The view from our hotel room.

Our hotel lobby.

Last day of vacation.

Couldn't quite get Quinten to buy into this one.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Sunday School Lesson

Sorry, this isn't a real update on our lives.  It's a piece of my latest Sunday School lesson, based on 1 Corinthians 13:4.  The kids cut out the pieces (after coloring the pictures) and put them together in their workbooks.  I was pretty happy with the way it turned out, but didn't take any pictures.

1 Cor 13:4

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.