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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Boy's Life--a book review

A few months ago my Aunt Becky recommended a book to me, Boy's Life by Robert McCammon. I popped over to (click here to buy the book) and bought it on sale for $2.99. Definitely a bargain. As I was reading it I made a mental note to thank my aunt, which I did. Then I made a mental note to recommend it to others, which I didn't, because by the end I decided that I had to push this book harder than a blurt on Facebook.

So I will link to this review from Facebook, where I will post a much, much shorter review and Amazon link.

But for you, my loyal Roblog readers, an excerpt. This is the last page of the prologue. The narrator is talking about his home town of Zephyr, Alabama.

          We had a dark queen who was one hundred and six years old. We had a gunfighter who saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street.
          It was a magic place.
          In me are the memories of a boy's life, spent in that realm of enchantments.
          I remember.
          These are the things I want to tell you.

I love this introduction: It freely gives away massively tantalizing hints without spoiling a bit of the story, and let's you know that the writing will be so rich and succulent that you will feel like licking your fingers after you put the book down.

There is something about his storytelling that reminds me of Stephen King, though with a much lower fatality rate. McCammon paints lovely, believable pictures quickly and efficiently, but not so sketchily that you get confused. As you can see above, there are times when he waxes lyrical, almost poetic, but with none of the pretension of poetry.

McCammon has a large body of work available in electronic form, so I can buy them easily for my Kindle, but I'm not going to rush into them: I want to take my time to digest each one, like a fine meal. You don't go out for an expensive steak when you had a Chinese buffet for lunch, and there are some bits of Boy's Life that will stay with me for years: the first day of summer vacation, the narrow escapes, the release from pain carried for so long.

This book reads like a memoir, but with elements of fantasy expertly woven in. It made me wonder if perhaps my childhood held similar miracles and terrors, memories later driven out and replaced by sitcom memories, long days in boring classrooms, the only magic left restricted to the silver screen.

Last summer I watched the movie "Selma" on t.v. Maxine watched some of it with me, and we had a couple of conversations about racism, and why someone would blow up a church, killing four little girls. My kids are aware of what it means to be different from everyone else, but I am very grateful that they do not face challenges like those.

Boy's Life is set in the late 60s. The civil rights struggle and racism of that time infuse the whole story, sometimes fighting in the middle of the stage, sometimes scratching around the edges of the scenery, almost never completely out of sight. I was born in 1970, so I didn't witness that era, but books like this help me to wrap my brain around what it must have been like. Yes, it is fiction, and yes, the author is white. I would not count on a book like this as a primary source, but it adds another viewpoint to my limited vision of where the United States of America has been, and where it is going.

I should also note that Boy's Life won the 1992 World Fantasy Award for best novel. It does not feel like a 15-year-old book to me, but then again I didn't feel like a 46-year-old after reading it.

If you've read it, I'd love to hear what you thought in the comments. 

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Well Earned Tears

First grade is hard the same way the ocean is wet. There is only so much newness that one can take in before one is overwhelmed, and the only response is to break down a bit. For example, today was a normal day, with our standard lesson and activities. One activity that I particularly enjoy is when our teacher sings to us. She has a beautiful voice, and I don't know about everybody else, but I always feel like she is singing for me.

Today when she started to sing, it was a new song for our class. New, but somehow familiar to me. At first I hummed along, without even knowing how I knew the tune, then an old door creaked open in the back of my mind, and the memory came spilling out: it was a warm, dark, safe place, with Mommy. She was holding me in her arms, and singing the same song. I remembered it so hard that for a moment I was there in Mommy's arms, without the words to express the joy I felt at falling asleep in this perfect place hearing this perfect song, that reminded me of an even more perfect place, hearing the song of Mommy's heartbeat and breathing, surrounded by her.

For a moment the memory was a perfect crystal, more beautiful than anything I've ever held. Then it melted into the here and now, and my cheeks were wet with the past. I realized that I was back in a world where sometimes I got to spend no time with Mommy. I could't remember the last time she had sung to me, and it sat on my chest like a gorilla. I sobbed, mourning the changes in my life this past year, and fearing what was to come.

My teacher asked what was wrong, and I told her that she had sung a song of my infancy, now further away than the stars, and even more impossible to reach. I asked her to hold me, and she did. It wasn't the same as being with Mommy, but it was okay. I sat on her lap and let my anguish flow until all that was left was the memory itself, now tinged with sadness.

I got up off of her lap and returned to my seat. I could see my pain reflected in the faces of my classmates. No doubt some of them were sampling their own bittersweet memories. Maybe some of them were reawakening to the blessings that they had tuned out due to familiarity. I saw no contempt, no mockery. We can be so cruel when we see our classmates in tears, especially when we believe they are unearned. That day all of them knew that I had earned my tears, and some of them joined me in weeping for the lost past. Then I noticed that same pain reflected in the eyes of my teacher. I realized at that moment that she loved me. All of us, really. Of course not as deeply as Mommy loves me, but with a real love. A love that is there every day, ready to pick you up and brush you off when you fall down, ready to wipe your nose, and willing to help you better yourself. But more importantly, she loved me even though a year ago she hadn't even met me. I realized that love can be found outside of those who have known you your whole life: it's ready to grow into any crack in your life.

Everyone says that I am too young to be nostalgic, longing for what has gone. I say that a lifetime ago is a long time, whether your lifetime is seven or one hundred seven years. Learn to love the time you are in now, but don't let go of your past. Rather, use it as an anchor as you search for the love that will inevitably be found in your future.

Quinten with a bear. Not his teacher.

[This story is third hand, based on what Horyon told me of a text message received from Quinten's teacher. As such, I have taken some liberties in imagining what happened at the time, and assuming Quinten's point of view, and expanding his vocabulary somewhat. I don't believe I am breaking any rules in this, but feel free to contact the authorities if you disagree.]

Sunday, November 06, 2016

A Moving Story

"It looks like they are not going to try to rent out our old apartment, so we will have to pay the rent on it until it gets torn down next June," said my wife, while simultaneously feeding me lead shot from the freezer, or so my gut was telling me.

We broke our contract, seven months into a two-year contract. First question: what is the penalty clause for breaking a contract like this? Answer: technically, there is no penalty clause, because you can't break the contract. As long as no one is living in that apartment, you are responsible for paying the rent, and you sure don't get your deposit back. There are supposed to be rules, like the owner can't raise the rent, making it less likely for a new tenant to move in. But otherwise it is a system that just assumes someone will move in. Our old neighborhood had a stretch of ten real estate agencies lining one side of the road, broken up only by a phone store and a dietary supplement store.

We had understood that we would be paying rent on both places until someone moved in, which would make our budget tight for a month or two. But now it was scary: Horyon checked and found that our old apartment was not being listed for sale! The real estate agent had told the apartment owner that she did not have to do anything, because she would keep getting rent whether someone new moved in or not. And frankly, wouldn't she rather avoid dealing with all that registration nonsense, and the transferring of key money, and all the little clean up stuff, like putting up new wallpaper over the old cracks (which I am sure are no indication that the building is close to falling down on its own, much less with the help of an earthquake or two).

Context time: in September the southern part of Korea has been the epicenter of a few little earthquakes, measuring: 5.1 and 5.8 within an hour of each other on September 12th, then a week later a 4.5, a 3.5 two days after that, then a 3.1 on the 28th. October 2nd offered up a 3.0, barely noticeable after the previous excitement, and followed by a typhoon on the 5th that killed a few people. And another earthquake on Monday October 10th. Looks like Monday is our regular earthquake day.

Anyway, the old building was constantly shedding bits of concrete, and the safety railings were all loose. The elevator was out of order anytime there was enough rain to flood the basement, but even when it did work you had to take half a flight of stairs to get to your floor. It was slow to get to the ninth floor, but once it got there you had to get the heck out in a hurry, because the doors would close three seconds after opening. That elevator nailed me a few times

It was a nice neighborhood, though. A five minute walk from Horyon's parents, a ten minute walk from the subway, a real French bakery just down the street, and Gwanganli Beach only a 20 minute walk away.

On the other hand, it was only a five minute walk from Horyon's parents, people whom I love and respect and don't want to wander into my home at random hours when I may or may not be wearing pants.

We were happy to be out, even paying two rents each month for a month or two. But that horrid sinking feeling dragged on my gut for a couple of days. It felt like a hopeless situation, but neither of us realized that the sleeping dragon had been awakened, and was even then doing battle. Horyon's mother never liked our real estate agent, and didn't trust her. When she found out how we were being used, she started making calls and visiting friends and kicking up a mess. Over the weekend she managed to find someone who would rent our old apartment. Not just move in, but take over the key money as well as the full rent!

The problem was that we couldn't reach the apartment owner to seal the deal. The real estate agent had told the owner to not answer the phone. At this point in the story, I am not sure what the various motivations were. Why would the real estate agent want to make our lives miserable? Why would she not want to get another tenant into the apartment, thereby earning some sort of commision? Why hadn't she just listed the apartment? I don't know. Why would the apartment owner not answer her phone? I don't know. But my mother-in-law sent her a text message that basically threatened to sue her if she didn't deal with us, so she finally picked up. Within three days, a contract was signed. By the end of the week, we had our deposit money back.

I don't like to admit it, but for those few days I was starting to resurrect some of my old feelings about Korea. The feelings I had back in 2007 when we moved back to the states. The feeling that this society is built on disrespect, and that the Confucianism at the root of Korean society had grown into a big, ugly, repressive monster that only benefited those at the top. We moved to America in 2007 partly because we wanted a good future and competent schools for our children, but also partly because I was no longer able to go about my daily life without an inner raging against my host country. My attitude was completely unfair, and reflected more about myself than Korea. Korea is not perfect, and the cultural differences between here and the midwestern United States are very real. But my concept of what the midwestern United States is actually like to live in had only the most tenuous connection to the actual experience of living there.

Long story short: I learned to love Korea by leaving it for four years. I still love the United States, but it lost some of it's shininess during that four years. And wherever you go, there you are.

Fortunately, those negative feelings about Korea did not have much chance to germinate, and were quickly uprooted. I am still aware that there are individuals out there who will do mean things and treat you unkindly, but for the most part people aren't interested in making life worse for others. Most people will be kind, given the opportunity, because it makes them feel better about themselves. As long as there is not too much at stake, anyway.

Enough philosophical musings, let's get down to brass tacks:

The new apartment is a downsize for us, from 34 to 25 pyeong* (~1200 sq ft to 890 sq ft). So we lost about a quarter of our old floor space. To be fair, some of what we lost was a hallway, in which we hung coats on the wall and piled bags and stuff on the floor. We're better off without that. We think that we also lost some communal space, like the hall outside leading to the elevator. We lost a bit in the living room, but the old one was more space than we needed. The most painful loss was the kitchen/dining room. It is now much more difficult for us to sit down together to eat a meal. When we do, it's impossible to walk through the kitchen.

But the kids now have their own bedrooms. Quinten's room is big enough for his bed and some shelves. He doesn't do much other than sleep in there because there's not room for even a little person like himself to play. I am proud of how quickly he has adjusted to sleeping in there by himself, though.

Maxine loves having her own room, and has already taken to shutting herself in to read, draw, and grow that icky shell thing that teenagers get.** She has about half again as much space as Quinten, so there is a desk and bookshelf, a tall chest of drawers, and her bed in there. She is so happy to have her own desk and office chair!

Horyon and I are in the master bedroom, where we have some lovely built-in closets that were a present from her parents. For the first time in five years I have all of my clothes in the same room, and it's the room where I sleep! I've also got a combination desk/bookshelf and a rolling office chair. Mine is more expensive than Maxine's, of course: you have to pay for the kind of quality that can hold me.

Of course, one aspect of downsizing was that we had to get rid of stuff. Which we did. Certainly not all of the useless stuff, but a lot of it. And now I have three or four plastic bins full of stuff that I couldn't bear to part with, and now barely look at because they are in plastic bins on the verandah. Occasionally I miss something and go out to find it. Eventually I really need to go through those bins and toss out everything that is left.

We acquired some cool stuff in the move from friends that were also moving. The two big ones are a sofa and an electric piano. Both are old, and show it. They survived a little girl's childhood, and have the marker stains to prove it. The sofa sits lower than it should in some places, and the arm rest is a tiny bit wiggly, but when we haven't piled laundry and books and toys all over it, it is perfect for a nap. The electric piano is a little scuffed up, and the buttons are all labeled in Korean, but it sounds good. When we got it, it was capable of playing more loudly than the neighbors would appreciate. Thankfully, Quinten fixed that by dropping a screw into one of the headphone jacks. How clever is my boy? Now you have to turn the volume all the way up to hear it, and I have to figure out how to fish a screw out of a headphone jack. Ah well, idle hands and all that.

A couple of weeks after getting the piano I was out with Quinten and we passed the Alladin used book store in Seomyeon (which is not bad for English readers: there are a few shelves of English novels, as well as CDs and DVDs if you still like your media to have a physical presence). I went in, dragging my poor, bored child with me, and asked if they had piano music. They did! I spent about $10 and got half a dozen books of music, ranging from Maxine level to slightly above mine. Since then I have spent some time playing the electric piano, and really enjoying it. I honestly can't remember why I took piano lessons back in middle school, but I suspect my mother was the motivating force. Whether or not that is true, my parents at the very least paid for my lessons and drove me to them. Thank you Mom and Dad!

One other good thing about the piano is that Maxine spends a lot of time on it. She took piano lessons for about three years, then got bumped. I guess the teacher had some better students lined up. Anyway, she enjoys it, and knows enough to not get quickly frustrated and quit. I think we will be setting her up with lessons next spring. Maybe by then we will be settled enough to consider that.

This post has gone on long enough. I have delayed with the intention of taking photos and including them, but clearly that is not going to happen. Perhaps I will shoehorn them in at some point.

* I just now learned that the pyeong has Chinese origins, which shouldn't be surprising considering that China has always been just sort of monstrously there, hovering over Korea, breathing yellow dust down its back and leaking culture all over the place.

** Sorry. Just realized that I was thinking of a caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. Looks different, acts different... are butterflies sullen, by any chance?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Seize the Day, and Don't Let Go!

At bedtime today Quinten was sobbing under the covers. I couldn't understand: he had gone to the zoo today with friends and Mommy, behaved very well, not gotten hurt or lost. So i asked him, "Quinten, why are you crying?"

"Because today was the best day ever, and I'm never ever going to have this good day again!"
This was not the best day ever, but it was pretty good!
Parenting creates such a messy jumble of feelings. It is so rare for me to have a "best day ever" that it took me a while to remember the latest one. And with kids, even the best day has trying moments. But I don't remember ever having a moment so pure as Quinten shared with me last night. I suppose that's part of growing up, losing that sense of perfection, forgetting that you ever had it.
I should have taken more pictures.
Soon he will be ready to ride outside the playground. We will start with some of the bike paths near our home (after walking through some somewhat hazardous territory), and work up to biking to school like I used to do with Maxine. I'm so excited! Once I've got him pedal worthy, the only holdback will be Horyon! That's gonna be a tough one.
I attempted to reassure him that there would, in fact, be better days, but I understand the feeling. It is not until we have had many "best days ever" that we realize that better days are possible. And it takes a measure of wisdom to realize that you can have more than one best day ever without jumping the shark.

Quinten is more than halfway through first grade now, and it has been an interesting year. He has matured a lot in the past eight months: he is less likely to go crazy jumping around and making noise like a monkey on cocaine, though it still happens on occasions when there is too much excitement. But when he does, I can calm him down by taking him aside and talking to him, rather than pulling him completely out of the situation and giving him an enforced time out. Inconsolable crying, like tonight, has a much shorter half-life than before.

And last week he mastered riding a bicycle! At the playground behind our home he has practiced riding in circles around the playground equipment more times than I care to count. Between the slide and the hedge that borders one side of the playground there is a little storm drain, so the ridable gap is only a couple of feet wide. As he rides this circuit he sometimes runs into the hedge, and sometimes runs into the slide. No serious injuries, not even scratches, though he got sort of pinned by the bike a couple of times. The best he managed was five times around without running into anything (or anyone).

p.s. I copied the first of this from my Facebook post, and somehow it kept the formatting, including the white background. I am not going to attempt to fix this, as from here it looks like a suspiciously deep rabbit hole.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

I have moved lots.

Horyon told me that this is our seventh move together. She didn't count the first one, probably because she didn't have more than a suitcase worth of stuff in our Seomyeon apartment. But it was a real move for me, so I would call it eight. Before that, on my own, it depends on how you count a move.

The first time I changed homes was from this little house on Congress Street in Leavenworth, KS to the home where my parents still live. I don't count this as a move because I doubt that I had anything to do with it. Probably spent a couple of days at Grandma and Grandpa Euler's home.
; moving from home to university was a single car-load affair for me, and often my parents were driving me. There are horror stories aplenty about these moves. When my long-suffering mother says to me, "Do you remember the time when you had to move from/to K.U. and you started packing the night before?" the only proper response from me is "Which year?" Later I had my own car, which took some of the pressure off. Every year there were pick-up trips in the first few weeks, and seasonal clothing exchanges. I'm pretty sure it was a pick-up truck move some years, as I had a La-Z-Boy recliner that I pretty much wore out at K.U. I ended up leaving it outside in the back alley behind Pearson Hall. My guess is that it found it's way into someone's apartment and probably kicked around a few years more before collapsing into a pile of sawdust, rust and lint. Disgusting, duct-tape sticky, semi-sentient lint.

Five years at K.U., so 10 moves there.

Nepal was either two moves, or two plus a dozen. In terms of physically transporting a lot of stuff and myself to a new dwelling place, it was just the move from America to Nepal and the move from Nepal to America. In Nepal there were two or three training site moves, a move to my village, a move from one place in my village to another, then a move to Kathmandu. There were various little moves after that with varying amounts of luggage, usually just a backpack's worth, but sometimes an aluminum trunk and a backpack. I spent a couple of months in Tulsipur with Jim Durham, a few weeks out West with Kathy Beahn, and shorter stints in different places. Let's call Nepal four moves from October 1995 until November 1997.

Then I moved to Korea, once again with no more than suitcases. I shared a place with Jason Kozar and Tom (not sure of his last name) in Chaesong-dong. Unfortunately, from a story-telling perspective, I missed the cockroach wars. Jason told me about spraying pesticide between the wall and ceiling, causing a cascade of dieing roaches. The housing was provided by ETS, and I did manage to be present for many, if not most of the major battles there.  and back to the States about nine months later to wait out the three months left in that year-long, trapped-in-hell contract. I'm pretty sure I left some stuff in Korea, planning to come back, and I did, so I'm not calling that pair moves, more like extended vacations. But before I left Korea, I moved from Chae-song-dong to a little roof-top apartment I shared with Jason Kozar. (This was partly to get out from under the thumb of the evil Mr. Edward Cho, director and owner of ETS, and proof that absolute corruption requires no more absolute power than that of a hogwan director. "Jason betrayaled you! He told immigration everything!" "What everything? That I'm working for a crooked hogwan?")

Our apartment was on the eighth floor of this seven-floor building, perched on the roof like an afterthought, and slightly better insulated than a tool shed. Jason taught in the hogwan on the fifth floor, and the owner of the building lived on the top floor, right beneath us. I never worked for her, but she was one of the nicest hogwan owner/directors I've ever met. Her English wasn't great, and there were plenty of misunderstandings, but in general we all got along well. She had twin daughters in middle school at the time, and they spoke English very well. I don't have any pictures of the apartment, but the building it's perched on is here on Google maps. Cold as hell in the winter, hot as an oven in the summer. We had access to the rest of the roof for hanging laundry or just chilling out. (Thanks to Jason for hunting this down for me. Apparently while I was living there I had no idea where I the heck I was.) There are some good memories associated with that place: late nights of Starcraft of Starcraft with Jason, watching his relationship with his future wife Sora grow. I changed employment, played trombone with a band called Mondo Pepper, had a brief roller-coaster relationship with Korean groupie who chose alcohol over me, and eventually wound up working at YBM/ELS in Seomyeon. So two more moves.

My next move was to a rental house, a bit of a rarity here. One story, Kitchen/dining room and two bedrooms. In some ways it was the best place I've lived in Korea: the neighbors were a bit noisy, but they weren't above me. It was kind of cold in the winter, but not deadly hot in the summer. It was cozy. I had a decent stereo, a workable kitchen, and a shelf of cassette tapes (left by the former renters) that introduced me to one of my favorite band, Rusted Root. And though we only lived there for a few days, it was still, in my mind, our first home as a married couple.

Moving from there is the last move that doesn't include Horyon, so two more, for a total of 18 moves before I turned 31. The move of September 3rd was our seventh together, so I'm up to 25 moves! By now I'm sure I've left more stuff behind than I have now, but I still have too much stuff!

This post has gotten long enough, so I'm going to stop here and actually write about the move last month on its own.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Summer Camp

When someone says "summer camp" what do you think of? Swimming, horseback riding, hiking, group activities, games, and most important, staying overnight wherever the camp is.

I worked the last week in July and the first week in August at the Kyungsung University Talk Talk English Camp. We had activities, but the kids were only officially there for three hours per day,* and the closest we came to swimming was the water-balloon toss and fight. There was also some study involved, which the kids took with surprising good grace. There were snacks, but only two days had serious food: the day we cooked hotdogs and the day we had Papa John's pizza.

The schedule was not exactly brutal, but compared to my usual university load it was hard. We taught three 50-minute classes in the morning, with a 10 and a 20 minute break, then an hour lunch break and the same schedule in the afternoon with a different batch of kids. Six hours a day with kids isn't bad if you are used to it, but I am not used to it. Last semester I had 18 hours of class in one week, compared to 30 during camp. But my 18 hours were with people who were on the verge of adulthood, some even spilling over into it. The kids were all in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, so essentially they are little, slightly crazy people. More energy than the college kids, but every bit as inclined to stare into their phones if given the opportunity.**

But mostly nice, crazy people. Many of them are Maxine's age, so it was interesting to compare them. Of course, even the best of them didn't speak English as well as my girl, but there were a lot of similar behaviors. This is truly the age at which my sense of humor starts to be effective. Whenever we play hangman and a student guesses the letter U, I reply by saying, "Me?" to which they inevitably say, "U!" This can go back and forth three or four times before the student trying to play a serious game here either gets it and laughs or starts to have a little mental breakdown.

You know, I really treasure the little breakdowns I cause. They are, each and every one of them, special to me.

Even though the hours were long, in our ten days of camp we had four days in which the students came and worked on books, like a regular English hogwon (both "o"s sound like the "o" in hog, a hogwon being a private institute for ensuring that students continue learning into the evening after school is finished.) The other six days were:

1. Opening ceremony, including a trivia game, and the "Mommy Quiz," a configuration like the old Newlywed Game in which the student and their parent write down their answer to a question and get points for having the same answer. I volunteered to be emcee for this event, and spent far too much time wondering what was going to happen next. Fortunately, I have reached the point in my life where I am not overly embarrassed to be in front of a crowd and unsure of what I am doing. In fact, that sounds a lot like my regular job.

2. Mini-Olympics! Dodgeball, relay races, tug of war, water-balloon toss, all of your standard Olympic sports writ small, combined with the humiliation and smells of gym class. It was a sweatfest of a day, though the tug of war was the only event I seriously participated in. There were enough kids that they easily pulled the teachers and staff across the line, though in the afternoon we managed to beat the boys.

3. Hot dog/smoothie/treasure hunt. These three activities took a total of about 2 hours, leaving us to fake it for the last hour. And it was ridiculously hot standing around outside eating hot dogs. By way of clarification, the treasures (cheap little toys) were the only thing the kids hunted for. The hot dogs were cooked outside and served with minimal fuss to any kid who wanted one. The smoothies were made indoors with milk, frozen strawberries and this nasty strawberry syrup that the kids would have been just as happy to chug straight up. "Teacher! Syrup!" was the rallying cry for the day.

4. Paper schooner kit day. Here you can get some very cool model kits that don't require glue. The pieces are printed on paper coated perforated styrofoam sheets about 1/16 of an inch thick. The pieces fit together with clever little tabs and slots to make a lovely model. This year it was a bluenose schooner, allowing, no, requiring me to make "schooner or later" jokes until they sank. The kids enjoyed this (the schooner making, not my jokes), the teachers mostly sat back and watched or helped the uncoordinated kids. Or sat back and watched the uncoordinated kids struggle.

5. Bridge building contest day. This was my idea: give each pair of kids 50 disposable wooden chopsticks, one roll of tape, and a set distance to span. After 90 minutes, pile textbooks on the bridges until they break. It went well enough that they will likely do it again next year. The winners were surprisingly artless structures of bundled chopsticks taped heavily together. I was hoping to discover the future engineers of the group building amazing structures. Maybe next year.

6. Closing ceremony/Market Day. During the two weeks of camp the teachers had some pretend money that we gave out to students who behaved well. On the last day the kids could buy cheap (and not so cheap) prizes. We did random drawings to decide who would go first from each group. It killed some serious time, and let some of our staff (not me) strut the stage acting silly and entertaining everyone. I found myself laughing uncontrollably at multiple points, so I call it good.

My biggest complaint about the camp was that our classrooms were on the top floor and had insufficient air conditioning to cool a room with a dozen kids and a teacher. Next year we will be in a different building, so that should take care of that.

My second biggest complaint was that it wasn't really camp. It was fun, but there is nothing like a 24/7 camp for building community. On the other hand, if I had had to stay there 24/7 I would not be writing to you now, as there is no internet service in jail.

I did one thing distinctively different from my fellow teachers: I brought my ukulele. My students learned "Obladi Oblada" by the Beatles, though they were a bit shaky on the second verse about buying a 20 carat golden ring (ring!). My playing, at least on that song, improved a lot. Unfortunately, I never got anyone to record us. I will have to record myself doing it solo.

So it was a tiring two weeks. My poor kids had to stay with the in-laws where there is air conditioning and television. I don't know how they survived. Horyon says I shouldn't do it again next year, but it was pretty good money and didn't kill any of our vacation plans. Not that we had any, or ended up making any. But that lack was not because of this camp.

Now it is a full month since camp ended, and I am just now posting. I will get into the whys and howfors and whatsits*** of this delay in my next post, which will cover the move.

*Some of them showed up an hour early, and some hung around for as long.

**Seriously. if I had let them they would have played games on their phones until their little batteries died.

***Can you believe it? Spellchecker quietly accepted whatsits! But not howfors!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The D-word

This morning, before the kids woke up, I was watching episode two of the first season of House of Cards*. Maxine came in and asked what I was watching. I told her the name, and that it was a grown-up show, not really interesting or suitable for kids. That was mistake number one: nothing is so enticing as forbidden fruit. Mistake number two was figuring she would get bored with it and leave. After all, there was no action, just conversation. Unlike some shows I enjoy, there had been no physical violence so far. There had been one sex scene earlier in the episode, but it was tame, and with no nudity, and I was ready to pause if I sensed something like that coming. But I had forgotten about the colorful language: mistake number three.

One character asks another, "Who are you boinking** to get this information?"

I play it cool. Maybe if I pretend there was nothing worth noticing, there will have been nothing worth noticing.

The reply, "I didn't boink* anyone!"

I've been a teacher for almost twenty years now. I can shrug this off. Then Maxine turns to me and says, "Boinking?" I stop the video as the horses gleefully gallop away, and decide how to proceed.

"It has to do with sex. You know what that is, right?"

After a brief pause she says, "Aha! The D-word!"

I'm all out of poker-face at this point. She can immediately tell that I have no idea what she is talking about, and mercifully gives me no time to come up with any D-words that will make this situation more awkward than it already is.

"Dating!" she says.

I take a moment to process. "Close enough," I say, relieved that my eleven-year-old daughter is not going to be discussing things that I am reluctant to write in my blog, but somewhat concerned at how she has connected sex to dating. "This conversation will continue soon, sweetheart." I want this to be true, but I know that my Powers of Procrastination (capitalized because they really are that powerful) may swoop in and pummel this promise into passivity.

"In the meantime, don't use that word. It is too easy to offend people, or make them think that you are a bad person." She assures me that she doesn't speak English often enough for this to be a problem. Aside from at home, church is the only place where she speaks English regularly. What could go wrong?

Maybe I'd better have that talk tomorrow.****

* Yes, I have just started watching it. I see why so many people like it. I have three weeks of vacation left. Four seasons of 13 episodes each means I may end up wasting the rest of my summer vacation.

** They did not, in fact, use the verb "boink." They used a word which I avoid using in my Roblog. In fact, the closest I have come is in this post about my final days at Wal-Mart.*** Reading that makes me glad to be here and now!

*** Spoiler alert, I used the word effing. My Uncle Tom was the principal of a school in a town called Effingham, which I liked to believe was founded by people who were really, really angry at their ham.

**** Just to clarify, I mean the talk about the word boink, not "the sex talk." The sex talk is not one conversation in this family, but a series. My feeling is that if we talk about it often enough, she will be comfortable talking to me about sex, even if she wants to talk about something embarrassing, painful, or worse.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Ukulele Day 10 - Stand By Me

I've been working on this one for a couple of days, sort of.

I took Thursday off, didn't play at all. I was out of the house most of the day, and got home around 11 after a fun evening with Rick. It was supposed to be my life group, but everyone else dropped out. Happens sometimes.

On Wednesday I watched a video tutorial for how to play Stand By Me, by Cynthia Lin. (I really hope you watch mine first, because if you watch hers first you will have great difficulty sitting through mine.) The lesson actually centered around the strum pattern, which I had not been thinking of much. My strumming so far has been whatever I felt like. I started with my thumb, then found that the uke is traditionally strummed with the forefinger. So I'm working on this pattern. It's not that hard by itself, but combined with fingering in the left hand and trying to sing in a different rhythm,

I have dealt with minor variations on this problem playing other instruments, but I was never good enough at the piano to spend serious time on it. It's like drawing a square in the air with your right hand while drawing a triangle with your left: either one is easy on its own, but combining them is way more difficult than it sounds.

So I started working on this strum pattern, and added another chord to my repertoire. I now have six chords under my belt: C, F, G, G7, Am and the oddball Am6 (the one I used in "This Land is Your Land"). I'm not even sure where I got that Am6. Had to look it up on an extensive chord chart. So I'm working on solidifying my grasp of them by playing songs that use them. I struggle with remembering labels, but I am trying to keep the labels on these rather than just remembering how they sound or feel. So another goal to work on.

I hate to sound like an old guy, but people today have it pretty good. If I had been learning this 15 years ago, I would have had to seek out the expertise of people who happened to be nearby. Granted, I got started with some help from Conor: he sketched out four basic chords (C, F, Am and G), and taught me how to read chord charts, but then he went to his next class. After just a few minutes I did some Googling, to clarify some matters, rather than just experimenting or waiting until I could ask him some questions the next day. I don't have to buy an ukulele practice book, because I can find lots of instructions on the internet. And I can see and hear so many examples of how to play that I could easily be overwhelmed by all the options.

The toughest problem you face in learning a new skill is not a lack of teaching, but an excess of it. I suspect this is true for almost any skill out there, from language, to math, to playing the ukulele. Make the most of this information age! Go learn something!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ukulele Day 8 - Amazing Grace - This Land is Your Land

So here it is, a full week into the ukulele experience. I have practiced at least 15 minutes each day, but I'm sure it's closer to 30 some days. I basically stop when my fingers hurt enough

I'm actually writing this on Day 8, but the video below is from last night. I surprised Horyon by playing Amazing Grace in front of her family. I wrote about it in the Day 6 post, which I actually wrote mostly on Day 7. Dang. This is confusing.

So the next video is the one I actually recorded today, Day 8.

Here's the main idea, if you aren't keen to watch the video: today I added a new chord, the D7, and it led to a new song.

Of course, the devil is in the details. I have attempted the D major before, but I have to line up three of my fingers in a row across one fret, and I just can't do it yet without some serious contortions or reversing my grip on the ukulele. But the D7 only involves pressing two strings, so it's easily playable. I was strumming it, and switching back to the old familiar chords, when a song came to mind: This Land is Your Land. It's a bit of a high register for me to sing, but not terribly so.

And I get it! This is why some people just get to be good at playing the ukulele, or guitar, or piano! Because when you can make the songs in your head appear out there in the real world, it's awesome! I knew that before, but I didn't really get it until now.

My first instrument was the recorder, like every other elementary school student. And like every other elementary school student, I learned that the recorder was a foolish instrument, not worthy of respect, and a magnet for mockery. My next instrument, taken up around 5th grade, was the trumpet. I didn't really get it then. Band was just something to do, something our parents made us do. Kind of fun in a noisy, hanging out with other kids way. By jr. high (middle school) band was a habit, and I was starting to see some fun in it, in the cooperation of a huge room full of people who have very little else in common. But there were some real jerks in there, and in all likelihood I was one of them. The band teacher, Mr. Roller, was a good guy, and in hindsight amazingly patient. But he communicated his love of the art form in ways too subtle for me to pick up on at the time.

Or maybe he just hated his job.

Sometime around jr. high I started taking piano lessons. Maybe high school. Four years of piano lessons, and I stopped. I went to Anastasia Medill at Tune Shop in downtown Leavenworth. (I was surprised to find that they have a pretty decent website!) She was a very patient woman, dealing with my pitiful practice habits. I can still play, and the theory I learned has helped in all of my musical endeavors.

In my senior year of high school Leavenworth High School got a new band director, John Lefler. During the first week of school he moved me from trumpet to euphonium. He needed more low brass, and could tell by looking at me that I would do better with a bigger mouthpiece. And I did. Enjoyed it, more and more as I got older. Asked for and received a Wilson euphonium for a graduation present. It's still in my parents' basement, as it is one large piece of luggage to bring to Korea.

In university I took lessons from Scott Watson, and learned to play the trombone from Max Bonecutter (the coolest music teacher name I've ever heard) the year Scott went on sabbatical. I had a lot of fun playing in the Tuba Euphonium Ensemble, as well as concert band. I tried marching band my first year, but it just didn't work for me. Probably because of all the time you had to spend pretending to be interested in football games.

One summer during university I took an internship working at seven different summer Church camps. I wanted to bring an instrument, so I took my Yamaha alto recorder. I played that recorder every day, whenever I had time, and got to be very good at it. It was still considered a very uncool instrument, but I was good enough to play along with campfire songs and at talent shows. I may have changed a few minds regarding the recorder, and I will always be fond of it. I also acquired a bamboo flute and a tin whistle around that time, and enjoyed playing them as well. Though the flute uses a completely different ambrature (mouth shape), the fingering was mostly the same, so I don't count them as separate instruments.

I bought an autoharp before my wedding, and accompanied myself on a song a wrote for Horyon. It was way, way, way too long, but by the time I realized that I was stuck in the middle with no idea how to get out. Fortunately it got cut a lot in our wedding video. I don't usually count the autoharp as one of my instruments because all you have to do is press a key and strum: instant chords. Sounds pretty, but not very versatile. And that was in early 2001. Since then I had not picked up a new instrument until last week.

So this is my sixth instrument, and my first real stringed instrument. (I know, pianos have strings, but you play them by striking them. Easier to just put them in the keyboard category so synthesizers and pipe organs have some company.) I already feel like the guitar is looming somewhere in my future if I can't get really comfortable with the uke. Time will tell.

It is Day 9 now, 40 minutes until Day 10, so I need to get my practicing done. I hope you are enjoying this journey, because I sure am!

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Ukulele Day 6 and Parent's Day

No video. I just don't have time to mess with it.

Today was Parent's Day here in Korea. We had my parents-in-law over for dinner, as well as my brother-in-law, his wife, and their son, Joon-young.

Of course, it is Mother's Day back in the States. We called my parents this morning before church, which was a minor miracle considering our usual Sunday morning rush and coming at the end of a four-day-weekend. But we pulled it off, and I cooked banana-blackberry pancakes. Mmm.

My wife did an amazing job. She stayed up late last night prepping the kalbi-cheem and jellyfish salad, then after church today she went to Apple Tree School and cleaned classrooms with other parents to prepare for the return to school. When she came home, she finished preparing dinner for six adults and three children. Her mother and sister-in-law also brought food, but she totally rocked the dinner. Good job, Honey.

Of course, part of Parent's Day involves kids doing little performances for their parents. Quinten and Joon-young did a little song-and-dance, Maxine played the violin, and I played a song on the ukulele for the first time in front of people other than my wife and kids. I played and sang "Amazing Grace," impressing everyone, even though my chord changes were slower than I would have liked. I wish that I had thought to have someone record it, but I don't feel too bad about it. Maybe I'll record it for Day 7.

It was a good day.

Ukulele Day 5, and my kids - Amazing Grace

Yes, I did not update the past two days. I also did not record myself. Is a daily recording really necessary? Here's today's recording:

No, I will not apologize, nor offer excuses.

Instead, I offer these insights into my process of learning the ukulele:

I am working on a few short term goals at this point. The first goal is to be able to play the C, G and F chords cleanly. The second is to be able to switch between them quickly. A slightly longer term goal is to be able to switch between them cleanly without looking at what I am doing.

A medium term goal is to accompany myself while singing in church. I'm not sure how long I need for this, but I plan to volunteer as soon as I feel comfortable. 

My long term goal is to be comfortable enough to improvise in front of an audience.

My super-long term goal is to charm the birds out of the trees and make people fall over dead from listening to how awesome I am.

Enough of goals, on to what I've learned: I already knew this, but I am gaining a practical knowledge of just how many songs one can play using just these three chords. And I plan to exercise that knowledge on my path to expertise.

I want to build up calluses on my finger tips as well, so that I can endure playing more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time. I'm not sure whether or not it is a goal by itself, but I'm sure it's coming about with the daily practice. For now, my left index finger constantly feels like I have just attempted to catch a frisbee only to have it bounce off of my finger tip. My middle and ring fingers feel like that happened yesterday, and my pinky finger is wondering how long before the pain arrives.

I have found (after a conversation with a friend) that I don't usually need to press as hard as I do, so I can let up on my index finger. But sometimes I do need to press hard, so I need to figure out how to conserve my fingertips until I've got so much fingertip stamina that I go around pressing all the buttons for everyone. One thing that helps with this is practicing at night. I find that if I am strumming softly, I also tend to press the strings with my left hand more softly. If only I can get my left hand to relax the same way when I am strumming loudly. 

I have found that watching YouTube videos of people doing awesome things on an ukulele is not a good idea. It's like sitting down with a pocket knife and a stick on a moonlit night to whittle a moon lander. I need to take in enough to keep the dream alive, but not so much that I get discouraged.

I have found that ukulele is not properly pronounced "you-kuh-lay-lee", but rather "oo-koo-lay-lay." Pronouncing it this way makes me feel like I have joined the in crowd. It also encourages me that at least now I can spell it correctly.

It is fun to do something new and challenging. I mean, yeah, raising kids is challenging, no doubt. My friend Rick and I were having lunch with Quinten a few weeks ago. Quinten got up and announced that he was going to the bathroom. My heart swelled with pride as I told Rick, "It is such a relief that he can finally go to the bathroom by himself. It makes me believe that being a full-time parent won't last forever." 
Front teeth are optional.
Then Quinten's voice soared from the bathroom, "I'm poo-ping!" Rick laughed as I stood up to go wipe clean the anus of another human being. 

As you can see from his picture, Quinten is in the process of losing his baby teeth. Last week the dentist offered to take out those two front ones, as they were a bit wiggly. Quinten's reaction, as I understood it, was "Yank 'em, baby!" That same day he and Maxine started their week-long spring break. I swear that Quinten has been at least 50% naughtier since loosing these teeth. I have a few hypotheses to explain this behavior:

1) The front teeth contain some sort of gland that regulates behavior. Without these glands, kids just go nuts.
2) The weight loss in his head has freed up some extra energy, which he is using to cause trouble.
3) It is only May, but he is already excited for Christmas. (Yeah, that's a link to the Spike Jones song.)
4) He is used to a routine. An extremely subtle part of the routine is how the inside of his mouth feels to his tongue. Whenever his tongue feels that huge gap, it tells his subconscious that something important is missing, and maybe mommy and daddy will disappear forever if he doesn't do something to anchor us to the here and now. So he does.
5) He is completely aware that his cuteness factor has leapt to heights it has not seen since he was an infant, and could get away with vomiting all over everyone and pooping in his pants because he was so cute. He knows that at this moment in his life, he can get away with anything. ANYTHING. So he does.

Maxine, on the other hand, has recently lost the canine teeth that flank the two top front teeth. The sight of her reminds me that I once had a camp counselor who called me "Chipmonk." But the glasses are the big game changer.
See what I mean?
Suddenly she went from being my little girl to looking like a high school student! More and more often I feel that I am catching glimpses of the beautiful woman that she will one day become. Beautiful and funny. She is still willing to hold my hand in public, and I treasure every moment that happens, because I am worried that it won't last much longer. It is no longer acceptable sometimes when her friends are around, though I never push it. 

I have been telling myself that many girls reach the point at which they scream, "I hate you," at their parents (I'm betting on her mother being the main recipient, because it's just like that), preparing my heart to continue loving her no matter what. So far so good. 

So Maxine and Quinten are my main audience. I want them to not only see me do something not that well, but not be ashamed to do it in front of others. Right now they have no grasp of the internet, and no idea how permanent and public this is, but someday they will. And in the mean time, I will make my efforts here more visible and public as I go.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Ukulele Day 2 - Because He Lives

So today I recorded a song, "Because He Lives." I had run through it a few times, and decided to keep my first take. If you just can't stand the sound of someone practicing, I suggest you skip this one.

This goes against most of my instincts. I'm listening to the audio as I write this, and wincing mightily. Like most, if not all people, I don't like to put work out there that is not the best I can do. And my instincts tell me that I can do better than this.

But I can't. The me of right now just can't do any better. I expect the me of tomorrow to be better. If I were to spend another 30 minutes working on it, the me of right now might actually be a tiny bit better, but it wouldn't be the me of this very moment.

And my purpose is to show how I am progressing. If I'm already awesome, how can I get better? So you get it as is: struggling to find my singing pitch, hair down, mosquito net snag and all.

This is fun!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Ukulele Day 1

Recently I decided that I wanted my kids to see me learn something new. I wanted them to see me struggle with something, be not very good at it, then get better as I spent time working on it. As this idea was brewing, the ukulele somehow got added to the mix. My birthday was coming, and so I started asking my family to get me an ukulele for my birthday present. My wife has no time for shopping, and my kids are, frankly speaking, incompetent. Love 'em to death, can't count on them to buy a musical instrument worth more than two dollars.

So as my birthday approached, loomed, arrived and passed, I altered my approach, and simply asked for permission to buy an ukulele for myself. Permission was granted, and I started looking around and talking with people who know of these things. One of my coworkers, Conor Doran, came through for me. He was (and still is) in the market to buy himself a semi-acoustic ukulele, and knows where all the best shops are. So on May 3rd, 2016 he walked into the office with one for me!

It's an M2 concert-sized ukulele, and I find it to be not only adorable, but to have a most lovely tone. Well, lovely when played properly anyway. I spent 20 or 30 minutes with a chord chart written out by Conor (and modified after a Google search). Then I recorded this little video.

I am no longer sure if the ukulele is the ideal demonstration of learning a new skill for my children. It seems to me that I picked it up ridiculously quickly. I mean, sure, my finger tips hurt like heck, and it takes ages to change between chords, and I can't quite manage to pin the right strings down properly without blocking wrong strings. But I actually manage to get some pretty sounds out of this thing on the first day of playing!

I realized that part of what we are seeing here is hundreds, if not thousands of hours of musical practice on other instruments and with my voice. The lessons I've learned in various choirs and bands, playing trumpet, piano, euphonium, trombone and recorder have carried through. My body is used to the idea that little coordinated muscle movements can lead to sounds that are either pleasant or unpleasant to hear.

I'm going to stick with this, because I have had a repressed desire to learn the guitar ever since I was a teenager. My brother Chris learned, and got to be pretty good. My excuse for not learning was an operation on my left wrist*, which limited my flexibility. When I tried holding a guitar, it was extremely uncomfortable, and I was very much in to being comfortable as a teenager. 

The ukulele is a little uncomfortable for me to hold, but it is closer to my body than the neck of a guitar, and it is as light as a feather (from a large, wooden bird). My 20 and 30 minute bouts of playing have not caused any discomfort in my wrist, but my fingertips are taking a beating.

So the video above was made in the afternoon. That evening I had a long walk home after dinner. My walk was along Kwanganlie Beach, with a nice wide boardwalk. As I was walking I decided to practice the ukulele as I went. It is so light that it doesn't even need a strap! I could only remember the fingering for the C and G chords, so that's what I practiced: just getting them to sound clean and clear, and switching between them.

I'm excited to have an instrument which I can use to accompany myself!

*Osteonecrosis of the lunate, you know what I'm talkin' about?

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.