Monday, March 16, 2015

We are all Infected

We are all infected.

It's an overcast Spring day,
the ground saturated and
squishing under our boots.
My four year old daughter
is helping me clear what's
left of our perennials, lying
dead in the dirt, making
room for the new shoots
to rise up from the earth.

A six foot cedar fence
separates us from the
wider world where the
obvious evils lurk and
probe for an opening.
I hear a twig snap and
see their shadows flicker
between the fence slats.
She laughs, guileless.

Curiosity draws me to
the perimeter to take
stock of the situation,
peering through the gap,
when an undead eye
appears, inches from
my face, and jabs my
chest with its rotting finger.
We are all infected.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saying Goodbye and Hello to Terry Pratchett

RIP Terry Pratchett

I was saddened to hear of the loss of Terry Pratchett this past week and all the more so because I have never read any of his books and likely do not fully appreciate what was lost. I say that because I was an avid SciFi/Fantasy (SFF) reader as a kid and teenager, only to have that love grow cold and lie dormant throughout much of my adulthood, resurfacing again in my forties. I was aware of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series, but there were just too many books in the genre to hit everyone and I tended to read multiple books by a single author if they tickled my fancy.  For whatever reason, Terry never made that cut.

My first forays into SFF were in elementary school and included Eleanor Cameron's "Mushroom Planet" series as well as Alexander Key's "Rivets and Sprockets", books that have been out of print for decades and sell for hundreds of dollars on Amazon as a result. I built my personal library of hardback SFF books (of which I was very proud) as a kid by getting my five free books for joining the Science Fiction and Fantasy Bookclub, buying the minimum required amount, dropping my membership, and then rejoining to get my five free books, and repeating the cycle ad infinitum.

Terry was known for his highly humorous touch, which I'll just have to take on faith. I read all of Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series as well as "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and thought I'd plumbed the depths of SFF humor. During my second year of Medical School Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury where speaking together at Butler University's Visiting Writer's Series. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it was the night before a Pharmacy exam that was a do or die affair for me, so I skipped the talk and within a few months Douglas Adams was unexpectedly dead.

When I heard of Terry's death on Facebook, I determined I would finally read at least one of his books and stop ignoring him. I stopped by Half Price Books on the way home from work and took in some books we'd weeded out for donation and were languishing in the back of my car. While waiting for my books to be tallied and a buy back offer made, I went looking for Terry. There was only one hardback book by him, but it turned out to be the perfect one. It had a cheesy front cover, slightly tattered, and included the first three books of his Discworld series stickered at $7.99. I could hardly believe my good luck (maybe he was smiling down on me).

And to make the experience of fortune-smiling-upon-me complete, they offered me an eight dollar credit for my books and handed me a ten percent off coupon for bringing them in to sell. I gave the two slips of paper to the front check out girl and reached for my wallet. Instead of giving me a total she handed me twenty six cents and told me to have a nice day. Thank you Terry for not taking my neglect personal. I imagine I will soon be joining the ranks of your many fans.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Diner

Cap City Fine Diner

She sits two stools down
from my precarious perch
at the diner bar near my office.
I watch the basketball game
on the wall mounted TV set,
keenly aware of her presence
at the corner of my eye, heart
dribbling like a manic baller.
I lean forward to make a
clever comment, only to be
interrupted by kids arguing
in the seats between us,
an adorable nuisance that
separates us, for years and
years, drawing us together
and pulling us apart, such
a ringing irony at the heart
of our family dinner here
at the Cap City Fine Diner.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Loneliest Place on Earth

The Loneliest Place on Earth

It's the loneliest place on earth, an outdoor subway platform on the Orange Line near Yoido Island in Seoul, South Korea.


In the early hours of a typical Sunday morning I awake in my barracks well before anyone else is stirring and stumble around in the dark trying to put on clothes without disturbing my roommates. They are sleeping off hangovers and will not arise until some time around noon.  I shove a few Korean Won and all of the coins I can find into a pouch that I wear around my neck as well as snacks into a cargo pocket for the journey ahead.

I have to layer my clothes against the chill of the morning, but the amount of walking done over the course of the day will require a shedding process and then a reversal as evening approaches and I have to make my way back north to this Army base near the small town of Dongducheon.  It is the home of the US Army's 2nd Infantry Division, situated half way between Seoul and the border with North Korea, described as a "speed bump" to slow the advance of the North Koreans in the case of an invasion.

The halls are quiet and no one is aware of my movements, not even the soldier on CQ duty sitting at his desk after a long night of fighting to stay awake, watching pirated VHS tapes and smoking cigarettes.  It is too early for the bus or a taxi and so I walk the almost two klicks to the base entrance.

The Katusa soldier checks my military ID at the front gate.  I travel light and have no bag for him to inspect and so he waves me through.  The small town greets me with its shuttered shop windows and potent smells unrecognizable to my nonKorean nose.  The train station is still another klick or two away and the walk a lonely one, twisting and turning through quiet streets, the air moist and cold, like walking through a cloud of lost memories.

The tickets to Seoul cost practically pennies.  I find my subway destination on a board on the wall and tell the station attendant where I want to go.  He gives me a train ticket to the next town south and a subway ticket to the final destination from there. The bench is cold and hard as I sit looking down the tracks, lost in thought.  It's like I'm in a movie about an earlier time, waiting for the train to arrive and hearing the odd bird awaken to sing its morning song.

The station in Euijongbu connects the train to the northernmost reach of the Seoul subway system. When I arrive, the transfer occurs across a platform, train on one side and subway car on the other. The wait isn't long, but one of many pauses on the journey.  I watch a man slurp down a bowl of udon noodles with chopsticks, steam floating lazily into the air.  A book in my cargo pocket starts to itch and so I peel back page one to pass the time,

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I have traveled to every corner of Seoul, a city of 12 million people, by myself and with various Korean friends for various reasons.  It has become such a part of my experience that I oftentimes help these friends navigate it, finding the shortest distance from A to B, which they find humorous.  On one particular trip to Seoul I scribbled down the time it took to get from station to station in a notebook to make my travels more efficient so that I could arrive on time to planned meet ups.  I was always on time, but invariably the Korean friend was thirty minutes to an hour late.  They insisted it was a cultural thing.

But there were missteps.  Once I ran out of money and was on the opposite side of Seoul from where I was staying at the time.  I walked for half a day, nonstop, using subway stations as landmarks to eventually find the neighborhood.  Another time an announcement was made over the subway car speaker to exit the train which I did not understand.  The train moved to a side tunnel and cleaning women entered the train with mops and buckets, surprised to find a lone foreigner with a book.  I turned to put my feet up on the bench and continued to read as if nothing was wrong.

There were lonely places and lonely times in abundance, but the loneliest was Sunday mornings on the last transfer station to get me to church on Yoido Island.  Yoido sits near the south bank of the Han River which cuts a wide watery path through Seoul.  The station is on the Orange Line, an above ground station that overlooks a wide overgrown expanse that used to be where the Han River flowed around Yoido as a kind of tributary of the main waterway.

This transfer spot is not well traveled, especially on early Sunday mornings.  There are times I sit on this empty platform in the sun, in the rain, and in the snow waiting for the next subway train to come through, the longest pause of the journey.  It is quiet here and makes me feel like I am the only person in the city, maybe even the only person on the planet.  It's a recurring existential timeout that has me bobbing on a sea of melancholy.

When the subway car finally arrives, it transports me to a station on the south bank of the river, across from Yoido Island.  Just outside the station is a small newspaper stand that sells a brand of tiramisu flavored chocolates that I love.  They are a quick pick-me-up for the long walk over the bridge and the kilometer or so still left to go before reaching my destination on the eastern most tip of the island.  I arrive on the steps of the church a few hours from the time I awoke, tired but happy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Crow Analysis

Some thoughts on my pseudo-nonfictional short story, The Crow


My wife must have read only the first paragraph or two when she asked me, "Are you writing about me?"  It is a fascinating question because, the truth is, it is about all mothers (and fathers).  In this instance it technically involves my mother because it is from the perspective of a child and I am that child.  The themes woven through the story are varied, but at their base is the imbalance of power that exists between a parent and a child.  Parents are required to exercise a great deal of restraint in dealing with these little people who have immature brains, limited experience, and little insight into themselves.  Where it gets tricky, and potentially harmful, is when the parent lacks insight and uses the child as a foil for their own foibles and frustrations.

I wrote this story as truthfully as I could.  My purpose was not to teach anything, but to try and learn a little something about myself and maybe even my mother.  Only in rereading what I wrote do I see the obvious fact that the crow served as a proxy for my mother and the unacceptable feelings her emotional impropriety produced in me.  The anger expressed towards our children due to our own lack of love and humility can have the quality of an annihilation, giving the impression that they are so bad that violence (verbal or otherwise) towards them is justified.  It reminds me of Bill Cosby's comedic assertion that "I brought you into this world and I can take you out."

By gaining power over the crow, I was gaining power over my mother and the ability to give or withhold love, which is the power of life and death.  I chose to withhold love by trapping and punishing the crow, a trajectory that ended in death and the realization that I did not want such power and that, truly, my mother did not want that power either.  It was forced upon her by her circumstances, whether that is the cultural milieu she was raised in or the dictates of a particular religion/philosophy that she followed.

As an adult now with my own children I can see there is no room for self-righteousness on my part, but only a growing realization that I am caught in many of the same traps as a parent and as an imperfect person.  I can only keep trying harder to be more loving and humble, less self-centered and ego-driven.  It is an awesome and terrifying task to participate in the forming of another human being.  May we be worthy of it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rag Mop Shuffle


My five year old niece is up on stage, black sequined and wearing a jaunty pillbox hat, doing the Rag Mop Shuffle. Two rows of little girls, only slightly in sync, wiggle with glee, trying not to bump into each other. It was bound to happen, during a turning movement, a girl stumbles and falls.

She sits there with a surprised look on her face, followed by a torrent of tears. A mother quickly detaches herself from the audience and hurries to the side stage where she meets the distraught child who has exited stage left.

My niece is the next to take a spill. The choreography requires them to lay down their mop props and jump over them. Instead, she lands on the mop pole and it promptly shoots out from under her, taking her legs with it and leaving nothing but air between the floor and her behind.

She bounces hard but never stops smiling, immediately finding her feet again, redoubling her efforts to finish the song.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Hobo Tree

The Hobo Tree


Sittin' under the Hobo Tree
branchless and sprouting
lines for the birds to perch
upon while conversations
fly overhead and underfoot
oblivious to the traveled man
waiting for his ride to the
other side on an iron horse.