The Technology Conference

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My weird co-teacher, Jay, invited me to what he described as a “technology conference” in Seoul. Having zero idea what that actually meant and it only being my first week in Korea, I acquiesced.

Jay picked me up at 7am sharp. There was an old woman riding shotgun. He would not introduce us, insisting she didn’t like foreigners, which was fine by me. She didn’t exactly strike me as a barrel full of monkeys.

The soundtrack of our trek was peppered with lurid descriptions of club-bound sexy twenty-somethings disrobing each other with their teeth. I doubt the old woman understood the lyrics, but she seemed to enjoy the beats.

The conference center was huge. A weird, beige device on a pedestal was being ogled by people in suits. I was woefully under-dressed. Before I got a chance to see the doohickey, we were escorted into a mammoth auditorium complete with jumbotrons and pyrotechnics. It must have seated thousands. It all felt vaguely cultish. Throw on a couple cloaks and mutter some Gregorian chants and you wouldn’t be surprised to glance to your left and spy a virgin girl being sacrificed to an ocelot-faced god with plesiosaur flippers on a throne made of spinal columns.

Jay tried to explain to me what was going on. Apparently we were about to hear from some American spokespeople. They would announce their future plans, present current financial holdings, award top sellers, and initiate new members. Jay told me that if I joined “his company” and worked for him I could make a profit if I hired sellers beneath me.

“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” I said flatly.

“What?” Jay was visibly disturbed. “No, no, no. See, we all work together to make a profit. You broaden your sales network so you move higher up and make more money.”

“That’s what a pyramid scheme is, Jay.”

“But isn’t that a negative term?” I realized I was meant to be his “in” into the American market and Jay was distraught at the prospect of losing me.

“Look, Jay, I’m not a salesman and it’s my first week at a new job in a new country.”

Jay went on about making money for a secure future and took me down to the front where I shook hands with a man who claimed to have been an ambassador to Israel before he started selling salesmen. “Right, pal,” I think I said, perhaps too audibly. All of the American speakers were like caricatures of sleazy businessmen from bad 80s movies. Yet the throng of eager followers filling the hall was completely taken in. The old lady from the car? She ate it all up. Miss Personality herself. I tried to imagine her sour puss calling her grandkids trying to peddle whatever techo-hokum this snake oil factory was barfing up.

“You know, Donald Trump used to own part of this company,” Jay said, still trying to entice me.

“I don’t really like Donald Trump.” I said.

“But…he is very rich. And he has a TV show. He is very famous. I don’t understand you, Jonny.” He called me Jonny. Jay hung his head, the dollar bill signs in his eyes fading, trying to decide if he was more confused or frustrated. He determined it was the latter.

The conference went on for—I shit you not—over eight hours. After the thirty-second sales award was bestowed to a dumpy middle-aged woman brought out on a palanquin covered in balloons paraded through a gauntlet of indoor fireworks, I left the hall and wandered the facility by myself. Jay was defeated. I found the pedestal that had been admired earlier. All this brouhaha over what looked like the world’s clunkiest answering machine.

“It’s a video caller,” a smartly dressed woman said.

“This is what they’re talking about in there?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “If you have this device you can see your friends when they call you.”

“So it’s like Skype?” Or Kakao or Facetime or any other of the hundreds of video chat apps already in use.

She began fidgeting. “In the future everyone will have one. This screen let’s you see your friends or family.”

The screen looked like a pixelated 1990 computer monitor compressed to about 3-inches. I eyed the hefty price-tag attached to the antiquated gimmick box.

“You do know this is 2012, right?”

Originally published for 10 Magazine August 2015 issue.

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Maganda

10 in-bed

“Guwapo,” she texted.

“Maganda,” I replied.

I’m a socially needy person. I know this. When I think about my years abroad, the happiest moments are the ones full of friends and laughter. Living far from all things familiar, however, can be peppered with loneliness too.

It was Christmas morning. I was in bed. Most of my friends had skipped town for the holiday. There would be no potluck parties that year. I half-expected to get some work done. It had been a quiet Christmas Eve the night before. I had walked Gangnam drinking a beer after some piping hot dakgalbi. The pavement was wet and maybe there were flurries. I took the elevator up to my apartment. I called my parents and we talked for a bit. Then I watched a certain yuletide flick containing Muppets on my laptop before drifting off to the land of the sugar plums.

Daylight came in the window. I laid in bed, unsure of what to do with myself. It would be a lonely holiday, I thought. Several intense minutes of loneliness spurred me to do what all men do in these situations. I texted a woman.

A year or so prior, a good friend and I had drunkenly haunted the streets of Daegu after a comedy show. We eventually found ourselves spending the entire night and following morning with a dwindling group of Filipino ladies. It was a fun night of dancing, late night Korean food, and noraebanging. All the hallmarks.

I’ve given up pretending to know what normal, functional human relationships look like, but I never pretended the girl from that night and I were anything more than a one-time nocturnal excursion with the occasional squirrelly Kakao message exchanged afterwards. Every so often after that night, either she or I would initiate a cyber conversation that would ultimately go nowhere. And that was fine.

Now, alone on Christmas day, I found myself thinking of her and wondering what she might be doing. Perhaps not in any romantic sense. Perhaps a twinge. I sent a Christmas tree emoji accompanied with a brief message conveying tidings of comfort and joy.

She replied.

It was not a markedly different conversation from any of our previous chats. She had already known I was an ESL teacher and I had already known she worked in a factory. She didn’t really like Korea and she missed her daughter and mother in the Philippines. She was a cool person. I quite liked her and I felt bad and guilty and all sorts of emotions when she told me about her troubles.

We talked about wishing we could be in our own countries and see our families. We talked about the cold weather in Seoul and Daegu. We talked about going dancing again one day and she would call me the Filipino word for handsome (guwapo) and I would call her the Filipino word for beautiful (maganda). And emoji after fruity emoji volleyed.

I still don’t really know if one of us was leading the other on. We often talked but we never saw each other again. I think we both knew we were just two silly people in a strange place that wanted someone to listen to us and say pretty things.

Whatever our motives, for a little while on a cold Korean Christmas morning, cities apart, we were humans sharing the warmth of a weird friendship…which, in my experience, are the only sort of friendships you ever really remember.

Originally published for 10 Magazine December, 2015.

Steel Mongolias

10mongolia color3There I was. Astride a brawny steed at full gallop, advancing across the vast Mongolian steppe with naught but a screeching eagle soaring above, suspended in a sky the color of eternity. My nose and lungs filling with the purest, most manly, thick air imaginable, and an endless, impossible horizon before me, the edge of which daring the gods to contain it. But before all that I was in Ulaan Baatar.

I sat in a rundown little bar sipping something local. The American photographer sat across from me doing the same. An older Mongolian gentleman sat in the booth behind, schmoozing a pair of gracious escorts. The photographer and I tinked our bottled beverages and soaked in the atmosphere.

Above us hung a vivid painting of a Mongolian hunting party depicting a horde of charging bearded men in full armor on horseback, swords drawn and bows poised, as they released a pitiless onslaught of arrows, dogs, leopards, and birds of prey upon four tiny fleeing antelope.

A member of the staff approached the old man behind me. Angry words were exchanged. The escorts attempted to dissolve into their seat cushions. The waiter left as the man spat and tossed a shoe.

The mood settled once more. The two women began to press the old man, gently, to leave. He was having none of it and, before they could drag his boozy hide out the door, he broke free of them, lurched toward the bar and began shouting at the steadfast barkeep. The old man pulled (what I took to be his bill) out of his pocket, tore it up, and threw the confetti at the proprietor’s face.

The escorts had vanished. The photographer stopped swigging, mid-quaff. My buttocks tightened. The other drinkers remained in suspended animation.

The slaps that were then exchanged between the old man and the barkeep needed no translation. The old man went behind the bar to puff his chest into the chest of the owner. Soon, several drunk and very large tavern patrons stood up, blocking our exit. Within seconds it was a real life saloon fight. Shirts were ripped off, tables were knocked over, chairs were thrown, and more slapping was heard echoing in the tiny chamber. Curiously, not a single punch was ever witnessed my entire time in Mongolia, but the naked torsos of all men involved were brutally adorned with the red imprints of the persistent slapping.

As the bar battle waged on, we sank into our chairs and pretended we didn’t notice—fearing our far feebler bodies might be enlisted to join the fray. “Don’t turn around,” warned the photographer through lips stiffer than a crowbar. A plastic bill of fare whizzed pass our heads before it shattered against the wall.

As the bar brawl seemed to reach a feverish delirium, the old man from the start gave the waitress a savage spank on the rear she before dash into a broom closet. He followed and slammed the door. She quickly ran out. The old man was alone in the closet. The world froze. He returned within seconds, cackling to himself and holding a birthday cake, its many candles already lit. Before we could obtain clarification on what had just happened, the man returned to the closet and shut the door. We never saw him again. The shirtless brutes simmered down and the bar became normal again.

In a corner I could have sworn the alien band from the Star Wars cantina scene began to play as a spider-faced janitor would have swept away a severed arm.

A staff member approached our table, nonchalantly straightening his hair and torn shirt. He made a gesture to apologize for the commotion and proffered a small piece of paper. I turned it over. In crude English it said, “from the two ladies” and included a phone number.

We did not call the escorts, however, we did go to another bar down the street where, amazingly, yet another fight broke out.

Mongolia is a grizzly bear-lumberjack dressed in Ernest Hemingway’s skin injecting straight whiskey directly into its eyeball with a rusty ten gallon syringe. And it is wonderful.

Originally published for 10 Magazine February 2015 issue.

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Dokdon’t Mention the War

Original can be found here: http://www.10mag.com/a-happy-ending-dokdont-mention-the-war/
Original can be found here: http://www.10mag.com/a-happy-ending-dokdont-mention-the-war/

They sat upright, uncharacteristically tense, mouths agape. Twenty-two individual eyeballs scrutinized me with incredulity-betraying widened sclerae. Well, twenty-one individual eyeballs anyway. Lucas had an eye thing. It was my afternoon adult debate class and my second week on the new job and our topic was Dokdo.

The atmospheric discomfort in the tiny room was palpable. In addition to the content itself, the wording of the motion had also added to the discomfort. “Dokdo belongs to Japan,” read the Powerpoint slide. My god, that sounded final.  Involuntarily I think I muttered, “sorry.” I split the class in twain, giving one half the task of preparing the negative case and the other half the unenviable task of supporting the motion for the affirmative case. They looked as horrified and disgusted as I did that one time I met a girl for a blind date and she had all black contact lenses.

Dokdo, a comically small pair of islands in the East Sea, is notorious chiefly for the territorial dispute surrounding it. This dispute is not just about the islands, but more concerning the adjacent waters. I learned very early on when I first arrived in Korea that one must never say “Sea of Japan” or do or say anything that might insinuate that Dokdo is not wholly and indisputably Korean territory. I learned a lot of things about Dokdo during that debate. Mainly, every single Korean website says it is unquestionably Korean and every single Japanese website says it is unquestionably Japanese.

I also learned that while Korea calls it Dokdo, the Japanese have dubbed it Takeshima and the English speaking world has rather dismissively labeled it the Liancourt Rocks.

It wasn’t long before our class debate devolved into fiery defenses of Korea’s ownership, even citing savage Japanese war crimes during military occupation over a century ago as points, with the affirmatives donning mock-Japanese accents and mannerisms to satirically declare Japanese ownership via venomous false arguments rather obviously intended to deface Japan’s character rather than present a legitimate case. A better teacher might not have laughed so hard.

Sensing my ideological ambivalence toward what was truly a very personal issue for them, they joined forces and turned to me to ask, “Teacher, what do you think?”

I wish I could have said that I knew Dokdo was really Korean and that we were just playing devil’s advocate in class to get everyone thinking abstractly, but I couldn’t. “The truth is I have no idea,” I told them. “I’m a stranger here and I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

A cop-out? Perhaps, but I seized the opportunity to commandeer the class and tell them that countries aren’t real and that all culture and national borders are imaginary and we all simply maintain these collective illusions out of a psychotic fear of being confronted with the fact that we truly are not that different from one another because if we realized that then maybe we would never have any wars. After I got off my hippie soapbox, still high from my anti-jingoism rant, I prepared for the onslaught of scorn and confusion. Instead I heard Clara say, “I like that.” This was accompanied by more nodding and murmurs of approval throughout the class.

Sometimes it’s easy for outsiders like myself to assume too much about Koreans and the stereotypical nationalism. I wrongfully presupposed my class would latch onto this Dokdo thing like a kodiak bear on a forgotten ham resting atop a hastily vacated picnic area. The tone of the debate shifted drastically. We learned a lot about each other that day.

“Teacher, we all agree with you,” said Maria. A unanimity of affirming guttural vocalizations followed. “But Dokdo is still ours.”

Originally published for 10 Magazine November 2014 issue.

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The Mustache Who Came to Asia

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It is easy to see why nature might resist the evolutionary urge to festoon with fuzz the philtrums of a people who consume so much soup. I have found that Koreans tend to have a certain stigma concerning facial hair. I used to hear the words of Elwood P. Dowd (in affable, marbly-mouthed Jimmy Stewart tones) echoing in head, “That’s envy, my dear,” but it may be a bit more complex.

As a mustachioed American I was well aware of some of the cultural distinctions before I arrived on Asia’s kimchi-laden shores. Less fat people. Less bald people. Not much facial hair. Got it. But I hadn’t quite anticipated exactly how my own lip caterpillar would be received. I have had a mustache [off and on, but mostly on] for the past six years or so. It had become interwoven into my very personality. They grow on you, you know.

To present my mustache in a more flamboyant fashion, I usually waxed it up like an old-timey fisticuffs champion (or Rollie Fingers, if that helps). This bold Captain Hook-esque look was immediately discouraged and eventually curtailed entirely by my Korean employers. I did still maintain a fairly impressive cookie-duster, loss of the dandy waxen twists notwithstanding. Think Frank Zappa sans soul-patch.

My over 500 students called me Super Mario Teacher, which was superbly righteous. The kids loved it. I did, however, have one smart aleck kid say once, “Teacher! Teacher! You look [like] Hitler!” I get that all foreigners can look the same, but come on. If we were going for the tyrannical despot comparison I think Joseph Stalin might have been more apropos. And I told the boy so. And he made a quizzical face. I asked him, “Do you know who Joseph Stalin is?” and he said “no” to which I replied, “He’s the wise guy who invented North Korea.” Scared the jjigae out of him.

More and more often I find myself going naked these days. Mustache-wise, I mean. It is daily a tough decision that forces me to ask myself if I am denying being true to myself in paltry exchange for greater cultural approval. Strange how the wind blows across my exposed upper lip. Curious how the consumption of soup has reclaimed its former joys. Maddening how my coworkers compliment the perceived improvement. My students, crestfallen though they might be at the departure of Super Mario Teacher, must face facts: I like being able to get the occasional date with a Korean lady.

As featured in 10 Magazine May 2014.

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The North Korea

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I am an American but I live in South Korea.

The consensus in South Korea seems to be that Kim Jong Un is just a bloviating idiot who is trying to look strong to his people. By making repeated threats of nuclear war in the UN, disconnecting direct hotlines to South Korea, and declaring a state of war along with the promise of total annihilation to the US and South Korea throughout their state-run propaganda machines, North Korea has got many people on edge. Are they serious about war (which would greatly damage if not completely destroy them) or is it all just braggadocio to distract the North Korean people from the fact that they have no food or electricity? Most people think the latter. But there’s a problem with this plan.

The South has held an adamant policy of peace with the North, despite the North’s antagonistic behavior. There have been isolated acts of violence over the years attributed to Pyeongyang. South Korea, despite casualties from said incidents, has not retaliated. For sixty years North Korea has been threatening the South and they’ve kind of just gotten used to their crazy hick neighbor and his closet of guns. Many South Koreans just ignore the North at this point. So here’s the problem: America is not like that. We attack when we think there’s a possibility Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. And we don’t just attack. We stay in your country and screw it up for years and years. It’s not fun. First we kill your leaders and then your country becomes an anarchy, then a makeshift democracy, then back to a dictatorship (now with better mustcahe!), and then it descends into chaos run by warlords, the military, terrorists, and/or corrupt government officials. Obviously North Korea is nothing like the Middle East so that probably won’t happen, but we will kill the leaders. That much is pretty much a given.

Kim Jong Un is young and many have speculated that he does not know how far he can push things. Someone needs to tell him he’s provoking a massive trigger-happy country with a lot of weapons that are much better than his. I don’t care what your politics are. America loves war. I spoke with some Americans who actually want there to be a war with North Korea. And I’m not saying this is something to be proud of. I’m embarrassed my country is so nuts for war. But I do think Kim Jong Un has no idea that America is not South Korea. He’s gotten used to the South’s chill demeanor and dreams for peace and now he’s aiming his rhetoric at the big nervous bully across the street with fists like two freight trains.

My personal theory: maybe North Korea really does want to attack America, but not to win. In this theory North Korea is more like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick from Leonard Wibberley’s “The Mouse that Roared.”

Anyway…I hope I don’t get blowed up anytime soon.

Round-eyed Observations

After several months of living in South Korea and experiencing a little bit of what this foreign culture has to offer I think it only right to share some of my findings and experiences. These notes will be accompanied by photographs that may or may not pertain to the words.

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Firsts: I accidentally ordered deep fried animal organs from a street vendor. I swear to God I may have eaten a sheep lung.

Things I have noticed about Korean culture: There is exercise equipment outside almost everywhere (so far observed in parks, schools, shanty towns, under bridges, and the woods).

If you like upper thigh then go to Gangnam. Korea is a serious leg culture and many people do not seem terribly interested in breasts. Frequently I see women wearing clothing that goes all the way up to their mid neck but ends midway passed the panties. Do not look for cleavage in the East Asian world. Coming from America, predominantly a boob culture, it is very noticeable.

Views of nudity are very prude in North America so naturally I am always struck by a country that’s not ashamed of a naked body. Interestingly enough the nudity is only permitted in public bathhouses and god forbid a girl show a smidgen of cleavage or a bare shoulder on the street.

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One of the biggest differences between South Korea and the United States, as it occurs to me, is the level of trust. Koreans seem to be more trusting of their neighbors and perhaps deservedly so. Koreans seem less erratic and untrustworthy as a whole. You can leave your place unlocked or even leave your stuff outside for a few days. Nobody will mess with it. The restaurants that leave their fish tanks outside would never catch on in most American neighborhoods. Some dumb kid would surely put bleach in the water because he believed it to be funny.

Even more, safety. This might be the safest country I’ve ever been in. Korea is not terribly handicap accessible and not as strictly guarded for general safety. Kids run around all over with little or no supervision. Two things at work here: trust that the kids will be safe and lack of fear of being sued by sue-happy parents. America loves to go to court over just about anything. Maybe it just hasn’t caught on as much here…yet. Often times I’ll see students show up with casts from nasty falls on the playground and they act like it was nothing. ‘It’s the risk you take when you have fun,’ their eyes seem to say.

Human waste management is interesting. It is not terribly uncommon to witness children pooping outdoors. In addition, bathrooms frequently will not have toilet paper and when they do you are not obliged to flush said toilet paper. Instead you should bunch it up and place it in the waste basket adjacent to you.

Fan death is a legitimate fear. Not legitimate in the sense that you can really die from it, but intelligent people legitimately believe there is grave danger in sleeping with a fan on.

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Don’t throw around words like “drugs” or “lesbian” unless you really know who you are talking to.

In addition to ample military personnel there is also at least one family of goats guarding the DMZ. We fed the mommy goat some crackers.

That thing that looks like a swastika that you see everywhere does not mean what you think it does. But they do express laughter via text like this: KKK.

Men have purses, dress extremely metrosexually, and occasionally even wear makeup yet there seems to be at least a mild persisting homophobia among some.

The place is largely clean and tidy yet easy access and ready availability of public trashcans eludes the peninsula.

Hiking is taken very seriously. I and others have been “corrected” for not wearing the correct footwear while going for a rugged uphill stroll.

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Pretty much every single person in Korea who is not Korean is looking for a Korean to bang.

Things like fatness and baldness are very rare.

Surreal experiences: As a cartoonist I enjoy drawing comics for my classes. They make fun projects and the kids really seem to enjoy them. They challenge their creativity for, you see, the speech bubbles are empty. The students must use the phrases from the previous lessons and their own cunning to make a clever and coherent story out of the bizarre series of pictures I have given them. Correcting cartoons you yourself drew is weird enough, but reading the broken English captions penned by 500 Korean children is pretty interesting. Their captions and story arcs range from the hilarious to the bizarre to the morbid and shocking.

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The Seoul Zoo may be the most depressing zoo I’ve ever been to. It ranks alongside the Utica Zoo circa. 20 years ago. Admittedly I went on a bad day. It was dark and rainy and almost empty but I doubt the gray concrete slabs behind cold iron bars that house both a small pile of hay and a defeated looking exotic animal would ever appear inviting on even the best of days. When I say it was almost empty I don’t just mean there were no patrons. I mean there were no staff people. We got to explore darkened buildings that were obviously not for public viewing because no one was there to stop us (also Korea doesn’t lock up). At one point we sat in a parked zebra car and took pictures. The whole zoo scene felt like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It was kinda cool.

Ironically, the EverLand amusement park zoo is pretty good.

The first snow was the other day. After 5 years in Los Angeles I had all but forgotten about the resplendent transformative powers of a freshly fallen snow. The cold white blanket covered the earth and made it all beautiful and clean. As I walked home in the snow I saw that the whole town had come to life. Everyone was outside either shoveling, building snowmen, sledding, making snow angels, or having snowball fights. Every corner and alley way I passed I saw life and joy. On the way to work the next day I could hear the snow crunch beneath my shoes with a sound not wholly unlike your sister stepping on your space station you made for your guys from the styrofoam packing thing your dad’s printer came in. It was glorious.

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At work we were periodically informed we must aid in the shoveling efforts. With more teachers than shovels many of us were reduced to utilizing flimsy dustpans and plastic toy trowels.

My trowel broke.

Things I am proud to have taught my students about in class: Dia de los muertos, the finger, Pablo Picasso as the lost Pokemon, The Headless Horseman, the phrase “no dice,” Tesla’s torrid avian romance, water closet, public exhibitionism, Hannibal Lecter, gat, “I need more cowbell,” Frank Zappa, and cockfighting.

Frank Burns Eats Worms or: the accounts surrounding my first few months in South Korea (strategically edited)

See the trip from LA to NY HERE.

The summer passed quickly. Lots of time digging up old friends from random corners of New York State and seeing what had become of them since college. Lots of great home cooked Italian meals. Lots of fun adventures with family and what seemed to me very much like getting reacquainted with my two younger sisters. As time went by I was able to see colors in my old home-town and stopped taking only black and white pictures.

My grandmother was beginning to get used to the idea that I was in fact leaving the country. She made every moment make it feel like it was the end. This made the summer have an interesting tone.

I recall what I can only refer to as “the Adirondack high.” Driving up to Plattsburg to visit a good friend we had to pass through several hours of Northeast mountain air. We cracked the windows and stuck our noses out like cocker-spaniels and inhaled deep the thick, fresh, piney mountain air. Feelings of euphoria not wholly unlike certain illicit substances rushed over us. I could not tell whether it was the pureness of the scent or the fact that we had been nearly hyperventilating for over an hour to keep smelling it. You can believe what you want, but whatever it was it was downright magical, I tell you.

The summer had taken me to Plattsburg, Syracuse, Albany, Schroon Lake, Utica, and Old Forge and now that it was coming to a close it was time to make one last locational maneuver. We left Herkimer for Long Island to spend the night with my grandfather. The next day would see me up early to go to JFK and then onto a nonstop Asiana Airline flight for over 15 hours over Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China before finally nestling down at Incheon airport. I can honestly say I felt neither excitement nor apprehension. I don’t know what I felt. Perhaps I felt nothing. Since I knew so very little about what I was actually doing, perhaps it had not yet set in emotionally.

The Airport and the Arrival

The march of the stewardesses. These women were chosen for their beauty. Or rather seemingly for their eerie uniformity of measurements.

The flight was long.

When we landed the runway snuck up on us. A typhoon had caused a terrific fog. It was sometime during our descent that it occurred to me that I had little notion as to what I needed to do or who and how I was to meet anybody. I had to pass through customs and meet a driver. That was as far as I knew. After obtaining my bags I wandered in search of my driver. Where was I to meet him? After a fairly un-suspenseful search I found a little man who held a paper with my name on it. I approached him uncertain if I was meant to bow, shake, or even tip. His English was extremely limited but he helped me to the kiosk to change my money.  The drive to my new apartment was mysterious. Fog enshrouded everything. The strange buildings of Incheon, Seoul, and Suwon loomed like the ghosts of edifices past. That some appeared to be under construction gave them a zombie-like aura as their visibility waned in the soupy atmosphere.

My first impression of South Korea chiefly concerned the looming, repetitious architecture. It struck me as a cross between the city in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the planet Vogshpere as it was portrayed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. This perception would alter over time.

The School

The first day of work saw me standing outside beneath the Korean flag as the 1,100 children and 60 something teachers sang their national anthem. I was then invited to give a small impromptu speech of introduction at the podium. Having been a public speaking teacher but a few months prior perhaps I was cocky. Over the next few days I began to meet some of my many students. It was overwhelming and strange. What’s more, one week had gone by and I had not seen a single non-Korean. It was bizarre coming from America, as I had come to associate large metropolitan areas with ethnic diversity. Korea is a homogenous society and I was the only mustachioed round-eye in a city of near one million it seemed.

I was informed, just before class started, that I could not molest the children. That rule suited me fine, but they continued to explain to me that I must not molest the children. Molesting kids is very bad, I was told. I’m not sure where it was they believed I had come from or what was customary there, but I tried my best to assure them that it was the furthest thing from my mind.

Every Korean must learn English all throughout their education much like how they also must go for compulsory military training if they are male. Here was a country that was shipping native English speakers from all over the world to make their kids learn the international language of business and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it just for international prestige; to be able to say that their students spoke the best English? To say they spoke better English than China and Japan? Maybe so.

All the while, as my stay went on, there were murmurs and whispers of the English program gradually becoming extinct. Perhaps I had gone not a moment too soon. Perhaps in five years or so English teachers would not be as in demand.

Life

My exposure to only Yongin had led me to believe that all of Korea was this low-key. Not so.

I went to Suwon. I had to brave the treacherous bus system alone in order to meet the only other round-eye I saw on the plane. He was teaching in Suwon and was meeting new friends there. I was invited. We went to an expat bar that served much western booze and much sub-par western cuisine. The westerners had come from all around to get drunk and see other westerners. One fellow had been teaching in Korea for five years. Was that to be my future? I examined the man. We were not so similar but I could not rule out the possibility that I might be gazing at my own future.

Suwon was a proper city with neon and grime, but Seoul one-upped it. Saturday saw me navigating the buses again to get to Jukjeon station to meet two Americans working in Yongin. From here we took the subway into Gangnam, but not before helping a pair of lovely Canadian twin sisters move their bulky mattresses. In stereotypical gender role fashion I and the other male carried the mattresses.

Korea consumes more alcohol per capita than any other country. A friend told me that. I haven’t done the research to back it up, but it sounds plausible and I’m the trusting sort.

Seoul is a fascinating place by day, but perhaps even moreso by night. All public transportation save for taxis stop at midnight and do not open again until 6 in the morning. This is to ensure that rowdy western drunks and fall-down Korean drunks do not dominate other the trains, buses, etc. It just makes sense.

By 4 in the morning the streets are full of drunk people either sleeping, barfing, trying to get home or a weird combination of the three. At around 4:30 troupes of hunched old ladies start to scuttle about in the alleyways, their bright colored uniform garb denoting their intent. These are the city’s cleaners. Much like plecostomuses this gnarled geriatric army waits for the grime and then goes to work. If the whole city can get wasted and trash itself then you must have some means of tidying up before dawn.

Actually, regular garbages are hard to come by in Korea. There are also stingy with napkins and do not encourage flushing toilet paper. Despite these oddities it is a remarkably clean place for the most part.

After one particular proper night of popping in and out of different venues of swift inebriation, we found ourselves in a unique position: we needed to go home, but the subway doesn’t open for another hour and a half. We were too exhausted to wait and so hailed a cab. Split four ways it wouldn’t be so bad, we thought.

We could not have foreseen the flat tire that was to occur en route which delayed us an hour and a half. Shivering, tired, perhaps slightly hung-over (our group as a whole, that is), we waited by the side of the road. The driver had never changed a tire before and we could not properly assemble his tire-changing tools. The roadside assistance fellow was there in a snap, unfortunately the cabby waited an hour and half before calling him. The sun was up before my head hit the pillow.

There was no discount on cab-fare that night.

Later

The Busan International Film Festival saw me finding my way to the other end of the peninsula. After a slight movie hiatus I was all too eager to make a meager 5 hour train ride down south. The films were altogether wonderful. We saw In Another Country (South Korea), Fly with the Crane (China), Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA), and The Pirogue (Senegal). They fit nicely around our wandering and eating in Busan.

Before coming to Yongin I knew almost nothing about Yongin. I was aware it was in the same province as Seoul (Gyeonggi-do, that is) and it was a sister city to Fullerton, California which was a fine city in walking distance of my last apartment. I was also aware of two landmarks: The Korean Folk Village and EverLand.

I went to the Korean Folk Village with two fine folks from Minnesota or Michigan or somewhere. I’m pretty sure it had an “m” in it. Maybe it was Indiana. It was Chuseok the weekend we went. Chuseok, apparently is the biggest holiday in South Korea. Needless to say, the premises were crowded. The old historic houses and costumes made me get a better sense of the country I was in. It was much needed as I frequently forget I am in another country. Moving from Buena Park to Korea is not great a culture shock as you might think. The weather was starting to get to me though. The Folk Village was proper historical pageantry and reminded me of a Renaissance Festival on valium. I mean that in a good way.

Only real quibble with the Folk Village? It is near impossible to get to from where I live. There is apparently something called ‘living too close.’ No buses will go near there from my apartment. We wound up somewhat lost and were forced to hail a cab. Cabs are much cheaper than in America, but the even cheaper buses have spoiled me and I resist taxis whenever possible.

I experienced EverLand some weeks later. It is an amusement park not unlike Disneyland in craft and attention to detail. The rides were short and the lines were long, but the weather was nice and my three world-wandering companions for the day made it quite enjoyable. I call them the wanderers because when one inquires as to their land of origin they proceed to look up and to the left and begin listing off countries. Clearly traveling was well woven into their lifestyles. As only a novice wanderer, I envied them.

After a month and a half there was really only one constant thing in my life: it was the coughing man. Every morning I heard the coughing man. He sounded like a slightly clumsy man perhaps in his thirties. His cough was harsh. It sounded like he was dying. He stumbled up and down the stairs and coughed every morning. I could hear him grasping wildly for the railing as his coughs catapulted  him into the walls. I would be in my apartment and I would hear him upstairs. There would be a sudden, loud, and frightfully aggressive cough usually followed by the dropping of some crockery or glassware. I don’t think I ever saw his face. I heard him every morning and every evening. He never sounded better and he never sounded worse.

The Account of My Wanderings from California to New York

June 19 and beyond.

California coast

The final punctuation on my adventures as a Californian had come. Heavily it weighed on me on the eve of my departure. It was that long, awful drive across the big country. It was that long, dark, introspective descent into the nether regions of my brain on those long lonely western roads. It was going to be a doozy.

In the morning I got in my car and drove east.

400 miles on the 40 and then some. I was experiencing America the way God intended: at 80 miles an hour with air conditioning.

Arizona desert highways

There were plenty of Navajo trinket stands along the roadside in Arizona should a curious traveler decide to obtain a keepsake to commemorate their sojourn. But I had no time for such things.

After about 9 hours of driving I stopped to eat. I had been eating only Slim Jims and apples out of a plastic bag on the passenger’s seat. The weird Navajo man at the Inn ‘n’ Grille made dinner unsettling. He kept repeating, “Where you headed, sir? Are you sure about the address? It gets dangerous…at night.” He was not speaking to me. I heard this a total of seven times. What was most unnerving was that he kept repeating it to two young, disinterested girls.

Utah rocks

After passing through Monument Valley at sunset (a truly wondrous sight) I got a hotel in Moab, Utah. In my hotel room I believe I did something that just might have ruined me forever. I sat in the massage chair for a straight 2 hours. It changes a man.

Following a night of crazed cartoon dreams of desert roads lunging at me from every angle at 100 miles an hour I awoke. I knew I had to get an early start. Not just to make good time, but because when undertaking such a thing as driving 13 hours a day you have to get going before your brain can wake up and stop you. Sleeping-in spells doom for such trips.

It was not long before my car entered Colorado. The parched rock spires gradually metamorphosized into imposing stone towers and grand precipices festooned with manly pines. It actually felt like the earth was bullying us in our cars with its majesty. My photographs cannot do justice to their striking beauty. In fifty years this paragraph will remind me better than all of the foolish pictures I took.

Colorado scenery

When I passed Denver I realized that it was the first city I saw since I left Buena Park, California. Much of America seems sparse and inhospitable. Having never before trekked the southwest corner I admit that my own country struck me as somewhat alien. It would have been totally unfamiliar had it not been for Roadrunner cartoons.

Beyond Denver I hit the Great Plains. The scenery becomes insufferably homogenous here. Such flat and repetitious landscapes can create the illusion that you’re standing still. My mind wandered to a few spooky places. Luckily insanity was mostly staved off.

The radio stations sputtered only country music, gospel music, conservative talk radio, and gospel talk radio. This was the land where sports and religion reigned supreme. And who can blame them for clinging to tradition. There’s not much else out there. I can honestly say, however, that conservative talk radio might just be one of the worst things in the world. Did all of the Midwest still think Obama was a Muslim?

Kansas (aka Flatland)

I started to go buggy in the brain but I still had 3 ½ hours to go before Liz’s house in McPherson, Kansas. Crashing on her couch sounded better than paying for another hotel and I was supposed to see some old friends from when I went to Central Christian College. The radio interrupted what sounded like Richard Burton reading passages from Ezekial to issue a storm warning. Apparently I was passing into the eye of a tornado. So I hit the gas in the hopes of outrunning it.

I made it.

The next few days had me sleeping on couches and playing with babies and dogs and seeing old friends who had either never left Kansas or had been cursed to return. Some had married. Some hadn’t. The agonizing nightmare was that things just seemed to settle and stopped moving forward here. All was stagnation. Was it Kansas? Was it marriage? Was it merely my perception of the situation? I couldn’t be sure, but I didn’t want to wait around to study it further lest I too be cursed to stay and live and die on the prairie.

There’s a reason everyone looks the same in Kansas past the age of sixty.

They’re lovely people and I wish them the best. I only hope that they can leave this place someday.

After a rambunctious yet relaxing few days rollicking with old friends I hit the road again and wound up in Columbus, Ohio in one day. The next day was the shortest day. I only drove for eight hours. When I hit New York I found myself trapped in a system that I had been able to avoid throughout my entire journey. I was now on New York’s infamous toll roads. I was not sure if my funds would get me home, but I thought I would chance it.

What other choice did I have?

Somewhere between Illinois and Pennsylvania

Pulling up to the tollbooth in my hometown I noted that I did not have enough cash. Naturally, these money-hungry relics do not accept plastic. I was only twenty-three cents short and the troll inside the booth was waiting for the remainder. I told him I had driven all the way from Los Angeles to see my family and the troll took pity on me and let me pass.

I was back in the land of lopsided barns.

A word or two about my hometown: I used to avoid explaining exactly where I was from. I used to just say “New York” and leave them to imagine I hailed from the City. Only occasionally did I correct people or reveal the truly bumpkin nature of the village I was born and raised in. Upstate New York is a sad place. Zero economic growth and miserable weather. The fact that the rotting husks of countless abandoned factories leftover from the Industrial Revolution speckle the landscape does not add to the cheeriness. It reminds folks that they were once on top, generations ago. Now the drug-addled heap of society that lurks in these festering inbred stalls of forgotten hickdom wander about aimlessly. I doubt many even realize what the dead factories symbolize or what they were.

Long ago the Erie Canal went right through my village. When I was growing up all that remained was the overgrown towpath that donkeys used to trot as they dragged the barges. The towpath was a popular destination for kids to go get high.

The Mohawk Valley is a spooky shell that I seem to relate less and less to every time I return to it.

Home sweet home.

Had all my time so close to Hollywood, the phony nerve of culture, tainted my view of the land where I was born? Maybe so. The phrase “you can’t go home again” stung my face like a heavy wool glove soaked in ice cold water. I was not in Southern California anymore, nor would I be for at least a year. Maybe more.

Perhaps I’d never return.

Ah, well. With any luck by the end of the summer I would be off to South Korea.

Five Coolest Places In LA

Los Angeles is home to many a tourist trap. They are crowded and overpriced and choking with smog. The trouble is that some of them are actually worth it. For all the phoniness there still are some truly neat things lurking in this strange cluster of sprawling towers and hills shrouded in pollutionary haze.

Everybody knows about the Hollywood strip. It’s congested and full of weirdos and people trying to sell you stuff, but you could buy everything on Sunset Boulevard and it still probably wouldn’t be more interesting than just walking down the main hub and taking in all the sights and sounds. You’ll see the famous sign and Griffith Observatory in the distance; the Roosevelt Hotel; the Kodak, El Capitan, Egyptian, and Chinese Theaters (and AFI Fest is free!); and more. Wackos dress up like movie characters and folks try to sell you tickets for ridiculous bus tours and unreasonably priced museums and, who knows, you might even get your thetan levels tested to see if you are indeed a prime candidate for Scientology. Don’t get suckered into buying annoying trinkets and things. Stick your hands in Humphrey Bogart’s prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and take a walk up in the Hollywood hills. It’s free and fun.

Those are the givens. See them, but don’t waste your money there. There are many great museums and venues, but I will share what I deem to be the five coolest places in LA.

5. Now there are many cool and famous eateries and such in any city and I’m not saying this first place has the best food, but the atmosphere more than makes up for anything else. The Edison is a steampunk pub. The Edison’s charm lies in its brass and Victorian mystique. You do have to dress nice to get in. It is the only bar I’ve been to where pocket-watches, coats with tails, flapper gowns, and welder goggles are not only welcome but encouraged. It has rich, mysterious flavor and the the cinematic works of Georges Méliès (the silent French wizard of the early 1900s) dance and flicker on the brick walls inside this super cool subterranean haunt. It’s a cool place alright and neatly tucked away, but it’s still a little expensive if you plan on ordering anything…just weigh this experience against waiting in line for four hours at Pink’s. The Edison also has music and shows on occasion.

4. After some drinks at a swanky place out of the past maybe you’d like to watch a movie or two. All the new ones look like rubbish and the main streets are packed for a premiere. You want something to rent but you don’t have Netflix and those Red Boxes weird you out. Cinefile Video is the place for the truly fearless movie lover. They have everything so don’t waste your time looking for something ordinary. Here is your chance to explore the classic, wild, and perverse world of home viewing entertainment. Amoeba Music is still a classic, but for movie renting Cinefile is cozier and even more off the wall. Check it out. You will be amazed and overwhelmed by the insurmountable list of obscure titles and directors you’ve never even heard of.

3. I love the cultural towns. Little India, Little Italy, Koreatown, and all the others. They’re great in any city. Maybe it’s the Blade Runner tie in, but I really enjoy LA’s Chinatown. You will pass a grand arch complete with dragons and you will suddenly feel like you are in another country. For several blocks you will forget you are in Los Angeles. It may be more of a bizarre cultural experiment on my part, but I love going there and just walking around. There are shops, restaurants, and everything else. I love how unglamorous it feels and I love how everyone’s Chinese in there. It’s a nice counterpoint to the artificial glitz of Hollywood Blvd. It’s fun and peculiar and the prices aren’t bad. Just check the health grade in the window if you’re going to eat and don’t expect to read anything in English. Also check out Olvera Street while you’re in the area.

2. There are many great museums in the area. The Museum of Natural History (which is almost identical to the one in New York), LACMA, the Getty, etc. For me (and this list anyway) it has to be a curious little establishment known as The Museum of Jurassic Technology. It is cozy, tucked away, and odd. Of course I love it. It sounds like a standard science museum, but it is really a museum about the history of wonky science and superstition. You’ll learn about bizarre beliefs and cock-eyed geniuses who were halfway there to discovering the mysteries of this world as you traverse its dimly lit labyrinthine corridors. Each exhibit is unforgettably strange and kooky. As you navigate this unique structure it feels as though you have stepped into some sort of dream from the past. When you get upstairs you may enjoy some complimentary tea and cookies and pet the dogs. Always changing and very affordable, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is indeed one of the all time coolest places in LA. This place might as well be number one, but I have a longer history with my next choice.

On a side-note, an archaeologist friend of mine got me the backstage tour of the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and it was also very cool, but I imagine a behind-the-scenes tour might be hard to come by. Why is it the secret rooms are always niftier?

1. If my biases have not yet bled through entirely by now here they come. The coolest place in LA is The Silent Movie Theater. Los Angeles is home to many wonderful and specialty theaters, but this is my favorite theater out of all of them. I have had the most magical movie going experiences of my life at the Silent Movie Theater. They put out everything from arthouse to grindhouse cinema; silent classics and new underground flicks; forgotten oddities and the purposely terrible. They always have a program full of fascinating movies and the silent gems are accompanied by live piano. If it is playing in a big theater somewhere they won’t have it. Only enter if you seek something unique and special. In the hushed darkness of this tiny theater you will remember why the movies are magic. In addition to guest presenters and the occasional Q&A, they also sell very large cupcakes. I’ve only ever had amazing movie-going experiences there. Check out the New Beverly Cinema too.

There it is. Everybody goes to Disneyland and Universal Studios and they are fun and exciting, but if you’re looking to experience a different side of LA and you don’t have the cash for big shows check out some of these wonderful places.

Being an Extra

Extra! Extra!

What does the world of television look like from the background? Who are all these extra people wordlessly inhabiting these fictitious streets? How much room to breath is there in the “atmosphere?”

I am an extra. I am an extra person. By definition it implies I am expendable. Anybody can be me. It takes no skill and I certainly don’t put much effort forth. Don’t need to. If you’ve never seen me or heard of me it’s because I’m doing my job right.

In TV Land there are several castes. Production and crew personnel, gaffers, makeup, costumes, the talent, the caterers, etcetera, but beneath all of these tiers is the extra…and beneath that seemingly final rung lurks the non-union extra (beneath that there is only the non-union spec who gets turned away). The entertainment world and its hierarchy of calculated arbitrariness is a twisted, haunted safari and being an extra can sometimes feel like swimming with man-eating sharks.

I am writing this because I cannot sleep. I have a call time that requires me to be up at 5 am tomorrow morning and so in preparation for my necessarily near-nocturnal departure I attempted to go to bed early. Mistake. When the body clock is so in tuned with going to bed at a certain hour, it takes more than simple logic to shut it down prematurely, hence my nightly restlessness. If I could even now forcibly bring about a state of dreamless unconsciousness I might be able to squeeze in 3 hours of stressless bliss. Doubtful.

Being an extra can give one much stress. One has to be on set early and ready and one must be able to locate the set and not get lost. One must be prepared to wait for hours on end in seedy, uncomfortable rooms or sometimes one gets put outside in plastic chairs beneath feverishly rigged awnings. One must deal with being yelled at by production and bossed about by malcontented wranglers and one must be prepared to “act.” And one must be prepared to suck fumes from LA’s gloriously carcinogenic atmosphere for hours in congested traffic to and from set.

familiar icon

I have observed legendary cinematographers at work from only inches away. I have been manhandled by Hollywood celebrity waxworks. I have been scorned by Oscar winning costumers. I am an extra. I am faceless, disposable, and insignificant. You haven’t lived until you’ve “crowd tiled” in the Coliseum, friend.

The plus side? The food is good. Strike that. It’s downright great sometimes.

I realized something when I said a surprising thing on the last commercial shoot I was on. I was asked to walk into frame and sit down (in the background of course), but I had to squat so I could not be seen by the camera at first. I squatted uncomfortably (I also had to remove my shoes so I would not make footsteps) and then one of the crew graciously offered me an apple box to sit on. I was deeply moved and thanked him and one lady—who had been rather grouchy to me the whole day—gazed over her Versace shades to express surprise that I might presume I would be forced to squat, barefoot on some tangled wires. I looked at her and half-jokingly muttered, “I’m used to being mistreated.”

That was a shocker to myself as much as anyone who heard it and gave a crap. Maybe more. “I’m used to being mistreated.” Was I? Had I just been conditioned to know that I am bottom rung fish filth on set? I thought back. I had gotten used to scorching in the sun for hours at a time, sitting in concrete holding rooms for hours, eating last, and being yelled at for bizarre things no natural person would presuppose. Being an extra and being in show business is not natural. It is all artifice and frequently unpleasant. Sure, there had been some good shoots where I wasn’t treated like a parrot turd with a number on it, but on the whole being an extra had not been worth it.

I gazed into the eyes and face of the lead actor for this last particular ad. I was sitting right next to him and was asked to stare stone-faced at him while he ad-libbed some lines. He was a talented fellow. A nice man and a funny man, but I could not help but shake one persistent feeling: this is what I am striving for? As an extra you come to meet thousands of folks with similar hopes and aspirations. They come from all over the globe to this hub. Here at entertainment’s central nerve a lowly extra can dream of one day being randomly selected to give a line in a TV show or a movie. For many this is the equivalent of drinking ambrosia from the skull of a manatee. Many times, that is the highlight of their on-camera career too. The coveted two seconds of face-time can be a high water mark for many an extra. They work to be one day seen or heard, even if only briefly and vast numbers never even get that fleeting moment, that moment where they feel somewhat important and more than an extra.

How sad.

I watched the man perform next to me. He had achieved what most extras will only ever wish for. He was the lead actor in a commercial that will be seen by a few people as they flip through the stations for a few months and then it will most likely be burned and forgotten forever. How fleeting even this was. I was also struck by how unappealing it all looked up close. He was saying some condensed gibberish to entice people to purchase another dumb product and he had to do it over and over and over again for 8 hours. All this with a camera 6 inches from his face. Poor guy.

It didn’t strike me as fun like the freebie acting I have enjoyed for independent and student shorts and stage. But I know what most people would say: “You’ve got to be willing to lower yourself and your standards in the beginning.” But why? And to what end? After a long week I went to the movies and I saw a film that featured the big name actors; the household name actors. What acting were they doing in this “more reputable” venue? They were selling a movie. They were not telling a story by crafting great characters, they were simply involved in another, much longer ad. And I bought it…at first.

St. Augustine said, “the Church is a whore, but she is also my mother.” I say, “Hollywood is a whore…also it’s an abusive step-dad with a drinking problem.” There does not seem to be much reason to bend over and take it from mainstream entertainment. I see no fulfillment in it. I see only greed and headache.

Perhaps I am being unfairly cynical. The food is really good.

Maybe extras deserve to be pushed around and looked down upon. Most of them are terrible people. But it goes without saying that most people are terrible people. I’m not sure, however, if there is a more whiny, discontented person with panache for cheap fibbery and braggadocio than the TV extra. Everyone’s got a story about how they only do it sometimes when things get slow because they really all have a script being considered by Fox or some obscure Australian production company or they used to have the number one hit single in Fiji. Heck, even I have similar stories, but who are we really trying to fool? Other bottom-rung non-union extras? Even our peers we must make lower than us?

and we even come in inflatable form

I’ve come to understand that almost everyone in the entertainment industry has the spiritual gift of unconditional falsehood weaving, but it surprises even me who we all want to impress. We all want to be important and so we lie. We all believe that somehow the dead-end tedium of extra-ing will one day lead to better things. We all desperately hope that the next call will be the last one we have to do and that maybe we’ll get some oh-so-coveted face-time and maybe there will be chairs in the holding room and maybe the wranglers will be nice to us.

Everyone in Hollywood is sick. Everyone down the ladder from the pigs at the top to the refuse at the bottom. Everyone except the caterers, God bless ‘em.

I say this world is a haunted safari. You go there expecting to see elegant and exotic mega-fauna; the wild beasts of myth. But what you discover is a land of ghosts. The animals are transparent and they’re giving off bad vibrations. The lions and tigers are fake, but they still think they can fool you up close. The wild elephants are skeletons here and we are all blood-sucking mosquitoes searching for an artery on a dry scapula. To what end? To be a bony behemoth like them? Maybe so…because we know we might look like something from a safe distance to strange anonymous folk. Then we can fool them too and imagine we truly are something.