Archive for the 'Life' Category

Working Sitting Down: Sweating in the City, But Barely Moving

SEOUL — RUSH HOUR SUBWAY CARS here are more like subterranean body movers than modes of rapid transit. Even the youngest salary men and women on the early AM trains look as though their sparks are smoldering in the drenching summer humidity. Heavy heads bob sleepily, plugged into devices feeding them music and news. Everyone seems a bit faint.

In my shirt and tie, I attempt mentally to set myself apart as an observer of the collective exhaustion that grips this city’s modern workers, rather than a victim of it. But I too can feel the sitting-down-ness of my job taking its toll — my energy being stolen by hours spent in front of the computer, evaporating with the electric hum.

It isn’t that my work is boring; it’s quite engaging and often stressful. But as synapses fire off and thoughts zip across my humble amount of gray matter, my body enjoys no such kinetic employment. I ride elevators and take subways. And then I sit. And type. And when the day is done and I’m tired of sitting and typing and thinking, I sleep. Lying down.

For someone who used to get by doing jobs that required physical hustle — barista, short order chef, waiter — and who would ride his bike to work and school even on the most unforgiving of Wisconsin days, adjusting to the relative lassitude of this new life has been awkward, unwelcome. And it is not without consequences on my creativity. While my senses are inundated daily by Seoul’s heaving humanness, I feel disconnected from nature — from my own legs and lungs — and perhaps less in touch with my own imagination.

I think I need to climb a mountain. One of the most uniquely beautiful aspects of this city is its lush craggy peaks, which tower far above a skyline of neon and glass. Even the most salty Seoullites recognize the need reconvene with Gaia; old men here head off on weekend hikes, following their calisthenics with cups of rice wine. And citizens of all walks, once they reach the mountain’s top, will often let forth with an unbridled Yaaah-ho! And thus one of the faceless millions makes himself heard.

However cathartic such an ascent may prove, I feel that activity needs to be a more regular part of my life, and of the life of this city. Don’t get me wrong: South Koreans are an active people — by great strides more energetic than their average American counterparts — and Seoul has made vast improvements to be accommodating to pedestrians, if not cyclists. But long workdays and a sprawling metropolis mean the majority of folks are working themselves to the point of mental exhaustion, heading out for drinks and food, and then being carried back to their apartments via one of the many arteries that snake through the city’s underground.

Though there are brave souls out there making the commute on two wheels, I’m hesitant to plunge headlong onto these deathly streets. Those I do see wheeling by are usually straddling beefy mountain bikes; whistles dangle from their mouths ready to shrill should a taxi leap out of line.

Several weeks from now, this city will observe “A Day without Cars” — or more accurately, a day where a few lanes will be closed for a few miles for cyclists to parade back and forth. But at least public transportation will be free until 9 AM. That should liven things up; nothing like a little competition for space to cause some commotion on the train.

The Long Hot Summer Ahead

THE AIR IN SEOUL IS NOT CLEAN. Even on the clearest days the horizon is painted with a faint, dusty brown. I make this observation not necessarily out of criticism, but as a simple a statement of fact. This is the reality I remembered, that I expected, but perhaps was not fully prepared to embrace again. And as spring burns into summer, the breath of the city becomes even thicker. Walking along the side of the Han river yesterday, dirt and gravel crunching underfoot with a million smells swirling in the air, I felt indeed very far away from the Midwest.

Taking shelter in the shade of a tree, a purer brand of breeze wafted through, and I was thankful for that. I took special pleasure in having ventured to a random riverside neighborhood, breaking the eat-work-sleep schedule I had ground myself into over the past week. But as I sat there, watching cyclists glide by — most of whom were inexplicably riding hardcore mountain bikes — a reality sharper than air quality set in: this would be the first summer through which I would consistently work.

No more part-time at coffee shops. No more “by the way I won’t be here for the next month” kind of notices. No more bike rides on Wednesday afternoons. Rough.

It isn’t that my workplace is so excruciating — quite the opposite, I enjoy my job. But for someone who values his time in the outdoors, stepping into a soft-lit, air-conditioned office on a halcyon bluegreen day is going to be murder. Especially in Seoul, where lush mountains jut above the cityscape, tempting me with offers of respite from the smog and constant bustle.

While I’m tempted to say, Such is life, I know better; so do most in the travel blog community. Life can be a juggling act between freedom and responsibility, but it often boils down to choice. And I’ve made mine. I certainly could have continued on the track I was on — slinging espresso, pushing freelance articles and eeking out a living. I was happy that way, and I definitely could’ve gone somewhere on that path. By coming back to Korea I’m almost starting from scratch; a familiar place seen through a different lens, a career where my fulfillment will only come with sweat.

A Recipe for Fluency (Hopefully)

PUSH-UPS, CRUNCHES, COFFEE, TRANSLATION — it’s all a part of the new morning regimen. By 7 am I’m sitting sleepily in front my laptop, arms sore as the screen glows with headlines from Yonhap. A notebook on my desk and pen in hand, I scribble down unfamiliar Korean vocabulary.

I flip quickly between browser tabs; article, dictionary, article.

And I think to myself: I should have been doing this for years. I’m struggling now because I’ve let my second language get rusty — let myself be overwhelmed by daily demands and excuses. This is the great re-focusing, a test of self-discipline.

(Silently, I worry if it’s sustainable.)

A great daunting mass of foreign words has stood between my actual language abilities and true fluency for some time. The grammar, the basics, even the colloquialisms feel well ingrained by now — but I’m still drowning in an ocean of vocabulary. What I don’t know could (and does) fill a book.

So this is my recipe for fluency, I hope:

Read one Korean-language news article — aloud, twice. List every word I don’t know, then look it up. Listen to one Korean-language news broadcast — twice. Identify names, numbers and unknown words. Make flash cards for all new words. Take a break. Review flash cards. Speak as much Korean as I can (even to myself). Go to work. Eat. Blog. Sleep. Repeat.

As my anticipation for moving abroad grows, it’s all I can do to resist regretting the time I didn’t spend working towards this goal. Willpower takes time to forge, I tell myself, and learning the intimacies of any language is a process that takes years. And so I keep on keepin’ on, sewing meaning to sounds, sounds to letters — sticking words in my head and hoping that they’ll stay.

The Other Side of Town

photo by joshua heineman.

A CHAIR’S WIRY SHADOW was cast on the brick wall like some translucent fishing net, fading in and out as clouds passed over the sun. I stared at this while sipping coffee in a minute of respite, my mind flitting between vague, yellowing memories and thoughts of how friends in other cities were getting on.

It was the first truly warm day of spring. The air had a calm about it that was only occasionally broken by cuts of brisk wind. I took it, shedding my stocking cap to allow the breeze to pass through my naked hair. A melting heap of snow sat stubbornly on the patio, like a nagging reminder of winter’s proximity — and ability to return with the drop of just a few degrees. My hands were still cracked from the cold, dry air.

I hadn’t been on the other side of town since fall, and gazing out at the traffic rushing down East Washington — an ugly, industrial artery — I felt transported; it was as though I was seeing the city from the window of a passing plane. The light seemed to play tricks on time.

I wanted to talk with someone, to share this unruffled moment. But as I felt for my phone I decided against it. The wind was picking up. I went inside, and began to bury myself in the usual roar of thoughts and worries.


I FELT LIKE A POLAR bear on melting sea ice. With each pedal of my bicycle the frozen ground beneath me cracked, giving way to slush and muddy water. I bumped along down the trail, jostling with the laws of friction in a battle to keep right-side-up.

I was headed, of all places, to the mall. My vision insurance would be expiring soon and so I had made an appointment with the local Lenscrafters to get a check-up — I had two options for locations, both in malls, so I chose the less dingy of the two.

I arrived, and after searching for a while came upon what appeared to be the only bike rack outside the entire expanse of the shopping center (it was empty, neglected). In the back of the Lenscrafters I filled out some new patient forms, and then was moved between various stations where I got puffs of air shot into my eyeballs and was patiently interrogated: “Number one? Or number two? And number three, or number four?”

Following my exam, I was told that if I wanted new lenses I would have to wait. Had I brought any spare glasses? Sure, with a four year-old prescription. “Great,” the man said to me, “come back in an hour.” And so there I was. Alone, left to wander a blurry, headache-inducing mall.

I tried to stare at my feet as I left the store. It hurt my eyes less.

Roaming the softly-lit, kiosk-clogged temple of chain-store goods, I felt like I was in a place where time and space were not relevant. The layout of the mall felt eerily familiar. The kids wandering about dressed the same as when I was in high school, only more magnified in their personas. Pre-pubescent girls wore shorter skirts. Hot Topic had somehow become even more ridiculous.

I sat down in a poor excuse for a communal space — overstuffed, mismatching couches and chairs assembled in a square. An old couple sipping drinks from the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee shot me disapproving looks. Otherwise, nobody looked at each other.

Everything about the mall — the architecture, the stores, the lighting — felt cheap, replicated, plastic, like the majority of suburban infrastructure consuming our country. I had spent many a bored hour wandering uninspired (and uninspiring) spaces like these in my youth, without a second thought. But now I wondered about the quality of life this afforded. Why were we, the people of United States, allowing ourselves to be sold short?

The words of travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest came to me: “I’m the kind of person who wants to get their funky jewelry from its country of origin, not from some stand in the mall.” I was surrounded by a den of artificiality, of faked expression. I thought about the fact that there were hundreds of similar malls all around the country (many owned by the same company). It seemed evidence enough that we’d lost touch with the value of originality, of experience, of creating environments with character.

As I went to go pick up my glasses, I noticed a sign outside where a new shoe store was about to open. It read:

The shoes you wear say a lot about you. Your style speaks louder than words. You can find it here, shout it out there. Choose your voice and make some noise.”

I laughed, I cringed.

Photo: mall, by Maproom Systems. saginaw, mich.

A Bicycle, $1.50, and the Greatest Afternoon

IT WAS SHAPING UP to be a disappointing morning. I stumbled sleepily from bed and into the kitchen, knocking over the recycle bin along the way and littering a blizzard of hole punches onto the carpet. Sitting on the floor and trying to gather them into a pile, I grumbled to myself about how all I wanted was some juice…

Things got a little better when I noticed a note that my fiancee had left me, telling me I was her “hottie from hottingham.” I had the day off from work and so the hours were all mine – I just had no idea where to begin. For a checklist-making man like myself, this was a very bad thing.

In the back of my mind I knew there were things that needed done: research for articles I wanted to write, studying Korean, blogging, emails. I started by doing none of that and browsing pictures on flickr instead, sipping coffee and being jealous of a friend’s recent trip to Berlin. Then came the inevitable waves of restlessness. By the time I sat down to do a bit of study my work ethic had crumbled, and after scribbling a few sentences of Korean all I wanted to do was sit in bed and eat cookies. I took a shower.

I was a mess of procrastination. I did laundry. I washed dishes. I downloaded music. I checked my email at least ten times. It was coming up on 12:30 and I hadn’t done a damn thing worth doing, and I was suddenly reminded of what co-worker had said to me the previous night: “It’s ironic that we spend all our time at work wishing we were doing something else, and then when we have our own time we just end up taking a nap.” I was like a dog spinning circles trying to find the perfect spot to lay down – only I never found it. I got back in bed, and wished for a do-over.

After 15 minutes of breathing deeply and seeking my inner calm, I came to a realization. In doing each of my menial chores I had been seeking an escape from my restlessness. Before each activity I had convinced myself that it was utterly necessary to finish it before starting my day, and meanwhile the hours had slithered by. What I really needed was to do something simply for the sake of doing – something I could throw myself into for my own enjoyment. Taking the advice of a recent commenter, I did what few would think to do in the days following a torrential snowfall; I went for a spin on my bicycle.

In the middle of my third Wisconsin winter my enthusiasm for riding had been dwindling; slushy streets and below-zero windchills meant I only hopped on my bike when necessary, and it was rarely a joyful event. But with cycling being my only source of exercise this also meant I had become a bit sloth-like, with fitful cabin fever. And so determined to again feel the wind on my face and the the joy of gliding over the streets, I set out.

For the first mile or so I pedaled uneasily over the snow, nearly biffing it as I rounded a corner and hit a chunk of ice. Internally I fought with myself over whether this was really a good idea – my legs continued to spin through sheer unconscious will, like passing prayer beads between my fingers.

I was headed around the lake, a familiar 12-mile route through Madison’s suburbs – an easy cruise in the summertime, now made interesting by gaping potholes and unrideable stretches of heavy snow. Within the first mile my shoes were soaked through, but I welcomed the stimulation, the invigorating cold and racing pulse. It was my tiny adventure, my personal escape. I felt giddy as I careered down slippery hills, conquering the abandoned streets.

As I rode, threads of blue were woven into the sky’s patchwork grey – there was even a smattering of sunshine. Having almost completed my circumnavigation, I paused at an empty park that was covered in knee-high snow – it caked onto the cuffs of my pants as I trudged through, my feet now partially numb. I noticed sled tracks spilling down the nearby hill and suddenly wished for my old plastic toboggan.

Cruising back into downtown I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. Stopping into a neighborhood market the first thing that caught my eye was the pastry case, and I began to salivate over the seductive glaze of the apple fritters. I bought one for myself, and a plain glazed to take home for my fiancee – the fact that any bakery purchase came with a free cup of coffee sealed the deal, and for $1.50 I was a happy man.

I stepped outside, inhaling my sweet lunch and warming up with slurps of coffee. Though I’d left my list of tasks untouched, the afternoon had been properly siezed – and I felt content with that. Sensation tingled back into my toes, and I hopped back up on the saddle to pedal the rest of the way home.

Photo: lake monona, by click-see. madison.

Snowdrift (A Writer’s Winter)

SNOWFLAKES SPUTTERED ON DRAFTS of air like meagre handfulls of confetti wearily tossed at a birthday party. The romance of winter’s silence was wearing thin on me; already the season had been peppered with bitter seconds of convulsing restlessness, and I’d just barely slogged through January.

From the window of my apartment I looked out into bleakness, frustrated in my search for words and longing to travel. My two white tormentors: the empty page and the snow-covered ground – both inhibiting me from something, I felt.

I’d been mulling over the idea of an escape, maybe down to El Paso to visit my grandfather, or out to see a friend in New York – it would still be cold there, but would at least provide a change of scenery. Yet I had this inkling that my restlessness would follow me, that perhaps it was tied up with my frame of mind.

So the day trembled on. I went out to go pick up sandwiches from a nearby coffee shop, and as I returned home the sun began to shimmer through the clouds. But I could feel its cheapness, it’s lack of warmth; it brought no hope for spring.

Intermittently in my attempts to write I scoured the Internet for music that might inspire me. I rattled through album reviews and thirty-second samples, yet nothing caught me. I stared back at the blank screen. It was the defeat of something undeclared – I didn’t know what I was trying to express, only that I was failing at it.

Later my fiancee and I went to catch a movie. The film was heartbreaking – a true story about the former editor of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who lost all control of his body save his left eye after a massive stroke. Yet Bauby maintained the full capacity of his mind, and through a system of blinking not only learned to speak but was able to write a book, sharing his imagination and his experience.

As we left the theater, my own frustrations settled into the larger perspective.

That night we waded through slushy streets to join friends for dinner and drinks. As we sipped on pints, a friend who’s had his share of confusing moments and stalled plans expressed to me new ambition – he was pouring himself into creative projects, attempting to leave something of himself in this city before heading to California.

Though we each owned to exhaustion with the cold, I could feel that he was breaking through to something; a driving energy to change his environment, a restlessness converted into action. He was juicing his time here as I was biding it, hoping for this dreary season to close.

As I walked to work the next day my thoughts were drawn out into the quiet morning air – they flitted like easy brushstrokes, soaking the empty streets in their color.

Photo: prairie in winter, by pawpaw67. madison.

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