Thursday, January 24, 2013

Digging In The Dirt

Yes, that Peter Gabriel song was in my head as I began thinking of a blog post. Maybe that's what got me delving into my basement, opening boxes, whose contents haven't seen the light of day in more than a decade.

Our basement is a dumping ground; unfinished, we first piled boxes filled with things we didn't need when we first moved here. In time, we stored goods for friends, and, later, we moved things from spare bedrooms and studies when the kids came along. Now, any time we buy something new, either the box that the purchase comes in goes down, or the item that has been replaced finds its way down, or both.

The basement is also the cat's domain, where we occasionally find coughed-up hairballs or remains of caught mice. We have learned to wear footwear when heading down to the basement because of what our feet may find. There's also a layer of settled dust.

When we go down to the basement in search of anything, we come up dirty.

Hence my thoughts as I headed downstairs, which turned to Mr. Gabriel's tune. I was, in my treasure hunt, digging in the dirt. In search of an idea for a blog post. Surely, I told myself, a blog idea lurks inside the mustiness of paper and cardboard of my past.

I wish I had opened some of these boxes a decade ago.

Inside one box, I found a green-covered notebook. A Blueline-styled notebook, the hard cover bearing no brand name, no indication of origin. But I immediately recognized the book, knew its origin.


Years ago, as I was putting notes together for Songsaengnim, I searched for this book in vain. I had plenty of boxes with souvenirs, photos, and news clippings from the two years that I lived in that country, but there was one book that I was missing, could not locate.

My diary.

Remember: the full title of my novel is Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary. I had hoped to use actual entries of my diary as part of the story. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my diary. Instead, I drew on memory and e-mail correspondence with my family. My mother actually printed out every e-mail message that I sent to her and that she sent to me, and placed them in a binder.

By the time I returned to Canada, in March of 1999, that binder was four inches thick and bursting at the seams.

More ideas for the sequel, I suppose.

I flipped through the pages and found that my memories came back with such clarity that the events could have happened last week. What brought a smile to my face was seeing how my writing changed, how, as my Korean improved, I would write Korean words in hangul, instead of English. And I was surprised that I could still read those words today.

My diary entries, for the most part, offer details only. There is no creative writing, no descriptive prose. Most of it is dry, trite, giving just the facts of the day. Every once and a while, I added dialog.

One event I remember clearly, and as I read the dialog, I remember the conversation, word for word. Here's my diary entry, exactly as I had written it.
Wednesday, April 23, 1997

Lori and I saw our first nude Korean yesterday. Mrs. Jung asked us if we wanted to go to a nude festival:

"A what?"

"A nude festival."

"Nude—no clothes?"


"Will we be expected to take our clothes off?"

(Giggle) "No!"

"Can I bring my camera?"

"Yes..." (another giggle).

"All right, let's go!!"

A short walk from our hogwan—maybe three minutes—is a hall that is used as a gallery or exhibition hall, and sometimes as a wedding hall. On this day, it was being used as an art gallery, lecture hall and studio. Along the walls hung various paintings of nudes by local artists. Many people had gathered and were admiring the works of art—even another foreigner, one we recognized from SE, was there. Mrs. Jung and Miss Kang came with Lori and me.

We noticed people were crowding down at the far end of the hall, where some chairs were set up, so we followed. At the end was a lecture podium, a stage and a stool. We stood immediately behind the chairs, where some artists were sitting and setting up their easels and sketch pads. We quickly realized what was going to happen.

Shortly thereafter a man stepped up to the podium and gave a speech, and introduced the artists to the audience. I couldn't understand a word he said, but applauded when he introduced each artist anyway. Another man also stepped up to the podium and said a few words. When he was finished, the artists prepared to work.

It was at this point that a model stepped out from behind a screen, wearing a robe. She quickly slipped off the robe and sat on the stool in an elegant pose. The artists worked furiously to capture their perceived image. It was fascinating to watch their images take shape, and the different methods and approaches each artist used. Some paintings/sketches were crude, some were quite detailed. I watched one artist, and saw the areas he concentrated on—the curves, the shadows—I looked at the model and saw what he was drawing. He reminded me of the aspects many photographers concentrate on—light and shadows—and he reminded me I had my camera with me. The model changed poses three times while we watched, and I thought about how I would photograph her (this was not the time and the place, even though photography can be an artform in itself).

I must admit, I was also fascinated watching the model herself. She was quite lovely: small, slender, curvaceous. I was intrigued to see such dark nipples contrasted against her pale olive-yellow flesh. Her pubic hair was trimmed to a thin line, but the hair itself was long and straight. She was elegant and beautiful. I had to fight to resist shooting her picture. It was too bad that we had to leave to teach our 7pm classes. I could have watched the model and the artist work for the entire showing.
Yeah yeah, I know what you're thinking: dirty old man. I think it was this experience that might have spawned my interest in studio photography. The poses, watching the images unfold, how the artists drew out the shadows, made me want to explore this form of art. But like my lost diary, my interest in nude photography didn't surface until recently.

I'm going to use this diary entry in an upcoming chapter in Gyeosunim. Only, I hope it'll be better then. I also hope that the next time I go into the basement, digging in the dirt, that I find more treasure troves.

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