Thursday, January 31, 2019

Change of Plans

Hopefully, I'll start to sleep again.

I've made some changes to my current evening patterns. I've decided to stop reading my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, before bed. It was making me think about my past life, teaching English in Chŏnju, South Korea. I'm still thinking about my upcoming trip, still imagine how I will make my way from the airport to the hotel in Seoul, but now that only keeps me thinking about the trip for about an hour after my lights go out. And I hope that the fatigue of not having slept for several consecutive nights will eventually knock me out.

I don't know why I can't sleep, especially since I'm no longer feeling stressed about my arrival in Seoul. 

I love my friends.

One of my closest friends, who I met in Korea and who helped me with the initial draft of Songsaengnim (one of the characters in the book is based on him), is a regular reader of The Brown Knowser. Because he already knew about my upcoming return to Korea through e-mail correspondence, and because he and his wife had returned to Korea a few years ago, he has been instrumental in providing me with information about the changes in that far-away country over the past 20 years.

Brad, after reading last Tuesday's blog post, contacted me: "You’re not arriving at the new Inchon Airport? You’re still going via Kimpo? I thought that was just for domestic flights now... ."

Kimpo (photo credit: Subway06 - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link)
You see, I was still living in the past. When I lived in Korea, from 1997 to 1999, Kimpo International Airport was the airport from where everyone arrived. The airport in Incheon was much smaller and was known for local flights. By the time I left Korea for good, in 1999, Incheon was only starting to undergo a massive renovation. In the years that followed, the city itself began a major expansion and was quickly becoming one of the most technologically connected cities in East Asia, if not the world.

Today, there are developed islands that didn't exist in 1999. Thanks to a land-reclamation project, Incheon has not only exploded in density but in area, too.

When I booked my flight, online, I typed "Seoul" as my destination airport, and "Gimpo" was the first option that appeared. I did see Incheon listed below but I wasn't aware that these airports had switched prominence. Maybe, had the Seoul airport been spelled with a K, like it had been when I lived there, I would have seen it listed first and may have selected it.

Probably not: I'm if nothing a creature of habit, and I knew Kimpo. But Brad had shone a light over me.

"It’s a beautiful airport, and the subway into town is very fast and smooth, with non-stop WiFi!"

Incheon International Airport (photo credit: Ken Eckert - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)
I was flying on Aeroplan points. Over the years, I have earned enough rewards points for three round-trip flights to Korea, with nearly a fourth domestic flight to spare. I have come to learn that flights through Aeroplan are rarely direct: when I flew on points to Italy, in 2009, my return trip took me from Rome to Munich, to Frankfurt, and then to Ottawa, where the rest of my family flew without the stop in Munich.

On my return flight from Edinburgh, in 2010, I passed through Heathrow, Halifax, and Montreal. The flight out was mercifully more direct: Ottawa-London-Edinburgh.

So it was no surprise that the fastest flight (avoiding China) was Ottawa–Toronto–Toyko–Osaka–Seoul. But that route had me arriving at Kimpo. As soon as Brad had mentioned that Kimpo was now a domestic airport, the scenic route all made sense.

I returned to the Aeroplan Web site and looked at the flights for Ottawa to Incheon, and my jaw dropped.

Where the Ottawa-to-Kimpo route is a 24-and-a-half journey, the trip to Incheon is only 17: Ottawa–Vancouver–Incheon. Instead of reaching my hotel by midnight, I would be there shortly after three in the afternoon.

Where the Ottawa-to-Kimpo route requires a subway trip that involves a changeover to a different line, the Incheon airport has a rail line that goes directly to Seoul Station, less than 10 minutes, by foot, to my hotel.

My return flight to Ottawa, via Kimpo, is scheduled to leave at 7 am, which means that I had to reserve a hotel nearby for the night before. The return flight from Incheon leaves at 4:30 pm, but because the flight is Incheon–Toronto–Ottawa, with only an hour in Toronto (the Osaka transfer is more than five hours!), I will arrive home at about the same time as the departure from Kimpo.

The decision was easy: cancel the flight through to Kimpo and purchase the flight to Incheon. I was moving from the past to the future.

While I had to pay a $100 cancellation fee, the taxes for my new flight were almost that much cheaper. I lost almost nothing.

But the best part about this plan is that my stress level, which I hadn't noticed until I re-booked my flight, had dropped dramatically. I felt I could breathe easier and my mood picked up.

Now, if only I can start sleeping again.

I love my friends.

I suspect that my stress will return the closer I get to my departure date. I always get anxious before I fly, always go a little batty until I've arrived at the airport, obtained my boarding pass, passed through security, and made it to my gate. Once the plane lifts off, I fully relax.

I'm not planning to sleep on the night before my flight from Ottawa and I welcome the unavoidable stress. Because once I lift off from Toronto, I expect to relax into a deep sleep, hoping that I can get a start on beating the jet lag that will surely come.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Naughty Monkey

I was going to make a joke: something like somebody aught to spank that monkey. But I won't.

As I scanned the photos, Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" came into my head. But the monkey wasn't shocked: I was.

About a half an hour or so north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the ancient caves of Batu rise about 100 metres above ground and are accessed by a tiring, 272-step ascent. In the heat of day, wearing light, cotton clothing is a must, and even then you sweat like you've done the workout of your life.

In February of 1999, DW and I took an afternoon break from the downtown bustle of KL and took a bus on a straight road, leading north. I watched as the Petronas twin towers slowly shrank in size but never left the horizon. While we never truly left the urban sprawl, we did feel that we were actually leaving the city.

By the time we reached the base of the Batu Caves and paid our entrance fee, the sunshine over KL was replaced by grey rain clouds. Though they looked menacing, only a few drops fell as we climbed the stairs. The rain wouldn't come until we were sheltered inside the caves.

Though this was a sacred place of worship, photography was allowed. I tried to be respectful as I captured images of the carved structures and the people who attended them. I always asked permission before I pointed the lens toward anybody and always received a nod of approval.

The signs were clear: "Do not feed the monkeys."

DW and I carried no food, and wouldn't have shared it with the natural inhabitants of the cave, though we could see others disrespecting the rules. And though we had nothing to offer as food, it didn't stop the curious creatures.

DW, who was capturing images with her own camera, placed her backback on the ground for a moment. Immediately, one of the monkeys was upon it. He casually walked up and started sniffing. He opened the backpack and retrieved a packet of tissues. It was their scent (it seemed that all tissues in Malaysia were scented) that had attracted him.

We didn't object. We were given the tissues by someone in KL who was begging for money. We didn't pay much for them and weren't attached to them. Our only concern was that the monkey would pull out the tissues and make a mess within the temple areas.

I took a picture of the monkey, seemingly coveting his prize. But then the monkey returned to the backpack to see what other treasures could be found.

DW, who was snapping away at the monkey and me, mentioned that her wallet was in the bag. She didn't want the curious guy to take anything that she couldn't afford to lose. So I reached, slowly, and pulled the backpack towards me.

The monkey looked at me, as though he was saying, "Dude, I was looking through that. How rude you are." And then he pounced.

Tail straight in the air, hands high. Completely startled, I jumped to my feet, backing away from the pack and the monkey, but not before he scratched my hand. He didn't break the skin but it became raised and red.

I stamped my foot on the ground and shouted, "Hey!" Seeing that I was much bigger than him, it was the monkey's turn to back off. I picked up the backpack and the tissue, which the creature had dropped, and moved toward DW.

It was my second mugging in Southeast Asia, but the first one where I really felt in danger.

Naughty monkey. Somebody had really aught to spank that monkey.

Oops... I said it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sleepless In Barrhaven

It's like Groundhog Day, but instead of awakening to repeat the day, I go to sleep and repeat the night.

Usually, if I write a blog post before bed, I feel that I've emptied my head, that thoughts I've carried with me through the day have been transferred to the printed word. I go to bed, turn out the light, close my eyes, and fade into dreams.

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions, but over the Christmas holidays, last December, I decided that I would return to reading books before going to bed. I was three books behind in my Ian Rankin reading, and so I picked up Even Dogs in the Wild, and burned through it in two weeks.

That one down, I looked for the next, Rather Be the Devil, but couldn't find it. I searched through the myriad books that DW and I have piled on the many bookshelves around the house. Rankin's books fill a couple of shelves in our living room—we've collected all of them. Even his latest, In a House of Lies, autographed from his last visit to Ottawa, was on the shelf. But his second-last book was nowhere to be found.

I can't read the latest without reading Rather Be the Devil. That would mess up the order of things.

Defeated in my search, I reached for the one book that I received for Christmas: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. It was interesting (I knew very little about Smith and even less about Robert Mapplethorpe) but as I closed the book, less than two weeks later, I realized that the book wasn't really my cup of tea. I love New York City and was attracted to the art and music scene, but I found Smith's pace a bit slow.

I searched again for the errant Rankin novel, again without success.

And so I picked up a hardcover copy of a book that I've tried to read from cover to cover, but have never seemed to get through: my own.

Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary was published nearly seven years ago, but I hadn't read the full manuscript since before sending it to the publisher, since before changing and deleting characters, and since before assembling the final submitted copy.

As soon as the final, bound copies were out, I couldn't bring myself to reading it. It was still too close to me.

I tried to read it, once, while I was working on the sequel, Gyeosunim, but only got about halfway through. But now that I am returning to Korea, now that I am reworking the draft, I thought I should commit to reading it, to refresh my memory, to remember the characters, and to familiarize myself with the South Korea of 1997 and 1998.

And so, before bed, I've been opening that book and reading for about an hour. Before I turn out the light, close my eyes, and fade into dreams.

Only, I don't dream. I think about Korea. I remember the experiences from when I arrived in Chŏnju and got used to my new job, my new surroundings, and the new culture.

I also think about my upcoming trip, in May, and this is where the Groundhog Day experience kicks in. Instead of a dream, my brain tries to imagine my arrival. I leave Ottawa on a Friday morning and take a flight that takes just over 24 hours, making stops in Toronto, Tokyo, Osaka, and finally, Seoul.

Because there will be a 13-hour time difference, I'll be touching down in Seoul at about 10:30, Saturday evening. I have a plan to help fight jet lag, so I'm hoping to be fairly alert.

It's been a long time since I've been in Seoul, nearly 20 years, but it's been even longer since I have been at Kimpo International Airport by myself. The last time was January 2, 1999. My teaching contract had ended the day before, but because DW's contract would last until the end of January, I needed to leave the Korea and re-enter the country under a tourist visa.

On a cold Saturday morning, DW and I took a bus to Seoul. But when we arrived at the Express Bus Terminal, on the south side of the Han River, DW continued, by subway, to our friend's house. I took another line in the opposite direction, to the airport.

I boarded the first flight to the nearest Japanese city, Fukuoka. As soon as the plane touched down, I went through customs, had my passport stamped, then made a 180 turn, got on the very same airplane, and returned to Seoul.

Less than three hours after I had last seen DW, we were reunited at our friend's house and I was good in Korea for another six months.

We needed just one.

So now, lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, I found myself thinking of my return to Seoul, in less than four months, and my conscious mind was trying to work out the logistics of what I needed to do, once again, alone.

Once through customs, I needed to purchase some Korean currency, the won. I needed to find the subway platform (I had only taken it once before, when DW and I were meeting another teacher who was arriving to start work at our institute). I needed to figure out where to get off the train, to catch a connecting line that would take me to city hall, the closest station to my hotel.

Already, through Google street view, I have virtually walked from the subway stop to my hotel, which is so new that when I walk to its address, only an empty lot occupies the spot, the construction having barely begun.

If all goes well, I should be able to check in before midnight, Seoul time. My body's clock will think it's only 10 am.

I see myself, settling into my room, which I hope is several floors up. An extra bonus would be to face south, looking toward Namsan Tower. Once satisfied with my room, I'll grab my camera and tripod, and make my way around the corner, where Namdaemun Gate will hopefully be illuminated (it is in my imagination, as I try to fall asleep).

I list off the places that I want to see while I'm in Seoul. I've booked only two nights in this hotel, but I can try to extend my stay if necessary.

But then, as my mind thinks about Korea while trying to go to sleep, I get into a loop, where memories of past and possible future collide. I can't sleep.

Hours go by. Two o'clock. Three o'clock. Four o'clock.

I get up. I go to the washroom. I check my phone. I resist looking at the Internet and places to see in Seoul and Chŏnju. If I did, I'd never get to bed.

The following evening, as I head to bed, the process repeats itself. And again, the next night.

I haven't had a solid sleep in four days. Last night, so fatigued, I got out of bed to use the washroom. It wasn't until I was about to make my way back to bed that I realized I had walked to the bathroom without crutches or my cast.


If my foot felt any pain, it didn't register with me. I hopped on one foot back to bed.

I think my novel is putting memories in my head, feeding my imaginings of what is to come with my trip. Yesterday (Monday), I had no more than two hours of rest and awoke to my alarm with a migraine. I spent the day in bed.

Fortunately, I slept solidly for much of the day. Unfortunately, I missed a day at work.

I'm going to skip reading my book before bed, will read it several hours before and will then write a blog post.

Writing about Korea, I hope I won't put more thoughts in my head.

I need to find my Ian Rankin novel.

Monday, January 28, 2019

While He Slept

There was a time when my brother drove me up the wall. Call it a generation gap.

You see, he was five or six: I was 19 or 20. And yes, I was old enough to know better, but sometimes 20-year-olds aren't the most mature.

My brother had his age as an excuse.

If I was watching television, he would come into our family room and make noise, or stand in front of the TV, or do something else to disrupt my enjoyment of whatever it was that I was watching. He was testing his boundaries, testing my patience.

Even to this day, my patience can wear thin fairly easily. And he was my little button pusher.

Often, I would yell at him, scare him, and make him run to our parents. I would have a few minutes of calm before he would return. Sometimes, I would pick him up, carry him to our parents, explain his behaviour, and I would get a bit more of a reprieve.

Occasionally, I would pick him up by his shirt and throw him across the room, where he would land, gently, on the second sofa in our family room. At that, he would bawl and run to our parents.

I got no reprieve after that. I may as well have turned off the TV and walked away. It was the same result, only this time it would be my parents doing the yelling.

I would never try to pick him up now.

When I was in journalism school, I took a photojournalism class and loved to experiment with photography, to capture images that would add to a story. But the class also involved simply capturing photos of a certain theme.

For one theme, the subject was candid photography. The subject was not allowed to see us capture the image. I thought I would try to capture my brother playing but he always seemed to know when I was around, always wanted to ham it up for the camera.

And so, I waited until I was sure he wouldn't see me at work. I waited until he was asleep.

I wasn't particularly stealthy about my approach to this shot. I didn't need to be: once he had fallen asleep, you would have to practically shake him to awaken him.

I opened the door and entered his darkened room. Turned on the overhead light. I had a flash, on a cable and turned away from my subject, toward the ceiling. I focused and shot, and then without further ado, turned off his light, left the room, and closed the door.

Candid. The photo earned me an A (though I was told that if we had another candid theme, my subject had to be conscious).

Happy Birthday, brother!


Friday, January 25, 2019

Photo Friday: Snowed In

One of the challenges of a Photo of the Week project, in Ottawa, in January, in winter, is that sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate.

Not that this week has been so entirely terrible. While I wouldn't have wanted to be on the roads this Wednesday and Thursday, under normal circumstances the other days of the past week haven't been that bad if you dressed for the weather. I've photographed in extreme cold temperatures in the past and if I've been prepared, the only thing that stops me is if my fingers start to freeze.

After all, there are times when you need to remove your gloves to adjust settings on the camera.

Under normal circumstances, I would have been out many times this week. But for me, I'm not living in particularly ideal circumstances.

I don't want to make this post about my foot, except to say that now that I'm able to walk on my Aircast, I have to explain that it offers little protection from the elements. There are vents all along it, which equates it with wearing a sandal over a sock. The wind cuts right through it. Also, with the bitter cold, the air that is pumped into the bags on either side of my foot shrink, lessening the support that I need.

With the snow that has fallen, the open-toed boot doesn't stop snow from being scooped inside. And so, this week, I have ventured outside only once. And even though I did bring my camera with me, I was not inspired to get out of my car along my journeys to and from the office.

For my photo project, my options were limited. I did consider taking some macro shots of the orchid that is starting to bloom, but I want to leave that to my other informal photo project, my Orchid Project on Instagram. For DW's birthday, the other week, my mother gave her another orchid, which is in full bloom, and I considered shooting that for this week's project, but again, I want to wait.

Instead, the weather gave me another opportunity by which I didn't have to stray far. On Wednesday, Ottawa saw nearly 30 cm of snowfall. There was no question that I would be working from home. Indeed, even DW said "forget it" to her commute and set up her computer in our dining room.

While my cast prohibits me from shovelling our driveway, it doesn't prevent me from giving advice. "It's easier to shovel the snow several times during the day," I informed DW, "than to wait until the snow stops falling and shovel it up at once. Plus, the temperature will be climbing as the day goes on, meaning the snow will become heavier."

At lunchtime, DW set out to clear part of the driveway, enough so that if she needed to get out, she could. Her vehicle stays parked in our garage, while mine sits in the driveway. DW didn't sweep off my car nor did she shovel behind my car, but she knew she'd be out again, later.

Shortly after she finished her first pass, I stepped into our garage to survey the snow accumulation. Already, her hard work was being covered over. I took a picture to document the first real snowstorm of the season.

DW would return to the driveway, later in the afternoon, for another round of shovelling. Later, when DD17 returned from school, she shovelled even more snow. A final shovelling was done after dinner.

Overnight on Thursday, mild temperatures brought freezing rain to our neighbourhood. Though our driveway was icy, it was mostly cleared. It would have been brutal to wait and shovel it at the end.

More snow is in our forecast. I may never go into the office again.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Why I'm Going Back

In some ways, I'm not going back: Roland is.

It was almost exactly 20 years ago that DW and I were packing up the last of our belongings and shipping them back to Canada. The only things we had left in our Chŏnju apartment were the clothes that we needed and would fit into our suitcases, and the items that we were not taking with us.

Our bed, or yo (요), which DW and I had had custom-made and was twice as thick as a traditional mattress that lay on our heated floor, was in excellent condition and had been sold to a fellow teacher. Other teachers who were remaining helped lighten us of our many other comforts—chairs, a toaster oven, coffee press, kettle, TV, washing machine, and more.

Though we hadn't accumulated a lot in our nearly two years in South Korea, we did amass enough to make life more bearable.

Our friends who were remaining took us out to say goodbye. They were work colleagues, students, and Korean friends that we had met during our stay. They were the people who made it hard to say goodbye.

A few of my students and Korean friends asked me if DW and I would ever return. At the time, I was anxious to leave, to get back to Canada. I was fatigued by the job, by the misadventures, by growing anti-Western sentiment that some Koreans felt by the economic crisis and the International Monetary Fund bailout. None of my students or friends shared that sentiment but there were enough people who made living in Korea uncomfortable.

And, of course, there was the stress of living in a society whose culture and traditions were so different and at times contradicted your own beliefs and values.

So when I was asked the question, I had to pause and think: would I really return?

I looked at the bright, smiling faces of those who mattered to me. And it made me remember the other Koreans, the total strangers who showed DW and me such kindness and generosity.

There was the man in Seoul, who, seeing DW and me standing on a street corner, having just arrived in the city for the first time since we flew in and were met at the airport, saw us now trying to decipher a map and gather our bearings, asked us in broken English where we were headed.

We wanted to find the nearest subway line that would take us to Hannam-Dong, a neighbourhood on the north side of the Han River, where our friend from the Canadian embassy would be living, later that summer. She had asked if we could find the house, take photos, and report on the neighbourhood.

The kind, middle-aged man led us down the street, past the bus terminal, and into an underground shopping mall. We walked for what seemed like several street blocks, turning corners and taking escalators further underground. At each turn, he was careful to point out stores and other indicators, to show us what to look for on our return to the bus station.

Commercial bread crumbs, as it were.

We reached the entrance to the subway and the man showed us where we could purchase our tickets from a machine. On an affixed map, he pointed out our station, the Express Bus Terminal, and then pointed to another station, Oksu. "Get off here," he said, then pointed to another rail line. "Go here." He pointed to the first station on the second line, Hannam.

We thanked him, but without so much as a pause, he inserted coin into the machine, producing two tickets. I tried to offer him money of my own but he was having none of it.

"Kamsa-habnida," I said, bowing, thank you very much.

He bowed in return and then headed back toward the surface. He had taken us perhaps 15 minutes out of his way. But with his help, he got us exactly where we needed to be.

There was the Good Samaritan in Cheju, who saw two Westerners stranded on the side of a road, where their bus had broken down. DW and I were heading to the trailhead of the semi-tropical island's mountain. He offered a ride to me, my wife, and another Korean passenger, who could speak English and acted as our translator.

Our Samaritan not only drove us to the entrance of the park but also paid for our admission.

I saw these kind people, and many more, as I offered my response to my Korean friends. "Yes," I said, "I'll come back. But not for 20 years." By then, I figured, my animosity toward this country will have subsided.

DW never made the promise and when I asked her to come back with me, she said, "No, I have no need to return. Why do you want to go back? Surely, it's not just to fulfill a promise."

My "yes" was never really a promise. I was entitled to change my mind. I haven't seen most of these people since we left Chŏnju, had only kept in touch with a handful. One group of our friends, a family by the name of Cho, took a cross-Canada tour with a busload of Koreans, and contacted us when they were approaching Ottawa. We spent one evening with them at our home, where they were able to meet our new first-born.

I exchanged letters with one of my students for the first couple of years, and then he stopped writing. I would like to try to find him, if I can.

One of DW's and my dear Korean friends, Kyung-hee, still keeps in touch with us. She visited us for a few weeks in 2000, and periodically pops up on Facebook. I've let her know that I'm returning but so far have had no response.

So, if there's no one to meet with me when I arrive, why am I going?

The answer is simple: I'm returning because I need to go back. I'm convinced that if I don't return to Korea, my future as a novelist is over.

It took me more than 10 years to write Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary. In late 1999, as DW and I were establishing ourselves with new careers and were buying our first home, I started thinking of chronicling our adventures in Korea. The economic turmoil, our failing hagwon (learning institute), my abduction, our travels through East Asia, could write itself, I thought.

Of course, with a new career, new home, and babies on the way, writing the novel always took a back seat. It wasn't until the kids got a bit older that I found more time to work, but it took going to Scotland, in 2010, to really get me motivated.

In my pursuit to make Roland Axam as believable a character as I could, I found his North Berwick home, his routines, his sister's Edinburgh home, and the places that he knew so well. Not only did my Scottish trip help me finish Songsaengnim, it gave me loads of material for the sequel, Gyeosunim.

Last year, I told myself that I was going to focus a lot of my free time to writing this much-delayed continuation of my first novel. (Maybe, in retrospect, I should have taken a bit more time and combined both parts of Roland Axam's story into one book.) But like the first novel, the second novel has had a few restarts, taking it in different directions.

Last summer, I started writing new material but would rewrite and then rewrite it again. By the fall, writing stopped altogether.

If going to Scotland could get me to finish the first novel, I'm hoping that a trip to Korea will recharge my creative batteries and get me to finish the second novel.

When DW asked me why I felt the need to return to Chŏnju, I told her it was the same reason why I felt a strong desire to go back to Scotland (I had first been there in 1988, when I first created Roland and needed to see where he came from—apart from my imagination).

After I answered her, I started thinking. Korea has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Even wandering the streets of Chŏnju, virtually, with Google Maps street view, I got lost a couple of times. I was still able to find my old hagwon, the palace, city hall, and the Gaeksa (an ancient government building that is a central meeting landmark), but some streets eluded me.

Thinking from a different perspective, I asked DW, "Why do you think Roland Axam would want to return to Korea?"

"He wouldn't," was her answer. Even though she has only ever read some rough drafts of chapters, but never the full, published version of Songsaengnim, DW feels she knows my fictional character. "He has no reason to return. Did he marry a Korean?"

"No," I said, though the end of my sequel has never even been drafted. To date, not even I know how the story ends.

"Is he looking for someone?"

"After 20 years? No."

"Then Roland Axam never returns to Korea." Her statement sounded so final, I could almost hear a heavy wooden door slamming shut in a large, empty room.

"What if Roland is the author of the book? I've written it in first person, after all." Indeed, Roland tells the story in Songsaengnim. In my latest iteration of Gyeosunim, I have changed the voice to third-person prose, but I haven't yet sold myself on this approach.

I began thinking aloud, using DW as a sounding board: "Roland, after realizing that it's been 20 years since he was in Korea, decides he's going to write a novel about his experience, about how it helped him get through a very dark chapter in his life. But he's forgotten so much about the specifics of his time there that he has to go back."

"Would he be writing about the Korea of 2019 as well or is he only narrating his time from 1997 to 1999?"

"Good question." I could see the prologue start to take shape, anticipating my own return in May:
It's late at night. Roland stands at his hotel window, high above Seoul's downtown streets, looking toward the south. Other tall buildings, ones that weren't there two decades before, try to obstruct his view but he can easily see Namsan Tower, blinking on a nearby hillside. It was the first landmark he ever saw, first arriving in Seoul, in early 1997. Below and much closer to him, in a traffic convergence that he could just make out between two buildings, was the brightly illuminated Sungnyemun, also known as Namdaemun Gate.

This wasn't exactly the same ancient city gate that Roland saw on his last night in Seoul, in 1999, before he caught his flight to Vancouver, and then on to Ottawa. In 2008, a fire, caused by an arsonist, devastated the wooden superstructure. This restored version was only six years old and was already showing signs of aging.

He would have to see the gate up close, tomorrow, he told himself. But for now, the nearly 24-hour journey that started in North Berwick was starting to weigh heavily on his 54-year-old body, and the nearby bed was his irresistible Siren...
I've started writing notes, started planning. While I'll be the one making the physical journey, it just may be Roland Axam returning to South Korea.

Either way, a story will be written.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Slowing Up

It's now the hardest leg of my recovery. No pun intended.

Last Friday, nine weeks and a day after my reconstructive foot surgery, I was back in the hospital, having a fresh set of x-rays taken. Three weeks prior, I was going through the exact same process. But back then, the x-rays showed two spots in my foot where the bones weren't knitted enough to support my weight, and so I was told to stay on my peg leg a little longer.

But on Friday, with the new x-rays displaying next to the previous image, we could see that one of the two spots was fully fused: the other, still showing a sliver of grey but deemed strong enough to support me.

I walked into the hospital with the use of my peg leg and walked out on both feet.

It was a great feeling, emotionally. I'm at a stage of the recovery where I just want the whole thing over, just want to be back to normal. Walking out of the hospital, my left leg still encased in the Aircast, my foot felt strange but I could slowly walk the main corridor, out the building, to where DW was waiting to drive me home.

The doctor told me that I was to return in four weeks, when another x-ray image would be captured and we could decide whether I could walk without the cast or would have to wait a little longer. Overall, I'm a month ahead of the worst-case prognosis for recovery, but I'm hopeful.

Once home, I walked around our family room and kitchen, to get used to the movement in the cast. The sole of the cast is thicker than any footwear that I own, and so I'm a bit off-kilter but manageable.

On Saturday, I was on my foot long enough to perform some household chores, and in the evening DW and I went to Hull for dinner with some friends. I walked a block, in frigid, snowy weather, and was fine.

On Sunday, I ventured to a local sports centre, to check out the possibility of going for a swim. My doctor said that I could do it as long as I kept the kicks at a minimum. I wanted to know how the family change rooms would accommodate me, and DW and I worked out a plan to get me to the pool.

We're going to try it next weekend.

With the weather unbearably cold and snowy on Monday, I worked from home, walking very little. It wasn't until yesterday (Tuesday) that the weather and road conditions allowed me to go into the office.

I wasn't ready.

I walked about as much as I would have with my peg leg, but the cast keeps me walking at about half the pace of the peg. And as the day wore on, my foot started to hurt: not necessarily from the surgery region, but from an area closer to my ankle. And, the pain felt more arthritic than anything else (I suffer from acute osteoarthritis in both feet).

One of my colleagues ran into me several times over the course of the day, and in the afternoon asked me if it was her perception, or was I moving more slowly.

I was moving more slowly.

In the last hour of my workday, after having made a trip to the washroom (which is on the opposite side of the building from my desk), I promised that the next time I had to walk anywhere, it would be from my desk to the car, and then from the car to my family-room sofa.

Long before I was ready for bed, before I was ready to sit in front of my laptop and write this post, my foot was done.

My next visit to the hospital seems so far away.

I know that I need to exercise this foot, that I need to practice walking on it. But perhaps a full day in the office is too much. Luckily today (Wednesday), the weather prohibits me from venturing outside. Tomorrow also seems unlikely to give me a break from the weather.

It's now a balance between cabin fever and enduring pain in the office. I need to weigh the pros and cons of both.

It's the most difficult segment of my road to recovery. I've slowed down, felt more pain, but at least I know I'm still headed in the right direction.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Chocolate Milk

When Hawksley Workman released his Milk album, in 2010, I thought the music was great but knew that chocolate milk is even better. When Rufus Wainwright sang about "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," I grimaced at the thought (though I loved the song).

Ham and cheese and chocolate milk. There are no substitutes.

Over the Christmas holidays, in addition to turkey leftovers, we had several leftovers from our traditional Brownfoot Christmas-morning brunch: spiral ham, stollen, and potato pie. I cherish all three of these dishes, eat them on the following mornings for as long as we have them.

In addition to eating the ham for breakfast, I also make myself ham and cheese sandwiches, piled high with the thick-cut, maple and brown-sugar glazed goodness, fresh, leafy lettuce, and meaty slices of beefeater tomatoes.


To wash down this kind of sandwich, I can think of nothing better than a tall, ice-cold glass of chocolate milk. In fact, if we don't have Nestle syrup or milk in the house, I won't make this sandwich. One cannot be had without the other.

I think this combination can be traced back to my final years of high school. In my final two years of secondary education, I was working 16 hours each week at a paint and wallpaper store at the Merivale Mall. This part-time job gave me enough pocket money to pay for gas when I borrowed my parents car, allowed me to go out to movies or for pizza with my friends, and to have cash in my pocket for school lunches.

Every day, without fail, I ate the same meal for lunch: a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a small carton of chocolate milk, and two chocolate-chip cookies. The sandwich was prepared that morning: soft, whole-wheat bread, cheddar cheese, honey-glazed ham, bright-green, leafy lettuce, and a juicy, red tomato. Only a small slathering of mayonnaise was applied to the vegetable side; a sample of honey mustard to the ham.

To my teenage youth, it was perfection. I couldn't make a sandwich better. And the slightly sweet, rich chocolate milk washed it all down.

The cookies were just a bonus. If the school kitchen ran out of them, I'd still take the sandwich and drink. But run out of either one, and I'd go hungry.

And now, as I wrap up this post about ham sandwiches and chocolate milk, I can't get Rufus' song out of my head. Only, I'll substitute "cigarettes" for "sandwiches."

Monday, January 21, 2019

Oh, Oh, Telephone Line

DW often gets upset with me when she calls, just to talk, and I want to end that call. "Hi, what's up?" I ask, then, "Yup... uh-huh... yup... did you need anything?... Yup... I've gotta go... uh-huh... yup... okay... yup... okay... bye... yup... okay, bye!"

And I know how that sounds: she's your wife, jerk, talk to her!

But there are a lot of times when she calls me while she's driving. She's hands-free, mind you. Don't start leaving comments about using a cell phone behind the wheel. She's safe.

DW likes to call me while she's on her way to work. I'm already in the office, either working on my own projects or conversing with co-workers. She asks me how my commute was, lets me know how bad her traffic is. Sometimes, she changes the subject mid-sentence: "Okay, buddy, what are you doing? Geesh, go already!"

She's not talking to me. She's striking up a one-way conversation with another driver who can't hear her but has either cut her off or is asleep at the wheel.

I try to end these conversations as soon as possible by letting her know I have to get to work. Even if I'm not busy. It's nothing against her, but I just don't want to keep her company while she makes her way into work.

And that's all it is. She wants company during her commute.

When I'm at home on the weekends and she's running errands, she'll call: "I just left Costco and I'm on my way to Sobey's." "I'm on my way home. I should be there in 10 minutes."

Usually, when she's running errands, I'm doing chores around the house. Often, my phone is in the kitchen, casting music to our family room through Bluetooth. I may not be in the room, but the music will pause and my smart watch will tell me that she's calling. I'll stop what I'm doing and make my way to the phone.

"Hi, there was a sale on the Farm Boy lasagna so I picked up a couple of boxes."

"Okay," I say, "what do you need?"

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm on my way home. I'll be there in less than five minutes."

I prefer to receive calls for when information is required: "I'm at Sobey's. Do we need milk? How's our butter situation? There's a sale on perogies at Costco. Do you have a flavour preference?"

It's really nothing personal against DW. I just don't care to chat on the phone.

Face-to-face, with my friends and family, I'm hard to shut up. Once I get going, no one can get a word in edge-wise.

Put me on the phone, and I clam right up.

I use the phone because I want something: usually, information. I order pizza or Vietnamese food. I call to let someone know that I'm on my way to meet them, or that I'll be a bit late, or that I've arrived. It's all the conveyance of information.

No chit-chat. No small talk. Just tell me what I want to know or listen to what I need to tell you, and say goodbye, already.

I've been this way since I was a young kid. I would call friends to invite them over to my place or to see if I could go to their homes, to hang out. My conversations were brief, to the point, with no filler.

I had one friend who I've known since elementary school. In high school, we were both into music. Neil would call me, every once in a while, and once he knew it was me on the line, he would put his handset to a record player and drop the needle on a song. After a couple of seconds, no more than five, he would lift the needle and listen in as I named the artist and song title.

"Thomas Dolby, One of Our Submarines," I might offer.

If I was wrong, the needle would return to the vinyl for a few more seconds, and I'd be allowed a second guess. But I was rarely wrong the first time.

Neil would say nothing. As soon as I identified the song, he hung up.

I loved those calls.

Today, I have only one or two friends with whom I chat on the phone, but these are the rare exceptions. They are people I've known for a very long time and live outside the city. We usually call only to wish each other a happy birthday, and then we briefly catch up.

Today, if you live in town, be suspicious if I call you up, merely to ask how you're doing.

There is one friend that I've known almost as long as Neil, and though we rarely talk on the phone anymore, she is the only person with whom I used to be able to stay on the line for hours.

In high school, Karen and I often would go for walks in the evening and talk. Or be quiet for long periods of time, where we'd just enjoy each other's company as we wandered our Parkwood Hills neighbourhood.

We never dated, though there was a period in which my parents were sure that Karen and I were fooling around. (It didn't help that on one of our walks, Karen had the need to remove an uncomfortable bra—she removed it from under her shirt and pulled it out one sleeve, but having no way to carry it, I offered to place it in my jacket pocket. She forgot about it at the end of her walk, as did I, and it wasn't until a few days later, when my younger sister borrowed my coat and found the bra, that I returned it to Karen.)

After our walks, I would see Karen to her door and would then head straight home, only to phone Karen and continue any conversations we had had on our walk. Sometimes, the phone would become quiet: one of us would leave the phone to go to the washroom or get ready for bed, and then return to the phone.

We were both fortunate to have a second land line in our houses. She had three sisters and I had two, and our parents knew the importance of keeping a line free for them to use.

I'd be ready for bed, tucked in, lights out. Karen and I would keep talking. Sometimes, we'd both be quiet for a while. Eventually, I could hear the slow, steady breathing of Karen, fast asleep. I would be tempted to hang up, but I knew that in doing so, she would eventually hear a dial tone and then a loud, alarming fast-busy tone. If the phone was still next to her ear, it would be a horrible way to be awakened.

So I would listen to Karen sleep, be calmed, and eventually drift to sleep, myself.

(Seriously, we've only ever been good friends.)

With anyone else, I want to keep the phone conversation short and to the point. If you want to just chat, I'm not your guy to call. Even if you're married to me.

Even at the risk of me, sounding like a jerk.