Chuseok, 2004

Ilsan Lake Park – Photo by Seok Hwan Jeong under Creative Commons

The platform was quiet after Will and I stepped off the train to transfer. We were far out in the suburbs of Seoul, where the metro lines run above ground, and the moon shone brightly in the sky like a pale lantern. I stood there in my t-shirt with my hoodie hanging over my shoulder, enjoying the cool air after a long, wet summer. Those were the first breaths of autumn air I had taken in Korea.

It was the day before Chuseok, a holiday celebrating the harvest, and Will had generously invited me to spend it with his family. He was my roommate at the international dormitory where I was staying. A Southern Californian who had come to Korea to reconnect with his own language and culture, it would be a rare occasion for him as well.

Will’s uncle picked us up near the end of the line in Incheon. He was eminently friendly but had a tired look about him — above his buoyant smile, his eyes and cheeks looked heavy. Will called him halaboji, “grandfather,” because he was more that kind of figure. Together, we ate a simple meal of rice, soup and saengson-jeon (egg-battered fish) in anticipation of the feast we would have the next day. Then we went for a few turns in a nearby park. Night had fully fallen, but as was so often the case after dark in Korea, the place was alive with people.

Early the next morning we carved a wide route around Seoul on the sunny highway. The road was empty; everyone else who was traveling for the holiday had likely already arrived where they intended to be. Will’s family were gathering at one their relative’s homes in Ilsan, just northwest of the capital. There were about a dozen people across several generations, and all of them welcomed us warmly.

Inside the apartment there was a large folding screen and low tables upon which carefully sliced fruit and other offerings were stacked. Pictures of family members who had passed were set up on the table as well. I would come to learn that on almost all holidays, Koreans take time to honor their elders, both living and dead.

Will’s family was Catholic and so this ceremony, I was told, was somewhat non-traditional: we sang hymns before bowing deeply, foreheads touching the floor, and wordlessly paying tribute. Then the family did something I did not expect. In silence, all of us shuffled out of the room, and shut the door. “This is when their spirits eat,” one of Will’s aunts said to me in a near whisper out in the hallway.

About a minute or so passed before we re-entered the apartment and began to feast for ourselves. I suspended my disbelief and wondered whether the food had been in any part altered by the presence of spirits. Perhaps an apple slice would have a nibble taken out of it, a shot glass of soju would be half-full?

It was barely 10 o’clock but the spread was huge — fish, kalbi, bulgogi, side dishes of every variety. One of Will’s younger cousins twisted open a 2 liter bottle of beer and began to pass glasses around. By noon, Will and I began to insist we could eat no more. “But that’s only the first round!” one of his aunts said, laughing cheerfully.

Before attempting more over-nourishment, we all piled into a couple cars and drove to Lake Park, a large, man-made recreational space in the middle of Ilsan. Will, his cousins and I rented bikes and pedaled through the crisp air. I felt my heart beat faster, shaking off the laziness of the morning. We cruised and laughed, racing against each other only half seriously.

It’s been eight years since that first Chuseok, and I have never seen any of Will’s relatives since. Will and I, once on opposite sides of a 200 square foot room, now live on opposite coasts. But on that slow and simple autumn day, we all shared a few moments that I will carry for years still.

Chuseok (추석) was Sunday. Read more about the holiday at Wikipedia.

A Smooth Ride, Straight Into Night

Eleventh Street, NW

1.

The metrorail conductor’s voice sounded like it should have been on the radio. Late night radio. It was smooth like smoke; it purred and crackled. The conductor spoke slowly, and made his announcements with a playful formality. In front of the station names he added a definite article, even when one was not called for — as if the stop were someplace famous, someplace everybody knew and had longed to arrive at. “Customers, welcome aboard the Yellow Line train,” he said, as we pulled away from the platform. “The next stop is, The Gallery Place, Chinatown.” You could almost hear him smiling over the hiss of the P.A. The conductor was an entertainer.

It was morning and I was anxious about the day ahead, but the conductor’s voice calmed my nerves. I swear it sounded like he should have been playing Wes Montgomery or Charlie Mingus over that P.A. system. It made me smile, too. We left the L’Enfant Plaza stop and rounded a gentle curve. You can always feel that curve, even though the tunnel is dark. It makes you lean just a little. The train emerged into bright sunlight. “Customers, the next stop is The Pentagon, the first stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the conductor said, in that soft, low voice. I looked out at the Potomac and saw the breeze churning up the water. The silver buildings of Rosslyn glimmered on the far side of the river.

At The Pentagon stop, he made another announcement. “This is the Yellow Line train to Huntington.” His voiced lifted at the “–ton”. Cheerfully, smoothly. “Also stopping at The Crystal City, and The Washington-Reagan National Airport.”

The train swayed as it left the platform, and later, as the doors slid open I almost forgot to get off at my stop. I wanted to ride it until we reached the terminal. I wanted to meet the conductor, ask him if he’s ever been on the radio, tell him he should be. I’d never been to Huntington.

2.

I walked from the bar and picked up the cab outside the hotel, where I always do. It’s impossible to find a cab anywhere else in that part of Virginia. But next to the hotel there is always a huddle of drivers, standing outside next to their cabs, smoking cigarettes and passing the time. They laugh and joke a lot. The drivers are all men, and they are all from Ethiopia.

I came up to the group and asked if one of them could take me into D.C. They all nodded at the one whose car was in the front of the line. There is a system, a code of the cab-drivers, and it should never be violated. One of the rules is that a cabbie will never get ahead of the line. Even if a customer approaches his cab first, the cab driver will shake his head and point you to the person at the front. That way he knows that when he is at the front of the line, he can count on getting the next fare. Cabbie karma. Capitalism of the common interest.

My driver was a slender, handsome man. Sitting in the back seat, I saw only his profile, but he had a lean, narrow face and spoke in low, gentle tones, not altogether unlike the metrorail conductor. We exchanged questions about each other’s days, and then I asked how long he’s been a driver. It was his second week.

“How do you like it?” I asked. It’s a question I’d often put to cab drivers.

“It’s alright. There’s money in it, if you’re willing to put in the hours.”

I told him I’ve heard other drivers say they sometimes drive fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours just to make enough to be able to pay the daily rent for the cab and turn a small profit. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s too much on your body. I think 10 hours is the most I could do.”

He told me he also has a day-job, managing transportation at a hotel. “But before that I used to work at IBM, doing IT.” His voice sunk lower, and there was a long pause during which neither of us spoke. “Then I got laid off.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s alright. My wife was really happy.”

I thought I misheard him. “Was, or wasn’t?”

“She was. I used to work really big accounts, Visa, Citibank. Something would go wrong and they would call me at any time of day or night — midnight, whatever. And I would have to go and fix it. The crazy thing was, our child was 6 months old, and we had just bought a condo. And then I got laid off and my wife was happy! She said, ‘God will give you something better.'”

He laughed. “Can you believe that?”

He seemed happy, too. We drove into a tunnel, into the wash of orange streetlights, and emerged at the intersection with Constitution Avenue. I asked the cab driver where he was from, though I already had an idea.

“Ethiopia,” he said.

Ndemeneh,” I said. “Or should I say, Ndemenot?”

“No, ndemenot is only for people much older than yourself, a sign of respect.”

“I see.”

“Where did you learn Amharic?”

“From other cab drivers. I only know a few words,” I said, and rattled them off — Hello (to a male), Hello (to a female), Hello (to an elder) and Thank You.

“It’s good!” he said. “If you keep practicing, your Amharic might be better than some of the Ethiopians I know who’ve lived in the States a long time.”

We talked about family, about how it’s nice to have the people you love nearby. He had family here, in D.C., and up in Canada. Many of the other cabbies I’ve talked to are here alone, I said, with all of their family back in Addis Ababa. All the while we rode up Twelfth Street. Heading north, it’s like climbing a wave, slow undulations building and building until you reach the apex, or are stopped by a red night. The inertia you build when you hit a succession of green lights feels unstoppable.

But finally it stopped, and I got out of the cab, stepping into the humid night. “Thank you,” I said, “it’s good talking to you.”

“You too,” he said. And he wheeled off around the corner, probably all the way back to the hotel.

Frisbee Days

Puget Sound

It was a clear afternoon in early summer when we all gathered at the field. There were around six of us, close friends who shared a long history. By then we had become our own people. When there was free time, and there was a lot of it back then, we sought open spaces. The field was just at the top of a hillside that sloped steeply down to the edge of Puget Sound, and you could hear the waves, just faintly, from the sunny grass.

Frisbee was something Eric had taught me. I say taught and you may laugh but it takes more than you would think in coordination to throw a frisbee. We had been at the beach then, too, or near to it. Eric’s father had taken us camping and one afternoon near the camp site Eric settled that I would learn how to throw a frisbee. It was all in the wrist, and with none of the wild movements that my gangly arms wanted to make. The frisbee was red and made of thick plastic. I battered my fingertips more than once trying to catch it.

At the field, we played Ultimate Frisbee — like American football for Americans who don’t play football. You couldn’t run with the frisbee in your hand. If you had it in possession, you had to wing it, skillfully, bending its course, to your teammate without it being intercepted. If you could jump then you had a real advantage, but none of us could really get any kind of height. I would try and leap sometimes and my feet came just barely off the ground but sometimes with my gangly arms I could snag the frisbee anyway.

We played in our bare feet and rolled-up jeans. When I started to sweat I could feel the pollen from the grass attach to my ankles and shins and make them itch. We would run and throw and barely jump until we were tired, and then we would take a smoke break, lying in the grass and facing a big wide sky. Sometimes I would look at that sky then and feel like I could see through the blue to the limits of the atmosphere. Then we hopped up and ran around the field again.

“Over here!”

“I’m open!”

Throwing the frisbee with everyone guarding you was the hardest part. Especially if Bryce was guarding you. He was tall and big and a soccer goalie, skilled at knocking things down mid-flight. Eric had developed an almost gymnastic move to try and get out of such situations. He would face one direction with the frisbee in hand and then do a somersault, releasing the frisbee mid-turn so it went the other way. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did. If someone else on his team was prepared for it.

I don’t remember what we did that day when we were done playing frisbee. We might have taken the steps back down to the beach, if you can call it that. It was a rocky shore slammed by the tide more often than not. There was a big rock wall there and when you sat atop the boulders in the sunshine they were warm, and we would often sit there. But that day we might have just gotten in our cars and drove somewhere else. I don’t know where we thought we were going. I wish we hadn’t gone off so fast.

Aimless

The way I ride.

A couple Sundays ago, I did something that I have not done in a long time: I went outside, got on my bike and pedaled off with no particular destination in mind. I cruised at first, rolling easily along flat D.C. streets, legs moving in even cadence. Then I started pushing. I climbed a hill, wound through a bustling section of the Northwest corridor, and peeled off over into the greenery of an area called Mount Pleasant — and aptly so. If not for the closeness of the brick homes, sitting shoulder to shoulder, I could have sworn in that moment I was in another place entirely; perhaps somewhere in Minnesota, or Wisconsin. Folks mowed their lawns (lawns!) and sat out on their porches, reading or having a drink. There was an easiness that was uncharacteristic of Washington. I soaked in the scenery for a moment and continued, gliding like a skim-boarder atop a long stretch of seawater, rolling like a wave, bombing, dodging, cutting from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Free. And with nowhere to go.

Aimlessness is something at which I was once a master. Any good suburban boy should be if he’s going to survive the drudgery, the blandness of his upbringings. Back then my vehicle was…well, a vehicle. My first car was a ’91 Honda Civic hatchback with no power steering. Turning the damn thing, especially at slow speeds, took so much elbow grease that you almost needed two people to wheel it through the mall parking lot. But it took me where I needed to go, and mostly where I needed to go was away, afar, wherever. Often, I ended up at an empty beach, those fine spaces of the Washington state variety: tree-lined, rocky, chilly, empty. I would walk out on the smooth rocks and spongy sand when the tide had receded  and listen to the lapping of the water. And I could  light a cigarette without having to worry about being seen by someone I knew, or (worse still) someone who knew my parents.

My aimlessness evolved when I first traveled, when I made my trans-Pacific leap to South Korea. Those who have read this blog and its predecessors know that I mention this event often — perhaps more than any of you would care to read about. But it was an undeniably impactful moment. And for a college-age kid to be unleashed in a foreign city, armed with a knowledge of the local grammar and generously refilled ATM card, was to know the bounds of aimlessness on a new level. On an empty weekend (or a school-filled weekday for that matter), I and a cast of dormitory cohorts could catch a bus across Seoul, climb a mountain, find a new favorite barbecue joint, jazz joint, a place to turn the night fuzzy with soju. Ever the only child with a need for alone time, I might strike out on my own, out of town, or just to a subway stop I had never emerged from. Once I did this and then, using the Han River to set my bearings, tested the limits of my sense of direction by wandering the streets until I’d found my way back to campus. I suppose it wasn’t aimlessness per se — but my true aim, more than anything else, was to be lost, to be steeped in the unfamiliar.

My habits shifted again when I returned to the United States and moved to Madison, Wis. There, I become obsessed with bicycles, and every outing presented the potential to cut loose. I could fly around the lake on the way to the grocery store, or just ride, and ride, and ride, out into bucolic countryside or through the quiet veins of the capital’s neighborhoods, until someone called and I had somewhere to be. It was one of my favorite ways to pass the time.

I never lost the urge to be aimless, but for some reason, in the past year and a half or so, I stopped making the time. I started scheduling, making sure every task was purpose-bound — regardless of whether the purpose was worthwhile or not. I became a compulsive organizer, a re-shuffler books, papers, kitchenwares, all in a war against entropy. It filled the minutes — hours even — but not in a way that produced an outcome on any level. And so I’m trying to break from this, to either focus, or be purposefully un-focused. Projects like blogging, writing, or any real form of expression reflect an outpouring of creativity, of effort; they yield tangible work. Aimlessness is the way we fill ourselves back up so that we can create again.

Resume (May in D.C.)

Meridian Hill Park in winter

Call it a sign of the scattered and rushed times we live in. There is an entire blog devoted solely to documenting the failures and ensuing apologies of other bloggers — those who have returned to their keyboard, hat in hand to their readers, following a long absence. It’s titled, fittingly, Sorry I Haven’t PostedIt’s been since January since I tapped out anything here on Road Notes, and so I suppose I could count myself among these bloggers’ ranks. But at this point the apology is probably unnecessary. Judging by the readership stats, it would likely just echo out into the emptiness of cyberspace.

Things have been warming up here in the District; as I wrote in my last post, however, the weather never really cooled after the glow of autumn. Still, it’s been nice to have consistently summer-like weather lately. People don shorts and flip-flops, the sidewalk cafes are set out, and the pace of day-to-day life somehow seems slower — if only just because the hours of daylight are longer.

Today I took a jog (my first in too long) up to Meridian Hill Park. It’s what I would call D.C.’s answer to New York’s Central Park, with the major caveat that it is smaller and more humble by several orders of magnitude. But at least it is my central beacon in this city. During the winter, skateboarders would ride the curves of its empty fountain, and on morning runs the fingers of bare trees would seem to reach above the dawn horizon, unrivaled by the stories of surrounding buildings, simply because of the hill’s vantage point.

Now the trees have become lush again: draped in greenery, they form a canopy enclosing a space that feels worlds away from all that “Washington” has come to mean to the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world. There was a line of men sitting on a bench rapping on bongo drums, assisted by spurts of melody from a saxophonist, who stood on one end. Young men and women without shoes on — on either side of the park — tried their best to balance along tight-ropes they had set up between trees. And a few souls laid out on the grass in solitude, accompanied only by the pages of the paperbacks they held.

I think of spring as the time when I first discovered D.C. Though J and I actually moved here in January of last year, during a comparatively bitter winter, it wasn’t until the leaves came out that I began taking runs through the neighborhoods, finding the surprising quiet between the rows of brick townhomes. In the fall of 2010 I wrote about finding a halcyon moment during a stroll through a small town in rural Wisconsin, where my wife is from. In D.C., I have found the joy in taking runs around town. I never wear headphones, so that I can hear the sparse signs of nature (but mostly the sirens), and I often am spurred to break off of the route I have drawn.

As could be said of many capitals, in the District, there are two cities: the one of Capitol Hill, the monuments, the White House, and K Street; and the one of low-slung neighborhoods, where folks of all types mingle, whether they are building careers, building families, both, or just passing on through. And when I run, I transverse these worlds, throttling my speed up and down commensurate with how familiar or unfamiliar the neighborhood is — and how winded I am.

As I settle into spring again, I resume this curiosity. The city (both of them) seems to open up and I let my legs carry me. And I tell myself that I’ll do a better job of remembering what I see, so that I can bring it back, and write it down here.

The Abandoned Forest

They lie on the sidewalk, cold and naked. Who knows what rural burg they were taken from; almost certainly they were more beautiful then. But that was before they were cut down and dragged to the city — dispersed, separated from kin, transformed into refugees, and propped up for the delight of others. And then the families that embraced them simply put them out into the cold and the dark. With bare limbs, they wilt and rot by the roadside, slowly fading into sicklier shades until by some mercy a municipal worker brings around the wood chipper, and shoves them in.

It’s a strange sight this time of year, these little patches of discarded forest. Some have been flocked in gold while others are humble, small and sad. They are all dying — needles turning brown and sloughing off. Yet they once brought so much joy and warm sentiment. Is this the Western equivalent of the Tibetan sand mandala: to dress a pine tree in a tangle of lights and ornaments, stuff its undercarriage with gifts delicately wrapped in paper that will be torn to shreds, and then pick it apart again and toss the whole thing out with the trash?

The imagery seems all the weirder here in the District of Columbia, in this seething, sinking swamp. All around it looks like a Lilliputian lumberjack went to town on a pine forest no one knew the city had, leaving his bounty by the stoop. And with temperatures this January that would sooner be fit for Southern California, it’s easy to forget that we even just had Christmas. But the evidence is all down the block, a littering of holiday spirit, now as lifeless as dried sap.

Our tree never was alive. It never felt the breeze winnow through its branches, the cleansing force of a soaking rain, or the freshness of the morning dew. But it never felt the pain of  being sawed from its roots either. It never grew. Like an android, it was made by man — pieced together in some Chinese boomtown like Shenzen by people who are probably now scrambling aboard a train to get home for the Lunar New Year. While it stood in our apartment, I noticed an ornament that I didn’t remember either my wife or I picking out: a paper triangle with a “B” on it. It was the product tag. It’s still on there, with the tree that now sleeps beneath our bed.

Life, Mediated

For someone who spent his high school years tinkering with the Visual Basic programming language and the inner-workings of Linux, I have approached technology in recent years with a surprising amount of unease. I am not on Facebook, for example. While I own a smartphone, it took me a good long while before I really integrated it into my life — joining the engrossed masses who put themselves in danger daily of running into a light pole. My record on twitter has been spotty. One or two tweets a day is about the most I can muster, and I’ve been known to leave the conversation for weeks.

I’m not sure when I developed this reluctance to embrace the new era of digital connectedness. It started growing as a just a vague sense, I think, during my years in Wisconsin — not as a repulsive force, but rather out of my being drawn the opposite direction. I spent a lot of time riding my bike out in the fresh air, reading paper books and paper newspapers, and spending time in coffee shops with friends. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was able to articulate this notion, or rather, found it so clearly articulated by someone else. The travel writer Pico Iyer, in a column, described his life in Japan as unfettered by mobile phone calls or high-speed Internet, and instead filled with rambling walks and afternoons spent writing letters longhand.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

This resonated with me. At the time, I was spending six days a week locked in front of a computer screen editing copy for a newswire. Meanwhile, what I longed to do was to travel, and immerse myself in the journey such that my sense of place would not be fractured by an impulse to share each step with a global Internet community, or by allowing the noise in. I mulled the idea of quitting all social media to embrace a purer life with just a notebook and pen. (OK, and email, too.)

I didn’t, of course. Maybe it was just addiction, but I would like to think it was because I was tempering this impulse with a measure of reality — something I think is missing from Iyer’s essay. Severing ties draws us inward and makes us less “of the world,” to borrow a friend’s phrasing. There probably isn’t much value in tweeting every thought that flits into our heads, or in poking  people and scribbling on their walls (or whatever it is people do on Facebook). But there is also certainly something valuable about being able to partake in the wider discussion, and connect with views and perspectives around the globe.

The counterpoint to this, and perhaps the other extreme that Iyer would warn against, was described in an article in this Sunday’s Times by William Deresiewiscz called “Generation Sell.” While I would disagree with a lot of the finer arguments he makes, I think the author is spot-on in saying that many in my generation use social media to brand themselves, and carefully craft their outward message. I’m guilty of this myself — I think anyone who has been a freelance writer is. But the pressure to feed our own personal PR machines carries a real danger. It not only fractures our experiences by taking up considerable time and attention, it impinges our ability to really observe.

The key then is to strike a balance in this new world, somewhere between reclusive asceticism and full-out salesmanship, that allows us to communicate in a meaningful way while still being present. It’s not easy, but it’s something to work toward.