By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2014. All rights reserved.
Funny how the reading of an old book one has read before several times will bring to the surface and depth of the mind of the present moment a cascade of thoughts. Some thoughts are focused closely on the content of the book read, while others only tangentially linked flow through my mind with rapidity like water flowing steeply down the mountain stream at Chrisan, Chiri Mountain, loosely connected to the book at hand they are, but no less poignant or instructive of life¡¯s lessons learned from the text and the memories from my past brought to the mind¡¯s eye by the text. These other thoughts not directly related to the book read nonetheless rise and float to the surface of my mind, speaking to me in the shape of images and forms from my past, as if to say in the way of instruction, we are here to make you think, ponder, reflect, remember, and feel. Feel, feel your memories of happiness and regret, memories of a painful guilt, and of a remorse still haunting me after the elapse of twenty-five years or more. Invariably I see in my mind those former loves of a youth now gone but not forgotten, the manner in which I treated and mistreated them and how I eventually lost them or chased them away from me; the biting regret even now still lingering while I recall my essential foolishness and immaturity, my unwillingness to be loved as dearly as they wanted to love me, my fear of the future which prevented me from moving towards permanence. Instead of grasping with gratitude the gifts they selflessly offered to me, I was impelled by selfishness towards an independence which I can clearly now see was nothing more than a chimera.
The numerous images and forms, the memories unified thematically in their shape, the form of a remorse which is my guilt speaking to me through the medium of moving pictures in the mind, scenes from my past flowing through my conscience like water from a faucet, so fast, so frequent, so steady, so cold. Yet thankfully in the same moment there are life¡¯s lessons learned the hard way through experience, through disappointment and failure, through failure and divergence from the happy unity of souls only love can provide one like me ever searching for a solid ground to stand upon. Together with the guilt and remorse I see reasons to persevere in my present life with my family in spite of all the disagreements and petty misunderstandings which, with more wisdom to my credit than I had in the impetuosity of my youth, I can now safely view in proper perspective and see as a small price to pay so long as I can preserve the happy felicity of my current family life.
In another story I wrote of my phantom teacher memory, and the manner in which I felt propelled through the world by a series of victories and defeats, each one pushing me forward or pulling me backwards through life until, finally, I reach my present state of thankful gratitude and understanding. With hindsight I see just how important and crucial was the influence of my chosen loves and companions, all of whom helped me to develop into the present man of maturity and character that I hope and strive to be.
As I am a frequent and self-disciplined reader, I have travelled through the chain of memories, images, and forms, following the lead of my phantom teacher too many times to count. The last book I read before writing this current story was, as is often the case with my selected works, a classic work of political philosophy which I have read several times before. Of the many important lessons about how to read as a serious reader I learned in my early twenties when I was a graduate student at The University of Chicago, one was that when we encounter a work from the Western Canon or some other important collection of classic texts from another culture, we must read these works multiple times in our lives, returning to the old books we have read several, perhaps even numerous times before in order to understand each work completely and fully, discovering some new wisdom with each fresh read. Fortunately my current position as an Assistant Professor of English at a university in South Korea, while unlikely to make me a wealthy man in a material sense of the word wealthy, nonetheless provides me with more than ample time to search and strive towards a wealth of wisdom and knowledge, time to wipe the dust off the covers of the old books and read them once again with an eagerness and hunger for knowledge. What, with less than fourteen class hours a week required of me, and almost four months of paid vacation, I have ample time to devote to my scholarly and literary pursuits.
Why I chose to read again the First and Second Discourses of Jean Jacques Rousseau will be readily apparent to anyone who has read these works and who fully comprehends with sympathy what I am trying to accomplish with my writing. In the way of metacognition and self-aware reflection I write now that I am making a concerted effort to steer away from the ¡°hard boiled¡± or ¡°journalistic¡± style of Earnest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, and the style of their countless imitators, many whom are graduates of the top MFA programs and who have been indoctrinated to embrace the mantras of literary minimalism. The minimalists and chiselers who chisel away all the beauty and eloquence, who have introduced into American literature the group think conventions so central to the purpose and vision of the MFA programs like The University of Iowa Workshop, consistently repeat the same directives as if there is now only one way left for us to employ our writing, their way, the Iowa way. ¡°Less is more¡± they tell us. ¡°Show me, don¡¯t tell me¡± they admonish. ¡°Fewer adjectives and adverbs. More simple action words. Fewer long sentences strung together with multiple phrases linked by an excess of commas and semicolons.¡± This is their advice which I consciously and purposely reject and rebel against. Instead I maintain my fidelity to an older tradition, to a time when, like Rousseau, writers found it perfectly acceptable and even perfectly expected to strive for eloquence and sophistication in writing, to pursue in the romantic tradition an erudite sophistication in an era which preceded the precision and sparseness of the modern journalistic school of literature. With a condescending indifference to the prevailing writing zeitgeist, I purposefully and haughtily, and also proudly and unapologetically refuse to dumb down my writing. I will tell as well as show, in the conviction that more is more rather than less is more, and so my readers must prepare themselves for long sentences with ample adjectives and adverbs strung together and forever linked by innumerable commas and semicolons.
It is not that I do not see the literary merit of the Iowa approach to writing, a great fan as I am of both Hemingway and Anderson, and always open to the claims to literary merit of the moderns. In fact it was my reading as an undergraduate of Anderson¡¯s Winesberg Ohio, which first convinced me that I too could and would write. However, I long ago concluded that their style was not for me, in spite of the fact that, less is more, is as ubiquitous a command in modern literature as it is in modern architecture. Just think of the countless cities around the wide world filled to the brink with those omnipresent glass and steel high rise boxes which are an imitation of the so called ¡°international style¡± made so popular in Chicago by the great German turned Chicagoan architect from the Bauhaus school of design, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The parallels between modern architecture and modern literature are unmistakable, as both fields have fully embraced ¡°less is more¡± and ¡°let form meet function.¡±
My own writing is consciously and conscientiously an open rebellion against the minimalism of our modern age, an age in which, in addition to the influence of the MFA workshops following the lead of Iowa, we must also contend with the minimalistic reality of Facebook, Twitter, and flash fiction. As a friend of mine who viewed my literary objectives and purpose with sympathy and understanding once advised me, ¡°The eleventh commandment is, Thou Shalt Not Tweet.¡± And so I chose Rousseau of the romantic tradition to read and hopefully inspire me to write with the perhaps unrealistic, yet still genuine and honest, intention of making an important contribution, as a man of letters, to literature. With Rousseau¡¯s message of a return to the understanding of natural beauty and the beauty of nature as an inspiration to me for my next, which is to say the same as this present story, I trudge onwards towards my goal, which I at least, if even I alone, contend is the most worthy of goals.
What does a story look like in the mind¡¯s eye? I see, rather I should say, I feel the words racing through me as I race through them. I run from word to word and from image to image to which each word is connected and tied together. I hop, skip, and jump through a cascade of words and their related images and feelings, while I endeavor to present these visions of the mind¡¯s eye to my readers in a form they can understand. There is Rousseau, the champion of the primitive in man, the pre-social and the pre-political natural man, the noble savage whose life was more pure and carefree and happy than the life of humankind corrupted by the vices of civilization, progress, and inequality which comes hand in hand with the introduction of society into the world. True equality and nobility exist only in the natural state, before the invention of society, agriculture, civilization, urbanization, the corrupt and depraved life of the city and its precursors, the institution of the family and even language itself, which man in the state of nature had little need or use for. I jump and hop and skip from Rousseau¡¯s noble savage to the paintings of Paul Gauguin.
She mailed them to me one at a time, a collection of postcards of Gauguin¡¯s primitives, his paintings of the native women of French Polynesia while I was away for the summer at the YMCA camp in northern Michigan employed as a camp counselor. The job was not an easy one, with many of the kids coming from inner city Chicago or economically depressed suburbs like Harvey and Ford Heights. Maintaining discipline was a daily struggle, But, I persevered and managed to ensure that both I and the campers managed to have as much fun as possible. Every few days there was another postcard in the mail from my girlfriend who was spending the summer at school in Champaign-Urbana. She was the first Korean I had ever dated, and she made the difficult time at the camp move by faster with the postcards arriving almost daily, Gauguin¡¯s natives on the one side and her proclamations of love and fidelity on the other. The female counselors at the camp used to tease me when passing out the mail. ¡°Here is another one from your wife, Paul,¡± they used to say. ¡°I hope you will invite me to the wedding. She is so dedicated to you Paul; you really ought to give marriage a serious thought.¡±
Now as I write this after 24 years have elapsed since my time in Champaign-Urbana with Jen Nam, I am certain that my failure to marry her was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes in my life. I now realize she would have supported me through my period of difficulties in graduate school at The University of Chicago, and I think it not unrealistic to contend that, had I taken her as my wife, I would probably have that coveted Ph.D. which I lack today, instead of only the master¡¯s degree I took when I left the department after my period of difficulty there.
¡°Everything happens for a reason. Don¡¯t you believe you are my destiny the same way I believe I am yours?¡± asked my wife Suji after cross-examining me about my past and my past lovers, which for some reason was one of her favorite methods used to torture and harass me with a seemingly endless inquisition of questions which were difficult, if not impossible, for me to answer in a way that would satisfy her.
¡°Yes. You should have married Nam Jen,¡± Suji always tried to remind me. ¡°You were a fool not to marry her.¡±
These words trigger memories of all the times Jen Nam fed me, with tables full of delicious Asian food and the countless times she brought me my favorite chocolate chip cookies from the little bakery shop just off the quad in Urbana-Champaign.
¡°You were a fool to let her go Paul, a fine, intelligent, dedicated woman like Nam Jen. But still, luck favored you again, and you wound up here in Korea, which the shaman and fortune teller told me is your birth destiny. And fate gave you Park Eun Hee, who you called, Blue. She loved you with a pure heart and healed you from your pain, your twenty-something angst and indecision after you left the Ph.D. program at Chicago. She certainly was a gift for you, an angel sent from heaven to lift you out of your misery and self-indulgent depression. You do not know if you really perceived it or if it was just another one of your visions, but I remember how you told me you once believed you actually saw her adorned with the pure white wings of an angel.
¡°But,¡± my wife Suji continued, ¡°Again you were too foolish and self-absorbed to appreciate that you had once again found your perfect match, and after you forced her to leave you against her will and due to your sheer prideful stupidity, you were once again completely lost and foundering, so forlorn that your Western friends and co-workers at the Institute where you worked were afraid you might kill yourself.¡±
¡°Yes,¡± I conceded every time we had this conversation, one of her favorites, repeated over and over again in enumerable variations, to satisfy her boundless curiosity and engineer¡¯s need for analysis and understanding, a kind of scientific predisposition and compulsion to dissect, take apart piece by piece, and then reassemble all of the stories I have told her about my past. Existing in the same mind which also saw veracity in the proclamations of fortune tellers and shamen, the scientist in Suji provided her with a deep seated need to re-assemble in her own mind all of the disparate elements of my life, in particular my love life, in order to achieve some semblance of deeper understanding. ¡°Yes, I made a grave error and so lost the second love of my life. But fortunately I was struck by lightning three times in my life, and each lucky spark thrown down upon me by the God of the thunderbolt was a Korean lover who would somehow lift me out of my misery and show me how to live again in the face of all of my disappointments.¡±
Suji was that third bolt of lightning which electrified me and shook me out of my melancholy and languorous depression. She really and truthfully was like a bolt of lightning, electric with dynamism in personality, and cursed as she was, like many Koreans I have met are, with a very short fuse. There simply was no sufficient time left available for depression when we were constantly debating and discussing in earnest and vigor, leaving me always fearful that the short fuse would ignite and my Suji explode into a calamity of anger at the slightest provocation.
¡°Wash your hands,¡± she instructed me. ¡°Your hands are not clean. Clean your dirty hands and your unclean soul before you touch me.¡±
I complied with the order as I knew I must, following the command like a faithful servant, knowing only too well that an emotional explosion could happen at any moment should I make even the most unintentional error.
¡°Now, dry them with a towel,¡± she commanded while watching me over my shoulder.
Again I did my best to comply with the request. I made the mistake of using the wrong towel to dry my hands.
¡°No. No. No. You dirty man. Don¡¯t use that towel. That towel smells like mold.¡±
She grabbed the wrong towel from my hands and shoved it under my nose so I could smell the mold, but the towel did not smell moldy to me. Nonetheless, I bit my tongue and remained silent.
¡°You must wash your hands again,¡± she commanded.
I did my best to comply, knowing full well that this ritual, repeated countless times before and presumed to take place endlessly again and again in the future, was all that just at that moment prevented Suji from exploding into a frightening combustion of emotions. I washed my hands again, but this time I dried them with a clean paper towel so as not to make the same mistake I had made previously by choosing the wrong bath towel. I finished drying my hands and threw the wet paper towel away in the trash can while she watched me with the eyes of a hawk. She muttered something in Korean angrily under her breath and then, with real concern and emotion addressed me in English.
¡°Now you have touched the garbage can with your hands, so once again they are dirty and need to be washed again. Your hands are dirty like your soul is dirty with impure and unchaste thoughts and longings. You must wash your hands again and you must not make another mistake this time.¡±
Fearful of her erupting with impatience, I washed my hands again. I dried them again, this time with the right bath towel, a clean one. I hung the towel back on the rack just right so it would dry clean and not moldy.
¡°Is that satisfactory, my Queen?¡± I asked.
¡°Yes my husband. Finally you got it right. Now come and hug me and try not to be such a dirty man, like a caveman. You are dirty and full of dirty thoughts about dirty women like the dirty women you write about in your beloved dirty stories. Why can¡¯t you ever write about nice girls for a change? Write about pure hearted, virtuous women like me instead of all of your precious trash girls. And why are all of your stories so sad? Why don¡¯t you try to make your readers laugh? Why do you use so many big words? You should use simple words that ordinary people can understand, and you should try to make everybody laugh like you always make me laugh.¡±
Thus proceeded our ritualized dance of words and opinions which was both confrontational and empathetic. Her complaints and requests followed by my protestations of innocence always had us talking circles around one another. Despite the disagreements, we were deeply in love, and I had realized that the third time the thunder God had sent me his final thunderbolt in the form of my Suji, my little spark plug. I had finally grown wise enough to comprehend that she was another gift I had been blessed to receive by fate, and so we have remained married in spite of our differences for over fourteen years.
Unfortunately there are some difficulties which refuse to grant us complete peace, a kind of clash of cultures or culture shock that never seems to desert us. Back in Chicago, before we had decided to return to South Korea and give this country another try in an attempt to assuage Suji and redress the pain of her separation from her family who she loved so dearly, there were certain issues which, just like the obsessive compulsive hand washing regimen, had us at odds in a manner that now seems funny to me, but which was deadly serious for Suji.
My father, while he was still alive, upon the purchase of our full gut rehabbed condo in the gentrifying Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, was kind enough and generous enough to purchase for us a nice house warming gift. It was a new Kenmore stackable clothes washer and dryer, purchased from Sears. The dryer was especially prized by Suji, since in South Korea most families have only a washer but no dryer to accompany it. Instead of using a dryer, they hang their wet clothing on a drying rack which they usually keep on the back porch of their apartments. So Suji was pleased to have the new dryer, but she also caused me some grief with more of her obsessive compulsive tendencies, this time directed towards the proper manner in which to care for socks. The endlessly repeated point of contention was a direct result of Suji, as a Korean through and through, having a tendency to view the floor of our condo as contaminated by all manner of dangerous germs and uncleanliness, almost to the point where she viewed the refurbished, and I thought, beautiful, shiny and gleaming hardwood floor of our condominium to be unholy.
¡°Take the clean clothes out of the dryer and help me fold them,¡± Suji requested.
I complied with the request, but as usual was not up to snuff with the folding while also failing to realize just how contaminated the hardwood floor was.
¡°Look what you just did,¡± she lamented. ¡°You dropped some socks on the floor. Pick them up and put them back in the washer. Now they are filthy and we must wash them again.¡±
Even though I knew it was unwise to disagree, I still had not learned my lesson and stood on the borderline between life and death itself when I tried to challenge her beliefs about how and why contact with the floor left the socks contaminated.
¡°We just washed and dried these socks. They are perfectly clean. Why can¡¯t I just fold these and put them in the sock drawer?¡±
¡°You dirty man. You expect me to do all the housework like a Chosun Dynasty man because you cannot do it right yourself. The floor is filthy with germs and disease. Do you want me or you, or heaven forbid, even our darling son to get sick from wearing contaminated socks? Take those dirty socks and put them back in the washing machine. Why did I marry such a dirty dirty man, a man who would wear dirty clothes to match his dirty habits and unclean mind all full of his filthy stories about his ever so precious trash girls? Why can¡¯t you be clean like a good Korean, and why can¡¯t you write a clean story about nice girls, and then give them a happy ending? Do I have to do all of the work around here myself? Chosun Dynasty man. Dirty man. Everything with you is trash trash trash.¡±
As I mentioned before, my Suji had a short fuse. Even though I knew I risked transforming her diatribe into a full-fledged explosion of hysteria should I push too hard my contention that the socks were not necessarily contaminated upon contact with the floor, I foolishly pursued the point.
¡°I do not understand,¡± I protested, but ever so softly and gently. ¡°Please be reasonable. If I wear the socks on my feet and walk on the floor all day long with the socks on my feet in constant contact with the floor, then that is perfectly acceptable according to you. However, if I take a clean pair of socks out of the dryer and then by accident I carelessly but unintentionally allow them to touch the floor, then the socks are hopelessly contaminated and I have to immediately wash them again, lest we all be faced with the possibility of the end of the universe.¡±
Suji looked at me, her face in a pouting frown, appearing as if she might start to cry just at that moment. Instead of crying she yelled with a kind of force and power which could only have emanated from the deepest of convictions and certitude that she was in the right and that I was a Chosen Dynasty man who knew nothing about proper housekeeping.
¡°If you refuse to do it my way,¡± she yelled, ¡°Then you do all of the laundry yourself. I will never do it for you again if you insist on doing it the wrong way every time. I do not know why I married such an animal as you with your animal stink. You always smell like sour milk and Swiss cheese you dirty man.¡±
She stomped off to the bedroom and I knew not to follow her as it was best in this circumstance to allow her to wallow in her misery for an hour or so during which time she would chastise herself for marrying such an imperfect man as me. We had been through this routine countless times before, the same disagreement and argument repeated over and over again in its seemingly endless permutations. I realized it was I who had to bend, to give in, to compromise, and make the first peace offering in order to move us away from disheartening conflict and towards peaceful mutual understanding. I had discovered the hard way that she could not and would not yield as readily as I could, and that if at least one of us was rational, the marriage could be salvaged. I was also convinced from the sheer force of her emotional turbulence that if both of us persisted steadfast in our conflicting views, there could be no happy future for us together.
During times like these when I was on the verge of giving up in sheer frustration my quest for mutual understanding, it helped immensely to recall the crucial advice given to me by one of my Korean-American co-workers at the highly selective and award winning selective enrollment magnet high school where I taught history and social science for over a decade before returning to South Korea for my third stint of teaching here. Ms. Jung and I were having lunch together in the faculty lunchroom; another version of SOS (shit on a shingle) which the Hispanic lunch ladies insisted was a chicken patty, a dubious claim at best.
¡°Mr. Robertson,¡± Ms. Jung said after I had shared with her some stories illustrating the seemingly insolvable series of disputes which kept my wife and I in a constant state of dispute. ¡°You have got to understand that you will never in your life win an argument with your Korean wife. Trust me because I speak from experience. I am one of them, a Korean wife. We Koreans hate to concede victory and accept defeat in any competition or contest. Your Suji will never provide you with the satisfaction of winning an argument with her. It simply cannot be done. Just listen to her carefully and attentively, and then in a calm voice say to her soothingly, ¡®Yes dear. Yes dear. Once again you are right and I am wrong. Once again you are wise like a sage while I am merely an ignorant fool.¡¯ Then, as if by magic, she will simmer down. This is the only way to win and maintain the affection and gratitude of a Korean wife like your Suji, with her troublesome short fuse.¡±
I do not believe I am overstating the matter when I say that this advice from my former colleague Ms. Jung was the best advice I have ever received concerning my marriage with a Korean woman. As soon as I started to heed this advice I witnessed an immediate transformation of our relationship. I gave in and compromised more readily, and she exhibited far less anger and vitriol. Now that we are back in her homeland again, we are both of us quite happy together. For Suji the proximity to her beloved sister and brother, nephews and nieces, is of the upmost importance. Both of her parents, as well as my own mother, were taken away from us by cancer while we lived in Chicago, so she is now making up for lost time when she was painfully far away from her relatives. Although I will not get rich in my present career of English professor in South Korea, I am overjoyed with the ample time I have to devote to my reading and writing which I am currently pursuing with renewed vigor and purpose. Our nine year-old son Joseph is doing well as a student in a Korean elementary school since he is bilingual in Korean and English. He already appears to have inherited from his parents the same innate ability and passion for study that we have tried to bestow upon him. Although not absolutely certain where the future will lead us, we will hope and pray that fate will favor us as it did when Suji and I were brought into each other¡¯s lives. Unfortunately we must also hope that those troublesome North Koreans will prove themselves to be possessed of at least enough reason and common sense to avoid another war with their brethren to the South. With my spark plug Suji it is all about the obsessive compulsive hand washing and the dirty floor. With the North Koreans it is all about the ballistic missile tests and the nuclear program. I can only hope that the leaders on both sides of the 38th parallel will find the wisdom to seek the same calm and peace in international affairs that my wife and I have found and worked hard to maintain in our affairs of the heart.