Monday, February 04, 2008

Any Given Sunday

I got into exactly one fistfight in high school, when I was a freshman. And then I didn't need to anymore.

On our school bus, the cool kids sat in the back. The losers sat in the front. The football team sat in the back; I sat in the front.

One day I got to the after-school bus late. All the seats up front were taken, but there was one on the border between cool-land and un-cool-land that wasn't taken. I scrambled into this seat, books spilling out of my backpack, out of breath, glasses askew, etc. I didn't realize that I had sat down next to one of the less friendly guys on the football team. I want to say that he was the quarterback, but I didn't care any more about the team then than I do now, so I really couldn't say.

Anyrate. Apparently, my presence offended this individual. He said, "You can't sit here, faggot," and shoved me to the ground. My glasses went one way. Books went the other. It had been a rainy day, so I landed ass-down in grimy, stale school bus water a half inch deep.

When I stood back up, the entire back of the bus was laughing, and the front of the bus had turned around to see what had happened. So everybody's eyes were on me when I punched the guy as hard as I could square in the nuts, and then when he doubled over in pain, I hit him again in the face. I may have been small, but I had been a swimmer my entire life, and I was made of whiplash and bone. I was fast. I was strong. But most of all, I was mean.

I ran off the bus sobbing. My parents had to come to pick me up from the principal's office, and they never made me ride the bus again. This event, therefore had several major consequences for my social life. First, I lost the kind of connection to the kids in my neighborhood that can only be cultivated by years of bus rides along the same daily routes. Second, I began to find every excuse I could to stay after school and thus have a plausible reason not to have to ride the bus -- band, debate, orchestra, French club, quiz bowl, etc. etc. etc. You could not find a bigger geek, or a less popular one. Third, I established the precedent in my high school that there were some nerds that you fucked with and some you left alone. Because there is nothing worse for your popularity than sporting a black eye at school and having to admit to everyone that some scrawny faggot gave it to you.

But most importantly. I have maintained a smoldering hatred of football for twenty years. I was thinking about this earlier today, when I realized that football was the only sport I've never come to terms with. I'd love to be able to say that I hated the brutality and inelegance of the game play. But my favorite part of hockey is the inevitable crazy melee out on the ice. I would love to say that it was the crass commercialization of professional football that I objected to, to which the Grecian ideal of noble manhood had been lost. But I was swept along with Red Sox mania just like everyone else when I was living in Boston during their first World Series victory.

But the truth is that my hatred is completely unreasonable. So I will thank you, please, if you let me ignore all the Superbowl hoopla in peace. I may not be as fast or as strong as I once was, but I am still mean. And, apparently, I am still mad.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The forecast

Freezing fog???

Where have I moved? Oh god.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Maybe me

The water has to be precisely the right temperature. Too hot, and it will kill the yeast. Too cold, and the yeast will never wake. I've mostly got the hang of it now, but once in a while I still screw up the proof, and I have to throw everything out and start all over again.


At the height of the summer, everything got strange. I started feeling a little sad. Or homesick. Or lonely, or something. I don't know. Everything feels different here, and I'm running out of ways to explain it. The sun seems closer, except when it feels further away. The most personal emotions feel distant and strange, except that sometimes they're right there in the skin.

Part of it was the enforced solitude. MV was gone for a residency in upstate New York, and after a whirlwind few months of merging kitchens and adjusting to one another's schedules, the sudden, silent sense of absence in the house weighed on me. Meanwhile, most of my friends in this town, all displaced northeasterners themselves, scattered themselves to the corners of the earth for the summer -- to Paris, to Houston, to Berlin.

But it was also the weather, this heavy-handed mugginess that struck you like a physical blow every time you stepped outside. It had me feeling nostalgic for some earlier time, but I could never quite figure out what it was I was remembering: the summer we spent itinerant in the airless dorms, floating from room to room with the unofficial blessing of the superintendant who thought we were cute; or the magnificent summer days before the storms in southern California, when all the humidity from the entire basin pooled at the foot of the San Gabriels and made the mountains disappear; or the summer vacations during my family's first few years in the States, when the summer Virginia sun burnt me into the tiniest brown smudge of a boy.


I add flour by the handful, scraping down the bowl and smoothing out the clumps until the mixture comes together into a dough. It feels dusty and dry until I start to knead it and some hidden reservoir of moisture wells to the surface. It sticks to my hands, my apron, my suddenly flourless cutting board.


This city is an odd place to be sad.

Wait, that's not fair. What I ought to say is that I'm not very good at dealing with being sad here, yet. In Pasadena, I would slip out of the apartment and drive around all night, until I found my way---inevitably---to Koreatown and its 24-hour soondubu joints, and I would watch the stupid club kids slurp down their soups and come down off of their highs. In Boston, I would venture out to the clubs (to Campus, to Avalon, to the sad, filthy Paradise) and dance up on a box until someone---anyone---saw me and told me I was beautiful.

I used to deal with loneliness by wrapping myself in the crowd where, if I was lonely, at least we were all lonely together. But for all its trappings of a cosmopolitan life, this is ultimately a cow town, and crowds are the one thing this new city won't ever offer me.


Risen, the dough looks like some kind of primordial alien life form. It sighs when I punch it down, it struggles as try to I roll it out. I pinch closed the places where it has torn and try to smooth down the scars as best I can. But in the oven, these will emerge as flaws in the crust that show the clumsy touch of an unskilled hand.


There's this phrase that I've been using for a few years now. My friends and I developed it as sort of a bitchy little sotto voce we'd mutter to one another whenever we heard somebody whining about how their coworkers were out to get them or how all the fags in town were so unfriendly or how all their friends were so unsupportive during their breakup/job search/pet surgery.

We would listen attentively, nod supportingly, and whisper to one another after the fact, "Hm. Maybe it's you."

Sure it's possible that your entire office is conspiring against you to deny you your promotion, or that all of the fifty thousand gay men in metro Boston are sociopaths, or even that every single one of your inconsiderate friends has abandoned you/your cat in your/your cat's greatest hour of need. But maybe it's you, and you need to consider the possibility that, actually, you're the asshole here, and that all the bad karmic juju you've sent out into the universe is now coming back to you in spades.

It's amazing how often you can use this analysis in your day-to-day interaction with the world. After years of observing the world with this jaundiced, critical eye, I have come to accept that, honey, it's always you, and as a corollary, that sometimes it's also me.

The midwest is filled with millions of people who love to live in the midwest. This city in particular is named year after year as one of the best places to live in America. If I am finding it difficult to be happy here, there are two logical possibilities: either everyone else is wrong and completely misguided in their assessment, or I am.

Occam's razor suggests the latter.


I am an inexperienced baker, so the process of converting flour and yeast into bread still has the tang of magic to it. I understand the mechanics of the stand mixer; I understand the purpose of the yeast and the salt; I even understand the science that describes how gluten emerges to structure the dough under the kneading hand. But the oven is still a mystery. In goes a pallid mass of gloppy, wheezing, sickly protomatter, and out comes crust, crumb, flavor, nourishment, home, the body of Christ, American pie, wholesome family values, and, miraculously, bread.


We are shaped by the places we call home. I think we can all agree on this. It explains how George Bush's nasal Kennebunkport squawk matured into a Texas twang, and how Britney Spears, even at the height of her career, could never quite affect glamour.

I am coming to accept that one cannot be happy in the midwest until one becomes a midwesterner. So the trick will be figuring out what that entails and how much California will be left in me when this is all over.

I am trying to take pleasure in the kinds of things I think midwesterners should take pleasure in. The farmer's market is responding to the Fall with an amazing diversity of bright-colored squashes and root vegetables, and I find this beautiful. I run into a neighbor at the symphony and introduce her to my coworker who happens to be there with the woman I buy my coffee from, and this, too, I find beautiful. At one point last week I had a whole three-minute conversation about the Green Bay Packers, which required every bit of knowledge I had squirreled away in my brain about the game of football, and one day, I swear to god this is true, I will understand how this, too, must also be beautiful.

In the meantime, there are good days and bad. The ratio between the two is going to be up to me.


This third batch of focaccia is our best so far. The crust is golden and crisp in just a few places, the crumb is tender and flavorful, and the drizzle of olive oil over the top smells deeply of fresh crushed rosemary. MV and I make sandwiches for dinner -- a layer of our own pesto, slices of whatever tomatoes we picked up at the farmers market this morning, and a few leaves of basil from the garden out back. It doesn't matter that we're halfway into fall. In here, our house feels like summer.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic

Hm. I guess I've just never thought of Charles Simic as "a surrealist with a dark view." There's a kind of hollow loneliness expressed in a lot of his writing, I suppose, but his wintery dreamworld isn't a dark place. It's exuberant and ultimately, irredeemably, optimistic.

After we parted, the night, the cold, and the endless walking
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.

There was the East River; there was the Hudson.
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.

Something supreme was occurring
For which there will never be any words.

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

From "The Initiate".

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Three Short Stories About Family


Less than two weeks old, and my newest nephew’s features have already been apportioned out to various family members. To his father, his high, noble nose. To his mother, those luminous eyes and those shapely feet. We have even unearthed some long-deceased great-aunt to be responsible for the baby’s tiny monkey fingers.

All families must do this, I suppose, but I’ve always thought that Korean families manage to find family relationships in the most unremarkable of body parts. Ankles, for example. Who notices ankles? And yet, my mother swears, this baby is the recipient of two miniature replicas of her ankles. There is hardly an inch of anatomy on my nephew’s Frankenstein body that has not been donated by one relative or another. I, myself, am told that I am responsible for the melon-like hugeness of the baby’s head, and for his broad, featureless brow.


My oldest nephew, meanwhile, doesn’t look a thing like me, but he and I are alike in more important ways.

Yesterday morning, when I was getting ready to go with him and his mom to get a cup of ice cream, he stopped me at the door, put up one hand, and said, “Uncle, you can not go out dressed like that.”

This, of course, is the same little boy who, when I asked what he wants to be when he grows up, said to me, “Cinderella!” And I wanted to tell him, “Oh, girl. Don’t we all.”


My sister has been getting the usual set of post-natal gifts from friends and colleagues. I happened to be there when a set of her coworkers dropped by to see the baby and leave a small gift. There were wee little baby clothes, and a set of wee tiny stuffed rabbits.

When the guests had left, my mom opened the present and fingered through the offerings.

“Hmph,” she sniffed. “Target.”

Just in case you ever wondered where I got it from.

Friday, June 15, 2007


All right. First things first.

My grandmother died several months ago following a long coma. It was, frankly, a little miraculous that she hung on as long as she did. The sort of injury she sustained to her head should have killed her within hours; the doctors didn't know what to do with this old woman who refused to die.

They didn't know my family. I come from a long line of mean bitches, and my grandmother was the meanest bitch of them all.

It freaks me out a little to see those words written down. I should know better than to speak ill of the dead, and if anyone was going to reach across the veil to punish me for my impiety it would be her. But it's a true thing, nevertheless, and it's something you need to know if you're going to get the whole story.

My grandmother has always been a survivor. She remembers fleeing from the Japanese, who were marching through the peninsula slaughtering the traditional aristocracy. She told me once how she fled with her parents in the middle of the night, weighed down by all the money and jewels her tiny body could support.

My father remembers fleeing a second invasion along the same route to the south, clinging to his mother's skirts as the communists advanced towards Seoul. They spent nights hiding in ditches with other refugees. They ate fried cakes made from barley, which were stretched by adding indigestible rice grain casings that some farmer or another had discarded. (Heuk deuk, she called them -- "dirt cakes".)

She lost everything twice. After the war, after my grandfather had returned to Seoul and died in a menial job as a porter, my grandmother made a meager income for her family by selling the last of her jewels and becoming a small-time loan shark, handing out small parcels of cash to people more desperate than her and enforcing her contracts with what few spells and curses she knew. It was a meager deterrent; even in those days, few people believed in curses. But my grandmother took what money there was and scraped together a living, and an apartment in the city, and an education for her son.

The thing she would never forget -- the thing she would never let you forget -- was how her family had been robbed of its rightful place in the world. Hers was the noblest of clans; imperial blood flowed through her veins. At her poorest, she still demanded to be spoken to like a yangban.

Which is why she despised anyone she thought was below her position. Like her neighbors living in her ghetto. Like the nouveau middle-class family my mother came from. Like me.

My father doted on her, a good, pious son. Like so many of his generation, he was sent to America to earn a living and to send money back to support the family. But it was never enough for her. How dare he spend money on his whore wife and his two misborn children instead of sending money home? He tried bringing her to America to live, and she was miserable. He set her up with a nice condo in an upscale suburb of Seoul, and she was miserable. Everything about my grandmother's life was dramatic, and conflict swirled around her, like a solar system orbiting a star.

This is why we were so anxious when she slipped and hit her head. Somehow her body had become old and frail without any of us realizing it. None of us had ever really considered the possibility that she might die, and nobody knew what was going to happen once she was gone.

My sister and I anticipated the worst. My father and his sisters had spent so long living in the shadow of guilt that there would be some sort of a feud, and they would blame one another for her death, and they would blame one anothers' spouses, then their children, and the family that my grandmother held together by sheer force of will would tear apart.

Thank god, then, for long comas. Nine months is a long time to come to terms with someone's death. After a brief period of inevitable squabbling, my father and his sisters met and put the family's affairs in order.

By the time my grandmother died (gathering just enough consciousness to swear at the nurse with her last breath), it was agreed that there would be a modern funeral. The period of mourning was reduced to three days of sleeplessness and fasting. Her body was cremated and interred in a temple instead of being buried in the family plot with all of ceremony and wailing and beating of chests that that would have entailed. It was a quiet, unglamorous ending to a long, dramatic life, and perhaps the only modern thing my grandmother has ever done.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Chris emailed me a mess of photos from Boston Pride this weekend, and it had me feeling homesick all of Sunday morning. There are pictures of Chris' annual pre-parade brunch, the traditional mid-afternoon cocktail at Club Cafe, and the inevitable post-club snack in Chinatown. It was the whole gang of miscreants I ran with in Boston for three years, along with a few new faces that I didn't recognize. I only allowed myself a few moments to wonder which one of them was supposed to be my replacement.

But later in the day, MV and I drove down to a farm a few miles outside of Janesville. We spent an hour kneeling in the dirt, picking strawberries and getting sunburned knees. There were strawberry tarts for dessert, and there's strawberry ice cream resting in the fridge. I fell asleep watching the Tony awards with my head resting in MV's lap. This morning, I don't feel so homesick anymore.