The Exciting Story of My Dinner


Eating at a restaurant alone is never fun.  Lonely dinners make me really self-conscious, as though everyone else in the restaurant is looking at me and pointing.  This, of course, isn’t true, because everyone else has someone to talk to.  The only person who would be bored enough to pay attention to me dining alone would probably be somebody else who has no one to eat with.

The other night I had a lonely dinner at a little noodle place in Korea.  The place seemed perfect to me because there weren’t many people there.  I sat at a small table made of wood and poured myself a cup of water.  I like when wood is left looking like wood, unpainted and unvarnished.  Although my table was definitely varnished, it still maintained an excellent deep brown wood color.  I understand that there’s nothing interesting about this, but I didn’t have anything better to think about.  It was, I guess, the thinking equivalent of a really boring conversation. 

French songs played on the radio.  Later, I heard Maria Carey sing “I’ll Be There.”

“Why am I hearing this?” I wondered.  There was no reason I should be hearing Maria Carey.  I flew over an ocean to escape the likes of her, and here she was.  I imagined some lonely Korean guy in an Applebee’s in Pennsylvania, hearing Big Bang play and feeling a similar sense of frustration.

The woman working there came up to me.  “Take out?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “Here,” and I put my palm down on the table to show her I meant business.  There was a menu already sitting on the table, as if it had been waiting for me.  I looked through and swiftly ordered cold noodles in beef broth.  After ordering, I sat and waited.  “I should do something,” I thought.  “What should I do?”  I looked through the menu again.  Then, having exhausted its four pages, I just sat there until the noodles came.

I mumbled a half-hearted “thank you” in Korean and fumbled with the chopsticks.  They were made of thick blue plastic, which made them easier to use than the Korean metal chopsticks.  I don’t hold chopsticks exactly the right way, and sometimes Koreans will correct me.  It doesn’t matter to me because I’ve never held my pen properly and I’m quite comfortable writing, all the while enjoying a chaotic vision of a world where no two people hold their pens the same way. 

Back to dinner.  My noodles were hair thin and grey.  The broth was brown and had ice in it.  I love ice, and will never refuse it.  In water, in soda, in soup…anything but beer, unless the ice cubes are made of frozen beer.  While I ate, a young couple came in and sat near me.  They spoke Korean.  I wondered if they were watching me eat.  My teeth were incapable of cutting the noodles and I found myself having to let some noodles flop back out of my mouth from time to time.  I felt embarrassed and didn’t look over at the couple.  I assumed they had sharper teeth and couldn’t empathize.

There was a hard boiled egg in my soup.  I tried picking it up with my chopsticks but dropped it, splashing beef broth up into my face.  Did anyone notice?  I hurriedly looked straight down.  I could hear the young couple talking and laughing.  Were they talking about me?  I stabbed the egg in a fury until it broke into bits, then ate them.  I had to show everyone that, in the end, I was the one in control and not the egg.

After finishing, I got up to pay.  My knee hit the table hard, but I made sure to show no signs of pain as I hobbled to the cash register and then limped out.


Alcoholism in the Present Tense


Sunday Morning

I’m still drunk when Melanie wakes me.  She has to go, and I’m presented with a choice: I can either leave now or stay until she gets back at 4 pm.  That’s a long time.  Since I’m hopeful that Courtney might want to see me, I decide to leave.  Walking to the bus, I find that I’m off balance.  I try to get my head straight by smoking a cigarette.  I just want to talk to Courtney but I fear that the night before – which I can’t remember all the way – didn’t go so well.

Let’s look at the most important fact: I went out to be with Courtney, and I woke up in Melanie’s bed.  That, my friend, is what we call a bad sign.

On the bus I text Courtney, “Hey, you awake?”  It’s 10:30 in the morning.  I lean my head against the bus window and fall asleep.  An hour later the bus will be parked at the terminal, and the driver will shake me until I’m awake again.

July 2009

NoDa is the trendy arts district in Charlotte, and on a hot summer afternoon I’m having lunch with my father, my mother, and my wife.  My father has been intolerable to be around.  Earlier in the day, he walked down one side of the street while me, my mother, and my wife walked down the other.

“I want a beer,” he says, looking over the menu.  “Have a beer with me.”

“I can’t,” I tell him.  I don’t tell him that I’ve stopped drinking.  That I’ve been in AA and that I’ve decided alcohol is destroying my life.  “You go ahead and have one.”

He looks at me.  “Why can’t you have a beer?  Come on, have a beer with your old man.”

“If I have one beer, I’ll want more,” I say.  “And if I don’t have more, I’ll be thinking about it all day and I’ll be miserable.”

“It’s one beer,” he says and laughs.  “Come on, have a drink with your dad.”

“He doesn’t want a drink,” my wife says.  “Please, you go ahead and just have one yourself.”

He looks irritated.  “Well, if he’s not having one, then I’m not either.”

It’s hard for me to figure why my father doesn’t understand.  He’s seen me before.  He knows how things get when I drink.  I don’t know why he doesn’t remember the Thanksgiving when I couldn’t stop drinking and cursed at my sister, or all the nights I spent in the basement drinking by myself.   Or the time I went out in his station wagon and when I came back I was drunk and it was smashed. 

“I’d really like a beer,” he says over and over again during the course our lunch.  Finally he orders one.  He takes a long gulp and says, “Are you sure you don’t want one?  Come on.  One beer.”

Sunday Evening

Courtney hasn’t responded to the two texts I’ve sent.  This is not like her at all.  She has never NOT responded when I’ve texted her.  The second text I sent was a vague apology.  I know she’s mad at me but I’m not sure why.  I’ve spent the whole day in bed.  I can’t think and I can’t move.  All I remember is drinking beer and later rum and doing shots and singing “Don’t Stop Believing” and having Melanie talk on the phone to the cab driver to tell him where to take me. 

I’ve had this feeling before.  The feeling that I’ve done something awful that I can’t remember.  It’s the worst feeling in the world.  Lying in bed, I wonder how many people hate me after my black out night and I wonder how much they hate me.  The “why” isn’t even important anymore.

Monday Night

It’s about 8:30 at night, and Courtney finally decides to speak to me. “Don’t do that again,” she says on Facebook chat.  “You freaked me out and it was fucked.”

I type, “To be honest, I don’t remember everything.  What exactly did I do that was fucked?” 

There’s a long pause before she answers.  Maybe it isn’t that long, but to me it seems that way.

“You pushed me into the corner of the bar, and you wouldn’t let me go.  You yelled at me and called me a bitch.”

I feel devastated reading this.  I apologize.  Over and over again.

“I know that isn’t you,” she writes.  “I guess it would be best to forget it and move on.”

That she could want to “forget it and move on” makes me feel worse.  We talk for the rest of the night about other things.  Fred Phelps and dead soldiers, abortion and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  The entire time I think back to Sunday morning, when I texted her and I thought we could do something fun.  How could I have had no idea that I’d taken her by the arms and held her so she couldn’t move? 

Tuesday Morning

My sister Kim sends me a message.  I had sent her one earlier, telling her what I did, because I felt I needed to tell someone. 

“She’s an angel for even wanting to forgive you,” Kim says.  “Well, bro, the only way to get your shit together is to lessen the booze or stop completely.  I don’t think it’s doing you any good.  I mean, honestly speaking, do you want to be like this the rest of your life?”

Some Morning about Five Years Ago

“The marriage counselor says I should leave you,” Betty tells me.  I’m curled up on the couch.  My school had a field trip today and I missed it.  I teach at an elementary school.  I wonder if my kids are having a good time.

“Do you remember last night?” Betty asks.  I don’t.  The only thing I seem to remember is watching Ryan Howard strike out during the Phillies/Braves game.  “You were out of control,” she says.  “You threw your glasses against the wall and you were screaming.  You called me terrible things.  I sat at the computer crying.  Then you wanted me to hit you, and you kept screaming about it and I wouldn’t do it.  I was scared.”

I remember how it started.  Betty came home and I had already drunk about half a bottle of Vodka by myself.  We sat out on the porch.  I was thinking about baseball.

“I can’t wait to have kids,” I said to her.  “I want to be their baseball coach.  I’ll be really good at it.  It’ll be so much fun to teach my kids how to play baseball.”

She stares off into the day.  “I’m not having kids with you,” she says.  “Not like this.”

Friday Night

It turns out Courtney and I will be at the same bar Friday night.  She doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.  I tell her that I won’t be drinking.  It’ll be a sober night.  I don’t go into why because I assume she knows.

At the bar, I try to have fun.  I cheer my friends on while they play in a beer pong tournament.  Other friends joke around with me.  I feel strong in my conviction to not drink.  People try to buy me drinks and I tell them I’m having a sober night.  Then they tilt my head towards the light so they can see the scar from when I fell down on a beer mug a few weeks ago and split my eyebrow open.

Courtney shows up, walks near to where I’m standing, and doesn’t even make eye contact with me.  When she looks at me, we awkwardly wave ‘hello’ and have a very short conversation.  I don’t want to pester her or make her feel uncomfortable.  I walk over to some friends.  An hour passes.  Courtney hasn’t moved and I don’t feel she particularly wants to talk to me at all.  Maybe I’m wrong.  She could just want to hang out with her co-worker friends, and it’s my shame that makes me think this.  Still, it’s hard to take.  Only a week earlier, I felt really close to her.  Tonight, the longest we speak is when I put on my jacket, walk over to her, and say goodbye.

Leaving the bar, I think about all the people I’ve lost to alcohol.  I lost my wife, Betty.  I’ve lost too many friends to count.  Now I suppose I’ve lost Courtney too.  I feel shattered.  After I take a cab home, I go to the store and buy two large jugs of beer.  Sitting in my apartment by myself, I start drinking.

Then I remember that this is supposed to be sober night.  The beer isn’t doing it for me anyways.  I’m exhausted and I simply don’t want to drink.  I put my beer in the refrigerator, saving it for another night, turn the lights off, and go to sleep.


David Bell and the Idea of Irresistible Similarity







When David Bell was a kid, he ate some paint chips.  Years later, I met David, when I worked at a day program for people with mental retardation.  David was extremely affable, always in good spirits, energetic, and prepared to tell you about his brother, Joe Lewis.

“Where’s Joe?” he would constantly ask.

“I don’t know David,” I’d say.  “Home?”

“No,” David would tell me, “Joe Lewis GONE.  Shot by the police.”

Later I’d meet David’s cousin, LeWanda Bell, who just happened to be Joe Lewis’ daughter.  She informed me that Joe was fine, living a nice relaxing life on his couch, exactly where one would expect him.  He was not missing, nor was he being consistently shot by law enforcement.

There were so many funny moments with David.  He was in his late fifties, black, and seemed to be stuck in the 70s.  He dressed like he was a character on What’s Happening!!, in plaid shirts and a cap like Rerun used to wear.

“Right on!” he’d yell out, pumping his fist.  In truth, I loved David, and encouraged all of his silly behavior.

“Hey, David?  Where’s Joe Lewis today?”

“Gone!  The police got him!”

David would do another fun thing when I’d take out into the community.  We would go on an outing to the mall, and David would happily approach and talk to every black person we’d pass.

“Buddy!” he’d shout.  “My friend!  Where’s Joe Lewis?”

The black person David had accosted typically would have the same reaction as the ones approached in the past.  First, they’d look at David, confused, wondering if they knew him.  Then they’d see the rest of the group David was with and the light bulb would go off.  Ah, this guy, friendly as he is, isn’t quite right.

“Dang, Joe Lewis…I haven’t seen him…”

“He’s shot by the police!”

“Oh…I’m sorry…that’s too bad.”

The reason I go on about David is because I was reminded of him when I moved away from my people in America and off to the homogenously Asian country of South Korea.  Who are ‘my people,’ you might wonder.  Any non-Asian, I thought.  White people, black people, Hispanic, Samoans, Inuks, the Amish, people of a racial descent that is unclear when looking at them – it didn’t matter.  I thought of David Bell and how elated he was to see another black person, and I imagined that it would be similar here in South Korea.  If I would run into another white person, say, on the bus, we would talk and get along famously!

“Hey!  You’re not Asian!”

“Neither are you!  We must have some things in common, eh?”

“Yeah!  You like Maroon 5?”

“No!  But I can understand how you’d think that, as I am a white person…”

That’s how I imagined it going.  In my first few months, I even tried to strike up a conversation with a blonde girl I ran into on the street.

“Hi!” I said.  “You don’t see many white people around here.”

“No, you don’t,” she said and quickly walked away.

The truth, it turned out, is that in South Korea foreigners run away from each other like they’re diseased.  I’ve gotten used to that now, and have the same apathy when seeing a new foreigner as others had when I first arrived.  Approaching another foreigner, there’s always an uneasy moment where eye contact is painfully avoided.  This could involve checking the time, my cellphone, or looking down at the street as though I’m in danger of stepping in quicksand at any moment.  There is no desire to acknowledge that we’re both expats, just the uncomfortable realization that this person exists and the strong hope that the person won’t say anything.  We’ll walk by each other quickly, and after passing the other foreigner, a wave of relief will wash over me like I’ve just dodged the police.

Yes, the police.  I fear them.  I’ve heard what they did to Joe Lewis.

For good old David Bell, there was something irresistible about seeing someone similar to him.  But for some reason, for expats in South Korea, there’s something very uncool about seeing someone similar.  Perhaps it’s the desire to be unique, to be having a singular experience, or the fact that we left our home countries to get away from ‘our’ people.  I’m not sure.  If human connection is about shared experience, we here in Korea would rather keep that experience private.

“Buddy!” David Bell would shout to someone on the street, if he was here, in Korea, holding his hand out, waiting.


An Aujumma in the Rain


It was pouring in Mok-Dong.  The streets were empty, except for the squids in their tanks, sitting in front of restaurants, waiting to be summoned by an undiscriminating customer, and Steven and me.  We were walking back to our apartments in the rooming house we stayed in.  Our rooms were barely bigger than the tanks those squids floated around in.  When it rained we’d have to close the windows, but the rain wouldn’t cool the heat, and the air in our rooms would boil.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked Steven.  He had a better sense of direction than I had, and he typically led when we walked.

We must’ve looked preposterously out of place.  On a rainy night that kept everyone else indoors, we were two white men roaming the streets of Mok-Dong.   It was the summer of 2009 and I’d been in Korea for only a few weeks.  The neon lights from the storefronts kept everything bright.  There were no cars on the streets, and the soft glow of neon reflecting off the rainwater made the concrete look wet and clean.

In the near distance, an elderly Korean woman came wobbling towards us.  She moved awkwardly, as if she was on stilts.  Later I’d learn the word for older Korean women – aujumma.  It really just means “Mrs.”  The term has a negative connotation, though, and hearing it from time to time might be, I guess, why aujummas are consistently in a hateful mood.

“Think she’s drunk?” I asked.

Steven shook his head.  “Women don’t get drunk in public,” he said.  “I think she’s just…I don’t know…old.”

Getting nearer, I squinted to get a better look.  She was heavy and wrinkled, her fat fingers wrapped around the neck of her umbrella.  Her eyes looked straight ahead.  She was only about ten paces away, but she never once shifted her pupils to take even the slightest glance at us.

As we were about to pass each other by, the aujumma lost her footing and tumbled off the sidewalk.  Her umbrella fell from her hand and her face bounced hard off the street.  Steven and I stopped, watching while she lied there on her belly.  She flipped herself over and sat up.  I could see a thin stream of blood coming from her forehead and running down her face.

“Jesus,” I said.  “Should we help her up?”

Sitting in the street, her eyes still refused to acknowledge our presence.

“No way,” Steven said.  “She’ll seriously freak out if two white guys start grabbing at her.”

The old woman tried to rock herself to her feet but couldn’t.  The rain drenched her short black hair.

I watched her and waited.  Why wouldn’t she look at me?  I wanted her to reach her hand towards me, to tell me it was okay to help her up.

“We shouldn’t keep staring at her,” Steven said.  “She’s probably scared.”

By the way she kept her face tilted down, I knew he was right.  We looked around for help but couldn’t find anyone.  Then we turned and started walking back in the direction we thought our rooming house was in.

The last time I looked back to see her, she was still sitting there.  She looked peaceful, perfectly content to be sitting out in the rain, alone.


Plenty O’ Fish, One Very Old


People tend to do strange things in times of desperation.  Some people freak out and remodel their homes; others do crazier things, like attempting suicide or getting a nipple pierced.  In a moment of weakness, I chose to leap into another world by creating an account on the website Plenty of Fish.  It seemed like a good idea – I figured that every time I logged onto the Internet, it would be like stepping into a singles bar.  I spent a solid half hour writing my profile, and then I sat back and waited for the ladies to come a messaging.  This was a good place to start, I thought.  People had told me that Plenty of Fish was the dating website to go to.  A lot of people use it, they said, and, more importantly, it’s free.

My first message – and last message as it would turn out – came only minutes after I completed my profile.  “Wow!” I said to myself.  “This is great!”  This girl must’ve really prescribed to the ‘early bird gets the worm’ philosophy, although I don’t like thinking of myself as a worm, and am slightly uncomfortable with the sexual innuendo that could be read into that.  Putting that thought aside, I anxiously clicked on my new acquaintance.  Although I am constantly skeptical, I opened her message with hope.  Perhaps thirty-five minutes on a dating website was all I needed to find a good, decent girl.

The woman’s name was “twilite09.”  I assumed this was a reference to the lovely vampire books that all the girls were going bananas for.  My eyes went straight to her message.  “Don’t let age scare you away.”  Hmm.  Not really what I expected.  Next, I looked at twilite09’s age.  She was 56.  The next logical step was to look at her picture.

Her old, wrinkled body was stretched out on a bed, wearing a low-cut shirt, her hair long, red and tangled.  “Oh, how nice,” I thought.  “She got someone from her hospice to take a picture of her.”

It was hard to feel anything but sad.  Sad for twilite09, sad for myself for signing up on this website.  There was no way on earth I was going to reply to this person.   I imagined that it was completely possible that some girl out there would feel the same way looking at my profile if I messaged.  That I could be someone else’s twilite09.  I had only been a member of Plenty of Fish for forty minutes and I wanted out.  I disabled my account and withdrew my fish from the competition.

I’m sure there are plenty of great things about dating websites.  In a way, it’s great that a 56 year old woman can find a place where she has the confidence to “approach” whoever she feels like approaching.  I would never be approached like that in an actual bar or out on the street.  And maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe in face-to-face encounters we tend to follow through with what feels natural.  It’s instinct over logic, and the unwritten rules that dictate a lot of our social behavior are much more apparent.  A  56 year old woman doesn’t go around hitting on everyone, and a 32 year old guy doesn’t send messages to women based on a paragraph about their movie tastes.

Or maybe it’s just what you can get used to.  Some people can get used to online chatting and messaging and improving their profile and sending ‘winks’ or ‘interests.’  On the other hand, some people feel better getting used to loneliness.  There are plenty of us – we just don’t have a website.


A God Who Wants Your Memories


The HwaGokDong Church is located in Kkachisan, on the Western outskirts of Seoul.  It is a fairly large church, Christian in ordinance, which is not especially uncommon in South Korea.  This is one of the few Asian countries to have a large Christian population.  Christmas is widely celebrated here, and large paintings of Christ can be seen on the sides of buildings.

Still, HwaGokDong is slightly different, because it is partly an English ministry service.  On the second floor of the building – in the larger, more traditional church – Pastor Lee Ho Koo leads a Korean language hour of worship.  But on the first floor, a nervous Ohioan named Pastor Kevin Grover leads the English language procession.  Grover is a soft-spoken man, twitchy and prone to anxiety induced repetition in his sermon.  He wears an over large blue suit and is married to one of the women in the choir, a Korean women who, most would agree, is far better looking than Grover.

On the Sunday I attended, Grover anxiously drew from Matthew 19 to deliver a sermon he crudely titled “Put Your Stuff Down.”  The basic gist was that all of our “want lists” and our endless “to do lists” pull us further from God.  To extend his point, Grover told a story, which I will now paraphrase:

There is a young girl from a poor family.  Her father, loving her very dearly, buys her an imitation pearl necklace.  He tells her the pearls are fake.  Still, because her heart is good, she cherishes the necklace.  Later, when she’s much older, her father is able to buy her an actual pearl necklace.  He tells her to give him the fake necklace, but she won’t.  She covets it too much.  Eventually, though, she gives up the imitation necklace, and thus is rewarded with the real pearls.  The instant she puts them on, she is overcome with happiness.

The message of the story is simple: The father (God) allowed his daughter (us) something material.  His love promised her something more, in this case a real pearl necklace (Heaven).  But only when she let go of the fake pearls (material objects), was she rewarded with happiness (the love of God and the acceptance into Heaven).

The reason this story struck me as interesting was its take on materialism.  Typically, we think of materialism as putting an absurdly high personal value on material things; in the typical view of materialism, the real pearl necklace would be the item to covet.  Using the common definition, material goods have value due to the abstract qualities they represent (a pearl necklace would represent wealth, which represents status, which represents importance, etc).  But what Grover is talking about is different.  He’s talking about a type of materialism that isn’t based on signification, but instead on sentiment and novelty.

This isn’t anything new.  It’s pretty apparent in our modern society, though.  To find an example, one needs to look no further than the garage sale of websites, ebay.

In the last decade, several strange things have sold for surprisingly large sums on ebay.  Brittany Spears, oddly enough, is at the center of some of these: a piece of Brittany-chewed gum sold for $263, while an egg sandwich she nibbled went for a cool $500.  In 2007, someone spent over $100,000 for a lock of Elvis’ hair.  In the same year, sadly, a nut from the chestnut tree that grew outside the Anne Frank house sold for $8,000.  It was pitched with the tag line “Grow your own Anne Frank tree anywhere!”

These things, like the necklace in the story, aren’t material items the way a pimped-out car or a fancy watch are.  The Brittany gum and the Anne Frank chestnut belong in the same class of things as the dress handed down by Grandmother or the ball caught at the Yankee game.  Their value is based on sentiment, on an aura created by memory, as well as on novelty, the fact that this is the only one.  The meaning the object has isn’t abstract; there’s something concrete in the person’s mind that gives the object its value.  In the story, the girl valued pearls that had no real worth simply because her father gave them to her.

Maybe this is an entirely different form of materialism: call it sentimental materialism if you will.  Whatever it is that gives the object its value, its aura, it is, after all, still just an object.  As Pastor Grover spoke, I wondered if coveting your child’s baby tooth is in fact as wrong as coveting a sparkling diamond ring.  It couldn’t be, right?   When God said to give up all our Earthly possessions, he apparently really meant it.

And then I got to thinking, what if our memories themselves are Earthly possessions?  Why wouldn’t they be?  They’re fully based around our recollections of living on the Earth, of being among the living and seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, and, yes, smelling (my least favorite sense) the world around us.  If a price could be put on a memory, what would be the worth?  Sitting in the church in Kkachisan, I told myself that I wouldn’t sell my memories for any price.

I wouldn’t even sell them if, say, the price was Heaven.

The problem with materialism may not be the fetishism of a gold chain or some rims on a car, but instead the high value put on social status and the presentation of wealth and power.  What unnerved me about Pastor Grover’s sermon, delivered in a circuitous stutter, was the idea that God has just as big a problem with our desire to hold onto memory, to cling to the meaning people and events have in our lives.  Or perhaps it’s just association.  The association of a father with a necklace, made by a little girl, being spoken of in a large building, with stained glass and white walls, created to be associated with that place up above, where we may or may not remember any of this.