Writing about My Father Makes Me Realize I’m Being a Jackass and I Need to Chill Out


Part One – The Time Slightly Before Becoming a Jackass

“Do you have an English name,” I asked the new student.  He was a cute little dude, maybe seven years old.  I hoped he already had an English name, because I suck at naming the new kids.  Luckily, he did.

“My name is Cooper,” he said.  He seemed excited to meet me.

“Cooper,” I repeated.  “Excellent.  I like that name a lot.”

Part Two – I, Jackass

Two days later, Cooper came up to me before class.  He was concerned about something I had written on the board.  During out English game in class, I wrote all the students’ names on the board and kept score.  Although he didn’t say anything at the time, Cooper was sad.

“Teacher,” he said, “my name is with K.”


“You wrote wrong on board.”

“What do you mean?  That’s how you spell it.  C-o-o-p-e-r.  Cooper.”

He said that was wrong.  He took a marker and wrote the correct version on the board.


“Um, no buddy,” I said, firmly.  “I’ve never seen it spelled like that.  I think maybe your teacher made a mistake.  We’re gonna spell it with a C and two O’s from now on.”

“No teacher!” he said, panicked.  “It is with K!  K-u-p-e-r!”

In my head, I wondered who taught him that.  It was likely a Korean English teacher who couldn’t really speak English.  Who else would spell Cooper that way?  Kuper?  Like Super.  For the next week or so, this turned into a major bone of contention.  I wanted him to spell the name properly, and he, with every ounce of his tiny body, was dead set on spelling it his way.

“No!” he’d shout when I wrote Cooper on the board.  “K!  K!  K!”

“Listen,” I said, “that’s a racist organization and you shouldn’t support them.  Now look, this is the right way to spell it, Cooper.  I like your name…I just think you should spell it right.”

He covered his face with his hands, devastated.  It was like his entire world had gone up in smoke.  Like the moment you realize there is no Santa Claus, or that the Tooth Fairy is your father, or that Milli Vanilli lip sank “Blame it on the Rain.”  It was one of those moments.  Disillusionment.

It wasn’t brought on by the new spelling of his name, though, but instead by the realization that this teacher was not, under any circumstances, going to change it back.

Part Three – Jackass Epiphany

The day before Thanksgiving, I wrote a silly blog post about my family.  In it, there was an innocuous line of dialogue where my father calls me “Billy.”  My father always called me Billy.  The strange tension with Cooper made me reflect on that a bit, and I thought back.

When I was a little kid – Cooper’s age – I liked being called Billy.  It was a fun name, I thought.  Then something happened.  Around middle school time, suddenly the kids at school began teasing me over it.  It started with Larry Miller.  My mother didn’t like Larry because she said he had a dirty neck (good reason not to like someone, really).  I thought Larry was a cool person, and I considered him my friend.  That’s why I was surprised when Larry started doing a mean impersonation of me for the class.

“Hi!” he said in kind of a weird, lispy voice.  “I’m Billy Panara!”

I wondered why Larry was making fun of me.  What the hell did I do?  Soon a lot of kids at school were coming up to me and saying “Hi Billy!” and laughing.  The joke became that I was still a little kid; that while they were maturing, I was stuck in a state of arrested development.

“Billy!  Are you gonna play with Mommy and Daddy?  Have you been a good boy, Billy?”

I hated it.  My solution was simple – I’d drop the ‘y.’  That, I figured, would solve the problem entirely.  Want proof that I’m not a kid anymore?  Check out my name!  Bill!  Man, that would say it all.  It was easy to make fun of Billy…but Bill would be a whole different story.  Bill’s a stand up guy, the type of buddy you shoot the shit with.  So that was settled.  Billy was gone, and now I was Bill.

My father, though, was not having it.  I told the old man that I was Bill now, and he just sort of shrugged and said ‘no.’  That wasn’t happening, and for the next twenty years, he would insist on calling me Billy.  At school I’d walk down the hallway, having kids shout out “Billy, did Daddy help you dress today?!” or something like that, and I’d hang my head.  The real hurt came back at home, though, with my father.

“I’m Bill now,” I told him.  “I won’t respond to Billy.”

“Stop it Billy,” he said.  “You’re being ridiculous.”

I would sit in my bedroom and think, “Shit, the kids at school are right.  I AM still a baby.”  Then I would take my mind off things by playing with my Ninja Turtle action figures.

Looking back on it, the whole thing seems silly.  At the time, though, nothing made me feel smaller than when my dad called me Billy.  I hadn’t really thought about it until I wrote that blog post, and then my mind went to Cooper.

Part Four – Post Jackass

“Hey Cooper,” I said, right before I wrote his name on the board for our class game.  “How do you spell your name again?”

The kid stuck to his guns.  “K-u-p-e-r.”

“Yup,” I said.  “That’s right.”  I wrote his name like that on the board, and he was happy.  The battle over the spelling of his name was finished.  He had won.

In the big picture, kids don’t have control over a whole lot.  They’re told what to do, when to go to bed, what they will eat, and what things they can’t break.  Really, their names might be the only thing that is fully theirs; that they have ownership of.  That shouldn’t be taken away.  It’s important.

Now if I could just get the kid to stop writing ‘kat,’ ‘kar,’ and ‘korn on the kob,’ life would be golden.


Celebrity Comparisons, Cave People, and The Brady Bunch


My friend Kaela is cool, so it sucks that I accidentally offended her a few weekends ago.  We were chillin’ in a bar, cracking jokes, when something about her struck me.  “You know who you remind me of?” I asked her.  “You remind me of Jan Brady.”

She smiled and laughed.  “Thanks, but I’ve never been hit in the nose with a football.”

I shook my head.  “No, that’s Marsha Brady.  I mean the other one, Jan, the middle sister.”

Kaela frowned.  “You mean the crazy one?  The one with earlocks that goes ‘Marsha Marsha Marsha!’?”

“Yes!” I said, happy that she understood.  “That one!  Come on, Kaela!  Say ‘Marsha Marsha Marsha!’”

“I’m not saying that.”

“How about just ‘Marsha Marsha!’?  You don’t have to say the third one.”

“Not gonna happen.”

“‘Marsha’?  Once?”


After this conversation, I realized something important: It’s risky telling a person that he or she looks like a celebrity.  Especially when the celebrity in question is a Brady other than Marsha.  For the youngsters who aren’t familiar with Jan Brady, imagine if Khloe Kardashian was the middle sister and was a bit quieter.  That’s sort of a similar dynamic.  Only the Brady’s weren’t rich, and all of them were rather flat-butted.

DJ Qualls - Sex Symbol

Personally, I’ve been told I look like a whole bunch of different people.  On rare occasions, a nice person will tell me I look like Topher Grace or, better yet, Tobe McGuire.  That’s cool.  But the bulk of the time, I’m told I either look like Steve Buscemi or DJ Qualls.  People typically don’t know DJ Qualls’ name, though, so I get “the guy from Road Trip,” “the New Guy,” or “the DJ from Hustle and Flow.”  They’re all the same dude, and they’re all ugly.  I’ve also been compared to Rush frontman Geddy Lee and comic icon Mr. Bean.  Hopefully my voice will stay the same as it is now, because if it goes up or disappears completely, I run the risk of actually becoming one of those guys.

So since I’ve been both the offender and the offended when it comes to bad celebrity comparisons, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to create a few handy rules for everyone.  Follow these simple rules and you won’t be the jerk whose fun pop culture reference ruins the party.  I’m not being shallow…I’m looking out for you.

Rule #1: Just Because the Person Seriously Does Look Like Someone, It Doesn’t Mean You Have to Point That Out

Rosie is cool, but scary

Okay, so let’s say your new coworker happens to look like she was cloned from the cells of Rosie O’Donnell.  Being a human, you are anxious to share this observation.  Don’t do it!  Have you seen angry Rosie O’Donnell on The View?  Is that what you want?  Of course not.  Let it go and try to refer to her by her actual name.  Similarly, never, ever cross gender lines.  If some girl you know gets a new pixie hairdo and comes out looking like Justin Beiber, tell her she looks like, I don’t know, Isabella Rossellini.  It’s all about being nice, man!  Our bodies are engineered for us to be nice anyways…that’s why we have to go through the hassle of verbally saying something in order to communicate, as opposed to just thinking it.

Rule #2: It’s Okay to Lie to Family Members as Long as it isn’t Embarrassing

This dude looks like DJ Qualls

When I was in high school, my Grandfather would rant and rave about how much I looked like Leonardo DiCaprio.  At that time in my life, I was setting a new standard for unpopularity at school and my interactions with girls were pretty much confined to group work in Spanish class.  I appreciated that Grandpa was being nice, but it made me uncomfortable.  Things got even more uncomfortable when, on Christmas, one of my presents was a Leonardo DiCaprio picture book.  There weren’t even any words in it, just page after page of dreamy Leo pics.  Why my Grandfather thought I would want that, I have no idea.  I tried giving it to my sister.  “Take it, please,” I begged.  “What am I going to do, gaze at Leo all day?”  Unfortunately, my sister was going through a big time Marilyn Manson phase, and DiCaprio wasn’t what she was into.  My Grandfather nodded proudly as I sat there with my Leo picture book.  If I needed a confidence boost, this wasn’t it.  All that is to say, if you have kids, sure, build them up.  But don’t embarrass them.  And, by the way, if your kids dig Leo DiCaprio, I’ve got a book they might like up on Ebay.

Rule #3: If You’ve Already Put Your Foot in Your Mouth and the Person Disagrees, Don’t Agrue

“Yes, you DO look like Carrot Top!  Look at yourself!  Where are your props, Carrot Top??!”

Just let it go, man.  And see our final rule.

Rule #4: Stick to Safe Celebs

Bradd Pitt.  Megan Fox.  Johnny Depp.  Beyonce.  Madonna circa 1985.  These are safe people.  They won’t elicit any response other than happiness and celebration.  People try to look like them.  On purpose.  Stick to them, or someone of their ilk, and everything will be fine.  Conversely, I advise against comparing somebody to any of the following: Whoopi Goldberg, Newman from Seinfeld, John Goodman, Donatella Versace, Clint Howard, Lyle Lovett, Mo’Nique, Jerri Blank, Ron Jeremy, or current Madonna.  Add to both lists as you see fit.

Billions of years ago, we were all cave people and we all looked the same.  Hairy with poor posture.  As we evolved, new things were created, like the wheel and, eventually, notions of beauty.  Today we have a catalogue of images in our heads that help us draw connections, a context for others to fit into.  Underneath it all, though, we’re all the same, as if our cave-person-oneness has been sucked inside.  We all want to be told we look nice, that in our human family, we are Marsha.

This guy, this DJ Qualls look-alike, feels Jan’s pain.  Poor Jan.  Why does Marsha get all the socks, she asked?

Natural selection, I guess.


133 Lbs? I Give Up!


Heated floors are neat unless you’re sleeping on one.  In Korea, apartments aren’t heated by warm air blown in through heating vents, but instead by hot water pipes under the floor.   I mention this to warn anyone who foolishly turns the heat up and then thinks sleeping on the floor is going to be anything less than painful.  I was at a friend’s apartment, and she did this to me, either by accident or purposely – I’m not sure how good of friends we are.  I felt like an egg or a corn on the cob, or a hot dog, or spaghetti, or something else that gets boiled (see, the joke is that I felt like I was being boiled, so I was naming a bunch of…oh, you got it, it just wasn’t funny…okay let’s move on).  These people in Korea really emphasize the floor a lot – you can’t wear your shoes and walk on the floor, the floor is heated, you sit on the floor to eat…in America, we dislike the floor so much we cover it.

In the morning, after my brutal torture sleep, I realized my friend, C-Batz, had a scale, and since I’ve been trying to gain weight lately, I thought I’d step up on it.  For the past three weeks, I had been drinking two Mass XXX shakes a day and had been trying to eat…how many meals does a normal person eat in a day?…one or two…I was trying to eat three!  On top of that, I’d been going to the gym and working out.  As of last week, my arms had nice little muscles on them, like a girl who is moderately strong.

So I stepped up on the scale and it read an abysmal 133 lbs.  Therefore, I am temporarily quitting this whole gym/weight gain business.  It’s impossible.  Imagine if you were trying really hard to grow horns and then you realized one day, “Shit, humans CAN’T grow horns!”  You would give up, I would imagine.  I feel that’s a fairly good analogy for my current situation.  So, I am giving up; maybe next week I’ll change my mind.

It’s getting a little chilly in my apartment now, so I’m going to go blast the floor.


Drunken Malaise, One Year Contracts, and Tired Barhopping in Bupyeong


Toronto was leaving on Saturday, so we thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking one last time.  Of course we did – drinking is what people do to say goodbye.  Toronto was flying out of Korea and heading back to Canada.  He didn’t have a job to go back to but his time here was done.  Maybe he’d come back, he told us.

“I’ll be here,” I said.  Toronto would be another in a long line of friends who had gone away.  That’s how it goes when you live in a foreign country: work visas eventually expire and people get sucked back to their homes.  Their real homes.  Permanent ones.  In the last month, most of my friends had vanished.  Perkins went back to South Africa, Pierre back to Canada, Cindy to Chicago, Clare to England, and the list goes on and on.  It sort of reminded me of how much I used to hate summer vacation when I was at college.  For two months, everyone just picked up and took off.  I’d have to leave my fun apartment and move back in with my parents until school started back up.

I had never thought “vacation” and “punishment” could be synonymous until those awful summer breaks.

For Toronto’s going away party, it was only him, TTD, and me.  We started with a few drinks at Underground, and then went over to a popular Western bar called Goose Goose.  I sat at the bar and smoked and ordered whisky and cokes.  Thursdays at Goose Goose used to be packed; the place would be full of life, young people yelling and drinking.  There was an excitement there.  A community.  We used to go to Goose on Thursdays and everybody we knew would be there.  It was the place to go to play trivia and to complain about work and to plan the weekend.  But on this night it was dead and dreary, with just a few people sitting around a table or playing darts.  There was nobody there to talk to.  We ordered more drinks and decided the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

Goose was getting depressing so we left and went to Who’s Bar.  Toronto had something to do and stepped away for a bit.  TTD and I went in and sat at the bar.  The place was empty with the exception of the owner, Won Seok, and some of his Korean friends.  They were playing poker at a table.  We told Won Seok not to bother getting up and stepped behind the bar and poured our beers ourselves.  We sat there talking, and then TTD said, “Hey, you know…I’ve known you for a year now and I never asked you before…why did you get divorced?”

I tried to come up with some kind of a coherent answer.  The marriage felt like a lifetime ago.  Why did I get divorced?  I didn’t know.  My life three or four years ago had been so different.  I remember when Betty and I bought a house in Charlotte together.  The realtor gave us the keys early and we drove down at night, just to walk in our new home and know that it was really ours.  We went in and I remember how damn happy Betty was.  This would be the place where we would make our life together.  Our first real home together.

About a year later, I moved out.

After, when I came to Korea, I wanted to show my students pictures of the house back in the States, so they’d have an idea of what “back home” looked like.  Betty lived there now with her new boyfriend.  I typed the address into Google and I found it on a Real Estate website.  She was selling our house.  I had no idea.  For some reason, everything sunk in right then.  It was like someone highlighted a huge portion of my life and hit the backspace button.

TTD and I were bored and starting to feel miserable.  We walked back to Goose.  Everyone had gone.  The bartender was asleep and the rest of the staff was busy playing slow Korean music on the jukebox.  Toronto called and we went back to Who’s Bar.  There were two strangers there this time.  They were happy to see some signs of life, and they bought us Flaming Dr. Peppers and we all drank.  It was after three in the morning and the booze was starting to do its thing.  TTD and I were drunk and we told the strangers that we were a couple and that we met at an orgy.  The strangers seemed to believe that, or maybe they were just so drunk they would’ve believed anything.

Toronto sat there laughing at all of us.  I would miss him.

We decided to ditch the strangers and go to McDonald’s.  On the way, we passed an old man sitting on the ground and drinking soju by himself.  TTD didn’t see him and nearly stepped on him.  He shouted at her in angry Korean.  I can’t eat when I drink, so I let Toronto and TTD go into the McDonald’s and I sat down with the old drunk Korean guy.  He had a Dixie cup and he drank shots of soju from it.  I sat there chain smoking while he rambled on and on in Korean.  I would nod and sometimes say “ne.”  He pointed towards the McDonald’s every so often and his voice would get louder.  He seemed upset.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I kept nodding.

How the hell did I end up here?  In Korea, on the ground with a drunk old Korean guy.  Where was Betty now, and who was living in our house?  It was all so confusing.  I couldn’t get a grasp on anything, and the old man kept talking.

Two days later, Toronto flew back to Canada.  He emailed me the other day to say that he just bought a new washroom cabinet and some pillow shams.

It seems like life has a funny way of moving on, even when you don’t really want it to.


4 Cool Looks That Distress Me


Fashion baffles me.  I don’t get it at all and I never will.  People say that fashion is a form of self-expression.  If that’s true, I’ve basically been stuck in a stutter every since my parents stopped dressing me.  I wonder what my clothes say about me?  No I don’t.  I know what they say about me.  They say, “This guy buys all his clothes at Uni Qlo.”  Or they say, “This guy doesn’t wear clothes because he enjoys them.  He wears clothes because he has to.”

Not that I want to be naked or anything.  I’m just saying, if society didn’t expect me to wear a shirt and jeans, as opposed to, I don’t know, some Underoos, I’d probably be at the bar looking like Shazam.

Here in Korea, which, I’m told, is “fashion forward,” I get to see a lot of different looks.  I won’t lie, I’m often impressed
by how well the Koreans and the ex-pat teachers dress.  But once in awhile I see things and I think, “Hmm.  I couldn’t do that.”  It isn’t that these things are bad, per say, they just aren’t possibilities for me, for a variety of reasons.  So here, directly below, are four things I’ve seen recently that I don’t understand.

Exhibit A: Coat with No Sleeves

It’s cold outside.  Real cold.  You put on your coat to warm up.  But then you realize that your coat has no sleeves.  Your arms are still exposed to the bitter cold.  What kind of loopy coat is this?  Is this some sort of lame joke, like the solar powered flashlight or the book on how to read?  How can a coat have no sleeves?  That’s like buying deodorant that smells like B.O.!

Okay, in all seriousness, the sleeveless coat is kind of cool looking.  If I had muscles, maybe I would wear a vest coat.  Scratch that.  As cool as it looks, the practical aspect of the sleeveless coat is too much for me to handle.  A coat has a specific purpose, which is to keep me warm.  And since I don’t have muscles to help with that, I need sleeves.

Exhibit B: Headphones around the neck

I like the look of the sleeveless coat (which some people might call a “vest”); on the contrary, I feel wearing headphones around your neck while in a social setting makes you look like a douche bag.  I don’t know why…they’re just headphones…but damn, man, why are they around your neck?  What are you, a DJ?  Go play some techno then, and stop hitting on the cute girls in the bar.  To me, wearing headphones around the neck is as obnoxious as some dude in a band wearing his guitar around his shoulder all night.  Listen, DJ Shadow, get your giant headphones off your neck before they give you scoliosis.  Cause you’re annoying me.

Exhibit C: Glasses with no lenses (or glasses with plastic lenses)

Wearing glasses with no lenses reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where Costanza pretended he was wheelchair bound so people would be nicer to him.  Glasses make a person look smarter, and glasses can be sexy.  But the thing is, you actually have to NEED glasses for these things to be true.  Wearing glasses frames alone doesn’t cut it.  You must deserve to wear glasses.  Personally, I think it’s pretty interesting when someone has a cast on his arm.  You don’t see me walking around with some fake cast, do you?  No, that would be ridiculous.  Only people with broken bones get to wear casts.  And only people with vision problems should get to wear glasses.  That’s the way God intended it when he made vision problems and glasses.

Exhibit D: Ear Hoodie
Now, this isn’t something a guy would wear anyhow, although it would be hilarious if I started showing up places with the “ear hoodie” on.  The “ear hoodie” is more of a kid thing – my girl students at school wear them.  It’s not just for Halloween or something; they wear them daily.  Is it adorable?  Absolutely, 100% yes.  However, like Underoos, one can reach an age where wearing the “ear hoodie” becomes creepy.  You know how you have to be 18 to smoke?  Well, there should be a law saying only people under 14 can purchase the “ear hoodie.”  They should check IDs.  “I’m sorry, miss, but I’m going to need to see some identification.  Oh, you’re 17…under law I can’t allow you to purchase this item.”  And if you’re dating a Korean girl and she wears the “ear hoodie,” you really should be ashamed of yourself.  It’s questionable to want to dress your Korean girlfriend up in a school girl uniform; the “ear hoodie” is totally over the line.  If you want your girlfriend to have teddy bear ears on her head, you’re a disgusting Westerner.  Remember, she never would’ve dated you in the first place if you didn’t have those glasses and the headphones around your neck.

Hmm, maybe this post is getting a bit mean.  It’s further proof that fashion brings out the worst in me.  If you wear any of these things, I still love you.  All I ask in return is that you love me, and my Uni Qlo sweater vests.


A Thanksgiving Half Memory, Inspired by Truman Capote


Today is Thanksgiving, and although I won’t be doing anything to celebrate, there are plenty of things that I’m thankful for.  For one, I’m thankful that my teacher friends back in the States are on vacation.  Secondly, I’m thankful to have my Mass XXX weight gain shake here to replace the large turkey dinner I would be having if I was back home.  Thirdly, I’m thankful that I no longer have to try and teach the story “A Christmas Memory” anymore.

Did that thought seem to come out of nowhere?  Well, it did.  For two years I taught 9th grade English, and easily the worst, most universally hated piece of literature in the curriculum was Truman Capote’s story “A Christmas Memory.”  I don’t remember one student ever liking it.  Students would turn to me, as they sometimes did, and say, “Mr. P…do you like that story?”

Usually I would emphatically say ‘yes,’ because I usually did like the stories we were reading.  “Yes!” I would shout.  “Gift of the Magi is classic!  Don’t you think it’s clever?  He buys the combs and she sells the hair to buy the watch…sigh.”

But in the case of A “Christmas Memory,” there was no defending it.  “No,” I would say, speaking honestly, “I don’t like it.  It sucks.”  The story had something to do with a young Truman and his family having to buy rum to make a fruitcake.  My students, in our inner city school, didn’t really relate to it very well.  Nor would anyone, really.  If there are some strange people in this world who do relate to it, I hope I never find myself trapped in a conversation with them:

“When I was young girl, I remember the fruitcakes Aunt Emily used to make.  Why, Emily would give us a spoonful of rum when the cookin’ was finished, and you should’ve seen the look on Momma’s face!”

Oh, shut up!  To any extent, in homage to Truman Capote’s wonderful time capsule of a narrative, I thought I’d reflect on Thanksgivings past.  I’m inspired, and – call me ambitious! – with enough effort, I think I can write something just as dull and pointless.  Here it goes! (PS – see if you can spot the random dog dressed up like a turkey!)

A Thanksgiving Half Memory by William R. Panara

Times were hard that year.  Mom had to have an operation on her wrist ‘cause of the carpal tunnel she got from hanging j-hooks every day at her job, and Dad was spending a lot of time in the bathroom.  Mandy, my sister, was having boy trouble and I was the same as always.  Everyone in the house was miserable.

That year our extended family decided not to get together for Thanksgiving.  It was awhile ago, so I don’t remember why.  There must’ve been a meeting, where Dad told us all the news.

“We’re not doing a family Thanksgiving this year,” he might have said.  I don’t know because I don’t remember.  Then he might have said, “Our extended family has decided getting together for one day a year is too much.  It’ll be just the four of us this Thanksgiving.”

The tradition was to go to Grandma Rheba’s house, where the whole family would eat Grandma’s soup and watch football and then we’d pass around a great big bird.  The turkey was the headliner, but Grandma was famous for her homemade chicken soup.  One time, Cousin Randy brought a girl along with him, and she said that Grandma’s soup was overrated.  That was sacrilege, so we shot her.  Hmm…maybe we didn’t, the memory is blurry.  Actually, I don’t think we shot her, but we did give her dirty looks, even though we all secretly agreed.

It was sad to know that we wouldn’t be having Grandma’s soup that year.  When
Thanksgiving came around, Mom cooked a turkey and all the sides.  She made potatoes and stuffing and everything.  We were gonna make the most of it, even if it was only the four of us.  We sat down at the table, the deafening buzz of Mom’s electric knife that she bought from K-mart in 1989 filling the air.  Yes, the turkey was being cut, and soon Mom started bringing out plates of food and setting them down.  We each got our own Thanksgiving plate – Dad, Mandy, and me.  Mom got her own plate too, and when she sat down with it, we all started eating.

Everyone was quiet for a little while until Mandy spoke up.  “This doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving,” she said.  “It doesn’t feel right.”

That was the truth, and we were all thinking it.  “You know why it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving?” I asked, a bright idea forming in my head.  “It’s because Mom brought all the food out on individual plates.  I mean, that’s how we eat dinner every night.  This doesn’t feel special.  We should put everything on different plates and pass them around.  Thanksgiving is all about passing.”

“Billy’s right,” my father said.  “We need to be passing the food.  Let’s get put all the food back and pass it around the table.”

Mom was not happy.  “You mean you want me to dirty every dish in the house so we can pass around the food I just spent all day cooking and serving you?  And then I’ll have to wash every dish, because nobody’s going to help me.  Is that what you want?”

We all nodded.  That was EXACTLY what we all wanted.

On Thanksgiving, passing food is as much a tradition as eating it.  My family went back into the kitchen and brought out a bunch of bowls and spoons.  After that, we pushed the food off our plates and into the bowls, one for corn, one for turkey, one for stuffing, etc.  When our plates were empty, we eagerly passed the food to one another.

“Mandy, can you pass me the potatoes?”

“Certainly, Bill.  Can you pass the green beans?”

“I can’t believe this,” Mom said.  “Look at all this work I have to do.”

We were too busy passing the food around to pay her much attention. This brings me to an important point in the story, because I don’t remember anything else that happened after that.  It wasn’t the best Thanksgiving ever, but at least something memorable happened.

This Thanksgiving, with no celebrations to attend here inKorea, I’ll just sit around and think about stuff from the past.  I’m not a super nostalgic person like Truman Capote apparently was, so the memories won’t make me feel as though I’m soaring like balloons into heaven.

Most memories are like that.  They aren’t saccharine.  They’re just there.


Five Korean Women and I Try to Find Common Ground in Regards to Romance and Flowers


Every Friday morning, five Korean women in their forties would scamper up to the English Zone located on the second floor of my High School specifically to see me.  For the next hour, we would have our “English Lesson,” which mostly consisted of them asking me questions about my sex life and me trying to answer them in English, making sure they could understand what I was saying and that I didn’t come off looking like a scumbag.  Four of the women had sons that went to my school; the other one came because she lived in the area.  Our “Parent Class” was not, by any means, something unique to my school.  All foreign public school teachers, to my knowledge, have a class on their schedule for the parents of their students.

The content of those classes, I’m sure, varies greatly depending on the teacher.

At first, I tried to run Parent Class like I would run any other class.  I came prepared with low-level articles to read, vocabulary words, and grammar exercises.  These were shot down immediately.

“This is very boring,” said Jennifer, an English teacher herself.  “We would rather do open discussion.”

“Okay, that sounds great,” I said, trying not to look a little offended that my lesson had been poo-pooed before we even
started it.  “What would you like to discuss?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, not really.”

“What do you mean – not really?”

“Well, I’m sort of spending time with someone…”

And with that, the general tenor of our class was set.  I’m way too much of an open book, so for an hour every Friday I would end up getting advice about my love life from five Korean mothers.  There was even a time when I had gone on a couple dates (I think they were dates…dinner was involved…let’s just call them dates for the sake of simplicity) with a girl who was fluent in Korean, and I had the mothers from Parent Class send her texts from my phone in Korean, pretending to be me.

“What did you say to her?” I asked the delighted group.

“Oh, we said very nice things,” Awn-nee replied (‘Awn-nee’ means ‘big sister’ in Korean; as I had too much trouble remembering Awn-nee’s actual name, this is what I called her).  Then the girl texted back – in Korean – and the five mothers clapped and broke into laughter.  They told me her response was very encouraging.

“Awn-nee’s got game,” I thought.  “She’s doing much better than I usually do.”

Other times the parents talked about themselves.  They talked about their husbands.  Only one of them would openly say that she was still ‘in love’ with her husband.  Her name was Deborah.  She had gone to Jeju Island recently with her friends and was trying to tell the group about it.  Actually, she had already told the group about it in Korean, and was struggling to translate her description into English.  She took out her cell phone and typed something into the dictionary/translator feature.  With a smile on her face, she showed me the word that had come up on the screen:


“Rape?” I said, alarmed.  All of the others nodded and smiled.  “What do you mean rape?”

This was not good.  What had happened to Deborah in Jeju, and why was she so happy about it?  Was she coming forward, now, in Parent Class?  Maybe she could only come forward in English.  I would have to alert the police!  This was a nightmare!

“Very beautiful,” she said.  I turned to Jennifer, because Jennifer was basically fluent.  “What’s she talking about?” I asked.

“She’s talking about the flowers that grow on the island,” Jennifer told me.  “What did you think?  Oh, did you think…”

And then Jennifer started laughing at me.

Apparently – who knew! – there is a breed of flower called “rape flowers” (“rape” is Latin for “turnip”).  They grow in China and Korea and I’m sure they grow in other places too.  The next week, Deborah brought in a zip drive with pictures from her trip.  She put them up on the smart board in the classroom.  Beautiful yellow flowers filled the screen, the sun shining down on them.

“Here are rape flowers,” she said.  “So pretty.”

She was right – they were pretty.  Horribly named, but pretty.

Those flowers needed to be re-named, stat.  I wondered what Deborah’s actual name was.  I didn’t know.  All I knew was that she was kind and drank wine at night and had a husband that she loved.

Then I thought about the names of the other people around me.  Jennifer.  Awn-nee.  The students with their silly made up names like “Cornchip” and “Bon Jovi.”  Later, at the academy, the students would re-name me “Kim Ho Jin.”  Names have meaning, and are at the same time completely meaningless.  They’re all about connections, connotations.  What sounds alarming to one person signifies a field a golden flowers to another.

I had one student who chose to name himself “Mexicana.”  I asked him why he wanted to be called ‘Mexican.’  That’s not what it meant, he said.  I asked him what it meant.  He told me he picked it because it was the name of a chicken restaurant in Korea, and he liked the chicken there.



Help Me From My Brain


My father stormed around the house in a state of panic.  “All of the credit cards are gone,” he said, his nerves making his voice hit high notes.  “I don’t know where they are…someone must’ve stolen them.”

For one week, sometime circa 1990, things were not well in the Panara household.  Actually, things were rarely well in the Panara household, but this week was slightly worse than the norm.  How had this happened?  Had someone really stolen all of my father’s credit cards and, if so, how had the person done it?  My father’s wallet was still there.  Was it feasible that someone pick-pocketed him, took the credits cards out of his wallet, and then returned it to his back pocket?  No one knew.  It was like trying to figure out how they get the ship in the bottle, only it involved credit cards and had nothing to do with ships or bottles.

The mystery of the credit cards was eventually solved when my father realized that he had hid them in the basement.  I don’t recall if he stumbled upon them accidentally or if the light bulb went on above his head.  Fearing that the credit cards would be stolen, my father hid them under a rug in the basement.  Somehow he forgot about it afterwards, and then, strangely, believed that they were in fact taken.  He sat on the basement couch, overcome with confusion.  “What’s wrong with me?” he asked, rhetorically.  “What’s wrong with my brain?”

I didn’t answer him; I was too busy searching the basement, hoping maybe he’d forgotten about a stack of money of money he’d hidden away in similar fashion.  Or some traveler checks.  Or a coupon book.  I was desperate.

Now I’m getting older.  In what seems like the blink of an eye, I’m my early thirties, and I find myself doing inexplicable things, a la my father and his credit cards, all the time.  Just this week I’ve tried riding the bus by swiping my gym card; I got in the elevator after walking in my apartment building and desperately hit  the ‘1’ button over and over again, curing and on the verge of  having a breakdown because the elevator wasn’t going anywhere; and I put a fork in the refrigerator after cleaning it.  At school, I have two black markers to use on the white board.  I’m well aware that one works and the other is dead.  Do I throw the dead marker away?  Of course not.  Instead, every time I go to write on the board, it’s like playing Russian Roulette with markers.  I’m constantly trying to write with the dead one and, in my head, saying, “Why the hell didn’t you throw this marker out?  It’s dead you moron!  Throw it away.”  And then I put it back down with the other markers.

What’s going on with my brain?  It’s all little stuff, but it’s adding up and getting annoying.  I wanted to go to the bank this week, on Monday afternoon, and I looked for my bankbook.  I looked in the drawer where I keep my important stuff – there was my passport, and my TEFL certificate, and even some forms from the bank.  The bankbook, however, was no where to be found.  Why in the world didn’t I put it with everything else?  For the next hour, I tore up the apartment looking for it.  I went through everything, even my luggage, trying to find the stupid missing bankbook.  In my head, I did that thing where you try to retrace your steps.  “Okay, I went to the bank last month.  What would I do?  I come in the apartment.  I’ve got the bankbook.  I put it…”

Who knows where I put it.  It’s still MIA, and although that’s not a big deal, it’s bugging me something fierce.  Similarly, I got a letter – all in Korean – regarding my pension money.  I brought it to school to have my boss Leah translate it for me.  At the end of the day, when neither Leah or I had class, I wanted to show her the letter.  Could I?  No.  It was gone – completely vanished.  So I got to waste a solid half hour searching for the pension letter.  I finally found it folded and stuck in one of the textbooks.  That meant that I’d gotten to school and thought, “Hmm, where should I put this important letter?  Oh, I know!  I’ll fold it and stick in a random part of this textbook here, and then put the book back on the shelf with the other twenty textbooks.  Yeah, that’ll make it easy to find.”

If I had a machine that could track my thoughts and give me a daily print out of the things that go through my mind with the highest frequency, the list would probably look something like this: Where’s my phone?  What the hell did I do with the pen?  Where are my white socks – I can’t possibly be out of white socks already?  Why didn’t I buy toilet paper at the store – I specifically went to the store for toilet paper and then bought potato chips?  What in God’s name is my password to log into (insert online account) – oh, (after doing the password retrieve thing) why did I pick that?  I’ll never remember that!  I’ll change it later.

It’s maddening.  I’m not going insane, just batty enough for it to be highly irritating.  In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that’s fine.  I must remind myself sometimes that I’m not losing my mind – I’m just losing everything else.

(Here’s the song from which I stole this tittle, by the amazing and outstanding band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers!)





9:00 Salmon


Two Saturdays ago, TTD and I went to the GNC section at Homeplus, looking for ways to put fat on my body.  My friend Brad told me that if I was going to try and bulk up, I should get a good weight gain shake.  “Got it,” I said, “I’ll drink six shakes a day.”

“Dude,” he told me, “don’t do that.  All you’ll do is poop it out.”

“That’s fine,” I said.  “Strengthen my colon.”

“Your body can only process 20-25 grams of protein at a time.  The rest it poops out.  You’ll have a monster colon.”

“People will ask me, ‘how’s your workout routine going?’” I said, “And I’ll tell them, ‘I’m still weak as hell, but my colon is nothing to mess with.’”

With that lovely conversation in mind, I purchased an enormous vat of weight gainer shake called “Pro Performance: Mass XXX.”  It cost about $90 and weighed roughly the same as TTD and I put together.  If anything was going to make me bigger, I guessed Mass XXX could do the trick.  Really, I just liked the name.  It inspired confidence in me, even though it sounded like a porno set in a church.

This would be my second time trying to bulk up.  The first attempt was about a year and a half ago, six months before I came to Korea.  I wanted muscles but didn’t know where to start.  Walmart seemed like a good place to begin, so I went there and bought a thing called Iron Gym.  I was slightly worried because Iron Gym came in a little cardboard box; it was basically a metal bar with a big curve in it that I could either do pushups with or hang in my doorway and use as a pull up bar.  There was a pamphlet that came inside the box that really caught my attention, though.  The little white booklet said that diet was extremely important and I would have to eat a ton of protein for my muscles to grow.  I’d never thought about that.  As a person who skips meals in favor of cough drops and cigarettes, I had missed out on one of life’s great secrets: when people eat, they’re actually working out.

Iron Gym had a recommended meal plan for me.  It consisted of seven meals a day, each containing a specific amount of protein.  Eventually my diet would take shape.  It looked like this:

  • 5:00 AM – Wake up.  Eat two eggs and a bowl of oatmeal.
  • 8:00 AM – Eat one protein energy bar.
  • 12:00 PM – Have bowl of pasta with one can tuna.  Drink one protein shake to go with it.
  • 2:30 PM – Have snack of carrot sticks and two hard boiled eggs.
  • 4:30 PM – Drink another protein shake.
  • 6:30 PM – Eat first dinner.  Chicken and potatoes.
  • 9:00 PM – Eat second dinner.Salmon and vegetables.

I stuck to this diet for nearly three months.  In the beginning, I couldn’t have been more excited.  I was lifting dumbbells in my apartment and doing push ups, all the while eating six more meals than I typically would.  Pull ups were still a problem.  I was paranoid about doing them in the door frame.  It felt like I would hit my head on the ceiling every time I got my chin over the bar.  “Perhaps I should buy a crash helmet,” I thought.  Soon I developed little muscles and would spend hours flexing them in the mirror.  I’d usually have to stop flexing because it was time to eat again.

By the third month, though, the diet was turning into a nightmare.  I’d wake up in tears.  “I don’t want more eggs…please God…please…no more eggs.”  The second dinner was the worst.  I wasn’t hungry and the thought of eating salmon at nine at night was nauseating.  It wasn’t even good salmon.  The salmon I had came in a little plastic pouch and I cooked it in the microwave.  Sometimes I would gag trying to eat it.  My inner trainer would yell at me:  “Do you want muscles?!  Eat the salmon!  You wanna look good for the next girl you take out to dinner?  Eat the salmon you pansy!  And when you take the girl out to dinner, order salmon then too!  Salmon and eggs!”

Dr. Jackie was my physician, and I had to see him for a physical.  Getting a physical was required before I could come to Korea.  I stepped up on the scale, excited to see what my new weight was.

140 lbs.

“140 lbs?!” I shouted in shock and despair.  “That can’t be right.  Dr. Jackie, I’m eating seven meals a day!  I’ve been doing that for three months!  How in the world did I only gain five pounds?”

He asked me what I was eating and I went through my entire diet.  His brow furrowed and he shook his head.  “Carrot sticks?  Vegetables?  That’s not gonna gain you any weight.  You need calories.  Lots and lots of calories.”

“But what about the protein?  Iron Gym says I need protein.”

“Don’t listen to Iron Jim, whoever he is,” Dr. Jackie said.  “Concentrate on calories.  Eat a steak.”

“Does that mean no more salmon?”

“It means mix it up.”

That advice seemed good for both my physical and mental health.  Around that time, unfortunately, I spiraled into one of my depressions and everything stopped.  Eating all the meals.  Drinking the protein shakes.  Doing pull ups with the crash helmet.  I went back to cough drops and cigarettes.  Over a year later, though so much time has passed, I feel as though I’m ready to re-dedicate myself.  To muscles.  And calories.

TTD was far ahead of me.  I tried to keep up, but it was difficult since I had to lug around the massive keg of Mass XXX.  Sitting on the bus, I talked more about what Brad told me to do.  “He also said I need to do cardio…get my heart pumping and work up a good sweat.”

“That’s solid advice,” TTD said.

“The thing is, I would prefer to do this without sweating,” I said, thinking about my life.  “Brad said that once I get going, I won’t even want to drink or smoke anymore.  He said my body will reject the poison.”

TTD didn’t respond, as she had lost interest and was thinking about something else.

“But all my body knows is poison,” I continued.  “It’s been fifteen straight years of poison.  I mean, if you really want to
get your heart pumping, go to your apartment, smoke a couple cigarettes, and then take the stairs instead of the elevator.”

The mighty salmon, I’m told, swim upstream instead of downstream.  I, like the salmon, have a difficult road ahead of me.  “Why do the salmon do what the salmon do?” Richard Jeni, doing an impression of Jacques Cousteau, once asked.  After fifteen years of poison, something has to change.

Upstream it is.


Quench Your Thirst with a Cold Drink of Plastic


This world of ours is so full of rules, isn’t it?  It’s asinine how many rules there are!  Don’t ask a woman her age.  Don’t wear white after Arbor Day, or something like that.  Don’t squeeze the Charmin.  Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  I don’t even know what a gift horse is!  Do some people get a horse for Christmas or something?  What if it has bad teeth?  Who the hell is going to help the poor gift horse with its dental problems if no one can look at its mouth?  Ridiculous!

Anyways, here’s another rule: don’t drink the tap water in Korea.  There’s some debate as to whether or not this is a necessary rule or something people just avoid doing out of habit.  Some time ago Korea was horribly polluted and had bad piping, so drinking the tap water was out of the question.  I’ve heard that it’s okay now, although people prefer to play things safe by boiling the water before drinking it.  It’s kind of like this – imagine tomorrow you were told you didn’t have to cook meat anymore, you could just eat it.  You would still probably cook it, right?  I personally wouldn’t eat a packet of raw ground chuck even if was completely safe.  That’s disgusting!

When I first moved to Korea, I didn’t have a water boiler, nor did I have any plastic bottles.  I bought some bottled water from the GS 25, and, after I drank it, I kept the bottle.  Then I boiled water, poured it into the coffee pot (because that has a spout), and poured it into the water bottle.  The problem, though, was that the water bottle melted right away, twisting and contorting into a bizarre shape.  I put it in the fridge anyways, but when I drank it, the water tasted terrible.  I could taste the plastic in the water, the same way I can taste the whisky when I order a Jack and Coke.  This seemed unhealthy.  Plus, and more importantly, it didn’t taste good.  In the end, I stuck to buying bottled water at the GS 25 whenever I was thirsty.

There was a water boiler in the new apartment I moved into at the end of summer, and I was excited.  I bought some plastic bottles and started boiling water.  However, I had the same problem as before.  Every time I poured the water into the bottle, the plastic would melt.  I was confounded.  I decided to ask Hipster Trish about what I was doing wrong.

“Hey,” I said on Facebook chat, “you have a water boiler, right?  I have a question.  How do keep the bottles from melting when you pour the water in?”

Hipster Trish responded with – “Is that a serious question?”

What the hell?  Of course it was.  “Oh,” she said, “I thought you were joking.  Um, I let the water cool down before I pour it in the plastic bottle.”

I read this and nodded.  She always has the best advice.  “How long should I let it cool down for?”

“Until, um, it’s not hot,” she said.  “Maybe a couple hours.  Bill, are you really serious?”

“Yeah.  I keep melting these bottles.  And the water tastes funny.”

If Hipster Trish was in the room with me, her voice would’ve been low and firm.  “That’s really not good for you.  You could get plastic poisoning, you know?  The plastic could damage your brain.  It does that.  If you go on drinking melted plastic, you could cause real damage to your brain cells.”

“I’ll make sure I let the water cool for at least six hours,” I said.  It never dawned on me that this situation was so urgent.  Plastic poisoning?  Why didn’t I think of that?  I’ve worked with people who had eaten paint chips.  Eating paint chips isn’t that much different from drinking plastic.  I tried to think some deep thoughts, to see if my mind had already deteriorated.  I had a twenty minute debate in my head over theology and decided I was fine, but then I wondered if a person could tell if he or she has brain damage.  Could I accurately assess if I was getting dumber?  Maybe my theology debate was simplistic and I had no idea.

Then again, if I had brain damage, I might be happier.  I wondered if I could find a good balance between my normal mind and a calmer, duller one.  I could drink just enough plastic to give me the right amount of brain damage.  No, that was a bad idea.  As a great philosopher once said, “Brain damage on the mic don’t manage nothing, but making the sucker in you equal.  Don’t be another sequel.”

So I started letting the water cool and stopped drinking plastic, until recently, when I started making weight gainer shakes.  I figured the powder would dissolve better if the water was hot, which led me to pour hot water into the plastic cup again to make my shakes.  Mind you, the cup isn’t being physically altered.  To the naked eye, it appears to retain its shape perfectly.  I feel drinking the shake is safe.  The cup looks fine and feels sturdy, and I’m not pouring boiling water into it to begin with.  Still, I’m a bit paranoid about the whole brain damage thing.  I think I’ll be okay; we’ll have to wait and see.

Really, all things considered, it might be safer for me to just start drinking the tap water.