Thursday, December 25, 2008


I apologize if this blog has seemed a bit Boo-centric lately, but I've gotta accommodate the family requests for updates!

Anyway, here's Emily opening her Christmas present; we went for one big one this year. She's getting lots of little ones as part of Hanukkah.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

So it's Christmas Eve, and Emily has been put to bed with tales of Santa Claus and all of that corny stuff. She actually isn't too keen on a dude sneaking into the house, but she felt much better about the situation when it was explained that there will be presents involved.

She's pretty excited.

This is my "first" Christmas experience as a parent; up until now my daughter has simply been too young to appreciate the holiday. I find myself looking forward to Christmas morning more now than I ever did as a child. I always appreciated the parental Christmas experience in an intellectual way, but now it's my turn. I can't wait to witness her joy and hear her silver laughter; sometimes it feels like I live my life for that sound. She gives me so such.

I'm pretty excited.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Menorahs and Christmas Trees

Well the wife is having some trouble finding a Menorah in Seoul, but Christmas trees are in abundance. This is Emily's first Christmas tree, and she is rather excited about it. Come to that, so am I! Just looking at it makes me feel warm and snuggly and.. home.


Friday, December 12, 2008


A few weekends ago, the wife and I decided to do the famous DMZ tour. North Korea has always fascinated me, a nation-sized Cold War relic and monument to ego that would be comical if it wasn't so tragic and dangerous. The recent rumors of Jong-Il's health problems have really brought the question of "what next" to the forefront of a lot of minds here.

So anyway, the border is only about 60km north of Seoul. About 40km out, you start to see huge razor-wire fences along the shores of the Han river; this is because the North has often sent infiltration teams overland or down the river. The last known incident was only about 6 years ago, so this isn't something that is buried in the past. Hundreds of miles of shoreline are manned 24/7 against this sort of thing, it's like living right next to a James Bond villain.

The shore defenses. The "Freedom Highway" that our bus followed paralleled the river. Those hills were our first glimpse of North Korea. You may not be able to tell from this pic, but they are entirely denuded; harvested for lumber years ago. The resulting flooding has devastated agriculture and contributed to multiple famines in the DPRK.

As we drove further and further north, traffic on the freeway tapered off until we were the only vehicle on the road. Eventually we started to see gigantic house-sized concrete blocks balanced along the side of (and above) the road; tank traps. At this point we were no longer allowed to take pictures, so the one above was it for awhile. Even further in and we were swerving back and forth between more barriers strewn across the highway, and stopping at multiple checkpoints. Mine field warning signs also began to appear. As you pass mile after mile of mine fields, 30-foot razor wire fences, concertina wire, and artillery emplacements, you begin to realize that all of this stuff is real. It's hard to believe that this Cold War shit is still going on anywhere in the world, but here it is.

The USO tour we took stopped at several rather surreal spots on the way to the Joint Security Area. The first stop was an overlook of the JSA and the two propaganda villages maintained by each side. Again, picture-taking was not allowed, but they had coin-operated binoculars set up. Through these I saw a guy walking down the street in the North's propaganda village 2km away, and it really hit me then. There's a guy, living in that hell, and I can see him with my own eyes. Of course I'm sure he's one of the privileged to be allowed anywhere close to the DMZ, but it was still jarring.

The next stop was the Third Tunnel, which is the third of four North-dug invasion tunnels discovered so far. #4 was found in 1990, and some theories claim that up to 20 additional tunnels exist. This one was found in 1978, and by the time ROK forces had dug an interception tunnel, the NK tunnelers had rubbed coal over the granite walls and claimed that it was a coal mine. After this we got to watch a rather jingoistic film on how awesome the ROK is, how duplicitous the North is, and how reunification has practically already happened. Given the reality, this film was extremely bizarre.

An additional interesting fact about the DMZ is that it has become a four kilometer-wide nature preserve. Nobody goes into that area (except for the JSA and propaganda villages), so many rare animals have had kind of a field day in there. Also, the rice and ginseng grown by the ROK propaganda villagers goes for about 6x the normal price, because this area is completely unpolluted. The North's village is thought to be uninhabited. Lights come on at night, but they do so at the exact same time every evening and are thought to be on timers.

Our bus was ahead of schedule, so we got to stop at Dorasan Station, which is the last train station before you'd enter North Korea, if you could take a train up there. A few years ago, relations were warming between the two Koreas, and this station was built as part of that. The current pro-US administration is taking a harder line, and that has pissed off the North. It was fascinating to see all of these facilities sitting around, gleaming and new, waiting for reunification.


Our last stop was the "main attraction": The Joint Security Area. This is where you see NK and ROK soldiers staring at each other across a courtyard. It's the only place where this happens; the rest of the DMZ is 4 kilometers across. Both sides used to enjoy full freedom of movement within this square-kilometer area, but ever since the 1976 Ax-Murder Incident, the JSA has been divided along the actual Demarcation Line.

So we pulled up to the ROK's Freedom House, walked up some stairs, and all of a sudden we step out into this famous scene:

It's deathly quiet; all conversation halted as we walked out here. Aside from us, the only people were the guards on both sides, staring at each other in complete silence. It blew my mind to be standing here, it's almost like going back in time. 30 feet away is the line, and across it is the most isolated, closed nation on earth. No walls, no fences.. people have tried to run across in the past. In 1984 a Soviet tourist did so, and this resulted in a small battle. The latest incident was in 1998, when a NKPA Captain simply stepped across and defected. Lethal incidents have started here simply because of perceived rude gestures or facial expressions.

There is a tension in the air that is palpable; it's impossible to describe. Bill Clinton called it "the scariest place on Earth", and I can't say I disagree. There's no immediate danger, but you can feel the weight of two entire nations focused on this one spot. It's the Cold War distilled into a physical location, but for the Koreans it's even more emotionally charged; this is brother vs. brother. You can't believe that a place like this still exists.

Here's a better shot of one of the North's guards.

We had a tour of one of the blue buildings; basically it's just a conference room, and you can stand "in" North Korea. There's a decidedly large Korean soldier there to prevent anyone from trying to open the door on that side.

Interestingly, the North Koreans run their own tours, presumably reserved for Chinese tourists and politically reliable citizens. In the conference room you could see footprints on the tables where the tour guides apparently stand to give their spiels; the soldier conducting our tour didn't even want us touching the furniture.

So that's the highlights. We also saw the dramatically-named Bridge of No Return, but we weren't allowed out of the bus here and it didn't photograph very well anyway. The JSA is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, it's like a living time capsule. If you haven't done so, go. And make sure you take the USO tour, because I don't believe any of the others are allowed into Panmunjom.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Neither Snow, Nor Sleet, Nor Slight Embellishment..

One cool thing about being stared at all the time is that sometimes you feel a little more free to do embarrassing stuff in public. Since everyone is always watching, after a few weeks you kind of develop a shell. So when the time comes, you might as well.. carry a huge toddler playset on your head for 2 kilometers along a major road.
No cabs were stopping and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get this thing into the back of one anyway, so after a few minutes I just said hell with it and started humping the beast down the sidewalk. Rest assured that by the time my daughter is old enough to appreciate the tale, it will have become a brutal 20km trek featuring blinding snow, elbow-magi ajummas, and a broken leg. Maybe some feral dogs.

So anyway, if any parents reading this have been looking for a good place to pick up some toys here in Seoul, lemme know; the shop where I found this has a good selection of European and US toys, and with the Won where it is the prices are decent.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Most Awesome Bed in History

Look at this:

It's called an Uroko House, and I think it's the most awesome piece of furniture I have ever seen. A warm, soft cocoon of books. With a few modifications, I think it would be perfect for Emily.

The wife thinks I'm nuts, she says that the kid would never go to sleep, that she'd spend all night reading.. but she does that already. Of course she can't read yet, but she loves looking through her books and pretending. On any given morning we'll enter her room to find about two dozen books strewn across the floor and her bed. Honestly, is it possible to read too much? Little secret: I will be sorely disappointed if I don't catch her reading under her blanket with a flashlight in a few years.

I first found this a few months ago, and I'll bet she thinks I've forgotten about it. I may not have my workshop anymore, but custom furniture is pretty cheap in Korea.. *shifty eyes*


Friday, December 5, 2008

Holy crap it's cold

Up until now winter has been sort of an abstraction; I haven't really experienced one in about six years. That sunny period ended today; it was about -6C (sorry folks at home, I'm trying to convert my head to Celsius) today, with a windchill taking it even lower. I know it really isn't all that cold; I certainly saw colder temperatures back in Maryland, but my blood has thinned after living in LA and Las Vegas.

It's kind of the reverse of my first summer in Vegas. Some days it'd get up to 47, and walking outside was like stepping into a blast furnace; by my second summer I was an old hand, and sometimes I'd drive with the windows open in the same weather. Hopefully I'll re-acclimate more quickly to Seoul.. in the meantime I think I'm going to pick up some long johns.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

On Reading and Writing

So lately I'm starting to consider "reading up" a bit. I've got this time, great oceans of the stuff, for the first time in almost 20 years. Perhaps this is informed by my school days, but I've always though of really good literature as kind of heavy; something that you need to slow down for, to savor and interpret. Because of that I never really had time for the good stuff, or at least that's how I've always thought.

So mostly I read candy. Stirling and Weber, those sorts of guys. Brisk functional science-fiction that I can pick up and put down at a moment's notice, maybe have two or three going at a time. Like candy, these books are tasty and fun, but they aren't very filling. I'm finding that lately, I want to sit down to a meal. I want some meat, some protein.

Yeah I know I'm laying the metaphor on pretty thick, that's kind of a crutch for me when I'm trying to invoke imagery. That brings up another question, too, one which echos the thoughts of every writer aspirant in history. I wonder: how do they do it? The good ones, I mean, the Big Ones. Good writing seems like it should be so damned easy. Anyone with the vocabulary and a smidgen of smarts should be able to slap prose together like legos. Poetry to Epics, everyone should be able to do it.

It was a relatively innocuous turn of phrase that inspired all of this; I was browsing around for a new piece of candy when I recalled reading about Carmac McCarthy's The Road. I'm a big sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction of any stripe, but I haven't gotten around to this one yet. On the first page is this passage:

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than the one that had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

That's not really spectacular in the grand scheme of things, I know, but it's definitely a step or two above my normal fare. It started me thinking about the other times I've read or heard really awesome prose, and how it affected me. I remember the first time very clearly; it was during Ronald Reagan's national address on the Challenger Disaster in 1986. Quoting a poem by John Gillespie Mcgee, he said this:

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."

I still tear up when I read that last bit, to me it's that incredible. It's like reading a symphony. How does someone write something like that? Why can't anyone? It's just a few simple words chained together, and yet it invokes so much. I was 10 years old, and that phrase was my political awakening. I fell in love with Ronald Reagan at that moment (and back out, but that's another story), and I was moved to start learning about.. well, everything. The Cold War, our domestic and foreign policies, the whole shebang. All of that from one turn of phrase.

I want that, again.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Boo room

There has been a familial request for a picture of Emily's room, so here it is. As you can see, MegaDomo bears his incongruous tomorrow's-outfit-bearing duty with dignity and poise. I know the room's a bit cluttered at the moment, we are in the process of moving some stuff about. This kid has way too many toys.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Navigating Seoul

Exploring Seoul has been an interesting challenge. Back in the States, England, and Japan, We were always able to count on Google maps, but they don't cover Korea yet. Adding to the fun is that fact that Seoul is an ancient city, so there's no easy-to-navigate grid thing going on, and many of the streets aren't even named.

Then there are the addresses.

Korean cities are divided in gu, or districts (Seoul has 25). Each gu is then further subdivided into dong, which are neighborhoods. So the first part of a written address will include the gu and dong, which is fine. The problem comes when you get down to the "which building and street" level, both because of the aforementioned nameless streets, and the fact that buildings are numbered by the order in which they were built. The oldest building in a dong is #1, the next oldest is #2, etc. The problem here is that, unless you know a neighborhood intimately, there is no rhyme or reason to this system. If #37 gets torn down and rebuilt, the new building becomes #480.

This isn't just an issue for us waegook either, because most local cabbies have the same problem. Every cab you get into here sports a GPS, and they use it constantly to figure out where they're going. Seoul is so frigging huge that there is no way a single person is going to know the ins and outs of every single dong; there are hundreds of them, with more springing up as the population grows. When someone gives you their card here, it often includes a little map along with the address. These maps usually use landmarks to help you out, but they are not always oriented with north being "up".

I have yet to find a decent map of Seoul; most of them are stylized tourist maps which aren't much good for serious navigation; if anyone reading this knows of a good English-language map for Seoul, please let me know. Because of this, I spend a lot of time on Wikimapia, which is a lifesaver. It's basically Google Maps with a whiteboard overlay, so users can label buildings and other points of interest. What I'll often do is print out an overhead shot from this site, with wherever it is that I'm looking for highlighted. I'm blessed with a pretty decent sense of direction, and I've also got a little pocket compass if I get turned around and it's a cloudy day. With these in hand and a little shoe leather, I've been able to find everything I've tried to find so far.. and I've certainly been getting a lot of exercise.


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