Since August I’ve been counting down the daylight. Each morning during my run, I stop at the same spot to snap a quick photo and track the changes of the sunrise. The sun shifts a bit more each day to the southeast–rising a few seconds later. Finally we’ve reached the turnaround. The days will start to grow again. We cautiously embark on a new year. More daylight starts to sink in.
When I was nine or ten I had a small smooth amber colored stone that was purchased at a quarry gift shop. We had gone on a school trip to the quarry, the dandelion yellow bus traveling the back roads to South Paris, Maine. New views outside of the familiar rectangle windows. On big bumps some of the windows would fall down, the plastic latch letting go.
The quarry was fascinating because you could keep whatever you found. Of course, the granite hills of Maine didn’t have much to offer. It wasn’t like California hills which glittered with promises of gold. Maine had some quartz, pyrite…maybe a leaf fossil if you were really lucky. But still, that dusty chasm that our bus pulled up to had some mystical promise to it. What secrets had the earth hidden in it’s rocky time capsule?
I was usually a quiet kid, but I mustered up enough courage to ask a question to the teacher: “We really get to keep whatever we find?”
“Yes, that’s right!” Mr. Bridge Koeningsburg said in his enthusiastic and proper way.
The bus pulled up and let us out. We had only 60 precious minutes to search. I can’t remember if we were given any tools. Maybe a small hammer. We got to work.
Most of the kids lost interest after five minutes. They started playing tag which degraded into rock throwing. I’m sure to Mr. BK’s eyes “the quarry” started to seem like the upcoming title to a Lord of the Flies sequel. I chipped away, disappointed at my efforts. Bits of stone crumbled in my tiny kid hands. I knew that the allotted 60 minutes was quickly coming to an end. Maybe not on a conscious level, but there was a part of my child unconscious that knew that kid chaos would soon result in Mr. BK calling off the dig early.
I tried to conjure up a remarkable find to no avail–straining with every inch of my subconscious. Time was up. I looked at my best friend Tommy whose eyes mirrored my same disappointment.
“Let’s go to the gift shop!” Mr. BK announced.
My committed and generous mom had joined us on the trip. She had always been involved in my elementary school years, somehow finding the time to help in the classroom or join on a field trip. This worked out in my favor, because a money source was readily available.
“You can pick one thing,” she said as we walked to the small hut of souvenirs.
I floated around the shop, looking at the shelves lined with craggy stones. Golden pyrite, deep purple geodes, boxes of arrow heads. A smooth amber stone attached to a hard cardboard paper caught my eye. It have small streams of white running through it. I picked it off the hook and flipped it over. On the back was a list of animals with characteristics for each. If you held the stone in your hand it could somehow tell you your spirit animal. This was my choice.
I didn’t know that you could have a spirit animal until this point. The card hinted at a deeper world of magic under the surface–one that many writers and artists have tapped into over the years. The fantasy world that lives just out of sight and can be accessed if you know where to look. It was ingenuous really. Make-shift astrology for kids. My friends and I took turns holding the stone in our palms, concentrating on what signal it would give us. It’s satisfying roundness finding a home in our hands and emanating its message. In the end I settled on fox. I’m not sure what Tommy picked or if he even bought into the whole thing.
On a recent morning run, I slogged along in the breaking day. The shortening daylight hours had timed my run perfectly with a sunrise on the backside of the oreum that my route hits every morning. There had been some rain overnight, and the concrete was stained darker. I moved my body over the oreum’s peak and turned the corner for the back, looking at the clouds that were brightening with the rising sun. And then in the path was a panicked deer.
The deer’s antler’s had been caught in a farmer’s net. It couldn’t fathom the invisible force that tugged on its scalp as it strained its entire body, neck taught, grunting and whimpering, it strained as hard as it could in one direction, and then realized that the only way to go was back. It tumbled off the road, and pulled the net in the other direction, a small cry of hopelessness emitting from its tired lungs.
I tried to untangle the antlers, but it was too dangerous. The deer was freaked, and when it saw me it became more nervous. I needed a tool to cut the fencing. I booked it home and grabbed my scissors. Jumped into my car and drove back. Within a few minutes I had the deer almost free. Only a few strands of plastic netting remained. The deer pulled hard and looked at me intently. If it came forward it could do some real damage. One snip. It continued to stare, a little deeper. I looked hard at the antlers which suddenly seemed a lot sharper. Grabbing the rope I pulled for extra tension. I climbed up a little, trying to get as close as possible. The deer kept staring, blowing warm air forcefully through its nostrils as it pulled in the other direction. Second snip. It staggered back and immediately bolted into the forest, some excess rope dangling from its antler. Then quiet.
A few weeks later, the incident was repeated. I rounded the same corner and was greeted with a wild beast. Jeju deer are on the miniature side compared to the white-tails of Maine, but this was bigger than usual. Up close his muscles quivered with electric strength. It barked when it saw me and flopped over the side of the road into the bushes. I knew what to do this time.
When I arrived with my scissors, the deer still struggled, wrestling against the invisible force. I sloppily chopped at the net, just trying to get it cut. He bucked and grunted, eventually getting stuck behind one of the larger trees on the oreum’s embankment. I hacked at the fence like it was a mythical hydra, and managed to get it down to one strand as before. But I couldn’t get close enough to cut the rope short. He looked at me with anger and confusion, emanating unpredictability. I cut, leaving a good two feet of rope on the antlers.
The deer was free but bothered. The rope dangled from his head and it swung furiously as he bolted into the field below. The rope seemed to be pulling his head down to one side as he bounced through the field. He came to a four foot stone wall, still hindered by the rope’s weight. With a giant vertical leap he cleared the wall and then ran disoriented into the forest.
Another week later biking to work I rounded a farm road corner and looked down. On the edge of the thick Jeju Gotjawal forest was a dead baby deer, perfectly intact. It was as if the forest had placed it there as an offering to the world outside. I could only guess that a car speeding on the back farm road had clipped it. I stopped my bike and looked closely. It’s hazy eyes had lost the wildness that I had glimpsed in the two rescued deer. I didn’t know what to make of this. Was Jeju undoing my work? Were we counting back down now?
Over time, I lost the smooth amber rock from the quarry. I’m sure that in my teenage years, it took on an embarrassing significance and was discarded. There was no more time for magic. These deer reconnected me with that animal energy. Brushing up against the wild had reminded me of that feeling that the gimmicky cardboard had elicited. But this felt more concrete than that. The mechanizations of the universe were coming together in a weird way. I waited for the next sign.
A few days after the baby deer incident on a post-work run, I hit a patch of road leading up to my apartment complex. It was a slight climb that banked left past a tangerine grove and a barn. I was startled to see a man laying on the ground by the barn almost in the road. He was motionless. His head was a melon waiting to be burst by a passing tire. Was he alive? My mind flashed to the baby deer. Was this nature’s balancing blow? I stopped in my tracks for two long seconds, my stomach reacting before my head could.
And then the man shot upright to a seating position and smiled and said something I couldn’t hear through my headphones. I waved and sprinted the last few hundred meters to my apartment.
What did all of these omens add up to? Probably nothing. Life continues its random march through time. But still, I’m more attuned these days as I round the corners. I look up at vague outlines in the morning gloom with curiosity and sometimes horror. The ambiguous shadows taking on imaginary forms.
These incidents are reminders. Small divergences in a routine that show that there can be something new, shocking, or exciting around the bend. The faint flame of childhood discovery is kept fanned.
Jeju’s Gotjawal forest holds some unknown. One of its features is its rocky terrain that has prevented agriculture. Vines and thick trees have formed their way into the rough land. On my trail runs, I sometimes hear the deer barking at sunset, reminding me of the mystery. I peer into the inscrutable forest for a deer with a small bit of rope dangling from its antler. My new spirit animal.
The skyline is a marble blue punctuated by a small craggy island. Some boats speckle the horizon, crawling in lazy slow-motion. The brisk relief of fall–nature’s exhale after a humid and rainy summer. My mind feels sharper in the crisp morning. Already the sun is baking the cool AM to a mid-day heat, but we’re ducking out.
We park our cars by the sea and walk toward the cliff-drop. We descend into a tucked-away cave with a craggy volcanic roof and smooth-stone floor, passing down gear-bags to outstretched hands. It’s dark down here, with small thunder from each wave that hits the stone shore break. The larger ones splash up in the cave’s oval window that frames the day outside.
There’s unnatural decorating that’s been done. Styrofoam beads have exploded in the cavern, filling up each crevice like a tiny ball pit. Other debris is strewn about too: flip flops, water bottles, buoys, a barnacle encrusted slipper–still furry. This scene could be a display in a modern art museum, the styrofoam reminiscent of a playful Yayoi Kusama creation. Perhaps it was the back-to-back typhoons that brought this detritus from the sea. Or perhaps the ocean had just had enough and decided to wretch out a little of what’s been bothering it. Sturdy mesh bags and gloves emerge. I put on a pair and we begin to clean.
I dig my hands into the styrofoam, flip them over, pull them out. I remember hearing on a podcast that humans find beauty in the multitudinous. There’s a theory that our survival instinct has us hardwired to react to surplus. Repeated patterns have a special appeal. The styrofoam beads pour down my gloved palms and quietly drop back into place. I scoop up handfuls and slowly start to fill my bag. Meanwhile, Subin and Namki snap pictures of the trash while making disapproving sounds.
The sea churns waves underneath
In emerald cave
There are other efforts happening to clean Jeju. A group has been slowly working their way up the mountainous 1131 highway near Mt. Halla’s most popular trail (성판악). Their leader is ultra runner named Been–known as the tiger of Hallasan. Tigers, when they lived in Korea (the last one was seen in 1922, but there were never any in Jeju), used to operate in a radius. Her radius is this mountain. Been is playful and joking but prickles at the sight of highway trash. There’s an uncompromising regard for the mountain’s innate beauty that propels her forward. She and her rotating crew of volunteers clean the shoals of the road each weekend, sorting through brambles and bushes to extricate garbage that has been carelessly tossed out of windows or, in more egregious cases, dumped into piles. Been conducts the volunteers like a sportive general, jogging up and down the highway’s edge. Both jocular and chiding as she goes.
I help out one day, making the early morning drive up to the highway. There is a scavenger-hunt quality. Discovering bags of McDonalds in one culvert, and an antique bottle a few meters away in the mud. The bags fill quickly over the course of a few hours. Cars hurtle by and kick up wind. We drag finds out of the forest: car mirrors, wrappers, tires, a paint roller. The smell of composted leaves and damp earth. Patterns of trash start to emerge, and I notice a hierarchy of commonality. Lots of plastic straws, disposable cups, water bottles. The most common brand of bottle is I find is 삼다수. “The source of Jeju Samdasoo is under a superbly-preserved primeval forest near Hallasan National Park, free and far from contamination,” their website boasts.
I pluck an old cassette tape with no label from the bramble vines and they release it willingly. I wonder about the cassette’s owner. Who throws a cassette out of a car window? Was it somebody post-breakup who took an evening drive in the mountains. That one song came on that touched too hard on a raw wound. The person dramatically ejected the tape and threw it out into the dark quiet forest. Or maybe the tape wouldn’t play anymore and they just decided to ditch it. Plastic, the shed skin of human living.
After a few hours, we pose next to our hill of garbage, get into our cars and make our way back down the mountain. It’s hard not to keep noticing trash for the next few hours, my brain echoing the task for a while.
Vines and forest floor
Detonated time capsule
Tapes, bottles, mirrors
After we clean the ocean cave, we pull flippers onto our feet and goggles over our eyes. Subin has been leading the charge with her group of free diving friends, Diphda, on cleaning the beaches of Jeju. Like a traveling pod of dolphins, they spend their weekends at various water sources around the island– cleaning, sunning, playing. Subin brings the same passionate intensity as Been to her project. Simultaneously basking in the ocean while feeling an urgent need to help it. Geared up, we push out into the sea. The underwater world opens. The muffled sounds of bubbles and currents. Dull whir throb of powerful waves. We venture out into the sea to explore, occasionally taking big gulps of air before diving down to inspect a detail in the depths.
The news has been strange lately in its apocalyptic consistency. Vast blood red sky behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Hurricanes. Drought. The natural disasters seem in lock-step with the disconcerting political news that emerges each day. John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Venerated icons as wise as the redwoods leaving.
The earth can reduce styrofoam to small beads, and eventually nothing. Poisonous microplastics now will cycle out in the long run. People have become multitudinous on the planet, but I don’t get the same reaction of awe when I see them en masse. There’s an uneasy potential. Each is a small plus or minus for positive or negative change, and right now it feels like the scale is tipped in the wrong direction. On a recent hike to the top of Mount Halla, my friends and I arrived at the top to find a thriving colony of hikers. The occasional piece of wrapper blew away in the breeze. People formed a long line to take their picture with the sign. Nature reduced to a series of photo ops.
There’s no lack of causes to get involved with. For me these days, it’s cleaning up one bag of trash at a time. It’s a small anodyne. But anodyne for what? My environmental angst? The planet? Perhaps these small efforts can continue to cascade outward. Small social changes catching and changing minds. I’m convinced that in order to heal humanity we have to start with the earth.
There’s a lonely pod of dolphins that I spot sometimes on the west of Jeju. They hang and dive and swim and crest. Moving up and down the coastline. It seems like they’re playfully wasting time. They could be awaiting the arrival of some friends, or just surveying the ocean floor. They’re a patient mystery.
One day, after long hibernation, the tiger awoke. It emerged into the daylight, stretched out its claws and looked around. It’s was incredible how much had been unchanged while it had slumbered.
After years and years
A forgotten tiger wakes
“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” – Michael McCarthy
DIPHA Jeju For people on Jeju, check out their Instagram posts for a chance to get involved in a clean-up effort while getting discounts on tasty coffee and beer!
Vacation sets in. The mind moves with the forward progress of work and propels for days, even weeks. Normally there’s an emancipation to vacation marked by a physical leaving of Jeju. A transporting long trip to the States involving around 24 hours of buses, trains, flights, and cars. Bodily movement can coax the mind into a departure from routine. The hard reset of jet lag.
But this time I stay on Jeju for the first time in my seven years here. The vestiges of work-mind mix with a surplus of free time to create a low-level feeling of urgency. What to do with the time? A day can be spent on a small task–a trip to the grocery store or a walk on the beach. The hours melt away and then meander.
The swath of free hours means a migration of details. Transitioning from remembering the specifics of teaching (67 students, missing assignments, meetings, grades, deadlines, virtual school, maybe virtual school, not virtual school) to the open space of summer and a processing of what has been happening in the USA. With all of the time I could catch up with friends and family, organize my apartment, surf, work on music, read, stretch, write, figure out ways to become more politically involved, run, relax.
The list of things that I want to do swells the limits of a day’s hours. It feels like the hyperdrive mind of teaching during the pandemic isn’t going to be easily slowed. Each day eases a bit though, and the summer details start to come more into focus. The days elongate. I settle into my apartment and feel more command of the space. I visit the beach with Rupert and snap some photos.
In the midst of the drifting days a realization hits me like a thunderclap on a clear day. My passport is missing.
When was the last time I saw it? I close my eyes and conjure the image–a leather case sandwiching the navy blue outer casing. I’m not one to lose things. It actually feels like my mind is too active sometimes in its rundown of details. This isn’t like me.
The ensuing days are maddening. How do you retrace days that have all been exactly the same? The previous nine weeks fog up in my mind. I try to pick them apart but am only met with an impenetrable wall of mundane memories. I’ve spent much of my time since March in the same space. Many days working and then relaxing on the same spot. How can I dissect them?
The last time I knew I had had it was when I had fingerprints taken at the police station. I check the storage box where I usually put it. It’s not there. I pace around a bit. Check the box again. Still not there. I get on my hands and knees and look underneath all of the furniture. Finally I convince myself that I had left it in my classroom and put the thought aside for a day. Another beach walk. More photos.
It’s not in my classroom.
I check the box where I usually put it again. Dump out all of its contents. No passport but some old photos that I had printed fanned out onto the floor. I sift through, looking at images from three years prior when I had moved from Seoul to Shanghai. A mix of Jeju and Seoul. I put the contents away carefully, finally admitting that the passport isn’t there.
I reorganize my clothes, thinking that it might be in a stray fold. I check every coat pocket. I reorganize my music equipment. I take out everything from kitchen shelves and put them back again. I look under my rugs with the faint hope that some imaginary trickster had hidden if there as a bad joke. I do laps of my apartment on on all fours like a wild animal, scanning the hidden crevices at floor level. I vacuum every inch of my car, sucking up countless grains of sand from my trips to Jeju’s various beaches. I call the airport lost and found. I check drawers repeatedly.
Everything is clean and in order. My passport is nowhere. It’s OK, when’s the next time I’ll be traveling anyway? I can just wait and maybe it will turn up somewhere. Right? But I can’t wait. This is reaching a mania. The missing passport is a black hole pulling all of my other thoughts in its gravity. How could I lose something so important? Something that is such a keystone to international living. How do I even get a new one? I stare at the ceiling at night thinking about it. Ideas strike me. Drawers I might not have checked. I spring up and run to them but find nothing but disappointment.
So it’s a hail Mary trip to the police station on the off chance that I had left it there when I was fingerprinted for my teaching license renewal. Upon arrival, the area where the friendly fingerprinting cop used to be is now a construction zone. Not a good sign. I enter the main building and with the help of Google translate explain my plight. But my passport isn’t there.
I sit dejected eating some salmon eggs Benedict at a brunch spot near my apartment. I stare into space meditating, trying to conjure up where it might be. My deep meditation is probably concerning the waitress. I pay it no mind. I’m too deep into this mission now to care about civilians and their social norms. I slow my heart rate and focus. Maybe it was stolen? There’s a slight sliver of a memory that keeps nagging me. A faint flashback of telling myself, “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” But where was that?
I picture the moment when I find it. How good that feeling is when you discover something that you’ve been missing. When that light switch goes on. It’s unlike anything else. It’s a flood of nectar. I try to will that moment to happen but keep returning to the same realization. It’s nowhere.
I get back to my apartment. My nice clean apartment that feels so empty because of the one thing that’s not there. Rupert stares at me blankly. His cavernous jet black eyes as usual reveal no answers. They are voids that reflect the universe’s deep questions.
This has gone on long enough. It has to be here. It has to. I step up onto on my trusty stool. Good old reliable wooden stool. I start looking at my apartment from the bird’s eye. I move it to different spots, and stand and scan. And then my eyes meet the shelf above the fridge. And I open it. And there it is: on a stack of negatives that I had stuffed up there. The memory comes back to me. I had thrown it there the one night in a rush to clean before a Point Break movie night. “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” The shelf just out of the way enough that I forgot it existed. I don’t get an overwhelming feeling of relief, although there is a bit mixed in. It’s more confusion. Hadn’t I checked there? I’ve been reduced to a cliché: it’s always in the last place you look.
It’s nearing halfway through vacation and perhaps this is a turning point. I have a freshly organized apartment and nothing is missing. The disorganization of stagnation can dissipate. The space becomes more controlled and familiar. I can start to push outward on summer projects. Everything is accounted for.
If you’re still reading, here’s a petition encouraging a more direct approach to teaching about racism, oppression and injustice in the standards that my school as well as many other “American” schools across the world use. Please consider signing and sharing.
On any other 4th of July I’d be waking up in Maine in my childhood home. The hum of the fan. The noises of family emanating from the floorboards. The smell of bacon and fresh coffee drifting from the kitchen. NPR on a low drone.
I’d wake up and eat a light breakfast and then head into town with my family where people would be gathering for the 4 on the fourth–a small town race that attracts a surprising number of people. In recent years it’s always been a clear sunny day. Red white and blue mixed with sun and azure sky. Main street is lined with people and vendors. The rotary club selling hotdogs and running a race for rubber ducks. Lawn chairs perched on grass in preparation for the parade. The town’s generations coming together to check in with each other.
The start line crowds with swarms of people by the grocery store. People stand on faded tar that crumbles at the edges and gives way to sand. Locals, tourists, kids from the surrounding camps scattered around the lakes and woods. The race organizer, a Korean War veteran, would stand on a stage and introduce the race and remind us that all proceeds go to the local library. The town is waking up now. People stretch. The national anthem plays. There’s a gunshot. The crowd funnels off down the road to snake around the four mile course, meandering past old downtown houses, through streets lined with oak and pine trees, and along the lake before a final sprint down main street to the finish line. Classic rock blares on the loud speakers: Thunder Road, Purple Haze, Sweet Home Alabama, Fortunate Son, Go Your Own Way. Songs played so many times that, for better or worse, they’ve lost their meaning.
At the finish line volunteers cleave giant chunks of watermelon for race finishers next to kiddy pools full of iced water and Gatorade. People snap photos. Light-hearted celebration is in the air.
But this 4th of July is different. This time I wake up in Seoul. The 8am streets are quiet as I lace up my shoes and walk down the stairs. My feet pad along the pavement finding their way to the Han River. Some early risers drift around seeming a little lost. At the river, a few bikers whiz by on the path.
I hit play on Born in the USA. The snare hits in my headphones. I start my GPS watch for my private race and sprint and sprint and push my muscles until a dull painful churn sets in. The first few miles feel great. I’m cruising and confident. People float by. The river glides to my left. I hit the turnaround and know that I can’t keep the pace. At around mile 3, it happens. My legs become heavier and I ease back the pace. I’m bleeding time and willpower won’t propel me any faster. In the real race, I’d be coming into a corral lined with revelers. I’d be pushing it to shave off a few extra seconds in full sprint. I’d be feeding on the energy of the crowd. This time I lackadaisically come to a stop when my watch reads 6.44km. I walk it off, listening to the deeper tracks on Born in the USA: Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark, and My Hometown. Later I’ll send in my time to the race organizer.
I revisit the river in the evening for a sunset stroll. Crowds of people donning masks. People caring for each other through public display. Everyone in it together.
This summer I miss my country. I miss the 4th of July in my memory that I don’t think I’ll get back to. I spend some time at night listening to classic rock songs and pondering the country that has revealed its flaws so openly and naively since the last time I saw it. These songs are a tradition of the holiday for me. These anthems of progress and protest that have dulled and rusted before being stored away in the safety of white small town America.
But there’s hope embedded in the dissembling. With an unraveling comes the chance to reconstruct. The small town dream of those 4th of July summer mornings was a facade that needed to crumble eventually. There’s a lot to untangle and it’s going to take discomfort and patience and letting go and new welcomings. Everything needs to be rescrutinized. A physical division has happened in a country that was split up to begin with, and eventually it will be time to start putting it back together in a reimagined form. New traditions replace the old.
I remember hearing a podcast about how cities have different tempos. Some are slow and methodical (Kyoto comes to mind) while others are on the more frantic end of the spectrum. It has something to do with the molecules within a city agitating each other into a more frenetic rhythm the more busy and crowded a city becomes. I imagine that Shanghai–a city known for its population, nightlife, and neon–possesses the tempo of an ear-throbbing techno song.
A year into living there, I had settled into a modicum of comfort with the city’s pace. The push and shove of the subway’s snaking masses had become second nature. I could weave through a crowd in rhythm to the music on my headphones. Loud yells and bells and blurs of light had settled into a picture that I could make more sense of. It had taken time, but I was finally starting to wrap my mind around the city.
At the beginning of that second year, I bit of more than I could chew at work. There was an ambitious initiative that needed a lot of groundwork to be laid. Free moments were spent thinking, planning, scheduling, writing. As my picture of the city started to settled down, my internal tempo began to quicken. Work, like it had done before, began to seep into the free moments of my life. But still I’d plan outings into the city that felt more like missions–trips with a deliberate purpose in mind.
A lot of time in China seemed to be spent in large malls. There were endless floors of shops with restaurants always on the upper levels. Massive ornate displays of Jeff Koons-like contemporary art seemed always on display. The malls were always sparkling clean and milling with people. Whirring cogs of commerce.
It was during one of these forays into a downtown mall that I picked up a new Garmin GPS watch. My old one had developed problems after a year, and for some reason I found myself buying another one of their unreliable watches. This time I stood at the kiosk staring down at a model of watch that shot green lasers onto the upper part of the wrist to somehow detect your heart rate. This was a feature that I had no use for. At frequent times I resented the watch that I did have, and questioned the wisdom of even tracking my miles in the first place. At the same time, I felt the anticipation of regret if I didn’t shell out the extra money for this slick feature. Besides, I was a modern man living in a modern city. I deserved something a bit more classy. In the end, I got the watch with the heart rate monitor.
That Monday at work, I caught the watch face on a doorframe leaving a room and left a little scratch that is still there. My heart sank, and I kicked myself for carelessness. This new shiny device was already tainted. But the laser feature seemed to work, and I continued to check it with interest. Work continued to surround me, and I plugged away through my routine. I’d run, work, gym, eat, work, sleep, repeat. My movements became almost machine-like and I began to assess my routine for inefficiency. Everything began to feel like clockwork. My running times got faster. I had a treadmill in my kitchen that I could hammer out a 10 mile run on in an hour and ten.
And then I began to notice something on my watch. The resting heart rate was low, under 40 beats per minute. On some days it was at 32. Just for reference, a healthy heart rate is between 60 and 100. A small pit began to spin together in the pit of my stomach. I had heard of athletes’ heart rates being lower, some even around 40, but this seemed abnormal. Of course I ignored it, and jumped back into the routine. Run, work, gym, eat, etc. etc.
But the heart rate stayed the same. And the pit in my stomach spun into something a little larger each day. I decided to see my doctor–a chilled out Californian who had pictures of himself doing yoga on the wall. His bedside manner was some of the worst I’d seen in the industry. He’d make a noise like, “hmm…” and then give a long pause, letting you really soak in the silence before he’d say “oh yes this is common.”
But he was kind and competent, and I can be fiercely loyal to even small hints of kindness, so I found myself going back to him for issues that arose. I found myself in his small office showing him my watch and asking him about my heart rate. He paused for many moments with a puzzled expression before suggesting, “well we could do an EKG?” The statement was poised in a way that could have either been whimsy or medical advice. Either way it was covered by insurance, so I found myself in another small room, electrodes being placed onto my chest. I put on my shirt, walked out into the lobby and waited. There is a vulnerability to waiting rooms. The quiet anticipation of judgment from the doctor while what feels like judicial deliberation is happening behind closed doors. As if there’s a panel of people in a huddle back there whispering, “Will we give this one good news or bad news?”
My name was called, and it was back into the small room, my racing mind bracing for the worst. This suddenly felt like a very real test that could throw some very real truth my way. The doctor looked inscrutably at the test and said the words “incomplete right bundle branch block” and then looked at me and really let them sink in. In addition to sounding like a bad grade school tongue twister, it also sounded terrible in conjunction with the heart. Something was blocked? Something was incomplete? What the hell was going on here? Maybe he detected my panic, or maybe not, but he decided with nonchalance to fill me in. “It’s common. It could be the result of an infection when you were little. A lot of people have this. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”
Probably: that word that lodges itself into your brain and then slowly starts to needle. It’s a seed of doubt that spreads slowly over time. There’s a strong chance that everything is fine, but the probably is always there, tugging at your pant’s leg. The doctor definitely sensed my inner panic this time and said with atypical assertiveness, “Maybe we should do a holter test to make sure.”
I came back the next day to get outfitted, the thirty minute ride in the DiDi (think Chinese Uber) was starting to feel common place. I went to work and then I went to the doctor’s office. The receptionists were starting to recognize me. I felt a sick comfort in my “regular” status.
Wearing a holter is like wearing the most obvious wire in the world. It’s a box with electrodes that stick to the chest. I walked around for a day like the world’s worst spy. Yet still nobody noticed the outline of wires under my shirt, or the chunky remote control in my pocket. The results came via e-mail a few days later and were concerning to my eyes. My heart rate was getting down to 29BPM. At no point did it exceed 120BPM. It stopped for 2 seconds or more over 105 times. The report included words like “sinus arrest” and “junctional escape.” And at the very end the words, “Suggest to see a cardiologist for the further assessment.”
I distinctly remember listening to Bill Callahan’s incredible tune Too Many Birds as I walked up to the specialized clinic high rise in the glowing metropolis downtown. I listened to that song on repeat a lot at that time. My headphones kept out the city’s ambiance and I could focus on the songs groove. The bass and drums low-key churn providing a backdrop to Callahan’s guttural deadpan that delivered gut-punch lyrics with a soothing unhurried tempo. The premise of the song is simple: a tree full of birds. Eventually there isn’t room for the last bird. I don’t know why he picked this image, but it’s a striking one. “One last bird and then another.” And then he builds the final line, saying it again and again, adding a new word each time: “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” The line is a question and a statement and a yearning all in one. With that line ringing in my body, I walked into the clinic to see the cardiologist.
Yes, I’m aware that it’s messed up that it took a GPS watch to tell me that something was wrong. As an ultra runner, I spend lot of time checking in with my body for aches and pains, things to tune up. But these micro issues are sometimes pointing to something larger. It’s easy to get caught in the tempo of what surrounds you. The noise and rhythm can get so loud that you forget all about the drum that is causing them.
In the end, the cardiologist said that there was nothing structurally wrong with my heart. She said that I should exercise less, only 40 minutes a day (advice which I promptly ignored). My heart went from something that I was constantly monitoring, trying to sense signs of danger or abnormality, to something that I could once again leave to its own devices.
I still wear the watch–it cost a small fortune after all–but I find myself checking it less and less these days. My pulse returned to more normalcy after that chaotic year. I always had a hunch that it was stress related, the compaction of responsibility and schedule squeezing my heart beats into forced efficiency. It’s becoming easier to carve out time for the important things in life that allow space for the molecules to roam. Maybe its Jeju or maybe it’s more of an inner change. Either way, I find myself wandering in my free time a lot more, letting time unravel at its own pace. The scratch on the watch face doesn’t even bother me anymore.
Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds
Another wave rolls me over. The disorienting spin and roar and eyes closed and slight panic, because the board could be anywhere and could hurtle towards me and nail an arm, a leg, a hip or worse a skull. I hold my arms over my head and let my body spin in those tense few moments.
Surfing has hit a plateau. The sessions feel less productive, and the last three times have either been on waves too small to be fun, or on big unpredictable undulations that peak unexpectedly. There are long periods of floating and staring and then a clean wall of water is cresting in your direction and you better grab it or its going to crash onto your face.
The board feels more comfortable, but the moments when a wave takes me are still insecure, usually resulting in trying-to-do-everything-at-once shut that leaves me flailing around in a charging wall of water. The move from pure beginner to approaching intermediate feels like a long path at this point.
Today was a foggy session. There was a large group of surfers out, but they were more quiet than usual. Perhaps it was a reverence to the eerie fog that enveloped the scene. It was like floating in a flashback memory where the edges blurred until complete fade out. Strong silent waves rolled in one after another, cresting and occasionally carrying the surfers around me toward the shore. I’d look back and see them floating away behind cresting waves. There was a wave-pool effect though, and currents flowed in every direction, diffusing good waves at strange moment. I caught a few, but others picked me up and manhandled my board and I. A few seconds in the spin cycle.
And that’s how life has been lately. Lots of unreadable waves on the horizon of too many shapes and sizes to make any sense of. World news has far too many factors to detect a pattern or clear path forward. The logical mind needs to shut down and wait to see what is given and what develops. Some days feel calm and manageable, and some are heinous and relentless walls of water that are over my depth. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but to cover my head and ride the wave out, hoping that I’ll be unscathed after the white water rolls by. These are the extremes of trying to make sense of a global pandemic.
But still, when my feet touch the sand and I drag my board back to the car, there’s a slight feeling of accomplishment–a hint of progress. I’m sure I’ll find myself back in the water tomorrow, scrutinizing the horizon.
Jeju May morning, and the rain drags across the island catching on the newly green leaves and blossoms. They shrug it off from time to time, letting loose big drops that splatter with a satisfying crystalline plops. Multiplied by hundreds.
Billy, an old NYC band member from The Red Rogue got in touch the other day, added us all on an email thread. He suggested we collaborate on a song, if I could send something along. I was invigorated by the idea, the guitar on its stand next to my couch winked at me with possibility.
But when I sat down to write, nothing took shape. In this compounded world, it’s feeling hard to find creative rays. But in reality, it’s been tough to write songs for years. The carefree 19-year-old days when a song could just pour out seem long gone. I strummed the guitar. Found a few good chords. Tried to think of words, hit a roadblock, gave up.
The Red Rogue played our first gigs in seedy lower Manhattan bars, then a little farther up at the Sidewalk Cafe, and then expanded our radius to Brooklyn and upstate. We’d break out our instruments on the Staten Island ferry on the way back home, Carolyn smiling over her accordion, Evan hunched over his mandolin, Billy tapping out a beat with a goofy grin.
An hour with a guitar and a notepad could produce a song then. The band would throw down parts and we were running with it. There was an audacity to our approach, and we were grabbing any music that we could get our hands on. Some influences that come to mind now are: The Band, The Pogues, The Replacements, Leonard Cohen, Patsy Cline.
But the world complicates. As leaves grow and fall and grow again, the branches and roots lengthen. We kept the band going for a bit after college, then eventually I needed to get out of NYC. The city had become overwhelming, constant worry about money, sacrifices of time and commute and living situation for what? The future was slowly starting to set in.
We got together for about a week in an upstate New York cabin a few years after that to record again. The town was called Phoenicia. It took engineering our lives, making arrangements, lots of e-mails. But we made it happen, deliberately setting aside the distracting world.
The NYC contingent of the band rented a van for equipment and made their way up from the city. Colby, who was producing the album, and I drove down from Maine. He was blaring old gospel tunes on his tinny Jetta speakers–songs from Hank William’s alter ego Luke the Drifter. We met up with the others in an empty church parking lot, the peeling white paint on the steeple, and made our way to the cabin.
There was a tree down across the driveway. It had taken out the power line. Shit. Calls to the AirBnB owner as we got it sorted. We went into town to a gem of a restaurant called Mama’s Boy for hamburgers and coffee, our unofficial home base for the week. The power was restored, and we claimed our beds for the week.
And then we hammered out the album. Wires ran to every room in the cabin from the central brain of Colby’s mixing console. We recorded onto tape, we wanted to capture this authentically. And in our free time we swam in the stream on the property and laughed and drank. And then we scattered back to our lives, me to Jeju, a few to New York, Colby to Maine. For just a little while, everything peeled back.
There’s so much in the world engineered to derail your creative momentum. When I really think back, the songs didn’t come easy then either. They were a suspension of the world, a deliberate setting aside. You need to open up a space big enough to get a few clear ideas in before the clouds crowd in again. I’ll keep trying to hold it back long enough to get song down. And sometimes it starts with something as simple as listening to the rain.
The dragged feet of travel Brought sand to my doorstep Like a wind from the west Churning the present into New realities
I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because I’m only 34 and plan to live until at least my mid-80’s. Mid-life crises don’t happen until the middle right? So I have 8ish more years until that. It has to be something else that’s pulled me into picking up surfing.
I had this vision once in my early twenties while living in Maine of driving clear across the country until I hit California. I’d find my way to Hawaii and settle down for a relaxed existence on the beach and pick up surfing. It was one of a million plans that I seemed to have bouncing around in my head at all times, and so I was easily discarded. But it did have some steam for a few months. From then on, it was a brief flicker from time to time that left an impression. It was still illusive though, and I had no solid plan. I kept it as an ember.
Maybe it was this vision that I was chasing when I packed up my car with music essentials and started driving west in my beat up Mercury Sable. The dream of the west coast where all unknown urges would be realized. Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” blared it’s pristine drop-d tuning over my tinny speakers. Robert Plant crooning, “going to California with an aching in my heart.” That line always crested like a wave for me, the silence after the matter of fact statement flooding with pensiveness.
But I didn’t make it to California. I made it to Kentucky, and my car broke down, and I worked for a few months in a deli slicing meat, bagging groceries, and selling cheese. The giant wheels of apricot-colored parmesan that I attacked with cheese wire every day were a poor substitute for the west coast sun. I had to get out of there, and the job in Korea appeared like someone propelling down from a helicopter, hand outstretched, to my life boat of prosciutto slicing and olive scooping. I blindly grabbed the hand and didn’t look back, escaping to an unknown island in Korea.
I lived on Jeju Island for six years and never tried to surf once. Jeju is one of the best spots for surfing in this country, a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years. I had friends who surfed, and would occasionally spot a board strapped to the top of a car on the highway, feeling a pang of ache for my lost dream. I never took the initiative to try it myself though.
Returning to Jeju after two years in Shanghai, I had a chance to reassess what I had missed. The nature of Jeju contrasted with Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis. The outdoors called, and eventually my mind started to turn back to that ember that I had held for years: the itch to surf.
My plan was to go to Maine for Christmas, and then work my way back to Korea from there. I’d fly to Oregon to see my brother for a few days and then go on a solo trip to Hawaii, that vacuous vision, where I would take surf lessons and get the basics. By the time I got back to Jeju, I would be a competent surfer. After a cold few weeks in Maine and a damp five days in the pacific northwest, I was ready for a tropical getaway.
Hawaii was a shimmering dream. The days were ideal, and time flowed. I cruised in my rental Jeep listening to local radio for the first day, mapping out Oahu, discovering rush hour traffic on my return to Honolulu. I ran my first full evening there along the shoreline under Diamond Crater, and took in the coast and the waves.
I booked a surf lesson on AirBnB, carefully weighing all of the instructors before deciding on one that seemed to fit my pace. Matt turned out to be a good-natured Frenchman who had relocated to Oahu many years ago to pursue his dream of surfing. He was pro for a few years, and now is building a business teaching lessons and taking people turtle watching on paddle boards. We met at the Waikiki Aquarium at 7am, him pulling up in a battered surf van packed with various boards and leashes. “Let’s do it bro!” he said and I jumped in.
The wind was enormous that morning, and we stood on the shore overlooking the waves in silence. I felt like a warrior in my newly bought convenience store swim trunks and my breathable running shirt–the closest thing that I owned to a rash guard. Matt and I were ready to brave the elements, and I was primed to become a surfer. “Very windy this morning!” Matt said with confident enthusiasm. This seemed to be his only mode.
We drove up the coast a bit more to a cliff overlooking a sea of choppy but surfable waves and then started working our way down to the water. I clutched my large foam board, my fingertips barely wrapping around the rails, readjusting every few steps to prevent a drop. Matt confidently strolled with his shortboard ahead of me. And then we jumped in.
My first float on a board made me doubt the whole endeavor instantly. I couldn’t find a spot on the giant foam board where it didn’t tip and try to throw me off. Matt gracefully paddled circles around me on a board that seemed half the size, giving instructions about placement and paddling. Eventually we battled out to some wave breaks and got ready.
It happened fast. Matt yelled, “OK it’s coming!” and I felt my board spin into position. He was tossing me around, getting me primed for the wave. I wasn’t ready. “Now! Paddle! One! Two! Three!” I felt him give my board a shove and I was off, the surge of the cresting water throwing me forward. I put my head down, almost kissing the board. I tried to do what I had been trained to on shore. Push up, place the back foot, and then the front. My result had the grace and fluidity of a robot standing on an exercise ball. I fell forward, the wave swallowed me up, I tasted brine on my tongue and salt in my sinuses. And yet I was grinning.
I paddled back to Matt. Was that a hint of skepticism that I detected for the first time that day? He said in his French accent, “slow it down, plant your back foot. Here we go!” And another wave grabbed me and threw me off of my board. “Whoo! Yah!” Matt yelled. I battled back, and we repeated the process again and again. Paddling to different spots, making small talk before I awkwardly slipped off my board and had to reposition. He told me about his wife and daughter and his love of Hawaii and surfing. The wind was kicking up more and more, and my arms were getting tired. I kept getting smacked down, but this is what I had come here to do, right? Learn surfing?
Matt kept giving tips, and I kept pushing down my discouragement. And then, on one of the final waves of the day, I got to my feet and rode a wobbly invigorating ride. “Alright, bro! You surfed!” Matt said, masking what I’m sure was impatience. I scrutinized his face, but could only detect that chilled out enthusiasm that had been a constant through the session.
We made plans to go later that week when the wind died down. After practicing pop-ups on my hotel bed for a few days, I met him at the same spot and we jumped into the ocean. The surf was more reliable, the waves coming in smooth lines that hummed and crackled. There were occasional rain storms rolling through mixing with periods of sun. I looked out over Honolulu and followed the shore down to Diamond Head and breathed deep. Almost on cue, Matt called out, “I think there’s a whale!” I scanned the horizon just in time to see a massive humpback breach and then looked right to see a full rainbow connecting the city to the sea. “Yah!” Matt yelled. “Alright!” I said. And we grinned.
Since getting back to Jeju, I’ve stocked up on the requisite gear: a long board, a thick wetsuit, a roof rack, and began the frustrating business of reading surf forecasts. It’s erratic, to say the least, and on the good days people swarm Jungmun Beach, the most reliable spot on the island. I’ve slowly been working my way from the small beginner waves to the bigger ones, standing up more frequently, gaining confidence, working up to turns. It’s a process. But waves need to start somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles before finding a shoreline.
There were many doubts that swirled around in my head at the outset of my surfing dream, when I was first driving across the country before my breakdown in Louisville. It was ephemeral and out of reach. What felt like a detour to Korea, actually turned out to be an entry point into the sport. Years of waiting and slight envy at people actually surfing slowly transformed into the plan to do it myself. Without those years of slow maturing, I’m not sure if I would have had the patience to keep getting back onto the board. I don’t think I would have had trust that I was making imperceptible progress with each fall during my early twenties. At that time, I might have walked away after that first windy session.
Part of youth is the generation of dreams. The overwhelming possibilities of what can be. The standing at the beginning of a million paths that sprawl in different directions, and the impossible task of choosing one. What you don’t realize is that these paths aren’t exclusive. They cross each other, and even circle back sometimes, perpetually churning and reforming like waves in the sea.
Recommended listening Memories in Beach House by Seaside Lovers. This is an album that I picked up based upon the cover alone. The record itself is a beautiful see-through sea glass. From the album drop on track one, the ocean is conjured and I float away on a tropical dream. This is the quintessential soundtrack to summer.