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Forgetting

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.

R.I.P. to a legend.

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.

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Heart Beat

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.

Jing’an Temple, Shanghai

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.

Nighttime dancers at Fuxing Park

Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds

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The dragged feet of travel

The dragged feet of travel
Brought sand to my doorstep
Like a wind from the west
Churning the present into
New realities

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Waves

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.

Honolulu Sunset

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.

Brother on the Oregon coast

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.

North Shore, Banzai Pipeline

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.

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I keep seeing older versions of me on the subway

I keep seeing older versions of me on the subway
A nicer coat with a brand that I’m clueless to
A streak of gray overcutting eyes that aren’t concerned

I whittled the minutes
Thinking of the next
Peeling them away
Putting them to rest

Flower petals on the well-lit floor
Lightly bucking with the tunnels
And didn’t see the young man
Pick one up and compare
It to his own smooth fingernails.

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