Peering back in time to the farthest reaches of the universe, scientists believe they have discovered the origins of the first visible photons.
“Why go to sea under sail at all if you’re so concerned with security? Why not go as a tourist, as a kind of frozen vegetable buying your way across the world surrounded by hot running water, epicurean cuisine, swimming pools, … – designed for your delectation and designed to quarantine you from the contagion of elemental wonder and awe known only to simple living?”
“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse. … Voyaging belongs to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in.”
- Sterling Hayden, Wanderer
How long a voyage? How unplanned a trip? Are pools, hot water, and decent meals forgivable? What does it take to pass the frozen vegetable test?
Siargao is remote, at least to this American. Not into the wild remote, but far removed from anything resembling the securities and amenities of a big city. The airport only supports small prop planes, and you won’t find anything resembling a chain store, not even a Jollibee, to my knowledge. My weather app, which I can connect to the server using the resort’s wifi, lists the General Luna area as 8419. On my scooter ride around the island, people on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools near Pilar requested pictures with me for their phones. As was our experience in India, where the locals took pics of the tall, very white Americans, I was an oddity. My map for the scooter ride was a pic of villages on a pillar in the dining room. When I headed out, I passed men using oxen to plow flooded rice fields. I think you will agree that I was not on any docent-led, canned trip watching from behind the safety of the tinted tour bus glass.
I consider this trip a voyage, long in distance but short in time. I was moved. I mean this in a literal sense but also in a figurative one, which I will come back to. My car moved me to the parking lot at an airport, and a shuttle carried me to the terminal. An escalator took me up its stairs to security, and a moving walkway ambulated me to the departure gate. A jet took me from one airport to another and then yet another. A taxi took me to my hotel, and an elevator elevated me to my room’s floor. The process was repeated on a domestic flight. Once at the destination, I rented a scooter to take me around the island and a canoe to take me up a quiet, rainforest creek. I joined a tour that started with a morning bus ride to the pier and boated to a remote island, only to get on a smaller boat. The whole trip uncoiled like an unwound tape measure to that point where I swam with the stingerless jellyfish and then recoiled back with a spring-loaded pop.
Sometimes, it felt not like a voyage, so passive, like when sitting on a HEPA filtered, dimly lit jet in the same seat for ten straight hours staring at a TV screen. At least on the outbound flight, I sat next to a friendly, talkative lady who markets AI. Sometimes, when the sitting was sensory-rich, it felt like a voyage. Like when I rode shotgun on a wave-crashing bangka with the wind whipping in my face, the motor sounding like my head was on the inside of a lawn mower, holding on to rails for balance, warm salty water spraying into my face alternating with a burning sun.
Even the threats were generally passive, albeit real to me. Not physical threats so much as stress, like when trying to figure out what documentation you need in a sea of predatory providers, misinformation, changing rules, location-specific rules, and poorly designed apps. Failure to produce the right piece of paper at the right time could turn the trip very ugly. Missing a Covid test or failing it would be a disaster. Lose your phone, passport, or credit card, and then what? The immunization card is just a little piece of cardboard that looks like any other receipt or junk piece of paper. I have no idea what happens if you lose it. Would the phone pic suffice?
On the consideration of amenities, I generally had hot water even though the resort had a third-world combined shower and shitter. My meals hardly qualified as Epicurean though I had no complaints and, more importantly, no intestinal disorders. I drank San Miguel Pilsener for alcohol, more on the level of a poor man’s Bud Light if that is even possible. Most breakfasts consisted of black coffee, rice, a sausage, and an egg. Dinners consisted of random seafood orders. My food expenses for the whole trip were under sixty dollars. I enjoyed it all, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it lavish.
There is plenty of financial unrest, but not so much of my own. I met USAID workers still helping with the reconstruction after the super typhoon Odette struck in December of 2021. I missed a photo op of two men sitting in chairs drinking beers on the second floor of the concrete skeleton of a building exuding its rebar fibers. I can’t imagine how people rode out that typhoon in a shanty with a corrugated roof. The Cloud Nine pier that carried surfers a quarter-mile over the inner, waveless inner reef was reduced from a landmark tower to a few wooden palettes stuck on wooden posts. Cleanup and reconstruction were in the air. Many of the coconut trees were on the ground.
On my canoe ride up the creek, I was paired with two beautiful lovely young women, one of the treasures of the Philippines, to serve as my guides. The first question out of their mouths after they asked for my name, which apparently is Mr. Mike, is if I am single. As best I could make out, their names were Rose Bee and Honey Bee though I am sure I hopelessly botched the pronunciation into something familiar. Both are single moms looking for a unicorn: a loyal, handsome, compassionate, devoted, caring, loving, and financially solvent man who will sweep them off their feet and whisk them off to some exotic foreign land. The unicorn is my word; the rest are theirs. I ask them why they don’t have a Filipino boyfriend and they just shake their heads. I imagine it rather tough to raise a daughter on an income of two dollars a day in a world where nothing is free. They walked me from the canoe to my scooter and invited me later to the after-dark firefly attraction, but I didn’t want to drive at night on the scooter back to the river crossing in the middle of the island.
It’s hard to see how things will improve with the recent election. I won’t delve into politics here, but all I have to say is post-truth is alive and well in the Philippines, and that shit works.
On the consideration of being moved more figuratively, there were a few bright spots and one incredible tour. The scooter ride, for starters, included the Maasin River tour with Rose Bee and Honey Bee. The river ride up in the canoe wasn’t much, but I enjoyed the scenery of my company more than the scenery. At a sari-sari store with outdoor seating on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools mentioned above, I asked a group of locals and workers if I could sit down and pointed to an empty chair at their table. They started to vacate, so I quickly clarified that I meant with them still sitting there. Re-mi, who introduced himself as “Re-Mi, as in Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do,” has relations in the States, including his mom. He asked me about the places I had been to. I butchered the pronunciation of Siargao and Boracay. The kids got a kick out of it and had fun imitating me mispronouncing the words. The island is one big palm tree forest broken up by a few shanty villages here and there. I enjoyed the adventure of circumnavigating the Siargao on the bike.
The island tour to Sohoton Cove was the highlight. I can’t imagine doing the things we did there in any park here. After passing by the cupcake-shaped islands coming into the cove, we had to switch to low clearance boats to duck under the stalactite-studed low clearance archway entrance, which might have inspired a hidden valley of dinosaurs scene in a movie. I don’t even know how the natives found this place. We stopped at a cave with an underwater access. Our guide shoved each of the three women I was with by the neck to propel them beneath the submerged wall through the cave entrance, but I snorkeled in under my own power.
After the cave, we motored over to the jellyfish sanctuary. I’ve been stung before. It’s unnatural holding a live jellyfish in your hand, even knowing it is stingerless. It’s downright freaky to snorkel amid a large school of them. The pulsating brown bells move in Brownian motion bumping chaotically into you as you swim around the lagoon. Yes, Hayden, I bought my way onto the tour but didn’t feel like some kind of frozen vegetable doing it. Instead, I felt the contagion of elemental wonder and awe. The jellyfish swim was the highlight of the highlights.
At the next attraction, led by a guide, the two customer service girls from Manilla and I swam into another cave with a water entrance. Inside, we came into a small chamber, climbed up the wall of the rocky interior about twenty-five feet to an exit over the lagoon, walked down onto a wooden platform ten feet above the water, and dove back into the lagoon to get to the boat.
Our group returned to where we transitioned from the larger boat to the smaller one. My traveling companions, all young, six from Manilla or nearby, and one from Cebu included: a lady doctor traveling by herself to escape the twenty-four-hour shifts of family practice at a clinic, a teacher mutually followed on Instagram, an exuberant and extraverted young lady, another young man that I never really talked to, and three customer service girls already mentioned that shared the small boat in the jellyfish sanctuary. We ate a Filipino barbecue of rice, pork, chicken, and steak with sides of mango and pineapple. The extrovert told everyone to talk in English, but they didn’t. I was definitely the odd, older, foreign man out. Sometime after the meal, they expressed interest in knowing about me. “Sir, where are you from? Sir, where have you been in the Philippines? Sir.” Who the hell is this “Sir” guy? I guess I was destined to be an outsider on this one. The getting to know me chat was cut short when ironically, the doctor fell off a water swing before swinging out into the water and started to bleed out through her cut foot. A bandage was cleverly improvised from a Covid mask, and she was okay once the bleeding was under control.
The tour finished with an on-land, dry cave tour with some excellent features and bats flitting about our heads, trying to start a new wave of Covid. How unfrozen is all that?
So, Sterling, my voyage was only a week-long, and because I stayed in Manilla a night coming and going, sacrificing two days to the Covid gods of regulation, it was only five days. My only financial unrest was the cost of transportation and dog care. I was a tourist but at least an outlier lying out on a remote island in the times of Covid and post-Odette. It may have been a short, paid-for voyage, but I hope I at least passed the frozen vegetable test.
We backpacked forty miles in four days, with an elevation gain of five-thousand-five-hundred feet, and in many ways, I consider it a failure, or at least more of an ordeal than an adventure. I suffered dehydration, hit the wall, and failed to complete the originally planned Rae lake loop trail.
We drove up the day before to Sheep Creek campground, listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s (KSR) “The High Sierra: A Love Story” to pass the time and set the mood. One thing I know for sure, the title of this article will not include the words “A Love Story.”
The following day began discovering that a bear had violated my Prius. I heard something loud in the early night that woke me. I cowboy camped the whole trip, so I glanced over to look in the car’s direction, but a bear container obstructed my line of sight. I chalked it up to something at one of the other campsites in the distance. In the morning, the trunk was open. The doors were opened. The heavy battery charger was on the road, and the access to the spare tire was strewn about. But my expensive camera and my buddy’s cell phone and wallet were unmolested. I was lying in the open just twenty feet away. I’m curious what I would have done if I had seen a bear sniffing around in the trunk of my car. We reported the bear incident to Morgan, the Park Ranger that checked us in at Road’s End. She told us to act big and yell, “Bear Away!” They are trying to condition the bears to recognize the word bear as a warning. Although we heard reports of a bear on the trail on the last stretch just below Mist Falls, we never had a sighting of a bear.
The first-day hike began at 5000 feet altitude and ended nine hours and ten miles later at 7000 feet. Mist Falls put on a great show at the four-mile marker, with mist drifting down the river for hundreds of yards raining on everything in its path. During the last visit, another buddy reclined dry and comfortably on a stone in front of the falls. With significantly more volume in June than in late August, the rock was barely visible through the volume of water and spray.
KSR introduced us to psycho-geology as a way to explain the love of backpacking. KSR informed us that the Sierras are written in the language of glaciers. The whole valley is the remnants of glacial action. Aside from all the problems mentioned below, there is something special about looking down a glacier-carved canyon surrounded by spires three thousand feet over your head. One of the prominent features in the main valley is the horns left by a melted glacier.
The hike above Mist Falls is a stair-climbing and exposed grind. I stopped to talk with a girl and two guys sitting on a rock on the way up because that is what you do when you are getting your ass kicked by the hike. She complained about her short legs and climbing over the two-foot stone stairs. I told her I would trade my old body for her short legs. She asked about our backpacking experience. When my buddy mentioned this was his first one, she told us it was a hell of a hike on which to pop your backpacking cherry. Indeed.
By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley, my ass was officially kicked. The heat wave had something to do with my dehydration, but so did the thirty-five-pound backpack, the exposed trail, the 2000 feet of elevation gain, old age, and the simple failure to drink enough. By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley camp at the end of the day, my red shirt was stained with white salt streaks, and I hadn’t pissed since I left the campground and experienced mild cramping in my feet while trying to sleep. I wasn’t the only victim. Later, one of the guys of the cherry-popping trio, an experienced backpacker we were told, was puking but still made it all the way to Woods Creek. A couple of women hikers told me they lost a buddy to the heat and wasted most of the day waiting to figure out if their friend would make the hike or not. On the flip side, we passed by an older lady with more wrinkles than the canyon itself, covered from head to toe in clothing, making her way up to Woods Creek. Either she was more dehydrated than a raisin, or one tough old cookie. I am humbled.
I had already dug a deep hole for the rest of my trip, not the kind you take a crap in. I didn’t expect eighty-degree heat in the June mountains, but dehydration was mainly on me. After that first day, I forced myself to drink more, even when drinking water became almost repulsive.
The second day started with a river crossing. I watched Amanda cross with her backpack, poles, and swimsuit. While my buddy explored for a dry crossing downstream, I stripped to my skivvies, donned my water shoes, and followed her lead. Even at the widest point, the current was strong and the water cold, but I prevailed. When he saw me on the other side, he flipped the bird at me but found his dry log bridge.
After, we hiked the fifteen-hundred-foot climb from the Upper Paradise campground to the dully named Woods Creek, most of the ascent occurring in the first three miles. We trekked through pure KSR psycho-geology swallowed in the immenseness of the canyon. Vertical rivers cascaded down the sheer sides of mountains. A spire towered over, reminiscent of the Matterhorn. The distant mountains had a hazy view as if from an airplane window.
At about the end of the three miles, I hit the wall for the first time. If I were hiking solo, I would have turned back at this point, but my buddy said he wouldn’t make the decision for me. So stubbornness trumped common sense, and I pushed on. I wasn’t eating enough. In retrospect, my meal planning was downright foolish. I figured on two packs of dehydrated food daily and some snack bars. My total (un)planned packed calorie count was about fifteen hundred calories. I didn’t really do the math until after the fact. In reality, I should have planned on something like four-thousand calories for each day of the ascent. I don’t offer a defense for my abysmal planning, but those packets of dehydrated food are essentially worthless. They pack five hundred or so calories per meal. The containers claim to contain two servings. That joke is on me.
Two packets a day is only a thousand and some calories. Using those numbers, I should have packed eight packets per day for the ascent and four packages per day for the descent. I stuffed my bear canister full with only six meals and eight energy bars. If I had packed appropriately, at ten dollars a pop, I would have paid two-hundred and forty dollars for a four-day outing. On previous one or two-night backpacking trips, a couple of meals per day worked out fine, considering that I started the one-day uphills on a big-bought breakfast, spent the next day at location, and the last day coming down. My novice was showing, and it was embarrassing. The lack of proper food planning was entirely on me.
I suspect another downside of the heat was a mosquito and gnat bloom. I choked down a handful of gnats that got caught on deep inhales. On the upside, I’ve never seen so many bugs. Butterflies alighted two, three, and four to a flowerhead. Bees, flies, and bee flies buzzed about. Lizards sunned themselves on rocks and the trail, narrowly avoiding the tips of poles. If there is a psycho-geology, there ought to be a psycho-biology brought about by immersion in the wildflowers, insects, pine-scented trees, and animals. I was fortunate to spot deer, marmots, grouse, and a pika.
Having made it to Woods Creek at 5.1 miles and eighty-five-hundred feet elevation and eating a meal, I decided to shoot for Dollar Lake, a mere (haha) four miles and two-thousand-foot climb. My buddy took on my bear canister to lighten my load. Embarrassing.
On a four-foot creek crossing, I managed to step on a log that gave way and I ended up soaking my right leg. About a mile and a half up, I hit the wall again. For the first mile and a half, I would take a hundred steps and then stop to check my heart rate and take a second to get my breathing back to a normal rhythm. For the last two-and-a-half miles, I would take about twenty-five steps before being forced to stop to catch my breath. The air became thinner. The pauses became longer and the sit-downs more frequent. We passed a sign that said no fires above ten thousand feet. Near the top, when my buddy disappeared out of sight, I took a full-on, sprawled-out lay down on the rocks, entirely spent. My buddy reappeared a few minutes later without his backpack, bearing the good news that I was only a few minutes from Dollar Lake. He carried my backpack the rest of the way. Double embarrassing. The four miles from Woods Creek to Dollar Lake took five hours.
We made camp at the trout-leaping and beautiful but mosquito-infested lake donning the netting and Deet to ward off the blood-sucking brutes that wanted to drain what little energy I had left. Strangely, I had to force myself to eat my chicken and rice packet, the tastiest meal in my grocery bag of dehydrated food.
This brings me to my original mistake. I should have planned on a five-day trip instead of four. I overestimated the value of my training. I was routinely hiking eight to ten miles a weekend in my peak-a-week training hikes but at sea level and with a light ten to fifteen-pound pack. Of course, I expected the backpacking trip at altitude would be more difficult, but I did not expect it to push me beyond my limits. Given that I corrected my other mistakes, a five-day trip with one major climb per day might have been manageable for me. A good trip would be from Road’s End to Middle Paradise Valley on day one, from Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek on day two, and finally from Wood Creek to Rae Lakes on day three. Each segment is about seven miles and includes one major climb per day, leaving two days of ten miles downhill each.
In the morning, my buddy wanted to go back the way we came. Thank god. Just squatting to take an outdoor crap left me breathless. I don’t see how I would have survived the one-thousand-plus feet ascent over Glen’s Pass. If I did manage it, it would have taken me four or five hours to make the two miles with another seventeen miles of travel. Extending the trip to five days was out of the question because I would be out of food and out of TP.
We packed up and headed down the way we came. We met the two healthy members of the cherry-popping trio headed up as we were headed down. They left their puking buddy down at Woods Creek while they made a long day hike with light packs to Rae Lakes. She told me the whole point was to see the beauty of the lakes. Thanks. Yes, I have a regret. It was a disappointment to not make the round trip and see the lakes, but it was the right decision.
As it was, we made the trek back to Woods Creek in just over three hours, down to Upper Paradise Valley in another four, and to Middle Paradise Valley in less than two for a total downhill distance of thirteen miles in yet another nine-hour day. On the last day, we hiked out the remaining 6.8 miles in less than four hours, stopping briefly again at Mist Falls, powered by the self-promise of a Diet Coke at Grant Grove Market and a burrito in Visalia.
Of course, downhill was much easier than up, but it was not without pain beyond mere fatigue for me. During my training hikes, I suffered from sprains and foot issues. On one hike, in particular, I experienced a knife-cutting pain in my right knee. I wore a double layer of socks, a knee brace, and ankle supports to combat these mechanical problems. I had no issues at all, possibly owing to my countermeasures. But on the ups and downs, I experienced burning pain in my hips. I tried to counter this with an Ibuprofen diet starting at two pills a day and increasing to six. Even though I had the energy and stamina to make it out, I still found myself frequently breaking to let the burning subside, to make the walking bearable, if only for a short distance.
We finally made it out. My buddy’s backpacking cherry was popped, and my backpacking naivete was exposed. Grant Grove Market didn’t have a Diet Coke, so I settled on a quart of Gatorade, which I made short work of. It turns out I hate plain water as a drink. Visalia came through with the best burrito. And I ended up at home, back to wearing my comfortable blue jeans, which KSR says are absolutely worthless. And loving it.
Less for you, Is less for me, Stuff in storage, Wants to be free. Stop the hoarding, Enough is enough, Help out others, When things get tough. When your god, Comes to account, The things you kept, Will lock you out.
- Less, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature
More is more,
It’s never enough,
Even when storage,
Is filled with stuff.
The more you get,
The more you need,
The fear of lack,
Is the food of greed.
Fear of lack,
Is hard to swallow,
Fills you up,
But leaves you hollow.
- More, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature
Spoiler Alert. Watch My Mister before reading any of this. It’s worth the sixteen-hour+ investment. I will wait.
You came back! You made it through the slow-moving, depressing series I sent you off to watch. It’s not your typical K-drama with some crazy premise like time travel, alternate worlds, or dead spirits that can’t make it to the real afterlife because of a grudge. My Mister has none of this. It is set in an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary people, with normal if not downright mundane lives. Realism pervades the story in the community, the workplace, the hangouts, the subway, the buses, and the homes.
While there is plenty of drama at the executive level with principals jockeying for power, the work itself has almost no consequence. It’s simply a device to extol the virtues and showcase the integrity of Dong-hoon. He cares about the integrity of the work and the people that work for and with him. For example, when the drone fails, Dong-hoon, the senior manager at the site, puts himself at risk by climbing up the water tower to take the necessary pictures to analyze the structure.
The story is barely alive as the two protagonists, Lee Ji-an and Dong-hoon, stand apart waiting for the subway to arrive, sit apart, or are uncomfortably squeezed together at rush-hour congestion. They never walk side-by-side down the road where they split off into their respective neighborhoods. Lee Ji-an spends more time staring at the ground than any other character. Sometimes, my Hollywood brain wants to scream at them to say something, say anything to each other.
Shame on me for those moments of weakness. I watch K-dramas because they break the mainstream mold, not despite it. And nothing breaks that mold better than My Mister. No brains splattered, plot twists sure, but not every thirty seconds like we have the attention span of a one-year-old, no witty and triumphant repartee while slaying people that so obviously deserve to die.
My Mister is an exercise in everyday life rather than an escape from it. Sang-hoon says with all seriousness, “My one and only goal is to leave the house and drink.” Dong-hoon video records his exceptional talent for his son, which consists of dumping shot glasses full of soju into beer glasses lined up to make somaek.
What is not ordinary is Dong-hoon’s integrity. He is a moral superhero. He never maligns anyone or does anyone wrong throughout the whole story. He has no moral chink in his armor. His behavior is impeccable from start to finish. If he has a flaw, it is his flawlessness. He protects the dignity of those he knows are hurting or hurting him and consequently hurts himself more. He doesn’t confront Yoon-hee when he knows she is cheating on him but tries to persuade Do Yun to dump her to maintain her dignity. He doesn’t bring up the subject of Gyumduk, his one-time best friend to Jung-hee, Gyumduk’s spurned lover, even though he misses him, which he ultimately acknowledges with the one-word response, yes, which for him is a tsunami of talk and emotion. He carries grandma up the stairs and fights Lee Ji-an’s tormenter. He gets up for a lady on the subway even though he is injured and hurting.
He is a knight in shiny armor, but he hates his life. To his family, he is the winner of the group, the only brother with a real job, and a beautiful, loving, and successful wife. In reality, he is stuck as a low-level manager subservient to his one-time subordinate turned CEO, who also is having an affair with his wife. He lives within walls of his own making, and it’s not entirely clear if Yoon-hee’s infidelity is one of the causes or one of the symptoms.
Lee Ji-an is no moral slouch either. Even though she is willing to throw two full-time employees under the bus for a manipulative and fearful boss, she does it to pay off a manufactured debt from the vengeful Lee Kwang-il and care for her disabled grandmother Lee Bong-ae. Her empathy towards her assailant, Kwang-il, inspires his compassion, the last piece of the puzzle required to put Do-Yun away for good. But I think Ji-an’s superpower is her ability to read and understand people’s motives far beyond the capabilities of even an older adult. She plays a CEO, an attorney, and even the entire corporate staff of Saman E&C. But if Dong-Hoon has walls, Lee Ji-an’s walls have walls.
Lee Ji-an’s omnipresent wiretap and round-the-clock monitoring penetrate Dong-Hoon’s walls, albeit without his permission or knowledge. There is nothing she doesn’t know about him, and it is all absolutely genuine because he doesn’t know that she is watching over him. Dong-Hoon’s impeccable morality breaks down Lee Ji-an’s walls, always supporting her, even after his understanding of her transgressions escalates. So the dual protagonists dance this tango throughout the plot, slowly bringing the light to Lee Ji-an’s face and life to Dong-hoon’s day.
They become more intertwined in each other’s lives, and both intuit the absolute necessity of the other, becoming not lovers and far more than drinking buddies or colleagues or acquaintances. They become friends.
And that is what I think is the point of this story. The story is a recipe for being happy in a world of friends. I think the hypothesis of the movie comes from grandma when she signs, “If you think about it, each interpersonal relationship is quite fascinating and precious. You must repay them. Live a happy life. That’s how you can repay the people in your life.” The most important symbol in the movie comes at the very end when after everything they have done for one another, Dong-Hoon and Lee Ji-an shake hands. They become happy, not for themselves, but because they owe it to the other.
In romantic relationships, we say, “You make me happy.” Or if you are less fortunate, maybe you say, “You don’t.” The burden is on each person to make the other happy as if love is some mutually beneficial monetary transaction. The story has something to say about this arrangement. As much as my Hollywood brain demands a romance, it was never in the cards. First, note the age difference. Dong-hoon is a 48-year-old man. Jee Li-an is a 21-year-old woman.
Second, note the lack of one single, successful romantic relationship in the whole story. Not one. Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee’s marriage is in tatters from the very beginning. She cheats with the person he hates the most. “Why him?” Dong asks. “Why him of all people?” Because Do-Yun manipulates people to get what he wants. He dates married women because “You can trust a married person to keep a secret.” Yoon-hee chooses romance over family and friends. She wants the one, and she wants to be special. She buys into the mutually reciprocal nuclear relationship that Do-Yun represents. The nukes end up doing what nukes do when she discovers that Do-Yun’s interest in her isn’t entirely so mutual. A romantic relationship places the burden of happiness on the other person. Grandma’s friendship places the burden on your obligation to your friends. Even though Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee make their peace, they never get back together romantically, and she leaves Korea to be with their son in America.
In the relationship between Sang-hoon and Ae-ryun, they went the other way. Sang-hoon hangs on to the thought, but there is nothing between them throughout the story. Ae-ryun keeps the family but gives up the romantic relationship. She still shows up for a beer at the bar and drinks with all of them. Sang-hoon sleeps on the floor with his brother in his mother’s house while Ae-ryun has moved into her place.
Jung-hee wears the long-dead relationship with the Buddhist monk, Gyumduk, like cement water shoes. Jung-hee has wasted her adult life commiserating over him. She fakes happiness and independence with her night walks to her place, which is the bar she just left but never actually leaves. Everyone sees through it. She finally emancipates herself and her friends when everyone at the bar is allowed to say his name without her breaking down in remorseful tears or an unconscious stupor. He makes his peace with her, but they never reconcile. His only barrier to happiness is that he didn’t have the strength to stop by and see her after the breakup. It only takes him twenty-some-odd years and punishing meditation for getting it right.
The most bizarre relationship of all is Ki-hoon and Yoo-ra. Yoo-ra bases the relationship on Ki-hoon’s admission that he took out his inadequacies on her, making her feel good to see him as the failure instead of herself. Ki-hoon shows compassion for her in brief but generally unrewarded spurts. The best line between them is when Ki-hoon says, “I love you.” She responds, “That doesn’t help.” As much as I wanted to scream at the TV to make their relationship happen, in the end, I would have yelled at the writer if he had done it any other way.
And that’s it for the relationships. Bong-ae (Li-an’s grandmother) and Yo-soon (the mom) have no husbands. Choon-dae (the trashman) has no wife. No one in the office has a relationship on display. No one in the neighborhood drags their wives along to the soccer games or the bar.
The story creates intimacy among the characters through daily consumption of alcohol, by sharing the anxiety and frustration of friends, reveling in their successes as if they were their own, taking up arms at the sight of a bloody comrade, and sometimes even making extraordinary gestures, like when Sang-hoon uses up all his money to give grandma a decent funeral. Despite all their bickering and disappointments, they have genuine intimacy and decency towards one another.
The romantic realm is filled with demands, deceit, disappointment, and failed expectations.
The boy doesn’t get the girl, and not every story has to be a love story. So, in the end, the story’s recipe for happiness is through friendship earned through intimacy and decency. For every action of decency, you owe a debt of happiness. And I find that entirely refreshing and useful.
“When are you going to die?” Maddie asks.
Soon enough, Maddie, soon enough. Thanks for the encouragement. Do I really look that bad?
I guess it’s not an unreasonable question for a twelve-year-old to ask her sixty-one-year-old uncle. My grandfather was forty-nine years older than me when I was twelve, precisely the same age I am today. I knew him as a working man, only briefly. He drove me on a couple of his transits up and down Damen avenue for the CTA. We inspected all the IBM mainframes with the spinning mag tapes in the Merchandise Mart, where he still worked for the CTA after he stopped driving, although, as the IT guy put it, there wasn’t much to see. I mostly knew him as a retired older man who wouldn’t throw back a bluegill no matter how small and still played a crackerjack game of pinochle to the end. He lived to eighty-nine. Following his example would give me twenty-eight more years. You would be forty.
There are far more days behind than ahead, even if I am lucky enough to live twenty-eight more years. The warranty on this body has long expired. My ankles are shot from repeated sprains from playing basketball for forty years. I literally fell over a crack in the sidewalk once because my ankle buckled. I’ve torn the rotator cuffs on both shoulders. My left bicep tendon is ripped, so I have a Popeye arm. My eyesight is getting worse. I have constant ringing in my ears, and I don’t hear mid-range frequencies. I have arthritis in the hips, prostate issues, and my balance is off. I can’t remember things I can’t believe I could forget. My legs cramp up at night for no good reason. I get random migraines. They’ve removed precancerous skin from my nose and polyps from my ass. I’m slightly anemic, and the kidney measurements are out of tolerance. In short, I’m old. Old age is going to get me if nothing else does. My mind doesn’t actually know that it is old. This is just the feedback it gets from its body and the rest of the world. As my mind has repeatedly stated, “I’m not accepting feedback at this time.”
The people I admire pursue their ambitions right up to the end. Albert Einstein worked on equations within four hours of his death. David Attenborough still tries to save the natural world at ninety-four though he will never live to see it. Mick Jagger is still onstage singing and prancing at seventy-eight. Clint Eastwood directed and acted in another movie at ninety.
I plan to do the same. Late in life, I’ve picked up the guitar, started making wine, learned how to ride a motorcycle, took up photography, and wrote three books. I hope to keep writing, hiking, playing guitar, socializing with friends, taking pictures, traveling to exotic countries, and hanging out with my young nieces while still sharing time with them on this planet.
I once quipped that you should take more risks when you are old because you have less to lose. While that is true, I didn’t understand that everyday things and ordinary tasks are a hell of a lot riskier when you are older, but I’m not dead yet. And I still take risks and enjoy my bad habits. So it could be sooner than twenty-eight years.
I ride a motorcycle. I once miscalculated a negatively banked turn in the desert and went into the other lane. Another time, while emerging from a rock formation on either side of a two-lane highway, the wind gusted so hard from one side of the road to another that it blew me clear into the oncoming lane of traffic. There was nothing I could have done about it if a car had been coming from the other direction. On my recent trip to Seattle and back, a black pickup tried to pass me on a blind curve, and sure enough, a car was coming in the other direction. He missed the oncoming vehicle and my bike by inches. Either way would have been death for all of us. Medical personnel refer to motorcycle drivers as organ donors though I’m not sure my old organs are worth anything anymore.
I scuba dive. I dove with a friend who turned seasick at the sight of waving kelp fronds. Instead of letting out the air as he ascended, he inflated his vest so that he would go faster. If you don’t want your lungs to explode, that is the exact opposite of what you should do. When he reached the surface, he fed the fish in a big way. On another dive, my dive buddy, a young man from Hong Kong, lost control and tried to surface in a boat lane on a current dive that required a short kick at the end into the current to reach the boat. It’s an excellent way to lose your head. Fortunately, the divemasters responded quickly and saved my dive buddies in both cases. I don’t consider scuba a high-risk sport, but it is not without its dangers.
I hike alone most of the time, but I prefer it that way. Thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that. Today, it is hard to imagine having to talk on the trail with someone for two or three or more hours. It seems like a burden and a distraction. I hike in mountain lion country. All the signs say hike with a buddy, and if you encounter one, don’t run and try to look big. Admittedly, attacks are rare. A more likely scenario for my premature demise would be a heart attack or a stroke out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve had my heart skip a beat a few times while playing basketball. I couldn’t catch my breath for a couple of minutes, no matter how hard I breathed. I went to the dentist, and his blood pressure machine told me I had an afib. The doctor put me through EKGs and sonograms, and eventually, I ended up wearing a patch for two weeks. They told me I had a slightly enlarged aorta but was otherwise fine.
I live alone. Studies claim that married people live longer. The implication is that they have happier lives. Still, given how miserable I know some couples to be, I don’t think it has much to do with happiness. I think the real reason that couples live longer is that first, women nag men into seeing the doctor when they should. Second, if something happens to one person, the other is there to help or get help. I’m not going to get married only for that reason.
I drink too much alcohol. Or perhaps I don’t. So my impending demise could be sooner, or maybe not. Studies claim a glass of alcohol is supposed to be good for you. Okay, that tends to turn into two, sometimes three or four. I sometimes joke that I’m an antisocial drinker, meaning I prefer to drink alone. But that is just a joke. To answer your other poignant question, Maddie, “Do you have any friends?” I have friends who drink socially with the same gusto as me. You might ask, but you didn’t, “What’s the attraction?” Alcohol turns off all that brain function that tells you what you shouldn’t do and lets you do some things you should. Of course, too much just makes you stupid and dangerous.
If I could live forever in a healthy body with a healthy mind, I would take up everything and go everywhere. If I were still young, I would do more than look wantonly at beautiful, exotic women, but age takes away those opportunities. You have to pick and choose. You can be anything you want to be, but you can’t be everything you want to be, and you have to work with the opportunities that present themselves. My life choices to date have been limited by time more than resources. I think that is what it means to be rich. So I can’t complain, even if I don’t make it to sixty-two.
So, Maddie, my time is growing short. I don’t know the exact date and cause of my demise. I can only speculate. When I am gone, I hope you have some of my writing and my pictures to remember me by. And most important, pleasant memories of me that you will be able to keep for a very long time.
Pura Vida: being happy where you are at in the present moment and finding life as precious for precisely what it has served you.
Author’s Note: I don’t entirely agree with the definition. Read the Im-Pura Vida entry. But I would go along with appreciating the bright spots no matter how bright or dark the times.
Pura Vida is…
… riding with flashlights on a golf cart for an improvised night tour of the resort property led by Andresen. It is photographing the coveted red-eyed tree frog, an armadillo, a sleeping bird perched on one leg in a tree, and a dozen other frogs in the ponds and creek.
… walking five kilometers in the misty shadow of the volcano on the El Cabo trail in the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal to the overlook of Lake Arenal from the top of a lava flow. It is poking your head over the extended roots of a 400-year-old ceiba tree looking for velociraptors. It is finding pixels of color in the flowers of the otherwise dark and gloomy canopy. It is an orange butterfly and a red-striped butterfly sipping nectar with their nose straws from red berry-like flowers. It is hearing howler monkeys barking in distant trees. It is seeing my brother get insufferably pleased with himself when we walk by the re-parked car, letting us think it is still parked in its original spot at the end of a long lot. It is seeing cautionary crocodile signs of Peligro at the terminus of the Los Miradores trail on the shores of Lake Arenal.
… walking the five hundred steps down the side of a canyon wall to see La Fortuna falls. It is admiring the falls from a distance, then the mid-distance, and again right in our faces. It is swimming in the mildly chilly pool with falling water pounding its way to the bottom. It is spotting a school of fish stationery in the current hovering in the crystal clear water of the river. It is climbing back up the five-hundred stairs counting each one along the way.
… sitting under the roof of an outdoor patio listening to the rain change the notes from isolated drops to the orchestra of a downpour.
… drinking hot-pressed Costa Rican coffee for breakfast and eating fried ripe plantains.
… trying to figure out how to answer my niece’s poignant questions like, “When are you going to die?” and “Do you have any friends?”
… finding a moss-covered sloth up close instead of a distant clump of brown high up in the canopy.
… sitting in hot springs with the family drinking Imperials under cover of night.
… seeing the bright yellow flower foliage of the “Cortez Amarillo” dot the hillside on the frustratingly sluggish descent down the Pan-American Highway from San Ramone to the coast.
… driving up the twenty-five percent grade to get to the Casa Latte. It is talking to the two housekeepers in broken Spanish. It is checking out the incredible view overlooking the Pacific Ocean, watching yellow-billed black-bodied toucans fly from tree to tree, and once even right over our heads while stretched out on lounge chairs.
… swimming in the Nauyaca waterfall-created pool after a treacherously steep and hot descent on a slippery dusty road booby-trapped with marble-sized rocks. It is admiring the two-tiered waterfalls from the steeply-cascaded lower tier. It is watching cliff divers flip into the lower pool without maiming themselves. It is about not making lethal choices at a river crossing on Google Map’s proposed shorter route to get back to the main road.
… returning to the property each night to watch and photograph an incredible sunset replete with dramatic clouds and horizon-banded sunset bows.
… taking an hour and a half ride from Uvita to the beaches of Corcovado on a boat with two outboard 200 horsepower engines, stopping along the way to see white-spotted dolphins, squid-catching boobies, and leaping rays.
… satisfying my niece’s ambition to see monkeys as we watch spider monkeys migrate through the canopy in quest of mangoes even though one of the pits hit me in the head (aimed or dropped?) It is watching an anteater swing from limb to limb with its prehensile tail negotiating the canopy almost like it was a monkey. It is watching macaws chatter back and forth in a tree at the edge of the rain forest overlooking the rocky beach. It is seeing two Jurassic Park compies scampering on their two hind legs. It is sitting in a pool downstream of the waterfall, getting a nice back massage from a small cascade while admiring bottomless bikinis.
… leaving Corcovado as two Macaws fly wing tip to wing tip over the sandy beach to the backdrop of palm trees in the near distance and cloud-shrouded mountains in the far distance.
… walking out onto the sand and rock fluke of a whale at low tide for a swim in the salty, warm water of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. Oh yes, and to surreptitiously look at bottomless bikinis.
… imbibing a 750 ml bottle of Imperial at Las Delicias Bar Y Restaurante.
… seeing the other three kinds of New World monkeys at Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio: white-faced, howler, and squirrel monkeys. It is listening to a white-faced monkey crunching on the bones of an identified and unfortunate rodent. It is watching brazen white-faced monkeys put on a show close up in the shade of Manuel Antonio Beach. It is observing an iguana sunning itself in the sand, a helmeted basilisk clinging to the trunk of a tree, leaf-cutter ants marching in line waving their green flags, and a tree frog peering out of a knot in a tree. Let’s not forget to mention surreptitiously looking at bottomless bikinis.
… watching the lights of Alajuela from our patio at the Xandari Hotel while finishing off the second bottle of wine.
… having the good fortune to break down in front of the Casa Antigua Hotel, where Henri and his Chinese partner (woman) helped us get ahold of the rental car agency, held onto the key until the repair truck arrived so we could get to the airport before our flights departed, and called a taxi to take us for the airport. It is returning later after a missed flight to get served a late-night dinner and beer after the kitchen was closed. It is sitting around a scenic outdoor garden and pool instead of in a stuffy airport with no access to a restaurant or bar. It is finding a ray of light in an otherwise miserable couple of days.
… reading the entire “Ice Crash: Antarctica” novel while stuck in airports in two different countries. It is chatting with Jeany who chose to return to LAX by way of Panama City instead of Aeromexico.
Half the reason to travel is to relax or have a great adventure. The other half is to show off what a wonderful and rich life you have. This piece is the opposite. It is a gripe piece. Feel free to skip to the good part of the trip (coming soon).
In the grand scheme of things, these events don’t compare to getting bombed out of your home by Russians or falling victim to Covid. But maybe this piece will make some would-be travelers feel good about their decision to stay home. Perhaps it will help some avoid some of the challenges I faced.
You walk up to the agent, ready to board your flight. You hand her your phone so that she can scan the QR code for the ticket.
She says, “I need to see your Covid test certificate.”
You take the phone back and open up the picture of the certified lab result of a negative antigen covid test taken within the last 24 hours.
She says, “We don’t accept this test.”
You counter, “What are you talking about? This is a lab certified antigen test taken within the last 24 hours.”
You protest and argue. The agent tells you to stand by the podium with the other five victims. The rest of the passengers board the plane. The plane pulls away from the jetway and then the terminal.
She escorts three other victims and yourself to the security checkpoint. The other two left behind are two older women, and one requires a wheelchair.
At the immigration checkpoint, an immigration officer checks the passports. He says, “You have to leave the terminal. You do not have valid tickets anymore.” He hands you back your passport.
That’s it. Good-bye. You learn that Aeromexico doesn’t have a ticket booth to complain to or make a reservation in the terminal. You are standing outside the immigration entry point. You are not on a plane, without a reservation, without a Covid test, and without a place to stay.
Time: One day before.
You are driving to San Jose to stay close to the airport to catch your noon flights out of Costa Rica to mitigate the risk of a long car ride on the same day as the trip. Your niece is sick, and it’s not just car sickness. Her mom records her temperature at 100.2. When your niece starts covering her mouth, you tell your brother he better pull over. As he does, your niece unleashes into a plastic bag. Her mom dumps the mess in a drainage ditch.
As you continue the journey, your niece cries because she doesn’t want to get stuck in CR for another ten days if she doesn’t pass the Covid test. Her mom tries to talk her down.
When you arrive at the resort, the guard unexpectedly takes temperatures to screen for Covid. Miraculously, she doesn’t register a temperature with the guard’s scanner. Her fever has already passed, or the scanner is a piece of junk. Either way, you all have dodged a bullet.
Time: Less than 24 hours before.
Your sister-in-law hands you the test kit. You and your four relatives are setting up for the video observation of the Azova antigen covid test purchased back in the states. It made perfect sense at the time. The test is certified and only takes 15 minutes, according to the Azova marketing literature.
You try to log on to the app on your iPhone. Nothing happens. You try to log in to the web page on the laptop. The browser rewards you with an ssh certificate dump claiming that this is an invalid site. You try another browser with the same result. It could be a bad wifi connection, but other apps are loading. It could be a proxy issue. You don’t know, so you call support. Your brother goes to the main office to try the connection there. The support guy has never heard of this problem before. Your brother calls back to say he was able to log in on the wifi network at the main office. So you all head up to the office. The wifi is better, but it is still sketchy.
The Azova App user interface is confusing. The user interface doesn’t list the dependents under their mom’s account. You make another call to support. With lousy hearing, the thick accent of the customer representative, and all the noise in the lobby of the office, you can barely understand the rep. Another issue arises, so you make another call to support. You hand the phone over to your sister-in-law, who still has good hearing. And then another problem arises. And another. Finally, you take the test. The instructions tell you that you will receive the results in fifteen minutes. The observer has already left. An hour later, you still don’t have the results. You call again. When all is said and done, and you have the certificate in an email, the entire process takes nine customer support calls and over four hours.
Time: 3 hours before.
Your brother pulls the car into a gas station to fill the gas tank of the rental before returning it. CR gas stations have attendants, and your brother requests diesel.
A mile before the drop-off, the car sputters and stalls in traffic. After a few WTFs and trying to turn the engine over, your brother realizes it probably wasn’t diesel.
You jump out of the car to push it to the side of the road. Someone in the truck stuck in traffic behind you jumps out and helps with the push. You dial all the provided numbers to the rental agency on your phone, but none of them go through.
“Ayudame. Ayudame,” you say to a man. The man takes you into the Casa Antigua Hotel to meet the English-speaking partner/owners, one of the few breaks you all catch during this whole ordeal. These decent, helpful people connect you to the rental agency. Your brother arranges for the rental agency to pick up the stricken vehicle. He leaves the keys with the owners, and the owners arrange a taxi to take you all to the airport.
Time: 3 hours after.
You’ve been to the lab and passed the same antigen Covid test a second time. It would have been a no-brainer if you knew how awful the Azova test was and how easy the lab was. You’ve rebooked the flight for 1:55 a.m. to Mexico City and 7:00 a.m. to LAX through Aeromexico customer service on the phone. It only cost you fifty dollars to change.
You chat with Jeany and her boyfriend, two of the other victims. You tell them to call Aeromexico to rebook, which they try but fail. So she takes another airline to Panama City and then to LAX with a twelve-hour layover. You feel bad for her. She won’t make it to LAX until 8 p.m. of the next day.
You chat with your brother and sister-in-law. They barely made it to their flight on time, but Delta didn’t even bother to check for a Covid test.
Time: 8 hours after.
You decided to return to the Casa Antigua Hotel. It beats hanging around in the airport for fourteen straight hours, and you want to eat dinner. When you arrive, the restaurant is already closed. But Henri, the owner, sets you up with a two-course dinner and a beer. He lets you hang around in the open-air courtyard on a perfect night. When you leave, Henri won’t accept any money. He tells you to pay it forward. Maybe these words will help pay his kindness backward a little bit.
You take a taxi back to the airport. The driver asks you about your trip speaking English, not so great but good enough. When he pulls into the airport, he shows you the fee, about 4000 Colon. You only have a twenty, which translates into about 12000 Colon. He hands you back 3000 Colon. You know the rate and tell him he should give you 3000 more back. That would be 6000 colon or ten dollars for a six dollar, one kilometer, five-minute ride.
All of a sudden, his English isn’t so good. He doesn’t offer and continues to pretend like he doesn’t understand. He understands perfectly. You argue for a bit, but he doesn’t budge.
Time: 11 hours after.
A family from Vancouver walks up to the agent as she is setting up the counter for the Aeromexico flight. You catch the part of the conversation where she says the Covid certification is no good. You intervene and tell the father that they can get the lab done within an hour, and if they don’t, they will get bumped from their flight. They have time. It is still three hours from takeoff. They don’t realize, and you don’t yet at the time, but you probably saved them at least four thousand dollars.
You see them later on the plane. The family took the same Azova test and tell you they had the same bad experience with it. The father tells you it took them five hours to take the test instead of the advertised fifteen minutes, but you take small comfort in confirming the poor user experience. They thank you for the advice at the counter.
Time: 11:15 after.
When you hand your passport to the agent at the check-in counter for the rebooked flight, she says, “Your ticket is invalid because you booked it under the same reservation as before.”
That doesn’t mean anything to you. You counter, “I didn’t book anything, your customer agent booked this.”
You argue back and forth. The agent hands you your passport back as if this is the end of the conversation.
You say, “Your agent booked this flight.” You show her the email with the new reservation on it. You go back and forth some more. She fiddles with the monitor and talks to her companions. She hands you back your passport again.
You show her the receipt in the email for the fifty dollars they charged you for the difference in price with the original ticket.
The agent is back to the keyboard and terminal and chatting with supervisors and other agents. She tries to sell you a ticket in business class for six thousand dollars.
You refuse. “I know there are available seats, because I have a reservation for them.”
At the end of the day, she finds a ticket for a thousand dollars, but because the 1:55 a.m. flight is delayed, she can only put you on the 7 p.m. flight out of Mexico City. She’s already tried to hand you back your passport three times. You take the ticket.
You think about all the times you’ve spent in line glaring at some loser that takes five or ten minutes to get through because he doesn’t have his shit together. You argued and negotiated with the agent for ninety minutes. Ninety minutes. You commend her on staying with it but chastise her company’s poor customer service.
Time: 14 hours after.
As you are boarding the 1:55 a.m. flight, a young man in front of you is called out of line and informed that his test is no good. The agent says, “That is why we tell you to check in at the front desk.”
Really? You know what he is going through. You are sure that he had confidently secured his Covid certification, and he checked in through his phone, which told him his check-in was complete.
He says, “What am I supposed to do now?”
You know the answer to that question, too. He is screwed. Despite your empathy, you aren’t going to miss this flight.
Time: 24 hours after.
You are in the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez camped out in a hidden corner, trying to catch some sleep despite the continual blaring of repeated messages over the loudspeaker.
You WhatsApp’d Jeany. You tell her, “just thought i’d text and make you feel good about your decision. the flight to mexico city is delayed and i am going to miss the connection. the next flight out to LAX is 6 pm so i am going to be stuck in mexico city for a day”
Surprisingly, she responds, “Yeah, I’m in a corner of at a lounge in Panama till my flight in the morning Oh man that sounds awful I’m so sorry for the fiasco!”
“yeah you made the right move…”. And so on.
Time: 42 hours after.
You finally make it home. You are a thousand and fifty-one dollars poorer, not even counting the extra parking and dog care expenses. You’ve read an entire novel, Ice Crash: Antarctica and are lucky you didn’t die of sleep deprivation on the drive home.
Jeany texts, “Happy to grab drinks sometime when this is all a funny memory.”
You’ll give her a call in a couple of years when you’ve put this behind you.
A substance or preparation used for killing insects.
The act of killing insects.
The genocide of the class insecta, both deliberate and inadvertent.