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Getting Old Quickly 0.03

We take the baby to his baby class. He's five months old and has already started lessons. This is Korea. They ask me if I want to come, and I know this will be funny, so I agree.

The room is in a department store. Mats make a circle on the floor. There are eight mothers, a grandmother, an aunt and an uncle (Cathreen and me), and nine babies. I feel vaguely afraid. Nine babies are a lot, and they're like their own little species. Who knows what they do, or will do, when they get together?

The walls are sparsely decorated. Everything is bright. I can't understand anything the mothers say--the babies maybe slightly better. The class is supposed to improve their five senses, Cathreen has told me.

The first few minutes of class the mothers stretch. One baby crawls across the room and molests another as its mother hurries after it. The other women look like they're synchonized swimming in a pool full of sharks.

Then the mothers "give energy" to the babies. They follow the teacher as she demonstrates on a doll that looks like a very small human being, not like a baby and not like a doll. The mothers give energy by rubbing their hands together and pressing the babies faces, their stomachs, the tops of their heads.

When a translation of a Beatles song starts the mothers lift the babies in the air and stretch their legs; one mother slaps her baby's feet. The babies wear socks from Burberry or other designers. They're dressed to the nines. Sweater vests, etc. I could never afford what these babies will grow out of a week later, what will become trash and pollute the earth they'll inherit blah blah blah.

Now the babies are supposed to hug themselves. They look like they don't have any idea what's going on. You're learning, the mothers seem to be telling them. Didn't you know? Our nephew refuses to hug himself. He jumps up and down. The crawling baby crawls into the middle of the circle and goes after the doll. I think, yes, go get him. Tear that simulacrum apart.

One mother comes in late as the babies are sculling imaginary to traditional Korean music. A new song begins, and the babies are taught to clap. Maybe this is what our nephew does at home, swinging his arms together. I thought he was hugging an imaginary friend.

Crawling baby is a force to be reckoned with. I realize why he has two adults to take care of him. Mother and Grandmother go after him again and again.

Now the teacher produces a rainmaker--those tubes with little beads inside. The babies watch and listen as if an alien has just appeared in the room and demanded their allegance. This is a trick the mothers should remember. You can't hear a baby sound in the whole room. The baby doll rests on a table like it's dead and about to rise from its grave.

I kind of can't believe this woman makes a living from this.

We get individual rainmakers, which the babies mostly eat. A baby tries to stand and falls into his mother's arms. The other mothers gasp. I type. The falling baby stares at me with a frown, like who the hell am I, writing about their baby lesson?

Later the teacher blows bubbles and an English song sings that it's time to sleep. The babies are not sleeping and the bubbles are not going to put them to sleep. Maybe no one realizes what the song means. The mothers stand the babies up, pretend they are full-grown people.

They've learned as much as they'll learn for today.


Getting Old Quickly 0.02

Two nights ago we rushed out of a movie to take Cathreen's sister to the hospital. It was only the second movie I'd ever left before the end--the first was one I hated so much I can't remember its title.

I drove with them both in the backseat to the nearest hospital. It had closed. Permanently. We had to go far away. Groans from the back. When we got to the ER, the doctor pressed the side of my sister-in-law's stomach and tested for apendicitis, but two hours later, the pain had moved to the other side and we were allowed to go home.

At the movie, Cathreen was wearing her contacts because her glasses are lost. I looked everywhere for them. Two pair: gone. This is something I would normally do, not her. She thinks she left them in another city.

I once took a memory test (I think this was in high school) and the test said I had the memory of a sixty-five year-old. Cathreen's memory is supposed to fine.

Now, as her sister recovers from surgery, we handle the baby. Cathreen cooks lunch, and I try to stop the baby from crying. I shuttle him from toy to toy: jumparoo, plastic castle, jungle chair. At each stop, he smiles and then screams. I want to tell him he will never have toys this fun again. I don't know why he wants Cathreen to hold him. She's not even his mother.

Later Cathreen says she is confident now that she can be a good mother. I was always confident in this. I've lost confidence in myself. I wonder why raising someone so young requires such age.

Getting Old Quickly 0.01

Here are some differences in baby-care rules, Korea-to-America.

1. In Korea, mothers sit in the back of the car with their babies. Fathers are taxi drivers. The baby cannot be alone in the back even in its carseat.

2. Cribs do not exist, or are imported. Babies sleep with their mothers, or in our case, tonight, with his aunt. I will sleep in the other room, our bedroom.

3. Maybe this isn't a difference, but it seems to me babies should not always immediately get what they want if they cry. There should be an evaluation.

As I'm thinking these differences up, Cathreen asks me to hold the baby. I hold him in my lap out of reach of the computer as I surf the internet. He looks up at me with that cuteness of his that makes people nibble his cheeks--I nibble his cheeks and he smiles and I let him touch the computer briefly, causing happiness.

His mother is okay. Two days ago we thought she might have appendicitis. It was only a stomach ache.

I imagine those differences above make me sound like a curmudgeon. They do, don't they, I want to ask the baby. I want to tell him a moment ago I was his size. I want to say something like: and then life snapped its fingers.

Cathreen is a natural mother.

The baby wants me to throw him into the air, knowing I will catch him. When I nibble his cheeks sometimes I sneak a kiss.


Getting Old Quickly

Today is Cathreen's sister's surgery--the in-laws have decided against the dog's surgery because Isul is already ten years old and is epileptic. Recently I've been thinking about age. I'm twenty-six, will be twenty-seven in less than two weeks.

On Friday the in-laws picked Cathreen and me up to shop for baby diapers that are three times more expensive in Korea, and all the boys' diapers were gone, and on the ride home, Cathreen groaned and we asked her what was wrong. I wondered if she was thinking of babies, of future babies or of the boy babies out there that went to bathroom so many more times than the boys.

"Shilla," she said, then blah blah in Korean. Husband.

I pointed to myself. "Shilla?"

Everyone laughed except me. Then Cathreen said I had a white hair. She had to repeat this because I didn't understand how this could be true.

"Pull it out," I said.

She tugged and a clump of hairs came out but not the white one.

"Pull it," I said, grimacing. "Pull it. Pull it."

A white hair. My first.

I could see the root, a centimeter of white root, even white under my skin.

I held the hair carefully until we got home and then I put it in my pocket. My father went white in his twenties, but he is not my genetic father.

Cathreen asked why I was keeping the hair. "You said when I'm keeping Boise's hair I'm like a stalker," she said.

"It's sad," I said. "Isn't it? A milestone of sadness."

The next day she pulled out three more and I felt like eating them.

Now I take pictures of the babies in various poses and realize one is more photogenic than the other, and both, though I've realized this before, are more photogenic than anyone who already walks. Maybe life goes white from there.

Cathreen's sister is pushed in and I'm kicked out of the room while she changes. Then we leave before we see a doctor, and Cathreen and I are left to take care of her sister's baby as if he is ours. A test, I think. Will twenty-seven be different from twenty-six?


Hierarchies Last Part

Professor Dog says, compete, compete. I try to get the dogs to stop chewing their nails and they cry like I should be punished. I chew my nails, too, but hide it. They know it.

Cathreen says her mom says we should all bring out the recycling together, so we do. Her sister and the baby stay in the house. It's cold. The baby went to three schools today, so he's exhausted. Seems like they're training him to hate studying. Cathreen says they're training his five senses. Maybe he can't smell or taste well enough already. I drive her to work and the cars flash out like guns and we almost die three times.

Now I am writing this as the in-laws eat dinner. When it's time for bed, I will want to cuddle just Cathreen and me and no Boise. She'll ask why I'm jealous of a cat. Professor Dog will scratch the wall behind our heads and cry that no one is holding him, not at all. He knows inside the bedrooms, all is fine.


Hierarchies Part 4

Valentine's Day, I get my writing done in the morning, then disappear. I tell Cathreen I'll only be gone for an instant, and I return with flowers, pink roses, like we'll have at our wedding. She beams. I score points with the in-laws. The dogs bark like I've been away and have come back for them.

We go out for dinner at her favorite restaurant--really the decor gets her, the food, Western, is about normal for a place in the West. She says she remembers the taste of prosciutto and melon, those four golden pieces for eighteen dollars, she can't get it out of her head. This time, though, there's something wrong. She doesn't like it. I eat three of the pieces, letting the grease of the pork curl around the sweetness of the fruit, thinking.

I try to make her smile, and she does, and I try to make her forget about the house and everyone.

After dinner, we see a movie I expect will be terrible but isn't that bad, about relationships, how to tell someone doesn't like you. We compare notes. This movie could be a game show. I ask her if people are really like this, like them.

The more movies I see, the more I think what it takes to be an actor is a hollow core, something to fill up, like a hive. We sense the buzzing. I only believe one of these people is a person.

We return home for beers, worrying about finances and America, etc. I show Cathreen the apartments my parents looked at a couple days ago. She seems resigned, in that instant, to whatever fate I choose, though we've agreed she will make our decisions.

The next day, she and I and her sister walk to lunch and eat like feral children. The restaurant gives away as much food as you eat, so we walk out with eight servings of samgyupsal, which is like thick bacon. We've taken the baby in the stroller, planning to walk off the fat in the park, but now the girls say it's too cold.

"Touch my leg," Cathreen says. Not cold, smooth. Bare legs in February.

"Your leg is a leg," I say, feeling cryptic.

Then the wind blows, and I feel it, too. It is cold. We walk home. I try to write but instead watch a movie and hate it. Everyone watches tv in her mother's room.

At dinner, Cathreen sings to the baby, and he tries to sing back but ends up screaming. Later she comes into the bedroom and says, "Jimin got in trouble." He's too noisy. His face turns red as he tries to hit notes that don't exist.

When he learns, I think, he'll never stop. He'll master a beckoning voice.

"He'll be king of the house," Cathreen says. She turns to her sister. "You'll give him everything, right?" He sits in a jungle chair, monkeys swinging on the tray in front of him. In the other room is the castle, which welcomes you when you open the door.

"Not everything," her sister says.

"I doubt it," Cathreen says happily, as Professor Dog yowls in agreement. "Everything. Like Boise."


Hierarchies Part 3

I think I'll continue my delirious posts. Late night is morning in America. Sounds like a radio show--coming soon.

Today, Boise pissed on Cathreen's mom's blanket, shat on her blue mats that look like yoga mats but aren't. Someone locked him in, not knowing he was there. This made me upset, but nothing like it makes Cathreen upset when she comes home from work. She says, "It's no one's fault," to herself, with unfocused eyes, and builds a Fisher-Price castle for the baby.

"Talented," her sister says to cheer her up.

"I'm a talented wife," Cathreen says. She made the cat tower as well. The smell of cat pee has dissipated, thank God, and tomorrow everything will be like new. Her sister is wearing one of Cathreen's shirts. Boise is playing with the plastic wrapping for the castle.

Professor Dog, I think, what is your analysis? A toy and a good chew and attention, as always, many happy returns, the exhileration of life, more food.

She's still out there finishing up the castle, and I've finished the third first draft of my novel and want a hug, another hug, another.


Hierarchies Part 2

All this talk of hierarchies had a point, maybe obsession. Right now, in my tired delirium, I've locked Boise on the balcony where his cat tower and litter box and food and water are, and I am not going to give in because I know he will only eat the dogs' food.

I am going to change these hierarchies in my last few weeks in Korea. I am going to shake things up. But first I am going to sleep.

I've been thinking when the babies come over, how they sometimes fight each other for attention, that is what the world is like. And too much or too little attention will ruin them. Too much or too little control will ruin anyone. Not knowing where you stand is a dogs' life. The dogs' life.

Everyone is at war with his greedy little self. Today was a good day and I want more. We'll fight for what we want. The dogs and babies and the cat will fight for what they want.

I think the animals think the babies are pets and are jealous that they get to sit at the table and always be held and played with. Or maybe I'm projecting. I don't think so, but you never know.


Hierarchies Part 1

The dogs have an extraordinary sense of social hierarchies, not only the larger framework but the individual complications. For instance, when I come back from tutoring today, the in-laws and Cathreen are away, and as the dogs see it's me, they immediately shut up. If anyone else is home, or if anyone else comes home with me, they will bark for an expectant ten minutes. They know three things to be true: first, I am above them in social rank and will not defer to their wishes; second, they are above, or at least equal to, the in-laws; but third, the in-laws are above, or at least cancel out, me.

Cathreen fits into all this uniquely. They can't figure her out, I think. She has more power than I do, but only seems above them at certain times. They believe she will feed them from the table, give them human food, but they also know she won't tolerate their noise. They know she won't let them put their paws on the table, or bother the other humans, whether above or below them (to their minds). She seems to rule the house but will capitulate to Bosul, the shitsu, or occasionally the in-laws or me if she is in a particularly good mood.

Boise and the baby are clearly at the top. President and vice-president of zero words.

But allow me to take this further from the dogs' perspective. I would put our complicated hierarchies like this:

Just the dogs and me: I win. Just the dogs and Cathreen: Cathreen beats two out of three. Just the dogs and the in-laws: the dogs win unless the in-laws have various weaponry, bamboo or rolled-up newspaper. The dogs and Cathreen and me: the dogs lose. The dogs and the in-laws and me: the dogs win. The dogs and the in-laws and Cathreen: the dogs can persist and perhaps reach victory. The dogs and everyone all together: this is where they must get confused.



Two In-Laws, a Baby, Three Dogs, and a Cat (Last)

I am able to do a little work. I took two days off from forward progression and almost got off the train altogether. Two sleepless nights of guilt.

Today I buy Cathreen flowers when she cancels her morning lesson. She says "Come home and we'll talk." I panic, but she's happily flitting about the house when I arrive. The power of this phrase. I feel like I've just run a couple miles.

Boise meows and waits by the door like a dog. In the presence of babies, the cat is love-staved. He whines and eats anything that touches him. He bites lightly on my hand. He sticks his claws in me and holds me to him.

Everyone is out of sorts. Cathreen arranges the flowers in a vase. Her forehead is hot. The in-laws go to a hairshop and leave us with the baby. An hour later, Cathreen takes the baby to them. We're looking for each other, I think, we're wondering where we are. I mean in general. As Cathreen dressed to go out, I held the baby and he looked around for her like she was his mother. I sit here writing now wondering when she'll be back--she left her phone, so I know she will be.

In another window, Facebook asks me to write 25 things about myself, and I think, what better way to end this essay. So here they are:

1. Each day a moment exists in which I think life is perfect, and another in which I wish to die.

2. I spend too much time not doing things I'm supposed to do, and I dictate what these things are.

3. My stomach is currently growling but I am so sick of lunar new year food I will let myself go hungry.

4. I am envious. I am an envious person. I hate that.

5. Last night I tried to pray. I tried to pray completely sincere, completely selfless prayers. I could only think of one.

6. I worry constantly that Cathreen will not like America, especially once the city is covered in snow, in the fourth month of winter. Because yes, Boston has a fourth month.

7. Sometimes I think global warming isn't so bad; then I remember Venice.

8. Cathreen is in love with animals so I try to be in love with animals. Mostly this works, surprisingly.

9. Two in-laws, a baby, three dogs, and a cat: overall, I like it.

10. Maybe it's like this: I love cleanliness but I hate cleaning

11. On the other hand: all my life I thought I liked dogs and now I am not sure.

12. Also: I've always said I didn't like babies, while secretly liking them.

13. In life, I don't always want to be happy, but I never want anyone else to be unhappy. I really don't.

14. I watch Korean television and feel like I understand.

15. Before I came here in 2005, I thought some locked-away part of my brain would be engaged by my return, and I would remember Korea from when I was two years old, the language, everything, and I was so disappointed this didn't happen.

16. I am still sort of waiting for it to happen.

17. I believe many things other people don't. Not that a fan in a room without a open window will suffocate a person, though. That is a myth. That is my favorite myth.

18. Time-wise, I think about the future far too often. I think about the past about the right amount. I think about the present not enough.

19. If I hadn't written these essays, I would have forgotten they happened. True story.

20. People hate that I have a terrible memory, but I'm not sure I hate it.

21. We are coming to the end.

22. Though it's taken me a long time to write this, Cathreen is still away. I often imagine her when she is not around. Her photo pose: pressed lips, downturned head.

23. Last night, my mother-in-law screamed in her sleep, one long exhalation of sound that woke the house.

24. And here's what I know: I know she dreamed of Michigan. English piled in drifts of snow. Babies hollering. Her daughter compulsively cleaning. A shining floor, a one-room apartment. Her son-in-law disappearing with the car, their one ticket out. Waiting for Korea.

25. I wait for Boston; Cathreen's lawyer says not to worry, the visa will happen soon. Everything is soon.


Two In-Laws, a Baby, Three Dogs, and a Cat (#13)

Cathreen likes to take baths with the baby. I come home from writing in a cafe and there are two babies, three sisters, one mother-in-law, four animals, and I'm hungry. After one sister and one baby leave, Cathreen takes a bath with the remaining kid. I feel strange about this, like I am the only one using the other bathroom, like I am a tenant. Also, the baby is her nephew, not her son.

When she gets out, she says, "My condition is bad," so I try to be a good fiance. Boise sleeps near us curled up on Cathreen's baby blanket. Her smell, I guess. She pulls him under the covers. We sleep with the cat and the scent of vomit still in the carpet.

We've changed our plans so I will go to America first and set things up for her and Boise. I worry about doing this adequately.

I dream a little and feel the floor under me and try to continue dreaming.

I wake up and tutor but the kid hasn't done his homework properly and I am so tired I only sit there and wait for time to pass. When class is over, he says he's going to write Cathreen a letter. I mentioned she was feeling bad. This is sweet. I write a letter, too. At the bottom, I write, "P.S. Micky didn't do his homework." I can't help it.

I come home and look at more apartments. I think of a bitter poem I could write about having no home. Then I go on facebook, gmail, blogs. The internet is creeping into my head. I stab it with a pitchfork and try to work on my novel.


Two In-Laws, a Baby, Three Dogs, and a Cat (#12)

The weekend passes, and when it is over, I remember that it was Super Bowl Weekend in America. In this apartment of four and a half people and four pets, in Busan, it was the car breaking down and the baby kicking over a tree and Matt's frantic search for a doctor weekend.

Here's what happened on Sunday:

In the morning, my brother-in-law, still in cursed Michigan, calls about a bad dream, warning his wife to stay in the house. Cathreen, with her two sisters and their babies, go to a department store where they plan to shop for seven hours. She asks me if I want to go.

They stop off for coffee and the baby kicks a divider into a tree which falls over and almost kills people. I have trouble picturing this, but this is what happens. He has super strong kicks. The cafe gets angry. I picture them turning on the baby, but what can they do, he's a baby.

Maybe they don't believe he's that strong, so they turn the sisters out. Five hours of shopping later, the fam pick me up for dinner. We eat fatty pork and salted baby shrimps until my stomach wants to return home.

On the way, we stop for gas. When we leave the station, the car chokes like a motorcycle, vibrates like a bad massage chair. The baby loves it. We manage to get home by driving slowly, blinking our hazard lights. I pray to God we do not explode.

At home is the message I've been waiting for, from a med-student who will tell me how to finish my novel. I write happily. I get other distressing emails. I watch a movie and get in a bad mood.

I try to make Cathreen make me feel better.

When I wake up from a stress-dream sleep, I tutor and come home as the Super Bowl is ending. I eat more lunar new year food. Facebook tells me I have 106 friends. Most of these people I "know." I check my email again and return to my bad mood.

I flail about online, thinking about unavailable jobs, unavailable apartments, until I realize I am being overdramatic. I realize when I wrote "know" in quotations, it sounded Biblical. I realize I only counted the baby as half a person. Still, I press "publish post."