I suppose one of the many drawbacks of trying to be a nice person is that people end up telling you things you don’t really want to know. They get something on their mind, and nobody else will listen, and so they tell you about it.

Just to clarify, please review my first sentence, particularly the part that says “trying to be a nice person.” Please note that I did not (as in did *not*) write “one of the many drawbacks of being a nice person” and so on. I am trying to be a nice person. I never claimed to be one. That is to say, I am not attempting to talk myself up with this rather personal/self-indulgent bit of prose, I am merely relating my experiences.

People tell me things. I don’t know if it’s because of some aspect of my face that sets them at ease, or if it’s the fact that I try to be a nice person; I really have no idea. I do not resent this sort of thing, on the contrary, I feel honored when someone confides in me, and I do my very best to offer advice, or if I have no experience in the sort of situation they are describing, all I can offer is an open ear and empathy.

And sometimes an open ear and empathy is all that people – including me – need. Sometimes advice does no good. Sometimes there are situations in life for which nothing can be done, other than simply to accept these situations for what they are.

My main course of study in college was “journalism.” And other than a few freelance articles here and there, and other than a handful of articles I wrote for the Traveler (the University of Arkansas’ student newspaper) as a student, I have not made any money from the specific course of study I chose.

There are a couple reasons for this. Actually let’s just go ahead and say there are three reasons for this:

1. While I do possess something of a knack for the written word, and while this “knack” was in fact augmented and honed during my time as a student, upon graduation, I found that it would be next to impossible to find a steady job writing for a newspaper that paid significantly more than the job I already had, which was working in a soil science laboratory and doing related field work. My rent and utilities were covered by the wages I earned from this job, and it was a full-time, 40 hours a week, eight am to five pm sort of job. A newspaper job – assuming I could get one – would have entailed more than 40 hours a week, it would not have been an eight to five job, and in all likelihood the pay would not have been any more (and possibly even less) than the job I had in the soil science lab.

You could say I should have chosen a more practical thing to major in; I would reply that you would be correct, were you to say that, but that at the time I chose my major, “creative writing” was what I really wanted to major in, but that I chose “journalism” as a matter of practicality.

So yeah, “oh, the irony” and so on and so forth.

2. You will note that I made it a point to add “assuming I could get one” in the above reason/excuse for why I haven’t made very much money from journalism in the 13 years since I graduated from the U of A. There is a reason I added that disclaimer: many – if not most – newspaper and magazine jobs require an internship process. That is to say, they require new employees to work without pay – sometimes for upwards of six months or more – before they will actually give these employees any sort of salary. This was at least the case around the time I graduated from the U of A. I wasn’t fully aware of that aspect of the field when I decided to major in it. I was merely following what seemed to be my natural talent, hoping that if I did what people were continually telling me I was good at, somehow everything would work out.

Perhaps if I had been a little more patient, I could have managed to work full-time at an hourly job and intern for free at a newspaper or magazine in the hopes that said newspaper or magazine would later put me on full-time. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself for doing what seemed at the time to be the practical thing and taking a full-time job in a mostly unrelated field.

3. While I do apparently have the sort of face or “demeanor” or “personality” or whatever you want to call it that generally puts other people at ease – the type of (whatever) that makes people “open up” and tell me things they wouldn’t dream of telling most people – and while this sort of (whatever) is something akin to the “wet dream” of many exploitative journalists who expose people’s vulnerabilities and secrets and what have you for profit, I am burdened in this regard by an all-but-forgotten remnant of what used to be called “being a decent person”: my conscience.

If someone tells me their deepest and darkest secret, I do not run off and tell everyone. I do not have the pretentiousness to congratulate myself for being able to trick someone into confiding in me so that I may profit from their having done so. As a matter of fact I do not “trick” anyone into confiding in me, they generally do so entirely of their own volition.

Perhaps I should have studied psychology instead.

I will now relate an example of someone confiding in me. I don’t feel that relating this example will do anyone any harm, since for one I will not relate the specific identity of this person, and for two this person has been dead for a little over five years at this point.

As a matter of fact, my relating this to you – whoever you are – is me confiding in you, whoever you might be.

Consider that a warning. You are free to stop reading right now, if you don’t want to be bothered or burdened with it.

But on with the show:

The person in question – the deceased – was notoriously quiet. This fact was expounded upon in his eulogy, as a matter of fact. He quite simply did not talk very much, at least not to most people. I worked with the fellow for a little under three years, off and on.

When I first met him, I had recently taken a job working for my stepfather. He and a small crew were building a decent-sized house, and I had just recently returned to the USA from a two-year stint as an ESL teacher in Gimpo, South Korea. This was the “full-time job in an unrelated field” I mentioned before. This was in summer of 2008. I didn’t have a job lined up when I got back – as a matter of fact I had planned on returning to South Korea, but for various reasons, well, I didn’t.

This notoriously quiet fellow had just gotten out of prison. I am not 100% sure exactly what the nature of his crime was, but he told me later that the charge was “simple battery” and possession of a small amount of “ice,” which I have read (or maybe heard on “Breaking Bad”) is slang for low-grade methamphetamine.

Despite his somewhat “rough” looking exterior, he and I always got along at work. He was an excellent carpenter, and as working people around my part of the country say, “he didn’t mind working.” He was a very hard worker, and he did in fact come in late a few times because he had stayed up too late the previous evening drinking or doing whatever he did late at night, but once he was at work he worked, and if he was ever hung over he didn’t let on that he was.

He had a tattoo on one shoulder with a skull that had the letters “F T W” under it, and another tattoo across the fingers of I think his right hand that said “O Z Z Y,” I suppose in sort of an homage to the “L O V E” and “H A T E” tattoos Ozzy Osbourne has (or maybe had) across his fingers.

This fellow was a pretty big Ozzy fan, and a fan of metal-type music in general. Once, while still on probation from his short stint in a Louisiana prison, he took a pretty serious risk – one I am pretty sure he knew he was taking – by crossing state lines into Texas to go see OzzFest with a group of his friends. He didn’t get caught, at any rate, and were he still alive, even though I have not and will not mention his name anywhere in this blog post, I wouldn’t even think about putting a potentially incriminating bit of information like that down for whoever to read.

It was quite stupid of him to do that, nonetheless he did it anyway.

After the house was built, he helped my stepfather and I on a great many carpentry jobs. And though he and I were quite a bit different, well, at least at work, we became friends. We got along and joked around with each other and that sort of thing, and he and I worked alone together for more hours than I can really count. I might have been able to give you a rough estimate some time around 2011, when he committed suicide, but the intervening five years have blurred the various jobs he and I worked together on, and all I can say for sure is that he and I worked together quite a lot, and despite our differences, and despite his continually getting in minor trouble with the law, all in all he was quite possibly the best – or at least my favorite – coworker I have ever had.

Excluding family members, of course. 🙂

He was quiet, is what his step-uncle said as he gave his eulogy. The Garth Brooks song “The Dance” played at his funeral, and I don’t know if I should be writing this or not but I remember Garth Brooks once said that some teenager who committed suicide (I think) said in his suicide note that he wanted “The Dance” to be played at his funeral, but according to Garth Brooks, if that teenager had understood the meaning of “The Dance” at all, he wouldn’t have committed suicide, or something like that, because the chorus of “The Dance” goes as follows:

“And now

I’m glad I didn’t know

the way it all would end

the way it all would go”

and if that weren’t enough, I assume Mr. Brooks reasoned, the chorus of the song continues thusly:

“our lives

are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

but I’d have had to miss

the-e-uh-uh dance”

which I realize that many people who might read this blog have zero appreciation for country music, and the people who do appreciate country music may or may not like Garth Brooks (“The Dance” is one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre, FYI, but a lot of Garth’s stuff I don’t care for), nonetheless the basic “message” or whatever of the song is that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and as a matter of fact sometimes they turn out rotten, but to avoid situations where great things could happen simply because you are afraid something terrible will happen, well, you shouldn’t do that. Or something.

Hanging oneself with a belt sometime after midnight on a Sunday/Monday is not a good example of living out the message espoused by “The Dance,” at any rate.

The first job he and I worked on – the decent-sized house – has a pretty tall roof with a pretty steep slope, I think it was “nine and twelve” in carpentry-speak, which puts the angle of the roof in relation to the floor of the house somewhere around 45 degrees.

The house is built into the side of a hill, and even though most of the house itself – four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room with a vaulted ceiling probably around 20 feet high in the center – is on a single, top-of-the-hill level floor, there’s also a spacious garage and basement underneath the main floor of the house. The attic area of this house, square foot-wise – is almost as large as the main living area, and it could have easily been made into a second story, or a third story if you count the garage and basement, which you might as well.

But the owners of the house didn’t want a an “upstairs” area in their house, they just wanted a tall roof, which many people nowadays seem to want, or at least seemed to want eight years ago, when the house was being built. So that’s what we built for them.

Our basic plan of attack for this house was to dig a trench – about eight or ten feet deep – at the top of the slope, just in front of where the front of the finished house would be. We tied rebar and wire into big squares, then lowered them into the trench. When we were done tying wire and rebar together, we filled the trench with concrete.

In case the purpose of this is not immediately apparent, we did this to create a retaining wall, one that would prevent the soil and eventually the foundation of the house from eroding away during rainstorms.

After the retaining wall had been given time to set up and harden, we hired someone to dig out the hill on the lower side of the retaining wall and to flatten out the area where the house would sit. After that, we laid out the foundation of the house with a transit, batter boards, and string.

Then a bricklayer came and essentially built the bottom half of the house with cinderblocks. Normally, on a house with conventional flooring – flooring made of wood, as opposed to a concrete slab, which is more common nowadays – built on more or less level ground, the cinderblock foundation would only be a few courses of blocks high, enough to lift the wooden floor off of the ground and provide a few feet of crawlspace under the floor. But in the case of this house, which you will remember is built into the side of a hill, the cinderblock foundation is somewhere around twelve or thirteen courses high. This serves to bring the back side of the house up to the same level as the front side of the house.

To help you envision this house, as in the finished product, when you approach the house on foot from the front side, when you walk onto the front porch – a foot or two above ground level – then enter through the front door, the main floor of the house is more or less at the same level as the front porch. If you walk straight through the house – through the foyer and the living room with vaulted ceilings, then step into the kitchen on your right and then go out one of the back doors onto the back porch – the other back door opens from the master bedroom – you will find that you are now approximately eight feet or so above ground level. When you are on the back porch, I mean.

The reader will have to pardon my digression there, if she or he found it unnecessary. The reason I added it was to help illustrate that there is quite a bit of distance – something like 30 feet, I think – from the tip of the roof to the ground on each gable end of the house.

To back up just a bit, after the bricklayer – who incidentally did quite well for himself on this job: he returned after we were mostly done and laid bricks (like reddish clay exterior bricks) around a lot of the house also; as a sidenote this fellow is quite likable and friendly, and he is a big NASCAR fan and often talked about going to various races here and there…I won’t mention his name here, but if you live in the El Dorado area and need any brick work done, I can give you contact information; he’s not the cheapest bricklayer in this area but he does damn good work – built the foundation/lower half of the house, we built the floor. After we built the floor, we put up most of the stud walls – they were taller than normal 8-foot stud walls, I want to say they were 10 foot but I don’t remember for sure – and after that we began setting the special-ordered pre-fab roof trusses on top of the stud walls.

The house is about fifty feet wide, so in order to give them the pitch and height that the homeowners desired, the trusses had to be quite tall, somewhere around 16-18 feet tall, if memory serves. As these special-ordered, pre-fab trusses were to be delivered on a flatbed truck trailer – like a quote-unquote “18-wheeler” type trailer – they had to be laid on their side in a stack. And since it would be impossible to fit a 16 or so foot item on a truck bed that was roughly half that amount of feet in width (without having several feet hanging off on each side, which would make driving down the highway impossible) the trusses were split roughly in half: there were trapezoidal pieces that were designed to sit atop the stud walls, and triangular pieces that were designed to sit atop the trapezoidal pieces.

So, what we had to do was to put the bottom, trapezoidal truss pieces on first, then come back later and attach the triangular pieces to the top of the trapezoidal pieces.

Being that these truss pieces were over fifty feet in length, roughly 8 feet tall, and constructed out of lumber and metal nail plates – and therefore quite cumbersome – this part of the building process was done with a crane. My role in the process was to attach each truss piece to the end of the line attached to the crane. The crane operator then (very carefully) maneuvered the truss piece over the house, as closely as possible to where it was supposed to sit on top of the stud walls.

Two carpenters waited on the truss piece to be set down on top of the walls, and using their hammers bumped the truss piece into the pre-measured pencil marks where it was supposed to go. When the truss was in place, they drove a couple nails through the truss pieces into the top of the stud walls.

This was only part of the process, however. The trusses also had to be secured at their tops, otherwise they’d simply fall over, pulling the nails out at the bottom.

This part of the process was performed by a third carpenter, in this instance the fellow I am more or less writing this blog post about, the one who has now been dead for a little over five years.

This fellow climbed up a ladder and nailed pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of 2 x 4 lumber across the tops of these trapezoidal truss pieces. I think he used two pieces of 2 x 4 to connect each consecutive truss piece to the next.

From his position atop the ladder – which was leaned up against the outside gable truss piece, which was secured by a temporary brace to the outside wall of the house – he could only reach the first and maybe second truss piece. So, instead of taking the time to climb down the ladder (which was an extension ladder), retract the ladder, carry it to the next spot, extend the ladder, position it against the most recently placed truss piece, then climb back up the ladder and secure the next one or maybe two truss pieces, and then repeating this process over and over, do you want to know what he did?

He climbed up on the truss pieces he had already secured, on his hands and knees, and waited for the crane to place the next truss. When it was placed, he nailed a couple of pieces of 2 x 4 to it, securing it to the previous secured truss, then he crawled onto it and waited for the next truss to be placed.

He did this without the slightest bit of hesitation or fear. The trusses – big, floppy things that they were – wobbled a little under his weight, even though they were secured by nails at the top and bottom.

There’s probably some sort of moral or something to be derived here: the trusses on this house – and the trusses on your house, if you live in a house – did not have much strength in and of themselves. When the 8′ by 4′ sheets of plywood were laid across them and stapled down, however, they became quite strong. This sort of thing is apparent in many aspects of carpentry, from stud walls to floor joists to garage shelves: each individual piece is not particularly strong by itself, but when put together in the right way, the pieces form something that is quite sturdy. But I digress.

From where I stood – remember that the house in question is built into the side of a hill – the fellow crawling on top of the truss pieces appeared as if he were quite a ways up in the air. The spot where I attached – or helped attach, I honestly can’t remember – each truss to the crane line was at least a few feet above the floor level of the house, and the hill tapered on off another 15 feet or so (from where I stood) down to the far side of the house.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces was, in fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 or so feet above the floor of the house itself. But remember that the floor of the house was itself off of the actual ground about 8 or 10 feet, because of the house having been built into the side of a hill, and there being a garage and basement under the floor.

So, to me, the fellow appeared to be quite a bit higher off of “the ground” than he actually was. To be sure, falling 16 or so feet and hitting a solid plywood floor – one littered with lumber, power tools, and various hazards, not to mention interior walls one might ricochet off of on the way down – would be no picnic. At any rate, I think I was more worried about the fellow falling off the truss pieces than he was. My own blood pressure was soaring during this part of the construction process, even though I wasn’t in any danger myself.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces didn’t seem to mind doing it at all. Or if he did, he certainly didn’t say much of anything about it.

I do know one thing: even after several subsequent years of carpentry work, and finally more or less getting over my fear of working on rooftops (I found that my blood pressure could actually reach much higher levels than I had imagined while helping “deck” the roof of this house with plywood, after all the trusses were placed), there is no dollar amount anyone could pay me that would embolden me enough to go crawling on hands and knees (with a hammer in one hand and a couple pieces of 2 x 4 in the other) across wobbly truss pieces like that fellow did. If someone threatened to shoot me if I refused to do so, I likely would ask them to please not aim at my head or at any vital organs.

This fellow impressed me many other times, not only with his climbing abilities and fearlessness on rooftops and whatnot, but also with his skill as a carpenter. Many other times, many more than I care to list here.

It sounds incredibly stuck up for me to say, but if we hadn’t worked together, he and I would not likely have been friends. And I don’t know if he ever considered me to be his “friend,” but I considered him to be my friend, at least my “friend at work,” which if you’ve ever had a job you know what I mean.

After doing quite a few smaller jobs with him – building porches, remodeling rooms, putting metal roofs on (I was always the fellow who handed the pieces up to the people on the roof, ha ha) and various things – we began work on another, smaller house. This house has a concrete slab for a foundation, and we had to do quite a bit of “dirt work” before we got to where we could build concrete forms (this fellow knew a lot about building concrete forms, and I was more or less his “helper” for a week or so; actually I was more or less his “helper” a lot of the time we worked together and I learned a lot by working with him), and anyways at some point during this process we had a few days off where someone else had to come in – maybe it was the plumber laying pipes under what would become the concrete floor of the house, maybe it was the crew that poured the slab, I don’t remember – and work on the job site, and we (the carpenters) were not needed there.

During that time, we did a really small job on a trailer house, repairing a couple sections of floor that had rotted out.

And remember, when I say “we” at this point, I am talking about me, the fellow I have been talking about, and my stepfather. My stepfather had left me and the one fellow at the trailer house either to go get building materials or to discuss something with either the owner of the trailer or the owner of the house we were just getting started on or somebody. At any rate, I and the one fellow were there at the trailer house where the floor was rotting out in places, and nobody else was there.

I found a few pot seeds in the ratty shag carpet of this trailer house, if memory serves. But I digress.

The fellow – who was known to most people as “quiet,” including his family – told me something that day. I don’t know if “confided” would actually be the proper word, because he didn’t really get specific about what he meant by what he said, and I actually totally misinterpreted what he said when he said it to me.

He mentioned that everybody always seemed to “bitch” at him, no matter what he did. His mom and stepdad bitched at him – he lived in a camper trailer behind his mom’s house for most of the time I knew him – his girlfriend (and mother of two of his four kids) bitched at him, everybody bitched at him, no matter what he did. If he drank too much and got in trouble with the law – something that happened a few times while we worked together – he got bitched at. If he tried to act right and be a good guy, he got bitched at. No matter what he did, it seemed, it always ended up with somebody bitching at him.

“I can’t take this shit no more,” is what he said to me, as we were deciding how to fix the rotten spot in the floor of the trailer house with pot seeds in the ratty shag carpeting.

Since his girlfriend had been the last complaint he mentioned, I took “I can’t take this shit no more” to mean that he was going to break up with her. They had a lot of trouble during their time together, and I assumed he was planning on splitting up with her.

They had begun seeing each other during the construction of the other house I wrote about, the one where he fearlessly crawled across the tops of truss pieces. I think he met her at the gas station she worked at. While we were building the bigger house, she would bring him lunch, and I think they would mess around a little in the back of her car – or maybe it was his car, maybe she was driving his car, I don’t remember for sure – during the lunch hour.

At any rate, he had been telling me and my stepdad that he and his girlfriend hadn’t been getting along very well – he talked to both of us quite a bit, despite his reputation of being “quiet” – and anyways like I said when he told me “I can’t take this shit no more” I thought he meant that he was done with his girlfriend, who he had been seeing for almost three years at that point.

In retrospect, I don’t think that’s what he meant at all.

At the time of his death, he had no driver’s license, and he was unable to get registration stickers for the license plate on his car. Again, I am not a “snitch” of any sort, and if the perpetrator of this minor crime weren’t dead I wouldn’t think of mentioning it, but he forged registration stickers – which were yellow at the time; in Arkansas (and probably elsewhere) these stickers change color every year to allow the police to easily tell if any given driver’s registration is up to date – using the label he peeled off of a can of vegetables – the label was yellow, like that year’s registration stickers – and a pen.

My stepfather and I would pick him up every morning from his sister’s house. Her house was quite a bit closer to the main highway than his mom’s house, and he would drive on backroads to his sister’s house every work morning and we would pick him up and go on to the job site. This was done to save time, mainly; as I said his sister lived closer to the highway than his mom (and he) did.

Going down this highway toward the job site every morning, my stepfather and I would pass a road on the right that leads to where this fellow lived. On down the highway a bit – a mile or two – there is another road on the right that leads to where this fellow’s sister lives. These two roads are connected a few miles away from the highway, and the fellow would drive from his mom’s house – which is about 10-15 minutes down the first road on the right, from the highway – to his sister’s house, which is about 2-3 minutes down the second road on the right, from the highway.

One Monday morning, as my stepfather and I were approaching the first road on the right, we saw an ambulance coming from the opposite direction, lights flashing, turn down the first road. I don’t remember if we said anything to each other, but something told me…well, something.

We went on down the highway to the second road. We went to the fellow’s sister’s house, turned around, and parked beside the road – like we had been doing every work day for at least a few weeks – and the fellow was not there. We assumed he was running late – he ran late sometimes, as I think I mentioned early on – and we sat there and waited for him for a few minutes.

We finally decided that he had overslept, and that we would have to go pick him up from his mom’s house, something that had happened once or twice before.

When we got there, the ambulance that we had seen a few minutes earlier was parked in the driveway. And the fellow’s stepfather – incidentally one of the other carpenters who helped build the larger house mentioned before, someone I also learned a few carpentry things from – was outside. He told us that the fellow had hanged himself.

Construction of the new house was delayed for a couple weeks, not only to accommodate initial shock and going to his funeral and whatnot, but also to accommodate getting a new crew together: the other fellow who was helping on this new house (he also helped on the bigger house) was friends away from work with the fellow who killed himself, and he found that he simply couldn’t work with us at the time, because of grief and that sort of thing. We reminded him of his friend, I mean.


You may be wondering what in the hell the title of this post is in reference to. I will tell you:

“FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS!” is the motto of the “Rhipodon Society,” a group of three people (four if you count Horselover Fat, which no sane person would) in the Philip K. Dick novel “VALIS.” A rhipodon is some sort of fish – maybe some sort of prehistoric fish, I forget – and the narrator of “VALIS,” “Phil,” has a dream where he is one of these fish, and he tries to hold a machine gun in the dream with his fish fins but cannot do so.

Fish are significant in the novel because the fish icon used by early Christians (the same one used today by many Evangelical Christians, you probably know the icon as a “Jesus fish”) resembles a section of the “double helix” of a strand of DNA.

The “nose” of the fish is where the double helix twists, and the “tail” is visible if you cut the double helix in half roughly halfway to the next twist in the double helix.

It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it, even if you’ve only seen it in your head, such as I did yesterday and today, when I read “VALIS” for the third time. I have “VALIS” on my phone; I bought it and the other two novels in the “VALIS Trilogy” – “The Divine Invasion,” which you practically need a Religious Studies degree to make heads or tails of (I don’t have one, and it made no sense to me whatsoever), and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” which was actually the first PKD novel I ever read years ago, despite it being the last one he published (it wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the “VALIS Trilogy,” FYI, and doesn’t fit especially well there) – as a set for $9.99 at the Kindle Store a few years back. I have read “VALIS” twice on my phone and once (the first reading) in paperback.

Many PKD enthusiasts – a subsection of society I consider myself to be a member of – consider VALIS to be PKD’s “masterpiece.” And while I do think the novel has, well, “merit,” I don’t consider it to even be one of his better novels. Other than “The Divine Invasion,” it’s probably my least favorite of any of them…even though it’s the only one other than “A Scanner Darkly” (his best effort, in my opinion) I have read all the way through more than twice.

So why do I feel compelled to reread “VALIS,” even though I don’t think very highly of it? Well, above and beyond searching for whatever intangible thing that makes many of my fellow PKD fanatics like it so much, a central plot element in “VALIS” resonates with me personally.

“VALIS” is narrated by “Phil,” a slightly fictionalized version of its author. Other PKD novels (including “A Scanner Darkly”) are mentioned in “VALIS,” as a matter of fact. The trouble is, it is impossible to tell how much of the narrator is based in reality and how much of him is fictionalized.

Phil has an alter-ego in “VALIS” named Horselover Fat. “Philip” is apparently Greek for “Horselover,” and “Dick” is apparently German for “Fat.” Ergo, “Philip Dick” = “Horselover Fat.”

Horselover Fat, for the biggest part of the novel, is presented as a separate character from Phil, even though Phil mentions early on that he and Horselover Fat are in fact the same person. He talks to Fat and Fat talks to him, and Phil’s friends also seem to interact with Fat as if he were a completely separate person from Phil.

And no, I do not have an imaginary friend whose name is derived from translations of “Michael Walker,” just in case you were wondering…although I do conduct mock interviews with myself on my Facebook author page, no disrespect to any mentally ill person who actually talks to himself or herself intended.

Nonetheless, the event that apparently split Phil Dick’s mind roughly in half does resonate with me somewhat.

As I mentioned, one of the things that I seriously dislike about “VALIS” is that it is impossible to tell how much of “Phil” is based on the real-life Philip Kindred Dick and how much is made up. In an abstract sort of sense, like as in a “how much of any person is really real, people only present a fraction of themselves to other people, and that fraction may not even actually represent the person’s actual self at all” sort of sense, I suppose the novel is quite compelling. But being as how I, a reader who strongly identifies with what might be a completely and totally fabricated major plot element, well, to say the least, in this sense the novel is quite annoying.

“Phil” has a female friend in the novel named Gloria. Actually, I suppose she is Horselover Fat’s friend.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I will type out the first paragraph of the first chapter of “VALIS,” capitalized words appear as they do in the edition I have on my Kindle app:

“HORSELOVER FAT’S NERVOUS breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”

I have no idea whether “Gloria” was based on an actual person, or if the character is totally made up. What I do know is that in the novel “VALIS,” Horselover Fat becomes something of a scholar regarding ancient religious texts, that Horselover Fat writes page after page of something he calls the “exegesis,” and that Horselover Fat is addicted to “uppers,” i.e. amphetamines.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick was, for much of his career, addicted to “uppers,” and that he spent many hours writing something called the “exegesis” which was published about 20 years after his death in the early 1980s.

The “exegesis” contains Dick’s interpretation of Gnostic Christian texts, intertwined with all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of literal sense. This “exegesis” is something Dick actually wrote, and it is quoted partially in “VALIS” from time to time.

The entirety of what is quoted in the novel itself (plus quite a bit more) makes up an Appendix at the end of “VALIS.” This appendix is labeled “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura.” This title is also mentioned in the novel, I think it means “Hidden Scriptures,” and I think it’s part of the “exegesis,” or maybe a short version of the “exegesis,” or something. I finished the novel itself this morning and read about half of the 52 entries in the “Cryptica Scriptura,” and they make less and less sense (and get longer and longer, and some entries aren’t in English and have no translations), and anyways I quit reading the damned thing.

It correlates ancient religious scriptures and figures and such things with events that happened in Phil/Fat’s life. The main idea of the “exegesis” is that God – or “the universe,” or something grand and all-encompassing, at least – was split in two a long time ago, that there’s a good half and a bad half, that the bad half thinks it’s the good half (or something) and the bad half is ruled by a blind “creator deity” who thinks he’s the only god, but there’s actually a bigger god above him that’s good, and this bigger, better god is trying to help the creation (the world) of the smaller blind god, but the smaller blind god fights it off, and the bigger, better god is made entirely out of information, and the early Christians got in touch with this bigger, better god through Jesus, and they knew that everything was essentially information, which is why they designed the “Jesus fish” to look like a section from a DNA strand.

It seems like, at the beginning of “VALIS,” that “Fat” is the one who came up with all this, well, nonsensical stuff, and that “Phil” doesn’t really buy any of it. “Fat” apparently seems to be the speed-taking, staying-up-for-days-at-a-time-typing-maniacally half of the narrator, and “Phil” is the more rational side of the narrator, who doesn’t quite believe any of that stuff.

As the novel goes on, the lines between these two blur quite a bit. As does the line between “Phil” the narrator of “VALIS” and “Philip K. Dick,” the author of “VALIS.”

For example, one major plot element in “VALIS” is that Phil/Fat gets “zapped” by a pink laser beam that comes pretty much out of nowhere and enables him to speak koine (common) Greek for a short time. This pink laser also tells Phil/Fat that his son Christopher is suffering from some sort of hernia that his doctor overlooked, and that if the hernia isn’t treated soon, Christopher will die. So Phil/Fat (I am not sure which one, or if it makes any difference) takes young Christopher (who has been complaining about pain) to the doctor, tells the doctor about the possible hernia, and the doctor examines Christopher and finds that he does indeed have such a hernia, and that it is indeed life threatening.

For a sci-fi novel with heavy religious overtones, that makes for an interesting plot device. The thing is, PKD spoke of this “pink laser” incident as if it were something that actually happened to him. As in him, the author, in real life.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick died after having several strokes in a row, that long-term amphetamine abuse can put one at risk for stroke, and that major strokes are often accompanied by hallucinations.

I don’t know how seriously Dick – the real-life author – took any of this stuff. I am sure that (assuming he didn’t just make it all up) the “pink laser” incident was very real to him; nonetheless I have a very hard time even beginning to give any credence whatsoever to the idea that this “pink laser” existed anywhere outside his own addled brain.

So, getting back to the point, I don’t know if Gloria was real or not. And in addition to my being somewhat “annoyed” that one of my all-time favorite authors more or less documented his own descent into insanity in novel form, and that he may or may not have been insane enough at the end of his life to take these insane things he wrote about three-eyed people and “living information” and whatnot seriously, I am also very annoyed that I have no way of knowing whether “Gloria” – who you will remember is credited with Phil/Fat’s nervous breakdown – is merely a fictional character in “VALIS” or based off of someone Philip K. Dick knew in real life.

Gloria ends up committing suicide in “VALIS,” you see. Phil/Fat tries to talk her out of it, but she does it anyway, not by taking a hundred sleeping pills (Nembutals) but by jumping out of a tenth-floor window at – of all places – a drug rehab facility.

It annoys me to no end, not knowing if “Gloria” was based on a real person. Especially since the “Cryptica Scriptura” or whatever you call it repeatedly makes reference to some mythical woman who died long ago, and the quest to bring her back to life.

Gloria’s death is essentially the central theme of “VALIS.” Fat searches ancient religious texts and spends hours madly typing or scribbling notes in his “exegesis” in search of the new “savior,” not in order that he may be saved, but so Gloria can be brought back to life.

The whole book is insane. It presents itself as (at least partially) nonfiction, but which parts are nonfiction (other than references to real-life PKD novels) and which parts are fiction?

Is “Gloria” merely a plot device?

I first read “VALIS” (in paperback; I gave my copy to a friend) in 2008. The whole thing about a female friend committing suicide and giving Phil/Fat a nervous breakdown resonated quite strongly with me at the time.

I mentioned this event obliquely in another blog post, and I am not going to go into any detail here, other than to say that grief related to her quite untimely death is the principal reason I have yet to return to South Korea.

Suffice it to say that my co-worker was not the first person I had been rather close to who committed suicide.

As a matter of fact, I wrote something that could be called a “book” following this first suicide and shared it with a handful of friends. I have it saved on an old external hard drive, and out of curiosity I did a word count on it after I began writing this post.

The word count of this “book” is 82,792. I didn’t realize how long it was. It’s actually longer than my novel, which ended up being about 79,000 words.

The first “book” was written mainly as a sort of therapy; it was never edited, or for that matter even collated into a single document. It did me a lot of good to write it, and I am grateful to the people who read it.

It has not been – and will not be – published. Sorry.

Like I said, though, it was quite therapeutic. I finished it in early 2011, five or six months before my coworker hanged himself. So I guess it’s good I wrote it when I did, otherwise I might have gone full-blown Horselover Fat and started writing exegeses and Cryptica Scripturas and whatnot.

I don’t do any “uppers” stronger than coffee and energy drinks, though. Something else to consider, re PKD, is that long-term amphetamine abuse – regardless as to whether it gives one strokes or heart trouble – often leads to psychosis.

So, yeah, remember that, kids: don’t do drugs.

What led to this rather unpleasant little stroll down memory lane? I will tell you:

I got to searching for a collection of home-recorded “songs” I made in 2010 on my computer, and I couldn’t find them. I thought that I had copies of them on my current computer (which I bought in 2015), but apparently I was mistaken.

After spending an hour or two digging through CDs, looking for a copy of this collection, I looked on an old external hard drive, where I (luckily) found all the “songs” I was looking for.

While I was exploring the external hard drive, I also happened to look at a few pictures I took in 2008 of the bigger house I mentioned.

And so on.

Thank you for reading, if anyone read all of this. I will try to avoid this sort of unpleasant subject matter in the future.


Imagine, if you will, four friends traveling across the countryside on an adventure. These four friends – all adults of legal age – have known each other since childhood. Like any group of friends, they have disagreements from time to time, but these disagreements usually resolve themselves of their own accord and never cause any real friction within the group.

This group consists of two men and two women. There has never been any romantic involvement between any two members of this group at any point during the group’s existence. The friendship among this mixed group of four is and always been strictly platonic, and despite what the reader or anyone else may imagine to the contrary, there has never been the slightest inkling toward anything romantic or sexual directed at any member of the group from any other member of the group.

They are, all four of them, just friends.

There is only one issue which causes this group of four genuine and lifelong friends any friction whatsoever, and while this issue may seem silly to anyone outside the group, rest assured that there are legitimate reasons this issue is so important to the members of this group. However, these reasons are so convoluted and arcane that it would require many thousands of words to accurately describe them, and even if these reasons were to be fleshed out on the page (or on the screen, or what have you) they would likely not make any sense whatsoever to anyone outside of this group of four friends.

These reasons are important to the four friends, and silly though it may seem to anyone else, the beliefs these friends have regarding this one seemingly trivial issue are so strong that any time this issue is brought up, heated arguments ensue.

As a matter of fact, this one adventure these four friends are on now is the first such adventure the four of them have undertaken together in several years. This long estrangement was due, mainly, to an unresolved argument regarding the aforementioned issue, and to repeat yet again, this issue may very well seem silly and frivolous and trivial to anyone outside the group, nonetheless within the group itself, this issue is anything but.

The issue is pizza.

Yes, it seems insane – and it very well may be – that four lifelong friends could come to blows and not talk to each other for literally years at a time over something as seemingly insignificant as pizza (what toppings to put on it, what type of crust is best, etc.), nonetheless the dispute over pizza among these four genuine, lifelong friends is an ongoing one, and one that they – all four of them – purposefully estranged themselves from each other over for several years preceding the adventure we find them on now:

Jill, Hillary, Gary, and Donald, after a long day of traveling and sightseeing and joking around and generally having a great time together, have found themselves in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The four of them, having been physically active all day and only eating a light breakfast and lunch, are all very hungry. It’s after 10 pm, and the only lights on anywhere in this small town in the middle of nowhere are in a small pizzeria on the edge of the town square.

Before the four of them go in, they have a short discussion regarding the issue that is weighing heavily on their hearts, that the good times they have been sharing on this adventure shouldn’t be ruined by their having to face the one issue they can’t agree upon – pizza – that they will simply order four personal-sized pizzas, eat them quietly without criticizing each other, then leave the pizzeria and find somewhere to sleep for the night.

The four of them – after circling the town square a few times to make sure there isn’t anywhere else open (even a convenience store) where they could grab a bite before bed – reluctantly start toward the pizzeria.

On the sidewalk outside the pizzeria, there’s a man lying on his side, moaning in what sounds like agony.

“What a bum,” Donald says.

“Really,” Gary replies. “There is nothing worse than a grown man who has no respect for himself.”

“I…I’m not a bum,” the man replies. “I…own…successful business…couple towns ov–” then the man begins violently retching upon the concrete.

Donald and Gary, disgusted, enter the pizzeria, discussing things like “personal responsibility” and “self-respect” and how “bums” like this fellow are “leeches on society” and that sort of thing.

Hillary and Jill take slightly more pity on the moaning, retching fellow. They ask him if there is anything they can do to help him, and after retching and moaning for another ten seconds or so, the man says “ambulance” and then retches some more. There is a phone on the sidewalk beside him, and the sound of an ambulance siren is just barely audible off in the distance, and Hillary and Jill assume that he has already called for help.

The man seems to be trying to tell them something, trying to warn them about something, even – he is grasping at pant legs and has a pleading tone in his voice, etc. – but before he can say anything other than “don’t” and “pep” (because of all the retching), Donald opens the door.

“Hurry up and come in here, ladies,” Donald says. “The pizza chef is about to close up for the night, and if you don’t get in here now, you don’t get to eat!”

Hillary and Jill note that the ambulance siren off in the distance seems to have gotten a little closer, and though they feel pity and concern for the moaning, retching man on the sidewalk, and though he now appears to have trouble breathing, they reason that as they are not medical professionals, there’s nothing they can do for him, and there’s apparently an ambulance on the way, and so on, and long story short Hillary and Jill go into the pizzeria and sit down at the table Donald and Gary have chosen.

The four of them are the only customers in the pizzeria, other than a young couple in the back corner who seem to have fallen asleep at their table.

The inside of the pizzeria is dimly lit, and there is an odd smell, and the atmosphere seems like less of a dimly-lit romantic Italian ristorante sort of atmosphere and like more of a dimly-lit B-movie “this is where everybody in the picture gets brutally murdered” sort of atmosphere. Everyone in the group notices this, but they all attribute it to their being tired and hungry, and none of them mentions it to anyone, and they revive the jocularity they enjoyed during the day and order something to drink.

When the waitress brings their drinks – four ice cold root beers in frosty mugs, a perfect beverage to top off a perfect day, everyone agrees – she informs them that there is only enough pizza dough left in the kitchen for the chef to make one large pizza. The waitress adds, somewhat cryptically, that “personal sized pizzas” are not allowed in this pizzeria, and to please not mention them again.

The four friends’ jocularity is suspended, and they all silently gaze down at the menus in front of them, realizing that the one issue that has bitterly divided their tightly-knit group many times over the years – the pizza issue – will have to be settled to some degree this evening.

They also – all four of them – notice something exceedingly odd printed at the bottom of each page of the menu:

“Do not order more than you can eat. Wasting food is a crime against Nature and the Supreme Being. Customers who do not finish their meals will be shot.”

The waitress says she will be back in a couple minutes to take their order, and she walks away.

“Ha. Did you guys see this disclaimer at the bottom of the menu? About customers who don’t finish their meals?” Donald asks the table. “I like a man who is confident about his product. It shows spunk, it shows panache, it shows that the owner of this place is a winner and not some loser like that bum out on the sidewalk. I’m going to remember that, that is creative marketing right there, ladies and gentleman.”

Before anyone can respond, the sound of a pump-action shotgun being shucked comes from over near the door. The four friends turn and see that a burly fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs is now standing in front of the door, facing the table, holding what appears to be a sawed-off 12-gauge across his chest.

Donald, Jill, and Hillary are all somewhat taken aback at this new development, and at first so is Gary, but after noticing that no one else noticed him flinching, and after noticing that the burly fellow is only standing there by the door and not actually pointing his sawed-off 12-gauge at anyone, Gary laughs and tells his three friends that they are all “pussies,” and that this one time when he was riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest with a pack of wild cheetahs chasing him, a Sherpa guide brandished a shotgun more or less exactly like that one at him, and he stopped his ten-speed, confronted the shotgun-wielding Sherpa, and even though the Sherpa – who was envious of the ten-speed which Gary had earned through hard work and a dedication to self-improvement and individuality and that sort of thing and wanted to steal it (the ten-speed) from him – actually managed to “wing” Gary, Gary tells the table, Gary was able to wrestle the shotgun away from the Sherpa and suplex this Sherpa over the side of a cliff, which by this time the pack of wild cheetahs had caught up to him, and he had to fight them all off bare-handed – he was only able to kill one with the shotgun (it was a double-barreled shotgun, and one shot had already been expended upon him) – and after a long, arduous battle there on the side of Mt. Everest with approximately seventeen wild cheetahs in which Gary eventually came out the victor, and “other than a scratch or two” (Gary proudly flopped his right leg up onto the table to show everyone a rather nasty-looking scar that he claimed still had most of a cheetah tooth broken off somewhere inside of it) he came out of the fracas unscathed. After he related the end of his tale, in which he tamed a ferocious grizzly bear merely by speaking kindly to it and then rode on the bear’s back up to the summit of Mt. Everest and then back down to the base, beating his bare chest with his fists the entire time, Gary reiterated that just because an intimidating-looking fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs was standing in front of the door with a shotgun here at this dimly-lit pizzeria that smelled sort of like the back room of a mortuary with menus that threatened death for anyone who didn’t finish their pizza, that was no reason for anyone to be upset, and that he wasn’t really surprised that the female half of the group was concerned about the situation (men being, to his view, the stronger, more resilient half of the species) but that the other male in the group should have the “balls” to not be afraid of a mere sawed-off 12-gauge, when he (Gary) had bravely endured not only shotguns but packs of cheetahs and grizzly bears, all while riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest.

“I’m not a pussy,” Donald began, the register of his voice a good bit lower than it had been just a few minutes ago. Before he could continue in his artificially-deepened voice, the waitress returned to the table.

“Are you guys ready to order?” the waitress asked. She seemed sort of nervous, but as everybody at the table was again preoccupied with the pizza issue, nobody paid any attention to it.

“Would it be possible to split the pizza four ways?” Jill asked. “I mean, like a quarter ham, a quarter Canadian bacon, a quarter ground beef, and a quarter pepperoni?”

It would be prudent at this point to discuss the individual pizza topping preferences of the four friends:

Donald’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni. Hillary’s favorite pizza topping is ground beef. Gary’s favorite pizza topping is Canadian bacon, and Jill’s favorite pizza topping is ham.

The issue as to whether Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing is but one of many issues that has bitterly divided this group over the years, and the arguments presented for and against this issue would require several thousand words to transcribe. Jill and Gary – obviously – strongly disagree that Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing, and after verbally fighting tooth and nail against each other for hours over the matter, they are known to combine their vitriol and direct it against Hillary when she inevitably tries to get them both to concede that at the very least Canadian bacon and ham are quite similar. Donald finds the whole argument amusing, and tends to drop well-timed comments which alternately support both sides in order to egg on the conflict and amuse himself.

At any rate, the waitress informs them that no, this four-way splitting of the pizza will not be possible.

“The pizza chef is,” the waitress begins, “a deeply religious man.” She seems to be reciting something from memory: “His religion, is, um…his religion is single–”

The waitress’s recitation is cut short by a loud clanging sound from back in the kitchen, one which prompts the waitress to visibly flinch.

“His religion is singular, I meant to say,” she continues, “In that he is the only adherent of it. I am unworthy of such a faith, but…” she pauses, “but I espy– ”

More clanging, as if someone were hitting a stack of pizza pans with a sledgehammer, emerges from the kitchen, again causing the waitress to visibly flinch.

“…but I aspire to one day be worthy of aspiring to such a noble faith,” the waitress said.

The four friends at the table – all of whom respect the right of every individual to worship or not worship whoever or whatever they wish in whichever fashion they wish (Donald having, nonetheless, something of an aversion to anything and everything Islamic) – are nonetheless taken somewhat aback at the things the waitress is telling them about the pizza chef and his “singular” religion. The pizza chef, it seems, worships a Supreme Being who expresses Himself – the repeated use of “Him,” “His,” and “He” (the capitalization of these pronouns being easily inferred) indicating to everyone at the table that this Supreme Being envisioned by the pizza chef is, in fact, male – through the medium of pizza. And that he – the pizza chef (note that the most recent “he” is not capitalized) – is the vessel through which this Supreme Being expresses Himself.

One odd aspect of this “singular” religion, one which strikes everyone at the table as somewhat ironic, is that the “Supreme Being” worshiped by the pizza chef has given the pizza chef one unalterable commandment regarding the medium – pizza – through which the will of this “Supreme Being” is expressed: at no time, and under no circumstances, would the “Supreme Being” tolerate more than one topping on any one pizza the pizza chef makes. Therefore, according to will of the “Supreme Being,” the concept of a “supreme pizza” is an abomination.

It occurs to everyone at the table – being that all four of them have something of a talent for marketing – that the pizza chef could potentially be making quite a lot of money by using his religion as a gimmick and selling “Supreme Being Pizzas” and that sort of thing. Donald mentions this to the waitress, who responds with silence and a horrified look on her face.

There are, however, certain aspects of the pizza chef’s religion that appeal to the group: part of the reason that the pizza chef (or the Supreme Being, or whatever) allows only one topping on a pizza – and also one pizza to a table – is to promote unity among friends and family. One topping must be agreed upon, one and only one topping – it doesn’t matter which topping, but there has to be one, and “cheese” doesn’t count – before the Supreme Being would deign to commune with the group of family or friends at the table through the divine medium of freshly-baked hand-tossed Italian-style pizza created by the sole arbiter and vessel of the Supreme Being’s will, the pizza chef.

There was one other stipulation: if the group of friends or family dining at any given table at this pizzeria could not decide which of the many flavorful and delicious toppings to have on their pizza, the will of the Supreme Being dictates that the topping will default to pepperoni.

The four friends look at the long list of toppings – Jill and Gary feeling somewhat vindicated because of the fact that both “ham” and “Canadian bacon” appear on the list – and ask the waitress to please give them a minute. The waitress says that will be fine, and while she is saying “I will be back in a few minutes” she turns her back to the kitchen, scribbles something rather frantically on her notepad, tears off the top page, and nonchalantly places it on the table in front of Hillary before she walks back to the kitchen.

As Donald, Jill, and Gary discuss the pizza chef’s singular faith, Hillary picks up the slip of paper, the top left corner of which is apparently still on the notepad the slip came off of. In shaky, all-caps, Hillary is able to read this message:


Hillary attempts to show the note to her companions – they were talking among themselves about how interesting the pizza chef’s marketing strategy was – remembering the retching man on the sidewalk who had managed to choke out “don’t” and “pep” before she and Jill left him on the sidewalk for the ambulance to pick up…

And she realizes for the first time since she came in that the ambulance she and Jill had heard in the distance had never come, that the man on the sidewalk hadn’t called it after all, like she and Jill had assumed.

Hillary looks around the dining room of the pizzeria. The young couple in the back corner who appear to have fallen asleep at their table don’t seem to have moved at all since she and her three friends came in.

Neither of the two young people – neither of them could have been over 20 years old – appear to be breathing.

As Hillary turns back around to her friends, a muffled sort of scream emanates from the kitchen area. The screaming stops after a slight clanging sound – like pizza pans falling off of a counter – and a series of dull thumps – thumps that sound like someone hitting a side of beef with a sledgehammer – travel through the strange-smelling air between the kitchen and the dining room.

The four friends sit in silence for a few seconds. “You guys,” Gary says, his voice trembling, “what was that sound? It sounded like–”

“I vas tenderizing ze beef for tomorrow’s pizzas,” says a small man in a black apron who appears more or less out of nowhere. “Ze vaitress, she has gone home for ze evening. I am ze chef here. Vy name ist Heinrich. I vas named for mein great grandfazza.”

The man is fairly short – just over five feet tall – and he has neatly combed white hair, bright blue eyes, and a pleasant smile. “Have ze fine ladies und gentlemen decided vhich topping zey vill have?”

The man’s appearance sets Jill, Gary, and Donald somewhat at ease.

“No, I’m afraid not, Heinrich,” Jill begins. “Hillary wants ground beef, I want ham, Gary wants Canadian bacon, and Donald wants pepperoni.”

“I regret to inform ze lady zat zere ist no ham available tonight,” Heinrich says. “Ve are, as zey say, fresh out.”

“What about Canadian bacon?” Gary asked, his voice again evoking what he imagines to be rugged masculinity.

Heinrich smiles, with what Hillary and Donald both interpret as knowing condescension: “Yes,” Heinrich says, “I am afraid zat ve are out of zat topping as vell. Everyzing else ist, as zey say, still in fresh supply.”

“Well, if I understand the policy here, Heinie,” Donald begins, “If we can’t decide what topping we want, you just give us pepperoni, right?”

“Zat ist correct,” Heinrich replies. “Und let me assure ze fine ladies und gentlemen zat it ist pepperoni of ze highest quality.”

“I’m sure it is, Heinie,” Donald says. “I’m sure it’s some really luxurious pepperoni, my friend. And I just want to compliment you on your business here, I really like the whole marketing approach, the whole ‘Supreme Being’ shtick, I just think it’s fantastic.”

Heinrich’s smile does not wane in the slightest, but his eyes seem to betray a slight inner hardening of his demeanor as he says, “Let me assure ze gentleman zat mein Gott ist no, as you say, shtick.”

“That’s great, Heinie, just great,” Donald replies, then turns back to his friends: “Well, guys, it sounds like pepperoni, huh?” Donald positively radiates triumph over the fact that the inability of his friends to agree on a pizza topping essentially guarantees that his choice of topping will be the one they are all forced – quite literally at gunpoint – to eat.

“Could you just give us a minute to discuss this, Heinrich?” Hillary asks.

“Of course, madame,” Heinrich replies. “I vill be back in, as zey say, two shakes of ze lamb’s tail.”

“I just think he’s fantastic,” Jill says.

“His accent is scary,” Gary offers, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“I bet that’s some real luxurious pepperoni,” Donald says.

“Guys, I think that pepperoni is poisoned,” Hillary says. “I think this whole restaurant is a death trap, and I think that guy Heinrich is a psychopath.”

The three of them laugh.

“Look at this note!” Hillary says, and shows them the note the waitress had given her.

“I can’t even read that,” Donald says.

“Look at that sloppy handwriting,” Jill says.

“That waitress writes like a pussy,” Gary says.

“Jill,” Hillary says, “don’t you remember the sick man on the sidewalk?”

“You mean that bum?” Donald interrupts.

“Proper penmanship is one key aspect of personal responsibility,” Gary says.

“When he wasn’t vomiting, he said ‘don’t’ and ‘pep’!” Hillary says. “Didn’t you hear that, Jill?”

“Well, I…” Jill replies.

“Probably hopped up on pep pills,” Donald says.

“People like that are pathetic,” Gary begins. “It’s like Ayn Rand always said…”


“No need to act like a fanatic,” Gary says, his voice slightly quivering again.

“Must be that time of the month,” Donald says.

“You’re letting your emotions control you, Hillary,” Jill says.

“Are ve veady to order?” Heinrich says, again seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Out of frustration, Hillary presses the heels of her hands against her temples and puts her elbows on the table. “Anything but pepperoni,” she says.

“Ham,” Jill says.

“Canadian bacon,” Gary says.

“They’re the same FLIPPING THING!” Hillary says.

“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.

“Let me remind ze lady and ze gentleman zat ve are out of ze ham.”

Jill and Gary glare at Heinrich.

“…und ve are also out of ze Canadian bacon.”

“Yes,” Jill says, straightening up in her seat. “I know that you are out of ham, and I know that it is completely and utterly pointless and absurd for me to order ham, and that there is no eventuality whatsoever in which my ordering ham here in this pizzeria tonight will result in ham being put on the pizza that is brought to my table, because as I have been told there is no ham and therefore no possibility of ham being on my pizza, nonetheless, my conscience tells me that I should order ham anyway. I know full well that when I order ham – even if there were ham here in the pizzeria tonight, which it is a well-established fact that there isn’t any – that what I am essentially doing is ordering pepperoni – because of the rules you have here in your pizzeria, Heinrich – but these irrefutable and indisputable facts do not deter me in the slightest from doing what I feel I must do: order ham. I feel it is my duty to order ham, because I like ham, and I think ham is the best pizza topping, and even though there is no chance in hell – or for that matter heaven or Earth – that ordering ham tonight will lead to my being served ham on my pizza, and that ordering ham when I know this to be a fact is essentially an egotistical and foolish exercise in futility, I must follow my conscience and order ham anyway. I will have ham on my pizza, Heinrich, ham, I say!”

Gary stands up, clapping with vigorous aplomb. Tears are streaming down his face. “That was beautiful, Jill. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I mean, I probably could have said it better because I’m a rugged, manly man – these are rugged, manly tears streaming down my rugged, manly cheeks, by the way – and you’re just a dumb, frightened girl, but still, I agree with you a hundred percent on this. Except for me it’s Canadian bacon.”

“They’re the exact same thing,” Hillary says under her breath.

“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.

“Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. You’re being very immature, Hillary,” Donald says, then hands his menu to Heinrich. “You know what I’m having, Heinie.”

“Ze pepperoni it vill be, zen,” Heinrich says. “I hope ze ladies and gentlemen vill enjoy.”

“We’re all going to die here,” Hillary says.

“Stop being so emotional,” Jill says.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Gary says.

Hillary glares at Gary, who seems to shrink in his seat a little.

After a few minutes – fewer than one would think it would take to bake a pizza; Heinrich had apparently anticipated the outcome of the squabble over toppings ahead of time, and had done so correctly – the pizza is brought out, and Donald, Jill, and Gary eat heartily.

Hillary does not.

“Real good pepperoni, Hill, real luxurious,” Donald says several times.

After about ten minutes, Donald, Jill, and Gary begin to feel ill. They look at each other, noticing a greenish bluish sort of tinge in their faces. They look at Hillary, and notice that she does not have this sickly color in her face, although she does appear rather pale.

After about twenty minutes, the three of them fall over, moaning, clutching their stomachs in pain, retching violently all over the floor.

Hillary remains still, her elbows on the table, the heels of her hands pressed against her temples.

She hears footsteps behind her.

“Ze lady ist not eating her pizza,” Heinrich says, a playful sort of malevolence in his voice.

“You killed my friends,” Hillary says.

“Ja,” Heinrich replies. “Und now I vill kill you as vell. Come, Werner. Ze lady needs, as zey say, motivation.”

Werner shucks his shotgun.


Ever since I was a little kid, I have been a huge fan of the English language. I was read to quite a lot as a kid, and as a result I learned to read at a pretty early age.

There are a lot of highly literate and articulate people in my family, also, people who read quite a lot and express themselves clearly. So my fondness for English is, quite possibly, the result of not only my childhood but also the result of genetic predisposition.

I was a big fan of Mark Twain as a kid — I am still a big fan, FYI — and one of my favorite things about his writing is his use of dialect, specifically southern dialect. He often wrote the way people I grew up around talked. He was a master of not only proper American English (and yes, I realize that many people consider “proper American English” to be an oxymoron) but also of English as it was spoken by the common people.

He’s certainly not the only author who has used dialect in his (or her) writing. But he was the first author I read who used it, and seeing as how “southern dialect” is essentially my native language, well, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that Mark Twain’s writing “spoke to me” as a kid.

English is an extremely malleable language. There are a wide range of accents and dialects among native English speakers, and English incorporates and absorbs foreign words and phrases into itself quite easily.

Bing thet eets fonnettick, itt ken awlsew bee undurstuud evin ef itt izunt writun propperlee.

But all joking aside, despite what my fellow native English speakers may think or believe, English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. A great many words have really weird and seemingly arbitrary spellings. And if someone learns English as a second language from, say, Canadian teachers, that person might have difficulty understanding what in the hell a person with a southern accent is saying.

When I taught ESL in Korea years ago, for example, some of my Korean coworkers couldn’t understand much of what I would say to them at first. As they got more used to my accent — and as my accent softened and transformed, temporarily, into something close to a Canadian accent (“Canadian accent” is probably the least accented accent, FYI) — they could understand me, but at first, it was difficult. They told me this after I had worked with them for quite some time.

As a sidenote, the Korean language is also phonetic — constructed with vowels and consonants and whatnot — and while it is extremely difficult for a non-native speaker to pronounce properly, reading the language phonetically is actually quite easy. Once you get past how different it looks from English, and once you see the pattern of how syllables are constructed, it’s not that hard to read. With only a few exceptions, Korean words are written as they are pronounced, and rules for pronunciation are pretty much constant.

English is not like that. It is absolutely brimming with weird pronunciations and weird spellings.

Such as the phrase “political correctness.” At a glance, the spelling of this phrase would seem to be obvious.

But it isn’t actually spelled the way it sounds. Here is the proper spelling of the term:


Weird, huh?

People who oppose “politically correct” language don’t know the proper spelling of the phrase. Don’t hold it against them, just teach them the proper spelling.

And yes, I realize Mark Twain’s writing was often the opposite of “politically correct.” But I would argue with anyone that he opposed racism and bigotry, and that his intent was to lampoon and discredit racism and bigotry, not to promote it.

Anti-PC “free speech advocates” are doing the opposite of this. They are lampooning and discrediting the victims of racism and bigotry, not the perpetrators of racism and bigotry.

And they get rrrrrreeeeeeaaaalllllly mad at you if you point that out to them.

“Freedom of speech” guarantees the right to say offensive things. Nobody disputes this.

It also guarantees the right to call someone who refuses to treat people with respect a bigot.

Some “free speech advocates” might tell you that calling someone a bigot is “silencing their voice.” What these “free speech advocates” refuse to acknowledge is that the intent — as in the only intent — behind bigoted language is to marginalize and silence people.

You can say whatever you want. You can use any vile (I like that word, 😉 ), disgusting language you want to, and nobody can stop you.

They can, however, tell you to shut the hell up. They are not “violating your right to free speech” if they do so, they are expressing their own right to free speech.

If you can’t wrap your head around that, you have no business calling yourself a “free speech advocate.”

You’re free to call yourself that, of course, but doing so is roughly equivalent to saying “I got an A in algebra in high school, so I am an expert in math.”

You have a poor understanding of the subject, is what I am saying to you.

Thank you for reading.


I am going to attempt to explain something here today, something that is misrepresented and misunderstood in the media and by many people.

As with everything, I reserve the right to be wrong – please correct me if I am, but be prepared to bring your A-game, ha ha – and I take full responsibility for everything written here. That is to say, if any of this offends you, whoever you are, I accept that it was me who offended you, and not you being “too sensitive” or something.

I don’t get to decide for you what is and isn’t offensive. I am a strong advocate for “free speech,” and I understand that your right to free speech includes the right to be offended by what I write and express your offense however you want to.

Many people do not seem to understand this, but that’s another post, one I probably won’t write.

I am here today to briefly attempt to explain the concept of “privilege” as it applies to society in the USA today. I am not talking about another society somewhere else, I am talking about the USA.

First, I want to list the ways I am “privileged,” and explain why my being and having these things carries privilege.

Before that, if you read this in such a way that makes you think I feel guilty for being privileged in the ways I feel I am privileged, or that I am apologizing for the fact that I am privileged, that is not my intent, and to my view it would be an incorrect interpretation of this post. But interpret it however you like, I am not the boss of you, and I respect your right to free speech.

First: I am an American citizen. This fact gives me the privilege of all the freedoms and liberties that many people in the world are not given. It also gives me privilege over people living in the USA who are not citizens. It doesn’t mean I am “better” than them, it means that I have a legal status that they don’t, and by virtue of that legal status, I can do many things they can’t. I did precisely nothing whatsoever to earn this privilege; I was simply born here.

Second: I am male. Historically speaking, men have dominated most societies in the world, including society in the USA. “Sexism” was not coined as a term because men were being mistreated. And to be sure, women are much closer to complete equality nowadays, but lingering effects of decades of institutionalized sexism still exist. I am a feminist, and I will be until society is completely and totally equal with regard to how men and women are treated by it. I don’t expect to ever stop being a feminist, so don’t bother trying to talk me out of it.

Third: I am straight. That is to say, I am heterosexual. I came out of the womb liking women. I grew up liking women. I like women as an adult. With regard to feminism, I admit that it is sometimes difficult to be completely objective when I am interacting with women, at least in real life. If I find a woman attractive, sometimes things happen to me that I can’t help. My palms might sweat. My heart rate might increase. I might turn into a blubbering idiot and say something stupid. But, also with regard to feminism, I recognize that those reactions are my responsibility. If I make an idiot out of myself because an attractive woman makes me nervous, it’s not her fault I got nervous and made an idiot out of myself. But that’s sort of a tangent, I guess…with regard to privilege, my being straight prevents me from ever having to deal with any sort of harassment or hate speech or hate crimes that LGBT people often have to endure. For the record, I also support full equality regarding the right to marry whoever you damn well want to, and I also fully support the right for everyone to self-identify however they damn well want to. I don’t get to tell you who you are, and nobody else does, either.

Fourth: I am white. White people – people of European descent with white skin – are and always have been the dominant demographic with regard to race in the USA. White culture – books, movies, TV shows, style of dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc. ad infinitum – is and always has been the norm in our country. I am not “apologizing” by admitting that. My basic philosophy on life – which I may have mentioned it to you at some point – is “it is what it is.” “White” is still, despite the fact that our culture is evolving and other perspectives are emerging, “normal.” It does not require any white person to feel “guilty” to acknowledge this, this is simply a fact. And yes, of course, some white people are more privileged than others. There are poor white people. Believe me, I know. I have never considered myself to be “poor” (more on this in a bit) but many people would. I know a lot of white people who grew up with more money than I did. I know a lot of white people who grew up with less. And I also know that there are many rich nonwhite people. I even know some of them personally. None of these things, however, negate the fact – the fact – that “white” has always been considered “normal” in our society. And none of those things negate the fact that we white people – no matter how much or how little money we have in the bank – benefit from that in ways that we might not even be aware of. Acknowledging that does not – despite what many talking heads will try to tell you – imply that you hate white people. I love white people. As a matter of fact, most of my favorite humans (my family) are all white. A lot of my favorite celebrities are white, a lot of my favorite musicians and actors are white, and a lot of my favorite writers are white. I am consciously (and constantly) trying to expand such lists, and to be completely honest, my reason for doing this boils down completely to selfishness and self-interest: I want to broaden my perspectives on things. I want to understand what life is like for people who aren’t me. I will never be able to completely understand, but I want to listen and I want to learn. And I realize that sometimes in order to actually listen to people with different perspectives, sometimes I just have to shut up and listen. My point of view is not necessary or needed in some conversations. Sometimes I quite simply don’t know what I am talking about. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a nonwhite person, or a gay or transgender person. And so on. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes, I believe people should be treated equally no matter their demographic, but in order to do that – and I am talking mainly to my fellow straight white male people here – sometimes we just have to shut up and listen. Trust me, you will never learn anything from anyone by talking over them. This is something I have had to learn the hard way, as a matter of fact: I have been guilty of it. Not actually listening to people who aren’t just like me, I mean. And it was my loss, not theirs. They had nothing whatsoever to gain by me telling them what to think or how to act. I regret that I was too stubborn to just shut my mouth and listen.

Fifth: I grew up in a pretty stable home, and I come from a pretty stable and moderately successful family. Many people don’t have that luxury. This luxury – this privilege – was given to me. I didn’t do anything to earn it. I have benefited from the love and support of my family my entire life. That’s a privilege many people don’t enjoy. As a sidenote, one family-related privilege that I don’t have is that I never really had much of a relationship with my biological father. My parents divorced when I was around two, and my mom remarried. I was raised by her and my stepfather, whom I have been calling “daddy” my entire life. I always had a father figure, but I never really knew my actual father, as in the person whose genes formed roughly half of me in my mother’s womb. If you know or knew your father, you have a privilege – something you didn’t earn – that I don’t have and will never have. And please don’t think I hold this against you. I most certainly don’t. I am just trying to illustrate that many things we humans take for granted are things we didn’t actually earn.

Sixth: I was raised Protestant, which is the majority religion where I am from. I was never made to feel different because of my religion. That isn’t to say that this privilege – being part of yet another empowered majority – didn’t have drawbacks. I was misinformed and misled about certain scientific topics, for example. I was taught very bad things about LGBT people, things I grew up to find aren’t true at all. I am glad – infinitely glad – that I was able to mentally overcome the stupid shit I was taught in church as a child, nonetheless, my being a part of that – being part of the majority where I live – was a benefit to me at the time.

Seventh: I am not disabled or handicapped in any way. I can walk and run and jump (and do one and a half chin-ups) and do all manner of things that many people can’t. That’s right, folks: the ability to walk and run and jump is a privilege many people do not have. You didn’t earn those abilities, though it’s certainly true that you can augment those abilities through exercise and proper diet.

And anyways, I suppose seven is enough for now. There are many more, but in the interest of brevity, I will end the list at number seven.

Because if I haven’t been able to express to you what “privilege” means in social discourse by now, well, I might be wasting my time.

Thank you for reading.


Something for Richard Dawkins fans to think about:

“Postmodernism” is a term for a branch of literary theory that questions the validity and certitude of every narrative and every assumption and pretty much everything there is, including itself.

One would think — at least I would think — that this sort of skepticism (skepticism of everything) would appeal to Dawkins’ followers, at least the ones who like Dawkins primarily for his writings on atheism and skepticism, but it doesn’t.

Why not?

Well, Dawkins, in his criticism of postmodernism — which postmodern theory pretty much requires that one question it — has not actually criticized the basic idea behind postmodernism. What he has done is criticize and lampoon one aspect of it, the aspect of it that questions modern science, that is to say the aspect of it that questions the way modern scientific concepts and assumptions are expressed through language.

Have I lost you? Let me attempt (yet again) to tell you what I mean:

Language itself — as in the words I am using to attempt to express what I mean here — is a product of whichever society or culture it arose from. The words I am choosing to use right now are not only the product of millennia of various cultures and societies developing and re-developing their medium of communication into modern American English, they are also a product of my own personal experiences with language and language use. There are a great many cultural artifacts metaphorically “buried” in every single word I am typing.

Postmodernism — as it applies to literary theory and criticism — is a way to “unearth” these bits of history and culture, and to examine why they are there and what assumptions were “buried” with them.

This is the basic premise of all literary theory: to examine the words we use and why we use them.

Literary theorists and critics use postmodernism and other theoretical frameworks to figuratively dissect a wide variety of texts, from novels to films to (the narcissist in me hopes) blog posts to — you guessed it: scientific writings.

That is to say, these texts — including scientific texts — are scrutinized regarding not necessarily *what* they say but *how* they say it.

To obliquely reference Marshall McLuhan, the “message” is not being criticized, but the “medium” is.

Richard Dawkins — in what he would apparently have you believe is his infinite wisdom — has gotten this very basic premise of literary theory ass-backwards:

To hear him tell it — and to hear many of his followers tell it — “postmodernists” and other literary theorists are not merely questioning the language used by science and scientists, but the concepts and theories science and scientists promote.

He’s convinced thousands and thousands of people that “postmodernism” is “anti-science,” when in reality that simply isn’t the case at all.

The ultimate irony of this is that he is essentially doing the exact same thing many creationists do when they claim that evolution — a theory no “postmodernist” actually doubts, I would wager — means that our grandparents were apes and that sort of thing.

He is — and has been for years — misrepresenting a very basic concept that he feels (quite needlessly) threatened by in order to discredit it.

Creationists do that, also, just over a different type of theory.

To conclude, if you want to say literary theory is esoteric and of less practical value than science and scientific research, well, you may have a point. I would even — despite my fondness for language and words — agree with you, from a pragmatic perspective.

If, however, you really and truly believe that postmodernism and other branches of literary theory are “anti-science,” all I can tell you is that you have been misled, much in the same way creationists have been misled by misrepresentations of evolutionary theory.

Ironic, ain’t it?


As whoever reads this blog may or may not have noticed, I have not updated it in over a month. There’s a reason for that: I have been mulling over whether to write the post I am about to write. It’s been kicking around in my skull for over a month now.

Why the indecisiveness? Well, it’s sorta complicated.

Actually, it’s not complicated at all, I am just making it complicated by over-thinking it. It’s actually pretty simple:

My writing it entails a slight admission of racism on my part.

And that’s racism I am conscious of. There may be latent racism elsewhere in this post or other posts, and if so, feel free to point it out. Actually, I insist that you point it out, should you notice any. I can’t get rid of it if I don’t know it’s there.

But moving on, this long-delayed post has to do with a trip I took a little over a month ago. I went to visit my cousin and his family in the greater Dallas, TX area, a visit that was equal parts social and work-related: I built some shelves for their garage, and did some other minor handyman-type stuff around their house. And before you compliment me on my generosity or anything, you should know that I was paid for my work, and my transportation to and from Dallas was also paid for. And not only that, I ate for free the whole time I was there, and I also had free beer. So compliment my cousin on his generosity if you compliment anyone – as a matter of fact, he’s also the person who designed this website, and currently it’s piggybacking on his GoDaddy account, and all I have paid him for his services as of yet was a liter of Maker’s Mark.

But I digress.

My transportation there and about halfway back was on a Greyhound bus. Actually, the first leg of the trip was on a CADC bus (Central Arkansas Development Council, I think) that went from El Dorado to Malvern, making a few stops along the way. Greyhound buses don’t actually come to El Dorado any more, so I had to ride a shuttle to the Greyhound terminal in Malvern…which is essentially a CADC office with a covered bench and a Dr. Pepper machine out front.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

As I mentioned, my ticket was paid for by my cousin. I got an email with a confirmation number, and to be able to get on the bus, I had to take the confirmation number to the CADC/Greyhound office in El Dorado and have the ticket printed off.

The website said to arrive at the Greyhound station at least an hour before the bus left, to ensure that I’d have plenty of time to get my ticket and get on the bus. Being that the entire trip was going to take around ten hours, I didn’t want to spend any more time at the terminal in El Dorado than I had to, so I went the day before my trip and had my tickets printed off.

When I went into the office, a young black woman and her mom were talking to the white lady that worked there, planning a trip somewhere. While waiting for my turn to talk to her, I absentmindedly began reading various things posted to the wall, as I tend to do in such situations.

One thing caught my eye: it was a poster with a list of things that were banned on Greyhound buses, including a list of things that were illegal to carry in your checked luggage, the luggage they put in the compartment in the bottom of the bus.

One of the items was “laptop computers.” This struck me as exceedingly odd, especially since Greyhound offers free wifi on their buses.

The mother and daughter finished planning the trip, and they got up and started to leave. The woman behind the desk wasn’t finished printing their tickets, though, and I had to chase them down and tell them to come back in. I am including that detail not to make myself look chivalrous or something, but because I did essentially the same thing they did before my return trip at the Dallas terminal…but I am getting ahead of myself again.

I had been planning on bringing my laptop with me on the trip, in my trusty Targus laptop backpack, which I would use as a carry on, like I normally do in such situations. I asked the woman behind the desk about the backpack thing, and she said not to pay any attention to that poster, I could carry whatever I wanted, and a laptop was fine to carry on the bus, and so on. Which I thought was kinda weird; I mean why hang the poster on the wall if it’s not actually a valid list, but I didn’t say that out loud.

But the lady said something else about laptops, and this is where the trouble started regarding me and my slight slip into racism: she said something like “I think they were worried about bombs, is why they put laptops on that list.”

Which, well, if you know me personally, you know that I have a tendency toward paranoia. And long story short, I didn’t just forget what that lady said about bombs, the idea of the bus I was on exploding during the trip started bouncing around my skull, much like this post has been doing.

Anyways, the next day, I got to the terminal in El Dorado about 20 minutes before departure time. And even though there was a scale there in the office, I was not required to weigh my bags. I had already weighed them here at home, and they were well under the weight limit, but anyways I guess that’s another digression.

The shuttle to Malvern – incidentally Malvern is pretty much in the opposite direction from Dallas, with respect to El Dorado – was driven by an older white man wearing a cap that indicated he was a veteran of some sort. I don’t remember from when, but I am guessing it was from the Vietnam War era, based on his approximate age. Including him and me, there were only five people on this bus. There were two black women – one probably in her mid twenties, the other maybe in her thirties…the older one was a truck driver I think, going to meet up with a truck she would then drive – and one young white woman who was maybe around 19 or 20. Her boyfriend or perhaps husband was at the El Dorado terminal, and he made an impression on me because of the way he was protectively kissing her goodbye, as if to let me and every other male person there know that she was his girl, and nobody better get any ideas to the contrary. I have to say I found the whole performance both cute and somewhat gross…there seemed to be a bit of “I own this woman” about it, but anyways that’s none of my business.

It’s worth noting that this detail of the trip stood out to me, and I have planned to include it the entire time this post has been bouncing around my skull, but I only just now remembered that the older black woman’s husband (or maybe boyfriend) was also there in El Dorado to see her off, and he was also hugging her and telling her he hoped she had a safe trip, and so on, but his demeanor seemed to be more of a “I am sincerely going to miss you” sort of vibe happening, as opposed to whatever I may or may not have accurately detected from the younger white kid.

I am including basic racial descriptions of people in this post for a couple of reasons, for the record. One, I am not a racist, and I believe in treating everyone equally and fairly no matter their skin color, but at the same time, I do not consider myself to be “color blind” when it comes to skin color. As much as I would like to live in a world where skin color makes no difference, well, the world doesn’t actually work like that. A person’s skin color does, all too often, make a difference in the experiences they have in their lives. I don’t like that fact, and I want to do everything I can to change that fact, but pretending that everyone has the same life experiences no matter their skin color is not going to help the situation. But I guess I am digressing. There are many articles online discussing this issue, and I encourage you to read them.

Two, due to the fact that I had an arguably racist thought a little later in the trip, well, I feel that it’s necessary to list the skin color of various people I encountered on the trip.

Moving on, the CADC bus stopped at a couple other CADC offices on the way, but we didn’t pick anybody else up. We stopped at one gas station, and the driver advised us to go get something to eat while we were there, because there wasn’t going to be anywhere to eat near the terminal in Malvern. I took advantage of this and bought an order of fried chicken livers and a decent sized catfish fillet (YUMMY!) along with another Dr. Pepper. I had brought one to the El Dorado terminal to take on the trip, and had drank most of it by the time we got to this gas station.

There was no wifi on this bus, and I thought to myself that if the whole trip wasn’t going to be any more crowded than this, these ten hours wouldn’t be all that bad. I was in for a rude awakening a few hours later, but again, I am getting ahead of myself.

When we got to Malvern, the driver let us all off and wished us a safe trip. The older black woman almost immediately walked off somewhere, I am not sure where, and the two younger women sat in the covered bench area. I opted to stand off to the side, both because I didn’t want to be all up in their business (the covered bench thing had two benches facing each other, and they weren’t very far apart) and also because the white girl was smoking in there, essentially “hot-boxing” the thing, and if you aren’t familiar with that term, just think about it for a second.

I got to looking at my ticket, and I hadn’t really paid attention to this aspect of the itinerary, but the bus to Dallas wasn’t going to arrive in Malvern for a couple hours. It was around one pm, maybe a little after, and my bus wasn’t supposed to get there until 3:40. I showed my ticket to the two young women in the hot box (I waited for the smoke to clear) and asked them “Am I looking at this right?” And they looked at their tickets, and their bus was due in like half an hour or so…they were going to Little Rock. When the older black lady got back from wherever she went, she mentioned that she was going to Little Rock and on to Manchester, I guess the Manchester in Tennessee. At any rate, my three traveling companions from El Dorado to Malvern and I parted company, and I remained at the bus stop for a couple more hours.

There was one other passenger getting on the bus to Dallas, a woman probably in her fifties who was Hispanic or maybe Native American. She and I talked a little, but not much. Her destination was Tuscon, Arizona, I think she said, and the bus from Dallas to Tuscon left at like three in the morning, I think she said. She smoked what looked like a Black and Mild cigar, and I went through a brief phase in college where I smoked those things, and without trying to sound too snobby or whatever, I am really glad I quit them. Apparently they are not good for teeth, and that’s all I will say about that.
The bus was an hour late. It had been held up because of a wreck on I-30, the driver said. The driver of this bus was a black lady. And anyways, when I got on the bus, I was quite disappointed to find out that this bus – the bus I would be on for about six hours – was quite crowded. There weren’t any empty seats – the lady that smoked the Black and Milds got the last one – and I began scanning the bus for the optimal seating partner.

Everyone who wasn’t already sitting next to somebody had their carry-on in the seat next to them, and they avoided eye contact, so as to discourage anyone from sitting next to them. Which, yeah, I would probably have been doing the same thing.

I didn’t want to sit next to any of the women on the bus, because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I am not an especially threatening-looking person or anything, but at the same time, I realize that a woman might not want to sit next to a strange man on a Greyhound bus for six hours. So I began looking for the optimal male seatmate: the physically smallest person I could find. This was simply to maximize my own personal space in the seat, you understand.

I settled on a skinny black dude – he kinda reminded me of Dave Chappelle, I guess – who was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, asked if he minded if I sat there, and he moved his bag from the seat and I sat down. He “manspreaded” a little into my territory, but I “manspreaded” out into the aisle to compensate, and all in all the seating arrangement wasn’t too uncomfortable.

It was at this point that I had my involuntary episode of mild racism. But it wasn’t against my seatmate, it was against the person sitting in front of us.

And let me remind the reader about the question I had asked the day before regarding laptops, and what the answer was: “Take anything you want,” pretty much was the answer, and “laptops are on that list because they’re worried about bombs” or something.

The guy sitting in front of me had light brown skin, curly black hair, and he had a goatee that was an inch or two long. I don’t actually know his ethnicity, but it could have been Egyptian, or maybe Cuban, or possibly part Hispanic and part African-American. I honestly don’t know.

His appearance regarding his ethnicity wasn’t exactly what set off the involuntary racism, though: he looked like he was pissed off. Like really, really, super-duper pissed off about something. And combined with his appearance, and combined with the mention of “bombs” the day before, especially since nobody even gave my bag a second look…well, I involuntarily went on a bit of a paranoid fantasy trip for about ten minutes where the bus pulled into the terminal in Dallas and exploded because this pissed-off looking fellow had planted a bomb in his suitcase.

As you have probably intuited, there was no bomb, outside of my paranoid and arguably racist little daydream. And I had only been on the bus for maybe ten minutes when I figured out why the fellow was pissed off:

I was sitting in the aisle seat, and he was sitting in the seat in front of me, next to the window. I could see the side of his face well enough to see his pissed-off expression, and anyways his phone went off – at least I think it went off, he might have initiated the call – and he began a video chat with who I assume was his girlfriend or wife. The face of a woman appeared on his cracked smartphone screen, and she was asking him where something was. She didn’t seem to want to take “I don’t know!” as a viable answer from him, and their conversation ended with him angrily tapping the “end call” button on his phone.

And I realized how much of a bigot I had been being, with my paranoid fantasy about him being an Islamist suicide bomber. He was pissed off over a squabble with his significant other, not at Western civilization. And right then and there is when I began mentally writing this post, and simultaneously, right then and there is where I began debating with myself over whether I wanted to write this down and publish it. It doesn’t exactly make me look good, I mean.

That morning, at the CADC office in El Dorado, I had been having a discussion on Facebook with another white dude over the concept of “white privilege.” He said it didn’t exist, I said it did…and my original angle for this post was that my racist reaction – which went on entirely in my head – to this pissed-off, vaguely Middle Eastern-looking fellow sitting in front of me on the Greyhound bus was, in my mind, proof that “white privilege” does in fact exist.

Nobody is ever going to accuse me, a white dude, of being a terrorist. Nobody is ever going to look at me while I am pissed off and wonder if I am pissed off at America. That’s never going to happen, at least not here in the USA.

I felt stupid, sitting there. I felt like a hypocrite. I call people out on racism all the time, and there I was, thinking a racist thought. I hesitate to say “Islamophobia” here, because for one, Islamophobia is to my view just one of many types of racism, and for two, I didn’t even notice the lady wearing a Hijab near the front of the bus until after I saw the angry “I don’t know where it is!” video chat conversation and realized how much of an idiot I had been.

I’m not perfect. I hope this isn’t reason enough for anybody to want to cut ties with me, but nonetheless there you have it.

Anyways, most of the rest of the trip was uneventful. Boring, yes, slightly uncomfortable, yes, and the wifi was weaker than my normal phone data connection. I got booted from a live chess game, and those games require practically nothing, from a data use perspective. I read a little, and eventually decided to take a nap.

On over in Texas somewhere, I don’t remember exactly where, two more passengers got on: a black dude who was probably in his fifties, and a white dude in his twenties who looked like Mac from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” with long hair who reminded me of Richard Linklater’s character from his first movie, “Slacker”: he was very talkative and enthusiastic, and he spoke with the unique east Texas drawl/surfer dude mixture that Linklater spoke in in that film. Without even asking, I and the rest of the people in the back half of the bus learned that he could play like fourteen musical instruments, that he had a bachelor’s degree in music but couldn’t find a music-related teaching job, and that he had just finished truck driving school and was on his way to his first trucking job. I can’t honestly say he was “annoying” or anything, but he did talk a whole lot.

The bus ride continued on uneventfully until we got to Greenville, which is just outside Dallas.

This is where things got weird.

The bus pulled into the stop, and the driver informed us that a sheriff would be boarding the bus. He was going to check everyone’s bags.
Several people asked if they could get off the bus to go smoke – we had skipped a couple stops because the bus was behind schedule – and the driver said that would be fine. So several people got up and started heading to the front of the bus, but before anybody got off, a sheriff – a black man in his forties or fifties, plain-clothed, wearing a baseball cap and a badge on a chain around his neck, got on the bus and somewhat angrily told everyone to sit back down, and that he was going to check our bags for “drugs, money…and bombs.”

Almost immediately, the fellow sitting in front of me was removed from the bus. As soon as he was taken off of the bus, a white woman – mid to late 20s, dressed slightly “hippie-ish” – got on the bus. She sat in the only open seat, the one vacated by the fellow sitting in front of me. Before she sat down – and this might be the weirdest part of the whole thing – she put a plain white cardboard box into the overhead compartment. The box was about the size of a small cake or maybe a pie, and it had clear plastic tape going around the middle of it, like around it in both directions, forming a cross on the top of the box. I almost offered to give her a hand – that is to say, I almost touched this box, which would leave a fingerprint on it – but something told me not to.

The sheriff went to the back of the bus and began looking through bags. He instructed us to have our bags open and ready by the time he got to us. I put my trusty Targus laptop backpack in my lap and opened all the zippers, staring straight ahead and remaining silent.

For the record, if you ever find yourself in a situation involving the police, do not – repeat, do NOT – take it upon yourself to smart off at them. This goes for everyone. It is not going to help the situation, and it could potentially get you into trouble. Or worse. Don’t talk back, and do what they ask you…as long as what they’re asking you to do is legal, of course.

Actually, I am not 100% sure that a sheriff boarding a Greyhound and demanding to look through everyone’s bags is actually legal, now that I think about it. That may or may not fall under “unreasonable search and seizure,” but I may be all wet on that. At any rate, if Greyhound actually bothered to look at anyone’s luggage the way airlines do, this sort of inconvenience would be totally unnecessary…but again, I digress.

The black man who had gotten on the bus a few stops back with Linklater, Jr. was approximately the same age as the black sheriff. And the sheriff accused him of being drunk, and demanded that he get off the bus, also.

The dude didn’t look the least bit drunk to me, when he got on the bus, for the record, and he didn’t act drunk at all when he got off the bus or back on it a few minutes later. At any rate, I had been thinking to myself just prior to this stop that this whole trip would actually kinda be fun if I had been hammered…but I suppose it’s fortunate I know you can get into trouble for that now, ha ha.

The sheriff also made a black woman – maybe 20, 21 – get off the bus. I think she looked at him funny, or maybe said something he didn’t like. As I said, I faced the front of the bus for most of this episode, keeping quiet.

There was a white couple – early 30s, I am guessing – in the seat next to mine. They had tattoos, and a slight “punk rock” aesthetic about them, and the sheriff looked through their bags quite a bit. He made the woman pat her belly, like to hold her shirt up against her skin, to prove she didn’t have anything taped to her.
Then he searched my seatmate’s bag. He told me to get up while he did, so he could search my seatmate’s bag more easily. I got up and put my bag in the seat in front of me.

I don’t remember for sure, but the white woman may have gotten back off the bus temporarily. Maybe not, I can’t remember. Her appearance at the scene seemed, I dunno, weird somehow.

Anyways, my seatmate seemed to share my philosophy regarding the police: stay quiet, do what they ask, and don’t do anything to piss them off. He didn’t do anything, he didn’t smart off, he did exactly what the sheriff asked him to – moving things out of the way in his bag, so the sheriff could see the bottom – and the sheriff gave him a hard time anyway. He accused him of smarting off, of not cooperating, that sort of thing. My seatmate didn’t smart off, and he did exactly what the sheriff asked, and when the sheriff didn’t find anything in his bag, he asked to see mine.

I placed it on my seat, still standing. The zippers were all unzipped.

“Well, open it,” the sheriff said.

I opened the bag about halfway, revealing the two or three books I had brought, and then my laptop. “Books, laptop computer,” I said, and he told me to sit down and he moved on to the next person.

I wasn’t carrying anything illegal in my bag. The thing is, though, I very easily could have been. I am not writing this to encourage anyone to try and smuggle contraband on Greyhound buses – you are an idiot if you think that’s a good idea – I am writing to report that my bag was not as thoroughly searched as my seatmate’s, or as thoroughly searched as many other people’s on the bus.

To be fair, my bag was not as cluttered as my seatmate’s, or as cluttered as the white couple next to me who got searched much more thoroughly. The sheriff made a point to see the bottom of their bags, but not mine.

After I sat back down, the guy in the seat next to me brought out a bag of chips and declared that he was exited, because now he had dinner and a show. The sheriff said something back to him, but he didn’t make him get off the bus or anything.

Eventually all the bags were searched, and everybody who was taken off the bus – the vaguely Middle Eastern-looking fellow, the middle aged black man, and the young black woman – got back on. The sheriffs didn’t find anything, despite taking the luggage out from under the bus and letting drug dogs sniff it.

The fellow in front of me told everyone about his experience off the bus. He said that the dogs went after his bag, but when the sheriffs opened it, they didn’t find anything. A white sheriff asked him, “Do you smoke weed?” and the guy said “Yeah.” The sheriff said that was probably why the dogs went after his bag. He went on to say that next time he went on a trip he was flying, that the only reason he went on Greyhound was because it was cheap, and he didn’t mind the long trip but the thing with the sheriffs was bullshit. I can’t say I blame him for feeling that way.

Linklater, Jr. got off the bus a few stops later, and as we were about to pull into the Greyhound terminal in downtown Dallas, the driver came over the intercom and said that she was sorry the trip got delayed, but it couldn’t have been helped, and we should all be thankful that the accident that held the bus up originally didn’t involve the bus itself, and thanks for traveling with Greyhound.

Several people, including the fellow in front of me, said, “F**K GREYHOUND!”

Which I have to admit was kinda funny.

Here’s what’s weird about the white woman who put the box in the overhead compartment: she left it in the overhead compartment when she got off the bus. And this was the end of the line for this particular bus; i.e. nobody was getting back on, people going past Dallas had to get on different buses.

I started to mention it to her, but I decided not to.

I don’t know if that was the right decision; I was ready to be at my cousin’s house and I didn’t want to be involved in anything else Greyhound-related that night. I don’t know what was in that box, and for all I knew, she left it on the bus on purpose.

Wouldn’t that be something?


Just recently, there was a bit of a hullabaloo on social media regarding a paper written about glaciers. The paper was written by a history professor, I think. He wrote about different “glaciologies” or something like that, comparing the way Native people who live near glaciers see glaciers with how scientists see glaciers. The rationale was something to do with how modern science often overshadows all other perspectives, or something like that. It wasn’t a scientific paper, it was a paper about narratives and “different types of knowledge” and stuff like that.

This paper caused some controversy. The funding of the paper came from some entity having to do with climate change, I think, and articles were written with “your tax dollars at work” and whatnot as the theme. It was also believed that the paper was attempting to say that Native myths regarding glaciers were equally as valid (from a scientific perspective) as modern scientific knowledge about glaciers. Many believed the paper was an attack on science, even, like an attempt to de-legitimize science.

This, of course, was not actually the case. Writing about “different types of knowledge” does not imply that all “types of knowledge” are equal.

Think about it this way: one person has a completely irrational but sincerely held belief. Let’s say that somebody sincerely believes that the moon is made out of green cheese. It usually looks white because of a force field around Earth that is generated by the Great Pyramids of Giza, this person believes.

Another person knows this is all BS. From a scientific perspective, of course this person is correct: as everyone who is sane knows, the moon is actually a giant telephoto lens attached to an invisible camera that our alien ancestors from the Pleiades use to keep tabs on us.

Of course that was a joke. But regardless as to whether something a person sincerely believes is true is *actually* true, well, try convincing them it isn’t true. Try convincing someone who sincerely believes that the moon is made of green cheese, etc. that it isn’t.

For that matter, try convincing anyone who believes the glacier paper was an assault on science that it actually wasn’t. It’s not gonna be easy.

People believe what they believe and “know” what they “know” because of the culture they’re from. If a culture is modern and scientific, like ours mostly is, something like a glacier is going to look a lot different than it would from the perspective of a culture that is neither modern nor scientific.

Since we’re talking about glaciers, let’s imagine that a fully frozen and perfectly preserved adult Neanderthal man is found in a glacier somewhere. Let’s also assume that he is brought back to life by scientists, and that he has to adapt to modern life and integrate his prehistoric understanding of the world with everything in the modern world.

Assuming he is able to adapt at all, picture this guy trying to understand how a smartphone works.

Hell, I use a smartphone every day that goes by and I don’t actually have any idea how a smartphone works, from a scientific perspective. I have a vague, weakly articulated approximation of an idea, based on things I have read, but honestly I don’t have a clue.

I know that smartphones work, and I know how to use them. But I don’t know how they work. My approximation of an idea about how they work (which could potentially be embarrassing if I attempted to write it down) is a result of me being a product of a modern country like the USA. I learned about science in school, and I know modern devices like smartphones are a product of many years of scientific research.

The unfrozen Neanderthal guy doesn’t even know what science is. He could potentially be taught to read and write and use something like a smartphone, but how is he going to understand what is actually going on when he uses it?

If he’s like most people — including me — he isn’t going to think about that very much. But assuming he does, and assuming someone asks him how he thinks it works, how would he answer that question? Me, I would say “uhhh, errr, SCIENCE,” but what would he say?

To be sure, I am not comparing an unfrozen Neanderthal to Native people who live near glaciers. Neither am I comparing people who think the “glaciology” paper was an attack on science to unfrozen Neanderthals, hardy har. I am just trying to illustrate that there actually are “different types of knowledge”.

With regard to that paper, I would (and did) argue that Native myths regarding glaciers were worth studying, if only for their value as a part of cultural history.

So why I am only writing this now? Why didn’t I write this while the whole hullabaloo was going on about it? I will tell you:

I just watched part of a documentary about Easter Island. You know, that island with all the huge angular big-headed statues called moai. These statues are all carved from rock from one area on the island, but they are placed all over the island. Many people have questioned how the people who carved the moai moved them, because being that they’re huge stone statues, well, they’re pretty heavy.

Thor Heyerdahl (the Kon-Tiki guy) had a possible explanation. Heyerdahl theorized that the moai were moved by rolling them on logs. I think he may even have demonstrated that it could be done like that, but I am not sure.

Heyerdahl used his knowledge of science to “solve” the mystery of how the moai were moved all over Easter Island. And it’s definitely true that they could have been moved that way.

There’s another possibility, though: according to oral traditions of the Rapa Nui (the culture that produced the moai), the moai “walked” to their current positions.

I think I remember hearing or reading that years ago, in something else I saw or read about Easter Island. The way that’s usually presented is “these primitive people don’t know about science! They think stone statues walked! What a bunch of dumbasses!”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. But this is the sort of thing that I think the author of the “glaciology” paper was talking about: Heyerdahl ignored local legends about how the moai got to their current positions and came up with his own ideas about how they got there. As Heyerdahl was a representative of mainstream Western science, most Westerners believe his theory about log rollers.

And Heyerdahl may be correct. I am not saying he isn’t. The fact is nobody knows for sure. Nobody who actually moved them is still alive, and they were moved centuries before video cameras were invented, so there’s no footage of them being moved when they were originally moved.

And the only historical record from the Rapa Nui is their oral tradition, which claims the moai “walked.”

Do I think the moai actually “walked” to their positions on Easter Island, like I will get up and walk outside when I finish writing this, so as to get a better phone signal while I am uploading this to my blog? Of course not. But I do think Heyerdahl may have done well to listen more closely to Rapa Nui oral traditions:

According to the fellow on the documentary, who I think was Rapa Nui, when Rapa Nui storytellers would say the moai “walked,” what they meant was that the moai were “walked” to their current position much in the same way somebody might “walk” a refrigerator to a different spot in the kitchen: by pushing or pulling one side forward a few inches, then pushing or pulling the other side forward a few inches, and so on. According to the fellow on the documentary, abrasions at the bases of many moai support this theory.

Was Heyerdahl’s log roller method more practical? Perhaps. I really don’t know; I imagine moving one of those things by any method (including with modern machinery) would be quite an undertaking. I wouldn’t want to try it.

Practicality isn’t really the point, though. As mentioned, nobody really knows for sure how the moai were moved.

One theory virtually ignores Rapa Nui oral traditions. The other doesn’t.

Which theory do you believe?

Getting back to the “glaciology” paper, whether any Native traditions regarding glaciers will be useful from a scientific perspective remains to be seen. The paper may indeed be completely useless, from a scientific perspective.

Even if it is, well, we’ll know. And we’ll have documentation of it.

Thank you for reading.


So, keeping somewhat with the “Korea” theme that has been running through my last two blog posts (this one and this one),  I will go ahead and make it a trilogy before moving on to something else. For today’s blog post, I will write about one of my all-time favorite foods, one I ate for the first time in Korea and have recently begun attempting to make at home, omurice. I will relate not only my personal recipe for omurice but also a brief history of the dish and an anecdote or two about the Korean restaurant where I first ate it. In keeping with the style and presentation of this blog, I will accomplish these things in the meandering, idiosyncratic fashion that the four or five people who actually read my blog have come to know and begrudgingly tolerate. For a more concise version of the history of this simple (and delicious, and nutritious) dish, refer to the Wikipedia article linked to above, and for undoubtedly better recipes, well, search the internet.

Anyone who has even glanced at the Wikipedia article now knows that omurice didn’t originate in Korea. It originated in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, a period spanning from 1868 to 1912 that restored imperial rule in Japan and contributed to its emergence as a modern nation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the way, the information I am giving about the history of Japan is taken directly from the Wikipedia pages I am providing links to. A week or two ago, after deciding to attempt to make my own omurice at home, I began to wonder if omurice had originated in Korea or Japan. I knew it was widely available in both countries, but I wasn’t sure where it appeared first. I consulted Wikipedia, and I found myself going down a rabbit hole of interesting articles, which I am now referencing and linking to here. So anyways, I will now continue:

There were many motivations behind the Meiji Restoration — and I invite the reader to investigate them if she or he wishes — but the one I feel is most relevant to the subject of this blog post is that Japan had begun to make contact with the western world, specifically the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry in the 1850s. Perry went to Japan at the request of American President Millard Fillmore to force Japan into trading with the USA. According to Wikipedia, this expedition was authorized to use “gunboat diplomacy” if necessary, however, according at least to my very limited reading on the subject, the process was mostly peaceful.

At any rate, Japanese rulers recognized that Perry’s ships were superior to their own, and that in order to protect Japan from naval defeat (should the situation arise) and possible colonization, Japan had to modernize its navy as well as industry, which was a major motivation for the Meiji Restoration that officially began about a decade and a half after Perry came and forced open trade routes.

The Meiji Restoration was not limited to industrial and military advances, however. Japanese officials noted that not only were western ships bigger than Japanese ships, but westerners themselves were generally physically larger than Japanese people. It was believed at the time that this difference in size could be attributed to differences in diet. Westerners ate more meat (the consumption of red meat was banned in Japan, prior to the Meiji Restoration), and Japanese officials thought that shifting Japanese people to a more carnivorous diet might help them to catch up with the westerners in terms of size.

I have no idea if this actually worked. I encourage anyone who wants to research it further to do so and post their findings in the comments below. What I do know is that this plan was followed through with. Many western-influenced dishes began being made in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. These dishes were called “洋食” (pronounced “yōshoku”), which simply means “western food” or “western cuisine.”

As the reader may have intuited, omurice was originally considered to be yōshoku. It originated around the turn of the century in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

While it may or may not be clear whether eating western-inspired food ever made Japanese people physically larger, another aspect of the Meiji Restoration was most certainly successful: Japan’s navy and military made significant advances during the period, which made them (at least temporarily) militarily superior in their part of the world. This military superiority was possibly a motivating factor in Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and their subsequent colonization of Korea, which lasted until Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.

Many terrible things occurred during this colonization. The reader can use the provided link as a jumping off point for research if she or he wishes. The Japanese occupation of Korea was quite brutal, and resentments from this period still resonate among some Korean people.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will concentrate on a much more, well, “palatable” result of the occupation: the dishes that Japanese occupiers brought with them.

It should be obvious that omurice is one of these dishes. Gimbap is another.

The first time — or at least one of the first times — I ever ate omurice was at a gimbap restaurant near where I worked in Gimpo. This restaurant was part of a chain called “김밥나라” (“Gimbap Nara,” literally “Gimbap Country”), which was (I am guessing) the second-largest chain of gimbap restaurants behind “김밥천국” (“Gimbap Cheongook,” literally “Gimbap Heaven”). That was at least true in Gimpo when I lived there: there were more of the one restaurant than the other in my area.

Something else that was true regarding gimbap restaurants, at least when I lived in Korea: food quality varied quite a bit from restaurant to restaurant. All of the ones in Gimpo were pretty good, but some of them I went to in Seoul were, well, not as good. This was due to owners who used cheap ingredients, I imagine.

Anyways, the 김밥나라 I first ate omurice at (or I at least ate it there one of the first times, and then many times after) was also the first place I tried gimbap. I was brought there by a Canadian fellow who I was replacing at my school. This fellow seemed to be on friendly terms with the owner of the place (a Korean man, probably in his late 30s or early 40s at the time), and when I was first taken there, the Canadian fellow talked to him in Korean, and the owner smiled really big and pulled out a chair for him and nodded and bowed a little and everything, and anyways I enjoyed the gimbap and the friendly atmosphere and whatnot, so I resolved to eat there again after the Canadian fellow I was replacing went back to Canada or to wherever he was going.

Unfortunately, it took me a week or two to find the place again. I wandered around Gimpo looking for it, but I couldn’t find it. Most gimbap places look pretty much the same from the outside, you see, and long story short pretty much every one I passed by I went in, looking for the interior and the owner I would recognize.

Eventually I found it, and I went back. I didn’t know how to speak any Korean at the time, and maybe that’s why I never got the whole chair-pulling-out-welcome-to-my-restaurant-o-white-man-from-afar treatment the Canadian fellow got. Which didn’t honestly bother me much, honestly, but whatever.

I would go to this restaurant (and others similar to it) and try something random from the menu. Between doing this and staring blankly at screens on subway trains that showed the name of each station in both Hangeul and English, I was able to figure out how to phonetically read the Korean language. As an aside, it’s actually much easier to read than English is, no matter what you may think.

But I digress. While going to various gimbap places and ordering random dishes from the menu (pretty much all of which I came to love), I discovered two things: one, omurice is awesome, and two, the restaurant I went to with the Canadian fellow that one time charged about 500 won (roughly 50 cents) less for many menu items than other nearby restaurants did. Plus, in my opinion, the food tasted better, or at least better than the other gimbap place about a block away. So I started going there pretty regularly for lunch.

For one more quick digression, I think omurice cost either 2500 or 3000 won at this restaurant. Maybe 3500. And it came with two or three banchan, or side dishes (kimchi was always included, plus a couple others), which would be replenished free of charge if you ran out of them. Bearing in mind that 3000 won is roughly three dollars, it was possible for 200-something pound me to get really full at this place for five bucks.

So I started going there pretty regularly. And I never got the whole production the one Canadian guy got that one time, I just got the normal “오서오세요” (roughly “ohsohsayyo”; it means “welcome”) that everybody else got when they came in. Which was actually preferable to me: I didn’t want to be treated differently or anything because I wasn’t Korean.

One of the first things I learned to say in Korean was “감사합니다,” (pronounced, by syllable, “kam sa hab ni da” but usually sort of blended together in actual pronunciation to something like “kamsamnida”; it means “thank you”), and when my server would bring my food out, I would generally say my best approximation of “감사합니다” in response. It made sense for me to do so, from my point of view, because back here in the States, I would generally say “thank you” to the server. I was raised saying “please” and “thank you” and all that sort of stuff, and anyways I figured it’d be appropriate for me to continue that practice in Korea to the best of my ability.

Something I didn’t notice (at first) was that the Korean people who were in the restaurant when I was didn’t generally say “감사합니다” when the server brought their food to them. And one day, as I was sitting in the restaurant, at the seat next to the water cooler I preferred (many Korean foods are really spicy, do the math), as the owner of the place sat behind me and to my left, rolling gimbap, one of the servers brought him a cup of coffee.

When she handed it to him, he said “감사합니다!” in an animated fashion and bowed to her. She covered her mouth and giggled.

I hadn’t eaten one bite of kimchi yet, and I could feel my face turning red. Here I was, trying to bring my Southern version of “good manners” to Korea with me, in a show of fellowship and camaraderie and all that good stuff, and they were having a laugh over it!

So, when my food was brought out to me, what did I do? Did I sit silently, shamed at my well-intentioned but apparently hilarious series of faux pas? Nope. You know what I did?

When the server placed my food in front of me, I said “감사합니다” and ate it. And I came back a day or two later and did the same thing, and I came back many many times after that and did the same thing. The food was good, the food was cheap, and if they got a laugh out of me saying “thank you” then I am glad I brightened their day a little.

(Or whatever, I mainly kept coming back because their food was really good. And cheap.)

It may or may not be weird that I actually preferred being the butt of a harmless joke than being treated like I was a visiting dignitary or something. Nonetheless there you have it.

Anyways, on with the show:

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I have recently begun attempting to make omurice at home. Here is a picture of my most presentable omurice to date:



…which, as you can see, is sorta busted on one side. I haven’t figured out how to flip the thing without tearing it just yet.

But let me back up and tell you first how I prepared the fried rice that’s in it. And bear in mind that I am no chef, or even a short-order cook, and my recipe was taken off of the internet and modified to suit both the ingredients available to me and my ineptitude in the kitchen.

First, I cook some plain white rice in my rice cooker. I use Imperial Dragon Jasmine Rice. I don’t add anything to it at this point but the appropriate amount of water. I am not sure exactly how much uncooked rice this is, but my rice cooker came with a measuring cup, and I used two cupfuls. I think they are about a cup apiece, but I am not sure. What can I say, I meant to check before I came to the library today to write this, but I forgot to.

After the rice is done, I usually have a little of it, maybe a small bowl or so, then I let the rest cool. After the rice is cooled, I’ll put it in the fridge overnight. The recipe I found for “fried rice” a few years ago recommended doing this; however this last time I didn’t put the rice in the fridge and it worked just fine.

What I do first is put a little canola oil in a pan and stir-fry whichever vegetables I am using. I have used leeks, green onions, purple onions, white onions, usually whichever type of onion or onion-y vegetable I had on hand. I didn’t use them all at once, of course. Many Chinese restaurants (buffets, especially) will put peas and carrots into their fried rice…I don’t really care for peas and carrots in that situation, but do whatever suits you. I mean, if you want “authentic” fried rice, go to a restaurant or something.

The  vegetables I used this time were, admittedly, a bit odd: I used about half of a zucchini, cut into strips, and three or four “celery hearts” from the middle of the stalk, ones that were a bit limp and on the verge of being thrown out. They happened to be in the fridge, and they weren’t brown or anything, so I chopped them up and stir-fried them with the zucchini, on medium heat with a little soy sauce.

After the zucchini started to get soft, I chopped them into smaller pieces with my spatula. And when I decided the veggies were cooked well enough, I added the cooked white rice, breaking up chunks of it with my fingers as I did so. I stirred it up and added more soy sauce, just enough to give the rice a brownish sort of color and a little flavor.

In my experience, it’s really easy to add too much soy sauce at this point, which will result in an inedible salty mess. I usually err on the side of caution here.

After that’s all been well-mixed and it’s mostly heated up, I push it all to one side of the pan. I drain a can of chicken breast and put it in the pan, smashing the chunks into smaller bits, and adding a tablespoon or so of teryaki sauce to it. I get the chicken (which is pre-cooked) warmed up before mixing it into the rice. The end result is what you see here, in the white container:


Note the zucchini on the plate behind it. There’s bits of celery there, also. I sliced up the whole zucchini and began stir frying it before realizing that the pan wasn’t big enough for the rice.

(I also cleaned that electric skillet out before I took this pic, ha ha.)

As a sidenote, I have also used pan-fried chicken breast, stir-fried shrimp, and I really wouldn’t recommend it but also those canned “tiny shrimp” when making fried rice at home. The canned chicken is just simpler, and after reading the Wikipedia article saying omurice is typically filled with chicken flavored rice, I decided to use that this time. I am strongly considering shrimp for my next batch.

Anyways, when I have made “fried rice” (I use quotation marks because I cook my fried rice at a lower temperature than is usually done in restaurants; I have tried higher temps but I usually make a huge mess trying to stir the rice fast enough to keep it from scorching) in the past, I usually cook a couple scrambled eggs beforehand and set them aside, then return them to the pan at the end and chop them up. I left out that step here, obviously, because I want to keep the egg on the outside.

So, after the fried rice is ready (or re-heated in the microwave, whatever the case may be), I scramble two eggs, the “whisk in a coffee cup” method seems to work well:


Then I set the pan or electric skillet to medium, let it get warm enough for a drop of water to sizzle when it hits it, then spray it down with Pam, apologies for the flash in the pic:


Then I pour the eggs into the pan, making sure the entire bottom of the pan is coated with egg. I let the eggs cook for thirty seconds or so, until I can see that the egg is starting to solidify, then I scoop probably about a cup or a cup and a half of fried rice onto one side of the egg, spreading it evenly.

Then, and here’s the hard part, I carefully fold the other side of the egg up and over the fried rice, just like a regular omelette. Since this is a pretty big electric skillet (I use a regular pan/skillet about the same size, also), the egg is pretty thin. So I have to use the spatula to lift it up, and my fingers to kinda pull it on over and put it in place. I let it cook for another 30 seconds or so, then very carefully flip the whole thing over and let it cook another 30 seconds or so.

I am confident there is a better way to do this. If anybody knows what that is, please tell me in the comments section.

I haven’t been able to completely seal off the rice inside the layer of egg, like it often was in various Korean restaurants I ate at. I have seen pics online of some omurice that looks like maybe the rice was put in the center and both sides were folded up over it, like a burrito. I tried that a couple times and bungled it all up.


It still tasted good, tho.

Anyways, thanks for reading.

“The Host” 아니죠. “괴물” 맞습니다!

Since at this point in this election cycle I am sick to death of politics – the whole “Hillary vs. Bernie” thing has gotten me into a seemingly endless pissy mood, so I don’t have anything humorous to offer, either – and since I am not feeling especially philosophical, I will write today briefly about one of my favorite movies, the 2006 Korean monster film “The Host,” directed by Bong Joon-Ho.

I like this film for a variety of reasons, and perhaps the most significant reason is simple nostalgia. I was living in Gimpo, South Korea in 2006 when this movie was released, and I think I watched it in the theater, but if not I at least watched it while I was living in Korea.

The majority of the film is set in or near Yeouido, an area in Seoul on the northern side of the Han River. From Gimpo, it was about a 20-30 minute bus ride (depending on traffic) to Songjeong Station on the purple subway line. From there, Yeouido is just a few subway stops away. I went there quite a few times during my time in Korea, and it’s a pretty peaceful place to visit.

The main characters in the film are Pak Hee-bong, an older Korean man who owns a snack stand in Yeouido, and his family: his oldest son Gang-du, who helps him at the snack stand, his daughter Nam-joo, who is a competitive archer, his younger son Nam-il, who is an unemployed college graduate and budding alcoholic, and his granddaughter (Gang-du’s daughter) Hyun-seo, a seventh grader.

I have purchased snacks and beer from stands like the one Hee-bong owns. Yeouido is a really nice place to hang out with your friends, or to go on a cheap date, or for that matter to go by yourself to relax or to read. Those steps you see in the movie, the ones that go down from the mostly flat, grassy park area down to the Han River? I have walked down those steps, or at least I have walked down steps like that in Yeouido. There are many sets of those steps that run along the riverbank. And anyways, I have sat at the bottom of these steps, down by the river, and read. I believe the book I read most of down by the Han River was “The Te of Piglet,” by Benjamin Hoff, a sequel to his more well-known book “The Tao of Pooh.”

But I am digressing, as usual.

What I want the reader to take away from my digression is that Yeouido is a very peaceful, relaxed sort of place. Families go there for picnics and that sort of thing. Sitting in the park in Yeouido and looking across the Han River, it’s easy to forget that roughly half of metropolitan Seoul is directly behind you. The bustling streets and subway stations you just went through to get here seem far away, something that you might run into way over there on the southern side of the Han River, but nothing that would ever bother you here in Yeouido. (As long as you don’t turn around, ha ha.)

But this idyllic area is the setting for most of “The Host.” And before I get too far into who and what “The Host” is, I first want to note that the Korean title of this movie is “Gwoemul” (괴물), and despite what the English subtitles on the DVD may try to tell you, “괴물”does not literally translate to “The Host,” it literally translates to “monster.”

The “monster” in the film is a gigantic (big enough to swallow a fully grown human whole) mutant fish monster thing that looks suspiciously like a big version of some sort of canned oyster or something that Gang-du eats about halfway through the film. If anyone knows what those things are called, I would appreciate it if they told me; I had to return “The Host” to the video store before I started writing this, so I can’t go back and look now.

This giant, multi-tailed, frog-footed, people-eating fish monster thing appears one day in Yeouido, first hanging bat-like from the underside of a bridge, then dropping down into the Han River, then rampaging around Yeouido eating people.

Where did this monster come from? The film’s opening scene gives the viewer an idea:

The film opens in a laboratory in Yongsan Garrison. Yongsan is the American military base in Seoul, in case you didn’t know. There are two scientists, one Korean, one American, and the American scientist outranks the Korean scientist. The American scientist laments that the lab is quite dusty, smearing dust on a bottle with his gloved finger. The American instructs the Korean (who, I think importantly, is not especially fluent in English) to dump all the contents of all the bottles down the drain. How this is supposed to get rid of the dust in the lab is a mystery; nonetheless the Korean scientist objects, in broken English, because dumping chemicals down the drain would cause the Han River to be polluted. The American scientist tells the Korean scientist “The Han River is very broad. Let’s be broad-minded about this.” After that, the American scientist leaves, and the Korean scientist is shown wearing a gas mask, dumping bottle after bottle of toxic chemicals down the drain, as a white fume cloud rises up out of the sink. If I’m not mistaken, the Korean scientist smudges the dust on the bottle he’s pouring, perhaps thinking “this lab is still gonna be pretty flipping dusty after I dump all these bottles out,” and a panning shot shows a couple hundred empty bottles on a table behind him.

The film then cuts to two Korean fishermen standing about knee-deep in the Han River, fishing. One of them captures a strange-looking fish of some sort which is never shown up close to the viewer. The man catches it in a little cup, shows it to his friend, then drops it, cup and all, after the thing he caught tried to bite his finger. He scrambles in the water for a second, upset, but he recovers the cup. It initially seems like maybe he was scrambling to catch the strange creature again, but he’s just scrambling for the cup: it was a gift from his daughter.

The next scene is of two younger Korean businessmen running toward an older Korean businessman who is about to commit suicide by jumping off of a bridge spanning the Han River. Why he is committing suicide is never mentioned, but he does manage to jump off of the bridge to his death before they reach him.

This man’s suicide is mentioned on television, inside the Pak family snack stand. Hyun-seo has just gotten home from school, and she and her father are watching her aunt Nam-joo in an archery competition. A news blurb mentions that the businessman’s body was found in the river…but that it had been bitten in half. Neither Hyun-seo nor Gang-du seem to pay any mind to this detail.

Gang-du is called away by his father because of a complaint from a customer: it seems that this customer was sold a dried o-jing-eo (squid) by Gang-du, one that had nine legs instead of the usual ten. An earlier scene showed Gang-du heating up an o-jing-eo on a burner, pulling off one of its legs and sticking it in his mouth as he did so. Hee-bong tells Gang-du that the legs are the most delicious part of an o-jing-eo, and that customers expect to get what they pay for, and stop eating the customers’ food. He hands Gang-du another o-jing-eo on a tray with three cans of beer and tells him to take it to the customers who ordered the o-jing-eo Gang-du ate part of, and to give all of it to them “service,” which in a Korean snack stand/restaurant sense means “free.”

That’s right, “free.” This is something else that makes me nostalgic for Korea: restaurants will often give customers little freebies now and then, especially regulars. I and the party I was in were often the recipient of a free bottle of Coke, or Pepsi, or Chilsung Cider (kinda like 7-Up), or beer…or maybe a bowl of rice, or an extra helping of something. And get this: tipping is not allowed. Don’t get me wrong, I tip my waiter or waitress here. I am not a cheap-ass, despite being (seemingly) perpetually broke-ass. And I usually round up with my tips. Fifteen percent is usually my minimum. But I can’t help but miss the “service.” And yeah, that’s what they say when they bring you an extra Pepsi or whatever, “service.” It’s written in Korean “서비스,” which reads “seo-bi-suh” phonetically.

Also, since I am waxing nostalgic, I would like to say that my mouth is watering for some good dried o-jing-eo right now. In all honesty, when I first got to Korea, walking past stands and carts and whatnot on the sidewalk selling o-jing-eo was kind of unpleasant. It has a very fishy sort of smell, and unless you’ve smelled it, you don’t really know what it smells like, and there’s no way for me to describe it to you. It’s a very strong smell, especially if you’re not used to it. And I don’t mean to denigrate Korea or Koreans or anything like that by saying so (admittedly I am a bit of a Korea-phile), but the smell actually made me gag before I got used to it. I had to hold my breath when I would walk past carts or whatever that sold it. But after a while, I found that wasn’t the case, and a while after that, some Korean friends got me to try some of it…and I have to say, it’s really good stuff. Of course there are variations in quality, but good o-jing-eo is just about the best thing in the world to nibble on when you’re drinking beer, or for that matter whenever you want to snack on something. It’s sort of like a fishier version of beef jerky, and it’s really good stuff, despite the aroma.

Where was I? Oh yeah: Gang-du takes the tray to the customers, who don’t pay any attention to him. They are looking at something hanging from the bridge, something that drops down into the river and swims underwater toward them. Gang-du tosses a can of beer at it, and which gets swallowed whole, and several other people (there’s one Pakistani guy I think in the crowd, but the rest are Korean) throw trash into the Han River, hoping to get the attention of the thing underwater.

Despite my being an anti-litterbug sort of person, I really like this scene. I think it sort of ties in to the opening scene where the American scientist tells the Korean scientist to dump all the toxic chemicals down the drain. The film seems to be saying “sure, Americans have helped to pollute the Han River, but we Koreans have done our fair share, also.”

I forgot to mention that the opening scene was based off of something that actually happened in 2000: a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul dumped a whole bunch of formaldehyde down the drain. Maybe the “scientists” in the opening scene were supposed to be morticians, I dunno. At any rate something like that did actually happen.

The reason I think it was significant that the Korean scientist/mortician/whatever in the opening scene couldn’t speak English all that well is because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity in where the blame lay: maybe the Korean scientist in the film misunderstood the American one.

And I don’t mean to appeal to any authority I may or may not have on the subject, but despite what anyone may think, there are in fact many Korean people who speak Korean as their native language and also speak English as fluently (or even more fluently) than many native English speakers. My characterization of this particular Korean scientist not speaking English well is based in my interactions with countless Korean folks of varied English ability. Most Korean folks I knew – even elementary-aged students – spoke English better than this fellow. And maybe that’s significant, maybe it isn’t; at any rate there’s another English-speaking Korean scientist who translates for Gang-du and another American scientist, and the other Korean scientist is perfectly fluent in English. I know it’s only speculation, nonetheless I think there was a reason the particular actor in the opening scene was cast, and also why he enunciated his lines the way he did: to throw a little ambiguity into the mix. Maybe I am all wet, I dunno.

At any rate, following the scene down by the river, where Koreans toss trash into it to taunt the weird fish monster thing under the water, the weird fish monster thing jumps out and starts running around Yeouido eating people.

This particular victim was oblivious to what was happening, because she was listening to classical music on her headphones. It’s a shame GIFs don’t have sound…the effect in the film was quite effective: one second there’s cacophony, the next there’s peaceful music, the next…

I think it’s also significant that during this mayhem, there are only two people who seem to have any interest in anything other than running like hell: our Gang-du, and also a blonde American man. The two of them challenge the monster, but to no avail. The American – the viewer is shown later that he’s a member of the U.S. military – gets his arm ripped off and dies later in the film.

So an American scientist told a Korean scientist who didn’t speak English well to dump toxic chemicals down the drain, which led to a mutated monster jumping out of the Han River several years later and eating people, and one of the heroes that fights the monster is an American. Tell me the ambiguity of blame wasn’t intentional.

There are other scenes later that portray American military people as uncaring toward Koreans, such as the one featuring the Korean scientist who is fluent in English. The American scientist he is translating for acts concerned about Gang-du (who is in custody, about to have several painful tests done on him) when he interviews him, then almost immediately changes his tune to hostile and indifferent, saying Gang-du is delusional, and that the “virus” has infected his brain.

This “virus” is indirectly where the English title “The Host” came from: the river monster is thought to be “the host” of an unknown virus, one that has infected everyone who came in contact with the monster. This virus is mentioned on news reports as the cause of a mysterious rash that many people have started to get.

This rash also has (or at least had at the time the movie came out) a real-life analog in Korea: a rash of unknown origin called “atopi” that affected quite a few people, mostly children. I had students who had it from time to time. Nobody really knew what caused it, but chemicals in processed food like ramyeon (which kids ate tons of, including crunched up and uncooked, which is actually not as gross as it sounds) were thought to be a possible culprit.

That’s a detail of the film that would go right past anyone who has never heard of “atopi.” But it’s another real-life sort of detail that was put in, like the formaldehyde-down-the-drain event, and also something much more easily recognizable that happens toward the end of the film: the U.S. military decides to fight the monster using something called “Agent Yellow.”

Which, yeah, if that doesn’t ring any bells, you obviously don’t know much about the Vietnam War.

Director Bong Joon-ho said that calling the film “anti-American” would be a stretch, and I would agree with him. But it does play off of tensions between American military personnel and Korean people. I don’t think Bong would deny that.

Regrettably, the DVD I watched last night was scratched, so I didn’t get to see the ending of the movie again. I only got about an hour and a half through the approximately two hours of the movie, and I don’t remember exactly how it ends.

Hyun-seo, I forgot to mention, is swallowed by the monster and taken away in the monster’s first appearance. She survives being swallowed and spat back up in the sewer, and she manages to make a call to her father Gang-du to confirm she is still alive. The majority of the film centers around her family trying to find and rescue her. Her family is thwarted by American military as well as Korean people (government and civilian; one of Nam-il’s friends tries to capture him to get reward money) in their rescue attempts, but finally they find out where she is.

But like I said, I don’t remember exactly how the movie ends.

It’s worth watching, at any rate.





One of my earliest memories — one that I may have altered significantly in the 34 years or so since it happened — is of me sitting on the floor of the living room in the trailer house I shared with my mom, my face probably a little too close to the TV, attempting to read the credits of an episode of “M*A*S*H.” I couldn’t really read at that point, but I had been read to a lot, and I could sort of halfway “read” fairy tales and whatnot that my mom and grandparents had already read to me several times.

This is what I have been told, that I surprised the people who read to me by reading ahead in stories I already had heard before. I don’t actually know if that happened before that one day I sat in front of the TV trying to read the credits of M*A*S*H. As I mentioned, I am not a hundred percent sure that this memory even happened the way I remember it happening.

But I am pretty sure I remember trying to read the M*A*S*H credits, what with the yellow Army stenciled lettering and whatnot, and not really being able to decipher anything.

I was only about two, in my defense.

But anyways, getting on with it, the memory I may have manufactured many years later had to do with my biological father. He and my mom had just recently split up.

Before I go any further, I would like for the reader to know that I am not embellishing anything here. I am relating things my mom and others have told me about myself as a toddler, and you are free to believe or disbelieve them as you choose.

But in addition to “reading ahead” at quite an early age, some time around the time I was two or so, I began speaking in more or less complete sentences. Everyone was sort of worried about me, I have been told, because I didn’t really speak at all for the longest time, and then one day I just more or less began conversing in more or less complete sentences.

I would tell my mother, using passable grammar, that my diaper needed to be changed, for example. I don’t really know how common this sort of thing is; I merely mention it to point out that I was speaking at a somewhat advanced level for my age.

This is what I have been told. I obviously have next to no memory of this period in my life. But anyways, this memory has to do with a conversation my mother and I may or may not have gotten into about my father. He worked at a local television station at the time, quite possibly the one I was watching M*A*S*H on that particular day.

And like I said, I don’t really remember clearly, but I think I was trying to convince my mother that my father’s name would appear in the M*A*S*H credits. Which, of course, it didn’t.

I “remembered” this episode many years after the day that it may or may not have actually happened. I had moved back home after spending two years as an ESL teacher in South Korea. At the time, TV Land was showing M*A*S*H reruns most every evening. And due to the fact that it was set in Korea, and that I had all sorts of reasons to think about Korea that I had been putting off thinking about, I became somewhat obsessed with the show. Especially considering that my mom had told me many times growing up that I used to love watching it as a kid.

My liking the show as a kid may or may not be due to the fact that Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce had the same hair color and hair-do that my dad had.

But I am not sure about that. I do know that the “memory” I had about trying to read M*A*S*H credits to find my dad’s name stuck in my head for quite a while after I first “remembered” it. Maybe it really happened the way I remember it happening, maybe it didn’t. I really can’t say for sure.

At any rate, I incorporated the “memory” into a song I wrote, or at least into one lyric.

(Also, Norah Jones is my favorite singer, on the off-chance anyone listens to that song and wonders who I was talking about.)

At any rate, as long as TV Land played M*A*S*H reruns, I kept watching them. I think I saw every episode at least once, and a few episodes more than a few times. All sentimental attachments I have to the show aside, it’s a great show. The dialogue was witty, it managed to be lewd without being vulgar, it had a well-developed cast that viewers actually cared about, and above and beyond all that, it was a perfect illustration of the absurdity of war.

A recurring theme on the show had to do with another absurdity of modern life, one we humans just can’t seem to get past: racism. There was the episode where the racist white soldier Sergeant Condon asked not to be given any “colored blood” in a transfusion. Hawkeye and Trapper resolve to teach this fellow a lesson: while he is sedated, they swab his skin with tincture of iodine, which darkens his skin. The soldier is congratulated by Lieutenant Ginger Bayliss, an African-American nurse who is in on the joke, when she says “They got you down as white…way to go, baby!”

Granted, the show sort of stuck its foot in its mouth with regard to racism a few times. The story told near the end of the aforementioned episode about Dr. Charles Drew has been widely disputed. It is true that Drew was African American, it is true that he improved techniques for blood storage and blood transfusions, and it is also true that he protested the practice of racially segregated blood transfusions, but the story of him actually dying because of segregated hospitals is disputed. At any rate, M*A*S*H addressed an actual historical issue regarding blood transfusions: they were racially segregated by the Red Cross until 1950, despite there being no scientific rationale whatsoever for doing so, and they called attention to Dr. Charles Drew, a pioneer in the field.

It’s also been argued that the character Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones is an illustration of racism in the show — not as in “M*A*S*H was against racism” as I am trying to illustrate, but as in “M*A*S*H is itself racist” — and I have to say based on that ugly racial slur of a nickname, I can’t really argue with that point. Jones’ character was, however, an accomplished neurosurgeon, and in the first season, at least, one of the central characters. The show wrote him out, allegedly, because they wanted to focus on Hawkeye and Trapper. I suppose I have to take the internet at its word on that.

It could also be said that many of the Korean characters on the show lacked depth. But there were notable exceptions, such as Sam Pak and Charlie Lee. It’s worth noting, however, that both of the actors who played these characters were actually Japanese, as were a great many other “Korean” characters that appeared on the show.

I don’t know if that represents anything “racist” about the show or not. Most likely, there were more Japanese-American than Korean-American actors available for casting at the time M*A*S*H was being produced. But that’s just a theory I haven’t actually researched at all.

It could definitely be said that M*A*S*H was an illustration of Orientalism, which you can read about from the link provided. I would not argue with anybody who made that case.

As a matter of fact, to insert myself into the narrative again, when I decided to go teach ESL in South Korea, I had no idea whatsoever what to expect. In my mind’s eye, when I was trying to imagine what my apartment would be like, I pictured something roughly equivalent to the inside of one of the tents at the 4077th. I was pleasantly surprised to find that South Korea was much more advanced than what I had been shown as a kid in M*A*S*H, and was actually a good bit more advanced than where I grew up or where I was living before I went there.

I won’t deny the “Orientalism” charge, should anyone make it. That’s there in plain sight, for anyone to see. But I would like to state that I don’t really think it’s possible for a white westerner to write about or make a movie or TV show about any quote-unquote “Oriental” culture (I use that term only to be linguistically consistent) without there being an element of “Orientalism” involved. But in M*A*S*H’s defense, I would argue that the “Orientalism” that arguably exists in M*A*S*H at least attempts to minimize differences and humanize the people being portrayed.

Before I get into examples of that, I would also like to proffer the idea that something similar to the concept of “Orientalism” occurs whenever any culture examines and writes about (or makes movies or TV shows about) any other culture. For example, there is a world of difference between actual culture and society in the UK and the way culture and society in the UK is portrayed on American TV. And vice-versa. When one culture attempts to portray another, there is always going to be a disconnect between reality and what is being portrayed.

And to be sure, when there is not only a language barrier but also a significant cultural difference, well, the disconnect is going to be much wider. At any rate yes, the case could be made that M*A*S*H is an example of “Orientalism,” but I would venture that for what it’s worth, it meant well.

There are several instances of American soldiers using racial slurs against Koreans, and central characters (usually Hawkeye) chiding or otherwise belittling the American soldiers who use those slurs. There are several instances of North Korean and Chinese troops needing medical care at the 4077th, and certain doctors (usually Major Frank Burns) objecting to treating them. And Hawkeye usually sets them right.

And it could be argued that Hawkeye is presented as a “White Savior” in such instances. But I don’t think that accusation really holds much water: Hawkeye doesn’t “lead” any nonwhite people, he simply treats their injuries, just like he would treat anyone else’s. The overall theme of M*A*S*H is that all people are people, war is stupid, and whatever differences there are between cultures can be solved by simply behaving well toward each other.

And getting good and drunk. Remember the episode where all the Greek soldiers celebrated Easter at the 4077th, and everybody got hammered on ouzo and danced all night? Most of the Greek soldiers didn’t speak any English. That was a good episode…

But moving on, and inserting myself back into the narrative again, prior to my re-introduction to M*A*S*H a few years back by way of TV Land, I had remembered hearing and reading many things about how Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character was something of a “feminist icon.” That he was an example of a “sensitive male” if there ever was one. And frankly, it took me quite a while to understand what I think was the rationale behind those characterizations.

I mean, Hawkeye Pierce isn’t exactly a “gentleman” or anything. He is constantly hitting on nurses, chasing after a different one each week, and he gets his face slapped on a pretty regular basis.

I mean, look at the guy:

To be sure, this aspect of the “Hawkeye” character became less and less prevalent as the seasons progressed. He didn’t mention Geisha houses nearly as often, for example, after Trapper left the show. Whether this was a conscious decision to soften Hawkeye’s image, or just a natural reaction by the writers to the introduction of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt to the show is uncertain. Nonetheless Hawkeye kept on propositioning nurses left and right, and getting slapped in the face on a semi-regular basis.

What I didn’t quite understand, as I sat there watching Hawkeye get slapped again and again in episode after episode, is that “feminist” and “sensitive” do not equate to “neutered.” Here’s why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero: it wasn’t because he chased nurses around, it wasn’t because he occasionally said something inappropriate, and it wasn’t because they slapped him.

Why I think Hawkeye was something of a feminist hero is the way he reacted to being slapped. He didn’t slap back (he generally acknowledged that he had the slap coming), and he didn’t hold anything against any nurse who rejected him. He simply took his slap and moved on.

And to be sure, Hawkeye got infatuated with some nurses more than others. And despite his being quite a bit of a cad, he was a cad with principles.

Such as in the episode where Hawkeye spends most of the episode courting Lieutenant Regina Hoffman, but is forced to be late to the date he finally convinced her to have with him because he was helping an American soldier get his marriage to a Korean woman approved. Lieutenant Hoffman is upset, reveals herself to be a bit of a racist…and Hawkeye splits.

I dunno. It’s my favorite TV show of all time. What can I say?

I could sit here and write about it all night, and I may very well come back to it at some point…but the season premiere of “Better Call Saul” is about to come on.

So anyways…thanks for reading!


So I decided when I read back over this blog post that it didn’t appear to be finished. It wasn’t what I set out to do when I began writing it, it’s only part of that.

I didn’t get far enough into my own personal impressions regarding the show. In addition to discussing various criticisms of the show – valid criticisms – I wanted to just kinda ramble on about how much I liked this or that episode, or character, or whatever. But at the same time, I don’t want to start a whole series of blog posts about M*A*S*H, and I’d like to leave all the stuff up above regarding racism, Orientalism, etc. just so my personal impressions of various episodes and characters and whatnot can be read as impressions that are aware of the show’s many faults.

Plus, my most recent (and only) viewing of the show that has been more or less in its original broadcast order has only advanced to the beginning of season 4.

I have owned seasons 1 and 2 for a few years now. For whatever reason, my interest in M*A*S*H was renewed a few months ago, and I rewatched all (or maybe most, I can’t remember) of seasons 1 and 2, and I ordered season 3 after that. I watched all of season 3, some episodes more than once, and then I wrote the first part of this blog post.

Now I have season 4 on DVD, and I have watched the first two episodes, the ones that deal with replacement characters coming to the 4077th at the beginning of this season.

In the final episode of season 3, as many M*A*S*H fans are undoubtedly aware, Colonel Henry Blake receives his orders to go home. Henry is of course ecstatic to finally be able to go back home to his wife and daughter, and everyone at the 4077th is simultaneously happy for Henry and sort of sad: he’s a great guy, a great surgeon, and a crappy excuse for a Colonel…at any rate Col. Blake’s departure from the 4077th is bittersweet.

So Col. Blake says goodbye to everyone, everyone says how much they’ll miss him, and he leaves.

Later in the operating room, while everyone is busy doing meatball surgery, Radar receives a call bearing some really bad news, and he informs everyone in the OR that Col. Henry Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan (he was flying to Tokyo to connect with a longer flight home; as a sidenote Koreans generally refer to the “Sea of Japan” as the “East Sea”), that it had spun in, and that there were no survivors.

Everyone is shocked, but they don’t have any time to be shocked: they have patients to tend to.

I think I read somewhere that the cast wasn’t told about Henry’s fate until they shot the scene where they found out about it. I think I read that, at least…

And this is where season 4 picks up. The beloved Col. Blake is dead, and it’s not clear who will take his place. In the meantime, Major Frank Burns has taken command, and attempted to make the 4077th into more of a “regular Army” sort of unit, with drills and salutes and regulations an whatnot, all of which result in various slapstick jokes and whatnot, jokes that are actually a lot funnier if you turn the laugh track off.

Anyways, at the beginning of the first episode, Hawkeye returns from a drunken Geisha-fest in Tokyo. He went there alone for some reason – I forget if the episode explicitly says why – and his usual partner in crime Trapper stayed back at the 4077th. When Hawkeye returns, Radar tells him that while he was in Tokyo, Trapper also got his orders to go home. Trapper and Radar had tried to call Hawkeye in Tokyo, to tell him the good news, and so Hawkeye and Trapper could meet up or whatever one last time before Trapper left, but Hawkeye had been ignoring phone calls.

Meanwhile, news comes of Trapper’s replacement, Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, and Burns sends Radar off to Kimpo in a jeep to pick him up. In the hopes of catching his best friend Trapper before he leaves, so he can say goodbye, Hawkeye (against Burns’ orders) goes with Radar to Kimpo. Hawkeye drives, and after several misadventures along the way, he and Radar arrive in Kimpo just about ten minutes after Trapper’s plane left. Hawkeye is really upset that he was unable to tell his best friend Trapper goodbye, but just about the time he starts feeling sorry for himself, Captain Hunnicutt appears.

Hawkeye decides they all need a drink, so long story short they go get one (Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, at Hawkeye’s insistence, wears one of B.J.’s sets of Captain’s bars to get into the Officer’s Club in Kimpo), or maybe more than one, and when they leave their jeep has been stolen.

So, they steal another one, and after an eventful ride home where B.J. is introduced to the wonderful world of mortar fire and war in general, they make it back safely to the 4077th.

And Frank gets blamed for the stolen jeep. It was a general’s jeep.

At the end, as Radar sits outside his office working on his tan, Col. Sherman Potter arrives and announces he will be the new commanding officer of the 4077th.

Now I had seen this hour-long episode before, on TV Land, at least a couple of times. I like it for a number of reasons. One reason is that it gives Hot Lips and Ferret Face a few extra minutes on screen – love them or hate them (hint: you’re supposed to hate them) they’re an integral part of the show, and the writers of  M*A*S*H did well in this episode, with regard to making the best of what was kind of a bad situation, cast-wise: two of the shows main characters, Henry and Trapper, two fan favorites, were now gone. Another reason I like it is the way it introduces B.J. and gives ample reason for he and Hawkeye to be new best buds, essentially replacing Trapper.

It’s a good episode, at any rate, despite Henry and Trapper’s absence. And after I finally got around to reading why they were no longer on the show, this episode and the next one got a little more interesting.

As it turns out, McLean Stevenson (Henry) and Wayne Rogers (Trapper) both felt that the series was focusing too much on Hawkeye and not on them. And to be fair, it did make some changes from the novel and film to the various characters in such a way that favored Hawkeye. For example, in the novel and film, Trapper was a thoracic surgeon, the only one at the 4077th. This expertise gave Trapper the spotlight, so to speak, in situations that called for that expertise in the novel and film.

In the series, Hawkeye was made the thoracic surgeon. In episodes that dealt with that expertise, Hawkeye was made the center of attention, not Trapper.

So after season 3, after getting tired of playing second and third fiddle to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, Stevenson and Rogers picked up their ball and went home, so to speak.

Not that I can say I blame them. At any rate, I think it’s interesting that in the opening episode of season 4, the plot is centered around how much Hawkeye is going to miss his friend Trapper. Trapper’s departure is used to once again thrust Hawkeye to the forefront.

Not that I can say I blame the writers for writing it that way. The shows other two main stars were gone, what else could they do? And to be fair, it gave Trapper’s character a pretty long farewell, approximately as long as the half-hour episode at the end of season 3.

At any rate they made the best out of a bad situation. And it turned out pretty well, whether Hawkeye lamenting Trapper’s departure was meant to be ironic or not.

And the second episode in season 4, the first one to prominently feature Harry Morgan as Col. Potter (Morgan played a Section 8 general in a season 3 episode, as many M*A*S*H fans probably know), well, I’ll just remind you that two of the show’s stars had complained about not being the center of attention and quit the show before the season started and then tell you about it:

Frank Burns, who has been relishing his newfound authority over the 4077th and has big plans for the unit, is quite upset to learn that he will be replaced as commanding officer. He plays it cool when he is first informed, then in the privacy of Major Houlihan’s tent, he throws a full-on childish temper tantrum, even holding his breath, because he can’t have his way.

After that, and for most of the rest of the episode, Burns is missing.

I can’t presume to know if that was a jab at the actors who left the show…but it kinda seems like it might have been.

I dunno. What do you think?


I originally planned on periodically updating this blog post upon the completion of viewing each individual season. If memory serves (I did not review the previous portion of this post before I began typing this afternoon) I was somewhere around season four or five when I last updated this blog post, and I was discussing how the characters Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret Houlihan were presented very well by the actors who portrayed them. “You’re supposed to hate them,” I think I wrote before, following a description of Burns throwing a childish temper tantrum over a plot issue that I don’t quite remember off the top of my head. But as it turned out, I found I would rather continue watching more episodes of M*A*S*H instead of pausing to reflect upon what I had already seen.

As even the most casual M*A*S*H fan knows, Burns left the 4077th (following season five) and was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a wealthy, upper-class, well, snob from Boston who, at least at first, considered his being assigned to a MASH unit to be, well, beneath him.

Burns being sent home to the states was explained, at the beginning of season 6, to be a result of Burns having sort of a nervous breakdown following the marriage of his one-time mistress (Burns was married to a wealthy woman back home the whole time they were consorting together) Major Houlihan to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot. Burns went to Tokyo in an attempt to regain the affections of his former mistress, and not only did he fail to do so, but he also managed to offend a high-ranking Army officer by jumping into a bath this man was sharing with his wife at a Tokyo bathhouse. Somehow or other, Burns ended up getting sent home following this off-camera episode, and as Colonel Potter was making calls looking for a replacement, one of the people he called in Tokyo just happened to find himself indebted to one Major Charles Emerson Winchester III to the amount of over $600 for losses at cribbage.

(By the way, if my prose seems to be somewhat reserved or stilted or whatever, blame it on the fact that since completing my months-long “project” of viewing all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H in broadcast order, I have begun re-viewing another of my all-time favorite TV series, albeit one I have no sentimental childhood attachment to: the BBC programme “Jeeves and Wooster,” based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Wooster. There will likely be a blog post regarding esoteric minutae of this show at some point in future, and yes, my use of “programme” instead of “program” and “in future” instead of “in the future” was quite intentional, thanks for noticing.)

So Burns left the 4077th, and he was replaced by Winchester. This seems simple enough – replace one easily dislike-able character with another – but as the show progressed, the change brought about when Winchester arrived was much more profound.

Winchester was a much more well-rounded and, well, realistic sort of character than Burns was. Burns – as much as I loved to hate him – was pretty darn one-dimensional. And as a result of her being almost constantly associated with Burns, Major Houlihan was, at least while Ferret Face was in the picture, quite a one-dimensional character herself.

To be completely fair, Burns and Houlihan being more or less cast as “villains” in the first five seasons also contributed to their rivals – Trapper and his replacement B.J., and of course Hawkeye – as well as their superior officers – Colonel Blake and his replacement Colonel Potter – being, themselves, somewhat one-dimensional.

Winchester – while at times being a shallow, whiny, social climbing boor, much like the character he replaced – was not only those things. Winchester was also shown to have some quite admirable qualities: he was charitable from time to time toward the ever-present orphanage Father Francis Mulcahey volunteered at, and when given an opportunity to return to his posh job at Tokyo General if only he’d betray his colleague Major Houlihan, he chose the honorable path and defended her good reputation.

It’s possible for any M*A*S*H fan, no matter how casual, to feel about Winchester much the same way they felt about Burns. But it isn’t nearly as easy to “hate” Winchester as it is to hate Ferret Face. Sure, Winchester possessed many of the very same traits – greed, selfishness, snobbishness, a tendency to brown-nose – that Burns had, but in addition to those undesirable traits, he also possessed other much more admirable traits, and if any M*A*S*H fan out there never noticed these traits before, I would insist that they review the series at their earliest convenience.

And yes, I do own all eleven seasons on DVD, all featuring the “olive drab” cover design…but no, sorry, you can’t borrow them from me. 😉

Winchester’s being simultaneously “easy to hate” as well as “not difficult to begrudgingly like” opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities for all the other characters. If there’s no easily identifiable “villain” any more, and if the person who replaced the “villain” (please bear in mind that I actually like the Frank Burns character quite a bit from a storytelling sort of perspective, and that my description of him as “villain” amounts to nothing other than laziness and/or limited vocabulary on my part) is actually a pretty sympathetic character, then from whence will conflict arise? If there’s no conflict in any given episode, I mean, then what’s the point?

The answer to this dilemma is, to my view, perhaps the single most relevant reason why M*A*S*H stayed on the air for eleven seasons, why its appeal was not limited to any one demographic, and why the final episode set ratings records, out-performing even the Super Bowl:

The “good guys,” at times, became the “bad guys.”

Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce is the most easily recognizable example of this. Pierce, in the first few seasons, was presented as the hero, as both the show’s comic relief and the show’s moral compass. As mentioned earlier, Pierce’s “morals” regarding nurses and the fairer sex in general were at best questionable, nonetheless it was never assumed – at least not by this viewer – that he was anything but a “good guy.”

But as the seasons wore on, Pierce’s character began to degenerate. To unravel. To become less of a lovable sort of cad, and to become more of – at least at times – a loathsome pest at best, and an unforgivably self-centered and egotistical asshole sonofabitch at worst.

As I have watched somewhere around 150 episodes of M*A*S*H since I last updated this blog post, and as these episodes are at the moment a sort of olive drab blur in my mind, the reader will have to forgive me for not including specific examples of Pierce’s assholery here. But at the same time, the reader should understand that I view this degeneration from “hero” to “something else entirely” as a good thing, at least from a dramatic/storytelling/etc. point of view.

Our heroes, at the end of the day, take their pants off one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Sometimes they lay down in their beds – or on their standard issue Army cots – and have trouble sleeping, just like the rest of us. Sometimes the pressures they face on a day to day basis prove to be more than they can handle, heroic figures though they are.
Had M*A*S*H continued with the simplistic “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy it employed for the first few seasons, it quite simply would not have been The Greatest TV Series Of All Time, According To Me, or to anyone else. Its shift from this dichotomy to a much more muddled – and therefore much more human – style of character and plot development is, to my view, what makes it so memorable.

Pierce wasn’t the only “good guy” who had asshole moments. Colonel Potter sometimes behaved abominably, as did Captain Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt was, in the majority of episodes he appeared in (a number which constitutes a majority with regard to the entire series) presented as a calm, collected, compassionate, caring family man, someone who sincerely missed his wife and daughter back home in San Francisco. And though he did actually have one dalliance with a nurse, unlike his predecessor Trapper John McIntyre, Hunnicutt felt guilty about that dalliance. And he was never unfaithful to his wife again, despite the lovely and talented journalist and artist Aggie O’Shea doing her level best to entice him into doing so.

To be sure, Hunnicutt was an admirable character, not only because of his skills as a surgeon, not only because of his usual level-headedness and wit, not only because of his unwavering compassion, but also because at times he was the opposite of these things, such as when his wife Peg wrote to tell him that she had taken a job at a restaurant to help pay the bills, and Hunnicutt felt not only embarrassment that his wife had to lower her social status slightly to get by but also helpless agony because he simply was not able to be there with her and their daughter Erin. Hunnicutt’s performance in this particular episode was at least as assholish as Pierce often behaved, and possibly more unforgivable than even Burns (or Winchester) at their worst.

But this performance did not make Hunnicutt a “villain” or for that matter diminish his status as a sympathetic character one iota. Far from it: this performance served to present Hunnicutt not only as a warm, caring, talented surgeon that nobody with any sense of decency could possibly have a bad word to say about but also as a human being, a flawed human being, a human being subject to the same frailties and insecurities and slips into general assholery that the rest of us struggle with.

This is, to my view, the genius of M*A*S*H: its humanity. This is the basic premise of the show, even in the early seasons, when there were clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”: humanity.

Imagine yourself – assuming you are not a medical professional who has served in the military; if you are, I salute you, and I hope you’ll comment – as someone who has devoted your life to healing the sick and treating the injured. Imagine that you are passionate about this profession, that all your life you’ve known that this was your calling, and that you have devoted many years to studying this profession and becoming the best medical professional you could possibly be.

Now imagine that you’ve been drafted into military service during wartime. Your skills as a medical professional will be of great practical use on the one hand, and you will have ample opportunity to heal people who have been wounded in combat, or as an indirect result of combat or bombing campaigns or what have you.

But on the other hand, this horrible and inhuman abomination called “war” is for all intents and purposes the polar opposite of everything that motivated you to become a medical professional in the first place: you want to help the injured; the single solitary purpose of war is to inflict injury.

Your purpose as a medical professional is to sustain life on an interpersonal basis, to do everything you can to help whichever individuals you are presented with to stay alive; the inevitable result of war is injury and death on a massive, wholly impersonal scale.

I have never been a soldier, nor am I a medical professional of any sort. And my ruminations upon this subject are purely speculative and spectator-ly, nonetheless I have to imagine that this sort of internal conflict would be hell to try and deal with.

Which may or may not have been a contributing factor toward Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce spending roughly half of the two-hour M*A*S*H finale in a mental hospital, under the care of psychiatrist (and recurring character) Sidney Friedman.

The proximate cause of Hawkeye’s loss of control was a Korean woman on a bus. Most of the main staff of the 4077th, several Korean people, and a dead American soldier were on a bus in a combat zone, and the aforementioned Korean woman at the back of the bus was holding a chicken in her lap. Everyone was told to remain quiet, so as to prevent the bus from being shot at or shelled or bombed or what have you, but the chicken kept clucking. Hawkeye yelled at the woman to make that chicken be quiet, and she put a blanket over its face and inadvertently smothered it.

The bus wasn’t shot at, or shelled, or bombed, or what have you, and everybody (except the dead soldier and the chicken) made it back to the 4077th unscathed.

Which was good…except for the inescapable fact that the chicken wasn’t clucking, it was crying…

…and that it wasn’t a chicken at all, it was a baby.

This by itself – accidentally prompting a mother to accidentally smother her baby – would be enough to send any decent person into a downward spiral of guilt and madness. But in Hawkeye’s case, the madness began many episodes before that.