JAMES ZERNDT – THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

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There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each.  There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.

YOU’RE IN MY HEART …

Autumn, 1987. Boston, Massachusetts

I was recently back from Israel. I’d been gone almost a decade. Much had changed. My friends had half-grown children who I’d never met. They had married, divorced, changed jobs, moved to different cities. The tribe had dispersed.

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Garry was in Boston, working for Channel 7, as he had been when I’d left, but we were different. We each had survived wrenching relationships and awful professional periods. Though we’d known each other since college, we weren’t the kids we’d been. Life had beaten us up.

We were in love, not for the first time, but for the last time.

We looked at each other differently. Rod Stewart was on the radio. As I drove around — in the first new car I’d ever owned without a co-signing husband — this was the song.

I sang along. It was how I felt.  This time, it was our time.

SPODE’S TOWER

Blame it on my upbringing, the odd traditions of my mother’s family. Basically, we say “I love you” by giving each other stuff. All kinds of stuff. Art, furniture, gadgets, clothing, books, whatnots. We were never a touchy, feely, huggy family nor verbally effusive. We rarely said “I love you.” I’ve had to learn to say the words. I’d still rather buy you a present.

spode's tower plateOver the course of life with my family, I got clothing (used and new), pottery (ugly and uglier), jewelry, paintings (“No, really, it’s okay … you keep it … please!”) and whatever else came to hand. If someone had a sudden unplanned attack of the warm fuzzies, they might give you the nearest small object — ashtray, silver cigarette holder (from my mother, who never smoked), old souvenirs from Coney Island, empty cigar boxes (Uncle Abe). No wrappings or bows. Spontaneity precluded amenities. It was my family’s version of a hug.

One time, my dearest favorite-est aunt gave me the coat off her back while crossing 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It was mid-winter in New York and definitely not a good time to be coat-less, but I had said I liked it and she needed to express her love right then and there.

“Please, Aunt Kate,” I cried, hoping the people swirling around us didn’t call the cops, likely thinking I was mugging my elderly aunt. “I am wearing a coat. You gave me this coat years ago. I wear it all the time. I love it.”

Which only made it worse. “That old thing,” she cried. “You need a new coat.”

“When we get home,” I promised. “You can give me the coat at home.” And she did. And I wore it. For many years until it fell apart. I knew I was wearing her love and it kept me very warm.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I bought a box of odds and ends from a little shop on Bethlehem Road. They had been cleaning out their back room. They said “We don’t know what’s in here, but you can have it for five dollars.”

I took the box home and began to sort through it. I found tiny carved ivory elephants, amber beads, buttons from dress shirts, old agora and a green, crusted thing I was going to throw out until a friend said “Hey, that’s an old coin.”

I stopped. Looked at it. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“That’s what old coins look like,” she said. “Soak it in lemon juice for a few days and see what happens.”

I soaked it for two weeks and it still looked like a piece of green crusty metal. Finally, using a toothbrush and copper cleaner, I extracted an ancient bronze coin, circa 77, the second year of the First Jewish War Against the Romans. The date was on the coin in old Hebrew script.

I had the coin appraised at the Rockefeller Museum. It was the real deal, but not worth a fortune – maybe a couple of hundred dollars, if I could find a buyer. So I turned it into pendant and wore it on a ribbon. When my mother came to visit, she admired it. Of course I gave it to her. When my mother died, my father gave it back to me, but it disappeared. I suppose it will turn up someday in another box of odds and ends and become someone else’s treasure.

You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something you were going to own it. There was a hideous pottery owl that looked like its eyes were bleeding. Chartreuse with scarlet eye sockets. I was caught staring –and had to say something. It was a masterpiece of sculpting, but the overall effect was gruesome. So I said: “It’s … really interesting.” It was, in a ghastly way.

“It’s yours!” cried my mother. I detected a note of triumph. I still harbor a suspicion she had gotten it from some other family member and was just waiting for the chance to move it along. Tag, I was it.

The ultimate example of family love en passant were the dishes. It was my fault. I started it. I bought them from a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition, all for $30.

Spode's Tower

It turned out to be Spode’s Tower. The dishes were old and delicate, so I never used them fearing they’d get broken. They stayed in the closet and gathered dust. Years passed.

One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them. One day, my Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need any more, the days of big dinner parties being long over.

My mother didn’t need such a large set either, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave it back to me and we took it home. She had saved them all those years. Of course, I never used them. I eventually gave them to Owen and Sandy who had the sense to sell them. They knew they would never use them and neither would anyone else.

Love can be wrapped in paper and carefully protected. There is love. There are dishes. And there are memories of my family, carefully stored, ready to be given. To you, if you like.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!

Dear Mom,

It’s Flag Day for most people of a certain age. Mom, “people of a certain age” is a not so subtle reference to anyone over 60 these days. But for anyone in your immediate and extended family, today is a celebration of your birthday!

It’s a celebration of your life and the nurturing given to countless people. Many still refer to you as “Auntie Esther.” It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when listening to stories people tell about you. I say print the legend!

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It’s been a busy year, Mom. Your great-granddaughter Kaity is a high school graduate — with honors. Headed to college in the fall, with nursing as her major. You could probably tell her stories about your days as a nurse. Kaity has a lot of your grit and determination. You would be proud of her. She calls Marilyn and me the “old people.” You were right when you said “what goes around, comes around.”

You were right about a lot of things, Mom. I remember the look you gave me when I spouted all that college stuff about world-changing events and how “old people” should keep up.

You and Daddy are probably grinning at the accomplishments of your “old age” son, Anton.

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“Tony”, as Daddy called him, is celebrating his 25th anniversary as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. Anton is mentoring a new generation of chorale musicians. He has brought diversity and creativity to the St. Olaf Music Department. Your “baby” is now an acclaimed international figure in his profession.

Anton and Garry

Honestly, I love teasing Anton. I remind him — publicly, when I can — of when I used to change his diapers. I’m sure you remember  that I wasn’t happy with my “big brother” duties. All my friends were outside playing baseball and I wanted to be there, too.

Mom, will you not interrupt me when I’m talking? Please?

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Where was I? Oh, right. Billy. He’s doing okay, enjoying his first full year of retirement. I’m not sure he would use the word “enjoy” but he’s maintaining the family home. Speaking of home, our house is turning 60 next year. I remember when it was brand, spanking new. We had just moved in. It had that great “new house” smell.

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Hold on, Mom. I’m not finished yet. No, I’m not interrupting. Yes, I know who brought me into this world. No, I’m not giving you a “look.” Just one more thing …

Marilyn and I will be celebrating our silver wedding anniversary in September. Yep!! 25 years — up and down — the best years of our lives. Yes, Mom, Marilyn is the girl — forever.

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We’ll be in Cooperstown, New York, for our anniversary. I’m still a passionate baseball fan and it seems just right to celebrate at the Hall of Fame. Marilyn made it her business to learn baseball after we got married because she knew how much I love the game. Now she is a very savvy fan.

That’s it, Mom. We’ll toast your birthday with PowerAde and PowerZero. Betcha that’s a surprise, Mom.

Please tell Daddy we miss him, too.

Happy Birthday, Mom!!

Love,

Garry

SERENDIPITY PHOTO PROMPT 2015-9: BITE OF THE SPIDER

SERENDIPITY PHOTO STORY PROMPT

WEDNESDAY – June 10, 2015 #9

Welcome, again, to Frisbee Wednesday. Today I have wonderful pictures of my favorite local dam. And a story to go with it. Two of the best pictures were taken by Garry.

You may write about any of these pictures. Or any of your pictures or someone else’s picture. Write a little, write a lot. At your pleasure.

The picture for this week is by Garry Armstrong, who is coincidentally, the subject of today’s story.

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Please add your own ping back (links) or put your link in a comment, then link back to this post so other people can find you and me. My effort for this week follows.

BITE OF THE SPIDER
Garry as John Ford

Garry as John Ford

Garry has been feeling unwell. Something happened and it started with a bug bite. My first guess would be a brown recluse spider, but according to the authorities, that’s impossible because “they don’t live here.” We do have black widows … even the experts admit that … and giant wolf spiders (let us hope I never encounter one because I would probably die of fright) …  but no brown recluses.

Whatever it was, the bite was painless and the culprit got away. The experts get to retain plausible deniability for their contention “it didn’t really happen.”

Only the spider — if it was a spider — knows for sure, and he isn’t talking. Yet.

Garry started to feel not-so-good shortly after Kaity’s graduation. He was energetic during the event, the picture of a proud grandfather with field producer experience.

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The day after The Big Event, a different story emerged. His left leg hurt. Shooting pains. He was limping. Both of us assumed (never assume) this was because he’d pushed too hard the previous day.

That wasn’t it, because it got steadily worse. On Thursday, while towelling off post-shower, he noticed something nasty on the back of his left calf, down near the ankle. He showed me.

Garry at Manchaug

It was an ugly wound. Two areas affected, the larger one had two big gray-blue, oddly shaped blisters surrounded by dark red inflammation plus a smaller version lower on the ankle. I lanced the blisters, cauterized everything with surgical iodine, slathered it with antibiotic ointment and bandaged him like a wounded soldier on the battlefield.

He said he felt better. Friday passed, but on Saturday morning, I didn’t like the way it looked. It seemed redder and the area of redness had expanded. I called the doctor. Drove him there.. Brought him home, then went out to the pharmacy for antibiotics. It was the first time I had driven since before the heart surgery in March 2014.

Just a day later — Sunday — the weather being fine and Garry feeling a little better, I suggested an airing. Manchaug. I’d drive. It would be low impact.

The shot for which life and limb were imperiled.

The shot for which life and limb were imperiled.

I should have known better.

I left with Garry, my husband, but arrived in Manchaug with director John Ford. Squatting in the tall grass to get that great shot of the dam with the wild daisies in the foreground, leaving me wondering if he’d be able to get up — as I pondered how many biting insects were hiding in that grass. I would have thought he’s had enough of getting bit. But it’s not about me. Who am I to keep an artist from his moment?

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The doctor was worried about Lyme. Although I saw no evidence of a tick, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t bitten by one or several. Ticks drop off when they’ve completed their meal and Lyme is endemic to this region.

I’m counting on it not being Lyme. Or anything serious. Because the maestro needs his space — and I need the maestro.

HAPPY EVER AFTER – MOSTLY

HAPPILY EVER AFTER? GIVE OR TAKE A LIE OR TWO.

We’ve coming up on anniversary number 25, which is a big one. We have plans. These plans involve baseball. And a bit of traveling. I digress because I wanted to make sure I include all the facts and nothing but the facts.

A note from a long and much-married woman: No marriage is happy all the time. There are fights, times when one of you is snippy, snarky, unhappy, frustrated and you take whatever is bothering you out on your partner. Marriage is a never-ending negotiation to achieve perfection. Finding perfection is impossible, but trying to achieve it can be fun.


I was 18 when I married the first time. It was my senior year. I was working at the college radio station. Jeff was the Station Manager. Garry, my once and future husband, was Jeff’s second-in-command — the Program Director. The two were also best friends. Most of the people I came to consider real friends worked there, too. We were having a great time doing weird, creative stuff. Life as a permanent party … or so it seemed.

Gar and Mar in Dublin 2000

Aside from the stuff we did at the station, we held an annual Fall of Sauron Day party — scripted, costumed, with special effects. We were young, healthy, could party all night, yet rise up and go the work the following morning. Looking barely the worse for wear. Ah, youth.

I married Jeff in August 1965. I spent the next year finishing my B.A. and having my spine remodeled, so it was a few years before I got on with life. Owen Garry was born in May 1969, Garry being his godfather. Fast forward through a non-acrimonious divorce from Jeff. I later realized if you just give up everything and walk away, it’s easy to remain amicable. It’s also something you will probably regret — eventually.

Off to Israel I went with The Kid. Not too long thereafter, I married in Israel. The less said about this mistake, the better. In 1983, a state visit from the ex and (now) current husband (they rode together), showing up right in time for war in Lebanon. It ruined our plans to visit Mt. Hermon and the Galilee, but created great anecdotes which Garry and I tell after dinner around the fire. I have one (fuzzy) picture of me, sandwiched between Jeff and Garry, all arm-in-arm, the Dead Sea behind us. The picture was taken by husband number 2 (the one I don’t want to talk about).

August 1987 – THE RETURN

I’m back! Garry and I are an item. Having been apart for so long brought us closer together than we’d imagined possible. The previous decade hadn’t dealt kindly with either of us and we saw one another with new eyes. I think we’d always been a little in love, but there were an endless number of reasons why it wasn’t the right time to do something about it.  Now, shortly after my Israeli divorce from husband number 2 was finished, Garry and I got married.

Here’s the back story. Give or take a lie or two.

I’d been away for two weeks in California on business. I had come back early because I got sick, came down with the flu. Just as well, because an earthquake — the one that stopped the World Series — occurred the following day and if I’d stayed, I’d have been crushed under the collapsed highway.

Garry was glad to see me … until I coughed. Then he wasn’t so glad. If you want to know the definition of “mixed emotions,” it’s a man overwhelmed with joy to see the woman he loves — but knowing the first kiss will include influenza. The definition of true love? He kissed me anyway. And got the flu.

So after we both stopped coughing, Garry took me out to dinner. He was nervous. He was driving and we went around Leverett Circle at least half a dozen times. He kept missing the turn off. Meanwhile, he was explaining how he’d had a conversation with his pal about real estate, and how prices were down, and how maybe we should buy something. And live together. Like maybe … forever? Was forever okay with me?

So having listened for a pretty long time, I said: “So let me see if I’ve got this right. You want to buy a house? Move in and live together? Forever? As in married?”

“All of that,” he said, and drove around the loop one more time.

“I don’t know about you,” I said, “But I definitely need a drink.”

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The following morning, I asked Garry if I could tell my friends. He said “Tell them what?”

“That we’re getting married,” I said.

“We are?”

“You said we should buy a house and live together forever.”

“Is that a proposal?”

“It is where I come from,” I assured him. Wouldn’t you think that was a proposal? I had to remind him about buying a ring, too but eventually, he got into the groove, realized all he had to do was tell me what he wanted and show up in a tux and he’d be a married guy. Piece of cake.

We got married 6 months later having known each other a mere 26 years.

I declined to have my first ex-husband as best man at my third wedding. We did, however, have the “real” reception at his house. There was the official one at the church, but the fun event, with all the friends, music, wine and sharing … that one was over at the old house where I used to live with Jeff.

Garry and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary next September. When you find the right one, time flies.

PASS THE ALUMINUM FOIL (DIRECTIONS INCLUDED)

You think you know someone. You hang out with them, exchange emails, jokes, and anecdotes. Maybe you even work with them. Then, one day, out of the blue, you discover they believe you are going to Hell. Perhaps a conspiracy theorist or a believer in the upcoming zombie apocalypse. Or the next Messiah.

I lived in Jerusalem for almost 9 years. Big surprise, you meet a lot of people who are sure they are Jesus Christ come back to finish his work on Earth. One of them worked at the local pizza joint and seemed perfectly normal, until in the middle of a casual conversation, he would drop a bomb about his mission. And there you were, transported to wacko central.

I had a casual friend who was a piano player. He sang and played at fancy hotel bars, like the Hilton Hotel lounge. He was an American, so it was inevitable we would meet. We struck up a little chatty relationship. One night, he called and invited me over. He had something important to tell me.

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Important? Our relationship consisted of reminiscing about life in the U.S. in the 1960s — and I’d done his horoscope. I was (coincidentally) the astrology columnist and managing editor of a short-lived English-language weekly. Please, let’s not discuss astrology or my psychic abilities (or lack thereof). You don’t want to know and I don’t want to tell you.

Having nothing better to do at the time, I walked over to his house (just around the corner) and we got to talking. Suddenly, I knew. He was going to tell me one of two things: he was an alien and came from on another planet or galaxy … or … he was Jesus Christ.

It was the latter. Another Jesus. He wanted me, because of my brilliant psychic abilities, to be Paul and spread the word. I worked very hard to tell him that his timing was off and I would be sure to advise him when the right moment arrived. Then I fled into the night and home. He was one of several people who convinced me there was no future for me in the psychically predictive arts.

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Then there was the guy I worked with at one or another of the many high-tech companies at which I was employed, who one day informed me of his intention to quit his job and move to an underground bunker. In anticipation of the coming apocalypse. I hadn’t even done his horoscope.

Not surprisingly, a series of these unwelcome surprises has made more than slightly wary of prospective friends. I’m afraid of what will be revealed as we get to know each other better.

The thing about people who believe in cabals, believe they came on an alien space craft or will be leaving on one shortly, and they are all sure God has assigned them a mission.

You can’t argue with them. They believe what they believe. Absolutely. Don’t bother with facts, their minds are made up.

What if they decide I am one of their (many) enemies? Pass the aluminum foil. I think I need a new hat.