2013년 10월 29일 화요일

Waiting for Disaster in Vain

The following is a revised version of "a day in my life," originally written a few days ago at a friend's request for her blog project. Since my mother's hospitalization last December and then my return to work in March, it became increasingly difficult to make myself sit down to write. Since mom's passing at the end of April, I was even afraid to come to my own blog. Writing this, however, reminded me how much I needed this. Thanks, Cheryl, for dragging me back here; you may not know this, but you did.

6:50 am. I wake up without much trouble. No nightmare or weird aftertaste of strange dreams. No active pain in any part of the body. Not a bad start of a day.

9:00 am. After breakfast, I walk out the door to go to work.

9:25 am. In office, the usual grind begins. I look through the file of mid-term exams but put off grading. Read excerpt from The History of Sexuality for Monday's class.

1:00 pm. I rummage food in the office, find organic muesli + soybean milk + cranberry scone + coffee, instead of bothering to go out for lunch. Keep reading for class, outlining a teaching scenario and making notes of usable examples.

3:00 pm. Prof P arrives on campus and calls me. I go downstairs to greet him and escort him to the faculty lounge. He's the speaker of today's Special Guest Lecture, an ongoing program that I design and implement as part of the department's extracurricular academic projects. It is over two years since I saw him last. He seems glad to see me well. I am grateful that he doesn't say much about the past two years during which time I was out of radar for most of my professional acquaintances. His face, when gazing at my prematurely greying hair, is telling, though, and I appreciate that subdued sympathy in his gaze. We mostly talk about work, for we are both involved in a theatrical production of a classical text as academic counsel.

3:30 pm. P's lecture begins. About 20 grad students show up, plus a few faculty members and a few undergrads. A pretty good turnout, and my anxiety somewhat subsides. I never heard him speak publicly before, and P turns out to be funny and engaging. A known sexual harasser with interesting scholarship, better than expected. Not just good showmanship but substance that he deftly deploys in his delivery. A girl in my undergrad class asks smart questions about desire for knowledge in the text and I feel proud as if her smarts were all my doing. That foolish moment is my fix for the day.

6:00 pm. After the 2-hour lecture, I take P to dinner as is customary. Not too excited, for a few days ago two close friends in other departments, who also know P, politely declined my invitation to dinner. It was actually their boycotting of P's visit to our campus altogether. While it's understandable that those two do not want to fraternize with P, I feel ambiguous about them making me entertain this P by myself. Then I feel bad about myself feeling ambiguous about them. This is my responsibility and I should be able to handle the situation instead of expecting male friends to shield me from possible problems. For lack of choice I invited P despite some reservation about his reputation, thinking that words sometimes circulate without ground. It's just unfortunate that the two friends confirmed his reputation with what they know (not merely "heard") of him only after P's visit was finalized and publicized. Still, it's better to be alerted; and I respect my friends for refusing to hide their judgment, when many people I know would do otherwise. 
   As for me, I find it difficult to act upon my principles here, since I am the one who unknowingly invited P for his academic expertise. For now, however, I prefer to think that I need to maintain a neutral ground of formal hospitality at least while I perform the role of a good host. I am not worried about being harassed myself. It is extremely unlikely, for I am well past that desirable therefore vulnerable age and even in my youth I had (and still have) a reputation for verbal impatience at unwanted advances. Now my medical history adds a new twist to it. But I am careful not to invite graduate students to dinner as we sometimes do. Fortunately two colleagues willingly join in, and my burden considerably lessens. I tell them nothing, for only a preposterous fool would misbehave in this setting now.
   I stay politely watchful nonetheless, and I can see that he is a big drinker, silently picky with food. With us three women, even after a few drinks P is so well-behaved throughout dinner that it's hard to decide whether I should be relieved or disappointed. I almost feel like a villain waiting for disaster in vain. He's suave and clever. Charming, even. I wonder what I would think of him under different circumstances. But he too seems a little different from before. Though P never offended or bothered me before, from my few previous encounters I remember him to have been intensely attentive with the kind of slick nicety that could easily morph into sleazy flirtatiousness, and I assumed that was the extent of his reputation. His reputation turns out not without ground, but after all, a man like P gets tired and mellow too, I suppose, which isn't too bad a thing. Maybe he smartened up, which would be even better. All the while, though, I lament inside that, in this day and age and even in this profession full of self-appointed progressives, gender and sexual dynamics still causes such headaches and still requires such a maneuvering. I also ponder upon the fate of a man whose reputation always precedes him and exceeds his reality.

8:00 pm. I drive P to his destination after early dinner. Nothing but gentlemanly propriety with a suitable amount of conviviality. Perhaps he realized that I am close friends with the two who did not show up today? Despite my usual sensitivity to other people's emotions and inclinations, I cannot figure him out. Good news, though, is that I don't have to figure him out. More significantly, my students seem to have enjoyed his lecture and with that my mission is accomplished. What a load off. In early November, I'll have to see P again on the play's opening night, but it should be fine.
   I am glad that the day's event is over. I am thankful that there was no need whatsoever for outright hostility or cold withdrawal or even tactful mediation on my part. I am happy not to have been exposed to anything inappropriate or unpleasant. Yet I cannot shake off the idea that it is cowardice that I did not cancel the whole thing and uninvite him right away, or at least turn him a cold shoulder instead of the poker-face congeniality. But a known incident of sexual harassment--is it all he is? Then again, it speaks of what he is, if not all; and in many cases, one known incident is an indicator of multiple unknown recurrences, and not just an isolated occurrence. One of the friends who told me of P's incident is SK, who rarely ever talks about others, must less speaks ill of them. Coming from SK, the story carries especial weight. My non-reaction may not be all that different from an overall endorsement of P. How, then, should I adjust my relationship with him? Why do I keep thinking that theoretical, textbook answers are not enough? In my dealings with sexual harassers and offenders at the Center for Gender Equality, none of them were my personal acquaintances. Passing judgment and acting upon it is less difficult when there is no personal interest at stake. This entire situation puts everything in a different light. I should reconsider whether I am level-headed and fair-minded enough to serve at the Center for Gender Equality. These heavy thoughts wrap up a long day without giving me answers.

2013년 6월 20일 목요일

Wherever She May Be

It's been over seven weeks since mom passed away.  In the past ten years or so she had tons of health problems that made her life miserable in all kinds of ways, especially last winter and spring.  But she willed through a few serious crises and when she finally got home after the three-month tribulation in the hospital at the end of February, it was a great relief.  We'd all thought she made a huge turn and therefore was going to be with us for some more time yet.  She spent two full months at home, wobbly and fragile but no longer bed-ridden.  She had a healthy appetite, and even her complaints were becoming as energetic as before.  But going is always unexpected, I suppose.  When I arrived at the ER she was already unconscious, and my brother who'd taken her to the ER told me that she had had a fall in the house.  It was the brain damages--the doctors could not tell whether the fall caused the hemorrhage or an aneurysm caused the fall.  No matter.  The ER doctors showed us brain scan photos and told us that she was not likely to regain consciousness, and she did leave us that very night, only about 6 hours after coming to the hospital.

When her recovery seemed almost unlikely back in January, my sister and I worried so much about how to take care of her.  For a time, her weakened physical condition affected her mental capacity so severely that we believed her lucidity gone for good, although the doctors repeatedly told us that they believed her dementia was temporary.  Even with an around-the-clock medical aide, she was more than a handful, and we wondered whether we would have to put her in a special-care home when her surgical scars finally healed, for the university hospital was surely not going to house her then.  But to our great surprise she did regain lucidity and control just enough to be able to live at home with the help of the live-in medical aide.

When she suffered the massive cerebral damage with the fall, she did not hang on for long.  The slim chance of her recovery would have only meant permanent disability and paralysis, which we know happen to some families.  She left in a hurry, as if refusing to be reduced to that state that she herself had feared so much, as if she had known our fears as well.  I was let into the ICU, when the nurse told me she had only about half an hour in this life.  She was already growing pale and cold, as her heart was slowly giving out.  We held her hands and kept telling her she needed to hang on for a little longer, for her favorite son was on his way.  Her heart quietly stopped the second he ran into the ICU to her bedside.  Witnessing mom's passing, although it is impossible to describe the enormity of it all, I also saw that the final transition could be a peaceful closure to a lifetime of struggle.  And that was an immense comfort amidst overwhelming emotions.

Two days after her passing, we put her ashes to earth.  Leaving one's body, not physically having a place in this world, does not have to be terrifying, especially when the body has become such a source of disomfort and pain. 

My sister and I had so many issues with her while mom was alive, which we never successfully addressed or resolved, but what does it signify now?  I just don't believe that those unresolved emotional issues with mom translate into a "scar" or some such thing for me.  However, I ache to imagine how lonely she must have been in her emotional alienation even from her children, which must have had to do with her bodily and mental deterioration.

Last weekend, we marked the seven week anniversary with the traditional Buddhist ceremony that wished the spirit a blessed journey to the afterlife.  The ritualistic immolation of paper clothes and shoes at the end of the ceremony symbolizes the untying of the spirit from all things in this world.  It probably meant that we needed to let her go as well so she could go freely.  As the fire consumed those last symbolic ties mom was supposed to have had to this material world, I wished her well and I once again wondered where she really was.  And I honestly wondered what ties I now had to mom which I was supposed to sever or retain.

2013년 6월 17일 월요일


This is my mom's obituary I sent out to friends shortly after her funeral.  

Dear friends,

It's terrible to send this news. My mother passed away at around 2 am, on April 30, only hours after she was taken to the ER and the ICU. She had had a fall in her house the previous evening and hurt her head, which led to multiple organ failures very quickly.  She was strong enough to overcome cervical cancer 30 years ago and then breast cancer 8 years ago, both times undaunted and successful.  But the increasing illnesses in the past few years had shrunken her courage, and the series of surgery since last December had weakened her already frail body.  She must have been unable or even unwilling to endure any more.  My heart aches to remember all the pain she had suffered before this happened, and my guilt of adding to her pain with my own recent illness will haunt me forever.  But we take small consolation in that she didn't suffer too much or too long in her departure and that her transition at the final moment was surprisingly peaceful.  We sent her back to earth on May 2, deep in sorrow yet hopeful that her energy will enrich and beautify nature in more ways than our limited understanding can imagine.  Please join me in wishing her well, now that her tiring journey in this world is finally over. 

A shorter notice had been sent, or a phone call made, to a couple of friends the day she died.  My sincerest thanks to all those who have been unsparing in their warm sympathy and condolences.  Special thanks to those who came to pay repect to her at the funeral home.  On seeing her photo, many complimented mother for her beauty.  She would have liked it very much.  She loved it when people told her she was beautiful.

2013년 2월 28일 목요일

One Year Mark

Exactly a year ago today I had a lumpectomy at the National Cancer Center.  It was a long year that seems to have gone by incredibly fast.  Just after the surgery, my oncologist, Dr. Park, suggested that each year I should celebrate the day with a party or something.  True, it's become an anniversary for me, when I don't have any other particular anniversary to remember or celebrate.  With good followup test results from mid-February too, I did have great dinner with two friends last night at "Bon Palate."  Another group of friends are having lunch with me today.  I am thankful to all the friends who helped me though the past year and a half.

2013년 1월 30일 수요일

Boy from Childhood

"Let's have lunch at Balwoo to celebrate the new year."  It's cute that S.U. comes up with this little pretext for a lunch date.  He is one of the few people I like sharing a meal with in the close set of two.  If it is with more than one person, then it is much easier--you don't have to bear the burden of unappealing conversation.  But with just one person, it becomes a kind of labor unless that person is the kind of friend who you can be comfortable with, with or without words.  I know enough to play by most of the social rules and go through with lunch meetings or dinner dates when necessary, that is, to pass for nearly normal.  It just does not mean that I like it and I'd like to think that such is the feeling shared by many people if not expressly discussed.  So, there really aren't that many who I like eating with in a pair.  SU is one of those few.  Every now and then he would call up and we would go have a bite or get a coffee or drink.  We head out to a small vegetarian cafe where you get a simple plate of food in the Buddhist monk's style.  He does remember my mentioning it in June.

SU and I went to elementary school together.  He was a precocious, gangly boy who looked almost all grown up in the eyes of the small, undeveloped girl child that I was.  He belonged to the group of tall, cool kids.  But for some reason he deigned to hang with me and we would wander around together for no particular purposes after school.  I think we talked about music a lot, for if there was one thing I was precocious about, it was my taste in music.  I had discovered the Beatles and Led Zeppelin quite early on.  We somehow got back in touch after growing up, after entering college.  He had grown up to be a brooding philosophy major, very much invested in the college newspaper of his university, of which he later became the editor.  Even then we didn't see each other very often, but we could talk about anything and hanging out with him was always fun.  After getting older, I even developed this notion that being married to him would be all right.  Strange, as I haven't been romantically involved with him and he had gotten married already in our mid-twenties.  I was not very keen on marriage, and of all the boys I had anything to do with, there were only two that I could have married and wanted to marry, if at all.  SU wasn't one of those two.  With those two I was madly and desperately in love each time and they were both trouble in different ways.  Sharing life with either of them would have been torture, which the intermittent hours of blissful love could never have compensated for.  Then there are boys I am friends with, even close to, who don't give me ideas about anything other than the friendship per se, romantic or not.  Of all these boys, particularly SU makes me think that I could live with him and even be married to him.  Well read, funny yet not frivolous, emotionally very articulate, not bad-looking, clean and well-dressed.  I don't see in him any weird eating habit or any other disturbng idiosyncrasies that you so often find in middle aged men.  This is already a lot more than one could expect from a husband, I know from looking at all my friends' husbands.  His wife must know many annonying things about him that I don't, but not being his wife I don't have to deal with them; that's one of the perks of the imagined marriage.  With him I imagine it would have been a lifelong camaraderie in similar philosophical penchants and political inclinations.  And I never saw a woman terribly unhappy merely because her marriage lacked "passion."

There is something else too.  That je-ne-sais-quoi isn't romantic or sexual tension, though.  There are male friends who like to flirt, who seem to indulge themslves in the sense of masculine empowerment outside their marriage, by creating or imagining sexual tension which they are in fact too scared or too busy or too old to follow through.  I am an easy target, not because they find me particularly attractive but because they see no man to reckon with should things go awry, I suspect.  Sometimes I would play along out of boredom, but mostly I get weary with those, and feel even used.  SU doesn't make me feel that way.  We never went out on a romantic date, and I don't think I ever wanted to.  Sometimes with some guys, you just have to find out, even if sleeping or even making out with him would mean all hell breaking loose.  Not wanting to jeopardize the friendship is usually a pretty (and lame) excuse for not being attracted enough.  But I just never got curious about him romantically or sexually, at least not enough to want to try anything, although I always liked him.  About 3 years ago, he told me that he had been crushed out on me back in our early twenties.  That's twenty years too late a confession, I said, and after two minutes of awkwardness we had a good laugh.  I don't know how serious he was twenty years ago, I had no idea, and looking back I'm almost glad that he didn't let it show then, that he didn't put me in a position where I am certain I would have said or done something cruel or rash to him.  Blinded by my own youthful love angst directed elsewhere, I was unreasonably harsh to myself and to others back then.  But this late confession didn't change anything in our dynamics.  The trust I have in him has to do with this unchangeability, rooted in the fact that he knows me.  He has known me since I was eleven, which makes him literally my oldest friend, and I don't have to be anything other than what I've been in these thirty odd years.  That he grew up to be a successful businessman who still appreciates good books is awesome, of course.  Even more awesome is that he's also cold-headed enough to criticize me for being paradoxically condescending when I'm overpolite to cab drivers and doormen, etc.  The imagined life with him is always asexual, and very unrealistic, I am sure.  As I do not pine for or lust after him, perhaps this comfortable friendship, where I can talk about all kinds of things with shared interest, is as close to a good marriage as it gets for a single woman in her forties.  But is it all right to enjoy this kind of long-standing, emotionally intimate friendship with a married guy?  Does this count as cheating?  I have no reason to feel guilty, yet something about this chaste friendship makes me think that it may still not be readily approved of by everyone (his wife, for instance?).  Hence the reluctant sense of guilt, different from the one I would have felt, had we had a sexual dalliance.  But what a stifling, restricted world it would be, if we shouldn't really be friends with other people's spouses.

We talk just about anything, from the last month's general election to the Tom Burton Exhibition.  I like it that we never run out of things to talk about, that our topics seldom approach such married adults' areas as children's education or real estate prices or...the abominable golf!  After talking about work (he runs a PR company) and suffering the day's portion of my CEO jokes, he earnestly asks after my health.  The hug is light and warm, as is the dialogue.  Cheeks barely touch and I relish the last minute chat of idly contemplating a day trip to a Buddhist temple.  I don't know if it is our age or what, but it's just so evident that we are way beyond certain things.  The next day I pick out One Way Street from my bookshelves to lend him, remembering his recent interest in Benjamin's other essays.