Friday, December 31, 2010

Shadow of a Process: A Personal Appreciation of Steve Roden

we the darkness with a fire between us, 2009


Steve Roden in between: a 20 year survey, curated and with a catalogue essay by Howard N. Fox / Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California, September 12, 2010-January 9, 2011

The wonderful new show of the works of California artist Steve Roden was organized and the catalogue written by my companion, Howard Fox. Accordingly, I have not attempted a “review” of this show, but have tried to write a piece that might accompany the viewer in his or her appreciation of the art.

Indeed, I am not sure that I would have easily “penetrated” Roden’s art without the help of Howard’s involvement with the artist and his work. Surely, I might have recognized—as critics have noted—that there is something, despite the wide range of various forms Roden’s art takes, that hints at an orderly world, or, at least, a series of systems underlying it—that in his works involving numbers, words, patterns, and planes of light and dark there are visible clues to systems behind the art—but I would have had no comprehension of what kind of systems those are.

Fox illustrates some of the many devices that Roden has used in creating his works in his discussion in the catalogue. In Roden’s The Ridddle for example, in which the work is bisected into black and red zones, across which the artist places the words “a riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist,” Roden began with a quote from Swedish novelist and poet Pär Lagerkvist in his novel The Sibyl. The art, however, does not attempt to tell the story of Lagerkvist’s fiction, but rather employs its “aesthetics of the unresolved.” As Fox writes:

Resolution, determinacy, transparency, reasonable certitude…are supplanted
in Roden’s art by the poetics of incertitude and indeterminacy.

In another work, fallen/spoken, again Roden started with a text of Lagerkvist's, this time a poem, and, with no knowledge of Swedish, translated the words into English-language homonyms, words sounding more or less like the Swedish words might. "Hon knäpper sina händer hop," for example, became in Roden's transformation, "hovering sine waves hop from clapping hands."

His 1996 painting, i am sitting in a room, moreover, was based on a sound composition by American composer Alvin Lucier, who spoke a text into a tape record, retapeing the words onto another recorder, and another, and so on until the tones and sounds became "completely abstracted"; "...the skeleton was still intact but the surface totally unrecognizable," notes Roden.

Nearly all of Roden's art, indeed, parallels, in one way or another, this approach to art. Like John Cage, Alfred Jensen and others Roden generally begins with complex systems that he uses not so much as a frame, but a starting point, an impetus that allows for the creation of the final work.

Some of these systems are so complex that even Roden has forgotten them. And in that fact, as Fox reiterates, these systems and methodologies represent what might be called the shadows of the complete pieces. Even if we sense that ghostly system in the "completed"—or, perhaps, since Roden often returns to pieces years later, working on them anew, we should describe them as "temporarily complete"—it does not serve, however, as a tabla rosa or even a lens through which we can read or see the art. Most of Roden's paintings, sculptures, musical performances, and other artifacts remain, in the end, something close to the abstractions which at the start he appeared to eschew.

Roden is himself somewhat shy and sincerely self-effacing, and that comes across strongly in that his approach sheds most of the evidence of the artist's processes in the final artifacts. While the viewer might certainly discern the work to be a Steve Roden "product," most of us would be hard put to say precisely what that means or even what the work itself means.

But that it means is without question. And in saying that, any viewer recognizes the necessity to dig deep into his or herself to question and perceive the art's significance. It is that "shadow" of process that seems to demand a search. And it becomes nearly impossible, as a serious witness to such art, to simply walk away from most of Roden's pieces with merely a shrug. They demand engagement, encourage us to see them as objects in our world with which he must at least seek to comprehend. For that very reason, Roden has gained a respectful position among fellow artists, collections, and critics—both local and international.

For Roden all his hidden systems—what one might describe the building blocks of his art—emanate from his intellectual and spiritual interests and his attempts to translate them—in a way that most good literary translators comprehend—into a language in which he can better comprehend them or reveal them to a different audience.

And, in this respect, Roden reminds me—more than any other contemporary artist I know—of the great American and European figures of the early 20th century, represented by the editors of magazines such as The Seven Arts, The Dial, The Little Review, Transition and others, who believed in an intense synthesis of the arts, combining literature with visual art and essays on dance, music, theater, and sometimes film. While one recognizes, at times, a kind of a simplistic idealism in some of these attempts to bring together all the arts, it has grown ever more evident within the context of postmodern hybridities influenced by Cage, the Fluxus Group, and other individuals that that aspiration was and remains an important perspective of the democratization of American art in general.

It is little wonder, accordingly, that I feel so at home in Roden's exhibition, as radically different as are the pieces he has created. For it is precisely this embracement of various genres representing cultural and social complexities which I have urged in my own poetry, fiction, publishing, and in the pages of these cultural memoirs. It can be no accident that Roden's show, titled in between, is precisely the way I have described my own work, including my collaborative poetry collection Between.

New York, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Ocean's Voice (on Jules Michelet's The Sea)

by Douglas Messerli

Jules Michelet The Sea, translated from the French by Katia Sainson (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2011)

Upon reflection, it seems a little odd that I, born in the land-locked state of Iowa in the US—a state which has but a few small lakes—should be standing here in Korea speaking of "The Poetic Spirit of the Sea." For a while as a child, I lived with my parents on one of those tiny lakes, Clear Lake (which today, I am told, is overgrown with algae, being anything but "clear"); and one day my mother gasped and rushed from the house to save me as I was led to the end of the pier by a slightly older child. I am sure I would not have jumped in, for I was afraid of water through most of my childhood, and only learned to swim in college.

For all that, I have spent most of my life since age 16 near the seas, living my senior year of high school in a small Norwegian town on the Oslo fjord, and shifting a few years later to New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia before settling—now for some 25 years—in Los Angeles, which is the largest seaport, incidentally, in the US.

Perhaps it was in restitution for my long dry childhood that I drifted to the Atlantic and Pacific shores. What is also clear is that I discovered during my adult years how very much I enjoy traveling by any water-going vessel, being attracted to everything from large ships, to sizeable ferries (by which I traveled a few years ago from Oslo to Copenhagen and commuted several times from Naples to Ischia and back) and even small rowing boats by which I traveled by night from Praiano to Positano on the Amalfi coast one dark midnight and recently floated for an afternoon along the canals of Ghent. I have never been sea-sick despite the obvious sufferings of some of those around me.

Despite all of this love of water, however, I must admit that I am not the beach-going type. My doctor has long ago warned me of sitting in the sun for more than five minutes, and I have never enjoyed the grate of sand and rock upon the surface of my body. The light, moreover, is usually far too intense, so that even my favorite activity, reading, becomes difficult. If I were to live directly on the ocean I suspect I would prefer the coast of Brittany in France or Maine in the USA on a winter day, when large storms toss about the ocean's tumultuous waves. I would love to be inside a well-protected sea-side cottage on those days!

This is, of course, a Romantic conception of the sea. Today we need only to look to the oil-slicked tides in the once pristine Gulf of Mexico and remind ourselves of Hurricane Kathrina's 2005 devastation of New Orleans to perceive that the sea is quickly being transformed by man into something that is dangerous to live near or even transverse. In a few decades from now the lovely and fascinating cities and beaches of Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu near my home may no longer exist, having been flooded over by the rising oceans.

I've not come here, however, to lecture on the obvious: the fears we all share for those waters that sustain and connect our shores. Instead of abandoning that "Romantic" concept of the sea, I thought I might return to it in the guise of the great French naturalist and historian of the 19th century, Jules Michelet, who wrote on everything from women, birds, and insects to religion, education, and the history of the French Revolution. One of his most important books, moreover, was titled The Sea (1861)—a book which, coincidentally my publishing house, Green Integer, has just published—which I thought might be appropriate to share with you in this conference dedicated to that very subject. Although Michelet may treat the great oceans less like a scientist than a devoted lover, perhaps the latter is what we most need today, a wise admirer, who will help us all realize the beauty and importance of the matter that covers most of the earth and, as the ice caps melt, may roll over even more of our planet's surface.

Michelet begins his book, surprisingly, by relating stories from the shore, beaches, and cliffs the powerful forces and fearful behavior of the ocean waters. Like me at the edge of that childhood pier, he seems, a first, so terrified of even looking at the great roll of waves, that it appears he will never jump in.

Throughout his highly poetic recounting Michelet gives the sea voices, but the first of these voices presents "her" (and for Michelet the sea is not just linguistically but psychologically a feminine force) as having a most "formidable character:

"...we feel or we believe that we feel the vibrant intonations of life. In fact, at high tide when one wave—immense and electric—rises above another, the sound of shells and of thousands of diverse creatures brought in with the tide mixes with the stormy rumble of the waters.... And the sea has still other voices! When she is emotional, the sea's moan and deep sighs contrast with the silence of the mournful shore. In fact, the shore seems to be quietly meditating, in order to better hear the threats coming from the one who just yesterday was flattering it with a caressing wave. What will the sea be telling to the shore next? I don't want to predict. I do not to speak here of the frightful concerts that the sea may give, of her duets with the rocks, of the basses and the muffled thunder that she produces deep inside the caves, nor the astonishing cries in which one thinks one hears: "Rescue me!"

Even witnessing the sea from atop a cliff or other promontory can be a dangerous act:

At the highest point of the Mont-Saint-Michel, one can see a platform called
the Madman's Terrace. I know of no place more apt to drive someone
crazy than this vertiginous structure. Imagine being surrounded by a vast
secluded plain of what looks like white ash—dubious sand whose mis-
leading smoothness is its most dangerous trap. It is land and yet it's not.
It is the sea and yet again, not. It's not fresh water either although beneath
the sands rivers constantly burrow through the ground. Rarely, and only
for a few short amounts of time, a boat will venture forth. And, if passing
by when the water is receding, you are likely to be swallowed up. I speak
from experience. I myself was almost engulfed.

By the time he gets to the great storms, quoting seafaring explorers such as James Cook, François Péron, and Jules Dumont d'Urville, we are nearly overwhelmed by the power of this dreadful force:

"...At the shore of the Aiguilles Banks also known as the D'Urville Banks" quotes
Michelet, "the waves reached heights of eighty to one hundred feet. I had never
seen such a monstrous sea. ...At times the sailors on deck were submerged. There
was awful chaos that lasted no less than four hours that evening...a century that
was enough to turn your hair white!... -This is what southern storms are like,
so horrible that even on land the natives that can sense their arrival are horrified
by them in advance and hide in their caves."

One particular storm of 1859 on the Western coast of France was witnessed by Michelet himself, and his recounting of that event, with its "shifting and bizarre winds," is perhaps one of the best written descriptions of the fierceness of ocean storms.

It is no wonder that in a later chapter, the author writes what seems almost like an ode to lighthouses, beacons that call out to the frightened sailor: "Persist! One more try!...if the wind and the sea are against you, you are not alone. Mankind is there watching out for you." The naturalist is understandably proud of the France's "ring of these powerful flares," each armed with the Fresnel lens (invented by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, and first used at the Cordouan lighthouse in 1823).

If the drama of the sea is what the reader seeks, Michelet does not disappoint either in his sections on storms nor in his recountings of various sea-lives, particularly of the giant octopus (which, he admits, no longer exists) and his tales of whales and sharks. Jules Verne used the former as a major figure in his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Lautréamont parodied the author in his Chant de Maldoror. In short, Michelet is determined to engage his reader with numerous exciting adventures regarding his subject.

However, the author warns us, early on, that despite all this seeming fury, the sea itself "is quite innocent."

Moreover, one cannot be fooled by the tremendous illusions she
creates, by the immensity of her wonders or by what on the surface
appears to be moments of fury that are often in fact acts of kindness.

And it is already here, in the second chapter of the book, that Michelet takes up one of his major themes, which elevates this text to stand as a significant work even today. After describing the terrible landscape around Mont-Saint-Michel, the naturalist ponders:

Is it the sea's fault if this beach is so treacherous? Not at all. The sea
arrives thee, as she does elsewhere, noisy and strong but loyal. The
true fault lies with the land whose cunning immobility always seems
so innocent, and who, below the beach, is filtering stream water—a
sugary and whitish mixture that undermines solidity. It is especially man's
fault, because of his ignorance and neglect [italics mine]. During
the long barbarian ages, while he thought only of legends and
establishing this great place of pilgrimage dedicated to the archangel,
who had vanquished the devil, the devil took possession of
that neglected plain. ...Far from doing harm, this madwoman carries
in her menacing waves a treasure of fertile salt. Superior to the Nile's
silt, it enriches the area's cultivated fields and is the source of the
charming beauty of Dol's former marshlands, which today have
been transformed into gardens.

This culpability of man is at the heart of Michelet's plea for the survival of things relating to the oceans. First, he establishes the oceans as the source of life itself by noting the great fecundity of the sea, which he describes as "the sea of milk," a kind of gelatinized water. A single drop of water, he insists, carry thousands of infusorium, "moving about and vibrating," coming together to create links of maidenhair. "This is not fable," he argues, "it is natural history. This hair with its dual nature—plant and animal—is life's eldest child."

Importantly, Michelet goes on to establish the international patterns of the sea's movements, and the shifts in the oceans' currents, from hot to cold, around the globe. It is, accordingly, only by seeing the sea globally that we can truly comprehend its importance. Describing different sealife throughout the planet, Michelet gracefully takes, as his favorite explorer, Vasco da Gama (he dismisses Columbus' journey as a mere repetition of what the Normans and Icelanders had done long before), in their travels. And in doing so we gradually come also to be fascinated with the abundance in our oceans.

By the time Michelet comes round to talking about the whales, he quite clearly anthropomorphizes his subject:

Because such a life form is inherently shaped like a ship, the mother's
waist is narrow and this means that she cannot have the profuse waist of
a woman—that adorable miracle of life on land, that stable and harmonic
life, where everything disappears into tenderness. No matter how tender
the whale—that great woman of the sea—is, she still must make everything
dependent on her battle against the waves. Moreover, her organism is the
same under this strange mask—the shape, the same sensitivity. Fish
on the surface, woman beneath it. [This analogy continues for a few more

By doing this, however, Michelet has created a true link between the nursing whale and his readers that can only shock when, a few pages later, he decries what have become of these wonderful leviathans:

The strongest of the strong, the ingenious one, the active one, the cruel king
the world has finally arrived. My book is flooded with light. But what will it
show? And how many sad things do I now have to bring into this light?
This creator, this tyrannical God was able to produce a second nature
within nature. But what did he do to the other one, the original one, his
wet-nurse and his mother? With the teeth that she gave him, he bit her
The freest of beings, who formerly brought joy to the sea, those good-
hearted seals, the gentle whales, the peace-loving pride and joy of the Ocean,
all have fled to the polar seas and to the awful world of the ice floe. But they
cannot bear such a difficult life, and soon, they will completely disappear.

Soon after, the author introduces a chapter on The Harpoon, and moves forward to the discovery of the three oceans. And it is now, in the newly discovered world that he truly cries out against the barbaric acts of mankind. After describing the conquerors treatment of the native populations, Michelet continues:

It is obvious that if Man has treated Man in this way, he was no more merciful,
no kinder to the animals. He carried out a horrific slaughter of the gentlest
species. He made them savage and barbaric forever more...
In the New South Shetland Islands, Dumont d'Urville says, the English and
the Americans exterminated all the seals in four years. In a blind rage, they
would slit the throats of the newborns, and would kill the pregnant females.
Often they killed for the skins alone and wasted enormous amounts of oil
that could have been use.

"The water gushes forth with the red droplets..." the naturalist ends his description of the "drunken butchery" of tuna by men and women alike on a European shore.

As a solution to some of this mad abuse, Michelet proposes, along with other writers, a new bill, a "Declaration of the Rights of the Sea" to change regulations on the periods of coastal fishing, to create more humane ways of killing, and to ban fishing entirely during the season when each species reproduces. "As for the precious species that are on the verge of disappearing, especially the whale, the world's largest and creation's richest life form, we need absolute peace for a half-century," concluded Michelet in 1861.

Not only does Michelet argue for these prescient measures of conservation, what he describes as a Truce of God, but, more important, he recognizes in the ocean's many voices, a kind of international (perhaps even universal) community that will bring world harmony. I quote this powerful passage at length:

There is one extremely big difference between these two elements—land is
silent and the Ocean speaks. The Ocean is a voice that speaks to distant stars
and responds to their movement in its deep and solemn language. It speaks
to the land and the shore, conversing with their echoes in poignant tones.
In turn plaintive and threatening it rumbles or sighs. Above all, it speaks to
man. Since the Ocean is the fertile crucible in which creating began and
within whose strength it continues, it possesses creation's animated eloquence.
This is life speaking to life. The beings, which are born from the Ocean in
the millions and billions, are its words. It speaks, even before the white and
foaming sea of milk—from which they emerge—with its fertile marine jelly,
is organized. All this, combined together is the great voice of the Ocean.
What does it say? It speaks of life, the eternal metamorphosis. It speaks of
a fluctuating existence. It puts the petrified ambitions of terrestrial life to shame.
What does it say? Immortality. An indomitable force of life can be found
in the lowest rungs of nature. And yet, theirs are so much more superior!
What does it say? Solidarity. Let's accept the rapid exchange, which
occurs between the different parts of an individual. Let's accept the superior
law that unites the living members of a single entity: humanity. And beyond
that, let's accept the supreme law that means that we cooperate and create,
with the great South, that we are associated (to the best of our ability) with this
world's loving Harmony and that we show solidarity with the life God has

Romantic? Yes. A few of Michelet's topics may even appear, in retrospect, a bit silly (his discussion of the restorative powers of the ocean are outdated and somewhat quaint, to say the least). But when it comes to describing that vast and troubled lake that surrounds all our continents, I can best hear his voice—the voice he has given to our Oceans.

Los Angeles, July 10, 2010
This essay was first read to a Korean audience on the occasion of the 2010 World Writers' Festival, "The Poetic Spirit of the Sea," hosted by Dankook University in Seoul, Jukjeon, and Cheonan, Korea on October 5, 2010. It was published in both Korean and English in the programme for that event, From the Sea of Discovery to the Sea of Communication (Seoul/Jukjeon: Dankook University, 2010).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Moscow Thanksgiving (travel to Moscow in 1989)

Rossiya Hotel

GUM Department store

Dining room at the Rossiya

by Douglas Messerli

After a relatively pleasant time in the moderne world of Tallinn, it was quite a shock to return to the Soviet Union, where the 19th century seemed still to exist. The dust of the Moscow streets blurred our eyes, and the buildings, about which we had been forewarned, were notably Stalinist in look. Our hotel was the vast Rossiya Hotel, consisting of 3,200 rooms. Even the nearby Kremlin seemed lost in its hovering shadow. If one found ones way back to the room, it was comfortable enough, but almost unbearably overheated. In 2006 it was torn down to make way for a new, grander hostelry.

Although I continued the pointless activity of shopping in Moscow, it meant little. Hardly anything existed in the shops. Even in the famous GUM Department store across from Red Square there was not even a coat to be found. Numerous shops stood empty. The trinkets left in the few open stores seemed valueless.

ROVA continued their concerts, thank heaven, which provided wonderful entertainment each evening, but in my daily walks I had grown tired of Moscow's ugly streets. I felt after more than a week in this cold country, we all wanted to go home.

One evening we were bused to a large theater on the edge of the city to hear Soviet poets read, our friend Ivan Zhdanov being one of the readers. But of course, the reading was in Russian and most of us could not comprehend what was being said.

Lyn Hejinian met up with a young Russian writer there, whose name I cannot remember. He must have been still in his teens, a handsome and very gentle young man whom she invited for a walk the next day as well.

That day, November 23, 1989, was Thanksgiving back in the USA, and as a surprise our tour guide had ordered a special Thanksgiving dinner so that we might celebrate and be free, at least for one meal, of the standard Russian fare. After our walk, we encouraged our young poet friend to join us.

Russian citizens, despite Arkadii's rejection of the law, were not allowed in the international hotels; and the boy, accordingly, demurred. "Oh, I can't do that!" he insisted.

"Oh yes, you have to join us," Lyn insisted.

"Do come share dinner with us," I added.

"But I can't," he pleaded. "What if they find me out?"

"You're with us," Lyn added.

"But I don't speak English well enough."

"Yes, you do," I insisted. "Besides we'll do all the talking. Just pretend to listen."

And we quickly moved him through the lobby and into our dining room, as we chattered away, placing him at the center of the long table the staff arranged for us.

The dinner was edible, if I remember, although many complained loudly throughout. I believe chicken was served instead of turkey, stringy and without taste. But the potates were fine; even gravy. Did they add any of the other "trimmings?" I can't recall, but just having a change was good for the soul.

And despite regulations, black market dealers approached the tables with bottles of vodka and cans of cavier. I bought both, sharing the vodka.

Several of our group, however, grumpily continued in their commentary on the quality of the cuisine.

I turned to our the young guest. "How did you like the food?"

He turned his fresh face in my direction, a smile creating a crater in its path. "It was the best meal I have ever had in my life."

He was serious! Tears welled up in my eyes.

Los Angeles, November 4, 2010
(c) copyright 2010 by Douglas Messerli

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Incheon City (on my Korean travels, October 1-8, 2010)

by Douglas Messerli

After the long 13-hour air trip from Los Angeles to Korea, over oceans I watched every time the clouds briefly opened up a view, I arrived at the Incheon Airport.

I had been told that I would be met by my translator, who would whisk me off to my Seoul hotel.

Although it took me a while to move through passport control and to receive my small bag, I rolled out of the entry doors with a feeling of being on time, ready to greet the person holding a sign bearing my name. No such sign appeared. No signs appeared save discreet hotel announcements: "Meet your Hilton Hotel representative at gate 15, meet your Marriott Hotel guide at gate 21."

I stood still in bewilderment, then turned back to look upon the billboard over my head regarding the flight announcements. So many were listed that I couldn't quickly find my flight number. But I knew I had exited from the door closest to our baggage caravel. What could I do? I had been given, despite several queries, no name of a hotel, no name of a contact. It had been repeated and repeated in emails that someone would be there to meet me.

But after a half-an-hour, I had to admit to myself that there was no one. Perhaps he/she was late; was I early? No, I was on time. She/he was late. I walked back and forth across the waiting area, attempting to strongly convey to those waiting for others that was seeking someone. No one responded in the least. I was not for whom they were waiting.

I even dared to walk out of the waiting area for a few moments, perceiving that there were several such entry gates; but I quickly determined that they were inappropriate spots, containing mostly domestic flights, and returned to my original location. No one even looked in my direction.

So here I am, I thought to myself, at Incheon International Airport without a clue what to do, even if I were to reach Seoul.

I was tired; I had not slept during the flight, and it was now 2:00 a.m. in California time, hours after I usually retired to bed. Well, I sighed to myself, I am a seasoned traveler. I'll take a taxi into Seoul to a major hotel; certainly I can find a single room!

Still—in all meanings of that world—I remained, feeling somehow guilty, that I was at fault. My translator had simply missed me; she/he had gone to the wrong gate or failed to recognize my face, had been delayed in heavy traffic. Fortunately, I'd never witnessed the Seoul traffic jams, for I would have perhaps never strayed.

I walked away. I came back. Walked on. Clearly, no one was going to come for me.
Out of nowhere appeared a kindly Korean man. "You are clearly lost," he began in English.
"Yes," I quickly responded, "I was to have been met by a man or woman to take me to a hotel in Seoul."

"Do you have the number of the hotel or the number of the person who was to have met you?" he inquired.

"No, that's just the problem. I have no telephone numbers whatsoever except for those who planned the event I'm to attend.

"You know," is slowly offered up the facts, "there are four or five major gates. Are you sure this is the one at which you were expected?"

"Yes, it has to be this gate," I insisted, looking again at the overhead listings of flights. My flight was no longer on the board.

"Do you have anyone's telephone number?" he continued, as if speaking to a very small child, which I felt I had become.

"Well, I do," I admitted, but these are only university numbers and, surely, on a Saturday evening, they would not be there!"

"Let us try," he attempted to reassure me, taking out his cell phone and dialing up the numbers I displayed. He rang each number three times without result.

"Thank you so very much for your kindness," I finally cut off his good Samaritan attempts. "No one can be in their offices tonight. I'll just get a taxi into Seoul."

But where in Seoul? I pondered to myself.

At the information desk I described my situation and had my own name paged, hoping that if somewhere were waiting for me they would come to the desk. No one arrived at the desk, and I was not even sure that I heard the announcement.

"Across the way," she blithely pointed, "is a woman who can help you get a hotel." I looked across the way, but no one was there. "She will be back soon."

When her colleague finally returned, I encountered a friendly, good looking woman, seemingly happy to serve me.

I told her my story, hoping she might help me find a hotel in Seoul.

I suddenly remembered my father's absurd way of obtaining hotels during our family travels across Europe in 1965. At each airport in which we arrived—Copenhagen, Paris, Zürich—my father simply approached just such a woman as she who stood before me, and fearlessly obtained quite pleasant accommodations.

In Copenhagen, for example, we stayed at one of the major hotels (I could not identify the hotel in today's listings on the internet). I believe it had to be, however, a four-star hotel, since the series of events that occurred there would not have taken place at a hotel of lesser quality.

My brother David and I shared one room, while my Father and Mother slept in another. My brother quickly drifted off to sleep, but all night long I was kept awake by rumbling and roaring noises, as if a crowd of angry protesters were stationed just a few blocks away.

My parents, so they reported the next morning, had also been kept awake. Dave had heard nothing.

While we spoke at the breakfast table near the lobby, loud screams of young women suddenly silenced our conversation. Across the lobby, in full view of our table, marched a group of musicians, led by two men I immediately recognized as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was June 26, 1965, the day in which The Rolling Stones first performed on their famed first Scandinavian tour.

I had heard their new record, "Satisfaction," just a month before in my Norway dorm room on the English off-shore Radio Caroline. No one else in my family knew who they were or why people might be screaming at them.

"Rockers!" the head waiter contemptuously declared.

In Paris my father found us, again at the information desk, a wonderful hotel just across from the offices of Paris Match, with high-ceilinged rooms and a small elevator that reminds me to this day of the one in the movie Charade. I loved the hotel, although my mother complained vociferously, as she did about any hotel or motel in which we stayed. It was in that hotel room that my father broke into tears as he entreated me to return home from my year in Norway, the purpose, I suddenly perceived, of our little Grand Tour. I had just turned 17, an age when a father's tears still had an enormous impact, and, accordingly, I acquiesced, despite my desire to stay on for the rest of the summer.

In Zürich, once again, through the airport information booth, my father procured a lovely pension, in which my brother and I were perfectly happy, despite my mother's distress on account of heat and noise.

Now, here in Incheon, 45 years later, I knew things had changed. Before this trip I had always planned everything out, arranging for rooms long in advance. I would never have trusted to luck. Yet, in memory of those halcyon days I felt that certainly I could find a single room available in a city with a population of over 12 million inhabitants.

"Do you have a reservation?" she innocently asked.

"No, as I told you, I don't know the name of the hotel in which I was to have stayed tonight."

She smiled sympathetically at my predicament, while reporting, nonetheless, with a complete sense of authority, that there was not a single hotel room to be found in the entire city of Seoul!
I was dumbfounded. "How could that be in a city with hundreds of hotels. There clearly has to be something available."

"It is," she paused, "Saturday, the beginning of the weekend!" as if that explained everything—or anything.

I laughed. "You're not telling me, surely, that not a single room can be found in the city. There must be some place to sleep."

"Nothing," she politely and emphatically declared.

"Perhaps if I catch a taxi to the Hilton, they might have a room for me?"

"Not without reservations," she proclaimed. "There might be something near the airport."

"But I don't want to stay out here," I declared. "My business is in the city." Little did I know that Seoul was situated more than a hour away.

"I'll call the Airport Hilton."

After only a few words, she hung up. "Nothing available there."

"I have to have some place to sleep tonight."

"You don't remember the name of the hotel in which they booked you?" she scolded.

"I enquired, but they never told me. Someone was to meet me here and take me there."

A slightly disgusted look crossed her face, the kind of expression one might save for an iterant gypsy. I was perspiring out of simple fear and frustration.

"There may be one room left in a nearby tourist hotel, the Eulwang Hotel, not far from here. Here's a brochure," she suddenly waved before me as if she had produced it out of thin air. I'll check."

The brochure displayed a white painted, concrete structure in the Korean palace style. The rooms looked somewhat pleasant, in a rustic manner of polished redwood.

She came back to me with an open smile. "They have one room left."

Although I inwardly rolled my eyes in disbelief, I outwardly responded enthusiastically. "Then let us book it," I caved in, like a rube just off the bus. Clearly she was taking in a healthy under-the-table income as that hotel's agent. But what choice did I have? "And what's the price?"

"It's reasonable. Only 85,000 Won." I gasped, trying to convert that into dollars.

"That seems like a lot."

"About $75.00," she responded.

Now I was afraid: at that price it might be a dump.

"A driver will be here to pick you up in 10 minutes. Gate 33," she summarily dismissed me, handing me a slip of paper announcing my reservation. I looked up to discover that I was at Gate 3.

Somewhat relieved, if nothing else, I walked to that far gate and went out onto the sidewalk. There were several large city buses, and others arriving at regular intervals, dozens of them, each sweeping away huge crowds. I waited for a long while, but no hotel shuttle bus arrived.

One large bus, so its sign announced, was headed to Dankook University, the host of the conference I was attending. For a second I fancied riding out to the University, except that I knew no one would be there to greet me, and perhaps, I questioned whether events would even be scheduled there. I waited for a longer while. No hotel bus showed up.

In the very next lane I could see a lineup of taxis. Perhaps I was waiting in the wrong lane? My luggage cart and I rolled out into the next circle of hell, where I attempted to ask a taxi driver if the bus to the hotel—presenting him with my small slip of passage—might be arriving at this location.

After much scrutiny of my paper, he brought out a pair of reading glasses and studied it anew. He pointed back to where I had come. And I retreated, waiting for a longer period.

I was tired, had had no sleep now for over 17 hours. I was anxious to reach the hotel, email my hosts, and crawl into bed. No bus arrived.

With grim determination, I returned to Gate 3 in order to complain. My friendly guide was waiting upon other suckers, and I had no patience left. I grabbed the brochure which she had previously offered, and marched out to the waiting taxi line: "Can you take me here?" I asked.
He too brought out his glasses to study the brochure. Fortunately, the flier contained a small map of the area. And after a brief survey of the thing, he walked me forward to his cab. Finally, I was on the move, I thought to myself.

"All right," I attempted to calm myself. "When I get to the hotel, I'll take a shower. I'll email Hae Yisoo, the General Secretary of the International Creative Writing Center." He had been my line of communication throughout the months before my arrival. "Perhaps they will meet me tomorrow morning at the airport. Or I'll take a taxi into Seoul, after they tell me where to go. I've traveled a great deal. This is no big thing. It's important to get a good night's sleep."

Looking out the window of the taxi, I noted that we had just passed the Airport Hilton. Many rooms looked empty, but I knew there was no turning back.

We drove down a road on which nothing else seemed to exist, but I realized that much of this land, so close to ocean, must be marshland that I couldn't make out in the dark.

We took another turn and drove down an equally empty road, and then another, and another. Where was this driver taking me? At another turn there were a few of what appeared to be roadside stands, selling fireworks, all lit up by colored firefly lights. A few larger buildings were also lit up by strings of out-door light bulbs, some with red-neon depictions of women in prone positions, which I presumed represented the existence of sex-bars or hotels.

"Where are we going?" I quietly asked.

"This is where," the taxi cab driver mumbled in Beckettese.

"Where what?" I wondered to myself.

Long stretches of empty highways followed, replaced with a few more brightly-lit roadside stands and bars or hotels with sometimes unidentifiable symbols.

"This seems to be awfully far from the airport," I spoke up. "The agent who arranged for my room told me that it was 'airport adjacent.'" I mumbled to myself.

"This is the way. Very popular," spoke the sibyl in the front seat.

We drove on and on into the night.

"Where are you taking me?" I registered some alarm.

"This is where." he repeated.

I wanted to laugh, but couldn't quite get up the energy.

There was another stretch of sexual institutions, another series of what appeared to be fruit stands surrounded by what looked like Christmas lights.

It reminded be, a bit, of the Thai countryside and small villages depicted in Apichatpong's films, which I'd recently been viewing.

Finally, a few higher structures appeared and the driver took a turn into a narrow side-street, what seemed to a dirt alley. He drove half-way up the alley, before backing down and turning at a fork into an equally dark lane. A few yards off lay what looked somewhat like Eulwang Hotel of my brochure.

"Here, arrival!" proudly announced the driver.

I looked around in some small distress, but felt happy to have arrived at any destination.

"Thank you. I'm sorry I doubted you," I apologized, paying him something like 20,000 Won, which seemed like a ransom instead of fee.

He helped me carry my bags to the lobby, filled, it appeared with about 100 people lined up to the front desk. But I soldiered on, suddenly perceiving that these tourists had already checked in and were awaiting their room assignments from the tour guide. Accordingly, I walked straight to the desk.

The young clerk quickly checked me in and, after a shower (in mid-bathroom with a hose), I returned to the lobby to use my computer, since there was no access in the guest rooms.

I sent messages to both Hae Yisoo (who uses the nicknane, Heysoo) and to Ko Un's translator, Brother Anthony—fortunately, because the next day I discovered that Heysoo, exhausted by all the festival preparations, had not checked in on his email; at 11:00 p.m. Brother Anthony called him, and at midnight, Heysoo called the hotel with a message for me: he would be there to pick me up the next morning.

Despite the shouting voices one could discern in the nearby streets along with the occasional explosion of fireworks, I was fast asleep at the time Heysoo called, and slept comfortably all night.

The morning light sent me downstairs for a 5:00 a.m. breakfast, which an even younger clerk described as an "American brunch," consisting of fried eggs, bacon, and French fries. I laughed at the combination as a I bit into a slice of toast, as did the Korean-American couple from Atlanta seated at the next table. There is something surreal about beginning one's day with fries.

As I began to explore the underdone yolk of my egg, the clerk announced that I had received a telephone message, reporting that someone would be here to drive me into Seoul at 10:00.
I finished as much of my "American brunch" as I dared to consume, and determined to take a short walk. Who made up these noisy night crowds? I wondered. And what were they doing in this outpost?

A block away was a huge arch, a marquee, apparently, to mark off one's entrance into what at evening must be an array of small shops selling trinkets, food, and other unidentifiable objects, along with small motels, which, when I looked into their long halls, appeared to be made up of rooms the size of the windowed booths of the red light district in Amsterdam. This, clearly a city of quick and sudden thrills, I perceived, nestled against a nearby beach was what one might describe as a kind of boardwalk, just as run-down and ragtag as the so-called boardwalk of Venice in Los Angeles.

No one was here this early in the morning, although it was already partially lit, as if primping itself for its nightly show. I walked to the end of the street and stared across a small park abutting it. There, spread out in front, was the subject of the conference—the sea, in all its splendor! This was the Yellow Sea, beyond which lay China.

I returned to my "tourist hotel," to observe several buses gathered upon the small street, which the tourists from the night before had gathered around, as if waiting for someone to tell them to climb aboard. It was a desolate spot where Heysoo would find me, a few hours later. I was equally embarrassed that he had felt the necessity to "save face" by coming out to rescue me himself. He might have easily sent the translator or just the driver, I counseled.

"Please don't worry about me. I was fine. I slept well. The sea, even though I didn't know it was close by, must have comforted me, as it always does, by its rhythms."

When we had finished apologizing and thanking one another, I concluded. "There's no problem; here I am!"

"Here you are," he laughed.

We quickly became friends. The fact that, despite his unbelievably hectic schedule for the day ahead, he had come so far to retrieve me, would inure him forever in my heart. And I was secretly delighted in having witnessed another view of the Korean landscape.

Seoul, October 8, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Noticed and Overhead in Korea (on my Korean trip October 1-8, 2010)

Tiny roofs upon a roof

Selected dishes

Ripper slippers

Heedfall, sign at left

Signing a ceramic vase

A large photograph, bottom row, center

The comfortable lobby in my hotel

The comments in the pages below are based on just a week's stay on my visit to Seoul, Korea in 2010. Accordingly, my observations are meant neither as representations nor criticisms of Korean culture, but rather are written out of humorous observations of quickly perceived differences in a near virginal euphoria as I encountered this complex society. One might as easily have noted similar differences—perceived oddities in a newly encountered culture—by any Korean first visiting the USA. At no point do I intend my comments as applying to the society at large, which I highly admire and have just begun to explore as a culture. These jottings represent just what they suggest by their collective title: things briefly noted and observed—and, I should add, for the most part joyfully experienced.

Noticed and Overheard in Korea
by Douglas Messerli


It appears to me that Koreans are stingy with towels, cloth or paper. Although Western-sized towels are likely available in the larger hotels (they were available at the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan where we writers' invited to the 2010 World Writers' Festival stayed.) But in smaller hotels, certainly in the tourist hotel where I stayed the first evening, the towels provided were the size of very small American hand-towels, insufficient to properly dry Western sized bodies (or, for that matter, Korean bodies of today). The more rustic Seoul Art Space, where I stayed the final few nights, expected their guests to bring their own towels, and we had each to insist that we be provided with one; somehow I received two very small towels, but gave one up to my neighbor, Antonio Colinas, who had not so insisted. To be fair, the Art Space may tell its regular guests beforehand what to expect; we were sudden and unexpected visitors.

This lack of towels, however, extended also to many public facilities. In a number of public bathrooms I found a sink and even soap, but nothing with which to dry one's hands. Even in Dankook university there were no towels to be found, which does tend make one a bit shy about washing one's hands in the first place, and certainly makes for an unsanitary experience. A few of these public bathrooms did offer hand-driers (which I also abhor, but will use if necessary), but the majority offered nothing.

Table napkins are even smaller, more for the fingers than mouths or hands, and are as thin as facial tissues.

Seoul, October 7, 2010


It was fascinating to me that most of the high-rise apartments in Seoul, of which there are hundreds, are all aligned horizontally to the streets and highways, their vase rectangles of concrete, each marked with a number, possibly determined by their position in a sequence from left to right or vice-versa: 102, 103, 104, etc., facing the traveler.

Whereas most Western apartment buildings, influenced obviously by the Bauhaus architecture and modernism in general, are topped off by a flat surface as if to emphasize their sleekness, almost all such buildings in Seoul, when they are not built as spectacular architectural statements, bear mansard-like roofs or, even more often, are topped by a small model of a house (presumably containing the equipment that runs the elevator), themselves crowned by a traditional roof in the manner of the American Red Roof Inn motels. Accordingly, it is as if each architect has placed atop his or her construction a little cap or a tri-cornered hat, influenced, quite obviously, by the roofs of the great Korean palaces. Indeed, sometimes the arcs of the palace roof is itself imitated.

These decorative elements atop what are otherwise simply rectangular boxes have the effect of rendering these buildings, at least to Western eyes, as slightly kitsch, as if there has been some attempt to prettify a form that so shouts out its utilitarian function: a number of stacked floors containing variously sized cubicles in which humans are housed. This may be your home, but it is definitely not a palace—despite the declaration of the roof.

Seoul, October 7, 2010


Although there are different "waves" or "phases" of Korean meals, there is no sense of different "courses" as there is in the West. Except for rice and the Korean version of udon, all dishes, consisting of small plates of various cabbages (kimchi), meats, fish, fried foods, salad, etc, are placed upon the tables in restaurants all at once and are shared by one's table mates. Each of the low tables, requiring sitting upon the floor, have from four to six settings, around which these small patters are placed. There is no order in the selection; one simply takes up the small, pointed metal chopsticks and selects a bit of what one desires, placing it upon the diminutive plate or bowl before one. If a platter is out of reach, another diner will help with the serving. One never pours one's own drinks; one must pour for others and, they, in turn, will pour for you. My 21-year old translator and her friends reported, however, that that tradition—since it had been essentially the task of the woman, a role Korean Feminism now frowns upon—is beginning to disappear, yet at every lunch and dinner I shared with others the tradition was maintained.

This communality of eating, accordingly, helps to involve everyone, and contributes to the sustenance of conversation, while still allowing for individual tastes. As the different dishes begin to be eaten up and are quickly cleared away, the next "phase" is served, and often a third, sweeter "wave," at which time the waitresses also serve tea.

Although I had eaten several times in Los Angeles' Korean restaurants before my travels, I discovered several new Korean dishes, some of which I preferred to others, and by the end of my visit, I had begun to make determined choices in what I ate. With the abundance of different choices, however, I certainly never went hungry. And the Koreans seem to be hearty eaters.

Seoul, October 7, 2010


Koreans, like those of other Asian cultures, have what might be described as a shoe-fetish, or more correctly, a "slipper-fetish." It is one thing to take off one's shoes before entering a house—Howard and I do that in our own home, although we do not require it of others; and a recent invitation to a party at the home of Michael Ovitz, the founder of Creative Artists Agency and former president of the Walt Disney Company, announced that guests would be asked to remove their shoes and put on slippers before entering their home. But it is quite another thing to require, as they did at the Art Space, that one differentiate between a slipper to wear in the rooms and hall, a slipper to wear in the out-of-doors, and a slipper to wear in the bath.

The latter is necessary since many homes and hotels do not have a shower stall in their toilets, and one bathes, accordingly, by holding a shower hose over one's head in the middle of the room, the water eventually running to a floor drain, usually located under the sink. Depending upon how often one showers, the bathroom floor remains wet throughout the day and into the night, and returning to it is a bit like entering a wading pool. The floors of many Korea homes and hotels, consisting of highly polished wood, moreover, does not wed well with the tracks of wet feet. Plastic slippers, kept just inside the toilet, facing the direction of one's feet, is the perfect solution!

Leaving a restaurant, particularly with a large group, involves the discovery and reckoning of one's foot wear, usually stowed upon entering in large cabinets or stacked upon shelves. The deep bend of each guest to fit and tie up his shoes has a feel almost of a ritualistic act. Fortunately, I wear loafers.

I should add, the so called "Ripper Slippers" found in Korean hair salons, patronized by ghetto women, have become popular with both Black gang members and gays in Los Angeles.

Seoul, October 8, 2010


In the Itaweon neighborhood of Seoul I lunched at a French bistro titled Le Saint-Ex, one of the first of the higher-class restaurants opened when the area was still a red light district and off-limits to most Koreans not working in the sex industry. The restaurant is run by Benjimin Joinau, who has since become a noted figure in the Itaweon community.

Their Steak Poirve is truly excellent, and, along with a good bottle of Merlot, and an hour long nursing of a gin and tonic beforehand, produced much of the writing in this piece.

I puzzled, however, over the name of the place. Did it mean to suggest just any saint, a saint without a name, the tenth saint—whoever that might be—or was it suggesting that we should just cross the saintly off our list?

Seoul, October 7, 2010


At the Cheonan Campus of Dankook University, I met In-Ho Cho, Vice President, in charge of the Chenon Campus. He spoke English and had studied dentistry at UCLA in Los Angeles. As we moved from his offices to the theater for our readings and lectures, we were stopped by a photographer to have our pictures taken.

There, to the left of where we stood, was a sign that Ko Un's translator, Brother Anthony pointed out, warning that a cliff began just beyond the barrier which stood behind us. DANGER, it shouted out in both Korean and Korenglish: HEEDFALL. We laughed, explaining to Mr. In-Ho that there was no such word in English, but that it such a wonderful creation it should perhaps be introduced into the language. Certainly there was no way to translate it properly!

Seoul, October 7, 2010


At the Three Alley Pub in the same small street where I had lunch, the bartender spoke endlessly with the American military personnel from the nearby Yongsan Garrison who gather there. "Even when I lived clear out in the country," he proclaimed, "I made the long journey into Seoul and Itaweon to come here. It's important in Korea to have a place where the bartender speaks English!"

Seoul, October7, 2010


I had come to this pub precisely for what it offered, a chance to write while overhearing the local news and gossip. What I most like about any city is trying to comprehend how people live in it, what they do, etc. Since I did not understand Korean, however, I could not "overhear" things the way I do in some other cities. I needed, as the bartender had demanded, a place where the bartender and customers spoke English.

Accordingly, my comprehension of Korean life is a bit far-fetched, since it is based mostly on hearsay from Americans living in the midst of the most international and sexually open section of Seoul. Yet no tour guide could have offered me up a more delightful mix of conversations than the ones I assimilated at Three Alley Pub.

Somehow the conversation turned to the neighborhood characters. The bartender described how one night he was visited by the very famous Miss Pak. Miss Pak, evidently, is quite ancient, without teeth, and with cheeks that have gradually caved in over the years—yet she is a legend in Seoul. Her name is Dakju Pak, but she is known only as Miss Pak, a whore who haunts the streets of Itaweon. She has been at her job for nearly sixty or even seventy years, they all agree. Although greatly loved, just for the absurdity of her situation, she is also quite dangerous to some. Apparently, she has crushes on some soldier boys, even if they have had nothing to do with her, and shouts at them in the streets, sometimes at inopportune moments such as when they might be out walking with a military superior: "I love you best, Ralphie" Miss Pak screams. Ralph blushes of course, but even if innocent, he is forever suspect.

They attempted to calculate—forgive me dear reader for the coarseness of these soldiers' imagination—how much cock she must have had, given her age and averaging two medium-sized customers six days a week (they gave her a day off, even if she didn't take it), and summarized that it might reach—if you took it south—clear to Busan!

The denizens of this bar followed up with a brief mention of Mr. Fritz, another neighborhood figure, who goes about dressed only in his pajamas, pointing his umbrella at desired individuals, as if to say, "Take this!"

Seoul, October 7, 2010


Oh, that reassuring, yet commandeering voice of the Korean mother! In Seoul she exists everywhere: at street lights she tells you when to cross and when to stop; in elevators she announces what floor you have reached, "please exit now." Taxis could never reach their destinations without her navigational skills. She seems to be everywhere, that wise, bossy, scolding, slightly sexy, and utterly terrifying woman, informing everyone—particularly the Korean male—of when, what, and why he should act. Often she sneaks up on you. On the escalator down she commanded me in Korean to "step off immediately." Yet to my knowledge she said nothing on the way up!

Even as we sped to the Incheon airport, Mother Korea took time to tell us, as we drove through the toll booth on the freeway that "You need to buy a new ticket" or "Your ticket remains in good stead," I couldn't determine which. For her ever vigilant helpfulness she makes very large demands.

Seoul, October 7, 2010


Most of the taxicab drivers I encountered in Seoul were in their late 40s and 50s, few of them comprehending more than a dozen words of English, unless it has to do with a financial transaction.

Whenever I handed the driver a card with the address to which I wanted to be taken, he had first to put on his glasses before squinting at the business card as if he had never seen such a thing or was attempting to interpret the strange characters displayed upon it (although it was written in Korean). Five out of six times, the driver seemed utterly perplexed until I suggested he check out his navigational system.

The drivers' mastery of this system, however, was another problem. In four trips to the "lost paradise" hilltop Seoul Art Space, three of them ended in a place I could not recognize, one very late at night, where the drivers' were ready to "dump" me, despite my complaints. At one point, I tried to tell the driver to take me back to where he had picked me up—I would pay for the whole trip in order to be in a place where I would know where I was. Fortunately, he asked a passerby who was able to explain the Art Space's nearby location.

The other two times that I arrived at the wrong destination ended in something like a shouting match as I proclaimed my lack of recognition while the drivers' pointed with assurance at their navigational system's map. After all, Mother Korea had told them they had arrived at their destination. My refusal to leave the cab, accordingly, resulted in something like a standoff, until I handed the card to them again, beseeching them to call the Art Space's office. The helpful staff explained each time to the drivers their errors and how to reach their goal.

Although all of these trips ended on a friendly note, accordingly, I entered each vehicle with a sense of trepidation, never knowing where I might end up. And there was always the chance that Mother Korea would win out over me, leaving me high in the hills at an unknown doorway.
When I expressed these fears—without adding any of the details above—on a visit to Brother Anthony, he reassured me in his delightful Cornwallish accent: "Not to worry. The taxicab driver will take out his glasses, study your little card, and take you straight to gate."

I could only wonder that all taxicab drivers in Seoul must suffer the same affliction of far-sightedness. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the trade, a way of assuring the customer that he was seriously attending to his destination.

Seoul, October 8, 2010


I have never signed more programmes, documents, and objects than here in Korea. It was very sweet for 15 high school girls, dressed all in red, to want our autographs. I signed each one, dedicated with the name of she who requested it. It was also very nice to sign the large banners bearing my intensely smiling face on the opening night. I also was asked to sign a large placard, which is difficult to do with a permanent marking pen, given my small handwriting.

At Dankook University we were all asked to put some words and our signatures upon a large ceramic vessel waiting to be kilned. Later, we were asked to affix our signatures to a plate.
At the Seoul Art space we again signed placards. Everywhere people begged for signatures above our photographs.

My hand hurts. It is the mentality of "Kilroy was Here," the sign as symbol of being and event.

Another Korean (and pan-Asian) infatuation is the photograph. I have never been shy with the camera, myself, and for years have stubbornly documented my friends and acquaintances in the US, Europe, and South America, so I am quite in sympathy with this activity. Yet, I admit it, I cannot match the obsession with photo-documentation of this trip.

There has hardly been a moment during our tour in which we and are audiences were not being filmed or photographed. At every venue, both before and after, we have been gathered together for group photo shots, most of them exposing my fat belly along with my over friendly smile (my translator, Soomin, overheard children at the Changdekyung Palace describing me as Santa Claus).

I have never in my life felt so exposed, so overexplosed. Posters of our faces hang on street lamps, across the sides of buildings, in every theater in which we have performed, are pasted even on the sides of the buses which carry us about.

Beyond all this, each of the writers and translators gleefully snap the others' pictures, and filmmaker's following us take pictures of our taking pictures. News photographers even get into the act, snapping up pictures of our documenters taking pictures of us taking pictures of ourselves!

Surely among these hundreds and hundreds of images there must be one photograph worth retrieving—the one that makes look like someone else or, at least, a better me! I invite all of you who captured my image to return them to me before my image of myself is forever lost!

Seoul, October 8, 2010


Although one can easily find beer in the Incheon Seoul Airport, in the concourse from which my plane left there was only one tiny bar which one could easily miss, with the unlikely name of Fizz & Jazz, which serves vodka (no tonic), Jack Daniels, Chevas, Hennessey, and Bicardi—nothing else. Four beers: Heineken, Asai, Corona, and Budweiser. There was also no music while I was there, so, in short, they had neither jazz nor fizz!

Indeed, even in the major hotel in which I stayed, they had balked at serving me a vodka and tonic and claimed to have no gin. What was this absence of certain popular spirits all about?
I spoke to the young woman who bartended this small space. She reported that, although her girlfriends loved gin and tonics, her boss wouldn't stock the place with either. "Why?" I queried.
"No one in the older generation would drink them. They drink beer. They drink soju [a slightly sweeter drink like vodka, but with a low liquor content, that is drunk "straight"]. They don't drink vodka, never tonic."

"But don't tourists want gin and vodka? At home we drink it all the time."

I knew, in part, the answer to the question. Brother Anthony had explained that when the American soldiers gathered in Seoul after the war, the Koreans discovered them to all be whiskey drinkers. No "effeminate" mixed drinks for them. They wanted the real "stuff."

Consequently, the contemporary American tourist must suffer this sixty-year old misconception. And now I comprehend why Fizz and Jazz is where it is! May I suggest Sprite?

Seoul, October 8, 2010


Representing a cultural of consensus, Korean restaurateurs, shopkeepers, waiters, and other service people can be very strict when it comes to rules and regulations.

At the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan one morning, I awoke quite early at 5:00 AM. After answering my emails, shaving, showering, and brushing my teeth, I determined to write for a while. My room, however, was poorly lit and the sun had yet to fully shine. So, I determined to go down to sit in the lobby waiting room, a commodious, inviting place with numerous tables and chairs next to the restaurant, which opened at 7:30. When I arrived, however, the room was dark. The restaurant, preparing for service, on the other hand, was brightly lit, and I looked around seeing only a few young servers laying out the foods for the buffet.

Quite carefully, I moved back the table setting and sat, writing peacefully for several hours—including the sketch you are now reading. No one bothered with me in the least. As time moved on, however, and it got closer to 7:30, the maitre'd suddenly appeared, his eyes growing large with horror as he moved toward me. Half in Korean and half in English he informed me that I was not allowed to sit there, that the restaurant would not be open until another half-hour. I attempted to explain to him that I would put everything back, and that I had chosen this place only because the lobby was dark, pointing to the room beside us. To my surprise, the lobby was now fully lit, and I readily agreed to move.

"7:30! 7:30," he adamantly repeated.

"Yes, I know. It opens at 7:30," I spoke as I rose, carefully placing the mat and silverwear as I had found them.

"Go!" he exhorted.

I stubbornly remained in place until I had returned everything to perfect order before retreating to the lobby where I continued to write.

At precisely 7:30 he came to me in the lobby, inviting me back into the restaurant. I thanked him but continued where I was for at least another hour. No one arrived in the restaurant until 8:00.

I did understand that I had intruded upon the perfect order of his world, that I had been "out of place." Yet, he could not comprehend that a slight exception of that order might not represent a disaster.

An even funnier event like this occurred one afternoon as we paused for lunch at a restaurant near Deoksugung Royal Palace. Here we sat as usual on the floor, awaiting service, which was brought to us over a period of some time, the waitresses bringing out dishes one by one, and placing them in various spots around the tables. Each time something was put near my publisher and poet-friend Jerzy Illg, however, we would compulsively move it. A rebel from Poland, a man who grew up under the Communist rule, he could not, I surmised, resist putting the dish in a place of his own chosing.

After he had done this several times, the waitress scolded him, explaining (through his translator) that he should not move the dishes since she was working hard to find room for which the numerous platters she would serve us.

Yet the next time she set down a platter within his reach, without thinking he pulled it again in his direction. This time she had no patience, and quickly bending down, gently slapped the back of his hand. We all laughed, and Jerzy resisted touching anything until all was set into position.

Visiting the Manila Bar in Itaweon, in which I was the first and lone customer, I sat on the balcony, only to be told by a Korean waitress quickly scurrying to my side that I must not sit without first ordering. "I'd like to order a San Miguel then," I responded.

"No, you must order and pay," she replied.

"Don't you trust your customers?" I laughed in mild defiance.

"Over there," she pointed, "over there."

"But I intend to order several beers," I pushed back. "Must I get up and pay over there every single time?"

She looked at me disconcertedly, as if I were a simple child unable to comprehend: "It is our way," she insisted.

Despite my aching legs, due to my arthritis, I stood, walked down the few stairs, and went to the counter to order through another Korean woman what I already had requested. I paid and returned to my balcony seat.

With a satisfied flourish of recognition of my obedience, the first waitress served it up with a bowl of peanuts. I did not desire another round. And besides, it was now the time when most the restaurants opened up for lunch.

I am certain such behavior occurs thousands of times each day in the USA, but my guess is that it would not occur so readily in Japan or Malaysia, this slightly surly insistence of the right way of doing things. It emanates, surely, from a culture that has too often been dominated by outsiders; perhaps even American soldiers during the Korean War influenced this insistence upon the Korean way of doing things.

Seoul, October 6, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day Nine-The Resort Hotel (My trip to the Soviet Union)


The House of the Benjimins
The Resort Hotel
by Douglas Messerli

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, we took a bus from Vilnius to Riga, traveling along, at some points the Black Sea in ice-cold weather. At one point we stopped by the sea just to watch the winter waves pounding the beach.

Arriving at one of the grandest and oldest hotels in the city, we were told only the jazz performers and their families could stay there. Although reservations had been made, there weren't enough empty rooms. What would the rest of us do?

We were shifted, via the bus, to what was described as a "resort hotel" in Jūrmala, a town between the Gulf of Riga and the Leilupe River about 20 minutes out of town. Certainly there some grumbles about this new development, but we had, apparently, no choice.

The hotel was more like college dorm, clearly built in the Soviet style. The bathrooms had only a drain instead of a contained shower stall, which troubled those of our group who had done little traveling previously. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this isolated spot (although the on-line promotional sites describe it as the fifth largest Latvian city) was its darkness and desolation. A heavy snowfall had just descended upon the region, and as several of us set out to explore the neighborhood, the entire area was so quiet and seemingly bleak that it felt somewhat foreboding, as if we had ended up in a town of the dead. Perhaps in the summer, it was beautiful and bustling, but its small dachas and wooden houses, lovely as they were, did not entice us. We couldn't know that this had been a particularly beloved spot for Communist Party officials such as Brezhnev and Khruschev, and that over 400 wooden houses in the Art Nouveau style had been designated national treasures.

I recall seeing the so-called "House of the Benjamins," one of the favorite of the area structures, built in 1939, set darkly against the night.

When we returned to our concrete bunker of a hotel, however, we not allowed to enter without our room keys and a passport. Like so many buildings in the Soviet Union, one door was closed, while in the other stood a guard. Access even to our beds was controlled.

When one of our group explained that his wife had the key, our friend was refused entry, despite the rest of our proclamations that he was "one of us."

"No. Nyet." repeated the guard.

I was angry. "He has to get in," I argued, "to dress of the evening performance. Can't you comprehend that he is one of us?"

"No," the guard insisted.

"We'd like to speak with your superior," another demanded.

Finally our friend's wife arrived to save the day, and he, with some resentment, was allowed to pass.

The jazz concert at a large hall, the name of which I can't remember, was excellent that evening. And we were all fascinated by the formal stroll of the Latvian audience, arms around each other's waists as they slowly circle the halls. It was like something out of another era, as if it were a formal dance.

But we were frustrated once again when, after the concert, we had no way to return to Jūrmala, since the bus had evidently abandoned us. Our Intourist male guide quickly flagged down several personal cars, asking if, for a few American dollars, they would drive us to the resort. All but one agreed, and we finally reached our destination late that evening. Evidently, that mode of transportation was a fairly common one, for Leslie Scalapino reported to me that on a later trip to Latvia, during which she had also been forced to stay at Jūrmala, they too had had to flag down passenger cars. In 2008 bus service from the airport to the resort town was begun for the first time, and presumably, there is now bus service between Riga and Jūrmala.

By the next morning several inexperienced tourists among are group were boisterously angry, threatening to demand their money back and to cancel the rest of the trip. Those of us who had been in many countries or were simply more able to deal with small inconveniencies, attempted to explain that a shower outside a stall was quite common in many parts of the world, that the guard's stubbornness was based on his attempt to protect us from black market dealers, and the seemingly unusual method of conveyance was not a serious problem; after all we had been returned safely—and at only a cost of five dollars. One had to expect some difficulties when traveling thoughout the Soviet Union. After a long conversation, they admitted that they had not been truly harmed.

The next leg of our trip was a fascinating journey to Estonia, of which I have already written in My Year 2005.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Glimpse into the Future (Marianne Hauser's Me & My Mom and a visit to my Mother)

My mother and her friend Ann

The twins, Savannah and Maggie, perform

Great-uncle Douglas and Eva
A Glimpse into the Future
by Douglas Messerli
Marianne Hauser Me & My Mom (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
My trip to Iowa took place from September 1, 2010 (when I flew from Los Angeles through Dallas-Fort Worth to Cedar Rapids) to September 4th (flying home through Chicago)

On my way to visit my mother—just turned 85 and residing in an assisted living home, Bickford Cottage, in my hometown of Marion, Iowa—I subliminally grabbed a copy of Marianne Hauser’s gentle satire of an aging mother and a mother-daughter relationship, Me & My Mom, published by my Sun & Moon Press in 1993. I should add that I planned to teach this book the following Tuesday in my Otis College M.F.A. course on American Satire.

The big issue of this book is the daughter’s own social and psychological problems, created in part by her mother’s obsessive focus on a dead son (a child, who, evidently, because of numerous birth defects, died in the womb), and the result, more importantly, of her own lack of sensibility and intelligence. The two must now switch roles, the daughter becoming the mother, her mom the overlooked child.

Tucked away at the Bide-a-Wee nursing home, the mother—whom one might describe as an intelligent and sensitive romantic—is bitter to have lost her home, her cats, and, most of all, her personal freedom. She spends much of her time apart from the other nursing home inmates, having learned from her first few months of internment not to cause a ruckus. Indeed, as the daughter describes it, she has slipped off into a private world except for occasional linguistic outbursts that betray her simmering anger.

The daughter, the source of income for her out-of-work, alcoholic husband and her young child, must continue to confront her mother in short visits it is clear she resents having to make. The two confront and console one another with their memories, alternating between anger and simple love.

What is immediately apparent in Hauser’s version of a painful relationship, played out in a hundred ways in millions of lives, is the lack of sensibility in the daughter—and by extension, in the younger generation. The world may have become more “realistic” in the daughter's often course and unimaginative perceptions, but it has lost the wonderment and beauty inherent in the older woman’s memories, one of the richest of which is a breakfast of Eggs Benedict, perfectly cooked, at the beautiful Majestic Grand with a handsome architect, of whom the mother remembers little else. The Majestic Grand has long since become a building inhabited by homeless people, and shortly after its mention in the fiction, it collapses, killing several of its inhabitants. Yet it stands for something that can never be replaced. If the mother cannot remember the name of the man, the meal becomes a motif throughout the book of a world that has disappeared. Throughout Hauser’s short fiction, New York and the remnants of past life are being destroyed, fading and forgotten. A new, less glorious landscape is built up in its absence.

The daughter is without a clue how to rediscover the beauty of that world, and finally, with husband and son, and a new child in her womb, she retreats to an equally run-down country life, which promises an even more dilapidated vision of reality. At least the daughter has no longer to confront her mother, and gradually becomes unable even to write her a note. The old woman has been abandoned, like most of her generation, to their own disappearing memories. And since even the names of presidents as recent as Jimmy Carter are unknown (in what I would argue is a slightly unbelievable premise), evidently, to the daughter and, by extension, to her generation, we can only image a world that is being eaten away from both ends so that by work’s completion, we have only those momentary encounters between the two. When even those confrontations disappear perhaps history ends. A new birth is about to occur, but for what purpose? What meaning might that child discover in a world that no longer holds any significance?

My own mother, Lorna, I reassured myself, was happy in her assisted–living residence, consisting of a two rooms and bathroom. We had attempted to return her to her large suburban house a couple of years after an accident that sent her hurling down the basement stairs, with her right hand permanently damaged. And she seemed eager to return, to give her former life another chance. I particularly had fought hard for that, insisting that we could hire a nurse to stop in for a few hours in order to help her bathe, and that we could provide her with food through deliveries from “Meal-on-Wheels.” On Thanksgiving in 2006, I returned to fix the big meal in her empty house, inviting the whole family to gather round that table once more, partially in the attempt to draw my mother home.

Soon after she returned to the house on Concord Drive, but after one night in the place she had loved so deeply, she called my brother to return her to the Bickford Cottage. “I'm lonely,” she wailed. There was no one there to talk to. She hated her meals-on-wheels, and feared most of all, I presume, the endless silence of the place. Most of her neighbors, although friendly, were younger couples with families. Many of her friends had died or were themselves now in assisted-living homes. My brother helped her move back into Bickford Cottage, and, soon after, sold her home.

Visiting Lorna the day after her 85th birthday, I met her so-called friends. What I wasn’t completely prepared for was the rudeness with which they often treated one another. Like Hauser’s central character, my mother, has remained slightly aloof, a “lady” as the nurses call her, who most of the resident’s love because of her slightly magisterial behavior. Yet as we shuffled down the hall to lunch, a three-pronged, decorative cane at her side, my mother pointed to the woman ahead, and spoke in a voice she might once have used only at a football game, “You see the woman with the scraggly hair? That’s our nurse.”

Another woman was “The one I told you about! Rose, meet my son.” A few feet away my mother continued, “She comes to the table and reads the newspaper every day. Doesn’t say a word!”

I presume the nurses have all grown accustomed to this elderly "honesty," and that many of her friends are so deaf they may not hear what she says “just out of speaking distance,” but the behavior, nonetheless, took me aback.

My mother, however, was not the only seemingly insensitive being in the place. The woman who usually sat next to my mother, Ann, spent the whole lunch telling me that both her former husbands had been secretly—unknown to her at least—gay, that she herself had had a nervous breakdown and “gone in for shock therapy” and that her daughter was in AA, confessions, I presume, brought on by my casually mentioning my “companion.” Perhaps my mother had previously told her I was gay, and she had regaled my mother with these same tales many times; for my somewhat proper mother, didn’t blink an eye, and Lorna later reported that before her shock therapy, Ann had attempted to come to dinner "dressed in her birthday suit."

Rose, the woman who my mother told me read the newspaper throughout the meal, sat at this lunch at another table, but soon came forward to tell Ann to shut up so that my mother and I might talk to one another. Ann didn’t miss a beat, moving on to tell me about all of her “artist friends.” “That’s why I never suspected my husbands,” she declared. “I had so many artist friends.”

Back in my mother’s room I observed that Ann certainly did have a lot to say. “But at least she talks,” my mother snapped back.

What I was also not entirely prepared for was the number of times my mother repeated each piece of information. During our weekly telephone conversations she often repeated news up to three times in each conversation. What I hadn’t imagined is that, if one spent more time with her, that repetition would increase to six, seven times…, occurring endlessly, depending upon how long one had time to speak with her. Reminding her that she had said it before helped not a bit; for she stubbornly repeated every last sentence, refusing to even acknowledge my attempted interruption. At first I simply chalked it up to the fact that she didn’t have a great deal of information to impart, and that she repeated things simply to fill up the conversational space. But I soon realized that it was simply a kind of dementia; she could not help but to repeat herself.

The future was equally open to reiteration. When I mentioned that my brother David and sister-in-law Jill would be visiting just before dinner, she asked me numerous times if I knew whether they might stop by. My sister Pat, who I told her was visiting for lunch the following day, brought forward my mother’s continued resentment, since she never visited. “Why won’t she come by?”

“She plans to tomorrow, Mom.”

“She never visits.”

After spending breakfast and lunch with her and touring her around town to visit the various houses in which we had lived (there are five, she imagines others), I took a short two hours off, returning to the hotel before I stopped back to Bickford Cottage to see David and Jill. They laughingly reported that upon calling her, they asked if I had been there all day. “No, he wasn’t,” she snorted. Jill corrected, “Has he visited today?” “Oh yes, he was here all morning.” Logistically, she was correct: I was not there all day.

“Is Pat going to visit?” my mother plaintively asked.

“Tomorrow,” I laughed.

“Time for dinner!” by mother spoke up.

“All right,” you go ahead, I answered.

“You see that woman with the scraggly hair over there? She’s the nurse,” she proudly pointed.
“Did you meet my son?” she accosted the kindly, “scraggly” haired girl.

Later David, Jill, and I met near the cars to briefly confer about the future. “How many years can we afford to keep her here?” I finally asked.

“About four years,” Jill confided.

“Oh dear, it would be quite devastating if she had to move,” I sighed. “But perhaps, like Howard’s father, when the time comes, she won’t even know it’s happening.” I cringed at the thought.

“That’s, sadly to say, what we’re hoping for,” my brother said.

Yes, we too were now plotting for the past to be gone. Now in our sixties, the three of us realized that we might soon be sitting in similar situations. Dave and Jill, at least, had their children, three loving boys, to turn to. To whom would Howard and I entrust our forgetfulness, to share a past that no longer mattered to anyone?

The next day my sister arrived, the charming two-year old twins, her grandchildren, in tow. They were delighted to see their great-grandmother and to meet a new relative. One of them, Savannah, insisted that I return home with them, crawling into my arms and refusing to let go. Soon after, my nephew Matt’s wife arrived with their new baby, Eva. I held Eva for a long while, the child falling to sleep on my lap. My mother held her for a half hour. The young girls where urged into the front room, where they entertained many of the residents by reciting their numbers and alphabet, dancing across the hearth as they spoke. At once it again became apparent to me, my mother was not all like the poor woman in Hauser’s book.

That evening, at dinner with my mother at Bickford, Ann, the woman who had told me her life story the day before, spoke more quietly, reporting that my mother didn’t truly have a great many people to talk to at the Cottage. “She’s—well how can I say this?—so much better educated and more intelligent than many of our residents. She’s a true lady amidst these rustic folk.”

Cap (whose real name was Casper, oddly enough my mother's maiden name), a former farmer to whom I spoke, couldn't remember where he had farmed or what crops to which he had devoted his life* When I tried to speak to some of the other "ladies," most complacently smiled, one of them giggled. Another woman intermittently hovered over our table to tell me that I reminded her of someone she knew from Grand Rapids who worked at The Journey (presumably a religious publication) "I've never been in Grand Rapids," I apologized.

Finally, I came to realize that, despite these occasional family visits, my mother was not very different at all from the mother in Hauser’s poignant book. She too, although seemingly most open and friendly, was somehow aloof, sitting apart from the other Cottage residents.

Would I too, when the time came, be an old man, reading in the corner in an attempt to escape the fellow lunatics wandering the halls? Yes. I was sure of that. But what if my eyes were no longer strong enough to see the words upon the page, my hands unable to type out the sentences of my personal commentaries? And who would be coming to see me? And when? My mother had generations of family. I would have none.

When I said goodbye that evening, she cried. But the tears where those of joy, not loneliness or fear. She was not being “abandoned” as was the romantic survivor of Hauser’s satire—and, as my glimpse of the future revealed, I might someday be. “I’ll call when I get home. And I’ll be back to visit as soon as I can,” I softly spoke as I bent down to hug her. “I know,” she answered, wiping away the tears. Yet her knowledge sounded somehow distant, inurned to some other reality she might have imagined. Like Hauser’s agèd mother she was preparing herself for disappointment.

Did my mother ever have Eggs Benedict? I order them rather often, but at breakfast with my brother the next morning I confused the poached eggs I wanted—not on the menu—with an omelet. "Do you want cheese with 'em?" asked the waiter. "Oh, no," I blithely complained.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, September 2, 2010 ;revised September 4, 2010

*Cap did, however, tell me a story with startling detail. One day his wife came home, he reported, and suggested that there was a nearby farmhouse for sale that she'd love to see. So that evening he took her out to see the house. She was delighted with everything about it. "It's perfect," she proclaimed. And before he knew it, they had bought the new farm and were moving in. "Only later did she tell me that she'd long had her eye on that place, and she'd seen the inside dozens of times throughout the years." "She knew what she wanted, and how to get it," I joked. "She sure did!" was his response. "We lived in that house the rest of lives."