goodbye bear

So Long and Thanks for All the Clicks

Hey folks. As you may have noticed, we’ve run out of gas here at Sweet Pickles & Corn. It was a good go, but maintaining consistently quality, long-form pieces as a big group blog (where no one ever gets paid) just proved too much to bear, so we finally came to a sputtering halt.

I’m absolutely proud of the work we put out over our year and a half of glory. This blog won two awards in that relatively brief time, and we cultivated a very large audience of readers. Alas, many of life’s greatest things are short-lived.

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting.

In the meantime, I’ve gone solo. I’ve started a new personal blog which focuses on current events and U.S. politics as seen from abroad. Please check it out and give it all your support. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Pox Americana. Read, like, comment, share.

I’d especially like to thank all of my fellow agitators who made this thing so glorious. I encourage all of you to go solo as well. Who knows, maybe we can regroup in the near future and breathe life into SP&C once again?

Until, then it’s adios, sayonara, Tschüss, and annyeong.

Thanks again, guys.

sparkling

90% Norway, 10% Bangladesh

by Chris Tharp

Korea, Sparkling!

Some years back this slogan was trotted out for the world to see by the nation’s tourist board, to the snickers of the more jaundiced expats on the peninsula. Over cold mugs of Cass and Hite we shook our heads, rolled our eyes and once again thought: Must they try so hard? CNN International was bombarded with commercials featuring lithe, leggy girl groups strutting through the streets of Seoul, while b-boys twisted, popped and busted moves along the banks of the mighty Han River; Pop star Rain flashed his six-pack abs while lauding the virtues of bibimbap in stilted, awkward English; lasers shot from atop gleaming skyscrapers and fireworks showered over packs of smiling youths who wildly danced, leapt, and celebrated the fact that not only had the Korea stepped into the future, but it was now its new standard-bearer.

And you know what? Maybe they weren’t trying so hard after all. Perhaps they were right. After all, South Korea really is a land of uber-modern marvels. Cutting edge technology permeates the society in a way that I have yet to see matched in any of my other travels–and this includes visits home to America, that great land of ideas and innovation that birthed such luminaries such as Apple, Intel and Google. Smart phones are omnipresent, and as the most wired country on Earth, the internet is rarely more than a spit away. Dirt cheap PC rooms are almost always within eyeshot, and wifi is available in most public places, including the country’s trains and subways. That’s right, you can sap free, high-speed internet out of the air while traveling hundreds of feet underground in an aluminum tube. Crazy stuff. Take that, Japan.

When I first arrived in Korea I was astounded by the modernity–by the buses, reader boards, hi-speed trains, and multicolored neon signs that hypnotized me on my nightly strolls. These people are really riding the crest, I thought. Korea is a twenty-four hour gig, with decked out restaurants, stores, cafes, bars and clubs whose doors are open until the early morning. Some never close at all. The sidewalks pulse with throngs of well-scrubbed young folks sporting straight-off-the-rack clothes, and the streets are full of shiny, new, immaculate cars: Most Koreans don’t do second hand. In these ways and more it made good ol’ Seattle—home to modern giants Microsoft and Boeing—seem positively provincial.

But despite this well-constructed veneer of modernity, you don’t have to look too far to see the older, shabbier, decidedly less-glamorous Korea. There are cracks in Korea’s glistening new pavement, with the old country oozing right back up to the surface. Despite all of the attempts at chic modernity, Korea still keeps one toe firmly planted in the Third World. Dog soup restaurants, while technically illegal, can be found serving up steaming bowls of Fido on sketchy sides streets. The rivers and streams of the big cities turn into superhighways of human shit after a good rainstorm, and the reek of raw sewage often wafts from storm drains, made especially rank during the summer months, when the punishing heat percolates the crappy brew. Impoverished senior citizens scrounge the streets and apartment blocks for scraps of cardboard and sell odd things from even odder locations. The other day I was emerging from a multi-million dollar subway station with LED monitors, glass elevators and the obligatory wireless internet, when there, just ten feet from the exit, sat a ninety year-old woman selling three dead octopuses and a pile of tree bark. New Korea, meet the old.

Where the old school really rears its uncouth head is in some of the local folks’ behavior and practices, both public and otherwise. People ride their motorcycles on the sidewalk and aggressively honk at pedestrians in the way. Traffic laws, while enforced more than before, are still pretty much optional, at least according to the drivers in my home city of Busan. People get drunk as hell, bellow and stagger, puke on the sidewalk and pass out in the street with disturbing regularity. When confronted by the timid police, it’s often the cops themselves who are abused. Men over the age of fifty hock phlegm, spit with impunity and piss pretty much anywhere they please, especially after sundown. Forming lines has still yet to totally catch on, and hardscrabble old women jostle, push, and throw elbows in the streets, subways and markets, with nary an “excuse me” nor a glance of regret.

Yes, rest assured: Rough old Korea is still alive and well, and I’m not sure if any amount of eyelid-enhancement surgeries, Galaxy smart phones, or Angel-in-Us coffee shops will change that. Some habits are just too hard to break.

korean_ajummas_pushing_shit_181

drunk in korea 2

sidewalk

It was Saturday afternoon and I stood there in the station with two buddies from Busan: Scraggs, who hails from Essex, England, and Johnny “The Greek,” who actually grew up in Ontario.

“We should have gotten our tickets beforehand,” lamented Scraggs in his southern English whine. “They always sell out early on weekends.”

“That’s all right,” shrugged The Greek. “Korean busses are pretty plush.”

“But there’s no bogs on the buses,” Scraggs further moaned. “What am I to do if I have to go for a slash?”

“Maybe lay off the beer this time,” I chimed. “It’s a three-hour ride. We wouldn’t want you to piss your pants. Again.”

“I didn’t piss my pants. It was just a bit of dribble.”

“Dribble my ass.” The Greek smirked. “It looked like a fuckin’ map of Antarctica.”

Scraggs had indeed wet himself during the bus ride from Busan to Gumi the night before. The beer downed at the hof in the bus station, plus the several cans supped on board pushed his bladder to the breaking point. As there were indeed no ‘bogs’ on the bus, he was forced to improvise. He managed to fill two of the big cans back up with a warmer vision of their previous contents, without being noticed by any of the mostly snoozing passengers. But the timing of the withdrawal had been misjudged, resulting in massive leakage, which presented itself as a clearly visible stain of shame on the crotch of his jeans. There was no hiding it, and The Greek and I howled as he descended the steps of the bus into the frigid December night.

We were in Gumi, a windswept town that sits at the base an imposing sheer ridge, about 30 minutes north of the city of Daegu. We were on the road, bringing The Ha-Ha Hole–our standup comedy show–to mostly foreign folks living in Korea’s hinterlands. That’s right, on weekends we sometimes traveled around the country telling kimchee and dick jokes to smoky bars full of fellow drunken expats, where we were paid in cheap beer and, on the good nights, a free hotel room. This was a hobby of sorts–a good way to break up the day-to-day monotony of teaching English conversation to half-dead university freshmen, though it could be said that the ESL racket and stand up comedy are almost the same thing: You gotta entertain the troops, and you know when you’re bombing because it happens a lot.

gumi

The night before, we gigged at a watering hole owned by a young English woman and her bleary-eyed, teetering South African husband. Like most expat bar proprietors I’ve met, he freely ignored the warnings and got very high on his own supply. He was a good guy though, despite looking like he had probably killed a man at one point. It was wintertime and freezing, the kind of cold that’s makes your skin hurt. The place was poorly heated and we could see the steam of our breath as we each stood in front of a half-lit Christmas tree and attempted, through chattering teeth, to deliver jokes into the mike. The fifty-person crowd stuffed into the joint was looking to have a good time and was generous in both its drinking and laughter. They were mainly from South Africa as well, evident from the preponderance of bright, blond hair and violent booing when, during an improvised bit, I made the mistake of mentioning their arch-nemeses, the New Zealand All Blacks, recent winners of the Rugby World Cup.

It was a raucous night and we had now mostly slept our hangovers off, so after striking out at the train station, the three of us poured into a taxi and were ferried across town to a forlorn bus depot, where we procured tickets to get us out of Dodge. But the bus didn’t leave for three more hours, so we killed the afternoon with a much-needed soak and sauna, where Scraggs and I marveled at the maelstrom of hair springing forth from The Greek’s back. According to The Greek—whose parents come from the old country—his mother is quite fair, but his father is a real hairball, hailing “from a part of Greece where the Turks were a bit more aggressive with the raping.” The public bath hides nothing, and it was clear that he indeed took after the old man in spades. So after bathing we returned to the bus station relaxed and refreshed and got on board, ready for a safe and happy journey to the city of Suwon, a satellite of Seoul and home to our next gig.

k_shuttle_bus

Korean long-distance buses are generally as comfortable as it gets, with plenty of leg room and seats that recline to nearly forty five degrees. They’ve got plentiful heat in the winter and air-con in the summer. The passengers are quiet–usually sleeping the hours away or taking in movies on their smart phones or tablets–and the busses almost always run ahead of schedule. This is due to the diligence of the drivers, who nearly always pilot the things like kamikazes heading straight to the deck of an American carrier. It’s a pure heavy metal roots medley when a Korean driver burns down the road and this driver was no exception: He was a Highway Star Hell Bent on driving Balls to the Wall.

Yeah, the bus was often approaching speeds of Mach 1 on a highway jammed with weekend traffic, but that was no bother: we were all used to it. Sure, he regularly hit the brakes with desperate, jarring stomps. This jostled the bags stashed above and sent our foreheads slamming into the seats in front of us, but not an eyebrow was raised. No one whined, spoke up, yelled or exhibited the slightest outward sign of alarm. We were on a bus in Korea and everything was how it was supposed to be.

My first sign that this time may be different came about an hour and a half into the three-hour journey. I was listening to a mix of PJ Harvey songs on The Greek’s i-pod that he had most generously lent me, since my phone’s battery was long dead. It had been years since I had really rocked to Polly Jean, and I sat immersed, rediscovering all of those great old cuts from Rid of Me and Dry, as well as savoring her newer, more down-tempo stuff. At one point I took a break and looked over to The Greek, whose whole being was focused onto the tiny screen in front of his face. His brow was furrowed and his dark eyes made beams.

“Hey Greek, this is awesome. I’m listening to your PJ Harvey file right now. Do you know how long it’s—-”

“Not now dude. I’m in the middle of this.”

“What is that?”

“What does it look like? A fuckin’ game.”

“I know that. What kind of game?”

“It’s a driving game. Take a look.”

He tilted the screen my way and went about clicking and thumbing the controls.

“I’m driving the bus.”

“Okay.”

He was driving a large passenger bus on an elevated highway in a generic city. There appeared to be moderate traffic. “Check this out,” he nodded, jerking the bus into a side lane and smashing into several cars, which flipped and spun out of control.

“Yes!” He then plowed through the guardrail, causing the bus to plummet far down to the lower level, which resulted in even more mayhem and destruction–crushing cars, motorcycles, vans, and trucks–until it finally came to a full stop. This just turned the bus into giant obstacle that other vehicles hurtling down the road, in turn, smashed into. It was a rolling snowball of complete havoc and spectacular chaos—all shattered glass, bent metal, fire and thick smoke–depicted with realistic, violent, state-of-the-art graphics. Who knows? The programmers were probably Korean.

He turned to me with a possessed grin. “The point of the game is to destroy as much as you possibly can.”

“Cool,” I said, putting the ear buds back in. “I used to play a similar game at my friend’s place.”

He continued the game and I went back to scrolling through his massive digital library, never once stopping to chew on the fact that The Greek was crashing a virtual bus while riding on a real one. Wasn’t this just a bit odd? A brazen temptation of fate? Evidently not, because I gave it no pause: This is just what people do on busses in Korea.

It happened during the intro to a song by Strawberry Switchblade—an obscure gothic synth-pop duo from the 1980’s that I was amazed he had on file. The driver hit the brakes hard. I felt my whole body sucked forward by gravity. I braced myself with my right arm, and then…

BOOM!!!

This was felt more than heard.

“Fucking ‘ell!” shouted out Scraggs

The brakes locked and the tires ground against the pavement, screeching for what seemed like minutes, until the bus eventually came to a halt.

“Holy shit.” The Greek turned off his game and sheepishly stashed it.

I ripped out the buds and exhaled. “We just hit something for real.”

All the passengers stayed in their seats, momentarily stunned.

“Ayaya! Aya! Aya!” A fat guy sitting in the back row theatrically gripped his neck in mock pain. I could see won signs flashing in his squinting eyes.

We all sat for what must have been thirty seconds, trying to figure out just what was going on. I decided to check it out for myself, so I got up and walked to the front of the bus, where I was joined by two other Korean passengers.

The bus’s lights illuminated the scene in front of us: A silver, two-door car lay largely crushed. The bus was also significantly damaged. The rear of the car looked like a smashed beer can; anyone sitting there would be liquefied. A man sat in the driver’s seat, partially enveloped by a white airbag. The bus driver was outside, shouting to him.

The three of us in the front were joined by a few other passengers, who like me, now understood the fact that not only had the bus hit the car, but that it had pushed it 100 meters down the road—devastating it in the process–until it came to rest next to the guardrail. They shook their heads, sucked air through their teeth, and exclaimed:

“Oh my!”

“Is he okay?”

“That looks bad.”

“Is anyone else in the car?”

After a minute or two the car’s driver emerged from his seat, shaken, shocked, but apparently unharmed. It was the back of the vehicle that received the brunt of the damage, and you can imagine our collective relief when the bus driver poked his head in the bus’s door and told us that the dazed man had been the only occupant.

AmbulanceBlur-2

Korea’s efficient, modern side was the first to show its face that night, as emergency services were on the scene within minutes of the collision. The police arrived first and directed traffic around the scene. The paramedics were next, who strapped the car’s driver onto a gurney and whisked him away. Bringing up the rear was the wrecking crew, who dragged the totaled car off the road with amazing focus and speed. We marveled at their professionalism: They really had their shit together. I got the feeling that they had done that sort of thing a few times before.

The bus was damaged but driveable, and the driver managed to limp it down the highway and off an exit near the city of Cheonan, following the wrecking truck. He then pulled the bus to an area near the off ramp and told us all to wait for a few minutes; that a new bus was on the way. The wrecking crew deposited the smashed car next to several other dented husks. It must have been a dangerous stretch of highway. Wrecked car storage? Nothing was being left to chance, but what impressed me the most was the pace of the operation. Procedures had obviously been put in place and at this point we’d be able to make the show with time to spare. Bravo, new Korea.

But here’s where the baton gets passed.

The new bus arrived, with a fresh new driver. It seemed that the bus company was keeping up its end of the bargain and guaranteeing the rest of our journey with speed and safety. We disembarked the old bus and walked in a line past the first driver, who chain-smoked with trembling hands and stared out into the night, his eyes black pits. He looked like he needed a hot shower, a massage, and about three double pours of whisky. He was traumatized and stank of regret. I pitied him.

Once on the new bus, a policeman boarded and asked if any of us needed to go to the hospital. We all declined. He then passed around a clipboard and asked for contact information of anyone who planned to visit the hospital later. This was everyone’s chance for a payday and about half the passengers bit. The three of us passed. We were fine and we knew it.

The cop bade us adieu and now it was time to get on the road. We had a new bus and a new driver and would be able to make Suwon only an hour behind schedule. After all, the show must go on.

And then he boarded the bus. Him. He sat in the seat, clicked his buckle, and turned over the engine. He engaged the gear, pulled onto the ramp, and gave a quick honk to the new driver standing next to the old bus, who smiled and flashed a ‘thumbs up’ before we poured back onto the busy highway. That’s right: the same driver who crashed the bus would be completing the route. He would go on to nearly rear-end another car and shower us with apologies, but he would see the night out. Of course. This is what happens when buses crash in Korea. There are no debriefings, no reports to be filed, no rest for the visibly shaken operator: just the continuation of work. Suck it up, ajeosshi: you’re finishing your shift. People do not miss work in old Korea. They grind it out. They endure. How do you think the country went from being one of the poorest in Asia to now, where they walk in stride with some of the wealthiest in the world?

Hard fucking work. That’s how.

Sparkling, indeed.

(This essay appears in my latest book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, available via Amazon and other purveyors of words.)

The Descending Wing of Justice: How Tobias Wolff Made Me a (Slightly) Better Person

wolffcover

by Steve K. Feldman

When was the last time a work of literature changed your life? I mean, the day after you finished it—or even the same day—you were inspired to go out and do something, or to stop doing something. And again, I’m talking about literature. Not a self-help “7 Habits of Highly Effective etc.” or a guide to quitting smoking, or a non-fiction book about what goes into a chicken McNugget. Nor a simple children’s fable with a simple moral, like “The Ant and the Grasshopper” or “The Tortoise and the Hare.” I’m not talking about religious tracts, either. While the Quran and the Bible can certainly be read as literature, dogmatic religious instruction usually veers either toward the blindingly common-sensical (Thou Shalt Not Kill) or to the laughably arcane and archaic (If there is a man who lies with a menstruous woman and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow, and she has exposed the flow of her blood; thus both of them shall be cut off from among their people. –Leviticus 20:18)

The truth is, while literature can and often does better us, it’s seldom in a direct “go out and do this” kind of way. The process is more complex, deeply-rooted, and mysterious. Literature works on us by stirring and stoking empathy, enriching our inner-lives, and making us more mindful and contemplative. Literature makes us feel more connected to others (again, empathy), allows us to better know and understand our own hearts and minds, and draws us into moral debates (rather than delivering simple moral pronouncements) that help us toward becoming better people.

Are people who read literature better people than those who don’t? No, it’s not so. The world is full of saintly illiterates and well-read monsters. Consider the example of Ieng Thirith, the sister-in-law  of Pol Pot who just died on August 22nd. She was key collaborator in the Cambodian genocide and only avoided trial by UN Tribunal due to dementia. What kind of education led her to willingly participate in the Khmer Rouge’s experiment in mass misery? Why, only a degree from the Sorbonne in Shakespeare studies! Or read the chilling essay “The Book of My Life” by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, about his favorite literature professor from the University of Sarajevo, a warm, humane, incredibly well-read man who ended up becoming a high-ranking member of the Serbian Democratic Party and basically the right-hand man of Radovan Karadzic, the savage Serbian nationalist who ended up becoming the most-wanted war-criminal of the 1990s. For some, all the literature in the world can’t drum up a dime’s worth of empathy.

And yet I would argue that literature does provide some kind of map of the minefield of life, some fortification of the soul’s ramparts. It’s a cliché to say that great art “elevates” you, but in a sense, it’s an accurate verb, because reading a great work of literature does make you feel lifted, almost like an out-of-body experience, like you’re being lifted into a better version of yourself.

However, (long-winded introduction finally coming to an end, now) this essay isn’t about that complex, nuanced, intangible kind of betterment. It’s about the first, more direct kind. It’s about a recent reading moment that, in a small but tangible way, stopped me from being an asshole. Or as much of an asshole.

How often does this happen to you:  you’re walking down the street, and a guy with eyes glued to his new Galaxy S6 smartphone barges into you. Maybe you weren’t quite looking where you were going either—maybe you had your eyes on your own smartphone, facebooking, ka-talking, whatever-ing. Maybe you were just deep in thought or had your eyes on a pretty girl across the street, but for whatever reason, you didn’t see the guy, and there’s a mini-collision. Maybe one of you drops your phone and the battery pops out, or, horror-of-horrors, the screen cracks. Tough titty, pal. Watch where you’re going.

Now, has THIS ever happened—you actually see the guy coming at you, you know he’s engrossed in his 3G unlimited-data world, you see he’s heading straight for you, but you do nothing to avert the collision. Fuck it, you think. I’m entitled to my clearly-established direction of movement. I’m the one playing by the rules—looking where I’m  going. So . . . you let the guy plow into you. Or you just plow into him. Intentionally. Maybe sometimes, as you see head-down guy coming at you, you stop dead, becoming a fence-post, a human pylon, making it even more embarrassing for the guy who isn’t looking. Contact is made, and you feed him an icy stare that says, hey friend-o, I was just STANDING here, so it’s CLEARLY and TOTALLY your fault.

Psychologists have technical term for this—it’s called “being a total spiteful dick.”  And I wish to come clean—I have engaged in said dickishness, not extremely often, but not totally infrequently, either.  Nobody really likes getting jostled, shoved and bumped in public, and there’s nothing wrong with holding your own space on a crowded subway and shoving back when necessary.  And yes, if you are trying to walk and play Candy Goddamn Crush at the same time, a pox on you. But Jesus Lord, what sort of righteous idiocy is it for me to not simply get out of the way? Now, mind you, I have never intentionally moved into the path of the on-coming no-lookists.  There is a difference between being a dick and being evil. That’s a line I haven’t crossed. But it’s still plenty bad to give somebody an entirely avoidable thump just to make my smug point. What do I think I’m accomplishing? Is this guy going to actually learn his lesson and watch where he’s going? Maybe, for the next 30 minutes. Hell, maybe permanently. Who the hell cares either way? Why not just accept phone-blind strollers as another minor, itchy bug bite on the wondrous Body Electric of our modern age of miracles?

Enter Tobias Wolff.

wolff1wolff2

Tobias Wolff is a contemporary American writer. Although he isn’t a household name on the order of Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, he is still a total heavyweight who has enjoyed popular success and critical respect.  He is probably best known for This Boy’s Life, a memoir of his adolescence which was made into a movie starring a young Leonardo Dicaprio and Robert De Niro. The bulk of his work is in the short story genre. He has several collections, all of which are excellent, and there’s a sort of “Greatest Hits” called Our Story Begins which I’ve taught in high school English classes. His stories have regularly appeared in the high-echelon venues for fiction—The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, etc. He’s getting up there in age (70) but he’s still writing and he still teaches at Stanford University.

Wolff’s short stories are almost all contemporary slice-of-life tales which usually present their climaxes in the form of subtle ephiphanies—flashes of understanding in their main characters’ consciousnesses that they have crossed points-of-no-return in their lives, either for good or for ill. In that sense, he gets grouped with short story contemporaries like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. But what sets Wolff apart is his pervasive tone of dark, comic irony as well as the much more active authorial insight we have into his characters’ thoughts, either directly in the 1st person or through 3rd person omniscient commentary (see the devastating last line in the masterpiece “Hunters in the Snow.”) Wolff expertly slices apart and lays bare his characters’ foolish pretensions, arrogance, and hubris with scalpel-like precision.

In this passage from In Pharaoh’s Army, an army cadet in basic training observes the sad-sacks who regularly get reamed out by the drill sergeants for falling behind in marches and drills. At first, he hangs back with them and urges them on in soldierly camaraderie. However, he soon realizes his “band of brothers” spirit has its limits:

I learned to spot them, and to stay clear of them, and finally to mark my progress by their humiliations. It was a satisfaction that took some getting used to, because I was soft and it contradicted my values, or what I’d thought my values to be. Every man my brother: that was the idea, if you could call it an idea. It was more a kind of attitude that I’d picked up, without struggle or decision, from the movies I saw, the books I read. I’d paid nothing for it and didn’t know what it cost.

It cost too much. If every man was my brother we’d have to hold our lovefest some other time.

wolff3Now that is great interior exposition, and it’s vintage Wolff—with grim wryness, he pulls the rug out from under the way we delude ourselves about our own goodness and the purity of our motivations. In Pharaoh’s Army, actually, is non-fiction, and the “I” in the above passage is Wolff himself, in training to become an Army Special Forces lieutenant in the Vietnam War. The book is the greatest 1st person memoir of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read. Tom Bissell, the author of the excellent father-son Vietnam War memoir The Father of All Things, calls In Pharaoh’s Army “so well written it’s almost cruel.”

I want to write about a passage from this book that jolted me about as strongly as any passage in literature has ever done.

Lieutenant Wolff is stationed near My Tho, in the Mekong Delta. He is serving as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Army artillery battalion. It’s a cushy post. With the harrowing exception of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Wolff saw little direct action. His main challenge was avoiding ambush in supply runs between the his unit in My Tho and the PX at the American base several miles away, where he would trade fake Vietcong souvenirs for steaks, stereo equipment, and TVs.

With just a few days left in his tour of duty, the Army HQ sends over another officer to take over Wolff’s duties when he leaves, a certain Captain Kale. Wolff describes Kale as a gung-ho, arrogant, ridiculous blow-hard. Kale sizes up Wolff for what he readily admits he is—a lazy, feckless officer with little-to-no leadership ability, but with the good luck to have received a relatively soft post where his incompetence didn’t matter, as the South Vietnamese Army was a thoroughly corrupt, undisciplined fighting force whose members basically ignored any American advisor’s attempt to whip them into shape. Captain Kale, in Wolff’s description,

. . .had a round glistening face as pink as a boiled ham. It was the face of soft little man but in fact he was tall and bulging with muscles. In the odd moments when we were stalled somewhere, waiting for a ride, when [everybody else] found some shade and lay back with their caps over their eyes, Captain Kale knocked out push-ups by the hundred . . . While he worked out he told me how he was going to turn his future battalion into a killer fighting unit, unlike this one, and how it was a good thing I was leaving the army, because if every officer were like me the VC would walk off with the whole country inside a week.

One day, Kale notifies Wolff that division HQ has ordered him to move one of the howitzers, and a big Chinook helicopter will come in to lift and move the gun. Kale wants the helicopter to come in above a courtyard in the populated area where their base is located. Wolff says there isn’t enough open space—the wind from the chopper’s rotors would damage or destroy many of the peasant hooches nearby—and suggests the open roads or fields nearby. They argue about it, and finally Kale puts his foot down:  “You are fucking with my shit, Lieutenant. I will not have my shit fucked with.”

The helicopter comes in and Wolff goes over to the base’s radio to guide it in while Kale stays with the gun. The copter pilot says he doesn’t think he has enough room to safely descend, just as Wolff thought. This is the key moment of decision. Wolff realizes clearly that he has been given an “out”—he could tell the pilot to come back in 20 minutes after they move the gun outside the village, and cover his ass by telling Captain Kale that it was the pilot’s decision. However, Wolff goes ahead with Kale’s plan:  “I wanted Captain Kale’s will to be entirely fulfilled. I wanted his orders followed to the letter, without emendation or abridgment, so that whatever happened got marked to his account, and to his account alone. I wanted this thing to play itself out to the end. I was burning, I wanted it so much.”

So  the Chinook comes in and, just as Wolff had warned against, the rotor-wash lays waste to the flimsy hooches.  First roofs are torn off, then walls collapse as the terrified Vietnamese run for their lives. The courtyard is filled with whirling dust and debris. The gun gets hooked up to a sling and the copter departs, leaving Wolff and Kale to survey the scene as the stunned villagers pick through the wreckage to find their belongings. The physical description of the scene is brilliant, as usual. However, it’s Wolff’s withering introspection that imbues the passage with its most singeing fire:

This was my work, this desolation had blown straight from my own heart. I marked the discovery coolly, as if for future study. This was, I understood, something to be remembered, though I had no idea what that would mean. I couldn’t guess how the memory would live on in me, shadowing my sense of entitlement to an inviolable home; touching me, years hence, in my own home, with the certainty that some terrible wing is even now descending, bringing justice.

This passage chilled me with its simplicity and precision. What a brilliant choice of imagery, embodying “fate” or “karma” or “regret” or “justice”—abstractions always at risk of cliché—as a “terrible wing . . . descending.” It’s an eerie, ghostly, haunting image, the idea of something slowly coming at you from above, floating, wafting down in the dark, ready to smother you, violating you in your “inviolable home” with your wife and children and your career. (It also subtly mirrors the imagery of the descending helicopter which destroyed the Vietnamese’ homes.)

Now, none of villagers were killed or even injured (in Wolff’s description). Certainly American soldiers were guilty of much, much worse in Vietnam. A reader might even chuckle at the ridiculous Captain Kale eating his humble pie. But the laughter dies in our throats as Wolff puts it into perspective. The whole incident, without Wolff even directly saying so, becomes a metaphor for the whole war—how we sacrificed people we never knew and only pretended to care about to prove a point about . . . what? Our resolve? Our power? Our prestige? It’s bad enough, especially given how avoidable it all was, how easy it would have been for Wolff to change Kale’s orders. Wolff allows dozens of people’s homes to be destroyed for simple spiteful pride.

Cut to 2015, Busan, South Korea. There’s an American walking the streets who makes it a point to nimbly step around phone-distracted Koreans, or gently warn them with a “jo-shim ha-seyo” or a “shillye hamnida” (“be careful” or “excuse me, please”). Obviously, it’s a bit apples vs. oranges here, both in scale and particulars. The Vietnamese were completely innocent, unknowing pawns in Wolff’s game of “Fuck Captain Kale.” In what used to be my game of “Fuck Mr. Smartphone Zombie,” the only victim was the phone-zombie himself.  Still, I can’t help thinking of that torn-apart Vietnamese village, and I think of Wolff, more than 45 years after the fact, still waiting for cosmic payback, that terrible descending wing of justice. Why bring even a quantum of negativity into this world to spitefully prove a point, if it’s so painlessly avoidable?

Right, I know: big fucking deal. Yay me. Wolff himself would be the first to lacerate such self-congradulatory twaddle. He would probably observe that I only barged into people in the first place knowing that Koreans, bumping into a waygook, would be too shocked and embarrassed (and too polite)  to muster any indignation against me. Would I do this in America? With a dude bigger than me? Probably not. Definitely not. As Wolff might stay, I stood up and made my point as long as there was no cost whatsoever to be paid for doing so.

Still, I think this is as good example as any of how literature can set us to work on ourselves, at first in small ways, then later on in larger ways, chipping away at vanity and self-delusion, nudging us toward our better angels. Literature is merely a series of black squiggles on a white page, yet with miraculous, incantatory power it creates a canvas on which a simulacrum of life is painted. And that canvas somehow becomes a mirror, as it is we ourselves who are painted. For many years, Tobias Wolff has been holding up such mirrors for us. I hope I can always muster the courage to take a long, brutal gaze, taking honest stock of what’s looking back at me.

Capture

The Flipside

by Fred Colton

They were supposed to practice writing Mandarin characters but Luke always just sat there and drew dicks. 4,000 hanzi to learn and not a single one Luke couldn’t turn into a thin veiny phallus. He incorporated scrotums as needed to help with the curves and slants. Slid the drawings to the other students and everyone chewed off their bottom lips off to stifle the laughter. Hanzi made of cocks. Just twisting and snaking around each other.

Mandarin, mandatory since kindergarten. Mandatory in over one hundred countries. Kids, Mandarin is your passport to the world. Learn it and you can trade stocks in Paris or be a professor in Capetown.

“Or I could just stay here and keep winning races,” Luke told his parents, and his brother Bob, and the bowtie in the guidance office.

“You need to learn it,” his parents said. “You’re doing great everywhere else but Mandarin drags your GPA down below 3.0.”

And the bowtie in guidance said, “If you’re amenable with taking a goose egg then just do your time in Mandarin quietly. The teacher gets upset when you disrupt his class.”

Luke played with the snaps on his track pants. “You should put the word teacher in quotes. Because they can study Viking Anthropology or some other irrelevant shit at a Tianjin community college and still somehow get a teaching job overseas.”

“They’re not all like that.”

“Well, this one is.”

And so here in Massachusetts was Yang Jinhai. 23, from Shanghai. He was a carelessly constructed human being. A bowl cut, distractingly white overbite, and flappy Gumby limbs. No beer belly when he got here but he had one now. No English vocabulary when he got here, either, and that sure as shit hadn’t changed. So when Luke called him Mr. Wang instead of Mr. Yang and made the class bust up, Jinhai didn’t know why.

*

They were at Good Karma Cafe. Luke and his friend Jeff. The menu was in Mandarin and English. Every menu on the continent was in Mandarin and English. Two off-duty PLA soldiers were out on the curb with a miniature forest of Bud Lite bottles between them.

Jeff handed Luke his phone. “Look who’s living the high life.”

Jinhai operated under a secret identity on Facebook but Jeff had stumbled upon the teacher’s profile. So here was a photo roll. Jinhai blitzed at an EDM boat party on the Charles River. Jinhai slack-jawed on a ski trip with his hand down the back of a white girl’s yoga pants. Jinhai in a tan suit at Crossroads and also at the Mission. Doing flaming shots and motorboating some different white girls. Despite inhabiting the visage of bucktoothed troll Jinhai seemed to never go longer than ten minutes with a dry dick.

“The high life,” said Luke. “Life as a bachelor party. What do you think he’s got, some family money?”

“Mandarin teachers make a killing,” Jeff said. “They don’t pay rent.”

“Get the fuck out of here.” Luke scrolled through a few more photos. “I should re-sketch some of these but replace Mr. Wang Jinhai with a giant penis instead. Wearing a suit and going skiing.”

*

On Saturday Luke broke his own 800m record with a 1:52.38. But that was only good enough for silver because a rival from Port Grand broke it harder. Guy clocked a 1:52.01.

But that was OK. Because Luke got faster every week. He dropped on the infield and saw himself on the twenty-foot screen under the scoreboard. It was OK because there were three thousand people at this meet and Stephanie was one of them. It was OK because she was a fox and just catching her eye for a second was enough to wipe his memory. And it was OK because that night she came over and it happened.

First time but it wasn’t awkward. It was done and Luke shuddered and curled up. A warm magic fizz worked through him. When they started talking again he said, “Scouts were there today. I could run go run for—”

Stephanie said, “I might be in Beijing.”

“Shit.”

“I know. I know.”

“But you were talking about Ohio.”

“I could get a better scholarship to Beida and my parents said—”

“Shit.”

She covered up. “Just an idea. I might stay here.”

*

“She won’t stay here,” Bob said.

He was down in the den with the lights off. Doing business on a six-pack of Sam Adams while he leveled up on GTA. A takeout carton next to him held rice and fried eggplant.

“She’ll go to another school and fuck five guys by Thanksgiving,” he told Luke. “Even if she goes to your school, you can’t guard her at every kegger and she’ll still fuck five guys by Thanksgiving. It’s a law of nature, young sir.”

Bob installed hardwood floors for ten hours a day. His shoulders resembled watermelons. Still in the nest at 25 because there wasn’t a 25 year-old in the hemisphere who could afford their own place. He had an aging F-150 and as a birthday present to himself had just upgraded the stereo in it.

“Beijing,” Luke said, for no other reason than to state his problem, to lament the existence of it.

“The center of the universe,” Bob said.

“I could go there, too.”

“Or you could just stay here and ‘keep winning races.’” Bob laughed through his nose.

“Ha.”

“Brother, you’re sixteen; your head is fucked. When you’re sixteen you have the logic of a drunk man.”

“I’ve got everything else. I just need Mandarin. I can learn it and go.”

“No. Here’s what you do: you cut it with this little chick. You work on your gift, protect it. Unless you wanna end up on this couch next to me.”

*

San shi wu…OK that’s $35 an hour,” said Jeff.

“Motherfucker,” Luke whispered.

Monday. They were in the Mandarin office at Jinhai’s desk.

The teacher chewed on the tip of his tongue while he texted someone. Jeff was there to translate, something he was capable of since he didn’t spend the entirety of Mandarin class drawing dicks.

“That’s a deal,” he told Luke. “$45 is standard. And academies cost even more.”

OK, Luke thought. But $35 is still a goddamn king’s ransom.

He could pull down $6.75 an hour washing dishes at the cafe. Before taxes. So: eight hours on the clock could buy him one with Jinhai. That was a horrifying exchange rate.

But, after enough hours with Jinhai he could get to Beijing.

“Tell him I can do it,” Luke said.

“The test is in five months. And you gotta be damn near fluent by then.”

“I can do it. When is he good?”

Jeff and Jinhai had a quick exchange and then Jeff said, “Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8.”

Luke fixed Jinhai with a quiet stare. The guy had a gold mine in his head. Just say words, get money for them. What a life. What an incredible, incredible life.

“Tell him I’ll pay him on Friday,” Luke said. “For ten lessons.”

*

The call came at 10 P.M. Bob was driving home.

“Someone broke the window. Stole my radio.”

“Shit. Bob, that’s terrible,” said Luke. “Where?”

“The job site.”

“Any cameras around?”

“No.” Bob cleared his throat hard. “It was up in the hills. Only had that fucking thing for a few weeks.”

“That’s fucked up. I’m sorry Bob. I’m so sorry.”

*

Luke handed Jinhai $350 in an envelope on Friday. A wordless transaction that nonetheless concluded with smiles from both parties.

Now Luke had a five week head start on getting another ten lessons’ worth of currency together. He practiced hanzi at lunch. Getting the stroke order down. The characters looked weird when they weren’t rendered as dicks.

He could do this. Five months was no problem. Fast was the only way he could do things anyway.

After school he went to Stephanie’s. Shuddered, curled, tingled again and said, “You’re going to Beijing, aren’t you.”

“Well,” she said. “It makes sense.”

He could tell that was her plan because she never talked about it. And he knew she hadn’t talked about it because once she flew over there, there wouldn’t be a Luke in the equation. Girls were very mature and practical. Did this irritating thing where they looked eighteen months into the future and tried to figure out what would happen.

“Well,” Luke told her, “pretty soon I’m going to have some good news for you.”

*

On Monday Jinhai was gone. Taken his bowl cut and overbite back to Shanghai.

“He got arrested at Foxwoods Friday night,” someone said. “On the casino floor.”

Luke blinked and put down his pen. Didn’t move.

Jeff said, “What happened?”

And some kid said, “He and a few PLA soldiers mixed it up with some BU students. There was talk of an assault charge so he posted bail and caught a plane.”

Luke sat still. Said nothing for the rest of the day.

*

At practice. Out running intervals in the city under the train tracks. Asian actors were on a billboard with a fireball behind them. One of them was in an armored combat suit that let him fly. The red-and-yellow Chinese flag was on the side of that building over there. Hanzi everywhere and it was all a taunt.

But it didn’t have to be. Luke finished and texted Stephanie and said they were done. Someday they’d both see that as the good news he promised.

Then he went home and told Bob the whole deal. He woke up on the floor with a front tooth loose.

Bob said, “Here’s how you pay me back. You work on the crew this summer for two weeks. For no pay.”

“I will,” said Luke.

“And win your next race.”

“I will.”

And he did. The guy from Port Grand didn’t even made the podium. The other two guys on the podium were Chinese kids from the international school.

“Foreigners think they can tell you what’s important because they have the Almighty RMB,” Bob said later. “But they can’t. You should know better anyway.”

“I do know better,” Luke said. “But sometimes I forget.”

“You’ll be good. I know you will be. You’ve got something.”

Back to Mandarin class. They had a new teacher, the teacher was a she, and she was so hot that Luke stared and began learning a few words by accident.

*

And Yang Jinhai was home, back in the capital of the universe. Back in with the parents, because you had to pay for rent in Shanghai. The dollars from that American kid were almost gone. He couldn’t get laid here. He was on Baidu looking for work. America was out.

But there were so many other options.