Friday, April 7, 2017

Peter Wodarz writes

An Afternoon in Seoul

I have just finished lunch with Kang Hee -- namyang, cold noodles that I ate with metal chopsticks, actual ice cubes in the stainless-steel bowl. She had to return to the embassy where she works. I have nothing to do, all afternoon to do it. I’m rambling, killing four hours until she gets off of work and I see her again. I got my camera in case I come across anything interesting. I’m walking down the crowded sidewalk. I feel free, independent of all the people around me. They have places to go, tasks to accomplish. I don’t speak their language; I don’t look like them; I don’t have to do what they have to do. I’m free, and I’m enjoying my freedom.

Unfortunately, it’s hot, the hottest month of the year, the hottest hour of the day. It’s got to be near one hundred. With the streets on fire, I glance up and squint at the oppressive haze. The sun is up there somewhere, high above the towering buildings, yet I can’t see it. But the heat. The heat -- the doors to the kiln thrown wide open -- is simply astounding. As Yukio Mishima writes, “It was the height of summer, and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” What a line, huh? And the humidity. It’s awful. My shirt is sticking uncomfortably to my back. Fortunately, I’m just a few blocks from the Kyobo Book Store; I decide to go in and check out the international newspapers and magazines. In air-conditioned comfort, I can stand and read for an hour or longer and then have a cold drink at the bookstore’s café. This is my plan. It’s a good one.

As I make my way down the sidewalk, two Korean guys stop me. One guy shoulders a TV camera. The other holds a microphone that is attached to the camera by a long cord. He wants to know if he can ask me a few questions. He wants to interview and videotape me for some TV show. He tells me the show’s designed to teach English to its viewers. “Is this guy for real? Is this a joke?” That’s what I`m thinking. I glance around skeptically.

We are near a broad avenue. It’s noisy, lots of cars and buses whizzing by, so he pulls me under an awning. We’re standing in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Again, he tells me he’s from some TV show. He’s finding and interviewing native English speakers for some Sunday-evening variety show designed to teach Koreans English. Can he ask some questions? Do I mind being taped? 

“Okay,” I say. “Sure.”

The cameraman steps back a few feet. He aims the camera at the two of us, and a bright light pops on above the lens. The interviewer says a few sentences in Korean, and then he begins. In fluent English, he asks my name, where I’m from, what I do, why I’m in Seoul, how long I’ve been here. The camera guy is doing his thing. Then the interviewer wants to know if I’ll sing a song in English. He wants to videotape my singing for the TV show. The questions were easy, but I’m not sure about the singing. If you`ve ever heard me sing, you`d know why.

“So how about it?” the guy enthuses. “You know any good songs?” With English like that, the guy probably grew up in LA’s Koreatown.

The first number that pops into my head is “Moon River,” one of the very few songs I’ve ever sung in a karaoke club. It’s one of my favorites. Who isn`t moved by that song? Who isn`t touched by Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s incredible performance? If I’m drunk enough and if my Asian hosts encourage me enough, that’s usually the song I look for. But for some reason, a mischievous ditty by The Smiths pops into my head. If this guy wants a song, I’ll give him one.

“Sure,” I say. “I got one for you. I’ll give it a try.”

“Great!” He turns to the camera guy. “You ready? Make sure you get this.”

The interviewer stands next to me and addresses the camera in Korean. He’s all smiles and laughs. This is going to be fun. That’s his tone. He’s probably saying, “Check out this clown!” Then he steps aside. I’m standing there looking into the camera; it can’t be more than two feet away. I see a black hole behind a small square of thick glass. I’m nervous, but I begin: “From the Ice Age to the Dole Age / There is but one concern. / I have just discovered.” I’m talking more than singing, but I don’t stop. I’m at the refrain. My heart is beating fast, but I’m going to get through this. “Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” I’ve removed all irony (indeed, is there any?). I’m serious now. I dive right into the second stanza: “As Antony said to Cleopatra / As he opened a crate of ale, / Oh, I say, I have just discovered. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls are bigger than others. / Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” That’s it. I’m done. Those are the lyrics, at least as I remember them, to The Smiths’ “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.” In college, that was one of my favorite songs; it’s hard not to hum the infectious melody as you cruise down the motorway. And I always wanted to open a crate of ale. I still do. I desperately want to know what it feels like to open a crate of ale.

Well, that’s the end of the interview. The guy looks at me, doesn’t even ask me about the song. Actually, he looks like he’s been duped. He speaks in Korean to the cameraman. “That`s a wrap,” he seems to say. Then he says to me, “Thanks, man. Thanks for helping out.” He extends a limp hand, and I give it a shake. He and his pal walk off. He doesn’t tell me when to tune in. He’s doesn’t tell me if I’m going to make the show. I walk the rest of the way to the bookstore.

Later, at dinner, I tell Kang Hee about my little adventure. She’s excited. She thinks she knows the TV show. She says she’ll tape it. I can send copies to my family and friends. I’ll be famous. She wants to know what I sang, so I half sing, half speak the lyrics to her. She probably doesn`t catch every word, probably thinks Antony and Cleopatra are common American names, but the refrain is clear enough. When she hears it, she frowns, puts down her chopsticks, and looks at me with a furrowed face that says, “I may not want to know you.” “That’s disgusting,” she declares. “They won’t play that.” She seems disappointed in me. “It’s a great song!” I say. “You haven’t heard it.”

“I don’t want to.”

I laugh. I like Kang Hee. Kang Hee likes me. We`ve been dating just a few weeks, so we`re still at that overlook-each-other`s-idiosyncrasies stage. Soon we are laughing and talking about something else, enjoying our dinner, making plans for the rest of the night.


  1. In 1724 Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit of Danzig, a glassblower who had invented the mercury-in-glass thermometer in 1714, devised a temperature scale based on the work of Ole Rømer, who established 0° as the freezing point of brine (a mixture of ice, water, and ammonium chloride [salis Armoniaci], a frigorific mixture which stabilizes its temperature automatically), 7.5° as the melting point of water, the human body temperature (sanguine hominis sani, the blood of a healthy man) as 22.5°, and the boiling point of water at 60°. Fahrenheit multiplied each value by 4 in order to eliminate fractions and increase the granularity of the scale, then recalibrated his scale so that the melting point was 32° rather than 30° and the body temperature at 96° rather than 90° in order to have 64 intervals between the two, allowing him to mark degree lines on his instruments by simply bisecting the interval six times. His 0° point, however, was 3° too high. Perhaps his mixture had not fully dissolved, or maybe he did not have a good enough brine solution to obtain the eutectic equilibrium exactly. In 1776 the Royal Society led by Henry Cavendish adopted the freezing and boiling points of water as the fixed reference points and established the boiling point as 212°, 180° higher than the freezing point as defined at sea level and standard atmospheric pressure; this change caused the normal oral human body temperature to be shifted to approximately 98.6°. The Fahrenheit scale was the primary temperature standard for climatic, industrial, and medical purposes in English-speaking countries until the 1960s, but by the end of the 20th century it was still used only in the US, its territories, and its freely associated states in the western Pacific Ocean (Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands); the Bahamas; Belize; and the Cayman Islands. By then all other countries had switched to the Celsius scale, defined since 1954 by absolute zero being -273.15° C and the triple point of water (where the temperature and pressure of its gas, liquid, and solid states coexist in thermodynamic equilibrium) at 0.01° C. This scale was created by Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius in 1742, who established 100° between the freezing and boiling points. He determined that the melting point of ice is essentially unaffected by pressure and that the boiling point varied as a function of atmospheric pressure. He proposed that the boiling point (0°) would be calibrated at the mean barometric pressure at mean sea level (one standard atmosphere). Meanwhile, in 1743, Jean-Pierre Christin of Lyons, France, developed a scale where O represented the freezing point and 100 the boiling point of water. When Celsius died the following year, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus reversed Celsius's scale. Peter's "100° F" would be 37.8° C.

  2. “It was the height of summer, and there was anger in the rays of the sun” is a memorable line from Death in Midsummer," the title story of an anthology published in 1953 by Mishima Yukio, the pen name of Hiraoka Kimitake which his teachers chose for him in 1944 upon the publication of his short story "Hanazakari no Mori" (Forest in Full Bloom) in order to protect him from the jealousy of his classmates at the elite Gakushūin, the Peers' School, in Tokyo. His father, a government official who had married the daughter of a scholar of the Chinese classics, forbade him to continue writing, but he continued to do so in secret. After he resigned from his job in the Finance Ministry due to ill health, his father finally relented, and Mishima went on to write 35 books of essays, 34 novels, 25 short story anthologies, and about 50 plays including those for Kabuki and modern versions of Noh dramas; his second novel, "Kamen no Kokuhaku" (Confessions of a Mask) [1949] made him a celebrity at 24. Though a homosexual, before his marriage in 1958 he considered marrying the future empress Michiko. He directed and starred in the 1966 movie "Yukoko" (Patriotism, based on his 1961 short story about committing seppuku, a ritual suicide by cutting one's abdomen), and made many appearances as an actor and model. He also sang the theme song for "Afraid to Die," which he cowrote with Fukuzawa Shichirō. Though seriously considered for a Nobel Prize three times, in 1968 his mentor Kawabata Yasunari became the first Japanese recipient instead. That year he formed the Tatenokai ("shield society"), a private militia which he personally trained in the martial arts, dedicated to defending the emperor as the personification of Japan (though he denounced the actual emperor Shōwa-tennō ["Horohito"] for renouncing his divinity at the end of World War II). After at least a year of planning, in 1970 he led four of his Tatenokai members into the Eastern Command's Tokyo headquarters, kidnapped the commandant, and tried to provoke a coup to restore the emperor's authority; instead, the soldiers meerly jeered, and he committed seppuku, as did one of his followers after beheading him.

  3. In 1958 Shin Yongho founded Daehan Education Insurance Company, renamed Kyobo Life Insurance Co. in 1980. Six months later the corporation opened the Kyobo Book Center (Gyobomungo) in the basement of its Seoul headquarters. It underwent major renovations in 1991, enlarged to about 9,000 sq m. It houses around 2.3 million volumes, and is the largest bookstore n South Korea. When entering, one can read in clear old-style Korean across the outer wall of the passageway: "People make books, and books make people." Some 180,000 people visit the site every day (including online customers).

    In 1948, William Rosenberg, who had noticed that donuts and coffee were the most popular food items he had sold at factories and construction sites, opened Open Kettle, a restaurant selling those items, in Quincy, Massachusetts; in 1950 he renamed it Dunkin' Donuts. In 1955 he began selling Dunkin' donut franchises. In 1963, the same year Rosenberg’s 25-year-old son Robert became CEO, the chain opened its 100th location. By then Dunkin' Donuts was a subsidiary of Universal Food Systems, a portfolio of 10 small food service businesses. When Universal Food Systems broke up, it was renamed Dunkin' Donuts. In 1990 it bought out its primary competitor, Mister Donut, which was founded in 1956; Allied-Lyons, the result of a 1978 merger of Allied Breweries (a 1961 merger between three English firms Ind Coope [founded 1799], Ansells [1901], and Tetley Walker [1822] and J Lyons and Co. [1884], which had acquired Baskin-Robbins in 1973) bought up Dunkin; Donut and moved its Mister Donut operations to Japan. In 1994 Allied Lyons merged with Pedro Domecq, a sherry company founded in 1725, becoming Allied Domecq, which renamed the donut operations Quick Service Restaurants, which became Dunkin' Brands in 2004. When Pernod Ricard SA took over Allied Domecq in 2005, it sold Dunkin' Brands (including Baskin-Robbins) to a consortium consisting of Bain Capital, The Carlyle Group, and Thomas H. Lee Partners. By 2010, Dunkin' Donuts' global sales reached $6 billion. But only 8% of it is donuts; 27% is other food items, and 65% is various drinks, especially coffee.

  4. "Breakfast at Tiffany's"was a 1961 film directed by Blake Edwards and written by George Axelrod, loosely based on Truman Capote's 1958 novella of the same name; Alexrod was nominted for a Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ("Moon River," composed by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, who picked up Grammy Awards for Record of the Year Song of the Year. Jerry Butler and Mancini's orchestral versions both reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and Danny Williams' recording went to #1 in the UK, but the song became most closely associated with Andy Williams; though it was never released as a single, it charted as a track from his 1962 album "Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes" and grossed over $1 million in sales. It was also responsible for relaunching Mercer's career as a songwriter, which had languished since the arrival of rock and roll n the mid-1950s. An inlet near his home town, Savannah, Georgia, was named Moon River in his honor. A Paramount Pictures executive, Martin Rackin, had suggested removing the song from the film after a tepid Los Angeles preview, but Audrey Hepburn insisted that it be retained; in 2004, after her death, her version was finally released on "Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn.") The movie starred George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as Holly Golightly. Capote had modeled the character after various women, including socialite designer Gloria Vanderbilt (the mother of CNN newsman Anderson Cooper), Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona (Charlie chaplin's fourth wife)actress Carol Grace (before she married Walter Matthau she was married twice to Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan), and the model sisers Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker. [Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker and her sister Cecilia Ann Renee Parker were born 15 years apart; Cecilia was named after three of her mother's best friends, and Dorian wanted their names arranged to spell CRAP; her father nicknamed her "Susie." Dorian did not become a model until she was a 27-year-old divorced mother of two, but she quickly became one of the first icons in the fashion industry. After closing her own agency in 1948 she offered to join the Ford Agency if it also signed her 15-year-old sister Suzy, who would soon become even more famous than she, becoming the first model to earn $200 per hour $100,000 per year, while Dorian went on to make fortune after establishing the first legal modeling agency in France.] A comc book artist and writer born in 1964 worked as Fauve and Holly G! before adopting the name Holly Golightly. With her husband Jim Balent she operates the BroadSword Comics comics publishing company, best known for "Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose" (for whom she was the model). In addition, Holly Golightly (Smith) was named after the Capote character in 1966; while she was dating Thee Headcoats' drummer Bruce Brand in 1999, the group's founder Billy Childish added her to another of his groups, the all-girl quartet The Delmonas, which he renamed Thee Headcoatees. In 1995 she started a 10-album solo career but continued with Thee Headcoatees until they disbanded in 1999. With Lawyer Dave she performed as a duo, Holly Golightly and The Brokeoffs, releasing five albums and one EP between 2007 and 2012, and winning the ninth annual Independent Music Awards for the best Americana album, "Dirt Don't Hurt."


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