from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #71: Feeling Useless

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I’m not writing right now. Of course, by “right now,” I mean that I haven’t been writing lately. The fact is that I have written a few things but they’re all garbage. This garbage differs from my normal garbage in that I know that it’s garbage right away. With most of my other garbage, I at least believe it’s brilliant for a moment or two.

This is my longest slump so far since seriously sitting down to write. One thing I’ve realized that’s not happening is that I’m not thinking about writing these days. Normally, I’m constantly thinking about writing and the things that I do or see sometimes give me inspiration. But right now, I’m teaching four times the class load I normally have and I find that I’m constantly thinking about my classes.

It’s frustrating because of what use is a writer who doesn’t write? I enjoy teaching but I only consider it a decent way to pay the bills until I can start selling books. When I was in the hospital, I was worried that I’d get fired but now I’m considering the possibility of quitting or at least taking a break so I can focus again. A decent settlement from the insurance company would help.

I’m still aiming for starting my agent search again at the end of the summer although it’s going to be difficult with my workload. I guess I’ll just have to make the most of my weekends.

Random #71: Stiff

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It’s been a while since my last post, and it’s symptom of a larger problem—I haven’t been writing. I’d like to blame it on the hospitalization but I was discharged from Yonsei Bon about two weeks ago, and I’d like to blame it on work but I realized last night that I’m only teaching ten hours a week. Physical therapy only consumes about 30 minutes a day and going to the gym only slightly more than that. It could be the drinking but I think it’s really because I’m out of practice.

Of what use is a writer that doesn’t write? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s a kick in the testes. My manuscript is gathering electronic dust on my hard drive, largely untouched since the accident last December. My second book is still a jumble of random scenes.

My leg has regained a lot of strength and I’m almost at a point where I can walk without a cane, but strength isn’t the problem. The problem I’m facing right now is a lack of mobility. While I was lying in the hospital for five months, I couldn’t use my left leg at all and my doctor keeps telling me it has “hardened,” which I assume he means it has stiffened from disuse. I’m trying to regain mobility and there is a high degree of pain in doing so.

My fingers have stiffened. My writing has stiffened. Even now, typing this, I find myself struggling to express myself and to make it to the next sentence.

There are only two things I can think of that should be stiff. Both begin with a d and end with a k. and neither of them gets that way through disuse.

Before I knew the details of my injury, I thought I’d be out of the hospital in a couple days. After my first couple surgeries, I thought I’d be walking as soon as I got my cast taken off. Almost two months since having it taken off (and posting my last blog entry), my left ankle is still twice the size of my right and the pain is fairly constant. I’m not healing as fast as I thought I would (delusionally so), but the fact is, I am getting better. It’s slow going but I’m getting there.

Hopefully it will be the same with the writing.

Written by Young

June 3, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Random #70: David Dunn and Mr. Glass

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“Don’t worry about me,” I said to my brother Jason and Mark from the gurney, bleeding from multiple gaping wounds, heading into my first of five surgeries. “I’ll be out of here in a couple days. You’ll see.”

Sixteen weeks later, I’ve just had my cast taken off and am walking to a taxi with my brother after a feast at Dos Tacos.

“Don’t ride anymore,” he urges, something he rarely does because he knows I’m just going to do whatever the hell I want.

“It’s okay. I’m invincible.”

“Whatever, Mr. Glass.”

My brother Jason momentarily confuses my statement as an allusion to a movie I often reference with regard to myself, Unbreakable (2000)*. I believed that if quasi-superheroes walked among us, I was one of them. I’ve survived countless collisions and scrapes and a few-near death experiences and survived with a lot of stitches and bruising but no breaks beyond a boxer’s fracture in my right fist from punching what I thought was a wooden door but turned out to be something like those petrified redwoods in California. I broke through the windshield of my first car in a head-on collision and walked away with about thirty stitches, a lot of bruises, and an ER bill that made me contemplate suicide, but I was fully functioning after only a couple days. This is one of the reasons why I believed I would die at 35 or live forever**.

This misplaced belief in my invincibility has not faded much, although I admit that I can no longer compare myself to David Dunn unless my superhero weakness is not water (which, coincidentally, I am deathly afraid of) but a sedan crushing my leg into my motorcycle at 50 km per hour. Aside from the first couple weeks of my hospital stay in which I was constantly asking for painkillers, the sixteen weeks of my hospitalization thus far has been relatively pain-free. Even after each step in my slew of surgeries, the post-operative pain lasted only as long as I was in the recovery room. This shit is a breeze, I thought.

That’s what I thought until I had my cast taken off on Thursday and tried to put a small portion of my weight on my newly unencumbered leg. The unbearable, shooting pains in my foot that brought tears to the corners of my eyes told me clearly—This is only the beginning of the pain, motherfucker.

The pains were right and feel the need to remind me every time I put a reasonable amount of weight on my leg. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. I was supposed to be walking, without crutches, within a couple weeks and be back on a motorcycle within the same time frame. I can’t even flex my ankle—every time I try, I can only manage to raise and lower my big toe—and I know that the pain I feel is only a harbinger of the pain to come.

“You’ll be on crutches for at least the next two, three months,” the owner of the coffee shop downstairs said, his wife nodding knowingly beside him. (My doctors don’t talk to me so I get most of my medical advice from my barista.) “It probably won’t be for another six months that you’ll be able to walk normally.”

Had he said this before I had my cast taken off, I wouldn’t have believed him. I would’ve done what I normally do when an older Korean feels the need to dispense his nonsense on me, nod and smile and pray that one of us will fortuitously get an important phone call. Having physically experienced the obstacles I will have to overcome in the coming months and the limitations of my healing ability, my nod was one of acknowledgement.

IMG_6058

Comparison of my legs, the day the cast came off

* He wasn’t referring to Invincible (2006), the story of Vince Papale. Although I love fantasizing about walking-on and playing in the NFL, I was already far too small and out of shape for that to happen before the accident. Now, I don’t even know if I’ll ever be able to run again, which would make it impossible for me to be the next Devin Hester.

** I really don’t want to live forever. I’d much rather go in a horrible motorcycle accident than in my sleep. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time left to make the first deadline in my prediction. Perhaps this accident was supposed to be it—it happened a few days after I turned 35—and the universe is telling me that I have no choice but to live forever. Not that I’m not going to try to struggle against the powers that be with alcohol and cigarettes.

Random #69: The Sun outside Yonsei Bon

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An hour before lunch, I hobbled down on my crutches to the coffee shop on the first floor with my trusty Daiso* thermos for my morning coffee. The couple who run the coffee shop are real nice—it seems like I’m their only customer—and they dress too nicely for this neighborhood. Sitting outside with my coffee and occasionally puffing on a cigarette, I spent a good while soaking up some sun. No looking at my phone or talking to anyone or looking at anything in particular. Just enjoying the weather. Cats and dogs know the secret of life. There’s not much better than lying in the sun with not a thought or care in the world.

I’m still in hospital clothes, blue pinstripes which hide the kimchi and coffee stains a little better than the patterned white at CAU. The new “hospital” is a dump. I passed by the building practically every day before the accident and I always thought the building was abandoned and waiting to be torn down. There is very little regard for sanitary conditions, and when I get my daily morning shot in the ass, the hand that slaps my ass to distract me from the pain has freshly slapped the ass of the 70-year-old in the bed across from mine without a good slathering of hand sanitizer.

Food’s slightly better here, though, and the nurses’ disregard for our welfare allows me almost free rein to come and go as I please. My apartment building is even closer than I believed it to be, practically next door, and I slip out twice a day to use the bathroom and wash up. The bathroom in the “hospital” smells like stale urine and causes me to gag if I try to brush my teeth here. The other day, I went home and took my first shower in almost four months, sitting on a plastic stool with my cast resting on the toilet.

The back door of this place is open 24 hours for smoking and all I have to do is brave three flights of stairs on my crutches to slip out and drink at the bar I was helping with construction the night of the accident. I’d sneak out and sleep at home but I’d never be able to wake up early enough to make it back to this room in time for breakfast.

The patients here are very different from the ones at the university hospital. “Nylon,” people refer to them, meaning perfectly unhurt people scamming for insurance money.** It feels like a dorm for taxi drivers—probably 90 percent of the “patients” here—and every night the 70-year-old tries to get me to drink soju with the rest of them. Right now, they’re on the one unoccupied bed, talking shop and drinking soju and snacking on blood sausage, oden, and cow intestine.

IMG_5960[1]

The 70-year-old sleeping off a hangover

I still haven’t been able to write. I was finally starting to settle into a groove at CAU when they told me to leave. I should skip out on afternoon physical therapy—for my back, which is fine aside from the acute scoliosis I’ve had since I was a kid—and set up camp at the coffee shop downstairs. Even if it takes time to find a groove, at least I’ll be able to enjoy the sun.

* Forgive me for flaunting my status; I’ve been in Korea too long. For those of you who haven’t spent time in Korea or Japan, Daiso is the Japanese dollar store that seems to be more prevalent in Korea than in Japan from what I’ve seen. Maybe when I collect the insurance money in a year or two, I’ll be take a step up the social ladder. Probably not.
[correction 4/2/14]: According to one of the worst Wikipedia pages I’ve read (in terms of conflicting facts), there are far more Daiso in Japan. Apparently, there are also Daiso all over the world, including the US (all/mostly West Coast). This is what I get for trying to be a snob. The first American location is Korean-heavy Lynnwood, Washington, just north of Seattle. I have been in Korea too long. It opened in 2005.

** I asked a couple of people why they call them “nylon.” Nobody knew. Naver says that it comes from before the 1970s when nylon came to Korea and people thought it was great because it was a new fabric but then they realized it was artificial and weak. Over time, it got bastardized to the point it became an adjective meaning fake. It’s thrown around very often in places like this. Nairong.

Random #68: X-rays Are Fun

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I’m finally leaving CAU Hospital after five surgeries and 13 weeks. I’ll be heading to a small clinic five minutes away from my place in Bongcheon for perhaps the next four weeks. One of the things I need to deliver to the new hospital is a DVD of all my x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. After I managed to find a computer with a working DVD player, I scoured through the many files and chose the ones that paint a picture of my progress.

Initial damage from the accident, 20 December 2013

131220 ankle 1_edited

Ankle, front: My foot looks weird because the specialist is holding my bloodied and mangled foot still. You can see the fractures in both bones of my leg if you look closely at the bottom of each one (the round parts that stick out).

131220 ankle 3_edited

Ankle, side: My heel was also broken but it’s hard to tell. You can also see part of my tibia fracture at the top.

131220 tibia 1_edited

Tibia, front: The break, while complete, wasn’t very clean.

131220 tibia 4_edited

Tibia, side: I didn’t know about that third piece of bone that broke from the front of my leg until I saw this x-ray. You can also see a mass of what must have been the shredded muscle where the bone broke through the front of my leg.

First surgery, 20 December 2013

131220 ankle post 1_edited

Ankle, side: You can see the metal pins holding the broken ends of my ankles to the rest of the bone and the screw attaching the broken bone in my heel.

140114 tibia_edited

Tibia, front: The smallest piece of bone was screwed into the lower half of my tibia and an external rod was installed to keep my bones from moving around. There is a big gap between the two halves of the tibia that remained until the fourth surgery.

131220 tibia post 2_edited

Tibia, side: The halves of the tibia may not line up from the front, but at least they line up from the side.

Second surgery, 3 January 2014

The doctors removed a hematoma from my leg, opening up the wound and scraping out the coagulated blood from my leg. All flesh, no bone, no x-rays.

Third surgery, 16 January 2014

140116 ankle 1_edited

Ankle, front: Same photo from my earlier post. They removed a few pins and screwed a plate on one side, the outer ankle. They also removed the external rod. I don’t know why. You can see where the screws used to be, the bone is lighter.

Fourth surgery, 29 January 2014

140129 tibia 1_edited

Tibia, front: There is a gap between the two pieces of my bone because my bone was infected. At least they screwed both pieces to a plate even if they don’t line up well.

140129 tibia 2_edited

Tibia, side: The bones line up from the side. I wonder if the gap will end up making me taller if I stand on one leg.

Fifth surgery, 13 February 2014

140227 tibia 1_edited

Tibia, front: There is a cloud of dark gray in and around the gap in my leg. The cloud is bone from my hip.

140227 tibia 2_edited

Tibia, side: It always looks a lot better from the side as long as you can ignore how long those screws are. You can see the screw still there in my heel.

I have to return to CAU as an outpatient for x-rays and, hopefully, to get my cast off. My foot is really starting to reek.

Rejection #6: The Longest So Far

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When I woke this morning, I had a reply from an agent waiting in my inbox.

Dear Mr. Beck,

My name is [assistant name], and I’m [agent name]’s assistant at [agency name]. Thank you very much for your query and patience–we sincerely apologize for not responding sooner, but due to the sheer volume of queries we receive, we find it difficult to get to all of them in a timely manner.

We just reviewed your submission, and after conferring with senior members of the agency, I regret to inform you we are going to have to pass on The Accidental Citizen Soldier. We read your query with interest, but we’re afraid your project does not fit our current list, as [agent name] isn’t looking to acquire any memoir titles at the moment. Please do not despair–we are confident that with your talents and some perseverance, your book will find a home with the right agent.

Of course, our opinions are entirely subjective and other agencies may feel differently. I encourage you to query widely, as you never know who will feel that “spark” for your book as it currently stands. We appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you the best of luck finding representation.

Regards,

[assistant name]

[assistant name], Assistant

[agency name]

After I read the rejection in full, I wasn’t even upset. So what if the rejection is three months late? So what if the agent’s website said she was looking for memoir? It feels like there was a lot of effort taken in writing this e-mail, perhaps more effort than I put in my queries.

It’s possible that this is the assistant’s standard form rejection, and if it is, this guy (lady? The assistant’s name is gender-ambiguous) is a fucking genius. If this was a sincerely written reply by an earnest young assistant, I would tell him (her?) to go ahead and use it for a standard form rejection. All it would take is replace my name and title of my book with whomever the agent was rejecting at the moment.

Yes, I’d rather get a lengthy standard rejection like this that seems sincere than a short, seven-word rejection that is clearly sincere. Why? Because the agent-writer dynamic in the query process is severely skewed toward the agent. The agent doesn’t have to write a polite rejection. The agent doesn’t have to write a rejection at all. At least the former tells the writer the agent has manners. The latter tells the writer that this book that you’ve worked years on is only worth seven of my words.

[Hospital update] I’m still in the hospital. Week 12. I’ve started writing again, mostly out of sheer boredom. But I’ve also started smoking and having my daily coffee and sneaking shots of whisky at night, all of which help my creative process.

Random #67: Hospital Update – Fourth Surgery

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I’m hoping this is my last post from the hospital. The surgery was a week ago and the reason for the delay was mostly a lack of confidence that this surgery was really the last surgery, a bit of superstition—I don’t want to jinx it—and a bit of laziness as well. I’ve decided to post today because it has been a week since the surgery and this morning the head doctor came by on rounds and had his underlings staple up the drains for my wounds.

staples
The doctor is in the process of stapling my skin, pinching the two sides together with tweezers

The surgery was shorter than the others and all the surgeons did was cut a hole in my side, scrape out some bone from my hip, open up a new hole in my leg, and stick the hip bone material into the gap in my tibia. I didn’t have any new metal installed in my leg—no intermedullary rod after all—and the plate from the third surgery will have to suffice in keeping my leg together while the hip bone stuffing cements the two pieces together.

The real problem is my hip

When I was a sophomore in high school, I started a game as fullback (I was a halfback) for our sophomore football team. Most people scoff when I mention the fact now because I’m not even five and a half feet tall—I peaked in the ninth grade—and the fifteen pounds I’ve gained since then are all in my belly. I was small, but I had strong, fast sprinter’s legs, and heart. I was a Rudy story that never got anywhere.

The first week of the pre-season was Guts Week, where the coaches sacrifice the sophomores as fodder for the varsity team, to beat up and deride and punish as the juniors and seniors saw fit. It was during that week that Sasha something-or-other, the starting fullback for the varsity, obliterated my side during a drill where I was supposed to run with the ball slowly and let the upperclassman hit me as hard as possible. He gave a boyish laugh at the applause from the other backs and trotted off, leaving me to pick up my tattered body on my own. I had pain in my side for the rest of practice and the nurse announced the bad news as I sat in her office while everyone else was washing up: “You have a hip pointer. The bone is bruised.”

hip pointer
Not actually me, but it kind of reminds me of that time

“It’s going to hurt a lot,” the nurse added. “And it’s going to hurt whenever you do almost anything.” She made a motion like putting on a seatbelt. “All of these muscles are attached here so if you cough or laugh or sneeze, you’re going to be in a lot of pain.”

“When can I play football again?” I asked.

“It’s going to be a couple months,” she said, matching up crutches to my armpits.

I was miserable, watching the team play without me, watching players from other positions taking over my position as halfback. And the nurse was right, every cough, laugh, and sneeze caused me immense, debilitating pain, like someone hitting me in the hip with a steel pipe.

Last night, I was lying in the darkness, waiting for sleep to come when I felt the damning urge to sneeze. I was stricken with fear, the fear of a man standing in front of the firing squad, hoping that a call will come to stay the riflemen’s triggers. Instead the pressure builds with deep breaths inhaled through my nostrils. Ah, ah…. No, please no. Ah…. Damn it!

The intensity of the explosion in my sinuses is matched by the intensity of an explosion of pain in my side. I have a healthy, powerful sneeze, like the backfire of an old car. My back is contorted in pain, an immobilizing pain which reverberates throughout my body for the next five minutes. In this moment, I envy an ex-girlfriend who described her dainty sneezes in writing as “etio.” Once the pain subsided, I propped myself up and checked my hip bandage for blood. I must have popped at least one stitch. Thankfully, there is no seepage. I lie back down and wait for the nurse to bring the painkillers.

The problems that come with having general anesthesia three times are hard enough without hip pain

General anesthesia fucks with the brain’s signals to the nether regions, leading to the problems I’ve written about previously—urinary retention and constipation—but the real tricky part is that the problems are like the cold virus, they mutate and what once worked will no longer work. After my first surgery, I could piss when a little bit of hand disinfectant inadvertently made its way into my peehole after four hours of effort. After my second surgery, intentional application of the sanitizer only caused immense, burning pain in my urethra, and I managed to piss only after middle-school pranking myself by dipping my hand in water after four hours of frustration. I was emptying my bowels but didn’t have true release until after I had a cup of coffee.

This time, nothing that had worked would work. Disinfectant still burned my urethra and dipping my hand in water did nothing. Listening to YouTube videos of waterfalls and running water and other people pissing did nothing and after seven hours of exertion, I felt the impending doom of having a tube stuck into my peehole and many, many inches of tubing snaked through my urethra and into my bladder hanging over me. There’s no way I’m getting a catheter stuck in my dick while I’m conscious, I pledged to myself yet again.

In the end, I managed to piss in a way that I thought was a problem in itself last time—by sitting down on the toilet to pee. I don’t know why it worked. I’ve been pissing in my pisspot in bed throughout the past eight weeks and I spent the seven torturous hours sitting up in my hospital bed and trying to pee. Was it the change in scenery? The cold temperature of the handicapped bathroom? Am I really losing my ability to pee like a man?

The next day I woke up to tackle the issue of bowel movements. I had skipped breakfast the previous day to focus all my attention on handling my urinary retention, but rewarded myself afterward by eating big meals for lunch and dinner and felt bloated in the morning. I wheeled myself out to the bathroom and nothing. I had breakfast and filled my already full stomach even further and still nothing. Not only was I constipated, but I was also so full of shit that it felt like my bowels were going to explode. Shit, they’re going to give me an enema. I guess it ain’t so bad, at least not as bad as a catheter. But no, I don’t want to have anyone sticking anything in my butt.

I knew what I really needed so I waited until Mom was getting sleepy and told her I was going out for a walk with my older brother, both of whom came to watch over me during the day. I rolled myself out to the elevator and took it down to the first floor and rolled straight through the lobby out into the fresh air. Once outside, I rounded the corner and to a stop near a pair of vending machines. I took a deep breath of fresh air and then I took out my pack of cigarettes and lit up. I’ve been lighting up once a day since before the surgery. I smoked that cigarette down to my fingers and flicked it into the ash tray and rolled back inside.

Once inside, I could already feel the gases in my stomach looking for release. I let out a timid burp and then one with a little more gusto. I don’t know if anyone would agree with me, but I truly believe that cigarettes help settle my stomach. I’ve had stomach problems since I was in elementary school and smoking was one thing that I feel helps. By the time the elevator hit the 13th floor, I bypassed my room and headed straight to the toilet.

I’ve noticed one thing about my difficulties with bodily functions and it’s that my hip is an issue. The muscles I use to pump urine from my bladder and the muscles I use to clench are connected to my hip. There was a day I didn’t have a bowel movement since then and I realized that I had to force myself to use muscles that would cause me pain in order to evacuate my bowels. I even need to consciously use those muscles to flatulate.

Now that I can walk, I can’t

I’ve been given crutches. After eight weeks of being bed-ridden and only being able to get around in a wheelchair, I can finally get around upright like a human being. I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. The day I received them, I decided to take the crutches out for a spin. It was tougher than I thought possible. I’ve never had to do legs when I hit the gym and I’m not one of those freaks that look like those popsicles that you split apart.

popsicleleg day

Again, not my pictures, “Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.”

Now I know for myself how much bullshit all of those “wake up from a coma and start walking around” stories and movies and TV shows are. It’s only been two months since I last walked and my leg was shaking and I was sweating as I tried to make my way down the hall. When I could finally make a full lap down and back the fifty-yard hall, I had those chills you get after a particularly hard workout.

It’s not only my good leg that is struggling. I also have to keep my bad leg from dragging across the floor and my bad leg is dangling right below my bad hip. Bad hip? Damn, I sound old. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.

The verdict

The head doctor stopped by on rounds the other morning. He usually listens to the report, nods, and walks away as fast as possible. That morning, he decided to impart some knowledge on me.

“Your hip hurts, right?”

I nod.

“It’s going to hurt for another two or three months.”

And he walked away.