You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t written anything in a month. If you were in the right place at the right time, you may have seen the Facebook thread where I said that I was putting off all work on the blog in favor of getting my font completely done. Well, I’m done with the font—for practical purposes. It took me almost a week longer than I thought it would, which is no small margin of error considering that from the time I set my deadline until the deadline I planned to hit was only a little over three weeks. And when I say I’m done I can’t say that in all capital letters like I’d like to, because what I really mean is that I’m done with all major work on it. I’ve kerned and I’ve gotten all the OpenType features working right. Those probably mean nothing to you, but they’re useful and actually not all that hard to understand if you can see them visualized, as I happen to have done on page 16 of my big sample booklet. All I have left to do is to fix the kerning and nudge a few shapes here and there. I don’t need to spend any more time compiling huge databases of characters. I’m guessing that the total actual amount of time I’ll need to spend with FontLab open working on these fonts is less than 10 hours between now and when I can send the files off to be bought and downloaded by happy end-users.
Due to the font, there’s really not a whole heck of a lot that you’ve missed from my not blogging for a month. Instead of going on adventures, I’ve mostly sat at my computer, looking more and more like the definition of a pasty-skinned hacker shut-in, or maybe a vampire. I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts and learned some interesting things. But the month of May hasn’t been completely devoid of interesting events, so I guess I should mention what some of them were.
Bob came. Bob is an original hippie, now in his sixties. He went to Woodstock back in the day, and he narrowly avoided being drafted and having to decide whether to run away or to decide that he wasn’t up to trying to evade the US government. He’s vegetarian. Sean met him while he was working at a camp in Cape Cod; Bob lives in a trailer park near the camp and is always affable with the people working at the camp, so he ends up hanging out with them all the time. After putting in a few decades of work herding engineers for the government, he got a pension that’s nice enough that he can spend his golden years traveling around the world and coming back to enjoy summer at home. Korea was his last stop on this year’s world trip, and Sean invited him to use Sachangni as a staging ground for his adventures to the rest of the country. He arrived on a Thursday without having to be picked up at the airport as all of Sean’s other visitors have. (Sean is the only person here who’s had any visitors this year, but he’s had tons: Natalie several times, his parents, his friends Kieran and Naoko who were on their way to Japan, and finally Bob.) He and Sean and I went up to the roof and we all ate dinner together and Bob told some stories. He has lots of stories and an urge to tell every one of them. But he’s done so many different things that they’re almost all interesting stories, so it’s okay. We listened to his stories and then later he took my guitar and started singing old songs that made me wish I’d been around back when they were new.
Some of his earliest experience of Korea came in the form of my school’s Sports Day, which happened that Friday. I think he only watched from the window, actually, but I was right there being a part of it. It was basically identical to the Sports Day that the school held last semester, but I appear not to have ever mentioned that one either, so that does you no good as a description. Sports Day is a big deal. At my school when I was growing up we had Track & Field Day, where the school took a day off from normal classes and set up a series of events for everyone to compete in outside on our big green field and blacktop playground, but I don’t remember any preparation for it happening outside of maybe some special stuff in gym class. Here, they had weeks of practice in order to get Sports Day to go off just right. Every morning for maybe the fortnight leading up to the day of the event, before regular classes started, I would hear music coming in from the playground, which the English classroom overlooks (and now that I think about it, so does every classroom in the entire school). I mainly remember one song that was played on bells, bass drums, and flute, and had a simple but extremely compelling rhythm in 3/4 time; it was almost perfectly composed for getting up and moving around. Over this song was a voiceover of a woman counting, and while it played every morning, the students would stand in a giant grid formation and stretch, using almost the same series of stretches I did in hapkido. Afterwards various different grades of the students would practice highly coordinated dances. When you see videos of the Mass Games in North Korea (if you’re not familiar: here’s one), what you don’t know about them is that these aren’t just a tradition that the Kim dynasty came up with out of nowhere. These are apparently a pan-Korean thing; the tradition of having kids show off their ability to execute a carefully choreographed routine seems to be very highly thought of. It seems very much in keeping with the character of Korea to me, and here I mean Korea the way Koreans mean it when they say Korea—the two countries taken as a whole. They have more in common than many people probably realize. (Though of course a huge number of people in America probably don’t even know there’s a difference between North and South Korea.)
On the actual morning of Sports Day, parents spread out all over the steps at the edge of the playground and stretched out picnic blankets to sit and watch. The day started out with synchronized stretching, and then they got into the events. The dancing was one of the main two things that they did. The other was races. I was a crucial component in the races, in my capacity as ribbon-holder. What this meant was that I stood at the end of the racetrack (marked off by paint on the sand floor of the playground, running the playground’s length) and held one end of the ribbon. Throughout the day the other end of the ribbon was held up by various students, teachers, and the leg of a desk. When competitors came close to the end, I would stoop down and bring the ribbon to the ground so they could step over it. This was exactly as pointless as it sounds, maybe more so. The people determining who was in first, second, and third could have told equally as well if the ribbon hadn’t been there; in fact, they probably could’ve seen better if there had been only the white paint line that marked the end of the racecourse and no confusion from the ribbon (also white). Nonetheless, there I stood, offering that psychological goal for the racers to work toward. There were footraces, three-legged races, sack races, obstacle races, and hurdle races. They really did make the most of a simple theme. After a few race events, there would be a break, and two grades of students (5th and 6th, say) would go out to the middle of the field and dance together. Then there would be more races. So passed Sports Day. There were a few other games toward the end, one of them having to do with throwing balls at two big metal contraptions on poles that swung open when they’d been hit enough times and let out banners saying Congratulations. At the end there was another session of synchronized stretching, and then the students all stood in their grid formation and were addressed by the principal and the vice principal in a closing ceremony, and prizes were awarded (mostly notebooks and pencils and such). And that was Sports Day.
Then Bob, Sean, and I all took a trip to Seoul. Sean was giving the grand tour of Seoul for the last time; he’d already shown the city to Natalie, his parents, and Kieran and Naoko. I, however, had really never done a whole lot of seeing the sights there. I’d gone to Seoul Tower and seen the locked gates to some palaces while just walking along, and that was about it. So I thought it’d be good to check out what there was.
We got there at night and talked with some travelers at the hostel and drank makkeolli. The next morning we hit the city. We didn’t really have a firm idea of what we wanted to do; we planned to just kind of go with the flow. We went to Gwangjang Market first, mainly because I thought Bob might want to have some lunch there where it’d be easy to get vegetarian bibimbap, but it was too early for lunch so the trip ended up being just kind of an aimless diversion where we looked at weird foodstuffs and had snacks. We also checked out the fashion district for no particular reason except the spectacle of it, of which there was plenty. The crowds in Myeongdong bring to mind a beehive or a stampede. We were highly amused.
We moved on to the Korean War Memorial. I’d never been here before, but it was probably my favorite thing of the day. Out front are several very well done monuments, most of them sculpted with a split down the middle. Inside there are busts and drums and artifacts, but the main thing is a long path that shows you the chronology of the war through some actually rather good multimedia that really brought some power and life to the history. Some of the best were the places where they had brush set up to look like the sort of place you’d be hiding in if you were a soldier fighting for the South, and projected onto the wall in front of the brush was a scene showing what happened at some certain battle in the war. There were also tanks and humvees and guns, plus journals and diplomatic notes that I wished I could read. It was of course intensely nationalistic, as you’d expect from a museum about defending your country against invaders, but in that special way that Korea is nationalistic. At some point I’m going to write in full about Korean nationalism. It’s a weird thing.
When we finished, and got out front, there was, unexpectedly, a ceremony going on that looked like it could have been taking place in the 1400s, with bright banners everywhere, people in elaborate costumes and tall complex hats, a red carpet and a stage, and a man periodically shouting and banging on a drum so big that he and two friends could have comfortably sat inside it. What luck to have stumbled upon a traditional ceremony taking place! But then I asked a Korean spectator what this was, and he told me it was a royal wedding, and since there is no royalty in present-day Korea I connected the dots and determined that we were watching a reenactment. This disappointed Bob greatly. He immediately wanted to just move on, so we did.
The last stop for the day was the royal palace, 경복궁 (Gyeongbokgung), which offered even more reenactments to disappoint Bob, though he didn’t seem to be quite as disappointed when he knew from the outset that it was all fake. As we were entering through the main gate, so was a procession of men towing drums on carts, all the men wearing royal-style old clothing, each one with a beard and a mustache, most of which were painted on with mascara or something because facial hair is considered such an oddity in Korea that even if you make your living as a historical reenactor you still don’t want to be seen in day-to-day life not being clean-shaven. (I have seen some Koreans with facial hair, but very few. Many of my students still haven’t gotten over the presence of my beard and like to reach out and touch it whenever they get a chance and are feeling brazen enough.) We didn’t go into the palace itself because it was crowded and we were feeling tired of walking and thrifty, so we sat next to the inner gate and watched things happen. Eventually we had seen pretty much all the happenings that appeared to be on the docket of happenings for the day, so we called it a day and went to relax at the hostel with some makkeolli and a guitar. We watched the supermoon (one day late) and decided that it did seem a little bit bigger than usual. And since then I consider myself to have seen the sights in Seoul.
Bob took off for other parts of Korea and I got back to my font from the welcome distraction he had been. That week we had Teacher’s Day, which was kind of nice because there was a ceremony and I got a boutonniere and Amanda got a little bouquet in a basket. And one kid gave me a note in Korean about how he likes my teaching and thinks English class is fun. I couldn’t quite interpret all of it, and also, to my enormous shame, I was looking at the note when he handed it to me instead of at his face, and when I looked up and thanked him I forgot to memorize who he was and he just blended right back in with the rest of the class. Koreans don’t all look the same to me anymore, but a lot of them do. In my after-school class there are two girls, Shi-eun and Seo-won, and they still look practically identical to me. They even have the same pink glasses frames. What am I supposed to do? I feel so bad that I don’t know anyone’s names, but they just don’t stick, and I suspect they never will in the little time I have left.
Some evenings, I’ve been taking short breaks away from FontLab by jogging with Sean. I said I would, and I have, and it’s been pretty refreshing. We don’t get out quite every other day, but we do end up getting out at least twice a week and some weeks three times. The last time we did it, on Thursday, I went barefoot, and the world didn’t end and I think no one even noticed, so I’m going to keep that up. Next time I climb a mountain I plan to have my soles toughened enough that I can make it all the way up and down without my shoes. In fact I might even be able to carry this out during some of my travels. I’ve been looking for a backpack, and on a recent trip to Seoul I found one that looks good, and it has a shoe compartment in the bottom, so that would be pretty handy. Most people would wear say a pair of tennis shoes and use the compartment to store their hiking boots, but I’d enjoy just going barefoot and using it to store the shoes that I’d wear if I ever needed to wear shoes.
The trip when I found that backpack was the same trip when Sean and I climbed 도봉단 (Dobongsan), just this last weekend. By now you’ve heard report after report of the mountains we’ve climbed, so I’ll try to distill this to just the things that were new and hopefully interesting. First of which is that Dobongsan is actually located physically within the city of Seoul. Russell expected that this meant it was really just sort of a hill that the Seoulites have decided should be preserved and made famous. Sean and I found out through experience that it is a completely legitimate mountain. It’s one of a couple of mountains, the other named Bukhansan, that have traditionally marked the northern limits of the city. Certainly there’s been basically no development on it aside from trails and the odd temple or shelter here and there, which is surprising enough given the absolute frenzy with which the city around it has been developed. I guess it’s sort of Seoul’s version of Central Park, except it’s far less central, and also it hasn’t undergone the manicuring of every inch that Olmsted and Vaux did with Central Park.
At the bottom, just outside the limits of Bukhansan National Park (which encompasses both of the mountains), is where you find the things that are inevitable at the nexus of a national park and a city full of ten million Koreans: food stands, and outdoor gear stores. The breeding grounds at this particular place are incredibly rich for both of these niche organisms, and there is a tremendous profusion of both. You can find any Korean food that exists at the bottom of this mountain, and if a brand of outdoor gear exists in Korea, you will find an outlet for it here, one of the dozens upon dozens of stores lining the roads at the entrance. Buying some kimbap to eat on top of the mountain, we passed these and entered the park, where a park ranger with crooked teeth and boundless charisma explained to us in detail our various options for routes up the mountain, and made sure we knew that we were not to slip off any of the steep rocks into the deep valleys and make him call a helicopter for us. And so we ascended. The ascent was mostly like any of our other mountain ascents until we got pretty close to the top. Then the greenery became much sparser and gave way to rocks. While at Seoraksan last fall there were staircases sunk into the stone, here we walked directly on the rocks, which were at some points nearly vertical, with our support consisting of a series of poles driven into the stone with sturdy ropes strung between them. A lot of Koreans were ahead of us and keeping us from going any faster, but we probably couldn’t have sped up a whole lot even if we’d wanted. It was some tough terrain. But the views were worth it. As we approached the first of the three peaks, we would stop here and there to catch our breath while sitting on some huge boulder looking out over side of the mountain. Unlike all the other mountains we’d climbed, here, the views weren’t of wilderness but rather, of course, of the city of Seoul. And what a strange sight it was. The corner of it that we could see from atop Dobongsan was just a vast plain of apartment buildings, spread out for mile after mile, every single one of them the same color, most of them the same height, looking from this distance like a growth of bizarre lichen. There was lots of smog, too, of course. But I was struck more by the uniformity. Closer to the center there’s more variety, and what I was looking at was basically the analog to suburbs that exists in a country that’s too small to have sprawling subdivisions. Still, it was strange.
We got to the first, somewhat shorter, peak, and a helicopter was flying around at one of the other peaks, maybe half a mile away from us. I thought it must be rescuing someone—our lively guide had told us that two days ago a woman had fallen and was airlifted out, and that this was by no means uncommon—but it didn’t stop, just kind of buzzed randomly around. It went below the level of our peak, so for the first time I saw the blades of a helicopter from above. I’ve probably seen the back of a flying bird before at some point, but I really don’t remember when; that day I saw that too. We were fairly seriously high up.
To get to the next peak we held on tight to the ropes and inched down a tenuous path that was more suited for mountain goats than for throngs of people. Envision two peaks of a mountain, both of them above the treeline and practically vertical. There’s a ridge between the two peaks, but that ridge isn’t traversible. Instead envision a little ledge that stretches between the two peaks, going down along the steep wall and then horizontal briefly and then back up to join the other peak. I thought it was tremendous fun. Sean fears descending anything and every word he spoke was suffused with worry until we started going back up, and then he was overjoyed. We got to the top peak but unfortunately there was a giant unclimbable rock in the way of our view of the city, so we had already seen our best view of the day. There was another peak, but we got confused and didn’t find our way to it, so that was that for Dobongsan. We climbed back down and ate fish and porkburgers, and then we went home well exhausted.
That was this last weekend. It was a three-day weekend here, too, so we had time to recover. In the US it was Memorial Day, and here it was Buddha’s 2,556th birthday. So I went, with Sean, up to the temple in town around lunchtime. Having done some cursory reading, we’d found that we would probably be served a free lunch of bibimbap. And it was so. We came up the stairs to the courtyard and there were chairs set up facing toward the bell in its shelter on the hill, and the five-color banners strung up overhead. Soldiers were walking around everywhere and there were musical instruments on the chairs at the back. The soldier at the greeting booth told us to go in and have lunch. The bibimbap wasn’t the best bibimbap ever, but it was free so I’m not going to whine. After we ate we waited around to see the orchestra play and the ceremony start, but then it turned out that we had gotten there at pretty much the very end of the party, and everyone was starting to go home. The musicians grabbed all their instruments and left, and the bowls of bibimbap all disappeared from inside the temple. We talked briefly to a Korean woman from down the road, which was kind of nice, and then we were given snacks to take home and bracelets of beads and we left. So I guess we mostly missed that holiday. Oh well, I suppose.
There have been a few other things that happened, but I’ll talk about them in some other post. This one has already gotten long and scraggly and anyhow I’m due to go downstairs and hang out. I’ll write again in much less than a month.