Brutal Honesty

Mommy:  Does my hair smell?

Me:  No, you’re fine.  [I’ve been married long enough to know the rules.]

Mommy: Are you sure?

Me: Yep.

…[a half an hour later at breakfast]

Cookie: Mommy, did you take a shower last night?

Mommy: No, I was too tired.

Cookie: Your hair stinks.  Go take a shower after breakfast.

Mommy: But you told me…

Me: Making breakfast must have messed up your hair.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Poetry Challenge (7th Grade English Terrors All Over AGAIN).

So I received this challenge from Blunderdad (how do grown men get roped into these things?  Oh right.  Dads.)  to write a ten line poem with the “love” in each line and only four words per line, the “Love in ten sentences” Challenge. The last time I wrote a poem was … seven grade English class?  Having to stand up and read the abominable thing was a nightmare.  Publishing this one on the internets?  Well, at least my fly isn’t down this time.

Love has no shame:
Love’s a dad who,
Loves you shifting blame,
On that lovely fart,
Ungloved with stinky aim.

Love can be chaotic:
When there’s trash allover,
Sloven cleaning is quixotic,
Yet love doesn’t blame,
Beloveds hoarding the exotic.

Signs of terrible poetry?  Stretching the rules of challenges and literary decency. At least I’m not trying to rhyme “collagen” with “apologin” (or name you a direction, Cookie).

I think there’s part of this process where I’m supposed to nominate others to share my pain in trying to compose bad poetry, in the spirit of those fun 90’s emails that promised me that Bill Gates would personally give me a jet and ten million dollars if I forwarded the thing to ten people.  I’m not going to nominate anyone.  You’re welcome.  And you’d better be appreciative, too –I’m giving up a private jet and ten million dollars so that you don’t have to relive terrible moments of middle school English class.

The Dangers of Korean Soap Operas and Grandmothers

Halmoni*:  Cookie, sit next to me.  My soaps are on.

Mommy: Mom, its 9:30.  It’s way past Cookie’s bedtime.

Halmoni: She’s fine.  Look, I raised you, and you turned out ok, right?

Mommy: But you never, ever let me watch TV when I was growing up.

Halmoni:  Shhhhhhhh!

Cookie:  Why is everybody crying?

Me [stupid jet lag killed the internal dad filter]:  She cheated on her husband, who also cheated on her with her sister.  Their mom found out and is trying to use it to take over their company, and their dad is dying.  I think.  I don’t understand Korean.

Me: [Dammit, now I’ve got some explaining to do.]

Cookie:  Ok.

Cookie:  What’s cheating?  Are they not playing by the rules?

Me: [YES! Off the hook!]

Me:  Yep.  They’re getting very sad because they always change the cards when no one is looking.**

Cookie:  It’s silly to get so upset about something so small.

Me:  That’s the point of Korean dramas.  You can tell by all the serious music.

Cookie: Dun dun DUN!

Halmoni: Shhhhhh!


* Grandma

** Candyland, not poker.  I’m not that advanced (must teach probability before teaching poker) irresponsible of a parent.

Jonyesa Temple -Inner Peace with Toddlers

Looking at the Brooklyn Bridge or Fraunces Tavern, it’s easy to forget just how young America is compared to the rest of the world.  Yet, places like Jonyesa were already half a millennia old (the current iteration of the buildings may be newer) when the Brooklyn Bridge was new.  It’s an ancient, but still functioning temple surrounded by high rises in the middle of a cramped and modern city.

Like many Buddhist temples, there’s a large gate, though here, a third is blocked by a concrete building.


Walking over to the main temple, there are two trees believed to be four to five hundred years old.


Apparently, it’s custom to venerate them.


The main temple itself is a thing of beauty.  The colorful roofing and the painted panels showing the scenes from Buddha’s life enclose three gargantuan statues of Buddha and thousands of smaller statues.    We’re not Buddhists, Cookie, and, since this is someone else’s place of worship, Mommy and I stayed outside.  Halmoni*, a devout (never misses mass on Sunday, and occasionally goes every day) Catholic, still feels the need (her grandparents were Buddhists) to bow in front of the statues whenever she visits a temple.  You, of course, went with in her.


As Mommy and I walked around the outside looking at the exquisite decoration, three things became readily apparent.  One, each temple has a gong by the door, which sounds the beginning and end of meditation times.  Two, gongs are very tempting to three-year olds.  Three, Halmoni isn’t as fast as she used to be.


Fortunately, many of the people inside apparently had found inner peace, and the loud gong (and your even louder giggling) was merely met by smiles as we bundled you back outside.

The bell tower, properly roped off from inquisitive three-year olds.




What Happens When a Packrat Marries a Hoarder

Cookie:  May I invite Isla over for a playdate?

Me:  Sure.

Cookie:  Are you sure our place is clean enough?

Me: …

(Don’t tell Mommy I said this, but she’s the hoarder.  I’m bad about not throwing things out, but she takes it to another level.  Jeff Foxworthy said that you may be a redneck if you have a set of salad bowls made by Cool Whip.  We have a set of blue toddler snack trays made by Gerber and another green set made by Sprout. It’s not that we don’t have porcelain dishes and bowls; it’s, as your mother puts it, “a waste of good plastic.”  Don’t tell Mommy, but I do try to send them to the recycling bin whenever she’s not looking.  It has nothing to do with having one less thing to wash.)

A Word of Warning about the Seoul Subway

Compared to New York’s subway system, Seoul’s is modern, clean, and convenient.  The train tracks are walled off, with doors that coincide with the subway car doors to prevent people from falling onto the tracks.  Each of the doors are numbered by car number and door number (door 4-3 is the third door of the fourth car) allowing people to arrange meet-ups in the station itself (cell coverage and wifi are available underground).  Station announcements tell you when the next train is coming.  Train announcements tell you the next station in Korean, English, and Chinese.  Major stations have bathrooms.  More surprisingly, the bathrooms are clean.  As a consequence, the elevators are not only quick, they don’t smell of pee.  In short the Seoul subway system is everything you’d expect in a modern subway, so what’s the warning?

Ajumma* #1:  Why do you have a stoller?  Six** is too old for a stroller.

Cookie: I’m three.

Ajumma #2: She’s very tall for three!

Ajummas #3 and #4 nodding in agreement:  Nnnnn!***

Mommy: It’s for the jet lag.

Ajumma # 1:  That makes sense.

Ajummas #2, 3, 4, 5, 6 nodding in agreement:  Nnnnnn!***

Cookie:  Yeah, we flew from America.  It was a loooooooong flight.

Ajumma #7: So she speaks English as well as Korean?

Cookie:   Nnnn.

By now, half of the subway car was involved in the conversation, and we were suddenly under the scrutiny of, and the topic of conversation for, twenty to thirty people.  There’s no rule in the Seoul subways to mind your own business.  In New York, you don’t make eye contact.  In Seoul, it’s quite the opposite, and we became the topic of conversation for half the subway car every single time we rode the subway except for the one trip where the entire subway car started discussing us.  As I don’t understand Korean, I had to ask Mommy to translate.  By the end of the trip, her response was just, “same as last time.”

Oddly enough, the scrutiny and your language skills met the approvals of the Ajumma Inquisitors****, and soon, each Ajumma started rummaging through their purse for something to give you.  Every subway ride, Cookie, you ended up with assorted candy, cookies, pocket lint, and in one case, a muffin.  I was emphatic about not accepting any of this, as, well, you’re literally taking candy from strangers, but Mommy explained that it’s customary for people to give things to cute kids and very impolite to refuse (after refusing the first time a gift is offered), especially since we just passed inspection.

Of course, we didn’t let you actually eat any of the sweets you received, but yeah, I hope the lectures on how you weren’t supposed to accept candy from strangers stuck (after we allowed you to take candy just one more time).

Prepare for inspection.  You’ve been warned.


*  Korean word literally meaning “aunt,” but used to describe an older woman in her 50s with a reputation for pushiness, no verbal filter, and a nose for everyone else’s business

**  In traditional Korean numbering for age, newborns are counted as 1 year old the day they’re born.  You’re not that tall, Cookie.

***  “nnnn” is a Korean sound for “Yes,” though I think Ajumma #3 may have been constipated as well.

**** I think this explains the cleanliness of the subway system and Seoul in general.  If the Ajumma Inquisitors are going to pass judgement on every toddler and stroller they see, they’re certainly going to do something about litterbugs and trash.

Bukchon Hanok Village

Seoul is a city of contrasts, with historic buildings next to modern ones, all surrounded by buildings that building techniques that are just ancient.   Halmoni’s plan was to take us to Bukchon Hanok Village, a section of Seoul not far from Changdeokgung Palace where the houses (hanoks) were preserved to reflect the feel of the Joseon Dynasty.  Stepping into that little alley feels like steeping back into history.

It’s spectacular, except, as we made our trek from the palace, we passed countless hanoks preserved and being used as homes and restaurants.  The first stop was a mandoo restaurant (serving only mandoo and mandoo guk, of course) a stones throw from the palace walls.  While the dumplings were excellent, I think I spent the entire lunch staring at the plaster and log ceiling and other construction bits of the building.


Many other houses, restaurants, and shops along the way held the same charm.




The street famously photographed in Bukchon Hanok Village is located along the side of a hill, allowing a stark contrast between modernity and tradition, with the ancient hanoks backed by the glass and steel skyscrapers.


As a New Yorker, I felt sympathy for the residents, with flocks of tourists outside, until we were invited inside of one of the hanoks (for a fee) by a tour guide for tea –the residents were spending winter in Peru.  Inside, the traditional building techniques were supplemented by modern fixtures for a unique blend of tradition without sacrificing the comforts of the 21st century (not pictured, the marble and stainless steel kitchen and the tiled bathroom).

20150206_162204 20150206_16042920150206_160450

Aside from the tourists, walking around Bukchon is like walking back in time.  A little imagination to remove the utility meters and the power lines, and the quiet streets and ancient architecture suddenly come alive.

Walk a few blocks away, of course, and you reach Insadong, with places like the Ssamzie Mall (one continuous row of shops spiraling around an open air courtyard), full of the bustling energy of youth, selling the latest (and cutesy) trinkets and technology.


We’ll have to do this part of the trip again, Cookie, since you slept through everything except the hanok tour after lunch.

A Word of Warning about Korean Food in Seoul

Korean food in a word?  AWESOME!

In a second word? dangerous.

First, the awesome.

To state the obvious, Korean food in Korea is everything you’d expect, only better.  Miyeokguk, seolleontang, toboki, doenjangjjiegae, bibimbap, and all the different banchan you can imagine, only not loaded with salt or polluted with corn syrup and other processed foods. There are thousands of little restaurants specializing in one or two dishes (it’s not uncommon to see seating for ten to fifteen, a miniature kitchenette smaller than some camp sites or food trucks, and a menu with less then four items), run by mom and pop (and now grandma and grandpa) proprietors for decades.  Even Korean barbeque (you’d think in Korea, it would just be called “barbeque,” but the sign on every restaurant we went to, even the non-tourist ones, said otherwise), had meat marinated in crushed Korean pears (you’d think it would just be “pears”) instead of corn syrup and roasted over actual charcoal where you can still see the wood grains of the sapling.  This isn’t the gas burners or even the flavorless brickettes common in Korean barbeques in America.  Here, you can smell and taste the wood smoke, with the meat melting like butter underneath the slightest crisp of that hint of char.


Cookie, you finished an entire 16 oz platter of Galbi by yourself.  As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder.

Second, the danger.

In many American recipes, there’s a phrase to add black pepper to taste to adjust the proper level of spiciness.  If you’re one of those people, you may starve in Korea amidst the bountiful culinary awesomeness of Korean cuisine.  The non-spicy dishes are often filled with black pepper. While not all places are spicy, the spicy dishes…

The below dinner is a great example of the perils of Korean cooking.* 20150212_194407

At the top of the picture is a bowl of ramen that was turned by this particular restaurant into a bowl of fire. At the bottom of the picture is a bowl of toboki served by this establishment as a bowl of hell.  You’d think that the bowl of hell is hotter from that deep red color, but from a pure Scoville perspective, the bowl of fire is actually hotter: it will melt your stomach, torch every square inch of your intestines, and set the toilet on fire afterwards.  It’s not a coincidence that Koreans adopted bidets with a national gusto.  With that in mind, you’d be tempted to think that the bowl of fire is worse than the bowl of hell.  That’s a fatal mistake.

The bowl of hell, while not as blindingly hot as the bowl of hell, doesn’t wash off.  Yeah, that bears repeating.  Once the inferno starts in your mouth and tongue, that red, sticky, pasty stuff torturing every fiber of your being DOES. NOT. COME. OFF.    Do not be fooled into thinking the canned and bland gochujang you had in the states bears any resemblance to the napalm concocted in some of these kitchens by the deceptively kind, old grandmothers in the kitchen.

Which brings me to the second part of the warning:  Koreans are not big on drinking water with meals.**  Most places will have a water cooler or a water dispenser in the corner.  Larger places will have little, emphasis on little, 4 ounce steel cups in a little sterilizer cabinet.  Many places will have smaller paper cups, or worse, a paper envelope that will hold maybe 2 ounces of water if you’re lucky.  Secure ample water ahead of time (bring your own bottle) before sampling local dishes, as you never know when you might stumble upon that one restaurant summoned from the sixth level of damnation serving hellfire with a side of torture.  Trying to put out the five alarm fire from the bowl of hell in slow, 2-ounces increments with water slowly dribbling out of an empty and obviously neglected water cooler into a flimsy envelope that wont stay open is quite painful.


Envelope and cups next to a standard 8 ounce can for scale.

You’ve been warned.


*  As a matter of perspective, I’m not some bland Midwesterner who can’t handle his heat.    Jalapenos?  Might as well be bell peppers.  Texas chili?  Tasty.  As you know, Cookie, Grandma grows habaneros in the front yard, and these… are far worse than habaneros.

**  Is this ability to tolerate and enjoy heat genetic?  Mommy is perfectly fine with this stuff.  Even you, at 3, aren’t too bothered.  I’ve turned into a fire breathing dragon in need of the paramedics.

Changdeokgung Palace -Secret Garden

Behind Changdeokgung Palace is its Secret Garden, also known to any out-of-shape and sleep-deprived father pushing a stroller as the aerobic exercise from hell.  Don’t get me wrong, pushing a stroller up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden is infinitely better than carrying a sleeping toddler up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden, but there are certain stretches of the place that are quite steep, and other stretches of the place that involve carrying the stroller and the sleeping toddler up a series of steps.

The tour starts ominously up a walled road up a sloped hill.  The tour guide warned of a strenuous walk lasting a several kilometers and kept looking worriedly at our direction.


On the other side of the first hill, we reached a artificial pond surrounded by four pavilions, the king’s library, sitting room, and accompanying structures.  The pond was frozen over due to the -8 degree weather (I never got whether that was in Celsius or Fahrenheit, though it was sufficiently cold enough to make me question our sanity in the timing of our vacation choices). On the plus side, the tourist sites certainly were not crowded.


The king’s library, facing the frozen lake:


For parents with kids, this is the last bathroom opportunity (except of course, for the woods of a national treasure with a stern tourist guide and patriotic citizens standing watch) for the next hour.

Further along is a lake in the shape of Korea (not pictured are the three small austere huts constructed by one of the crown princes to devote himself to study and the greenhouse constructed by the Japanese when they converted the Secret Garden to a zoo) .


What follows next is a tortuous climb up a mountain. The road is unpaved, though dense (it may have been frozen), so that the only difficulty in pushing the stroller was the incline (I think I saw a mountain goat slip and die out there) and the height.  When we reached yet another pavilion near the top, the tour guide saw the gasping people struggling to stand and called a break.  Those intrepid enough to continue could reach the wine pavilions.  The rest would wait for our return.  Most stayed.

Mommy and I took you to the wine pavilions, where one of the kings had carved little streams into the rock, built pavilions amongst the streams, and floated wine cups between them during poetry readings.  You, of course, were asleep, and didn’t benefit from Mommy and my back breaking climb.


After a long way down, we reached the recreation of a nobleman’s house.  After the splendor of the palace, it seemed rather plain, though the clean lines and crisp colors made if fit perfectly into the park.


Small note to my fellow stroller people, the exit to the Secret Garden at the end of the tour consists of 40-ish steps hewn into a rocky hillside.  To avoid climbing that stairway with a stroller, you can exit by retracing your steps (thankfully avoiding the crazy climb to the wine pavilions as the nobleman’s house is close to the scholars huts).  As the Secret Garden is only accessible by the tour, this will allow you the chance to see the garden a second time without a tour guide hurrying you along.

Changdeokgung Palace

Our first stop in Seoul, was Changdeokgung Palace (also known as things you may have missed during your nap)

Main Palace:


Inside the throneroom (it’s interesting to see the incorporation of electric lightbulbs in a place that would otherwise fit comfortably into ancient history… well, minus the stanchions):


Like any tourist, I spent a lot of time looking up.  The artwork on the roof is exquisite.


The doorway to the king’s offices, modified to allow a car to park underneath the overhang.


Random courtyard.  It was really difficult to push the stroller (and carry the stroller over the inexplicably tall door jabs while ducking the short door frames) and take decent pictures. I was really thankful for the stroller however, given the size of the Secret Garden behind Changdeokgung Palace.


Inside the king’s bedroom, converted to a meeting hall.  According to the tour guide, there’s almost a national phobia of fire in these palaces, and the incorporation of electric lighting over torches was enthusiastic.


The residence of one of the relatives of the king (sorry, jet lag and sleep deprivation enforced by several kicks to the head from a spinning toddler in the middle of the night has adversely affected my memory).  You’re going to have to find the purpose of this structure, yourself, Cookie.