Monthly Archives: July 2011

Superficiality

Okay, so I’m willing to admit that the baby’s pretty cute, but the difference between me and everyone else on Earth is that I don’t want to dwell on it too much. I would say, now, to those who wonder just what my wife and I do when we’re alone together—those who seek to illuminate the mysterious darknesses of the world—I would answer that a great majority of our conversations go like this:

Wife: [So-and-so] says Harry is [physically attractive].
Me: Heh.

I once caused a whole conversation (among my in-laws!) to grind to a halt when I declared, in Korean, that all Koreans talk about is people’s faces. And I think those few outsiders who have even bothered to notice Korea would likewise agree that the usual Western love of the superficial has been taken to unusual extremes here, where really every problem is one that can be solved with the aide of plastic surgery. If your eyes are too small, if your nose is too flat—if you look too Korean—you can always get that creepy eye and nose surgery to make yourself look more white. Then there are the pictures you have to send with your resumes, on top of that…

But when I told my wife it was kind of disturbing how so many Koreans are so desperate to change from being Korean to white, she herself also seemed embarrassed, disturbed, and chagrined; clearly she had never thought of it that way; these noses and eyes were features that some Koreans are born with, they don’t belong to white people exclusively; white people just happen to possess them more often than Koreans…

Still, I can’t help thinking how obvious it is that the standard of beauty here is to look as white as possible. And that brings me back to my kid. I hesitate to constantly compliment his appearance because I know that standards of beauty are relative, and that before Korea’s contact with the West, the only beautiful people you found in paintings here were ones with very small, thin eyes. The idea of beauty is, again, obviously, to me at least, totally subjective and relative, which is one reason I’m kind of bothered by this endless slew of compliments directed toward my son.

It’s natural for people to compliment a cute baby. But I’m afraid the complimenting is not going to stop, ever.

The anecdotes I can throw your way are so odd, and so peculiar: Koreans believe that pregnant women should only look at good things during their pregnancy, and that, of course, means no homeless people, and no horror movies. At the same time a pregnant woman should also direct her attention to the beautiful, to help make her unborn child more beautiful, which is why my wife revealed to me yesterday that one of her pregnant friends was looking at pictures of my son, essentially for good luck. This is called taegyo (태교).

My brother-in-law just joked that we should pay him some money for photographing Harry because it’s a foregone conclusion now that the boy is going to be a model—no, you say, looking back at his photo, is he really that pretty?—who knows, maybe not, he certainly looks ugly enough when he’s shrieking for attention.

All of this gets to me because I know that the compliments aren’t going to end as long as we stay here. Koreans are a rather outspoken people, they say what they think, which means that if you come to this country, and you’re fat, or handsome, or ugly, people will constantly tell you that you’re fat, or handsome, or ugly, or whatever, and they won’t expect you to be offended or disturbed because it’s the norm here—if you’re ugly, and you live in Korea, you should be used to it by now.

To contrast, discussing people’s appearances so blatantly is really not something that polite people do in America, at least in the northeast—maybe we talk about clothes, or something ridiculous and strange, like breast implants, and that’s pretty much it. Only a rude, boorish, superficial, and unintelligent person would obsess over physical appearances, but that’s not the way it is in Korea. Either it’s a different culture, or everyone (and I’m serious, every single person) is an idiot here. You should see how they primp themselves in the (rather ubiquitous) public mirrors: so blatantly, in a way that would get them ridiculed endlessly back in America, for being narcissists.

My wife has also joked that she performed plastic surgery on our son when he was in her womb: this may seem really creepy here but it was pretty funny when she said it.

Anyway, I’m disturbed, piqued, bothered, worried, because Koreans think the boy looks good (for now at least), and so long as they do, they’re going to tell him—which means it’s going to go to his head. I think it’s safe to say that constantly telling someone he is handsome through the course of his most formative years is a guaranteed way of making him an idiot.

This is obviously the reason I am so luminous now: maybe I was a cute baby, but I only got uglier as I grew older, and my teenage years were essentially a continuous humiliation of the human spirit, where I was confronted with the most monstrous beast whenever I looked in the mirror, unable, on top of that, to escape my inborn idiocy, laziness, awkwardness, and slovenliness. If I started to look better at all in college, it was because I finally found a place that allowed me to be myself; in high school I felt the most horrific pressure to conform, while in college it was the opposite, and if you acted like anyone else you were a poser. In High School it was so painful for me, and I still have the fiercest resentment directed toward that period, and I sometimes feel like my former classmates are still laughing at me for being such a loser. But college changed at least some of that.

What does this senseless, gratuitously self-indulgent ramble say? That intelligence is best (even though we’re all basically the same), that superficiality is worst, that to gain intelligence, you must lack superficiality, and to lack superficiality, you must leave Korea, and go to America, where people probably won’t obsess over your son’s appearance so much, but you’ll have to live through an economic collapse if you go there, and that will totally suck, so what can you do except sell your baby to the diaper companies (like Mason Moon) and ride the wave of cash like a bellyboarding slob?

This is what we can hope for—that the baby will be cute enough to whore out to photographers for exorbitant amounts of cash, then turn ugly as a teenager so people stop complimenting him (my wife and I were both pretty unattractive youths), and then grow up a nice smart philosopher, with two parents still benefiting from the absurd superficialities of his babyhood.

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Platonic Rain

The water roared down in torrents just like this when I first arrived in the city, dousing everything in a gray, blurry film of bursting raindrops. Deep vibrating puddles gathered in the gutters as the speeding cars slashed through them, while people walked by the windows under floating umbrellas: that first storm is the same as this one. Not a second has passed; it’s still the same ash I met when I came to Busan; the passage of two years and all the transformations of life therein were an illusion.

It’s not so difficult for me to deal with the rain because I come from a rainy place; in fact I love the sight of it. To see the misty high-rises stretching out of the bottom and up past the top of our apartment’s massive glass window reminds me of all the dark leaves back home that would be thrashing so wildly in a storm like this.

The real difference between there and here is to be met under the summer sun, when some Koreans at least do their best to fit as snugly as possible into their Western stereotypes. Little old ladies as pale as corpses or Noh dancers shade their wrinkled cheeks beneath diminutive rose-spotted parasols. Children run around in their white taekwondo outfits like Jedi Knights-in-training, and motorbikes weave through them as they dart over the striped crosswalks and the tar that is painted green and red, howling up steep concrete-mantled hills.

But I suppose for the most part it’s pretty much the same: there are different designs and variations in the patterns of life, but the rain is boiling over everything, and the sun is shining, just as it does anywhere else.

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The Path to Chinese

Notes.

So I started a new project about nine days ago, a twist on the fault journals of Benjamin Franklin and Leo Tolstoy. I don’t know what else to call them—they’re not diaries, they’re almost like account books, where instead of numbers and prices you take down your faults and achievements of the day, tally them up, compare them to other days, and try to improve yourself over the course of your entire life. It’s a method of perfectionism, a way to keep track of how close you are to attaining your goals.

Perhaps I’m not so obsessive about it as they may have been, and I’m not really keeping track of the bad things I do, but I have set out a number of basic goals for myself. To achieve all of them, every day, would bring about a great deal of happiness. The idea that this thin book is there, and that I have to fill it out every morning, and think over what I did the day before, should push me closer to the person I want to be. Gibbon wrote that the invention of money created more wealth, and that the invention of writing created more words, and in my mind this means that really keeping an eye on what you want will bring you closer to getting it.

Great writers probably give about eight hours of each day to their work, but for now I can only spare 4—ideally I would have eight, with an hour or two for eating and exercising in between—and then there is reading (2 hours); the need to get up at or before 7; guitar practice (1 hour); running (1 hour); photography (1 hour); and, at last, language learning (1 hour).

I had neglected this last necessity for several days because I am far from being able to achieve everything that I desire. Nonetheless I decided to get back to work on Korean this morning, after guzzling a cup or two of strong coffee, and reading just a few pages of William H. Prescott’s The History of the Conquest of Mexico—What can I say? I was inspired. I started taking down vocabulary from the racist, ignorant, but fun, Iutnara Monnara, or “Near Countries Far Countries”, by Ree Won Bok, something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, after spending hours translating the text and filling the margins with notes. I started transcribing to help better remember terms like “ceramics”, “pottery”, and “Neolithic Age”, and checked my definitions with a portable electronic dictionary that my wife bought a few years ago.

Pretty self-explanatory, and very typical, blood-libel type stuff from Ree Won Bok's Near Countries Far Countries. Of course if it were really true it would be impossible for anyone to discuss these things. There's also plenty of idiotic jingoism about how much better Korea is than Japan.

This device is pretty amazing. It contains four languages, English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, it can speak every word aloud, and effortlessly jump back and forth between languages. It’s built for a country that’s really serious about learning other languages, so it’s no surprise I’ve never seen anything like it back in America, where I believe it’s mostly immigrants and their families who speak multiple languages, without needing anything so fancy to teach them either English or their ancestral mother tongue!

So Korean is a bitch, we all know that, but the question is this—why is it such a bitch? One of many reasons is this: Korea has been close to China for thousands of years, and the peninsula has sponged up a ton of Chinese words; perhaps even sixty or seventy percent of the language is derived from Chinese. But for the uninitiated, Chinese is a tonal language, and Korean is not. A single syllable like ma can have several completely different meanings in Chinese, depending on the tone you use to speak it aloud, but in Korean you get all five of these ma’s, and thousands of other words too, without the tones.

An example gleaned from the day’s work—

공공장소, gong-gong-jang-so, public meeting place. There’s two gongs in there, they’re both Chinese, but in Chinese they would have different tones. There’s public (公, gōng), and together (共, gòng), but in Korean they’re both just gong. This is kind of confusing. I’ve probably whined about all of this before because what am I really except a poor imitation of myself? A linguistical amateur? There’s also another gong I know, a very pretty picture used for airplanes and airports—空—it means “air”.

Anyway, this etymological research led me into practicing my Chinese writing skills, which are barely functional. You’re supposed to write each character in a specific way, and if you mess up the order of the strokes, or write some of them backwards, you’ll probably ruin the effect, and write something that others would find difficult to read. The stroke-order interests me. It’s so counterintuitive. Take two common symbols you see here in Korea: 生 (fresh, shēng, 생) and 無 (Wú, none, 무). For sheng, you have to write the diagonal first, then the top two horizontal lines, then the vertical line, then the last horizontal line on the bottom. Without the dictionary’s instructions I probably would have written the same symbol backwards.

I suppose I discovered that to write in this startlingly different way is a method of imbibing another universe. It’s not enough for an abstract concept like freshness to be expressed with those five lines (symbolizing a plant shooting up out of the ground according to the fascinating Chinese Etymological Dictionary), but to write that symbol in such a counterintuitive way says that by taking up your pen and putting it to this paper you are entering a new world, and connecting with a form of thought that is much more ancient than your own—at least one step closer to the cave paintings that gave birth to writing, than a syllabary like Korean’s Hangul or an alphabet like the one I’m using now.

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Continuing Business English Adventures

So it’s come to the point in my Business English class where I look upon my dozen fully-grown adult students as my own children; actually, secretly, I feel far more affection toward them than I ever did toward the little brats I had to shepherd in elementary school, who would try to stab each other’s eyes out with massive ungainly pairs of rusted steel scissors the moment I turned my back to marker in the date on the white board. When I looked at the faces of some of these kids all I saw was an overwhelming and equally inexplicable urge to stick their fingers as deeply inside my rectum as possible. Not so with the adults.

But in this office tower and even back in elementary school my feelings are mingled with very appropriate existential questions: What am I doing here? Don’t these Very Intelligent People realize I am a complete fool, and that my babbling, my walking, my waving hands and pleasantly shifting tones, are all just instances of the most shameless ventriloquism? That I am not a real teacher, not even a real man, but all pretense? How can they possibly dignify me with the title of seonsaegnim—drawn from the same Chinese characters as the more famous Japanese word, sensai, or master—? How can they pay so much for this unfunny ridiculousness? After all, if I am being remunerated through the roof for these services, the recruiter must be loping off into the darkness with bags full of ringing gold coins.

They were all smiles in this class, they laughed at every one of my stupid jokes, and although it was like pulling out teeth to get them to open their mouths, and although they refused to mingle with anyone outside of their social circles while we were playing a few icebreaker games in the beginning, I did not finish the textbook [which has obviously not been written or proofread by a native speaker, why, why, why, do these companies cut such basic corners?, how hard, how expensive, would it be, to get someone to proofread this??? such idiocy! such arrogance!], and now we’re two days behind, so I feel like quite the fraud, and quite the failure.

These good people may be wondering when we’re going to start learning Business English in our Business English Class.

There were strange, creepy comments from a few of them. One turtle-y fellow who wants to be CEO of the company declared (somewhat in private) that he liked a certain neighborhood in the city because it was filled with clubs. “So many girls”, he uttered, and these are not dance clubs he’s talking about, but brothels, and all I could think of is how uncomfortable this must be for the sole woman in this class, a very nice and thoroughly-pretty-in-the-Korean-sense (skinny as a mannequin, dolled up with more powder and whitening cream than Elizabeth I) lady who constantly attracts the gazes of this sausage fest. I don’t think she heard him. She was a little too busy conversing with the only man in the room who could even possibly be called attractive—yet another pleasant and well-spoken guy who likewise dolls himself up after the fashion of the Elizabethans.

Still, it is so thrilling to talk to them. I know they have a lot of trouble understanding me. I know that they all have questions which they are far too terrified to ask, even if I constantly ask them to ask, and tell them repeatedly that questions are my one true love, my lifeblood, the nectar after the hummingbird’s exile in a flowerless wilderness.

Nonetheless I am closer to attaining my dream of being a professor—one dream nearly opened among a whole gilded bestiary of caged, caterwauling fantasies. I am walking back and forth in front of adults, expounding, exclaiming, making wide Demosthenean gestures, fixing my gaze for lengthy moments on random victims—whose faces can only reply with the expression of the deer caught in the headlights.

I am still certainly a clown, a party entertainer, but I’m not jumping, dancing, or clapping my hands, to the most deranged music, in a prison full of inmates whom I myself want to jailbreak. It’s progress from Korean public school. If I ever attain that position-of-positions, to be shouting about Flaubert or Borges or Tolstoy to a theater packed with alternately rapt and dozing college students, I will certainly, hopefully, say, that this monkey business in an office tower overlooking a bay that hums with cargo ships was a step on the way to that exemplary destination.

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Hustling

Boogie Chillen'.

I climb out of the subway into the whirling afternoon wind, look up and down the roaring street for the address, and of course it’s nowhere in sight, things are never where they’re supposed to be, so I’ve got to hustle—and then there’s the thrill, the sudden thrill of this odd new life of hunting down English students and teaching the shit out of them.

These people are paying through the teeth, they’ve got monetary ebola, they’re bleeding cash out their anuses, they’re financially disemboweling themselves, they’re shitting green Lincoln-faced bricks, because they want me to stand at the head of a table and talk to them. And they know next to nothing about me, how it will be a miracle if a single student learns a single word from my slobbering lips: the Pope will beatify me, people everywhere will devour mountainous platters of kimchi on my feast day, English teachers in Korea will pray to me as their patron saint, if even one word worms its way inside the minds of my students.

So I’ve got to figure out where I’m going.

My heels are clicking and clopping on the sidewalks of the port area in the southwestern part of the city, where enormous cranes rise out of the coasts of curving peninsulas everywhere you look, stretching away into the mist and the ocean. Busan fraughts itself with ships. The blue sea blasts the air, but there are no trees to shake, just tall rectangles of concrete faced with fake bricks and darkened one-way windows. One of them is my building. Salarymen and women are flying in and out of the spinning brass doors, each of them dressed as blandly as possible, and a tuft of my bushy black chest hair is poking out of my radiant pink polo shirt, stained with deepening blotches of sweat.

Corporations!...make it hap-pen!

The conference rooms I find are swank imitations of true style: anything up on this lofty floor that seems elegant is probably made of cardboard, but the windows look out on the bay, and the vast ships checkered with hundreds of varicolored cargo containers, each little box the size of a house. We turn on the air conditioning, but of course Koreans are afraid of air conditioning, so someone opens a window, which means we should just turn the air conditioning off.

The sunset makes everything red before the city fades. The students filter in. About nine fairly awkward thirtysomething corporate slaves, and a single pretty woman in an airy lilac business casual blouse, say hello as they take their seats around a u-shaped conference table. The man who hired me explains everything to them in Korean for about half an hour: he is possibly the sharpest and most charismatic Korean I have ever seen, without even the slightest trace of the pompous, syrupy sleaze that typically oozes out of the pores of anyone in this country who thinks he or she is attractive. He’s kind, trim, well-spoken, polite, and when I look at him I want to wear a nice suit.

And everyone takes this meeting so seriously! They’re so good at pretending that any of this matters! If one is to succeed in the corporate world, one must exude the gravity and significance of eagles perched on mountain aeries, even if one is actually bored to tears, with the soul beating about the bars of one’s ribcage as if thrown into a zoo, desperate to leap out the window and soar over the vast cranes and ships gliding across the blue bay.

Not where I went to work, but still pretty impressive nonetheless!

I do not know where the time goes. We talk. We converse. Ninety minutes of such strain! How can any of them take this seriously! What prevents them from roaring with laughter at my ridiculousness and walking out? Will they get fired if they don’t show up? Don’t they know that I am actually, in fact, an incompetent loser? Isn’t it obvious? The pictures I show them from my life seem to bore them, and as I blab on and on about this or that all I can think of is how few of them must understand me.

The men seem so easy to read. The best speaker is so nervous, scratching his arms, his nose, fingering his pen, forcing his hands together, swaying back and forth, with drips of sweat beading down his forehead—still, no one can speak like him, no one is so articulate. Another freezes midspeech for thirty or forty unbearably long seconds and then gives up. His thoughts must have been racing over how he couldn’t think of anything to say, even as I was gazing into him with the wide-eyed face of a teacher who is desperately trying to draw something, anything, out of his student. Come on! Come on! You can do it! Make a word! Say anything! It doesn’t even matter! But he gives up, apologizes, sits down, looks glum.

I choose him at random to give a short speech in the next class: the burst of rage, sadness, and misery that contorts his face, that microexpression of such agony, makes me pity him even more. I wish I could have randomly chosen someone else…his life seems difficult enough, how he must have slaved and slaved to get this job, and now this

But after we practice a single phrase we’re done, we go. I walk out into the night. People speak nasally, bouncy Russian, homeless men sprawl themselves out into crowds holding empty baseball caps, women wear clothes that leave little to the imagination, I ask a silver-haired Korean vendor with a handsome wolf’s face where his chestnuts are because he’s selling sunglasses now, my wife swears on the other end of the phone when she hears this (“god damnit! sheet!”), and when I ride the subway home I stand near a group of Chinese students whose speech sounds like god knows what, a slurred river of sibilants—darting home, caterwauling through the dark tunnels, with Cortez battling his way across Tlascala in my lap.

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Flyering

The city of Busan takes on such a different character when you don’t spend eight hours a day, five days a week, for two straight years, locked in educational mortal combat with its youngest citizens. In a state of relative freedom the very same hideous alleyways of grime and filth transform, as if through glittering waves of pixie dust swirling out of a magic wand, and become charming, interesting, amusing, delightful, with flowering ivy twisting over the piles of garbage, and whole jungles gorging themselves on the cement.

You notice tourists videotaping once-hideous thoroughfares with wide-open smiles, and the sun gilds the rain dripping off the trees, and children are screaming because they’ve been caught in the sunburst without their umbrellas, and you can see each of them talking about Busan sometime in the future, when they’re much older, and abroad somewhere, talking about how much they miss it, like there’s nowhere else so wonderful.

Nine hours over the course of two days went into putting up fliers—and not a single phone call or email. On top of that, most, if not all, of the fliers were torn down, and probably within a few hours of being put up. Still, it was fun, even thrilling, to do—but we are like Dorothy trapped up in the wicked witch’s fortress, only our red dust in the hourglass is money, and we are running out.

Stay tuned as Ian’s tutoring adventures continue: can he find five more people in a city of four million who want to be tutored to speak English? Or will he be forced to drive himself back into wage slavery? Next! On….Hidden Connections!

On Babies And The Utilization Of Time

I should not be writing this. The last time I had time to write was a little over twelve hours ago, and like a fool I squandered every sweet, luscious, nectar-soaked second of that time on two paragraphs typed into my journal. And then the baby woke up.

Before I thought that having a child would help me focus my free time, and that I would become more of a diligent worker. Somehow I rationalized my way out of my fears and declared that when there is a living drain in your life, into which time and energy and breastmilk and powdered goatmilk swirl just like a tornado’s eye, somehow you still have a few raveled skeins of tattered black cloud left to you—and you can cling to those, and make up for all the hours you lost giving someone milk, changing someone’s diaper, getting someone to burp, trying to calm someone down, trying to put someone to sleep, placing the pacifier in someone’s mouth and keeping it there, wiping up someone’s endless cascades of milk vomit, calming someone down again, getting someone to burp again, putting someone down, picking someone up, wiping someone’s warm viscous puke off of your shoulders and your back—perhaps you can make up for the twelve hours you lost while doing all those things to someone, and give the few hours left to the work you yourself were born for.

The trouble is that those few hours of freedom are scattered into five minute packages which are themselves—what? I am too tired to think of a verb to continue this metaphor. I will put it more plainly: the breaks come and go so quickly, and you’re so worn out in general, that you can’t take advantage of them. You are the baby’s slave. It’s not true that your life totally changes when you have a baby, because I’m still me, I still have the same urges, there is a monster inside me that cannot stop thinking of spaceships, skyscrapers, jihadis in black cloaks galloping over golden deserts, it’s just that now I’ve been locked up!, shackled to a chain gang!, singin’ folk songs while I slam the rails into place!, and I don’t got no time for no jihadis! the train’s huffin’ and puffin’ right behind me, steam’s a screamin’, black smoke’s a churnin’ up into the blood red sky!

And the baby is starting to wake up again.

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The Second Day of Freedom

I have broken the shackles of wage slavery---at least for a little while.

Now I lead the most pleasant existence: when I woke this morning the entire wall was packed with bright white clouds, it looked as if the whole apartment building had flown up into the sky. The boy was screaming, Kim Eunok was caring for him, and actually we had switched off last night sometime between two or three in the morning—I had stayed up with the hungry young monster as he woke and screamed and chugged enough milk for a full-grown hippo about once an hour, hour after hour, and my wife and I had switched off after her aching boobs woke her from her nap. She started pumping them, and the regular wheezing and beating of the strange, pink, breast-shaped machine which she used to accomplish this task, eased me into an exhausted and dreamless sleep.

Kim Eun Ok sits contentedly while nursing our child and watching a popular American Idol ripoff called Nanin Gasuda, or "I'm a Singer."

I ran this morning with my camera and took dozens of pictures of Haeundae Beach and Camellia Island as the sun burned off the fog. The early morning heat and humidity drenched me in sweat after a few minutes, and flushed my flesh to such a deep shade of crimson that I looked like a peculiar kind of devil, holding an ipod in one hand and a bulky black camera in the other, rather than the usual pitchfork.

People who came her from facebook probably just want to get another look at the labor-intensive boy.

The glossy green leaves and rotting pink lemonade flowers blurred past me, I thought of how everything I have written for my novel is so idiotic that I must start myself on some new project about contemporary life rather than interstellar colonization, I dreamed of making music videos, and stopped to snap pictures of glassy half-unfinished skyscrapers rising from the canopy of tropical trees and fog, and then my thoughts drifted to my students—one of whom is the successful owner of a clothing store, a woman who is seemingly juggling a dozen rich handsome young Korean men at any one time, and wrapping every last one of them around each of her pale marble fingers; then there is another ambitious young woman who is fighting to escape to the West; and finally, four young children, two twins among them who want to play heads-shoulders-knees-and-toes endlessly, and then two sisters whose irreverence is equaled only by their really amazing ability to speak English. I do not teach English in South Korea so much as talk to people who have either studied a great deal or not at all.

Reminds me of an odd movie I once saw called Zaerem 2.

Interacting with so many people on such an individual level excites me: I can see deeper into the world, and discover things I never would have imagined otherwise.

Today I will write, read, edit, attempt to put the baby back to sleep after he wakes up, and post advertisements around the neighborhood and possibly the rest of the city, and hope to god that we can get between five and ten new students within the next few weeks, so as to break even, at least, and lose the financial anxiety that hangs over everything that I do now. We have about three months left until the money from work and all the bonuses I wrangled out of my school runs out; if we aren’t making $2000 a month by then, I’ll have to find a new (and I shudder to say) regular job.

My ineluctable destiny.

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