The Cosmic Woman

February 11, 2012

I have a confession to make: I love to read women’s’ magazines. Be it Vogue or Woman’s Day, I find myself dreaming of a more domestic, sleek, pulled-together version of myself whenever I thumb through the pages. It’s like taking a vacation from my real self, the Shelley with messy, always a little too-long hair, the Shelley who burns eggs, cannot mix a proper cocktail, can never apply eyeliner without a shaking hand, and who has never thrown a dinner party in her life. The skill set that apparently every other woman in the world has eludes me. Reading a copy of Good Housekeeping makes me feel like it is still attainable in my lifetime.

I’ve always had this love affair with magazines. When I was a pre-teen, I devoured copies of Seventeen and Teen. Then when I hit my late teens, I turned my attention to Cosmopolitan. In that internet-less age, Cosmopolitan was the Google of everything sexy. The cover photos never featured a model in a cute sundress, or a business suit – always the cover model was the personification of luscious, teased va-va-voom, leaving no mistake about what kind of womanly tricks and bedroom advice was inside.

Of course, at 17 years old, sitting in the back of Geography class doing the “Cosmo Quiz”, hypothetically answering questions about activities and experiences of which I had no real-world knowledge, I felt a sense of empowerment. Cosmo laid bare and celebrated the sexuality that my small town, Catholic school circumstances wanted us girls to ignore.  Having been in a “Family Life” class (Catholic-speak for Sex Ed) that only briefly mentioned effective forms of birth control and spent hours teaching us the Rhythm method, and having watched every graduating class from my high school have at least one round-bellied girl in a taffeta dress on grad night, we needed Cosmopolitan to tell us the truth.

I have envied the younger generation of girls today, because they have so much knowledge, experience and community easily accessible to them. Perhaps they lose some of the sense of mystery that was so intoxicating to us, but they come into the world of being a woman with hard facts, discussion forums, and instructional videos. They are told everything they need to know and encouraged to decide for themselves when and how to use it. Yes, I see the impossible standards of air-brushed beauty and recognize the lining of sexism in song lyrics and advertising, but I also know that there is an equal wave of activism out there that is sane and aware. Parents and educators are raising these young women to look at all the things in front of them with a critical eye, keep what speaks the truth for them and let go of anything that doesn’t. This generation of girls knows better. Don’t they?

Last week, I made a trip to my favorite expat bookstore in Seoul to indulge in a little glossy fun fantasy time. One reason why I love this particular bookstore is that they package up bundles of back issues and sell them for a deeply discounted price. I picked up a couple of bundles, and was secretly delighted to find a copy of Cosmopolitan wedged in between the magazines I had wanted. I don’t buy Cosmopolitan any more. I have only to look at the article titled “ 4 ways 30 kicks 20’s Ass” to know that I am no longer their intended demographic. Still, I curled up with a cup of coffee and a kind of excitement to peek into the world of sexual empowerment and maybe learn a few new tricks that hadn’t been invented when I was still wearing Doc Martens and Flannel.

Here’s what I learned:

I put down the issue, a wave of sad sickness in my heart. Somehow, the empowerment and ownership of what I now know to be a woman’s rich, powerful, ever-evolving, truly female force, her sexuality, had been reduced to a crash course in “How to make yourself less you, and then maybe, just maybe, a boy will like you.”

I had hoped that the smart, sexy magazine I had once loved would still be telling the truth. It didn’t. So, here’s the truth, my own version of buried, unmarketable wisdom that I think every Cosmopolitan Girl needs to know:

A woman is sexy when she knows how to please herself, and has a comfortable relationship with the mirror.

Intelligence and good conversation is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and you wouldn’t want to sleep with any man for whom that isn’t true.

A man will never lose his erection when you take off your clothes to reveal you are a little ( or a lot ) pear-shaped.

 A woman’s sexuality flourishes and deepens well past 35, and so you needn’t be in a rush to see and do everything before 23. Save some stuff for later.

 When you truly are “the one”, and you’ve found the right man, he will call you – the next day.

There should never be games and strategies in a real affair of the heart – it’s difficult enough to make things work just using open, honest communication. Start weighing every word you say, and any genuine feeling is doomed.

You don’t really need to read about how to give a guy a perfect handjob. He’ll be more than happy to show you when you turn up in his bed in all your pear-shaped, offbeat, emotionally honest and smart glory.

You don’t need to dress a certain way, choose a certain kind of movie or have the sexual arsenal of a one-woman army to make your guy “hot”. He needs you. YOU make him hot.

Men are complex, beautiful, brilliant beings who are nowhere near as shallow as this magazine would have you believe. They have insecurities and confusion, just as we do. Corporations and advertisers make money from making men feel good about themselves. They also make money from exploiting women’s insecurities. Follow the money, and you will understand why GQ will never dedicate an issue to analyzing how every fashion and grooming choice, every movie pick affects the way women think of them.

I don’t know if I’m being naïve to think that the filter of time isn’t adding a layer of criticism here. It’s quite likely that the Cosmopolitan magazine of my time wasn’t  any different. Perhaps it was just as misguided and I, at my raw, easily molded age,  confused this kind of cheap man-centric advice with power. I could write a million blog posts about how much I needed male attention to feel validated. I had a heck of a lot of fun and an equal amount of heartache crossing that very long road. Am I now safely on the other side, oblivious to the male gaze? Hell, no. The male/female dynamic is forever compelling and mysterious in all the best ways – when it is recognized for its true nature – not as a way to sell a magazine.

I knew all this before I opened last November’s Cosmo. So, why was I so disappointed? I guess I thought that we had progressed beyond “What he really means when he says I love you” and “Seven ways to tell if your man is cheating.” I had thought that we were collectively engaged in a balanced dialogue about how to make ourselves and each other happy, I had thought we were trying to protect and nourish our young women. Yes, we still need to know how to apply mascara. We do not need to be told that a man’s love depends on whether or not you apply it correctly.

Yes, maybe Cosmopolitan was always this kind of magazine. I was once that kind of girl. So, what’s different? I am no longer a Cosmopolitan girl. I am a Cosmic Woman. And that is the sexy truth.


2011 in review

January 1, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.


Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Color Runs Through Him ( for Kent S. on his birthday )

December 21, 2011

He sits
in a milk-tea skin,
spider-fingers pulling
words from his darkest eye.

A blink of black and white
A long, sharp shape
of a man,
he straightens his spine
and fools us all.

Color runs through him.
He calculates the curve of scarlet,
sets his compass due indigo
holds grey in his palm,
spider-fingers untangling
unnamed colors.

He breathed on green,
made it purr
like a girl,


Scribble: Lunar

December 11, 2011

I stood on a roof
nose pressed through clouds
to see the lunar eclipse.

“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Isn’t there more?”
The moon a limp bride
in a dishwater veil.

I had wanted a monster.

Later, on the street,
the moon, she caught me.
She pressed me tight
to the neighbor’s wall
and whispered:

“Hide the drunken light of your eyes behind me.
Glow halo-like behind the softer shadow.”

I lifted my veil.

Later, I stood on tiles
nose pressed to the bathroom mirror
to see my lunar eclipse.

I had wanted a monster.

I saw swirls of steam
softening glass
and a smoky lip print
behind which I hid
and glowed,


Scribble: Carina

November 20, 2011

A Star-veined rope,
his Sagittarius arm
curves near
the still sparking bottoms
of extinguished matters,

Spirals through
undressed eyes
and a night sky opened
even as I sweep up
the starbirth.

Unspooling further
from the almost,
he hushes,
his pocket full
of collapsed secrets.

I go wondering,
pressing my ear to
burned out star carcasses
listening for the rush
of his voice.


My Last Roommate

September 22, 2011

The pajamas were Santa-red, a green stripe running through making them christmasy and familiar. The pants had an elastic waist, which would slip down around my hips if I didn’t make a little knot out of the excess material. They were too big, the pajamas. Yet, I wore them all the time, my favorite red flannel pajamas, pulling myself out of my teaching clothes as soon as I got home.Over the next eight years, I slowly grew to fit them, filling the outline of another girl who had owned them before me.

Lisa was my last roomate. Teaching together at the ECC Children’s Academy in Bundang, we were placed together in an apartment when she came to replace my other roomate, a conservative, intensely focused Calgarian named Diane. Diane and I had become best friends over the year we lived together, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into getting close to somebody new.

Lisa made it easy to be around her. She was a larger-than-life American, a big, fair girl who smiled her way through all the newness. Her footsteps were heavy and comforting, as were her homemade garlic mashed potatoes – a true treat for a girl like me who couldn’t cook but loved to eat.
Lisa had taught in one of the toughest school districts in the States – The Watts district in LA, and was deservedly proud of having done so. And that completed the first impression I had of her- she was a wave of soft mothering flowing through our apartment, centered by a surprising core of toughness. She was everything I had secretly admired about America – smart, curious and yet so sure of her place in the world. Ever the polite Canadian, I envied her ability to claim her space. Later, when we travelled to Bali together, I remember being impressed by how she chided the flight attendant for forgetting to bring our drinks – polite and yet firm. I would have waited another hour, hoping to be noticed.

She was with me the night I met my husband. I had taken her out to see Sinchon, my favorite Saturday night stomping grounds. We went to a bar called Woodstock, and there he was – wearing red Chuck Taylors, eyes closed, moving quietly to “All Along the Watchtower” – the Jimi Hendrix version – and owning the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a Korean male. He opened his eyes, looked and me and smiled. I was claimed.

Over the next months, I felt bad for Lisa. I was supposed to be her partner in weekend crime, her guide through all that Seoul had to offer. I was instead consumed, engulfed in the love affair that was to define my life. My love for Bong, especially in those early days, made me selfish, addicted and ecstatic. We wanted only to be together. Everyone else in our lives were collateral damage, pushed out of the way of our grand affair. Sometimes, I wish I could say to Lisa, ” Look, I married him. I didn’t sacrifice our friendship to a fling. He was the love of my lifetime.” She already understood that, though.

I remember the night everything changed. I came home, my classes finishing later than Lisa’s, to find a half-cooked pot of something still on the stove. There was no sign of Lisa, no note. Within 30 minutes, I was at a hospital. Lisa, who had been going out on weekends with other friends, had been complaining of losing her balance when she was drinking. We had laughed it off, blaming the soju. She had taken to long, tearful phone calls to her family – odd I thought for a tough lady who had taught in the Watts district. A Korean friend had introduced an accupuncturist, who she thought might help Lisa through her discomfort. Coming home after the treatment, Lisa had collapsed. The tests showed a large brain tumor, an angry golf-ball sized thing which had changed her personality and her body from solid and sure to something more vulnerable.

We teachers tried to do our best for her. We took turns at her bedside, trying to lighten the mood, waiting for her Mom to come for her. Korean hospitals, at the time, bordered on nightmarish. The technology of care was there, but family members often took on care usually done by nurses in the West, and therefore camped out in the rooms all night. There was no such thing as “quiet hours”. The doctor could barely state the facts in English, never mind having a bedside manner. The nurses, when asked a question, would giggle out of nervousness of having to talk to a foreigner, giggle as Lisa tried to understand what was happening to her.

There I was, going through the motions of being a “good friend.” The truth is, I was in the most alive stage of my life. I was in love to the point where I could smell colors and taste feelings. I was in love with myself, in love with life, and most of all, in love with the long, caramel-colored boy in my bed. I had to wrench myself from my joy to go to Lisa’s bedside. We were two sides of a coin, she and I. I would never be more alive in my life. She had begun a long leave-taking of the physical. When I said goodbye at the airport, Lisa drugged and in a wheelchair, her beautiful mother, bravely navigating her way through a foreign hell with the same calm smile I loved Lisa for, I have to confess and say I was relieved. I could turn away from death, away from the slippery reality of the unfairness of life, and turn back to the beautiful picture of myself I saw in the bones of my lover’s face.

It has been 10 years since Lisa’s death. I was still a girl then. The woman I am now wishes I had been a better friend. I remember reading a Murakami novel, called “After Dark”. The short novel was the story of two girls- one mysteriously fast asleep while the other crashed her way through the night, having one dark adventure after another. When I read the novel, Lisa had been dead several years. I recognized us.

I am now about the same size Lisa had been. When I finally let go of her pajamas, they fit me perfectly. I dress in black and make myself less of who I am, to compensate for my size. Yet, I am reminded of shopping with her. She was drawn to a fuzzy leopard-print hooded coat – something I never would dream of wearing for the attention it would draw to me. Lisa was fearless in wearing it – that weekend in the club, the silver leopard print around her face, I knew she was beautiful. She sparkled under the lights, a big, blonde, soft creature whose warmth was as clearly inviting as the coat.

I continue to learn from her, my larger-than-life American last roommate.


Sick Kitty

August 18, 2011


Thanks to all those who expressed concern for my little fuzzball. There is good news. Goguma seems to have gotten over whatever was causing the problem. It seems to have been something he swallowed causing irritation in the stomach lining, and wasn’t indicative of a bigger problem. The upside of this is that Goguma has had a complete physical, and is actually really healthy, especially for his age. He is still slowing down a bit and easily gets an upset stomach these days, but we are also experiencing a lot of heat here in Seoul which can be to blame. He is still under close watch, but I am finally starting to relax a bit. He may be furry and four-legged, but he is very much my baby. 🙂

My poor little fur-baby, Goguma, started throwing up blood last night. So far, the vets can’t find the cause, and are hoping it’s just stomach irritation. However, I see quite a few vet visits and lots of cuddling sessions over the next few days. For that reason, I am throwing in the towel on the NaBloPoMo challenge.

That said, I will definitely be posting at least once a week, usually on Sundays, so please come back.


Where I’d like to be:

August 17, 2011

Any place that looks like this would do – someplace where all you can smell is tree and all you can hear is breath.


The Purification of Itaewon and Why I Miss the Foreigner Ghetto

August 16, 2011

” Itaewon – it means child from a motherless womb.” Though I later found my friend Craig’s words were untrue, my early experience of Itaewon lived up to its urban legend definition. In the mid-nineties, as part of a small group of 20-something English teachers living in the satellite city of Bundang, we would take the bus into Seoul almost every Saturday, headed for the area that had sprung up next to the American military base, Yongsan Garrison. The appeal? It was a place that looked and sounded like a version of home, where we could have a break from constantly being foreign.

With its proximity to the huge American base, Itaewon quickly developed into an area of shops, bars and restaurants that catered to the American soldiers. Kitschy tourist souvenirs and western-sized clothing could be cheaply bought, and real hamburgers could be ordered in English while listening to Country music. With the ease of conducting business in English, the area had appeal to many different kinds of foreign residents, and the main street soon became very colorful, with one exception – there weren’t many Koreans.

Most of the Koreans I talked to in those days were scared of Itaewon, a fear that was stoked by some isolated violent incidents and the Korean media. They seemed to believe that it was a cesspool of Nigerian sex predators, drug-crazed English teachers and drunk, violent G.I.s itching for a fight. They were partially right.

For me, a typical night out in Itaewon would start off by grabbing a burger at Nashville – a basement Country bar that had the reputation of having the best burgers in Seoul. From there, we would cross the street to Hollywood, the most popular bar in the ‘twon at the time, where we would drink and dance with all the other English teachers. Around midnight, we would venture up past the fire station, past a bar that had a huge pink door shaped like a vagina, complete with a few decorative hairs, past the Bald Eagle, the only metal club in Seoul at the time and turn onto hooker hill. Hooker hill was home to dozens of juicy bars, where Korean prostitutes openly hung out the doors, trying to tempt lonely foreign men to buy them drinks. Regular Korean prostitutes usually refuse to service foreign men, so women who worked on hooker hill were mostly those who had run out of other options. At the top of hooker hill, we’d find a bar called Polly’s Soju Kettle, which would just be starting to get crazy at around 2 am. You could buy a “kettle” – which was a sawed off 2 litre coke bottle filled with soju mixed with with kool aid – a cheap and potent concoction that made all of hooker hill come alive, with the party spilling out onto the street. After we had our fill, we would sometimes venture down another hill, lovingly called “homo hill” – where all the gay and transgender bars were located, to dance off the soju kettles. Finally we would wind our way up a back alley to find some fried dumplings at 4 am, before all piling into a taxi. Itaewon was like a frat party at triple speed, with foreign subtitles – a lot of fun, but quickly tiring.

Still, word spread that almost anything you wanted could be found there. Craving Kraft Dinner? There’s a small unmarked black market shop that, if you can find it, will sell it to you for six dollars a box. Need to send money out of the country without reporting it? There’s a lingerie shop that will sell you travellers’ cheques without stamping your passport, which you can then mail to yourself. Are you a plus-sized lovely? Only in Itaewon can you find clothes that will fit you. Smoke Marlboros? The smoke shop in the Hamilton Hotel is your new best friend.

This is not to say that Itaewon didn’t have its true dangers. Everyone knew about the guy who had been murdered in the Burger King bathroom, about the homeless guy who had gotten a knife out of the garbage can and stabbed a visiting doctor. It was true that there were men of some nationalities with whom a woman couldn’t make eye contact for fear of being aggressively followed in and out of shops. Drug busts were common.

Korean criticism of this locale, however, was definitely hypocritical. The sex trade, at the time, was very healthy in other areas of Seoul. Sexual assault happened among Koreans though often went unreported due to the face-saving culture. There was use of speed and other pills among certain Koreans, and public drunkness was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. Still, Itaewon was the easy target because it was different. It was the area where foreigners brought all their dirty habits from home. These were not Korean problems. It was, after all, a foreigner ghetto.

Over the years, something has changed. With talks of the US forces scaling back prescence in Korea, the government, afraid that the Itaewon business district would die, pumped funding into its beautification and development. Everything on the main street has been given a facelift, and now multi-lingual tourist guides roam the streets offering help. Many of the little shops have given way to large brands like Nike and Calvin Klein. Itaewon has truly become a foodie heaven. There is every kind of international cuisine to be had in upscale, designer-decorated cafes and bistros. On Monday, I took the bus there to pick up some grocery items at the newest gourmet shop. I bought real rye bread, sharp cheddar cheese and sliced deli meats – something I had never dreamed I could do under one roof in Seoul, and at a reasonable price – not jacked-up import prices or through-the-roof black market prices. As I waited for the bus back home, I looked around and saw a new late-night tapas bar, a new brazilian buffet and a very swanky steakhouse, all which hadn’t been there on my last trip through.

I rode the bus back down the main street of Itaewon, and looked at all the progress that had been made in a very short time. Itaewon has become trendy. Then I noticed something else. In almost all the restaurants and coffee shops I passed, almost all the clientele were Korean. They had taken the best of us, our exotic foods and cultures, cleaned them up and repackaged them, and made them cool. Certainly, I thought, as I went home with my parcel of familiar- looking groceries, I am reaping the benefit of the purification of Itaewon. And of course, the seediness is still there – just not so blatantly.

Still, I felt sad on that bus ride home. Itaewon, with all its faults, had been a place to escape when expat life got to be too much. The area had been a kind of twisted nest that was at once exciting and comforting. It’s great that it has been cleaned up, but with the purification has also gone its character, making it nicer to look at, and much less interesting to experience.

It was a quiet, reflective bus ride home, followed by an amazing pastrami on rye sandwich.


Scribble: Walking in Corner Brook

August 15, 2011

I could walk her wrinkles blindfolded,
So sure my feet were of her one-way ways.
She curved around me like a bowl
protective as the swans
swimming in her center.

I rolled up and down her hills
Feet faster than my heart,
Too full of her summer green
To feel anything else
But beautiful.