My workplace has mandatory Secret Santa. I didn’t know this before refusing to participate. I was working on a project and someone put a box in my face. I asked what it was and I was told “Secret Santa!” and I said no thanks, I don’t do them. With everything I have to do to get ready to go home and go back to college, with buying gifts for my own family and close friends (which, with five siblings, their spouses and children, runs me up to about 25 people, and I’ve cut down my list this year), I don’t want to run around Korea spending money I didn’t earmark to spend on a stranger who doesn’t need it. We work in a school with about 100 employees, and I only know less than 15 of them. Most of them are Korean and can’t speak English well enough to converse with, and I rarely see them.

I’m seriously not trying to be a dick about it – I’d like to save someone the hassle of buying me something that may ultimately end up in the garbage can or given away immediately, and save myself the hassle of going to either the dermatologist, or the bathroom 15 times in a day and rushing for the metformin, out of politeness to the gift giver, because I simply can’t use or appreciate a lot of generic “girl” gifts that one tends to get for a “girl” they don’t know. Even still, I really don’t have any inclination to spend even more money at Christmas time when I’m about to stop working and earning income in early January.

The woman with the Secret Santa box was standing behind me, still, a few minutes after I refused. Apparently, she was looking for my name, because we were all put into this drawing without our knowledge or permission, and someone had already drawn my name. “Well, sorry, but you should have asked me first,” was my response. This ended up with me being pulled into a 90 minute lecture from the head of my department on being more of a joiner and less of a thinker, and the Secret Santa woman running around the school trying to figure out who pulled my name and asking them to pull a different name.

The Secret Santa, I found out later, had a minimum of about 15USD with no price cap, and everyone, from the newest of part-timers to the owners, were in it. This meant that I had to spend a minimum of $15, and that the rest is left up to social rules, meaning if I was unlucky enough to pull the name of a much higher up, I’m out a lot of money, all without having opted in. Fuck that shit.

This is why I hate Secret Santa:

1. Secret Santa is forced friendship via gluttony. You can enjoy the entire holiday season without getting a single present from a stranger. A normal adult shouldn’t feel unloved because they didn’t get a gift from someone they’re not close to. Chances are, if the people you’re working with have the money to spend on a stranger (and in this economy, they probably don’t) it would be much more noble to spend it on someone who isn’t lucky to have a job or disposable income. There are much more classy things to prod and guilt your employees to do that would be good for the world, like give money to a charity to help those in most need in the winter.

Forcing people to be friends will backfire. People do not want to be forced to be with each other. This is why siblings fight all the time when they live together – familiarity breeds conflict. I know this, because I can’t stand my co-workers simply because they’re up my ass all day. Nobody likes having a wedgie, especially one they have to wait 9.5 hours to pull out. There are ten of us forced into a (potentially hazardous) 8×12 space, where I have to push and squeeze passed eight chairs to get to the water cooler or leave the office. My main goal each day is not to leave work with a headache from all the noise, smells, and distractions of being crammed in a sardine can with them from 9-6:30 five days a week. I’m sure my co-workers are all wonderful people, but I don’t have the time or space to assess this, because I can’t get away from them long enough to determine their value as people.  I also don’t care to spend my free time delving into this, because I can hear all of their conversations and know enough about their personal lives to never, ever be intrigued enough to want to talk to them outside of work.

2. Secret Santa doesn’t take into account that not everyone has the same financial situation. The difference between participating in Secret Santa and not participating, at a minimum of $15, means I’m really spending upwards of $30 or so, which is the difference between buying a gift for someone I’d actually buy a gift for, buying a couple things for Toys for Tots, paying for my extra luggage when I go home, a textbook I’ll need next semester, or my utility bills. It’s not fair to assume that all the young people, and especially the foreign staff, would otherwise spend the money on drinking and club-hopping, as if we are just mirror reflections of the same simulacra of “foreigner.” For those with children, those with debt, those with other obligations, it’s not fair. The fact that they’ll receive an object in return simply doesn’t make up for the fact that they’re forced to spend money buying an object for someone they otherwise wouldn’t, since chances are, they don’t want or need the object they’ll get in return. I’m sure the new fathers at school are much more keen on getting a a DVD or funny hat than buying diapers for their babies, and the people fresh out of college are more interested in getting a travel mug than ahead on their school loans.

In that a sense, Secret Santa is robbing from the poor to give to the rich, since the poor not only are out money they would use for a necessity, but in return, may get something they may have no use or need for. The rich have lost relatively little if anything at all, since they have the disposable income to buy crap they don’t need and would in fact only lose out if the gift they got was of less monetary value than the thing they gave.

For example, Employee X is living a very austere lifestyle trying to save up as much money as she can for college in an uncertain economy (me). Therefore, Employee X doesn’t spend money on stinky hand lotion sets that could set off her psoriasis (me again). If Employee X is forced to spend $30 on a gift for a stranger, Employee X has been robbed of $30. Now, if Employee X receives a $30 stinky hand lotion set in return that she would not otherwise use or buy for herself, she is still at a loss of $30. Why? Because Employee X’s $30 was to be used for a necessity, not a luxury. If she cannot return the set for the money, then she is at a loss and has to find the $30 elsewhere for the necessity.

If Employee Y has a lot of disposable cash to buy luxuries and buys Employee X a gift set worth $30 and receives a gift set worth $28 in return, she only has a loss of $2, not $30. Why? Because she may have otherwise used that $30 on a similar item, and does not need to draw from reserves to cover necessities.

Thus, the poor lose and the rich win. Now, isn’t this the very antithesis of the spirit of it all?!

3. Secret Santa forces people to participate in a ritual that may go against their beliefs or principles. Even for Christians, many who may find gift exchanges to be an intimate affair, this forces them to engage in a part of the culture they may find sinful or harmful. For those who are not Christian, it isn’t fair to force them to do something that goes against their beliefs, nor is it fair or appropriate to thus force them to appear weird or different, or outside, because they do not participate in something that is – surprise! – of pagan origin, because….

4. Secret Santa isn’t Christian. It’s rooted in paganism. That’s right! The gift exchange isn’t rooted in Christianity. Even with the magi bringing gifts to the king, the idea of exchanging presents is rooted in Yuletide or Saturnalia, pagan winter holidays. Leaving presents and candy in the shoes of good children, as is done on St. Nicholas’ day, is rooted in pagan tradition. This is part of the syncreticism of pagan traditions and Christianity as the Holy Roman Empire took over much of Europe. This is a compromise of culture, not a rule. In fact…

5. The concept of exchanging Christmas gifts, in America at least, to the extent that we do, is not rooted in our historical Christmas traditions at all. Feasting is one thing, and giving gifts to close loved ones is another, but gifts to people you aren’t close to is, like in Europe, more traditionally done from rich to poor, employer to employee, etc. It’s top-down, not side-to-side, or potentially down-top. Even still, the idea of a tree with a shit-ton of gifts under it is a fairly new phenomenon less than a century old, and even still, not everyone participates in it. In fact, the reason that Secret Santas were started weren’t to force people to buy gifts for someone they might not otherwise buy gifts for, but to ease the financial burden of buying gifts for every individual in a group, like large families, clubs, or groups of friends who know each other very well and, more often than not, choose to be around each other.

6. If you don’t know someone, WTF are you going to get them? Seriously. Not everyone fits into nice, neat categories. Sure, some things are useful, but more often than not, whatever you end up getting is a crap shoot. Even “safe” gifts, like coffee, hand lotion, or gift cards, can go unappreciated, especially if that person doesn’t drink coffee, use lotion, or shop at that store. Also, forcing someone to go shopping, especially if they don’t like to, is kind of like giving a non-gift.

I remember times when my parents might get a gift certificate to take the family out to dinner, but with six kids, the gift certificate wouldn’t cover everyone, so my parents had to pony up money to spend on an outing they might otherwise not have wanted to pay for simply to not make the certificate go to waste.

7. It automatically sets up a situation in which people compare the monetary values of the things they’ve gotten. While “it’s the thought that counts” rings true to some extent, the idea of Secret Santa wipes out any notion that you can put a lot of serious thought into what you’re getting when you don’t actually know who you’re shopping for. Therefore, it’s not the thought that counts, because everyone knows that by the very nature of Secret Santa, you can’t put a lot of thought into it.

Our response to receiving things is hardwired, and largely universal. We expect the receipt of a gift to release endorphins and oxytocin, the hormone that fosters social bonding, because that is what gift giving does. It makes the receiver feel accepted, and makes the giver feel that the recipient (whether the giver consciously knows this or not) is beholden to them, which actually makes the giver feel that they are of higher social standing. Thus, if we are let down by a gift, we feel cheated, and if the giver knows this, they cannot have the coveted social position that they tried to buy.

Since it’s usually a hassle for all but the very few people who really, desperately need this sort of shallow and phony connection to other people to make up for the lack of meaning in their lives, most people stress out about buying a nice gift for a stranger. Thus, when they open their gifts, they’re not expecting to be rapt with joy or have a deep spiritual moment where they feel that they’ve truly connected with a stranger in some sort of karmic way, crystallized in a gift given randomly to them without affection or altruistic desire.

In a situation where no one is exactly elated with what they’ve gotten and know they can’t honestly expect it, the one thing they can determine is how much you probably spent on them.

They’re judging the value of the gift, in money, because that’s the only assessment they can make of an unwanted item. This is especially so when everyone can see what everyone else has gotten, randomly.  If the gift is too expensive, it can make others feel bad, and make the receiver uncomfortable. If it is too cheap, it can make the receiver feel unappreciated, especially in comparison to others.

Since there is nothing intimate about group gift exchanges, it naturally fosters competition, and competition in gift-giving is never a good thing. Don’t believe me? Read the story of Cain and Abel.

8. It’s seriously just one more fucking thing you have to do at Christmas. I am of the belief that if most people did exactly what they wanted to do at Christmas, they’d do far less of what they actually do. Back when I was married and had my own real home, I had to buy and wrap gifts for not only my family but my then-husband’s, send out Christmas cards, bake cookies, help plan the office Christmas party, decorate the house, decorate the tree, go to church, make phone calls, make Christmas dinner and figure out other social obligations. Now that I’m not married and living in Korea, I don’t have to do most of that. Fuck, I can’t even do the things I like to do, like cook dinner, bake cookies or wrap presents, because that’s just not something you can easily do here.

There are some people that really like putting on all of Christmas, and more power to them, and if they have the time, money, and energy to add a random person to their gift-giving list, let them do it. However, for the rest of us, this is an annoyance and a burden.

9. No one actually appreciates a “gag” gift. So, I’ve gotten these before, and the only ones I’ve ever appreciated are from close friends and family who understand my humor. Otherwise, gifts given in an attempt to make me laugh after I’ve spent time and money trying to buy a gift for someone else pisses me off, especially when I didn’t treat the event as a way to laugh at the recipient. In situations where it is not agreed that you’re giving people funny gifts, a recipient of a gag gift not only knows they don’t want or can’t use the crap they got, but they’re the only ones with something that was meant to draw attention to them and nothing more.

10. If you actually try to find out what that secret recipient would actually want, you might seem creepy, especially if you’re the only person who has time to do that, or you may miss the mark entirely. To spend your time hinting around to find out information about a person you don’t really know, or try to observe them is kind of creepy and weird. For example, if I were to participate in the Secret Santa, and say, get something I’d truly like to receive, like this, or maybe this, especially since I work and live in Seoul, where there aren’t stellar bookstores, where there isn’t a single person at work who doesn’t seem to find critical analysis of suburbia to be something other than offensive or weird, or is actually interested in agriculture as far as I know, I’d be a little creeped out. How did they know? Are they trolling my facebook? Did they find my blog? Are they watching me? Sure, it can be easy to get something for someone if they have a simple interest that is obvious, like cats, or a favorite color, but most people don’t define themselves readily by a favorite thing. Also, you could totally miss the mark and end up getting them something in the realm of what they like, but something they ultimately don’t need or can use.

For example, I’ve been an amateur astrologer for 12 years now. Most people don’t know much about astrology other than there sun signs, or even know that there’s a whole lot more to the practice the shitty horoscopes in the newspaper. Now, if someone were assigned to buy me a gift, and to have a “tada” moment and think astrology, chances are, I wouldn’t get something I could use. Instead of getting something useful, I end up getting something gimmicky and ultimately useless.

11. Face it. You probably don’t have a talent for gift-giving anyway. Most people are not good at giving gifts, even for their loved ones. Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’re going to give people either what they specifically ask for (which is why parents have children make a list for Santa) or what YOU want them to have. Most people don’t have the gift of truly making a connection to other people’s tastes to choose a gift that they’d like. I’m *pretty* good at it, but I’m by no means and expert gift-giver, and I’m certainly not very good at it outside my immediate family. However, since there is a chance that you will receive less in personal value than you put out, it’s reasonable NOT to try hard to get a decent gift for someone. Like I said, Secret Santa isn’t about altruism, and isn’t about the spirit of giving, but a bald and clumsy attempt to create an illusion of brotherhood through coercion and manipulation.

12. You’re delusional if you think it’ll turn out as anything other than what I’ve mentioned above. I have no idea why, despite other peoples’ grumblings about Secret Santa, why people still insist its a good idea. If four people out of twelve want to do it, let those four fuckers do it. If ten out of twelve want to do it, let those ten do it, but don’t force other people into it. In fact, anyone who wants to participate in it should organize it themselves, privately, and not make it institutional.

People do not change their minds about things they are forced to do, especially if they know that you are forcing them to do something simply because you don’t respect their opinions or desires and insist that what you want them to do is better simply because you want to do it. This is like forcing everyone to meet up on Friday night after work to eat beef liver. Yeah, it’s healthy for you. Yeah, it’s nutritious. However, most people don’t know the first thing about how to properly cook beef liver so that it doesn’t taste bitter and chewy. [I know how to properly prepare and cook liver, btw.] Most people haven’t had good experiences with eating beef liver. Most people don’t want to stay late at work at the end of a long week to eat a meal they know they haven’t had good experiences with before and pretend that somehow, this is going to be different. That’s what Secret Santa is – forcing all of your employees to eat liver.

13. You have no right in a free and democratic society to treat adults as if they’re your children. Now, who else may have forced them to gather as a family and eat liver? Their mothers and fathers. No one wants their employers to force them into things the way that Mom and Dad do. This breeds resentment. An employer has no right to decide what an employee can or can’t spend their money on, just as they have no right to decide what an employee can and can’t eat. Mom and Dad force you to share with your brothers and sisters. They force you to save your allowance. They force you to go to your Aunt’s Sunday dinner, eat the vegetables, play with your cousins. The beauty of becoming an adult is that you decide how your time and money is spent. What you are expected to do at work that is related to the job is one thing, be it follow a dress code, work certain hours, perform certain tasks, etc., but what you chose to spend your money on outside of that realm is up to you. Thus, when you really and truly become an adult, you want to be recognized as one.  If you don’t treat people like adults, they will either 1. Resent you or 2. Regress. This is a war of attrition, not a way to create community.

I was quite a cosmetic consumer in my youth. I spent a lot of money and time on it. Up until recently, I spent a lot of money at Sephora and MAC to buy cosmetics. I was a big fan of Bare Escentuals, thinking that it was better for my skin since it didn’t have oils in it. To a certain extent, that was correct. However, I noticed that their eyeshadow seriously irritated my eyes. It wasn’t until I got interested in making my own cosmetics that I found out that the irritation was because of a sensitivity to a common ingredient and known irritant, bismuth oxychloride.

As I headed into my thirties, I began realizing that my acne might not clear up. I knew that I was perpetuating a vicious cycle with my skin care and make up regimens, which were not only ruining my skin, but costing me too much money. For example, the 1st and 3rd steps in ProActiv has benzoyl peroxide, which would bleach out my towels, pillow cases and sometimes the collars of my shirts. It put me in a cycle of dried-out skin that had to be moisturized, but also apparently had to have the sebum stripped away in order to keep me from breaking out.

At 31, I realized that employing Occam’s Razor and cutting out the unnecessary steps to homeostasis would work. Now, at 32, and not really fit, and still struggling with smoking and quitting and restarting, I think I’ve found the key, finally: accept what you have, work with what you have, and maintain homeostasis in the most biologically efficient manner. The most biologically efficient manner is obeying and mimicking nature.

To that end, I, like many other women, hear a lot of tips, tricks, and supposed beauty laws that tell us how to throw something off balance and then pay a fortune to put it back to normal. Unfortunately, we’ve made great mistakes when it comes to this and have often confused hygiene with vanity, in that the more vanity is indulged, somehow, the more hygienic our bodies. In some ways, that’s actually quite the opposite, and while our bodies lose, big companies profit from our insecurities.

Beauty Myths I Have Heard that Are Simply Not True:

1. It is unhealthy to let hair air dry. This is ridiculous. Humans are the only creatures that would blow dry their hair. Hair otherwise dries by itself. Hair cannot be damaged by water itself, since a healthy hair shaft is closed, and the shingles that make up the cuticle allow water to run off of it. However, blow drying, especially with hot air, damages the cuticle, especially if done on a daily basis, and especially if the hair is being pulled by fingers, brushes or combs. Granted, it’s unhealthy to go outside in freezing weather with wet hair, not only because you could get cold, but because freezing water can expand and ruin the cuticle and cortex of the hair shaft.

2. The longer it takes for your hair to air dry, the healthier it is. Healthy hair absorbs water. I’ve heard this one more than once, and again, it’s ridiculous. The obvious biological function of hair is to keep the body warm. It not only keeps body heat close to the body, but it is designed to repel water. When we give pets a bath, we’re told to towel them off, because they could otherwise get sick. Same with humans. Water cools the body, and the longer it is on the body, the harder it is to maintain a normal body temperature. If hair was meant to absorb water, it would be porous like a sponge. However, it is shingled, and as you know from looking at shingled house or roof, the water is meant to run off the sides of the roof or house and not absorb into the walls.

3. You must use a moisturizer. The human body is designed with its own moisturizing system. Cells have their own capacity to store water, which is replenished by water taken into the body. Water is kept inside the skin because of sebum, the waxy oil that the body naturally produces. Without sebum, which can often be stripped away by harsh cleansers (see next myth), moisture leaves our skin. If we are not staying hydrated, then our skin will dry out, along with the rest of our tissues. Skin will absorb some water, but since it comes from the outside in, quickly disappears. If we are washing away sebum, we are also sucking the moisture out of skin, and this moisture, unlike artificial products, contains far less harmless chemicals, and no perfumes or dyes.

4. In order to have clear skin, you must strip off the sebum, because sebum is bacteria food. Since you’ve stripped off the oil, you must moisturize with a non-oil to get your skin soft but not a host to germs. If this were true, then acne would be a terminal disease. The truth is that sebum is actually slightly acidic, like most oils, and helps to create a harsh environment for bacteria. Bacteria don’t live on sebum, but rather skin cells, which have all sorts of goodies, like protein, sugar, minerals, and water. Too much sebum will block pores and mix with dead skin cells to plug pores, making a nice place for bacteria to live. The level of sebum in most people slows down after puberty if they aren’t in the cycle of overproduction because of moisture stripping techniques they learned as children. Now, if you mash sloughed off skin back onto the face because of layers of products and cosmetics, it doesn’t matter how much sebum you’re lacking, you will end up with suffocated, blocked skin that creates a nice home for bacteria.

5. Never put oil on your face. As mentioned before, nature’s two-part system to keep the skin moisturized and protected from germs and the elements includes its own oil. Now, there are times that your skin may dry out. I find this especially true for me in a dry winter in Seoul, where the wind just seems to whisk away all moisture and protection from my skin. It was terrible last winter. It was to the point where I very, very lightly washed my face once a day with natural soap and didn’t put anything else on it. I tried to ingest as much water as possible, but still, my skin dried out everywhere and it became irritated. My solution? Extra virgin olive oil. I put it all over my skin in a layer so fine that you couldn’t really see a sheen, and kept rubbing it in until it disappeared. My skin was back to normal in two days. Again, use a very, very fine layer of oil. Too much will indeed invite breakouts, but a very light layer not only feels light, but keeps the moisture in.

6. You have to scrub your scalp. Chances are, your scalp will loosen up dead cells and sebum throughout the day, as noted by roots getting dingy and greasy. However, the scalp is still skin, and it needs sebum to stay healthy, and for hair to stay in tact. The best way that I’ve found to wash my hair is to either use a diluted solution of shampoo on just my scalp and let the shampoo run over the rest, and condition the ends, or to use a homemade shampoo made from egg whites and baking soda and a conditioner made from the egg yolks, honey and a little vinegar. The homemade solution is a little difficult to get used to, but detergents and soaps are not the only things capable of lifting excess sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells from the skin.

7. You must always wear sunblock. I find this one especially irritating, since I’m strawberry blonde and have light skin. I have had many sunburns in my life. True, sunburns are unhealthy. However, for as many sunburns as I’ve had – and I’ve had some bad ones – I don’t really show the damage in my face. Part of that is genetics and the texture of my skin. However, part of it is because I otherwise limit my sun exposure through avoiding the hottest and brightest times of day and by using external blockers, like clothes. I don’t hate sunblock per se. However, the reason that sunblock works is because it’s a lotion that is full of a white mineral called titanium dioxide. This is used in cosmetics and food, and is perfectly safe. Sunblock does work for a certain amount of time because the titanium dioxide reflects the light away from the skin until it’s sweated or rubbed away. However, sunblock creates a false sense of security, and is full of other chemicals you may not want all over your skin. Most of my bad sunburns came from moments in which I forgot to reapply the sunblock, or because I missed a spot. The good news is that I’ve found some wonderful home remedies for sunburns, like apple cider vinegar, yogurt, aloe, and sleep. Yes – sleep is the best thing for a sunburn because that’s the time when the body heals itself.

8. You must get a haircut every 6-8 weeks. I get a haircut about 2-3 times a year. I’ve never liked getting a haircut. Even though I like the hairdresser I go to in Seoul, it’s troublesome because he has a hard time handling hair like mine, and uses clips because it’s too slippery. I got haircuts more often as an adult when I was styling my hair because it was damaged from the heat, the pulling, and the chemicals (so much so that I’d get splits that started in the middle of the hair strand). Now, I’ve been growing out a pixie cut for a year and my hair is about down to the bottom of my neck, and the layers are mostly all the same length. However, I don’t have split ends, and my ends aren’t dry, so I feel no need to make a preventative move (especially in the humid summers of Seoul) to avoid split ends. When the ends feel dry, it’s time. However, the time hasn’t come yet.

9. Sweating is gross. Sweating is bad. Maybe I’m just naturally sweatier than other people. Actually, I am. I inherited that, and there’s not much I can do about it unless I want to become dehydrated. I also hate hot weather and am more comfortable when it’s cool outside. I’m usually fine for the most part walking around in the heat until I have to stop moving and my metabolism slows down. To that end, I’m not worried about it. It dries, and my skin stays moist. On the hottest days, I bring an extra shirt to work. Hand fans are also popular here. Sweating is the body’s way of staying cool. It lowers body temperature as it evaporates and draws toxins out of the body. Some of them are reabsorbed into the body, sure. However, the things we dread with sweat, such as body odor, aren’t caused by sweating, but by bacteria. The alternative is to overheat and damage your skin and body.

10. You must wear a commercial deodorant/antiperspirant. I stopped wearing regular antiperspirant and deodorant years ago. It didn’t stop me from sweating – it made it worse – and I didn’t find that it stopped the smell. Antiperspirants don’t actually make you sweat less. There are ingredients that dry out the armpits, but many of them simply coat the armpits in a layer that make it harder for sweat to surface. This causes breakouts, antiperspirant pilling, and those yellow pit stains on clothes. Yes! It’s the antiperspirant that causes pit stains, not sweat! Since the sweat would stay under the antiperspirant layer, it became a nice, moist place for bacteria to grow, and once the antiperspirant started wearing off, the smell was noticeable. The same with deodorant, which simply masks body smells. Body odor is caused by bacteria, and neither of these products actually address the problem. The best solution is to kill the bacteria and make your armpit an unwelcoming place for them. The best solutions that I’ve found are salt deodorants, baking soda, or lemon juice. All three make the armpit dry, and throw off the pH balance of the skin that bacteria need in order to thrive. What’s better, is that none of them pill or stain clothing.

11. You must take hot showers to get clean. This has to do with the idea of the pores opening up, and with making sebum looser and able to run off the body faster. While it’s certainly nice to make the pores open up sometimes to clear them up, a cycle of a daily hot shower strips the skin of moisture and causes excessive sebum production. Thus, the sebum is scrubbed away with various commercial products and exfoliators, and the body reacts by producing even more sebum in attempt to achieve homeostasis. A warm shower is better and just as refreshing since the refreshing feeling we get is largely psychological.

12. You must exfoliate. The outer layer of skin is scrubbed away, leaving the new top layer raw, exposed, and open to infection and drying out. I exfoliate about once a week, and less in the winter, since I find that washing with my hands often does the trick enough. As a person who suffers from psoriasis, I know that my skin is already quite capable of going into reproduction hyperdrive and constantly renewing itself. Exfoliating also does that, and causes the skin to have to renew itself more often than it should. It isn’t like getting a chemical peel every week, but the tugging, the rawness and pulling isn’t really good for the integrity of skin.

13. Calluses are bad. I live in a country where being frou-frou, even and sometimes especially for men, is a sign of social status. I have calluses on my hands that I got last fall and winter from an internship on a farm, and get rougher when I ride my bike more often. I don’t have the nicest hands in the world. They’ve been exposed to chemicals, hard work, and the elements. However, they’re part of who I am and I’m fine with them. Only in Korea have I heard anything about them. Only in Korea would a man be uncouth enough to comment on the state of a woman’s hands. Personally, I don’t understand the fey male aesthetic here, and have never been interested in men who spend more time on their hair and clothes and more money on their purses than I do, or men who aim for hairlessness and showing off their nouveau riche lifestyle. Oppan Gangnam Style? I love the commentary, and yeah – it’s just like that there: phony, grotesque, often classless and tasteless. I digress. Anyway, the reason I have calluses is because they protect my skin from damage, and I know why they are there. Granted, I don’t have calluses on my elbows, or feet, because I try not to rest on my elbows, and I try to wear shoes that don’t hurt my feet.

13. Just buy the shoes! They’re going to hurt anyway. I have been trying to strengthen my feet over the past few years to correct flatness. So far, I’ve had some success in raising my arch and have lost half a shoe size. Still, I’m not a fan of shoes. I didn’t get that gene. Tiny, high-heeled torture devices are not for me. In the end, it won’t matter how great my heels looked one night, since years of wearing non-supportive, or constrictive, or too-high heels is likely to gnarl up the feet, which will be needed long after the party is over. Cheap shoes are another issue. They are simply bad economy. Not only do they fall apart and need to be replaced often because the materials and construction are poor, but they usually do not take into consideration comfort or wearability. Your feet shouldn’t hurt at the end of the day unless you’ve been plowing a rocky field or have been forced to stand still for hours on end.

14. But high-heels make me look taller/my legs look longer! No, they don’t, and the higher the heel, the shorter and shorter-legged you look. Here’s why: I live in Korea, and Koreans are a fairly homogenous culture. Most of them have long torsos and short legs. If you don’t believe me, come to Korea and try to buy Korean brand pants. They are made for people with short legs, long torsos and high waist-to-hip ratios. When you go into a store, if they don’t have a dressing room, the sales girl will take the skirt, stretch it over the front of your hips so that the waistband is about crotch-level, and say “okay fit!” Many women here complain about appearing to have short legs. This is why high heels are so prevalent, and in everyday activities, including walks on the beach and in the park, women are wearing high heels. They believe that the added height makes them look taller. Well – sort of. From the front, it can create the illusion of a longer leg IF the torso is also made to appear shorter. From the side and the back however, the leg appears shorter, because the muscles are contracted, and the skirts are short. While this shows off more of the leg, it also makes the torso appear even longer, especially if the waist is low-rise (which became a hit in the West, where short torsos are more common, because they made the torso look longer and made jeans fit better for those with high waist-to-hip ratios). Some women here do a successful job in obscuring the length of their torso and making their legs look longer. First, they wear flats, which stretch out the legs naturally, and wear a not-tight, high-waisted skirt that goes to low thigh or to the knee. Then, what they wear on top isn’t tight and billows a little. This creates the illusion of longer legs and a shorter torso.

14. You must brush your teeth with toothpaste after each meal and use mouthwash to have a clean and healthy mouth. We often do a lot more damage than good in our oral care. I never thought I was derelict until I came to Korea and noticed that they all brush their teeth after every meal and use mouthwash all the time. This could be a reaction to poor oral care even up to a few decades ago, but even still, with younger generations brushing and rinsing all the time, it doesn’t seem as if they’re getting less cavities, and neither are Westerners. Excessive cleaning expedites decay. Cavities themselves are caused by acids, not infections. However, gum infection and recession is definitely caused by bacteria. How? Wearing away at the enamel and irritating the gums through excessive brushing. You only have so much enamel on the tooth, and brushing not only removes food particles and bacteria, but rubs against enamel. If you wash your car with a towel three times a day everyday for years, you’ll notice that the paint will start to wear away, even if you’re gentle, because scrubbing is erosion. Gums themselves are also sensitive, and take a constant scrubbing. Now, you wouldn’t take a toothbrush to your nose, vagina, nipples, or eyelids three times a day, but we’re expected to do that with our gums. But – you say – how do you keep your mouth clean? One way is to not eat things that make bacteria grow. Not just sweets, but starches. Second, eat meat and get calcium. The second is to clean it without scrubbing. I like oil pulling. The oil suffocates bacteria, loosens mineral deposits and soothes the gums. I use my own pick to clean my teeth, floss, and brush gently. I have a gentle tongue scraper I use sparingly.  The third is to eat low acid vegetables and fruits that help clean the teeth as you eat, and saturated fat to suffocate the bacteria. How are my teeth? Not pearly white, as a smoker and coffee drinker. But, you may not readily know that if you compared me to a lot of people my age.

15. No pain, no gain. This is true to a certain extent. However, after the initial shock, the healing process plateaus because the body becomes used to spend more effort repairing damage than building stronger bones and muscles, to that end:

16. Cardio is best for women. Humans are predators, not prey. Naturally, we run in spurts, sprinting. We aren’t designed to run away from predators for long distances, the way deer and buffalo are. Most human sports are made to mimicking hunting, and in most team sports, sprinting is the key. The only time I’ve had a sports injury is in those times that I’ve attempted to run for distance. The only time a human would be running long distance is because it is frightened and something is trying to kill it. The endorphin release afterward tells the body that it is now safe. However, the body has been put under stress. I know lots of people who plateau quite quickly on a running regime, because the stress outweighs the benefits. Long distance running is also a good way to get flat feet, especially if wearing shoes. I found that I was healthiest lifting heavy things, hiking, and doing some sprinting. I’m not lithe, and even a sports bra doesn’t make long distance running with D-cups comfortable. Also, women have muscles for a reason, and they’re not normally capable of putting on excessive muscle mass. We all need strong muscles, and having muscles makes it easier to burn calories, do cardio without injury, and have energy.

17. Applying vitamins, collagen, minerals, etc, to your skin makes it healthier. Maybe superficially, but it’s not as good as ingesting nutrients. Collagen is a protein, and while eating it may not boost your collagen production or repair your own collagen, it can give the appearance of firmer skin. This is because the collagen seeps into the pores and absorbs water. However, it’s also a foreign protein and the body will attack and dispose of it, often quickly. Vitamins and minerals are needed for all types of tissues, and what gets to the skin is part of a larger process. Spending extra money on vitamin and mineral infused junk is a balm that will not last.

18. Something other than your natural hair, skin, and eye color will look good on you. No, it won’t. I can spot a fake hair color pretty easily. Sure, it might be striking, and people will talk about how nice your fake hair or fake eyes look, but not about how good you look. Compliments on your hair color, skin color, and eye color aren’t actually compliments about you, and you should know the difference. Especially in Korea, light hair and skin gets compliments, but it’s still shallow. Plus, hair is not really mono-toned, as the shades vary from hair to hair, even in very dark and very light hair. When you bleach it then dye it, you make it one color. We are all born with a certain level of the pigments, which is why our hair, skin, and eye colors, tend to be in harmony. This is why people with darker skin tend to have darker hair and eyes, and why people with lighter skin tend to have lighter hair and eyes, and why people with cooler skin tones have cooler hair and eye colors and those with warmer skin tones have warmer hair and eye colors. As a person with the redhead gene, I have tried and failed to dye my hair colors that simply don’t look good on me. Now, I let my hair bleach in the sun and keep it healthy to keep it looking good. Eventually, it’ll all go white, so I may as well enjoy it while I can. And creepy mono-toned contacts? There are some good ones out there, but for the most part, they’re all scary and fake looking. Besides, over processed hair in an interesting color cannot beat the allure of healthy, touchable hair in a more mundane color.

20. Care what men think about the way you look. Random men are good judges of how all women should look, and you should adjust accordingly. No matter what you look like, there is a man out there for whom you are just his style, even if you haven’t met him yet, even if he’s not the guy that you’re currently with. A man’s taste in women comes from many factors, including things as unconscious as what his mother looked like and his first experiences of sexual attraction, to the culture he grew up in, to competition with his male friends, to his own level of confidence and sense of individuality. All men say that the hate makeup, for the most part, but what they mean is that they don’t like seeing obviously put-on faces. If it were true that men didn’t like makeup, all of the women in everything used to market to men would look like they just rolled out of bed. Even still, what they don’t like is a woman who looks too good for them, but that’s not true for all men. For example, jacked teeth are popular in Japan. Why? Men find it cute, as it makes a girl seem more approachable because it shows that she isn’t perfect. Last year, NY Times had an article on Japanese women getting their straight teeth all jacked up so that they’d be more attractive to men. Fuck that shit. Why would I want to hurt myself in order to waste my time with and have to drag along and humor a man who isn’t even confident enough to talk to a woman with healthy teeth? If you have seen A Beautiful Mind, you may remember the example of game theory set out on the dance floor. Instead of all going for the beautiful girl, it was theorized that if the friends all go for her less attractive friends, they are more likely to win time with a girl and lower the friction of competitiveness. True, approaching new people can be scary. However, it’s not a woman’s job to change herself to keep in mind the lack of confidence in the men around her. It’s the man’s job to find a sense of security within himself before he tries to bring someone into his life. There are men out there who will like you just the way you look.


These women don’t know that I listen to them every night. From the time that I get home from work to the time that I go to bed and often beyond, they sit on the hill weaving and doing other little projects together. They speak in soft, matronly voices in a language that after two years, I still can’t understand. They giggle and it rolls and twirls on the wind straight through my wind, lulling me to sleep.

I remember summer nights as a child, and the sounds from all the houses nearby – conversations, televisions, arguments, and laughter, back when people used to talk to each other and when I could talk to them, too. But that was back when I lived in a city that I could walk in, that was almost worth walking in, and there were stars to be seen in the night sky.

They're Coming to America

Just a warning for the two people who may be reading my blog between now and the day I die: this is gonna get filled up with a lot of genealogy stuff.

A psychic medium I once wasted $75 on told me than a grandfather from my past, whose name started with an R, came forth to tell me that I was going to put an end to the generational problems in the family. I’d end the cycle.
Yeah, which one? And who the hell is this Grandpa “R”?
But even still – there are many mysteries on either side of the family that I have spent countless Saturdays hiding from the unbearable Seoul summers finding them all electronically.
I’ve learned a lot about U.S. history.
I come from a long line of artisans and handiworkers.
And in some cases, criminals.
There is a theme though – people who are too smart to be doing the work that they’re doing and suffering from it.

Case in point: my great-grandfather came from Italy, near Naples. I can’t find him. Domenico (Domenick) Conte spoke a few languages and was very into theater. He was well-read. He was trained as a cobbler and worked, in part, as a blacksmith in the U.S. Which languages? Italian, and English for sure. Yiddish, I think, too, because my grandmother spoke it.
I recently got in touch with the German side of my family, my paternal grandfather’s folks.
We have the same chin.
Someone joked, asking what I hoped to find, “Nazis?”
That hurt.
It still kind of does, because that side of the family left Bromberg well before any of that. I’m pretty sure my family doesn’t have Nazis, or Fascists. At the very least, they were never wealthy enough to join the parties, aside the Zeitgeist, and my bloodline that I know of is in the USA.

Two years ago, I wasn’t sure what my ethnicities were.

Today, I am pretty much convinced that I’m American. I live in Seoul. I teach English. I come from the Fingerlakes. I worked in New York and I miss it. The family seems to have converted to Catholicism about two generations back and no one seems to know but me that we come from a long line of Others.

And I’m not going to Heaven, probably, but it’s nice to see who I might meet in the other places.

Next time, when I’m not getting ready for work, I’ll start with my mother’s mothers side of the family. Sorry in advance. 🙂

Ghost Hunting

I can’t find the man in the middle, Leonard Santomassimo, who may have been born between 1865 and 1875. He’s my great-great grandfather from Stigliano, Italy. I don’t know if that’s Stigliano in Tuscany or Campagnia. All we know is “near Naples.”

The Earthen Wall

This the low part of an old earthen wall that protected a palace where my neighborhood by Olympic Park is now. It’s been raining for days. At night, the top of that steeple glows with a neon-red cross. Most churches around here do, such that (earthen walls not withstanding) you don’t ever, ever forget that what is considered sacred and profane in the West is flexible here.

Also, all the Buddhist buildings here have swastikas on them.

This Asia though, and I don’t ask Buddhists to bend for me, though out of everyone I can think of, they probably would.  My connection to it, and my reaction, is largely cultural and strained, as a white American whose grandfathers and their brothers all fought in World War II.  I have some distant ethnic German ancestors who were killed in Bromberg on Bloody Sunday, but that’s it’s own can of worms, and it being something I only found out about three weeks ago is the reason I’ll never internalize it or think about it too much.

I have, in a round-about way, asked my Jewish friends here how they react to the ubiquitous swastika. I’m genuinely curious.

I’m a genuine curiosity here, and I finally got some gross-looking old guy who works at a nearby fruit stand to stop asking me where I’m from by yelling, “I’m not Russian! Leave me alone!” (because Russian female = prostitute here, even though that’s not true in reality. It is true in the world of how foreigners are stratified though). However, I’m American. My army has been here for sixty years and I have relatives who fought in the Korean War. I have something like five or six ancestors in the Daughters of the American Revolution database, and my family’s history goes back to the early colonial times in both the North and the South, and the rest are mostly from Prussia and Naples (and then there’s that legend everyone in Buncombe County seems to know about Cherokee Indians in my bloodline, but there’s no paper trail for that).

As I get older, I lose pigmentation, such that I was once a redhead with deep hazel eyes, and now I’m a strawberry blonde with blue-green eyes. This means that, as time goes on, I become more of a trope of the empirical kind, such that when I walk around – pale, blonde, light-eyed and teaching English in my put-on standard accent – I’m the object of Same-Same. Maybe a bit bigger than ideal, such that buying bras is a battle and chore in South Korea, but I know why I’m here, and when I see neon crosses all over the place, it means no more to me than small groups of retirees protesting our latest trade agreement with South Korea or American beef.  That’s just a curiosity I watch from the window next to my desk at work.

I’ll eat it. I’ll never become a mad cow, and I’m not afraid of toxins.

I will never truly experience the rigidity of being in the margins. If I was to pack up, leave tonight and go home, what would happen? Nothing. Many of the people in my hometown don’t even know that South Korea isn’t communist, and that I have a real job here and am not just on a working vacation. No one would come collecting for unpaid bills, and the most real consequences would be having to make a low-exchange transfer of my money into US dollars and never being able to work in Korea again.

As if I want to work in Korea again. But I don’t pull midnight runs, as the consequences are worse for everyone here than for me, and even though it would be easier to deal with a lot of things I have going on in the US if I were back in the US, if there’s a chance of gaining something, I follow things out. I follow a thread to the very end, even if there’s nothing tied to the end.

This thread has gotten off track.

So this is why, when it starts to rain, and I’m already wet, I don’t bother opening my umbrella. I let it wash over me. I don’t mind being wet. And when it rains all day, I don’t fight it. I stay in the cave and wait for a sunny day to pick up my spear and hunt again.


Children in Seoul never seem to play in the rain. They are told that it’s acid rain, that it’s poison. Now, the water here isn’t thoroughly cleaned anyway, so they bathe in it and eat it in their soup, but what falls directly from the sky is harmful, apparently. It could melt you…as if melting into the ground isn’t part of the Grand Inevitable, as if the human body isn’t resilient enough to Gaia who is still, to this day, is begging Saturn to free her from the pain of re-wombing her babies and ready with the scythe to cut us all down at the harvest. As if we’re all at a disadvantage in the struggle to survive and have to be sneaky about it through natural selection.

The truth is that the water is no more poison than the air around them, which I suppose they’d also choose to stop breathing if they could.

It reminds me of jumping off of the railing of my grandmother’s old rickety porch straight into the blackberry trees that lined the front of her property, hands stretched and grabbing handfuls of fruit on my way down to Earth. I’d eat the good ones and lick up the juice from my dirt-filmed palms, and do it over again. Then, someone – I don’t recall who – told me not to eat THOSE blackberries, because they were poison. It is true that fruit from the tree can have larvae or bird shit on it, but if it was good enough for birds, and good enough for the bees, it was good enough for me. What is more natural than picking fruit from the tree and eating it? Surely I might disturb one disgruntled bee, but what child doesn’t?

No – they were poisonous simply because they were outside and haven’t passed through filtration and other human hands to get into a grocery store, from Chile to the Fingerlakes, where I’d pay $3 a pint for them, in 1987.

As if the touch of a human is never, ever poisonous in and of itself. And what poisons are American children most in contact with, anyway? Alcohol, cigarettes, refined sugar – the balms of our parents’ lives.  I have seen my parents (and I have done this too) pick up a cigarette that has been dropped on the ground and put it in our mouths. And blackberry or cigarette, how often we have NOT died!

The root word of intoxicating is toxin.

My grandmother died in 1997 from a series of strokes that started with a big one in 1993. Before that, she had had three heart attacks, breast cancer and a mastectomy, cataracts, osteoporosis, skin tumors, diabetes and arthritis. Her night table was an orange grove right in New York State, the dirty, blood-dotted tissues from checking her glucose the foliage, the nitroglycerin patches the blossoms, the pharmaceutical bottles each  a ripe fruit.

I wasn’t allowed to touch the table at all because it was all poisons to me.

Fifteen years later, I’m still here, and the crazy Aries matriarch who helped raise and shape me is in the aether, up in the clouds, filtering the rain that always manages to come down no matter where on Earth I am.


I have a belief that all of the friends that I’m close to are much stronger people than I. Maybe getting asked if you’re a prostitute, or seeing Swastikas everywhere is just par for the course, is acid rain in the monsoon season that’s creeping in right now. There’s a home somewhere where no one questions your identity and no one challenges it or makes you aware of it. This just doesn’t happen to be it…

…but on a clear night about a month ago, walking back to my apartment late enough so that there was only one drunk adjussi propping himself up against the earthen wall and urinating in public, I said nothing. I took hold of the warm hand that was offered to me, and I wondered if I had enough instant coffee for the both of us the next morning.

Last night, I was going to the grocery store and an old man shouted at me as he was going into the building, wanting me to take his umbrella. I don’t speak Korean. I don’t know what he actually said.

Stop shouting at me, all of you! I don’t understand you on so many levels, and I’m not afraid of the rain.