Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Korean Spa Fun: King Spa in Palisades Park, NJ

Kind of looks like some sort of occult ritual, doesn't it? But it's all in good health!

[This is adapted from my Yelp review-- the most popular Yelp review I have written to date!]

I'm going to tell you the whole story. Pop some popcorn, have a seat.

Despite being a waegukin (read: white chick), I have been to Korean saunas many times. Here in DC, I go to Spa World about five times a year, and I've also been to Juvenex in NYC, though that one is tiny. On my recent trip to NYC I had a decision to make between King Sauna and Spa Castle, and I decided on this one because it has a reputation for being more authentic-- no swimsuits. I devoted a whole day of my two-day trip to this experience, and showed up at the shuttle pickup spot in Manhattan an hour ahead of the 9:30 AM pickup time.

It was a Monday. As the hour approached, a couple other people showed up: a shy young Korean woman (around 20-22) and a gregarious Korean man (53, as I found out later). Once the bus was ten minutes late, the guy used the girl's phone to call them and demand to know where the shuttle was. Long story short, he ended up talking to/yelling at them three times-- all in Korean-- and finally announced to me, "Come on, they said they'd pay for a taxi to take us there. Follow me."

I'm a 37-year-old mom of four from the suburbs. I have a college degree and two teenagers whom I harp on about safety. Thankfully, none of this prevented me from getting in a hired car with these two strangers and the Korean driver and hightailing it to New Jersey. With ALL my stuff, I might add, since I'd be going straight to Penn Station after my spa day-- laptop, clothes, fancy camera, you name it. As we drove along the guy asked me where I was from, and I said DC. The guy and the driver then resumed their conversation in Korean, and I began hearing the words "Chesapeake" and "Jamestown" interspersed into their sentences. I texted my husband and let him know where they might want to look for my body.

About half an hour later we arrived at the spa. Suddenly the staff seemed very unhappy with this deal they had supposedly struck with my buddy, and about five minutes of energetic arguing ensued in Korean. At last someone at the desk handed him a pile of money with great annoyance, and he went off to pay the driver, and I paid my entrance fee.

So all of that is to say, beware the wiles of the shuttle service. You may want to find yourself a confident Korean businessman to handle the situation in the event they don't show up.

The gold-lined sauna. Fit for a very sweaty king.

Here are my overall impressions of King Sauna itself:

- The sauna facilities are excellent, though a couple are repetitive. There are two Mineral Salt igloos and two Mud ones (sadly, the mud is on the walls, not in the form of a fun mud bath). But the Amethyst, Gold Pyramid, and Cold ones are unique and very nicely designed. The Infrared one is wonderful-- cooler than the others, with a fake fireplace inside-- just like cuddling up by the coziest hearth you can imagine. I have read reviews where people complain that they are all basically the same, just with different surroundings, and to that I say, WHO CARES. The different rooms keep things interesting as you sweat out the city filth from your pores. There are baskets and large teabags of mugwort (or something) in almost all of them, and I liked that. Interesting, distinctive smell.

- Unlike at Spa World, where the saunas are unisex, at King Sauna they're single-sex (or at least appear to be). If you come here with someone of the opposite sex, call ahead and make sure you will be able to hang out with them for SOME amount of time.

If you want to pull off an amethyst heist, bring a crowbar. Of course, it will be difficult to get very far in the pink prison-like scrubs they assign you.

- The water areas are similar to a Roman bath. I am used to Spa World, which has a huge "bade pool" with tons of different jacuzzi jets, and smaller pools and steam/dry saunas all around it. That is not how King Sauna works at all. At this place, in the women's area, there are NO JETTED TUBS. Instead there is one tepid-warm tub, one tepid-cool tub, one cold tub, one gorgeous ice-cold tub with a rainfall shower dispensing frigid water, and one tub that is so hot that I felt I was being prepared for canning. Let me tell you, I am a hot water junkie; the main reason I could never go on "Survivor" is not because I wouldn't eat bugs, but because I wouldn't give up my hot showers. And this tub was too hot for ME. I mean seriously, that's some hot hotness.

- Water areas are, of course, naked. Again a comparison with Spa World: there are plenty of "foreigners" at my home spa-- lots of white people and black people, people of all shapes and sizes, tattoos on display everywhere. Not quite so at King Sauna, at least not the day I was there. It was about 85% Korean, which meant I had more ink and more body fat than the vast majority of naked bathers. *I* didn't care, but if you're a self-conscious person, heads up.

- Beautiful decor, lots of game tables with games awaiting, and space to just hang out. Super relaxing and beautiful environment, but confusing floor plan (prob due to additions over time).

Pardon the blurriness, but I had to be sneaky with my photography. Though this area was clothed, there's a general no-photos policy in a facility catering to naked people.

- Shuttle trip back was smooth/uneventful. ~30 mins back to Manhattan.

Now here's the part I didn't have room to mention in my Yelp review (I ran out of characters). While in one of the gemstone saunas, I saw a Korean woman, about the same age as me, looking at me anxiously. We were the only two in the sauna, so I struck up a conversation with her. She told me she lived in New Jersey but was native-born Korean-- a fact I had discerned from her accent and real struggle to speak English. Her English was competent, but slow, and she was clearly self-conscious about it. She told me this was only the second time she had been to a Korean spa herself, despite being native-born, and her teenage daughter was utterly horrified by the fact that you have to take your clothes off in the pool section. It was interesting to me that I was more experienced with spa-going than she, and she seemed put off by aspects of it, asking me questions about whether I was comfortable with this or that.

Finally she asked me if I was feeling all right. Puzzled, I told her I felt fine-- why did she ask? Haltingly, she explained to me that "Asians are made to sweat," while "people like [me]" are not, and she was concerned that it might be dangerous for me to be in such a hot room. Now, of course I realize how racist this sounds, but the lady meant no harm, and her obvious concern for me was kind of charming. I assured her that I felt perfectly fine and was drinking plenty of water. She seemed vaguely reassured. And then she bailed out of the room before I did.

The cold room. Like being in the beer fridge from the '70s your parents kept in the garage. Smells the same, too.

The King Sauna experience was dramatically different from that of Spa World... and I'd be happy to go back. Overall I have to say I prefer my "local" (one hour away) Korean spa, but they're both pretty great, and I can't wait to return to NYC so I can try Spa Castle. The fact that you have to wear a swimsuit there is disappointing, but I suppose it will make for a different kind of Korean spa experience. And when I get there, I'll be sure to share all the details!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Giving Your Characters their ABNA Makeover

For the past two years I've been a judge in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition-- a contest in which my novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, semifinaled in 2010. I'm very aware of how powerful this contest can be in helping an author vault up to the next level of publishing, and, having judged it as well, what can make or break a manuscript. With the submission period just about two months away, I'm here to offer an inside look at how you can get your novel in top form for ABNA.

Whether you've written sci-fi, romance, literary fiction, or any other genre, your characters are key to the judge's-- and readers'!-- level of engagement in your book, right from the beginning. A prevalent myth out there is that a main character needs to be sympathetic. Not true! Some of the best protagonists in fiction are downright unlikable. My favorite example is Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, who starts out unsympathetic and grows into someone detestable. But here's the trick: if your main character isn't going to be likable, he or she needs to be interesting. A judge may feel skeptical about following the story of an off-putting character, but if that character promises to pull me along on a hell of a ride, I'll give them the chance.

My favorite characters in the stories I've judged have been those with a spirit of mischief and a sense of irony or humor about their circumstances-- even just a hint of it. This doesn't mean that's what I'm looking for-- just that I tend to like it when I find it. Last year I judged a wonderful book about a woman who was working as a soap opera writer as her own life turned into a soap opera around her. Usually I don't go in for chick lit or romance, but I couldn't resist this tale of an exasperated writer navigating the slapstick comedy of her life. She was well-defined and funny, and if she had been real, I would have loved to meet her for coffee.

Lots of stories aren't suited for a character with these qualities, and that's just fine. But he or she-- let's go with she for now-- can often benefit from something that gives her an edge. Even a character who is a victim might have a sense of opposition or inner rebellion against her circumstances; a character who is profoundly confident may be hiding a particular insecurity. These opposing qualities give a personality dimension. And that's always a good thing.

What attributes should you avoid? What kinds of characters are turnoffs for your judge or reader? Here's a list of ideas-- not rules.

The Thinly-Veiled Antagonist. We've all heard of the thinly veiled protagonist-- a character who is a little too autobiographical. Just as common is the "antagonist" version-- a fictional version of a real-life person the author "has it in for." But how would the judge know this is the case? It's easy-- the antagonist has qualities and quirks that don't serve the plot at all. Let's face it-- we all have that person in our lives that we'd love to kill off in a novel. But if you take the leap and cram her in there, you won't be able to resist giving her the same haircut and patterns of speech, and mention some awful thing she's done-- even if these details are extraneous or, more commonly, even conflict with what's ideal for the plot. A skilled author will create the antagonist the story needs, and resist the urge to grab that real-life boss or PTA president by the scruff of her neck and drop her in the volcano.

The Girl With the Short Skirt and Long Jacket. Remember the song by Cake? It's about a girl with fingernails that "shine like justice," who "uses a machete to cut through red tape." Listen, I am all for a positive, feminist narrative. I would delight in receiving a manuscript in which a female protagonist kicks ass and takes names. What I'm tired of reading about are one-dimensional females with unlimited sex appeal-- which they're always using to render men into whimpering, helpless lumps-- and a snappy comeback in every verbal exchange, always delivered with a cocked hip. Can a woman show sexual power? Yes, but for a truly interesting female protagonist it will be only one of many tools in her toolbox.

The Dime-Store Humbert Humbert. I have bad news for you. You're not Vladimir Nabokov, and neither am I. That is why, when I wrote a statutory rapist into my novel, I included the victim's perspective and didn't attempt to write the book entirely from the point of view of a ghastly, morally corrupt and delusional individual. Believe it or not, one of the most common-- and most frustrating-- characterization mistakes I see in ABNA is an author writing a story from the bad guy's first-person point of view, start to finish. Yes, this can be done, but it's like choosing "Dream On" for karaoke. Sure, some people can sing it-- but if you can't hit all those high notes, it's going to feel like an aural assault to everyone else in the room with you. Few people seem to notice that, in Lolita, Nabokov managed to pull this off only because child-molesting Humbert Humbert addresses the novel to the "gentlewomen of the jury"-- putting the reader in the role of moral judge right from the beginning. This is crucial. With first-person point of view, the reader typically feels like she is supposed to be a sympathizer with the protagonist, which can be unbearable if the protagonist is someone who makes her squirm. I have been asked to critique and judge way too many novels that feel like I just sat down to coffee with a child molester.

The Protest Marcher. This one is less common, but still bears mentioning. Now and then I run into a main character who feels like she is quietly carrying a protest sign for a cause that matters to the author. I'm kind of sympathetic to this, because we all want to write books that convey ideas that are important to us. Still, this needs to be done organically within a story, and the reader shouldn't feel manipulated; for a judge it's even more of a turnoff, because if we "vote up" selections like that, it can feel like bias. For example, one year I received a manuscript that appeared to have a thinly-concealed agenda against a particular social group. Characters in the story frequently made comments that were critical of this group, factoids were cited about problems with it, and characters engaged in discussions about why they wanted no part of it. Ostensibly it was the characters discussing this, but I felt like if I voted up this manuscript-- which I wouldn't have done anyway because of its many other problems-- I would be tacitly promoting the author's bias against this group. This is not to say that if you have written a book to promote a view, you shouldn't enter it in the contest. But I do recommend that you write a damn good story that compellingly engages that view, so the end product feels story-driven and not agenda-driven.

Before you submit your manuscript, spend some time mulling over your characters and consider whether a tweak here or there would make them a bit more compelling or even sympathetic-- often it doesn't take much. And if you have questions about characterization, I would be glad to try to answer them in the comments below.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I'm Trapping the Damn Leprechaun and You Can't Stop Me

In the past few days, quite a few of my Facebook friends have posted Kristen Howerton's blog post from Rage Against the Minivan-- a mini-screed entitled Can We Take the Holidays Down a Notch? She opens with an anecdote about her children's desire for a "leprechaun trap," to which she responds (to her readership), "Are you serious?" She goes on to cite children's increasingly amped-up expectations for holidays, and to call for a general drawdown of the celebratory craziness surrounding them.

With all due respect to Ms. Howerton (and much is due, because on some level I feel her pain)-- I must object.

Above is a photo of my children a couple of years ago, constructing a rather elaborate leprechaun trap. We have made them every year for-- well, I don't even know how long, but since long before "Pinterest" was a word. We still haven't caught the little twerp, but every year he drops his gold before he escapes, leaving my kids with a respectable stash of Rolos, chocolate coins, and Werther's caramels. We also celebrate Pi Day, and have an Easter egg hunt in our backyard complete with a Golden Egg that involves extra shopping and (inevitably) some losing child's tears, and have a watermelon seed-spitting contest in our driveway on the Fourth of July. With respect to the holiday stories my kids tell their friends, if you want to take it down a notch, I am the enemy.

Plus, not only do we celebrate Christmas with all suitable shock and awe, but we also celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which is where the kids put out their boots by the fireplace on December 5 and awaken to find them filled with candy, little Santa-themed toys, and new hats and gloves. We've done that for more than a decade-- since my 15-year-old, James, was a preschooler. Their friends think it's awesome, and beg their parents to do the same.

It wasn't like this when I was a kid, that's for sure. For one thing, my family was Jewish, and although I enjoyed Passover, I spent the month of March paging longingly through the J.C. Penney circulars in the Sunday Washington Post, cutting out pictures of girls in Easter dresses with little gloves and hats and playing with them like paper dolls. You can imagine the near-fatal case of Christmas envy I suffered every year. While I don't defend my covetousness, it wouldn't take a degree in psychiatry to figure out why I grew up to be a mom who cranks every once-forbidden holiday to Eleven.

But this isn't just about me and my unruly inner child. There are other, perfectly valid reasons why I think it is a perfectly fantastic idea to celebrate every special day in epic style.

This is my 15-year-old, James. He's the healthiest kid in the world. Last Fall he woke up one morning feeling dizzy. The next day I took him to the pediatrician, who sent us straight to the ER. By the time the neurologist assessed him an hour or so later, he couldn't walk anymore, or turn over in bed without vomiting from dizziness. His eyes jumped around when the neurologist pointed a light at them. She told us it was probably a brain tumor. If not, it was likely a meningitis-like swelling in his cerebellum, and he would be admitted to the ICU. The sentence she used was, "I believe we are witnessing a significant event."

I didn't want a significant event. Not this kind.

In a matter of hours, our life had swung from happiness and predictability to the absolute and terrifying unknown. My baby, my firstborn, had transformed from the sibling-wrestling, pancake-making, "Burn Notice"-obsessed kid I knew to a rapidly deteriorating, profoundly ill neurological patient. Because my sister had passed away at age 11 from a brain stem tumor, I knew all too well what James was likely facing, and what his siblings would be facing as well from the upheaval this would cause. My husband and I were beside ourselves. It was the worst day, and somehow it felt like a day I had always feared would come: when my wonderful child, who I had always suspected I didn't deserve, would be taken back. 

Over the next two days they expedited his MRI, and then his second, contrast MRI, and then his spinal tap. He got sicker and sicker, but one by one they kept eliminating the possibilities: first, it wasn't a brain tumor, and then it wasn't meningitis either. They decided it was probably viral, and started talking about eventually discharging him to a nursing home, where he would re-learn how to walk. Then his headache got really bad, and they put him on a bunch of IV drugs, and a few hours later he stood up and walked to the bathroom, then asked if they could send in the video game cart.

Discharge diagnosis: one major MF-er of a migraine.

His four days in the hospital were, in the end, the most incredible gift. My husband and I had stared down the barrel of what it would look like if our lives were turned absolutely upside-down by something terrible happening to one of our children, and as a result saw the fragility and precious beauty of ordinary life. During that time I realized: we are not promised a single day. Every single day we wake up and things are ordinary, and fine, and normal, is an act of grace.

Since then, when I have a lousy day-- checks not arriving, fights on the internet, dogs creating more messes than my toddlers ever did, obnoxious relatives making trouble-- I'll step back and think, "James doesn't have a brain tumor. Today is a GREAT day." Maybe it's a little bit Pollyanna of me, but it puts it in perspective to think about what March 21, 2013 might have been like, if the universe hadn't grabbed us by the collar and then slowly lowered us to the ground.


Catch the damn leprechaun. Because inevitably, no matter how carefully you arrange your life and how thoughtfully you raise your kids, there are going to be days where there's not one thing worthy of celebration. There are going to be days that suck. An ordinary day is a fantastic day. But a day that gives you an excuse to hand out the sugar, have fun as a family, and take a break that leaves everyone exhilarated and smiling?

Kick it up a notch. Celebrate like there's no tomorrow. You won't regret it.