Kimchi Monster

Anne McGovern

Seven bowls of rice sit on my host-family’s Chuseok (South Korean Thanksgiving) table, one for each of them and me. To my right is a plate of sweet, soy- and sugar-glazed lotus roots—light brown, and shaped like a child’s drawing of a flower. Crunchy and crumbly, the roots taste almost like a salted caramel candy. To my left is a large bowl of grilled tilefish, opened and spread at the belly. When eaten, the white meat falls from the spine and dissolves delicately in the mouth. Four fish line the bowl now, and twelve others lie packed on ice in Styrofoam boxes in the mudroom. My host-father bought them fresh from the open-air market by the docks this morning. The extra are a gift to his parents.

Across the table, in front of grandmother and grandfather, lies a plate of grilled pine mushrooms that resemble tiny hammers. They are rubbery yet sweet, with thick stems that squeak when chewed. Minji*, my six-year-old host-sister, fixes her eyes on an assortment of shrimp and vegetables fried in egg—carrots, peppers, onions, broccoli. It’s her favorite, and everyone at the table knows to let her get the first (and last) bite. Finally, a large bowl of thick beef short rib stew sits by my host-mother and eight-year-old Kyeong-ha*, my eldest host-sister. Piled high in the bowl, it oozes precariously down toward the rim.

It is late September, and I have been living at my host-family’s home in Mokpo—a city at the edge of southwest South Korea—for about five weeks. I am there on a teaching scholarship, where I will teach English to 600 students at a local girls’ high school for one year. The holiday weekend is a welcome break from my rushed entry into the classroom—I had never taught before—as well as into a new home and country. We left Mokpo mid-morning and drove to my host-father’s parents’ house in Dangjin, a town south of Seoul, and spent the rest of the afternoon preparing the holiday meal.

Grandfather is a Christian minister, and we wait while he prays. I am neither Christian, nor religious, but I hear my name and am glad that he includes me in his prayer. When he finishes, grandmother stands up, having forgotten something in the kitchen. She brings out a fork for little Minji, who still cannot use chopsticks well.

It’s time to eat.

Kyeong-ha goes for the side dish of dried seaweed. It’s meant to be eaten while wrapped around rice and meat, but she enjoys it plain and by the mouthful. My host-father fills Minji’s plate with the egg-battered vegetables and shrimp, and takes a bite himself. Grandfather munches on the beef, nodding thoughtfully, while my host-mother and grandmother survey the table, confirming that everyone was eating and enjoying the food before they took their first bites.

And me, I go straight for the kimchi.

My tongue prickles with the taste of sweet salt and spice. The type is baechu (or whole cabbage) kimchi. Its heat is moderate. It crunches, and its color is a deep, almost neon, chili-pepper red. I reach for another piece and taste notes of vinegar and the sea. Grandmother sees me devouring the kimchi, and she grabs the dish and runs to the kitchen, returning with a heaping pile that she places right next to my bowl of rice. I am a bit embarrassed; I don’t want the rest of the family to have to reach for it. I push it to the middle of the table, but grandmother pushes it back firmly.

“Meog-eo, meog-eo!” she says. Eat, eat!

Kimchi is a representative dish of South Korea—its pride—and is eaten with every meal of the day. It can be found in every South Korean refrigerator, at every restaurant table, and like water in the United States, it will almost always be refilled for free. Kimchi grew out of the Korean people’s resourcefulness while living on difficult land.

The Korean peninsula is made of mountains, with few opportunities for agriculture, and winters—some of the harshest in its latitude—that often kill local farmers’ small variety of crops. When early Koreans began to farm, they preserved with salt what little vegetables they could grow. One of the most common foods they preserved were radishes that they soaked in brine; these became the forerunners of modern kimchi. Later, more vegetables were introduced into the country, such as the Napa (from the Japanese word nappa, meaning greens or vegetable leaves) or Chinese cabbage, which is the staple of baechu kimchi, the most popular type in South Korea today. During this time, Korean farmers began to add more to their kimchi mixtures (now made with radishes or cabbage) besides brine, such as garlic, spices, leeks, and bamboo shoots. But it wasn’t until after the 1500s that chili peppers were introduced to the country from the Americas, giving birth to the modern spicy kimchi.

Now there are more than 200 types of kimchi in South Korea, and it can be eaten in an endless number of ways: alone as a meal starter or a transition between foods; together with a mouthful of steamy white rice; wrapped in seaweed with rice, grilled pork belly, and a clove of pickled garlic; boiled in a spicy stew with sweet and spicy chili paste, tofu, beans, and sausage, or with clams and oysters instead; and more. I have tried my fair share of kimchi types and food combinations, but it would likely take a lifetime to experience them all.

Grandfather says my name and clicks his chopsticks; it means he’s impressed that I can use them so well. My host-father asks me a question. I am only a beginner in the Korean language, but his questions always seem to include advanced-level grammar and vocabulary. “Um,” I say, but he’s already preoccupied with Kyeong-ha, who has seaweed flakes sprinkled down her shirt and around her on the floor. He tells her not to be so messy.

Grandmother says nothing but has been continuously placing morsels of food on my plate; she has an agenda to make sure that I properly enjoy her Chuseok dinner. My host-mother worries that I’m being forced to eat too much, or things that I don’t like, but I assure her that I’m loving every bit of everything.

“Mas-iss-eoyo,” I say, around a mouthful of kimchi. Delicious.

I ate my first piece of kimchi a year earlier at a Korean restaurant in Japan. It was not as delicious as that on grandmother’s table now, but it prompted me to actively seek its variety when I arrived in South Korea. Then, while becoming addicted to its piquant taste, I also learned that it was good for me.

Kimchi is a fermented food, which means it’s packed with beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus sakei and Lactobacillus plantarum, found in many plant-based probiotic foods like pickles and sauerkraut. (Yogurt is another type of probiotic food that contains different strains of Lactobacillus bacteria.) Fermentation is a process where yeast or bacteria convert carbohydrates (like sugar) into alcohols (such as beer and wine) or acids. Weissella koreensis, the most abundant bacteria across many kimchi types, produces ornithine, an acid believed to help prevent weight gain and increase metabolism (or breaking down) of body fat. Many researchers are now studying kimchi for its potential antiobesity effects.

Some of kimchi’s raw ingredients are also considered healthy; for example, red pepper powder is high in vitamin C (and contains its own potential weight-gain preventing mechanisms), along with Napa cabbage, which contains calcium, iron, and potassium. In addition to antiobesity effects, researchers are also studying kimchi for its potential lowering of so-called “bad” cholesterol, as well as anticancer, antiaging, and antidiabetic properties. However, it’s important to note kimchi’s possible harmful effects as well. Some research suggests that kimchi and other fermented Korean foods such as soybeans likely contribute to the high rate of stomach cancer in South Korea.

We are halfway through our Chuseok meal, and the youngest member of the family, Minji, sits with her fork gripped tightly in her fist, munching on an egg-fried shrimp. She watches me. I scrunch up my nose like there’s something smelly and stick out my tongue. She blinks; Minji is hard to amuse. I cross my eyes and mimic a fish, but Minji continues to chew blankly. I give up and eat another piece of kimchi.

Minji turns to her father and asks a question. “Minji wants to know why you eat so much kimchi,” he translates.

I consider the question.

The first thing I think of is the difference between kimchi and other spicy foods, such as spicy chicken wings; after three or four bites of a wing, my mouth becomes numb and overwhelmed, yet kimchi manages to stay sweet and savory despite its chili-pepper coating. I also consider my experience of eating a piece of kimchi at noon in the school cafeteria, after having stood on my feet for hours at the front of the classroom, and the jolt of energy that radiates from my taste buds throughout my tired body; it packs a punch. (Later during my stay in the country, I would learn to eat kimchi at breakfast and come to rely on its spicy punch to help me wake up in the morning.)

I also think of how many types of kimchi dishes I’ve seen, and the endless ways it can be eaten. Even in the United States, a country with a palette not yet acclimated to kimchi’s strong, unique taste, its popularity has been growing. In January 2015, David Tanis wrote in The New York Times that kimchi was a “magic ingredient with many possibilities, and home cooks would do well to explore them.” Some of his advice on how to use it include as a topping on a hot dog, or stashed in a grilled cheese or Reuben.

But though kimchi’s popularity is indeed growing, it’s still far from becoming a frequent part of the American diet. For one, kimchi is a pungent food, in both taste and smell. It often requires its own refrigerator for storing to keep the rest of the fridge contents from soaking up its vinegar and slightly fishy smell. After I returned to the United States and moved to Boston, my roommate graciously endured the smell from my horde of kimchi in our regular fridge during the time we lived together. She, along with many Americans, was just not a fan. Kimchi seems to be one of those foods that you either love or hate.

All things considered, my answer to Minji’s question is that I eat so much kimchi because it’s delicious, versatile, and packed with healthy bacteria, vitamins, and minerals. But I knew I couldn’t explain this answer to her with my shoddy Korean language skills and instead considered a simple answer in English that would satisfy her in some way.

“Good question, Minji,” I say in English. I am not sure if she understands, but I rub my chin and temple, a gesture of thought she is likely to recognize. “I think it’s because I have a secret.”

She sits up straight. “Secret” is a word she knows well, due to the exciting things that follow when a speaker utters it.

“Do you want to know?”

“Yes,” she says, and her grandparents “oh!” in approval of her English usage.

“I like kimchi so much because,” I say, and lean in close. “I am the kimchi monster!”

Minji blinks her blink, and just when I think I failed once again to amuse her, she giggles. To my right, Kyeong-ha giggles too. “Kimchi monster!” she squeals, with a happy mouthful of seaweed.

The girls tumble back from the table, laughing and rolling on the floor.


* The two girls’ names have been changed from their actual names for added privacy.

List of References

1. Ye Jong-suk. Delectable Aroma of Songi Mushroom. From Koreana: A Quarterly on Korean Culture & Arts. Published in the fall, 2013 issue. (

2. Beef short ribs. From Published September 10, 2008. (

3. Eric Huh. A Complete Guide to Kimchi. From (

4. Jisho. Japanese-English Dictionary. Nappa. (

5. Joe McPherson. Kimchi: A Short History. From Zenkimchi: The Korean Food Journal. Published November 5, 2006. (

6. PBS. Kimchi Chronicles. Episode 1: The Kimchi Chronicles Begin. Aired in 2011. (

7. Kun-Young Park, et al. Health Benefits of Kimchi (Korean Fermented Vegetables) as a Probiotic Food. From the Journal of Medicinal Food. Published in October, 2013. PMID: 24456350.

8. J.-A Park, et al. Anti-obesity effect of kimchi fermented with Weissella koreensis OK1-6 as starter in high-fat diet-induced obese C57BL/6J mice. From The Journal of Applied Microbiology. Published in September, 2012. PMID: 22978326.

9. Burkhard Bilger. Nature’s Spoils. From The New York Times. Published November 22, 2010. (

10. Umesh Rudrappa. Napa cabbage nutrition facts. From (

11. Hong-Mei Nan, et al. Kimchi and soybean pastes are risk factors of gastric cancer. From the World Journal of Gastroenterology. Published June, 2005. PMID: 15929164.

12. David Tanis. Cooking With Kimchi. From The New York Times. Published January 20, 2015. (

We Are No Birds: Super-/Em-Powered

I’ll be honest. I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid. Comics were something that boys read, and besides, they were all a bunch of beefy men beating each other up anyway, so what was I really missing? As I came of age, so too did superheroes, it seemed. When I was in high school, Marvel was popping out movies nearly every year. So, as someone who was desperate for friends at the time, when it was suggested we go see Iron Man or Captain America or Thor, I agreed, even though I didn’t really think it would be “my thing.”

While I did enjoy these movies—it turns out watching a bunch of beefy men punch each other can be fun—the budding feminist in me wondered where the women were. Sure, Iron Man had Pepper Potts, Captain America had Peggy Carter, and Thor had Jane Foster, but these women inevitably ended up in a romantic entanglement with the hero that turned her from a potentially strong character into yet another heart-eyed fawn. Even at that age, I was quite familiar with (and sick of) this trope. I would come out of the theater feeling like a superhero who could run fast, punch through walls, or fly, but this feeling wore off in about twenty minutes. These movies were entertainment, but they fell flat of having a real effect on me.

Then came The Avengers. Finally! I thought. A female superhero who gets to fight with the boys! And Black Widow did just that—at least, in part. I could never quite identify with Black Widow at the time because although I was thin, I never thought of myself as sexy, one key to Black Widow’s power. But I continued to go see Marvel movies, since, as I said, they made for a fun evening and gave me momentary feeling of power afterward.

That is, until Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, I’d just finished my second year of college (and perhaps importantly, my first Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class). When the stereotypical Forced Heterosexual Romance reared its ugly head between Black Widow and the Hulk, I lost all interest. The little autonomy Black Widow had had in the first Avengers movie had been completely eroded and her character had been reduced to a flimsy, man-dependent shell of what she had been. And thus ended my short affair with the superhero genre. Or so I thought.

Summer of 2017 had kept me busy, from graduating college to going on various trips. I had, though, still heard the buzz about Wonder Woman. I heard the movie was smashing box office records and critics were raving. Friends asked me repeatedly if I had seen it yet. Thinking all of these people had to be onto something, I took my boyfriend to see Wonder Woman in July, just before it left theaters.

I did my best to reserve judgment to keep from getting my hopes up, but ten minutes into the film, I was enamored with it. I left the theater feeling so much more than that fleeting sense of power I got after any previous Marvel movie. I came out of Wonder Woman feeling, in the fullest sense of the word, empowered. Here was a character who was not only physically strong (and more so than her male companions) but also emotionally and intellectually capable of engaging with the complicated world. Finally, Hollywood was depicting a female superhero as a feminist, the kind of hero who inspires and emboldens women like me. For example, rather than letting her grief for Steve Trevor prevent her from defeating the villain, Diana (Wonder Woman’s real name) overcomes this feeling to do her duty for the good of the world. And yet, at the same time, Diana expresses a variety of emotions, just like any real woman, a human being, would: she is angry at the all-male war council who refuses to listen to her; she is delighted to see a baby in the street; and she feels grief when inhabitants of the small Belgian village are killed and guilt at not being able to prevent the carnage. And while Steve and Diana do have a romance, Diana does not let her feelings for him impede her mission, thus avoiding the Forced Heterosexual Romance trope. Rather, as in the real lives of women who are feminists, romance and work coexist.

I could go on about what I liked in Wonder Woman, but my main point circles back to that feeling of empowerment. Here’s the thing about the superhero genre. Superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves. Even if the hero has been genetically modified or is from another planet, we still recognize them as human. Even if they have powers (like super speed, flight, or super strength) that mark them as non-human, their sense of ethics is what makes us respect them and recognize a part of ourselves in them. As such, putting aside their superpowers, we want superheroes to be as “real” as possible. We want them to have and express emotion, to make meaningful connections with other people. It’s no surprise, then, that when a superhero’s character simply fulfills stereotypes, rather than being “real” and complex, we feel disappointed. Characters like this fail to really resonate with an audience due to their lack of depth. Even if superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves, they still ought to contain the complexities and multitudes that your average non-super human does. When I saw superhero movies like Captain America, I was disappointed because the hero (and his female sidekick) did not resonate with my idea of the best version of myself. Although I admired Captain America’s sense of justice, the movie, for various reasons, supported a bias that supported the dominant, patriarchal power structure.

For groups who have been historically underrepresented, misrepresented, or stereotyped in Hollywood, seeing people like you on the big screen and portrayed in ways that do not perpetuate stereotypes is a truly great feeling. I don’t know if I have ever seen as many women on a movie screen at one time as I have in the opening scenes of Wonder Woman at Themyscira. And what are the women in this scene doing? Training. Being physically strong and athletic, without catering to the male gaze with “sexy” shots or with weakness in emotions or strength. I hope that there are more movies with unbiased tones like Wonder Woman to make women and other historically marginalized groups of people feel, well, super.

The Night He Went Crazy Onstage

When all this started—this was my first memory of Jim: the director and actors were all assembled, sitting around a table in the main room of Graham Memorial Hall—off a quad called McCorkle Place on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The big, airy room was where classes, auditions for the main stage, and sometimes actual productions, took place. It was nighttime. We were gathered for the first read-through of that very American play, The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, which won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and told the story of Joe, an everyman “loafer with money and a good heart,” as Saroyan called him, who sits around at Nick’s, a dive bar in San Francisco, engaging in philosophical discussions with a parade of ne’er-do-wells and typical American losers: a prostitute, a hoofer, a gamer (in 1939 it was marbles), an Arab who plays the harmonica, a pair of lovers, a heel; also sailors, drunkards, newsboys, an Indian fighter, a black kid who plays a melancholy piano, an unhappy woman of quality and great beauty—you get the idea.

It was 1976, the centennial of the United States, and yet the Drama Department had hired a British director. Jim was keenly aware of this and later expressed his resentment about it. I was cast as McCarthy, a talkative, well-read longshoreman who has two scenes with Krupp, a uniformed waterfront policeman. Jim was cast as Krupp.

During the read-through we came to our first scene, and Jim was asleep, head down on his forearms on top of his jacket. I was sitting across the table from him but someone nudged him. Jim roused himself from under a tartan cap, blinked, opened his script, and began to read. He wasn’t embarrassed; in fact, he seemed to be smiling. I realized later this was a feint of bravery against the forces of darkness taking place inside of him.

We began rehearsing the play in that small jewel, Playmaker’s Theatre, a Greek Revival structure with Corinthian columns in the center of UNC’s shady old campus. During rehearsals, I remember only a few moments—first, the director, named Harry, was rehearsing us for our scene in which my character, McCarthy, turns around at the bar to address Krupp, Jim’s character, and the director stopped me and asked why I was turning my body that way. I said, “This is the way a big man turns.” Harry said, “But you are a big man.” Which was true. At the time I was 6’3″, probably 215 pounds, but I was contorting my body to indicate that I was much larger than I was. I remember Jim laughing but saying nothing. I wanted to argue with Harry but Jim’s laugh was persuasive. He was a good actor, and I respected his choices. I stopped contorting.

Another memory: Bonnie, who played a streetwalker, began to pal around with Jim and me. One afternoon, lolling on the grass beside the theatre, we acknowledged what was happening with a group hug, voicing some platitude about teamwork when actually the sexual subtext and Jim’s and my rivalry for Bonnie’s affections (and her delight in that) was really what was on our minds. We only laughed, the carefree laughs of twenty-year-olds doing theatre in the 1970s, which, looking back now, was certainly a time of innocence. It was the year Jimmy Carter was elected President.

When the play had first opened, many of my friends who came to see it said the play was tedious. Nothing was happening, they said. It really was a play about people talking in a bar, that’s it—a slice of life from another anachronistic era, a “talky” enterprise with no drama but a nice set.
All that changed the night Jim went crazy.

The cast had settled into the run. There was nothing like live performance to help you hone your character, search for onstage moments in a scene, maybe try to get the ensemble to be more cohesive or get a laugh. During that period I was living with a roommate in an apartment not up on the hill but down in the flats across the 15-501. One night after a cast party, I ended up sleeping on the floor of Jim’s rented room on the second floor of a professor’s house on McCauley Street, right next to the university. During the night, I opened an eye to see Jim get up in the darkness to go to the bathroom down the hall. He was naked and, I thought, the guy’s in good shape.

I didn’t notice anything unusual about Jim’s behavior during this period. He would show up backstage as Krupp, in his police uniform with nightstick and handcuffs attached to his belt. At times, he seemed a little down, that’s all; everything was copacetic. Then, one night, he showed up fifteen minutes before our entrance, dressed in a white suit and shades, with a stack of record albums under his arm. When I left the dressing room and climbed the stairs to the backstage area, the actor playing Nick, who stood behind the onstage bar (and whose name was Mark), took me aside. He said something was the matter with Jim. I peered at Jim’s get-up across the dimly lit backstage area, not understanding what I was seeing. Mark told me that when Jim had shown up, Mark had asked him what was going on. Jim had said that he just wanted “to party.” Mark had replied, “Hey, man, that’s what I’m tryin’ to do…”

But Jim was determined to go out onstage.

A few minutes before we were about to make our entrance, I walked up to Jim and asked if he was all right. He nodded and smiled, looking a little embarrassed, showing me he was frightened. That made two of us. The stage manager cued us, and we came out onstage and walked down a long staircase. The scene called for us to belly up to the bar, order drinks, and grab bar stools—while Krupp and McCarthy would greet the main character, Joe, and launch into a philosophical discussion about American workers, particularly on the waterfront. McCarthy did most of the talking, but as written, Krupp disagreed, asked questions, or argued back.

As Jim entered in a white suit with shades, all the other actors already onstage froze. They had no idea what was going on but knew something was terribly wrong. Jim wandered around the stage, mumbling unintelligible words to himself. His non-sequiturs were sarcastic. Or he would just laugh. It was eerie. Remember, this was during a live performance.

I started our scene but when Krupp’s line back to me was not forthcoming, I turned his line into a question and asked myself the question he would have asked, but like a rhetorical, as in, “You want to know why I do…such and such? Well, I do it because of…x,y,z.”

And I just kept talking, trying to play both parts of the scene as a monologue while Jim wandered the stage. At one point, with a cigarette between his lips, Jim walked up and asked me for a light. I remember lighting his cigarette but still talking, trying to keep the ball in the air. The match went out before it could light him, and I had to strike another match. Luckily, I could keep talking because my character, McCarthy, is such a blowhard. Here’s an exchange to give you an idea. In a way you can’t blame Jim for cracking up—having to listen to this guy every night. It starts with a long monologue but the middle portion has been mercifully cut out:

McCarthy: I’m a longshoreman. And an idealist. I’m a man with too much brawn to be an intellectual, exclusively. (cut) I haven’t the heart to be a heel, so I’m a worker. I’ve got a son in high school who’s already thinking of being a writer.

Krupp: I wanted to be a writer once.

Joe: Wonderful. (He puts down the paper, looks at Krupp and McCarthy.)

McCarthy: They all wanted to be writers. Every maniac in the world that ever brought about the murder of people through war started out in an attic or a basement writing poetry. It stank. So they got even by becoming important heels. And it’s still going on.

Krupp: Is it really, Joe?

Joe: Look at today’s paper.

McCarthy: Right now on Telegraph Hill is some punk who is trying to be Shakespeare. Ten years from now he’ll be a senator. Or a communist.

Krupp: Somebody ought to do something about it.

There was a particular word in that exchange that, in rehearsal, I used to trip over. Instead of saying “communist,” I had to stop myself from saying another word (which rhymed) and which I think was “columnist.” When I got to that line on this night, I was so frazzled, I said, “…Ten years from now he’ll be a senator. Or a columnist.” Jim immediately wheeled and laughed darkly at my mistake.

Finally, I got to a point where I had lost my place and couldn’t remember where we were in the scene. I felt myself go silent, looking down, defeated, because I knew that from here on, there might be uninterrupted silence. It was a moment of terror. I had forgotten about a later part of the scene where a minor character in the bar, who had called his girlfriend earlier, was anxiously waiting for her to call back. The stage manager rang the onstage pay-phone. The actor bolted for the phone, and the scene came back to life. That got us to the next part of the scene, which leads to the end of the scene, where a hoofer begins to dance for everybody before we exit. When the hoofer finished his dance, I somehow got Jim up the stairs to the exit doors. He stopped and made a disparaging remark about the dance, and I remember pointing to Brian, the actor playing the hoofer, and saying, “He was good.”

Somehow we got off stage and found ourselves standing in the darkness of the backstage area. We walked to the back wall of the theatre, where the backstage doors were swung wide open to cool things off. Jim smiled at me like we’d gotten away with something. I was angry and don’t remember what I said, but was arguing with him as we jumped out the back doors. Jim started walking purposefully. I walked alongside him, trying to find out what was going on. I knew we had a little time; there were some scenes before intermission and, after that, an act before Jim had to come back onstage for his scene in Act IV.

As we walked across campus in the dark, Jim touched on his anger about the Drama Department hiring a British director. But there were other things he was more upset about. A barrage of resentments and disappointments poured out of him. We ended up in a parking lot behind the house where he lived on McCauley Street, standing beside his car. The driver’s door was open, and I insisted that he needed to come back and do Act IV.

He said, “I’m doing Act IV now.” With that he got in his car and drove toward the Virginia state line. I heard a few days later that he had been found, alone and disoriented, inside Kerr Lake Recreation Area, a park not far from his family home.

I rushed back to the theatre. With the cast standing around in the green room, I told them the story of Jim’s and my conversation. One actor, Michael (who played the lovesick boyfriend), kept saying inconsolably, “I was watching the death of an actor.” Brian, the actor who played the hoofer, read from a Post-it that he had scribbled on during the onstage scene. In front of the cast, he read, “What a noble effort.” I declined to take credit but secretly was pleased by the acknowledgement. Then Brian said, “I misspelled noble.”

The actors figured out a way to bypass Jim’s Act IV scene. Later that night, after the show, the director brought a six-pack over to the house on McCauley Street, where we talked about what had happened with other cast members and with Foster, the professor who was renting Jim the room. Harry wanted to make amends for something, but it clearly had nothing to do with him. The part of Krupp was recast.

After the show had closed, I drove up one weekend to Kerr Lake to visit Jim. He had been hospitalized and put on medication. I met his father and mother, had a tense dinner with them; it seemed they were still not used to what was happening to their son. Afterward, I spent the evening talking with Jim into the wee hours. Something about the darkness of Jim’s mental state scared me. At one point, unable to take any more intense conversation, I fell asleep on the basement rug, where I was to spend the night. I was startled out of a fitful sleep, and when I opened my eyes, Jim was standing over me.

I jumped to my feet. Jim started talking about the Atomic Clock, a clock that uses a frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms as its timekeeping element. He was arguing, with great conviction that time didn’t exist, and we are, all of us, completely and totally alone and unmoored in time. The fire in his eyes, the obsessive certitude of his belief, was unnerving. He was freaking me out. I remember the next morning driving back to Chapel Hill feeling disoriented, not sure if I really ever wanted to see Jim again.

Sometime later, my roommate and I had a falling out (which was my fault), and I needed a new place to live. I walked over to the McCauley Street house one day and knocked on the front door. Foster, the professor, came out onto the porch. He was an older man from whom I’d taken a movement class years before, and I respected him. I asked if I could rent Jim’s room. He said that would be fine. I ended up moving into that upstairs room and lived there several years, in fact, until I left Chapel Hill altogether and moved to New York City to pursue an acting career.

One day, Jim’s father appeared, knocked on the door of the upstairs room, and came in to talk. He couldn’t seem to settle, nervously pacing the room, inhabited by a nervous energy. Clearly, he was tormented about his son’s illness. He said he wanted to talk to someone who understood. I really didn’t know what to say to him. He was making me uncomfortable. When he left, I hoped he would not come back. It was as if I thought keeping Jim and his father away would inoculate me against my own darkness. But I was wrong.

During this time, I was having a crisis where money was concerned, as most actors or writers inevitably do; I was also writing poetry at the time. My father, a former talented writer, director, and opera singer in his own right, was living a half-hour away in the city of Raleigh after having gotten a divorce from my mother. He’d remarried and moved back to the place where he had been raised from age nine—in fact, the same neighborhood, which was now called North Hills. He worked as an insurance agent for the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, was good at it (he had the gift of gab), and somehow talked me into entering their agent-training program. I didn’t want to do this but admitted my earning power looked bleak, so I made a good-faith effort to buy a suit and try to look like a professional. I went through the motions of being a salesman, but my heart wasn’t in it. When I would show up at my girlfriend’s house in Carrboro in my suit and tie, telling her about my plans to sell insurance, she would say, “Joe, this just sounds gross.”

I agonized about this decision. I didn’t want to disappoint my father, but mostly I didn’t think I could do the job. To a 26-year-old, the whole idea of sales, of trying to talk people into buying a policy on their life, seemed incredibly morbid to me. I remember having the sensation that, if I was going to be a salesman, I could not look at trees; I had to keep my eyes down. North Carolina is very green, and the trees are an amazing feature of the landscape. I was forever walking around the sidewalks of Chapel Hill and Carrboro looking up at the trees, letting them fill me with their beauty, allowing their energy to relax me and release me from the swarm of my thoughts. Their leaves and the way the branches swayed in the wind seemed the closest thing I had to a spiritual experience. But I told myself that as long as I was an insurance agent, I couldn’t look at trees. Why I made this decision still baffles me. Was it an attempt to close the vulnerable side of my nature off? Did I reason that this part of me was an impediment to being a businessman? I had no idea.

Finally I heard Jim was back at school and was playing Virgil in the department’s production of the William Inge play Bus Stop. The show was being staged in that same room in Graham Memorial Hall where our first read-through was. During this period, my insurance agent training was progressing, and I was about to apply for my license but was still anguished about it. It seemed that I was leaving the theatre and arts world I loved to join the straight world of boring businesspeople.

I went to see Jim in the play. He was stunning. To see his bravery in the part moved me very deeply. Virgil is the character who is best friends with the male lead, Bo, and he tries to educate him in the ways of women and the civilized world outside of their life on a ranch. There’s a moment at the end of the play, after Bo has gone off with Cherie to his Montana ranch to live happily ever after, and Virgil lets him go. Grace—the owner of the diner where the play takes place—notices Virgil as she’s turning off the lights and says, “I’m sorry, Mister, but you’re just left out in the cold.” They dimmed the house lights so that Jim was just a silhouette onstage. As he stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray at the counter, he said, mainly to himself, “Well…that’s what happens to some people.” Blackout.

The moment captured Jim’s brave journey back from a mental breakdown. I was proud of him and went backstage to tell him so. I stayed up most of the night thinking about Jim’s performance and whether or not I should become an insurance agent. In the morning I called the head of the agent-training program and my father and told them both I could not sell insurance. They both said okay and wished me well. The first thing I saw—when I put the phone down and stood up from my desk to look out the window—were the trees.