Caveat: Affirmations

I spent a good portion of the day talking. Talking with friends, talking with my stepson, catching up on things, reflecting, verbally, on this life I've chosen for myself. Talking too much, I guess.

One thing that I always notice when I go visiting like this, is that I begin to spin stories (not fictions – I'm meaning, here, true stories, but nonetheless for all that, stories) about the "why" of what I'm doing – my abandonment of my well-paying career in computers for a peculiar, low-paid expat's life as an ESL teacher is almost as deeply puzzling to my American compatriots as it is to my Korean ones.

And the conclusions, with this transoceanic perspective, are mostly affirmational: I chose my current lifestyle with extreme care and deliberation, with the intent to solve very specific deficits in my previous life. My entire life is a carefully constructed edifice with the chief intent of helping me to find greater satisfaction and contentment and "meaning" for myself.

Well, that sounds self-congratulatory. I don't mean to. But it's true I've had many very difficult times, in the past, so I feel some sense of accomplishment in the current state of things. Nothing's perfect, and on any given day, I may be moody or discouraged or annoyed, but it's so far from the crisis-driven defeatism of years past.

Caveat: Last Minute

Dateline: Eagan, Minnesota (around 11 am, July 31).

"If you leave it to the last minute, it only takes a minute." – I read this in The Economist magazine's letters section (paper Economist, not online). Sometimes, procrastination is the best way to do things. I really have come to be at peace with my procrastinatory personality. So… I'm putting some things off.

Caveat: Parental Wisdom

"Any politician who will not show multiple year taxes may be hiding something." – George Romney.

So far I haven't felt deluged with political discourse since coming to the U.S. – but I recognize that since Minnesota is in no way a swing state, the battle is taking place elsewhere. I'm not really looking forward to it.

Caveat: 3300

3300_html_f54c3a7Everytime I leave Korea from Ilsan, I think, "I should make a video of this airport trip." Not sure why I believe that would be interesting.

So this time, last Saturday, I made the video.

 

It's not really that interesting. But, there it is, such as it is. I call it 3300 because that's the route number of the bus from Ilsan to the airport.

Caveat: Quality Time With My Stuff

Stuff 003I went to my storage unit and confronted my possessions. I'm not sure I need them. But I'm not ready to assume I'm permanently expatriate, yet, although I obviously have tendencies in that direction. Given that, I guess I feel there's some value in keeping it all – in convenience if not in strictly financial terms.

The stuff is in good condition – dry and musty, but full of dust and cobwebs and somewhat jumbled. It's a bit like visiting a neglected attic.

My friends and I went out to a very authentic Mexican place in a nearby strip mall – it felt like a quintessentially American experience. It's definitely one thing I miss.

Caveat: Nietzsche and the obligatory driveway photo

Dateline: Eagan, Minnesota (about 9 am, Sunday, July 29)

I was reading Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals before I left Ilsan yesterday: killing some time with one of the great time-killers of all time. In the Third Essay, Section 6, I found the following quote, which I felt compelled to write down immediately in my notebook.

Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the "spectator," and unconsciously introduced the "spectator" into the concept "beautiful." It would not have been so bad if this "spectator" had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty – namely, as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises, and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant's famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experience reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error. "That is beautiful," said Kant, "which gives us pleasure without interest." Without interest! Compare with this definition one framed by a genuine "spectator" and artist – Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur. At any rate he rejected and repudiated the one point about the aesthetic condition which Kant had stressed: le désintéressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?

I've never been much of a fan of Stendhal – I never have successfully read one of his novels. But I found the above insight very interesting. I have always felt that aesthetics is central to my understanding of the world, and Neitzsche's point about seeing art and beauty from the point of view of a creator and not just a consumer seems very important. I'll think about it some more and report back later, maybe.

Meanwhile, it was a drizzly rain at dawn in Dakota County, here.

I took a rather unaesthetic picture of my rental car, a Ford with Missouri plates, in my friend's driveway, and I thought, why am I always taking pictures of cars in my friend's driveway? I think it has to do with this view from my friend's front porch as being a sort of "first real confirmation that, OMG, I'm in suburban North America again" – a snapshot of the culture-shock moment.

Driveway 001

Caveat: Lakes

Dateline: Eagan, Minnesota (10 pm Saturday)

Lakes_html_m536cd40cI saw lakes and the setting sun looking out the window as we landed at Minneapolis. I didn't take a picture. But well, I'm here.

I feel as if I've been propelled backward in time – not culture shock, but temporal shock, maybe. By living in Korea, I live in my own future. It's another planet. And when I return to the US, I return to the past. That's the way it feels. I'm not referring to the putative modernity of either Korea or the US, but just the feel of the cultural differences and my own personal relationship, such as it is, with each culture.

Caveat: The Very Long Saturday

Dateline: Los Angeles

I'm at LAX. Not visiting, yet. Just passing through, waiting for my flight to Minneapolis in a little while. I'll come back to L.A. next week.

ImagesThat was a very long and somewhat unpleasant flight. I watched two movies as I wasn't really able to sleep. The first was one called Medianeras, a rather philosphical, internetty rom-com from Argentina – yes, you can find movies like that on trans-Pacific Korean Airlines flights, nowadays, I guess. I liked it. And then I saw John Carter, which I'd been curious to see but not curious to enough to go see it, when it came out. As an interpretation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' book, it was much better than I expected. Still shallow space-action movie – but that's all the original was meant to be.

Caveat: 인천공항

Dateline: Incheon International Aiport

ImagesFree wifi has become increasingly rare as the technology has matured. It is definitely true that Korea is the land of nearly complete wifi coverage – it's available on subways, buses, in parks and everywhere. But… the issue is that more and more, you have to be signed up for one of the big telecom's data plans to avail yourself of it. I'm not. Because I still don't have a smart phone – I have a dumb phone – dumbest phone imaginable. It doesn't even have a dictionary.

OK. But here at the airport, I find a lingering bastion of free wifi. So. Hello from the airport.

My journey begins. I'm always amazed at the ease with which one can navigate Korean security and immigration. I know it will be much less pleasant on the LA end. See you soon.

Caveat: Themes-to-come

Dateline: Ilsan.

This isn't really a blog post. This is more of a draft of some thoughts swirling in my mind about some actual blog posts that I keep thinking about writing, on the topic of the hagwon biz – my current career-for-what-it's-worth.

Alienation, factory work, unbridled capitalism in the field of education.

Parents-as-consumers, children-as-products.

The importance of counseling (상담).

Reliable curriculum vs innovative curriculum. The purpose of technology: it's marketing, not pedagogy.

Defining a market – are there customers not-worth-keeping? Do all customers have the same value?

Connection to my previous career (software): recent encounters with concepts of "slow web" or "neovictorian computing".

As I said, this is not an essay. I want to write an essay, but can't seem to get around to it. But during this very hectic day, I kept thinking about it. Watching the office dynamics play out as everyone deals with a lot of stress around the now month-old merger of two very different hagwon.

[Daily log: walking, 3 km]

Caveat: Countdown

Dateline: Ilsan

In about 30 hours I'm leaving Korea to return to the US for the first time since 2009 (although I took a trip to Japan in 2010 and to Australia and New Zealand in 2011).I'm looking forward to seeing friends and family, but overall I'm still feeling much less interested in "travel," conceptually, than I used to feel – I seem to have become a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.

I'm also feeling really stressed right now with the remaining work items – grades to be determined and posted in an as yet incomprehensible computer system, and some kind of outline of the classes that my substitute teachers will have to teach. Etcetera.

I woke up scrunched into the corner – a sign of restless sleep with preoccupations.

A random picture – because otherwise when my blog cross-posts to facebook some default picture shows up the selection of which I have no control over.

200708_ArcataCA_M057

Mad River Beach, Arcata, 2007. Caveat: this is not to imply that my upcoming travel will include Humboldt.

Caveat: Invective!

My TP2 class was in high spirits. Two of them were arguing. They slipped between Korean and English.

One student said of another, "He said invective to me!"

"Invective!" the other said.

"See? Abuse. Abuse. Oh, he is not kind."

What was funny was that what he was saying was literally just "invective" (and I think words in the vein of "욕설" [yokseol] which mean "abuse, invective"). This is "meta" language – he wasn't actually uttering abusive language, he was just uttering pointers to abusive language. This was weirdly clever and strange to see played out.

[Daily log: walking, 3 km]

 

Caveat: Woful Ere

Youth and Age
 
Verse, a breeze 'mid blossoms straying,     
Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—     
Both were mine! Life went a-maying     
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,     
                            When I was young!
When I was young?—Ah, woful When!     
Ah! for the change 'twixt Now and Then!     
This breathing house not built with hands,     
This body that does me grievous wrong,     
O'er aery cliffs and glittering sands,
How lightly then it flash'd along—     
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,     
On winding lakes and rivers wide,     
That ask no aid of sail or oar,     
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Naught cared this body for wind or weather     
When Youth and I lived in 't together.     
 
Flowers are lovely! Love is flower-like;     
Friendship is a sheltering tree;     
O the joys, that came down shower-like,
Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,     
                            Ere I was old!     
Ere I was old? Ah, woful Ere,     
Which tells me, Youth 's no longer here!     
O Youth! for years so many and sweet,
'Tis known that thou and I were one;     
I'll think it but a fond conceit—     
It cannot be that thou art gone!     
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll'd—     
And thou wert aye a masker bold!
What strange disguise hast now put on,     
To make believe that thou art gone?     
I see these locks in silvery slips,     
This drooping gait, this alter'd size:     
But springtide blossoms on thy lips,
And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!     
Life is but thought: so think I will     
That Youth and I are housemates still.     
 
Dewdrops are the gems of morning,     
But the tears of mournful eve!
Where no hope is, life 's a warning
That only serves to make us grieve,
                            When we are old!
That only serves to make us grieve
With oft and tedious taking-leave,
Like some poor nigh-related guest
That may not rudely be dismist.
Yet hath outstay'd his welcome while,     
And tells the jest without the smile.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1823

He wrote this when he was about my age (a few years older). It struck a chord in me, I guess, just now. Loudly.

The best part: "Life is but thought: so think I will / That Youth and I are housemates still." I just wish my housemate would do his share of the chores, sometimes.

Sigh.

Caveat: Dreaming Anthropology

I had a very strange dream in the pre-dawn, this morning. I haven't been having memorable dreams, much, lately, but this one lingered for a long time after I woke up, and so I jotted a few lines about it.

I was living, like a field-linguist or field-anthropologist, among some very low-tech people in some kind of alternate universe where Korea was an isolated and utterly undevoloped country. I was with two old women sitting on the stoop of a pre-Western-contact thatch-roofed hut, and they were "teaching" me to eat manioc – that's what it was specifically called in the dream (in my mind, in the dream, if that makes sense – the women were speaking a Korean that I couldn't actually understand, and manioc is not a part of the Korean traditional diet, being from South America). Manioc is also called cassava, and yuca, and I remember eating it quite a bit when traveling in Central America, where it most definitely is part of the traditional diet. The women on the stoop of the house resembled Central Americans in other ways, too, perhaps.

It was a very slow-moving dream-time. The women chewed bits of manioc, and then would insist that I eat the pre-chewed bits of it. Then they taught me to chew a bit and pass it to them. This had some ritualistic purpose, but I kept trying to figure out how such a ritual could have developed. I wasn't really repulsed by it, but I was thinking "now I'm really integrated to their community – sharing spit like this." Yes, that was my thought, in the dream.

And I had this notepad where I was trying to write down in hangeul the various vocabulary items they used that I could understand. That's maybe more verisimilitudinous. One of the old women was clearly irritated with my note-taking. She kept gentlly pushing the pad away, and insisting that I chew more manioc. I wasn't really enjoying the taste of it, though. And they had these pickled radishes. These are more typical Korean cuisine. They tasted better, too. I reached for one with some chopsticks and the other woman got angry. She spit out the manioc on the ground told me to eat it. Pointing at it.

I woke up.

Dreams are weird.

Caveat: Monsters Exist

During the past two weeks, in my TP반 debate classes, we've been debating the topic of monsters, or more specifically, cryptids – e.g. the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, etc. The debate proposition was several variations on the sentence: "Monsters exist." The kids seemed to really enjoy the topic. They like these off-beat things, they seem less intimidating and serious than the standard debate-class fare of public policy issues.

At the end of last week, before our actual speech tests, I took a class period and did a kind of free-writing activity – the kids had to invent their own monsters (including drawing pictures if they wanted to) and then present them to the class, defending why their particular monster was "real." It was fun. Here is a portrait of all their interesting monsters.

Monster 001

From top left: The Refrigerator Monster, which is harmless but eats all your food (it may be related to a teenager, the clever student explained); Daniel, which no one realizes is a monster, but just don't make him angry (in fact, Daniel is the creating student's younger brother, whom I have in a different class); The Hupig (half human, half pig, a mutation as a result of too much pollution); The Bling-Bling Skinny Bigface, which doesn't seem that attractive to me, but which some students alleged was beautiful (it's a human mutation that results, if I understood, from excessive vanity, including too much make-up, too much dieting, too much plastic surgery, etc. – interesting); The Lake Park Lake Monster, that lives in the lake at Lake Park, and is invisible and eats small dogs; An un-named but aggressive monster that results from the mutation of students suffering from excessive study – it hunts and brutally kills hagwon teachers (I'm not sure this was a positive message, from this student); A sort of half-fish half-dinosaur, with detailed anatomical drawings, that's "not really very scary, it just lives in the water and eats fish."

Speaking of monsters…

What I'm listening to right now.

The Knife, "We Share Our Mother's Health." Check out that freaky video.

[Daily log: ah, no]

Caveat: North American Tour (Update)

ImagesI bought some more tickets.

I'm arriving in LAX at around noon on Saturday, 28 July. I immediately fly to Minneapolis. I'll have a rental car there – I will probably drive to Madison and back to MSP at some point that following week. I'll be in Minneapolis until August 3, when I fly back to L.A. I'll be in L.A. until August 10. I may try to squeeze in a trip (either a flight or drive) to Phoenix during that L.A. week.

Let me know if you want to see me during these times in these places.

Caveat: 무소식이 희소식

무소식이       희소식
no-news-SUBJ good-news
No news is good news.

This is really easy. But… there's no verb. A lot of Korean proverbs seem to be like that.

It's true, too. No news is good news, right? I do get annoyed, sometimes. I have some people who will email me and say, "how come I never hear how you're doing?" I really want to say, "Hey, I post twice a day to my blog for you. I'm not doing it for the internet." There is, I concede, a certain impersonalness to the blog. Still… it should be sufficient to show that I'm doing OK, shouldn't it?

[Daily log: walking, 2 km]

Caveat: Mormonism, Community, Belief

Mormonism is in the news a lot, lately – because of Mitt Romney. I have a strange fascination or attraction to Mormonism, for a constellation of reasons, not just one.

Foremost, my parents had no idea when they picked an obscure Old Testament patriarch's name for me at my birth, that they would be setting me up for decades of being mistakenly taken for a Mormon. You see, although "Jared" is only an obscure Old Testament Patriarch, it's also a book in the Book of Mormon, and there are Jaredites in the book of Mormon, and Jared is a very, very common and typical Mormon name.

Starting in the fifth or sixth grade, I remember constantly being assumed to be Mormon – by neighbors, peers, teachers. Partly, it was because there was a relatively high proportion of Mormons in my home town – I suspect the percentage may have been as high as 10% of the local population. Further, I grew up in a house basically across the street from the Arcata Ward meetinghouse, with its brick facade (uncommon in rural northern California) and crossless spire and immense parking lots (because Mormons seem prosperous and they all have cars). I played at the Mormon church throughout my childhood.

Even the Mormons seemed to think I was Mormon. They probably suspected I was somehow lapsed, or rather that my parents were lapsed. And thus I always was in for special evangelical attention. So by the time I graduated high school, I'd received maybe a half-dozen copies of the Book of Mormon, and, what's more, I'd actually read it – because I'm a curious person and it struck me as the fair thing to do. I read the Book of Mormon before I read the Old or New Testaments, given my parents were not practicing Christians and never exposed me to the Bible except that it sat there on the shelf in our living room. I was a senior in high school when I found out my mother wasn't an atheist – I'd just assumed she was. And my father… I still don't know what he believes. He maybe doesn't, himself. He seems to be a Unitarian mostly out of habit, at this point.

My impression of the Book of Mormon was that it was patently absurd. I remember long conversations with one of my best friends in high school, Wade, about Mormonism, faith, the existence of God. He was Mormon, but an odd one – he was rather abandoned by his natural parents, but somehow some Mormons had taken him in and he was therefore kind of an adoptive Mormon. Mormons do this a lot, actually.

And that's the flipside of my finding the Book absurd – I found most Mormons I met to be profoundly kind, decent, caring people. I was very impressed by that.

Recently, I found online an interesting little memoir by Walter Kirn at The New Republic. It was one of the most rivetting religiously-themed memoirs I've read recently. Because what he's doing is – from a position as a lapsed Mormon – he's pointing out that Mormons aren't that "weird." They're really quite remarkable, and not just in cultish ways, but in the most positive way immaginable. He writes: "Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country's longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences."

This concept of religion as being about not doctrine but community made a profound impression on me. And it was utterly lacking in my own upbringing and life. I was fishing around for something. In college, I began to solve this problem by groping around for my own religous roots – my father was a non-practicing Quaker and my mother's mother had converted from Quakerism to a rather Calvinistic Episcopalianism primarily out of deference to her husband. So, I argued to myself, I was three-quarters Quaker. My increasing political radicalism also drew me to Quakerism, of course, and I occasionally attended meeting for worship.

And then, a series of coincidences put me in the center of an essentially religious community in Mexico City – the Casa de los Amigos, which was the Quaker mission  there, where my own uncle (my father's brother) had worked several decades before. I became a practicing Quaker.

Nevertheless, I struggled. Because the fact was that I found the more conventional Christian narrative that most Quakers hold to to be just as absurd as the more esoteric Book of Mormon. I was then as I remain, today, an uncompromising materialist, philosophically, and an atheist and skeptic, though it would be another decade before I "made peace" with my atheism.

I still tried. I told myself I would overlook the mythological or cosmological absurdities, and focus on the community. And here, I find Kirn's memoir reflecting a very similar process. Speaking of his own youthful enthusiasm for his Mormon faith, he says, "My time in the ward had shown me at close range that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground." This is nigh identical to how I viewed my time among the Quakers in Mexico City. I thought it mildly ridiculous, talking about the light of Christ speaking through me, as I sat in meeting. It wasn't what I believed. But I thought just like Kirn:

The “sacred underwear”? It was underwear. Everyone wears it, so why not make it sacred? Why not make everything sacred? It is, in some ways. And most sacred of all are people, not wondrous stories, whose job is to help people feel their sacredness. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

OK. Where am I going with this, now?

Two points, the first about politics, and the second about myself and my faith.

I dislike Romney intensely. But not because he's a Mormon. On the contrary, if Romney were a "good" Mormon I'd be deeply impressed by him. In fact, I despise him mostly because he seems to be a pretty crappy Mormon: he's a hypocrite. He changes and adjusts his "faith" to match his political and business ambitions. The evidence is incontrovertible. Hypocrisy is a thousand times more reprehensible, in my book, than sincere belief in absurdities leading to genuine kindness and peace of mind. Ultimately, as Obama is revealed to be a similar sort of hypocrite, I am forced to say I will not be able to vote for either of them.

On a personal note: at some point, I began telling people I was a Buddhist. Not because I believe the particular Buddhist absurdities over and above those Christian or Mormon or Muslim absurdities, but rather because Buddhists have a tendency to react differently to my skepticism: when I tell a Buddhist that I'm an atheist, they say, "that's ok," and not, "Oh no, you're going to hell!" as a typical Christian tends to do. Which is to say, Buddhists don't make a big deal over compliance with doctrine, and they do this explicitly – rather than the sort of behind-the-curtain winking of Quakers for the materialists among them, or the hippy-dippy believe-what-you-want-it's-all-true of the Unitarians (which frankly always turned me off). Buddhists don't say "it's all true" but instead that "truth is impossible to determine." That's something I can get on board with. But I retain a deep respect for committed, non-hypocritical members of all faiths, including the "strange" ones, such as Mormonism or Scientology or whatever.

And that… is perhaps as close as you're going to ever get from me, as a statement of faith.

Caveat: Meditação

What I'm listening to right now.

Caetano Veloso, "Meditação," canção por Jobim. Letra:

Quem acreditou
No amor, no sorriso, na flor
Entao sonhou, sonhou…
E perdeu a paz
O amor, o sorriso e a flor
Se transformam depressa demais

Quem, no coraçao
Abrigou a tristeza de ver tudo isto se perder
E, na solidao
Procurou um caminho e seguiu,
Já descrente de um dia feliz

Quem chorou, chorou
E tanto que seu pranto já secou
Quem depois voltou
Ao amor, ao sorriso e à flor
Então tudo encontrou
E a própria dor
Revelou o caminho do amor
E a tristeza acabou

[Daily log: walking, 3 km]