Caveat: Just Another Day

After about a week of "special classes," which provide a kind of transition for middle-schoolers between the 내신 (exam prep time) and the post-exam regular schedule, I had my first full-schedule of regular classes today. I don't really like doing the special classes – mostly because the middle schoolers are all so depressed-seeming and desultory in the immediate aftermath of their exams, but also because the odd schedules mean that I get mixed bunches of motivated and unmotivated students who don't know each other well because they're not in their regular cohorts. It's often challenging to put together a successful one-up lesson plan. 

Anyway, today I got my regular middle-school classes. So that was good, I guess. But very tiring. I always feel compelled to be a little bit "scary / hard" with returnees, so they don't start off on the wrong the footing.

Meanwhile, though, with my elementary honors class we had fun. We were getting ready to do a debate, and the kids said they wanted to be different "characters." Once, when I was doing one of my schticks where I have the whole debate myself (meaning I argue back and forth with myself, taking both sides), I made it more interesting by giving each person in the debate I was playing different personalities or "characters": so there was a lazy debater, crazy debater, stupid debater, annoying debater, etc. They wanted to play characters. I let them. I'm not sure it was a very good debate, but they sure had fun. I like seeing the kids being creative that way. Sally did an excellent job being shy, Fay was so good a being a confused debater that I thought she was really confused and wanted to correct her – I said, "you're arguing the wrong side," she said, "I know. I'm confused," and gave her winning grin, shrugging. It was a good class.

[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]

Caveat: Punningly

You may have heard that the Chinese government is has officially banned puns. I ran across some (serious) discussion of it on a linguistics site I frequent, Language Log. Ultimately, however, another site (Slate Star Codex) I have taken to frequenting nailed it, punningly:

China bans puns on the grounds that they may mislead children and defile cultural heritage. Language Log is on the story, and discusses the (extremely plausible) theory that this is part of a crackdown on people who use puns to get around censorship. Obligatory link to the Ten Mythical Creatures here. There’s no censor sensibility to the law, and it seems likely to cause Confucian and dis-Orientation among punks and pundits alike in its wonton disregard for personal freedom and attempts to bamboo-zle the public. It’s safe Tibet that dissidents who just Taipei single pun online will end up panda price and facing time in the punitentiary or even capital punishment – but those Hu support the government can Maoth off as much as they want and still wok free. I Canton derstand how people wouldn’t realize that this homophonbic bigotry raises a bunch of red flags. In the end, one Deng is clear: when puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns.

But even better was the following comment on Language Log by someone named Matt, in reaction to Slate Star Codex's punning:

You can definitely understand the Party's fears, though; after all, repurposing homophones or near-homophones in written Chinese has always resulted in radicalization.

[daily log: walking, 5 km]

Caveat: linguistics or hegemony, but never both together

Speculative Grammarian observed yesterday, "Today is Noam Chomsky’s birthday. To celebrate, discuss linguistics or hegemony. But never both at the same time! Why is that?"

More seriously, this is a Chomsky quote in linguistics that is worth remembering, and fundamental to linguistics.

The most striking aspect of linguistic competence is what we may call the 'creativity of language,' that is, the speaker's ability to produce new sentences, sentences that are immediately understood by other speakers although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are 'familiar.' – Noam Chomsky

What I'm listening to right now.

TV On The Radio, "Careful You." The lyrics aren't that interesting, but I like the song anyway.


Oui je t'aime, oui je t'aime
À demain, à la prochaine
I know it's best to say goodbye
But I can't seem to move away

Not to say, not to say
That you shouldn't share the blame
There is a softness to your touch
There is a wonder to your ways

Don't know how I feel, what's the deal?
Is it real? When's it gonna go down?
Can we talk? Can we not?
Well, I'm here, won't you tell me right now?
And I'll care for you, oh, careful you
Don't know, should we stay? Should we go?
Should we back it up and turn it around?
Take the good with the bad
Still believe we can make it somehow
I will care for you, oh, careful you, careful you

Oui je t'aime, oui je t'aime
From the cradle to the grave
You've done a number on my heart
And things will never be the same

Freeze a frame, freeze a frame
From a fever dream of days
We learned the secret of a kiss
And how it melts away all pain

[Chorus] x2

[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]


Caveat: Inventing Modernity. Or Not.

ScotsI finally actually finished a book. I read Arthur Herman's popularizing history about the Scots, entitled, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It.

Scottish history is a topic I haven't actually read that much about – although I felt comfortable in my understanding of the broad outline of English History (and therefore British history post-Union), I never really spent any time studying Scotland, specifically – unlike Wales or Ireland. So I picked up the book in hopes of filling some of that in. In its purely historical aspect, I got a lot out of the book, including a much better understanding of the Scottish Enlightenment and some of the historical events surrounding it (Knox, the Covenanters and the Scottish Reformation; Bonnie Prince Charlie; etc.). 

In fact, my main complaint about this book is probably the same as one of the other recent history titles I made a brief review of some time back, which is: good book, bad title. The title's thesis (i.e. the idea that Scots invented modernity) seems unproven (and unprovable). It occured to me in looking up the text online just now that the title might not even have been the author's chosen title, but rather the work of some hyperbolizing editor.

In any event, if the title had been something more modest to the effect of the Scottish Enlightenment's impact on modernity (Hume, Smith, et al.), and their disproportionate contribution to the Anglosphere's modern global cultural dominance, I'd have been less preoccupied with trying to decide if Herman did an adequate job proving his main thesis. As it was, I kept hoping the next chapter would explain exactly how it was they invented modernity. I'd say inventing modernity was a collective endeavor, in which the Scots definitely played a suprisingly outsized role.

[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]

Caveat: the small fire of winter stars

Lines for Winter

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

– Mark Strand (American poet, 1934-2014)

Mark Strand died last week. I was not familiar with his poetry. But having heard of his death, I went poking around and found one I liked.

[daily log: stalking, 1 km]

Caveat: Empty Milestones

I think it was 10 years ago this week that I decided to quit my job at ARAMARK in Burbank. It was the beginning of the end of my brief but somewhat meteoric career as a business systems analyst and database programmer. I went on, the following year, to work at HealthSmart Pacific in Long Beach and Newport Beach, but from that December of 2004 I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be satisfied with doing computer work, at least in that vein, indefinitely. Perhaps not coincidentally, that same December was the month when I very intentionally ended my reliance on prescription psychoactives (as treatment for my run-in with dysphoric insanity 6 years earlier).

I was reflecting that my in-Korea teaching career is now extending to nearly the same length as that more conventional career did. It doesn't feel like a career in the same sense, at all. It is in some ways more fulfilling – I get a lot out of the kids, even the desultory post-exam teens like I had this morning. 

I had some idea that writing this "anniversary" post would be somehow cathartic or meaningful, but I think I'm just filling blogspace because I have my rule to post something each day.

The other night, I dreamed I was speaking Korean, almost fluently. There was one major problem with this fantastic scenario: I had no idea what I was saying. 

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: Waiting for the Verbs

Ciceronian humor:

A senator in Late Republican Rome is running late for the day’s session of the Senate. He comes into the senate chamber about 15 minutes late. Cicero is out in front giving a speech. The senator quietly sits down next to one of his friends, and leans over, quietly asking, “Have I missed much? What’s he talking about?”

To which his friend replies:”I haven’t got a clue… he hasn't even gotten to the verb yet.”

I feel this way about Korean sometimes. When listening to a conversation, I ponder: what was the verb? Did I miss it? Was one provided? The verbs tend to come at the end (as in classical Latin), but there are all these transitional forms that do coordinating and subordinating things that, in casual speech, don't always seem to get followed up on.

Unrelatedly, another joke:

What are you doing?

I'm maximizing the availability of my cognitive resources. [when you work this out, this means "doing nothing"].

[daily log: walking, 5 km]

Caveat: Crunch December

The hardest period of the foreign hagwon-worker's calendar, in my opinion, is December and January. Schools are finishing up their school year, and after the hard crush of exam prep in November, which actually sees a lot of students skipping hagwon so they can just focus on studying, the hagwons have to ramp up activities for the winter break.

We have to "level-up" our students who need to change levels – elementary 6th graders up to middle school, middle school 9th graders up to high school, etc. This involves a lot of level-testing and parent-orientation sessions. We have to make any expected changes and tweaks to curriculum, as this is the expected time to do so. We have to offer "special" extra classes for the winter break – this ties in, partly, with the "day-care" aspect of the hagwon business that no one wants to admit – when the schools are closed, what are parents to do with their kids? Let them sit at home playing games on their phones?

So the easy days of naesin (easy for me, as a foreign teacher) are officially over as of yesterday. I worked an 11-hour day today. Although, to be honest, it was more long than difficult. There was a lot of waiting around. More such to come.

Between the morning orientation session held for parents and classes in the afternoon, we went to lunch – 회식 [hoesik]. Curt insisted I should order 청국장 – a kind of fermented soybean soup, allegedly healthy for me. It wasn't bad – very pungent smelling (which caused some of the other teachers to complain) but of course I have such a limited sense of taste, anymore, that it doesn't really matter if it has a strong taste. 

[daily log: walking, 5.5 km] 

Caveat: 조약돌

I ran across this poem, in translation, by accident, while searching for something else. But I was deeply impressed by it. It may become a favorite.

A Pebble

On the path before my house
every day I meet a pebble
that once was kicked by my passing toe.

At first we just casually
brushed past each other, morning and night,
but gradually the stone began to address me
and furtively reach out a hand,
so that we grew close, like friends.

And now each morning the stone,
blooming inwardly with flowers of Grace,
gives me its blessing,
and even late at night
it waits watchfully to greet me.

Sometimes, flying as on angels' wings
it visits me in my room
and explains to me the Mystery of Meeting,
reveals the immortal nature of Relationship.

So now, whenever I meet the stone,
I am so uncivilized and insecure
that I can only feel ashamed.

– Ku Sang (Korean poet, 1919-2004)
– Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

It took some creative googling and some time with a dictionary doing some ad hoc reverse-translation (reverse engineering poetry?) to find the original text, but I'm confident that this is it.


집 앞 행길에서
그 어느 날 발부에 채운
조약돌 하나와 나날이 만난다

처음에 우리는 그저 심드렁하게
아침 저녁 서로 스쳐 지냈지만
둘은 차츰 나에게 말도 걸어오고
슬그머니 손도 내밀어
친구처럼 익숙해갔다

그리고 아침이면 돌은
안으로부터 은총의 꽃을 피워
나를 축복해주고
늦은 밤에도 졸지 않고
나의 安寧을 기다려 준다

떄로는 천사처럼 훌훌 날아서
내 방엘 찾아 들어와
만남의 신비를 타이르기도 하고
사귐의 불멸을 일깨워도 준다

나는 이제 그 돌을 만날 때마다
未開하고 불안스런 나의 現存이
부끄러울 뿐이다

– 구상 (시인 1919-2004)

I played around with understanding the translation in a few places, without really making an exhaustive study of it. I was impressed by the fact that one line in particular represents all kinds of Korean grammatical bugbears in one helping: "내 방엘 찾아 들어와" has doubled-up case particles (can a noun have two cases at once? yes, it can in Korean) and a three-member serial verb, yet it was surprisingly not that hard to figure out.

내 [nae = my]
방 [bang = room]
-엘 [el = locative particle -에 + accusative particle -ㄹ]
차 [cha = 'look for' verb stem]
-어 [eo = verb ending which I have always thought of as the 'finite' (conjugated) verb ending but which Martin mysteriously calls 'infinitive' and which I have no idea what it "officially" is called]
들 [deul = 'go in; enter' verb stem]
-어 [eo = 'finite' (conjugated) verb ending again]
와 = [wa = irregularly conjugated 'come']

So all together: "my room-IN-OBJ looks-for enters comes," translated above "it visits me in my room."

[daily log: walking, 5 km]

Caveat: Peter & Wolves Redux

This was an adaptation I made of a group of "kindergarten" songs into a kind of musical that I put together several years ago while working at 홍농초 (see post from that time).

I decided to try it again with the kids of my Vega class. Last Friday, we had our month-end roleplay "test" and they did well, with not much practice or "extras" (zero props, costumes, etc.)… and "a capella" too!

[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]