Caveat: 술 안마셔요

Today we had the semi-annual speech contest. I was there as a “judge,” and a coach for some of my students, and also “emcee” for the second round. Jeez… talk about conflicts of interest.
I managed to compartmentalize, and hopefully I was as objective as possible in my judging. I was feeling shafted when one of my hero students, Jessica, didn’t make it to the second round, as I thought she’d done amazingly well, but then I learned that she had in fact placed second out of everyone in the first round, but that her mother had withdrawn her. Hmm… the motives of parents are indeed obscure, at times. Sarah-teacher reported to me that Jessica was in tears over having to leave without a prize despite her excellent performance. I felt bad for her, but better that at least in this instance, it wasn’t hellbridge who was being a collective jerk.
I was proud of Willy (who I quoted just yesterday). And little Dahye didn’t do badly, though didn’t advance to the second round. There was a bittersweet moment, because I’ve been trying really hard to help Dahye feel sufficiently confident to stand up in front of adults and peers and give a speech: she’s a tiny 8 year old with near-perfect English, but is terribly shy. But I heard she did pretty well… I wasn’t there because I was judging a different group.  After the first round, waiting for the announcement of the 20 students who would advance to the second round, she ran up to me and declared, “it’s like a prison in there!”  She was referring to the “waiting room” that her group of kids was in.  And she grabbed my hand and held on.  And at that moment, two 6th graders, Sydney and Eunice came up, and said, “Oh, teacher… is that your daughter?”  I think they were joking, but it was very sweet:  Dahye just grinned up at me with big eyes.
After the contest was finally over, the prizes given out, the parents herded out, teachers and staff and “guests” (corporate types from hellbridge corporation) went out for a late lunch.  And as is my custom, when the soju (Korean rice vodka) started flowing, I demurred, “술 안마셔요” (sul an-masheoyo = I don’t drink alcohol).   They were so impressed with this bit of Korean, but they were of course dumbfounded at my rejection of alcohol — foreigners in Korea have a reputation for being heavy drinkers.  It isn’t really true that I don’t drink… but Koreans are so hardcore about drinking that I find it easier to simply pretend I don’t do alcohol when socializing with them, as I’ve never been one to hold my liquor well.

Caveat: “Dear Blockhead Ants, … “

My student Jin wrote a story about a grasshopper and some ants.  It's based on an old folktale that we'd read the text of.  But in his version of the story, the grasshopper does well for himself, and he writes back to the ants, "Dear blockhead ants, I am in Hawaii now and very happy."  Or something like that.  It was cute.

My student Emily S. created an "alien from Saturn" character for a little almost socratic-style dialogue, and the alien's name was Nanarishtititana.   Which is a perfect name for a Saturn alien.

Today in E1aT1 class, we were discussing animal rights.  Toward the end of the class, Jenny N, who often makes no sense at all, said, in a distressed but clear tone:  "But… teacher! We don't need to learn this, because we are not animals."  I laughed so hard at this — I'm sure she understood she was making a joke.  We had a lot of fun.

Willy is a fourth grader, and a near genius.  He may have had some help in composing the following, but I've spent enough time with him to know he's capable of it, himself.  It's not just that his English is amazingly good, but that the degree of complexity of his reasoning and his "knowledge about the world" is close to what we would call college-level in the States.   Here's Willy, in his own words, on neocolonialism:
As I mentioned, we think about America when we say brands like 'Starbucks', 'Boeing', and 'McDonalds'. All these are famous. And how does it make us to speak English? The answer is: naturally. Actually, it is because we are colonized in culture. We can't feel that we are colonized but we are colonized in American culture slowly and we start to learn and use English slowly.

The attitude barometer, episode 2:

  • Number of times I've opened my resignation letter and edited it:  0
  • Barrier-surpassing moments of Korean-language usage (outside of work only):  1
  • Spirit-destroying moments of Korean-language communication breakdown (outside of work only):  1
  • Number of students that have said something to the effect of "teacher, you're so funny" while fighting off an apoplectic fit of giggles:  1
  • Number of times I've told someone that I am "much happier than when I was in L.A.":  2
  • Number of times I really meant it (as opposed to the "fake it till I make it" approach I'm fond of): 1
  • Days I was late to work this week:  0
  • Total number of minutes I was late, minus total number of minutes I showed up early:  -75 (meaning I came to work early and wasn't much late)

Caveat: Timeline

Lately, because of facebook, I’ve been “reconnecting” with people I haven’t interacted with or known about for up to 25 years. People from high school! Jeannine, Kray, Richard…. Anyway, questions crop up: didn’t you go to university in Missouri? (No). I heard you joined the Army? (Yes).
Being a fundamentally lazy person, I decided to answer a whole pile of these questions at once. I’ve added a year-by-year timeline [UPDATE 20210520: Link repaired, old link was broken] of my life-since-high-school to the bio page of my website: Jared’s Bio. Each year has 1 to 5 telegraphic sentences summarizing what I recall as the salient aspects of that year. I can now point people to it.  If they’re interested. More me out there, for all the world to see: I believe in transparency – it cleanses the soul.

Caveat: Among the redwoods in Ilsan

Redwoods in Ilsan?  Well, I’m pretty sure.  They’re not Sequoia sempervirens… I believe they’re Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Chinese “dawn redwoods.”   They’re quite common as ornamentals throughout the temperate climes, now, because they are hardy and grow fast.   Here in Korea, they’re not actually that far from home — I think their native area is within 500 km or so.
Unlike California’s sequoias, they’re deciduous — they get naked for the winter.  But they have very redwoody bark, and the needles are strikingly similar.   See the picture I took, at right.
I walked down to the lake park, and took this picture, below, of the arranged rocks in the frozen lake, with the bridge in the distance over the lake.  It seemed beautiful.

Caveat: Love with no need to preempt grievance

Elizabeth Alexander's poem that she read at the Space Emperor's inauguration has received some unkind reviews.  But I found the text of it, and despite its reception, I think I rather like it.  At the risk of annoying a copyright god somewhere, I will reproduce it.

Writing a poem for such an event, in an era when poetry, especially poetry for public reading, is largely moribund, and for such a diverse audience as "all of America"… well, this is no small challenge.  She could have done much worse.

"Praise song for the day."
by Elizabeth Alexander
[2009 Obama Inauguration]

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; we walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self." Others by "First do no harm," or "Take no more than you need."

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.


Caveat: Maps

I like maps.  My rather spartan apartment has recently been decorated by maps on the walls.  I have a map of Korea.  A map of Argentina/Chile.  A map Seoul.  And a map of the world (with the place names in Korean.

Gives me something to look at.  Kind of dormroomesque, though.  Will I ever grow up?  Is that required?

Caveat: шоколад, хлеб и борщ в Сеуле

It’s now been 20 years since I studied Russian in college.  And unlike some other things I’ve studied, I’ve not made much use of it.  At the time, I was quite good at it.   I completed a year of college Russian and got one of the highest grades on the end-of-year final that the department had recorded for a first year student — high enough that I remember being contacted by a CIA recruiter (remember that 20 years ago, the cold war had not yet ended).  I was flattered but uninterested at the time.  Imagine if I’d pursued that?  How different would my life have been?
pictureAnyway, I was with Basil today, we went to a bookstore and then we went out for Russian food at a restaurant in the Russian neighborhead near 동대문 (dongdaemun).  After having some pretty good borscht and kebabs, we went into a tiny Russian cafe (picture at right) where we drank some kefir and I bought a loaf of dark Russian bread.  And then in a Russian supermarket I bought some Russian chocolate (for the novelty, of course).
I was stunned to realize that I was interacting with the Korean-Russian lady behind the counter in Korean, much more comfortably than if I’d been forced to use Russian.  And it felt like a weird sort of linguistic milestone, to be in Seoul’s Russiatown interacting in Korean… it means Korean has passed Russian in terms of my linguistc comfort and competence.  That’s not really saying a lot, of course.  The Russian is very very rusty.  But it felt good, in  a very weird way.
The title says шоколад, хлеб и борщ в Сеуле (“chocolate, bread and borscht in Seoul”). I ate the borsht in the restaurant, but here below is a pic of the bread and chocolate I brought home with me.

Caveat: Apples and Socks

It's lunar new year, this weekend.  The hagwon got gift boxes of apples (presumeably those high-quality greenhouse-grown apples so popular here in the winter — I rather doubt they're imports from warmer climes) for all the staff.  I guess that's better than the gift boxes of Spam we got for Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving, back in September).  And one of my students gave me a gift box of socks, yesterday.  Yes, socks.  This is not the first time I've received a gift of socks from a student.  I think it must be a custom, of sorts.  In any event, it's probably right up there on my list of convenient job-perks.  I mean, which is really more useful, when you get down to what's really important in life:  stock options or sock options?  I'll opt for socks.  ㅋㅋㅋ ^_^

Caveat: Jared’s Friday Attitude Barometer

I haven’t done very well with coming up with what might be called “regular features” in my blog. I did really well over the summer with my “Notes for Korean,” but with the press of that nightmarish fall term, I abandoned it. It’s not even that I stopped posting notes… I simply stopped studying Korean altogether. I’ve been having a hard time getting back into a routine, now.
When I’m traveling, I like to say where I am. But that’s not really a feature.
And I love the idea of giving a “soundtrack,” although I haven’t figured out how to actually link in songs and all that… partly, I worry about copyright issues, and also, I’m so anti-Apple that the best online apps out there, which use Apple’s iTunes universe, are kind of off-limits for me.
Just for the sake of trying, today’s soundtrack, walking to work: Cat Stevens, Cafe Tacuba (mexi rock), 소녀시대 (k-pop), BigBang (k-rap), Cold (grunge / alt).  “Shuffle” is awesome.
pictureMy student Tammy (2nd grade) sent me a message from her cellphone to mine which consisted only of a “cute” animated picture.  I managed to capture it, but it’s not animated, now. See at right.
Anyway, I’m going to try for a weekly feature: an attitude barometer. Like most things in this blog, it’s vulnerable to the primary criticism I’ve received… it’s basically narcissistic. Of course. This is really just a diary, right? As long as we’re clear on that, hey, if you don’t want to read it, then don’t, OK?
The attitude barometer consists of a few questions that will have numerical answers. Some positive questions, some negative. Kind of like those questions in the Harper’s Index. The variation in numbers from week to week will provide an indication of my general mood and attitude, mostly about my work.

  • Number of times I’ve opened my resignation letter and edited it:  1
  • Barrier-surpassing moments of Korean-language usage (outside of work only):  0
  • Spirit-destroying moments of Korean-language communication breakdown (outside of work only):  2
  • Number of students that have said something to the effect of “teacher, you’re so funny” while fighting off an apoplectic fit of giggles:  3
  • Number of times I’ve told someone that I am “much happier than when I was in L.A.”:  3
  • Number of times I really meant it (as opposed to the “fake it till you make” approach I’m fond of): 2
  • Days I was late to work this week:  2
  • Total number of minutes I was late, minus total number of minutes I showed up early:  45


Caveat: What what why so what why so?

Jenny is an intelligent student, and she tries hard, at least occasionally.

But I didn't quite know how to answer the smoothly uttered question, "what what why so what why so?"  I don't think it's a translation from Korean, either.  It's her own magical language, I guess.  The way she uttered it, It had great English-question intonation, good pronunciation, and even the pragmatics were clear.  Only the semantics were missing.  Hey, 3 out of 4, right? 

Caveat: Borrarlo de tu vida!

I step out of my building at 1:05, running late for a second day in a row. I try to operate in a happy medium between insolence (always late) and subservience (never late), thus reflecting my dissatisfaction with my management on the one hand and my guilt-driven work-ethic on the other. Two days in a row is perhaps pushing the insolence direction.
The day is overcast, and that lifts me. Heaven is closer when the sun is hidden.  I’m weird, that way. I remember a day, during one of my aimless wanderings in Mexico.  I was about 20, and I was walking along the side of a highway, I think on the outskirts of La Paz, BCS. That’s one of the hottest parts of Mexico – tropical desert. The sun was beating down on me like an angry Pharaoh, and I vividly recall thinking to myself that there was something malevolent in it. I wanted to stand there at the side of the road and shake my fist, like a madman in a movie. Perhaps this is merely the result of having grown up in a place where there was so little sunshine.  The sun comes to represent something  alien, unknowable, not always an entirely welcome visitation.  I don’t know.
When it’s extremely cold and also sunny, it’s an odd thing.  The earth is ignoring the sun.  “I’ll be cold, anyway,” she argues, and shrugs a pale, frozen shoulder.  I feel close to the land when the weather is like that.  And when there are clouds, I am close to heaven.
Anyway.  It’s a mild day (as overcast tends to be).
Linkin Park kicks in on my MP3 player. I turn up the volume and start the walk to work.  I refuse to take a taxi, even when I’m running late – on average, it only takes me 7 more minutes to walk the 2.x km than to go flag down a taxi and drive there through several inevitably long waits at red traffic lights.  And it gives time to reflect.  And I need the exercise.
Why am I late today?  It’s kind of embarrassing – I was reading some of my own old blog posts. There was a moment of self-revelation, reading a post from April, 2006 (Caveat: angst). Not particularly deep, but it put me into one of those introspective fugues for half an hour.  I won’t quote my own writing… that seems indulgent – go read it if you’re really curious. I think you’ll see what I found striking about it:  I listed a series of alternate futures for myself, and one of them is exactly true. That’s… disorienting.  I’m not normally very good at predicting my own future.
A track from The Who’s Quadrophenia shuffles onto my player. Last night I received a puzzling yet wonderful email from a former student, Jeong-eun. She was in one of my most advanced elementary classes at LinguaForum, and was one of the most interesting, intelligent, introspective 5th graders I have ever met. Without being at all “nerdy” – that’s a difficult combination to pull off. Anyway, she was saying she had fond memories of the class and adds, “Teacher, with us you always laughed and never showed even when you had hard time.”  Which is pretty good English, too.
But she also says an odd thing, about that “now you are going away so I am very sad.”  Does she know something that I don’t? I wonder to myself. And this brings me back to my current never-quite-resolved dilemma:  am I going to stick it out with hellbridge (my current employer) to the end of my contract?  Or am I going run away? (metaphorically speaking… I would try to negotiate a fair-to-all-parties letter-of-release if I decided to quit). Which brings me back to that blog post from almost 3 years ago, and my friend’s comment about me being a “serial quitter.” Hmm.
I see a tiny girl, maybe 7 years old, in pink jacket, confidently riding her bike on one of the pedestrian paths that grid Ilsan between the blocks of apartment towers.  Standing up on the pedals, and holding a cell phone in one hand, and coming to an adroit stop at a red light at a crosswalk. I feel an odd mixture of admiration and envy.  Envy? Sometimes I yearn to just do all of life OVER again.  But just at that moment, the Mexican rock-en-espanol group Control Machete is playing their song Amores Perros (title song to an amazing movie, by the way), and they declaim into my ears with an angry growl, “… la codicia… borrarlo de tu vida!” (… envy… erase it from your life!).  Interesting synchronicity, there.
As I approach the last turn in my right-angled zig-zag trip to work, a track by Absurd Minds shuffles into my headphones. Something more recent, a teutonic-toned goth/industrial electronic bit. And the decisions and exhortations are deferred. To work.  To grading, and into that insufferably hot, stuffy, staff room.  The annoying pesterings and chaotic emendations of the middle-managers, and the dipped heads of deference:  네, 부원장님 (Yes, Mr. Assistant Director), in non-confrontational tones.
And then, a few hours with the kids, absorbing their reflexive optimism, to see me through another day.
What I’m listening to right now.

[UPDATE 2011: youtube embeds added as part of background noise; UPDATE 20180603: youtube embed repaired due to link-rot]

Caveat: 아어에즈! and other random observations

My student Gina was a veritable goldmine of one-liners today.
She said “아어에즈!” (which is apparently utter nonsense aeoejeu – kind of a howl of frustration – but they made sure I spelled it correctly, so I have my doubts, although Koreans take their vowels very seriously).
She said “Tiny green-skinned girl disappears!” somberly.
She observed that “A romance like wine is very expensive!” in response to a newspaper article we were reading.
And she announced, self-pityingly, “I memorized but I can’t remember” during the vocabulary quiz.
I decided to try some 잣죽 (rice and pine-nut porridge) for dinner (made from a little packet by adding water in a saucepan, boil, stir… just like any porridge I guess).  It was pretty good.

Caveat: “We bought their stuff, now they have our money”

Above, is a quote I heard on NPR, explaining the current macroeconomic situation between China and the U.S.  I rather thought its simplicity was beautiful, and yet explains it better than many much more complicated accounts.  And I realize it doesn't mean that China is rich — all that money is really in the hands of the narrow elite that runs things in China, and specifically in its huge reserve of foreign exchange held by the government.  So it will require changes in policy on the part of China's government to "free up" that money to aid in the recovery from the current economic crisis.

Caveat: Insomnia

So I admit it.  I've got some insomnia.  Mostly it happens, I go to sleep, and then wake up an hour or two later and can't get back to sleep.  It's horrible.  And I'm sure it's why I haven't felt very healthy.

Caveat: Space Station Ilsan

Because my working hours are roughly 1pm to 11 pm, my sleeping schedule seems to get easily messed up.   I'll stay up late, and sleep in late, and it will progress until I'm falling out of bed just in time to make it to work, after going to sleep at 5 in the morning.  It's frustrating, because I always feel more productive in the mornings, but I'm happier in the evenings.  So there's trade off.

Weekends get weird, because I end up sort of missing the day.  I'll have a lazy "morning" that stretches from like noon until 4 pm.  And then if I decide to go out, that's when my weekend "day" starts – at around sunset.  That would be great if I liked going to clubs or bars, but I don't do that.  So… and museums are always closed by the time I manage to get motivated to go near one. 

Living in this intensely urban environment, and rarely being out during daylight, it starts to seem like I'm living inside a giant space station.   Which is cool.  But disorienting.

Caveat: Quiere Jared ser útil

Often, I surf to the google news site, but choose the “Mexico” view. Anyway, yesterday at work, I opened google Mexico and there, three or four lines down on the right hand side of the main portal page was the headline “Quiere Jared ser útil” (Jared wants to be useful). Obviously, I understood that it wasn’t, in fact, refering to me. But it was a weird moment when it was like one of those Gombrowiczean hyper-signifying events.
Jared has become an increasingly common first name in Anglo-America, but it remains extremely rare in Spanish-speaking America. What Jared were they referring to? Turns out there’s a champion soccer player of Mexican nationality, sufficiently famous to be referred to by only his first name, as often happens with celebrities. He recently signed with the Guadalajara Chivas pro team, and he “wants to be useful” to his new teammates.
Below is the googlepage – I snapshotted it since obviously those pages are constantly changing their contents.

Caveat: Industria del deseo

Leía en una reseña de un nuevo libro por Joan Ferrés entitulado La educación como industria del deseo.   Los conceptos, tales como resumidos por el reseñador, me intriguían, aunque el valor de la reseña no me parecía mucho, porque no ofrecía ninguna opinión propia acerca de la obra.  Era más bien un resumen. 

Pero, siendo yo educador con tendencias posmodernas, cierto que me llamó la temática.  Tal vez intentaré conseguir el libro, aunque hacerlo desde acá en Corea no será muy conveniente.  Saldrá o caro o imposible. 

Caveat: Blame Siberia

Bitterly cold.  The high today was around 16 F (-7 C).  And yet, that's not so bad, by Minnesota standards, where the high today was apparently -1 F (-18 C) in Minneapolis.   Yet we have the Siberians to blame for both of these… the same "Siberian Express" weather system drives both cold systems, half-a-planet apart from one another. 

In completely unrelated news… I recently discovered that a man who I went to grade school with (and middle school and high school) is now a folk singer who lives in Alaska.  I downloaded some of his songs.  Not too bad.

I remember Kray Van Kirk pretending to attack other kids using his imaginary sword, in 7th or 8th grade.   But he always seemed so much more confident than I felt.  Although, a bit wacky, too.  And now…

Caveat: Midterms

Midterm grades are due this week through next Monday.  As usual, I have a lot of unfinished grading to plow through, though nothing as bad as last term's.  But I'm having a difficult time motivating and getting to work earlier than absolutely required, to do the extra work;  meanwhile, I still stand firm on my "no work comes home with me" policy.  Hmmm. 

Caveat: Serial Non-serialist Ceases Seriality!

Per my usual habits, I'm reading more than one book at once.  I tend to read non-fiction books non-serially, for the most part — by which I mean that I don't just start at the introduction and read chapter by chapter until I get to the end, but instead kind of browse my way through the book, eventually covering almost all of it, but in my own discovered order.  I have read non-fiction that way most of my life, but it occurred to me recently that mostly I read non-serially, serially.  Meaning I do it with one non-fiction book after another… since most books I have going at any given time are generally fiction, which is less forgiving of the non-serial approach.   Lately, though, I haven't been enjoying fiction as much.  So, it turns out, I'm not only reading non-serially, but I'm doing so simultaneously with multiple books.

Currently, those books are:  John Horgan's Rational Mysticism, Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, Obama's Audacity of Hope, and Chomsky's Chomsky on Anarchism (which is actually a collection of essays, therefore exceptionally forgiving of the non-serial approach).  

Caveat: Comics n Pics

My student Sydney “borrowed” my cellphone and snapped the following picture of me in class this evening.
At least I don’t look quite as geeky as I normally do.
She also drew the comic below. Not a great pic of it, but it shows Peter-teacher and Jared-teacher and Jared’s alligator (known by the monicker “Number Six”).

Caveat: Fish

More wacky quotes:

"You give a man a fish, that man knows where to go for fish.  You teach a man to fish, and you've just destroyed your market base." –  Jackie Kashian, attributed to her father, who falsely attributed it to Jesus.

"We are all in some way or another going to Reseda someday to die." – Ruby Vroom's song, "Screenwriter's Blues (5 AM Listening to Los Angeles)"

Caveat: Something or Other

I'm not sure I have much to say.   I've been sleeping a lot, lately… more than normal.  Probably still recovering from that flu I had.  But when awake, I've been feeling better about things.  Work is a bit of a grind, especially sitting in that staff room, grading papers and prepping lessons, but the kids have been a lot of fun, and I always seem to end the day in a higher mood than I start it.

Is that just because I'm fundamentally not a "morning person" and therefore the world tends to look exceptionally horrible during my first 6 hours of consciousness?   Is it because the kids and their antics always cheer me up?   I'm inclined to think at least partly, it's the latter, because I don't always follow the exact same trajectory on weekend days. 

Caveat: Birthday Cake at the Galbi Joint

Monday a few of us went out to dinner after hagwon closed at a Galbi joint, to celebrate Christine’s birthday. Here’s a cellphone pic of Jenica, Christine, and Joe. Joe and Christine are a couple who were hired together, from Indiana. Jenica’s from New Jersey.

Caveat: Symbols

What does it mean that a mostly Buddhist and Christian nation lives nationalistically under a flag composed of Taoist and Confucian/Pagan symbols?
The giant flag at Juyeop plaza, one subway stop west of my “home” station at Jeongbalsan, and a short 7 minute walk from my place of work. I took the picture after leaving work early on New Year’s Eve. The day was bright, windy,  and very, very cold. Maybe around 15 F (-10 C).

Caveat: Perennial Peripheria

I noticed that California’s perennial water politics controversy, the Peripheral Canal, is in the news. It’s actually been on my mind, on and off.  The reason is complicated.
Since I came to Korea, some of the aspects of the EFL curricula I have been provided with to teach from that I have most liked have been the various “debate programs.” I think debate is a great way to teach not just language skills, but also to address important, related issues such as critical thinking and general confidence.  And when I think about debate, I always think about the debate class I had at Arcata High. It was in 10th or 11th grade, I think. Funny that I don’t remember that.  Nor can I recall the teacher’s name.  But, what I remember with great clarity and vividness was that the topic I ended up with, back in the beginning of the 80’s, was the Peripheral Canal:  to build or not to build? I remember trudging up to the Humboldt State University library repeatedly to study such archana as tracing the lobbying money being spent by the MWD (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a semi-private institution despite its name, kind of like the Fed of water politics), and feeling like I was uncovering some scary scandal, like in a movie.
The issue has always been interesting. I view it as the sort of archetype of the typical exceedingly complex environment vs human debate.  It has always had sincere environmentalists positioned on both sides.  On the one hand, the current extent of ongoing environmental degradation in the California Delta is unsustainable without some major change or human remediation. This has been recognized and essentially uncontroversial for 30 years (i.e. since before I was debating it in high school!). But other people fight the idea of building a canal to help “save” the delta, because the same canal will be able to support even further and faster degradation, unless properly managed for the benefit of the Delta ecosystem instead of simply to slake the ever-growing thirst of California’s cities.
pictureOne interesting feature of the current push is that some groups are pushing for an amendment to the California Constitution to make sure that the Delta (meaning its ecosystems) get representation of some kind on the board that oversees the management of any canal that is built.  Meanwhile, the governator, with characteristic recklessness, is pushing beginning of actual construction very hard.  Wanting it to be part of his legacy.  And, arguably, with the economic crisis creating a positive political environment for big public works spending (stimulus!), there’s some brilliant tactics on display there.  The canal would be the largest water-related public works project since the California Aqueduct was completed.
Some things have changed.  It’s no longer South vs North — Sacramento, lurking right on the eastern edge of the Delta, is thirstier now than L.A. was 30 years ago.  And many locals who opposed the canal in years past are now so desperate to see something done to save the Delta that they are more in a mood to compromise.  At least, that’s my perception.  I still don’t know what the right answer is… I think the Delta is doomed, regardless, at least as it is….  Canal or no canal, rising sea levels (global warming) will push salt water farther and farther inland (people forget that the Delta area between Sacramento and Vallejo is at exactly sea level… and Sacramento is the U.S. city most vulnerable to rising sea levels after only New Orleans, despite being 150 miles inland) unless other steps are taken that dwarf the canal both in terms of ecological impact and cost:  some kind of barrier will have to be built, a la Netherlands’ giant seawall, to keep San Francisco Bay from invading the Valley.
Anyway, all of which is to say… as I teach kids debating skills, I think back to that class.  I hated the teacher… probably it’s a good thing I don’t remember him.  But it was my first real academic-style “research” experience, and it generated what appears to have evolved into lifelong interests in a) the issues of the California Delta, and b) formal debate as a pedagogical method.

Caveat: “헨젤과 그레텔” 영화를 촣아헸어요

pictureI watched a really good movie yesterday. A 2007 Korean release, titled 헨젤과 그레텔 (hen-jel-gwa geu-re-tel = Hansel and Gretel) is considered a horror film in genre terms, but it’s really a bit more (and less) than that.

Most of the amateur reviews of the movie (written in English, anyway) that I saw online seemed to harbor a fundamental misunderstanding of the film, stating either overtly or implicitly that it was an unfaithful adaptation of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.”

The fact is, it’s not an adaptation at all.  Rather, the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” might best be viewed as a protagonist (or antagonist) of the film.  The film doesn’t tell the story “Hansel and Gretel” but instead tells a story about the story “Hansel and Gretel.” That makes it a sort of metafairytale.  And everyone knows how I love all things meta. It’s not a reading of that story, but a completely new narrative about the reception of the text, in a postwar Korean cultural context.

I’ll leave plot summaries and all that to others. See imdb, for example. But I enjoyed the movie partly because it had me constantly wondering about to what extent the dreamlike (nightmarelike) events of the film could be read as a metaphor for some aspects of Korea’s relationship to the West and to its own history.

As an example, consider the fact that the physical book “Hansel and Gretel,” that wreaks such psychic havoc in the film, is brought to the children by a very western Santa Claus (santa haraboji) in the 1960’s, the era of the quasi-fascist westernizing dictatorship. He is clearly, in fact, just a Korean in a Santa suit. And decades later, the children, psychically wounded beyond belief when young (by the Korean War?  by the dictatorship?) are living in a sort of self-regenerating fantasyland of material plenty and affective vacuum. “Adults” come and go, but the kids simply can’t move on.

These are just some notes, not meant to be pat answers or allegorical readings of the movie. And there are some things I don’t like about it – I’d have preferred, personally, if the causative links between their childhood abuse and current situation (established with flashbacks) had retained more of the antirationalist (surreal) character of the first half of the film.  But perhaps that serves an important purpose, too.

Overall, it’s a coherent movie, perhaps a bit pat, psychologically, but full of the sort of small, spine-shuddering moments that good “scary movies” require but with very little gratuitous gore or meaningless jacks-in-the-boxes. The actors are amazing, especially the kids, and also that creepy born-again serial killer. Alleged serial killer, that is… he never gets to kill any serial in the movie – don’t worry, it’s not a slasher show.  Although… several adults do die, including the nasty abusing guy that gets shoved in the oven, and several dysfunctional mother-figures. And what’s that about, anyway?

The cinematography is spectacular.  All kinds of inanimate things become full participating characters: the forest, the house, the book, food, a television set. Like some novel full of oversignifiers by Gombrowicz.

Caveat: 새해복많이 받으세요

My student Eunice sent me a text message sometime after midnight last night (above). Roughly, it means “Happy New Year,” of course. Don’t my students have anything better to do? Hah… no, seriously, it was nice of her to do that, I guess. I haven’t had a very productive day today, though.
The random picture shows sunset in Gangnam.

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