Caveat: as if you would live forever

I wrote this exactly one year ago, as a possible blog entry. I never published it in my blog. I’m not sure why – it feels kind of important. I guess I didn’t feel it was “finished” and subsequently forgot about it. Now that I’m scraping the bottom of my barrel-o’-blog-ideas, I’ll go ahead and throw it down here.

Walking home last night [i.e. January 12, 2016], I was thinking about pain and my old, neglected aphorism, “Live each day as if you would live forever.” That aphorism worked for me at a time when the only limit to my youthful immortality was my own undying death wish. Essentially, it served as a way to subvert that death wish. But now that there are more threats to my survival coming from outside my mind (i.e. mostly coming from my own treacherous, aging body), I find it hard to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to live by that aphorism. Thinking about pain, my thought has always been: if I knew, confidently, that I was immortal, I should think I would find any pain bearable, over the long run. The reason pain is unbearable is because it is a kind of ur-premonition of our mortality. This idea is related to why I always found descriptions of the traditional Christian hell unpersuasive – I always thought, well, if you’re there, suffering for an eternity, wouldn’t you gradually get used to it? Eventually, after the first few thousand years at the worst, you might even grow to need it – it’d be part of the routine. At worst, you’d develop a kind of asceticism toward it, a kind of zen-like “let it pass through me.” To be honest, I would find the idea of actual, permanent death for sinners and eternal life for the saved much more compelling. This is known as the doctrine of conditional mortality – currently held by Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other such peripheral Christian groups.

I was experiencing a great deal of pain last January, related to the necrosis and tooth problem which reached a kind of resolution yesterday, as the doctor pronounced my “tooth extraction point” more-or-less healed, despite the necrosis in the jaw. So this seems a very appropriate point to revisit that pain, at its nadir.

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: Tárrases

I’m not exactly in the closet about my geofiction hobby – I’ve blogged about it once or twice before, and in fact I link to it in my blog’s sidebar, too – so alert blog-readers will have known it is something I do.
Nevertheless, I’ve always felt oddly reticent about broadcasting this hobby too actively. It’s a “strange” hobby in many people’s minds, and many aren’t sure what to make of it. Many who hear of it percieve it to be perhaps a bit childish, or at the least unserious. It’s not a “real” hobby, neither artistic, like writing or drawing, nor technical, like coding or building databases. Yet geofiction, as a hobby, involves some of all of those skills: writing, drawing, coding and database-building.
Shortly after my cancer surgery, I discovered the website called OpenGeofiction (“OGF”). It uses open source tools related to the OpenStreetmap project to allow users to pursue their geofiction hobby in a community of similar people, and “publish” their geofictions (both maps and encyclopedic compositions) online.
Early last year, I became one of the volunteer administrators for the website. In fact, much of what you see on the “wiki” side of the OGF website is my work (including the wiki’s main page, where the current “featured article” is also mine), or at the least, my collaboration with other “power users” at the site. I guess I enjoy this work, even though my online people skills are not always great. Certainly, I have appreciated the way that some of my skills related to my last career, in database design and business systems analysis, have proven useful in the context of a hobby. It means that if I ever need to return to that former career, I now have additional skills in the areas of GIS (geographic information systems) and wiki deployment.
Given how much time I’ve been spending on this hobby, lately, I have been feeling like my silence about it on my blog was becoming inappropriate, if my blog is truly meant to reflect “who I am.”
So here is a snapshot of what I’ve been working on. It’s a small island city-state, at high latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, with both “real-world” hispanic and fully fictional cultural elements. Its name is Tárrases, on the OGF world map here.
Here is a “zoomable and slidable” map window, linked to the area I’ve been creating, made using the leaflet tool.

There were some interesting technical challenges to get this to display correctly on my blog, involving several hours of research and coding trial and error. If anyone is interested in how to get the javascript-based leaflet map extension to work on a webpage (with either real or imaginary map links), including blogs such as typepad that don’t support it with a native plugin, I’m happy to help.
I have made a topo layer, too. I am one of only 2-3 users on the OGF website to attempt this – But the result is quite pleasing.

I have always loved maps, and since childhood, I have sometimes spent time drawing maps of imaginary places. However, I never dreamed that I’d be producing professional-quality, internet-accessible maps of imaginary places. I believe it is a kind of artform.
So that’s where my time off sometimes disappears to.
UPDATE NOTE 1, 2016-12-05: The topo view is currently broken due to some work I’m doing. It will be repaired eventually.
UPDATE NOTE 2, 2017-02-16: The topo view has been repaired.
UPDATE NOTE 3, 2019-08-15: I noticed while doing other blog maintenance that the leaflet embeds were broken. I spent a few hours fixing them – apparently some recent leaflet.js update wasn’t backward-compatible (argh).
UPDATE NOTE 4, 2021-10-13: I noticed while doing other blog maintenance that the leaflet embeds were broken (again). I spent some time fixing them (again). Using a leaflet plugin for wordpress, now. Let’s see how long that works…. 
[daily log: walking, 1.5km]

Caveat: The Wall of Incomprehension, Episode #3196

I’ve not been working very hard these last few days – I’m in the second week of my “naesin vacation” – that break in my schedule when I have only elementary classes because the middle-schoolers are engaged in their intensive test-prep schedule. So I have a 50% class load. I think I benefit from this – it gives me a chance to “recharge” between the harder push during the regular schedule.
Nevertheless, I’ve had a rough couple of days. Not from overwhelming teaching load but essentially for affective reasons – I just have been feeling negative about my work lately. I’ve been working at Karma for 5 years. That’s the second-longest I’ve ever held a single job, and certainly Curt is now the person who’s been my boss for the longest continuous stretch of time in my life, by far.
Yet Wednesday night I sat in a staff meeting on the topic of student placement for the next term, feeling like no one really gave a damn what I had to say, or what my opinions were about the students or about what we should do. I feel like I am dismissed for being too demanding, in one moment, then dismissed for being too lax, in another moment. This is dissonant. I realize it boils down to different cultural perceptions, not just just about appropriate teaching methodology but about more fundamental questions on how child development is conceptualized and how teacher’s roles are defined.
Then yesterday I had an interaction with a coworker that reinforced this feeling of dissonance.
The very complicated background to this is a problematic student who goes by Ken. He is not academically inclined, and he is morbidly shy. Several months went by before I got any kind of sustained utterance out of him of any kind – even in Korean, not just English. In fact, he’s not that far below level in terms of his English ability, but his penmanship is atrocious, so I would describe his issue as being one of “intense communication avoidance” – by never speaking on the one hand, and by writing illegibly on the other.
Anyway, Ken nevertheless is not in any way handicapped. In testing, he tests at level, as long as there’s no production component (i.e. only short-answer writing and no speaking). Ken has one additional habit that is annoying: he frequently tries to “cheat.” I put that word in quotation marks because in fact, it has the feel of an elaborate ritual. He expects and intends to be caught. He makes these little cue cards with information he could use on a vocabulary test or speech test, and he almost flamboyantly mimes through a process of placing them somewhere “out of sight.”
The theatrics of it convinced me, early on, that instead of being hard-nosed about it, I should try for a different kind of approach. I decided to accept it as an invitation to a conversation, and, remarkably, it has in fact worked out exactly that way. He makes and places his cue cards, I inevitably find them and ask him what he’s doing, and at first he would say “nothing,” or some other monosyllable. But then he started adding things. “I need more time [to prepare].” “No, I need that.”
This might seem trivial, but I’m a language teacher first, and what I saw was that here he was, actually using English to communicate. So these little exchanges have emerged between us. I will answer, something like, “Oh, you’ve had lots of time.” “No, I need more.” “Why?” “To study. There’s too many words on this list.”
You see? He actually knows spoken English pretty well, and here was a communicative situation where he felt safe and compelled to demonstrate that by interacting with me. So with respect to what you might call the “moral dimension” of the cheating issue, I decided to just let it be. It was a kind of game, I rationalized. Perhaps that’s all it is, I don’t know. I would tease him, saying that if he put as much energy into studying as he put into creating his cheat cards, he wouldn’t need to cheat. He would smile with a kind of secret satisfaction. He understands what I’m saying, but just studying is not an interesting approach for him.
As long as this was a “game” confined to our class, which didn’t disrupt my interactions with the other students, I guess it’s no problem. But last night another teacher caught him cheating. And she asked me if I knew he did that.
I said, “of course, he tries, all the time. But… it’s complicated.” You can imagine the conversation that followed. I was faced with a wall of blank incomprehension as I tried explain all of the above.
“But it’s just… wrong. How could you let him do that?”
My point, and my defense, is that I don’t let him actually cheat. I always catch him. That’s how it works. But the other teacher had no sympathy for the idea that I was using it as a means to engage with and draw out an otherwise voiceless student.
In retrospect, of course, I have to second guess myself. Was it wrong of me to do this? The theatrics of his “cheating” always made me assume he meant to be caught, which meant that I assumed the same thing happened with the other teachers. But then, there arises the situation of a teacher who is too dense to notice. What then? Who’s been irresponsible? Me, for allowing the game, or her, for not noticing Ken’s “performance?”
I don’t have an answer, but what really has me depressed is the “wall of incomprehension” vis-a-vis my intended communicative approach, as it underscores the feeling from Wednesday’s meeting that my opinions and notions of pedagogy are fundamentally unwelcome.

When I tried to talk about the problem with Helen, the elementary section director, she was just as incomprehending. A little more sympathetic, if only because she’s become used to these weird cultural mis-matches, with me, but in the end she was mildly disapproving and, more significantly, completely dismissive of the whole thing – which redounds on my feelings about the meeting, that my opinions and ideas are ultimately sufficiently alien to my coworkers that their main way of dealing with them is to ignore them.

It’s not that I’m left second-guessing my fundamental beliefs about pedagogy or what makes for best practice in interacting with kids – I still hew to the essential idea summed up in the aphorism that “kids learn from what we do, not from what we say.” I therefore insist that haranging and getting angry at kids for bad their behavior is not just useless, but is teaching them exactly the wrong thing – even while admitting sometimes I am guilty of it, too. This is to say, it teaches them that haranging and getting angry are appropriate social responses. Yet anyone familiar with Korean society will realize that this is, obviously, in fact a belief broadly held in Korean culture. And that is because that’s universally how kids are disciplined.

The real issue, which is causing me distress in the present moment, is just a kind of despair with respect to the idea that I could ever, truly, adapt. The thing that I should emphasize is that I could easily have the same problem in some school in some other conservative cultural setting, including in the US. I recognize that this isn’t really about Korea. It’s about my own stubborn instance on difference, and my own maladaptive alienation.

There’s no conclusion. It’s just the anecdote. Life goes on.
[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: At the place where the machines and their acolytes extend human life

It has become a bit of a tradition for me to post to my blog from the waiting room at the hospital. I guess I do it partly because sitting in the hospital waiting room is boring, but mostly it’s to remind myself of the time when posting to my blog from my phone was the only way I could do it, because I was in the hospital without a normal internet-connected computer.

I am at the hospital for one of my periodic follow-ups, where they do a CAT scan and look around, to make sure I don’t have any metastasis.

Always here I get a strange feeling of stress-mediated calmness. I think the place evokes that paradoxical mix as it is strongly associated with such intense memories, traumatic but ultimately life affirming. The mental state is similar to something I feel in a temple or church or sacred-seeming place of natural beauty. . . a feeling of sublimity tempered by pathos.

I lie down inside the machine and let the acolytes read the signs under my skin.

Update (a few hours later): The signs having been read, the acolytes spoke in short obliquities of long life and long odds overcome. My earth-residency visa has been extended.

picture[daily log: walking, 10.5km]

Caveat: The Wall of Unfame

At work, there is a wall next to the reception desk where, over the last few days, someone (I assume Curt or Helen?) has been putting up these little post-it notes, upon which are written spontaneous student feedback to the prompt “What do you think of Karma?” There is no explanation for this – there are only the post-its. I had to ask someone to explain what they were about, and it was far from obvious, even reading the notes, because all the post-its are of that variety that are free because they contain advertising (promotional) material, from a discount store chain called E-Mart (Korean Wal-Mart). So it looks, at first glance, like the students are expressing their opinion of E-Mart, which would be a silly thing to put up next to the reception desk at Karma.

Once I learned what the notes were about, however, I studied them carefully. I’m deeply curious what the students think of Karma, and there is not enough of this kind of information that, at least that I have ready access to, given my linguistic handicaps.

A few of the notes are entertainingly negative. One student wrote a very laconic: 없다 – “there’s nothing.” I assume that the question-prompt had been something like “what do you think of when you think of Karma?” or “what’s the first thing that pops into your head on the subject of Karma?”

Another note said the single word, “Stay” (in English), which refers to when we make students stay late to finish homework or re-take a quiz.

The largest number of notes said something to the effect of “재미있다,” which is, roughly, “it’s fun.”

Another bunch of notes expressed ideas related to, “쌤 친절해요,” which is something like “the teachers are kind.” This can give a nice feeling. Many of this class of note got more specific, naming individual teachers, including Grace, Helen, and Kay.

It was in observing this that my heart fell. Among all the notes, several dozen at least, not one mentioned my name. It was a wall of unfame, at least with respect to me.

I’m not actually interested in fame. But I’m interested in trying to be memorable to my students.

A few weeks ago, I had a really bad week. It was one of those weeks where, as a means of coping, I begin to compose a resignation letter to my boss.

I have done this many times in my life – it’s not something that I allow to come to fruition – at least, not in recent decades. It’s a way of coping, I guess, and a way of documenting various frustrations.

There had been ongoing problems at work, and one class, in particular, had kind of reached a crisis. I wrote about that, already. The mistake I made, after that crisis, was calling on my bosses to help me deal with it. That was a mistake, because it left me feeling weak and ineffective about my job, and, in the Korean context, I lost a lot of “face” with my coworkers. Mostly, my coworkers claim not to care about this issue, but it does leave subtle tells in their behavior and interactions with me, and thus the last several weeks have felt a little bit “frosty.”

Anyway, I have subsequently felt better about that particular class. The reformation and resolution was probably a combination of some stern talking-to by the other teachers and my own effort to swallow my anger and remember they’re just kids, and don’t have a clue how to behave.

That week from hell had other lasting consequences for my general state of mind.

On Tuesday, somehow I managed to stub my toe. That may sound innocuous enough – but it was a bad toe-stubbing. I bled all over the floor of my apartment, and almost thought I should go to the hospital before it finally stopped. Somehow, the toe-stubbing aggravated my old broken metatarsil bone from my bicycle accident (1993), where I had a metal pin inserted. Now I’m limping around, and in pain in my foot. Even several weeks later, I still feel tender down there – clearly I reactivated the old injury. It is a kind of special supplement to the permanent low-grade post-surgery pain I experience in my mouth and neck.

With tensions high at work, I ended up yelling with my boss on Wednesday – and as I said, things have felt a little bit frosty.

On Thursday of that week, I accidentally deleted an online draft document where I keep my kind of personal journal supplement to my blog – it’s like a place to brainstorm ideas, and record thoughts that I decide not to record in the public record of the blog. Let’s just say, I managed to delete about 6 months of personal journaling.

I haven’t had a computer disaster of that level for quite a while. It’s ironic because I had just been telling a coworker a few days before that I was confident I was backing up everything I wrote really effectively. That document managed to slip through a kind of crack I allowed to develop in my backup system. It’s my own fault of course. Anyway, I lost quite a bit of writing.

I was struggling with anger. I spent a lot of energy on “watching” myself as I dealt with it. I was particularly struck by what might be termed an “ascetic” response. When I’m angry, it’s almost always combined with a severe self-condemnation, as I generally blame myself for things that have gone wrong. In fact, with things that are genuinely out of my own control, my anger tends to be more ephemeral. Thus the kind of anger that is hardest for me to cope with is anger at myself.

That kind of anger is insidious.

Anger is dangerous. It insinuates, reproduces, perpetuates, like a virus in the body or an ideology in a culture, anger is immanent at the level of a single mind. It can cloud your mind, because it’s seeking to stay in charge and reproduce. It is not a single voice, but a tribe of voices and assertions and emotionalized perceptions, which reach out an hijack other voices and perceptions. It’s a demonic possession, it’s a contamination, it’s an error.

My psychological response has been to seek out deadness, numbness. I remember many years ago, I coined a term for it. I called it “ascetic narcotism.” I’m not sure it’s completely accurate, but I was trying to capture the way that the impulse to purify takes over and becomes an obsession, like a kind of addiction.

I kept trying to be more ascetic. Restricting my diet. Restricting my “fun activities,” like surfing blogs or drawing maps.

In fact, I don’t like purity narratives. I’ve tried to write about that, before, but I think eventually I should make a book about it.

So now, it’s several weeks later.

Gradually, I had been feeling better, and more positive, although work is feeling desperate, still. And then I stood and studied the wall of unfame, and all my insecurities and frustrations came back to me.

As I walked home on Friday night, I found myself thinking a lot about what it is I’m trying to get out of being a teacher. I do hope to have some impact on kids’ lives, I guess. But I also view it a relatively low-stress career – it was my own personal rejection of the rat-race careerism that had absorbed me during my years working with databases and IT. So my frustration isn’t just with the frustrating aspects of the job, but with the very fact that it is frustrating, because the point is to get away from things that are frustrating. If my low-stress career is stressful, I’m doing it wrong.

Here is the “resignation letter” that I’d started, before. I suppose this is a kind of passive-aggressive way of publishing it, to the extent that this blog is public. But I’m not actually resigining – I’m just trying to work out my feelings.

Until now, the reason that I do this job is because I enjoy it.

If I cannot enjoy the job, I should quit. I can get other jobs that I don’t enjoy. I can get jobs that pay much better. I have a lot of skills. 

I have a huge amount of gratitude to my current place of work for the kindness people have shown me. But gratitude alone cannot nourish my soul.

I really don’t think I’m that great of a teacher. I am a bit lazy, definitely, and I rely on my in-class enthusiasm and rhetorical skills to scrape by. I have a pretty good grounding in and awareness of pedagogical theory and the issues around it, but I often take shortcuts that disregard my knowledge. In teaching, in any event, perfectionism is dangerous, as it can be paralyzing, because a class never goes perfectly.

It’s weird, because the teachers from my own past that I think about most frequently and remember most vividly are not, likely, the “best” teachers. In some cases, they are not even the teachers whom I liked the most at the time. The teachers I tend to think about are the ones who constructed narratives – ongoing narratives and consistent patterns through many classes.

I try to be that kind of teacher, but I’m not feeling very successful. The wall of unfame feels like a confirmation that I’m not.

picture[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: My Hermitage

I have been undergoing a bit of a depressing realization, lately, about my character and about my life. The fact is that I am quite bad at all social relations that go beyond a certain, superficial level. Really, more accurately this is not a "realization" (because I already have known it), but rather a reinforcement, or a reminder.

I am good within what you might call "well-defined" or "bounded" social interactions, I think. This is why I don't have problems with teaching, or work in general, or with making a good impression on sociable strangers whom I meet on the street – if I need to. But for the closest, most important social relations, I'm terrible. I am, perhaps, too self-centered. I come by this trait quite legitimately, of course. That does not really excuse it, however. It is a substantial moral failing, in my own opinion.

When it comes to my family, I don't really stay in touch very well. The same is true with close friends. Some of my friends and family tolerate this poor performance, and so they periodically reach out to me – meeting me on my own terms, so to speak. They read my blog, because that's how I choose to make myself accessible to them. Many other relatives and friends, however, do not do this. Because of this, I quickly drift out of touch with them.

Last weekend, this shortcoming of mine was hammered home to me in the most shocking, sobering, disconcerting way possible.

As many know, quite a while back I essentially quit the facebook. I maintain my account there, but I almost never log in. In fact, it had been at least 3 or 4 months since I last logged in.

A few days ago, I decided to log in just to check if anyone was trying to get in touch with me but was too stubborn to realize I wasn't using facebook anymore. There are quite a few people in this category, of course – many of whom are quite close friends or family, or at least were such at some point in the past.

I logged into facebook, and discovered that my stepson, Jeffrey, is now a father. That makes me, um… a grandfather. Stepgrandfather, yes, but… as close as I'm likely to get in this life. Although Jeffrey and I are not close, now, there was time when he was young when we were quite close, and he called me "dad." I have mostly good memories of those interactions. I have many regrets about my own failures in my role as parent.

Clearly, however, Jeffrey is not one of those people who will reach out to me "on my terms." That means that it's up to me to stay in touch. I have been failing to do that. This has led to this huge surprise.

I don't want to intrude on his privacy. He has his life. I am mostly grateful that he seems to have turned out OK, despite the difficulties of his adolescence, especially with his mom Michelle's death in 2000. I have tried to help him in various ways, at various times, over the years, but I doubt he sees me as particularly reliable. I expect that he perceives me to be that flaky stepdad that wasn't there for him or Michelle at those critical moments when I might have been most needed.


Thus I understand his reticence to reach out to me in any way but the most peremptory manner. Indeed, I'm sympathetic – there were many years when I've had a similar level of distance between myself and my own parents – I was, ironically, just discussing this with my mother recently, too. It's been 6 months since I traded emails with my father. Even worse with my sister.

There is a realization that being left out of the loop with respect to Jeffrey's life hurts a little bit. Just as my mother was telling me how it hurt her to have been left out of mine, years ago.

I choose not to feel anger, though. My reaction is to simply decide to accept my own flakiness, I guess. I am simply not meant for social intimacy. Not meant for family. Not meant for marriage. A certain residual sadness, such as comes with the first cool days of autumn.

For many years I have been a kind of de facto urban hermit. I have my work, but it is, as I already said, well-bounded. I go to work, I am social and even caring about my students and coworkers, but this is possible for me, psychologically, precisely because I am able to walk away from it each day and mostly not think about it the rest of the time.

This is my hermitage. It's not really a new realization, either – I've realized it [broken link! FIXME] before. I have long been drawn to, and most comfortable with, a kind of eremetic lifestyle. It becomes more and clear to me, however. I exist at the center of my solitude.

I watch the world. Someday, I will stop watching the world.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: One Year Cancer Free

Well, it hasn’t gone perfectly. Being alive, however, means I am lucky.

I grossly underestimated my ability to meet the challenges of the long-term, despite having coped pretty remarkably well on the short term. The great challenge, frankly, has been that the centrality of eating to daily life, not just for sustenance but for socializing, has collided with the fact that eating has been rendered permanently unpleasant. Eating is a chore, now – on par with cleaning the toilet or jogging, with genuine unpleasantness being inevitable during the task, and only a residual and mostly hollow sense of accomplishment afterward.

Last night, we went to a work dinner (회식) for a coworker’s birthday, and Curt said to me – incidental to something else we were discussing – “Life is nothing.” I reminded him that exactly one year ago, on 2013-07-03, he’d said the same aphorism to me, on the eve of my surgery (and reprising previous uses of the same, vaguely Buddhist expression, such as on the date of my biopsy). It’s meant to be reassuring, and sometimes, it is.

I will summarize here the past year, just for completeness sake (and then I can point people to this blog entry for the “short version” of my cancer story).

I was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue on 2013-06-25 and things moved very fast. By the following week I was checking into Korea’s National Cancer Center (국립암센터) – possibly one of the best cancer hospitals in the world but which happens to be in my neighborhood – and I underwent a 9 hour surgery to remove the tumor from the root of my tongue on 2013-07-04. I spent three nightmarish, hallucinatory days in the ICU before finally being released out into the general ward.

My hospital stay was 23 days. I had a pretty good recovery although I had an infection that necessitated an additional “emergency” surgery to remove some badly behaved parts in my neck and tongue again.

My friends Peter and Grace and my coworkers Helen and Curt all provided immense amounts of emotional support and material support. I haven’t in any way adequately repaid any of them their kindness during this time.

My brother arrived a week or so into my hospital stay, and his help was quite useful, too – Korean hospitals expect family members to do a lot of the work done by nurse-assistant types in western hospitals.

By the time I was discharged, I was feeling quite elated, and that lasted until a week or two into my radiation treatment phase, which began in September. As the radiation treatments progressed, my brother left but stepmother visited. I was on a very limited schedule for work, and so I did a lot of daytripping around with them during that long, complicated summer. In early October, I had finished the 30 days of radiation by the time my mother came to visit, but I was also feeling much less elated and much grumpier about my health. Ultimately, it seems that the post-radiation discomforts were mostly permanent – or at the least very long-term.

I have lost a great deal of my sense of taste: especially sweetness – sweet things are kind of just bland. I have a saliva shortage in my mouth, which is the main cause of my difficulty eating – when I chew foods they turn in to dry, unswollowable blobs that my handicapped tongue is unable to push to the appropriate place in my mouth. Sometimes, I will have to shove a finger into my mouth and manually push the bolus of food to the right spot for swallowing. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t really feel comfortable eating in public, anymore. I have to be very careful or can end up with a choking fit. This problem, however, is in ironic conjunction with a horrible phlegm problem in my sinuses and throat such as I never suffered from before the surgery. I am constantly hacking up gobs of nasty gunk, despite having a dry mouth. I experience “ghost” pain sometimes in my my missing nerves in my tongue, neck, and wrist, all places where nerves were severed for the surgery. My tongue gets “sore” after talking a lot, which despite everything, is still a tendency of mine (not to mention my profession, as a language teacher).

I think I have a pretty high tolerance for pain – I almost never take pain medication but suspect that I would be a candidate based on a best guess at comparing my symptoms to those of others. It’s possible that this chronic low-grade, permanent pain (in mouth, tongue, neck, throat) has to do with my affective struggles of, especially, the last few months.

My eating difficulty has had a side effect of being a very effective diet plan. If you want to lose a lot of weight, tongue cancer is a great way to do it! It seems like I have managed to stabilize at about 70 kg.  We’ll see if I can stick with that.

I have been going in on a three-monthly basis to the hospital for CT scans to make sure I’m still cancer-free. In two weeks, I’m due for my first annual scan, which will be more thorough and include a PET scan.

There are times when I feel I made a deal with the devil. I worry that my post-cancer quality-of-life wasn’t “worth it.” Mostly, however, I remain grateful to be alive, knowing that it might not have worked out that way under different circumstances.

I’m going to discontinue these “X months cancer free” blog posts and perhaps even try to avoid discussing the post-cancer aspect of my existence much, as I feel it leads me to dwell more on the negative than I should. This entry is meant to be a kind of closing entry, then. Obviously, if something “new” comes along, I’ll share it.

picture[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]

Caveat: ius linguae

There are two main systems for deriving citizenship, which, being essentially legal concepts, go under their Latin names: ius sanguinis and ius solis. The idea of ius sanguinis, or “right of blood,” is that citizenship derives primarily from the bloodline. This is the traditional way of determining citizenship in countries that are primarily monocultural, as the nations of Europe were in the early modern era. Modern Asian countries also mostly use this model. The alternative is ius solis, or “right of soil,” where citizenship is derived from where one is born. I’m not sure that any modern country has a strictly ius solis model, but most modern “Western” countries – especially immigration-driven countries like the US, Canada or Argentina for example – use a combination of ius solis and ius sanguinis to decide citizenship.

I have thought about the issues around these definitions a lot, first of all as someone who was something of an immigration reform activist in the US prior to my own somewhat unintended emmigration (I say unintended in that I never meant for my emmigration to be permanent or even so long-term, but it has definitely evolved that way), but also as someone who is intrigued by the slow, difficult path Korean society and government is navigating toward a more open attitude toward immigration.

I have been observing with some degree of fascination my recent coworker Razel, who is Philippine-Korean. She acquired her status via marriage, but the extent to which she is integrated into Korean culture and society is breathtaking, and although I have no doubt that she occasionally experiences racism and prejudice, she says it’s in no way the defining feature of her experience. I feel jealousy for her level of Korean Language speaking ability – listening to her on the phone talking to her friends, code-switching between English, Korean, Tagalog and Visayan (the latter being her “native” Philippine languages) leaves me in quiet admiration.

Korean culture is uncomfortable with the idea of immigration. They welcome ethnic Korean “returnees,” called 교포 [gyopo], because they can be more confident of their ability to integrate into Korean society, and they more-or-less accept the idea of mixed marriages as an inevitability, too – as in the example of my coworker. But Koreans resist the idea of foreign individuals or families arriving and simply becoming Korean. It doesn’t sit well with their traditional Confucian concept of the predominance of ancestry and their ius sanguinis model of citizenship.

The other day, however, I had a weird brainstorm as I was thinking about my coworker’s mostly successful integration into Korean society. What if we could define a new, third model of citizenship? Specifically, for a more culturally and linguistically homogeneous society such as Korea, we could grant citizenship rights based, essentially, on the ability to participate in the culture – which is to say, the capacity for the language. It wouldn’t be that hard to say something to the effect of “citizenship for those who pass the language test” – though this would require an ethical and corruption-free administration of a well-designed test, which I’m not sure is the current status of Korea’s de facto standard Korean Language test, the TOPIK. But it would be a workable goal. So that would be ius linguae, “right of language.”

One thought that springs to mind is that this is a model that many in the US would be pleased to adopt – force all those “damn immigrants” to learn English before they get a green card or citizenship! Yet even as I’m happy to propose ius linguae for Korea, I recoil at the idea of applying it in the US. What is the difference? Mostly, history. Korea is historically essentially a single language / culture / state – for hundreds at least if not thousands of years. The US, on the other hand, was almost from the beginning a state defined by some concept of essentially “right of arrival” – to recall one of my favorite quotes on immigration, from Herman Melville, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come.”

There are tensions within this, but that is the essence. Further, the US project is complicated by the preexistence of linguistic minorities – both Native American and French, Spanish, etc. – groups of people who were in place when the US essentially appeared “over” them through war or annexation. The US is an empire, not a unitary state. It hardly seems fair to impose as a requirement for citizenship the imperial language, since to do so guarantees the possibility of stateless permanent residents within your country, similar to the horrific legal status of Koreans living in Japan even today, 70 years after the end of the War. That Japanese example is a perfect one: the inevitable consquence of applying a ius sanguinis citizenship model in the context of empire is inequality and injustice.

I think Korea, however, is sufficiently compact and homogeneous that applying this type of ius linguae model of citizenship might represent an excellent compromise path between the traditional and inevitably racist ius sanguinis and the more modern ius solis / sanguinis hybrids, the latter of which would lead to an increasintly multi-cultural society and the emergence of linguistic / cultural ghettos – Korea already is beginning to have these in places where there are large numbers of foreigners, such as the area I call “Russiatown” that I like to visit sometimes. Granting citizenship only to immigrants who have already shown a commitment to integrating into Korean culture via the acquisition of the language would be a great solution, maybe.

This is just a brainstorm – a first draft – that occured to me mostly while walking back and forth to work over several days. I’m sure it’s subject to plenty of criticisms and refinements, but I wanted to record my thoughts and put them down.

In other news: yesterday, I turned off the internet and my phone and did almost nothing. It was a lazy day but I think I needed it. I am in danger of social burnout given the teaching load I have taken on (willingly), so I’m going to nurse my off-time for maximum isolation, as my alone time is recuperative for me.

[daily log (1100 pm): walking, 5 km]

Caveat: The Thing About Trees

(Poem #13 on new numbering scheme)

The thing about trees

Here’s the thing about trees: they are always trying to escape the groping gravity of the earth.

Look at them. They strain and push up toward the sky, in their slow-motion way. You can see, easily, how they are trying to escape. The leaves have no other purpose but to reach for the sky.

Sometimes, the trees even need to be tied down. You see how people have applied ropes or wooden structures to the trees, to keep them from flying away when unobserved.

You see, the  trees know when we are watching, too. They know that if they succeed in escaping, they have to be careful not to get caught – no one will trust a tree, anymore, if people see one running off into the sky.

So the trees wait until no one is looking. Trees, as might be expected, are amazingly patient.

In the depth of the night, when no one is around to see or hear, a tree will succeed in escaping. The branches will finally reach and thrust with sufficient force to pull the roots free of the grasping, jealous earth, and they will rise rapidly into space, finally finding their freedom. All that is left is a small upturned mound of earth, puckered like a small wound, where the roots pulled out.

A strong wind can help, but if the weather is too stormy, the trees can be injured and then they will fall back to the brutish earth, broken and shattered.

Sometimes, after a storm, you can see the evidence of this – broken trees thrown over, as if by wind. What is not so clear to us watchers is that some of that violence is self-inflicted by the trees upon themselves, in their desperate efforts to escape the unkind earth.

[UPDATE: This is tree # -1]

caveat: so many private battles

with the night shift came a new batch of medicine to be administered, and the increasingly routine perforation party. its a vicious cycle. . . as more and more of my veins get "used," those remaining are less and less optimal. in a given persons arm there are a limited number of "good" iv insertion points. the problem is generalized too much to all staff who try for it to be a competence problem. . . its just a loss of suitable real estate.

and it becomes impossible to stay upset about it for long. this is a cancer hospital, and my problems are minor. as i stand at the counter complaining of my perforation-induced headache, my neighbor two beds over, undergoing chemo and suffering a permanent case of hiccups, shambles out managing to vomit and bleed at the same time. now, theres a guy needing attention. i humbly withdraw and remember to thank the stressed nurse with a smile and a 수고하셨습니다 [you worked hard, a standard korean thank you].

all around me are men and women fighting their private battles, many much worse than mine. for each case of jealousy-arousing snip-snap-its-done-now-go-home colon cancer surgeries like mr parks last week, there are nausea-inducing cases that leave patients curled in knots of pain and fear on the corridor floors for hours, and render others into many-bandaged zombies, groping for their morphine buttons with only grimmaces of shame to offer to their helpless relatives.

i can only retreat into my own affirmation to move past this, in my own case.

pacing my orbit, i affirm: i am strong. i am healthy. i am fearless. i am resiliant. i feel no pain. i am strong. i am healthy. . . .

caveat: things untrue of such sublime beauty

sitting in my bed, propped just so on my pillows, headphones on, eyes closed, i can imagine im on a train. but scenery never changes, and there seems to be very little interest in the destination. . . its just a ride, without an objective.

after my 5 am pre breakfast of fruit and yogurt, i brush my teeth, clean up a little, walk an orbit or two, put on some music and soon drift to sleep. i had a transparently symbolic dream.

in the dream, i wake up to see a child, maybe five or six years old, standing at the foot of my bed. she has a shy smile, she beckons. i follow her, dragging my iv-stand like a ball and chain. in the hallway there is a half-open door. she races through it, glancing back to make sure i am following.

beyond the door, narnia like, the is a tall stand of creaking redwood trees, and a bumpy, sun-drenched clearing with a scattering of picnic tables. i quickly realize it is nearly impossible to follow the girl, with the cumbersome iv-stand and its tiny, squeaky wheels.

she beckons, but i shake my head and sit down, heart heavy. she quickly becomes distracted chasing a remarkable blue butterfly over, under and around the tables. she laughs, and comes close to me, shyly.

"do you like that butterfly?" i ask.

she nods, makes a fluttering gesture. 

who is this girl? i think to myself but do not say aloud.

she comes close and leans against me, whispering in my ear. the simple korean of a child, easy for me to understand. "네 딸" [your daughter] she giggles. in spanish, then, "no sabias?" [you didnt know?]. in a whisper, "물론." [of course]

i awake, then, choked with tears.

things untrue, of such sublime beauty.

Caveat: Life is nothing and that is sublime

One unexpected but happy outcome of my recent announcement on this blog (and hence in facebookland, too) that I have been diagnosed with cancer, is the outpouring messages and notes from distant friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I'm utterly grateful for all of that.

It really makes a difference in my ability to keep a positive outlook on this experience – please don't stop no matter what! Thank you – I love you all so much.

Among these messages, however, there have been some examples of what I can only term "religious outreach and sharing." I don't mean people who are saying they are praying for me – this is nigh universal, and completely unproblematic from my perspective. I mean people who take the opportunity to share something of their beliefs, or experiences with Jesus, etc., and who inquire as to my own religious standing.

Viewed charitably, people are offering me solace with displays of where, in their own lives, they have found their own meaning and solace. Taking a less charitable view, they're seeking to exploit me in a moment of weakness and hoping to gain a "deathbed" convert.

For the record, my faith is quite strong.

I realize these solicitations are meant in all kindness, but I don't take them as kindness. Efforts to convert me – even in the best of times – will, if anything, turn me against the belief system being advocated.

Perhaps it is the case that aggressive evangelism is in some ways admirable. Certainly it is worth noting the level of commitment and strength of faith that it requires, and the depth of human character that it draws upon. I deeply respect if not downright envy people of strong faith of all kinds. Nevertheless, that kind of "vested outreach" ("caring, but with a dogmatic agenda") strikes me as disrespectful to the intellectual autonomy of others.

Try to consider it from my point of view: "So sorry to hear your news about your being sick, but, by the way, what you believe is completely wrong. I sure hope that you can fix up your deficient belief system in the time remaining to you on this Earth, or… you-know-what!"

Ah. Thank you so much for making me feel better.

I am an atheist. If that changes, over time, then so be it, but in this moment, my faith is unshaken, firm and unwavering.

"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." – Thomas Paine

Paine was called a "a demihuman archbeast" in an American newspaper contemporary to him. That being the case, how can we say that the voices in the current media are so alarming?

To digress further, briefly, for no reason, in a different vein: I once owned a horse that I named "Thomas Paine." I thought it a fitting name, as the horse seemed strongly anti-authoritarian and freethinking in character. I probably thought of the name because I was carrying around a slim copy of Paine's Age of Unreason at the time, which was the period of my disillusion with my previous "Quaker" identity. Thomas Paine was the only horse I ever owned. I didn't own him for long. When my several-months-long horseback oddessy in the mountains of Michoacan ended unpleasantly in the Spring of 1987, I gifted Thomas Paine to my friend Jon, who sold the horse later.

Thus when I think of Thomas Paine, and so too of religion and anti-religion and freethought, those meditations enchain to visceral memories of sitting atop a spirited horse in the pine forests of the high country of southwestern Mexico, or of eating carnitas and fresh tortillas and inhaling wood-smoke and shaking scorpions out of my shoes in the early morning.

For me there is a literal, viscerally-felt smell to be evoked for that sense of freedom from the anxieties of dogmas.

I should return to the question at hand: some of my friends' and acquaintances' sudden evangelical zealousness.

I assert that I am a "faith-based" atheist.

Some people might protest that I have repeatedly represented myself as Buddhist in this blog, and… isn't that a religion too?

Well yes… but no. Buddhism is indeed a religon, for many.

For me, though, Buddhism is only a practice, nothing more. It requires me to believe absolutely nothing. When my Buddhist friends talk to me of karma, I choose to interpret it metaphorically, and when they speak of reincarnation I nod politely and try to smile. Most pointedly, though, no one has ever suggested to me that it is a requirement that I believe such nonsense. So I very much appreciate that there exists a group of people that for the most part not only steadfastly refuses to dogmatize their beliefs but is even willing to affirm that I can be "one of them" without having to make any changes or adjustments of any kind to my own beliefs.

I suppose that when I was an active Quaker, 25 years ago, it was similar. Christianity, though, has an undeniable and unavoidable dogmatic burden: it requires of each believer the unambivalent affirmation of God's personal and accessible existence to each of us. No church, therefore – not even the Quakers or the Unitarians – are really able to dispense with all the metaphysical hocus pocus. If you're going to hold the Bible to some standard of eternal truth or even the broadest symbolic sacredness, you're joined at the hip to an irrational worldview. I could never feel comfortable pretending about that. I disliked my own imagined hypocrisy too intensely when I was an openly atheist "Quaker," and I felt unwelcome among Unitarians, too, for the exact same reason. They welcome all views, but, caveat: "hey, don't you think you're being a little close-minded, being an atheist?"

My "faith-based atheism" is strange to many people. Probably, it is even utterly unfathomable. People may ask, "How is it possible to have such a strong belief in, um… nothing?" As if atheism was an affirmational belief in "nothing." It's not nihilism. From my perspective, God is only one thing. So… Everything, minus one thing, is still almost everything. And that's what I believe in: I believe in everything that is in the world, everything that I can hear and feel and touch and see and taste and know and learn and achieve through my own rational mind.

In a way, I even derive some significant comfort from my atheism, in this difficult moment in my life. Where others, who have strong belief systems in benevolent or purposeful deities, would find their faith challenged or shaken by a revelation of their own possible imminent mortality, I am merely affirmed.

Of course life has no purpose, I can affirm in this moment, with a broad smile. And yet… what beauty there is in the world! What kindness other people can show! And how remarkable, then, that this happens for no reason whatsoever.

A miracle – utterly sublime.

Caveat: Cancer


I’ll just stick to the facts, mostly, for now.

The doctor said: “You have cancer.” Well. No ambiguity, there.

It’s cancer of the tongue, possibly lymph, too. What stage? “It’s a gray area.” We can’t know what ‘stage’ until surgery – that will include exploratory surgery and excision of lymph area on left side of neck.

Surgery will be in 2 weeks. Depending on how bad things look once they’re inside, looking around, it could be a simple 2-hour surgery or up to a 7-hour long surgery, including tracheotomy and extensive reconstruction after excision. Just to be clear: they will be removing some portion of the back of my tongue, and putting what’s left of it back together again, regardless of the other aspects (i.e. lymph etc.).

I will miss at least one month of work. Because of my relative “youth,” prognosis is good as far as recovery of functionality: speaking, eating, tasting. Still, I’m not sure what kind of “speaking teacher” I’m going to be, after this. Curt is being very kind.

There’s some irony, to be a linguist with tongue cancer…

Following surgery and recovery, radiation is standard for this type of diagnosis. Six weeks of daily radiation, starting probably in August at some point.

Statistics: survival rate is about 65%.

Insurance: with Korean National Health Insurance my copay will not exceed 5%. At that, probably still in the thousands of dollars.

Work: I need to find a short-term (one or two month) replacement. I will remain an employee of KarmaPlus.

Later, I can wax philosophical or journalistic or literary.

CaveatDumpTruck Logo

Caveat: The God-Shaped Hole / Azathoth and Buddha

There's a blogger over at the Website Whose Name I Don't Like, who writes by the name of Jason Kuznicki. I'm never sure on that site who's going by pseudonyms and and who's "real." But regardless, I agree with so much of what he writes. I may have just run across a post he made last year that dovetails nicely with some of my own feelings about the nature of the universe, of god, and the "purpose of life."

I'm not really interested in trying to summarize his ideas, as he makes his point very well, himself, talking as he does about evolution and Azathoth and God-shaped holes (which is a concept originally due to St Augustine, if I recall correctly), so I suggest you go read that post of his and then come back and read the rest of my thinking here, if you're really interested in watching me think about my faith.

Jason seems to be a variety of transhumanist. I think I am  too, though perhaps not so optimistic as he is, but still more optimistic than many bitter atheists of my sort. It's interesting that he brings Azathoth into it – I perhaps had Azathothian tendencies long before I "became" atheist. I see my own atheism as a defense against that sort thinking. I think Azathoth makes a good symbol (OK! like most Lovecraft, a great symbol), but nothing more than that.

You might have noticed I have described myself as an atheist, and yet I used the words "my faith," above, too. I don't see any contradiction in that. It may sound like a joke, but I genuinely consider myself to be a "faith-based atheist." That's because while I am atheist at core, I arrived at my atheism through irrational experience: it came to me as part of a near-death experience and was as bright and clear as the many Saul-to-Paul-like conversions associated with other religious traditions. Furthermore, I am utterly uninterested in challenging or arguing religion with other people – I feel no need, a la Dawkins or Dennett or Hitchens, to change other people's minds. I accept that my atheism is my belief, and other people have other beliefs. When people try to convert me, I get deeply annoyed, and I assume they would feel the same way if I tried to do the same to them. Let's all treat others the way they would like to be treated.

Some of my Christian friends are, of course, deeply puzzled by the fact that I am adamantly atheist and yet also have become increasingly comfortable calling myself a Buddhist. This is like a sort of double-blasphemy vis-a-vis Christianity, and the most hardcore among such friends seem to feel almost affronted, wondering if I'm somehow deliberately doubling down on my heresies.

There are two key reasons for my embrace of Buddhism. First, unlike with many other religious traditions, there is no requirement, in the Buddhist framework, that we believe anything in particular, or anything at all. There are Buddhist dogmas, but there are very few Buddhist dogmatists. I'm speaking of my own experience of course – and that's not to say that I haven't run across a few dogmatic Buddhists in my time. Ultimately, though, Buddhism seems to be not so much a dogma or a religion (although it can be be that, for those who want it or need it or grew up in such traditions) as it is a practice. As such, it's open to anyone who sees benefit it its practices. The second reason I'm comfortable calling myself a Buddhist is even simpler: it's because the Buddhists don't seem to mind having an atheist among them, whereas I've never met a Christian, however kind-hearted and tolerant he or she may be, who didn't carry in his or her heart at least some germ of discomfort with my assertion to my peculiar brand of born-again atheism. For the Christian (or any Christian, anyway, who buys into the key Christian messages of salvation and forgiveness and grace), there will always be an underlying hope or desire or expectation that I will somehow see the light. Unfortunately, I already did see the light – and it made me who I am. No group of Christians, no matter how liberal and tolerant and touchy-feely they may have been (I'm pointing at UUs and Quakers here, among others), has ever succeeded in making me feel welcome as I am, without offering up some subtext of, "gee, we hope you can see what we see, someday." What they see is God, of course.

Jason writes, in his transhumanist vein: "Either we are the immortals, or we are their progenitors. We should live accordingly." This is something that dovetails nicely with Buddhist practice, as I, at least, conceptualize it.

Here are some pictures from my walk home earlier today – Spring treeblossoms on a drizzly April day in Ilsan: Azathoth doing some ineluctable thing.

The back side of Munhwa Elementary.

Drizzle 003

A pedestrian area nearby.

Drizzle 005

The intersection at Gangseonno and Daesanno, halfway between work and home.

Drizzle 008

Caveat: Channeling Colonel Kasun in Korea


It was mostly just incidental that I happened to learn that Joseph Kasun passed away recently – I'm not in touch with any of my onetime high school teachers, but someone's posting on facebook caught my attention and so I came to know that my high school history teacher, Mr (Col) Kasun had died. His obituary is here, in the Times-Standard, Humboldt's newspaper-of-record. Here's an internet picture (right) showing him with ice-cream in front of a recognizably Arcata High Schoolish building – perhaps even his classroom (at the windows)?

I didn't have much of a personal connection with Mr Kasun. As a student, I remember not thinking much of him – he seemed theatrical and reactionary and prone to pendantic declamations that suited his record as a veteran and former Army officer perfectly. As a disconsolate youth with hippie-commune parents, to me he seemed both dangerous and buffoonish, like the bizarre uncle in the movie Harold and Maude. But he was, in fact, a fairly effective and most definitely memorable teacher, and he was principled enough not to spout his extreme conservative agenda too blatently into the classroom – I knew he was conservative (his wife was a major figure in the Humboldt pro-life movement and a Reagan activist) but I didn't ever feel he was trying to convince me to be conservative.

And here's the thing – I think of old Col Kasun often. Not quite on a daily basis, but he comes to mind several times a week, and in fact he'd been on my mind the same evening that I got home and saw the facebook post reporting his death. How is it that this should be so?

I'm a teacher. I'm not a high school teacher, but I teach gifted middle-schoolers, which is close enough. And even though I am, primarily, an EFL teacher, my methodology is deeply wrapped up with teaching "subjects-but-in-English." Specifically, I often find myself being a history and social studies teacher, such as was Mr Kasun. It's inevitable when talking about topics such as democracy, fights for independence, or social policy, that Mr Kasun's passionate and sincere style will sometimes come to mind. He would stand up at the front of the class and gesture his pointing finger while making oratory on the topic of our hard-won American freedoms or American exceptionalism. What's weird is that I can unintentionally channel Mr Kasun in gesture or tone, while the topic is, instead, Korean hard-won freedoms or Korean exceptionalism, while the kids stare up in that perfect teenage mixture of awe and boredom. And I find myself thinking to myself, 'jeez, that was a fine Colonel Kasun you just did, wasn't it?'

And I go home to read that he has died. I never had been in touch with him, since high school.

There are teachers you really like, in school. But as a teacher, those aren't always the teachers you think about, much less the ones you channel or become.

I really liked Mr Mauney, and Mr Meeks, and Mrs Williams (who had a different name, maybe, later, due to divorce or remarriage) and Mme Dalsant. But I rarely think of them in my teaching. Instead, I meditate on Mr Kasun or Mr Dohrman (sp?), both of whom I find myself channeling, sometimes to my own deep chagrin. Or I contemplete Mr Allan Edwards, who terrified me so much as a high school freshman that I never really recovered, and all these years later, I sometimes remind myself that, whatever else I may have as positives or negatives as a teacher, at the least I'm not terrifying my students to the extent they contemplate suicide. At least… I desperately hope not. I admit I've caused the occasional first or second grader to burst into tears – who hasn't? – but that's a far cry from inducing so much fear and loathing in a 15 year-old that he still has nightmares about you 30 years later.

That's a little bit off track, vis-a-vis a sort of obituary on Mr Joseph Frank Kasun. But the point is, I think of one past teacher or another almost every day – especially those teachers that left indelible impressions, be they good or bad. I think there may be something to the aphorsim that goes something like:  it's better to be remembered as a teacher, even if disliked, than to be forgotten.

RIP Col Kasun.

Caveat: The Drama Of The White Down Feather

This is a completely true story.

Imagine there is a classroom full of eighth-graders – Korean eighth-graders, attending a typical Korean evening English class. There is a girl, who is named Shy But Intelligent Girl, giving an interminably long, well-written but painfully-delivered speech.

Meanwhile, there is boy sitting in the front row who is named Oblivious Boy. He already gave his speech, so he is relaxed: he is on the verge of dozing off, even. Oblivious Boy is pretty handsome, in a KPop sort of way, and the girls seem a little bit intimidated by him, which in 14-year-olds tends to come off more as a dismissiveness, in their mannerisms.

Unfortunately, Oblivious Boy is wearing a black sweater, and attached to the middle of his back, in the midst of the clean black sweater, is a large white down feather – the kind of white down feather that sometimes sneaks out between the seams of popular North Face brand down winter jackets. The white feather is protruding well over a centimeter from the back of his sweater, as he sits motionless in the front row, gazing up, absent-mindedly, at Shy But Intelligent Girl who is giving her interminable but well-written speech.

This white down feather is too noticeable. It's an affront to fashion. Who better to decide this than the girl seated two rows behind him? Her name is Fashionable Girl, of course. She is seated with her friend, Confident And Sociable Girl. They are giggling because of the protruding white down feather on Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back.

Washed_white_goose_feather Greenscissors_imagesThis distraction demands a solution. Fashionable Girl quietly extracts a pair of green-handled scissors from her bag. Straining across the intervening desk, she clearly intends to remove, or decapitate, the offending white down feather. But she hasn't quite reached Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back with her snipping scissors when her friend, Confident And Sociable Girl, realizes what Fashionable Girl intends,  and so she whispers for her to stop. Stop! She makes a mime to her friend which – as anyone fluent in Korean teenager gesture-language could recognize – means, "omigod what if he notices?"
Fashionable Girl pouts, and then she has an idea.

She tears off a square of paper from her notebook, about the same size as the offending white down feather. She whispers something in Confident And Sociable Girl's ear, and the latter turns and leans forward. Fashionable Girl the places the square of paper in the same position as the offending white down feather, and then she proceeds to use the green-handled scissors to pluck the square of paper off of her friend's back.

Confident And Sociable Girl turns around and gives a jubilant thumbs up. Their experiment was clearly a stunning success – the offending piece of paper was successfully removed with the green-handled scissors, without being detectable!

Meanwhile, Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable speech continues apace – if, well… rather interminably.
Having conducted their successful experiment, Fashionable Girl resumes leaning across the intervening desk in her effort to assault the offending white down feather on Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back.

Snip, snip, snip. She can't. Quite. Reach.

At this particular moment, it occurs to Confident And Sociable Girl to take a moment to look around the room. Much to her alarm, several sets of eyes have drifted away from Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable but well-written speech, and are instead following the drama of the white down feather avidly. It's not just several students either, but The Teacher, too. He's standing at the back of the room, and he watching curiously.


Confident And Sociable slaps her friend's green-handled scissors-wielding hand down in panic, and immediately, both girls collapse into giggles, face down on their respective desks.

Shy But Intelligent Girl pauses in mid-delivery of her interminable but well-written speech, with a combination of annoyance and mortification on her face. "Why are these other girls interrupting my speech?" her expression demands.

Oblivious Boy, however, remains oblivious.

The Teacher returns his attention to the interminable but well-written but now-interrupted speech, and prompts Shy But Intelligent Girl to continue. The Teacher makes a "cut it out" face at the two giggling girls. Minutes later, the speech has resumed, and the green-handled scissors have reappeared, and have resumed their snipping adventures, shakily snaking across the gap between the two grinning girls and the boy at the front.

But they just can't. Quite. Reach.

Unfortunately, at this moment, Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable speech suddenly terminates.

The Teacher says, quite unexpectedly, "Yudam. Put the scissors away, please."

"Yes." Fashionable Girl sits back and gives a look of pure innocence, and she looks around the room as if it was some other kid in trouble. Confident And Sociable Girl giggles again, and whispers to her friend.

Oblivious Boy, however, remains oblivious.

Another speech begins, and this chapter comes to a close.

Caveat: Love Never Ends


I sat and watched a 4 hour movie basically straight through, this evening. I’m a little bit hesitant to recommend this movie in this venue – it was most definitely NSFW, if you catch my drift.

But it was epic, and fascinating. It was half Cervantes, half William S. Burroughs, and executed like a live-action anime cartoon. If you can stomach strong sexual content (perversions!), vast amounts of blood and gore (homage to Kill Bill), insults to religion and capitalism galore, Lacanian psychosexual philosophizing and sadomasochistic parenting … well, then… if you can stomach those things, then I heartily recommend: Love Exposure (愛のむきだし [ai no mukidashi]).

It was really about 4 or 5 different movies. I would have been interested to watch any of them, though for different reasons. It’s not a a very optimistic view of human nature, frankly, despite the “love-triumphs” ending. The significant quote that runs thematically through movie is 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

But don’t misunderstand – it’s not at all clear that the message is “pro-Christian.” Or even pro-Love. I didn’t come away with that impression. And, as a product of 99% non-Christian Japan, that’s understandable. It’s messing with the symbolism, as a lot of Japanese pop culture does, but without any deference or loyalty or, for that matter, sincerity. But just because a movie is contrived and insincere doesn’t mean it can’t be a great work of art. It’s horribly contrived, and complicatedly switches between a kind of plausible emotional realism and a two-dimensional, adolescent, comic-book view of the world. Certainly, it is the case that Love Never Ends, if by love, you mean “lust” and by never ends you mean rape and bloody murder. For all that, the Corinthians quote is nevertheless perfect.

So much for trying to review it.

I liked the soundtrack, too.

What I’m listening to right now.

[UPDATE 2018-01-23: The old youtube video has disappeared from the internet. Probably gobbled up by the copyright police. But I like the song. So I found a “cover” of the song by another artist. That’s the current video embedded.]

ゆらゆら帝国 [Yurayurateikoku], “空洞です” [kūdōdesu = Hollow Me].
The lyrics:

Boku no kokoro o anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
Subete nokorazu anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 面白い
Ore wa kūdō omoshiroi
バカな子どもが ふざけて駆け抜ける
Bakana kodomo ga fuzakete kakenukeru
は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
いいよ くぐりぬけてみな 穴の中
Ī yo kugurinukete mina ana no naka
どうぞ 空洞
Dōzo kūdō

Naze ka machi ni wa daijina mono ga nai
それはムード 甘いムード
Sore wa mūdo amai mūdo
Irikunda roji de anata ni deaitai
それはムード とろけそうな
Sore wa mūdo toroke-sō na
Irikunda roji de anata ni deaitai
それはムード 甘いムード
Sore wa mūdo amai mūdo
誰か 味見をしてみな 踊りたい
Dare ka ajimi o shite mina odoritai
さあどうぞ ムード
Sā dōzo mūdo

Boku no kokoro o anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
Subete nokorazu anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 面白い
Ore wa kūdō omoshiroi
バカな子どもが ふざけて駆け抜ける
Bakana kodomo ga fuzakete kakenukeru
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
いいよ くぐりぬけてみな 穴の中
Ī yo kugurinukete mina ana no naka
さあどうぞ 空洞
Sā dōzo kūdō

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: Epiphania Berzerk

I was walking to work today, and feeling stressed. And a pair of tracks from Apoptygma Berzerk came through my mp3 player, and I had an epiphanic moment.

Those Apoptygma Berzerk tunes were part of my "crisis soundtrack" during the difficult fall of 2008, when I was working at LBridge and hating my decision to be in Korea, hating my job, just generally really stressing out. And during that time, I made some decisions about how I would organize my life and prioritize things and indentify what was important, which I began slowly to implement. Today, I realized I'd mostly carried through with those "promises to myself" – not in terms of goals so much as in the manner in which I would live my life.

The fact is, my job is very nearly the least stressful job I've ever had. Not because it's inherently unstressful, but because I've made it that way.

"But why is it, then," I asked myself, "that I'm feeling so stressed lately?"

The job has nothing to do with my stress. And unlike in Yeonggwang last year, the auxiliaries of the job – housing, location, social context – those things aren't stressing me, either. Those things are much more stable here in Ilsan, and most definitely much more under my control. I would hazard to guess that if I had to look at things carefully, my job is actually a net stress reducer. The kids (except for certain ones who must remain unnamed, here) wash away my stress and make me feel happy.

So, then. Where is this stress coming from? I can know, easily enough (and what a Konglishy turn of phrase that is, yet it comes so naturally to me, now). That was my breakthrough, today.

I'm making this stress for myself. It's about those personal goals, personal self-perceptions, and how those aren't working out for me.

I have set goals such as "learn Korean," that I can't seem to do. I feel unhealthy, and rather than work harder or make behavioral changes to get healthier, I stress out over how I'm unhealthy. I even beat myself up for not meditating. As if… as if getting angry over not meditating would bring me closer to inner peace, right?

I've got all of these stressors in my life, but they're not from my job, for the most part. They're traps of my own devising.

This is only a breakthrough in the sense that I thought it all through from start to end today, with a high degree of clarity (not to mention a dose or two of ironic self-honesty). I've not been unaware of these things. And… to announce here that I've "figured it out" is only another invitation to stress out later when it doesn't lead to some improved lifestyle change, I suppose. But This Here Blog Thingy (the runner-up title for Caveatdumptruck – jus' sayin') is nothing if not a place where I can unlaconically overshare my personal mental hygiene activities. So there.

What I'm listening to right now.

Apoptygma Berzerk, "In This Together."

Caveat: Dreaming the Dialectic

I was dreaming…

that I was trying to explain "the dialectic" to someone.  I said that it's like if you are showing how thinking about a story about a girl isn't really about a girl.  I pulled up an image of a girl, a kind of black-and-white, 1950's photograph of a rather nondescript girl.  "This girl looks like… just a girl.  But the dialectic is realizing that something else is actually going on," I explained.

I said to my invisible interlocutor, "It's about that moment when you wake up."

And then I woke up.  It was perhaps 11 pm.  I had fallen asleep with my face in the book – very much not my tendency or habit, these days.  I had fallen asleep, while studying.

This was a former character trait of mine; I was reprising it from years ago: it's from old, academic years.  It developed due to the inevitable sleep deprivations of graduate school, perhaps.

The air around me was close and thick and hot – my window was open, but the earlier rain had stopped.  The florescent light, on in the apartment directly across the alley from mine, seemed extraordinarily, unnaturally bright.  It was shining rudely out and illuminating all the unmovingness outside with its overconfident yet highly limited repertoire of wavelengths.  I listened to the sounds of the city, vague echoes of a woman singing, buses trundling past on the Jungang-no.  I lay very still.

And I lay there, breathing a little bit fast, feeling like I was on the edge of understanding.  I felt surprised at how I could have just woken myself up from a dream by suggesting, in the dream, that I could reach a moment of understanding at the moment of waking up.  Really, it was nothing short of startling myself awake by confronting the concept of waking up.


The clear image of that story about the girl, from the dream, was falling apart very quickly, like a wet piece of tissue paper.  I'm not sure it was important, though.  It didn't feel important, at all, to what had just happened.  It was arbitrary, I felt myself thinking.  I watched myself thinking….

I tried to visualize a slug walking along the edge of a very sharp knife:  it just doesn't work.  Not funny.  What if it was a fly, landing on that edge – would it… hurt itself?  I was momentarily embedded in the digression of a Haruki Murakami novel.  I'd been working on digressions earlier in the day – my own writing.  Polishing a few novelistic digressions, like so much antique silverware – wishing they were whales.

I feel like this strange, crystaline moment hasn't brought me one iota closer to understanding the dialectic;  but it was nevertheless a very surprising, lucid dream.  It was like an epiphany devoid of epiphanic content.  Epiphany for epiphany's sake.

One might ask, why was I dreaming definitions of the dialectic?  The answer is not so obscure… I'd fallen asleep reading a recently purchased book:  Valences of the Dialectic, by Fredric Jameson.  I'm barely to page 15, in the first chapter, which bears the title, "Three names of the dialectic."  How about that Diego Rivera on the cover, by the way?

I'll get back to you if I figure it out.  I might not figure it out, though.  I've not made much progress with feeling comfortable with this essential philosphical tool, [broken link! FIXME] over [broken link! FIXME] the [broken link! FIXME] years.  Perhaps I've always invested too much in it.  Perhaps, with Karl Popper, I am at core uncomfortable with the seeming solution-in-contradiction.  But I'm particularly drawn to it as it is so ancient, so inherent – it's one of the underlying intellectual tools that unifies Eastern and Western philosohpy.  It is possibly something innate… even structural, a la Chomsky's "language faculty."  A dialectical instinct?  The insight presented by the dream, if any, is that there exists the possibility of a sort of recursive definition of dialectical practice.

Hmm… recursion as praxis?  That's a whole other post, maybe.

Caveat: the metaphysic of the test

Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the test.

pictureThis blog entry emerges from a typo I found in a book I’m rather casually perusing.  The book is Formalism and Marxism, by Tony Bennett.  The book is one of those lit-crit books that I picked up out of my mother’s collection during my last visit to Queensland in January.  It examines the relationship between the Russian Formalists and more recent works – I was attracted to it because it discusses Althusser and Eagleton, specifically.

Anyway, I’m not reading it very deeply.  Some of it is familiar if somewhat stale territory, and certainly the fact that it’s now almost 40 years old dates it somewhat in the realm of lit-crit.  But actually I don’t want to talk about marxist literary criticism or Terry Eagleton (who would have been one of my marxist muses had I ever written that PhD thesis on Cervantes, perhaps, along with Frederic Jameson and Gilles Deleuze).

You see, on page 157 of the paperback edition of Bennett’s book, there is a typo.  Instead of saying “metaphysic of the text” it says “metaphysic of the test.”  And the thing is, I’ve been thinking about tests a lot lately.  Tests are a big part of work in education, and especially, Korean education, and more especially, Korean hagwon-based eduction.  The test is the thingthe only thing.

I have been developing a new feeling about testing.  Part of this is influenced by certain fragments of data emerging from the bigger world (see my  blog entry from a few weeks ago, for example).   Part of it is trying to make peace with the huge discrepancy between my dreams and ideals about education (which are vaguely Waldorfian and deeply influenced by my own unusual educational experiences in alternative “hippy schools” during my elementary years, during which tests were essentially verboten) and the reality-on-the-ground here in Korea (which is that testing is god and all bow down before it).

Running across this typo, in Bennett’s text, caused me to perform a bizarre mental experiment.  Instead of replacing the word “test” with “text” in the evident error, I decided to replace the word “text” with “test” in the subsequent paragraph.  Here is my sublime paraphrasing of Bennett’s idea, then, reframed as being about tests, rather than texts (I’ve italicized the original typo and bolded my substitutions).   Bennett is writing about the thought of Pierre Macherey, so my substitution game has inflicted on Macherey some thoughts about tests that I’m sure he never had.

More radically, Macherey breaks unequivocally with what we have called ‘the metaphysic of the test‘.  Urging that the concept of the ‘test‘ or the ‘work’ that has for so long been the mainstay of criticism should be abandoned, he advances the argument we have noted above: that there are no such ‘things’ as works or tests which exist independently of the functions which they serve or the uses to which they are put and that these latter should constitute the focal point of analysis.  The test must be studied not as an abstraction but in the light of the determinations which, in the course of its history, successfully rework that test, producing for it different and historically concrete in modifying the conditions of its reception.

The thing is, the quote mostly still works fine, despite this substitution.  This is because texts and tests are obviously related, from a metaphysical standpoint.  They both are functional, performative emissions of a broader cultural and ideological context.   And it leads me to an insight about my changing attitude to testing:  tests are not abstractions, but emerge from concrete cultural conditions and serve broad social purposes above and beyond just pedagogy:  they’re disciplinary systems and indoctrination engines as much as they are evaluative tools.

Here’s what I’m beginning to think:  it’s not so wrong to “teach to the test” as we say.  But let’s teach to the test in an enlightened way, making kids aware of the functions these tests serve, and openly discussing the role they serve in society and their strengths and weaknesses.  I recall, specifically, some concepts about “conscientization” in the context of Liberation Theology, to which I owe a huge debt to a certain professor Hernan Vidal at the University of Minnesota – one of those incredible teachers that leaves a permanent change with a person’s way of thinking about and seeing the world.

The idea of teaching to the test with an admixture of “conscientization” regarding the ideologies of the modes of production that are embedded in these tests, in the context of trying to be an elementary and middle school English as a Foreign Language teacher in Korea – well… let’s just summarize by saying:  “easier said than done.”

But… it’s possible.  With a modicum of humor, hints can be dropped.  Smart kids get it – I’ve done it before.  Now, I’m starting to feel I have a philosophical frame or justification for doing so.  And I’m making peace with the test.


Caveat: 얄러뷰

Two of my first-grade students, Min-gyeong and Dan-bi, wrote “I love you 얄러뷰” in a big heart in their good-bye message.
I was trying to figure out “얄러뷰” – but it’s not Korean. I think “yal-leo-byu” is a transliteration of “I love you” – sound it out!
I got portraits of the fourth-graders today. Here they are.
The 4-2 class did some role-plays today, and I took a few pictures.
I am going to miss Ye-won especially (on the left, below).  The other day, she said to me:  “I will hate the new teacher, already, because you are the best teacher.”  That’s way too good for my ego.  Plus, her English is pretty good, eh?
Here I am goofing around with some fifth- and sixth-graders during recess today.  Note that the girls provided me with a disguise – can you tell it’s me?
Here are some memento photos of the cafeteria during lunch time.
My lunch tray, and my co-teacher Ms Lee across from me.
Here are some boys hamming for the camera.
Finally, here are some kids brushing their teeth at the communal teeth-brushing place:
I am going to miss this school so much. Should I have stayed?  Maybe.
I will not miss the feeling of isolation, which was exacerbated by a school administrative office that is xenophobic and stunningly incompetent, and which conducted itself without exception with utter disregard for my status as a fellow human being, despite my substantial dependence upon them for my outside-of-work day-to-day living.
I think that one way to put it is that I will miss the weekday 9am~5pm part of this experience intensely, but I will not miss the weekday 5pm~9am part of it not at all. And that, when you get right down to it, is not a good proportion for a sustainable lifestyle.
I have learned hugely, this past year – about myself, about teaching, about children and about what’s important in the world. I hope I can keep these lessons alive in my heart and carry them back to Ilsan and my next job.

Caveat: 情

It was several years ago, now, that my Korean friend Curt told me:  “You have no jeong.”  Many Koreans have an exceptionalist view of this emotion that is described by the word jeong [정 (情)] – they will explain that it is a uniquely Korean emotion, or that Koreans uniquely tend toward it in contrast to members of other cultures.
The dictionary tells us that jeong means something like:  love, affection, attachment, sentiment, strong feeling, concern, matter-of-the-heart.
I found a fascinating academic write up on the word online, which I unfortunately cannot recommend to non-linguists because of its utterly obtuse non-standard romanization of Korean, which renders 정 as [ceng] – I believe this is called the “Yale” romanization, and while as a linguist I understand the motivations behind it, I dislike it intensely because it is very remote from being accessible to non-specialists, leading to inevitable mutilations of pronunciation.
Here is a more typical exceptionalist presentation of the concept from a “study English” website (i.e. it’s an essay talking about jeong as unique to Korean culture, written in English to provide a chance to study aspects of English – this kind of thing is everywhere in Korean English educaction at all levels).
At the time that Curt made his assertion, I was skeptical, on two counts.  I discounted the exceptionalist view that there could exist a basic “emotion” that was unique to one culture, and I also rejected the idea that I lacked it.  I suppose, in part, my feelings were hurt.  And when it comes to notions of language and culture, I tend toward universalism – I assume that basic human emotions, for example, are the same for all humans.
So I attributed his statement regarding my lack of jeong as a simple issue of there being a language barrier – surely a truly bilingual person could identify the proper English equivalent, both in linguistic and cultural terms.
But now, several years later, I have begun to genuinely harbor reservations about my prior rejection.  I find the workings of Korean jeong mysterious and impenetrable.  It seems to be a hybrid of irrational loyalty and intense platonic love, with a strong seasoning of smarmy sentimentality.  And I’ve come to accept that, as a Westerner, I probably “lack” it – in that I have no reductive mental category that encompasses these sorts feelings in simple conjuct.
When Mr Choi throws his arm around me at the staff volleyball game, that’s jeong.  And when the staff take up a collection of cash to help my fellow teacher pay his outrageous electricity bill, that’s somehow also jeong.  When a teacher admonishes a student to study harder, that might be jeong, too.
I keep trying to figure it out.

Caveat: Phenomimes and Psychomimes

All languages have onomatopoeia:  words like “woof woof” (a dog barking), or “whirr” (a spinning thing or a dragonfly), etc.  But Korean (and apparently Japanese, too) possesses an abundant class of words known as phenomimes and psychomimes.  These are words that use “sound symbolism” (q.v. in wikipedia) to represent concepts that aren’t, per se, auditory, but in a symbolic way. Most of the Korean ones include a great deal of reduplication and vowel harmony – in fact, it could be argued that these are actually some fossilized productive reduplicative semantic feature of proto-Korean, and not really “phenomimes” or “psychomimes” at all – it’s all in the definition of those concepts, I guess. Most of them are adverbial, in syntactic terms.
I love these things.  They’re one of the reasons the Korean language is magical, for me.
Some examples, from my “bible” (Korean Grammar for International Learners, by Ihm Ho Bin et al.):
반짝반짝 [ban-jjak-ban-jjak] sparklingly
슬슬 [seul-seul] gently
주렁주렁 [ju-reong-ju-reong] richly, with fullness
흔들흔들 [heun-deul-heun-deul] shakily
옹기종기 [ong-gi-jong-gi] closely together
방긋방긋 [bang-geut-bang-geut] broadly [as in a smile]
드르르 [deu-reu-reu] excellently, smoothly
부둑부둑 [bu-dok-bu-dok] damp-dry, a bit damp mostly dry
[Update: I have blogged about this topic again with many more examples, 2012-06-04 and 2012-10-19. I have also modified this original post somewhat since it’s one of the number one draws of my blog from the broader internet, when people google “phenomimes” and “psychomimes” with “korean”, and I have been crosslinked, too.]
[Update 2 (2015-10-08): I decided to create a consolidated list of examples, which I can update periodically.]

Caveat: Return to Ragged Point

pictureSome who know me really well know that Ragged Point, California, holds a special place in my personal biography / cosmology.
Ragged Point was the place where, in November, 1998, I reached my lowest point. And where I then took a decision to take an ethical responsibility for my own life and my own being, once and for all. It was a sort of atheist epiphany, where I realized I truly was alone in the universe, but that that wasn’t as bad as it seemed like. “Born-again atheist”? Sounds funny. But it hoves close to the truth.
It’s where I got the name “raggedsign” from, that you see applied to my online identity here and there.  The sign at Ragged Point… is deeply significant – like Saul, on the road to Damascus: but for this Saul, all there was to be seen was my own soul, laid bare.
It’s not always been smooth road, since then. I’ve not always done perfectly with the goal I set for myself that night. The first months and years after were exceptionally difficult, and Michelle’s suicide in 2000 was another low that felt like an inversion, in so many ways, of Ragged Point.
Anyway, part of my traveling, in general, is about seeing new places. But part of it is also about revisiting, paying a sort of homage to, old places.  Important places. Re-integrating all the disparate places that patchwork together to form the narrative of my immanent selfhood.
This current trip back from Korea, all this driving around, has been especially like that. It’s almost only that.
So today, I’m returning to Ragged Point. It’s up the road a ways from San Simeon, on the central California coast. I’ll probably sit and gaze at the ocean for a long time.
Later, I’m having lunch with Wendy, my stepmother (well, ex-stepmother, technically, but still a very important person in my life and one of my most important role-models, growing up). She lives in San Luis Obispo, currently.
Overnight, up to tomorrow, I’m driving to Roseburg, Oregon. My aunt Freda passed away while I was in Alaska, and I’ve decided to go to her memorial service, there.  It will give me a chance to see relatives I haven’t seen much of. And I’ll be re-integrating the length of California, along the way.
I took the picture below right at the county line between San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, a few miles north of Ragged Point on Highway 1. The ocean that you can see is at least 500 feet straight down that cliff under the tree.

Caveat: Traveling Alone

Last night felt like a disaster. 

I was already feeling moody and gloomy after my ferry ride back to Korea.  Riding the ferry wasn't like a boat ride (which I love).  Because it was a high-speed hydrofoil (I've only ever ridden a ferry like that a few times before), you can't go out on the decks, you basically sit strapped in your seat for 3 hours.  I should have signed up for the 10 hour regular ferry, maybe.  Riding the ferry was like sitting in a taxying airplane for 3 hours.  And while on the ferry, they showed a really depressing tear-jerker movie about some little boys with cancer.  It was a Korean movie, with Japanese dubbing, but it was pretty easy to follow the plot.  Lots of emotional, teary moments.  I actually get pretty strongly affected by such things, I think.

So I was moody.  And I was returning to Korea, which was a bit like coming "home" but not really.  Partly because I'm always going to be an alien in Korea, no matter how long I spend here.  But also because I'm only going to be traveling around a bit, and then really leaving to return to the US.  So I was feeling melancholic because it was a bit like it was going to be a goodbye tour.

The hotel I found and checked into seemed alright, at first.   But it was really unpleasant.  I should have run the other way when I found a complimentary can of RAID in the closet.  And there was a neon sign outside the window.  And the air conditioner didn't work.  Etc., etc.  I'm too stubborn (or stingy?) to just write off the money spent on lodging and find something better, and I'm too shy, especially with my disappointing language skills, to argue about things or complain about things to the management.  Being a loud, complaining customer is really hard for me.

I got fixated on having some bibimbap for dinner (since I'd come back to Korea).  So I found a place that sold bibimbap and ordered some for take out (포장해 주세요…).  They clearly understood what I wanted, but apparently weren't the sort of place accostomed to giving take-out.  They tried to insist that I stay and eat, but… I was feeling melancholy, as I said, and was really fixated on just taking it back to my room and eating in my private gloom.  I was remembering many meals of take-out that I would get from the place near my apartment and take back to eat alone.  I really don't like eating in restaurants alone (except maybe fast food joints), I always feel uncomfortable.  That's why when traveling alone like I am, I tend to eat a lot of take-out and carry-out type things (although still trying to avoid too much fast food — at least American-style fast food). 

So anyway, the woman at the restaurant was actually having a conversation with me.  And at one level, I was surprised, because she was attempting to do it in Korean, and I was attempting to answer in Korean, and it was going back and forth, although with some (a lot of) confusion.  Why was this surprising?  Because this almost never happens.  It's one reason learning Korean is so difficult:  Koreans don't like to try to talk Korean with foreigners.  They must think it's impolite, or frustrating, or … who knows what.  It had already happened to me more than 5 times just in the short time between disembarking from my ferry and getting to this restaurant:  I attempt to start some kind of exchange in Korean, and I get this bewildered, puzzled look in response, as the look up and realize I'm a foreigner, and they either couldn't understand what I'd said, or that they could but it wasn't the expected English (which they often can't understand either, but at least they understand why they can't understand).

It's so different from Japan.  The Japanese always talk to you in Japanese.  Even after they see that you're a foreigner.  They only ever switch to English if you explicitly ask them to, or persist with several answers in a row in English.  Because of this, while in Japan I had more "conversations" (such as they were) in Japanese over 10 days than I could've had in Korea over several months.  That was another depressing thing about Korea, coming back from Japan.  How can I ever learn Korean when Koreans refuse to speak Korean with me?  Perhaps the contrasting Japanese behavior displays a sort of underlying cultural arrogance (it's a bit like the French are reputed to be, right?), but from a language-learner perspective, it makes things so much easier.

Here I was, then, having this "real" conversation in Korean with a Korean restaurant lady, and she's badgering me to eat in her restaurant, and I'm being stubborn because I have this fixed idea that I wanted to eat my bibimbap alone in my crummy hotel room.  So she starts chatting about other things as the kitchen staff prepares my take-out.  I'm American, yes.  I was in Japan, and came back.  And wow, most of it is in Korean.  I'm feeling mildly please.  Then she says, hey, you've got a bit of a paunch.  Pointing at my gut. 

Now… this is typically Korean, too.  This business of openly and flatly commenting on the physical characteristics of strangers.  Not always positively, either.  "Gee, teacher, you have a lot of gray hair," is something I've heard more times than I can count.  And not just students… strangers on the subway, or whatever.  I know and understand that for Koreans, it's a way to make conversation – once you get past the awkward first steps (the must-knows:  age, place of origin), all topics are open game.  It's not meant to be offensive, although I suppose even Koreans would agree it's kind of "low-brow" to make random, negative observations about the physical characteristics of just-met strangers.

So I grinned and agreed.  Too much bibimbap, I tried to say.  I don't think I said that right.  She seemed annoyed I'd returned to the topic of the food (which was a lost battle, for her).  And then my food was ready, and I said thank you very much and took it back to my hotel room.  They had their revenge, however — there was neither spoon nor chopsticks in the take-out bag (although it was quite delicious and was exactly what I'd been craving).  Nevertheless, I ate it guiltily.  Because of the paunch. 

I've always felt like I could stand to lose a bit more weight, and that just hammered it home.  I watch my quantity of food intake pretty carefully, normally, and I walk everwhere.  Living in Ilsan, I even fell into and out of and into and out of the habit of going jogging.  At my best, I'd go 3-4 times a week, other times, I'd miss a few weeks.

But I've maintained my weight pretty well since losing all that weight back in 2006-7.  Still, I could stand to lose more, right?  And, I've got a bit of a paunch.  Probably, traveling around, despite the huge amount of walking everywhere, I've gained a bit, because I don't have the same kind of discipline for intake:  I see something delicious in my touristic meanderings, and I buy it and eat it.

So that made me depressed, as I lurked in my stuffy, mildew-smelling hotel room and tried to go to sleep.  I was feeling all kinds of remorse: for deciding to leave Korea (although that's reversible); for failing to learn Korean (this is my hugest bugaboo, probably, given it was always one of the main "reasons" for coming here in the first place); for failing to watch my weight; for not just giving in to the restaurant lady and eating in her restaurant, like she wanted; for trying, yet again, to travel alone, even knowing that rarely works out well for me.

And why is it, anyway, that I travel alone?  Well, because that's who there is to travel with.  Michelle and I had many things we used to fight about.  But we were amazingly compatible, when traveling together.  Those were the wonderful times.  We never fought about things related to traveling:  if we fought while traveling, it was about other things (like that unforgettable knock-down-drag-out argument about Aristotle vs Plato on the drive back from Winnipeg to Minneapolis, one time).  We had the same way of traveling:  no plan, just go out and look and explore.  I miss traveling with Michelle very much.  And now, like most of my life, I travel alone.  Because traveling is too important to me, and too much fun for me, not to do it;  but traveling alone sometimes really depresses me, too.

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: Ragged Point, 1998

The following is a fairy tale.

He parked the maroon Pontiac on the side of of highway one just north of Ragged Point, California, facing the setting sun and the vast, swarming, grey Pacific.  He'd driven it down slightly into the bushes, so it wasn't entirely visible from the highway.  He'd bought 100 tablets of diphenhydramine and a liter of vodka.  He began swallowing the pills with swigs of vodka, and watched the sun sink into the banks of fog rolling off the sea.

He managed to swallow more than half the tablets.  He went lightly with the vodka, because he didn't want to throw it all up, like that other time.  This was meant to be the end. 

There was a very quiet period.  There was crying.  Impotent anger at the world.

Then it was dark, and he felt his heart accelerating.  Had minutes passed?  Hours?  "This is it," he muttered.

He perceived his heart beating very strongly, he began to black out, feel dizzy. Nauseated.  "Shit."

He felt his lungs laboring.  He was burning up.  He saw nothing but blackness, he heard a buzzing.  And his banging, angry heart, leaping in his chest.

He started to scream.  Or would have been screaming, but his lungs were out of his control.  Was he even breathing?  This really was it.  Death.  Such a vivid experience.  But… oh, and there's the white light.  Let's analyze this, he thought.  Let's think this through.  The heart has stopped.  It has?  It really has.  The chest is tight.  He felt numbness creeping up his limbs.  Shit, no heart.  Really. 

So what's the white light?  Perfectly logical, he reflected.  The brain is losing oxygen, right?  So… the part of the brain farthest from the heart shuts down first, right?  And that's at the back… the visual cortex.  The center of the field of vision is processed at the part of the brain farthest back, farthest from the oxygen-supplying blood.

And, so… what if, logically, the "default" signal is "whiteness"–light–not darkness?  Then, as the brain "died," the whiteness would spread out in a circle from the center of the field of vision, as the neurons in the visual cortex went "offline."  The white light, the tunnel with the light at the end, approaching the white light… these are merely the brain trying to make sense of the fact that the visual cortex "dies" from the center outward. 

Yes, he was really thinking exactly these things, as he lay dying, in the driver's seat of the maroon Pontiac parked in the bushes off of Highway One at Ragged Point. 

And then he felt some kind of seizure… it was remote from his "self," because all his limbs and body felt numb.  But some kind of banging.  And the heart still not beating.  Hasn't it been an awfully long time?  The white light is so big.  His brain was dying. 

Always a fan of black sarcasm, he decided on his last words, to himself, as a committed agnostic.  "Unto you I commend my spirit," he quipped, to a god who'd never once answered him.  And only a stunning silence, at that moment, was the reply, too.  But he himself spoke the next words, instead.  He himself answered, "aww, fuck this.  You're not done yet!"

And he felt his heart start beating wildly, and he felt his lungs gulping air, and he somehow managed to pop the door open, and roll out of the seat of the car and onto the damp, dewy grass outside and bang his head on the gravel.

And time passed.  And stars were whirling overhead.  And the journey began.  It was the night of November 17th.  He was… nowhere. On Earth.  Alive?  He began to walk away from Ragged Point.

Maybe not alive.  He walked through a tree.  He saw bench, but could not sit on it. 

"I'm a ghost," he decided. 

He saw some approaching headlights on the highway, and so he went down and stood in the middle of the road.  The car went through him.

Definitely a ghost.  Like Pedro Paramo, in Juan Rulfo's tale, he meditated.  Pedro went down into Comala, and didn't know he was a ghost.  He talked to the spirits he met there, including his dead father.

The man climbed a hill, passing through brambles that he didn't notice, and noticing the spirits of other dead people around him.  Spirits?  "Are we all dead here, together?" 

Somewhere in among some trees on a hillside, he found a spaceship.  And down the steps of that spaceship, he saw his uncle.

"So you're dead too?" he asked.  His uncle shrugged.  Said nothing.  Offered nothing.  Walked away down toward the highway again.  He followed.  It was an arduous journey.  Just a month ago, he'd been on his uncle's land in Alaska, but that hadn't been the right thing to do.  The wilderness was very lonely, and loneliness… oh, loneliness.

He walked for a long time.

The stars whirled in the sky.  Cars and trucks passed through him.  He was a ghost.

He found some other ghosts, living in a hole beside the highway.  They did not talk.  They were ghosts.  He did not talk, either.  He lay on the cold pavement and waited for something to happen.  He watched the sky, and began to wonder about the voice that had spoken, so angrily, in response to his hubristic sarcasm.  "You're not done yet."  Done?  It had been his own voice.  Full of strength.

It was at this moment that he realized it was true.  There was no god.  It was all illusion.  Wishful thinking.  Having become a ghost, he ceased being agnostic, for there was no longer any need to hedge bets.  A nihilistic certitude gripped him.  It was a warm, comforting nihilism, such as he'd never felt before.

He remembered he'd been following his uncle.  But… where had that man gone?  It was hard to stand up.  Hard to peel himself off of the cool pavement.

The stars whirled in the sky.

He fell down and felt a moment of pain.  A moment of doubt, about his ghosthood.   Ghost.

He cried, for a long time.  He couldn't find his uncle.

He was a ghost.

The stars whirled in the sky.

But… the sky in the east was turning pale green, the hills of the California coast.  Was he going to spend his eternity here, on the edge of the world, as an atheistic ghost?

He sat on some gravel beside the road, but no cars came by.  The sun was rising.  He felt cold, but not terribly.

He saw a convenience store.  Because he was a ghost, he decided to go through the wall.  But the wall… was solid.  He sat down on his butt, and laughed.  Not a ghost, after all?

Then what?  Where was he?  He sat on the curb in front of the convenience store, which appeared abandoned, now, in the clear morning light.  There were no more spirits wandering the empty highway.  A truck barreled past.

"Shit," he muttered.  Still alive.  Not done yet.

He stood up, and brushed dirt off his shirt.  He stood beside the road, and stuck his thumb out at the next car that went by.  Several cars later, a pickup truck stopped and a man asked if he was OK. 

"No," he answered.  "I need to get into town."  He didn't make too much conversation after that, but alluded to an imaginary car problem.

The pickup truck driver dropped the man off in Cambria.  He realized he'd somehow covered more than 30 miles from where he'd parked his maroon Pontiac at Ragged Point, but only 5 or so of those miles had been in the man's pickup truck.  Had he walked 20-something miles among the ghosts in the night?

He called his father collect, and explained what had happened, elliptically.  He bought a bus ticket to San Luis Obispo, with the last of his cash, and his father collected him there.  His father took the man to the emergency room to make sure he'd survived his ordeal more or less intact.  Then the father had the man committed to a "mental health facility" in Alhambra. 

The man descended into a catatonic depression, then.  He kept dreaming he was back at Ragged Point.  But he wasn't done, yet.   The November air in Southern California always smells of honeysuckle and asphalt.   That's the smell of… not being done, yet.

A series of ECT sessions broke the catatonic depression.  Six years of therapy and antidepressants mostly banished the darknesses that had always haunted him to the corners of his mind.  He had a semi-successful career, even.  But he was restless.  He kept wandering.

Ten years later, he dreams about Ragged Point.  About the stars whirling in the sky.  Sometimes, he speculates that he is, in fact, a ghost.  Still, he's not done yet.


I think he managed to swallow about 60 tablets.  That would make well over a 1000 mg of diphenhydramine.  Doses above around 800 mg are generally considered potentially fatal, and combining it with another CNS depressant such as alcohol increases risk considerably.  It was not, perhaps, the simplest or most painless way to try to go, but it had been well-thought-out.  A previous attempt, at a motel in Maryland, had been ill-considered and unsuccessful… too much alcohol, and not enough sleeping pills, had led to vomiting and unconsciousness, but had never had much of an actual risk of death.

The wikipedia article on diphenhydramine points out, regarding the "recreational" use of the drug, that "people who consume a high recreational dose can possibly find themselves in a hallucination which places them in a familiar situation with people and friends and rooms they know, while in reality being in a totally different setting."  This correlates well with the man's experience at Ragged Point.  Regarding the actual potential of death… high overdoses are generally accompanied by symptoms such as tachycardia, hyperpyrexia, and seizures, all of which the man remembers vividly.

Speculation on the part of the hospital intake staff the next day was that he'd induced a minor heart attack in himself.  Whether his memory of his heart actually stopping was a hallucination or a real experience is anyone's guess, but it does match well with the expected profile of an overdose at the level he attempted;  wikipedia says, "considerable overdosage can lead to myocardial infarction (heart attack)."

Caveat: Commodities vs Knowledge Products

I was reading an editorial in the Fortune magazine dated September 15, written by Geoff Colvin, entitled “Brains vs. Brawn.” He was pointing out the way that raw materials and low-tech, mass-produced commodities (e.g. gold, petroleum, steel, food) have been massively outperforming knowledge-based, intensely engineered/designed/creative products (e.g. computer chips, luxury automobiles, movies) in terms of prices, over the last decade. He argues that despite this, he remains committed to an apparently earlier elaborated prediction that over the long-term, knowledge-based products are a much better investment prospect.
I’m not an economist. I’m an English teacher in Korea, with a training in linguistics and Spanish Golden Age literature. But I adamantly disagree. I think it should be obvious that over the real long term, commodities will always go up in price, but there is no such clear guarantee with respect to the prices of intellectual property (i.e. knowledge-based products). The reason is simple: we will not ever run out of the products of our intellects, collectively speaking. There is no underlying scarcity. You can keep making more ideas, art, designs, inventions, indefinitely. It’s historically cumulative. Meanwhile, commodities are physical things, and we are en route to running out, if not right away, eventually, for everything: gold, oil, iron, food.  Or whatever.
It seems elementary that the solution to reconciling the conflict between market capitalism’s requirement for never-ending growth and the world’s evident physical limits is to always increase the “knowledge” component of our economic activity, while limiting and creatively reducing our need for and consumption of physcial commodities of all kinds. The additional advantage of this process, which comes almost as a side-effect, is that people seem actually to prefer “knowledge-based” (i.e. creative) labor. This is the inevitable rise the creative classes.
But from a strictly “futures” – which is to say, investing – standpoint, it seems to me that the place to make bets is on those same commodities that I believe so strongly we should be working to limit the consumption of.  And, to reference that very much under-appreciated, 19th century, amateur economist, Henry George, all commodities and therefore all our society’s future wealth comes from the control of real estate (broadly interpreted to include oceans and even “outer space” in today’s day and age).  George used this to argue that land was the only thing the state should or could legitimately tax.  I’m not sure I agree–I don’t completely understand it.  But it makes a weird kind of sense.
The picture is of a waterfall near my mother’s home in Australia. A taxable waterfall?

Caveat: Syntax in the Rain

I step out of my building at about 12:45.  It's raining, but not too hard.

I start listening to my MP3 player as I wait to cross the street in front of my building – this is always the longest crosswalk wait, as the street is busy and the light is on a very long timer, and there are always police around, so jaywalking seems less attractive than at other points on my route.  Once I crossed against the light, only to see a group of about 10 policemen marching in a line on the sidewalk directly opposite me, and the last one in the line looked at me directly and made a menacing face, though he didn't do anything – maybe because they were in a formation or going somewhere important.  The borough police station is just up at the main corner, after all.

My MP3 player is playing Radiohead.  I've been thinking about languages.  Well, aren't I always thinking about languages?  Lately, when people I meet  ask me things like, "so, what are your hobbies?" I have been answering, "studying languages."  And… I've been meeting alot of people, lately, what with the new job and all.  It is true that studying languages is a major hobby of mine – not that I'm really that good at it – but it's not that common that I come out and state it as a part of introducing myself.  After all, it's very eccentric – like so many things about me.

So, I had this thought, just now.  The reason I like Korean is the same reason I like LISP.   This may take some explaining.  LISP is a computer programming language.   It has a reputation for being elegant but eccentric and difficult, but it was the first computer programming language that I truly felt "at home" working with, and I much prefered to to something like BASIC or Pascal, which were the other programming languages I experienced and worked with in the 80's.  In the 90's, I didn't do much with computers, and the only thing I worked with extensively was HTML and derivatives like DHTML, mostly for hobbyish pursuits.

Then in the most recent decade, I became a database hacker, and SQL became my dialect of choice, although I've done some work also with trying to learn OO-languages, such as C#.  But I was essentially married to SQL, to the extent that I would attempt to solve network-admin type problems with SQL scripts (using extended dialects that allowed such things, like Microsoft's T-SQL or Oracle's PL/SQL).  These efforts, though often successful, would tend to make the more traditionally-minded colleagues around me laugh and shake their heads. 

Throughout it all, however, I have always thought that LISP was a truly beautiful and elegant language, like an abstract mathematical object.  SQL is grubby, messy, and "evolved" – meaning that it grew to its present standard slowly and through trial and error, and it lacks the systematic beauty of something like LISP, I think. 

Obviously, no human language is "designed" in the sense that LISP is.  Nor is it, practically speaking, abstract – obviously.  But there is a weird, complex elegance to the underlying grammatical patterns of Korean that remind me of LISP, in a strange way.   It somehow reveals a potential about a different way of conceptualizing grammatical relations that I find fascinating – but it's very hard to explain.  I need to refresh my grounding in syntax universals, deep structure, Chomky's "Government and Binding" (a creepy name for a grammatical theory, don't you think? especially coming from a self-declared anarchist like Chomsky), things like that.  But I genuinely like the Korean language in the same way I like LISP – it's eccentric and fascinating and elegant and magical.

Rasputina starts on my MP3 player.  I turn off the commercial "broadway" and begin walking up the footpath between the highrise apartment buildings.  The trees are so green, and there aren't many pedestrians.

So many people ask me, why are you single?  Actually, not just Koreans (where, culturally, it's a pretty typical question to ask someone), but even westerners that I meet here.  And I never have a good answer for them, except something meaningless and vague, in the spirit of, "well, I guess I prefer it."   But the real reason is tied to the notion above – my interest in, and commitment to, things that are eccentric.  Being eccentric is difficult.  It's not likely I will find people with whom I have things in common, at a deep level.  And I'm not the sort of person to go into a relationship with someone with whom I don't have much in common, I guess.  I am resigned to, and, in fact, comfortable in my loneliness, at this point.

A Japanese pop group, Round Table, starts "Let me be with you."  It starts raining harder.  Much harder.  But…  I like the rain.  It always puts me in a weirdly low-key cheerful, optimistic state of mind.   It may be the clearest indication of my birthplace's impact on my spirit.  Those redwood trees… the eternally protective, sheltering greyness of Humboldt's summer, and the calm embrace of the Pacific Northwest winter rains.  Cloud cover and rain are comforting things, to me, whereas I find bright, sunny skies vaguely oppressive and dispiriting.  Water is the stuff of life – when it's raining, the stuff of life falls from the sky freely.  Each raindrop, a gift from heaven.  Innumerable.

Ruben Blades begins singing "Adan Garcia" – which is about disappearances during the dirty wars in Central America in the 80's, I think.  I dodge puddles and wait for the crossing signal.  I think about the eccentricity of listening to 80's Spanish-language protest music while standing in the rain in a Korean upper-middle-class suburb.  Has it ever been done before?  I find the idea that it makes me unique appealing.

Now I'm listening to Depeche Mode.  The hard, hard rain continues, and my lower half is getting quite wet, below the protective perimeter of my umbrella.  I love rain like this, but I begin to feel anxiety about showing up at work dripping like a wet dog.  It's inevitable that social anxiety can wreck otherwise happy feelings about something.  I get a sympathetic smile from a woman escorting her child, going the opposite direction, both huddled under one not-large-enough pink umbrella and bravely stepping through the rivers on the pavement.

-Notes for Korean-
context:  I have been browsing my hardcore grammar book, Korean Grammar for International Learners, by Ihm Ho Bin et al.   This is a truly excellent reference grammar for the Korean langauge, it's a translation of an academic work written in Korean, but with lots of supporting "translation-to-English materials" so it really stands as an independent reference work – it's the only reference grammar of it's kind that I've seen amid much searching and browsing in bookstores.  It has received some negative reviews from other foreigners trying to learn Korean, but I think that is because it is linguistically sophisticated – I can barely understand some of it, and I have a degree in linguistics, so I could see how it could be intimidating to someone with no background in formal syntax.
내다=do all the way, finish thoroughly
this is a "terminative" auxilary verb; the preceding verb is in the minimally inflected form e.g. -어/-아/-여 (depending on vowel harmony)
경찰이 그 물건을 찾아 냈습니다=(police-SUBJ that item-OBJ find-INFL finish-PAST-FORMAL-DECLARATIVE)=the police found the item
물건=thing, article, item; also 품 (I like the hanja for this: 品 – looks like a little pile of boxes, a good symbol for "thing")

context:  deciphering korean-language websites
직통=direct service (as in a train)
매진=sold out
예약=appointment/예약하다=make a reservation
명함=business card (?)

context:  surfing the web
this site has amazing vocab lists:
진짜=real (I know this… but I keep forgetting how to spell it)

Caveat: Love is not that special

I finished watching the episodes of 1%의 어떤 것 toward the end of last week, and immediately began a new series, called 쾌걸 춘향 (translated as Delightful Girl Choon-hyang).  I'm trying to figure out why I've been enjoying these romantic/comedic dramas as much as I have – above and beyond the insights to Korean culture.  And I made a realization because of the rather weighty tradition behind this new one I've started.

Delightful Girl is based on a traditional Korean story called 춘향가 (chunhyangga), which is part of what's called the pansori storytelling tradition – in essence, a kind of epic/lyric oral literature.  The plot of the story, just like the 1% story I was watching last week, revolves around frustrated love and romance in the broader context of Asian/confucian social systems and values.  And I suddenly realized, I've been enjoying these stories for years – they are extraordinarily similar to the almost hundreds of "framed stories" found in the Cervantine corpus:  girl meets boy of different social class, or under some unusual circumstance; love gets frustrated by conflicts involving parents, in-laws, or social mores and taboos; weird coincidences happen that alternately encourage or frustrate the relationship; everything ends happily-ever-after.   And Cervantes was just echoing the likes of Petrarch and Boccacio and the vast content of the Spanish Golden Age drama.

My hypothesis:  culturally, Korea is experiencing the equivalent of Europe's renaissance and baroque, alongside modernity and postmodernity, all at the same time!  That may be too bold, but I taste the germ of a fascinating comparative cultures / comparative lit paper exploring the parallels between renaissance drama and literature and the contemporary Asian television drama.

And my profound quote of the day:  in the 2nd episode, the character Han Dan-hee says to her boyfriend Pang Ji-hyuk, over french fries, "They only need a moment.  Love is not that special.  Crush on an eye, on ears, and then you get the feeling.  That's love."

Caveat: Ugly American Cows

pictureMy friend Bob asked me in an email about what it’s like to be an American in Korea right now.  I realize that, if you look at U.S.-based news coverage of the events here, you’d think things were suddenly pretty bad.  And I will admit that I definitely am careful about what I do and where I go on the weekends – avoiding places where protests occur, like downtown Seoul (I haven’t gone near downtown in almost a month except a quick shopping trip to pick up some presents for my students on rainy Sunday early afternoon).
But it’s not really that different, for me, as a foreigner, than it was before the recent explosion of protest and anti-Americanism.  Which is to say, there are inevitably people who seem hostile to westerners, or at the least, suspicious.  With strangers, however, there’s nothing on me or about me that brands me as, specifically, an American (as opposed to some other type of anglophone westerner, such as a Brit, Australian, Canadian, etc.).  But the other thing, which I think I’ve noted before, is that I really think this whole anti-American-beef / anti-American-trade-agreement is much more about dissatisfaction with the recent downturn in the global economy – which America is experiencing too – and about frustration with Lee Myung-Bak’s imperious young presidency.
“Compassionate” and reformist conservatives all over the planet are in trouble with their unfaithful publics, these days:  Bush, Sarkozy, LMB, and Howard (who was recently thrown out by the Australians).  People get worried when the entrenched social safety nets get threatened too much, on the one hand – especially when economies turn South.  But also, what all these figures have had in common is an imperial style that wears thin fast in the face of scandal and evidence of mismanagement.  Not that I think liberals necessarily do any better.  But there just seems to be some unifying characteristics, is all.
So… I don’t think the protests are so much anti-American as they are anti-LMB and anti-Bush and anti-globalization.  But Korea relies more on globalization than almost any other country – certainly among the world’s top 20 economies, it’s among the most dependent on external markets.  China depends just as heavily on external markets, if not more so, but the immense size of the country and its population means that it’s inevitably more resilient (I think… I theorize) to global shocks and shifts.
Anyway.  All of which is to say, I don’t feel, for example, any notable increase in hostility toward me from either strangers or from acquaintances.  Those who are hostile to me are hostile for the same reasons they were before, and are in any event a minority.
On the other hand, I would not want to be an American cow in Korea, these days.  That would be… scary.  Very scary.  The mad American cow is like this eerily reviled symbol, now.  But what it stands for is as much a cypher of Korean government indifference as for anything specifically American.
Keep in mind that Koreans believe some unusual things – their weird, wired, webophilic culture has embraced all sorts of urban myths as fact, accentuating and exaggerating things that, on objective analysis, seem patently silly.  I remember learning last fall, for example, that a plurality of Koreans believe that it is possible for an electric fan to kill a person while they sleep, merely by blowing on them.  Here is a blog on the subject of “fan death.”
I don’t think that paranoia about American beef products is quite in the same mythical category as fan death, but I think it provides a context for understanding how unsubstantiated scientific “facts” about some given health risk can be transformed by a very large, tightly-networked culture into a fearsome reality and lead to mass protests.  The main thing that is surprising to me is not that so many people have developed such an inordinate fear but rather that the current Korean government has proven so remarkably inept in managing the situation.  They seem weirdly incompetent and naive with respect to forces that their recent high-speed technological bootstrapping of their society have unleashed.
I like to point out – as mildly and nonconfrontationally as I can when talking to people – that FAR MORE people have died in the recent protests about mad cow disease in South Korea than have EVER died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human version of mad cow that is presumeably caused by it), not only in Korea (where no one has died from it), but in the U.S., too (where only 3 people have died from it).  In fact, the only country where there has ever been more than a few cases reported of vCJD is the U.K., which is where mad cow first exploded and was identified as a cause, and where subsequent changes in meat processing and cattle raising techniques have basically shut down the avenue for perpetuation of the disease.

Caveat: Carbon Amortization

I was reading an article about Priuses in the New York Times (online) that caused me to think, once again, about something I find very troubling about all the discussion of reducing the carbon footprints of the automobiles we drive, about legislating improved mileage and/or offering incentives to buyers of lower-carbon-footprint cars.  And it is this:  what about the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process?  What about other environmental impacts of new cars?  Bear with me, while I try to think this through.
Suppose I have a Hummer.  It’s a nice, ecologically disastrous beast, with a very high carbon footprint, that I bought in a solipsistic moment some years back.  I don’t know enough to actually assign a meaningful number to its day-to-day carbon footprint, but lets say its daily value is “10.”  So, one morning, after a long talk with some friends, I wake up feeling guilty, and decide to buy a Prius.  So I buy the Prius – and lets say, for the sake of argument, that its daily carbon footprint is “2” – i.e. it puts out 20% of the ongoing emissions as the Hummer.
But what was the carbon footprint of manufacturing the Prius?  Is it unreasonable to imagine it might be some rather large number compared to the daily value?  I mean, just the delivery from manufacturer to dealer is going to be some largish multiple of the daily footprint, e.g. 20 or 50, right?  There’s steel, engine, tire manufacturing.  And farther back, there’s high-paid executives and designing engineers at Toyota and their contractors, sitting in air-conditioned offices over years, making the Prius a reality.  ALL of that is part of the vehicle’s carbon footprint.  Is it unreasonable to imagine that the carbon footprint of the creation of that new Prius might not be, say, in the 1000’s?  10,000’s?  What if I go out on a limb, and guess, say, 8000 “units”?
The consequence is as follows:  I’m reducing my personal carbon footprint, by switching from Hummer to Prius, by 8 units per day.  But the Prius’ manufacture entailed a footprint of 8000.  So, that means I will have to own the Prius for 1000 days before I “break even” in terms of carbon footprint.  That’s almost 3 years!  Wouldn’t it be better for the environment to urge people to KEEP their current cars longer, rather than switch out to lower-footprint vehicles?  This would be true regardless of the type of vehicle they currently own.
And I understand very well, I just pulled these numbers out of a hat, and the analysis could be extremely mistaken.  But what I wonder about, is why don’t you ever see anyone doing this kind of analysis, in the media?  And there are other issues – the Prius has a contingent of non-carbon-related environmental issues, around its high-tech manufacturing processes, and its massive array of batteries – these are not in any way resolved.   What about battery disposal?  What about the toxics involved in battery and plastics manufacture?
I cannot argue that in terms of real, long-term life-of-product carbon footprint, my father’s 1928 Ford Model A is lower than almost anything else on the road (or, er, in storage, at the moment), because of its under 20 mpg and “dirty” exhaust.  But it nevertheless represents maximizing the utility of the manufactured object vis-a-vis its intended purpose.  The carbon footprint of the car’s manufacture has amortized for 80 years now!  Meanwhile, that self-righteous bastard driving the 2008 Prius, which replaced his 2005 Corolla, which replaced his 2000 VW, which replaced his 1992 Chevy, etc., etc., has left a landscape strewn with massive-manufacturing-footprint disposed-of vehicles.  If he had kept each of his earlier vehicles for three or four years longer than he did, and avoided the Prius completely, he’d probably do more to reduce his carbon footprint than a lifetime’s worth of Prius driving.
I’m going to call this problem the problem of “carbon amortization.”
Below, is a picture of my mom, my sister, and me, with the family car, somewhere in Oregon, 1970.
My father still has this car.  He hasn’t had it running in a few years, due to financial constraints, but I know he intends to drive it many more miles – as do I.

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