Tuesday, October 21, 2014

me to a tee

My friend Sperwer leads me to this humorous look at prayers for different Myers-Briggs personality types. Those familiar with the Myer-Briggs test will know that there are sixteen different types—each type described by a cluster of four letters—that fall under four major temperaments: Apollonian (NF), Dionysian (SP), Epimethean (SJ), and Promethean (NT). I'm an INTJ off the scale; the NT temperament (Promethean) is professorial, pedantic, detail-oriented, and given to a fascination with abstractions, sometimes to the exclusion of any consideration of the human factor in working and loving relationships. On the other hand, INTJs make faithful, principled life-companions, so keep that in mind, ladies. Dr. House might be an asshole, but if you find your way into his heart, he'll defend you to the death.

As for the INTJ prayer listed at the above link, it goes:

Lord, keep me open to others' ideas, WRONG though they may be.

I added the vocative comma after "Lord" in the above quote because, anal-retentive as I am, I couldn't help myself.


the thing inside my eye

I've got a floater in my right eye. It's been there for a few days. While I don't think it's anything serious (read more on floaters here), it is slightly annoying. I'd like to fancy that it's some sort of godling that's gestating in my vitreous humor, and that one day it's going to erupt, and I'll give birth, Zeus-like, to a full-fledged deity.


nose-bridge crinkle

A pic of your humble narrator, freshly shorn as of Monday, October 20:

Like the Jewish comic's stereotype of a Yiddishe mother who can't stop herself from humiliating her boy, my own mother used to give me grief about my nose's lack of a Western-style, aquiline bridge. See the crinkle at the top of my nose? Yeah... that's thanks to my Korean genes. Plenty of Koreans have no nose bridge (although plenty also do), which may explain why some Korean chicks are fascinated by white guys: their facial geography is so much... craggier. The evidence? My mother used to have a thing for Kevin Costner, whose nose bridge pretty much occupies his entire face. (She would have said it was Costner's eyes that did it.)

"Why not go to a doctor and have him put some plastic inside there?" Mom would ask solicitously, staring at the top of my nose, as if my nose needed a neuticle.

"Mom... just stop," I'd reply sadly.

But remarks on my looks don't come exclusively from mothers. My buddy Tom recently used the term "salt-and-pepper" to describe my hair. I suppose I'm at that point, now, where the gray is impossible to hide or deny. One thing I won't do, however, is cover up the gray: coloring is for pussies, as I've noted before. I can't think of anything sadder or more ridiculous than a Korean octogenarian with perfectly black hair (and/or a combover). Whom do such people think they're fooling? Personally, I'd rather die than dye.

So here I am, un-Photoshopped, nose-bridge crinkle and all.


Monday, October 20, 2014

midterm woes

My advanced listening/discussion students recoiled in fear when I went over the type of exam I'm going to be giving them this coming Thursday (it'll be listening + vocabulary + discussion, each section subdivided into two subsections). A few of them said the exam sounded difficult; a few felt they wouldn't be able to speak at the advanced level required. Personally, I think they're all going to do fine, and they really don't have any reason to worry. While it was a little off-putting to hear whining of the "We want an easier test!" sort, I'm not planning on changing the exam's structure. And since everyone's got an "A" in the class as things stand, the exam will separate the men from the boys, so to speak. One thing I might change, however, is the number of questions: in reviewing the test today (we used a dummy test of my construction), I realized that the test might be overlong. Some of my kids can't afford to stay overtime, on exam day, because they've actually got evening classes (we normally end at 6:15PM). I can't keep those kids behind, or they'll be late to their next class, and since this is midterm week for the whole campus, I could potentially make them late for a midterm. Can't have that.

So otherwise, the test is a go. I'll be curious to see how my students do.

ADDENDUM: By contrast, my intermediate kids, today, had a ball reviewing midterm material with each other. I had them interact via my round-robin method, and it went great. Much talk and laughter, and no complaints or whining.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

little murders

One reason why I know that I'll never be a Buddhist, despite my profound interest in Buddhism, is that I just love killing insects that annoy me. Let me confess to this here and now: I am a mass murderer, and if insects had any sense, they'd stay the hell away from my domicile, my office's work station, and my personal space.

In my old place in Hayang-eup, I was assaulted by fruit flies, gnats, and the occasional mosquito. Here in Seoul, there have been no fruit flies at all, but there have been plenty of little flies that are, in size, somewhere between a bluebottle and a gnat. They fly silently; their wings are covered, moth-like, in a sort of scaly powder, and they're extremely slow-witted, which means I don't need much cleverness or agility to kill them. They land on the wall; I smack them or blast them with Windex; end of story. My yeogwan gets an occasional mosquito, but those bugs haven't been much of a problem. The gnat-flies, however, are numerous, and even though they're easy to kill, their sheer numbers are enough to vex me.

So I kill. And kill. And kill again. Without pity. Without remorse. My sleep is completely untroubled by what I do. And that's how I know I'll never be a true Buddhist.


got a lot done

My time in the office on Saturday was very productive, and I ended up knocking off every item on my to-do list but one. Admittedly, that one remaining item is a whopper, but I'm confident I can get it done by late afternoon Sunday, in time for a megawalk.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

muh cuz

On the left is my cousin Marie who, along with her friend Gary (also pictured), has started a little business that they hope to grow into something bigger. Their business is in the service of the "DTAD" campaign: Don't Text and Drive (for me). The parenthetical "for me" makes the slogan into something that a loved one would utter, e.g., a daughter reminding her dad not to text and drive—for her sake. I think DTAD is a good cause, so I told Cousin Marie that I'd help her out by retweeting her tweets when I could. In case you've been wondering, then, why I've been engaging in so many retweets from a single source, well... that's why. Now you know.

If you're interested in helping Marie and Gary out, you can follow them on Twitter at both @dtadfor me and @arousingear. Their product website, which is just starting out, is here. They're also selling their products on Etsy, the artists' website, here. Finally, check them out on Instagram here, and on Tumblr here.



It's a busy weekend for me, and it's after 5PM on Saturday, and I haven't even gotten started on the ton of things I need to do. Procrastination will be the death of me. Next week is midterm week at Dongguk University, so I have a lot to create: review sheets, midterm exams, project templates... not to mention that I've got three batches of student writing to slog through, grades to input, lesson plans to write, and an ATM bank transfer to perform so I can stay on top of my cell-phone bill. Since I don't have class until Monday at 3:30PM, I might get away with letting some of this work spill over to Monday, but I'd rather have everything done and done by Sunday afternoon so I can leave the office and do a megawalk the same day.

My Namsan walks have evolved into something of a hard/easy pattern; the "easy" days make my daily-step average sag, so the megawalks are now necessary to bring the average back up to something respectable, i.e., something over 15K. Not that I'll lose all self-respect if I slump to 14K for October: that would still be an improvement over the previous month, and 15K could still function as a noble ideal.

In any event, it's time to get off this damn keyboard and get doing some real work.


"Chef": review

There's a particular movie meta-genre that could go by either "labor of love," if I'm not feeling cynical, or "vanity project," if I am. This is the kind of film whose driving force is a "hyphenate," e.g., a writer-director-star or something of that ilk. Think: Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" or Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" or Robert Duvall's "The Apostle." Most of these movies are worth seeing because, even though movies are intensely collaborative projects, labors of love tend of be purer artistic visions emanating from a single discrete source. Each such vision normally has a distinct aim, too: Costner went for an evocation of grandeur, loss, and human dignity; Gibson went for the gritty struggle to be free; Duvall went for spiritual conflict.

Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars in the recent "Chef," a light, feel-good comedy about a high-end restaurant chef named Carl Casper who feels stifled by his career. Cooking the same conventional menu for the past several years at posh L.A. resto Gauloise, Casper wants to return to his creative, Miami-fueled, bad-boy roots and shake things up by introducing his customers to edgier culinary fare. His boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman in a brief role) will have none of it: Casper's current menu is what brings in the customers, and previous attempts at creativity have left people, according to Riva, either turned off or nonplussed. All of this comes to a head when Casper's food is trashed by prominent blogger and critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). Casper, introduced to the wonders and dangers of Twitter by his plucky son Percy (Emjay Anthony, an excellent child actor with a bright future ahead of him), tweets a challenge to Michel: come back to the restaurant and have some real food this time—asshole. But on the night that Casper tries to cook the menu of his dreams, Riva intervenes and issues an ultimatum: cook your normal menu or seek employment elsewhere. Outraged, Casper takes the latter route, leaving his sous-chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale) in charge and his good friend Martin (John Leguizamo) flabbergasted at his abandoning ship.

So the major story arc of "Chef" is about a man in his early forties trying to find his creative voice again. The second story arc, which is arguably just as important, is about Carl Casper's relationship with his son and his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara, giving off a distinct "Charo" vibe for most of her screen time). Carl and Inez are divorced, but they're still on very good terms with each other (in fact, the movie gives us few clues as to why these two good souls ever got divorced in the first place). Inez sees how down and out the now-unemployed Carl is, and she proposes that he accompany her and Percy to Miami, the land of Carl's culinary roots. Inez's ulterior motive is to hook Carl up with her other ex-husband, Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), who can provide Carl with a food truck. Carl returns to Miami, talks to Marvin, gets the food truck... and something clicks. From here on, what happens during the rest of the film is utterly predictable. And it involves a lot of Cubano sandwiches.

As I mentioned above, this is a feel-good movie: it's not about self-pity or tragedy or anything mawkish; it's just a light-hearted comedy about a talented chef who simply wants to feel alive again. The plot is a voyage from darkness to light, and all the characters in the film, even the antagonists, are likable folks who aren't truly evil. Special mention should go to John Leguizamo as sidekick Martin, whose friendship with and loyalty to Carl is the glue that holds the plot together. Leguizamo is easily one of the most affable, hilarious screen presences out there, and my feeling is that "Chef" would make little sense without him. Carl is a driven, artistic man who needs the counterbalance of a solid, reliable friend like Martin.

When I step back to consider the artistic significance of "Chef," I'm torn. On one hand, the movie isn't exactly profound. Because it's meant to be a light-hearted comedy, it neatly avoids the many potential problems that could have occurred among the various characters. We never see Carl and Martin in a heated argument over how to manage the food truck; we never see Carl and Inez screaming vitriol at each other; we never see Carl beating the crap out of Robert Downey's Marvin for insinuating that he and Inez had had sex fairly recently. "Chef" abandons realism in some ways while preserving a sense of authenticity in others: the moments of bonding between Carl and his son Percy, for instance, feel very real to me, as does the warmth of the friendship between Carl and Martin. Favreau's depiction of life in a high-end kitchen—followed by life in a sweaty, cramped food truck—also feels honest. So "Chef," along with being a comedy, is a bit of a vérité/fantasy mashup. Scarlett Johansson also stars as Molly, Carl's maybe-squeeze (and fellow toker) at Gauloise. Her presence, too, added to the sense of fantasy: it was a bit hard to take Johansson seriously as the movie's wisdom figure (she's the one who flatly tells Carl that he's unhappy and should leave Gauloise to follow his heart while also tending to the care of his son), even though Johansson went on to make "Lucy," a film in which she essentially becomes the ultimate wisdom figure: a goddess.

On the other hand, "Chef" is a labor of love which, to my mind, automatically makes it more profound than it would otherwise have been. We're getting a glimpse into Jon Favreau himself, and it's evident the man is a burly, kind-hearted teddy bear. He might have the chops to direct a big-time action movie like "Iron Man," but he's also an appreciator of the simple things in life, like food and family. And that's reassuring: it's heartening to know that Hollywood, evil and infernal though it be, has a few good souls working in it.

I'll leave you with this thought: "Chef" has widely been called "food porn" for its luscious scenes of cooking (I actually wish the movie had shown more cooking; Favreau, who had Kogi meister Roy Choi on board as a co-producer and food guru, was sent by Choi to culinary school to prep for his role), and it contains some jokes that, perhaps, only foodies will appreciate. For my money, one of the funniest of these jokes comes about ten minutes into the film. Carl has just had an argument with Riva about the menu that Carl is to cook that evening. Riva, who owns the restaurant, naturally wins the argument, telling Carl, "I think you should play your hits." Carl relents, and what follows is the speech he gives to the restaurant staff regarding the game plan for that night:

All right, let's go—pre-shift, guys! Big night tonight. Here's what we're doin'. We're gonna go with the favorites: starting with the caviar egg, scallop, French onion soup, frisée salad, lobster risotto, filet... and we're gonna finish strong with a crowd-pleaser: chocolate lava cake. Talk to Molly about wine pairings; lemme know when he [the food critic] gets here. Let's have fun. Put your heart in it, people. Let's have some fun. Good. Good.

I was rolling. While I don't consider myself a full-on foodie, I've watched enough Food Network to know a bit about what's in, what's out, what's cliché, what's passé—and Carl's litany of that night's food was a roll call of moribund cuisine. Chocolate lava cake? Seriously? You don't need to eat that at an upscale Brentwood restaurant when you can order lava cake at your local Chili's! And French onion soup? You can't get more typical than that at a Gallic-themed restaurant. Lobster risotto sounds perfectly safe and timid, as does filet mignon. So yeah: as I heard Carl recite the night's menu, I busted a gut. Later on, when critic Ramsey Michel sits down to dinner and takes a look at the French onion soup in front of him, Oliver Platt's facial expression is absolutely priceless.

See "Chef." It's not the deepest film in the world, but if you love looking at good food and you don't mind watching a predictably familiar, heart-warming story about a man once again following his passion, you'll have fun. Trust me.



Turning in early, folks. Night.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Lovers' Lane no more

I can't believe I haven't written about this yet, but tonight, while walking down the mountain, it occurred to me that I should note one major change to Namsan's usable space: there's no more parking along either of the access roads. Namsan used to be infamous for its nighttime line of parked cars—a sort of Lovers' Lane for people who didn't seem to care that much about privacy. Back when I was walking up the mountain from Beotigogae Station, I'd pass car after car. No longer. The only thing parked on the bus road, these days, is one lone bicycle.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

stinkgo trees

Christ, I hate ginkgo trees. First, the very word "ginkgo" is annoying because I only recently realized I've been spelling it wrong this entire time (yeah: I've been writing it as "gingko"). Then there's the matter of those fucking berries. If you've never seen a ginkgo tree, you should know that it's got small, pretty, fan-shaped leaves, and that it produces berries that look like a shrunken version of French mirabelles (see here).

But unlike mirabelles, which can be made into a very tasty, pleasantly fragrant jam, ginkgo berries are malodorous, leprous rabbit-raisins from God's own putrefying asshole. Once they hit the ground and start rotting, it's all over.* I've tried to reassign the horrible stench of rotting ginkgo berries to a more cheese-like category, but I'm not quite able to map the odor onto any cheese I'm familiar with. Obviously, I'm mentally searching through the stinkier cheeses, but not one of the ones I know has quite the same scent as a rotting ginkgo berry. Earlier today, I wrote a poem on Twitter about this damnable fruit:

How do ginkgo berries smell?
Like fetid underwear from hell?
Like cats that vomit gouts of hair
Right up my ass, then leave it there?

Malcolm Pollack very quickly added his own verse:

Like sweaty, skanky, stinky feet?
Like rancid cheese in summer's heat?
Like the stuff our bodies must expel?
Yep, that's how ginkgo berries smell.

Wikipedia says that ginkgo trees are classified as living fossils, to which I respond that I don't give an ass-fuck. Who cares how venerable they are? They stink! And as much as Koreans supposedly love this tree, it's clear that not all of them do. My daily walk to campus takes me past the very dignified-looking Ambassador Hotel, and it didn't take long for me to notice that, on the Ambassador's property, there is not a single ginkgo tree, even though the noisome vegetation lines the street on either side of the hotel. Whoever designed the hotel grounds knew enough to keep those trees off the premises, because no one wants to associate the Ambassador Hotel with leprous forearm stumps, bullet-shattered scrotums, cheese made from earwax and mucus, and piles of rotting corpses.

The berry-bearing trees are apparently female (yes, Virginia, there is sex in the plant world). The male trees don't make a stink at all, which is quite the opposite of how things normally are in the human world. While I don't normally consider myself anti-female, I'll make an exception in this case and propose that every single ginkgo tree-bitch be summarily napalmed off the face of the Earth.

Christ, I hate ginkgo trees.

*Read about "stink trees" in Queens, and the attendant Korean-blaming, here. Read the comments as well; I laughed out loud at the comment from a guy going by "Matt."


regarding Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

One of my advanced students, SY, works for the English-language campus newspaper, and she asked me whether I would consent to be interviewed about the "Umbrella Revolution" currently happening in Hong Kong, i.e., the pro-universal-suffrage protest movement that started almost a month ago and that still seems to be going strong.

I wrote the following responses to my student's six emailed questions (yes, I proofed and edited her questions just a little bit, but they were already in good linguistic shape before I began my surgery), and as I told her, I've elected to blog the full text here in the awareness that, given her newspaper's space constraints, it's unlikely that my responses will appear in unedited form. The real story needs to appear somewhere, hence my blogging this.

In reviewing what I wrote, my gut reaction is that a lot of it is mushy-headed pablum—interestingly worded, perhaps (and not even that is assured), but overly cautious in some ways and perhaps a bit overboard in others. Once this is published in the paper, in whatever its final form will be, my interview might be interpreted as extremely anti-Chinese, which could get me into much deeper trouble than could any of the arrant nonsense I've written on this blog. But, hey... what's life without a little risk and controversy, eh? I'm not one to "varnish my opinion" (as Barry Pepper said in "True Grit"), so my readers can read what I have to say, then take it or leave it. I don't want to be a shit-stirrer, but I was asked for my perspective.

Here it is.

Hello. My name is Kevin Kim, and I'm a professor of English at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea. I would like to thank SY for the opportunity to think out loud about the important events currently happening in Hong Kong—the so-called "Umbrella Revolution" (or "Polite Revolution," or "Umbrella Movement") which began in late September, largely initiated by disgruntled Hong Kong students concerned about universal suffrage and the encroachment of Beijing's political and economic influence over Hong Kong, and which continues even now. While I am by no means an expert on international affairs, I have watched events in Hong Kong from afar with a certain measure of interest. SY was kind enough to send me a set of interview questions, which I will now answer below.

1. The protests have been continuously taking place for a long time in the main districts, such as the commerce and finance districts of Hong Kong. How do you think this might affect the city and the citizens' mindset?

I suppose we could divide the people into four categories: (1) the "occupy" protestors who are fighting for universal suffrage, (2) the normal citizens who sympathize with the protestors, (3) the "anti-occupy" protestors, and (4) those who sympathize with the anti-occupy movement.

By concentrating their protests in the commerce and financial districts (and also around government buildings), the "occupy" protestors have the chance to affect the flow of daily business and administrative interactions. This could be damaging to Hong Kong's economy if the protests are truly impeding business on a large scale, but I'm not sure that that's actually what's happening in the city. From what I understand, the protests are, in reality, very well organized and generally polite and harmless in nature (the students even clean up their own garbage!); the intention isn't to strangle Hong Kong's economy as a way to get the government to reconsider its stance on voting.

But I don't really know the psychology of the local people, so it's difficult for me to speak intelligently about how they might react to the "occupy" protests over the long term. Will they eventually resent the protestors for gumming up the economy? Will they continue to sympathize with the protestors? (A recent poll suggested that 60% of average Hong Kong citizens do, in fact, sympathize with the "occupy" movement.)

A lot depends, too, on the way that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities react to the protests. There have been plenty of arrests, and numerous instances of violence as well. People have complained about the police use of tear gas and, even more sinister, there has been news that Chinese triads (gangsters, mafia) have been cracking skulls in the service of the "anti-occupy" movement, with the police doing little to stop triad violence.

I really have no idea what the future holds, but I think that these protests have gotten the attention of Beijing. The question now is whether Beijing will react in a brutally repressive way, as it did in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989, or whether it will allow the protests to continue while seeking nonviolent dialogue with the protest leaders.

In short: this could end well or very, very badly.

2. The movement is spreading throughout the world, as we see with the rise of supportive voices in the United States and also in England. How would the spread of such voices affect the movement?

I'm sure that, because China is a "teched-up" society like the rest of East Asia, the protestors enjoy a constant awareness of reactions from all around the world. Whenever people from another country express support, I can imagine that this feels encouraging for the protest leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (mostly college students), Scholarism (mostly secondary students), and Occupy Central (started by a college professor).

The interesting question, for me, is: To what extent have foreign countries actually influenced the movement? Beijing has already angrily accused the West of fomenting chaos inside China, but my own impression is that "occupy" is a grass-roots movement that started in Hong Kong, and that is being buoyed primarily by Hong Kong citizens. The West has little to do with the actual "occupy" movement, but certain Westerners are doubtless cheering it on.

How much influence has the West had, in recent years, in China's internal affairs? I would say: not much, so Chinese complaints about Western influence are pretty much pro forma. Just ask the Dalai Lama how much influence the West has had on China. Is Tibet free? Consider, too, how much influence the United States, in particular, has with regard to China: China owns 1.3 trillion dollars of American debt, which means the US is going to negotiate from a position of weakness in many of its interactions with the Chinese. So again, I'd argue that the West in general, and America specifically, has little say in intra-Chinese affairs.

I'm not sure what sort of support and/or influence the West can provide the "occupy" movement. Anything other than verbal support will be viewed by China—correctly—as meddling with its internal sovereignty. So the only real weapon to help the movement (if "weapon" is the right word) will be things like social media and the major news media: the power of the written word and of audiovisual testimony to change perceptions. Will the pen (and the camera) prove mightier than the sword? Only time will tell.

3. Despite the rise of supportive voices regarding Hong Kong citizens' demand to change its election system from an indirect to a direct one, the Chinese government still seems unconvinced, while the Hong Kong government canceled talks with the protesters. What are your thoughts about this, and what would be the proper way for the two governments to react to the protests?

I would have to study Chinese politics more deeply before providing you with a good answer to this question. My intuition—and all I have, really, is an educated, non-expert guess—is that things need to continue as they're going now. While there's been police violence, there hasn't yet been a brutal, movement-wide crackdown, which means there's hope for the protestors to spread their message far and wide, and to be heard by Beijing and the Hong Kong government. I can only hope that, eventually, some sort of constructive dialogue will result from these determined protests. (More on "hope" below.)

The 1989 Democracy Movement protest lasted about 50 days before ending in violence and bloodshed when the hard-line government decided to take a tough stance against the protestors (not many young Chinese even know about this because the Chinese government has worked hard to suppress any rhetoric or images related to the brutal crackdown). The current protests in Hong Kong began around September 22. As of the writing of this email, the "occupy" movement has been protesting for about 23 days—not even four weeks. Perhaps in another four weeks, we'll see whether Beijing and Hong Kong authorities react to the protests with greater violence, in a reflection of the horrible massacre of 1989.

[Famous image of Tiananmen "Tank Man," whom many Chinese don't even know]

I hope this doesn't happen, of course. I hope the protestors and the authorities can settle their differences peacefully. Along with many Americans, I hope Hong Kong can preserve the legacy of its polity, jurisprudence, and economics: it's generally a much freer place than is the rest of China, and as some pundits in America have argued, if Beijing decides to take more direct control of Hong Kong, this will eventually be a disaster for the Chinese economy, because Hong Kong's free market is a salubrious influence on the rest of the country.

4. How long will the protests last? Do you think the Chinese government will accept the protesters' demands?

This question is related to the remarks I made above, and I'm sorry, but my answer is: I don't know. I can easily imagine these protests continuing for several more months. If the government uses violent means, again, to control the protests, this will inflame normal citizens, who will side with the protestors against the government. If, however, the government is moderate or even gentle in its use of force, then perhaps the protests will end sooner. But as I said before, I know little about the psychology of the local people, so it's impossible for me to make a prediction.

As for the other part of your question—"Do you think the Chinese government will accept the protesters' demands?"—I'm not sure. Part of me is very pessimistic on this score. I think Beijing is both powerful and stubborn, and I doubt it will be willing to budge on the question of suffrage. My hope is that the protests will end in peaceful dialogue and constructive solutions. My fear is that the protests will end in violent government repression, many arrests, and more than a few deaths, after which the government will again erase history and pretend that this incident, like the 1989 massacre, never occurred.

5. In your opinion, what should/would Hong Kong be like in the future? Do you think it should/would try to coexist with China or should/would it separate itself from China?

I think it's too late for Hong Kong to think about separating itself from China. China is very touchy about the issue of "one country"—witness the geopolitics of Taiwan. As far as Beijing is concerned, Taiwan is part of China. This isn't the way that many Taiwanese feel about the issue; many Taiwanese would like to see their land become fully independent. America's stance toward Taiwan has always been strange: politically, my country affirms the so-called "One China" policy, i.e., Taiwan is part of China. Practically, however, America sells American-made weapons to the Taiwanese (a recent example can be found here) and does other forms of business that indicate a not-so-secret desire to view Taiwan as independent. This is, naturally, irritating to China.

But Hong Kong has a different history. It was long under British rule until the handover in 1997, and precisely because of the official, formal nature of that handover, which was expected and anticipated, Hong Kong has even less say about its own independence than does Taiwan. I think that, if Hong Kong were to try to separate itself from the rest of China, this would cause more economic turbulence and social strife than would be worth the effort. Many lives would be ruined by a such a move. If the ideal, from an American point of view, is to spread democracy and combat communism, than it may be better for Hong Kong to work its weird magic from inside of China. As an independent outsider, Hong Kong would accomplish nothing because it would lack influence.

6. If you want to add anything, please feel free to write your opinion!

I just want to say "Thank you!" for giving me the opportunity to comment—however ignorantly—on the very interesting and exciting events now occurring in Hong Kong.

And a word to the Chinese students at Dongguk University who might read my words and disagree strongly with my perspective: please understand that, while I disagree with many of the actions of the Chinese government, I have nothing but respect for the hard-working Chinese people. You students probably also believe things about America, and American foreign policy, that I strongly disagree with. And that's fine! I think it's possible to disagree, even to disagree vehemently, and still live together in a spirit of peace and mutual dialogue. I wish China good luck as it attempts to resolve this difficulty. My own sympathies are obviously with the "occupy" protestors, but my greatest hope is for a peaceful solution to this troubled chapter in Chinese history.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Happy 35, Big Boy!

It's October 15, and my little brother Sean—not so little anymore—turns 35 today. Sean and I used to look almost the same in terms of fatness and build. Many people thought we were twins. Then Sean discovered the vegan lifestyle and dropped a ton of weight. He eventually saw the light and switched to Atkins, thus allowing him to eat meat again (veganism proved boring, he told me; I'd have to agree). These days, instead of looking like my twin, Sean looks like the thin version of me that I'd like to become.

It was a real treat to have Sean in Korea for a few days. He and his buddy Jeff started in Korea as part of their whirlwind Asian tour; I took them all over the place in Seoul. After Korea, they hit Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. I was sad to see my brother leave, but happy to have had the chance to spend time with him.

Sean's life remains busy. He works six or seven days a week as a professional cellist, with all that that implies: gigging, playing in symphonies large and small, running a chamber group, and teaching privately. (Many of Sean's students have gone on to win competitions, a fact of which I'm very proud.) I don't know how he manages to stay sane. I'd have cracked and killed a few people long ago, especially if I had to teach some of the spoiled, overprivileged, undermotivated duds that Sean has had the misfortune of encountering over the course of his teaching career. His war stories have been sobering. At the same time, it's obvious that he loves teaching his more talented and dedicated students, and even the ones who aren't so gifted have made an impression on him if they'd made any effort to excel. Sean is very giving with his time.

I hope the birthday boy has the chance to stop for a couple hours and just relax on his special day. I wish I were in a financial position to send him a nice gift, but unfortunately, that's going to have to wait until next year, when I'll be sitting pretty, monetarily speaking. So here's wishing my little bro a happy 35th. May his hair get no grayer, and may he continue both doing what he loves and loving what he does. Hard work isn't so hard when you love it.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

tonight's hike

I doubt I'm going to do more than a single-summiting this evening. I've got work tomorrow, in Daechi-dong, which means I need to wake up early. Can't be out too late tonight, and a double-summiting would keep me out late. My target, this evening, is 17K steps.

UPDATE, 11:59PM: 18.8K steps. My October daily average is still over 15.2K, despite a few slacker days scattered over the month. The megawalks have undoubtedly helped my average.



My previous griping post made reference to the afterlife. This got me thinking about what I believe regarding our postmortem existence.

Those who know me well know that, despite my fascination with and deep respect for religion, I think much of it is bullshit. I'm a scientific skeptic at heart, even more than I'm Buddhist in terms of my metaphysical sympathies and liberal-Protestant in my social and theological sensibilities. This makes me a doubter, an empiricist, a pragmatist—a "Show me the money" person. I don't take any scripture's word at face value, and I think the best religion is the one that offers experience as the greatest guide to truth. This is why Zen Buddhism, in particular, has long appealed to me ever since I began reading about it and engaging in limited, sporadic practice. Zen is simple, blunt, and pragmatic. Although it's not free of its own wild claims about the nature of mind and reality, I think Zen is, of all the religions I know anything about, the one that's most anchored in actual reality. It makes no wild claims about people rising from the dead, or walking on water, or commanding a sea to part. There are no blue-skinned gods cavorting with maidens, no bloodthirsty tribal deities demanding that we "smite the necks" of the infidel. Zen has none of that nonsense. Zen basically comes down to Who you is? Where you at? and Whut you do? Follow your situation. Be open to what the world is saying to you every moment. Be open to this moment. Zen, pragmatic and empirical, dovetails nicely with scientific skepticism.

But as I was reminded recently, my mother is dead. It'd be nice, in a romantic way, to think that she resides in some celestial paradise, a heaven of some sort. While I won't deny the possibility that such a place exists—after all, I haven't died, so I can't take my empiricism quite that far—I have my doubts. Personally, I'm not convinced that anything lies beyond the grave for any of us. "The rest is silence," as Shakespeare movingly wrote in Hamlet. It was only the living, those who survived Hamlet, who spoke of a heavenly reward: "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." But what do those people know? Like me, they haven't died. All the faithful have is their belief. I won't go so far as to say that a belief in heaven is irrational or misguided; believe in it all you want, as far as I'm concerned, and I won't think you're crazy. But I have to be honest about where I stand, and my own belief, pending objectively verifiable evidence to the contrary, is that there's nothing on the other side of the Great Door.

This isn't to say, though, that I think nothing remains of a person after he or she dies. I may not believe in an afterlife, in a continuation of consciousness and experience after death, but I do think we leave echoes—echoes that reverberate through time and space, perhaps fading away years from now, perhaps not. If chaos theory has anything to say about postmortem metaphysics, it could be this: we can't know what effect our lives will have on the future of this world. Perhaps a ripple thirty years down the line—some vibration, some memory, some mention—might be enough to trigger a significant turbulence that propagates itself throughout the whole of human history. You never know.

I don't want to say too much about this here, because it's still too personal, but my mother left one letter, which I found folded up in a dresser drawer, that was essentially a prayer to God. I discovered this letter while going through her things a few months after she had died. The letter was in Korean, and it riveted me. What I held in my hand was the only bit of material proof that my mother ever talked to God, and that realization changed my understanding of her character. This method of talking to God—writing Him a letter—was her way of praying. I'd never seen my mother pray, truly pray, outside the context of church. Granted, she recited the Lord's Prayer with one of our church's pastors during the months that she was dying of brain cancer, but I don't recall her ever breaking out spontaneously into sincere, heartfelt, completely unscripted prayer. That letter was filled with anguish; it was a soul-cry, an attempt to make sense of wrenching circumstances in her life, and it left me in tears to see how she had put her rawest feelings on paper, then folded the paper up, hiding it in her dresser for no one but God to see. I ended up giving the prayer to my brother Sean as a memento.

And that's what I mean by a vibration, a memory, a mention: a significant effect felt only after Mom was gone. It's trite to say that Mom "lives on in our hearts," but I think this sentiment is true, however trite it might be. Those who leave us, passing away into the future, also leave something behind—something that we have to carry forward if we feel any sort of obligation to the dead. Perhaps that's my answer to the question of heaven, then: part of my duty is to carry my mother's fading embers forward in time and space. Some of this carriage is done willingly, consciously; some of it has nothing to do with my will: others see reflections of Mom in how I naturally think and act. To the extent that carrying those embers forward is a duty, it's one I assume gladly. There no longer exists a mother that I can hug, a mother whose warmth I can feel, so now it's up to me to gather up those glowing coals, the remains of her passing, and share that warmth and those hugs with others. I incarnate the echo. Perhaps heaven isn't so much a place or a state of consciousness as it is an action and a responsibility. This would make heaven a close cousin of karma: the momentum of all our decisions and acts, always moving forward, like a wavefront, into the unknown future. And behind that wavefront, propelling everything ahead of itself, is the driving force of love.


"novella" or "short story"?

No good deed goes unpunished. I tried to write a nice, complimentary, literate, five-star Amazon review for my friend Dr. Jeff Hodges, author of "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer."* Alas, Jeff, the eternal quibbler, couldn't simply accept the compliment gracefully: he had to offer what he thought was a correction:

One thing, though, I'd reword a phrase you used - from "this charming short story" to "this charming short novella" - since it's actually rather long for a 'short' story, and clocking in at more than 20,000 words, it's above the minimum for a novella.

I swear to God, that man is going to rise from the dead to quibble with the wording of his headstone. And you know what? I hope I'm there to engrave the wrong thing on it, just to annoy him in the afterlife!** Compulsive quibbling is its own form of hell. I think JK Rowling had Jeff in mind when she titled the brainchild of Xenophilius Lovegood.

I don't normally have a problem with quibbling or pedantry if the correction is a deserved one (I'm a quibbler and a pedant myself), but I do reject unnecessary "corrections." Unnecessary "corrections" normally occur when a given matter hasn't truly been settled, i.e., it is objectively the case that the matter is unsettled, which makes any attempt to deem something incorrect as itself incorrect.

So! Are the definitions of short story and novella settled? Perhaps the first thing to establish is whether these expressions are defined in terms of their respective lengths.

Dictionary.com says:

Short story: a piece of prose fiction, usually under 10,000 words.

Fair enough. Score one for Jeff. Now, is novella defined similarly?

Novella: (1) a tale or short story of the type contained in the Decameron of Boccaccio. (2) a fictional prose narrative that is longer and more complex than a short story; a short novel.

Note the lack of a page length in the above definition. I'd say this means we're not on solid definitional ground.

Looking elsewhere, then...

I type "short story vs. novella" into Google, and the very top result is a site called Writer's Relief (est. 1994, it says). The site has this to say:

How do you know if your short prose is a short story or a novella? How long is a short story? A novella? What’s the difference? If you want to get your short story or novella published, you’ll need to know who is publishing your type of fiction—and you’ll need to know the best way to target your writing to literary agents and editors of literary magazines.

How long is a novella?

A novella is a “short book.” As such, a novella is considerably longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. A novella must be able to stand on its own as a book, but the exact word count is not set in stone: 30,000 to 60,000 words may be an appropriate length for a novella in most markets.

How authoritative the above source is, I have no idea, but it certainly seems to think of itself as authoritative. So let's trust that assumption, and further trust that the writer of the above Q&A has experience in the publishing world. What the above establishes—and this is all that I'm trying to establish—is that it's far from settled as to what the length of a novella is. By the above reckoning, it seems there's nothing wrong with using the term "short story" to describe Jeff's wonderful work, which is indeed short, and which can be read in under an hour.

As with the grilled-cheese debate, I'm once again pulling a Plantinga, i.e., not trying to establish the rightness of my own claim as much as I'm trying to establish that my own claim isn't wrong.

And I hope that's enough pedantry of my own for one day!

*Whether to italicize the title or place it in quotation marks is the very issue in question in this blog post. One normally puts the titles of short stories in quotes; a novella's title, by contrast, would be italicized, as the general rule is that you italicize the titles of complete, stand-alone works. A short story is normally assumed to be part of a compendium; the compendium's title would be italicized, while the short stories' titles would be surrounded by quotation marks. You could argue that Jeff's story qualifies as a stand-alone work and, be it a short story or a novella, for that reason alone the title should be italicized. To which I say "Bollocks!" A short story can stand alone, and as long as there's the possibility that it can become part of a larger compendium, it seems safer to use quotation marks.

Of course, "clocking in at more than 20,000 words" puts the length of Jeff's story in an annoyingly liminal space that makes it hard to classify clearly as one thing or another. If a student of mine writes a two-page story, that's clearly a short story. If Stephen King writes "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," that's clearly a novella... although I should note that King has used the term "short story" to describe some of his works of short fiction that might, according to some, qualify as novellas, e.g., "The Mist," which is a story in King's compendium Skeleton Crew—a compendium in whose introduction King writes, "Here's some more short stories, if you want them." [emphasis added]

**"Here lies Horus Geoffrey Hotchkiss," the headstone will say.


Monday, October 13, 2014

wake me when gas prices come down

Conservative pundits have, with some justification, been trumpeting the triumph of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) as a way of opening wide the supply of petroleum-based energy that we can access. I say "with some justification" because I sympathize with the push, especially on the right, toward American energy independence (there are folks on the left who, for their own reasons, embrace this view as well), and I think this new lease on life, which has now pushed America into the forefront—ahead of Saudi Arabia—as an oil producer is something to celebrate. At the same time, I do respect the left's worries about fracking's potential for environmental damage, and I'm all for the continuation of in-depth studies that examine the problem. But it should be noted that humanity's primary aim ought to be the furtherance of human flourishing, and when environmental concerns begin to diminish said flourishing, it's time to reconsider the oppressive nature of those concerns. I don't want to live in a toilet, but I'm also not going to sacrifice basic freedoms merely for the sake of cleanliness. The freedoms come first. Quality of life isn't just about sparkling porcelain.

But I can't celebrate America's rise to the top of the oil-producing heap quite yet—not as long as gas prices remain as ridiculously high as they've been since before the outset of the so-called "shale revolution." For years now, we've been flirting with $4 a gallon, and some states (mostly blue ones like California) have gone over that line. By brother recently texted that gas was $2.95 in Front Royal, Virginia; it's sad to realize that my first thought, upon hearing that gas was under $3/gallon, was, "Revolutionary!" It's time to recalibrate the country's expectations. Get America to a point where gas prices are once again down below $2 a gallon, and then I'll seriously think about celebrating. In the meantime, I have a hard time seeing how Joe Citizen benefits from this sudden windfall of petroleum.

A commenter at Instapundit wrote something like a rebuttal to the above sentiment. In response to someone who remarked that gas prices need to get back to $1/gallon, this commenter wrote:

We won't ever have it down that low unless we somehow experience significant overall deflation.

The high price of gas is largely the result of lack of refining capacity. While we have some expanded some refineries over the last few decades we haven't actually built a new one since 1976. They just started a new one in North [Dakota] last year.

The other big reason is the weak dollar because of Fed monetary policy and the massive federal debt of the last 15 years. That is not going to get fixed anytime soon.

I'll grant that the above commenter probably knows far more about economics than I do. Still, gas at under $2 a gallon would be immensely heartening to most hard-working American citizens; it would be a much-needed psychological boost after six years of watching America's global reputation founder.

And the above interpretation of continued high gas prices isn't the only one on offer in the Instapundit comment threads. Another commenter said that leftist environmental groups have an interest in maintaining high gas prices, as this forces us to turn toward alternative sources of energy. I'm not against solar, wind, wave, or any other type of renewable power, but before I embrace alternatives, I need to know that those alternatives are realistic and efficient. Wind energy is a joke, given both its inefficiency and its potential damage to the environment. Solar energy strikes me as more worth looking into, but until we get those immense solar towers up and powering entire cities, I don't see solar as particularly viable. Wave energy seems like the most reliably constant source of power, but we still don't have systems in place that can collect and channel such energy in large quantities—the efficiency issue again. To reiterate: I'm all for clean, efficient, renewable energy, especially if it weans us off coal. But until I see a truly plausible alternative, I think we should keep on fracking. And no partying until gas is under two dollars.


Suji's kimchi Reuben: review

Click on the image below to see it full size:

I've mentally batted around the idea of making my own kimchi Reuben before, so it wasn't completely surprising to see that someone else had thought the same way. Switching out the Reuben's classic sauerkraut for kimchi seems like a plausible move: kimchi is, after all, a distant, cabbage-y cousin of sauerkraut, so it wouldn't violate the Reuben's basic flavor profile.

I should note that I love Reubens, and also that I'm not closed-minded (the way some people are regarding grilled cheese) about what constitutes a "true" Reuben. Switch out rye bread for white-bread toast? Fine, as long as you use awesome bread. Switch out corned beef for pastrami? You're stretching things, but not by too much. There was a restaurant in Haymarket, Virginia, just off Route 55, that was named, appropriately enough, 55's. That place served one of the most ass-kickingly non-traditional Reubens I've ever had. The main departure from a classic Reuben, at 55's, was the use of thick-cut white-bread toast. That was fine by me, and everything else about that sandwich was picture-perfect: it came with plenty of corned beef, plenty of sauerkraut, and a goodly amount of cheese and dressing. Outstanding in every way.

Despite my avowed open-mindedness, I do have standards. I can immediately tell a bad Reuben from a good one, the most obvious clue being whether the kitchen has fucked up the bread. Because a Reuben is normally made with juicy meat and even juicier sauerkraut, restaurants that put together sloppy Reubens will normally ignore the gravity-assisted drippage of the meat and sauerkraut juices. These juices will soak right through the bottom slice of bread, turning it into mush. So the first test that any Reuben must pass is the grip test: if my fingertips come into contact with saturated bread, it's all over. I might still eat the Reuben so as not to waste my food, but the experience will be one of pure desolation, and I won't patronize that establishment ever again. A bad Reuben is a deal-breaker, as well as a sign that the restaurant just doesn't give a fuck about the food it's churning out.

So when the Suji's kimchi Reuben came out, I gave that sandwich the grip test... and it passed with flying colors. Suji's also has a regular, classic Reuben on its menu, and I might go back and try that one, too, despite how overpriced these sandwiches are (W14,500 just for the sandwich, some slaw, and a small pile of fries this evening; Coke was a whopping W4,000 extra). I'm now confident, thanks to the kimchi Reuben, that the kitchen at Suji's does indeed know how to compose a Reuben properly.

That said, I wasn't entirely happy with my first and subsequent bites of the sandwich, which were dominated, not by kimchi, but by the unwelcome presence of garlic and onion. Kimchi, when eaten alone, doesn't normally hit me with garlic and onion right off the bat, so I knew that I was dealing with extra garlic and onion. When I inspected the Reuben more closely, I saw that pan-fried onions had been added to the sandwich in a typically Korean attempt to enhance flavor (Koreans add onions to all sorts of Western food that shouldn't have them, such as pasta carbonara and pepperoni pizza). The presence of strong aromatics in my sandwich actually upstaged the kimchi, which should have played a strong supporting role right underneath the meat, sauce, and cheese, as the sauerkraut would have done. I found the aromatics way too distracting, and in the end, I had to give the sandwich a thumbs-down.

All the same, I look forward to Suji's classic Reuben. The kimchi Reuben got the basics right, and it looked good; plus, as I said, I'm confident that the kitchen knows how to compose a proper sandwich. Here's hoping they don't add extra garlic and onion to their classic Reuben as well. That would really be too bad. So while the kimchi Reuben was a disappointment, it got me intrigued as to what Suji's classic Reuben might be like. There's still hope.



Tonight's walk, which also involved a cab ride after I got lost in my old Sookmyung neighborhood, clocked in at almost 31K steps (30,810). According to my pedometer, which I know shortchanges me on distance, I walked 14.6 miles (23.55 km), but I'd easily round that up to 15 miles—maybe even 16. I was out for about seven hours, but sat down to eat dinner at Suji's in Itaewon for the better part of an hour, at the edge of all the damn noise from the Itaewon Global Village Festival. I know, from walking in America, that I walk at a rate of about 3.2 miles per hour. If I walked for more than six hours, then in reality I did closer to 18 miles. Still, I'll grudgingly accept that I may have walked less than that distance, given how much of it was uphill, thus slowing me down.

My weigh-in, post-walk, puts me at 118.5 kilograms (compensating for several bottles of water that I drank along the way), so I'm definitely past the cursèd 119-kilogram barrier. I have a feeling, though, that weight loss from this point on is going to be more difficult: I've dropped 15 kilos since last year, but I feel myself plateauing as my body gets used to its new exercise burden. Two things have to happen now: diet and muscle development. I still need to reduce the amount I eat (sorry, Gary Taubes, but I'm not convinced that the old "calories in, calories out" paradigm is totally mistaken), and I need to begin developing more muscle mass to increase my basal metabolic rate. Even a slight increase will be good, as this will mean more calories burned per hour, just by sitting around and being all muscular.

There are several routes I could take to develop the muscles. One route, which I'm seriously considering, is getting involved in boxing. Boxing training—which doesn't necessarily have to involve sparring—is one of the absolute best ways to improve the physique, as well as to increase energy, agility, and overall alertness (not to mention train one's reflexes). Boxers can summon an impressive amount of power when they throw a punch, and they also train their bodies to take a punch as well—the type of training that a martial art like taekwondo severely lacks. Boxers also have incredible stamina: throwing punches in the ring for minutes on end isn't as easy as it looks.

Another possibility is just joining a local gym and getting right into weight training and cardio (if the gym manager even allows me to run on his treadmills; I once went to a Korean gym where the manager took one look at me and flatly said, "No. You can't run on these treadmills. You can walk."). I'll probably need a personal trainer to guide me along a sensible program that's probably going to involve a major change in diet, too. While not nearly as exciting as boxing, the weight-training route allows for steady, measurable progress, especially if it's done right, and done scientifically.

Before I go either of these routes, though, my financial house needs to be more in order. This month is when I finally start to see some accumulation in the bank account. In the meantime, there's nothing stopping me from doing good old pushups and situps right inside my yeogwan. I've just been lazy about doing it, up to now.

So let's switch gears and talk about what the hell happened tonight. I got lost in my old neighborhood, which is highly embarrassing. I successfully walked down Namsan to Sookmyung's campus, then, just to switch things up, I walked around the back of the campus (its hu-mun, or rear gate) along Hyochangweon Street (Hyochangweollo, 효창원로), intending to hit Samgakji Station and walk past the war memorial to Itaewon. I had forgotten, though, that Hyochangweon Street is a fucking loop, and that going to Samgakji meant taking a left turn to get off the loop.* I walked the entire loop before seeing the same set of restaurants again, at which point I grabbed a cab because I didn't want to waste any more time or distance literally going around in circles. The cabbie explained a bit about the geography of the Sookmyung neighborhood, some of which came back to me, along with a wave of shame, while he was talking. I asked the cabbie to drop me off at Samgakji Station; he did so, and I walked up the hill to Itaewon, stopping inside Suji's, the restaurant that sits on the very edge of the district.

I'm glad I didn't proceed further into Itaewon: as was true yesterday, tonight was the night of the Itaewon Global Village Festival. The cabbie had said that tonight was the second and final night, and that the main street was blocked off (which was another reason why I asked the cabbie to drop me off well before we got to Itaewon). So I went into Suji's, feeling harried because of the noise of a street concert happening barely sixty yards away. While at Suji's I was told that the kitchen would be closing in 45 minutes, so once I got my order in, I probably wouldn't be able to add anything later. It wasn't even 9PM. I sighed and ordered the kimchi Reuben—my very first such Reuben. I was curious to see how it would turn out, and I won't describe it to you in this post, as I took a picture of it and will write a foodblog entry soon. I ate my Reuben while watching the lead singer of a nameless band flail about and screech, ruining a perfectly decent jazz riff by her bass guitarist. Took a few blurry photos of her, though, for what that's worth. Will probably share those on my Kakao Story social-networking service.

The walk back felt quicker than when I did it last time, and when I reached Namsan itself, there was no middle-aged ajeossi waiting to compete with me. I was pretty much the only person, at that time of night, to be ascending that side of the mountain. Before I started up that steep road, though, I stopped at the nearby public restroom and had myself a gratifying dump. The stall was sparkling clean (in shameful contrast with the stalls on my campus, which are often filthy), but there were mosquitoes flying in wait, dive-bombing me while I sat and shat. One mosquito latched on to my meaty left buttock; I bided my time and smacked it dead, turning it into little more than a bloody smear on my ass and fingers. After that, I started up the mountain, and while the slope left me breathing hard, as usual, the ascent felt shorter and easier, for some reason. I bought refreshment at the mountaintop, started down the other side, and wended my way back to my place. By the time I got back, I had done over 30K steps.

My long walk has brought my monthly average back up to over 15K steps per day, which is a sizable improvement over last month's—what—13.66K steps. Megawalks may just become a Sunday thing. It's not as though I have anything else to do except train myself.

*This isn't exactly true. There are several interconnected Hyochangweon Streets, some of which are numbered (i.e., Hyochangweon 36 Street). Essentially, I walked a loop composed of Hyochangweon Streets, completely without realizing what I was doing. That neighborhood will henceforth be known as Seoul's Mirkwood.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

megawalk 2: the sequel

I did a humble 12K-step walk yesterday that didn't even involve climbing Namsan (I ended up in Itaewon, in the middle of some sort of massive block party* right in front of the Hamilton Hotel—don't ask, but suffice it to say that I beat a hasty, introverted retreat), so today I'm going to make up for my laziness by reenacting the megawalk from last week: my neighborhood to Dongguk U., Dongguk U. to Namsan's summit, Namsan's summit to Huam-dong, Huam-dong to Sookmyung U., Sookmyung to Samgakji, Samgakji to Itaewon, then back again along the same route. I may stop in Itaewon, like last time, and chow down on a Subway sandwich. Or who knows? I may go Turkish and eat a döner kebab or two. Sadly, Turkish food has gotten much more expensive over the past year as Turkish restaurants have proliferated along Itaewon's main drag. While that's bad news, the good news is that the Turks now feel comfortable serving rotisserie lamb more openly than they ever did before, and Koreans finally seem to be catching on to how good lamb can be, despite the odd smell of the meat (a reason often cited by Koreans for disliking lamb).

Mmmm... the more I think about it, the less I think I'll be going for Subway. But one never knows: decisions sometimes get made in the heat of the moment.

*This is apparently the 이태원지구촌축제, i.e. the Itaewon Global Village Festival. It's happening today as well, which doesn't exactly motivate me to walk to Itaewon.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

sweet gig... but not for me

John from Daejeon writes me privately to alert me to a job opening that's coming in the spring of 2015: a position at Inha University that offers 3.3 million won a month gross, 9 hours a week of teaching, and four months' vacation—all on a two-year, renewable contract. I don't think Inha is offering housing, but the better pay would make up for that. All in all, this is a much better package deal than what I have at Dongguk, but as I wrote back to John, I'm already committed to my current contract, so I'm not about to jump midstream, and there's the fact that, no matter how sweet a deal you think you land, there's always going to be a better deal out there somewhere. So there's little use wasting energy in regretting the moves I've made. I've got a plan; I'm sticking to it; things will have improved by next year. Better to soldier onward than to jump from side to side.


Old Man's War: review

I'm not sure how I managed to miss John Scalzi's excellent Old Man's War for as long as I did. Don't let the novel's title fool you: this isn't about fogies shambling around at a snail's pace while mumbling existentially: it's a sci-fi action movie in prose form. Ohioan John Perry is seventy-five years old, a citizen of an Earth that exists a few centuries beyond our own time. His wife has died and he's looking for a new beginning... so he joins the army.

Humanity, since the invention of the "skip drive," has become aware that the galaxy is teeming with life, as is the Earth itself. In fact, overpopulation and resource-depletion have inspired the push to colonize other worlds, and the Earth is in the early stages of forming what, in several millennia, will become Asimov's Galactic Empire. But unlike Asimov's universe, Scalzi's is populated with a wide variety of alien life, and most of those life forms want to kill us. In almost every instance, the real estate that humans find, in their search for Lebensraum, is contested turf, thus necessitating the existence of the formidable CDF, the Colonial Defense Forces, whose primary purpose is to protect colonists and/or make room for them to settle onto and colonize new worlds. Humans have the option of joining the military at the age of seventy-five; if they live to seventy-five, they drop all their terrestrial obligations, are declared legally dead on Earth, and are whisked away for military rehabilitation and training, never to see their home planet or their loved ones again. As Perry, our first-person narrator, notes, when you're seventy-five, you start to become interested in anything that promises a return of youthful health and vigor.

Old Man's War follows—as Scalzi himself notes in his afterword—a narrative trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers: the grueling military training, the constant fights with aliens, the newfangled weaponry, the colorful drill instructors, the steady rise of the main character as he's promoted through the ranks. But there are differences. One of the great mysteries, in the first third of the novel, is how, exactly, the CDF rejuvenates old people to get them into plausible fighting shape. I don't want to spoil this for any potential readers of Scalzi's novel, so I'll just say that it's a solution I didn't foresee, but it's also one with which I'm very familiar.

The main plot of the novel focuses on Perry's evolution from a mild-mannered, war-hating Ohioan to a killing machine. The story takes us through several campaigns as the humans clear off planets that have been invaded by various forms of intelligent alien life, and describes Perry's friendship with The Old Farts—the initial clique of septuagenarian recruits who join the CDF with Perry along with thousands of others. The Farts end up going their separate ways, and several of them die off as the story progresses. Perry, meanwhile, discovers that there is a woman in the Special Forces who looks exactly like his dead wife Kathy, and this discovery leads to one of the books major subplots as Perry, who misses his wife terribly, tries to reconcile himself with the possibility that Kathy has been reconstituted, if not outright resurrected, through the CDF's spooky rejuvenation technology.

The novel also gives us an idea of what a futuristic military might look and act like. CDF soldiers are enhanced versions of humans, and they're all connected to each other through BrainPals—a sort of hard-wired Internet that allows the mental broadcast of sounds, images, and even emotions. This facilitates wordless communication, thus allowing the CDF to execute tactics quietly. Nano-swarm heat shields morph into parachutes when soldiers must drop onto a planet from space; battle suits harden instantly when a projectile impacts upon them, distributing the force of the impact over the soldier's entire body. The CDF soldiers' MP rifle ("Empee") uses a heavy block of dense nano-material that the rifle converts into whatever type of shot is needed at the moment. Each rifle is linked to each individual soldier and to that soldier's BrainPal, thus making it impossible to use a soldier's weapon against him.

Like Starship Troopers, Old Man's War ends on a somewhat inconclusive note. We leave Perry in medias res, having resolved certain personal issues but having many loose ends yet to tie together. The book makes for an exciting ride; it was very hard for me to put it down (I read it in e-book form on my phone's Kindle app). If you enjoyed books like Starship Troopers and Ender's Game, you'll enjoy Scalzi's contribution to the genre.


Friday, October 10, 2014

a reply to Brittany Maynard

You may recall that I recently wrote about young Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old diagnosed with brain cancer who has chosen to end her life this coming November 1 as a way of dying with dignity, i.e., having some say in how she leaves this world. You may also recall my expression of disturbance at Maynard's refusal to face up to the fact that what she would be doing is suicide—no more, no less—and while I don't morally condemn her for choosing suicide, I do feel she needs to face up to the fact that suicide is precisely what she's enacting. She's already a brave soul; she just needs to be a wee bit braver and more honest with herself.

Tonight, I saw that another brain-cancer patient has written a reply to Maynard's predicament and proposed solution: Maggie Karner, age 51, also has glioblastoma multiforme and a bleak prognosis. In her essay, she takes on the issue of Brittany's avoidance of the term suicide. I found the more theological aspects of her piece hard to relate to, but I salute Karner for not taking the "suicide is a sin" route in her argument. If anything, she makes clear that she feels great compassion for Maynard, her fellow traveler on this dark and rocky path.

Karner's argument essentially points out, quite legitimately, that so much in life is already out of our control. Once she began to be poked and prodded and operated on by the doctors, whatever dignity she had departed in a hurry. Cancer wasn't her choice, and Karner's feeling is that the endgame isn't her choice, either: she puts her circumstances in God's hands. I'll leave it up to you to sort through your own feelings on this matter. Personally, I respect Karner's decision not to die as much as I respect Maynard's decision to take control of her own fate. Both of these choices strike me as equally legitimate, although I'm sure both ladies would disagree with me. The problem, though, is that glioblastoma multiforme is a monster that chops away almost all the branches of the tree of future possibilities, leaving its victims bereft of almost all choice, and making all such cancer stories end approximately the same way. My own mother, after her initial debulking operation, was no longer in a position to make important decisions about her own treatment. In that sense, both of these articulate women, Maynard and Karner, have been truly lucky and privileged to be able to meditate this deeply, post-diagnosis, on how they will face their futures.


what's wrong with this picture?

Our campus quad is always hosting some sort of event or exhibit. Recently, an international travel/service club put up an impressive display of photos showing club members in countries all over the world. I was hard pressed to find pictures of Switzerland, one of my very favorite foreign countries (despite some major flaws), and when I did finally see some pics, I laughed when I discovered that they were all of Interlaken which, along with being one of my most-loved spots on the planet, has become a favorite travel destination for Koreans as well.

But it was this sign, for France's Mont Saint-Michel, that caught my eye. If you read hangeul and know a little French, you'll see right away why this image gave me a chuckle:


Thursday, October 09, 2014

curse: broken at last!

Tonight, I weighed in at 118 kilograms exactly. Hallelujah! I've finally gotten past that awful, frustrating, 119-kilo boundary. I walked only 20.6K steps tonight, but that may have been enough to push me just over the edge. The question, now, is whether I'll backslide and end up above the 119-kg mark again. I hope not.


Happy Hangeul Day!

Be literate and scholarly, y'all. I'm going on a long walk. Maybe not a megawalk, but it'll easily amount to 20K steps to make up for yesterday's indolence.


a glioblastoma meditation

It's been nearly five years since my mother died of brain cancer. I still feel her loss keenly. The random moments during which I cry for no reason now come less frequently, but every now and again there's that intense stab of loss and misery that makes January 6, 2010—the day she died—feel as if it were only yesterday.

I've wondered, sometimes, whether my mother departed on her own terms. My gut feeling is that she did: she saw the pain written on my face on December 22, 2009—when I heard the news from the young, hotshot doc that Mom was no longer a candidate for his Avastin therapy—and chose to pack her bags. I remember that afternoon, how crestfallen I had been after hearing the doctor's news. I was alone with Mom in our hospital-sponsored New York City hotel room; no one else was there, no friends or relatives, so no one saw how I cried openly in front of Mom, holding her hand and telling her "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry"—over and over again. Our family's last, desperate measure had failed to grant Mom any extra time. This was it. There was no more that anyone could do. Mom sat in her wheelchair, so far gone, her poor brain so riddled with tumors, that she was no longer capable of evincing any emotion. She sat there, just looking at me, quietly taking in my tears. And I suspect that, that very night, she decided the time had come to leave this world behind. She had seen my naked misery, and she chose to give the only gift she had left: to spare her family any further suffering. She let go.

On the night of December 22, Mom went into respiratory distress. The ER docs said it was because of the food she had aspirated since she was no longer able to chew and swallow properly. Food particles were in her lungs, gathering bacteria, spreading infection through her body. By the following day, my mother was hooked up to a ventilator and no longer conscious, as far as anyone could tell, and that's how she stayed until she died in an ICU berth at Walter Reed Medical Center. Her body died on January 6, but I'm convinced she really left us on December 22. Did she check out on her own terms? I can only hope she did. We had chosen to help her fight as long as possible, but at some point you have to acknowledge the inevitable. It could be that Mom was the quickest of us to face the facts.

My brother David sent me an article, the other night, about a young, 29-year-old woman named Brittany Maynard who, like Mom, has been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and most aggressive form of brain cancer. You should definitely read the article before you continue reading this blog entry because some of what I'm going to say next will refer heavily to what was written on People.com.

After I finished reading the article, I texted the following reaction to David:

The article you sent was touching, horrifying, and depressing. I now find myself guiltily wondering whether we should have let Mom go earlier, and with more dignity. She was a miserable wreck at the end—ravaged by infection and all collapsed in on herself. She deserved better.

The article was also horrifying on two counts: (1) the woman's refusal to acknowledge that what she wanted was effectively a form of suicide (I think suicide as a way of dying with dignity is the only legitimate form of suicide, but let's be honest that that's what it is), and (2) her desire to end her life on her husband's birthday. That was positively ghoulish.*

Still, I was touched by her struggle, her clarity (obviously they didn't debulk the tumor and remove much of her cognitive capacity), and the pain her family was going through. Was also struck by her family's acceptance of the facts, which stands in contrast to Emo's [my aunt's] constant denial.

Unless you've been there at the moment of a parent's death, you don't know—you can't know—what it's like to see your mother's wasted body just lying there, still seemingly breathing because, even though the doctor has just pronounced her dead, the goddamn ventilator is still attached to her, making her chest rise and fall, creating a gruesome travesty of life. You can't know what it's like to see the pressure cuff still attached to her upper arm, inflating and deflating, and to rip it angrily off, only to discover that her upper arm has had all the juice squeezed out of it by the cuff, leaving only bone where a bicep should be, and puffed-up flesh both above and below the cuff—flesh that, because your mother is dead, refuses to return to its proper shape, to behave like normal, living tissue.

People keep telling me that the more pleasant memories of my mother, scenes from a life well lived, will reassert themselves and supersede this horrible imagery. It's been almost five years, and I'm still waiting for that to happen.

Brittany Maynard has been told she has about six more months to live. She's been made well aware of what manner of fate awaits her down the line. If you've read the People.com article (and perhaps watched the video at the bottom of the page), you can guess that she didn't undergo anything nearly as extreme as the debulking** surgery that took away most of my mother's frontal lobe. Brittany has all her marbles; she can still string ideas together in a logical, coherent manner, and she's taken full advantage of her lucidity to plan out the terms of her own exit from this vale of tears. As I wrote to David, I disagree with her denial that what she is doing is committing suicide; although I'd never preach this point to her personally, I believe she should face up to the reality of what she intends to do to herself. But I was also sincere when I told David that suicide, in Brittany's case, wasn't morally wrong from my point of view. Others might disagree, but I think the woman deserves her dignity.

So this article about a young woman with GBM took me back to five years ago, to my own experience as a close-up witness to the demise of someone with the same cancer. Brittany's right that GBM is a horrible way to go. As the doctors told us early into Mom's treatment, it's not the cancer that eventually gets you: it's the infection that sweeps over you after your immune system collapses and the body can fight no longer. I do wish Brittany well, even if I disagree with some aspects of how she's handling the prospect of her death. I hope that, when she finally does step through the Great Door, she is surrounded by loved ones, and that her passage from here to There, wherever "There" may be, occurs with a minimum of suffering.

At about this point, I think many people would say that GBM is something that "I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy." Oh, not true: precisely because it's so horrible, I would definitely wish such a fate on my worst enemy. But I wouldn't wish it on anyone else, or on the loved ones of anyone else.

I guess David's link to that article put me in a solemn mood. With Mom long gone, and with time flowing inexorably forward, the best a man can do, now, is just to try and lead as good and fulfilling a life as possible, living deeply and mindfully, savoring every moment, and knowing that each moment's preciousness derives from the brute fact that there are no guarantees in life, and that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

*Maynard actually says her husband's birthday is on October 30, and that she chose November 1 as her death date so she would be around to celebrate the birthday. This doesn't detract from my basic point, though: what I found "ghoulish" was that, because she selected that particular death date, her husband will now always associate his special day with Brittany's death. Of course, if Brittany's husband is fine with this arrangement, then what seems ghoulish to me might be freighted with loving, symbolic importance for the couple... and who am I, really, to judge that?

**"Debulking" refers to the surgical procedure whereby most of a tumorous mass is excised from the brain as a way of slowing the tumor down. About 80% to 90% of a tumor can be removed this way, but because the tumor's borders are fuzzy, doctors can't slice out every single cancer cell—not without removing healthy brain tissue. GBM strikes fast and viciously; by the time a patient is showing cognitive symptoms, the mass has already become sizable, which is what makes debulking such a common procedure. After that first step is taken, the first-line therapy then switches to radiation and chemo. Second-line therapy, which normally happens after the tumor begins to regrow despite the radio/chemo and has crossed from one lobe of the brain to the other, generally consists of stronger drugs like Avastin or whatever's in vogue now.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

something painful

Watch this space. Sometime later tonight, perhaps much later, I'm going to be writing about brain cancer—specifically, about glioblastoma multiforme.