Monday, February 22, 2010

to tide you over: reminiscences

I won't be blogging for a week, so here's a re-post of some tasteless animations and images I made long ago:

Obama's special talent:

My take on the most recent Rambo movie (which, as of this writing, I still haven't seen):

What it's like to be pope:

What it's like to be pope 2:

Life at Hogwarts:

Bowing to terrorism (a response to South Korea's negotiation for the return of its missionaries from Afghanistan):

Having never been a fan of either George Bush or the late Ted Kennedy...

One of my favorite Christmas images:

One of my favorite pictorial sequences:

Back on March 1.


shoving off tomorrow

I'm off in the morning to DC, then taking a seven-hour bus ride to Parts Unknown. Much walking and thinking (and possibly ch'am-seon/zazen) to ensue. I can't guarantee that I'll return a new man, but I'm hoping the relative quiet of the place I'm going to will be conducive to clearing my head at least a little bit.

You're free to leave comments, write emails, etc. I won't be totally out of touch with the world, but I won't be frequently in touch, either.

Have a good week. See you on March 1: samil-jeol in Korea.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

authorial wisdom

In his "gradual interview," fantasy and science-fiction author Stephen R. Donaldson wrote the following:

" general I'm confident of two things: you can't really be a writer if you aren't an avid reader; and you can't really be a writer if you prefer not to think."*

Many writers, when talking about the craft of writing, have mentioned the first part: to write well, you must read well. Almost none of them go on to mention the necessary flip side: it's not enough merely to read well.

Language teachers, because they've taken their linguistics classes, are aware that the mind possesses two separate libraries: one for active vocabulary, and one for passive vocabulary. The two libraries have some connection, but no necessary or absolute one. Passive vocabulary is the storehouse we develop as we're exposed to language through listening and reading; active vocabulary develops through speaking and writing. These four "macroskills," as they're called-- listening, reading, speaking, and writing-- are themselves divided into passive (or "receptive") and active (or "productive") categories: speaking and writing are active; listening and reading are passive.

Some people immediately chafe at such a categorization: "Reading isn't a purely passive activity," they argue. And they're right: it isn't. When I engage a story, my imagination helps the author by filling in the gaps. The author lays out the framework for his fictional universe, but it's up to the reader to flesh it out and inhabit it. Furthermore, as the story progresses, the reader begins to form questions along the way, indicating an ever-deepening involvement with the plot and characters.

But this sort of engagement isn't the same as constructing the story. Creation is, at heart, a very different beast from mere consumption. It takes far more imagination and drive to create than it does to read, which is why being a good reader is no guarantee that one will be a good writer. A writer is constantly stretching his active vocabulary, which is largely informed by his passive vocabulary, but isn't the same thing.

If you've learned a foreign language, you already have an instinctive comprehension of the difference between active and passive vocabulary. Recognizing the French expression for "bathroom" is one thing, but having to produce the expression when you're desperately seeking relief at a train station in Rennes is quite another. The only way to increase active vocabulary is through the practice of speaking and writing, and this is what Donaldson is alluding to when he emphasizes the importance of thinking for good writing: it's not enough to be borne away by a narrative. Paddling along the author's fictional river is still not the same as creating the universe in which that river flows. That's the writer's task, and honing that skill requires more than the ability to read well. "Wow!" is a readerly reaction. "Fiat lux!" is a writerly act of will.

*We'll refrain from commenting on Mr. Donaldson's misuse of the semicolon, a punctuation mark that he often mistreats in his novels.


postal scrotum: John McCrarey on Ann Althouse on Tiger Woods

John McCrarey writes:

Kevin, thought you might find Althouse's thoughts on Tiger Woods' presser yesterday of interest. She [questions] why Tiger is substituting therapy for his religious faith.

Althouse on Tiger

Hope you are well. Gotta say that I love Skyline Drive although not sure I'd be up for camping in February. Good luck to you.


Thanks, John. Alas, the drive is totally closed along its entire length, so to access it, I'd have to walk in from the Appalachian Trail at a point outside the drive. Once I've walked in a ways, the problem then becomes... what to do next? If I leave a car at the trailhead, I'll have to double back to reach it again, and I'd rather not walk the same length of trail in both directions (having someone drop me off at one point of the AP, then pick me up many miles hence, is possible, but defeats the purpose of being alone the whole trip). A loop trail would be nicer, in which case I'd prefer to go to a mountain and not the Appalachian Trail. As you know, Skyline Drive itself has some loop trails, most of which are short but some of which are quite long, but again we run into the problem of the park being closed. I'd have to start hiking from outside the drive, hike all the way to whichever loop trail I've chosen, do the loop, then essentially backtrack again. Not fun.

This is all moot, though. I've narrowed my head-clearing sites down to a couple choice spots in Virginia, after which I'll be going off the grid on Monday, for about a week.

re: Althouse/Tiger/Buddhism

Just read through Althouse's post. Interesting stuff. I'm guessing the most obvious answer to her question-- "Why therapy and not Buddhism?"-- is that a lot of Americans go into therapy. It's a fairly common, accepted life-choice these days, so perhaps it seemed like the natural thing for Tiger to do.

There's a definite overlap between religion and therapy, because therapy does involve the creation and maintenance of something like, for lack of a better term, an "internal worldview." Along with the internal, religion often brings an "external" worldview to the table-- insights about the fundamental nature of all reality, the origins of the cosmos and humanity's place/role within that cosmos, etc.-- but psychotherapy deals almost exclusively with mind-related issues-- inner reality. Being a soft science, psychology doesn't seem to mind drifting into religious language when it's in therapeutic mode (we're talking "-iatry," not "-ology"). Buddhism, too, has often been referred to as a type of therapy, and many Buddhists will say that, just as you don't have one single medicine in your medicine cabinet (because different ailments require different treatments), we each need different methods for dealing with different personal problems. This ties into the Buddhist notion of upaya, or "expedient means." You go with what works.

So in Tiger's case, we could say, cynically, that he's following the well-trodden path of many an American celebrity, turning to therapy as a sign of public penance, to garner sympathy, keep the public off his back, and regain some of his sponsors. Less cynically, and in a more Buddhist vein, we might say that Tiger has chosen the route that seems best for him right now. Maybe a more overt religious/spiritual practice will come later. Who knows? Tiger's mother is Thai, if I'm not mistaken, and Thailand is perhaps the biggest bastion of Theravada Buddhism, which is all about salvation through self-effort by following the "arhatic" ideal, sort of an imitatio Buddhi. If we charitably assume that Tiger has truly owned up to his responsibility for his marital woes, then perhaps we can further assume that he'll try to "work out his salvation with diligence" (supposedly the Buddha's final words) at a later date. Maybe he needs the hand-holding of psychotherapy first, after which he can toddle back to the temple and begin the real work of self-salvation.

I like Althouse because she holds liberals' feet to the fire (and isn't she either a liberal herself, or a "reformed" liberal?), but in this case it feels as if she's making a mountain out of a molehill. Tiger appears willing to accept all responsibility for everything that's happened, and in a very public manner (albeit after a shameful period of hesitancy and prodding from others); at the very least, we can say that that's a first step toward redemption. In point of fact, he might not be solely responsible for his mess; we know little to nothing about his wife's character and behavior. But the fact that Tiger has chosen to make himself somehow better and more marriage-worthy has to be cause for-- well, not exactly praise, per se, but at least grim satisfaction.

Of course, the ultimate test is time. Everything good and true and real shows its nature only through its ability to endure. Whether a marriage is weak or strong can only be determined over the course of years; a single glance at a couple can never provide enough data to know the reality. Whether Tiger will emerge a better man is something we won't know for a while (and, to be frank, I'm not sure how much I really care). By the same token, we'll eventually learn whether his current contrition is merely a sham. Actions speak louder than words. In the meantime, I'd say we should give the guy a chance. If he falls spectacularly off the path to redemption, then we'll shift into tough-love mode and pound his lame ass mercilessly.

UPDATE: With thanks to Skippy, we have the Onion's take on the matter.


Friday, February 19, 2010

le soleil brille, le ciel est bleu, et les mouches pètent

Bright sun outside, and the formerly icy roads continue to melt. It'll be days before we can see the grass of our back yard again, but the time is almost upon me to motor off to Parts Unknown and spend a week in relative peace and quiet.


Thursday, February 18, 2010


My brother Sean, the professional cellist, is moving to another apartment starting today. He says he doesn't have much to move, but because he's back to his busy schedule, he needs to perform the move in several stages. Today is IKEA day; he's bought some furniture for the new place, and needs help with assembly, so he'll be picking me up momentarily.

I'm curious to see the new digs. Sean says this is the first time he's lived anywhere alone; before this, he's always had a roommate/housemate. I wish him luck, and I hope his neighbors won't mind all the cello practice. A pro has to keep his edge.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

much to do

I'm still getting back into the rhythm of blogging, so you'll pardon me if I don't write with quite the same frequency as I did back when I was in Korea.

My plans to escape to the boonies are currently on hold, given the snowy conditions that have turned my neighborhood into the boonies. Before the big snows, I had thought about hitting Skyline Drive and being dropped off along the Appalachian Trail to do some hiking and camping for a week, but the entire drive is closed to vehicular traffic. Skyline Drive is still accessible to hikers, as is the Appalachian Trail, which runs more or less alongside the drive. Were I to hit the AP, I'd need to find a portion of the trail that lies outside of Skyline Drive, which is part of Shenandoah National Park. I could then follow the AP into the Park. In theory, with everything closed this time of year (snow or no snow, most of the guest-oriented facilities are closed from late fall to early spring), it ought to be a pretty quiet hiking and camping session.

The problem, though, is that any hike into the park would probably mean hiking back out the way I came: with the drive closed to visiting traffic, a driver would have no way to reach me once I was deep inside the park. So I'm not even sure that Skyline Drive is even a good venue for my needs.

"What are your needs?" I hear you ask. Well, I need to get on with my life, but I've been wanting some quiet time-- time to mourn, to reflect, to cry, to put the pieces of my mind and heart back together. Time to recover my irreverent sense of humor. Time to do some heavy-duty existential ass-scratching. A week or two of quiet will do me fine. After that, I'll be looking for work in the northern Virginia area-- probably teaching, but one never knows. I might even try voice recording, and parlay that into something acting-oriented.

In the meantime, I've got a pile of personal projects to work on, along with house-related projects-- another reason why I'm staying in the area and not returning to Korea right away. I'm looking more closely into self-publishing through, a publish-on-demand service that has vastly improved since 2004. Marketing on Lulu is easier than it is on CafePress, and the per-book profit margins look to be bigger than they are at CP. Along with re-formatting my old humor book, Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms, I'm going to be reformatting Water from a Skull to match Lulu specs, and working on the manuscript about our family's battle with Mom's brain cancer. That latter manuscript might be shopped around to various agents, but it'll most likely end up being self-published. I'm an impatient guy; once a ms is finished, I don't like the idea of waiting 12-18 months to see my book in print, which is what would happen were I to take the traditional publishing route.

The house's renovation still isn't finished, and now we have the additional task of figuring out what to do with Mom's stuff. Personally, I'm not too sentimental about things like clothing or makeup, but I'll be consulting with Dad at every step to see what he wants done. Whenever I get a steady job, I'll likely work on my personal and parent-related projects over the weekend.

Finally, there's the question of money. I want to earn enough to get back to Korea and secure an apartment this time around; I turned 40 last year, and a 40-something without decent digs is a sad, sad sight. I've also got a whole library of books that deserve to be properly housed on decent shelves; right now, Sperwer and Joe have been holding boxes and boxes of my stuff, in Korea, since April of 2008. I had intended to get back to Seoul earlier than this, and they've been saddled with the burden of my mortal possessions for too long. Both guys (and their saintly wives) deserve a big dinner (or a truckload of cash) for doing what they're doing.

I also need cash so as to pay poor Dad back. I've been jobless since Mom's cancer made itself known to us; quitting work was the only way to be there all day and night, every day. From at least January 2009 until now, Dad has covered my expenses which, thanks to old scholastic loans and my BlackBerry bill, amount to about $700 per month. That's a lot of cash. I need to calculate what I owe Dad, then start paying him back. I might not be able to finish paying off that debt until I'm back in Korea, but I need to start.

So to sum up, Kevin's life looks like this for the next year or so:

1. Take time off from the world for a week or two.
2. Get a job.
3. Work on house and other parent-related projects.
4. Work on personal writing projects.
5. Earn enough money to start paying Dad back and have a lump sum of cash to take to Korea, then move back to Korea.

Money is the top priority right now; the trans-America walk will have to wait.

Much to do.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Percy Potter

On Saturday, I drove south and visited my buddy Mike and his family. It was his second daughter's birthday, and we went to see "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." Had I been more up on my Greek mythology, I would have realized who the thief was much sooner than I actually did (hint: who's the Greek god of, among other things, thieves?).

The movie proved to be decent popcorn fare for the kids, and some of the performances-- especially that of Uma Thurman as Medusa-- were memorable even for us adults. Unfortunately, my main beef with "Lightning Thief" is something that many critics have also picked up on: the storyline is a shameless Harry Potter ripoff. This Slate review says it best:

The series delighted my daughter but irritated me with its overwhelming, blatant borrowing from Harry Potter. Percy is American-- that's a difference. And his magic comes from Greek gods, not wizards. But almost every other significant element in the books-- particularly the first book, The Lightning Thief-- is derivative. An average boy living with a vicious, bullying relative suddenly learns of his special powers and finds out that he's actually a celebrity in the magical world. (Hmm, where have I heard that?) Percy's quickly transported to a mysterious place where other extraordinary kids learn to harness their powers, but it's not Hogwarts, it's "Camp Half-Blood." Hogwarts has "houses"; Camp Half-Blood has "cabins." Hogwarts has Quidditch; Camp Half-Blood has epic games of capture-the-flag. Hogwarts is supervised by a gentle, bearded, and mighty wizard; Camp Half-Blood by a gentle, bearded, and mighty centaur. Our hero-- whose name even has the same rhythm as Potter (Har-ry Pot-ter; Per-cy Jack-son)-- soon attracts two sidekicks. One, Annabeth Chase, is a book-smart girl who starts out as a rival but becomes a friend. The other, Grover Underwood, is goofy, physically awkward, and loyal. These three set out to retrieve an all-powerful magical object that's been lost (Potter: sorcerer's stone; Jackson: lightning bolt of Zeus), confront the forces of darkness, and-- through courage and guile-- emerge victorious.

In short, it's a rip-off.

Children might strenuously object, citing a long list of differences in biographical detail between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson ("Harry's got a lightning bolt on his forehead! Percy doesn't!"), but we adults accumulate multiple forms of wisdom as we get older, one of which is the ability to step back from a cloud of minutiae to take in the underlying or overarching structure of a literary or filmic work-- to behold its skeleton and proclaim it, when necessary, a poxy clone. Elementary schoolers see only difference because they haven't yet refined their ability to descry abstracta and make intelligent comparisons.

So the above reviewer hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned, and since his critique applied as much to the books as to the movie, I now know that I won't be perusing the books anytime soon.

None of which is to say that I spent two hours in the cinema grinding my teeth in barely-suppressed fury. Quite the contrary, I thought the film was a hoot-- corny and overly Hollywoodized, yes, but watchable. Uma wasn't the only reason why "Lighting Thief" was enjoyable: Pierce Brosnan, as a centaur, made a joke about his own fat ass, and several naughty instances of bestiality humor (some of it goat-oriented) were slipped into the dialogue for the sake of the grownups watching the film. Would I see the movie again? No. But if you have to watch it with some kids, it's a perfectly harmless experience.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

happy Lunar New Year

A quick Happy Lunar New Year to the readership as we celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Tiger.

And Happy Valentine's Day to all the ladies.


off to see friends

I'm off to see my buddy Mike and his family. They're celebrating Mike's second daughter's birthday, and I've been invited to go out and see "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" with the gang.

This will be my first outing in a while. While I don't look forward to the snowy drive down to Mike's part of the world, I think it'll be good to step out and get some air.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stephen R. Donaldson's "gradual interview"

It's not often that a fan can interact with an author he admires, but Stephen R. Donaldson, who gained fame in the 1970s and 80s for his first and second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogies, has a website wherein he regularly responds to fan questions. Most authors wouldn't bother, but Donaldson, despite being in the middle of writing a Thomas Covenant tetralogy, budgets enough time to address many of the inquiries he receives through his website. One section of the site is, in fact, devoted to what he has termed a "gradual interview," i.e., a written give-and-take with fans that has been slowly unfolding over the course of time. It begins in 2004 and continues to the present. Donaldson, who is in his sixties, averages about two to four questions per day.

I began reading the gradual interview during the latter stages of Mom's cancer, and found strange comfort in reading the thoughts of one of my favorite authors. Donaldson is, predictably, a private individual, so he shies away from questions that are overly personal. He also evinces understandable irritation when different people ask the same question, but he never allows his irritation to boil over. Far from doing anything that might alienate his fans, he does his best to remain civil and patient, and will even revisit certain "repeat" questions if he feels they deserve more nuanced answers than the ones he has originally given.

Donaldson is quite frank about his limits as an author. He says, for example, that writing "dialect" and "doing humor" are nearly impossible for him, and that he's not at all a visual person. He's also not afraid to address readers' confusion about this or that concept or plot point (though he discourages unsolicited criticism-- an attitude I appreciate*). The fans have, over the several years' worth of questions that I've read, asked many of the story-related questions that I had wanted to ask. Donaldson's replies to these questions have ranged from prickly to humorous to evasive, but the fact that he answers them at all is remarkable. Thanks to the interview, fans have learned that Donaldson considers his Gap series (a science fiction pentalogy) his best literary achievement, despite its failure to sell. He chafes at the way publishers pigeonhole their authors in much the same way that actors resent being typecast. He has also offered aspiring writers plenty of writerly advice throughout the interview, but one of the questions that irritates him is "How/Where do you get your inspiration?"-- a question that can only be answered in a subjective way, which both makes the answer useless to anyone else, and requires Donaldson to explain a process that is fundamentally unexplainable for him.

Thus far, I've read a little more than halfway through the gradual interview, which puts me in the early months of 2007. For those of you who know Donaldson's work, I highly recommend the interview; I'd also recommend the interview to others who, despite not knowing Donaldson or his oeuvre, might nevertheless desire some small glimpse of a writer's inner life. Donaldson has done his best to guard his privacy, but his answers still reveal much about the man.

*On April 19, 2006, Donaldson wrote:

There is no such thing as "valid" or "constructive" criticism--unless the person on the receiving end asks for it. If the recipient doesn't ask, he/she isn't, well, receptive; and the criticism is wasted. So it follows that what people choose to call "valid" or "constructive" criticism exists for the benefit of the critic, not for the good of the person being criticized. It serves the ego of the critic.

A little context: Donaldson is here referring primarily to criticisms of a work that are directed at the author after a work has been published. I don't think he's seriously contending that there's simply no such thing as valid or constructive criticism. The validity and constructiveness of any given criticism has, at least in my opinion, as much to do with the tenderness of the authorial ego as it does with the critic's personality and motivation.

That said, I side with Donaldson's general claim: I, too, often resent unsolicited criticism. And unsolicited advice. As someone who prefers to keep his own counsel when it comes to the things that matter in life, I've often had to swallow my ego and practice patience while listening to somebody tell me something I already know.



Terrible self-promoter that I am, I've finally done something I should have done back in 2006: I've put up an excerpt from my book, Water from a Skull. The link to the excerpt is now a permanent fixture on the sidebar, directly under the little ad for the book, but if you're one of those putzes who's too lazy to glance at the sidebar, click here. And thanks in advance for reading.


language rant: the vocative comma

In the comments to the previous post, John McCrarey writes:

correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't it be:

Thanks Anne, for stopping by versus thanks, Anne, for stopping by?

Anyone who has studied a bit of Latin knows that it's a language with a gazillion different cases—nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, ablative, etc. These cases can be found in all languages, but they're either difficult to see or morphologically invisible, as is often the case in modern American English. Example:

He brings the kid the ball.

He = nominative case (subject of the sentence)

the kid = dative case (indirect object of the action "brings")

the ball = accusative case (direct object of "brings")

Compare the above with German, where the cases are more visible because you have to change the articles to reflect changes in case.

Er bringt dem Kind den Ball.

Er = he, in the nominative

dem Kind = originally das Kind (the word "child" is grammatically neuter in German), but in the dative case, der and das become dem

den Ball = originally der Ball in the nominative, but because Ball is the direct object of the action (accusative case), der becomes den

Sorry for the grammar lesson, but my point is that languages have cases, and different languages show those cases in ways ranging from invisible to quite visible. Languages like German, Latin, Greek, and Russian often show differences in case quite clearly. English, by contrast, doesn't normally change the form of words to indicate variations in case.*

But there's one major exception: the vocative comma.

The vocative case is all about calling or addressing people or things. In English, we indicate the relationship between the speaker and the one spoken to by inserting commas.


Hey, dude. What's up? (Not: Hey dude.)

Thanks, Emma.

Annette, I don't get why you keep dropping vocative commas.

Dammit, Spock, I'm a doctor, not an astrophysicist!

Hear, O Israel!

Buy, minions! Buy!

The last example gives us a chance to see how the vocative comma is helpful. With the comma in place, we have a despot commanding his minions to save the economy by shopping more. Without the comma, we have a despot (or somebody) telling some unknown person to go out and buy him (the despot) some minions:

"Buy minions!" = "You! Buy some minions for me!"

It's possible that the vocative comma may drop out of modern American English altogether, simply as a matter of "common usage," with people intuiting the vocative case through context. I'll be one of the holdouts, though; just as older folks still refuse to split infinitives (despite the fact that most current grammar and style manuals these days claim there's no damage in doing so), I'll be holding on to** those vocative commas until the barbarians come and pry them from my cold, dead brain cells.

In the meantime, I find it excruciating to read vocative locutions that lack vocative commas. I've seen "Hey Kevin" at the start of more emails than I can count, and it's all I can do to keep from weeping and smashing everything around me with a baseball bat.

As the "Buy, minions!" example indicates, vocative commas have their use. Instead of letting the barbarians erode the language further, take a stand and use the comma.

*For the purposes of this discussion, I'm considering the pronominal shift from "he" to "him" (or "she" or "her," or "they" to "them") to be so common as not to merit discussion. In English overall, very little morphological change occurs when switching cases. Beyond these basic pronouns, it becomes very difficult to cite examples of such changes. Only one other example comes to mind right away: the use of prepositions to indicate case, e.g., "She threw the ball to Clara." Clara is marked as the indirect object of "threw."

**Not "holding onto"! But that's a rant for another time.


Friday, February 12, 2010

revving up

This blog will be starting up again soon. It never went dead, of course, but I did avoid posting very much here over the past year or two. Right now, I'm checking the blog for holes and leaks, revving its engine a bit, slapping some pink back into its tentacles, and making sure the thing is still drivable. I already see, from an examination of my sidebar, that certain links are now dead and will have to be dealt with. (I also see that the Photobucket censors decided that some of my pics were too graphic for their Terms of Service). In addition to cropping parts of the sidebar, I might also want to add some links from my other blog, which will remain open as a memorial to my mother, who died this past January 6. If you followed our family's ordeal from April 16, 2009 to now, thank you. At some point, I'll be writing a book about what it's been like to deal with Mom's cancer.

How will the tone of the Hairy Chasms change in light of the past ten months? Will Kevin now be older, wiser, more serious, and less of an asshole? Will his blog now show greater focus and increased dedication to writerly excellence?

Or will readers be disappointed to see yet more jokes about using one's scrotum as a drogue when decelerating on the salt flats?

Stay thou tunèd and find out.

UPDATE: I'm switching templates from my old, archaic, 2003-era HTML one to what I hope will be a slightly better CSS framework. You'll notice plenty of cosmetic changes over the next few weeks as I rebuild my sidebar and add all manner of doodads to the blog.