Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Happy Pesach

Pesach, the Jewish Passover, starts tonight at sundown, but it's already started in Korea. Happy Pesach to all and sundry.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Sam Harris and ditching religion altogether

My buddy Dave wrote me the following quick email:

Not sure if I agree with the conclusion of the article, but I think some of his points are valid.

Philosopher: Why We Should Ditch Religion (CNN article and video)

The above-linked CNN article and video are about scientist and thinker Sam Harris, one of the so-called "New Atheists": people who are actively campaigning for the secularization of modern society. Harris is an interesting fellow, and although he's clear about his agenda, he never comes off sounding as bitter or as polemical as other New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. See, for example, the video of his very civilized debate with Rabbi David Wolpe (if you have an hour or so):

American Jewish University Video

Harris does, however, hit me where it hurts when he accuses religious moderates and liberals* of being "enablers" for the more radical wings of our religious traditions. In trying to unplug the unpleasant elements from religion in order to present its friendlier face, moderates and liberals end up simultaneously (1) avoiding the problems posed by fundamentalists (violence, etc.) and (2) missing the point that religion itself is the problem.

As someone who appreciates the commonsense, empirical approach advocated by both Zen Buddhism and scientific skepticism, I actually have little to argue with regarding Harris' critiques of religion. Religion is, in my opinion, full of magical nonsense. I do, however, think that Harris-- like the other New Atheists-- often mis-attributes problems to religion that should actually be ascribed to something more fundamental, such as the basic flaws inherent in all human nature. (Side note: most postmodernists, in their zeal to tear down so-called "totalizing metanarratives," deny that there's a such thing as human nature, which is one reason why they dislike the work of scientists like Steven Pinker, who argues forcefully for the existence of a distinctly human nature.)

People accuse religion of dogmatism, oppression, etc., and I agree that the historical evidence supports the idea that religious traditions and institutions have thrown up a wide variety of roadblocks to human flourishing. But the accusation against religion holds only if we can prove that religion alone causes and/or perpetuates these problems. In modern times, we see that secular institutions can breed all the same ills that religion is accused of: dogmatism (e.g., cleaving to some company's "corporate philosophy," or stubbornly arguing for a certain scientific paradigm in the face of mounting evidence against it), oppression, cronyism-- even superstition of a sort (e.g., unjustified over-reliance on a product or method, as with the over-zealous Korean woman who insisted to me that antioxidants cure cancer, a meme that's actually rather widespread). As we moderns are learning, the removal of religion from the picture doesn't necessarily remove the basic impediments to human flourishing.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that religion, whether in personal or corporate forms, isn't problematic, or that it can't be blamed for certain specific, massive ills. But the human problems that the New Atheists refer to are often located not at the level of religion, but at a deeper level. Human pride, selfishness, hubris, arrogance, and blindness to reality are all pre-religious traits, which is why a supposedly secular institution can, if it flies off the rails, morph into a cult of personality. As long as people are susceptible to their own passions and irrationalities, problems will always arise.

I also disagree with Harris's accusation that we moderates and liberals are enablers for our more radical fellows. I concede that we could be enabling the fundies to pass behind us and work their evil (by "evil" I mean things like the acid-throwing Harris refers to in the video, or the fundamentalist Christian insistence on teaching creationism in bio class, or other unenlightened behaviors/tendencies), but my own view of the trend toward a more liberal or moderate view of religion is that this is the leading edge of a collective evolution toward healthier religious practice.

Far from trying to enable the more fundamentalist strands of any given tradition, religious moderates and liberals see themselves as openly confronting tradition, pointing out its ancient flaws, and actively working to unplug those elements that are, especially in the modern age, obviously immoral. It's not an overturning that can happen overnight; it's more like a very slow process of erosion, one that can be interrupted, unfortunately, by periods of conservative resurgence/resistance.

Obviously, that process of erosion isn't happening at the same rate everywhere: Islam comes immediately to mind as an example of a religion that is, on the whole, battening down the hatches and refusing to deal with the implications of modernity. Fundie Christianity isn't far behind in that regard: we've still got Christians in 21st-century America who refuse to submit their children to the ministration of doctors. There are also super-orthodox Jews, magico-folkloric Buddhists, superstitious Hindus, etc. We've all got a long way to go before we, as a race, openly embrace rationality as the basic, and best, route to human flourishing.

Harris takes a moment, in the CNN video, to talk about Muslim-Christian dialogue, noting the impossibility of compromise because of the exclusivistic nature of each tradition's truth claims. If we remain at the level of abstract doctrine, then Harris has a point, but if we move the discussion to a more human level, the level of actual social interaction, it's no longer quite as clear that compromise, of some sort or other, is impossible. We see such compromise all the time: modern Muslims (a minority, to be sure) who have no problem living in secular society because they themselves are reconciled to living within the context of religious diversity; Christians and Muslims who live and work together in the same neighborhoods; happy dialogue between and among mystics of different traditions. My point isn't that there are no walls between the traditions, or that no standoffs exist: it's that those walls are (1) a function of our own minds, and (2) breachable.

Interreligious dialogue is a messy phenomenon; general statements about abstracta don't address the actual reality. Doctrines are incarnated in people, and (as I've said many times on this blog) religions are as they are practiced. If Harris were actually to delve into the topic of interreligious dialogue, he'd quickly realize that his claim, "There's no way to reconcile Islam with Christianity," is a spear that has no target. There is no Islam without Muslims; no Christianity without Christians. And to the extent that there are Muslims and Christians who find some way to coexist peaceably, those people stand as refutations of Harris's general claim.

Were he to modify his rhetoric to take this human complexity into account, I might be more inclined to agree with his critique: after all, Harris isn't wrong to point out the existence of theological gulfs between major traditions. But like a lot of critics who make their critiques from outside religion, Harris doesn't seem to show much appreciation for the complexity of the problems under discussion. A proper critique would include a deeper examination of how abstract doctrines incarnate themselves in the actual practice of religious adherents. On the personal level, we often see supposedly irreconcilable differences negotiated, set aside, or even outright ignored. Ask any married couple whose spouses come from radically different religious traditions-- or a couple in which one member isn't overtly religious.

Having said all that, I nevertheless think that the arrival of the New Atheists is salutary: it's good for religious folks to have their trees shaken-- for them to be upset by this very in-your-face denial of their most basic truth-claims. It may be that some of the more thoughtful religious practitioners will wake up and realize that they've been brainwashed into believing some patently ridiculous notions. Perhaps Harris and the other New Atheists will also wake up believers who belong not to major religious traditions, but to other loopy worldviews: pseudosciences like astrology and homeopathy, for example. On the whole, I feel that nothing but good can come from the arrival of the New Atheism. I hope it's here to stay.

UPDATE: Two Easters ago, I wrote on almost the exact same topic. See here. I guess my thought hasn't evolved all that much.

*One of the problems with this topic is the potential for chaos involved in agreeing on basic terminology. I'm deliberately using words like "moderate" and "liberal" rather vaguely, mainly because I know that vagueness is about my only option when writing a relatively short essay. More precise definitions of key terms would require me to hammer out a book-length preface to this post.

For what it's worth, and for the purposes of this discussion, my understanding of the terms "moderate" and "liberal," as applied to religious belief and practice, is that they represent a move away from centuries-old established religious traditions, theologies, and practices. The moderate has retained tradition in some form or other, perhaps by leaving the old concepts in place but re-understanding them in a more modern way. The liberal has probably gone further, perhaps outright rejecting certain core terms, concepts, and practices as outmoded, sexist, or otherwise immoral or unworkable, all while reinterpreting any remaining core concepts in ways more consistent with modern science, modern concepts of morality and jurisprudence, etc.

A theological moderate might, for example, concede that biblical accounts of Jesus' life can be thought of as symbolic narratives, given the obvious factual contradictions between and among the gospels, but that those accounts nevertheless point to a fully real, fully divine dimension of existence, leaving open the possibility of miracles (as traditionally understood), but accepting their improbable nature, based on the insights of modern science. For this type of Christian, the Bible probably represents a more or less reliable sketch of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Such moderates might also be willing to view the fact of religious diversity through an inclusivistic lens, perhaps seeing the Christ at work in and through other religions. And even if they don't go this far, they might still allow that God is deep and mysterious enough to make room for those who are good and decent, despite being non-believers.

A theological liberal might, by contrast, be perfectly comfortable with the idea that Christ was just a wise and unresurrected teacher, and that "holy," when applied to Jesus, might be a synonym for "respected" or "revered." A liberal Christian might also view Christianity as merely one legitimate religious path among many. John Shelby Spong is a good example of this sort of liberal: a scholar (and former Episcopal bishop) who has taken the demythologizing tendencies of, say, Rudolf Bultmann to their logical conclusion. John Hick, perhaps the best-known modern advocate of a certain form of religious pluralism (and author of The Metaphor of God Incarnate, a book whose title reveals the author's christological stance), is less polemical and more philosophical in tone than Spong is; he, too, could be placed in the "liberal" category. Such Christians often have a hard time convincing others that they are, in fact, still meaningfully Christian.

It's important to remember that the liberal strain of Christianity by no means constitutes the majority view. Globally speaking, most Christians tend to fall toward the more conservative (read: traditionalist, literalist, and often fundamentalist) end of the spectrum of belief and practice, especially when we consider how Christianity is preached and received in the third world. Religious liberals often forget this fact, to their cost.


Monday, March 22, 2010

23 movies that have stuck with me

In the bizarro world of Facebook, I was recently meme-tagged by my friend Steve Honeywell. The meme in question asks one to list "23 films that will always stick with you." I suppose "stick with you" can be interpreted in various ways: films so horrific that their images have been burned into your brain, films so profound that you've found yourself exploring their themes over and over through the years, etc. Keeping the potential variety of reasons in mind, then, here's my off-the-cuff, and woefully incomplete, list of films that will always stick with me:

1. The Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983): I'm cheating by counting these as one story

I'm a member of the Star Wars generation, so these films have to be listed. And because I'm old-school in my thinking, there's no way in hell I can include the prequel trilogy in this list. The George Lucas of old was far superior to the old George Lucas.

2. The LOTR trilogy (Peter Jackson; same cheat here, too)

I felt the three movies got better as they went along. "The Fellowship of the Ring" struck me as a bit slow, but it's the necessary grounding for the story such that, by the time we reach "The Return of the King," we're emotionally invested in the lives and fates of the main characters.

3. The Matrix trilogy (arguably minus the third movie, but unfortunately, the third movie completes the story arc; the Wachowskis should have stopped the story at the end of the second movie)

As a student of religion, I found the Matrix movies to be a veritable "Where's Waldo?" of religious and philosophical references. There were the obvious Buddha/Moses/Christ parallels that appeared strongly in the first movie, the goofy PoMo philosophy that suffused the second movie, and the Gnosticism and Hinduism that seemed to dominate both the second and third films. You also had free-floating particles of Greek philosophy and post-WW2 existentialism in there. I don't think the jumble of references added up to a coherent philosophical or religious message, but taken together, the movies were and remain a supremely clever subversion of the cyberpunk genre for the sake of Haphazardly Juxtaposed Deep Thoughts.

My main beef with the series is two-pronged: (a) the first movie had the greatest sense of fun, and the fun was largely missing from the second and third films; (b) Neo follows the christic character arc to its conclusion in the first movie (we see death, resurrection, and ascension), which makes the repeat of Christ-imagery in the third movie problematic.

4. Aliens (James Cameron)

I saw this movie with an audience in the 1980s, and that was by far the best way to view it. Cameron was always better than Lucas when it came to balancing plot, character development, and special effects. Also unlike Lucas, Cameron pushed his actors hard, yielding some brilliant performances and seeding "Aliens" with more humor than you'd normally expect in a horror movie. Well, OK: "Aliens" wasn't merely a horror film: it was more of a genre-transcending horror/action flick with not-so-subtle references to the Vietnam War (martial hubris in the face of brutal nature-- a theme also found in "Avatar") and corporate greed. Its major themes were, arguably, feminism and motherhood.

The Vietnam dimension of "Aliens" deserves further exploration. Cameron's commentary was decidedly pro-Vietnamese (with not-so-native aliens substituting for Vietnamese natives) and anti-soldier-- this during a decade when most Vietnam films were, in some way or another, portraying the US soldier in a more sympathetic light, as if Hollywood were engaged in a massive campaign to apologize for the way returning soldiers were treated in the 1960s and 70s. In any case, whatever the movie's political subtext, I thought "Aliens" was excellently scripted and told a gripping story with fleshed-out characters whose fates we cared about.

5. The Exorcist (Friedkin)

By my reckoning, this is still the best horror movie of all time. At its heart lies a crisis of faith, an internal battle occurring within the mind and heart of Father Damien Karras. Unfortunately, Friedkin's movie doesn't make it as obvious as Blatty's book that Karras sees the demonic possession as evidence of God's existence. The movie does, however, preserve the conflict itself, if not the resolution in favor of faith. The result is that the book and the movie each possess fundamental ambiguities: the book's core ambiguity comes at the end of the story: how can Karras's move toward faith be reconciled with his suicide? The film's core ambiguity is simpler: did Karras find peace of mind at the end?

6. Ran (Kurasawa)

Beautifully shot, beautifully adapted version of Shakespeare's King Lear. One of the most striking images, for me, came during the scene in which Hidetora shoots a man in the back with an arrow: the man collapses, and his blood flows out among hexagonal paving stones, suggesting the contrast between fluid life and rigid death. An incredible visual metaphor.

7. Tampopo (Itami)

One of the most Zen films I've ever seen, "Tampopo" is ostensibly about food, but in reality it's about the value of mindful focus and the virtues of living deeply, as opposed to being caught up in the frenetic rat race of normal, superficially focused human existence. Along the way, it satirizes Japanese culture from the inside, and provides a nearly nonstop barrage of comedy to make the more profound lessons feel less preachy than they might otherwise have been. The exploding-abscess scene is classic, and the dying-mother scene is tragic, especially in light of what my family has just gone through.

That latter scene often struck me as incongruous, given the light-hearted nature of most of the film, but in the end I understood Itami to be trying to weave both death and family into his tapestry of themes, and death is a hard subject to approach in a light-hearted manner (cf. the failure that is "The Bucket List"-- a movie that could have been so, so much better).

8. Why Did Bodhidharma Go East? (Bae)

Perhaps THE most Zen film I've ever seen, since it's explicitly about Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism. Warning: this movie is quiet and slowly paced, and it can put you to sleep. In that sense, it has a lot in common with seated meditation, which can also put you to sleep if you're not careful. Students of Zen who watch this movie will note references to many Zen sayings, one overt nod to the famous Ox-herding Pictures, and some interesting commentary on the conflict between Buddhist monastic imperatives and the surrounding Confucian culture: how can a Buddhist postulant possibly renounce something as fundamental as family ties in order to pursue a life of contemplation?

A beautiful, simple, and unpretentious movie, "Why Did Bodhidharma Go East?" isn't for everyone, but its imagery and ideas have definitely stuck with me.

9. Good Will Hunting (Van Sant)

I love this movie. I don't care that Matt Damon is a frothing liberal, or that a lot of critics dismissed this film as sappy and predictable. Sure, the major plot line is predictable: of course Will Hunting and Sean Maguire will become friends, and of course Will will pass through a crucial emotional/spiritual threshold, experience some sort of redemptive catharsis, and find himself open to a healthier, more fulfilling future. But to me, the point of the movie isn't so much the goal as it is the journey along the way: the movie has a lot to say on the subjects of friendship and loyalty, selflessness and love, and the courage to master one's own fears in order better to live.

This is one of two movies whose scripts I would kill to have written. The other movie is also in this list. Suffice it to say that I still burn with envy at the thought that Damon and Affleck won their screenwriting Oscar for this film while so fucking young. The fact that they went on to parody themselves-- rather cruelly-- in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" is just icing on the cake. I couldn't hate these guys if I tried.

I also like that "Good Will Hunting" doesn't have any truly evil characters. The closest we come to such a person is the mathematician friend of Robin William's Sean Maguire: Stellan Skarsgård's Gerald Lambeau. Lambeau's major faults are that he's a frustrated womanizer and an arrogant dick, but at no point is he portrayed as actively seeking Will Hunting's ruin. Maguire senses that Will needs time before he'll be ready to accept the demands of any sort of high-pressure work, whereas Lambeau believes that Will has to be pushed hard now; the final shouting match between Maguire and Lambeau is more like an argument between two parents, both equally concerned about Will, than a contest between obviously good and obviously evil men.

The movie's script showed an emotional maturity not common among Hollywood 20-somethings, and even though it did rely on the overused Hollywood trope of therapy, it approached therapy in an authentic way. (I've never gone through therapy, but I've brought myself up on a diet of books that has included some psych titles, such as M. Scott Peck's now-classic The Road Less Traveled. I often wonder whether Damon and Affleck had, in fact, read Peck before or during their work on this movie's script.)

10. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino)

This is the second movie whose screenplay I'd kill to have written. What's not to like about "Pulp Fiction"? Forcible sodomy, shotgun castration, insanely inaccurate biblical quotes, and cunnilingus performed on a cute little Frenchwoman! Oh, and there's a katana in the mix, too-- a trope we'll see again in "Kill Bill."

Although I'll never be a fan of postmodernism and poststructuralism as serious philosophies, I think they're perfectly serviceable ways of thinking within the context of the artistic world-- painting, sculpture, literature, film, etc. That said, I think Quentin Tarantino, both as a writer and as a director, is perhaps the most impressive (and, for me, palatable) incarnation of the essence of PoMo and poststructuralism, to the extent that either way of thinking can be said to have an essence.

"Pulp Fiction" gives us a deliriously nonlinear narrative, a truckload of pungent-- and self-consciously literary-sounding-- dialogue, and some of the most memorable characters ever committed to film. A few of them, mind you, aren't major characters, either: I'm thinking specifically of the crazy taxi driver, Esmerelda Villalobos, whose surreal conversation with Bruce Willis's Butch always has me chortling. Eric Stoltz as the frenetic Lance is equally hilarious.

Tarantino is yet another director who stands in sharp contrast with George Lucas: he actually demands something of his actors, and the results are often marvelous. Samuel Jackson and John Travolta both bring the goods, as do Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman, and Harvey Keitel. Awesome film.

11. L'homme du train (Leconte)

This French movie about an old criminal who comes to a small town to perform a bank robbery, and who ends up befriending a similarly aged literature professor, starts off as an interesting study in contrasting temperaments, but turns into an examination of the nature of friendship and curiosity-inspired role reversal. The criminal slowly finds himself attracted to the old professor's life of contemplation; the professor, meanwhile, begins to take an interest in what it must be like to live the life of a criminal. The way the movie ends may strike some as a bit too lyrical and spiritual, but since old age is the unifying factor in the film, I felt the ending made sense.

12. Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg)

SPR is notable for its harrowing D-Day beach landing sequence at the beginning. This movie falls under the "images so horrific they're seared into my brain" category. The rest of the film is much more slowly paced, almost as if it were a different movie, but Spielberg does a fine job of providing you with an immediate, you-are-there feel throughout. Solid performances, devastating battle sequence at the end... but that beach landing at the beginning is what stays with you.

13. The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood)

I saw this movie only a few days ago, but it impressed me enough to make this list. Over the years, I'd heard a lot about it, and the near-unanimous opinion was that TOJW was an Eastwood classic. I was impressed by how the movie played against Eastwood type: Josey Wales would have liked to be a loner, but he could never seem to find any quiet time, what with his constantly increasing entourage of folks headed south to Texas. The climax, in which Josey Wales met his nemesis Fletcher, resolved itself more cleanly and quietly than I would have expected. This was a movie full of surprises.

TOJW also struck me as flat-out strange: it interwove some heavy-duty themes with bizarrely incongruous moments of hilarity. Were I a filmmaker, I would never think to punctuate a movie about murder, rape, pillage, revenge, and Civil War strife with frequent shots of Eastwood spitting gouts of chewing tobacco on everything in sight: a foppish carpetbagger, a random scorpion, and even his faithful hound dog (the dog was a great actor, too: it snarled and ran away every time it was hit... but it always came back!). Yet somehow, all that incongruity worked in the movie's favor, and I found myself laughing out loud almost every time Eastwood spat on something (or someone).

Lastly, the movie contained a moment of dialogue that gave me goosebumps: the scene where Josey Wales, now deep in Comanche territory, seeks out the chief named Ten Bears and strikes a deal with him, so as to allow a white family to settle on Comanche land. For the curious, the full exchange is here (with text formatting problems, alas), but it's no substitute for watching the actual scene:


TOJW is chock-full of interesting characters, not least of which is Lone Watie, played by Chief Dan George in a performance that seamlessly combines humor, sadness, and soulful profundity.

14. The Unforgiven (Eastwood)

I now see that "The Unforgiven" is the spiritual grandchild of "The Outlaw Josey Wales." In both cases, Eastwood portrays a farmer who leaves the simple life for a return to the gunslinging exploits of his youth, but of the two movies, I'd argue that "The Unforgiven" is more explicitly a study in violence. "The Unforgiven" gives us William Munny, a man who was, thanks to his now-deceased wife, at least temporarily reformed from his meaner-than-hell-cold-blooded-damn-killer ways. But as the movie peels back the layers of Munny's character, we realize with dawning horror that Munny's core remains as rotten as it's ever been: to call William Munny "a mean drunk" would be the understatement of the 19th century, given what he does, without hesitation, at the end of the film.

I suppose, upon deeper reflection, that that's a major difference between Josey Wales and William Munny. Wales is a hard-bitten man, but at heart he isn't evil. Munny, by contrast, is evil to the core, but was gentled for a time by the calming influence of his wife. "The Unforgiven" directly associates Munny's darkness with alcohol-- another way in which this movie is a "revisionist" Western. The violence isn't glorified, and all of the gun battles carry a stink of ignominy about them. Nobility of spirit is harder to find in "The Unforgiven" than it is in "The Outlaw Josey Wales"; unlike that 1970s film, "The Unforgiven" has no wise and humorous American Indians, nor any truly redemptive figures to offer Munny any hope of salvation. Munny's children might come close to fitting this bill, but Munny leaves them to their own devices at the beginning of the story.

This is one of Eastwood's darkest films, and it's even got its own version of Hindu metaphysics: when Little Bill (Gene Hackman) is lying gutshot on the floor of the bar, he croaks, "I don't deserve this." Eastwood's character replies, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." Karma: old-school style.

15. Die Hard (first movie only; McTiernan)

"Die Hard" offers us our first major flawed 1980s action hero. Unlike Eastwood, Stallone, or even Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis as John McClane is decidedly not stoic in the face of adversity: he groans, he yelps, he howls while spraying lead out of a stolen machine gun, he mutters bitterly about his estranged wife... and he does all this while getting shot at, being beaten up, and losing improbably copious quantities of blood.

Humor is a major component in the movie's appeal, but I also think that the pacing and story structure of "Die Hard" are noteworthy: there are almost no wasted scenes, and just about every moment serves to propel the plot forward in an intelligent way. Case in point: the fateful comment made to McClane by a fellow airline passenger, at the beginning of the movie, that making fists with your toes in the carpet can be relaxing after a long time flying. Much like the butterfly effect in chaos theory, that offhand remark turns out to be the cause of most of John McClane's later troubles.

We'll forgive Alan Rickman his awful German grammar and pronunciation in the role of Hans Grueber, mainly because Rickman is one of the few male actors in the galaxy who can make a nasal voice sound deliciously menacing. I always laugh when my friends from across the pond accuse us Americans of sounding nasal: they have more than their fair share of actors with voice-flattening schnozzes: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Georgeson, Liam Neeson, et al.

John McClane became iconic as the Everyman we rooted for. As heroes go, you're not supposed to approach him with the same awe and worship you give to stone-faced Arnold or squinty-flinty Eastwood: the idea is that you're not sure whether Everyman can make it out of his latest scrape unscathed. Therein lies the suspense. In the films of Arnold, Clint, and Sly, the outcome is already a forgone conclusion: the invincible good guy will win, but we're dying to see new and original ways of dispatching the bad guys. With Willis, we have a hero who sometimes seems to kill bad guys more through luck or accident than skill. In the 1980s, at least, this take on action heroism was refreshing.

16. Moulin Rouge (McGregor/Kidman/Luhrmann)

I normally dislike musicals, but this bittersweet, heavily pastiched meditation on love in the bohemian idiom was way too cleverly written, edited, and sung/acted for me to dismiss it. Great performances by all the leads, hilarious adaptations of pop songs, and another sublime expression of the Tao of PoMo. I remember that my mother cried at the story's conclusion. "Moulin Rouge" is a romantic, bittersweet fairy tale. For adults, I hasten to add.

17. The Incredibles (Bird)

I still haven't seen Pixar's most recent films, "Up" and "Wall-E," so I may not have all the data I need to make the following judgment, but in my opinion "The Incredibles" is Pixar's best work. The story structure is superb, the characters and their motivations are clearly laid out (as is every single scene involving action/fight choreography), and director Brad Bird convincingly creates an alternate universe that evokes 50s/60s architectural aesthetics alongside 80s-era James Bond technology. I didn't like Michael Giacchino's soundtrack for the recent "Star Trek" (overly repetitive leitmotifs), but I thought he did a perfect job scoring "The Incredibles." Like the movie itself, the soundtrack somehow managed to fuse the superheroic and spy genres.

All praise to Bird's team for inserting so many mature themes in the movie, including the rather awkward topic of marital infidelity-- something for kids who saw the film to pick up on later when they finally re-watch it as adults. Yet another mature theme is that of greatness versus so-called equality: "The Incredibles," as a movie, doesn't argue in favor of PC ideologies that claim we're all equally smart, equally gifted, and equally special. Instead, it puts forth the uncomfortable idea that we're not all created equal, and that some of us may well be better-designed for greatness than others are. I think that's a brave statement to emanate from a Hollywood source. "Sorry, son, but your IQ just isn't high enough for you to think about Harvard," or "Sorry, kid, but no matter how much you work out, you'll never bench 300 pounds" can be tough news to take. Still, that's life, and "The Incredibles" doesn't flinch from that message.

I have several favorite moments from this movie. One of them is when Dash discovers just what he's capable of during the Nomanisan Island chase scene. Another is the suspenseful moment when Helen Parr must decide what to do as the surface-to-air missiles are closing in, threatening not only her own life, but also the lives of two of her kids. I also enjoyed the contrasting ways in which Bob and Helen Parr infiltrated Syndrome's base-- Bob with brute force and Helen with slinky, rubbery subtlety. The most hilarious character was portrayed by Brad Bird himself: Edna Mode, the feisty half-German, half-Japanese midget designer of superheroic outerwear.

"The Incredibles" comes as close to perfect as any film I've seen. It definitely deserves a place on this list.

18. Shiri (a.k.a. "Swiri," Korean action flick; Kang)

As one of the very first Korean movies I actually sat down to watch, "Shiri" has a special place in my heart. It's a well-made action film, especially considering its minuscule budget, and is both better-scripted and far more thoughtful than most US action flicks. While a lot of Korean movies can be rightly accused of overly smarmy sentimentality, the quiet, sad way in which "Shiri" ends strikes me as completely apropos, given the overarching theme of North/South tension and conflict. The movie, which is about the hunt for a North Korean super-assassin, also made me a fan of actors Han Seok-gyu, Song Gang-ho, and Choi Min-shik, and introduced me to actress Kim Yun-jin, currently known in the US for her major role in the TV series "Lost." Kim was the assassin in question.

Korean movies are generally adept at infusing their plots with symbolism, and "Shiri" is no exception. The standoff at the end of the movie between Han Seok-gyu and Choi Min-shik is a perfect example of what I mean: it is, in miniature, the standoff between the North and South today. The movie also doesn't flinch from tweaking North Korean ideology (South Korean public rhetoric is often disappointingly soft when it comes to addressing the depredations of the North), a fact that gives me warm fuzzies. For people who've never watched Korean films before, "Shiri" isn't a bad place to begin.

19. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino)

"Reservoir Dogs" is quite possibly the most disturbing movie I've seen, mainly because of the infamous ear-removal scene. This is Tarantino's first film, and for me its charm lies in its staging: it often feels like a theater piece that was a little too faithfully adapted for the silver screen. Camera techniques are minimalist overall, as are special effects (except in the spurting blood department). RD is mostly about hard-hitting dialogue, and it features the same sorts of ridiculous monologues (e.g., the "Like a Virgin" spiel) that will later make "Pulp Fiction" famous. Superb acting by the entire cast, and a hell of a beginning for Tarantino. Michael Madsen, as the bland face of evil, was the perfect casting choice, and his casual removal of that poor cop's ear will always, always stick with me.

20. Kung Fu Panda (Stevenson, Osborne)

Although I've written elsewhere about this movie's flaws and virtues, I'm constantly amazed and touched by one scene in particular: the scene depicting the culmination of Po the Panda's training.

In this scene, Po is told that his training is complete and that he is "now free to eat." The master offers him a bowl of hot dumplings, but every time Po tries to eat one, the master becomes a blur of movement and snatches the dumpling away, stuffing it in his own mouth. As Po, dismayed and increasingly angry, watches his coveted dumplings disappear, the master repeats in a growling voice: "You are free to eat!"

Po, outraged: Am I?
Master Shifu, sternly: Are you?

So much East Asian philosophy and culture are contained in the above exchange that I wouldn't even know where to begin unpacking it. But the scene doesn't end there: it continues, as Po realizes he's going to have to work for the last remaining dumpling. An intense battle between Po and his master ensues, and in the end, Po finally manages to snatch the dumpling from the air. However, he seems to have had a moment of realization during his struggle to obtain the dumpling: instead of eating it, he tosses it back to his master and says, "I'm not hungry." Again, there's way too much Asian thought here to unpack. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the dumpling struggle, Po has gained a crucial understanding of the freedom that his master was referring to earlier. Po's mastery of kung fu-- which is another way of referring to Po's mastery of himself-- offers him choices he never knew he had, and he's now that much further along the road to enlightenment.

The scene pulls at my heartstrings, too. Po's affectionate tossing of his last dumpling to his master, whom he obviously loves, always leaves me with a little lump in my throat.

21. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen)

By my lights, Woody Allen's best film. As with the Matrix movies, Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" appeals to my inner religion student. It's probably Allen's most overtly theological work, and it's the only Allen film that, thanks to its Big Ideas, allows me to tolerate all that goddamn New Yawk intellectual whinging and neurosis. I find most of Allen's other films unwatchable for that very reason: I just don't get off on the moaning and groaning of a feckless nebbish. Hats off to Martin Landau for his excellent performance, and GOOD GOD, Anjelica Huston was plump back then!

22. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron)

Strangely enough, I saw this movie with my mother and at least one brother-- maybe both brothers. Mom's comment afterward was that the movie was too slow. I was surprised, but I suppose she had a point: the action scenes were spaced rather far apart along the movie's great length.

Still, I thought T2 was head and shoulders above the first movie, "The Terminator." James Cameron continued to share his fetish for blue color schemes with the world, but he also continued to show us that he could combine acting, a decent plot, and revolutionary special effects into a coherent whole.

Although T2 can be comfortably classed as a science fiction flick, I think it's also one of the better examples of a chase movie (cf. Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto"). The relentlessness and indestructibility of the T-1000 made it an utterly convincing adversary, and even without all that demonic, molten writhing at the movie's end, we viewers would have known without a doubt, from the moment Robert Patrick first appeared, that this thing was pure evil.

Hats off to Patrick, by the way, for a fantastic physical performance. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also reliably solid: as is true with the eternally wooden Keanu Reeves, you need to give Arnold the right script and director for him to shine, otherwise there isn't much to work with. T2 was one of his best cinematic turns, thanks largely to James Cameron. Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, deserves mention as a worthy feminist successor to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley.

23. The Untouchables (Mamet/Costner/Connery)

I saw this movie with my Georgetown buddies, right there on campus, and as with the above-reviewed "Aliens," I thought "The Untouchables" was a perfect audience movie. It contained so many sinister laugh lines (De Niro managed to be both plump and menacing), as well as enough flying blood and splattered brain matter to remind you that you were watching a Brian De Palma film.

De Palma, left to his own devices, often veers off the tracks in my book, going for gore over substance. Luckily for "The Untouchables," he was working from a script written by playwright David Mamet, whom my buddy Dr. Steve doCarmo describes as a man specializing in writing about "men under pressure." As a result, "The Untouchables" is more than the sum total of its bullet wounds: it's a masterpiece of tension, a study in viciousness, and a showcase for mordant wit, both from Al Capone and from Eliot Ness's mentor, Jim Malone, an Irish beat cop brought to life by the unrepentantly Scottish-sounding Sean Connery. Connery, consistent with most of his other performances, makes almost no attempt to convert his burr into a brogue.

Yes, I cheered along with my undergrad peers when Connery snarled, "Enough of this running shit!" during the US/CA border raid scene. I cheered when he blew the brains out of a corpse in order to intimidate a henchman into confessing. I cheered when Andy Garcia, as Giuseppe Petri (a.k.a. George Stone), blew the brains out of the guy holding the bookkeeper hostage. And after spending most of the two hours largely ignoring Kevin Costner's bland and weak performance, I finally cheered Costner when his Eliot Ness pushed Billy Drago's Frank Nitty off the top of that courthouse.

"The Untouchables" encouraged the cheering of such brutality, but I can't say that I regret the bloodlust. It was a film that was simultaneously artful and gritty, and if we cheered the appearance of crimson gore, or the depiction of laws violated in the same of street justice, we did it in the awareness that this was just a movie... but a damn engaging one.

I'm not really a meme person, so I won't be tagging anyone else, but I thought it was worthwhile to dig around inside my head and see what films I could think of. Had the rules allowed for a longer list, I'd have included tragic films like "Schindler's List," "The Killing Fields," and "Taekgukgi Huinallimyeo." I'd also have included comedies like "Caddyshack," "Raising Arizona," and "Men in Black"-- not to mention thoughtful and thought-provoking films like "Memento" and "Lost in Translation." I might even have included one romantic comedy: "Hitch." I would also have included films that melded profundity with amazing visuals, such as "Sin City," "Blade Runner," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." I also have a soft spot for "A Knight's Tale," which I found to be one of the best feel-good movies around. "Fight Club" would also have made the list, not only for its fucked-yet-somehow-accurate portrayal of maleness, but also for the creepiness of its climax in a post-9/11 era. An old NZ film, "Once Were Warriors," also comes to mind for its gritty portrayal of modern Maori life. God, there are so many good films out there. "The Hudsucker Proxy." The Godfather trilogy. The list goes on.

I just keep wondering, though: why did we have to list 23 films? Why not 20 or 25? What's up with the prime numbers?


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

send a hug

My e-friend Jelly (those who know her know her real name) is back in Canada to be with her dad, who is dying of metastatic stomach and liver cancer, and has perhaps days to live.

Every cancer crisis is unique, but having just come out of a similarly hellish experience, I have some small idea of what Jelly and her family are going through. One major difference, though, is that her dad still possesses his faculties: this isn't brain cancer. Luckily (if the word "luckily" even applies in this situation), he's receiving meds that are, one hopes, reducing his suffering. Jelly notes, however, that her dad is in a lot of pain.

If you want to send Jelly a compassionate message, now's the time. Her blog-- specifically, the relevant blog post-- is here. My thoughts are with her, her dad, and her family.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

advice on teaching English in Korea

NB: This is a reprint of an email I sent to a friend of my brother Sean. There's been some minor editing for style and privacy's sake. The email is actually for Sean's friend's sister, which explains all the "sister" references.

Mr. L,

I received the following snippet from my brother Sean:

yes it's true. My sister's BF works for the [redacted], and he's stationed in Seoul for the next two years. She's moving out with him in [redacted]. I was wondering if you could put me in touch with your brother for some job ideas for her. She's got two english degrees...so she's be perfect for some type of English teaching job....just want to make sure she gets in touch with the right people to give her the best chance etc.

I promised Sean I would tell you and your sister what I could about teaching English in Korea. Essentially, it boils down to this: if your sister has a choice, she should choose university-level teaching over teaching at a "hagwon," i.e., a cram study institute. Hagwon hiring practices are so lax that they'll accept anybody with any sort of degree, as long as they "look" the part. Yes, that's code for a kind of institutional racism: the whiter you look, the more likely you'll get an English teaching job. Koreans born and raised in the US might speak both English and Korean with perfect fluency, but many parents in Korea don't trust non-whites to teach "real" English to their children. Why this prejudice still exists, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, is beyond me. At the same time, there are plenty of gyopos (ethnic/racial Koreans who live outside Korea) at the other end of the spectrum: they obtain sweet positions teaching at various large corporations, where their Korean looks and their fluency in two languages are seen as an advantage. So if a person is Korean-looking, it's a gamble as to what might happen. If a potential employee is black, Latino, Southeast Asian, or South Asian, however, prospects will be dimmer all around. This is, alas, one of the harsh realities of working in Korea.

Anti-white racism can also be problematic, and might not be immediately visible to the first-time foreigner in Korea. Jobs might be easier to obtain for the light of skin, but living in Korea can still present problems. I can write more on this point later, but I did want to cover this ugly state of affairs in as up-front a manner as possible. Of course, the risk of painting Korea with too broad a brush is that I may be disrespecting those Koreans who aren't racist-- and their number is increasing, especially as the foreign population inside Korea continues to rise (roughly 2% of the South Korean population right now, or a little over 1 million). However, even now, such open-mindedness is evident only in a minority of the population. On the whole, those of us who don't look completely Korean can never hope to blend in; the Korean notion of "dan-il minjok," the (bogus) idea that all Koreans are proudly of one blood, is prevalent even today, despite obvious genetic/racial differences among Koreans. Dan-il minjok is a strong national myth, which isn't going away anytime soon, and it produces a cultural filter that's hard for foreigners to penetrate. (To their credit, Koreans who have spent years in the States, or in other Western countries, are often repulsed by "dan-il minjok.")

Universities, especially the better ones in the big cities like Seoul and Busan, tend to take their image more seriously than the hagwons do, but here again, the potential employee should be careful. Nowadays, many universities have at least two different departments devoted to the study of foreign language. One department is a sort of low-rent, hagwon-style outfit; the other is a more "legitimate" department devoted not only to teaching, say, conversation classes but also to teaching "serious" classes on literature, critical theory, etc. A person with a Master's degree in English should probably shoot for the more prestigious department, but they should also do some research before signing on with any given university. Sometimes, even the Big Three universities, Seoul National U., Yonsei U., and Korea U. (which are also collectively known as the "SKY" schools) can be nightmarish. I heard from one lady who taught at Ehwa Women's University, the most prestigious women's uni in Korea, that she'd had a horrible time getting along with the administration, and was happy to step "down" to teaching at Sookmyung Women's University.

Hagwons are problematic for more reasons than just the racist and slipshod hiring practices. Most of my teaching experience in Korea was at hagwons, so I know this fact intimately. Your coworkers can be fantastic, but they can also be bitter, maladjusted freaks who are basically in Korea to hide from their home country and/or make money to go Asia-hopping (I won't go into detail as to what that might mean, but you can guess). Hagwons often require their workers to work split shifts, which sounds fine at first blush, but is onerous in practice. A split shift might run from, say, 7AM (yes-- many schools do start classes that early) to 11AM, then go from 6PM to 10PM. If you live far away from the hagwon you're working at, going home for a long afternoon nap is nearly impossible, and even hagwon veterans find that it's difficult to catch a nap during the day. Essentially, whether you're working or not, you're "on" from 7AM to 10PM, which very quickly becomes oppressive. Some hagwons will push their employees to work more than 40 hours per week. At my final hagwon, I was averaging 44 weekly hours, which included full-day Saturdays every other week.

Korean hagwon bosses, being businessmen and not scholars, can often be capricious and unreasonable. It's the rare boss who truly values what you have to contribute to the school. Most bosses feel free to fire even the good teachers, on the assumption that all teachers are replaceable. Hagwons are less schools than they are businesses, so from the admin perspective, the bottom line is more important than actual learning: teacher popularity is a must, as are student reregistration rates. Many expats also complain about "having to act like a monkey" in order to keep the students interested-- an act that merely reinforces Korean stereotypes about foreigners, whom they already view as goofy. Sometimes bonus pay is set up according to a competitive scale, with the high-reregistration teachers earning more. Such competition might seem like a decent motivator at first, but it often poisons the otherwise-collegial atmosphere that's conducive to faculty productivity. Far from being colleagues, teachers in such an environment become rivals.

Some hagwons partner a foreign teacher up with a Korean teacher. While the foreigner might find this pairing nice (and it often is), the Korean teacher is sometimes asked, usually against his will, to spy on the foreign teacher, to make sure that she's punctual, professional, etc., and to monitor private student complaints about the teacher. As a matter of culture, many students have trouble addressing complaints directly to their teacher (then again, some students can be a little too outspoken when addressing an expat, demonstrating a rudeness that would be inconceivable were the teacher Korean). Expats deal with this Big Brother-ish situation in different ways-- by not caring, by becoming overly conscious of what others think, etc.

The pay at hagwons tends to be somewhat better than it is at most universities, but people who have had a taste of university life tend to prefer it to going back to hagwons. University teaching schedules, even at the university hagwon-style departments, tend to be more reasonable: instead of a 30- to 40-some-hour work week, a teacher might teach as little as 9 hours per week or as much as 22-25 hours. Also, it's been my experience that universities are less likely to ask teachers to teach on split shifts. When I entered the Sookmyung Women's University hagwon-style department, I taught only block shifts, usually from 7:40AM until about 2PM, with plenty of hours between classes, often teaching only 3 or 4 one-hour classes per day. My contract stipulated 18 teaching hours per week during any given semester; if my class schedule was below 18, I'd be given extra duties, such as scoring essays or proofreading textbooks. Compared to the grinding schedule I had been working at my previous place of employment, a hagwon called [EC], Sookmyung's schedule was marvelous to me. We occasionally had to work 20-22 hours per week during the summer and winter intensive periods, but we were also working only four days a week with Fridays off. Eight weeks in a row of three-day weekends. Not bad.

Another major difference between your typical hagwon and a typical university is that a university can afford to give its teachers large blocks of paid vacation time. My time at Sookmyung afforded me an entire month off every June and December, and in between semesters, we also had a week during which we weren't teaching, adding up to yet a third month off. This between-semester time wasn't vacation, technically: it was teacher prep time. But in practice, most teachers viewed it as extra vacation time. On top of all this, we had all the regular national holidays, and almost every university will have a day off for some sort of "founder's day"-- in honor of the dude or dudette who established the original campus. (Quite a few modern universities came into being around the same time-- circa 1905, so it was only a few years ago that many unis were celebrating their centennial.) Hagwons, on the other hand, generally act like corporations: they offer the teacher only ten work days' worth of vacation per year, plus the regular smattering of national holidays. Which sounds better to you: 3 months' vacation plus national holidays, or two weeks' vacation plus national holidays? To me, the choice is obvious.

The Korean administrator's attitude toward the employment contract will vary according to the place of work, with hagwons generally being more devious and miserly than universities. Sookmyung University was, on the whole, pretty good about honoring my contract. I did, in fact, teach roughly 18-22 hours per week, and my vacation dates were always consistent. I was also fortunate to have reasonable supervisors who allowed us teachers some creative leeway in how we taught, but who were also concerned enough to want to sit down and discuss departmental standards. My only complaint was the mishandling of how to calculate overtime pay. This was truly bothersome, but the problem never cropped up frequently enough to become a major issue.

By contrast, every hagwon I worked at presented me with huge and constant problems; it's a wonder I didn't switch to university teaching sooner! Hagwon bosses routinely violate the terms of one's employment contract, tacking on extra hours, suddenly assigning new courses to teach, taking mysterious deductions from one's monthly pay, fudging tax figures, etc. My very first hagwon experience ended with me suing my boss for $4000 that he owed me. My second hagwon, which had just started up in the rich Kangnam region of Seoul, was so awful that I quit after four months there. My final hagwon experience, at the aforementioned [EC], lasted seven months, but the grinding split shift, the soul-crushing lack of free time, and the assholery of the bosses convinced me to leave. (I did, however, make plenty of friends while there; my coworkers were all wonderful folks, suffering just as much as I was, if not more.) In April 2005, I started work at Sookmyung Women's University, and spent a very happy three years there: good bosses, great coworkers, nice students, and a decent work schedule.

It's important, however, to shop around for a sweet deal. I discovered, after talking with some friends, that Sookmyung was at the lower end of the "cushy" spectrum: some of my friends were happily pimp-rolling onto campus to teach their 9 weekly hours, and each weekday they would leave before noon and do whatever they wanted the rest of the day-- all while earning at least $2000 per month-- net. (A bit of perspective: to earn $24,000/year net in the US, you have to have a salary of about $32,000, assuming roughly $25% lopped off for taxes and other deductions. Also of note: the Korean tax on income was only about 3.3% when I was there. We kept most of what we earned. These days, however, I've heard that extra taxes/fees are being levied on foreigners' income, so I no longer have an accurate picture of what's going on.)

$2000 a month may not seem like much if a person is used to making $35,000-$50,000 a year, so let's branch out a bit from discussing hagwons and universities. Truly high-paying English-teaching jobs are hard to find legally, but the illegal market is wide open, and everyone knows that that's where the money is. The advantage of having a 9-hour-a-week university job is that one has free time to stack up on all the private tutoring. In Korea, a competent (or even an incompetent) tutor can charge upwards of $50-200 per hour to teach at people's homes. There's some risk involved, however, as Immigration will perform very occasional random sweeps of houses and apartment complexes. Sometimes, Immigration will pay residents to inform on families that might be hosting a foreigner who appears regularly at their doorstep. None of this seems to deter the illegal private tutoring trade, however, and if you're willing to overlook the ethical considerations, private tutoring is definitely the biggest cash cow in town.

I've done some of my own tutoring (and copy editing/proofreading) on occasion, so I can't claim to be a paragon of integrity. At the same time, I chose university work precisely because I didn't want to be spending all my time teaching, day in and day out. I have some professional pride, and would rather devote more "down" time to things like lesson prep, as opposed to rushing breathlessly from home to home, all across town, just to earn an extra $100 a day with private classes. Which is more important: money or sanity?

Professional pride is as much an issue, in selecting a place of work, as the money question. Many foreigners come to Korea and teach English merely as a way to pass the time, not because they have any deep feelings about pedagogy, or because they feel any special warmth toward Koreans. This lack of care shows in how they teach. To me, that sort of attitude is a crying shame. Despite the negative things I've said about Korean hagwon bosses, I don't want you (or your sister) to think that that's how I feel about Korean culture as a whole. Koreans are fantastic people, especially once you get to know them, and a widespread network of mostly-dirty businessmen doesn't change that fact.

It may be that, once a foreigner gets his or her bearings in Korea and starts to understand the rhythm of the culture, the act of teaching English will have engendered some-- to use a pedagogical term-- intrinsic motivation, i.e., a desire to teach for the sake of others, because one loves teaching, and not merely because it's a way to pass the time or to earn money for the next shopping trip to Tokyo.

Koreans, right or wrong, see English as a gateway to the wider world, and for all their "frog in a well" xenophobia ("frog in a well" is an Asian metaphor for a blinkered perspective), they are serious about wanting to learn the language. One task of the foreign English teacher is to help students unlearn years of poor language training. Such training was given by well-intended Korean instructors who had been taught to teach by rote, often allowing students little to no time to produce language by speaking and writing. A truly committed expat English teacher will want to invest him- or herself in helping students learn English correctly. At the same time, he or she will try to avoid acting like a monkey in front of the class, thereby falsely conflating education and entertainment. Incorporating humor into one's pedagogical repertoire is OK; being a perpetual clown is just degrading.

Anyway, this email has gone on way too long, and I apologize. But in my defense: I wanted to provide as thorough an initial orientation as I could for your sister. Any foreigner who teaches in Korea (1) should be on their guard, because English teaching is Big Business-- a fact that has attracted all the usual ugly elements of the society; and (2) should have a strong sense of their own worth, i.e., they shouldn't settle for a school that pays peanuts and offers dispiriting work conditions. Private tutoring will definitely net the most cash, but some big universities allow degreed foreigners into their "legitimate" English departments to teach courses in Modern American Lit or Deconstructing Totalizing Metanarratives or whatever. A person with two English degrees should have little trouble finding a decent teaching position. If that person is like me, s/he will keep in mind the following deal-breakers when searching for a job:

1. No teaching on weekends.
2. No split shifts.
3. No teaching at children's "camps" during the vacation months. (Some universities sneak this into the contract, which means that one's vacation time isn't as plentiful as one had thought. On the up side, such camps offer great hourly pay, and that pay is usually on top of the regular vacation pay. A workaholic might enjoy such an arrangement.)
4. No teaching more than 25 hours per week. University teaching hours are, in the normal range, around 12-18 hours per week. The 9-hour figure I quoted above strikes me as pretty rare, and probably hard to sustain from semester to semester. I also imagine that such positions are eagerly sought out, i.e., there's plenty of competition for them.

One option I haven't discussed has gained popularity fairly recently: teaching in a Korean public school. While I personally would find such a situation to be a nightmare, some expats report that they love doing it. My experience has been that Korean youngsters can often be as undisciplined and rambunctious as their US counterparts. Having taught high school French in America, and having visited a few high schools in Korea, I've seen the similarities. Adolescents are adolescents. But this might be a live option for your sister. Unfortunately, I don't know much about this option, though I might be able to find people who do.

Oh, yes, another thing: I should note that, as regards private teaching, the fat end of the market involves teaching children-- often elementary schoolers, but also secondary schoolers. If your sister and her boyfriend have decent connections in Korea, they might be able to obtain some sweet private arrangements with richer families. Don't be modest: charge such families at least $80-100 per hour. With well-paying private arrangements in place, it might not even be necessary for your sister to find an actual school to work at. (Again, a lot depends on visa restrictions and one's ethical orientation. Koreans themselves regularly bend and break rules and laws-- cheating on campus is rampant, for example, as are traffic violations-- so a lot of foreigners just shrug and do as the Romans do. Everyone for themselves. Besides, are Americans really in a position to lecture other countries about corruption and illegality?)

OK... I've emptied out my brain, and will need time for it to refill slowly. If you or your sister have any questions, please feel free to write me. When you do, please put "Kevin" in the subject line of the email, otherwise the email will be diverted directly to the trash. "Kevin" doesn't have to be the only word in the subject line; you can write "Screw you, Kevin," and that'll pass through the filter just fine. I created that filter to screen out the massive amount of spam I receive; it's 99.999% effective, as very few spam emails specify my name.

Good luck to your sister!



PS: One place to look for work is a site called Dave's ESL Cafe, which includes a constantly-updated section on jobs in South Korea. Check it out:


I found my Sookmyung job this way, and it turned out great. Beware, though: some people end up in nightmare situations. It's always good to sniff around before settling on a job.

PPS: At the university level, there's a world of difference in student psychology between teaching a non-credit course versus a for-credit course. Students in non-credit courses often tend to drop out in droves as the semester wears on. A class that starts off with ten students might end up with just three, for example. For-credit courses have far better attendance, and the grade acts as an "extrinsic motivator," forcing the student to worry about their own progress. In terms of teacher morale, teaching for-credit courses is much better than teaching non-credit courses, but unfortunately, most of us expats end up teaching non-credit courses. Competition for teaching positions in the "legitimate" English departments on campus can be fierce, but someone with massive credentials should have less of a problem obtaining such a post.

I imagine that some folks might take a dim view of the above-quoted email. My advice sounds cynical, as if I'm all about bilking rich families and treating Koreans as suckers. My response to such an accusation is that the above is actually a pretty blunt and factual account of What the Market Will Bear in Korea. Like it or not, English is a hot commodity there-- nothing like it is in the States (where even native speakers seem intent on destroying the language through poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation). While I might agree that Koreans should put less stress on learning English and more stress on other ways to develop their global influence, I see no problem with encouraging foreigners to carpe the diem and take advantage of current conditions. I should also note that people who charge too little are often viewed as being of lesser quality. Image matters, as does one's ability to negotiate one's fee. Make no mistake: Koreans are astute hagglers.

For what it's worth-- I personally have never charged $100 an hour to teach English to anyone. I have friends who have no compunction about doing that, but such behavior just isn't me. I have, however, taught for several months at a proposed rate of $75 an hour (how could I say no?), and once-- only once-- I did twenty minutes of proofreading work for a large conglomerate, and received a completely unexpected $600 for my trouble. The document wasn't even ten pages long, and whoever had written it had already done an excellent job of putting it together. The English was as perfect as could have been expected; the only errors were three or four very minor typos. More jobs like that one, please!


Thursday, March 11, 2010

happiness is...

...finding this old UFC video of Gary Goodridge doing a Kuk Sul Weon takedown of Paul Herrera (whose fighting style, whatever it was, played no part in the bout). Amazing takedown and knockout.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

naked chicken with cashews and green peppers, Hominid-style

PREP FOR THE LIQUID (modified teriyaki sauce)

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses (or a bit less)
a splash of whisky
Asian red pepper flakes (to taste)
garlic powder (to taste)
black pepper (to taste)
ginger powder (to taste)
1 heaping tablespoon dried onion
1 heaping tablespoon of cornstarch in 3-4 oz. of cold water (prepare this just before adding it to the sauce while cooking; do not add well in advance)


4 large chicken breastuses (preferably from Costco's Kirkland line; their breasts are enormous)
3 large green bell peppers
3-5 green onions
3 handfuls of cashews (I use salted, and they work fine, but there's nothing wrong with washing off the salt or buying unsalted cashews)

rice (prep separately in a rice cooker)


1. Make the sauce first by combining all the ingredients except the cornstarch-and-water mixture. Stir thoroughly to allow the molasses and brown sugar to mix well with the rest of the ingredients. I often heat the mixture for a few seconds in a microwave so as to thin it out and make the ingredients easier to combine. (If, by the way, you don't like molasses in your teriyaki sauce, feel free to replace it with some other sweetener: dark corn syrup, more brown sugar, etc., though I'd advise against table sugar. In my opinion, molasses works just fine, and has appeared in quite a few recipes for teriyaki sauce.)

2. Set the sauce aside, and start up the rice cooker. The rice is now on auto-pilot. Don't worry about it for the rest of this procedure.

3. Prep green peppers by cutting away all the irrelevant portions (seeds, core, membrane), and cut the peppers into sections roughly half an inch square. This is a chunky-chicken preparation, and I want the chicken pieces somewhat larger than the green pepper and cashews.

4. Put the prepped green peppers in a bowl and set aside.

5. Put three handfuls of cashews in a bowl and set aside.

6. De-fat and cut up four thoroughly thawed chicken breasts into cubes/chunks, perhaps 3/4 of an inch on a side, maybe a bit smaller-- but larger than the green peppers. Trim away any morsels that look like connective tissue.

7. The chicken won't be coated with flour or anything like that (hence the "naked" in the blog post title); once the meat has been cubed, place it all into a large bowl.

8. Set stove top to "high." Put down a generous amount of oil for the chicken. Once oil is hot, throw the bird chunks on. Add salt and pepper. Stir-fry until the chicken flesh is zombie-white and all the pieces have been thoroughly cooked through (no red centers!).

9. At this point, you'll find you have a lot of liquid that's cooked out of the chicken. I find that this extra liquid impedes the subsequent cooking process, so at this point, I'd recommend draining the chicken in a strainer or colander, then tossing it back into the pan with more oil.

10. Now we're at Phase 2 of the chicken-cooking process. Cook the chicken until you start to see some-- not all-- of the pieces develop significant browning along edges, corners, and sides. Be careful, because it's now a delicate balancing act between (a) dryness, and (b) the extra taste and texture that accompany such browning. Once you start to see the browning, add the cashews. After a minute or two, add the green peppers. Cook another minute or so, stirring constantly.

11. While this is going on, prepare the cornstarch-and-water mixture, and have it at the ready. Do this by mixing the heaping tablespoon (not too heaping!) of cornstarch with 3-4 ounces of cold water. Stir until you have a cloudy mixture. Caution: too much cornstarch, and you'll have to figure out, within seconds, how to thin out your sauce. Unlike flour, which usually needs to be made into a roux to act as a decent thickener, cornstarch reacts almost instantly to high heat, and the thickening process begins right away. Be careful.

12. By this point, the green peppers should have a shinier, more intense green color than when they started. Don't move too far beyond this phase, or you'll end up with dead, faded-looking green peppers. ADD THE SAUCE. Stir for another 30-50 seconds, allowing all the solid elements to be thoroughly coated. At this stage in the process, the moment the sauce is added to the heat, the entire dish acquires its signature fragrance, and all your efforts suddenly make sense. This is the part of the process that I've been waiting for. (The dish, you'll notice, won't look half bad, either.)

13. Finally! It's time to add the cornstarch-and-water mixture to thicken up the sauce. You don't want the sauce too thick, but you don't want a runny sauce, either. The water from the green peppers, the residual water from the chicken, and the oil in the pan should ideally combine quite well with the modified teriyaki sauce and the cornstarch.

14. Once the sauce has thickened, you're done. Do be sure that you've been checking the state of the chicken the entire time. Breast meat in particular has a tendency to turn into the meat version of hard tofu if overcooked, so be on the lookout for any potential textural difficulties.

15. Scoop some rice into a large serving bowl (or plate), top with the naked chicken mixture, and eat. Sides optional. Sesame seeds sprinkled atop the glistening dish optional. Oh, yes-- the green onions! Chop them up into little 1/4-inch cylinders and sprinkle atop the dish as a garnish.

CAUTION: The sauce is definitely sweet, and might not be to everyone's liking as a result. One idea, which I got from my brother David, is to add a tiny splash of rice vinegar. Personally, I'm not a big fan of this addition because it gives the sauce an almost citrus-y taste, but that's not to say that the resultant taste is bad. It's not. Another way to reduce sweetness in the sauce might be to reduce the amount of sugar and replace it with something tasteless, like water. You do risk having a bland sauce, though, as the water will also dilute the saltiness of the soy sauce.

I cooked and served this dish for Tuesday dinner. Alas, I didn't have the super-large Kirkland chicken breasts, so the meal ended up serving just me and my brother. We slaughtered the entire thing, so if you were to ask me how many people this dish serves, I'd say "two hungry adult males." In our case, this meant one full-sized serving in a large bowl, followed by one half-sized serving in the same bowl.

Please consider the recipe a guideline only. Vary the proportions of the cashews, chicken, and green peppers according to your preference. Throw in other ingredients, such as carrots and/or mushrooms. I put my cashews in whole, but you might prefer breaking them up slightly for a different mouth-feel. And if you'd prefer a different type of brown sauce, there are plenty of recipes online. I've found that the above modified teriyaki recipe works well for me and my palate, but I'm biased toward sweetness.


thank you, Facebook friends

I'm ecstatic that someone on my list of Facebook friends linked to this hilarious YouTube video of a woman (a contestant on the show "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?") who didn't seem to understand that Europe isn't a country.

This, folks, is why people from other countries think Americans are inbred rubes. (Of course, the reply to such scorn is simple: Judge us by our rubes, and we'll judge you by yours.)

Were I in Korea right now, I'd use this video in my English class. Jeff Foxworthy, the game show host, even takes a moment to rib women and their tendency to listen selectively.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

2010 Oscar predictions

NOTE: Updates to this post, showing the actual winners, are in red.

I have no idea why I'm doing this since, excepting "Star Trek," I haven't seen any of the films that have been nominated. All the same, here we go. Commentary accompanies each prediction.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:

"Avatar," for sheer scope and ambition. I still haven't seen the film, but I've read a lot of commentary on it. Yeah, I know: "Hurt Locker" is the current favorite. All the same, I think this might be Cameron's moment. I doubt "Avatar" will clean up in every category, but a Best Picture nod isn't implausible. The film's had incredible buzz.

UPDATE: Nope. "The Hurt Locker."

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:

Morgan Freeman for "Invictus," mainly because Freeman pretty much is God in my mind. The man can do no wrong. Sure, sure: like his buddy Clint Eastwood, Freeman basically plays himself in every movie. But also like Eastwood, he fully inhabits his limited range with the same degree of mojo you find in fellow narrow-rangers like Nicholson, De Niro, and Hackman.

UPDATE: Wrong! Jeff Bridges.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:

Helen Mirren for "The Last Station." It was painful for me to choose between Mirren and Streep. Both women are ferociously talented actresses; both understand how to disappear completely and egolessly into a role (which I suppose makes them the professional opposites of the guys mentioned above); both deserve every award they pick up -- and they seem to pick them up every year. In the end, it was a coin toss for me, and I decided to go with the Brit. Sorry, Meryl.

UPDATE: Right! Hooray!

Wrong! Sandra Buttock-- uh, Bullock. Hooray.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:

Christopher Plummer for "The Last Station." Although I've heard that Christoph Waltz was incredible in "Inglourious Basterds," Plummer is a sentimental favorite. Remember when he was the Satan-worshiping reverend in the Tom Hanks/Dan Aykroyd version of "Dragnet"? Remember Dabney Coleman as the other villain in that movie, lisping to Plummer, "Reverend? You got ballth ath big ath church bellth!" --to which Plummer responds with a sly smile and a purred, "Thank you"? Genius!

(OK, I'm joking. But Plummer resembles Ricardo Montalban in his unpretentiousness: he'll play amazingly serious roles and amazingly goofy ones. Cf. his scenery-chewing, Bard-quoting Klingon general in "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country.")

UPDATE: Per many other people's predictions, Christoph Waltz was the wiener. Winner.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:

Penélope Cruz for "Nine": sheer sexiness. I'm driven to this prediction primarily by animal lust.

UPDATE: Wrong again! Mo'Nique won the award.

Best Achievement in Directing:

Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker," mainly because this seems like a safe prediction, and because the Academy will want to snub Cameron wherever they can. Not that I blame them: from what I hear, the man is a temperamental dick.

UPDATE: Indeed.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:

"Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino. The man can write, and of the nominees on offer, Tarantino's writing is the style I know best. I would kill to have written "Pulp Fiction."

UPDATE: Incorrect! "The Hurt Locker" clinched the award.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:

"Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," Geoffrey Fletcher. I just don't think "District 9" can win, given the prejudices against SF films. And I have no idea about the other nominees in this category. "Precious" is my wild guess.

UPDATE: My wild guess was correct.

Best Achievement in Cinematography:

"Avatar," Mauro Fiore. I expect it to come down to either this movie or "Inglourious Basterds," and of the two, I suspect that "Avatar" was ballsier in terms of cinematography. Just a guess, of course, but fully rendered alien landscapes can be very impressive, especially in 3-D.

UPDATE: I somehow got this one right.

Best Achievement in Editing:

"Avatar," Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron. I suspect that, much as George Lucas did in his heyday, Cameron's SF adventure will be recognized less for its story value and more for what it represents in terms of the technical aspects of filmmaking.

UPDATE: Well, testicles. "The Hurt Locker" won.

Best Achievement in Art Direction:

"Avatar," Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg, Kim Sinclair. Again, it's the George Lucas factor. Lucas was and is primarily an editor at heart, or so the prevailing wisdom goes. Cameron is generally better than Lucas with story and character, but despite the much-discussed weaknesses of the script for "Avatar," I suspect that the visuals alone might be enough to net Cameron and Company the Oscar.

Then again-- and I promise that this will be the only category in which I hedge-- there's a very good chance that Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" (which, if I'm not mistaken, also features Christopher Plummer!) might steal the Oscar away from Cameron. Another reason for me to pick Gilliam is that his film isn't nominated in nearly as many categories as "Avatar": "Parnassus" is vying for only two Oscars. Pity for Gilliam and residual sympathy for Heath Ledger might augur well for the film.

UPDATE: I got this right. Unbelievable.

Best Achievement in Costume Design:

"The Young Victoria," Sandy Powell. When you say "costume design," I think "period pic."

UPDATE: YES! I got it right!

Best Achievement in Makeup:

The nominees in this category are merely three:

"Il divo," Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano
"Star Trek," Barney Burman, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow
"The Young Victoria," John Henry Gordon, Jenny Shircore

Of the three, I'd say "The Young Victoria" will win. As mentioned before: period pic. I can't see how "Star Trek" could possibly win, especially since the costume designer for "Trek" decided merely to go retro with the Enterprise crew's uniforms.

UPDATE: "Star Trek" won. I find this absurd.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:

"Avatar," James Horner. Horner is up there in the pantheon with the likes of John Williams and John Barry. The sheer scale of the "Avatar" story demands an equally ambitious score. I think a win not only possible, but probable. The main factor working against Horner is his annoying tendency to crib themes and leitmotifs from his own previous work. This is more obvious in some films than in others.

UPDATE: Michael Giacchino won this one for "Up." Nuts.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song:

"Crazy Heart," T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham ("The Weary Kind").

Just a guess, but some member of the Academy might have a soft spot for country music. (I don't.) If Jeff Bridges doesn't win Best Actor for "Crazy Heart," this category might serve as a way to get him an Oscar, anyway. I assume that Bridges sings "The Weary Kind" in the movie.

UPDATE: Correct!

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing:

"Avatar," Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, Tony Johnson. As before: the Lucas factor. "Avatar," if it garners any Oscars, is most likely to win them in categories like this one.

UPDATE: Wrong, wrong, wrong! "The Hurt Locker" won.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:

"Avatar," Christopher Boyes, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle. Yep: same deal.

UPDATE: And... NO! The winner was "The Hurt Locker." Dammit.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:

"Avatar," Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andy Jones. And here again, if the Academy wants to recognize Cameron, it's likely to be in a category like this one. "Star Trek" is also nominated in this category, but I don't think it had anywhere near the same number of effects shots. Cameron basically had to invent a whole new method of shooting and editing on the fly; "Trek" (if the DVD special features are any indication) went the opposite direction and found clever ways to create special effects in as thrifty and technologically simple a manner as possible. The Academy won't reward thrift, so it's a sure bet that "Trek" will NOT win this category.

(Now watch me turn out to be wrong.)

UPDATE: "Avatar" won! So I wasn't wrong.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year:

"Up," Pete Docter. I kept hearing good buzz about this film. "Coraline" is also nominated in this category, but I don't see how stop-motion animation can win against beautifully rendered CGI.

UPDATE: Yes! I got it right!

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year:

"Un prophète," France. Gotta root for my adoptive homies.

UPDATE: Balls, balls, balls. "El secreto de sus ojos" won. Ach, du liebe PENIS!

Best Documentary, Features:

"Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land," Anders Østergaard, Lise Lense-Møller. Here, I have no idea who might win, so this is a shot in the dark. The names sound Scandinavian, and Scandinavians make good porn, so I'm going with Østergaard and Lense-Møller.

UPDATE: Damn. "The Cove" won. Another kick in the nuts.

Best Documentary, Short Subjects:

"China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (TV)," Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill. The title of this documentary was the scariest of the bunch, so I'm going with it.

UPDATE: No! The winner was "Music by Prudence." Drat.

Best Short Film, Animated:

I didn't realize that that dude was still churning out "Wallace and Gromit" films (does he do them just to be nominated in this category?), but I'm going to predict that "La dama y la muerte," Javier Recio Gracia, will win. No reason. Just a cool title.

UPDATE: Wrong again! The winner was "Logorama."

Best Short Film, Live Action:

"Miracle Fish," Luke Doolan, Drew Bailey. Total guess. The title sounds like some sort of allusion to Christian scripture. Hollywood has a love/hate relationship with religion, and that ambivalence might serve as an attractant during Oscar season.

UPDATE: Ha ha-- WRONG! The winner was "The New Tenants."

So-- voilà. There are my 2010 Oscar predictions. I'll revisit them after the show's over on Sunday and see how well I did. If I score more than 60% right, this will confirm my psychic ability. I will then spend the rest of the year using my mind to command entire ant colonies to march in formation and perform miniature Arirang Festival maneuvers.


Friday, March 05, 2010

too much time on their hands

While I'm the last person to accuse anyone of having too much time on their hands, I'll note this bit of silliness that just occurred at my other blog. Read the comments. Do people seriously have time to waste on the "proper" romanization of a Korean president's name?

Who was that commenter? Some fuck from VANK? VANKing away on my blog?


Thursday, March 04, 2010

on Goldie Hawn

I've heard and spoken the name "Goldie Hawn" many times over the years, but it was only thirty seconds ago that I began to realize just how strange-sounding the surname "Hawn" is.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

It's eerie-- like the forlorn call of a farm animal in the wee hours of the morning. Especially when the name is said slowly, around a mouthful of chocolate cake and Rocky Road.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

It's the sound of Darth Vader's breathing. He's inside his clamshell meditation chamber, mask off, muttering a sinister mantra through lava-seared lungs and lips. Possibly with chocolate cake and Rocky Road in his mouth.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

It's the sound of an angel shot through the lung by a bolt from a metaphysical crossbow. Its wings splay awkwardly; its body lies face-down in a filthy puddle next to a dumpster in a Chicago alley, the crossbow bolt protruding from between its shoulder blades.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

It's the groans during sex.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

It's the angry barking of a misanthropic codger who sees kids trespassing on the front lawn:

Hawn! Hawn! Hawn!

It's the mournful sound of your heart after a breakup.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

The more I think about Goldie's surname, the more mystified I am by it.

Hawn. Hawn. Hawn.

The pulse of the universe.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I'm back from my week of solitude and reflection. The first thing I did upon entering the house was to charge downstairs, drop trou, and shoot out a massive turd that had been battering at my asshole for release: it began as a proud, solid tube of Metamucil-infused shite but ended, sadly, as a scattershot blat of alternately weak and powerful diarrhea. I'm still feeling some aftershocks from the event, so it's possible I may have to rush off to the toilet agai--