Wednesday, June 30, 2010

to leave when someone needs you

There may be legitimate reasons to abandon someone during a time of extreme need, but I can't think of any at the moment. Already feeling a bit somber this evening (I have good moments and bad moments; Mom's been dead for only six months, so the wounds are still fresh), I came upon this entry at the fine blog ROK Drop. The entry quotes a news article about yet another suicide by a Korean celebrity:

A popular South Korean actor and singer was found dead Wednesday in an apparent suicide that would be the latest in a recent string of high-profile suicides in the Asian country, police and a news report said.

Park Yong-ha, 33, apparently hanged himself in his home in Seoul, Yonhap news agency reported, citing police.

An official with Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency told The Associated Press that Park was found hanging by the electric cord of his mobile phone battery charger. However, police were still trying to determine the exact cause of death, the official said on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.

Park debuted in the late 1990s and starred in the 2002 television drama “Winter Sonata,” which drummed up a following in Japan and Southeast Asia. He held several concerts in Japan and one of his fans was said to be its former first lady Akie Abe.

Yonhap reported no suicide note was found, but the Seoul police agency said Park told his family “I’m sorry. I’m sorry” while massaging his father, who is terminally ill with stomach cancer, early Wednesday.
(emphasis added)

That last sentence kicked me in the gut. How could Park abandon his father? How could he?

Someone needs to teach courses in demon-wrestling.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

some thoughts arise unbidden

For a while now, I've thought that Food Network superstar Giada De Laurentiis reminded me of someone. Then, as you see above, I finally figured out who it was.

The mouth, man! Da frickin' mouth! It's the kind of frightening orifice that my brothers might refer to as The Mouth of Madness, an oblique reference to this bizarro film. Giada's a pretty lady, but you can park a car inside her head. I'm worried that other members of the De Laurentiis clan share this trait, a bit like the Habsburg jaw. We know their clan is hungry for power: Giada's grandfather, Dino De Laurentiis, made his name producing movies like "Barbarella" and "Conan the Barbarian," among others. The pups and elders have placed themselves in key positions within American and Italian society, probably ready to enact some terrifying global plan.

I can easily imagine the whole De Laurentiis family at the beach-- several generations of them. It's twilight, and they all slip silently into the water, swimming in stately formation like a pod of whales. Then they dive. Mouths agape, eyes rolled back into their skulls, they placidly Hoover up plankton, seaweed, jellyfish, manatees, and the odd shark. They communicate with each other by making low growling/clicking noises in their throats, punctuated by occasional sinister vocalizations: underwater versions of Giada's delighted squeals when she samples her own cooking. Giant squid give the family a wide berth as the pod sinks down, down into the abyssal depths. The family cruises along lush sea-canyons, aware that they may be tempting fate, for this region of the great silent ocean is home to a massive, tentacled, bioluminescent predator, the only one who can strike fear in the heart of a De Laurentiis:

James Cameron.

Five miles wide and more vicious than any other creature on the planet, Cameron spends his free time sprawled out on the ocean floor in his true molluscan form, irritably devouring random sperm whales and undersea mountains, his multitude of enormous, bloodshot eyes glaring frighteningly at everything around him. Make no mistake: James Cameron has hated this world ever since he crash-landed here centuries earlier-- has hated it with all nine of his powerful, monstrous alien hearts. And soon, very soon, he plans to rid this pitiful spheroid of its human infestation. No longer will he have to assume human form and make movies about death, drowning, and the color blue.

The De Laurentiis family pauses, sensing Cameron's constantly radiating aura of naked fury somewhere ahead. Unwilling to challenge him, they turn around and begin heading back to the beach, giant mouths agape as they scoop up luckless krill. Before they break the surface, their bodies renormalize, their dark and alien secret still safe for the moment, their near-encounter with Cameron already a fading, unpleasant memory.


Vallicella on Hick: dialogue de sourds?

From Maverick Philosopher, a quote from philosopher of religion John Hick:

The major division, as we have already noted, is between religious and naturalistic definitions. According to the former, religion (or a particular religious tradition) centres upon an awareness of and response to a reality that transcends ourselves and our world, whether the 'direction' of transcendence be beyond or within or both. Such definitions presuppose the reality of the intentional object of religious thought and experience; and they are broader or narrower according as this object is characterised more generally, for example as a cosmic power, or more specifically, for example as a personal God. Naturalistic definitions on the other hand describe religion as a purely human activity of state of mind. Such definitions have been phenomenological, psychological and sociological. (An Interpretation of Religion, Yale 1989, p. 3, footnotes omitted, bolding added.)

Dr. Vallicella writes:

There is certainly a difference between a religious approach to religion and a naturalistic approach. And Hick is right that it is a major difference. But I suggest that the bolded passage needs correction. It is not that religious definitions of religion presuppose the reality of the intentional object of religious thought and experience, it is rather that they do not foreclose on the possibility of the reality of the intentional object.

When I study religion 'religiously,' what I do is take seriously religion's claim to be about something transcendent of our ordinary experience. Thus when I study Christianity religiously, I take seriously its claim to be a divine revelation both in and through its Scripture and in and through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I hold myself open to the possibility of divine revelation. But this is not to say that I presuppose the reality of the triune God. I simply do not rule out the possibility of the existence and self-revelation of this God in the manner of the naturalist who, from the outset, assumes that religion is and can be nothing but a natural phenomenon, and therefore cannot be revelatory of anything beyond nature.

I'm not sure that the above represents anything more than a philosopher's attitude toward religion. Most religious people (especially theists), because they have faith and because faith is a proactive response to the divine, would say that they do more than "not foreclose on the possibility of the reality of the intentional object." If I were to ask some typical lay Christians, plucked at random from among the millions of practicing Christians in the US, whether they presupposed the reality of the triune God, I'm positive that, in over 90% of such cases, the Christians would respond with a hearty affirmative. A philosopher, being someone who proceeds carefully in the spirit of inquiry and examination, will be more circumspect in his language, but I'm willing to bet that, if the philosopher is himself of a religious bent, then he too presupposes the basics of whatever is entailed by his religious orientation, be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or what have you. He might not admit this presupposition, but if one's worldview is the most fundamental aspect of one's psyche, then such presupposition is inevitable, even if one isn't aware of it.

Dr. V seems to be talking past Hick in his post. Hick is talking primarily about the attitudes of the typical religious layperson, who most assuredly presupposes the reality-- and not merely the possibility-- of the object of his intention. But as I ventured in the previous paragraph, I think that Hick's view applies even to those of a more scholarly bent.


theodicy redux!

You'll need some background before you read the following response to Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges.

It all began with Malcolm Pollack's recent citation of my and Bill Keezer's exchange on theodicy with Roman Dawes, over at Bill's fine blog. Here's the link to Malcolm's post, Evil Still a Problem, Apparently, which links back to Bill's original post and comment thread on theodicy. Malcolm's comment thread includes a response by Dr. Hodges, who reposted his response on his own blog, with some additional remarks. See here: The Logical Problem of Evil?

Dr. Hodges had commented that there exists a general consensus among philosophers (of religion) that the supposed contradictions highlighted by the original formulation of the theodicic problem are not provably contradictory. In my reply, I asked for references to this broad agreement, which led Dr. Hodges, on his own blog and by way of example, to link to a passage from William L. Rowe's God and the Problem of Evil—specifically, a section titled "The Logical Problem of Evil." Rowe, in the introduction to Part II of his book, highlights the now-classic "free-will defense" formulated by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga as a way of laying out the logical problem. [NB: whether Rowe agrees with Plantinga is another matter, since Rowe is an atheist who has formulated his own arguments against the existence of God.]

What follows is a response that I began writing on Malcolm's blog (before I saw Dr. Hodges's subsequent blog post), and finished writing only a few minutes ago.


Thank you. You write:

But why is this a contradiction? The contradiction needs to be clearly demonstrated, but such a contradiction cannot be demonstratively shown, for God’s omniscience and our epistemological situation of limited knowledge leave open the possibility that God has a good reason for allowing evil that we simply do not know and perhaps cannot even understand.

This does indeed sound like an appeal to the "hidden harmony" argument, or something similar, given that it reaches for some occult justification of the existence of evil and suffering, thereby obliquely referencing a perspective unavailable to us here below.

Most refutations of the hidden-harmony argument hinge on the definition of divine omnibenevolence. If the term has any meaning at all, it has to mean that God desires maximal fulfillment for all his creatures. It cannot mean anything less than this, for anything less would entail less-than-maximal fulfillment for at least one creature. God's "good reason" for creaturely suffering, whether occult or simply unknowable, necessarily violates this definition of omnibenevolence, even if we restrict the discussion merely to what God desires, without considering how the universe has actually turned out (i.e., execution of that desire). The epistemological question—whether we can know God's "good reason"—is thus irrelevant, and I think the only possible response is aggressively to question the meaning of the term "omnibenevolence." Alvin Plantinga's "free-will defense" leans in this direction, without actually exploring what such divine omnibenevolence might look like. For Plantinga (whom William Rowe quotes), it is enough to demonstrate that such divine reasoning is logically possible. Implied in this move is a justification for a less-than-maximally-good state of affairs, which is by implication a defense of a radically different (I would say radically deficient) notion of omnibenevolence. Is it satisfactory? Many thinkers believe so, but as Allen Stairs notes in his A Thinker's Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, Plantinga has teased out his defense to a potentially ridiculous extreme (p. 209):

Like the Freewill [sic] Theodicy, a major objection to the Freewill Defense is that it cannot account for natural evil. Plantinga points out that it is logically possible that natural evil is caused by Satan or lesser demons. This might sound wildly implausible... but remember that because Plantinga is giving a defense and not a theodicy, all he needs to show is that it is logically possible (i.e., involves no contradiction) that all natural evil is caused by malevolent spiritual beings. If he's right, the Freewill Defense accounts for natural evil by collapsing it into moral evil.

Plantinga's "solution" seems either to push the problem back a step (instead of asking about the existence of evil, we're now focused on the existence of Satan and his minions), or to render the matter circular: his claim is, after all, that the source of evil is evil (by which I mean the noun, not the predicate adjective).

Switching gears: even if we do bring epistemology into the equation, we see right away that it doesn't require a divine mind to note the existence of human evil and suffering. The deliverances of the senses provide enough evidence that this world is less than maximally fulfilling. Everything else then follows: God knows of this state of affairs (omniscience) yet does nothing to rectify it (unexercised omnipotence). All of this militates against God's being omnibenevolent—a stance implicitly taken by Elie Wiesel in Night. Allen Stairs, in his Thinker's Guide, calls this argument from observed facts "the abductive argument," i.e., an argument that makes the best possible sense of the evidence at hand. The force of the empirical evidence (or so it is contended) is such that no coherent theology can both explain reality as it is and posit an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God.

I should step back for a second and note that the so-called "argument from evil" is generally used to "prove" that God doesn't exist. I agree with John Hick that the cosmos presents itself as "religiously ambiguous," as he puts it, thus making it impossible to prove or disprove God's existence through logic. For myself, the argument from evil strikes me as an argument about the self-contradictory ways in which God is conceived. At best, it's one argument in support of a more general one about the incoherence of personalistic theism, but can't be counted as a forceful disproof of God's existence.

Final remark: the fundamental "problem" in the "problem of evil" arises from the idea that an originally pristine, harmonious moral and physical cosmos cannot possibly give rise to anything less than that perfect initial state of affairs. See John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion (2010 edition of 2001 volume), page 8:

But more basically, the idea that God initially created a perfect universe—in the sense of a dependent universe that was as God wanted it to be—which then went radically wrong through the choices of free beings within it, is self-contradictory. Finitely perfect beings in a finitely perfect environment, although free to sin, will not do so. If they do, they were not perfect after all. And so if God is the creator ex nihilo of everything other than God, then God cannot escape the ultimate responsibility for the entire history of the universe, including the 'fall' of the creatures who are part of it.

This is, I think, the basic point being made by people who reject theodicies. God, especially as classically conceived, can't be exculpated when it comes to the question of evil and suffering. Either there exists a morally deficient (or non-classical) God, or God simply doesn't exist.


Monday, June 28, 2010

so long, Das

In the most recent episode of "The Next Food Network Star," we witnessed the downfall of poor Das. I liked him, but he seemed unable to establish true camera-friendly appeal. He also committed the unforgivable sins of matching sweet berries to beef (think: blueberries and strawberries), and being unable to define what "prime rib" was. (Full disclosure: I would have failed at that pop quiz, too.)

The normally ebullient Herb didn't fare so well, either: he was at the bottom this week, right alongside Das, and survived by the skin of his teeth. Given the ambiguous editing of the episode, we never learned why, exactly, Herb seemed so off his game. He ended up looking bipolar-- joyfully bouncing off the walls in previous episodes, then turning somber and gloomy for no obvious reason, before the week's challenges had begun. He should have been riding high after his coup last week: he and Brianna had won the team challenge.

For her part, Brianna blossomed this week. She has proven to be one of the best and most consistent cooks among all the contestants. She might even give Aria and Aarti a run for their money, as long as she continues to work on her on-camera persona. Aarti won one of the challenges this week, and deservedly so. In my mind, she is overtaking Aria as the front-runner, and with Herb's major stumbles this week, I'm beginning to wonder whether it's time to revise my Top Three list.

Paul, the unfunny improv guy, somehow managed to be declared "safe" from dismissal this time around. Grizzled Tom and rapidfire chatterbox Serena were also declared safe during the second contest, as was Brad, whose beret, a good-luck charm from his granddad, annoys my brother David. Brad still needs to work on his consistency, and like Paul, he needs to stop talking about his supposedly high level of training. Speaking of Paul: the judges spent some time trying to figure out what his culinary point of view was, and Paul practically admitted that he didn't have one, essentially telling the judges that he'd do whatever they expected as opposed to having an opinion of his own. How Paul survived this week is beyond me; I had thought that he would have been eliminated before Das.

With a defeated Herb on the chopping block alongside Das, this was truly a suspenseful episode, and it came as a relief when Herb was allowed a new lease on life (though I was sorry to see Das go; he seemed like a genuinely good fellow). I keep thinking that Herb simply needs to take whatever life-affirming advice he normally gives to clients in his role as a personal trainer: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, remember who you are, and soldier on. This week, Herb seemed to be in a downward spiral of self-doubt and depression. It struck me as uncharacteristic, but again, the narrative we're being fed is largely a function of editing (as Charles noted in a comment a while back). Maybe Herb's emotional downturn occurred for reasons too personal to put on the air; the Food Network generally errs on the side of good taste, which is one reason why I prefer its reality shows to those on other networks.

It was a good episode, all in all, and I look forward to whatever will happen next week.


Friday, June 25, 2010

when I have time and sufficient mental energy

I was involved in two very interesting online discussions-- one on theodicy, and the other on inclusiveness. I hope to write substantive reactions to each thread, but I can't say when that's going to happen: my job hunt continues, I'm off to France on July 28, and I'm still busy packing boxes and sending them up into our attic. Both of the pieces I'd like to write will be, I anticipate, rather lengthy, which means I'll need more time and energy than I currently have. For the moment, then, all I can say is: stay tuned. In the meantime, blogging will continue to be of a decidedly superficial nature.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

BP? BO? BM, I say!


bye, Dzintra!

It was with grim satisfaction that Dad and I witnessed the departure of the dotty and diva-ish Dzintra from "The Next Food Network Star." After demonstrating a complete inability to work with her partner (Aria, who must have committed a great sin in a previous life to have been paired with Dzintra), and having created a mediocre dish whose quality failed to match her "I trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris!" rhetoric, Dzintra was, thankfully, shown the door.

Since these episodes were doubtless filmed months ago and are being aired only now, I imagine that Dzintra today is cowering in a closet somewhere, cringing at how she appears to the American public, who are experiencing her special brand of nuttiness for the first time. But will she have learned any lessons from her experience on the show? My experience with reality-denying people like Dzintra tells me: no. She won't have learned a thing. She'll sulk a while, then it'll be business as usual.

But whatever "business as usual" might mean for Dzintra, that doesn't concern me. I can now focus on the remaining contestants without being irritated at this daffy, arrogant woman who was completely oblivious to how she appeared to everyone else.

Next up: we need to see about getting rid of Paul. He's rubbing everyone the wrong way, and he can't seem to back up his pro-chef smack talk with competent cooking. Once he's out of the picture, we'll be left with a stable of likable contestants.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all the dads, granddads, stepdads, and dads-in-law out there.


fuel for the fire

I'll be curious to see what happens when tar balls start washing up on non-American shores. True: the BP disaster is already of a large enough scale to be called "international," but in terms of what pols and pundits call "optics," i.e., how a situation looks to others, nothing screams "It's your fault!" quite like having a mess inside one's own territory drift inexorably across international borders. Forget the fact that BP isn't American; forget the fact that no sane person would have wanted a drilling rig to explode and kill eleven people; what people will see-- the optics-- is American crude sullying non-American beaches.

I admit I feel a bit sorry for Obama. My buddy Mike was probably right when he predicted that the oil spill would likely last beyond Election Day (they're now saying the disaster equals one Exxon Valdez every four days). This mess happened on Obama's watch, and along with his administration's other faux pas, this newest and biggest mess isn't going to be forgotten in November. If anything, it's going to be the mess that reminds the voter of all the other messes, and it will be skillfully woven into a narrative of overall party incompetence. The blindly party-line voters won't change their stance much, but the all-important swing voters, the ones not married to either party, will be watching, gauging the rhetoric, and making their own decisions.


Friday, June 18, 2010

on the euro

So I see that Germany may be mulling a departure from the euro. See? The Brits were right not to integrate!

I wouldn't be sad to see the euro go. As a unit of currency, it's rather boring, and as Europe is discovering, not all countries are pulling their weight to keep the euro stable and viable.

There's also the fact that I'm old and lazy. My international travel memories date back to the 1980s, when it was positively entertaining to train from country to country in Europe, exchanging money along the way. Each country's currency was part of its local color, and the economic trials of one country didn't automatically bring down all of its fellows. I remember dealing with French francs, Swiss francs (well, those still exist), West German D-Marks, East German Ostmarks, Italian lire, Swedish kronor (those still exist, too), Dutch guilders, Danish kroner (those still exist as well), and so on. What a happy mess it all was. If Europe got rid of the euro and went back to how things were in the 1980s, I wouldn't have to worry about mistakenly mentioning francs every time I talked about French currency. (Yes, I do make that mistake on occasion.)

The world is already inextricably interwoven. Did Europe really need the euro? My feeling is that the euro happened before Europeans were ready for it. It was intended as part of a larger scheme to weave Europe-- mostly Western Europe-- into a single economic zone on par with the United States. I'd say that the result of this years-long project has been, at best, mixed. While I'm not as anti-integrationist as some people, I'd agree that the euro has proved to be an idea centuries before its time.

Go for it, Germany! Bring back the D-Mark!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010


...and then my old alma mater created a new doctoral program-- one in my very own field:

Ph.D. in Theological and Religious Studies with a Focus on Religious Pluralism

Was it Edward James Olmos who recently said, "When in doubt, go back to school"? Ohhhh, the temptation.


criticize substantively, please

I'm getting tired of people citing Obama's supposed lack of emotion, especially in the midst of crisis. Having weathered a crisis of my own over the past year, I can tell you without a doubt that the ability to retain one's equanimity when everyone else is running around squawking (or in denial) is a virtue. I don't begrudge Obama his calm at all.

There may be plenty of other reasons to criticize Obama: lack of conviction, for starters, and lack of direction. People on the opposite side of the ideological aisle might take Obama to task for cleaving to liberal ideals perceived as detrimental to the country's health. That's all well and good, I think: such critiques are substantive, and there's a worthwhile dialogue to be had in that area.

But this obsession with Obama's supposed detachment or emotionlessness is completely beside the point, and not worth anyone's time. It's an obsession rooted in nothing deeper than externals, and reveals the embarrassing superficiality of the critics who grouse about how Obama looks. My advice: focus on actions and issues. Don't psychologize.



A big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my buddy Mike, who turns a ripe old 41 today. I'd normally repost a naughty essay that I had written for him some years back, but I see that Photobucket, the FTP site housing my pics, has deleted the image that went along with the essay because it violated the Photobucket Terms of Service. As someone who has spent most of his online career violating somebody's terms of service, I don't find this surprising.

In any event-- Happy Birfday, Mike. And many happy returns.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the job search

I've been applying to different community colleges (and a larger university or two) in the hopes of snagging a full-time gig as a religious studies instructor, but thus far, no one's been biting. There's an increasing chance that, by the end of August, I'll be looking to step back into the Korean fray. I loved what I was doing before, and will be happy to take up the mantle of English (and occasionally French) university instructor again. It's too bad, though, that I might not have a shot at teaching religion in the States.

But all is not lost on the religion front. Many community colleges announce position openings in July, so I can still hold out hope. What I might have to do is settle for part-time work* at the beginning, and if the school likes me, I can move upward to a full-time schedule, with benefits. We'll see how that goes. In the meantime, I'll keep on sending out resumes.


*For many teachers, what happens is that they end up working part-time at several different universities. I'd rather avoid that sort of unstable, itinerant existence, if at all possible. It might have appealed to me 10 or 15 years ago, but it doesn't today.


Monday, June 14, 2010

bye, Doreen

I watched the second episode of this season's "The Next Food Network Star," and witnessed the unsurprising departure of Doreen Fang. Doreen struck me as a nice person, but as the contest judges kept remarking, she had no clear culinary point of view. When you think of the most popular FN stars, you know what they're all about in an instant:

Alton Brown: food science, gadgets, and the importance of planning and prep
Bobby Flay: Southwestern, grilling, comfort food, cocktails
Guy Fieri: California fusion, rib-sticking diner food, cocktails
Giada De Laurentiis: light, modern Italian-American
Paula Deen: shamelessly heavy, rich Southern cuisine
Sunny Anderson: omnibus American comfort food
The Neelys: BBQ-accented American comfort food
Rachel Ray: quick meals, comfort food, Italian-American cuisine
Robert Irvine: admin skills, grit, and improvisation while cooking for 300

So who was Doreen? Well, I guess we'll never know, but it came as no surprise that she was shown the door, especially after last week's dismal performance and this week's chewy pulled pork.

I dearly hope that Dzintra, the batty culinary instructor, goes next. The woman is a mentally cluttered mess, and I'm beginning to wonder what she must be like as a teacher. With every challenge, she complains that her given task is, in some way or other, the most undesirable. Until she learns to master her emotions and control her own mind, she'll never amount to anything. I'll give her this, though: I've never seen her act in an unsportsmanlike way toward her co-competitors. I think she's probably a friendly, well-intended soul, so I don't class her among the cutthroats.

The big surprise, during the second episode, was the critique that Aria (last week's front-runner) received: the judges felt that her slow, exaggerated spoken cadence sounded too much as if she were talking to children. She managed to do well enough not to have to worry about being eliminated (as did the energetic Herb, who did better this week), but she wasn't top dog: that honor went to a very surprised Aarti. Aria, Aarti, and Herb remain in the top three. Das, meanwhile, partially redeemed himself after a poor opening last week, but we'll have to see whether he improves in front of the camera. Paul, the improv guy, fared poorly this week, and may be bumping shoulders with Dzintra on the way out the door. Brad, who was praised by Wolfgang Puck last week, made a smoked pork dish deemed inedible by at least two of the judges; this was surprising to me, and I now wonder how consistent his cooking is. He, too, still needs to learn how to work with the camera. Brianna once again cooked well, but people apparently found her personal style off-putting. Serena cooked the most beautiful-looking dish of the episode, but her mile-a-minute speaking style may ultimately prove too frenetic for the judges' taste.

The competition is shaping up nicely. Thus far, I think the people who have won their challenges have deserved their wins, and the people who have been eliminated have deserved their fate.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

what Korea just did to Greece

Korea's 2-0 victory over Greece at the start of this year's World Cup reminded me of another delicious Korea-Greece moment:

Hee hee!


Saturday, June 12, 2010

off to France sometime next month

I'm off to France in July. My French brother Dominique has been suffering some sort of neurological condition since April; it's pissing him off and worrying everybody else. The docs appear to have ruled out anything serious, like multiple sclerosis, but they still have no clue what his condition might actually be-- this after two months of testing.

The last time I was in France was 2007, when I hopped over for a short time and reacquainted myself with Dominique's wonderful family. Dominique's fourth child has grown up in my absence; he won't recognize me. His other kids will, though.

And there will be much screaming.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

there can be only one!

Having watched the first episode of Season 6 of "The Next Food Network Star," I now offer my predictions.

The "X"es represent my predictions as to who will drop out early. The green checks indicate people who stand a chance, i.e., they're likely to last beyond the fifth episode. A more detailed look:

1. Dzintra: She established herself as a mess early on. Her eye problem-- which I don't doubt was real-- didn't help matters. In the end, her general goofiness and conceitedness will be her undoing. I can see how she might be a winning personality under very, very specific conditions, but she strikes me as too much of a drama queen to make it far.

2. Doreen: Came off confused about who she is and what she's about. I had to agree with the judges that she's lacking a culinary point of view-- a mantra I've heard over and over during Seasons 4 and 5. Her inability to finish a meal within the time constraints was also a big minus.

3. Alexis: No need to predict: he was the first person to be booted off the show. Alexis struck me as one of those people who should have realized that he wasn't cut out for this business. Back to the farm with you!

4. Brianna: I actually liked Brianna when I first saw her, but the charm began to wear off over the show's two hours. Brianna established herself as a more-than-competent chef (her chicken dish was gorgeous), but she had trouble in front of the camera, was a little too enamored of her self-admitted "split personality," and, if the previews for the second episode are to be trusted, she'll also prove to be a cutthroat bitch who doesn't apologize after tripping a fellow competitor.

5. Aria: Most likely to win, based on her performance in the first episode. She impressed the judges with her charm, her smile, and her competence at cooking. I, too, was impressed with how well she took to the camera. Right now, she's the front runner, and it doesn't hurt that she's already an experienced culinary instructor.

6. Herb: Although he's not likely to win, I kind of hope that Herb comes in second and ends up with his own show anyway, a bit like Season 4 second-placer Adam Gertler. Herb's energy is infectious, and when he doesn't have to play directly to the camera, he's amazing to watch. But Herb's problem, right now, is that he doesn't know how to talk directly to his audience. I suspect that, with a little creative visualization, Herb can overcome this problem. (I've also enjoyed the dishes he's put out.)

7. Serena: She's a cutie, and I've got a crush on her, even though she's a married cutie. What's not sexy about a woman whose first language isn't English, yet who works as a lawyer in the States? I admire her drive. At first, I was worried that Serena was going to be the prima donna of this group, but that honor went to Dzintra, whom I actively dislike.

8. Tom: Alas, Tom comes off as a friendly oaf. I couldn't help noticing that he's got a one-track mind when it comes to his starches: in one challenge, he went for gnocchi (bad choice when you've got only 45 minutes to prep a full meal); in another, he went for gnocchi's German cousin, spaetzle. I'm beginning to think that his dishes may be too much on the heavy side, making him the anti-Herb. He's also shown problems with time management and neatness in presentation. Not an auspicious beginning.

9. Aarti: She's got a lovely personality, and will go far. But she's already made some rookie mistakes (raw chicken), which will likely cost her the brass ring. I can't help rooting for her, though: she's intelligent, dignified, and cultured. Along with Aria and Herb, she's in the top three.

10. Das: I had high hopes when Das first appeared, but he has quickly proved to be a mediocre cook (compare his failed chicken roulade to what Brianna made) and a poor TV personality. I doubt he'll last long. At the same time, I think some of the judges were a bit too harsh in their critiques of him. At least two of them found Das too vain, but this wasn't my impression of him at all. I think his style is unpolished, but he never struck me as cocky. Still, the judges obviously don't like him, so I expect he'll be gone by the fifth episode.

11. Brad: Wolfgang Puck reserved his highest praise for Brad's cooking, and I suspect that Brad will go far in the contest because of his culinary skill. Eventually, though, his wooden TV persona will drag him down, unless he performs a major overhaul on pace, posture, and intonation.

12. Paul: For an improv comic, Paul struck me as a complete dud in front of the camera (who the hell says "anyhooz"?), and I can't say that his food was particularly impressive, either. Paul will be gone before Brad goes.

So I guess we'll see how the contestants actually do. Last season, I recall wishing that one contestant in particular would wash out early, but despite her unpleasant, responsibility-dodging personality, she somehow managed to hang on longer than she should have. Anything goes.



Where do people get the idea that the French pronounce voilà as "wah-lah"? Are they confusing French with German? But even in German, the "v" doesn't sound like a "w": it's pronounced like an "f."

And while I'm at it:

The expression coup de grâce is not pronounced "koo duh grah." See that "e" on the end of grâce? That means you pronounce the "c" right before it: "koo deu grahss."

The word gras, pronounced "grah" in French, is usually an adjective meaning "fat," but can also be a noun signifying fatness, fatty tissue, etc. The mispronunciation "koo duh grah" calls to mind a well-endowed woman crushing my skull by whipping her torso at my face.

Ah, sweet fantasy...


Friday, June 04, 2010

on Zen meditation

I've been writing far more substantive material in emails to different friends than I have on this blog, and since a recent email on Zen meditation turned out pretty well (I must have been fully awake when I wrote it), I've decided to reproduce it, with minor edits for clarity and privacy, here.

Before I do, I'd like to note a weird piece of trivia. People familiar with Korean Buddhism know that Seon (Zen) meditation is referred to as ch'am-seon, or "참선," in Hangeul. People in the West who are familiar with Japanese Zen will know the term zazen, which is the term used by practitioners of Japanese Zen when referring to seated meditation. A person who is somewhat familiar with both traditions might assume that ch'am-seon and zazen come from the same Chinese characters but are pronounced differently in Korea and Japan, respectively. They would be wrong.

Ch'am-seon is rendered as "參禪" in hanja (Sino-Korean characters), whereas zazen is rendered as "坐禅" in kanji (Sino-Japanese characters). The kanji "禅" (Zen) is a more modern, short form of the hanja "禪" (Seon), so these are basically the same character. The hanja "參" (ch'am), however, is not the same as the kanji "坐" (za). Ch'am means "participate," whereas za means "sit," "sitting," or "seated." Zazen is thus seated meditation; in the Korean context, the characters "坐禪," pronounced jwa-seon (and written as "좌선") on the peninsula, refer not specifically to Seon meditation, but more generally to seated meditation of all types. The Korean hanja rendering offers us a somewhat different concept: that of participative or engaged meditation.

This isn't to say that Korean ch'am-seon and Japanese zazen are worlds apart in practice. In fact, I'd argue that the two expressions are merely different labels for the same activity.

Enjoy the following essay, which was written (in two separate emails—combined here) for a friend who is considering trying some seated meditation in the Zen/Seon style.

I've found Zen meditation, from the first time I ever tried it in 2000, to be positively medicinal. And I don't know why I don't keep up with it: it's an activity I thoroughly enjoy, and it doesn't take a lot of time out of my day. All one needs is five or ten minutes—the time to listen to a couple pop songs or a single classical movement—to start experiencing benefits. And when meditation is done at the beginning of the day, right as you're waking up, it's a bit like picking up a set of wind chimes that had lain jumbled on the floor: once suspended, the chimes sort themselves out into their proper, organized shape, performing their function well. The benefits of meditation work in a top-down way, orienting your day in the same way that the hand suspends the wind chimes. You end up more poised, less grouchy, more perceptive of others' needs and of the cosmos around you. Nothing magical, of course; life just becomes more... well, proper, I guess.

Although it's possible to start on your own after reading up on the practical aspects of zazen, I'd highly, highly recommend finding someone local who already does it, and learning proper posture and mindset from them. In my case, I was lucky to have some Buddhist relatives teach me basic posture in Korea. After that, I simply plunged into ch'am-seon (pronounced "cham-sun," with the "a" sounding like "ah"; this is the Korean expression for seated Zen meditation): in 2000, I visited a Korean Seon temple in Germantown, Maryland, took off my shoes in the basement, walked quietly upstairs to the main dharma hall (the temple was actually a huge, converted house), bowed to the Buddha statue while standing at the threshold, plopped myself on a cushion at the beginning of the session, and then sat the entire two hours: three 40-minute ch'am-seon sessions interrupted by two 3-minute periods of walking meditation.

It went swimmingly. As it turned out, I took to meditation right away (beginner's luck?), and never suffered truly major difficulties, but this wasn't the case for two of my fellow Catholic University grad-school classmates. One, a very athletic Korean girl, couldn't keep still for the two hours. The other, a tall, spindly white guy, ended up in agony because he wasn't used to the posture. So I offer that as a caution to you, before you attempt any ch'am-seon practice: Buddhists say that religious practices are like medicine—just as you don't use the same medicine for all your different ailments, you can't view meditation as a cure-all. It may work for you; it may not. It may turn out to be something that you can eventually do, given enough practice, or it may turn out that you and meditation will never get along. So be it.

Posture will probably be the only potential hurdle for you since I don't doubt your powers of concentration or your self-discipline when it comes to mental focus or mental stillness. Luckily, Seon/Zen offers a variety of postures, including sitting quietly in a chair. I found an excellent essay on zazen posture online, and I offer the link for your perusal:

Zazen Posture (Josho Pat Phelan)

As much as I like the Zen teacher's essay, I'm not entirely happy with some of her phraseology. Example:

"Actually, there is no other goal in Zen practice but to engage with the actuality of your being as it arises, moment by moment."

This sounds a little too New Age-y to me, though to her credit, Josho Pat Phelan does clarify what she means one or two sentences later. Master Shin, at the Germantown temple, put it this way: "When you meditate, your mind has no address." His English isn't very good, so he's forced to use simple metaphors to make his points, and I particularly like the way he phrased this. "Your mind has no address" means, as you probably already caught, that your mind should be nowhere in particular. You're not trying to force a certain thing to happen or to focus on a single object of consciousness (as in one-pointed mind meditation). Rather, think of your mind as being like a cork bobbing effortlessly on the surface of the ocean: as the waves pass under the cork, the cork merely bobs along, unharmed by the waves because it moves right with them.

This type of meditation is about a kind of stoppage, and here my favorite analogy is that of the glass jar full of muddy water. According to this analogy, a student is given a transparent glass jar of muddy water, which has a stick in it. The student is commanded to make the water clear. Seeing the stick, the student tries stirring the water, but the more he stirs, the more futile his efforts seem because the water remains as muddy as ever. The student stops in order to reconsider his strategy. But in stopping the stirring, the student realizes that, as the water stills itself, the mud is settling of its own accord, until eventually the water is clear, and the mud lies on the bottom. Ha ha! All that was needed was to stop, and the rest followed! I like this metaphor because we can see that the mud, which represents the buzz of our thoughts and the burden of our problems, doesn't disappear. Instead, the mud is now relegated to its proper place—at the bottom of the jar. Clarity dominates, and it all happened just... by... doing... nothing. Zazen, then, is a disciplined form of Doing Nothing, a concentrated example of the Taoist concept of wu wei, or so-called not-doing. Practice stillness, and your mind settles (samadhi: settling, concentration, absorption) of its own accord.

Another way to think about meditation is to consider the analogy of "mirror-mind." The idea here is that, in proper meditation, the mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but possesses nothing. If something red steps in front of the mirror, the mirror shows red. When the red thing departs, the mirror no longer shows red. In the same way, our mind shouldn't grasp anything: if a bird chirps, then the oscillograph of our brain should wiggle with the sound of the bird, but once the bird stops chirping, the mind should return to its tranquil state. If anger suddenly flows through you, then let it flow: don't hold on to it, and don't try to repress it. As you can guess, this state of mind is meant to apply to more than when you're seated on the cushion: it should apply to your daily existence. How easy it is to get caught up in our own anger and pettiness when what we really need to do, for our own sake and for the sake of others, is to let go.

That's a lot of analogies I've dumped on you: wind chimes, no-address, mirror, and jar of muddy water. Sorry about that, but I hope the point is clear: this type of meditation isn't about separation from the outer world, nor is it about ruthless focus on a single, discrete object of consciousness; it's about the mind being nowhere in particular, reacting when there's something to react to, but always returning to a calm, open, dynamic-yet-poised state. The end result is, I think, a more organized and fruitful day, especially when zazen/ch'am-seon is done in the morning.

Coming back now to what Josho Pat Phelan wrote in the above-linked essay: the phrase "engage with the actuality of your being as it arises, moment by moment" ought to make a bit more sense after everything I've written here. Zen isn't about sitting there on the cushion and planning your shopping list, nor is it about obsessively chewing over last night's shouting match with someone. Your orientation is moment-by-moment, from now to now. The Chinese character for "mindfulness" (念) is, in fact, a combination of the character for "now" (今, geum) and the character for "mind/heart" (心, shim). To be mindful is to be fully present, to have now-mind. And paradoxically, to be fully present is to have no address.

Again, I can't guarantee that your own initial experience with zazen will be as surprisingly pleasant as mine was, but I have a feeling that, because you're already of a contemplative bent (and why the hell are Protestants in general so afraid of incorporating contemplative elements into their liturgies?), zazen will be something you enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, I'd recommend that you find someone who can teach you the basics. If not, a Google search on "how to do zazen" will yield a trove of links, including videos that demonstrate proper technique.

Two final remarks, the first of which I'm stealing from Korean Seon Master Seung Sahn.

1. In the book The Compass of Zen, the story is told of a Korean man who was a lay member of Seung Sahn's temple. He assiduously practiced ch'am-seon at home, but his family was sometimes noisy—just the normal noises one would expect in a household—and the man would often cut his own meditation short in order to storm out of his room and shout at everyone to be quiet: not a peep! It got to the point that the wife approached Seung Sahn about her husband's behavior, and Seung Sahn angrily shouted at the man that he obviously had no idea what meditation was. "Your FAMILY is your most important meditation!" he bellowed.* I think this story offers many lessons. Among them is the lesson that ch'am-seon is, at bottom, merely a technique, no more elevated or sacred than assuming proper posture on the toilet. Like any technique, it can be misused, misunderstood, and abused, at which point it ceases to be useful. Just as important is the common-sense lesson that, in life, you need to have your head screwed on straight, and this angry meditator obviously didn't.

2. I said above that I never encountered any major difficulties while meditating. That's true, but I'll recount one minor difficulty. I appeared at temple one day with a cold, and when I sat on my cushion and began meditating along with everyone else, I realized to my horror that my nose was running too severely for me to be able to keep the snot inside it by sniffling periodically. The question began to ring in my head like a desperate mantra: "Should I break posture and blow my nose?" In the end, I chose to stay seated where I was, my nose steadily dripping, until the end of the first 40-minute session. At that point I desperately grabbed at some tissue before walking meditation began and blew my nose.

During the post-meditation dharma talk, I asked Master Shin about what I should have done in that situation. Should I have broken posture? His answer wasn't a direct response: he gave me a funny look and said, "What you were doing wasn't meditation." It took me a while to decipher what he had said, but in the end I understood him to mean this: my first mistake was to come to temple with a cold. My cold was preventable, and I hadn't acted mindfully during the week to keep myself healthy, and thus ready for meditation. My next mistake was to spend my time on the cushion doing nothing but thinking "Me, me, me: what am I going to do about my nose?" Far from "the mind has no address," my mind was focused rather squarely on myself and my dripping schnoz. Master Shin was right: no meditation was happening there. Instead, it was all ego.

That same day, a Korean woman two cushions down from me suffered her own problem: she had parked her cell phone next to her on her rectangular meditation cushion, and it rang, obnoxiously loud, in the midst of the dharma hall's pristine silence. Unlike me, however, the woman didn't obsess over the problem: she reached down, quickly turned the phone off, and simply returned to meditating. Her mind was indeed just like a cork on the waves. In this case, the wave was the ringing phone, and her answer was an ego-free response to its ring: she turned it off and kept right on meditating. No shame, no regret, no ego. Had I been more aware of the lesson she was teaching me at the time, I wouldn't have had to ask Master Shin my question about breaking posture.

In Korean Seon, the maxim is, "Follow your situation." Everything you do in life should naturally arise from the demands of the moment. Reality is a living dynamic, so there can be no single, prescribed response to all situations—just as there's no single medicine to cure all ailments.

And that, sir, is about as much of a dharma talk as I can give you this evening.


*Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, p. 110. A more detailed version of this story is found in another of Seung Sahn's books.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

treatment parallels

When a major disaster occurs, such as the current undersea oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, people pile on with a million different ideas for how to remedy the situation. The problem, of course, is that it's impossible to implement all of these ideas simultaneously: in such cases, they have to be tried one after another. The process looks for all the world like a series of failures, but every failure brings the disaster workers closer to a viable solution.

This insight struck me while I was following the news in the Gulf, because much the same thing occurred during my mother's brain cancer: people would often write or call with a host of treatment ideas, and we, as a family, would discuss various options with the doctors we visited in Virginia, Maryland, and even Texas. In the end, however, we had no choice but to implement the options one at a time, moving from radiation and Temodar to Avastin, switching over to carboplatin (a step backward, in my opinion), then finally standing on the precipice of a major new type of treatment, only to discover that Mom's cancer had grown too severe to be treated with it.

I trust that the workers in the Gulf are trying their damnedest to plug the leak. I know that the American public is off to the side, watching with a mixture of anger, frustration, and helplessness. As method after method fails, the public's cynicism will grow. But the public needs to cool off and understand that this is how it has to happen: you can't implement several procedures at one time. Eventually, a feasible method will be found and put into action.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

so now what do I watch?

During my eight years in South Korea (1994-96, 2002-2008), I largely did without TV, watching it only when I was visiting my folks in the US or hanging with Korean relatives in Seoul. All things considered, I was fine without the boob tube. Dr. McCoy noted in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" that the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in an ever-changing universe, but I'd say that "TV is 99% shit" is the second constant. I didn't really miss it.

Every once in a while, however, something will come along that compels my interest. "Battlestar Galactica" was the first such show in a long while; I happened to be vacationing in the States in 2003 when I caught the miniseries on the then-SciFi Channel (now known, bizarrely, as "SyFy"). I was floored by how good this reboot of the old 1978 series was. Then in 2005 or so, while working at Sookmyung Women's University, I made the acquaintance of a series that had taken the US by storm in 2001: "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as a very, very angry counterterrorism expert. Other series came and went, barely registering on my radar, but these two stuck with me, and I've followed their story arcs to the bitter end.

Alas, this is indeed the bitter end. As of May 24, 2010, my two favorite TV shows, "Battlestar Galactica" and "24," are now both done. BSG left the airwaves last year, to be replaced by the nearly unwatchable teen-angst cyberpunk drama "Caprica," and "24" bowed out a few days ago, giving Jack Bauer-- now on the run from both the US and Russian governments-- an ending that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of Chris Nolan's "The Dark Knight":

"You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me, set the dogs on me. Because that's what needs to happen. Because sometimes truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Jack Bauer: the hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now.

Nothing else really compared to these two dramas, "24" and BSG-- not for me, anyway. Both were compelling, albeit for different reasons, but both shared some interesting commonalities. They weren't afraid of Big Issues, and weren't afraid of sacrificing beloved principal cast members to advance their plots and make their points. Both shows featured armament and ordnance ranging from knives to nukes. Both evinced a great deal of sympathy for folks in the military-- people who put their lives on the line to keep everyone safe. Both eagerly explored the darkness of the human spirit (torture and various forms of abuse were recurrent tropes), as well as the nature of redemption. Both took place in universes that were cold, cruel, and often devoid of any hope, but their central characters showed us a stubborn optimism in the face of ultimate ruin. The one metaphysical conviction that both shows agreed on was that you can't make an omelette without breaking many, many eggs. An army of good people routinely died on "24" so that millions more could live; on BSG, humanity was whittled down to a final few thousand, and it was only when mankind was reduced to this tattered, debased state that God's plan could move forward.

"24" was probably more of a right-winger's show, while BSG skewed more to the left. BSG placed great stock in feminine wisdom and intuition: Bill Adama's decisions almost always panned out after he took counsel from Laura Roslin and Kara Thrace. In "24," strong female characters were often hard to find, because in this show's universe, the only intuition that mattered belonged to Jack Bauer. And this was one of the major differences between "24" and BSG: Bauer had personal flaws, but his reading of each crisis was always spot-on, as if the man were incapable of error. In BSG, even the characters most trusted by Bill Adama proved capable of making bad decisions: Laura Roslin made several blunders as president, and Kara Thrace was a walking disaster both in her personal life and as an officer uneasy with command. No one on BSG possessed the infallible moral compass of Jack Bauer; no one on BSG was a superhero.

In a move that would have been impossible on "24," BSG went the theistic route in its finale; many disgruntled fans saw this as both a surprise and a major disappointment. I tend to think that the show's deus ex machina ending wasn't nearly as positive as some make it out to be, just as I feel that poor Jack Bauer, despite having survived his final season, doesn't have a pleasant future ahead of him. (Perhaps Donald Sutherland should play an old, beleaguered Jack Bauer in an upcoming TV movie...?)

Of the two finales, I thought that BSG's was better. The "24" finale was, more than anything else, merely the culmination of the day's events. As some commentators pointed out, it felt more like a season finale than a series finale. Even Jack's final speech to Chloe felt rushed, though I suppose the scriptwriters had little choice but to play it that way. BSG, meanwhile, followed its characters' arcs faithfully to their conclusion, and although the finale contained some major storytelling missteps, it was emotionally satisfying. Hats off, in particular, to both Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell as Bill Adama and Laura Roslin, respectively: they were our mom and dad for the length of the series, and it was fitting that the finale's emotional crescendo should involve Adama on that hillside, talking to his departed Laura, facing the direction of the dawn.*

So now I'm left without much in the way of compelling TV. Shows like "V" and "Flash Forward" have been unable to fill the void; "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" are returning, but I consider these shows light entertainment, unconcerned with Big Questions. I enjoyed the fight choreography on "Human Target," but didn't get into the story arc or the characters (well, not until Lee Majors had his all-too-brief turn as Chance's mentor). So now what do I watch?

I guess there's always the Food Network...


*Mary McDonnell's portrayal of a cancer victim in final decline was about as searingly authentic as I could have wanted. I can no longer watch her performance without crying. When Laura Roslin limped into the hangar bay to stand with Adama as the crew divided itself into volunteers and those who would remain with the main fleet, I saw my own mother, who walked in much the same way toward the end of her life. And when Adama picked Laura up from her blanket-wrapped resting spot on the African savannah, I saw my father lifting my mother off the living room couch, hugging her, and leading her to bed for the night. No other show has spoken in such potent visual language to me.


Memorial Day weekend

Dad was in uniform for church on Sunday, and on Monday, he, my brother David, and I went driving over to Skyline Drive in the late afternoon. It rained for some of that trip, but we stopped at several overlooks and gawked at the menacing dead tree that stands just beyond the Mile 20 marker, near the Mile 19 side. There were no Memorial Day crowds, luckily, but a few gawkers were parked at some of the overlooks. Dad was wearing his Retired USAF tee shirt and cap for the trip; David and I alternated as drivers, allowing Dad a chance to take in the scenery. We saw one undernourished deer, and also saw a black bear, bigger than life, foraging next to the Drive.

A good day, all in all. On the way back home, we hit a small diner in Warrenton, Virginia-- so small that payment was cash only. When we got back to the house, I packed up a few more boxes and put nine of them up in the attic. It pleases me to see that we still have so much room up there. More packing and storage this coming week: we've barely begun this enormous project.

Happy Memorial Day to all as we remember the fallen with gratitude, and renew our promise to be worthy of them.