Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: a look back and a look forward

Confucius advocated a cultivation of the self; a bit like Saint Irenaeus and his notion of soul-making, Confucius saw people as works in progress, moving toward becoming more human(e). 2019 felt a bit like a soul-making year for me. Mentally speaking, there's been a lot less random flailing than usual. True: I'm still an idiot who doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up; unlike several of my friends, I wasn't gifted with an inner compass pointing me to a clear destiny.

Or maybe we all eventually slot into the destiny thing, but each of us does so at his or her own pace as murky, weaving futures resolve themselves into linear clarity—a straight line to one's fate that becomes all the more obvious as time grinds relentlessly forward. The great writer and thinker Samuel Johnson supposedly said that the knowledge that you'll be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind "wonderfully." At my age, I'm close to seeing the end of the conveyor belt I'm riding, and I know I don't have much time left before I tumble off its edge. This knowledge does indeed provide a certain focus, a certain lucidity, and that's one of the things I'll be discussing in this entry.

So, yes: 2019 was a year of Irenaean soul-making or Confucian self-cultivation. Certain things have become obvious to me thanks to job-related turbulence and other factors, and thanks to certain signal events. Let's talk about signal events first.

This was a year of losses and almost-losses. I almost lost a friend because of political differences, and while I'm not quite sure whether we're officially back to being simpatico, we seem to be in a slightly better place, now, than we had been before conflict between us erupted from seemingly out of nowhere. In terms of actual losses: blogger Steve Krodman, a.k.a Elisson (Eli's son), died of ALS in January of this year. In April, I got the news that my friend Kent Davy had been diagnosed with "wild melanoma," an internal cancer (despite the name) that started in his liver before metastasizing to a lung and taking him down by July. Steve's ALS moved frighteningly quickly; Kent's cancer did likewise.

On a less somber note: I turned 50 this year, right along with the first-ever moon-landing event. I'm fond of noting that my buddy Mike and I are moon-landing babies: Mike was born in mid-June of 1969, about a month before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon; I was born in late August of 1969, about a month after. We are the open and closed parentheses for that historic moment. Turning 50 means facing the fact that you've lived a half-century, and it's a time to take stock of your life and ask yourself what the hell you've accomplished. I can't say that I've accomplished all that much, but another signal event happened this year of which I'm very proud: I walked from Incheon to Busan, this time doing the entire Four Rivers Trail from end to end, as God intended. So I've got that under my belt, if nothing else. So much for signal events; let's talk job-related turbulence.

While my position at work isn't under any particular threat, life in the aftermath of my first boss's departure has become very topsy-turvy and disorganized. I'm no longer given a single large project on which I can work steadily and quietly. Instead, I'm given a flurry of random, short-term assignments according to the ever-shifting needs of a department that is trying desperately to cater to the fickle whims of other departments. Whereas, under my first boss, my work was appreciated and actually implemented, in my current circumstances, most of what I do gets pulled, twisted, contorted, watered down, and otherwise redone by my fellow staffers, so life is now a constant process of being shut down and shot down, creatively speaking. As I've told my officemates, my attitude is basically "fuck it" because nothing in Korea—or more specifically, in our company—moves in a straight line, and you can never predict the future. Projects never end up the way they started out. Promises mean nothing; vacation days are never made clear until the last minute; declarations of where the department is going get countermanded or contradicted by subsequent changes in circumstance, and in that sense, my current work life isn't very stable. I have job security, to be sure, but working in R&D feels as stable as trying to read a book while inside a Moon Bounce with a bunch of sugar-frenzied kids. I want and need stability; right now, the signal-to-noise ratio has slid too far toward the noise.

One temporary solution to this problem has recently come to light: I might be leaving my current R&D team to go back to work with my former boss. That would mean a return to the good old days of the 2015-16 era. But what all this instability has really taught me is that I'd rather be my own boss. Maybe this is what it feels like when your internal compass stops wavering and locks on to a particular direction. Vague impulses and desires coalesce into clear convictions. For me, the clearest direction is creative: I want to get more into writing, and I want to get more into videography. I don't consider myself compelling as a speaker or particularly photogenic, but I do have opinions on a variety of topics, as well as plenty of ideas for various projects. Right now, I have several book projects, one of which I'm currently working on. It ought to come out sometime next year, which is a major reason to look forward to 2020. I plan to subscribe to Skillshare, a teaching website and "online learning community" that offers thousands of courses on practical topics like writing and filmmaking. That's where I hope to pick up skills in videography, and the first fruits of those labors will probably be the creation of a video channel on a site like YouTube or BitChute. Don't be surprised if you see my ugly ass talking into a camera sometime next year.

Another reason to look forward to 2020 is that I'll be zeroing out my scholastic debt. This is huge for me; it's been a goal of mine for almost two decades, and I'm finally there. Paying down this debt has been a painful lesson in the power of karma, and the fact that karma doesn't give a shit what your intentions might have been. Make a stupid mistake, get bitten in the ass. Hard. That's what happened to me with my scholastic debt: I got both a full scholarship and financial aid for grad school, and I decided, like a moron, to keep the financial aid and use it to pay my rent while I focused on studying. What I should have done was reject the financial aid and work during grad school; I'd have learned a lot more about time management and work/life balance—skills that actually matter in the real world. Instead, I ended up making choices that have crippled me, financially, for nearly twenty years. It's only now that I'm literally old and graying that I can finally say I'm crawling out of the debt hole that I myself created through my lack of wisdom. Lesson learned. My advice to young people thinking about grad school: do it sooner rather than later, and if you get a full-ride scholarship, don't accept financial aid! Work your way through school! You'll thank me later.

Zeroing out my debt will be a moment for celebration, but once I'm done dancing a jig, I'll need to concentrate on the next big thing: saving a pile of cash and planning for a possible return to the States. As long as I work in the education sector in Korea, I'm always paying into the National Pension fund. This won't pay out over the course of my golden years; it'll be given to me as a lump sum either when I request it or when I finally choose to leave the country for good. It's not the same as getting a steady trickle from Social Security, and it's not the equivalent of an IRA, 401(k), or whatever. 2020 will see the beginning of Project Save a Shitload. If I stay in Korea a few more years, I can quickly amass six figures and think about returning to the States. In the meantime, if I am able to switch over to some sort of lucrative self-employment while in Korea, I can save even more.

Starting a family after age 50 seems not to be in the cards for me. I have no romantic prospects, and I don't see anything on the horizon—at least, not until I've somehow lost 30-40 kilos and fattened up my bank account. So whatever life lies ahead, it's probably going to be a single one. That prospect would have disturbed me during my college years, back when I thought I'd make a good father and family man. These days, though, I think I'm way too introverted to open my life up to someone else and live a shared existence. I think I'd end up feeling too confined by the constant need to compromise, negotiate, and communicate—all things that extroverts are better at than introverts. And having kids at my age would be tiring as hell; I watched my friends—who followed the normal, society-approved path of having kids in their late twenties—go through the hell of losing a sleep schedule through their kids' infancy, then stressing for years as their kids were growing up. I can't say that I'd want to go through all that, especially now, at this point in my existence.

So life is, for me, a matter of embracing the choices I've made that have put me on my current path. This path is leading me out of debt, away from married life, and possibly toward a fulfilling, self-directed career in a creative field. I have other fields I want to explore, such as architecture—the building of things. I'd love to get more into painting and sculpture—especially with wood as my medium, but also possibly with stone and/or metal. I'd like to continue to explore brush calligraphy and brush art, as well as cartooning, which I still do on occasion. Life presents one with so many opportunities to be this and do that, and it's for that reason that I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up. At a guess, writing will always remain my main creative pursuit, given that it's the activity in which I engage daily, with near-monastic consistency.

But we'll see. I've talked a good game about destiny in this blog entry, but from my limited, horizoned perspective, it's also true that the future doesn't feel set in stone. And that's the excitement of a life well lived, isn't it? You move forward in the hopes of a better future, having faith that the path before you won't have (m)any pitfalls, but you're never really sure about what's coming next. Some people shrink from the prospect of an unwritten future; others look forward into the fog with eagerness. I'd like to think I'm part of the latter crowd.

So—onward to 2020! Happy New Year to all my friends and readers.


John Mac said...

Wow! Outstanding post. I admire and envy your ability at self-assessment and introspection. Being honest with yourself is perhaps the most difficult honesty there is.

From this outsider's perspective, you have indeed accomplished a life well-lived. I think most external/traditional measures of success are bogus. What I admire is that you have lived your life for the most part on your terms. You could have stayed in the USA and did the grind and earned the pensions and perks that come from that. Instead, you built a good life for yourself in Korea, and the walk is just icing on that cake.

But here's the thing I find most impressive: At 50 you are still seeing the opportunity for new adventures and are preparing to act to make those dreams reality. I was a lot braver in my 30s than in my 50s, simply because I felt I had more time to recover from mistakes as a younger man. But that's a bullshit attitude. And as it turned out, the biggest changes in my life all occurred after 50. I just lacked your self-awareness.

I will look forward to reading about all the adventures that await you in the foggy future!

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for the kind words, John. I'll try to be worthy of them. Happy New Year!

Daniel said...

~it's for that reason that I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.

Keep it that way and you can stay forever young, at least in spirit!

What's the book on? When is it coming out this year?

Kevin Kim said...

The book is an edited collection of my blogged movie reviews, hopefully done up in a nice format. I'm moving very slowly through the manuscript right now, so I'd say that, for publication, we're looking at late summer (August) at the earliest.

I don't know how long you've been following this blog, but I periodically remark that one of the blog's functions is as a source for book material.

Daniel said...

Totally missed those references! Will have to pay closer attention... And pick up a copy of the book!

Kevin Kim said...


No worries. I don't mention that thing about my blog all that often, so it's an easy reference to miss.