Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wizard People, Dear Readers. I laughed for about an hour straight last night.

A guy named Brad Neely, from Austin, has recorded a voice-over for the entire first Harry Potter movie. It is sometimes overwrought, sometimes a little crass, and mostly absolutely hilarious.

It's available on youtube, divided into chapters, here, from beginning to end.

This thing made me laugh out loud a lot. If you love Harry Potter, or if you love overwrought prose, or people talking in silly voices, or somebody taking the piss out of the silliness of Hollywood fantasy movies, this is SOOO worth seeing, and funnier than all but two or three of the comedy movies I've seen in the last five years.

The prose is wildly uneven, going from phrases like:

"yuckers" and "holy BALLS!"

"her voice is chilling, and like a piano made of frozen windex"

"snooozers. All the kids are too tired to listen."


"a disturbingly meaningful fog hangs cataracts all over Hogwarts."

"Gathered around the fire, four or five cognacs down, our threesome unwinds and works out the details. Neckties loosened, robes unbuckled, they are relaxing. Yes, they are wrong about Snake."

"Harry is like a demon long dead, with nothing else to lose. . . like a leopard, Harry used his voracious mouth as his catcher! He's got the snitch in his animal belly!. . . the crowd goes absolutely BAZONKERS! . . . Harry is spent! The crowd is destroying its throats, calling Harry's name. Harry feels right with himself he's down there, a new God, who has found his calling. He holds up the snitch, and bellows, "I am a beautiful animal! I am a destroyer of worlds! I am Harry f*cking Potter! And dear reader, the world, at last, was quiet." (the end of the Cribbage match)

"That crazy, sick-ass face is burning everything. He wants that stone bad. He wants to paddle Harry so hard. He starts telling Harry all sorts of fake sh*t like that Harry killed his own parents, and that Dumbledore eats babies."

Dude, just watch it (unless you don't like f*ck-words, as he calls them.) Here's one of my favourite parts, just to get you started.

And here's Chapter one.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The full text of the article, plus my letter to the editor.

I claim no copyright for Mr. Kim's article; I'm simply reprinting it here for my personal use, in order to show my friends and family the full context of my letter to the editor. Normally, I really enjoy his column, but this one required a response.

[Kaleidoscope]An end to naivety: No more dark ages
by Kim Seong-kon

The medieval Dark Ages was a period of tumultuous conflict between Christianity and Islam, or Catholics and "heresy." It was also a time of Catholic corruption, witch trials, and the Inquisition. Unfortunately, our age is no less dark, and the age-old struggle between two adversaries still continues. South Korea, too, has been devastated lately by the struggle between two radically different, antagonistic groups, deliberately instigated by our belligerent leftist politicians.

During the military dictatorship, Koreans lived in a "Dark Age." Generals wearing black shades ruthlessly ruled the country with bayonets and iron boots for nearly three decades. During that Dark Age, people suffered in a grim, relentless reality, while weak intellectuals had to combat a sense of futility and impotence. Due to the military fashion of the time, South Korea was hopelessly degenerated into a country of uniformity. Oftentimes, however, the dictators felt a sense of guilt and illegitimacy as they usurped the throne, and realized that they were nothing but amateurs, especially in economics and diplomacy. As a result, they respected public opinion and listened to professional advice, when necessary. They also tried their best to boost the nation's economy, thereby achieving the so-called miracle of the Han River.

A decade ago, the Korean people witnessed the advent of the age of democracy at last. As the generals retreated backstage and permanently disappeared behind the curtain, the monochromatic military culture was replaced by colorful diversity. Soon after, however, leftist politicians and activists seized political power, calling for a socialist paradise on the Korean Peninsula. We naively believed in them; after all, they were the dissidents who valiantly fought against the military dictatorship. Unfortunately, that is what clouded our judgment. Few people realized at that time that we were marching into another type of Dark Age.

Soon, people began to be disillusioned by the leftist politicians' unbearable amateurism, intolerable vulgarity, and impudent self-righteousness. Enraged with personal grudges, they were hostile, resentful, and revengeful. These pseudo-Marxists, who never shared their fortunes with the poor, but fully enjoyed the benefits of a capitalist society, rapidly began tearing the serene country apart with their crude leftist ideology. In their eyes, bourgeois intellectual labor such as writing or lecturing was nothing but a luxury that deserved a heavy tax. Owning real estate was another unpardonable sin to be punished. So they dropped tax bombs indiscriminately upon home owners, and wasted astronomical amounts of tax money on numerous failed projects such as building the administrative capital city in a local province. Instead of creating jobs, they extorted the middle class, and constantly blamed big business corporations such as Samsung as the root of social evil.

To make matters worse, the radical politicians mocked intellectuals by dubbing manual laborers such as Chinese food delivery boys as the "New Intellectuals." Once again, intellectuals in our society had to fight a sense of defeat and despair. Our leftist politicians were not good at diplomacy, either. Seriously lacking diplomatic skills and international sensibility, they frequently jeopardized Korea's diplomatic relationships with allies and other countries with their rude, sloppy, and amateurish approaches. Consequently, they seriously degraded the image of Korea in the international community by garrulous, vulgar language and embarrassingly unrefined expressions.

Meanwhile, the Korean economy stagnated, while other countries enjoyed economic prosperity. South Korea could have truly advanced, if only we had elected the right person as our leader. Alas! We have wasted 10 precious years, and it seems too late to catch up now. Yet our self-righteous politicians did not listen to anybody, for they thought they were always right, while all others were invariably wrong. The so-called social reform they futilely attempted, which mostly stemmed from their personal grudges and resentments, turned out to be a complete failure, only turning the nation upside down, making it into a planet of the apes. Equally corrupt and ruthless as their predecessors, they even placed a gag on the press. As a result, we have been through another Dark Age for the past ten years, and there seems to be no way to restore the lost time.

Some people say that it was an inevitable process we had to go through in order to achieve democracy. Nevertheless, the price we have to pay is much too high. It will take many years to heal the psychological wounds of the people, and restore the damaged relationships with our allies. We once made an irrevocable mistake by foolishly voting for the Leftist politicians who ruined the economy and tore the peaceful nation apart. From now on, we cannot afford to make another mistake, for it will be fatal to the future of Korea.

At the presidential election last week, we have chosen wisely. It was judgment day for the Roh administration. No longer will we be deceived by the anachronistic leftists who still cling to obsolete Marxist ideology. We should put an end to naivety, and open our eyes to the new world and new era. Then we can transcend the gravity of all the dogmatic ideologies, and reach the gorgeous rainbow coalition. O Lord: please no more ideological warfare in this land! No more Dark Ages! We need illumination!


My response:

[A READER'S VIEW] The pot calls the kettle black
by Robert Ouwehand

Normally, I look forward to Kim Seong-kon's "Kaleidoscope" column on The Korea Herald's opinion page. As an adult English conversation teacher, I have often used his ideas and insights in class. He usually looks seriously at relevant topics, and clearly communicates fresh thoughts, instead of offering the same, stale party lines.

Because of my high expectations, I was especially disappointed with his Dec. 26 article "An end to naivety: No more dark ages". His closing words: "We need to put an end to naivety. . . [and] transcend the gravity of all the dogmatic ideologies," call out for a "rainbow coalition" free of polarized ideologies, yet the eight hundred words preceding it completely undermine his conclusion by viciously attacking the left.

Whether his claims about the last two socialist governments are correct is beside the point, when Kim's rightist polemic, loaded with inflammatory language, shows all the one-sidedness and self-righteousness for which he attacks Presidents Roh and Kim.

Many of the last two administrations' shortcomings had nothing to do with ideology: Kim himself often blames their failures in diplomacy and policy on a lack of experience, vision, or political savvy. Yet in his summary, Kim seems to imply that the new Lee Myung-Bak government will solve the country's woes, not because of his group's superior political ability, but by the mere fact they are conservatives. Such a simplistic, and, yes, naive, view, simply rehashes the blindly partisan ideological dogmatism which Kim speaks against in his own article's conclusion.

Models of moral life have come from a rainbow of religious and philosophical backgrounds. Likewise, excellent leaders have come from every point on the political spectrum. If President Lee solves Korea's problems, it will be because he is conscientious, focused, and sensitive to Korea's needs in a rapidly changing world; it will be because he judiciously places the best people, instead of his own allies, in key positions; it will be because he puts the needs of his country above the needs of his party's biggest contributors and old business associates.

Though Kim calls for an end to ideological dogmatism in his conclusion, his rhetoric gives the impression that the only way to achieve the "rainbow coalition" he wishes for, is for everyone to become conservatives like himself, and join in attacking socialists in a rainbow of diverse ways. Whether he is right or wrong, such inflammatory language is further polarizing, and, for a widely read columnist seeking a more enlightened dialogue, it is unhelpful and even irresponsible, betraying his stated ideal.

If nothing else, such simpleminded, black-and-white, left-and-right ideology-stumping is far below Kim's usually high standard of thought and expression.

Robert Ouwehand, Seoul


Roboseyo lays a verbal smack-down!

There's this columnist in the Korea Herald (the English newspaper my school subscribes to.) I don't always agree with him, but he usually expresses himself very well and brings up worthwhile conversation topics. However, on Wednesday, he let all his conservative prejudices fly, clouding his normally sound expression. Here's a link to his column from Korea Herald online. He contradicts his own conclusion, and comes off as the same kind of knee-jerk ideologue that he criticizes in other of his articles.

Not that I'm personally invested too deeply in Korea's new president elect, nor the previous two administrations, but I was bothered by the hypocrisy of slagging the opposing party, and then calling for a more open dialogue in the conclusion. So I fired off a letter to the editor, basically calling him out for his self-contradiction. . . and they printed my response in today's Herald.

I'm pleased as punch. I bought an extra copy of the paper for posterity, and it's sure fun seeing my name in print!

I rock.

By the way: this is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas, all! A little more about Christmas in Korea

A few more thoughts on Christmas in Korea, interspersed with pictures I took downtown on Sunday afternoon and night. Plus a mini-story or two at the end.

A few basic rules of forfeiture, AKA the Having vs. Eating Cake corollaries:

1. If you don't vote, you forfeit your right to complain about the government in power. If you won't even participate in the system, where do you get off complaining about it? I'm not listening. (Hee hee. I'm such a cranky old codger.)

(what's wrong with this picture? absolutely nothing, in Korea. You get used to old ladies mopping around you as you do your business in men's rooms all around South Korea. Took a while, though.)

2. If you wear a low-cut v-neck blouse with a push-up bra, or a short skirt with mid-thigh-high stockings and high heels, you forfeit your right to complain about men staring at you. You know what men are like, and while I'm not excusing our male piggishness, it's a little naive to expect more from us.

3. If you're a country with the 13th largest economy in the world, a world leader in broadband penetration and telecommunication connectivity, and the world's largest microchip exporter, you forfeit the right to say, "don't critique our social issues: we're still a developing country."

Christmas in downtown seoul is shiny. There's an ice rink behind the castle wall.

4. If you don't dress properly for the cold, if you don't zip up your jacket and keep your ears warm and wear some gloves, you forfeit your right to complain that it's cold. You may say "I should have dressed more appropriately for the cold, that was bad planning on my part" and that's all. Or I will take it as tacit permission for me to mock your illogical position.

Yet everywhere I go in Korea, I see girls dressed in spring jackets with short skirts and thick stockings, no hats or gloves, and jackets that aren't even zipped up, stamping their feet and making pitiful puppy-dog faces and complaining "I'm so cold" in Korean: "Chu-aa~".

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, one must take care of basic needs (food, sleep) before one can worry about higher level needs (acceptance by the community, belonging, love, meaning) -- nobody ponders "what ARE my life goals?" when they're hungry; they mostly only ponder, "where can I scratch up some grub?" AFTER you've eaten, you might have time to wonder about the Grand Scheme.

According to Roboseyo's hierarchy of fashion, you only really ought to worry about style once your clothing has adequately protected you from the elements. If you put fashion above function, you won't get ANY sympathy from me when you complain about being cold or wet. Yet there's this disconnect between two, two, and four, here in Korea: as the winter's gotten colder, I'm told that short-shorts and miniskirt sales have actually gone UP! Some of the results are shocking.

I'd say we're looking at somewhere between 35-45% of the fashion-conscious-aged women at the mall on Sunday wearing springwear (at best) in the winter.

I mean, come on! How could that POSSIBLY keep her warm unless she has an emergency thermal blanket tucked into that bag? And it wasn't THAT warm on Sunday -- five celsius in the afternoon, tops.

The receptionists at my school got a kick out of my imitation of Korean girls who leave their jackets unzipped and then complain about being cold. One said, "Robert. Fashion is important." I answered, "Spring, summer, fall, fashion is important. Winter: WARM is important. Fashion is second." They got a good laugh out of it, but I doubt they're convinced.

(Cheonggye stream in downtown seoul puts up christmas lights every year. The poor-quality camera almost makes the light fixtures MORE impressive, because it looks like one big roman candle, instead of structures strung with lights.)

I'm developing a theory that the fashionistas and style-makers are using ridiculous styles like miniskirts in winter basically as a way of flaunting their power over the poor fashion slaves who feel compelled to follow trends. In 2001, every time Avril Lavigne saw some poor teeny-bop fashion victim wearing a tie over a tank-top, she probably secretly high-fived herself and thought, "YEAH! I'm awesome! She's wearing that awful getup because of ME! Poor chump!"

I imagine those contrarian stylemakers like the Wicked Witch of the West, staring at Dorothy's image in the crystal ball, laughing maniacally and cackling, "Shiver, my pretty! Shiver! Mwahahahahahaaaa!" We'll know for sure it's nothing but a power trip of theirs if they make heavy wool sweaters or scarves the stylish thing to wear next July, just as a final "Eff You" to their poor fashion slaves, rubbing in the skirts in winter trend by refusing those poor ladies a single season of clothing comfort. That's my prediction. Put it on the books. See if I'm wrong. I probably will be, but windbags like myself like to speculate. Fills up the hours.

What the heck? I don't know. This inflatable whatonearth was in the window of an art gallery in Insa-dong, the culture/tourist heritage area. Lots of galleries, and this one ALWAYS has something weird in the window.

On the Christmas Music front:

Dire news: it happened. It ACTUALLY happened. I was sitting in an ice cream shop eating a sorbet, and after a shabby Korean cover of Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (why why why do they love Mariah so much here?), that asinine song you've heard me complain about here before, came on:

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. . . "

FOUR TIMES IN A ROW! The George Michael version, then the Bi version (Korean star) then a techno/discopop + children's choir mix, and finally it was the first song (and its chord progression was the foundation) in a medley of, seriously, FOUR of the ten tackiest Christmas songs in existence. I actually stayed in the ice cream shop after I finished my ice cream, in utter disbelief, as one slowing his car down to gawk at the car wreck and see if that's blood or oil, just daring that damn medley to top itself and actually get worse, and each new song in the medley WAS! From "Last Christmas," it went to "Happy Christmas, War Is Over" to "Do They Know It's Christmas" to "Feliz Nevidad" and then I really did have to go, before I felt the urge to injure myself with a plastic ice cream spoon. I'm disappointed to tell you that I was wrong: every Starbucks in Korea DIDN'T spontaneously implode in response to that awful lineup. Good thing, too. The Peppermint Mochas this December are quite nice.

I like blue lights best.

This is cute: the Korean language doesn't have a character for the "V" sound, so the "V" sound is usually substituted with the Korean character bieup, which sounds about halfway between a "B" and a "P". This leads to the cute pun on this brand: Viewty, when pronounced by most Koreans, sounds exactly like the word "Beauty".

As always, the station was attended by some Viewtiful girls in short skirts, but I've ranted enough about the latent (and totally accepted) sexism in Korea for one post (it seems protesting would be immodest I guess -- I asked Girlfriendoseyo about the state of feminism in Korea and she described what English speakers call lip-service).

(But did you know the OECD released statistics stating that Korean women work more hours for less pay than any other country in the OECD, and unlike in the Netherlands, where college educated women have a 20% higher employment rate than women without, Korean college educated women's employment rate is actually 2% LOWER than women without! I'll leave the comment board open for theories as to why that might be.)

Back to light stuff:

Santa and Rudolph's freaky love-child.

Sometimes, the lack of a "V" is a little funnier: one day, my best friend Matt was walking through a riverside park and came upon an outdoor concert of five hundred middle-aged women. When the performer finished a song, they chanted, "ANCHOR!" (which is how Koreans call for an encore) and the singer shouted, "PAPSONG!" (popsong). The singer started singing, and the old ladies sang along. Problem was, because of the V-B/P substitution, as they sang along to the old '80s song, the end result was 500 middle-aged women jumping up and down with their hands in the air, not able to pronounce "I'm your Venus," and hollering "I'm Your Penis" instead.

Lee Hyori is one of the hottest Korean stars these days (has been for a while.) For all the fanboys, here's a new way to get close to her (if you don't mind endorsing soju at the same time).

More lip/smile/teeth related stuff:
Hyori again (from above) -- showing surprisingly few teeth for a photo spread.

Ad for lip gloss.

There are creepy santa statues everywhere. Some are lifesize enough that they startle me as I walk around, making me go, "Bwah! Somebody's standing there! Oh wait. Nevermind."

On Friday, my face froze this way. I guess that'll be it for the rest of my life. Better hold on to the friends I already have.

This is my favourite picture from the city hall pictures. You're not supposed to climb up inside the rainbow seashell monument, but the security personnel were too busy, I guess, stopping people from leaning on bridge railings (see story below). I'm really proud of the composition and the light/dark contrast of this picture: this is about as good a picture as you can get on the cruddy cameraphone I have. This, or the layered coloured leaves picture from my Kyunghee university post.

EVERYBODY had a camera -- it was like nametags at a convention. I was afraid that if I put my cameraphone in my pocket, somebody'd ask me to show it to them or they'd have to escort me off the premises.

Every direction you moved, you were walking through somebody's picture.

At COEX mall, there are 3-D movie posters where you can interact with the movie ad, and take pictures in it, or sit in the chair, or stand behind Hannibal Lecter's mask so that it looks like YOU're the one in restraints. Cool, especially for a shutterbug-mad population like downtown Korea's.

I was gonna play a game of count the cameras, walking around on Sunday night, but I ran out of fingers and toes in five seconds.

My second favourite picture from right at the head of Cheonggye stream.

Mini-story 1: my girlfriend is funny.

We were walking across one of the bridges over Cheonggye stream (pictured above) and we leaned against the bridge. Some dude came up to tell us we couldn't lean on the bridge for safety, but he told us in Korean. Girlfriendoseyo (normally a very sweet not-making-waves type of person) decided she wanted to lean, dammit! So she turned to the Korean safety guy and said to him, "Whaaaat?" EXACTLY the way some Californian tourist might say it. He repeated himself in Korean and (emboldened by being with me, clearly an outsider, and thus able to get away with pretending to be a tourist,) she kept going, "I'm sorry. What's wrong? What is it? Why?" she asked as he stammered, "No lean. Umm. . . sorry. . . no. . . lean. . . safe. . . lean no!" she said, with a perfect, vacant intonation, "Why noOOoooot?" and, completely out of English words, the poor guy made a funny half-smile and said, "Secret".

We howled. . . as soon as we were out of earshot from the guy.

Christmas is more fun if you're with kids. . . or at least in a public place where you get to watch them.
Mini-story 2: my most unexpected smile this Christmas day (I had all the expected ones from spending it with Girlfriendoseyo [we cooked spaghetti together], but this one was the bonus.)

I was walking around with Girlfriendoseyo outside Sookmyung Women's University, and she asked me to carry the bag of stuff she bought from the stationery store. I pretended it was so heavy I couldn't walk in a straight line (it was a very light bag), and got some grins from a group of people walking by. True to Roboseyo form, I hammed it up a bit more once I had a reaction, and so I curled around and started hobbling in a circle, as if I couldn't walk in a straight line at all. The people who'd smiled at me before were gone, walking away with their backs to me, so I thought I was doing it solely for Girlfriendoseyo's benefit, but suddenly I heard this rattle-rasp and wheezy laugh of this wonderful old woman with a raisin-wrinked twenty-five-years-in-the-rice-paddy face, just hooting with laughter at my silliness, swinging her hand to slap the table where she sat, and rollicking side to side with her eyes grinned right shut.

I'm still smiling about that old lady: I love old people. They don't give a flying rat's ass who sees them laugh at the things they like anymore: they're old, they've paid their dues. They don't bother doing a "modest" twitter behind a shielding hand, either. If they think something's funny, they let it rip, and I love that. Old people who don't care anymore, and little kids, who don't care yet are far and away the most fun for people-watching.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I love you all a lot, and I hope your holidays are full of revelations and observations and crammed with tiny details of joy.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas in the Rye

It's a common writing exercise to rewrite a story you've written in the style of some other author. It's actually good practice and a good discipline. Here's something that happened to me yesterday, told in the style of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist from The Catcher In The Rye (one of the best, funniest, most heart-breaking, and most often misunderstood books I've ever read). If you don't like words like hell and damn, maybe skip this one and read another post instead.

Christmas in Korea
by Holden Caulfieldoseyo

I guess if you ask me I'd say I didn't sleep enough or something like that. Sometimes you get some guy who says he needs like ten hours of sleep every night and it just makes you depressed as hell, as sad as when you hear lousy Christmas music in shops before Thanksgiving is even finished. I think about that guy sleeping ten hours a night, like he hates being awake or something, but I'm exactly the opposite. I'm the kind of guy who hates sleeping sometimes, so instead of laying in bed, I just do useless stuff like reading phony articles on the internet from some guy who uses the word "delineate" instead of "explain" to show off his hot-shot writing style, and you just know he makes quotation marks with his fingers during conversations. But, it's better than staring up at the ceiling when you can't sleep, because when you turn on the humidifier your mom sent you last November, that little hum gets you thinking about your mother and it just makes you lonely as hell.

So maybe it's on account of I don't always sleep enough, but sometimes it seems like the whole world is full of phonies. They're all over, but for example, today I stood next to this girl at the crosswalk who smelled like some kind of boutique shop green tea and avocado shampoo, and she talked on the phone like something special, and when I looked over at her, her scarf was messy but perfect as if she spent half an hour by the mirror tossing her scarf over her shoulder so it looked like she didn't care how it looked. Even when she knew I was looking at her, she didn't look over at me, even to smile or say "hi," so I looked at her perfect phony hair, thought some other girl in her office probably feels ugly or fat because this girl spends thirty phony minutes tossing her goddamn scarf over her shoulder in the morning, and the other girl has to wash her hair at night because her family's poor and maybe her mother has cancer and her dad lost his job in the economic crisis and they sleep on the floor and fold up the mattresses and put them in the goddamn closet every morning. Sometimes it makes you depressed as hell, these girls with perfect scarves and perfect smelling green-tea herbal scented hair and stuff.

So I crossed the street like a madman when the light changed, but everywhere I looked there was some other phony girl with perfect hair, or some hot-shot guy with the same haircut as his friends, wearing a sweater-vest or a zipper tie or something, and saying things like, "a little contrived, but well-meant, to be sure." And every shop played some lousy Christmas music that was all drippy and slow, or cheery and chippy, and it didn't feel like Christmas, more like some sweaty red-faced old man smiling so you'd buy more stuff from his deli, asking you to pay an extra quarter for "festive wrapping" instead of the usual pink butcher paper.

So I went into the subway station trying not to look at the hot-shots and phonies in the street, and looked up and down the platform for something that'd make Allie grin if he was with me, like a couple who really loved each other but they were just holding hands and looking at something together instead of making baby talk and poking each other's dimples, or some kids playing some kind of game, and their mom saying "quiet, boys, everybody can hear you" and them not caring anyway, with their hair messy instead of licked and stuck down with cruddy kids' hair gel. I get a kick out of watching kids playing on subway platforms like that, when they act like kids, and not just little adults trained by their moms to shake your hand and say, "charmed". Kids who are too quiet on subway platforms, with expensive coats and stuck down gelly hair make me feel depressed as a madman.

But there weren't any kids with messy hair playing on the subway platform. They just had their hands in their pockets waiting for the train. You take a kid, and you put her hands in her pockets and make her wait for a train, and I can't decide if I should go talk to her like she's a grown up and say "pleasure to meet you, little miss," or stick out my tongue and try to make her laugh so that she looks like a kid again. I'm quite childish that way, especially around kids much younger than me. Sometimes I make faces at little kids and I don't even care if their moms get upset. I'm not kidding.

Everybody at the subway station just walked up and down the platform like their spot on the platform was extremely important to find, and no other door or car would be right, and not even looking at other people, or only checking to see whose coat and scarf looked more expensive, and then I saw this old man leaning on the wall outside the elevator, with a cane stuck out at the floor so far away from his body he couldn't lean on it. Sometimes an old guy like that will just make you sad as hell, leaning against the wall like he can't stand, looking around, especially if he has a scarf that isn't tied up right, so that he looks cold, or if he has bifocals and you can see his big eyes looking around, or if his coat's open and his adam's apple jumps up and down like a madman when he swallows. But believe me, this guy was a great old man. He wasn't looking around for somebody to feel sorry for him at all. He had an okay coat and no scarf or sad bifocals, and he just needed to get over to the platform to get on the subway, but everybody was walking too fast to notice him wave his cane at them. He shuffled along the wall to the corner and waited all quiet for some help, without shouting or anything. Nobody noticed him except me, and finally I went over to him before I could start to feel sorry for him, and I put my arm out and said, "Do you need an elbow?" and he looked up at my face, but not into my eyes, like that might be too much.

I don't care about school or tests so much, but I can be pretty smart sometimes when I want to, and I knew right away that he didn't know any English, so he couldn't understand what I said. Instead of asking if he wanted help again, I just put my arm out so he could grab my forearm and get over to the subway platform. That old guy never even looked at my face, but he put his hand up like he'd been expecting me, and I swear instead of grabbing my forearm and putting his hand on my coat, he went along and grabbed right onto my hand. Then quick as hell, once his hand was on mine he started shuffling his cane and feet along the ground toward the spot where the subway door would open. I moved along with him and we got to the spot, but the subway was slow, so we stood there for about three minutes, me holding hands with this old guy who seemed proud, not in a phony way, like "I'll let you help me here because I'm a great old guy," but in an old, strong way, like a city tree that doesn't even know it's smaller than trees in the forest, because it's never been out there, and it's the best tree on the street.

He moved his fingers around a few times to get a better grip, and I lowered my hand so it was easier for him to hold on to it, and I felt kind of sorry for him, but at the same time I felt happy that he had somebody to help him keep his balance while he got on the subway. You take a guy who's feeling sad because there aren't any kids playing on the subway platform, and sometimes all he really needs is some nice old guy who'll hold his hand and wait for a train together, and that'll make him feel better more than some book or a song or a gift set of green tea herbal essence shampoo.

When the subway came, we shuffled into the subway and the old guy let go after he was in one of the special seats for seniors, and he gave me a crazy old Korean bow to say thanks, like I was a government official or something, and he finally looked at my face just the one time. Then I had to get off at the next stop, but I still think about him, like maybe he would have waited for twenty minutes and three trains before somebody else came to help him. Or, sometimes I think about all the other people on the platform saying, "charmed" and trading business cards, or not talking to each other at all, and how they didn't get to stand by an old guy who still took the subway, even though he couldn't even lift his feet off the ground very much, and he only had a lousy cane, not even a walker. For a minute, waiting for the train, I wondered what he was thinking, but now I hope he was just thinking something like, "the train'll come soon" and not something phony like "what a nice young man." I don't want to be a nice young man; sometimes it's just good to stand by some old guy and wait for a train together, that's all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

from a comedy website. . .

from Dan Gurewich, a writer for, a website full of humor suitable for college students (bum jokes, supernintendo, videos of people doing AWESOME stuff, parodies, satires, pretty good update on the state of North American pop culture and internet memes), and links about human absurdity from around the world.

"I have an idea that will solve everything"

With the presidential elections looming just a horse pregnancy away, the candidates are ignoring the real problems and instead focusing on the same old divisive issues, from gun control to which Back to the Future film is the best (“3, and f*ck all of you.” –Mitt Romney, 9/21/07).

It’s clear that having to consider multiple issues at once causes voter brain freeze (a fact that led Friedrich Nietzsche to famously deem politics “the Slurpee of the masses,” adding “and Blue Raspberry is always broken”). One candidate can’t satisfy everybody, and that’s why I’m proposing that we elect four presidents: The President of Abortions, The President of Guns, The President of Gays, and The President of Everything Else.

The President of Abortions will wield full power over America’s fetuses. When he says “Jump,” they’ll say “But we’re fetuses.” His responsibility will be to either uphold or overturn Roe v. Wade in his first week in office, then spend a 1,453-day “lame duck” period acting righteous about his choice at meetings and dinner parties.

The President of Guns’ first act in office will be to shoot the runner-up candidate in the back of the head at point-blank range with a Steyr Mannlicher M1894 semi-automatic rifle with 6.5mm ammunition. If liberal, the President will use this act as an example of preventable bloodshed, tighten gun control laws, and then put himself in jail. If conservative, the President will say he was aiming for an elk over there and thank the Founders for preserving his right to do so.

The President of Gays will have the largest shoe collection of any president since Taft, who bought a new pair every day simply because they would collapse under the weight of his legs. More importantly, he will determine whether or not the federal government will recognize gay marriages. If so, the burden will be on him to propose a solution for the fact that every time two men kiss, a wholesome Midwestern American family collapses into itself like a dying neutron star.

The President of Everything Else, unencumbered by these other vote-swinging policies, will be free to take informed, responsible action on more complex, less knee-jerk issues such as the war, healthcare, education, social security, and which Star Wars film is the best (“Attack of the Clones, and seriously, f*ck all of you.” –Mitt Romney, 10/8/07).

Four Beatles, four Pac-Man ghosts, four cow stomachs… four Presidents. If we want to rise above the talking points and oversimplifications, the path is clear: Hail to the Chiefs.

In case you think they're too political, here's another English lesson video from Japan, recently featured on -- wait it out. The last third is the funniest.

World Cup 2006

I went on a losing streak. In the space of one month, I took a rooting interest in a number of sports teams. My hockey team lost the Stanley Cup final, the basketball team I rooted for lost the NBA final, the first team I picked to root for in the World Cup (Korea) lost, then my second team (Netherlands) then my third team (Argentina), then my fourth choice (England), and then my fifth choice (Brazil) were all eliminated. Finally, in the final, the team I liked won, but it was looking pretty ugly for a little while. I'd almost like to test this out -- if any of you are into sports betting, send me an e-mail and ask which team I like, and I'll tell you. Bet against my team, and see if my bad luck continues for your benefit.

As most of you know, Korea qualified for the world cup this year, and the world cup ran from June until about a week ago. There are few things which bring Koreans together like the success of Korea's people, worldwide, whether it's a half-Korean NFL player winning the Superbowl MVP (Hines Ward), or a Korean actress scoring a major role on an American TV series (Kim Yun Jin on "Lost") or even a major Hollywood star marrying a Korean (Nicholas Cage and Wesley Snipes movies are inexplicably, disproportionately popular here, because both men have Korean wives -- you can count on their films staying on screens in Korea for about triple the time other movies of similar quality would survive in cinemas). All this considered, when team Korea qualifies for the biggest sporting event in the world, bar none, especially on the heels of their most improbable success at the the last world cup, well, let's just say everybody was on board, starting about four months before the first world cup game.

On the Tuesday night of Korea's first game, I went to a restaurant right near the city center (where literally millions gathered to watch the game on mega-screens) about four hours before the game began, and staked out a table with my best friend Matt. Then, as time went by, our friends arrived, and we watched the game (all dressed in red) in a packed restaurant of rabid fans, on a projector screen. The energy there was fantastic, but at halftime, I took a stroll with three friends, down to City Hall, one of the two largest open-air plazas in central Seoul, so see the crowd, if only because I'd never seen a million people in one place at one time before, and was likely never to have the chance again without getting mauled in a riot. We walked down, took some pictures, angled around (pushing through crowds all the while), until we finally had a spot where we could see, if not the projector screens, a good large part of the crowd. Just as we got to that spot, and looked over the absolute OCEAN of people wearing red, Korea scored, and we were treated to the absolute insanity of a million people celebrating. I spent about five minutes just jumping up and down, caught up and pulled away in the pure excitement as surely as if it were a riptide pulling me out to sea. Then we went back to the restaurant and watched the rest of the game there. Korea won (its only win in the tournament) so the microbrewery where we saw the game served free beer until the wee hours. We were tired the next day at work, but all the students were exhausted too, from watching the game, so we just wrote off most of our classes and talked about soccer instead.

I didn't watch the game Korea tied with France, because it started at 4am on a weeknight. However, at 6am I was woken from my sleep by shouts bursting from a large percentage of the windows in my neighbourhood, when Korea scored.

The third game in the group play part of the tournament, vs. Sweden, was at 4am on a Saturday morning. I'm sure it was at a much better time for viewers in Germany, but that's life. I went back to City Hall, to catch the energy for a second time, just because, buddy, why on earth are you living if you don't go out for an experience like that? I arrived there (after a soiree with my coworkers) at about 1230am, and already there were probably 6-800000 people bunched in for the all night party which had already begun at about 7pm, including Korean pop stars, dancing girls, traditional Korean music performers, and a lot of battle-cry chants (one of which I learned. It went "You are my champion, if we sing together, we will have victory!" and I learned that if you mispronounced one consonant, you sang instead "You are my champion, if we die together, we will have victory!", to the great amusement of my Korean friends). It was an all-out shoving match to find a place to sit (on the pavement) and watch the game. Long lines of people were standing, trying to move around, and getting shoved and crowded back and forth, so that it felt about the way I'd imagine it would feel to get stuck inside a washing machine. I got lucky: there was a sudden shift in the crowd for unknown reasons, a scramble, and suddenly I found myself seated (almost folded into thirds) in a spot where I could watch the game. The people around me were silly, fun and young, and enjoyed my trying to get in on the chanting and shouting (which was all in Korean, of course), asking me where I was from and telling me to sit my @$$ down when I stood to take pictures of the crowd on my cellphone. (Check out this picture: it was like this in every direction.)

The only problem was that Korea lost. And didn't even score, so I never got a chance to join the "we scored a goal" dance in the middle of the crowd. However, I've never had so much fun people watching while folded into thirds with aching knees and a sore bottom, in my entire life. The brawl for seating was entertainment enough, just on its own, to make it worth the all-nighter, and the bummer of still needing 30 minutes to pick through a crowd of dispirited red-dressed "Red Devils" freaks (that's the team's name) shuffling their ways to the nearest bus/subway/wherever two million people go when their team loses.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Here it is! Multimedioseyo.

Here's that Tom Waits song I thought I couldn't find. I like his version better than Norah Jones.

This comic, from Copper Comics, (click on it to see it large, and read the words) reminds me of an old story, possibly (but I'm not sure) Talmudic in origin, or at least (possibly) rabbinical.

(I love the transmission of wisdom through stories -- what a perfect medium for moral lessons, and what a flexible one!)

An old man sat by the gates of his city. Each traveler who came to the city gate would ask him, "Tell me, old man, what are the people like in this city?"
And the old man would answer, "What were the people like in the last city you visited?"

If the traveler said, "In the last city I visited, people were selfish and inconsiderate, greedy and disloyal and unpleasant," the old man would answer, "Keep traveling, friend, for people here are the same."

But, if the traveller said, "In the last city, people were kind and helpful, honest and compassionate and hospitable," then the old man would answer "Well come in, friend and enjoy my city, for people here are the same."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Part two: The Advent of Meaning. . . at least for one guy.

This is the second part of a two-part post. Please read the first part first, here.

Rilke again, 'cause dammit, he deserves to be read twice. (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

"How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage. . .
place and settlement, foundation and soil and home"
(still elegy number 10)

Another pitfall:

I am surprised and amazed at how impatient people who grieve can be, for their own wholeness (myself included). I am dismayed, but not quite as surprised, at how impatient OTHER people can be with mourners, dispensing Bible verses like medical prescriptions and declaring the issue done with. "Why are you still sad? I told you to give your grief to God a month ago!"

When Bruce Lee injured his back in 1970, he spent six months in bed, reading, because if he took a short-cut or rushed his recovery process, he would have put a ceiling on his own post-recovery ability, or worse, re-injured himself. The human body needs recovery time for injuries. That's just how it works. (Bonus points: I just compared myself to Bruce Lee! I kick ass!) Seriously, though, why do I think my heart would work any other way than the rest of me? The only part of me that can change quickly is my mind, and even then, the mind often has to wait for the heart to catch up -- that's why it was so hard to break up with exgirlfriendoseyo, even when I could see that we had no future.

I finally realized it's OK to say "actually, my life is pretty shitty right now," instead of "God is teaching me patience", when my friend wrote "I think God honours honesty more than anything else we try to give him" in an e-mail. I'll buy that. Isn't that what the entire book of Job is about: finding an honest answer instead of a quick answer? Also: thanks for that, Mel.

I believe an honest doubt honours God more than a blind faith, and waiting for real meaning is more beautiful, and more consecrated, than skipping to a rote, ready-made meaning, even if the quick answer comes in the form of a bible verse. I think an afternoon volunteering at an orphanage or a soup kitchen honours God more than either of those. (And helping others can do wonders for one's own hurt.)

During the dark, disappointed, meaningless parts, I found comfort remembering that during the wait for a messiah, God made Israel the nation it needed to be, not through a series of growing successes, but through a string of spectacular failures. (Don't believe me? Go read Numbers, Judges, and Chronicles.) Ditto for Saint Peter. The word Israel does not mean "He Who Has All His Shit Together" or "He Who's Squared Things Up With God". Israel means, "He Who WRESTLES with God," and what a wonderful name for a chosen people!

So after all that grief, after avoiding those false trails, where am I now? What meaning HAVE I found? Well, my ideas about God are very different than they used to be, and I think that's a good thing. There's a lot more honesty in the mix now, and a lot more knowledge of my weaknesses.

I no longer think of faith as a helicopter, lowering a ladder from the sky, to rescue me from my griefs -- I think now that faith is more like a walking companion, someone with well-worn shoes and holes in the knees, who doesn't always know the way, and certainly doesn't have all the answers, but who'll point out a root across the path, or pick me up after I trip on it, who makes interesting observations about the trail, who'd have my back in a pinch, and who's always good company. No, he doesn't make the path shorter, but at least he makes the time pass faster, and maybe from time to time, he just happens to have an umbrella when I really need one, or a pocketknife, or a joke that helps me laugh through a windstorm. In my diary, four months before my mom died, I wrote "I want a faith like a steel cable: tough, flexible, and useful." Maybe I'm closer to that now than I was before, but I'm not out of the woods yet.

I'm beginning to think it's OK not to be out of the woods, maybe that's not a statement of despair, but a statement of hope, hope that there's still more to be learned, if I keep myself open to learning. Maybe admitting "I'm not out of the woods yet" authentically IS the best thing I can come away with, and maybe The Lesson I've Learned is that life doesn't fit in boxes, nor needs to: Things I've Figured Out quickly become Prejudices, if I decide I don't have to keep thinking about them. Maybe some honest stumbling about in the woods IS an act of worship, and by being OK with that, or even celebrating that, it might even become a celebration of the fact we need never cease our search for meaning, that every part of our life can continue being deepened and enriched, long after we stop feeling sad.

"Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string. . . .
How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you."

(Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, Tenth Elegy, Opening)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I wrote this for Tamie's Advent blog, but I'll post it here in two parts.

Without advent, Christmas arrives through the side door, and startles me while I'm brushing my teeth for bed. With advent, it enters with fanfare, as the culmination and final satisfaction of a month-long buildup. Opening presents is the fun of Christmas, but lighting candles and reading Isaiah, looking forward to something just beyond my fingertips, is the feeling of Christmas.

Waiting is the most underrated, quickly-forgotten experience-enhancer: nothing improves a food's taste more than hunger, yet nobody thinks fondly back on hovering by the oven door, sniffing for the smell of roast turkey: caroling, presents, stuffing and snowball fights monopolize our nostalgia. Advent, though, is soaked in waiting, it drips with anticipation.

So many of us live our lives between our reach and our grasp, waiting for. . . something, and the thing between my reach and my grasp for the last two years was another very human thing: meaning.

Meaning is the rope that lashes us to the pier. It's the string wound out, that will lead me back out of the maze after battling the minotaur. "Man's Search For Meaning," (highly recommended) by Victor Frankl (a concentration camp survivor), says that meaning has the power to make any ordeal bearable, as long as we can firmly believe that our trial brings us closer to a greater goal.

Losing meaning is a scary thing - people lash out and lose rationality when their lives' meaning is merely DISPARAGED (when somebody says, "You should quit your job and raise kids" or "Just a house-mom? I thought you'd amount to more than that" hackles rise, fast. As for religious debate -- well, nobody ever strapped a bomb on his body to prove "Pet Sounds" is better than "Sergeant Pepper"). To actually lose meaning is downright terrifying -- how do you measure anything when you don't trust your own reference points anymore? Friedrich Nietzsche described it this way:

"We have left the land and have embarked! We have burned our bridges behind us - indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean. . . but. . . you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. . . and there is no longer any 'land'!"

In the space of six months from late 2005 to early 2006, I lost my mother, the woman I'd intended to marry, and several other things that were crucial to the person I believed myself to be. When my mom died of stomach cancer at age 53, I was at her deathbed. Being right there to hear her stop breathing was like being at ground zero of a meaning-grenade blast. Later, breaking up with the girl I loved was another such blast. By April 2006, every mooring was loose - I had the rope in my hand, but the other end wasn't tied anywhere! I was like a cat in zero gravity.

(hee hee hee)

The layers of meaning that had kept me warm were torn off like shrapnel shredding a winter coat, and nobody can survive winter, naked in the snow. But, I also didn't want to drape myself about with the nearest rags, overestimate my preparedness, head into the storm, and freeze anyway.

When it comes to searching for meaning, "Any port in a storm," is not enough, and I didn't want to short-circuit my own search for meaning. The German poet Rilke (one of my best friends), says, in his tenth Duino Elegy,

"How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage. . .
place and settlement, foundation and soil and home"

Sure, things were going badly, but I didn't want to squander my hours of pain, to short-cut through them and thus waste them, if I could instead come through them richer, deep green with tough foliage, rooted with place, foundation and home.

See, sometimes it seems like the world takes a perverse pleasure in poking our softest spots (it actually doesn't: sometimes life sucks, but it's nothing personal. Just trust me on this one). Faced with disillusionments that are sometimes sudden and forceful, like a nuclear bomb, and other times slow and soul-sapping, like a trench war, short cuts are easier than gritting teeth and gutting through life's challenges. Bad ports are rife in the storm, and inviting.

To boot. . .

I used to say things like, "God is teaching me patience." There's nothing wrong with saying that, and sometimes there's deep truth there. Sometimes, though, skipping to the lesson one wants to learn from a situation is a way of hijacking any true learning that might have happened.

Consider this analogy: in university, I studied literature, and discovered that there's a huge difference between reading The Great Gatsby for its colour imagery, and actually reading the Great Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it. Sure, if colour imagery (or Freudian symbolism, or power and gender relations: pick your essay topic from those listed on the handout) is what I'm looking for, I'll find it -- but if that's all I'm looking for, a lot of other things might pass me by.

I didn't want to be like Prince Humperdink (skip to 1:58 in the clip if you can), bellowing "Skip to the end!" instead of bearing through the full marriage ritual.

So, instead of "squandering my hours of pain", instead of just saying, "Skip to the end. . . say Man and Wife!" I wanted to dig in deep, and commit to every step of the journey through the dark valley -- because you never know which patch of mud in that valley has diamonds in it, especially if you're only scanning the tree-branches for silver apples, or thinking about the beef stew at the hostel on the other side.

Another shoddy port for the storm:

One Sunday, I heard a pastor tell a story about his brother-in-law being senselessly murdered in a parking lot by street thugs. The shock-power of the story silenced everyone, and the pastor intoned, "That story just proves that life is war. . . spiritual war," the theme of his sermon.

If that really was all he learned from his brother's death, what a narrow, embittering grief he must have had! And if it wasn't, I thought with outrage, how dare he exploit his brother-in-law's murder, using it as a prop for his own message, to shock people into listening! I wondered how many other themes he'd tacked onto that tragedy, and whether he realized his lurid tactics left such a sour taste.

It is wrong, and it trivializes a tragedy, to put a false meaning in, where one is waiting for a true meaning. The pastor who blamed the 9/11 attacks on the US Government's tolerance of gays ought to be. . .what's the religious leader's equivalent of disbarred? Publicly and loudly reproached, at least. Ditto for the pastors who blame the Colombine shootings on politicians' taking prayer out of school (did any of you get that e-mail forward, too?).

There are some situations in life where, when faced with such difficult realities, the only appropriate response is deep, sad, and searching silence. No parent who has lost a child deserves to have her child's death used as a political platform, and it dishonours my mother's death, and cheapens the entire rest of my journey, if I twist that tragedy to reinforce my own prejudices. I'd rather wait for something true. The meaning will come, but meaning can be like a shy cat: sometimes we have to stop yapping, clicking and beckoning, before it'll approach.

(part two. . .)

Innocent diversion.

Hee hee hee. Funny. A little blasphemous, but funny.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas (or at least december) in Korea, and a very narcissistic first half-post.

Aww nuts.

I tried to fix up the pictures on this one, and instead blogger just swallowed most of the former post.

If one of the pictures that got swallowed was really special to you, request it in the comments section and I'll put it up for you.

To recap what got eaten:

most Koreans (especially females) don't show too many teeth when they smile: almost nobody smiles like this:

or this
or this

instead, you see lots of this:

and this: it seems to convey an image of modesty here; Girlfriendoseyo says it's also physiological: the muscles that pull western people's upper lips back so far are less developed in many Korean and east asian races' mouths, and mouths are shaped differently, to boot.

given such a limited range of smiles available for flirting and the working of womanly wiles, and a lot of girls have expanded their toolkit in different directions, with faces like these:

and an alarming number of knowing smiles to go with the ubiquitous puppy-dog-eyes and pouts:

this is about as toothy as it usually gets, below.

and this was the model image that brought on this line of thought: I fondly call this her "duck smile", it's amazingly common here, and on principle, I don't date women who use it.

It's cold now. Bring your old blankets to the nearest shelter.

a student gave me a sprig of oranges. i've never received a sprig of anything before. the oranges were fresh from Jeju Island (the Florida of Korea), and delicious. I love that class.

Christmas is in Korea!

What's that in the distance?

Let's look a bit closer!

Hey! What's that christmas tree made of?

yep. heineken is toasting the world. I don't have the energy to re-type my rant from before. Plus, it looks pretty in the early morning:

(oh wait: here's that mini-rant.)

That's right. In the middle of the city center, we have a big merry christmas from Heineken. Nice that they're sharing the spirit.

Would this ever fly in north america? Wouldn't the parent groups get all up in arms and demand it be taken down faster than a billboard of Joe Camel dressed as Santa outside an elementary school?

(a christmas ad from 1946)

Made me laugh.

My friend Tamie is writing devotionals for every day of advent. I love advent. Girlfriendoseyo and I had a discussion where I explained how the feeling Christmas gives me is one of melancholy, of winter setting in, but also of anticipation and hope -- the Christmas songs that touch me the most are the sacred ones of course, and of them, especially the ones about light in the darkness. Listen to the melodies and words of songs like "The First Noel" "Silent Night" "Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem" -- I remember lighting the advent candles being my favourite Christmas tradition, and the mellow, quiet mood of reading the Christmas story, or the prophecies in Isaiah by candlelight with my family, are still what Christmas means to me. Even now, I prefer the Christmas music, and decorations that set a meditative tone instead of a festive tone. Girlfriendoseyo and I walked around downtown Seoul, where a lot of lights are going up, and she preferred the green, red, and yellow lights, while I preferred the silver, blue, and white lights, because she preferred the warmth, and I preferred the melancholy.

P.S.: this is horrible:

Advent. Look back, look forward, both with hope.

To my friends and family in Canada:

miss you tons.

love: Roboseyo.

P.S.: roboseyoism of the day:

White turkey meat and cranberry sauce are like country music and pickup trucks: separate, they don't make a lot of sense to a lot of people, but taken together, they explain each other's existence perfectly.