New Job

April 7, 2013

I’ve moved to Gwangju, South Korea to teach English at Chosun University.

 

Robert Rabbit

January 17, 2013

I created an “Amazing Pet!” activity for my students. This contribution is from Mickey, a sweet-hearted but mischievous 10-year-old girl. Most of the other students had pet puppies or dinosaurs. Mickey had a “Robert Rabbit.” In the picture I’m holding a carrot and a smart phone. Only one of these artistic choices is an accurate reflection of my current lifestyle. (UPDATE MARCH 2013: Now both are accurate.) My measurements are on the metric system. I like that she rounded my weight to that second decimal place. Also, I’m glad she changed her mind about my food preference. Also, “Rabbit Pong” is awesome – let’s play together some time.

Robert Rabbit

Holiday Message

December 23, 2012

I came home from work the other day and found this message written on the fogged-up door of my apartment building. I’m the only foreigner in the building, so I don’t know who wrote it. Based on my expert handwriting analysis, I think all three lines were written by different people. Anyway, M[e]rry Christmas to you, too!Merry Christmas

yeti christmas

It’s getting cold in Jinju. There are Christmas trees up in the coffee shops, Christmas music playing in Emart. I was hoping to have some great Korean Christmas songs to share with you, but so far I’ve come up empty. I’ve found some terrible K-pop Christmas tunes, but I’ll spare you from those. Instead, here’s an annotated list of the best non-traditional Christmas songs (with one or two great covers of traditional songs). These are mostly by indie / folk artists. I’m sorry I can’t post the mp3s, but you can hear almost all of them on YouTube. Let me know if I’ve made any glaring omissions. Happy holidays!

Favorites:

1. “Just Like Christmas” by Low. This is a perfect Christmas song: a simple, catchy melody, a sweet story about the warmth of friendship in a cold foreign land, and some jingle bells. “By the time we got to Oslo / the snow was gone. / And we got lost. / The beds were small, but we felt so young. / It was just like Christmas.”

2. “All That I Want” by The Weepies. A gorgeous Christmas seaside love song. “Out in the harbor / the ships come in, / it’s Christmastime.” And how about a little Christmas magic? “Deer might fly, / why not? / I met you.”

3. “Maybe This Christmas” by Ron Sexsmith. A hopeful little tune that feels like it should be playing in everyone’s home this time of year. “Maybe forgiveness will ask us to call / someone we love, / someone we’ve lost / for reasons we can’t quite recall. / Maybe this Christmas…”

4. “Christmastime” by The Smashing Pumpkins. A joyous ode to childhood wonder. Cue the strings and the tender nostalgia. “I remember dreaming, / wishing, hoping, praying for this day. / Now I sit and watch them: / the little ones I love, / so excited by the wait.”

5. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues with Kristy MacColl. An Irish immigrant in a New York City drunk tank on Christmas Eve reminisces about Christmases past and a lost love. In polls in the UK and Ireland, this song is usually voted as the best Christmas song ever. It’s a heartbreaker. Knowing how badly the story ends makes the hopeful, joyous refrain so much more painful: “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay.’ / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.”

6. “The Ragpicker’s Dream” by Mark Knopfler. The lead singer from The Dire Straits is spending Christmas in a bar with his “associate,” getting drunk on whiskey and beer and wishing he knew the waitress a little better. At the end of the night: “There’s a ten for your trouble, / you have beautiful hair. / Make the last one two doubles, / it’s a cold one out there.”

7. “River” by Joni Mitchell. Some people argue that this is now a traditional Christmas song, while others argue that’s it’s not actually a Christmas song at all. It’s a breakup song set during the holiday season, and it’s amazing. “It’s coming on Christmas, / they’re cutting down trees, / they’re putting up reindeer, / singing songs of joy and peace. / I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

8. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hem. This is my favorite traditional Christmas song, sung by my favorite band. When covering this song, artists fall into one of two camps: the “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” camp and the “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” camp. Hem throws in their lot with the muddlers, and so do I. It’s a poetic truth about human existence. We all have to muddle through this life. But we don’t have to muddle alone.

9. “Christmas is Coming Soon” by Blitzen Trapper. The only Christmas song in existence to reference Steve McQueen, Donkey Kong, and making love in a stolen car. Best of all is this lonely girl: “Carefully, she climbs up into the tree. / Her radio sits below in the snow, / filling the night with songs as she waits for dawn.”

10. “Carol of the Bells” by Tomandandy. There’s something vaguely unsettling about this rendition of the old classic, taken from the Rules of Attraction soundtrack. Maybe it’s the human screams and indecipherable whispering in the background.

11. “Song for a Winter’s Night” by Sarah McLachlan. This song is what longing sounds like. “If I could know within my heart / that you were lonely too, / I would be happy just to hold the hands I love / on this winter’s night with you.”

12. “Rudy” by The Be Good Tanyas. The story of a homeless man who dies from exposure on a cold Christmas Eve night in Georgetown. Includes the great line: “Deck the halls, Rudolph the red-nosed wino knows it’s Christmas time.”

13. “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders. Are you missing someone you love this holiday season? This is the song for you! “The snow is falling down. / Gets colder day by day. / I miss you. / I hear people singing. / It must be Christmastime.”

14. “Christmas in Prison” by John Prine. He’s in prison. His sweetheart isn’t. It’s Christmastime. “The searchlight in the big yard / swings ’round with the gun, / and spotlights the snowflakes / like dust in the sun.”

15. “The Atheist Christmas Carol” by Vienna Teng. From the title, you might expect something cynical or bitter. Instead, this is an anthem of hope, and maybe the most emotionally powerful song on this list. “It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart, / of feeling the full weight of our burdens. / It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind / and knowing we are not alone in fear, / not alone in the dark.”

16. “Merry Christmas to the Drunks, Merry Christmas to the Lovers” by Ballboy. This song wins the list’s Thickest Scottish Accent Award. It’s a Christmas song for after the bars have closed. “Aye, I am here / with you tonight. / Hold my hand, / take me home / for Christmas.”

17. “King Night” by Salem. What is this unholy brew? Can you hear “Silent Night” drowning beneath the surface of this boiling cauldron?

18. “Peace At Last” by Hem. This is my favorite Christmas song. I even made a video for it, years ago:

Honorable Mention:

Tom Waits – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” ; The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine” ; Trainwreck Riders – “Christmas Time Blues” ; Dido – “Christmas Day” ; Jack White – “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over” ; Jenny O – “Get Down for the Holidays” ; Rufus Wainwright – “Spotlight on Christmas” ; Laura Marling – “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)” ; Frontier Ruckus – “Christmas Eve, Driving Home” ; Marah – “Christmas with the Snow” ; The Boy Least Likely To – “Christmas isn’t Christmas” ; Andrew and the North American Grizzly – “Let the Snow Fall” ; Coldplay – “Christmas Lights” ; Caitlin Rose and Keegan DeWitt – “You Never Come Home for Christmas” ; Frightened Rabbit – “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop.”

Bonus Track!

“Nirvana,” a Charles Bukowski poem, read by Tom Waits. This poem is about a young man (“not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose”) on a bus on a snowy day. The bus stops at a diner, and he experiences a moment of magic, when the world suddenly makes sense. But then he gets back on the bus, and the moment slowly slips away. And so he decides to close his eyes and try to sleep, because “there was nothing else to do. / Just listen to the sound of the engine, / and the sound of the tires / in the snow.”

♠ Above image is a delightful yeti Christmas card by Regina Mako. ♠

Hey, a Pushcart Nomination

November 15, 2012

I was checking my junk mail folder today when I saw an email from the good folks at JMWW telling me that they were nominating my short story “Young Billy is Reprimanded for Teasing His Sister’s Ghost” for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. I marked it as “not spam.” JMWW is a classy online journal that has published a lot of excellent writers, so this is a big honor. Of course it’s a long shot that I’ll make it into the anthology, but I’ve been told that the story has been “sent to New York,” so at least I know that it will be read by someone important. Or maybe by someone who works for someone important. Or, more likely, by someone who volunteers for someone who works for someone important. And really, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

It’s been a while. Today I’d like to talk about my favorite cinematic love scene. It’s from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s “romantic mystery comedy drama” (according to Wikipedia) Chungking Express.

Set against the backdrop of the blurry rush of modern Hong Kong, Chungking Express is a movie about longing, heartbreak, and the connections people miss, make, and struggle to maintain in a city so fast-paced and full of people. The plot consists of two distinct stories, which overlap only for a brief moment. Both are of men getting over a lost love and possibly finding someone new.

The second story stars Tony Leung as a police officer recovering from a broken romance with a flight attendant. A flashback to this relationship provides Chungking Express with its only love scene. We learn the relationship is over just before the scene begins. Here’s the clip:

There’s a lot happening here. It seems to me that the flight attendant is listening to an airline safety information recording in order to practice her safety demonstration. Tony is smoking a cigarette and playing with a toy airplane. She cracks a beer (it looks like a Heineken) in the kitchen and watches him from the doorway. The camera focus shifts from the toy plane in the foreground to her in the background. “What A Diff’rence A Day Made” by Dinah Washington is playing in the background. If there’s a sadder old love song, I haven’t heard it. It’s hard to tell if the song is just for us, the audience, or also for the lovers. I thought it was just for us because it plays over the cuts forward in time, but the safety announcement also continues unbroken, and I’m pretty sure that announcement is supposed to be audible to the characters. So I’m not sure.

That moment when she’s putting on the imaginary lifejacket, tying it around her waist, and inflating it, and he’s playing with the toy and making airplane noises: movie scenes don’t get any better than that.

Then there’s the chase. The toy airplane wants to make a landing. When she pours the beer, first on herself and then on him, and says “Do you want a drink?” I was a little confused as to why she was speaking English instead of Cantonese. But then I realized that on the plane she would speak English to the passengers, and “Do you want a drink?” would be her most common question. She’s playing “stewardess” for him. Later, I also especially like the realistic landing the airplane makes on her back (notice that another plane has already landed), and I like the one-handed finger wave he gives her from the window, and how she kneels down to wave up at him from the walkway.

The whole scene is heavy with a sense of loss. We know the ending before it begins. It doesn’t seem fair.

In a normal romantic movie, any two characters who share a scene like this would undoubtedly find their way back into each other’s arms later in the film. There are no more love scenes in Chungking Express, not even another kiss. This is absolutely the romantic high point in the movie. Later, Tony half-begins a relationship with an eccentric young woman who breaks into his apartment (the short-haired girl from the food stand at the beginning of this clip), but they have an uncertain future. What’s more clear is that Tony and the flight attendant won’t be getting back together. They actually meet again, near the end of the movie. Tony is off-duty in a convenience store and happens to run into his old lover. They chat, unable to stop grinning at each other, but her new boyfriend is waiting outside. She tells Tony he looks better in uniform. He replies: “So do you.” The lines may read as harsh or spiteful, but that’s not how they’re delivered. The encounter is somewhere between playful and wistful. The new boyfriend is honking now, and she has to go.

After watching their love scene, it’s hard for us to let the flight attendant go. We follow Tony’s encounters with the food stall girl and wonder if they would have the same passion together as the two lovers with their toy airplane. Tony is surely wondering the same thing. But now he has no choice but to move forward, and at the end of the movie we’re left with a cautious optimism for him. Things may or may not work out with the food stall girl, but every day of his life will be filled with new people and new possibilities. It’s a big city, after all.

 

Two Sad Songs About Girls

August 19, 2012

I listen to Jango internet radio every day at work. I highly recommend it. I’ve discovered many great new songs, including the two I’m going to talk about now: “Be Careful” by Patty Griffin and “Lonely Girls” by Lucinda Williams. Let’s start with “Be Careful.”

This song has a very simple structure. Each verse is a list of girls in different places and situations. “All the girls in the Paris night. All the girls in the pale moonlight. All the girls with the shopping bags. All the girls with the washing rags. All the girls on the telephone. All the girls standing all alone…” And then the chorus comes as a request to the listener for how to treat these girls. “Be careful how you bend me. Be careful where you send me. Careful how you end me. Be careful with me.” Patty makes an interesting choice to switch to the first person singular for the chorus. It opens up the possibility of other interpretations, whereas the first person plural, “us,” would have made the message completely clear. But I think the “me” represents each one of the girls mentioned in the verses, and emphasizes the personal nature of the request. It’s a song about recognizing human fragility and treating each other with grace and compassion. There may be some feminist arguments against the message of this song, since it could possibly imply that women require a different and gentler treatment than men, or that women are helpless against the ways that men choose to bend/send/end them. But the fact is that everyday so many women are taken advantage of, exploited, and treated crassly or cruelly. The message of this song is: don’t do that. For me, it’s a sad song because it reminds me of how common it is for women not to be treated carefully. I found both the music and the message very moving.

Now here’s “Lonely Girls” by Lucinda Williams:

There’s a song by the Wallflowers that says “God don’t make lonely girls.” Maybe they should ask Lucinda Williams about that. This song is sad in kind of a lighthearted way. The jaunty melody and repetition give it a good humor despite the mournful vocals. The “I oughta know” in the last verse almost serves as a punchline. Sometimes I’ll smile at a song lyric not because it’s funny but because it’s both perfect and inevitable. The amusement comes from the fact that you should’ve seen it coming. “Sweet sad songs sung by lonely girls” indeed.

 

Thoughts on Samgyetang

May 30, 2012

The samgyetang was delivered still-boiling to our table. This famous Korean dish is a ginseng soup with a whole young chicken submerged in the broth. The soup also includes rice, chestnuts, green onions, and a few other ingredients. Each bowl contains a piece of deer antler, which supposedly has many invigorating and curative properties and promotes longevity.

The flesh of the bird is exceptionally tender and falls easily from the bone with the help of your spoon and chopsticks. If you like, you can dip the meat in bamboo salt before eating. Bamboo salt is said to alleviate inflammation, detoxify the liver, promote trustworthy bowel function, and even cure acne. It’s slightly coarser than regular table salt and leaves a brief and pleasant tingling on the tongue.

The belly of the fowl is stuffed with a hardy, purplish rice. As you break apart the bird, the bottom of your bowl becomes thick with rice and meat and vegetables. Each bowl comes with a ladle and a separate, shallower dish into which you can spoon this mixture. This allows your food to cool faster, which is very useful because the broth in the main dish remains almost too hot to consume for most of the meal. All the vegetables in the soup are whole and uncut, as this is thought to better retain their nutritive properties.

If you have the pleasure of trying samgyetang yourself, one thing to watch out for is the presence of a jujube. A jujube looks similar to a large raisin, but it is actually closely related to a date. This means it has a pit. I’ve eaten enough Korean food to know that you should always proceed with caution, so luckily I decided to nibble before crunching down on this mysterious morsel.

The samgyetang was served with an assortment of side dishes including fresh vegetables, radish kimchi (which was so thick that we had to cut it with our table scissors, another uniquely Korean item), a salad with a creamy off-white dressing, and some crisp greens in a red pepper sauce. We had rice tea to drink, as well as a complementary beaker of ginseng wine, which we drank out of miniature shot glasses. The “wine” definitely had the burn and kick of a liquor.

This meal was around $11 each. No tax or tipping in Korea.

The restaurant is a few kilometers outside of Jinju, set in the middle of a verdant wonderland of natural and man-made beauty. After eating, we roamed the grounds looking at the different statues and sculptures. Behind the restaurant is a peaceful lake. A wooden raft with a picnic table floats on the lake, tethered to the shore. There are many cobble-stoned paths to choose from. An empty wooden swing creaks in the wind. West of the restaurant, winding off into the forest, a purling brook.

I had a class of three 14-year old girls today, and I taught them about haiku poetry. None of them had ever heard of a haiku before. Here are the poems they wrote:

Ah-lim:
Haiku is boring
I don’t want to write haiku
Therefore I’m sleepy.

Hee-jeon:

Test is reluctant
Haiku is too reluctant
Sorry Robert Teacher.

Ha-sun:

Ah-lim is sleepy
Hee-jeon is very quiet
I am nice student.