July 3, 2010

May the Lawns be Green and the Sun Warm on Your Fur

Tonight our Molly, our dog, who was our family for fourteen and a half years, fell asleep -- asleep asleep.

I felt sick leaving her on the linoleum floor, as we opened the veterinarian's door and exited, too quickly, undramatically. I wanted slow motion visuals and music with minor chords.

My dad wept, but I wouldn't even know how to do that. Out of practice I guess.

I feel no agony for her. She went peacefully. Just, awake one minute, asleep the next. You could see her abdomen cease struggling against the tumors in her lungs. Calmly, quietly she went. And then we went, without her.

If I feel any loss it's in the spaces she carved in our lives over a decade and a half. Spaces she created -- and thus spaces only she fills. Tonight, for the first time in 15 years, I ate a sandwich without her waiting, eyes and ears alert, for any crumb that I might offer. I considered sleeping on the couch beside the fire, but she didn't join me downstairs like she had every time since we moved to this house a decade ago.

Still, it's difficult to ignore Kurt Vonnegut's pragmatism now. "So it goes," he wrote after witnessing more death than any of us would care to. It's a truth that kept him sane. And yes, I agree: the world turns, our cells replicate, then mutate. That's decay. It kills us, all of us, every living thing. Or something else does first.

But it doesn't help me wrap my mind around permanence. That the spaces Molly formed in our lives will always remain empty. That it will take me months to break the habit of getting home and calling for her. That I can never recall her to my side to see her bright eyes or hear the roar with which she announced that she was ready to play.

Permanence haunts me in my drafty Castle Rationale. She's gone, and that leaves a void in me. Which is why death bothers us, right? And divorce, and foreclosure, and graduation. People, pets and places act as cues, as keys to our memories. Without them we can't get the whole memory. They carry parts of our selves, and take them with them when they go. Or when we go. Even if we reunite, we miss other pieces of the memories, or have new contexts that compel us to interpret them differently. We only have now. All else is inaccessible. My Molly, her, now, I cannot reach again.

Emily Dickenson wrote: That it shall never come again is what makes life so sweet.

And as I recently wrote:

I will chisel an Epitaph to my Home:
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Again, again, again, again: that's it, right there. The impossibility of an Again.

With what words do we conclude?
Adieu: To God? I don't know. Is there a soul?
Au revoir: Til we meet again? No, the impossible Again.
Bonne nuit: Good night?
Dors bien: Sleep well?

Yes, that. Fais de beaux rêves. Make beautiful dreams, Molly. I'm sorry to see you go.

March 11, 2010

The Flawless Symphony

Recently I received an email from a friend explaining how the IPCC made a mistake in their report, “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. Apparently, New Scientist had interviewed an Indian glaciologist who'd speculated about the fate of the glaciers. An Indian report had cited the interview. WWF Nepal then cited the Indian report, which was then cited by a writer contributing to the IPCC Assessment Report #4.

You see it was a problem with footnotes. The writer working on the IPCC report didn't follow the three levels of citations back to their original and only source.

This mistake has been leapt upon by so-called Climate Deniers, just like a single office at a single university in England that issued inconsistent reports. In both cases, the Climate Deniers accurately identify that an error has been committed.

Yet, as I thought about it tonight I realized the Climate Deniers are being a bit unrealistic in their expectations of the humans writing these reports, especially in the case of the IPCC report. 

Expecting perfection from countless contributors each citing thousands of independent pieces of research (each with their own citations) to aggregate a whole and accurate picture of the earth's current climate is like expecting a symphony to play each of Mozart's 41 symphonies on sequential nights, 41 nights in a row, without making a mistake.

But whether such a feat is possible doesn't interest me nearly as much as the realization that at each symphony, some number of the ninety or so musicians will make a mistake. 

And, unless they all flub at the same moment, it won't matter a bit.

The symphony will still astound.

February 10, 2010

My Rights are Your Rights

I've just finished reading a New Yorker article about the furor regarding Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in United States criminal courts.

The timbre of the article leaves me with an image of the writer, Jane Mayer, with one hand on her hip and the other pointing particularly at a phrase in the Declaration of Independence.

She hopes you'll recall that many of the men who sculpted the constitution also signed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," with emphasis on "all men" and "Creator-endowed unalienable Rights."

I'll briefly summarize and provide context. Eric Holder's first argument for holding the cases in federal criminal courts, rather than by military commission, reduces to the fact that his prosecutors have a better case than the military does. They have produced evidence without resorting to torture. Evidence via torture is just about all the military prosecutors have, and they hardly have that.

As Amy Jeffress, Holder's national-security adviser, is quoted in the article, "There was no file for each detainee. The information was scattered all over the government. You'd look at what the Department of Defense had, and it was something, but, as a prosecutor, it wasn’t what you’d like to see as evidence. . . . It was pretty thin stuff."

Holder's second argument is simply sound public relations: much of the world considers the military commission system established by George Bush to be illegitimate, and certainly the Islamic world is concerned about convictions based on evidence obtained via torture.

As Holder is quoted, "Values matter in this fight. We need to give those who might follow these mad men a good sense of what America is, and what America can be. We are militarily strong, but we are morally stronger."

The legal argument against holding the cases by military commission rather than in criminal courts, where the defendants will be afforded all rights under the constitution, is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al, are enemy combatants and therefore needn't be afforded said rights.

The article quotes Andrew McCarthy, the former Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney who led the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center attacks, declaring that Holder didn’t "understand what rule of law has always been in wartime." He said, "It’s military commissions. It’s not to wrap our enemies in our Bill of Rights."

Or as Scott Brown's campaign asserted, "Some people believe our Constitution exists to grant rights to terrorists who want to harm us. I disagree."

Some common people agree with McCarthy and Brown. Ms. Mayer quotes a protestor, Carolyn Walton, "How can someone who is not an American have any right to our rights? Holder wants to help the terrorists."

America is Universal Rights

But our American identity depends on the idea that our country upholds Rights we profess are universal ("all men") and absolute ("inalienable", "endowed by their Creator"). We believe we were given these Rights not because we are American, but because we are Human.

We love our country because it is one of the few that exists precisely to protect those Rights. America is not merely a space of land: it's a set of ideas that hold all people as created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights. That set of ideas, and not our territory or economic might, has justified our intervention in the affairs of the world.

The United States crossed oceans twice to defend the inalienable Rights of humanity against dictators who sought absolute power. The United States stood against the spread of Stalinism, because Stalin spit on Russians' Creator-endowed Rights. The United States intervened in Kuwait when a dictator extended his reach.

The United States assisted Afghanis twice: once to defend civilians against Soviet aggression, and once to free citizens from the grip of totalitarians who stripped them of their Rights. The United States supported Iranians last summer as their government violated their Creator-endowed Rights to speak freely, to gather and to govern themselves.

We act contrary to our American identity when we avert our eyes to abuse of inalienable Rights or when we support dictators who impinge the very Rights we uphold (Pinochet, Noriega, Maximilio Hernadez). We disgrace ourselves when we treat prisoners in a way that implies, "We will summarily rob you of your Creator-endowed Rights to assure ours."

We disgrace ourselves if we say, "All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, if by 'all men' you mean US Citizens."

If we are Americans, then we must not deny those Rights to any person. Not even if we believe they're a terrorist. Not even if we believe they're a war criminal. Not even if we believe they're our enemy.

Only if we prove them guilty -- by a fair trial, by a jury of their peers, with evidence not extracted by violating their Creator-endowed inalienable Rights -- may we call them felons and punish them appropriately.

If we can act justly at Nuremberg when trying some of the most depraved humans in recent history, then surely we can act justly when trying Pakistani villagers.

Answering the Skeptic

A good skeptic will ask, What if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is found innocent? An argument for the military commissions is the relative certainty that they will convict.

But truly, if the best prosecutors in the United States cannot convince twelve Americans that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is guilty, then maybe he is actually innocent. Few events could damage the United States' efforts to protect the Rights of humanity than if we execute an innocent foreigner.

If a military commission executes a man who is later exonerated, then for the next century, each time the United States attempts to defend the rights of humans in Cambodia or China, we will be firmly reminded of our own violations.

If the United States wishes to preserve its moral capital, it must remain above reproach.

The upside to this whole debate is that Holder's prosecutors claim they have sound evidence. If we allow the Justice Department to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in US criminal court and he is found guilty, he will be punished with death, just as if he were convicted by a military tribunal.

But by trying him in US criminal court, we uphold our American identity as the defender of the inalienable Rights of all humanity.

PS. To be fair, there's a very practical argument against trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in criminal court: the case will cost too much, with estimates ranging from a few hundred million dollars to a billion. Clearly those costs must be controlled, and decreased. Even at the low-end, 300 million dollars for a trial is absurd. On the other hand, we've spent around a billion dollars improving and servicing the detainment facilities at Guantanamo since the first prisoners arrived there eight years ago. I address money only to predict anyone who deflects the moral argument in favor of arguing finances. The financial cost will be high either way, but the longer we delay, the more the prisoners cost us.

January 28, 2010

Every statement should end with a question mark?

My friend Ryan Georgioff recently wrote,
Naturally, I can't help but feel this is one big cosmic joke.
Have you felt it? That hesitant panic that maybe you've been duped, been done over by Zeus and his Creons?
I'm not the first to feel it, I know, but when the curtain falls and Jesus is standing there with uncorked champagne toasting the end of life-as-we-know-it... well, that would just be fucking bizarre.
But no moreso than, say, the way life-as-we-know-it operates.
You really shouldn't read something like Ishmael if you're looking for inner peace, and you sure as hell shouldn't be reading anarchist literature. Yet this is how I've spent my recent days, pondering the perilous paths of precedents in full knowledge of the futile nature of my quest... yet questing nonetheless.
Oh, where my journey has taken me!
In my mind I have smashed the bank teller window and spray-painted vulgar graffiti on the McDonald's arch. I have marched hand-in-hand with flower children and acid-tripping hippies from the Nineteen-Sixties. When the riot police machines come I always throw their tear gas back to them, though they've forgotten how to cry. These glorious and grandiose dreams are then beset by the realities of my life.
No job, no money, and no real desire to have either. Like I said, don't look to Ishmael for a reason to keep at your mindless job or for motivation to stick it out and finish that lingering degree.
My mind is all-over-the-fucking-place.
I am posting this because I can, despite the fact that it's all shit. And to think I want to write for a living.
Ryan approaches his search for personal and spiritual enlightenment with passionate honesty. I admire his courage: I can vouch from personal experience it's terrifying to set off into the wilderness. Imagine climbing the face of Half Dome in Yosemite. Half way up you meet an obstacle, only passable by unclipping yourself from your safety ropes. You face a sickening choice: unclip and keep climbing, or stick with the safety net and lower yourself back to the banal you climbed to escape.
Ryan and I both left our ropes behind. We're at various stages in that climb up Half Dome now. While he's championing his choice, "Oh, where my journey has taken me!", I'm second-guessing myself, clinging wearily to the perilous cliff, wondering if the ropes were really so constraining, if the institutions I abandoned were really so corrupt, really so evil, and imagining how happy my life could have been within them.
Certainly a grassy meadow, however illusory, appeals to a ropeless climber a kilometer above.
While Ryan reveled in the glory of the climb in his post above, I questioned our sanity, in my comment below:
What if this isn't all one cosmic joke. What if it's all true. What if in our efforts to tear down artifice, we pile the rubble in the doorways, walling ourselves in for a cloistered death. Starving ourselves of options by writing off entire movements, entire economies, entire ideas.
What if unfettered embracing, rejoicing, ego, and amorality, really is evil -- what if we evolved into orderly species because those who were disposed towards order procreated most successfully.
What if anarchy is what we fear in mobs. Just it's been tempered so far by the police. What if The Man is like Jesus said: established by Divine Right. And the police are God's fingertips, loving us toughly, for our own good.
What if McDonald's and Dow Chemical and British Petroleum really are symbols of the holiest system of social-darwinism ever devised by the divinely-inspired minds of righteously misogynistic white men. What if WE are genetically defective, unevolved. Is that why we despise dinero. Rejecting the nutrients that sustain us, like a baby refusing a breast.
What if we reach utopia. What if we hate that we've achieved equality and found no superior being to blame. What if we're not optimists. What if we're whiners. What if what Buddha was trying to say was stop suffering for your ideals, detach yourself from your humanitarian lust for justice, put on a suit, smile, and swallow the cum.

January 23, 2010

The Divine Chain Letter

I'm reading Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ". I'm in the first chapter, and already the book has inspired new questions about Christianity.

As I read, I'd like to raise these questions for discussion, in case anyone has insights or answers.

On page 30, the theologian Dr. Craig Blomberg is quoted, 
"Jesus says, 'Whoever acknowledges me, I will acknowledge before my father in heaven.' Final judgment is based on one's reaction to -- whom? This mere human being? No, that would be a very arrogant claim. Final judgment is based on one's reaction to Jesus as God."
Besides the irony of Blomberg's views on arrogance, he's making a gigantic assertion there. He seems to be saying final judgment is based on one's acknowledgement of Jesus as God.

Yet, supporting evidence for his claim is readily available: Jesus said in his commission at the end of Mark's gospel, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Jesus seems to say, Believe and then publicly demonstrate that belief. Or, according to Paul in his letter to the Romans, "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." In this case you have to say the belief out loud, and then you're saved. 

Salvation according to Blomberg and Paul appears to come down to demonstrating you believe Jesus is God by telling someone else. You have to publicly step up and say, "Yes, I heard the gospel and I believe what I heard." Then you're saved.

I can't accept this interpretation. The message of Jesus could not possibly be so inane. This interpretation reduces the message of Jesus to a chain letter.
Exhibit A: "If you forward this message to ten of your friends, you'll have great sex for three years. If you don't, you'll be crushed by a flying camel."
Every time someone forwards a chain letter, they imply they are concerned about flying camels. They imply they believe the threat or hope for the promise. Those who believe follow the instructions and we who don't believe get junk mail. 
Exhibit B: If you publicly admit you believe the Gospel you'll live eternally on streets paved with gold. If you don't, you'll boil in the lake of fire.
The Christian church has glossed over the transformative message Jesus brought in favor of the chain letter version, to their detriment. "Tell someone you believe or you'll go to hell" may be a brilliant distribution strategy, but what use is it to spread a message that says merely, "Spread this message"?

Imagine if twelve people received an email tomorrow that said only, "Forward this." What would be the effect if they forwarded it to everyone they knew, who forwarded it again, until everyone on earth had received it? Well, we'd all have read and forwarded an email. Nice! 

Then what?

The message of Jesus should not be reduced to a chain letter. Regardless of opinions on his divinity, he preached vital advice on living well and peacefully with each other. Ascribing divinity to him only emphasizes the rightness of his message and should convince the church to implement it with all haste. 

Advice to Apostles and Theologians

What should Blomberg have said? What should Paul have said? They could be right. Maybe acknowledging belief ensures salvation. But what if they had said, "Implement the message of Jesus on earth. Then you shall be saved"? Would it have harmed their message?

You could argue that not everyone who believes Jesus' divinity will also be willing to implement Jesus' message on earth. But if they believe he's God, what delusion prevents them from obeying him? Clearly they do not actually believe.

The class of people who implements Jesus' message will always include every person who believes in Jesus. If you don't implement Jesus' message, you do not believe. 

(Yes, that class of people will also include a number who don't believe, or are undecided about, Jesus' divinity. If God is so legalistic, I wonder if he weeps that his caveat separates him from these samaritans.)

So it would have been safe for Blomberg and Paul to argue for sustainable action. Out with the chain letter, in with world transformation.

But what about Jesus? He also claimed those who believed and acknowledged (via baptism) would be saved. Was he advocating the chain letter approach to salvation? Well, then, he got what he asked for: the most popular chain letter ever. 

But, I don't think he wanted something so simple. I think he expected further action, and if he did, then the church needs to get back to implementing Jesus' message of living well with each other. If they do that, they're going to improve a lot of lives. If they don't, humans will suffer twice -- on earth first, and then in hell.

Maybe I'm complicating this. Maybe the church has it right. Perhaps Jesus too ascribed to the chain letter idea. Maybe he just wanted to get the message out, so that everyone would clearly hear the gospel: "Forward this or go to hell."

PS Let me stress my concern here is not with Jesus or scripture. It's with Christianity's portrayal of the aforementioned. For example, at university I learned in biblical studies that the word "saved" is "sozo" in the original Greek. "Sozo" doesn't mean salvation like Christianity traditionally teaches, a boolean switch between "unsaved" to "saved". Instead it means "restore", as in, if you publicly acknowledge your belief in Jesus, you'll be restored -- most likely a promise of gradual restoration to a whole peace and right relationship with earth, others, yourself, and God. It's called "shalom" in Hebrew.

PPS This may be off-topic, but look at the rest of that last chapter of Mark:

Jesus says, "And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it."

Those who believe will drive out demons, speak multiple languages, pal around with deadly animals, escape assassination and heal by touch. And according to Mark the signs actually occurred. Whenever a Christian preaches to me, I'm going to demand they prove they speak in Jesus' name. There's enough sick people around to last a lifetime. Either we'll eliminate the need for universal health care, or God isn't real, or the Christian doesn't believe.

January 18, 2010

Books for the Next Decade

Recommended book for the new decade: Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. An excerpt:
There is a phrase which has grown so common in the world's mouth that it has come to seem to have sense and meaning -- the sense and meaning implied when it is used -- that is the phrase which refers to this or that or the other nation as possibly being "capable of self-government"; and the implied sense of it is, that there has been a nation somewhere, sometime or other which wasn't capable of it -- wasn't as able to govern itself as some self-appointed specialists were or would be to govern it. The master minds of all nations, in all ages, have sprung in affluent multitude from the mass of the nation, and from the mass of the nation only -- not from its privileged classes; and so, no matter what the nation's intellectual grade was, whether high or low, the bulk of its ability was in the long ranks of its nameless and its poor, and so it never saw the day that it had not the material in abundance whereby to govern itself. Which is to assert an always self-proven fact: that even the best governed and most free and most enlightened monarchy is still behind the best condition attainable by its people; and that the same is true of kindred governments of lower grades, all the way down to the lowest.
Who better than the people, through the framework of a sound government, to legislate themselves. To be clear, the narrator is advocating for a republic, as opposed to monarchy or plutocracy. The risks of the United States' plutocracy are little differentiated from those Twain feared in Monarchy. 

The US has for the past two centuries inched from its foundation of Aquinian pre-lapsarian liberalism towards Augustinian moral progressivism. The self-righteous of various tints have claimed a mandate for a strongly moral government, which finds its closest analog in Hobbes' Leviathan and not in later forms of social-contract, like those advocated by James Madison and John Adam's in the Federalist papers. 

The question is not whether to be democratic or hegemonic, but rather if we can return to our roots of a simple, efficient federal vessel of government. If we can, we can also hold out hope that self-government can be revived in local manifestations of community: city, county and state government.
We can govern ourselves peacefully, if we can pry loose the hands of the plutocracy from our throats.

December 16, 2009

Spitting on Michelangelo

The Seattle Times published a letter I wrote to the Editor last week. There's many people who are skeptical of human-caused climate change, and many who view Climategate as vindication for their views. This Letter to the Editor is my response to them:

Conspiracy theorists are like suicide bombers — loud and dramatic — but there are only a few of them, and they are soon forgotten by all but those they injure [“Hacked e-mails heat up Capitol Hill,” News, Dec. 3].

In the case of Climategate, the conspiracy theorists are wearing WMD and may injure us all. They’re generalizing a few pieces of doctored data in an attempt to impede the entire sustainability movement.

While it may be true that a few scientists in the U.K. have manipulated data, and while it may or may not be true that the climate is warming, what is crucial to realize is that both climate-change science and Climategate are red herrings, distracting us from specific, vital issues that threaten humanity.

Whether in climate change humankind has created a monster or a myth couldn’t matter less. Beyond the issue of global warming, readily verifiable facts show we’re running out of fish, forests and fresh, clean water.

If we continue to abuse the Earth, we in the developed world will certainly encounter a drastic decrease in the quality of our lives, while witnessing the excruciating deaths by starvation and poisoning of hundreds of millions in developing regions.

To improve the likelihood any response is well-aimed, allow me to clarify: climate-change and sustainability are two different things. Climate-change as caused by the Greenhouse Effect is not the same issue as overfishing, acidifying oceans, deforestation and desertification, or the exhaustion and poisoning of aquifers.

The issues connect, though they originate from varying causes and are fallaciously generalized as a unified crisis ("Global Warming", et al). Thus, if you claim you can refute one of these crises, you have not achieved victory. You still must face all the others, individually.

One last question I'd like to add: I know many of you are Christians and believe that God gave earth to humanity, choosing Adam and his descendants to subdue the earth as its Steward. If I grant you that, will you explain to me how you justify current human behavior as "stewardship"?

As far as I can tell, we're all spitting on The David, which is like spitting on Michelangelo.

December 15, 2009

Lego Houses with Plastic Figurines

If our childhoods are analogies for our adulthoods, then my symbols are toys.

I loved, loved stacking the Lincoln Logs together into fantastic houses with cantilevered balconies and secret chambers. Or I'd set up the entire PlayMobile zoo complete with grass as fodder imported from the yard. I'd build ships from wood scraps with my Dad and position MicroMachine humvees and helicopters in strategic locales.

Then I'd walk away.

When the normal child turned puppeteer and animated their creation, I left off, unsure how to proceed. What should the Humvee say to the Helicopter? Who should inhabit the balconied cabin? To where should the ship sail?

Attempting to slip inside my childhood mind, I find I knew how things should be -- I could see that clearly and entirely -- but not how they should progress.

Then adulthood. I publish websites and wander away for a month or two years. My novel's characters bore me to death, but the overall form intrigues me -- I've got a house for them, but they refuse to move between its rooms.

I've developed a Self with skills, ideas and general understanding but nary a concrete goal to pursue or destination to seek.

My friend Trevor posed the questions to me, "What do you NOT want to regret when you're 90?" and, "What do you want to be doing in 10 years?"

I'd rather he'd have asked me to solve the travesty of Industrialized Food. That's a question I can answer.

I'm in Sartre's rowboat (or was it Nietzche's?) on the infinite, vacant sea, with two oars and an indefinite period of time to row. It's not a bad rowboat, and the oars are sturdy, but which direction is progress, and where does it go?

December 11, 2009

Crowdfunding Lobbyists

There's a line in a recent Rolling Stone article that incited some very silly thoughts in my idealistic mind.

Here's the line:

"... actual people are not really part of the calculus when it comes to finance reform. According to those close to the markup process, Frank's committee inserted loopholes under pressure from "constituents" — by which they mean anyone "who can afford a lobbyist," says Michael Greenberger, the former head of trading at the CFTC under Clinton."

"Actual people" are not taken into account when drafting financial regulations, because we can't afford Lobbyists. Not individually at least. But if a significant chunk of Americans in favor of financial regulations donated $5 each -- microfunding -- to hire lobbyists, we could provide a counterweight to the Banks. Not a large counterweight, but at least the scales of financial justice might stand straighter and walk a slightly less tipsy line.

May 14, 2009

A quotidian day

I just got home from school. I walked in, took off my cardigan (which proved suffocating after ten this morning), set a litre of water boiling -- to drink later, since the tap water is rumored to be unpotable -- rinsed a handful of cherry tomatoes I bought on the way home, opened a Pilsner Urquell and sat down to write.

I realize you know little of my daily life, so because today was so average, I find it apt for sharing.

Since we've started at the current time, let's work backwards from here. I bought the tomatoes at a roadside truck selling at least 10 different native fruits and vegetables (and kiwis and bananas from some far-off land). They cost 5000won ($4) for about three kilos. That's enough to feed me for a week, if I make sauces every dinner, eat some at lunch, and snack on them like I'm doing now. Produce is cheap here, so long as it's grown in the country. Beef, on the other hand, is not. There's not much space for cows so they demand a premium. Tariffs and protectionist policies (which I heartily approve of) keep the Korean ranchers from being undersold by the American Meat Machine.

On the way to the tomatoes I passed a number of other street vendors selling maternity and baby clothes, cell phones from some national Telecom, and more, but I wasn't paying attention. I met a number of students on the way, in groups of twos and threes. Most of them just yelled, "Samporduh!!" and waved, while a couple of them asked how I was and replied to my query, "Finethanksyou?"

I have two favorite student interactions. First are the ones where I ask them a question in Korean and they answer in perfect English. For example, the third grader I saw today who, when I asked her "Odie ga-yo?" (Where are you going?), gave me a look of puzzlement, and said as clearly as an American kid, "My house."

The second favorite interaction is where they ask me obvious questions in Korean, like, "Weigookin?" (Are you a foreigner?) Umm... probably?

For the last four hours of school following lunch I did two things: 1) I emailed a couple of people and chatted with my parents, my girlfriend and a friend in Iraq. 2) I read about how to make Japanese ponds -- my first project on arriving home in Covington is to reform our prodigal backyard. (Prodigal, as in it keeps coming back in horrible shape.)

[On a side note: since Tomatoes are semi-poisonous, just how many of these things can I eat before I suffer their negative effects?]

For lunch I ate PB&J, a banana and a chocolate bar. Which is a bit juvenile, but I didn't feel like exerting effort. I read a chapter of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake as well.

In the morning I had four nearly identical classes in a row. I started each class with my co-teacher, saying Hello, and What's The Date Today and those sorts of things, while I loaded the CD from the national curriculum. I administered a reading test to the few students who were away at science or water-rocket launching competitions yesterday. Once the CD loaded, I clicked on various videos and we asked the students to explain what they saw / heard. I gave a pop quiz on one of the longer videos, with mind-rending questions like, "Where was the boy?" (Possible answers: gift shop, toy shop, New York City, the USA) and "Why didn't the boy buy the toy helicopter?" (It was too expensive. He was in the Statue of Liberty gift shop -- what'd he expect?)

I'd arrived at school just after 8:30, gotten up just after 7:30 and slept last night around 4:30 (with the summer heat comes insomnia). Breakfast was frosted flakes composed of 74% corn (the rest is...?) and soy milk.

Back to the present: on the docket for the evening: maybe meeting friends after they get off work from the hagwons around nine tonight. In the meantime, putting some finishing touches on the beta of my new website, http://sharearchy.com, watching the rest of From Here to Eternity and practicing my French.

Yes, French, because it's just about time to depart this country -- perhaps for good, perhaps not. And French is a useful language, not to mention it's easier than Korean for a native-English speaker.

May 8, 2009

How to Teach in Korea in 3 Easy Steps

A steadily increasing number of you have asked me how you too can teach English in Korea. I suppose there aren't too many jobs floating around in the United States or something.

Well, at the moment there are a lot of "Teaching English as a Foreign Language" jobs in Korea.

First, the basics. There are three sorts of TEFL jobs in Korea:
  1. Public Schools
  2. Hagwons (privately owned academies)
  3. Universities
Next, the details.

You do NOT want to teach at a hagwon.

I don't quite understand why anyone does. Hagwons are where parents send their children after school in a desperate attempt to boost their child's chance at success, at the cost of their child's happiness. My students attend classes from 8:20 am to as late as 11pm. They're exhausted and not especially prepared to learn when they're falling asleep on their desks. From a pedagogical perspective, I'm not sure if hagwons are effective or not, but, as someone once said, "Just because torture works, doesn't mean it's right." Which is not to fault the teachers (and my friends) who work at hagwons: some just didn't know; others are merely meeting market demand.

So, though the public school day lasts only six hours, the after-school school day can last until 10 or 11pm for a third grader. After school and during vacations children attend hagwons -- private academies. As
my friend Lauren writes (she's so much better at expressing indignation):

"During vacations, students go to their academies (one for every subject), taking extra classes all day long. And then of course have homework all night. This is on top of the homework assigned by their public school teachers for vacation. They literally have no break from studying. From the time they are 6 until the time they finish high school, they will be studying continuously without one break - they do these classes during the summer vacation too. It's absurd. How do they not crack and go crazy?! No wonder there is little excitement in my students during our classes. It's because they're just off to more classes after I'm done with them."

Lauren continues, "On top of the normal subjects they study, they also generally study 2 instruments, art, and sometimes Chinese or Japanese on top of English. Beyond that, I have students (13 years old) studying computer programming. Every night of the week she tells me she spends 2 hours working on her programming homework. SHE IS THIRTEEN."

As far as actually teaching at a hagwon, it's not the best situation. There are a few excellent hagwons, but most are run by Koreans with little international experience. They're running a business and you're their commodity. They'll pay you about what a public school pays you, but you'll have to teach twice as much (up to 40 hours a week), either in the early mornings or after school into the late evenings. Hagwons are notorious for dodging their responsibilities to you, like paying your pension, deducting the correct amount of taxes, paying you on time, offering you a clean, sanitary, furnished apartment.

Yes, I'm describing the worst possible scenario -- not all hagwons are hellholes. Some are reputable, friendly and treat you well. But it's not worth the risk, especially when there's such an obvious alternative.

You DO want to teach at public schools.

Public schools are not profit driven. That makes them immediately better.
  • You'll teach 22 hours a week at the maximum, though you may be required to stay at school a full 40 hours a week. I've heard of people using that time for naps, for side projects, for reading, for dying of boredom, etc. How you use your free time is up to you. I recommend getting a laptop and reading all the free books available from Project Gutenberg.
  • Your pay will be at least equivalent to the hagwons. Public schools pay you on time. My base wage is 2,000,000 won a month.
  • You'll get anywhere from 2-6 weeks vacation (I've heard of people getting 8 weeks). Some districts pay that vacation, some pay part of it, some pay only two weeks of it.
  • You may have to work summer or winter camps, but they'll pay you overtime for that. I made an extra 500-600,000 won off of camps this winter. That's on top of the base salary.
  • They get a budget for hiring you, which includes paying for an apartment. Hopefully you'll be placed in a new apartment, like the teachers in my city were.
  • You teach the state curriculum with a co-teacher, which means any curriculum development you do is voluntary.
  • You're not contributing to student exhaustion, because public school is compulsory. The better you teach, the less need for a hagwon the parent perceives.
Universities require experience / certifications / advanced degrees. I'll let you know about those if I ever find out.

I recommend Footprints Recruiting to help you find a public school to teach at.

A few more tips:
  • Do your own research. I spent probably 20 hours researching everything I could find about Korea and teaching here.
  • For more information, look around on Dave's ESL Cafe. The forums are full of advice and good and bad experience.
  • When you still have more questions (which you should, because even after all that research I was still unprepared for Korea), contact me.

January 11, 2009

Day 106: Notes on a Country

One of my childhood friends moved when we were teens from Seattle to Muscatine, Iowa. His affection for the home of our youth grew through the years. The longer he was away, the more he found his identity in what he'd left. These days he lives in L.A., but even now he seems to have more zeal for my region than I do.

For perhaps the first time since my friend moved, I can commiserate with him. I'm finding my identity is founded more in what I left behind, than in the reasons why I left. Like the philosopher Hegel said, I'm examining my surroundings to find out which of it is not me. That which I don't reject, that which I affirm, I hold onto as the vague outline of my identity. In Korea I reject a lot. Not much of the culture here resounds with me. Instead, after my years of criticizing my home, I'm surprised to find that the silhouette remaining, my core identity, resembles the US.

I realize now that there's a lot of United Statesian inextricably woven into me. It seems, for all my syncretism, I can't get the American out of me.

Having been out of the US for 9 of the past 11 months, I've very gradually become fond of the hobbling, optimistic people and complex, chaotic, confusing land I left behind. Part of that fondness is fed by the stark contrast Korea presents. Part of it grows from brief moments of hope inspired by small people doing grand things.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. It's the very core of the United States that encourages my criticisms, both in opening a podium for discourse via the first amendment and by enamouring me so I'll come critically to its defense when that podium is threatened.

I love that everyone in the US -- immigrant, CEO, religious, Daughter of the Revolution, bourgeois, ex-con, or student -- is, at least theoretically, allowed a soapbox and equal access to the air that will gladly carry their cries.

Perhaps I'm a bit self-righteous when it comes to our constitution and our incorrigible, polyphonic disagreeability. The same brutish, self-unconscious rudeness I despise in some United Statesians when it occurs in a quiet pub or museum, I love when it heralds fierce patriots parading some cronyist injustice or US-government condoned oppression to the chagrin of the supposedly patriotic.

The US is a noble culture and a fetid culture, but there's room for both. There are plenty of governments-by-the-people-for-the-people doing parts of it better. How I'd love Poland's universal free education all the way through university. How I'd love Canada's extensive support for the arts. How I'd love to see individual states defy the central government more, in the spirit of Ireland, Sweden and Connecticut. I'd love to see more legal equality and social acceptance for minorities.

I love that the US constitution protects both the rights of the majority to dislike the minority and the minority to challenge the majority. At the end of all the name calling, bickering and outright conflict, the constitution prescribes civility and allows enemies to dialogue til they become friends or go to dinner as enemies. It allows universities to explore risque subjects. It's the constitution itself that makes allowances via the court system for resistance, defiance and outright disobedience when such freedoms are threatened.

There's little open discourse in Korea. Friends of mine who teach adults English via topic based conversations complain that in consecutive classes, the same basic opinions are rehashed repetitively. Nor is discourse encouraged. Technically the founding contract of Korea protects freedom of speech, but the government doesn't go in for the whole constitutional law thing much: they're a majority party and they've stacked every piece of government machinery with cronies. Just yesterday a blogger was arrested for speculating Korea's currency, the Won, might collapse.

Beneath the government level, the culture itself discourages dissent. At my school, often horrible ideas proceed without questioning, refinement or improvement. For example, a 4th grader was hit by a car when walking across the street. The next day the school banned 3rd graders and younger from riding bikes to school. I was the only one who pointed out the non-sequitur nature of the mandate. Other teachers said, "It's ok, it's ok!" and "Don't you think this makes sense?" giving me a chance to come to their side. No one is expected to embarrass a leader by questioning their wisdom.

Young people are constantly coerced to do as their elders deign, even when decisions are completely non-sensical. For example, in Korea, boys are circumcised when they're in the 5th and 6th grade. Leading doctors here acknowledge the surgery is pointless at that age, as sanitation is no longer an issue for a 12 or 13 year old.

However, according to a friend who's been advocating against circumcision in Korea for the past 4 years, the majority of doctors know little about the procedure beyond how to actually sever the foreskin. Fathers are too busy at work to take their sons' side, and too harried to be approached. Mothers aren't informed on the details of the operation and so mandate their children undertake it. The boys of course understand the ramifications: weeks bedridden, the embarrassment of bloody pants and the effects of heavy painkillers taken for up to a month. Ignorance and corrupted doctrines of Confucianism perpetuate genital mutilation, which is certainly child abuse.

It's the freedom to dissent and the equality of all humans that I identify most with the in US. Children and adults, principals and teachers are equally defended under the law. There's an ingrained, fierce defence of humanity with all its forms, creeds, lifestyles and ideas. It's this aspect more than others that differentiates the US from Korea. Korea often seems juvenile and uniform. It feels like middle school, whereas the US feels like a university full of disagreement and discourse. That aspect alone makes the US rare and worthy of preservation.

Maybe I only feel this idealism at a distance. I have a feeling one day back in the US would dampen my affections. Yet, many of my cricitisms rose in reaction to Bush administration gaffs and big corporate handouts due to traditional politics. Perhaps later this month, that will begin to change. Maybe, maybe not: new ways and old ways have equal opportunity in the US.

I'll end with a summary statement that concisely conveys my current perspective. It rose from the mind of a British man during a similarly convoluted time in US history: the Vietnam War era. Aptly enough, I discovered the statement through another foreigner, a fellow blogger and traveler from Singapore and Malaysia, when she summed up her study abroad experience in the US. She wrote:

After only 4 months [in the US], I am ill-equipped to form a conclusion on America and I suspect that it'll be a nation that will perpetually baffle me.

One man can, though. And that man is Alistair Cooke, a BBC correspondent who had a weekly radio show about America, Letter from America. Never before have I heard such an articulate and moving description of the country, and a timeless one at that- for it holds true almost 40 years later:

In a self-governing Republic - good government in some places, dubious in others...with two hundred million people drawn from scores of nations, what is remarkable is not the conflict between them but the truce. Enough is happening in America at any one time - enough that is exciting, frightening, funny, brutal, brave, intolerable, bizarre, dull, slavish, eccentric, inspiring and disastrous - that almost anything you care to say about the United States is true.

- From Cooke's broadcast, 19 October 1969 -
America, I have learned, is what you make of it. The freedom to do so is the most beautiful sort of freedom that I have ever encountered.

Yes. What is remarkable is not the conflict, but the truce. And yes, almost anything you care to say about the United States is true. One country of many nations, with liberty, opportunity, and at least half a chance at justice for all.

Love and peace to you all, and if you're experiencing extreme weather, stock up, hunker down, bundle up and don't forget to enjoy the novelty of the storm.


PS. Especially to those who disagree with or don't like the next President of the US: As Mr. Obama becomes President, keep in mind his understanding of the country. He sees space for your dissent, whatever your creed, beliefs or lifestyle. I hope this statement lifts your spirits and invites you into discourse: "During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that's how it should be, because that's what America is about. That's part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated." - President-Elect Obama

January 10, 2009

An update, two weeks late

This is an email I sent on December 26. I didn't have time to post it here as I spent the next week traveling. Then I forgot it. Now, finally, an update, two weeks post. It's still fairly pertinent.

I'm drinking a Coke, High Fructose Corn Syrup and all. I just ate a Skippy peanut butter sandwich on the closest thing to white bread I've had in a decade.

I must be missing home.

I moved to the most Puget Sound-ish city in Korea in an attempt to allay the homesickness. Didn't work. Mountains here are 400 meters tall (I miss the sunset silhouetting the Olympics). Whole wheat bread means they didn't quite turn all the flour white (I miss Franz breads baked the same morning). The only non-Korean food here is quasi-Italian or pizza (I miss Ethiopian, Thai, Moroccan). Korea's homogeneous (I miss walking around Greenlake hearing 10 different languages). It RARELY rains here (and when it does you can't enjoy it for dodging the hordes of umbrellas -- Yesterday in Busan, every Korean I saw had an umbrella, save two who were carrying open wine bottles! :D). Most roads here are tollroads or full of traffic signals (I miss cruising for hours, through multiple climates, without slowing or stopping).

But, as I told my cousin, things are exactly how they should be. I've been sick a lot lately, which comes with new germs and new foods and new stresses, but that hasn't slowed me too much. I've been working on curriculum for a UN sponsored English camp to be held this January and trying not to miss the conveniences of the US too much. Things like warm cookies, aesthetics and carpet.

Korea and I are fighting right now. It's normal culture shock sort of stuff, but it's exasperated by the lack of tolerance I have when I'm tired, stressed and sick. I did find a ticket home for Christmas, a ~$170 round trip non-stop to Vancouver. A short train ride and I'd be home. Only the government taxes on the ticket totaled nearly a thousand dollars. ... So I'm spending Christmas in Tongyeong.

I've more journalistic entries in the works, but progress writing is quite slow as I don't have ready access to a computer. I'm scrounging to afford a computer during post-Christmas sales, but until then I have about 30 uninterrupted minutes a day on my school computer. The PC rooms I used to frequent are now off limits to me -- too much smoke, too little ventilation.

Vacation's just starting up here, and officially began the 24th. I'll have the 24th, 25th, 26th, 31st, 1st and 2nd off. Then I've two weeks of English camps. Following those Lauren and I have tickets to Thailand for two weeks. I'm very excited about the potential for warmth, Thai food and more people to more easily communicate with (from what I hear, there's more English speakers and foreigners in Thailand than Korea).

I've been silent so much here that now, after three months, whenever I get a chance to converse, I talk like a stampeding cow. My head shuts off and I dump a thousand word essay in the lap of the person I'm talking [at]. Then I realize it's been minutes since I inhaled and I relapse into silence. It's not the most effective way to win friends and influence people.

At the moment I'm headed to Busan, the closest metropolitan city (3+million people). Museums, Western food, and a doctor are all on the docket. It being Kwanzaa here, and Christmas where you are.

If you want a good laugh, here's an article about some Korean children, not unlike some children from the US. Politicians vary little, throughout the world.


Gotta go, the bus leaves soon.

Happy Hanukkah to Jews. Happy Kwanzaa to those of African heritage. Merry Christmas to Christians and consumers. And Happy Holidays for everyone who goes in for that sort of thing.

November 23, 2008

FAQ on food

I like rice. Rice is great if you're hungry and want 2000 of something.
-Mitch Hedberg

A brief list of answers to potentially common questions about Korean food:

1. Do Koreans eat kim chi with every meal?
Yep. And white rice. Even for breakfast. And when they're 35 they look 25. (Yes that's a possible Post hoc ergo propter hoc but it seems more plausible than, "God unfairly made Koreans decay 10 years slower than the rest of the world.")

2. Um... What's kim chi?
It's cabbage, ginger, garlic, peppers, green onions and fermented seafood (oysters or anchovies or shrimp). They mix it all up and then bury it in pots for a few months. When it comes out it's nutrient rich and calorie low.

3. Have you eaten octopus?
My school serves it for lunch at least once a week. And I've eaten whole squids, a squishy-still-moving-slug-ish thing (it looks like digestion), fresh shrimp (cooked in the most torturous way the locals could conceive), abalone, chestnuts, the best pears in the world, etc. I like the food here a lot. But I'll be honest: I'm pretty sick of octopus, if you want to know the truth.

3a. What's the most torturous way the locals could conceive?
They put a quarter inch of salt in the bottom of a pan, heat it up, and toss in live shrimp. When they put the lid on the shrimp bounce around like popcorn, trying to flee the searing heat. After two or three minutes, some shrimp are still jumping. The first (and only) time I saw it, I lost my appetite. Why they don't kill them instantly via beheading or boiling, I hope has more to do with efficiency and less with deep-rooted sadism.

4. Oooook... something happier perhaps? What's octopus taste like?
Octopus tastes unique. It's really rich, like Top Ramen condensed into 8 tentacles. And sometimes it's entirely blah. I think it depends on how it's cooked. Sometimes it chews like thick noodles. Other times it's like masticating surgical tubing.

5. Is there anything Koreans eat that you refuse to try?
One thing: dog. They eat dog here. I have yet to see it for sale or in a restaurant, but seeing as I don't even like meat, I'm not about to eat Otis.

Another teacher and I remarked on the strange scarcity of shorebirds, pigeons and ravens. I've never been to a city and not seen pigeons and black birds. Nor have I ever been within 50 miles of a body of salt water and not seen seagulls. I mean, there's more seagulls in Spokane, 300 miles from a sea, than there are in Tongyeong, which rests in the middle of a bay, spread across multiple harbors and surrounded by hundreds of islands.

And, in Tongyeong, Chicken & Beer shops abound.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Meanwhile, no "chicken" for me.

6. How is the beer?
Budweiser's better. Thankfully the exchange rate ensures a bottle of Stella at a bar only costs US$5.75. You'd think that'd mean I'd drink less.

7. What do Koreans drink then?
In lieu of beer, the national drink is Soju. It's basically sweet vodka with a tequila kick. I won't touch the stuff. My co-workers and principals do, frequently. It's considered a marketable skill to be able to drink your boss under the table so people here practice a lot. Not kidding.

8. What's your favorite food?
I like most of it. The ingredients are fresh, cheap and the fish and rice are ecologically friendly. A lot of foods have labels telling you how close to organic it is. Also they eat food that's in season for the most part. So we've got great fruits right now and certain types of fish. I'm guessing in the next season we'll be eating different types of fish. The fast majority of fish we eat is caught the same day and live up until a couple of minutes before we eat it. Restaurants have tanks of fish out in front so you can preview dinner. In the fish markets, little old ladies sitting on stools point at the live fish they have in shallow bowls, which then protest by splashing water everywhere.

But the soups win overall. They're spicy, hearty, and healthy. Sometimes they have tofu, or muscles or shrimp. Other time they have fish in them. Like whole fish, chopped into three pieces and plopped into your soup.

8. How spicy?
Let me give you an example: a couple weeks ago I for dinner I ate fire. Of course I don't mean crackling in your fireplace fire. Oh no. I mean burned at the stake in the inquisition fire. Midway through my meal the pain reached a sufficient level, so I doused my mouth with just about a litre of water, which I hope simultaneously protected my stomach lining from vaporizing. It was quite the exercise in suffering. Like a good Korean Buddhist I strove to accept my circumstances as inescapable, and by the end of my meal I'd achieved complete detachment, albeit through ambivalence towards survival and a blunt numbness in my mouth.

I'm not complaining though. I'm convinced the spicy food best explains why I haven't been sick in Korea. Since so many illnesses enter the body through the nose and since my sinuses are regularly drained by lunch or dinner, germs have little time to colonize my body.

9. Sooo... that's your favorite food?
Not actually. One food in particular stands out as remarkable though. It's called 실비 and pronounced Shill-bee. It's entirely antithetical to profitable restauranteering. Say you go out for fish in the United States. You want a bit of seafood too. So you buy some fish, some muscles, oysters, clams on the half shell, then move on to some squid, a bit of abalone, and then a couple of crabs. You decide you want some beer. So you order a few of those. The meal runs you a hundred bucks or so. The food, if you're lucky was caught within the past week, and only on ice for a couple of days total.

Ok, now shillbe. You do things in reverse. You buy five or six beers. At 5,000 won each they run you around $30. That's some expensive beer. But here comes the finger food. It starts with some raw squid, octopus, muscles, some steamed oysters, abalone, and other seafoods. There's kimchi of course, and some potato pancakes. There's plenty of other sides as well (bean sprouts, seaweed, etc). You drink and eat to your fill. Then the server returns. This time she deposits four fried fish, some cooked squid, some new shellfish, some seaslugg-ish thing, some rice, etc. You're full again, but oh, here she comes with more fish, more seafood, more sides. Ad infinitum. She came back with at least 4 courses, but I really can't remember. I was rolling around on my back, futilely flailing my hands.

Oh and this fish and these seafoods were harvested that morning. Thirty bucks for more seafood than you can eat and 5 large beers to share amongst your friends. Perfect.

10. Do you ever miss food from home?
Yes! Lauren and I agree that its the small things we miss most about home. And most of those small things are food.

I miss flavor. Korean food has three flavors: spicy, fishy and umami. When we eat spaghetti, Korean people sometimes express surprise at the intensity of flavors. When I eat the same spaghetti I think, "Well, it's not that spicy."

I miss the diversity of tastes and spices in food from home. I miss that on Monday I can eat Mediterranean or Teriyaki, on Tuesday French or Chinese, on Wednesday Ukranian or Italian, on Thursday Thai or Indian, on Friday Ethiopian or Mexican, on Saturday fish-and-chips or Sushi, on Sunday oatmeal and all the leftovers. Every day here I eat Korean food. There's diversity in Korean foods, but it's still bit monotonous, and you know how much I abhor monotony.

I miss my Mom's soups on the first crisp days of fall. I miss Rachel's fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. I miss my dad's barbecue and chocolate milk. I miss sub sandwiches. I miss the choice and the paradox that comes with it.

Appreciate what you have: if you're not living in Poland or small-town Korea, you have plenty of options at dinner time.

If you have more questions, contact me. I love the food here, so I'm happy to talk about it.