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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reverse-Chronology Evaluvacation, Part 1

I have recently returned home after a few weeks of vagabondage, and only a few days are left before I have to start working to earn my paycheck again. I am assuming it is very important to squeeze in some sort of retrospective before the semester begins and I am caught up in whatever it is that will catch me up.

First of all, one summer dream never came true: I was hoping to bike all around the country, stopping at farms here and there, being a sort of affluent philosophical vagrant/migrant worker. See the country, sleep in a tent, learn about Earth stewardhip, clear my mind, etc. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, I was asked to work for a week in the middle of my vacation (training elementary school teachers), so I wasn't able to turn the whole summer into one massive bike trip.

And yet, Karmically enough, I did get to experience something like this vicariously! A few days before my final farmstay finished, a fellow named Pablo found me on couchsurfing. He needed somewhere to stay in Daegu, so I had my neighbor Andy let him into my vacant apartment. It was really nice to be both so lacking in possessions worth stealing (no TV, no DVD player, no stereo, no monitor, no fancy furniture) and so unattached to the few things I do have (laptop, netbook, projector) that I wasn't at all worried about letting this dude into my house (the only thing I worried about was my external hard drive, which has 10 or more years worth of pictures on it, but who would steal that, anyway?). Of course, I wouldn't let just anyone in. Pablo Garcia Gomez is a special individual:

He has been on his bike for 9 years. Korea is his 69th country, and he's nearing 85,000 kilometers. He carries 55 kilos of stuff around with him - clothes, toiletries, computer, video camera, repair kit - and bikes somewhere between 50 and 100 kilometers most days, resting every third or fourth, when it rains, or when he needs to. He supports himself by buying souvenirs cheap and selling them for a profit when he gets to big cities (I bought 3 little dolls from Argentina). He gets some sort of support from sponsors or something, and also sells interviews to local bicycle magazines whenever he can. And of course he camps and couchsurfs a lot to keep costs down.

So, I was quite happy to finish my vacation by becoming one of perhaps thousands of enabling hosts. We had a nice chat, he told me about some of his adventures, I got some advice about bike travel, I bought him lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, and then we took a ride together for about 45 minutes as I showed him the way out of the city. Quite a friendly, inspiring, crazy fellow. Check out his website. And if you live in China or Mongolia, or on the Pacific coast between Seattle and Chile, host him when he comes through your neighborhood.

Summer Reading

At the beginning of the semester I found myself in a reading rut; between when I left the States with a load of linguistics-type books in July '09 and when I returned to Korea from India/Sadhana in late February, my interests had apparently changed dramatically. I could no longer concentrate on reading spiffy things about verbs and syntax and performatives, etc. I tried in vain to get through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and Austen's How to Do Things with Words, but I was nagged by the feeling that, no matter how interesting, linguistics was a somewhat selfish pursuit. What will it matter to anyone anywhere if I can parse a sentence a bit better? I'm not trying to write off an entire discipline, since I of course still find it all very interesting. I just couldn't quite match up the selflessness to which I was aspiring in my diet and actions and the seemingly reclusive, technical, interesting-intellectual-puzzle-but-is-it-really-much-more? aspects of linguistics. So I got frustrated and mostly stopped reading.

But then I bought some used books on Amazon and had my mom mail me a package. I couldn't have known then that Derrick Jensen's Endgame, about which I posted exactly 4 months ago, would send me off on a sort of book-odyssey (made possible by my obliging, library-card possessing friend Daeju Kim AKA Julio at Seoul National Unversity), leading me to question and reformulate my ideas about...education, the environment and man's relation to it, how to live almost-sustainably in Vermont, the nature of schizophrenia, the shortfalls of veganism, the complexity of plants and the dangers of pharmeceuticals, the relationship between the pervasiveness of competition and dissemblance in the industrial economy and the mental health of the individuals and families who participate in it; and the possibility of TV being turned into a healthy, useful medium. I have apparently become obsessed with thinking about how to eat, how to consume, how to medicate, how to relate to the planet, how to teach, and how to entertain myself in ways that are, for lack of a more exact word, nice.

I don't know if I'm just trying to show off, or if I'm making a list for posterity, or whatever else, but in any case, I feel compelled to share the list of the books I've been devouring since spring rolled around. If I had a little more time, a bit more confidence in my newfound (somewhat) radical mentality, and a slightly smaller sense of ever-increasing estrangement, I might write some synopses or reviews or at least provide some quotations. But I'm not quite there yet. In the meantime, check them out on wikipedia or Amazon. That is, if estrangement is something you're looking for.

Derrick Jensen - Walking on Water
Derrick Jensen - A Language Older than Words
Neill Everndren - The Natural Alien
Helen and Scott Nearing - The Good Life
R.D. Laing - The Politics of Experience
Lierre Kieth - The Vegetarian Myth
Stephen Harold Buhner - The Lost Language of Plants
Jules Henry - Culture Against Man
Jerry Mander - Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

I am pretty sure this list is missing a book or two. I think I need to order some awesome not-so-new Undeployed(TM) bookmarks!

(Of course, throughout all of this, I have been consulting my Handbook of Korean Vocabulary: A Resource for Word Recognition and Comprehension and my Korean Grammar for International Learners along with the accompanying Workbook. Not to mention Seoul National University Language Education Institute Korean Level 4 and its own Workbook. But I don't expect these to interest you all so much.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Linguistic Pinnacle Of My Existence

Back in my emo days, there were a few lines I really liked from a song I kind of liked from a CD I totally liked from a band I mostly liked. Reverse-respectively, I am referring to the band Moneen, the CD Are We Really Happy with Who We Are Right Now, the song "The Last Song I Will Ever Want to Sing," and the lyrics

Think of one moment you can call
the happiest moment of your life.
It's gone.

There's also a line from Flaubert's Madame Bovary that goes something like

Never touch your idols, lest some of the gold rub off on your fingers.

The arguments themselves are of course flawed, since you could just as well say that the worst moment you can remember is gone, or that you might be pleasantly surprised by helping a leper. Nevertheless, for a while, I was a sucker for such trivially true pessimistic observations. Maybe I still am, a bit. Anyhow, I thought of them again recently after the long-awaited impossible finally happened.

Most everybody has some special skill, and lots of people have two or three. And nothing makes you (me) feel awesomer than being able to whip out the skill when nobody expects it, particularly if this leads to you saving the day in some fashion. We are all beaten and devalued and made replaceable by an insanely competitive economy (trying to link in my next book review here, Jules Henry's Culture Against Man) and need ways to imagine ourselves as selves, as heroes, as characters of some worth. Thus we hope to wow others, to win their approval and our own existence, by opening beer bottles with our eye sockets, lighting matches on our flies, or solving Rubik's cubes.

Simple situations that can be rescued by the above skills are manifold; but what about situations where two or more are necessary? Sure, it happens from time to time that there are no bottle openers. But it's almost inconceivable that, let's say, you're at a party, and then suddenly there's a time bomb that can only be defused by pouring beer onto a sensor through a solved-Rubik's-cube sieve. Would not any (wo)man who accomplished this task on his/her own become an instant folk hero, object of praise and subject of lore for weeks/generations to come? Who hasn't imagined themselves and their skills at the center of some such crazy fiasco?

Background: On Sunday, I brought my Polish friend Andzrej, whom I met at the Persimmon farm in Miryang (future post), to a meeting of the Daegu Language Exchange to help him find a conversation partner. The DLE meets at different places each time, and this time we met (in the afternoon) in an empty salsa/chacha/whatever kind of dance bar. We did our language exchange thing, chatting for a few hours about this and that, playing some simple language games, and then left for dinner. Out on the street, we met the bar's owner (Korean), who introduced us to two visitors, saying they were the European Salsa champions and were visiting for a few days, giving a class or something. Then he asked, in Korean, hey....does anyone here speak Italian?


Luckily (in this specific case, though probably not in general), it seems that all my skills are concentrated in the language department. Or maybe it's not even fair to consider them different skills; maybe it's just one skill, manifested in a few ways. In any case, having studied Italian from 2002-2006 and Korean from 2006-2010, I always (vaguely) sort of dreamed about or imagined or wondered what would happen if I were finally presented with an opportunity to humbly bust out my insane, if random, interpretation skills.

Well, here's what happened. I listened to the Italians saying that they wanted to find a place in Daegu to buy fake designer bags, explained it to the Koreans, who explained where they were to be found, how to get there, and when, and then relayed that back to the Italians. They thanked me for the help and complimented me on my nigh-proficiency. Sirens went off, the sky started flashing, and prop planes started zooming around spraying my name into the air. A bunch of fireworks exploded, standers-by applauded, Michael Phelps came out and gave me two of his medals, and the Princess Peach came out and gave me a peck on the cheek and I realized I had conquered life.

Or, as it actually happened, most of the people from the language exchange were a few steps away discussing whether to have Mexican or Italian to dinner, completely oblivious to my exploits. The people passing by on the street had no idea how cool I was being at that moment. And the bar owner was mostly happy to have the awkwardness remedied, if just for a bit. Nobody gave a crap and I felt instantly naive for even having less-than-half expected anyone to care. It turns out the world is mostly as portrayed in Okkervil River's "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe."

"No fade in begins on a kid in the big city
no cut to a costly parade that's for him only
no dissolve to a sliver of gray that's his new lady
where she glows just like grain on the flickering pane
of some great movie."

What a harsh world!

*In case anyone is wondering, I experienced a particular and new and physical sensation of confusion somewhere above my left eye while trying to translate
! Though the word order of Italian is mostly similar to English (and both are the inverse of Korean), for some reason, I had great difficulty in swapping the subjects and verbs into different positions when I went back and forth between Italian and Korean. It felt like there was a traffic jam. In my eyebrow. Merits further investigation.