A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Romance with the Moon

There's no sleeping for me in an airport, no matter how hard I try.  Curling up with a hard backpack for a pillow and lying awake all night, in between cigarette breaks and vending machine food, at the O'Hare Airport was among the worst experiences of my life.  The next day, I could barely speak or see, and wandered around trying to get a lay-over seat on a flight to Dublin, but the plain was packed.  A vague promise hung over my head from the one of the AirLingus employees that they would put me up in a hotel if all else failed, but I couldn't quite process that information in my state.

Barely alive, I clung close to the front desk after all the legitimate passengers had boarded.  Then I heard the woman behind the counter say what could have been my name, but not loud enough to be an announcement.  I lurched toward her and said in a broken voice, "Did you say Aaron Mingus?!"  

She looked at me for an uncomfortably long time, studying my tear-filled eyes and quivering hand, clutching a ticket.  "Yes," she said.  "Get on."  Suddenly, I was in a dream, being swept through a dark tunnel into a transcendent, white light, then through a crowded hall of people...to the very back of the plain.  Last row, middle aisle, middle seat.  The last seat on the plain.  To me, the last seat in the world.  I wouldn't be seeing out the windows on my way to the Dublin.  I wouldn't be seeing anything.  Luckily, I didn't care.  I had made it.

I sat down next to an elderly, Irish woman, who glanced at me with some concern.  She asked where I was going, and I couldn't remember, "It's a college...in Dublin..."

"Trinity College?"

"You've heard of it?" I asked, slowly sinking into oblivion.

"Well, of course!" My question was stupid.  Trinity is one of the most well known colleges in Ireland.  I must have seemed like an ignorant and naive child or a complete idiot.  Again, this didn't matter to me, because moments later I was dead asleep, drifting dreamlessly through the sky.

I hate airports, but I love flying.  I love to glide over the planet, either staring down at the world in miniature, watching the clouds and imagining them as an ever-shifting mountain range, or just sleeping in my cramped, coach seat, too tired and happy to care that it should be uncomfortable.  Then there is the destination.  At the end of a flight, there is a new land to explore, new people to talk to, and new foods to eat.  Flying is merely the beautiful beginning of an adventure.

Of course, I use the word "new" in a relative sense.  There is nothing literally "new" about Ireland.  I was definitely not the first person to set foot there, as the knowledgeable, old woman next to me could attest.  No matter how far we go off the beaten path, we are likely to never see or do anything first, and truly experience something new to humanity as a whole.  This leaves us always walking in the footsteps of others.

That is probably why people who actually went someplace first are held in such high regard.  To be the first person to step foot somewhere no else has been... it's amazing.  Most of us can only dream of doing something so strangely mundane yet incredible at the same time.  That is why we revere men like Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Roald Amundsen, the Wright Brothers, or Yuri Gagarin, but there is a special admiration we may feel for Neil Armstrong as the first man on the moon.  

You spend your whole life with the moon.  No matter what you do or where you are, it hangs above, staring down from the night's sky.  On particularly bad nights, you can sit outside with a cigarette and watch it slowly swing through the air, resting easier knowing there is some consistency and security in life.  The moon will be there. On good nights with friends, you can watch it and dream together of all the places you will go and things you will do.

The moon is always close and yet faraway.  Almost intangibly far.  No matter where you go, the moon is always be there, but you can't be there.  You can't touch it or feel its dirt beneath your toes.  It almost taunts you with its constancy.  That is the bitter romance with the moon for most of us.  It is, in this man's mind, the physical embodiment of all our goals and all our dreams, especially the ones that we will never achieve.  The loves we will never have and the places we will never reach.

But somebody did.  Somebody went there and set foot on that impossible place, achieved that impossible goal.  Perhaps this makes our failed dreams all the more bitter...or maybe it makes them all the more possible.  If a man can walk on the moon, what can't be done?  Maybe our efforts are not so futile?  And at very least, it is worth trying.

It is more than likely none of us will be the first to go somewhere or do something, yes.  But that does not mean we should not try.  That does not mean we should not dream.  All the troubles and trials, all the sleepless nights in that goddamned airport, are well worth the moment we finally fly.  And one better, they are worth that moment we actually set foot someplace for our first time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fun Fun Fun

Last weekend, I went to the charity-fueled, multicultural Fun Fun Fun Festival at Ansan's Museum of Modern Art.  Booths for international food and games were set up in a circle around the large amphitheater, which itself housed music and dance from all over the world.  And I know what you're thinking.  There's no way the any occasion could be so fun as to warrant three "funs" in the title, and you are right!  Standard American usage of the phrase "fun, fun, fun" involves an eye roll and maybe gritted teeth.  It's sarcasm to emphasize just how awful something that's supposed to be fun truly is.  But, the Fun Fun Fun Festival was not that either.  It was fun, maybe not fun fun fun, but fun and enjoyable, especially getting to see the performances.

As we toured the booths, the major amphitheater event was housing a KPop dance competition.  I only gave it a passing glance as Koreans in sporty, break-dancing get-ups jumped around the stage while their sub-par DJ scratched a record every once in a while to remind the audience he was there.  The real events started with a 5 o'clock ceremony where old men in suits came on stage to the sound of brief violin ensembles for speeches.  It felt slightly out of place next to the watermelon eating competition, where the goal was not eating watermelons, but spitting out seeds and trying catch them on your face.  A friend sat next to me, trying fruitlessly to translate what they were saying for my benefit, but I didn't really care.  Why would I listen to someone wearing a three-piece suit in 90 degree weather?  Mayor, congressman, they were all clearly insane.

After the speeches came a 사물놀이 (samul nori), which is a marching, Korean, percussion band.  It was a fantastic display of young musicianship.  There were five instruments on display.  The kkwaenggwari is a small, flat, brass gong that was used by the band leaders as they thematically guided the other players along the stage.  The janggu is an hourglass shaped drum.  The buk is a barrel shaped drum.  The sogo is a small drum, and the sogo players wore elongated beanie hats (...I don't know what they're call...) that they spun with their heads.  Lastly, the jing is a large gong.

Below is a clip from the performance.

It was impressive for what is probably most similar these days to a high school marching band.  By comparison, their choreography was fantastic, moving in complex patterns and from one song to the next, not marching, but mostly dancing as the poor sogo players kept spinning their heads without rest.

Later, a couple of us decided to check out the sculptures and scenery around the museum.  Behind the building we encountered a group of Native American musicians playing probably the loveliest music I would hear all night.  I'm not sure if they were supposed to be part of the organization's events or were with the museum.  They seemed very isolated from the rest of the festival, almost hidden or tucked away, and you should be able to see the greater metaphor there...

At the night's closing ceremony, there was a series of dance numbers largely intended to celebrate different cultures from all over the world.  When we arrived a Middle Eastern belly dance was being performed by five women with swirling veils.  They were talented and attractive, yes, but the interesting part was it looked to be an exclusively Korean group.  I wondered if most of the other dances were going to be done predominantly by Koreans or if the international community was going to be active participants.

The answer came when, as the announcer said, "we move[d] from the Middle East to China" where a Chinese woman performed a traditional dance.

This all raised an interesting question that I didn't quite articulate to a friend, even though I pussyfooted around it.  As we sat down on the bus for the ride home, I brought up the belly dancers and said something about them being Korean and about them being talented.  She looked at me and said in upbeat, awkward English. "I think you are a man?"

In my head, I wanted to say, "Yes!  But isn't it interesting that so many women from other cultures came to dance, but a traditional dance from the Mid East featured no Middle Eastern participants?"

Instead, I told her I could never dance like that, then tried to flub my belly and wriggle chest.  "I have nothing to shake!"  The conversation moved on from there and I let my internal women's studies student take a break.

One of the most interesting dances of the night was by an Indian group.  When the announcer loosed the word "India" there was an astonishing roar from the audience.  The dancers took to the stage and began to sway.  As the music built and eventually lapsed into something I would only understand as part of Bollywood movie, Indian men rushed down from the bleachers and took to dancing on the floor.  These men, probably foreign exchange students, loved India.  They loved the music and the dance, and they waved their nostalgia and pride at the rest of us...no, not at us, because they would have run down and started dancing regardless.

When our bus landed at the Loteria in Taekji, I started a half-awake crawl home.  In between every performance, Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" had crept into my consciousness from a completely unknown part of my brain.  It was making its final rotation as I passed the Dunkin' Donuts.  On a bench across from the building sat a middle aged woman with her fist balled up against her mouth.  She was crying loudly with the kind of frustration that is stifled and reserved until you just can't physically care anymore and have to let it out.

My legs turned to glue.  I tried to move quickly, but I couldn't.  I tried not to look at her, but my eyes were locked, and she didn't even notice I was there.  I wanted to say something or give her a hug.  I didn't want her to feel so bad.  Life wasn't so bad!  But, it was.  You don't see a well-dressed, middle aged woman with an expensive purse, sitting alone on a sidewalk bench, crying uncontrollably at midnight, unless she has nowhere to go and no one to talk to.  The glue started to melt and my eyes turned away.

See now, this is why I can't enjoy myself.  As I listen to the music and watch the dance, I just keep processing it like some kind of story book narrative.  Like living life is reading Joyce.  The Native Americans are tucked away and the Koreans do the belly dance, and when I stop myself from over-analyzing these things, when I turn off the little scholar in my skull, I find myself at the end of the night watching a woman helplessly cry, and I'm feeling helpless too, because we can donate and be activists and protest and save the world, but this will still happen.  I roll my eyes, grit my teeth, and think "fun, fun, fun."

I get home and open my pack to see there are only four squares to go, and I know I'll be jonesing in the morning, and I know they won't last the night, not with that  postscript, and I go out again to buy cigarettes.  I walk into the conveyance store and hit all the right notes.

"An nyeong ha se yo."
"An nyeong ha se yo.  Raison Green ju se yo."
"Raison Green?"
"Ne... Kam sa ni da."
"An nyeung ga se yo."
"An nyeung gye se yo."

I'm walking home and a man crosses in front of me to the other side the street.  It feels like he's doing it just to avoid me, even though I know he's not.  It's hot and humid, and it should be raining, but it's not.  Then the mosquitoes eat me alive.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wisdom of the Aged

Old people are grouchy, racist, and religious.  But when it comes to ageism, there's one stereotype that seems to trump all of them... and it's not even a bad one.  We tend to look at the elderly and imagine them as somehow wiser because of their years of experience, however, this is a completely fallacious idea.  Being old doesn't make a person wise.  Being wise is the only thing that makes a person wise...as if that had to be said.  And you will find an uncomfortable number of people who make the same horrible mistakes and say the same disturbing things far into their old age.

We can probably use Pat Robertson as a good example of a person you might mistake for being wise.  Whenever you hear him speaking through the 700 Club, he gets this immensely thoughtful look on his face.  He squints and turns his head down then breaths out his words in a laboring, slow pace.  It's almost as if each syllable was more painful for him to say than the last.  This creates the illusion of wisdom.  So he sounds wise, but he lacks the most important part of being wise.  Saying wise things.  Pate Robertson says a lot of damned foolishness, and it kind of ruins the effect.

For instance, recently Robertson decided to speak his mind on the Sikh Temple shooting incident.  He did so by saying...
"...people who are atheists, they hate God, they hate the expression of God, and they are angry at the world, angry with themselves, angry with society and they take it out on innocent people who are worshipping God..." - Directly lifted from The Huffington Post
I could tirade about this statement for hours solely based on how wrong it is, but that would be silly to do solely based on how wrong he is.

 Robertson does something called "speaking from the heart."  He creates emotional narratives to provide information when nothing concrete exists to support what he says.  Thus, while we don't (at the time of writing this) know the religious affiliation of the shooter, Robertson has decided he is an atheist.  Then he makes an incredibly generalized and insulting speech about atheists.  The entire time, his tone is of a wizened, old man, even when his words are naive.

Naturally, this is not the first time Robertson has said something ignorant or uninformed.  This is the man who claimed the whole of Haiti had made a deal with the devil.  He is constantly attributing actions to and blaming problems on innocent groups, especially marginalized and/or victimized ones.  That's the kind of bigoted thinking that actually leads to shooter rampages, and Robertson does it to promote his god's love, which only makes it scarier.

I use Robertson as my example of an unfairly assumed wise person because of his age, speech patterns, and large following.  But, the idea that age produces wiser people exists pretty much everywhere.  While experience can produce wisdom, it is actually learning from experience that causes one to be wise.  Young idiots can grow up into old idiots, and even if they expound the random bit of good advice that does not make them sage minds.

I remember hearing Bible stories about wise King Solomon slicing up babies and thinking he was very wise.  Then I would hear about his many concubines that corrupted him and started to wonder where all that wisdom went.  You'd think that the gift of heavenly wisdom would seep into every facet of one's life, but clearly it didn't.  So if the power of a god cannot make one flawlessly wise, how can we assume something as mundane as wrinkles would.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Finally Watching Korean Movies in Korea

Last weekend, while trying vigorously to define peace, I was invited to the closing night of the 14th Jeongdongjin Independent Film Festival by a pretty hip Korean friend.  Unsurprisingly, I don't get the opportunity to see Korean films here.  The Jeongdongjin Festival, however, advertised English subtitles for some of their movies.  This meant I could actually go to and enjoy movies that didn't have superheroes or exploding cities in them!

The Jeongdongjin Festival showed the films outdoors, projected against a massive inflatable screen, at the Jeongdongjin Elementary school.  This wasn't anything like the drive-in theater, one expects from a more Midwestern outdoor movie-going event.  There were rows of plastic seats set up and some people watched on picnic blankets.  Meanwhile, fires were smoldering around the field, letting out thick plumes of smoke, to keep mosquitoes away from the audience.  Despite still technically within Gangneung city limits, the surrounding scenery was an expanse of verdant mountains.  There was a comfortable, country feel to this particular film festival, giving the vibe that they really were independent, smaller movies for a smaller, less urbane set of people, who still wanted to appreciate art and cinema.

I watched three movies that night.  The first was Big Good or 경복, a feature film directed by Choi Si-Hyung.  My friend described it as the stereotypical independent film, which it absolutely was.  Black and white with a Waiting for Godot / Clerks, dissatisfied, urban youth narrative.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  I found the film interesting and relatable, especially toward the end when we start to see the two lead character's lives become increasingly more mysterious and complicated as they fade from the story.

Like your stereotypical indie film, Big Good is less about the story and more about the characters.  In Big Good, we follow two slackers trying to sell their apartment with plans of moving far away.  The narrative structure is very loose, and takes breaks to let other characters tell their own stories, like the local who comes by the grocery store one of our protagonists works at to buy cigarettes every night after it closes or the tale of two Chinese boys making a bomb, which the main characters listen to on a tape player.  But, the glasses-clad musician in the picture above really steals the show by portraying an incredibly sympathetic loser with a lot of emotional baggage.

I thought it was pretty good.  Flawed, yes.  Stereotypical, film student, art-house cinema, maybe a little.  But if you ever get the opportunity to see it (which seems a little unlikely), you should not pass it up.  I tried to find a trailer or clip from it, but that didn't happen...

The second film was It's Spring or 봄이니까, a 2010 hand-drawn animated film by Park Saeng-Kee.  It's a cute story about two cats who live comfortably indoors, but one day the female cat, Ari, decides to jump the fence and travel out into the big city, leaving the other cat, Dongdong, all alone.  He is eventually so concerned for her that he rejects his own comfort and safety and goes on journey to find her again.  

The animation in It's Spring is good at times, as you can see above, but a tad rough at others.  I'm going to chalk this up to budget.  Making even a short animated film can take a lot of time and money, and with an independent work those two things can be extremely challenging to manage.  The film really benefits from being so damn sweet.  It's another one worth watching if the rare occasion pops up when you can see it.

The final film was Noodle Fish or 오목어, a stop-motion short film by Kim Jin-Man.  The beautiful animation in Noodle Fish was done almost entirely with dried noodles, and to great affect.  To my understanding the creators set up, essentially a wall of noodles and pushed them in for a desired effect, like making an entire film using push pins.

Our hero begins his adventure in a tiny pond before he is swept into the sea by a heavy rain.  This is after he is told by tadpoles that you have to get out of the water to grow up.  So he explores the ocean, curiously trying to reach and understand the outside world.  Bigger fish try to eat him, they lie to him, and they attempt to define the world above the water for him (in their often limited ways).  There's a lot of explicit philosophizing juxtaposed with cute and very creative animation, and that is probably why it turned out to be my favorite of the three.

So, there we have three movies that I would really like to share with the world.  Unfortunately, odds are not in favor of that.  I couldn't even find some trailers or clips online, just still images, which can't really compare to twenty-four of them per second (exception below).  I wish I had the opportunity to see more of the festival, but alack-a-day, at least I liked what I saw.

HAHA!  I found a Noodle Fish clip!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Peace is...

Last weekend, I went to a charity event in Daejon that featured and focused on cultural diversity.  Part of it involved outdoor activities where people participated in sports, like soccer and track.  The other half was an indoor area containing a series of tables set up for different arts, crafts, and games.  Many of the booths belonged to certain nations, and one could play games or do activities connected to the culture of each country.  One could play a hockey game at the Canadian table or a carnival game at America's.  The Jordanian booth probably stole the show with Snakes & Ladders, dates, Arabic coffee, and a hookah.

The host organization, Mannam, had established a few of its own tables for button making, calligraphy, and one particular activity that could not possibly provoke controversy from all but the most uppity intellectual over-thinkers.  That's about when a man with a clipboard strode from behind the booth and straight to, of all the people in the world, me...

Attached to his clipboard was a pile of signs with the words "Peace is..." typed across the top in big, bold Times New Roman.  "Here," he claimed.  "Is an opportunity to write what you believe peace is.  People can write it in any language.  Then we'll take your picture with it."  I'm not stupid.  This activity was clearly meant to promote things like harmony and global community.  The goal is for the writer to put down something positive and uplifting to share with the world.  It's a simple gesture to show we all can learn to accept each other despite our differences.

Of course, my brain starts reeling and I have to make this simple gesture as complicated as imaginable.  So as the friendly man with the clipboard waited for me to join in, I glanced at their wall filled with photos of people proudly displaying what peace is to them.  The one's that immediately stood out were "Peace is... FREEDOM" or "Peace is... LOVE."  I tried to decide what was so peaceful about freedom.  It seems like any country that defines itself as free is in a constant state of conflict between individuals, groups, and organizations, and sometimes over what the definition of freedom actually is.  Love can be peaceful, but I think most people who have ever been in love would agree that with love you take the good with the bad.  There's sometimes a lot of fighting in love.

I really would have wanted to define peace in the truest sense, not just the ideal.  Unfortunately, peace isn't always a good thing.  Peace is... an unquestioned dictatorship?  Imagine North Korea in a vacuum.  The propaganda machine forces people to live peacefully and any deviant sparks will be met with a flood of military-grade peacekeepers.  Sometimes peace can be disturbingly unappealing in a Fahrenheit 451 kind of way.

That sounds like pretty terrible versions of peace.  But, it is a version of peace... and I didn't see it posted on that wall.  I couldn't agree to define peace as something simple and uplifting.  I couldn't agree to state something so complex and malleable in a few short words.  So... I declined.  It was awkward.  The man said, "Oh, well maybe later."  Then he gave me a confused, uncomfortable look before moving to someone else.  The people I was with became concerned, almost alarmed.  What kind of person isn't willing to support peace.

Simplicity makes me uncomfortable.  Part of accepting others is learning to understand that there will always be differences between you.  There will always be problems, conflicts, and mistakes.  The world is complicated and you will always need more than a sentence to describe even the smallest pieces of it accurately and honestly.

...I'm very down on peace today, so let me finish the story...

The next day, after seemingly refusing to support something everyone would obviously want to embrace, I went to the beach to relax and visit with some friends.  Somehow, moments before I arrived, they had encountered these clipboard wielding peace activists and, unlike me, had been successfully coaxed into getting their photos taken.  Instead of writing something interesting or substantial, instead of writing anything, they opted to draw pictures: a heart, a smiley face, and a flower.  These were not exactly "weighty concepts."  I began to feel silly, thinking so much about my decision, and yet I was kind of angry at them for being undeniably vapid.

Monday morning rolled around and as I toppled out of bed I turned on the Facebook for the endless wave of entertainment that rescues one from being productive in the early hours.  Satisfied, I switched over to my news feed and noticed a story about a shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.  A couple weeks ago, my Facebook community had expressed constant compassion and interest in a shooting at a Batman premier in Colorado.  People were talking about it extremely soon after it happened, but twelve hours after the Sikh Temple event, there seemed to be a noticeable silence coming from all but one of my Facebook pals.  He had been expressing outrage that nobody was talking about it.

Normally, I like to avoid addressing shootings, since its best to keep them on a local level and keep discussion serious and non-incendiary in the wider public sphere (which helps prevent copycats).  But I know my friends, and based on their prior behavior in the wake of the Colorado shooting, this should have ignited a similar reaction.  It did not, and I don't know why.  I felt the urge to yell at them, "This hypocrisy is not right!  You can not pick and choose which tragedies you want to acknowledge and remain silent about!"

I didn't know what my Facebook buds were doing, but I knew what they were not, and that was irritating to no end.  Then it struck me... it is very hard to define abstracts in short, simple ways and remain accurate, but it is very easy to define what they are not.  For example, you could fill a library with every possibility for what "love" might be, but in none of those books would you find the sentence, "Love is torturing bunny rabbits for your own sick amusement."  Love is NOT torturing bunny rabbits for your own sick amusement.

Once I realized I could probably define what peace isn't, I knew I could write something that managed to be true and honest while still uplifting the concept of peace in the way the peace activists wanted.  If I condemned the alternatives to peace, I would still make peace an appealing prospect.  So, I went toward the clipboards and grabbed a piece of paper.  I began writing the word NOT in thick, capital letters and my audience gasped (They...really did...).  When I finished it said, "Peace is... NOT ignoring a problem to make it go away."  I declined to smile for the picture.  It really wasn't a thought one smiles while expressing.

Hopefully, I had reached a middle ground we could all be at least a little satisfied with.  While I know that picture will just be tossed into a montage, it was still relatively important for me to explain my understanding of peace, if only for myself.  All my over-thinking didn't feel wasted.  It probably wasn't the most original or best description of peace, but it seemed genuinely true and honest.  Figuring out what to write was challenging for me, and to tell the honest truth, I like to be challenged by and challenge these seemingly simple things.