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

Monday, January 28, 2013

Palaces and Pots

When you're standing in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace you get the feeling that you're seeing the real deal.  A genuine Korean palace.  Only, you're not.  You're standing at the shadow of a palace. A reconstruction of what once was and never will be again.  Gyeongbokgung had the bad luck of symbolizing Korea's sovereignty.  One the Imperial Japanese demolished in 1915.  About ninety percent of the buildings were destroyed, many of which have yet to be rebuilt.  Thus, when you are walking through the palace grounds you are not as much seeing the living legend, but a model of most of the structures looked like.

Since 1990, there has been an active reconstruction effort to restore Gyeongbokgung.  Much of the palace's history (and Korean history in general) tells a similar story.  Here is a building, it says, and here is what it was for.  Then came the Japanese.  They destroyed it.  We rebuilt it.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Korean history is altogether sad affair.  Proud for generations and generations before being thrown into a maelstrom of tragedy.

But for all the wrongs the Koreans suffered during occupation and then civil war, they have proven resilient.   Many Korean monuments are dedicated, not to those who won the wars, but to those who stood up, defiant in the eyes of authority.  That trend continues with the restoration of lost landmarks, and if there was still a royal family to ascend the throne, I have little doubt (that likely just as figureheads), the Koreans would return them to their seats for no other reason than to show everyone that they can keep standing up after being pushed down.

One of these more romantic structures is Sajeongjeon and the two buildings adjacent to it.  The name Sajeongjeon means "hall where the king should think deeply before deciding what is right and wrong."  I feel every house should be lucky enough to claim a study or living room with that sole purpose.  The most beloved of Korean rulers, King Sejong, would wake up every single morning for a 3 to 5 a.m. meeting.  When one of his minister's beckoned, "Your majesty must be tired of attending a meeting every day.  How about attending the meeting every other day?"  He replied, "If you come here to say such a thing, you need not come."

The three buildings had at one time been connected by a single corridor, but the corridors were dismantled by Japanese occupants.  Later, Manchunjeon, one of the side structures, was burned down in the Korean War.  The Manchunjeon was rebuilt, but the corridor has not.

Nestled neatly out of the way, seated on a hill not far from Gyeongbokgung is the small, privately owned Bukchon Museum.  While Gyeongbokgung might represent the grandeur of the long lost Korean royalty, Bukchon Museum is a time capsule for the little things.  Bukchon is a Hanok, or "Traditional Korean house". These buildings tend to be filled with subtle storage spaces, like attics, spaces under the floor, and storerooms.  In those places, an infinite number of items could be forgotten as Korean society evolved and modernized.  So Bukchon acts as a museum for these things.

As you crest the stairwell, you are greeted with a garden overflowing with large clay jars, pots, wicker baskets, and tools.  Inside, every wall is covered in its own unique Korean history.  Old photographs, clothing, clocks, pots, and books are everywhere.  There's barely room to walk.

This is not as foreign-tourist-friendly a location as the palace.  The brochure is brief and the tags among the collection are mostly Hangul.  However, one thing that caught my eye in the above-mentioned brochure was "a traditional Korean dress for the first birthday celebration party from a seventy years old gentleman".  I wasn't sure what to make of that description.  Did the seventy year-old man donate his first birthday dress or was the dress from the first birthday party he ever had, at the age of seventy.  I like the idea of the latter, though it may be too romantic for reality.

You can't help feeling the entire museum is some hidden treasure.  Though its trophies are not prizes, their value is without doubt.  The palaces were being torn down and burned during periods of strife, but the people were still living.  The old photographs show an impoverished people, but a people still living, still surviving constant conflict and unworthy leaders, surviving to become a strong economy and significant name in global politics.  Even if they are just jars and pots, they are worthy of reflection, as worthy as all the palaces of all the kings.

The only difference is you have to seek them out.  Search for those tiny corners where someone put an old man's photograph and a mortar on display.  You have to let your eyes look past the big things to find those hidden rooms, the nooks and crannies.  These palaces are the history we rebuild.  These pots are the history we live.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Arizona Republicans Propose Bill That Would Not Allow Christians To Graduate High School

There may have been times in my naive youth that I would see an article titled Arizona Republicans Propose Bill That Would Not Allow Atheists To Graduate High School and think that it was outrageous. Sorrow and woe, I seem to have become jaded.  The only thoughts passing through my mind this time are "Oh boy, they're doing it again..."

This time the proposal is an oath people have to recite in order to graduate high school.  And returning to the mindset of my youth, that is outrageous.  A plethora of this country's high schoolers are functionally illiterate and here they're forcing the kids to memorize words!  Unless those are Ke$ha lyrics, Arizona will be seeing their graduation rates plummet.  I digress.  Here's the oath:

"I, _______, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; So help me God."

If you couldn't guess, the "So help me God" part is the one bugging atheists, though I find the entire pledge insulting.  It's best to start these things at the beginning.  And what better opener for an oath than one of the documents that started it all, an oath of loyalty to the Constitution.  Now I'm no anarchist, but it seems fair for people to not agree with everything in the Constitution and there are some Americans who might be happy scrapping that junk and starting again.  Monarchists mostly, but some sensible folks have actually taken pains to "correct" problems in the original Constitution by amending it over the years.  This outlawed slavery.  It outlawed booze.  Re-legalized booze.  Amending even let people in Washington DC vote!... and women!  So if by "defend" one means, "defend the right to change willy-nilly or with the times" then it all makes sense.

I got this feeling... and ya'know, it's just a feeling... that isn't exactly what they mean to say with this oath.  I think it might be a panicky, reactionary response against a perceived attack toward certain rights.  See, a lot of people in America have guns.  They have muskets, flintlock pistols, blunderbusseses, cannons, ground-to-air missiles, harpoon guns, phasers, etc.  And they think people are trying to take those things away, which they think is a violation of the Constitution.

The language in the US Constitution is vague.  Stupid vague, like stupid people wrote it.  People who were so stupid they probably thought muskets were the most dangerous weapon people could easily access.  If the writers had been less stupid they probably would have stipulated that machine guns were totally cool, same with bazookas and napalm.  But really, one could argue that while a person has the Constitutional right to the weapons wielded during the American Revolution, or some modern weapons like the hunting rifle and kukri, some weapons should have limited availability.  So maybe the Constitution should be more clear and make more sense.

That said, I'm not sure what the word "enemies" entails.  Who's an enemy?  Like I will totally support and defend the Constitution if I am in a room where a guy is holding a lighter up to the original document.  I'd jump him in an instant.  Wouldn't even think.  Doesn't matter whether he's foreign or domesticated.  If these writers meant literally defend the Constitution from its physical enemies.  Good.  We need to preserve our history and culture.  Again, I'm not sure that's actually the case.

I'll stop pussyfooting and get to the atheism.  I don't understand why Christians are so eager to shove "God" into all their oaths!  Swearing loyalty oaths at all is something many Christians find questionable.  For example, if you spend thirty second doing a quick Google search on the topic (like a certain gentleman blogger I know did) you will find a fountain of debate around the subject.  You'll even find some pretty clear Bible verses that condemn pledges, like...

"Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.' But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' {or} 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil." - Matthew 5:33-37

So according to that anti-American blowhard, I think it was Jesus, pledging any oath is wrong, even to the Christian god.  So by forcing Christians to take an oath to graduate high school impedes upon their religious liberties (just like it does to atheists)... liberties guaranteed to them... by the US Constitution... that thing... this whole oath is about...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Fate of Pubic Lice

We are quick to take up a call to arms when there is need to defend an innocent animal on the verge of extinction.  We guard the rhinoceros, panda bear, and tiger as we want to preserve these exotic species from being lost in the ever expanding, destructive wake man has unleashed.  But there are creatures we are far less likely to care for.  The... ugly or less iconic ones, as it were.  Among these dwindles the humble pubic louse, or crab.

In a bit of recently unveiled news, the number of pubic lice infestations has been on a significant decline.  At least that is the case according to Australian sources, whom have not seen a pubic louse on women since 2008 and have noticed a significant decline in infections among men.  A lot of the credit has been given to the Brazilian wax and other kinds of pubic hair removal.  Sadly for the noble crab, nobody seems too concerned for its safety.

Parasites tend to be "pariahs" in the animal kingdom.  Not many people care for them.  Even the word "parasite" caries a hefty amount of negative connotations.  A parasite is a leech... well, now that doesn't explain much.   It is a person who takes from others without giving anything in return, and tends to allude to a person who isn't very apologetic about it either.

Yet there is good in all of us, is there not?  Does being a parasite make one bad.  Take the eyelash mites, for example.  One might be appalled to discover a hideous life-form living among and laying eggs in his or her lashes.  But this friendly, little creature provides a service to mankind.  It feast on the dead skin cells and dirt that builds up amidst our brows.  These cleanly, little companions toil endlessly to make our lives just slightly better, and yet they ask for nothing but a place to raise their families where we won't even notice their presence.  All should be so kind.

Unfortunately, the pubic louse is not so giving.  While it's eyelash mite cousin goes against the conventions associated with the name "parasite", the crab often embodies them, providing no benefit to its host.  Mingling among the coarsest jungles of human hair (sometimes even in our thick and sturdy eyelashes), this creature lives exclusively off of blood.  While stalking through the bushes, crabs will cause itchiness, sensitivity, and even open sores.  They are not a welcomed guest upon the body.

(Really cool) Pubic Louse Plushy (Source)

Deforestation is a simple and effective weapon against pubic lice, but where does that leave the poor louse who had never intended to harm the host.  It is just nature.  Do we ask the tiger why it bites down on our throat?  Can we say the crab and its parasitic cohorts are wrong in their doings?  Who are we to assert our own moral laws onto beings that cannot live by them?  Poor darlings, we cannot abide them.

Man is a hypocrite in all aspects.  We leave our own weeping sores across the body of a planet.  We craft assembly lines for the wholesale slaughter of livestock.  Then we work tirelessly to ensure the survival of our most iconic animal brethren when we are the culprits of their demise.  And we extend no courtesies to the lowly crab.  We roll up our doormats and tile our floors.  We demand they give arguments for their rights, but if they had some never would we listen.

Such is the fate of pubic lice...  Tragically victims of speciesist cultural imperialism and the Brazilian wax...

Get it!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Imagining Moby-Dick

The beauty of literature is its power to plant images and ideas in our heads without ever showing us a single picture.  William Carlos Williams was famously quoted for saying "no ideas but in things", and he practiced that with incredible success.  The poetry he crafted focused on imagery.  And the brilliance of human imagination allows us to perfectly envision the scenes he established.  Take his classic poem The Red Wheelbarrow, for example.
so much depends upon
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Though it is the bane of every high school boy sitting through English class. It paints a clear picture, and in its things, perhaps there is an idea.

But people hate to leave vivid imagery locked away in their brains.  They want to see it come to life.  And while a wheelbarrow might be simple and small, or even annoying to a young student, there are some things we just can't help but want to imagine.  Icarus falling from the sun, Christ dying on the cross, Greeks bursting from a giant, wooden horse, the god Neptune looming over brave Ulysses' vessel are all things outside daily mundanity that we have taken from stories and turned into visual art.  We share our visions and other's share theirs, and we are all better for it.

So it should be no surprise that such a striking image in the mind, that of Moby-Dick, has met with numerous adaptations and interpretations well-worth exploring.  How do we see this scourge of mad Ahab? Each conception seems just as unique and creative as one could hope.

Moby-Dick has been toyed with in cinema since the early days and that started with the 1926 silent movie The Sea Beast.  One thing that stands out about the novel's titular antagonist is the sheer size of it.  While that fact makes Moby-Dick fascinating to the imagination, it could make the whale difficult to film.  Mindbogglingly enough, The Sea Beast doesn't hide the monster, nor does it use stop motion or cartoon animation.  For the times, they made a great looking whale for Ahab to fight...and defeat?

Thirty years later, another screen adaptation of the novel would be made from a screenplay by Ray Bradbury.  It was substantially more faithful to the original narrative than the 1926 version.  There's something about Ahab winning the fight that feels very, very wrong.  The film certainly catches the giant scope of the creature.  Despite a majority of the whale scenes using miniatures, the full scale of the beast is hardly able to be contained within any single frame.  Thanks to movie magic, this makes a small, fake whale seem more like a living leviathan.

The 1956 film currently stands as the definitive silver screen adaptation of the white whale, but that's not to say there haven't been a steady stream of other adaptations.  Orson Welles directed the stage play Moby Dick - Rehearsed, where actors play both the cast of a Moby Dick play and an audience watching it.  In 1998, a television movie was produced starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab.  In 2010, Asylum introduced Moby-Dick to modern action movie shlock, turning it into a mutant monster.  The whale was prominently featured in one set piece of the children's film, The Pagemaster.  It's made cameos in cartoons and starred in comics.

One of the most curious interpretations is a 1965 film called The Bedford Incident where the role of Moby-Dick is played by a mysterious Soviet submarine.  Another film called Age of the Dragon replaces the white whale with a dragon.  Some re-imaginings of the character completely change the story, setting, and characters.  What typically remains are two things: a mad man's mission for revenge and a giant and deadly opponent.

Through the numerous interpretations, Moby-Dick's overwhelming size, elusiveness, and haunting whiteness are constantly repeated, as are the antagonistic relationship between man and nature and the theme of tireless, destructive revenge.  Art depicting Moby-Dick almost always shows it destroying or about to destroy something, and sometimes an Ahab-like figure will be facing off against him.

Alternatively, people have made a variety of works that re-imagine the whale in friendlier or a more sympathetic light.  Kawaii and cutesy versions can pop up during any internet search for the creature, which is a completely logical step to take.  The blankness and minimal features of a whale can be turned cute as easily as they can be intimidating.  But because of the creature's dark reputation, cute versions of the whale are infrequent at best and typically serve to subvert or parody the character.

And this serves as just one example of how we take the printed word and interpret it into imagery.  Just the whale, Moby-Dick, inspires a wide range of art.  We love to take a good character, a good conflict, and a good story and tell good tales time and time again.  We love to share how we see stories with others and have them shared with us.  We love to imagine the white whale bursting from the sea as Captain Ahab draws back his harpoon, and the two eternally clashing in our minds.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Not too long ago, a video of a white whale off the coast of Norway was recorded by a British maritime engineer.  I saw it only a week ago and my first reaction was absolute surprise.  I never knew a white whale was something that could survive in reality.  According to the video's description, this was the second time a white whale had been found and that the unique coloring is due to leucism, "a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation caused due to a recessive allele (unlike albinism, there is a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin)"*.

Of course, if anyone sees a white whale, they're going to recall Moby-Dick, one of the most acclaimed works in mankind's creative history.  Most any person has an idea in their head of what this terrifying creature looks like, and that's an impressive task.  Wide-spread knowledge of a fiction character is something only shared by a handful of cartoon, cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.  To have an old, literary figure from the adult sphere joining those ranks is bewildering to say the least.  But all you have to do is say the name and a person's imagination does the rest, even if they couldn't give you plot synopsis for the book.

I certainly had known who and what Moby-Dick was since memory, but I had never read the novel.  I had never watched the movie(s).  My only understanding of the character came from pop culture references and the "idea" of a monstrous, white whale.  Why not read it?

Just after buying the book, I expressed my interest to some co-workers and their reactions were lodged between tired frustration and pity.  One recounted that he had tried to read it, long ago, and couldn't stand it, proclaiming, "Just because it's a classic that doesn't mean it's good."  It's hard to disagree with that sentiment.  Every once in a while, we might take a gander at some classic work, only to find it's fallen far short of expectations.  The title of "classic", alone, seems to come with an amount of hyperbolic quality.

As times change so does language and culture.  Beowulf, once the pinnacle of storytelling, might not be enthralling to the modern reader, and the works of Shakespeare can be so challenging to read that the average person won't work through one act before giving up.  In this way, classic literature can grow old or even die with age.  Alternatively, some books are just hard to read from inception.  James Joyce is notorious for making long and complex stories that are hailed as classics by those of us who've studied the art, but rarely by people who have better things to do.

So classics can be dangerous, and I understand that.  But whatever enmity my co-worker held for Moby-Dick, I will never understand, because it is a fantastic book!  Melville executes humor and experimental storytelling in creative ways, and, granted I can't say I have reached the half-way point of this novel yet, it has been one of the most enthralling stories I've had the joy to read.

Perhaps the best praise I can give Moby-Dick pertains to its retelling of The Book of Jonah.  Christians would argue that the Bible was written by men inspired by God, and therefore it was written by God.  Thousands of years later, Father Mapple in Moby-Dick tells the story of Jonah with such fire and fury that it stands as an improvement on the original.  In fact, I would argue that if you read Moby-Dick, and chapter nine in particular, you should never have reason for reading The Book of Jonah, even religiously.  By extension, it must be said that Herman Melville is a better writer than God.

I feel that is adequate praise.

It's probably wise to ignore naysayers, when they come criticizing a work you are interested in.  If you want to watch a movie and everyone tells you it's junk, well, watch it anyway.  Same with music.  Same with books, TV shows, and anything else you might feel inclined to wasting time on.  It's possible that a classic might become overblown by critical adoration despite an incredible disconnect with the public.  But that doesn't mean the individual should pass up the opportunity to engage in one if interested.  Disappointment and frustration may show their ugly faces on more than one occasion, though why should that stop you from trying?