Saturday, January 3, 2009


My BlackBerry's battery is dying. It runs out of charge noticeably faster than it used to. Luckily, I've got a second battery lying among my gear somewhere, so we're good.

I've been outside in the back yard today, picking up masses of dead leaves and branches left over from the wind we had a few days ago; the leaves were clogging our basement stairwell. I was also folding up tarps and disassembling the kitchen tent, but I wasn't able to finish the latter task before it got too dark to keep working. I have another two or three tarps to fold up, though, before I can call it a day: it's supposed to rain a bit starting tomorrow morning, so the tarps need to be bundled up and brought inside.


my vote for Silliest Utterance

Good Lord:

"...the threat posed by Islamic terrorism is nothing more than the yapping of an annoying poodle, albeit one with rabies."

--from conservative blog, linked to by Instapundit

Yeah... rabid, yapping poodles can kill nearly 3000 people in the space of a couple hours. What's surprising about the above sentiment is that it comes from a conservative. Conservatives are usually the folks preaching caution and vigilance.

I try to read both liberal and conservative blogs when I want my daily dose of political commentary. I've never visited Samizdata before; the above quote comes from an otherwise interesting post about the need for conservative Republicans to rip their party apart and earnestly rebuild (by founding other parties, if necessary) instead of focusing on taking Obama down:

Concentrate instead on the much needed massive internal political bloodletting and leave Obama and his Congress to do their worst as in truth there is nothing the Republicans can do to stop them anyway.

Not the typical conservative point of view, I think.


Friday, January 2, 2009

"Kung Fu Panda" apes "Circle of Iron"

If you saw "Circle of Iron," the martial arts movie based on a story by Bruce Lee, you got to watch David Carradine walk all over Lee's vision. It's the kind of story that would have been fantastic had it been handed to better actors and a better director. The movie has only two great moments: first is the nose-breaking scene, in which Carradine's blind sage wordlessly smashes the face of a handsome, tyrannical teen. The sage's protégé, a warrior named Cord, is shocked and asks his mentor why he has done this. The sage replies that the boy's previous comeliness fed his arrogance; disfigurement will teach him humility. The second great moment comes at the end of the film, when Cord is finally allowed to see the codex that is supposed to bring him enlightenment after all the hardship he has gone through. He opens the book... and what do you think he sees?

The conclusion of "Circle of Iron" is quite Asian, and a student of Asian culture and religion can probably guess what's inside the book (full disclosure: I saw this movie long before I began any serious study of Asian religion, and at the time had no idea what would be inside the book). The same answer lies inside the so-called Dragon Scroll in the movie "Kung Fu Panda." If you haven't guessed by now, the answer is: nothing.

Well, that's not exactly right. At the conclusion of "Circle of Iron," Cord opens the book and is confronted with a series of mirrors-- objects with deep and varied symbolic significance in Asian thinking. When Po the Panda unrolls the Dragon Scroll, his first impression is that nothing is there, but what the filmmakers wordlessly show us is that something is there: Po's reflection in the scroll's golden surface.

In Zen, the mirror represents suchness: a mind like a mirror merely reflects what is around it; when objects pass away from a mirror's scope, the mirror doesn't retain them. The mind should be like that mirror, not attaching to things, only reflecting what is. But more generally in Asian thinking, the reflection we see when we look into a mirror throws us back onto ourselves, so in a sense, the mirror's message is about coming full circle. Po the Panda goes through a hellish crash course, and in the end, he unrolls the scroll and discovers that the wisdom and skill he needed were already inside him. This nondiscursive message works well on the screen. Unfortunately, the dialogue in "Kung Fu Panda" doesn't reflect the Asian teaching as well as it could have.

Toward the end of the movie, Po leaves the warrior temple with the Furious Five, kung fu masters who initially resented Po's presence among them, but who have grown to like and even respect him. Their task is to evacuate the Valley of Peace before the evil Tai Lung arrives; Master Shifu* is to face Tai Lung-- his former student-- alone. Once back down in the valley, Po encounters his father, a chef who reveals that the secret ingredient of his Secret Ingredient Soup is... nothing. We're not asked to contemplate the morality of false advertising; instead, we hear this bit of "wisdom" from Po's father: "To make something special, you just have to believe it's special." Po has a flash of enlightenment: he's still clutching the Dragon Scroll, and he unrolls it a second time, now clearly noticing his own reflection in it. Finally understanding the meaning of the scroll, Po heads back up the mountain to help his master face Tai Lung.

If the dialogue between Po and his father had stopped right when the father revealed that the secret ingredient was nothing, I would have been fine with that. But by adding that very American tagline about belief in specialness, the scriptwriters Disneyfied (Dreamworksified?) what could have been a truly Cultural Moment. There was already a good, profound Asian lesson unfolding in that scene; the father's line was a jarring incongruity, not to mention a gross violation of the artist's rule that you "show, don't tell."

But despite my focus on this one problem with the script, I ended up thoroughly enjoying "Kung Fu Panda." The movie had a few excellent scenes positively dripping with Asian philosophy-- one of the best being the scene where Po's training comes to an end. Po's final test involves trying to eat a dumpling that his master skillfully keeps just out of reach from him. What makes me love the scene is what Po does with the dumpling after he finally gets it away from Shifu. Po's behavior at that moment reflects his understanding of the other, deeper lesson the master had been trying, all along, to teach him.

"Circle of Iron" is painfully corny, and I recommend it only hesitantly. If you're a fan of B movies, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, find the script or original treatment online somewhere and just read the story. By contrast, I heartily recommend "Kung Fu Panda," which contains more than enough Matrix-y kung fu combat to entertain action fans, and tells us a story that resonates on many different levels, including the level at which some of us religion students operate.

*The term "sifu" already means "master," especially in the context of kung fu training. Master Master?


"guys... the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol"

Very often you'll hear some wiseacre deconstruct Christmas. He'll talk about its components-- the date of Jesus' birth, the elements involved in Christmas celebration, etc.-- then claim that Christmas is a sham in both form and content: no element of Christmas is originally Christian, after all. What usually follows, after this scholarly lecture, is the non sequitur that "the Christmas tree therefore isn't a Christian symbol."

Well, no: the tree is a Christian symbol, because Christians have made it so. Christians who use Christmas trees aren't focusing on the tree's pre-Christian origins when they set such trees up. Such people belong to a tradition that has appropriated the tree, i.e., made the tree its own.

Some people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of appropriation, which isn't the same as the concept of theft (another idea associated, often rightly, with Christianity's frequently unhappy history). Here's a general example of how appropriation works: as Buddhism moved out of India and into other Asian countries, it took on the trappings of those countries. In Korean Buddhist temples, you might see imagery that's not originally Buddhist: mountain spirits, deities of magico-religious Taoism, etc., might all make their appearances somewhere on Buddhist ground. Buddhism appropriated the local colors and flavors, and was changed thereby. This is a natural sociological process, and it's not limited to religion: it happens in other human spheres as well-- culture, politics, art, and all the other human endeavors you can think of. Ideas are memes; they cross-pollinate.

A more specific example: the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents the sort of change that occurs as religions move from place to place. As the Indian name implies with the ending "-ishvara," this entity was a "lord," i.e., male. As the concept of Avalokiteshvara moved northward into China, however, it became associated with the Chinese deity Kwan Shih Yin (or just Kwan Yin)-- a deity that was arguably native to China, and usually portrayed as female. Whatever Avalokiteshvara was, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is now thought of as female in all of East Asia. More philosophically minded Buddhists, aware of the bodhisattva's Indian origins, will say the bodhisattva transcends gender, but folkloric Buddhists in East Asia will be comfortable with Kwan Yin's femininity. East Asians appropriated Avalokiteshvara.

People who claim "X is not really X because it was originally Y" are demonstrating a lack of understanding about how symbols work. Culturally speaking, symbols derive their power and significance from a widespread agreement as to their general meaning. This agreement is often induced and enforced diachronically, when the older generation teaches the symbol's meaning to the younger generation.

It may sound strange to give so much legitimacy to the "because we said so" crowd, but the saying-so is integral to what symbols are. The implication, then, is that the critic of Christianity can't afford to be too smug about the "original" significance of the Christmas tree. Those pagans came to an agreement about what their tree meant, after all, and they may have done it in consonance with-- or in defiance of-- some even earlier, pre-pagan tradition.

If religious symbols are too abstract for you, let's think about this problem in terms of language. The sound "ah" occurs in American English, but it's also an ancient sound-- one of three sounds common to all languages (the other two being "ee" and "ooh"). Does the ancient pedigree of "ah" make it somehow un-English? To put matters another way: "ah" might have come from our distant past, and might currently be found in other languages, but does that make it any less a part of English phonetics? Conclusion: "ah" is English-- not originally English, nor exclusively English, but legitimately English all the same. And why? Because users of English have, through a massive and self-perpetuating agreement, chosen to include the sound as part of their language.*

By the same token, then, the tree known by Christians as "the Christmas tree" is certainly not exclusively Christian, nor is it originally Christian, but it is nonethless legitimately Christian. Why? Because Christians have made it so.

There's another side to this issue, though: we should take a moment to consider the Christians who get upset upon hearing that their precious symbol doesn't originate with their tradition. My question to them would be: why are you upset? Did you really think Christianity wasn't composed of non-Christian elements? As Thich Nhat Hanh notes in his Living Buddha, Living Christ, all religious traditions are composed of elements not of that tradition. Viewed in terms of Buddhist metaphysics, religious traditions are dependently co-arisen: they form out of a matrix of intercausality. The late Father Cenkner, one of my mentors at Catholic University, used to say: "It's all syncretism!"**

I personally have no trouble with the claim that the Christmas tree isn't originally Christian, or that prayer pre-dates Christianity, or that Madonna-and-Child imagery is very likely derived from Isis-and-Horus iconography, or that sacred birth narratives and the concept of resurrection are pre-Christian. None of this changes the fact that almost all Christians pray, that many Christians set up Christmas trees for Christian purposes at Christmas, or that the Madonna and Child are wholly integral to the Christian tradition. A healthy Christian attitude would be to realize that one is part of a constantly evolving and interwoven global network of tradition-streams. In the meantime, the non-Christian who attempts to claim that "aspect X of Christianity isn't originally Christian" needs to realize that this in no way implies that "aspect X isn't Christian"-- a claim that is demonstrably false.

*Some scholars have proposed a "language model" of religious pluralism that makes religious traditions analogous to languages. The model is helpful in elucidating certain aspects of how religions may have evolved over time, but I question the model's effectiveness in resolving what many pluralists see as the basic problem of religious diversity-- namely, the fact that the various traditions, in their doctrines and metaphysics, often make conflicting or even contradictory truth claims. If the language model is meant to be used normatively, it implies that no one religion is any more legitimate than another-- an implication rejected not only by divergent pluralists but also by inclusivists and exclusivists. Even convergent pluralists exclude certain traditions from the sphere of legitimacy; Satanism immediately comes to mind.

**You're allowed to make sweeping generalizations about the universe when you're over 70, even if you're an academic. In his defense, I'll note that Father Cenkner said this outside of the class context. While the sentiment lacks the usual pile of scholarly hedges and qualifications, I still think it's basically correct when applied to religion. Can you name a causa sui religious tradition?


Thursday, January 1, 2009

your French riddle for the day

To see the riddle's answer, highlight the invisible text below it.

Q: Qu'est-ce qui est vert et qui pousse dans le jardin?
A: Un martien qui chie.

Sorry, but despite the basic vocabulary, it's kind of hard to translate.


so how'd you fête the occasion?

My brother David had to tend bar at his nightclub last night, and Sean was called away for a last-minute gig, so I rang in the new year with my parents. Mom organized our little feast, which included several fruits (strawberries, grapes, clementines, pear-apples, and dried persimmons), several cheeses (spicy jack, mozzarella rolled in prosciutto, Emmenthaler, and a fantastic baked brie slathered in a fruit jam), several types of crackers, and several types of dry sausage. Dessert was two types of rum cake plus a Costco cheesecake. All excellent.

We watched "Kung Fu Panda" (I bought a copy at the local Hollywood Video), then settled in for Dick Clark's show. The parents informed me that Clark had suffered a stroke a while back, which shocked me: like everyone else, I had begun to think of the man as ageless and indestructible. In our viewing, which began a bit after 10PM, Clark didn't make his appearance until right before midnight (Ryan Seacrest, who seems to be prepping to become the next Dick Clark, did the heavy lifting). When he did finally appear, the moment was bittersweet for me; it hurt to see Clark struggling against his stroke-induced speech impediment, but it was also heartening to know he was game enough to get back out there and host the show to which his name and image are inextricably tied. There wasn't a trace of self-pity on the man's face.

Along came New Year's. We clinked our glasses together and knocked back our faux bubbly. There were no post-midnight phone calls as in years past; we goggled the goggle box a little while longer, then went our separate ways. I ended up staying up until after 5AM, watching reruns of Season 4 of "The Next Food Network Star," which got Aaron "Big Daddy" McCargo his current show, "Big Daddy's House."

It's a bright day with a blue sky. The trees outside my window are naked and proud of it. I've got a back yard to clean up, so I'll leave you here and see you when I see you. Happy New Year!


first religious insight of 2009

This Red Meat strip demonstrates the perils of thinking too anthropomorphically about the divine.


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

reflections on 2008

2008 proved to be one of the most exciting years of my life, comparable in many ways to my college junior year abroad from 1989 to 1990. This year involved many things I don't normally do. Generally sedentary and often given to just talking about my aspirations as opposed to actually pursuing them, I found myself, this past year, outside my comfort zone and loving it. This is the year I began my walk across America, and though I'm temporarily stalled as the knee heals, as the coffers refill, and as the snow out west waxes and wanes, I've had a blast with the three months' walking I've done.

The year began with me still in Korea, at my English and French teaching post at Sookmyung Women's University in downtown Seoul. 2008 marked my third year at the university, doing something I loved. The job was demanding in some ways and frustrating in others, but I came away always looking forward to the next semester, a feeling I've never had while working anywhere else. I left Sookmyung on very amicable terms and hope to go back there when I'm finished with the walk. If I don't end up there, I'll be able to find decent university work elsewhere on the peninsula, I'm sure.

I came home in late April and spent a month conditioning myself with long walks, eventually adding a backpack to the walk to get a feel for that sort of hike. It wasn't long before my walks, usually every other day, were measuring over 20 miles in length. On May 26, I flew out to Vancouver, got picked up by my buddy Nathan, and was driven down to White Rock, British Columbia, where I spent the night inside a very, very pink (but well-appointed!) hotel called the Pacific Inn. On May 27, the walk began.

If you've followed this blog, you know I crossed the US/Canadian border and walked southward along the I-5 corridor. I passed through Seattle and eventually hit Portland, Oregon, where I stopped for two weeks as my knee became too painful for sustained walking-- this being the result of an injury a few weeks earlier. From Portland, I turned east and followed the Columbia River into the Columbia River Gorge, first walking the somewhat difficult Historic Highway from Troutdale before ending up on I-84 and stopping in Cascade Locks. From there until almost Umatilla, I followed I-84, which was far less hilly than any other road would have been. The knee pain worsened; I kept it at bay with painkillers prescribed in Arlington and picked up in the next city, Boardman.

I broke away from I-84 around Irrigon and Umatilla, and skipped back into Washington in order to reach Walla Walla. With cash near depletion and the pain in my knee at epic levels, I knew I'd have to stop. I ended up spending a month in Walla Walla, getting my knee diagnosed (medial collateral ligament strain), deliberating on what to do next, and finally deciding not merely to sit out the winter, but to sit it out at home in Virginia-- with family, free rent, and free food. This was possible thanks to my cousin Marie, who works for a major airline and was able to hook me up with a free "buddy pass" out of Portland and nonstop to DC. (Thanks, Chuck, for the drive from Irrigon to Portland.)

I learned a lot about the terrain and weather of several hundred miles of both Washington and Oregon, and came to the conclusion that, of all the conditions to walk in, the worst is cold and rain. Give me wind, give me sun, give me anything but that nasty, nasty combination of wetness and low temperatures. The high desert (which appears as you walk eastward, roughly past The Dalles, Oregon) was a welcome contrast to much of the southward walk from Canada, along Washington's western spine.

And while all of that was an adventure, the biggest treat was meeting so many people along the way. I can't list them all here and won't even try, but I do want to make some general remarks.

The walk's overarching purpose was and remains a personal, non-academic exploration of American religious diversity and, true to that purpose, I've met all sorts of folks from many different walks of life. I started out with Unitarians, Sikhs, Zennies, and Episcopalians, all within the first fifty or so miles of the trek. I stayed with Soka Gakkai Buddhists (in two different cities) and spent a few days at a Benedictine abbey, and even met an ex-Unitarian(!). My walk also brought me within the orbit of some Seventh Day Adventists, as well as other types of Protestants I'd never before had the chance to talk with. I met confirmed atheists and "spiritual, not religious" folks, and ended up befriending a pair of biker Christians, who are nothing like whatever stereotype I may have had of bikers before I made their acquaintance. I talked with random strangers while walking along various suburban streets, and was often offered rides by people who drove by me on highways and freeways. I met and befriended some folks at a few of the state parks where I've camped. And yes: I was even picked up twice by the police (a third "run-in" with the law led to no rides). Those turned out to be friendly encounters, too.

Coming home proved to be almost as much of an adventure as walking. With the parents' house looking tornado-ravaged because of the extensive renovations, I found myself camping out in the back yard from late September (which is when I got home after nearly a month in Walla Walla) to mid-December. I've helped the parents cart most of their worldly possessions outside and onto cargo pallets, and just recently helped move all that stuff back inside. I constructed a "tent kitchen" that was supposed to serve as Mom's headquarters, but it ultimately ended up as more storage space. (Mom preferred to remain indoors, so she converted the laundry room into a temporary kitchen.) I also did plenty of other odd jobs, from helping to make meals to helping Dad construct the new deck.

I've walked periodically while home, but my level of physical activity has dropped significantly. Periodic heavy lifting isn't the same as constant cardio, and because my current job-- proofreading/editing for a Korean company-- involves sitting in front of a computer, I'm once again gaining weight. This displeases me, but if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't blame my circumstances for the increased poundage. That's the easy way out. No: I just need to cut down on the food and increase my activity level.

The only other real negative this year, aside from current (but still reversible!) weight gain, has been the drain on my finances. Walking across the country is expensive if you choose to hang close to civilization. Five to eight dollars for a meal here, twenty dollars for supplies there, sixty to eighty bucks for a motel room, fifteen dollars to camp in a state or national park... it adds up. Quickly. The over $3000 spent on equipment-- even before the walk began-- didn't help matters. I'm now trying to make back some money before I continue the trip; you might say that money-making is one of my New Year's resolutions. Another resolution is to find more economical ways of hiking-- traveling lighter, eating less, camping and Couchsurfing more.

Ah, yes: I should also say something about the online aspect of this walk. This blog has turned out to be a fine forum on which interested parties have civilly expressed encouragement, disagreement, and a variety of fascinating personal insights. I want to thank all the folks who have contributed, frequently or infrequently, to this blog via comments or via emailed reactions to what transpires here. You, Dear Reader, are not just an audience: you're active participants in this adventure, and some of you may have noticed that, whatever my stubbornness, I've ended up taking some of your advice. You're often my cheering section, occasionally my Greek chorus, and many of you are people I'm proud to call friends.

The walk has taught me a lot. I'd actually like to write a full-length post on that topic, but here's a general list, in no particular order, of things learned over the course of 600 miles.

1. Rain is great when you're not walking long distances. Otherwise, it sucks.

2. Kind strangers far outnumber unkind strangers.

3. It's possible to walk long distances while in extreme pain.

4. When people talk about "peace," the talk tends to fall into two categories: "peace" in the sense of "let's leave each other alone," and "peace" in the sense of "let's actively work toward a harmonious existence." As it turns out, these two notions aren't always compatible.

5. Sunscreen is helpful until your sweat flushes it away. In my case, that means it's helpful for about an hour.

6. People look at you differently when you're wearing a huge backpack. Strangers feel they can talk with you, and the police become more interested in you, too. Especially when your backpack looks large enough to carry a body inside it.

7. Japanese Zen rituals are more complicated than the Korean Seon practice I'm familiar with.

8. The style of Sikh worship is a world apart from anything I've ever encountered in terms of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist practice. I definitely want to learn more about this religion.

9. Freeways are noisy, dusty, and gravelly. It's often better to walk on the right side, with the flow of traffic, so that your backpack shields you from the turbulence of trucks and from the gravel they kick up. Walking on the right might not be legal, and some will argue that's it's not safe, but considering how unsafe it already is to be walking on a freeway, I'd rather trade a few crumbs of safety for greater comfort.

10. If you desperately need to poop, you'll find a way to do it, even if it means pooping right next to a major freeway. (Easily my most humiliating experience.)

11. Many of you dog owners need to teach your dogs to respect boundaries. I've lost count of the number of dogs that have run, leashless, out of the open gates of their respective yards to bark at me up close. Gate your dogs, or leash them. No, they don't deserve to have free run of the neighborhood, and I say that despite my love of dogs (whether we're talking personality or taste).

12. On the positive side, no dogs have bitten me yet, which leads me to believe that even the undisciplined dogs know when they're no longer on their own territory.

13. Tax and tip make all sit-down meals expensive.

14. Washington State can freak out a person from northern Virginia: it's weird to see all those familiar names-- Arlington, Mt. Vernon, Capitol Hill-- repeated clear across the country.

15. Trekking poles are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they may prove useful when you're limping around town and need a cane for support. They also help speed you up when you feel you're slowing down.

16. Most strangers can give you decent travel advice. Some, however, have no idea what they're talking about.

17. Dubiously filtered water + heat and sunlight = stomachache.

18. When you're hiking almost daily, you learn to forgive yourself for not showering twice a day. Whether other people are capable of such forgiveness... well, that seems to vary from person to person.

19. Memorable food: Lori's hash browns, Chuck's pork chops, the Thai restaurant in downtown Bellingham, that double bacon cheeseburger from the burger stand in Cascade Locks, and lots of good home cooking from the Horns, the Rices, and others.

20. You can practice your Korean in Walla Walla. You can also practice your French there: it's wine country, and some Frenchies have transplanted themselves to the Walla Walla Valley to help out with the viniculture.

21. The miles do get easier. Sure, there are good days and bad days-- days when walking feels more like work than something done for enjoyment and enrichment. But all in all, it becomes easier to cover long distances, and to think in larger terms. After walking 15-20 miles per day, day after day, you'll find yourself wondering about people who balk at walking three miles to get somewhere. When I do an 11-mile walk, in my mind it's "only eleven miles." It's sad to think that, once I get back to Seoul, I'll eventually lose that mindset and sink back into normalcy.

22. No matter what allergies you have, nature is nothing to be sneezed at. The frightening hugeness of Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, the gorgeous greenness and brownness of the Columbia River Valley-- these are sights I'm glad to have seen directly, as opposed to seeing them in some coffee table book.

23. Portland swings way too liberal for my politically centrist tastes, but is otherwise a fantastic city. Even its many homeless people rock. Seattle, alas, was a city encountered only in passing; it deserves a second shot. I spent only two nights in Seattle before moving on to Tacoma, which means I barely saw it at all. By contrast, I spent two weeks in Portland, learning its public transport system, visiting its colleges and universities, and making connections with the people I met while there.

24. If you're fat and on a hike, you might be surprised to discover how easy it is to go nearly three days without food. The effort of hiking often shrinks the stomach and keeps the blood in the limbs as opposed to the digestive system. The hiking does, however, make you powerfully thirsty, and if you sweat like I do, you've got to carry a lot of water. I ended up with both a 3-liter Camelbak and two Nalgene bottles.

25. NEVER leave your tent improperly weighted and anchored when you're in a windy area!

26. If someone offers to be your chase car, or to carry your backpack in their bike's trailer, have enough humility to say "yes."

27. Keep your electronics safe.

28. Any idea that you are a fully independent, autonomous being will be beaten out of you. You depend constantly-- whether you acknowledge it or not-- on the kindness of strangers, the infrastructure of society and civilization, and the elemental gifts of Mother Nature: the weather, the laws that govern your body chemistry, and all the rest. Be humble.

I could go on, but will stop here for now.

I hope your 2008 was fulfilling and not too painful, and to all who read this blog, as well as to the people I've met along the walk who don't read this blog: Happy New Year! May your 2009 prove to be full of joy and enrichment... but let me also wish you a year of work, strife, and stress. Why? Because life, at its best, contains within it a touch of the grave.


Happy New Year to Korea!

It's 2:27PM as I write this, which means South Korea is already over four hours into the new year. People are on their mountaintops, awaiting the first sunrise of 2009. Hope it's not too cloudy, guys.

Hang on, Korea: the DC area will soon be joining you in 2009.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

random poesy


sometimes the quickest
route to the high road involves
taking the low road


the king peered in his sandwich, said,
"While I quite enjoy the bread,
are you sure this thing is dead?"


i have a squirrel gun
it fires
forty squirrels a second
i use it when i'm mad
the neigh
sometimes when people are
getting on
nerves more
than usual
switch out the
regular squirrels
and load up with
zombie squirrels


bork bork
snork snork
kek kek laaa
ming ming
pook pook
thung thung saaa

chiff eh duudwee
duudwee dee
freepo freepu
qwing mik pee

bork bork
snork snork
kek kek laaa
ming ming
pook pook
thung thung saaa

("Twinkle Twinkle" as sung on Neptune)


Oregon! what's going on with you?

What's all this about Oregon's governor advocating a mileage tax calculated and enforced by satellite?

In North Korea, people leaving one locality for another have to file papers with the local party officials and security people: all movements are tracked in minute detail, and deviations can be punished. In a sense, such tracking already happens in America, but is largely a matter of passive data collection. The measure referred to in the above-linked article goes beyond the passive approach to giving certain parties (in this case, the Oregon state government) the power not only to track people's movements but also to tax them for those movements.

This measure concerns me. It should, in fact, concern both liberals (who want to fight the power, stick it to The Man, etc.) and conservatives (who are ostensibly against expansion of governmental powers) alike.

The final report [of the governor's task force studying the feasibility of this measure] detailed the technical aspects of the program. It also stressed the issue of privacy.

“The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history,” the report said. “Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements.”

You do see that is this hooey, yes? Of course there's tracking going on! How else can you calculate mileage? The device isn't hooked up to the car's odometer-- it's linked to a GPS system! Just because locations aren't being "transmitted elsewhere" doesn't mean a given car isn't being tracked.

Even if we ignore the Big Brother aspect of this proposal, doesn't it seem unfair that a person will be taxed on both the gas they buy and the miles they drive? Sure, there's a gas tax refund for the driver, but it's only 24 cents per gallon. Imagine that gas prices swing upward once again to $4 or $5 per gallon, and that Governor Kulongoski's plan to raise the gas tax by 2 cents goes through. How comforting will it be to get that whopping refund, eh? About as comforting as George W. Bush's $300 rebate was, I'll bet.


Monday, December 29, 2008


My two must-see movies this holiday season are "Gran Torino" and "Doubt." The latter appeals to my inner theatergoer: this amazing clip over at the trailers site convinces me that the movie-- which is based on a Pulitzer-winning stage play-- will be great fun for those who like acting for acting's sake. You may have heard about the story, which centers on the conflict between a young liberal priest and an old battleaxe of a nun: the nun suspects the priest of pedophilia, but does so with nearly zero evidence.

I've read a few reviews of the film (which is currently in wide release), and I get the feeling that a few of the reviewers, who have variously described Meryl Streep's performance as "bordering on caricature," don't know much about the variety of personalities that inhabit the Catholic infrastructure. I used to teach at a Catholic high school, and my own undergrad and graduate formation occurred in Catholic environments, and I can vouch that, as is true anywhere, the Church attracts all kinds, Streep's character's type among them. Streep's not giving us a caricature; I've known some Sister Aloysiuses in my time.

If anything, I suspect some of those critics, being of a certain political persuasion, don't want to face the realities of religious zeal: to acknowledge the possibility that people as unlikeable as Streep's character exist would be to recognize that fanatical elements in the world today are deserving of condemnation. Easier, then, to dismiss Streep's portrayal as caricature ("Come on-- no one really acts like that!") than to view it as plausible.

"Doubt" looks to be timely on several levels, but I'm less interested in the movie's political and religious implications than in the acting, which the above-linked sample scene promises to be compelling (watch the priest's hands! he's so furious he doesn't know what to do with himself). I'm a fan of both Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman,* and between the two of them, much scenery will be chewed.

*I don't know whether I'm a fan of Hoffman the person. He gave one of the most boring interviews ever while a guest on "The Actor's Studio" with James Lipton. The show is meant as both broadcast and master class for the students in the audience, and I found Hoffman's behavior almost embarrassing. If you catch the episode, you'll see what I mean-- the slouched posture, the half-asleep delivery, the almost complete lack of excitement or passion, as if he didn't want to be there. Maybe it's the Korean in me, but I'd expect him to tackle "The Actor's Studio" with a bit more focus and energy, for the students' sake if not the TV public's.


Sunday, December 28, 2008


My brother David is a member of Netflix, and he brought over both "Tropic Thunder" and "The Dark Knight" last night. I'd seen "The Dark Knight" during my two weeks in Portland-- opening night, in fact-- but missed "Thunder," which turned out to be a hilarious study of the Hollywood megastar's fragile, overinflated ego. "Thunder" also featured Tom Cruise in what I now consider his best role ever. Unlike some critics, I don't think Cruise is a bad or at-best-mediocre actor, and the fact that Cruise is a crazy Scientologist doesn't prevent me from enjoying his performances. Get him in the right role, with a good script and his usual intense commitment, and Cruise generally delivers. If you haven't seen "Tropic Thunder," watch it just for Cruise who, bizarrely enough, makes Jack Black's turn in that same movie look tame by comparison.

Last night was only my second time viewing "The Dark Knight." I thought the film was great on first viewing, and it was just as good (not to mention more comprehensible) the second time around. While watching last night, I had an epiphany about Christian Bale's approach to Batman's voice, and I'm sharing this insight with you all because a lot of the audience members in Portland laughed at Bale's breathy, gravelly delivery; you might have, too. Bale's Batman voice does seem way over the top, and stands in contrast with Michael Keaton's more restrained version of same. (You'll recall that, in Keaton's version of the Batman, Keaton simply keeps his voice low and his sentences short à la 80s-era Schwarzenegger, but without the accent.) Bale's delivery ultimately makes sense; you just have to approach it in the right spirit.

Actors usually have to think through their parts and delve into their characters' psyches before they can "inhabit" an assigned role. One shortcut method, though, is simply to channel the delivery of another actor, and last night it occurred to me that Bale was basically doing an impression of the current Clint Eastwood-- old, gruff, gravelly, impatient with stupidity. Compare Bale's delivery to Eastwood's voice in the preview trailer for "Gran Torino" (QuickTime required for viewing; lower-quality trailer available on YouTube). The resemblance is striking.

True: an actor with Bale's talent would probably never resort to merely parroting an American icon, but I still recommend viewing Bale's Batman through the Eastwooden* filter. This erases the potential laughability of Bale's delivery: you don't laugh at Clint Eastwood, do you? Also, imagining the spirit of Eastwood inhabiting the Batman isn't a stretch: Eastwood's characters often share personality traits with the Batman, not least of which is a soul-darkness that gives both Eastwood and the Batman their gravitas. If there is a major difference between Eastwood's characters and the Batman, it's in how they approach confrontations. The Batman is all about stealth and psychological warfare; he doesn't shrink from direct combat, but he'd prefer to preserve the element of surprise. Eastwood's characters, by contrast, tend to walk coolly down the middle of the main street, guns drawn, casually picking off whatever enemies bumble into range. Eastwood never hides.

Of course, the Eastwooden filter can help only so much. Eastwood's characters, unlike the Batman, will go there: they'll kill your ass deader than dead, and they'll sleep like a baby afterward. The Batman easily becomes distraught about crossing the line into murder (this was, in fact, the very cord the Joker was tweaking in his conflict with the Batman), so it's unlikely he'll be splattering anyone's brains against the wall. Superimposing the Eastwood paradigm onto Batman might produce unfulfillable expectations.

Still, it's not wrong to associate Eastwood with the Batman. Frank Miller made this possible in his graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which portrays the now 50-something Batman as a man with Clint Eastwood's chiseled head and Arnold Schwarzenegger's freakishly huge neck and body. If you've never seen this combination, trust me: it's terrifying. It's how I imagine the Batman would be if he were real: a bone-crusher very much in touch with his inner Satan, a fighter acquainted with stealth but also willing to duke it out in the open (as happens both in the conflict with Superman at the end of the graphic novel and with the Mutants' leader in the novel's second chapter). Miller's Batman also goes there, using an enemy's machine gun to perforate a gang member holding a gun to the head of a kidnapped child.

So if Bale's Batman is giving you the giggles, imagine the skeletal, demonic shade of Clint Eastwood inhabiting him-- a wicked presence somehow visible through all that body armor. That ought to suck the humor right out of your brain and leave you properly terrified.

For more and better Eastwood worship, read Skippy's review of "Gran Torino."

*You have no idea how much I racked my brains trying to come up with an adjectival form of "Eastwood" that didn't bring sexual arousal to mind. Eastwoodic? Eastwoodish? Eastwoodesque? Eastwoodalian? I eventually gave up and used "-wooden." Works well enough for "wood," after all.


nearly 70 degrees at year's end
(with mini-rant)

While half the country has received a more-than-ample snow dump, northern Virginia remains untouched by the whiteness. It's 68 degrees right now (20 Celsius, for you more metrically-minded folks), which is nuts for December 28. Somewhere out there, a champion of man-made global warming is ignoring the freeze in half the country to crow about how climate change has heated my hometown up well above what is normal for this time of year.

That's too bad: I think what's beginning to emerge from the climate discussion (to the extent that there is a discussion) is that there are no clear, easy answers. It's as simplistic to assume that humanity is the sole cause of any warming trend as it is to claim that humanity has nothing to do with any changes. It's also simplistic to assume that a warming trend in some areas means a warming trend in all areas, a point made by scientist demigod Freeman Dyson (thanks, Malcolm). Given our inability to predict weather even beyond a 36-hour forecast, it seems rather hubristic to think we already know everything we need to know about what causes lead to what long-term effects in specific weather and general climate.


the Marmot's Buddhist offering

The Marmot-- a.k.a. Robert Koehler, a fellow G-town grad and king of the Koreablogosphere-- is hosting an interesting post by R. Elgin about the Buddhist temple Kilsang-sa which, Elgin notes, takes a more modern approach to temple-building.

If you're not familiar with The Marmot's Hole, a blog that started off as an individual effort by Koehler but which has, in recent years, evolved into a group blog, go visit. The quality of the content is fairly consistent from writer to writer, but the quality of the writing can sometimes vary, so caveat lector. The comments threads long ago became too obnoxious for me to visit regularly, but I do dip into them on occasion. You can find good intelligent commentary in there, but you do have to sift through a lot of crap to find the corn nuggets. Stick to the posts themselves, and you're on firmer ground.