So there’s this guy. He lives way up above us. He has a white beard. We call him Father. He watches you all the time, and eventually, as the world grows cold and dark, he rewards those who have been good and punishes those who have been bad.
Just kidding! That whole Santa Claus thing is a myth! It’s just a story we tell kids to trick them into behaving and to have a little fun. We totally lied to you! The rewards came from us the whole time.
There’s this other guy who lives above us and has a white beard, and we call him Father, and he watches you all the time, and eventually, as darkness closes in upon you, he will judge you. If you’ve been good, he will give you an eternal reward. If you’ve been bad, he will give you an eternal punishment. We have no evidence — unlike the other guy, you can’t even see this guy at the mall — but you must believe us this time. It’s super, super important and totally not a trick to get you to behave!
If you have ever been to a store in December in the United States (or a great many other countries), you have heard what I think of as the Retail Christmas Soundtrack: Last Christmas, All I Want for Christmas Is You, et. al. It’s mostly terrible. Even that John Lennon Christmas song is kind of terrible. Since I didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, none of this stuff evokes childhood memories of gifts and treats. It just reminds me of sweating through my jacket in a long line in a dingy Duane-Reade or in the overcrowded, fluorescent-lit bowels of some now-defunct retail chain like Woolworth’s or Lechters.
It turns out there’s actually a lot of good Christmas music out there if you look a little, everything from jazz to soul to funk to folk to blues to reggae, some of it genuinely moving, some of it just fun. I’ve included stuff I think is actually worth listening to even if Christmas isn’t really your bag.
There’s the Nutcracker Suite, which is scientifically proven to be the best Christmas music there is. There’s a lot of jazz, like Oscar Peterson’s Christmas album and Ella Fitzgerald’s, which are good because everything Oscar or Ella ever did was good. There’s a lot of blues and a lot of soul, including James Brown’s weirdly compelling Christmas music. There’s that new John Legend album, which I like even though I don’t really like John Legend or Christmas music. There’s Chuck Berry. There’s Fiona Apple singing Frosty the Snowman. There is no Elvis, no Phil Spector, no Johnny Cash.
Alas, the playlist doesn’t include Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, which is my favorite Christmas album. It has disappeared from Google Play Music, but can be found on YouTube. Sugar Rum Cherry, in particular, is amazing — Duke’s sexy, slinky take on the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Anyway, here’s my little gift to those who have a Google Play Music subscription. Enjoy!
A few weeks ago, I was struck with a bout of pneumonia. After several days of fever and burning lungs that antibiotics couldn’t tackle, my girlfriend took me to the Emergency Room at Gangnam Severance Hospital on a Saturday night. They sent me home with a bag of drugs.
But by Sunday noon the fever was back up to 103.2 F (39.5 C). This time my girlfriend couldn’t come to me, but she called an ambulance, and back to the ER I went. I spent the next 28 hours there, and didn’t leave the hospital until the following Sunday. I spent another week at home recovering.
I’ve wanted to write something about what I went through, but I’m finding it difficult. Sickness, like dreams, is mostly interesting to the person experiencing it. Unpleasant as it was, it was nothing more than a few days in the hospital, a few days of feeling rotten and then less rotten. That it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through is maybe evidence of how lucky I’ve been in life. It was horrible, but I’m not sure it was interestingly horrible.
I’m also tired of thinking about it. I want to be well again, and mostly I am, though my lungs are still recovering. Maybe later, when this is fully behind me, I’ll be able to turn my hospitalization into amusing anecdotes. For now, it’s enough to say that it happened and that I’m OK again. And if you’re looking for things to do in Seoul, I don’t recommend pneumonia.
I tend to write about things in Korea that I like, or at least find interesting. It’s a fascinating place, and I’m in love with it.
But it does have its downsides. And this terrifying image of a face in a gas mask represents one of the worst: Korea’s fine dust.
Mise mise, named after the fine dust (mise meonji), is Korea’s most popular app for tracking air quality, and it says the fine dust is up to 171 micrograms per cubic meter, the ultra-fine dust up to 115. This is not good, not good at all. The air today was thick and visible, a fine gray-white murk, like breathing the Gowanus Canal. It wasn’t pleasant to be out in it. My throat’s been sore all day. When I stepped outside, I wore a face mask, and not one of those cute fabric fashion ones either, but something rated for keeping out fine dust. This is no joke.
I keep hoping this will get better as if by magic, but it probably won’t. Korea’s doing some things to mitigate the dust, but a lot of it comes over from China, and I think we’re a long way from solving this problem. It’s worst in the spring, but it’s not spring now, and the air is terrible, and the scary gas mask face.
This is what it’s like to be black in America, isn’t it? What it has always been like, at least since it stopped being worse. What it was like after Charleston, or after the church bombings during the civil rights movement. Or after the murders in Jeffersontown, which we mustn’t overlook. Except African-Americans live in the country that perpetrated their Holocaust, a country where denial of that Holocaust is still mainstream.
Trump’s response that it would have been better had there been an armed guard is, yes, absurd in the light of the four police officers who were wounded. But the madness of this idea goes so much deeper. Should any group that gathers to pray also arm itself? Who will pay for the armed guards, and what should happen to religious gatherings too poor to afford armed guards? Are minorities to blame if they don’t arm themselves against racist violence? Is the government so weak and inept that minorities must arm themselves for a race war? Would Trump and his supporters really feel better if mosques started stockpiling weapons?
Once again, an AR-15 is the tool of a terrorist massacre in America. Colt makes them. No one is talking about Colt. Colt is not a dirty word, but it should be. Colt should be held accountable. Its leaders and employees should be made uncomfortable all the time everywhere. It should be untenable for them to continue to do what they do.
The reason we can do nothing about Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment (hopefully in that order) of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is the reason we can do nothing about mass murders committed with American guns. Weapons sales always come first.
I’m writing at a difficult moment. Today I woke up to the news that eleven Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh. I want to share this nice, happy thing in my life here in Korea because there is beauty and life in the world and I am committed to enjoying it. My first visit to Korea came less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, and many people asked me whether I still planned to come here and teach English for a year. My answer now was my answer then: as much as possible, I don’t ever want to let terrorists decide for me what to do or how to live.
Busloads of apples
Apple farmers line the streets, old ladies with paring knives handing out samples, crates of their wares spread out for sale. Young men with batons direct traffic into special designated parking areas, while bus after bus rumbles in, belching out Korean tour groups led by tinny amplified voices. There’s a stage set up and rows of white plastic chairs, but at noon the Yeongju Apple Festival is still not quite underway.
There are a lot of ways to know you love a person, but one way is when she looks at the Apple Festival, looks at you, and suggests you get out quickly and go somewhere else.
We’d come to Yeongju and Buseoksa Temple for the autumn leaves. We drove down on a Friday afternoon of spattering rain and dropping temperatures, crossing the Sobaeksan range in deep fog, but when we arrived at Road to Buseoksa Pension, the stars had come out. We were the only customers at a nearby restaurant, eating a dinner of fish and tofu while the owners and their friends grilled off-the-menu samgyeopsal in the other room.
In the morning we headed up to the temple, which boasts Shilla stone monuments and statuary, a Goryeo wooden building that’s among the oldest still standing in Korea, and spectacular views. It was interesting to see the unusual architecture of the Goryeo main temple hall, which has support structures that are related to, but different from, the typical Joseon Dynasty style you see nearly everywhere in Korea. Because there was so much destruction during the Imjin War in the late 16th century, examples of earlier architecture are rare.
We were lucky to get to the temple early. By the time we were leaving, around lunchtime, the busloads of tourists had turned this quiet autumnal refuge into a circus, or really just a low-grade Korean amusement park without any rides. It was time to get away.
Not far away, near Punggi, across from the Sosu Seoweon (Confucian academy), we saw a sign for a restaurant and decided to pull in. It was styled like an old hanok, and we were shown to a private room.
As we were entering, I saw — and smelled — a bubbling dish being brought to the next room over, a heady, rich brew of earthy mushrooms. “Whatever that is,” I said, “we’re ordering that.”
We had lucked into the last available seating at Dageum (다금), an apparently famous restaurant about which I can find nothing online. Not long after we arrived, two buses showed up, but with our private room, we hardly noticed the crowds. Each dish is handmade, and the man who runs the place goes out into the mountains to gather the wild ingredients. In the jangol, you could taste and savor each different type of mushroom: this one purple and astringent, that one almost like kelp, another woody and chewy. We had the jangol plus a wild mushroom pancake, plus a bunch of side dishes, all for 40,000 won.
We rounded out the day with a visit to Sosu Seowon, Korea’s oldest Confucian academy. Unlike Buddhism, Confucianism is no longer an active faith, and these places, which were always austere, are now a bit sad too. But the autumn leaves were just as beautiful there, and you could feel some sense of what it must have been like for the scholars to observe the passing of the seasons in this beautiful place dedicated to learning and practicing the virtuous life.
And then we drove home, back to Seoul, through the traffic and the city lights and up into an apartment tower, where we ordered in Chinese food.
I haven’t yet got much to say about what happened, but I felt the need to respond to hate with tzedakah (charity). There’s little else I can do right now. In multiples of chai, I donated to these organizations:
HIAS “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” This is the organization whose mission of kindness drove the murderer to his vicious act. Anyone who knows our history as a people understands that we have been refugees, time and again. As the Torah says:
And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
ADL The Anti-Defamation League continues to fight anti-Semitism in America and around the world.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee The president has openly encouraged political violence, and his party has done nothing to stop him. The murders in Pittsburgh and the mailing of bombs to prominent democrats, including one to George Soros, a favorite target of anti-Semitic conspiracists, are of a piece. America’s anti-racist majority needs the political power the vulnerable instead of inciting violence against them.
Edit (October 29, 2018)
As we learn more, I found out there were two other congregations praying at the synagogue at the time of the attack. I’ve donated to both.
My first Facebook status update, from 2007, was “Josh is going to the Waldorf-Astoria to work on the Foreign Minister’s speech.” Over the next few days, I let people know that I was “tired,” “hungry,” “mildly nervous,” “sorry the 49ers got slaughtered,” and “going swing dancing today.”
That third-person lead-in — remember? — prompted us to write about what was happening to ourselves in the present. This led to a kind of inane self-regard that was easy to make fun of, but it also made Facebook different from a blog, or from Twitter. It was a place to say what you were doing or feeling, not what you were thinking. In November 2008, I made not one political post.
Through all the changes — the end of the lead-in prompt, parents joining, brands joining, Farmville, Upworthy — what stayed interesting was seeing what people we knew, or used to know, were up to in their ordinary lives.
But as Facebook expanded, we became more cautious in what we posted. Silly nattering became vanity and humblebragging. Our online selves became something to curate. On the new Internet, everyone knows if you’re a dog.
More and more, then, we had to show that we weren’t dogs. We had to like and reblog the right things. Facebook became a place to perform our righteous selves. Especially after the election, we pivoted from sharing what we ate or where we went this weekend to sharing what we were outraged about and what we thought you should also be outraged about.
Many of my Facebook friends are legitimately outraged about legitimately outrageous things, but that’s not really a fun place to hang out. Living abroad, I’d hoped to use Facebook to stay in touch with friends back home, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I know a lot about what different people are upset about — trans issues, Democrats who don’t support unions, family separations at the border, guns in schools, Russia’s occupation of Eastern Ukraine, anti-vaxxers — but not what they ate for breakfast and did on the weekend, which is much more interesting.
The great unfollowing
I’m a profligate Facebook friender, but I make up for it by being a pretty ruthless unfollower.
I started years ago, unfollowing anyone who wasn’t an actual person. I’ve unfollowed all the Vietnamese people I friended when I gave lectures in Saigon and Hanoi, and most of the other people I met on my travels. I’ve unfollowed people I’ll never see again: long-gone friends, minor high school acquaintances, ex-colleagues, Landmark contacts. My feed is now down to family, close friends, local friends, news about Korea, and a few people whose posts I find interesting.
This has made my news feed both more interesting and a lot shorter — short enough, by now, that it doesn’t suck me in the way it used to, or at least it shouldn’t. I noticed recently that Facebook was still, out of habit, my go-to activity in moments of boredom, even though it offers less and less.
So I’m consciously trying to change that. I used to make sure never to leave the house without a book or The New Yorker, two if I was getting towards the back of the first one. I have all that on my phone, and I’m training myself to go there first. Facebook can wait.
Once a year, Orthodox Jews take the Torahs out of the case and dance around with them drunkenly. It’s the raucous, joyous holiday of Simchas Torah, which celebrates the end and beginning of the annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses. You finish, you start over again. Yay!
This isn’t our typical way of learning in Western culture. We tend to learn sequentially, hierarchically: grade by grade, level by level. Working biologists aren’t expected to go back through their high school bio textbooks, and few of us reread the novels we read then, even though they were written for adults and not for the children we were at the time. (The Old Man and the Sea doesn’t hold up that well, but The Great Gatsby makes a lot more sense, and Holden Caufield’s prep school whinging is easier to take when you’re not reading it in a shitty public school.)
In language learning too, there are levels and hierarchies. By rights, my Korean is advanced intermediate or thereabouts. I’m certainly well past the beginner level, able to have real conversations with complicated grammar and vocabulary.
Jews read and reread the Torah not because it’s new, or because they forgot what happens. (Spoiler alert: The Jews win and Moses dies.) We study because each time we can go deeper, or find something new that we’d overlooked the last time.
Language study is like that too. Have you ever gone back through an old chapter of one of your language textbooks, something you’re now way past? You’ll find that once knotty and intractable passages are now easy to understand. And you’ll also find vocabulary and grammar you’d forgotten, or that you couldn’t get then but can now.
With that in mind, I’m rereading my Korean language textbooks from the beginning. It’s not that I’ll finally learn how to say hello or what’s for breakfast. But already, even in the first chapter, I’m bumped into a few words I’d long forgotten, a few concepts that had slipped my mind.
Learning isn’t always about moving forward. Sometimes you get more by going back over the same ground and seeing what you missed the first time.
It feels good to engage with new music. Last week I saw the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma perform here in Seoul, and I was especially moved by Kojiro Umezaki’s …seasons continue as if none of this had ever happened… and by Wu Tong’s merging of a Chinese folk song, sung and played on the sheng, with Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude. Each piece combines the old and traditional with the modern, but in completely different ways: Umezaki through an ingenious and heartbreaking electronic deconstruction of the sound of the shakuhachi, and Ma and Wu through the juxtaposition of two older pieces, performed in fairly mainstream ways, to create a postmodern overlap.
As the weather turns cooler, it’s nice to know I’ve got a body of listening ahead of me, something to enjoy during the winter months when holing up at home is more appealing than venturing out.