Saturday, November 27, 2021

Omnicron (imagine spooky music) and gratitude

The World Health Organization has declared another variant of the Covid virus that is "of interest" and it has been given the name Omnicron. Stocks tumbled, markets shook, countries began to block borders in anticipation of another round of death and upheaval. As Rob Wallace pointed out, he told us so. It is impossible to leave the world unvaccinated and then to be SHOCKED (cue the handkerchief) when variants show up.  

But what does anticipation of Omnicron have to do with gratitude? Some people say, "I'm for [something terrible] because [something good]," which leads to the logical question, maybe we just misjudged the first event or leapt to a conclusion or something like that. In fact, why make judgements? I have judged exercise as a bad thing and how did that work out? Not well -- now I have to exercise AND improve my terrible attitude. My doctors are giving me that "very-sorry-to-say-prognosis-not-good-because-you're-a-jerk" look. If you can't judge exercise, what's the point of judging anything? 

But even if we don't JUDGE Omnicron, that doesn't get us to gratitude. No it doesn't, except that Reverend James Forbes reminded me today of the man who'd been sick for so long and to whom he said, "Pick up your bed and follow me." And the sick man got out of bed and followed Jesus.  Now, as they say, if that don't beat the Dutch. 

Last night, which was Friday night, my family gathered for Thanksgiving. It was a day late because one of us had a Covid exposure and we had to wait for the right time to do the tests. Everyone was flexible, something we learned in Covid. The cooks were relaxed and had a day of rest before the cooking marathon started. We didn't sweat the small stuff, like running out of cinnamon or not having a lemon -- a relaxation of rigidity we learned in Covid.  Then point is -- it's all mixed together -- the tragedies of Covid and the plethora of useful experiences are a package -- a LIFE package, we might say. The yin in the yang and yang in the yin, to note a fundamental truth about how it works, big picture. 

I'm quite sure Omnicron arrived because we didn't listen to Rob, but we can also be grateful that Rob is reading the tea leaves as fast as he can and telling us the future -- we could listen and vaccinate the world. Learning is slow: maybe we needed this epic failure to learn to listen to Rob?

In the meantime, poet Michael Lally loves to quote his mentor who said, "Michael, if you get a check, say 'thank you, God.' And if you get a bill say 'thank you, God.'" Don't waste time judging: you might miss the big picture. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

K-drama: Cream Rises

In my twenties I was obsessed with The Whole Earth Catalog. I studied its pages and imagined doing all the crafts and activities laid out on the pages. I really enjoyed the inset boxes labeled "Cream Rises." These underscored items that were special in one way or another. As milk that had not been homogenized was something we had from time to time, cream rising was a vivid image for me. 

I recently re-watched Romance is a Bonus Book, a K-drama that tackles discrimination against mothers in the workplace. It is built around the transformation of Cha Eun-ho and Kang Dan-i's lifelong friendship into romance. There is one scene that rises in my memory, like cream rises from milk, to borrow from Stewart Brand: Cha Eun-ho's celebration scene.   

Dan-i, struggling to get back into the force after raising a child, hides her qualifications to get a job at the publishing house co-founded by Eun-ho. When her omission is discovered, she is forced out against Eun-ho's strenuous opposition, and after she anonymously enters a contest for new publishing ideas. On the day that the contest winner is to be revealed, Eun-ho sits at the computer to link the winning entry to the entrant's name. He reads it, abruptly stands up, says, "I'm going to get some coffee," and walks out of the room, leaving his colleagues to learn the news for themselves.  

Eun-ho goes to the office kitchen, puts a pod of coffee in the coffee maker, and begins to take in the delightful news that "oori Dan-i" has triumphed in this way. He shakes his head in disbelief, he grins, he does her favorite power pose, and finally just lays his head down on his arms in delight at the magical affirmation that has been offered -- balm to the suffering of the woman he loves. 

I think Eun-ho's savoring of Dan-i's triumph is key to the whole situation story.  It is, indeed, a story of "cream rising," as Dan-i over and over again shows her skills and commitment. Yet the social opposition because she is re-entering the workforce nearly kills her. The story, in giving her an opening, asks the Korean futurist question, "What if we give people a chance?" The answer is clearly magical. It reminds me of a review in the Times of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which asks the Afrofuturist question, "What if we hadn't destroyed Seneca Village, the black community leveled to make Central Park?" 

If we don't destroy people -- if we love them and give them a chance -- we will blossom and have joy unimaginable, just as Cha Eun-ho has in Dan-i's affirmation. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

K-Drama: Word Play

This article made me wish I were a journalist, covering the Hallyu beat. Wow, to get to ask directors, writers and producers what they were thinking -- that would be a dream come true. I would want to do more than scratch the surface on such tantalizing tidbits as this:

“When we made ‘Mr. Sunshine,’ ‘Crash Landing on You’ and ‘Sweet Home,’ we didn’t have a global reaction in mind,” said Mr. Jang, who worked as co-producer or co-director on all three hit Korean Netflix shows. “We just tried to make them as interesting and meaningful as possible..." (emphasis added)

What did Mr. Jang mean by "meaningful"? That is what I would have asked. In the meantime, I'm enchanted by meanings that are wrapped up in these shows and eager to understand them. Left to my own devices -- and the subtitles -- I'm sometimes at a loss, as with a strange scene in Hometown Cha Cha Cha. The heroine's father said something to the hero, Hong Du-sik, which caused him to back away and walk off in shock. The subtitles said, "It's not funny to me, you bastard." But the father is smiling and his wife says to him, "You like him, don't you?" 

Happily, Professor Kyla Park, who is my Korean teacher, explained that what the father said was a word that could be translated "you punk" or "my little baby," something that is said to children. 

Reconstructed, the whole exchange is: 

Father (to Hong Du-sik): Why do you speak to me informally?

Hong Du-sik: It's my philosophy, I think it's friendly.

Father: Not to me, "my little baby." 

Thus, the father, who had been shocked by Hong Du-sik's informality since first encountering him, trumps Hong Du-sik's friendliness, and at the same time, makes it clear that Hong Du-sik may date his daughter. Hence, the dad can drive off with a big grin on his face and his wife's observation, "You like him, don't you?"

I could be wrong about how the scene plays. I do think it introduces a small piece of meaning that shows up over and over in K-Drama: the joy of turning the tables. Ri Jeong-hyeok turns the tables on Yoon Se-ri (more than once in Crash Landing on You), Yu Ji-ho turns the tables on Lee Jeong-in (One Spring Night), etc. I love these small moments. I find myself chuckling over them, and appreciating the balance they offer to the world. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

K-Drama: What Jae-in Learned

One Spring Night, like much of K-Drama, has many layers. One of the intriguing small stories is that of Lee Jae-in, the younger sister of the show's heroine. In the finale, Jae-in sits by the river with her boyfriend, Park Young-jae. He asks what she is thinking about, and she replies she's thinking about the reason for her return to Korea. He says, "You said you didn't want to study." She answers, "I learned a lesson." He is interested, but she simply offers to clink beer cans with him and looks at him with admiration. 

The central reason for her return was that she was stalking a man in France. As that was a crime, she returned home to escape prosecution. On her return, she was plunged into the dramas of her older sisters who were being abused by men who wouldn't leave them alone. The parallels to her own transgressions are profound. She had chased Young-jae at the beginning, seemingly repeating the kind of behavior that had gotten her in trouble in France. This seemed to have sorted itself out as Young-jae realized his own feelings for her, and Jae-in became calmer. It is clear that they share a kind of perspicacity for the doings of those around them. It is a new basis for a relationship, not the obsession that had driven Jae-in before. It is also clear that Young-jae is not the heavy-handed patriarch Jae-in had experienced in her father. Young-jae is kind, loyal, and accepting of others, all qualities Jae-in finds honorable. 

I think what Jae-in learned was that the freedom she was longing for was not to be found by abusing others. She couldn't be liberated from the patriarchy by replicating its bad behavior. Rather she needed to find the people who offered breathing room so that she could be herself. In K-Drama, everything is put to use. The quiet scene by the river is perhaps the metaphor that Jae-in has found a man who sees and respects her path and her right to breathe. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

K-Drama: Taking on the Patriarchy

The K-Drama, One Spring Night, takes on the patriarchy, triggered by something nearly incomprehensible to me: a taboo against a single father. As we all know the trope in Western movies of sympathy for single dads -- Hugh Grant in About a Boy for starters -- the idea that this would lead to profound social ostracism is hard to conceptualize from my life experience. A little bit like the distance I now feel about Lydia Bennett's elopement with the infamous Mr. Wickham, though I did understand it as a teenager in the time before the sexual revolution.

OK, so it's hard to grasp, but I can accept a premise. A woman meets this man and falls for him and his son, as anyone would -- they are that delightful. She decides to face the censure and marry them. First she has to break-up with her boyfriend -- no biggie, right? But there again the story veers into territory that is way outside of my experience. The boyfriend says, "You can't make that decision. I have to save you from the error of your ways." He recruits his father and her father to help him, carrying on for many episodes about setting the wedding date. 

At this point, the seven key women in the K-Drama begin to show up for our girl, to help her resist the demands of the patriarchy. It is complicated, because the male oppressors are also the dads, boyfriends, friends, and at least one -- the ex-boyfriend's dad -- is an interesting character. There is also a lot of support from other men who, like the love interest, are younger and not inside the power structure. 

While the outcome is never seriously in doubt -- there is too much joy in the relationship -- breaking through the patriarchy is not trivial. South Korea emerged into capitalism very recently, so the old feudal Confucian systems of fealty has a greater hold there than in other places. Our heroine is fighting against cobwebs of the past. Her younger sister, who has studied in Paris, is the untrammeled voice of the new: defend your true feelings, she says, thus echoing Hamlet. The chaos of capitalism cannot be contained in the trappings of the old system. Just as I lost track of Lydia Bennett as the culture shifted, people will lose track of the old ideas. "Young people have it so easy these days," old-timers will say, not even really understanding how the old rules evaporated. And these days, people start to be old-timers at about 25 when they don't understand the technology anymore. 

It is important to consider here the "why" -- why is it so terrible for a man to be raising a child? I think that in itself is an act that takes on the patriarchy, because childrearing is a woman's role. And if we reject gender-defined roles, what next? You know -- people will reject gender, a fear that is inflaming the rightwing in the US. There was a great photo in The New York Times this morning of a teen band that is on the verge of making it big.  The caption said, "One narrative has characterized the band as 'just a group of five white guys,' [band member] Bassin said, 'I'm not white and Gus isn't a guy.'"

Members of the band, Geese, from left: Max Bassin, Gus Green, Dominic DiGesu, Foster Hudson and Cameron White. Photo by OK McCausland for the Times.

This train of thought clicked with a piece from the American Medical Association about the experience of abuse among medical students in the US, which was associated with burn-out and regret for the career choice. Medicine, when I was in school, was a very "Polite White" affair, run by white men in shiny loafers. A few were openly racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Most stuck by the genteel work-arounds. I protested not being selected for the medical honor society, AOA, even though I was awarded the Franklin C. McLean Award as top minority medical student in the US. The answer was that I didn't get honors in medicine, and it was medical school, or had I not understood that? I did and do understand what he was saying: If you're Black, get back.

The great joy of One Spring Night is in the creation of a new family, in which the child is the first to say, "We're family." More power to them all for taking on the patriarchy!

Wednesday, October 27, 2021


My family recently lost a friend, Juan Rosales, whose brilliance and deep love had enriched our lives profoundly. All the emotions you might expect have been kicked up by this, from the most "respectable" (reading C.S. Lewis on grief) to the least "respectable" (you know, the competition for "most bereaved" that sometimes happens in families). My approach in this moment is to practice what I call "two-sides of the coin," feeling the loss but trying to pair it with the joy. 

This is a practice I stumbled on in the aftermath of my nephew Avery's death from leukemia. That night, my niece Jaden wrote on a blackboard, "Avery met Leo!" meaning Leonardo DiCaprio. I realized we all had that choice -- to remember the incredible joy of Avery's life, or to pine for the loss, or maybe to feel both, like knowing a coin has heads and tails. 

Jaden said recently that whenever she thinks about Avery's good fortune, it makes her smile. Whenever I envision what she wrote on that board, I smile -- it was incredible that it happened and so right with the kind of luck Avery had. Of course, the huge luck was part of the loss and weighed the grief with all the "would haves..." But the luck was also part of the joy, as he strode through life accomplishing so much!

Juan was the same. I thought of him on the Supreme Court -- of course, the Supreme Court of a slightly more evolved USA -- and I still love to imagine how much fun those hearings would have been with Justice Juan on the bench! It makes me smile, even though it didn't really happen. I could regret that we didn't get to see that -- and of course I do -- but the sheer memory that I knew someone so gifted makes me laugh with glee. 

So I think, if I were going to write a book on the subject, I would write a book on grief::joy, and put them together. This is what I wish I'd known at 20 when my father died, sundering my world and setting me adrift for ten very long years: that one day I would have such joy that we had the complicated relationship that we had, that it would be the great treasure of my life. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Talking with Allison Lirish Dean: Oori Consciousness Meets Main Street

Allison Lirish Dean has a podcast series called "Ear to the Pavement," organized in cooperation with Progressive City.  We talked about my book, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All, in episode #20. Allison talks to lots of people and is an astute observer of the city. She poses questions that I find profound. In the course of our Main Street conversation, we talked about the deep fragmentation in the American scene and the need to find solidarity. In that quest, Main Street plays an important role. Main Street is organized as a crossroads of all of us. It offers the opportunity for us to know one another without being acquainted. 

It is a koan, one might say, that this setting in which strangers pass one another on street has the capacity for us to come together as a nation.  Buddhist teacher, Dr. Marisela Gomez, explained koans as short statements or stories that wake us up because we cannot follow them in our usual linear thinking. The most famous, perhaps, is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I add my Main Street koan to this genre. 

Because Main Streets DO bring us together, they offer us a path to the emerging consciousness in which the importance of the collective takes center stage and we will be able to think our way to sustainability. At the very end of the podcast, I explained to Allison about "oori consciousness," borrowing the Korean word for "WE" to name this emerging way of thinking. As someone raised deep in American individualism, I can't say I understand the sense of WE that I can glimpse in K-Drama. That doesn't mean I can't see that the path forward runs straight thought oori consciousness -- that is, if there is to be a path forward, that's how it has to go.