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.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

K-Drama: Anatomy of a Crisis

K-drama revels in peeling the layers of a crisis so that we can see the individual moving through the morass of uncertainty. Pharmacist Yu Ji-ho, the hero of One Spring Night (봄밤), is a single father, a scandalous fact in South Korea. Yu Ji-ho was managing his situation by suppressing his feelings -- a solution that can't last. The show carefully watches as he moves to the moment of falling apart, graciously then letting us see his repair. In this careful study, we can see the "anatomy of a crisis": the initial conditions, usually set before the show starts, which create the uneasy resolution; the challenge; and the recreation of the self. Shows partition the parts differently, but successful shows take us on this journey and offer some ideas about the management of each part.  

The initial conditions are set by some trauma. In One Spring Night, the trauma is the abandonment of Yu Ji-ho and his son by the child's mother. This places Yu Ji-ho in the position of social outcast, though he is diligent, even conformist, and did nothing to merit such judgement. He uses his will to control his emotions and manage the day-to-day slights and arrows of this. He shows the fortitude of the bear who, in order to become a person, spent 100 days in a cave eating mugwort and garlic. The bear became a person and the mother of Korea. 

The challenge to Yu Ji-ho's fortitude comes as he falls in love with Lee Jeong-in. She loves him and fights against the stigma that surrounds him -- a version of the Rapunzel story we met in Rookie Historian. As Lee Jeong-in tears the barriers down, Yu Ji-ho becomes more and more exposed. The growing anxiety leads to the falling apart of the fortress of fortitude and the deep hurts and insecurities are finally spoken. 

The recreation of the self is accomplished in the society of loving people, first and foremost Lee Jeong-in, but also her family, his family, his friends and his co-workers. While he has been viewed harshly, his long endurance and sweet personality triumph. That he enters this new world without bitterness is remarkable: he states a number of times that he has refused to be angry or resentful about his situation. In the end, everyone is crying with joy that Yu Ji-ho, his son Eun-u, and Lee Jeong-in can become the family they long to be. 

Principles -- like the refusal of resentment -- drive the person's path through the uncertainty. We have no guarantee that things "will work out." We are offered the security of character, tested by fire. One of the assumptions of character, which has no real US equivalent, is what I call "oori consciousness," the existence of a "we" that is larger than the self. Yu Ji-ho has been pushed out of oori by his circumstances, but he never gives up on oori. His loving stance makes it possible for his ferocious girlfriend to bring him back in and it's that deep feeling of reconnection that makes everyone weep -- like snapping wooden train cars together. One can almost hear the "pop." 

In this regard I note that the pharmacy at which Yu Ji-ho works is called "Oori Pharmacy." It is translated as "Woori Pharmacy," though to English-speakers who don't understand oori, it's probably no big deal. 

In the US -- lacking "oori consciousness" -- we limp through crisis and have less access to the spiritual healing of being embraced by the collective. I have long thought that our society is birthing a new consciousness, though I lacked the word for it. In that revolution in our thinking lies the hope of salvation in this place and time.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

K-Drama: One day at a time, forever

I just finished re-watching The King: Eternal Monarch (TKEM). One has to pause to say that Lee Min-ho and Kim Go-eun are mesmerizing as individuals and as a powerful partnership. OK, that out of the way, what I asked myself was, "Given that K-drama is all metaphor, what was this really about?" There are deep threads throughout, helping us think about fate and destiny, both about the paths our lives take. I am giving a talk as a "model scholar," which has caused me think about my own life and work. Influenced by TKEM, I would have to acknowledge how overdetermined my work has been by the set of family, community and world issues into which I was born. 

Yet the path is also determined by the steps we take, and in that regard, we can choose to accept our destiny -- we can work with circumstance. In TKEM, the lovers can only have a long-distance relationship. They commit to this, and adopt the strategy that they will live one day at a time, forever.  They fill their time together with small dreams and adventures, so that every day is what it can be. They part without dramatics. Michael Lally, faced with a difficult situation, will always suggest, "Don't make a big deal about it." This is useful because it helps the brain move on from the intense experience. 

We are in a situation that has some of that tension. A note from Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster puts our larger situation in context:

Less than a decade ago there was a virulent debate on the left on the question of “catastrophism.” A number of influential socialist thinkers, including friends of ours, charged Monthly Review with having exaggerated the dangers to humanity arising from the accelerating planetary ecological crisis induced by capitalism. Fast-forward a few years to the present, in which we are increasingly confronted in our daily lives with a chain of catastrophes, including record heat waves, persistent droughts, out-of-control wildfires, megastorms, unprecedented floods, torrential rainfall, glacier melts, and sea level rise, combining in myriads of ways to threaten every region and ecosystem on earth—with the prospect that under present conditions this will only get worse. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has alerted the world to the dangers of the spread of zoonotic diseases across the globe, resulting from the economic destruction of critical ecosystems and the interface of this with agribusiness monocultures and global commodity chains.

We are in a long-distance relationship with peace and tranquility. So the question becomes, "What's there to be GLAD about?" It's a good question, and so thoughtful of TKEM to be so concrete about finding joy in circumstances that might defeat one.  More to follow on this question!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

K-drama: Hong Du-sik and the crack in everything

I am watching Hometown Cha Cha Cha whose "new episodes every week!" have kept me on the edge of my seat for some weeks now.  When we first meet our hero, Hong Du-sik, he comes across as arrogant, competent and devoted to the residents of his small seaside town.  We quickly learn that he has PTSD, but the source of his night terrors is a closely-guarded secret.  It's possible that Grandmother Gam-ri knows, but no one else. The village respects his privacy -- per Robert Frost, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." But as the heroine arrives and falls in love with him, we see that he is profoundly stuck.  He is deeply ashamed of the events that precipitated the PTSD and so vacillates between pulling her close and pushing her away.  He can't help but love her and she can't help but think he should tell her what's up.  His defense is crumbling quickly, and then people arrive who know the story.  In a very public attack, his shame is exposed.  

Happily, we're coming to the end of the new-episodes-every-week.  A great thing about K-Drama as an art form is that stories end.  It is often referred to as soap opera and a common question when one googles a K-Drama is, "Will there be a second season?"  Netflix creates this problem by labeling the shows "Season 1." But as far as I can tell, the situation story has been finished, and it's on to the next.  It's a very satisfying form, which avoids the neurotic repetition compulsion so beloved in American TV.  God forbid anybody work through their issues and get on with their lives!  K-Drama is just profoundly interesting because it focuses on the crack in the brittle defenses that have worked for a while, but are insufficient for getting through the crisis at hand, whatever that is.  As Leonard Cohen wrote, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." So we must be joyous to see our hero disintegrate, held as he is by a loving girlfriend and devoted community.  We have great hopes that he will make it to the other side, with a new lease on life, the PTSD behind him.  

This happened to me. My own version of the patched-over crack was the very brittle resolution of the trauma of changing schools when I was 7 years old. It never worked very well, but fell apart with a one-two-three punch of illness, divorce, and displacement from my beloved office.  I was lucky to have the care of a community that reminded me that I was loved, not because -- to borrow from Leonard Cohen -- I had a "perfect offering," but rather because I was. They were not afraid of the crack and welcomed the light that shone through. While Du-sik (lucky guy!) is going to be a new man in two episodes, it took me a couple of years to get through that. Those years were not so fun -- on one of the worst days, I totaled my car driving through a stop sign. Metaphors abound. 

What made my situation so brittle was the lack of faith in the world -- I thought I had to keep going by drawing on my unaided will. That was not enough to overcome my fears. What would be enough? I needed a deeper source of strength -- I had to find my faith -- as one friend explained to me, "Gratitude is the way forward from trauma." That strikes me as totally paradoxical and totally true. On the other side of the upheaval and re-working was that thing that had eluded me since I was 7: a sense of belonging -- belonging to a family, a house, a job, a congregation, a neighborhood, a troubled world. 

It's the troubled world that can learn from Hong Du-sik's crash. We can't keep the secrets or hide our shame. We are loved by God and other people -- and even the elephants, my friend Dominic Moulden assures me. As another K-Drama put it, "It's OK not to be OK." We can face the reckoning that has arrived.