Monday, October 31, 2022

Sorrow in Seoul

This evening I took my "constitutional" -- my 30 minute walk around the neighborhood -- at around 5 pm, when hordes of kids were out, going from house to house in the rituals of Halloween. I was reminded of my love for a neighbor who gave us little bags of candy. The serenity of a New Jersey early evening, dressed as in your Hogwart's uniform, with a wand in your hand, or strange skeleton features drawn on your face, the leaves crunching, the piles of candy, the neighbors recreating this event from the memories of our own joy at so much sugar! A friend in France, incensed that Halloween was infiltrating their country, berated the commercialism of the holiday. I tried to explain, but she just got madder and madder. "What is good about a holiday on which children are given too much candy?" 

I tried to explain about the satisfaction to the human spirit of this strange festival -- deciding what to be, where to go, how to say "Trick or treat." Halloween is the ultimate city festival, a triumph of the collective imagination and an expression -- as all events are -- of the fears and joys that are on our minds, like the explosion of fake tombstones this year, which must be because we are in collective mourning for more than a million Americans lost to Covid. 

It is against this backdrop of our custom, which has been embraced by Seoulites, and especially this year, after two years without this moment of the human spirit, that the profound tragedy hit: More than 150 dead, and an equal number injured. And thousands more who were there, some of whom will be haunted by their own role in the tragedy: the ones who yelled "Push" and the ones who stepped on others. Like Lady MacBeth, they will be wiping the death off to no avail.  

Korea is a country is with suspicions of mental health treatments -- they are only coming to have and use them. Yet they have other resources. The national government immediately declared a week of mourning and lowered all the flags to half mast, erected public mourning sites, with the traditional white carnations, opened a vast investigation into what happened so that they might prevent it. 

While people might not think of it as a resource, K-drama is surely playing a part in this moment. The show, Just between Lovers/Rain or Shine, is concerned with the torment experienced by people in the aftermath of a building collapse -- not the same dynamics as the crush of a crowd, but nonetheless carefully showing the suffering. To be trauma-informed as a society is not a small matter at a time like this. The tormented souls who scream in their sleep or can't concentrate at work will be understood by their family, co-workers and society. People may not know the way out of pain, but they will know that there is pain. 

This is fundamental because it prevents all the harms of secondary traumatization when people are told that their pain is not real or not important. I don't think that Korean society will fall into that trap, because they have been so clearly and consistently shown the harms of trauma through their nightly television programs. 

But in walking my neighborhood -- which is not a mile from where I grew up -- what was on my mind tonight were all the Halloweens of my childhood when I roamed for candy, crunching Snickers bars and fall leaves. These events that happen year after year all live in our bodies. A few weeks ago, seemingly out of the blue, I started to remember how the shaking of the building I was in during the 1989 World Series Earthquake felt. A few days later, Bob Fullilove, who was also there, reminded me that it was the anniversary of that event. And so next year, when Halloween comes, this will be on the minds and in the bodies of Koreans, not with the joy that I have, but with horror and grief. 

For the first anniversary after 9/11, our NYC RECOVERS project created a month of observances -- mainly to keep us from freaking out about the single horrible day. We called it "September Wellness" and people created all kinds of events that felt right, from walking labyrinths to free yoga lessons. From that experience we were all convinced that collective recovery held promise for keeping the population well through very difficult times. It is why we proposed it to so many colleagues as we went through the fear and loneliness of Covid.  

Sending love to Korea, that they be healed and that Halloween be healed for them, and that it grow into the kind of day of the human spirit that we have enjoyed for so many decades.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Potter's Wheel

Michael Lally helped me so much with the Main Street project, particularly by having lunch with me on the Main Street in Maplewood, NJ. His comments were always very Zen, words to provoke thought. Zen pushes us in outward spirals that are not "answers" -- as I like to think of answers (2 aspirin for a headache and call me in the morning) -- but openings for a deeper engagement with the world as it is. I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with him, talking about this and that, including my new project on the Tao of K-drama. We talked a lot about the emotions associated with the trip to Korea I'm planning for the spring semester: the long time away from home, the fear of loneliness, the vagueness of my task. As the afternoon wore on, he said, "I have a Zen story for you." 

This is what he told me:
There was a period when Korea was shutoff from Japan. During that time, the Japanese were not able to access a particular kind of Korean pottery that they prized. In the absence of trade with Korea, they tried to duplicate the work. They set up an academy that worked on the problem but could not achieve the special effects that were so admired. When relations were reestablished, the academy sent a delegation to Korea to visit with the makers of this special pottery. They learned that, when the potters there made a wheel, they did not measure, they made it by eyeballing. None of them were even.
My heart leapt up -- to riff on Gerard Manley Hopkins: My heart in hiding Stirred for a story, -- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!  

Sunday, August 28, 2022

K-drama: Is the Tao (of K-drama) inherently subversive?

My mentor, Rod Wallace, always reminds me that Confucius said to strip the peasants' of their wealth every ten years to prevent them for gaining too much power. He compares this to the policies of the US government that had displaced poor populations on average every ten years. We called this process "serial forced displacement." 

Confucius, it is said, met Lao-Tzu, who is credited with being the founder of Taoism. The two reflect, I think, a fairly deep contradiction between religions that authorize empire and those that strive for inclusion and balance. Buddhism was the dominant religion of Korea, but Confucianism pushed it aside, and became the justification for further class and gender oppression. For example, women lost many of their rights, such as the right to own land. Such traditions have lost some, but not all, of their power. The restoration of balance -- in opposition to Confucianism -- calls for new philosophies. Those, in turn, take from the older religious ideas, including shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism.  

K-drama is fascinated by this trope in the culture. Romance is a Bonus Book, for example, examines the profound difficulties of a woman trying to reenter the workforce after staying home with her child. Misaeng deals with the struggles of young man trying to enter the business world without formal education. Itaewon Class deals with a young man who, having spent time in prison, is working to get on his feet and avenge the death of his father. He is highly stigmatized for having been convicted of a crime. He is joined by others who are ostracized by Korean society, including a transwoman and an African man. Their ultimate triumph is built on their ability to include others. 

The concept of the Tao is that everything -- everything in the world -- is included and in relationship. The Itaewon five-some represent the force of inclusion in the face of the exclusions of the larger society. We could interpret the success of the group as a modest shift -- what they want is to become capitalists like the dominant group in society. 

But some ideas are so powerful that they actually shift the whole world. One example is the idea of "inequality." This idea was developed and promulgated by the ruling oligarchy of the southern colonies -- Virginia, South Carolina, etc -- to justify the institution of slavery. It was inserted into every system of the society. Bishop Rev William Barber has described this as the "seven sins of the United States." This "inequality" has been countered by the concept of "equality," with some success. More recently the concepts of diversity and inclusion -- which are the heart of the Tao -- have been put forward. 

What happens when an idea like "inclusion" starts to work in a society in a time like this? As the world is in deep crisis because of our abuse of the ecosystem, we are forced to rethink our relationship to the All, and certainly to the sentient beings. Once we start to ask about sentience -- as an example -- the ground shifts under our feet. All people -- including ex-convicts, orphans, Africans and transwomen and men are sentient -- of course. But whales and dolphins are also sentient, and so are dogs and cats. Trees, it seems, communicate via networks of fungi, so that the whole system of the forest is perhaps a sentient being. There is no stopping an idea whose time has come, and this is the moment in which "inclusion" is moving into that space. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

T-drama: Starring Teo and Taiwan

Sometimes we are watching a show and get to meet a really special person -- in this case, watching A Thousand Goodnights and meeting Nicholas Teo. Teo is a Malaysian Chinese actor and singer who works in Taiwan. He stars in the 2019 Taiwan series, and sang on the soundtrack. The show, despite its many strengths, is confused and confusing. Teo stands at its center, holding it together with his spirit. The character he is playing is able to take in advice on his own unhappy family situation, at the same time as he is able to ferret out the problems in other's lives and help them move on. His gentle persistence in supporting others is heartening. It is in his very special smile and careful gestures that he communicates his faith in relationship. He holds up values of love and independence. He is constantly fending off his mother's desires for his life. At one point, he says very firmly, "Will you stop using emotional blackmail?" He chips away at her impossible position, which liberates them both. In addition to the warmth of his acting, I love the song he sings, Holy Tree

One critic said that the confusion of the show could best be understood by acknowledging that the show is really a Valentine to Taiwan. It uses the wonderful aerial photography of Chi Po-lin, whose 2013 film, Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, won many awards. It addressed the environmental crisis of the world, as well as the beauty of Taiwan. The shots are so breathtaking and charming that I could not help but wish to visit Taiwan.  At a fraught time in the history of the island, it is good to get to know the people and the place in contention.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

K-drama: The king and queen

I just finished rewatching The King: Eternal Monarch. I think I will watch it again, more closely, because I have so many questions and so much I want to look at more closely, but particularly the way the king and his queen carry themselves in the face of terrible danger. For one thing, they have their priorities straight. At one point Jeong Tae-eul says to her lover, Lee Gon, "If you hadn't had my ID card for 25 years, would you still have fallen in love with me? We're skipped so many things." 

They skipped things because they were facing such terrible evil the fight for survival had to take precedence.  At another point she is in the hospital and says to him, "Stay with me. Let's just NOT save the world." 

What makes this wartime story especially poignant is that very few people know and understand what is going on. The signs of catastrophe had hidden from them. Lee Gon has the privilege of seeing what's coming, and it is a terrible weight.

It is fascinating to watch character emerge in the face of all this. Lee Gon takes time, as much as he can, to court Jeong Tae-eul. He is not so involved in the savior role that he forgets to charm her. She is, somewhat jealously, asking if he dressed in his Navy uniform to cook for previous girlfriends. He skirts the question, but does put the uniform on to make breakfast for her. She arrives at the kitchen to see the staff gossiping in the hall. She asks what's going on and they explain. She peeks in, to be greeted by the sight of the king, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bristling with metals, smiling at her as he washes rice. She withdraws to giggle for a moment before entering.

He has to travel through time to see her and at one point he sees her younger self and says they will meet soon. Her older self counsels her younger self to be kind to him. When the meeting occurs, the younger self says to herself, "If you don't do this now, you'll probably regret it." She hugs him, which is completely unexpected but profoundly welcome. He longs for her is the deepest possible way.

Much as this is love story, it is a wartime love story and they each must go to battle. He goes to battle in a very literal sense, riding his white charger, with a sword at his side and grim determination on his face. This is a gorgeous depiction of male valor. 

She goes into battle with a badge and a black belt in Taekwondo and its five tenets of Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, and Indomitable spirit. He asks her about choosing to be a police officer and she says, "Not everyone is brave, so I decided to learn to be brave." There is no hesitation or anxiety in her bearing. She has completely integrated going into the fight into her life. Yet her endearing sweetness makes her an enchanting model of female courage. 

Nalla Kim says that Korean philosophy is concerned with building character. The key to this task, in my view, is that it requires choosing the fight over the comfort. One has to, as they do, leave the hospital room, leave the pleasant romantic interlude, and go fight. In many stories, the conflict is between the cynic and fighter -- think Casablanca. In other stories, it's just hedonism, choosing self over other -- think Alfie. This king and queen are not in any conflict space. As they see their fate, they embrace it, they embrace each other, and they fight like crazy to save the world.  

It is a strange story because they are so clear and so centered in the right

When she asks if he would have loved her without having seen her ID card, he answers, "Yes, I would have understood." He doesn't say what he would have understood, but it's clear to the viewer: she is the true, strong warrior queen to partner meant to with him.

K-drama: Magic

K-drama is full of magic, that which we cannot explain. And this is useful because so much of life is beyond comprehension. the magic takes many forms, from the North Korean shaman who risks imprisonment to commune with spirits on behalf of her clients to the mathematical genius king who travels among universes to stand up to evil.  

Magic might be saving a boy and losing a year of school, which you share with the boy, who later saves your life and showers you with incandescent love.

Magic might be talking to a plant, saying words you love best, and planting the seeds of the third way to a possible future.

Magic might be finding the place that calls you on your stuff.

Magic might be a van looking for family.

Magic might be slipping into a body so different you have to grow up to understand it.

Magic might be a hug that allows you to release decades of hurt.

Whatever form it takes, it is sure to there to remind us that hurt is incomprehensible, but so is the healing that can come from a sudden moment of magic. 

It is an ancient philosophy, but it's hopeful message has made it a people's treasure throughout many centuries. And we still like it, and know it to be a deep truth. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

K-drama: Turning Points

Let's think of the storytelling form of K-drama as a labyrinth.  A labyrinth is not a maze. Rather, it is a path that winds in and around itself, never getting lost.  It is a single path, with no dead-ends. We would not have to train rats to run a labyrinth. That is why they are so good for meditation.  It is a sure path, taking you somewhere. You can depend on the path and let your monkey mind rest.  

A key to a labyrinth is that there are turns. Each of people in the K-drama is, we might say, walking their own labyrinth, and turns come up.  In this classic 7-cycle labyrinth, you can follow the paths and see that you have to turn.  What makes it possible to turn?  In Chocolate, a lovely story about two highly traumatized people who make their way to one another, Lee Kang, the hero, literally turns and grabs the arm of Moon Cha-young to confess his feelings for her.  But before he turns, we have seen the slow movement of his feelings, from icy cold to passionate.  It is the discovery that she is his first love that breaks the final barriers.  It is a moment of grace for him, as he asks a series of questions and learns that they'd met before as children. It permits him to breathe. 

A little later that evening, he silently acknowledges that he can't push her away, this person who is so important to him.  And he turns.  What is fascinating in scenes that follow the turn is that he starts to smile and laugh.  He reveals his passion.  While he had been a smoldering icon -- one woman described his as a perfectly proportioned statue, Michelangelo's David -- he becomes a living rock star (which the actor actually is). 

Moon Cha-young still has trauma to resolve, so she says she needs to go away. He says, "Don't get lost." She sends him a text expressing her love and says, "I have never gotten lost because you guide me."

Though rarely expressed so bluntly, this is the point of the labyrinth and the point of the show. Lee Kang's voiceover at the end of the show, after they have reconnected, tells us, "That is the end of our story.  We know there will be ups and downs, but we will pull through as long as we have hope."

One commentator complained that she wanted to see more of the couple when they have finally come together. While that would be fun, as they are a sexy and adorable couple, that's not the story that's being told. The story -- from their childhood encounter, through their traumas, to their healing and reconnection -- is one of hope, and it ended there, reminding us to eat lots of good food!  Wow, what a set of ending scenes! 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

K-drama: Escape

The K-drama One Spring Night, which I've written about before (here and here), concerns itself with what happens after two trapped people meet. Their unexpected encounter, and instant mutual recognition, perturb their networks. This show, which does not make a big deal about Wisdom teachings, lets mentors, friends and family speak the Truths that free the lovers to be together.  The ordinariness of these communications is depicted in the cell phones, which everyone has constantly in hand, reading texts and making calls: Wisdom as a text thread we might each be on.  

Yoo Ji-ho is locked in because he is a single father, while Lee Jeong-in is trapped in a dead-end relationship. Their situations are underscored by the cinematographer's choice of picturing them on the other side of bars, as in a prison, from which they must escape and the scriptwriter's use of characters who intone, "You can't..." 

While it is not the message that love conquers all, the show does want to show love as a force. Literally from their first meeting, they can't stop wanting to be together and finding ways to accomplish this. "I wanted to see you," the hero says at first.  Then as they become more intimate, "I missed you." The love is not something they can stop but this is not a story of love as obsession. Rather the story is of love as freedom and joy. The hero says, "I feel like she is the first person to see me as 'Yoo Ji-ho.'" 

In the K-drama My Only Love Song, the princess uses a spoon to dig her way to freedom. 

In One Spring Night, Ji-ho and Jeong-in need help. They must learn to depend on each other, which is challenging. Ji-ho is quite gentle, but from time to time sets limits with Jeong-in -- he says she is a fool, and this is not entirely unjustified. She rages against the machine and needs to have both a home for her passions and limits. 

Ji-ho, for his part, has been highly traumatized by the events that left him in the stigmatized position of single father. He holds himself so firmly in check that this has to fall apart. It is a fraught traumatic defense, not a healthy way to live.  

But they need more than themselves. They need a tribe, which gathers like people coming across the dessert for some weeks of wedding celebrations. Some members of the tribe carry its wisdom. Ji-ho's friend Park Yeong-jae and Jeong-in's sister Jae-in start dating. Separately and together, they are voices of the solution. Jeong-in needs people to mark the boundaries, and Jae-in does this for her, as do her mother, older sister and friends at work. Ji-ho leans heavily Yeong-jae, who just knows about people and is very kind.  Ji-ho is also helped by his mentor at work, Wang Hye-jung.

In the context of this support system, crucial shifts occur. Jeong-in, who describes herself as selfish, is helped by Jae-in to see that honoring her heart's desires is not selfish, but pouting is.  When Ji-ho falls apart, Hye-jung says to him, "Good for you. You look less dependable but more human." He is predictably flustered by this. These screenwriters do not think that shifts occur in the conversation, but rather in the processes that follow, those of reflection and trying on new ideas.  The conversations are not indulgent, even when the protagonists ask for that.  "No whining, no excuses," is the distinct subtext. 

The Wisdom of the tribe is not a lightning bolt of revelation but rather a process of interaction. This series of scenes at the end of Episode of 15 illustrates this. 

  • When Ji-ho falls apart, he asks Jeong-in if she's really committed. 
  • This makes her question herself. 
  • She then wants to take a break from the relationship, which freaks Ji-ho out.
  • Jae-in and Yeong-jae discuss this, and he says, "It's not a break-up, just a break. I can see both sides."
  • Jae-in tells Yeong-jae they have to take a break because she has to stand by her sister.
  • Jae-in scolds Jeong-in that she should be taking care of Ji-ho, who's having a hard time. 
  • Jeong-in takes this to heart and goes to the pharmacy where he works. 
  • Hye-jung recognizes the moment of reconciliation and hides her in the backroom of the store. 
  • When Ji-ho comes back, Hye-jung pretends to scold him and tells him to lock up. 
  • He goes in the back to do this and finds Jeong-in there, which leads to their making up (and making out) and the joys of Episode 16. 

K-drama is ambivalent about happy endings: it prefers to acknowledge the ongoing reality of life. But sometimes, when the tribe shares its Wisdom and the protagonists listen, things shift enough to lift some of the weight on life. This is a show about that: it ends with waltzing.  

Sunday, June 5, 2022

A Conversation about Music City

Brandon Duong of Shelterforce interviewed Margaux Simmons and Doug Farrand, leaders of the University of Orange Music City Project about their work.  It's full of analysis and anecdotes about the organizing that goes on to produce the spring Music City Festival and the fall Remembering Rosa concert.  It is a wonderful interview that is full of insights into asset-based community development and creative placemaking!

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Much faster than you would have thought

Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prize winning economist who writes a column for The New York Times, wrote about the accelerating crisis of global warming.  He pointed out that we shouldn't generalize from what this moment looks like to what the future will look like.  He wrote:

... there’s a well-known proposition in my original academic home field of international economics known as Dornbusch’s Law, named after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist (and my mentor) Rudiger Dornbusch: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.” 

At the University of Orange, a free people's urbanism school in Orange, NJ, we have been observing this process.  We have been warning about the threat of gentrification for over a decade.  Now, seemingly overnight, market-rate apartment buildings are springing up all around the city and it is obvious that the crisis of gentrification is upon us -- as Dornbusch put it, "much faster than you would have thought."

It is worth knowing that this is, in fact, a law -- meaning that it is a phenomenon which has been observed repeatedly and can be translated into a series of mathematical equations.  In this case the mathematical equation would produce a graph with a line that rises slowly from the baseline for a long time but then turns sharply upward, rising very quickly in a short amount of time.  

What we see today does not tell us what we will see tomorrow, especially in periods when many variables are moving quickly.  We have to take threat seriously.  We can't delay.

Monday, May 16, 2022

One Million and Ten

I get home delivery of The New York Times. Sunday, May 15th, the "front page" was two pages, front and back, with a map of the US, showing where the 1,000,000 people who had died of COVID in US had lived. In the same paper were the first reports of the massacre in Buffalo, in which 13 people were shot and 10 killed by a white supremacist teenager. The subtext of the news was that the mass abandonment of the marginalized, poor and people of color is escalating in our country.

Sunday afternoon I joined friends and neighbors at the Music City Festival. The Festival partners with restaurants in Orange, NJ, so Sunday's event took place at a park in my neighborhood opposite Hat City Kitchen. The crowd of young black and brown artists sparkled with genius, like the sun glinting off diamonds. It is a true thing that specific places can nurture specific geniuses, and Orange is such a place for musicians. 

I suddenly felt the dissonance between the implications of the news and the evidence of my own eyes. It made me dizzy. I asked one of the organizers if we might pause to memorialize our losses.  As the echoes of the steel drum faded, I asked people to stand for a moment of silence. One young woman looked at me quizzically for a second. When she understood what I was saying, she shifted gears swiftly, from the languor of the listening to music on a sunny afternoon in the park to the intense energy of youth dedicated to the cause of our survival. She stood tall.  We all stood. 

There was no music in that moment, yet there was lots of music standing there with us. We Shall Overcome was there, and so was We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder, War (what is it good for), and Give Us Bread and Give Us Roses. And every song that the artists performing there that day had shared with us. We stood in the music, embodying the sure knowledge: Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

We Are All Colored Girls (who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf)

I haven't posted in awhile -- too busy trying to keep up with daily life to have enough time to think about. But yesterday, which was April 9th, I saw the new Broadway production of "for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf." The rainbow of actors instantly won me to their cause and I couldn't stand fast enuf at the end to join the standing ovation!  

It was one of the rare moments in this time when my heart felt better -- that a deep truth had been revealed for me: that the rainbow is present in our suffering. Like a revelation, but only when we are broken enuf for the light to get in, thank you, Leonard Cohen.

And then I thought of the whole world, aching over nuclear bombs, Covid variant BA2, fracturing ice shelves, gas prices -- whatever. Around the world depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and actions have increased to remarkable heights. The ache in the world is palpable. I took the train to New York and a group of young Yankee fans got on, on their way to opening day. They were defiantly NOT wearing masks as required by the train. And they were drinking, also a No-No. But they were drinking as fast as they could, drinking to get drunk, drinking to be removed from whatever is on their hearts -- they, too, were longing for the rainbow but didn't know where it was. 

And that is the trick with rainbows. A rain shower was ending as I drove into my driveway on my way home from the play. I looked up to see if a rainbow had come out. No, but my dog Toby greeted me at the door with hugs and kisses.