Sunday, February 11, 2024

Tao of K-drama: It takes a village to raise a dragon

The Flexner lectures that I gave at Bryn Mawr College in fall 2023 are over, The Tao of K-drama (the book) is drafted, retirement nears, and time opens up before me like the light at the end of a tunnel. I can watch K-drama without Serious Thoughts. In the past few weeks I watched Mr. Queen, See You in My 19th Life, and Welcome to Samdal-ri. They have in common being pretty light and starring the wonderful Shin Hye-sun. I just finished the last of this trio and the wonderful 15th episode -- "It takes a village to raise a dragon" -- lingers. 

The story centers around a old tragedy that has shaped village life in Samdal-ri, a village in Jeju, and especially the families of two young people, Cho Sam-dal and Cho Yong-pil, who would like to be together. This is intertwined with the massive setback experienced by Cho Sam-dal. As a young girl, she says that she heard that dragons rise from small streams and she wants to be a dragon. The variety show host who is listening to this wish says, "Oh, you want to go to Seoul?" 

She gets to Seoul, works hard to succeed, and then is betrayed by an employee. She returns home to regroup. My dad has a similar experience and he described it as, "Retreat to the ghetto and come back strong." The analogy really worked for me. Her community gathers around her, ready to protect her from further harm and wanting to support her talents. In the Episode 15, they put their intentions into action on several fronts, breaking out of the paralysis of the tragedy and launching Sam-dal back to the sky of her dreams.  

There is a brown-skinned man, Kim Man-su (played by Sazal Mahamud), working in the village convenience store. He suddenly leaves, giving the village a billion won gift. We later see him walking with his entourage. "Your Highness," one says, "where have you been?" 

"In a place with a warm heart," he replies, "Samdal-ri." 

What is so remarkable about the show is the careful manner in which the writers have shown has HOW the villagers worked out the set of problems they faced. It is not a process of grand gestures, but of the daily grind of two-steps forward, one-step back, trying to live in a good way.  

Understanding "the good way" of K-drama has been on my mind since I first saw Live Up to Your Name, Dr. Heo in 2020. At first I thought of it as a set of actions that could be defined, with saying "I'm sorry and chopping vegetables high on that list. I couldn't squeeze the process any of these three Shin Hye-sun K-dramas into a list. We might think of it as a tennis match, with our task to follow the bouncing ball as it goes forward and back, forward and back. Any metaphor will do, as long as we watch what I've come to call the "micro-process" of the action. Not the swoops, but the tiny discourse. 

An old woman with dementia has a moment of clarity. She puts her hand on that of her son-in-law, wrapped in mourning for his lost wife. She says, "Don't have resentment." He slowly gets what she's saying and is stunned. She is just one of the people pulling him out of his grief by sharing that they too are tormented by the loss. It is the repetition -- I too am suffering -- that gets through to him. He suddenly asks one of them, "When do you miss her most?" The woman he asked promptly says, "When I dive into the sea or see her son." He walks away without a word, but the challenges are accumulating until he see that he is not alone. His prison of grief breaks open. 

At the heart of this forward-back is Shin Hye-sun, holding it all together with her intensity and capacity for connection. She really looks at people, leaning into them to understand. She really feels hurts and slights, shriveling up with despair. And she is really liberated, raised to fly again by her village. As that is happening she says in a voiceover how good it was that she had a hometown at her back. My dad thought so, and my own turn came to need a place to regroup, I  knew where to go. 

The metaphor in the show is that haenyeos are taught not to be greedy and to return to the surface when they can't hold their breath any more. The headline of the trailer is "The big fish returns to catch her breath." How good to know this -- it is the other level of teaching in a K-drama -- the "big picture" message that we can keep close to our hearts. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Tao of K-drama: The Flexner Lectures

I am honored to have been selected to be the 2023 Flexner Lecturer at Bryn Mawr College this fall. I will give three lectures and participate in five classes and two symposia. Out of all that, I will finish my book on the Tao of K-drama, which is slated to be published by Harvard University Press as part of the lectureship. I hope you can come! These will be hybrid, and you can find all the info here.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Yin and Yang of Main Street

Two fascinating articles in the Times touched on issues of Main Street. The first, by Emily Badger, was about the empty ground floor stores in San Francisco. She quoted Conrad Kickert on Main Street. He organized a special issue of the journal Built Environment, which included a paper by Jacob Izenberg, Doug Farrand, Molly Rose Kaufman and me. We wrote about using music to support the small businesses on Orange's Main Street. In Badger's piece, Kickert said butcher paper covering windows of empty stores was the worst. 

These scenes have such an effect on us, Mr. Kickert said, because the vast majority of our interaction with architecture and buildings happens at the ground floor. It’s where we form our sense that a street is safe and vibrant, or that something doesn’t feel right. It’s where the city comes to life in its jumbled diversity: the cocktail lounge next to the dry cleaner next to the ramen shop, but also the financier next to the tourist next to the retail clerk.

At the same time, an article about the "Republic of Super Neighbors" in Paris showed how small-scale relations of neighboring make the city a happy and safe place. Even, the article noted, improving composting, the return of lost items and street safety.  

So we could leave our cities for dead OR we could reanimate them by helping people connect with one another, making the living village in the city. Years ago, a student in our "Urbanism Track" at Mailman School of Public Health took a photo of dilapidated Harlem storefront that had a sign: "Space for rent. Huge potential."

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Tao of K-drama: Last Day of My Sabbatical

I am writing a book about K-drama, Korean television shows that, I believe, teach us Wisdom about managing our world of upheaval and challenge. I've written books before, but this time I have had a very special experience: I had a year off to work on it. 

For 26 years, I worked at New York State Psychiatric Institute as a research psychiatrist. The great thing about the position was that I had guaranteed salary and job security, which are hard to come by for anyone and maybe especially for black academics. The nature of working for the state is that one is expected to produce information that will improve the health of the citizens. That kept me on my toes -- I wrote 100 scientific papers and four books during my time at NYSPI. 

In 2016 I moved to The New School, where I am a professor of urban policy and health AND, wonder of wonders, the seventh year of employment is a sabbatical. I started mine on  July 1, 2022. 

The day before -- June 30th -- I turned off my daily alarm. Why have to get up at a certain time??? Then, on July 1, I really took my time drinking my coffee and reading my morning paper. Those changes helped me feel that I was in charge of my time and could use it as I pleased. That said, I needed to use that time productively as I had a lot to do: Korean lessons twice a week, shows to watch and re-watch, a pile of books to read, and several decades worth of needing to stare off into space so my brain could process all that information I'd collected over the years. 

The New School, for its part, really offered protection by taking me off a lot of lists. I never saw emails about the faculty meetings or my department's accreditation process. Of course, the fall part-time faculty strike intruded on my consciousness, largely because my daughter Molly Rose Kaufman, is a member of the union and was on strike.  Molly, in fact, was on the front page of the Times the first day of the strike. Like other members of the full-time faculty, I walked the picket line in solidarity.

It was a tense situation. The University called in union-busting lawyers and used a long array of terrible tactics to break the strike. As the end of the semester approached, and those efforts had only created a student sit-in and animosity towards the leadership, a settlement was reached. We could all relax for the holidays. 

As for me, I was looking forward to spring semester, when I was planning to go to South Korea, as a necessary part of my study. While I am very committed to "God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise" and "Plan B" -- meaning things that you plan don't always happen -- in this case all went well and I went to South Korea, spent three glorious months, and came home. There I really had a feeling of time, because everyone agreed to give me time to be there and not here. My whole plan for my time in South Korea was to sit in a coffee shop and watch people go by. I did a lot more than that, of course, but those really low-key moments were very special. 

Since I've been home, I've had time to recover from Covid -- fully, I hope -- and to dive into writing a draft of my book. I've been very deep in analysis of one of my favorite shows -- Just between Lovers -- and it's required my full attention. It's been lovely to have days and days without other demands. Friends have been grading papers and going to faculty meetings -- I have been reading obscure books on such subjects as Han and the Holy Spirit, trauma treatment in World War I, and meaning of the Tao. I think I've found the answer I've been seeking, but it would have been very, very hard to get there without this protected time. A professor at another university asked to speak to me about redlining. When he realized I was still on sabbatical, he thanked me profusely for sharing a bit of my precious sabbatical with him.

Tomorrow, Friday, June 30, 2023, I'll take down my sabbatical message. I still have six weeks of free time before classes start again. For the last day of my sabbatical, I'm going watch The King: Eternal Monarch, tracking the ways in which the king, Lee Gon, builds the team that will defeat evil and save the parallel worlds. It's a fascinating question -- how does a person, trained to be a ruler and diplomate, build a team from scratch in a foreign country??? It will be a glorious day and I will surely, as I have for the past year, luxuriate in time to just stare off into space, letting images and concepts percolate in my fertile brain -- such a great thing! 

And then I will reflect on my gratitude for these two jobs -- one that allowed me to do research for the public good and one that gave me time to wander and think. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

The Day the Sun Disappeared

I had that terrible "my best friend just died" type feeling this morning -- just a powerful feeling but puzzling because it had NO basis in reality. I wandered from room to room and tried to think why I felt so dismal Molly happened to call and I shared my confusion and dolor. She said she was miserable, too, and that Doug, her partner, said it was because of the forest fires in Canada and the smoke that blotted out the sun for us last week.  Here's how the NY Times depicted it:

It was the opaque orange that was so terrifying. I talked to Molly at the time and we commiserated about how scary it was. But thinking about that moment as the source of my despair, I can see why I feel such terrible mourning: I really liked our climate -- no, I LOVED our climate -- and this slap in the face that it's gone is both a terrible loss and a harbinger of even worse to come. Who knows what? I don't know. 

I used to say to students wanting to plan their careers, "How can you plan decades out? Do you know what will happen with the weather?"

Even then we knew something would happen. But I'm here to say that having a suspicion and not being able to see across the street are two completely different things. But what makes me feel so terrible is that I don't know what to do. I read in the paper that Greta Thunberg has finished school, so no more school strikes. Yikes. Not that I went on school strike, but it was something. 

I am often reminded that I am powerless, but watching the sky darken took that to a whole new level. 

If I'm any indication of the human response to looming terribleness over which I am powerless, we are in for not just erratic weather, but also erratic emotions. That a third of the nation is clinging to the belief this is not happening is going to make matters -- they will push for autocratic strongmen who say that they will be able to manage this. [snort]

What the strongmen will manage is their profits and our freedom. 

I heard a remarkable sermon yesterday by Reverend Darrell Berger, who was the minister for our Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Orange and came back as guest lecturer, you might say. He wanted us to know that UUs don't sit on the sidelines at critical moments. During the Civil War, for example, they were leaders of the Abolitionist Movement and joined the fighting for the Union. He gave the example of Robert Gould Shaw, a white Unitarian who led the first all-black regiment in the Civil War, the Massachusetts 54th. They were in the second battle of Fort Wagner, and took massive casualties. Colonel Shaw was one of many who died in that fight. The bravery shown by the regiment inspired the nation -- in its aftermath, a hundred thousand black men enlisted in the Union Army. 

Saturday night we made the most desperate charge of the war on Fort Wagner, losing in killed, wounded and missing in the assault, three hundred of our men. The splendid 54th is cut to pieces…. If I have another opportunity tonight, I will write more fully. Goodbye to all. If I die tonight, I will not die a coward.
The battle for our climate is heating up -- sorry for the pun! -- and leaders will offer us new ways to join. In the meantime, remind your network to wear masks when the air quality takes a nose dive. Doug said that being of service by distributing masks helped him feel better that terrible day. There is always something we can do and this is a lesson that will come in handy as the best friend of homo sapiens, the climate in which our species evolved and thrived, pushes upheaval and change we can't even imagine. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

Home Again

I have had a slow and easy re-entry, relieved of almost all work because of the kindness of friends and family. The triple task -- Covid recovery, getting over jet lag and returning to the US -- has been a challenge, but I'm getting there.

A couple of updates --

1) I watched two movies of Heidi and re-read the book. Heidi never says, "Grandfather, grandfather, I'm home." In the Shirley Temple movie the action is moved to a kidnapping in Frankfurt -- you know how Hollywood is -- so she reunites with grandfather under those conditions. In a 2015 German production, she does greet grandfather on the mountain, but they have watered down the life-threatening nature of the nostalgia Heidi had in Frankfurt and deleted her spirituality. So the book remains its wonderful self, but the scene I imagined was just that -- my imagining.

2) My book-writing plan was to write a mini-book before going to Korea, a second before leaving Korea and a first draft of the book over the summer. I did write mini-books 1 and 2 on schedule, but when I got home, the first draft of the book just popped out of me, like a baby that just HAD to get born. It was very stunning and very much appreciated. It is helping me relax. Daphne Gray-Grant, Publication Coach, says to put such a bit of writing on the shelf for some weeks before trying to edit. I'm doing that, with a plan to get to the next stage late June. 

3) Having just had Covid, I'm disgusted with the "pandemic is over" rhetoric of the US government. Please be careful -- it's not over and we're flying in the dark with no data to guide us. So please take precautions -- wear masks when you must go to crowded indoor spaces, and take advantage of the summer to socialize outdoors!

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Home Again

On Monday, May 15th, I woke up in Seoul, and what flashed into my mind was a poem that my son, Ken Kaufman, wrote when he was in grammar school. It is the epigraph to the chapter about my three adopted children in House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place

My granddaughter Lily had said about my trip to Korea, "You're a 72-year-old woman, 15,000 miles from home." Slight exaggeration, but it did capture a certain angst about the trip. It took me all these years to study in a foreign country so, instead of junior year, I was on my senior semester abroad.  

So, echoing Ken's lines, I thought, "Now I'm Mindy Fullilove age 72, Bye everybody, I'm going home!" 

It was so satisfying. Then as I went through the long day's journey into West Orange, I thought of many other "home" poems and stories. Ken and I read and re-read Dr. Seuss' Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now? so many times. I said to Ken that after I leave, people in Korea will say, "The time had come so Mindy went."

It occurred to me to say to myself that in the interim period -- between waking up and getting to bed in my own house -- "I have miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep." 6,900 miles to be exact.  

And then, in celebration of the success of my journey, I chanted, "To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety jig!"

More seriously, I was pondering the question people have begun asking me, "What was your trip to Korea like?" The answer that came to me was, "It was a combination of Heidi and Merci La Ville." I wasn't exactly sure why I said Heidi, so I re-read the book. There are many relevant parts, but what I was remembering on the journey was Shirley Temple as Heidi, running up to Grandfather on her return to the mountain and saying, "Grandfather, grandfather, I'm home!"