Saturday, June 22, 2013

Milk is Best When Cycled Through the Sinuses

My mom decided to pick up tennis again, so I packed a tennis racket and brought it to Korea.  Our first day using the racket involved sneaking into a high school while school was in session.  We just ambled in like we were a part of the staff.  I wanted to try some goalie reflex drills I’ve seen Ryan Miller do on some training video, although I never played goalie, and I think goalies are deviant silent-types who do things like the drill below:

So here I go, fantasizing about hoisting the Stanley Cup, and suddenly a wet black explosion enters my face.  I fall to a knee.  My nose is running, and I’m tearing, and behind me is my mother in paroxysm of laughter, grabbing her belly because she can’t help how ridiculous this situation was.

I exaggerated my pain and told my mom she needs to be more careful, but pretty soon I was laughing.  On our way back, PE was starting for these high school kids, and we were cutting right through the track.  My mom yells at some of the boys, “Hey!  How come you let these girls beat you?  What kind of students are you?”  She laughed, and they stared at her in silence, just blank stares. 

When we got home, she was eager to talk to her friends about her wicked forehand shot to my nose.  I poured her some milk, and as she was recounting her shot, milk exploded out of her nostrils, and again, convulsions of laughter. This has nothing to do with the travails of writing, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why I Tell My Students I Hated High School

Nabokov mentions that the lowest form of art is a sort of literary tourism, leaning the value of art on exoticizing categories, including culture, turning a novel into a double-decker bus tour, with the writer holding a bull horn saying, “Look!  Characters wearing smocks!”  What if the writer exoticizing the culture is from both cultures of the foreign characters and the “western” readers?  Like me!   I somehow feel expectations from all sides, mainly because I’m writing in English.  I have a feeling this could be a 1,100 page thesis on translation studies, so I’ll keep it to my own, biased struggles with my writing.

I’ll give you an example. What novels or stories can you think of that start with a lush description of a spicy dish, loading up the scene with rich sensory details a-la-Flannery O’ Connor’s 3/5 senses rule?  Just think coriander.  There are already 3 well known books with this opening move from the past 5 years, and many of these books also have some sort of sister story involved that span across a couple of generations (thanks, Mark Sarvas for showing me an entire genre of this). 

The folks who have known me since high school think I’m just embittered because I was never fully accepted by the Korean Pride Kids and not fully by the Surfer Kids, and now that I’m 35 I’m playing out this schism in my writing.  I played ice hockey and was on the surf team.  I defy stereotypes, and that defiance is in a way a stereotype, as the 86 Asian American clubs from college can say about my banal cries of individuality.  So why do I feel a bit seditious as I refuse the convention of italicizing foreign words?  Is this the older Tommy Kim going back to High School after training with Royce Gracie for 20 years in an MMA compound, ready to crack some craniums? 

My writing project (I dare not call it anything else for the sake of my fragile confidence) tries to depict two very foreign worlds, to me at least.  Boyle Height and Korea during the early 1950’s. I know this creation of another world (or defamiliarization of the familiar world) is a prerequisite in any art, but I’m running into the problem of feeling like a sell-out, or an inaccurate guide that will feel the wrath of my people, or worst, from the “other” people that buy it as the authentic version of reality when maybe I'm just a fraud.  Wait, putting it this way, I'm just getting harangued from all sides, so I might as well just write the thing and hope my vision is worthy of being shared.  Josh: I feel a type of paralysis here that I’m trying to fix with my typical methods in dealing with any delicate situation in life.  Just yank the tablecloth and if the pitchers and glasses tumble to the ground, at least I have a clear table.  

PS: Why do I say "exploitive" as if I have a neurological malfunction?  

Monday, June 10, 2013

My Oma

My oma. 

Welcome back, fellas.  We are bringing this blog back to the world, and what better way to do so than having my mom chop and strike to clear some space for us.  This clip was taken almost a year and a half ago, December of 2011.  It was right after she was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.  Yes, right after being diagnosed, she performs disco-karate.  This is my oma.  So much has happened since our last blog post.  Babies were born, adults reborn.  I’m sure our artistic lives have also gone through some changes.  We’ll get to all that later.  I just wanted to let y’all know that I’m happy to be here with you. 

I’ll be posting from Busan.  My mom is living in Korea because they have a type of “targeted therapy” that works by a matched DNA process, which allows for much stronger treatment without the side effects of chemo.  They don’t have this drug in the states. I know this blog was supposed to be about writing, but what is writing without the ballast of experience?  Without experience, without loss or joy or the incomprehension of the stars, our words grow out of themselves, which is fine for some folks.  I can’t operate on words alone.  I’m not that smart, and my vocabulary is impoverished, like a literary ghetto compared to you guys, you GENIUSES!  So here’s to the lived life.  We are food writers, too, but first we must eat.  I’m looking forward to some good convos.  Even though we’re not sitting in a Saturn in the Asheville heat, slapping headrests and center consoles with every exciting idea about writing, this blog is just as good.  I mean, I can see Seth’s gorgeous picture to the right of the post.  Alex, you’re hot, too.  Josh…please reveal your male beauty!  Love to all.  Let’s talk soon.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Satan, The Other and The Homeless in LA

“My husband’s up in heaven, but he sure is making his way down to hell.”
Tommy Kim eavesdropping on Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036

Like I mentioned on my text message, I'm reading "Paradise Lost" for a number of reasons. I feel like it's one of those "party-line" books, a piece of literature you can say you've read in order to be designated as learned.

I'm only on Book I, but I'm getting a depiction of Satan that is a more generous allegory than that of the cartoonish versions.

The intro to this book has a good essay on this very topic of Satan as an analogue to all idolatry and symbol worshiping. I'm guessing Milton viewed any form of "objectification of the human subject" as Satan, and when we start looking at work (writing and day job) as a separate thing, treating the human subject as a “thing”, like a baseball card whose value can be quantified, we are lost in the darkness, abutting the other fallen angels in pandemonium. It’s like we search for something true and rewarding from something as un-human as a job, a mistake I made a few years ago when I took my poor performance at work personally (“Tommy, you’re just not leveraging your skills properly”).

So what is the effect of giving ourselves to this thing outside of us? David Foster Wallace seems to think that we all have this intense willingness to give ourselves away to an organized set of beliefs, that it's coded in our DNA. Whether it’s the church, the office, the arts, etc we want to hurl our souls, headlong into the group. His characters are living representations of what happens when we give too much.

Milton predicted this. Now, the modern embodiments seem to live inside of the works of David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami and Thom Yorke.

The yellow-eyed fallen angel accompanies Hal Incandenza when he’s smoking out in the basement of the Academy. He’s with Toru when he’s trapped in the well. In the darkest moments of loneliness, Satan is the one true thing in the lives of these characters, making them feel something, even if it’s despair. At least it’s not Nothing, or Milton’s “Abyss”.

I see, throughout your posts, a slow continental drift between two distinct worlds that most people see as qualitatively different. You, my friend, see them as existing as one world. The writing world, which some see as recreational or, in my situation at work, as a hobby equaled to golf or stock-picking, is more than an external action taken on the top of a turret. What some people don’t realize is that they are confusing the sign for the referent, much like Satan does in Paradise Lost. The Devil prances around the craggy depths of hell as if he can raise himself above the Maker, when he is himself a product of the maker. Satan is a literalist, unable to see beyond his self, unable to see that his very existence was already designed and approved by the Man.

My life and my writing are not qualitatively different. To treat them separately is to be tyrannized by the literal, to inhabit Satan’s pandemonium and to be deprived of the generosity of imagination.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I hope I’m not diverting this blog into something too religious. I’m not trying to proselytize or wave a bible in the air and smack anyone in the face with it. I’m just trying to work within the medium here. But before you can even get going in the writing, Josh, before you can imagine an un-loneliness, compassion has to exist for yourself. The Other does not exist without being compassionate to the self, something Dominic taught me in my last semester. So on that note, be good, to yourself. I’m depending on it.

PS: I've spent a good 30 minutes formating this thing at work. I'm glad I just announced that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Thanks and a Gauntlet

I wrote the seven posts on sin listed below this one on your web browser over about three weeks, starting a little after Christmas 2009 and ending about a week ago, mid-January 2010. When I finished the first one, I had no idea that I'd want to continue the theme - but the sensation of writing "out loud" (a strange phrase, but this is how blogging always feels to me) about my past and pseudo-spiritual predilections was so pleasurable that it made me want to keep going. Looking back, I wish I'd kept the autobiographical strain up. I also wish I'd been a bit more succinct. And that I had a pony named Marigold.

I've cleaned up what typos I could spot - there are probably plenty more. I should thank especially trixie delicious, a set of whose Seven Sin plates hangs in our living room. They are my girlfriend's most prized possessions. Check trixie's etsy page out for more wonderful crockery-related translations. Seriously, these plates are genius.

The last thing I wanted was for any of this to feel monolithic. To my mind, blogging's biggest evolution over print is its ability to trace the response part of the call and response dynamic in writing. So please, if anyone reading this has any thoughts on sin, art, creation, deformation, or Scarlett Johansson, post a comment. I, at least, will be reading closely.

As for my fellow Heart Arcadians: the only way we'll be able to put this all behind us is if y'all throw something up. I am triple dog daring you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rage and Loneliness

Finally, wrath. Western literature begins with it, in a full on drop-kick that knocks us into the dust.

Menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos…

Perseus’s (the website, not the hero) online Greek dictionary understands that first word as “wrath, lasting anger”; but though Achilles' emotion is unchanging, like everything the Greeks called divine, our understanding of it will always rely on that most mortal of all pursuits: translation. In English, the versions reach deep into literary prehistory, like rungs on a ladder. Alexander Pope’s, for example, kicks off with:

“Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess sing!”

To me, this couplet is like a particularly difficult yoga pose, or the opening sequence of a Hollywood action movie: contorted, obscurely balanced and – to an unsympathetic observer, at least – completely ridiculous. Much syntactic madness is inflicted in the name of rhyme; but despite our modern touchiness at this type of deformation, the Iliad’s central problem is still there, poised like a teacup on the tip of a sword. Wrath is sung, exclamation point – not sung of, or sung about, but SUNG! The lack of preposition suggests invocation rather than paraphrase: an act that, like Christmas Mass or a particularly vigorous touch football game, aspires to become what it describes. In other words sing this wrath, goddess, and in singing make us feel it. Kindle our hearts.

In the history of literature as it's known to us, then, wrath is a brushing of invisible dirt off our very real shoulders: the opening stutter-step with which we indicated (and indicate) our boredom, as a species, with walking, and a desire to elevate our body into a higher and more deeply useful sphere. As with all dances, however, the steps change over the years. Watch the just-departed 20th century sing its way out of the Homeric gates:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’s son Achilleus,
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold on the Achaians.” (Lattimore, 1951)

“Anger be your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’s anger doomed and ruinous…” (Fitzgerald, 1974)

“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses...” (Fagels, 1990)

As the years pass, composure slips from the original poem's shoulders like the silk bathrobe of a heavyweight fighter, revealing lines so muscled that they begin to seem more brutal than classical. The brilliant contemporary poet Christopher Logue completes this transformation with a version of the Iliad whose wrath is truly placed on our tongue and swallowed. Here’s his description of Patroclus’s thrown spear skewering Akafact:

“As Akafact fell back, back arched,
God blew the javelin straight; and thus
Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.” (Logue, War Music, p. 153)

Given how soaked through these lines are with pleasure, it should be no surprise that the wrath they incarnate is pleasurable to us. Reading Logue’s Homer is unsettling and enlightening over and over again exactly because of how much pleasure it not just takes but makes us feel in its violence. Like Kill Bill vol. 1 (in my opinion our second greatest contemporary translation of the Iliad next to Logue’s), it illustrates how hypocritical it is for us to say, with Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, that “It’s no real pleasure in life.” Actually, one of the problems of art is exactly that: no matter how rigorously we try to portray sin as terrible, monotonous, and limiting, our very portrayals are, by virtue of their being works of art, sculpted, powerful, and suffused with meaning. Admit it: you kind of sort of love the Misfit. And you love Achilles, or rather Brad Pitt, despite the fact that the work he exists in portrays him as the Slave (and therefore, we rush to conclude, the Master) of his passion.

I’m belaboring this point, which probably seems antithetical to my larger, pan-blogular argument about the fundamental sterility of sin, because I think it frames one of the biggest temptations I face as an artist: namely, to mistake the romantic creations of the books I read for their much less romantic creators. I call this The Stephen Daedalus Syndrome, after Joyce’s “autobiographical” hero from the Portrait and Ulysses. Sharp as a tack, “doomed and ruinous” as any Greek hero, he drags his roiling creativity through the Dublin of both books. For a good ten years, I was deeply in love with him, partly because of how much like me he seemed to be, and partly because of how much better than me he always was. But a while ago, I came to a realization: Stephen Deadalus did not write Ulysses. He couldn’t have, in the same way that Paul Morel couldn’t write Sons and Lovers: not because they lacked ability, but because there was something deeply adolescent in them, meaning something that, for all its promise, clung to its potential in order to avoid risking failure, which is after all the price of any communicative creativity.

As a young, failing, frustrated and frustrating writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of led life will allow me a writing one. I also spend a lot of barely-wrested time staring at my computer screen, wondering why nothing's happening. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about these posts is how much they seem to put me on the side of the normal and normative in fiction, as if I were trying to be a sort of James Woods lite. But as much as I love Woods, along with the rest of the great British belle-lettrist tradition that stretches from Coleridge and Hazlitt to Ricks, Bayley, Pritchett, et al, it would be facetious and dishonest of me to claim membership in their tribe - not to mention the rhetorical self-confidence conferred by that membership. Anglicans protest only to form new communities; but the American tradition is an archipelago of antinomians that curls like a nautilus towards greater and greater loneliness. Our brains breed islands, as Bishop’s Crusoe puts it. And if those islands found cities in the future, we should remember to be conservative with our conservatism – for the unmannered now may seem thoroughly normal in the future, even sophisticated. Think Stein, that disciple of Henry James, or Picasso’s portrait, which he admitted did not look like her. “But it will,” he said.

Still, the new and different is not always the prophetic, and it is every writer’s job to decide how much of his tradition he can abandon, and how much of himself he can indulge. Not every passion deserves to be fed – or rather, within every passion there is a bet being made (if not in the sufferer, then at least on him), that the voice being heard is God’s. If it’s not God’s, we’d better believe it is – either way, we’d better be skilled and persuasive enough to convince others that it is. Because the loneliness of an artist who cannot believe in his or her own art is a deep one, and no amount of readers or rewards will be able to change that.

The French philosopher/Alsatian Simone Weil, who died when she was 34 from tuberculosis and self-enforced starvation, kept a copy of the Iliad by her bed. “A Poem of Force” she called it – though to her, the rage of the book’s characters was something that the book itself ended up condemning, through relentless accumulation. In this way, it was less a thriller and more a war movie, like Saving Private Ryan or Plattoon – or better yet, an Apocalypse. There may be people who encounter works like this and find themselves thrilled to the point of imitation, but Weil wasn’t one of them; on the contrary, her Iliad, unlike Logue's, denounces the pre-Christian world of might makes right with a vehemence that is absolutely unwavering. You want man in nature? You want to follow your passions without any conscious or cultural checks? Well then, here you go. Breathe deep. That faint metallic scent you smell is your own helplessness in the face of the Gods.

For me, sin is real because loneliness and isolation are real, and the self-devouring is everywhere. It’s also real because writing is life and life is writing, the one an allegory for the other. If we take this connection seriously, I think, we bring ourselves closer to an understanding of what it means to be both creative and happy in the world. We also get a sense of how difficult it is, not just to understand ourselves, but to pour out the rich little glass of our personality in a way that enriches both it and the larger community. Despite the romantic image of the writer holed up in his tower that has been foisted on us for at least a century, I understand writing as a fundamentally social act. It is work, not Mozartian work that flows from our fingertips like snot from a runny nose, but achieved work, half gift, half labor, whose deep desire, like ours, is to be shared.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why I Keep Talking about this Shit

What’s going on here? Why bother talking about something as abstract and anachronistic as sin? Why open myself up so obviously to charges of spiritual dilettantism (from people who are more serious about religion than myself), and cranky irrelevance (from people who are less so)?

It’s hard to ignore questions like this, as I sit here at six o’clock in the morning, staring out at the Northern New England darkness, wondering how much there is left to say about “wrath”, “greed”, and the whole abstract mechanism in general. I mean, even if we grant that there are certain types of human behavior that God doesn’t like (an idea that must remain securely rhetorical for some people), how can we seriously believe that a list of seven words, translated and misappropriated from Greek and Latin traditions, can be anything more than the barest of placeholders for these types of behavior? And how can we pretend that any thought about them is something more than an exercise: a way to make ourselves seem more serious than we are, by harvesting the philosophically-intriguing categories of a religion without really taking seriously the whole heaven-harps-halos mythology that makes those categories so significant to the vast majority of the people who use them?

If I was raised with any sort of religion at all, it was the WASPy Protestantism that encourages me to cherry-pick spiritual truths so long as I accept the radiant basement-dwelling of a home-made spiritual world. In this way, I don’t think I’m that much different from the rest of America. Talking about things like what happens after we die, or what it means to be a good person, my voice inevitably lowers, and my shoulders hunch. I begin to feel like I’m walking through a hushed pine grove, or maybe hidden beneath a pile of cushions. I remember an old Teddy Ruxpin adventure when the gang is shrunk down to the size of chess pieces and then left to wander around the underside and interior of their apartment sofa. The landscape is lunar – full of galloping bugs and pennies the size of wagon-wheels – but still, at the same time, deeply intimate. Strange as it may be, it’s still their sofa: an object that they’ve lived with their entire lives. Which is kind of how I feel when I start talking about these things.

Does it sound ridiculous to say that I get that same intimate/strange feeling when I talk about certain aspects of writing? Probably – but there’s no way around it: at this point in my life, writing is the most undivided form attention that I practice. It’s the way I access the world: the door that leads most reliably to the inner chamber. Other processes (I am tempted to say all other processes) may allegorize it – sex, for example, or chopping wood or restocking hospital supply closets – and therefore give me helpful ways to think about what I’m doing, the same way that studying a painting can help us understand something about the symphony we’re writing. But when it comes down to brass tacks, writing is what I’m interested in. Or not writing, so much as making, in all these fields (and here, I think I’m going to pull a Tolstoy and say, simply, and in full confidence, that you know what I mean).

When I think about sin, then, it is as a writer who believes that the problems of writing are the problems of life, and that, if we stay open-minded and attentive enough, an observation of our left hands will always help us understand what our right ones are doing. The Old Testament contains two things, stories and laws; but what the New Testament reminds us is that both of these are tools for understanding and manipulating that strange border in each of us where our behavior in the outside world shapes, and is shaped by, who we are inside ourselves. Religion as primitive cognitive behavioral therapy? To my mind, there’s nothing even remotely primitive about it. On the contrary, what we’re talking about here is a highly-sophisticated piece of spiritual technology, which furthermore is continually evolving and being updated by its users, generation after generation. Like all living languages – like the natural world itself – it is open source, in the truest sense of those words.

But even admitting this, the question remains: what does it help us do? Well (to begin with, since even my leviathan-sized ego has to admit that its attempts to plumb the depths here are cursory and limited), like any book, the Bible can be seen as a sort of virtual reality, which allows us to imaginatively experience certain difficult situations in a very refined form. In refining these situations, I would argue, it also poses, or at least invites us to understand them. Osip Mandelstam linked this with the domesticating culture of the ancient Greeks (Hellenes):

“Anyone who feels himself a Hellene must be on his guard now as two thousand years ago. You can’t Hellenize the world once and for all the way you can repaint a house. The Christian world is an organism, a living body. The tissues of our world are renewed by death. We have to struggle with the barbarism of a new life, because there, in the new life which is in full bloom, death is unvanquished! While death exists in the world, Hellenism will be, because Christianity Hellenizes death…” (Pushkin and Scriabin, Selected Essays, p. 127)

In other words, Christianity takes the most terrifying and difficult thing in the universe – namely, death – and makes it just another part of our emotional living room. The Bible – ostensibly the most victorious book ever written – is full of failure. If you don’t believe me, read for yourself: you will be amazed, I promise, by the sad epilogues of almost every one of the Biblical heroes, from Moses to Noah to David, to Christ himself. They live in God – and then again, taking the writer’s point of view, it is impossible for me not to see this as translating into something like “they live in a creative spirit, their inner and outer worlds line up in a way that makes it possible for them to create”. But that window of creation, like a square of sunlight in an overcast afternoon, only lasts so long. The question, then, is what to do, not with our blessed moments (since in those moments, we don’t need to ask any questions: we just write), but between them, when they have gone away. How to live without God, or good writing, or happiness, or work.

Or, how to make these things come back. With this turn, I think, we move from the desert of the Old Testament, with its disasters and exoduses and late-night angel wrasslings, and into the New Testament’s hemmed, though flourishing garden. Sin in the OT is a matter of disobeying laws: eating pork is a “sin”. But Christ as I understand him both refines and, more importantly, relocates the spiritual battle: now, in addition to our behavior outside, there will be our behavior inside. Sin is “soul error”, to use Montaigne’s phrase: a disalignment, or malformation, which alienates us from our own creative instinct (Hmmm....). Gripped by greed, for example, we are not empowered but consumed. We quite literally “miss the point” of what we are doing, not to mention life in general: we pursue things that do not make us happy and husband traits or habits that are self-defeating. And the result is that death takes over, in a way that is frustrating instead of fructifying.

If I’ve spent far too much of everyone’s time here thinking about all this, it’s because I find it immensely applicable to any creative work, but particularly to writing, which is after all what we spend all day doing or trying to do. Greed, for example, is what I see in the way I load some of my paragraphs with imagery. I’m like a kid in a candy store: I legitimately love comparing the material of life, finding resemblances, how this looks like that. In and of itself, this is, I think one of my greatest strengths as a writer. But when I indulge it too much, the page begins to sag. My reader’s attention gets lost; my own attention gets lost even, or stopped, like water attempting to make its way through a clogged pipe. The piece as a whole fails, because a larger proportion has been sacrificed for miniature workmanship. So what was started, ostensibly, as an act of communication turns its back, not only on its audience, but also on the very thing that it is trying to communicate. Insert your own indulgence here.

(not that there’s anything wrong, in and of itself, with working Joyce-like all day on a sentence. But the result has to be something that fits in with a larger pattern.)

I’ll stop here, for today. For your own indulgence with all this hooplah, attentive or not, I can only offer my thanks and sincere belief that what I’m talking about here is worth looking into. Life is a constant creation; the Bible is a record of creation; writing is our own creating, our profession and vocation. There’s nothing holy about it. At least, there’s nothing any holier about it than there is about picking your nose, or getting stuck in traffic or going skating. Books help us transform the world into something useful. In a very real and tangible way, they allow us to join in the fun.