Japan Rocks Part Two

Part One can be found here.
Back to the capsule hotel I went, almost skipping with glee. I dropped my shoes in a locker this time, dropped the locker key at the front desk, retrieved my wristband key from one of the desk clerks, and rode the Super Fun Luxury Lift to the 6th floor. I figured I’d drink a couple of Asahis, then go exploring.
Back at the room, I closed the accordion door, climbed the metal ladder into my top-bunk capsule, leaned back, switched on the TV that protruded organically from the plastic wall of my coffin, cracked a can, took a deep and almost orgasmically satisfying pull of my long-anticipated Asahi, set it down on the little extruded-plastic shelf to my right, grinned and sighed.
Pushing a little metal chicklet set into the airliner-like control panel cycled me through the TV channels on my 7-inch monitor. There were a couple of scrambled stations in the line-up, tantalizing, flickering shards of heaving pink and purple meat, the audio tracks for which were subdued sighs, gutteral man-grunts, and the occasional squelch. Either the Abbatoir Channel, or The Legendary Japanese Porn, apparently. The girl at the front desk hadn’t been taught how to say ‘You want porn with that?’ in English, I guess. I was briefly disappointed, but I figured drinking and smoking were vices enough for a short 12 hours in-country. No big deal, and although I can’t say that I wasn’t curious, I also wasn’t curious enough to go down to the desk and ask, possibly in pantomime, please may I have some porno?
I spent the first beer fiddling with switches (something from which it is apparently in my genetic code to derive great pleasure), channel-surfing, adjusting the air-con nozzle just-so, and the second beer watching some kind of top-20 countdown of neat shops and restaurants in (I believe) Tokyo.
It was time to explore a bit, I reckoned. Also, I had to take a crap. You know how that is.
There were a few more guys around, sitting in front of the pedestal ashtrays in the smoking lounge near the elevators and getting drinks from the vending machines, than there had been before, and they were all wearing identical pajamas. Ding! A light went on, and I suddenly realized what that pile of cloth had been, the one I’d dumped on the tiny desk in the room in my rush to climb up into the capsule and play around. I went back to my cubicle, stripped down to my boxers, and put on the 3/4 length jammy bottoms and v-neck top. They actually fit pretty well, which surprised the hell out of me. I am not a small man, and I’ve been lifting weights again for the last couple of months.
Suitably attired, and feeling like a million bucks, I made my way back to the toilets. You could have eaten off them. No, seriously. If there’s anything I like better than a cold beer, it’s a clean bathroom. I blame my mother for this minor quirk. She’s a very clean lady.
Attached to the side of the porcelain pot was one of those electronic bidet machines that are getting so popular in Korea, but that everyone (or possibly just me, I don’t know) associates with weird Japanese poophole fetishism. I’d never used one, although I’d tried the low-tech variety of bidet in Europe when I was travelling there, with, shall we say, mixed results, usually involving too-cold water and Extreme Scrotum Tightening. (“Next up on ESPN : EXtreme Scrotum Tightening! Brought to you by Asahi Beer!”)
The angelic choir descends!
I was feeling adventurous, and mildly euphoric from the first couple of Very Large Cans. After nature had taken its course, I centred myself, as it were, chose a button at random, and pressed it.
Wahhhh-ahhhhh! The angelic choir descended, I’m telling you. The portal to a new world opened briefly, as water warmed to a perfectly refreshing temperature cascaded and burbled playfully around my grateful sphincter. It was pure bliss, for about 20 seconds.
Aware that it would sound a bit strange (and that I might be arrested) if I were to just sit there and hit that button over and over again for the next several hours, like the wirehead monkey hitting the button for the electrical jolt to his pleasure centre, oblivious to the world, I reluctantly patted dry and padded out, casting wistful glances back at the stall. Maybe I’d need to do a #2 again later. Maybe. Hopefully.
Walking with a new spring in my step, I hopped on the elevator, and rode up to the 11th floor. As expected, the shower facilities were well-stocked with towels and lotions and unguents of all sorts, spotlessly clean, and brightly lit, in a welcoming, warmly incandescent kind of way. Not only that, but there was a sauna, all marble pools and steam and cascading water, which I vowed to try in the morning, if I had time.
Steamy. Where are the nekkid wimmen, though?
The restaurant on the floor below was similarly excellent in appearance, with a bar and a menu card chock-a-block with enticing-looking dishes. beer.gif
I had an appointment with 6 more rapidly warming cans of beer, though, and beer trumps food, always. Besides, the shouted greetings from the employees anytime someone came in the door, as in Korea, put me off.
Back in my capsule, butthole absolutely singing, I cracked another can, and switched the TV on. It was about almost 9pm by this point, and although I had to get up in less than 9 hours, get on a flight back to Seoul and convince immigration that they should let me in again with no visible means of support, I was feeling frisky, if not frisky enough to do anything but drink in bed.
That’s when Japan suddenly became the Greatest Country In The World, a status for which, in my mind at least, it had already been building a good case for candidacy.
There was a show on for about an hour that involved really goofy costumes, senseless violence, public humilation, sumo wrestlers, fat guys dressed like sumos wearing Elvis wigs and riding motorcycles in quarries, more random violence, and it was the funniest.thing.evar. No, really. Dumber than dumb, but beautifully so, if you know what I mean. One segment involved one of the fat shameless guys wearing a radio earpiece and acting out the instructions of his controllers in front of a department store, which would be less funny and more of The Usual TV Crap if the people watching weren’t Japanese. That somehow made it comedy gold for me, as did the fact that half the time you almost couldn’t see the poor guy through the crowds of onlookers, every single one of whom was pointing their mobile phone camera at him, snapping digital pics like no tomorrow. I laughed until tears came, and that doesn’t happen often, dour bastard that I usually am.
But for all the fun inherent in that program, the moment of truth came afterwards. This is primetime Saturday night, keep in mind. The show, which lasted two hours or more (things got a bit fuzzy there towards the end), was called The Poetry Bout.
It was a tournament, with the loser of each two-person bout knocked out and progressing to the next round, of Poetry Reading. Poetry! On a Saturday night! On TV, with flawless high production values, in front of a rapt and appreciative live crowd! With (what I presume were) celebrity judges and just-plain-folks, singly and in groups, in bars and homes, butchershops and schools and street-food places all over the country, via live video, giving their own commentary and votes for the winners of each round. The contestants were anywhere in age from middleschool to retiree, male and female, some eliciting laughter, some tears, some a kind of liquid silence, all clearly in love with language.
It was riveting. I didn’t understand a goddamned word, but I was glued to the set, rooting for my favorites, for a couple of hours and several more of those Very Large Beers. As the winners of the preliminary rounds went on to challenge winners of other heats, I began to become familiar with their style, and was surprised for example when a happy funster would change strategy, and pull a change-up with a poem all serious and heartfelt, instead. This, the beer was telling me, was the way poetry was meant to be appreciated – not on the page, all dismembered and nullified with dead-soul dissection, but as music, incomprehensible, glorious music, in front of a crowd that laughs and cries and farts along with the poet.
And, you know (apologies in advance to Dan, if you read this), I f–king hate poetry sometimes, unless it’s being subverted by someone like Buk. This is how much I liked this show.
The final round, although some of the oldsters and art college types had put in a good showing, was between a teenage boy and a teenage girl. She, I think, for no real reason that I can tell, was the better poet, but he frequently made his listeners both laugh and shed a tear in a single poem, and, although shy and involuted, was clearly their favorite.
When it was over, I had to go out to the lounge and smoke a cigarette, and think about what I’d seen. It seemed to me if as I’d seen something about Japan, no doubt glamourized and stage-managed and cheapened in the way that television does, but something that I had not expected. I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening, or being watched, in Korea, where the fake, the maudlin and the sentimental trump the real as a matter of policy, and though that’s what Canada may be like in my distant, half-fantasy memories of the place, I know for truth that the latest tits-and-explosions import from America is more likely to be greeted with enthusiasm there.
This wasn’t a niche show, for intellectuals and fruitbats – there were people from all walks of life watching this thing, cheering and high-fiving, of all ages, and it didn’t look like they were doing it to the insistent flashing of APPLAUSE prompters, either.
I stayed up, smoking in the lounge and finishing my last couple of beers, and thought about it a bit, and decided that I would have to write about it, start writing yet again, because, damn it, I realized that I wanted to be one of those poets too, up in that ring, and I wanted to try and make people laugh and cry with my words.
And so here I am, back in the saddle. I hope you like my poem.

Japan Rocks Part One

Japan rocks.
No, really. I have a few friends, virtual and otherwise, over there, and they are quick to jump up the ass of anyone who’s drunk the kool-aid and open their umbrellas. You know the type of travel-fanboys I mean, and my friends love to hate – men, mostly, who go to or end up in Japan to find something that they’re missing for some reason, something they can’t find wherever they are. These guys tend to fall in love – with the mythos, with a woman, with the culture, with the history, ex post facto or otherwise – and either sooner or later begin to buy into the casual Japanese certitude that the Japanese are just better than you. Better, stronger, faster, with tentacle and dismemberment porn that makes the next best tentacle and dimemberment porn offerings look like Curious George Goes To The Hospital. These fellows tend, in time, to become those annoyingly smug expats-in-Asia who are determined to overlook anything unpleasant in their adopted home, to blame the outsider, to spout platitudes that regardless of their high-minded elegance come down to ‘it’s not better or worse, it’s merely different.’ You know – the kinds of guys you want to bust in the f–king chops half the time, if only because they speak the language better than you do.
So, anyway, these friends of mine who’ve been in Japan for many years, they tend to have little patience for the kind of rah! rah! Japanophilia that I’m about to display, and for that I am profoundly sorry. All I can say is that I only spent somewhat more than 12 hours there, and the bulk of that was while I was slightly inebriated, so how much of the bad stuff could I reasonably have seen? I haven’t drunk the kool-aid, but I did drink the beer.
After getting rectally roto-rootered by my last employer and not finding another reasonable job before the contract term expired, I had to make a visa run and come back on a tourist visa, and the cheapest flight I could get was to Fukuoka. Sitting at the superb, gleaming new Incheon international airport, I noticed a flyer from Onse Telecom that said that wireless broadband was available in many of the departure gates, and if you didn’t have a laptop to take advantage of it, you could just come over to the desk and they’d give you one, for free.
This I promptly did, handing over my passport and getting a snazzy Samsung laptop in return. Good deal. I went back downstairs to the Burger King beside Gate 30, bought my first greaseburger in a few months, fired up the computer, and went surfing. I tried searching a bit for some hotels,but quickly got bored and just figured it would be groovier to do my usual trick from back in my backpacker days : show up with no pre-planning whatsoever, and see where the fates and random quantum flux took me. Instead of being prudent, I spent the next while posting snarky comments at Metafilter, until boarding time. It was about 4:30 pm, and my return flight was for 9 am the following morning.
A bumpy 90 minutes or so later, through red-lit thunderheads and millefeuille nimbostratus, across gut-levitating canyons of air – my favorite part of flying, those landscapes of cloud – we were glidepathing down into clean, green Fukuoka. It was overcast there, too, and more than 30 degrees, but I was pleased as I stepped out of the plane to find the air free of that horrendous fug to which one grudgingly becomes accustomed in Seoul.
I made my way through customs – the guy finding it odd that I only had an overnight bag, and amused when he found my two cup ramyeon packages inside – and straight to the hotel booking desk. Everyone on the various fora I’d checked before I’d left had said that the women who staffed that desk spoke excellent English, and were invariably helpful.
The girl there spoke English alright, but, in that annoyingly reticent way in which the Japanese break bad news, informed me that there wasn’t a single goddamn room left in the whole city.
Ah, sh-t.
She gave me a list to try and call myself, and after a few unsuccessful attempts punctuated by those pregnant silences that I was already starting to figure out were the Japanese equivalent of ‘sorry, buddy, you’re screwed,’ I figured I’d just have to wing it.
The shuttle bus to the domestic terminal, the subway two stops to Hakata, the centre of the action in Fukuoka.
By this time I was feeling a bit gritty-eye tired, sweaty, grumpy and increasingly sure that I was going to end up sleeping in a seat at the airport and looking like a rumpled rummy when I tried to get back into Korea the next morning. I’d done worse, years back when I had the youthful energy for travel hijinks of that sort, but these days I’m more into the Good Sleep than the Amusing Anecdote.
So I started walking around Hakata Station. The first five hotels I dragged my ass into knew what I was going to ask before I asked, and were already shaking their heads, politely, by the time I’d gotten to the desk and asked it. The two guys behind the desk at the sixth actually chuckled a bit at my stupidity – by this time I was drenched, both in sweat and by the steady rain that had started to fall, red-faced and getting extremely grumpy indeed – and I was about ready to give up and try the 5-Star (and probably more expensive than my plane ticket) Hotel Nikko.
I went into the 7-11 on the corner, bought a pack of cigarettes, and had my first sober smoke in more than three years. That helped.
As I did so, I noticed that the place across the sidestreet from me was a lobby of some sort – Hotel Cabinas Fukuoka, it said! ‘Cabinas? Capsule hotel? Yes! I’ve been wanting to stay in one of those since I first heard about them!’ thought I. I looked around for about 5 minutes trying to find somewhere to get rid of the cigarette butt – the streets were clean, and I was damned if I was going to mess them up by doing anything worse than dripping sweat on them – and then shuffled, chafing and praying, into the lobby.
One of the girls at the desk took one look as I stumbled into the lobby and – politely, mind you – said ‘Shoes…shoes please!’

No shoes, dumbass!

Great. My first faux pas already. You were supposed to take your shoes off at the front door, before you even got into the lobby! That would have made more sense in Korea, where horking up throat oysters on the street is an Olympic-level sport, and wearing your mucous-encrusted shoes inside would definitely be unhygienic…but fair enough. I backed up to the door, quickly, mumbling ‘sorry, sorry’ while the couple of Japanese guys in pajamas in the lobby eyed me suspiciously for a moment or two, then went back to their newspapers.
I took off my shoes, came back to the desk. “Do you have any…umm…spaces?”
I almost kissed her when she said “Of course!” and pulled out a laminated menu showing two kinds of capsules – one in a little room of its own, and one set into a locker-like bank of them, 2 high. Even the ‘deluxe’ was well under the price I had expected to pay for lodging, and I immediately and gratefully pointed to the bigger one. It was 4300 yen – about $50 for the night, Canadian. Woohoo! There’s some beer money, right there, thought I.

Rack 'em and stack 'em

She took my details and my cash, showed me the locker room off to the side of the check-in desk where I could put my shoes, gave me a plastic wristband with a key attached, told me about the sauna and showers on the 11th floor and the restaurant on the 10th, and wished me a pleasant stay, all in accented but excellent English. She was prettier than heck, too. Things were looking up.
This place, I neglected to mention, was nicer than most $200 a night places I’ve seen in Korea. Brightly lit, impeccably, spotlessly, surgically, clean, brand new. I’m a sucker for luxury – even faux luxury, to be honest – and although this was to all intents and purposes budget accommodation, cheaper than anywhere else I’d heard of in that city, it was nice. Really, really nice.
I took the elevator to the 6th floor, and through a set of glass doors was a set of corridors lined with capsule-rooms. Each one was a tiny hotel room, basically, with a folding, accordian door panel. Inside were a desk, built into a closet unit, and a capsule unit either in the top or the bottom. Mine was set into the top.

Big Cabin

The capsule itself was a single piece, injection-molded plastic coffin, with a video screen, alarm clock and radio, aircon control, speakers behind either ear, and amidst a profusion of knobs and switches, a large red button labelled in Japanese only, that I thought of as the ‘ejection button,’ and was sorely tempted to press, later that evening.
I pulled shut the accordion door, doffed my sweat-soaked business shirt and tie – I always fly with a tie, and find it helps to smooth my way through immigration – pulled on my old friend’s band (‘MARY’) t-shirt, and went on the hunt for beer. Nobody even looked at me. No stares, no ‘Oh my god – it’s a foreign devil’ in the local lingo, no double takes or furtive muttering and pointing. None of the stuff, in other words, that I live with every time I leave the house in Korea.
I walked around for a bit, and marvelled at the cleanliness and order of the area. This was beside the biggest station in the city, bus and subway, the sort of area you’d expect to be heavy with The Scuzz, but it was downright pretty, by night at least. I imagined living there, and somehow managed to do so, as I often do, without concurrently entertaining any discouraging notions of work or budgetary constraints or anything of the kind. In my ‘let’s imagine that I live here’ games that I unfailingly engage in whenever I happen onto somewhere nice, reality rarely intrudes.
Back to the station I wandered, after that short look around, and although none of the 7-11ish convenience stores had had any beer to sell, to my transient chagrin, and there were none of the vending machines I’d heard so much about, there was a little hole-in-wall place that had a cooler full of beer, that I somehow navigated to flawlessly once I’d booted up the beer-radar, as if I’d been following the map to the Pirate Treasure. Big black gothic-font beery ‘X’.
I am inordinately fond of Japanese beer, especially Asahi. I’d been all a-drool all day thinking about it, after endless months of choking down the Korean swill that passes for lager there. I bought Eight Very Large Cans, just to be sure. Better to have too much than too little is my thinking when it comes to such things. The girl behind the counter didn’t even bat an eye. I was beginning to love Japan by this point, with a love deep and true.
As I left the station, there was a band busking outside the entrance. It is possible that my recent successes in securing lodging and sweet sweet beverages was rosying up my outlook a bit, but i swear they were the best band I’d heard in years. This judgement may also have been due in no small part to the fact that they were also the first band I’d heard in years. (There are no buskers in Korea, good, bad or otherwise. Beggars, yeah, who somehow can afford mobile freaking karaoke machines into which they wail their maudlin songs, lying prone on the ground, wrapped in black rubber, presumably entreating passers-by to give them some money so they’ll shut the f–k up. Never mind, I’m getting sidetracked…) A friend was passing out flyers, and they were called Chaba, and their website is here. After a couple of songs, a couple of cops came up and good-naturedly shut them down, and though I was tempted to follow them and listen some more, I had a whole bunch of cold beer gently sweating in a plastic bag, and I was thirstier than hell, and had to be on an airplane in approximately 13 hours.
Part Two, in which I wear pajamas, drink beer and listen to Prime Time Poetry in a language I don’t speak, and love it, is here.

What do you do?

You ended up working for people you hated, and you found the massive inflow of cash thrilling but completely unrewarding. You felt like you had pissed away years of your life building some inconsequential piece of software that would never see the light of day anyway. You felt an urge to actually do things for people, to do something that might leave a mark of some kind on someone. On anyone. Something that felt real, or at least realer than the corporate office-politics circle jerk that had turned your sense of work as play into a daily grind as your friends quit, or were made redundant, or just gave up and waited for the foundering ship to finally sink. Endurance counts the most, Bukowski always said, but you were just too damn tired of spinning your wheels 80 hours a week, and getting shunted to the sidelines by incompetent technocrats who felt threatened by you. So you left your freakishly high-paying job, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. People thought you had taken leave of your senses.
And you went back to a place you had publicly reviled, a place you’d spent hours (days? weeks? months?) complaining about, a place in which the swarming multitude of infuriating details that assaulted your senses on a daily basis had driven you to drink for all the wrong reasons, a place where in weaker moments you felt sure that you’d had some of the life drained out of you, unrecoverable, into the smoggy night. But to a job teaching again, chasing the noble dream again, at a university, poorly-paid, yes, but where you could make a difference, you thought, where you might see in the eyes of your students that your labours were appreciated, that you would, at least by a few, be remembered. Where much of your time would be your own, and you could stretch out, grow your mind, cultivate your soul.
Dreamer. Pretty soon, predictably, you grew weary of that, too, and wondered what the hell would ever make you content.
And now, there’s an offer on the table to go back, reverse the clock, and join the racing rats once again. You’re sorely tempted, and you are annoyed with yourself for being so easily led. And afraid that if you don’t grab the ring again, don’t say yes each and every time to the possibilities life offers you, that life will stop offering you those chances, fold closed the kimono, and it will all be over.
And you realize, in your confusion and doubt, that all you really want is to go back to that bamboo hut – the one in Fiji, or the one on Flores, or the one on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, or the one you have kept in your mind like a mantra manifested since you first hurled yourself out on the road – the one on the new-moon arc of powdery sand, beneath the coconut palms, the one you’ve dreamed about over and over again. You can almost picture yourself sitting there again, deeply tanned, drinking a beer, the good hot smell of your own baked-off sweat, the dried-seawater tautness of your skin, natty dread, nothing going through your mind other than the colour blue, a deep and throbbing hum, and a set of gentle animal hungers. In the moment.
And then the phone rings.


Hangul Part One

This is the action-packed Part One of my long-promised review of Hangul, the Korean writing system. Even with the liberal lashings of foul language and obscene anecdotes, it may bore the tits off you – if so, feel free to either skip it entirely or send me the bill for the mammary reattachment procedure. (It will help to have Asian fonts installed, as explained here, but is not essential. My next post in the series will require them, though…)
Chinese writing in its various historical manifestations has been known and used in Korea for more than 2 millennia, dating back to the time of the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century CE, the Koreans were starting to write in Classical Chinese – the earliest known example of this dates from 414 CE, and by the 7th century, educated Koreans were speaking Korean and writing in Chinese. Later, three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters were created and adopted to various degrees : Hyangchal, Gugyeol and Idu.
The Hyangchal (향찰) system used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Korean, and was used mainly to write poetry. (A similar system in use in Japan at about the same time, known as man’yogana, eventually evolved into hiragana, one of the syllabaries used to write modern Japanese. Man’yogana was developed under the supervision of Koreans in the Japanese court.) The Idu(이두) system, created in the 8th century by scholars of the Shilla Dynasty, used a combination of Chinese characters and special symbols to indicate Korean verb endings and other grammatical markers, and was used in official and private documents for centuries thereafter. Gugyeol (구결) was introduced in the 13th century, and was basically a simplification of some Chinese characters in an attempt to remove some ambiguity arising from the use of some Chinese characters for their sounds and others for their meanings.
China has always been the great civilization next door in Asia, a very big brother sometimes benevolent and more often not, the source of cultural borrowings for all of its smaller neighbours, including the Koreans, and for much of Korean history the language used for learned, official purposes in Korea was Chinese, in somewhat the same way as medieval Europeans used Latin.
By the 15th century, though, it was time for Korea to find a way of writing their own language that was more appropriate to its own sounds and grammar. It could be argued that Koreans had limited need to write their language down up to this time and for a some time afterwards, and when they did, it was sufficient to use Chinese writing to spell it out, but Chinese and Korean were and are very different languages. Korean is a subject-object-verb language, for example, and has a rich system of postpositional case markers. Chinese, a subject-verb-object language, does not. Korean has a complicated system of honorifics, part of which is expressed as verb endings. Chinese does not, and doesn’t have any characters to represent these verb-ending morphemes.
The Korean writing system 한굴 (hangul) was finally created in 1440s, through the patronage of King Sejong, the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty, who ruled from 1418-1450. The new script was easy to learn – a matter of hours in many cases. (Hell, I even developed basic reading skills years ago after a couple of beer-fueled sessions at my favorite bar!) It was elegant, scientific, rooted in philosophy and study of the phonemes of spoken Korean, and is truly a thing of beauty. At the time, it was called 훈민ì •ê¸ˆ(hunmin jeongeum, or ‘proper sounds to instruct the people’). According to King Sejong’s preface to the book in which it first appeared in 1446, the invention of the script was nationalistic in intent, devised to enable the Korean people to write their own language without the use of Chinese characters. He states, in immodest Kingly (but surprisingly egalitarian) fashion :

“Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have invented a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

possibly starting as a side-effect the long and treasured tradition of Korean men taking credit for the hard work of their underlings.
Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, though, most Koreans who could write continued to write either in Classical Chinese or in Korean using the Gukyeol or Idu systems – the new script was seen to be the province of people of low status : women, children, and peasants, those who did not receive the necessary years of education required to learn to write Chinese.
Reading and writing weren’t the only political issues with regard to the language at the time, of course – spoken Korean at the time was basically a vernacular, used mostly for more homely means. Chinese was still mainly the language of power, of art, of loftier pursuits. With the similar (and certainly more despised) position of Japanese as the language of power during the brutal occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century coming hard on the heels of the collapse of the Choseon Dynasty, the idea that Korean (both written and spoken) should be the common language of all levels of society is still a relatively new one. Ideas like universal literacy and egalitarianism weren’t exactly popular ones in the society of that time (nor were they for the 5 and a half centuries after King Sejong, for that matter).
When Korean was written in the newly devised hangul script, it did still make sense for Chinese loan words, of which there were and are a multitude, to be written in their original Chinese. During the 19th and 20th centuries a mixed writing system combining Chinese characters and Hangul became increasingly popular, and literacy rates rose precipitously (as much as a consequence of changes in society as anything else, of course), until today, when the literacy rate in Korea is amongst the world’s highest. Although it has been fading since 1945 (and was outlawed in North Korea in 1949) the use of Chinese characters still persists today – the front page of many South Korean newpapers today are littered with Chinese characters, although to a lesser degree than they were even 10 years ago.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming as soon as I bloody well feel like it, which in addition to details about the writing system itself, will include naked pictures and senseless violence! Or not. I haven’t decided yet. Please feel free to point out any factual inaccuracies – I am well aware that there are many folks around with more knowledge of this subject than I could possibly lay claim to.


I brought this up in a Metafilter thread recently, and was, if not shouted down, at least soundly spanked. While there have been 321 deaths thus far as a result of SARS, the World Health Organization has recently mentioned that there are over 3000 children dying every day from malaria at the moment, in Africa alone.
That’s a lot of dead babies, friends.
I will hasten to note that I do think SARS is a worry, and is not solely a media-homunculus, shoved into the spotlight to terrify and entertain us until the next Big Scary Thing comes along. It is a Big Scary Thing in its own right, and will hopefully be contained before it becomes Captain Trips.
Nonetheless, I thought a few illustrations might help to put things into perspective. If we set SARS Patient Zero have occurred on February 12 of this year, these are the way the numbers look as of April 28 2003, according to the WHO. Each tiny black dot is a human life.

Deaths from SARS, February 12 2003 to present : 321
321 deaths

Let’s have a look at some more happy fun numbers!

Read More

Linguistic Relativism and Korean

[Warning : this is long.]
An email exchange with Kevin Marks a few weeks ago got me thinking more about one of the theories of linguistics that I’ve always taken for granted as a given. Only now as I am about to begin graduate level work in the subject am I realizing the degree to which various researchers in the field disagree about it. Of course, as is undoubtedly the case in most academic fields, there is disagreement about pretty much everything.
The following is probably of little interest to those not interested in linguistics (although may be of some small interest to those curious about the Korean language), and may best be skipped entirely. I am, however, keen to hear what people think, if they are interested in this field at all, so rather than keep my response restricted to email, I’ve decided to post it here. I suspect that it doesn’t even answer the question that Kevin put to me, which was ‘I’d like to hear a cogent argument for (the validity of linguistic relativism),’ if I understood it correctly. More of a wee survey for my own interest. Ah, well.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is variously referred to as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis,’ ‘linguistic relativism,’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ (a description of the strong formulation meant by implication to be a bad thing, I think) concerns the relationship between language and thought, and suggests in its strongest form that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language perceive and understand the external world. This formulation is generally understood by many to be untenable, but the hypothesis also exists in a weaker form : that language structure and content does not determine a view of the world, but that it shapes thought to some degree, and is therefore a powerful impetus in influencing speakers of a given language to adopt a certain world-view.
A possible opposite claim, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that the thought (and thus culture) of a linguistic group is mirrored in the structure and content of their language, that because they behave and understand things in a certain way, their language reflects those behaviours and understandings – the idea that language is molded, if not determined, by culture.
Two quotes from the linguists whose names are most closely associated with this idea, the first from Edward Sapir (Language, 1929b, p. 207) :

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language that has become the medium of excpression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsiously built up on the language habits of the group…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.(Sapir, E. Language, 1929b, p. 207)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, who was a student of Sapir, went further than the ‘predisposition’ suggested by his teacher, and proposed that the relationship was a more deterministic one :

the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions that has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic system in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way, an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
(Whorf, Benjamin, (1956). In J, Carroll (Ed.), Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Whorf does not go so far as to say that language structure totally determines the world-view of a speaker here. He does add, though :

This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a lingusit familiar with very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all obcervers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are simialr, or can in some way be calibrated.

This last is where the argument runs off the rails for me, at least the argument in which I have any interest. It is also the portion of the idea upon which most critics focus, and which was fueled by the Great Eskimo Snow Silliness set off in great part by this :

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow – whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.
(Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1940. Science and linguistics, Technology Review (MIT) 42, 6 (April))

and which has been discussed at length in many places, including, cogently here, for example.
To most people, particularly those with little knowledge of Hardcore Linguistics, including myself, the weaker form of Sapir-Whorf seems self-evident. Of course the words we use, the words we know, have some influence on the way we think! The very fabric of our cognition is language, it might well be claimed (but of course that would be a claim that would meet great opposition as well). There is, predictably, great argument about what constitutes ‘mentalese,’ the native language of our minds, as it were). Do words determine the shape of our thoughts? Well, it seems equally clear that that’s nonsense, and though it may and can be argued, it must be said most people don’t bother to try.
Steven Pinker, who was the entry point to the brief exchange between Kevin and I a few weeks ago, calls the idea ‘linguistic determinism,’ and argues as most do that the strong version is nonsense. A student of Noam Chomsky, he works from Chomsky’s idea of ‘Cartesian linguistics,’ that the brain has a ‘hard-wired’ built-in language acquisition device with an understanding of ‘universal grammar’, and suggests that language acquisition is an instinct. If we accept that language is an instinct, as Pinker and his mentor Unca Noam argue, it seems as if we must reject the proposition that language shapes thought. Some consequences of this :

Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old … is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum[…]
[…] Once you begin to look at language not as the ineffable essence of human uniqueness but as a biological adaptation to communicate information, it is no longer tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought, and, we shall see, it is not.
(Pinker, S (1994). The Language Instinct New York: William Morrow and Company Inc.)

In this, Pinker seems to be arguing not only against the idea that culture shapes language, but also the against idea that language shapes culture (by shaping thought). The use of the pejorative ‘insidious’ is a little unnecessary, but I’m not one who should poke people with sticks for using flowery language.
In his discussion of the idea, Pinker suggests three possibilities for interpretation:
(a) identicality: that language determines thought precisely, word-for-word;
(b) concept determinism: language determines (to an unspecified degree) what we
can think (doubleplus ungood!);
(c) linguistic relativity: that the form of our language (merely) influences what we tend to believe.
In Chapter 12 of The Language Instinct (quoted to me by Kevin), it seems that Pinker does concede the weak form :

Language surely does affect our thoughts, rather than just labelling them for the sake of labelling them. Most obviously, language is the conduit through which people share their thoughts and intentions and thereby acquire the knowledge customs and values of those around them.

Some commentators apparently do not take this as evidence that Pinker is admitting the weak formulation (c, above) of Sapir-Whorf. As I do not have access to a copy of The Language Instinct (no English language libraries and no damn money!), I’ll have to take their word for it.

The amount of time and energy that’s been expended on arguing about how vocabulary effects cognition surprises me, frankly. I think there’s a much more interesting discussion about grammar and deeper structures here that often seems ignored, at least in what reading I’ve managed to do.
The effect of such things on language users seems to me to be more pervasive and more subtle than simple differences in richness or breadth of vocabulary, on which most work and thought has seemed to focus.
One reason I believe this to be so is as a result of some of the fundamental differences in language structure between Korean and English (and to a great extent, the other European languages with which I have some familiarity). Please note that I neither claim to be a expert in Korean language (more of a lazy amateur), nor have I conducted any experiments or formal observations. First, some background. There are three ideas with some circulation about the earliest genetic relationship of Korean with other language families : 1) the traditional view that Korean is an Altaic language, sharing its origins with Manchu, Mongolian, and Turkish, amongst others; 2) the proposition that Korean has its origin in two language families, Altaic and Polynesian; and 3) the view that because of insufficient evidence to support a definitive relationship with other languages, Korean is a language isolate.
Regardless of its origins, Korean does share a number of features common to Altaic languages : words are built by agglutinating affixes, vowels within words follow certain rules of harmony, and articles, relative pronouns, explicit gender markers, and auxiliaries are not found.
Although Korean is not related to Chinese, as a result of history and geography more than 50 percent of the words in the Korean dictionary are of Chinese origin. Most legal, political, scientific, religious and academic vocabularies, as well as Korean surnames, and increasingly at present given names, are based on Chinese borrowings and can be written with Chinese characters, although meanings and pronuciations have often shifted as they have been adopted.
Although some basic words for body parts, clothing and agriculture are shared between Korean and Japanese, and other similarities exist, including grammatical structures similar enough that word-for-word translations between the languages is relatively easy, it is still uncertain whether the similarities are genetic or come as a result of historical borrowing between the two. Many features of Korean separate it from English and other Indo-European languages. Some of the most important of these (for my discussion here, at least) are the use of honorifics, relationship words, and different levels of speech (others include articles, plural markers, pronouns, adjectives, verb forms, demonstratives and so on).
Honorifics are markings for nouns and verbs that express the speaker’s attitude toward the addressee and the person who is being spoken of. Relationship words are blanket nouns denoting relationships between people that are commonly used in informal conversation between people, rather than given names – older brother, younger sister, uncle, auntie, grandmother and so on. (In the slummy, thin-walled building I used to live in in Busan, it was de rigeur on Saturday nights to hear sounds of passion and female cries of ‘Opa! Oh, opa! (older brother)’ from the playboy-next-door’s apartment.) These extend to the common practice of referring to a woman as ‘so-and-so’s mother,’ rather than using her given name.
There are four main levels of speech – polite-formal, polite-informal, plain, and intimate style – from which a speaker chooses, generally unconsciously, in everyday speech. The rules which determine the appropriate choice in conversation derive from the arcane art of knowing the ins and outs of the complex sociocultural fabric of Korean. It is equally inappropriate (in general) to address an older non-relative informally as it is to address a child with the polite-formal style, and mistakes like this may constitute a social breach (although it is generally understood that non-native speakers might make such mistakes). Depending on the relative status of the speaker, the person spoken to, and the person or thing that may be spoken about, the speaker can choose different words and forms to express intended meaning. For many basic verbs like eat, sleep, or give, at least two Korean words are available, each reflecting a different status of the subject or object of the verb. Each verb in Korean is further altered by a choice of grammatical affixes, adding not only grammatical information (such as tense), but carrying different levels of respect, deference, or politeness. Many nouns that refer to kinship or the household alsohave plain and honorific versions, the latter of which are used speak of another’s house or relatives, and the former of one’s own.
How does all of this relate to my earlier discussion of Sapir-Whorf, and considerations of how much and in what manner language may shape thought, and whether culture (loosely) determines language stucture, or vice versa? Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Korea is widely acknowledged to be the most Confucian nation in the world technically neo-Confucian, but there’s no need to split that particular hair here). Confucius focused on the need to maintain social order though willing or unwilling submission to the five primary relationships :
1) Ruler and subject
2) Parent and child (teacher and student)
3) Husband and wife
4) Older and younger person
5) Friend and friend
All of these relationships are explicity hierarchical, excepting, significantly perhaps, the last, although friendship of a Confucian bent is a considerably more meaningful proposition, it may be argued, than ‘buddies’ in North America might be.
Appropriate behaviour is expected for participants in each of these relationships, and the language used must be similarly hierarchical :

…a son should be reverential; a younger person respectful; a wife submissive;a subject loyal. And reciprocally, a father should be strict and loving; an older person wise and gentle; a husband good and understanding; a ruler righteous and benevolent; and friends trusting and trustworthy. In other words, one is never alone when one acts, since every action affects someone else.

Although as in many nations, the strength of these traditional beliefs is fading, Confucian tenets still underly a great deal of the conscious and unconscious expectations of social behaviour, and deeply influence the relationships between the sexes and the generations.
The question that interests me, then, is this : do structures and forms like these in the Korea language shape the way in which Koreans think, particularly in terms of their relationships not so much to the world but to the people in it, to such a degree that we can say that language has given them a world-view substantially different than, for example, my own, as an English native speaker? It certainly seems so, to me.
Language is a tool for communication, a social construct, and it seems somewhat pointless to argue about what nouns one uses, and whether the presence or absence of a given bit of vocabulary in one language or another either permits and limits one’s ability to think about it. This may be so, but I don’t think it’s very interesting, except in the abstract.
More interesting to me is the idea that the structures of a language – in this case Korean – may expand or limit the way in which one thinks about something much more important than snow (for example) : how one fits into society, and how one interacts with other humans. That Koreans really do think differently about these things, and that this may spring (entirely, partially, as much or less so?) from their language.
Is this a valid argument for a weak form of lingustic relativism? Is it even something that comes under the Sapir-Whorf rubric? I’m not sure. An opposite, equally important question is this : is it the case that the language has come to have the form it does as result of culture and belief, rather than the opposite? Confucius was Chinese, after all, and from an entirely different language group!
Again, I’m not sure. The correct answer is usually ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’, I know. Like I said, though, I’m an amateur who hasn’t taken a single course in this stuff (yet!). So I’m curious about what you might think, dear reader, whether you’re a full-fledged linguist (like languagehat) or just, like me, an enthusiastic dabbler.

Oh, It's All So Icky

So I heard some people are averting their eyes, avowing that they’ll Blog No More about all the War and Death and Ugliness and Ickiness; telling us that they feel they must disengage from the angry and divisive back-and-forth bayonette to the guts wartalk flying back and forth across the blogosphere lately. It’s just so taxing. Too much, too wild, too real, too damn disruptive to quiet contemplation and coffee consumption. The voices who shout out against war are all but indistinguishable in their stridency from the voices who cheer the Forces of Freedom, darn it! I thought all that fact-checking of their asses would be fun! It’s all so easily parsed, too obvious – I know the forces of Good are the Forces of Evil, sometimes, silly, and the Evil Doers are still there, darn it, and the Doers of Good are semi-plus unbad, well, at least sometimes, and I weary of explaining it all to my loyal readers, and besides all this typing is making me tired already, especially when some random Googlenaut winds up at My Personal Website with a search for “America Number One” +pussy -cheeselogs and leaves a comment that makes me feel like my carefully chosen words are all pearls-before-swining themselves, and I just can’t do it any more, I need to find my happy place….
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m thinking you can go f–k yourselves, you lame sh-tmorsels. Grab some anger [mp3 – 2Mb] and ride it into the dirt, or step the f–k back.

(If this is unfair to those who have made a firm stand against making a firm stand, well, tough sh-t is all I can say to you this evening, my friends.)


[Note in Big Friendly Letters for the Intelligence Impaired : The piece below was recently reproduced in toto (which is intensely annoying in and of itself) at Indymedia by someone, and characterized as actually being in support of this corporatist misadventure of a war. It’s not, damn it, and that might have been clear if my unknown copy-and-paster had actually bothered to read beyond the first paragraph, or scrolled down a post or two. Disappointing.]

You know, I’m starting to get behind this whole War thing. I feel it in my belly now, I feel the twist down deep in there, down where the root of my cock would be, if it had a root. I feel the warm throb with each heartbeat thrum and flash of ordnance.
It gets me hot.
I’m getting excited about the killing. I wasn’t too thrilled with it at first, you know, cowardly america-hating lefty cheese-eating appeaser blowhard anti-warblogger f–kwit that I am. I was tremulous and girly, but now that the blood is flowing, and the guns are shouting their wordless chants, I’m starting to like it. I want to see more! I want the news to turn bad and then worse. I don’t want your brave boys or mine to come home, wrapped in glory and squinting through a cake of Euphrates dust – I want them to stay and fight and die, for me, yes for me, and for glorious freedom. I want them to stand there arch-backed and unbowed in the sand with the grieving sun behind them – erect – and clutching a flagpole, with old glory streaming out behind. And then I want to see them blown to pieces.
I want a conflagration! Firestorms! God damn it, if it’s war then let it be war! Let’s rub our noses in it, roll in it like a dog in its puke, let’s stare at ourselves red-eyed in the mirror and think about what we really are, and what we love, and who we fear. Let’s take it to the next level! Let’s roll! No pain no gain! Just do it! Semper fidelis! Give me the shrieks of the wounded, the gentle Protestant sobbing of heartbroken heartland mothers, and the keening of those strange burkha’d women gathered around the corpses of their sons, too.
I like this war. I want more of it. I want Iraqi Freedom now, and I want it without pickles or mustard, you minimum-wage retard. I want Iranian Freedom too, with some Freedom Fries on the side, and then I want some goddamned Korean Freedom, served up sizzlin’ hot, with kimchi-fart afterburners switched on as the walls fall down around me. Free the world, George! Free us all! We want to be free! My huddled masses, they yearn for some down-home, Texas-style freedom! Freedom from care, freedom from want, freedom to shop, freedom from thought, freedom from life. Free us from our lives, America, free us all. Fight for peace, because peace is almost as good as freedom!
Void where prohibited by law.

Death Rulez, d00d

I am often inclined to think, all Sturgeonesque, that 90% of everything is crap, and that goes double for poetry. Which would mean, of course, that 180% of poetry is crap, which may be overstating the case somewhat, but that feels like a comfortable number to work with, so I’ll let it stand.
A case in point is this Harold Pinter poem rescued from a slightly-less-than-customarily-dumbass (at least recently) Metafilter thread. Harold Pinter is apparently some Poet of Significance, about whom I know very little, as I ain’t got me mucha that there book-larnin’. Anyway, have a read :

Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.
The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn’t join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who’ve forgotten the tune.
The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in the dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America’s God.

Now, I don’t disagree with the sentiment expressed here, as you might guess. Yes, America and their God are doodyheads supreme, and a force for death and evil in the world today. That’s a given, isn’t it? And, hey, I like the loping metre – badum badumdum boop. It’s bouncy, yet martial! Just right, as Goldilocks might exclaim.
What amuses me is that this Great Author’s Poem falls in quality somewhere between lame old Satan-cheering Iron Maiden lyrics, say, and a quote from Cannibal Corpse [warning : rather icky, but may assist in understanding American culture] . You know, I wouldn’t take issue if Pinter’s tripe weren’t meant to be Art, High and Holy. No one listens to Cannibal Corpse (or at least, I wish no one did) expecting a literary artgasm, I don’t think. But oor Harold?
Well, stuff like “The riders have whips which cut. Your head rolls onto the sand Your head is a pool in the dirt Your head is a stain in the dust” goes quite nicely alongside other stuff like

Slaughtered enemies scattered
Trail of death they walked
Drenched in their own blood
A sound of thousands fills the sky
A death that comes so clear
When the rain of fire falls
Flames that will consume
A boiling death appear
The last second alive

Quick now, was that Harold, or the merry pranksters from Vomitory? And does it matter? Admittedly Mr Rundqvist, Vomitory’s wordsmith, has a few problems with getting those nice bumpedyboop rhythms going, and may in fact have a few problems with english as a second language, but I’m willing to bet there are a whole lot more people chanting his songs than dear old Harold’s.
Which may not be the point. You tell me. 250 words or less, due by Friday. Heh.
I wonder, as an aside, how many of the foolish young soldiers going to risk their lives for f–king nothing in Iraq listen, teeth gritted, to mutant scum like Cannibal Corpse and their grindcore ilk? That might be an interesting statistic.


Shelley speaks, in pellucid and evocative language, of the tensions between the individual and community, conflicts between the strength of uncompromising individuality and the sense of responsibility to others, which are often expressed in ways contrarian and discordant. If you read her words often, you know that she cherishes this part of herself, and is proud to be the one who pushes back, who questions, about matters political and gender-related, about issues social and relating to the blogosphere, and this is one of the things many other people cherish about her too. I’m glad – more than glad, I’m indebted in a multitude of ways and even if I disagree with her on the details deeply grateful – that she is around to kick against the pricks, as exhausting and demoralizing an avocation as that is.
One of the many reasons I feel indebted to her (and to others around the ever-more-loosely-joined virtual neighbourhood of which I feel a part) is that she kickstarts thoughts in me, and if I’m at the precise juncture where the caffeine has overcome my natural lethargy (like right now), I’m liable to write about them. The exercise of deciding whether this is a Good Thing or not is left to the reader.
The following is long and personal, and no doubt philosophically suspect. So sue me!
Particularly in these difficult days, people accuse me of being anti-American, and I invariably admit that I am, although perhaps not in the sense in which they mean it. The phrase anti-American almost certainly means different things to different people, and in different languages (long ramble about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis excised – I’ll leave that for another day). Occasionally I’m even asked why, although this is rare, and like dg here, it’s usually as part of a low-intensity injoke that bounces around Metafilter occasionally : ‘Why do you hate America so much?’
I wish I were able to trace back to the beginning my first stirrings of anti-American sentiment, way up there in my Northern BC village. That sort of thing is a fool’s game, though, particularly when your long-term memory is as wildly inaccurate as mine. We only got two television channels up there – CTV and CBC – and so there was no nose-upturned pseudo-intellectual pooh-poohing of American entertainment, though you can be sure I affected a whole range of other arrogant smartboy behaviours, feeling as I did a lone island of brilliance in a sea of millworkers and fetal alcohol syndrome genetic sports.
The second album I remember buying was The Clash’s London Calling – perhaps that was the trigger.
With lyrics like

The judge said five to ten-but I say double that again
I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown
Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you
The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal
You grow up and you calm down
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now

it fired me up in a way that I still feel, bowel-deep and still burning decades later. But really that album, political as it was, had very little in the way of attacks on America itself – it chose broader targets, and knocked them over with rakish, snarling aplomb.
Like Shelley, I read Ayn Rand as a teen too, and everything else I could get my hands on, which, thanks to a mother visibly relieved that I was more interested in books than cars, was almost everything I could think of, but it didn’t leave much of a mark on me, I don’t think. Similar expressions of libertarian ideals in Heinlein’s juvenilia and other SF novels did leave their mark, though. I remember quoting him, sneeringly, over the years : ‘specialization is for insects.’ But I was too interested in individuals (which I mentioned in another context, in a post of which I’m particularly proud, here) to care much about -isms. This decision, this disdain of politics, has stayed with me to this day.
So how does a disdain of politics and a Clash song jibe with a repeatedly-reiterated anti-Americanism? I’m getting to that, honest.
One of the things that Shelley’s piece today started me contemplating was how my feelings on individuality differ from the ones she expresses so well, and how imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life. When I think about it, lyrics from another song bubble up into my mind, and I suppose they express the root of my feeling as well as anything else :

I thought thought that I could find a way
To beat the system
To make a deal and have no debts to pay
I’d take it all take it all I’d run away
Me for myself first class and first rate
But all that you have is your soul
Here I am waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul

All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right. It has roots, no doubt, in childhood bereavements, and first saw the light when a psychologist diagnosed me as a kindergarten sociopath. It matured with the fingernails-ripped-out clawing at the well-walls of my hometown – let me out! – and has evolved slowly since. It’s led to me to live as an expatriate all over the planet for most of the last 15 years, complaining about my new hosts, wherever they have been, and equally kept me from returning home. It’s made me unwilling to consider myself part of any group larger than a self-selected circle of close friends, virtual and otherwise. It’s led me inexorably to spending a significant portion of my waking hours in front of a computer, typing my life out for people I have never met.
But it’s also made me a better man, in many ways, I think, if a somewhat solipsistic one. I do believe that all you have is your soul, and that, absurd as it seems, is true even if there is no such thing as a soul. That’s an argument I’m not interested in, as it simply doesn’t matter. But I believe that once you have done your best to detach, in best buddhist fashion (though I hasten to add that I am no more a buddhist than I am an evangelical christian) – detach from political or religious affiliation, from outmoded and useless labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’, from exhortations to patriotism and considerations of race, from fretting about whether this group or that is disadvantaged or exploited – and tried to live according to the dictates of your conscience and love and do what good you can for those you know….well, we all want that, in one way or another, don’t we?
At the end of the day, ignoring the clamoring of the crowds to join in and be a part of something is the strategy of the hermit, and I am no hermit. I partake, joyfully or furiously, depending on the provenance of the brain chemicals circulating intraskull, with as much enthusiasm as someone might who defined themselves by their job, or their religion, or their gender, or their sexual preference, or their nationality, or their political affiliation, or their race.
So why do I hate America so much, though I’ve said over and over again that I love many American people? Because America does evil, and I cannot help but hate that which does evil, all the while knowing that it is evil. There’s no need for me to recite the litany of Terrible Wrongs that America has done – no matter how you sit on the love/hate/fear/security map, you know those things of which I speak.
This is not to say that other nations, other governments, other groups political or otherwise, today and in the past (and no doubt far into the future) have not done great evil. Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Rwanda, Russia, El Salvador, Guatemala…. any of us could go on, endlessly, and point to massive evils that, in sheer scale if nothing else, dwarf the worst that anyone could accuse America of.
For me, though, disappointment is the key to my dislike of America. Deep, weary, beaten-down disappointment. Disappointment at the massive disconnect between the way that America portrays itself, and the way that many Americans who are ignorant of both history and geography perceive America. Regardless of how shocked people may have been at the million corpses littering the ground in Rwanda a decade ago, I believe that were the blood of those multitudes on American hands through action rather than inaction, the shock and outrage would be many times more powerful. When I was young I expected – and many people, American and otherwise feel the same – that America would always be a force for good in the world. Americans are supposed to be heros, damn it! That’s what their movies tell us, and their television, and their news agencies and their government. That’s what their duplicitous sold-out scumbag of a president keeps repeating in halting tones when they trot him out to read another script about ‘smoking out the evil-doers.’ And nothing, we all know, is as disappointing as a fallen hero.
(Of course, you can probably guess that I directly blame George W Bush and his administration for the death of one of my best friends, as much as I blame the sack of sh-t who set and detonated that bomb in Bali. They loaded and cocked the gun – that little Indonesian just pulled the trigger. Their bumbling PR-driven war in Afghanistan drove al Qaeda members to Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population on the planet, where those escappes were no doubt instrumental in the murder of all those people in Kuta. My resentment of the abject stupidity of the conduct of the little Bush-te revenge-war has only honed my anger and resentment and disappointment to a fine edge.)
But to people not dependent on their politics or their nationality to define themselves, to someone for whom identity is not built on ideas and groups outside of him or herself, the words of Official America are at so far a remove from the realities that anger and disappointment are the only responses that seem rational. Anger that wrong is being portrayed as right, to the apparent unquestioning satisfaction of many who would fight evil if they recognized it. Disappointment because America, the great power of our world, could do so much good, and instead has been locked into a path that will bear bitter fruit for everyone for as far as the mind can see into the cratered, smoke-shrouded wasteland of the future.
I love Americans, many of them. I hate America because through those who lead that powerful nation, it seems to be hellbent on making a world that is worse in every way that’s important for most of the people in it. And I feel this way not because I am Canadian, or ‘lefty’, or religious, or anything else other than who I am. I hate America because I want so desperately to love it.

World of Assholes

Like everyone else, I noticed Dr Weinberger’s and Doc Searls’ World of Ends this morning, linked from Bb. I have taken the liberty of making a response, of sorts, in the form of a satire fetchingly entitled – in true profane wonderchicken style – ‘World of Assholes’.
Although I do disagree with many of their points, I recognize the good will in their intention, and intend this in turn as good-natured if pointed ribbing, not ideological warfare. Manifestos by their very nature invite a kick in the ass, though, and I’m willing as always to step up to the plate. (And mostly I was just annoyed that I didn’t get one of those emails Shelley mentioned. Heh.)

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The Nutshell

  1. The Internet is complicated.
  2. The Internet isn’t a thing or an agreement : it’s a place.
  3. The Internet isn’t stupid, but it’s filled with stupidity.
  4. Adding value to the Internet adds to its value.
  5. Value on the internet goes unnoticed unless some high-traffic node connects it to the mainstream.
  6. Money moves to the greedy.
  7. The asshole of the world? Nah, the world of assholes.
  8. The Internet’s three vices:
  9.   a. Americans dominate it
      b. The wealthy populate it
      c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something

  10. If the Internet is so complicated, why do so many seem driven to try and simplify it?
  11. Some mistakes we can stop making already.


1. The Internet is complicated.

The internet is probably the most complicated thing in history, although it’s built on technology (TCP/IP) that is deceptively simple. Confusing the technology with the creativity and conversation is like confusing the truck with the beer it’s carrying.

2. The Internet isn’t a thing or an agreement : it’s a place.

Actually, it’s probably all three, but aphorisms have to be pithy, so you’ll excuse the confusion. The best way to understand something that’s complicated is to examine the metaphor or metaphors one uses to describe it or think about it. In America, football is a metaphor used to think about business, and war is a metaphor used to think about football, for example. This helps us to understand why bombing the living sh-t out of Iraq will magically make problems with the economy go away.
The internet feels like a place to most people – an environment that exists out there independantly of whether of not they are participating in it. The wires and servers, the hardware and the software – the things give the protocols a way to interact. The protocols are an agreement, and they allow the space to exist. The space is where we exist when we are on the net. See also : highway, truck and beer.

3. The Internet isn’t stupid, but it’s filled with stupidity.

The internet isn’t about packets, it’s about people. Just like in the real world, many of those people are egregiously stupid, and say and do stupid things. There are a few barriers to entry – literacy and money are two, for example
– so this makes the situation slightly less excruciating than it is in our daily lives offline.

4. Adding value to the Internet adds to its value.

If you change something about the way the internet works to favour a certain way of communicating or a certain technology, you may well be having a negative impact on other aspects of the environment. If all you are doing is adding something, however, the expected rules apply. More is, however, not necessarily better, for anyone except those who want to make money. See also : 8c.

5. Value on the internet goes unnoticed unless some high-traffic node connects it to the mainstream.

It’s entirely possible that the most brilliant minds of our generation are out there in the net hinterlands, exposing their genius for the world to see, and nobody is seeing it except the googlebot. Unless a higher-traffic node or nodes of the net (with a human intelligence in the driver’s seat) notes and disseminates the value that is being created out on the edges back into the middle and out again, nothing happens, and our new Shakespeare or Einstein labours unnoticed.

6. Money moves to the greedy.

If value goes unnoticed until the Big Nodes notice, then you or your product needs to get noticed by the central hubs somehow. Once that happens, the greedier you are, the more you’ll make. Mostly it’s about knowing the right people, just as it is in Real Life.

7. The asshole of the world? Nah, the world of assholes.

Because the internet is a place, it’s populated by all sorts of folks : the good, the bad and the fugly. Many people with even a shred of decency and integrity left bemoan the cesspool of evil, filth and stupidity that much of the internet has become. For some, the metaphor we used to use to describe my end-of-the-world hometown when I was young might be appropriate : The Asshole of The World.
This comes as a natural consequence of human nature, of course, and is to be expected. Just as in any other place, there are the good neighbourhoods and the bad, the saints, the sinners, and the scumbags. The internet may route around damage, but it builds a bus route directly to porn and cheap laughs. (You got here, didn’t you?)
Regardless of whether the internet is the rectum mundi (ahoy! fake latin to port!) or not, the place is unimportant without the people who populate it. Unfortunately, just as in real life, many of them are deeply unpleasant : the world of assholes.

8. The Internet’s three vices

So, those are the facts about the Internet. See, I told you they were complicated.But what do they mean for the behavior of the corporations and corporatists that keep trying to make the internet into a mall or a propaganda tool or a surveillance network?
Here are three basic rules of behavior that are tied directly to the factual nature of the Internet:
  a. Americans dominate it
  b. The wealthy populate it
  c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something
Let’s look a little more closely at each…

8a. Americans dominate it

Americans, with their brash ways, their aspirations to Empire, their big hair and good teeth. Ah, those wacky Americans. They built the internet, and they’re determined to make it a mirror of their crumbling society. It’s a safe bet they’ll succeed.

8b. The wealthy populate it

Not too many poor folks on the net. Damn near none, in fact. Most people who can’t find enough fresh water to drink on a daily basis (well over half the population of the planet) don’t have access to a personal computer. And the wealthy got wealthy f–king the poor, personally or by proxy, so nothing’s new there.

8c. More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something

A virtual space cannot get overcrowded, but it certainly can get messy and loud. But more people online means more targets for marketers, more data for surveillance units, more money for telcos. Go go go!

9. If the Internet is so complicated, why do so many been seem driven to try and simplify it?

There’s money and recognition in talking down to people.
Could it be because the three Internet vices are the exact analogue of how governments and businesses view the world?
Americans dominate it: The American government (and many of its people) are keen to dominate the world politically, militarily, and economically. Why should the net be any different?
The wealthy populate it: If you haven’t got enough money to buy my products, then f–k you.
More inhabitants does not automatically mean more value, except to those who want to sell you something: More human targets mean more sales, and more data for the Information Awareness miners. If they’ve got the money to get online, they’ve got the money to buy stuff, and if they’re breathing, they’re quite possibly a threat to the American government.

10. Some mistakes we can stop making already.

Enough already. Let’s stop banging our heads against the facts of Internet life, and go outside for some fresh air.
We have nothing to lose but our cupidity.

Dirt Stick Stone

About a year ago, I squeezed out the following brainfart

…is it only a matter of time until Hollywood starts regularly hiring hundreds of blogtemps to fire up new weblogs, post furiously and praise to the skies the latest piece of crap opus by Jerry Bruckheimer or some other purveyor of soul-destroying cinematic garbage, interlink to themselves and a few ‘a-listers’, start offering large cash incentives to Kottke and Rageboy and other high-traffic blognodes to link back to the rent-a-bloggers, and watch the Google rank for their new Product soar? Or record companies to promote their wares? Or governments? Are recent, highly-successful experiments in spiking the GooglePunch like the recent one by Matt Haughey the tip of the iceberg? How soon before big business catches on, before the Office of Strategic Mind Control realizes the subtle power (if they haven’t already) of the interconnectedness of blogs and begins working blogspace like the infopimps they strive to be? Before this ‘place’, too, becomes branded and corporatized? (Forget the stone-knives-and-bearskins, bandwidth-wasting crudity of banner ads – savvy marketers will work the medium, pimp the actual hyperlinks, and tickle Google till it quivers, moans, and page-ranks, gratefully. Linkwhoring could become a serious business. Perhaps we could form a mafia, a Blogga Nostra, and skim a little of that corporate cream off the top, broker linkage deals, extort flame-protection money.)

And today, as weblogorrhea reaches epidemic proportions, Dr Pepper’s soulless, clue-deficient marketing shills are actually giving it a go, boys and girls.

Next comes a blog-related twist on viral marketing — recruiting ‘key influence bloggers’ to promote Raging Cow by sharing their enthusiasm, linking to the site and distributing special screensavers, banners and skins. Beginning with an initial group of six people in their late teens and early 20s — flown to Dallas with their parents for an induction session — Dr Pepper hopes to develop a ‘blogging network’ to hype Raging Cow and “be part of the ‘in the know’ crowd,” says its brand-marketing honcho Andrew Springate. Those spreading the news via their blogs won’t disclose their flackitude, says Springate, because officially they’re not paid Dr Pepper employees; they only get promo items like hats and T shirts.

*Takes off tinfoil helmet*
Doc Searls is quoted as saying in response to this : “In my view blogs are the antidote to viral marketing.”
In my view, this clumsy teentastic attempt at manipulation – more likely to attract attention to itself (which, let’s face it, has got to be the real goal here, rather any genuine attempt at marketing juice thanks to the efforts of some cadre of hiphop dipsh-t teend00d bloggers pimping their avatars for some gear – it’s a metacampaign, kids!) and spawn subtle and inventive imitations as a result of the MSNBC article and other media attention – is the first salvo in a coming war of web words. Blogs aren’t the antidote to viral marketing, they’re the petri dish where the virulent brain-colonizing memetic equivalent of Ebola will be grown. Call it wEbola, and reach for the mental prophylactic of your choice. At stake are our very souls!
That’s complete bullsh-t, of course. I’m just flinging hyperbole around to make this all seem a little more interesting, you know, ’cause I can. The truth is, even if I do disagree with Doc’s quotable quote there, if I should happen across a weblog pimping some craptacular, pointless and inevitably unnecessary new product (“Buy this crap! Buy it you f–kers, or we’ll lose our jobs and have to whore out our children!” – now that’s a marketing campaign I could respect), well, *click*
Heck, I even refuse to read weblogs that perfunctorily link to Amazon, for christ’s sakes, never mind ones that are busy flogging some sh-tty sugar drink. But this sort of thing is going to get more sophisticated, mark my words, brothers and sisters, and more insidious. The marketrons will continue to colonize the new frontier. I have seen the enemy and he is us.

Pray For Death! Pray!

Thanks to the eternally irate Mr Golby for this little nugget.
Yes! Bless us, lord! Let’s pray for our troops, pray for our politicians, pray that the bleeding hemorrhoids that have been plaguing us will disappear, let’s pray that those pesky raghead pagan f–ks die in their thousands, let’s pray that more war will stop war, let’s pray that killing will put a cap on killing, let’s pray that the sweet light crude manna will continue to pump through the fiscal veins of our great nation, let’s pray that our god has a bigger dick than theirs, let’s pray that the dazed halfwit apathetic scum that allowed us to take over the most powerful country in the world won’t wake up and cut our throats like the vermin we are, let’s pray goddamnit, let’s pray the great game will continue, let’s pray that jesus doesn’t f–king come back and rip us from crotch to sternum like trout, let’s pray, let’s pray, let’s get down on our knees and pray to something bigger, let’s pray, let’s pray our children don’t have to do the same evil things we did, it’s not our fault, god, please, it’s not our fault, we’re not bad people, we just did what we had to do, what we were told to do….


[Audio : Dead Kennedys – Kinky Sex Makes The World Go ‘Round]

Masks and Mirrors

This is going to be one of those posts that starts : “So, I….”
I usually hate those kinds of posts.
So, I get an EGR send in my inbox today. Rageboy – or Locke, or whichever mask he was wearing when he hit ‘send’ or ‘go’ or ‘cry havoc’ or whatever the button said (assuming that both personas are masks, to one degree or another, and assuming that it was an actual button he pressed) – included a couple of quotes in the header, and I got as far as

“Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality.”
– Carl Gustav Jung

before I got distracted, as seems to happen so often to me. All that youthful experimentation has left me with an attention span that is somewhat unreliable, I’m sad to report. Don’t worry your pretty heads, though, dear readers : I make do.
So, this Jung quote (I did read a lot of Jung when I was young – har!) is one that I’ve never run across before, oddly, unless of course I did run across it, but forgot about it because I was in the middle of one of those youthful experimentation sessions I mentioned above. My memory has a few holes in it too, unfortunately. Again, though, I make do.
It resonated in the echo chamber behind my nose and I was keen to see what had been said, and when, and by who. It seemed to apply to something I’ve been turning over in my mind lately : one thing that a filthy foreigner in Korea who spends any time watching his hosts will learn quickly is how inspidly sentimental these folks can be. I loathe sentimentality, but I’m keen to understand more about it, ’cause, you know, I’m such a groovy guy. The other bit of data is the fact that Korean soldiers, in the Vietnam War and elsewhere, were universally feared for their ‘casual brutality’.
So, off to Google. Shiver me timbers, boy wonder, who should be at the pole position for this interesting phrase, gunning his virtual engines, but the excellent Jonathon Delacour!
He was talking about warbloggers in his post, which interested me not at all at that moment – “We’re on a mission from God, ma’am.” – but he does quote the equally splendid Joseph Duemer :

Sentimentality is the substitution of emotion for intelligence; sentimentality requires of the reader assent to heightened feelings not legitimated by the matter at hand; sentimentality seeks to manipulate the reader’s emotional response by calls to conventional wisdom or attitudes; sentimentality seeks approval by reference to the vast warm blanket of majority opinion; sentimentality never, ever risks the disapproval of any member of its intended audience.

Now this sounds like the kinda dirt I’m trying to dig up, here, tonight. This sounds like words I can get behind, and apply to something that at least has the odor of insightfulness.
But then, I notice this in the comments :

At least part of the problem here is that Duemer’s, and Jung’s, definition of “sentimental” is contrary to the definition held by 99% of Americans.
“Sentimental” has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.
Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered “sentimental.” Even when we consciously know these things are not entirely true, we would like to believe them and see nothing wrong in believing in them.
Kitsch at least comes closer to the meaning Duemer is assigning to “sentimentality” because it has somewhat negative connotations for most, though certainly not all, people.
People are going to resist transforming a word they have positive connotations with into a negative idea, even if they might otherwise be convinced that the argument itself is sound.

and I wonder if that’s true. Does sentimentality have a positive connotation for most Americans? And how about for Koreans? And am I unusual in hating it so?
Back to Google I went, feeling the need to dig some more, and came up dry. Serried ranks of quotable quote pages, with no commentary to sink my nose into, truffle-hunting webpig that I am.
Then I tried a bit of wiggling with my search terms a bit, and found this :

In his overview, [Dr. Luke Kim, whom many regard as the godfather of Korean American psychiatry says] Koreans regard cheong (he spells jeong) as “one of the most important ingredients that would make [Korean] lives enriching and meaningful.” He agrees there is [no] equivalent English word that translates the meaning exactly.
“However,” he says, “Jeong itself embraces all the meanings to such words as feeling, empathy, sympathy, compassion, emotional attachment, trust, pathos, tenderness, affinity, sentiment and even love.
“If I were to choose one English word among these, I would choose the word empathy.”
Kim observes that Chinese, Japanese and Koreans all share the general concept of jeong with a somewhat different emphasis in its concept.
“For example,” he observes, “Koreans tend to stress the aspect of emotional attachment and bond, while Chinese emphasize the aspect of loyalty and reciprocity.
“The Japanese equivalent word – Jyo -tends to emphasize sentimentality.” Jyo-ni-moroi means one is weak and vulnerable with sentimentality.
Jeong among Koreans denotes a special interpersonal affective bond: a trust and closeness between two individuals. That’s why, Kim believes, Koreans attach great importance to the presence or absence of jeong in their relationships with a person such as mother-child (mo-jeong), two lovers (ae-jeong), or two friends (woo-jeong).

This set me back for a minute or two, and led me to remembering my wife’s stated reason for sticking with me, when asked why she had a couple of years ago, despite her parents threatening to disown her, in the face of her friends’ avowals that she was nuts to shack up with a nasty foreigner, ignoring the stares we got when we walked arm in arm down a Korean street. She said that she remembered me saying one night not long after we first got together something along the lines of :
Love is love is love. Mother for child, friend for friend, lover for beloved. It’s all one, even if it is different in the ways that it is shown and shared.
That simpleminded belief of mine dovetails micron-close with this ‘jeong’ idea, doesn’t it? Not that I had the faintest idea at the time that such a belief existed and was so important to so many Koreans. It’s not particularly insightful, certainly, but it’s true, or true at least for me, and that’s more than enough. It was enough for her, too, it seems.
So. At this point I kind of ran out of steam. I lost track of what I had been thinking about when I went off searching for some background on the Jung quote (which was probably going to end up in something mean-spirited anyway) but I ended up remembering something that has made me a better man.
And Rageboy? Well, I guess I gotta thank him, for starting me wandering down that track this evening, which ended for me in a happy memory and a cuddle with my woman. And feel ‘jeong’, a bit, for the guy, because the very public road that led him to his pressing that ‘send’ button today hasn’t – at least as far as I know – as happy an end as my short road did tonight.

We're a Happy Family!

I was a little let down, as the taxi pushed through the rain into downtown Vancouver, at how little had changed. This feeling intensified over the next few days : other than a few new buildings scattered here and there, and a new colour scheme on the buses, it seemed to me as if nothing much had changed in Vancouver in the five years since I last set foot in the homeland. In fact, not much that I could see had changed in the 20 years since I first moved there as a thirst-bedeviled freshman.
After living in Korea, where the entire country reinvents itself every five years or so, and the one constant is change and ferment and fresh concrete flowering skyward fast as bamboo, it was a little disconcerting. I had never thought of Canada as…well, stodgy, until now.
But over the next couple of weeks there, I noticed that at least one significant thing had changed, other than the amount of grey hair on friends and family.

“And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.”
-Brave New World

I had read that the drug companies were getting more aggressive with their carpet-bomb marketing in North America over the past few years. Read about the scattershot Ritalin-dosing of children, read about the emergence of the Prozac nation, read about the drug companies inventing ‘female sexual dysfunction’ in order to manufacture a market for more of their pills. But I wasn’t prepared for the fact that there wasn’t a single commercial break that I can recall on network TV over those couple of weeks that didn’t have at least one drug advertisement. When did heartburn become ‘acid reflux disease’? How many cold medicines do people actually need? ‘I love my Tylenol PM‘? How putrid is that? f–k you lady, why don’t you try loving your children instead (yelled I at the television screen, much to the long-suffering chagrin of my lady love). There were ads flogging drugs for conditions I haven’t even heard of, ads with happy grinning families running across manicured green parkland with their lassie-like dogs, free of the ravages of anal warts or whatever the hell had been plaguing them before Smithcline-Beecham showed up on the scene.
Now, I’m not one to claim, ever, that drugs in and of themselves are a bad thing. Better living through chemistry, say I. But I’ve always been more inclined to think that the body should be allowed to deal with minor illnesses on its own, and that drugs are better employed in the context of recreation than medication. Indefensible position perhaps, but I don’t really give a sh-t. Unless I’ve got Ex-lax™ to ease the way, of course!
I also have a strong tendency to think that the habit of medicating for every minor complaint is a sign of weakness, and creates and fosters weakness, and weakness is bad. Weakness in mind or body invites the triumph of evil men, evil deeds and thoughts. But that’s a whole other rant, perhaps.
So, anyway, unprepared as I was for the constant deafening barrage of druggy blandishments on the TV, I was substantially less prepared for the fact that half the f–king people I know are apparently now on SSRI’s : you know, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Prozac™ and Zoloft™ and Paxil™ and I don’t know what-all else. When did this happen? When did all these people decide that they couldn’t handle their lives anymore without being constantly medicated? Or when did their drug company whore-doctors convince them of it?

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”
-Brave New World

Now, look, I know (based on extrapolation from what I’ve seen amongst friends and relatives recently) that probably half of the people reading this are on scrips for one of these drugs, too, and I don’t want to antagonize or insult unduly. There are, certainly, some people for whom these ‘miracle drugs’ (given us by the gods) are a means by which they can live a normal life, overcome the ravages of aberrant brain chemistry, fight clinical depression.
But I’ve got to think that there are way too many folks out there who are just too goddamn lazy and irresponsible to take responsibility for their own mental states, just like there are too many people who think of themselves as victims, who blame their parents or their spouse for their problems, who refuse to take responsibility for their actions, who don’t vote and then complain about the government they get (and so richly deserve), who drive an SUV because, hey, if I get into an accident, it’s the other guy who’ll get hurt, who dismiss concerns about environmental degradation with a wave of the hand and a demand for incontrovertible proof…
Sorry, I’m ranting again.
But hell, I’ve taken just about everything there is to take at one time or another, and I didn’t do it to escape, I did it to explore. Hooray for me, right? Well, sure, why the hell not? I reckon that if your life is bad enough that you have to stay perpetually medicated, you need to change your life, change your doctor, get off the SSRIs, and get the hell out of the house. Find some people to drink a beer (yes, I see the irony) with and dance in the rain on a beach somewhere. Find someone new to have sex with, if that’s your thing. Climb a mountain, sail a boat, or if you’re too fat or lazy or poor to do that, find someone who loves doing it, and ask them about it, and watch their eyes as they describe the joy it gives them, and find something that makes you feel that joy too. Something other than chemicals.
You know, unless you really are f–ked up. In which case, pop those puppies like gummy bears, I say.

Cloudy, Strong Chance of Rain

A number of friends and neighbours have expressed some concern about my proximity to the Bouffant Brigades across the DMZ, and asked me for my take on the latest developments here in Korealand™. I am happy to oblige.
First, some background, which tends to be glossed over by the shiny-toothed automata reading the news, and seems to be missed by most of the print media I’ve seen too, unsurprisingly.
In 1994, the Clinton administration established an “Agreed Framework” with the well-fed wackjobs in Pyongyang. One of the drivers of the agreement was the desire on the part of the Americans to prevent North Korea from operating a weapons-grade reactor. The Agreed Framework promised North Korea progress toward “full normalization of political and economic relations.” It also promised shipments of heavy fuel oil, and two light-water reactors by 2003 to replace the weapons-grade facility Pyongyang was to shut down.
Several months ago (November 14 2002), the Bush administration decided to punitively cut off fuel oil supplies in response to Kim Jong Il’s latest hijinks (admitting to a secret nuclear program), just as winter was approaching and famine looming again. This is significant because these fuel supplies were basically the only thing that America actually delivered on to fulfill their part of the 1994 agreement, and given the poverty of the country, the only way that any fuel could be had for electrical generation and so on. Ironic, actually, because it is fairly clear that, at least in part, the reason for the nuclear program in the first place was to generate electricity (and make filthy bombs to sell off and/or kill people with, of course). Construction on the promised lightwater reactors began in August of 2002, 8 years after the agreement, and 4 months before they were meant to begin operation.
Not only had America in fact ignored almost entirely their commitment to the requirements of the Agreed Framework, and eventually by the end of the Clinton administration delivered solely (and then partially) on their commitment to supply heavy fuel oil, but as soon as Bush and his cadre of demonic sh-tweasels took over, North Korea was declared part of the laughable “Axis of Evil.” How’s that for “full normalization of political and economic relations,” huh? It may be worth noting that during the last few years of the last decade, during the time we’re talking about, North Korea was experiencing a famine that killed, by some estimates, more than 10% of its population, or about 2 million people.
In fact, the Americans can’t really even claim with anything like a straight face (although they try, naturally, and get away with it) that the secret uranium-enrichment program revealed by Pyongyang a couple of months ago puts it in “material breach” of the 1994 agreement, anyway : uranium enrichment is one of the things simply not covered in the Agreed Framework.
This is typical of the bullsh-t-spinning that these lying scum engage in (on both sides of the fence, of course. The North Korean mouthpieces do it so badly that it’s more comedy than tragedy, though.) :

Q Is there something the North Koreans can do that would prompt the U.S. to sit down and talk, which seems to be a key for them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind, the United States has long supported South Korea’s engagement with North Korea. When you take a look at what’s happened, nations like Japan were engaging — were beginning engagement with North Korea. And as a result of North Korea’s actions, Japan examined what it was doing and has decided to proceed at a different pace. So various nations continue to have various levels of discussion with North Korea.
I want to point out that even while there were many conversations — in North Korea, North Korea was still breaking its word. So I don’t think the issue is whether or not North Korea is being talked to or not talked to. The issue is North Korea breaking its word. They have broken the word of the people they talked to, and they’ve broken their word with the people they don’t talk to. The one constant is that North Korea breaks its word.
So from the American point of view, we very strongly support the efforts to discuss with North Korea, through our friends in South Korea and Japan; we always have. But the United States has made it clear that North Korea knows what it needs to do, and it needs to come back into international compliance, as the IAEA has urged them to do today in the strongest of terms.

The truth, as usual, is approxiately 180 degrees away from what is quoted above, for reasons I’ve discussed here at the ‘bottle many times before. What has been happening is what would seem to be a concerted effort by America, and particularly by the Arbusto Administration, to subvert and obstruct South Korea’s efforts towards productive engagement with the North. Not much wonder that the ‘sunshine policy’ of Kim Dae Jung has seen limited success in areas other than domestic.
The Bush administration’s policy of ‘tailored containment’, so remniscent of Reagan-era cold-war-speak (and not surprisingly given the array of Reaganite criminals and courtiers re-elevated to positions of power), displays a lack of any real understanding and responsiveness to the realities of the situation, and is counterproductive at best and a reckless endangerment of millions of lives at worst.
The wisdom of Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy, a strategy which the new president-elect Noh Moo Hyun (usually romanized as ‘Roh Moo Hyun’ for some reason) has pledged to continue, is more sensible given the context I describe above, I think, and is one which is supported by Japan, China and other states in the region. North Korea has always been responsive to chances for improved relations with the outside world, and its current attitude can be seen as defensive, and as with other bluffs and brinkmanship in the past intended primarily to bring America to the bargaining table.
Not to say that Kim Jong Il, the Stalinist Bouffant Butterball, is anything other than pure evil. But he’s not a madman. American media is always quick to demonize their so-called enemies : Saddam Hussein, of course, being only the latest in a long string of ‘madmen’ and ‘new Hitlers’. Kim JI is canny, and continues to respond with the only tools at his disposal – threats – to the posturing, lies, bad-faith negotiation and arrogance of the Americans.
This from the Guardian today echoes my point : “The North Korean nuclear standoff moved a step closer to a peaceful resolution yesterday as Pyongyang set a date for negotiations, amid reports that it was prepared to scrap its weapons programme in return for a security guarantee from the United States.”
There is a lot of talk recently, as well, about the idea of America pulling its 37,000 troops out of Korea. It’s difficult to say where they’d be withdrawn to : maybe they could share bunks with the 40,000 in Japan. The strong anti-American sentiment in South Korea in recent times, which I recently discussed here, has finally percolated through to North America, and of course the yanks are shocked and bemused. How could they hate us so? We’re the good guys, aren’t we?
It’s generally acknowledged that the 37,000 American troops here would make little to no difference were the North to invade again. The third largest standing army in the world – over 1,000,000-strong – is just across the DMZ. South Korea, with about 600,000 soldiers at any given time, a large segment of which is composed of university-age young men doing their two years of compulsory military service, would bear the brunt of any invasion. The reason that those troops are important is the psychological effect. The idea of those American soldiers being a tripwire of sorts is an outdated one : the US could just as effectively defend South Korea against attack from bases in Japan or even Hawaii. But to withdraw the troops, after 54 years, would raise questions about the role America wishes to play in Asia, how committed it is to maintaining stability, and make goverments in Beijing, Tokyo, Taipei and elsewhere very nervous indeed. It might even, given the apparent nuclear ambitions of Pyongyang, force Japan to ‘go nuclear.’ The role of the 37,000 American troops in Korea is mainly symbolic, and both the Koreans and the Americans calling recently for their withdrawal are swayed too much by emotion and too little by the ravages of intelligence to consider what the consequences of a withdrawal might be.
It’s generally accepted that North Korea already has one or possible two nuclear weapons, and they clearly have the technology to deliver them. Seoul is about 55 km south of the DMZ, and I live about 30 km south of downtown Seoul. I recently asked my wife if she knew what to do if she were to see a sudden bright flash in the sky outside our kitchen window, which looks north : drop, stay away from the windows, move to the bathroom at the center of the apartment, and wait for the shockwave and its backlash to pass.


My guess is that we’d probably survive an airburst, if it were to happen. But I don’t really think it’s going to, unless the criminals in Washington decide to turn their gun barrels this way after they raze Iraq (or are denied the opportunity to do so).
Related wonderchicken rantings : here, here, here and elsewhere.
Reading things like “North Korea Withdraws From Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” is not as scary, hopefully, when one is aware of the game being played. That said, one hopes that mom stops them before someone loses an eye.
Also : this. [via provenanceunkown]


[If you would like to read about what happened when my friend Rick was caught in the bombing in Bali, and the grief and hope of the people who loved him, in the order in which it all happened, start from the bottom of this page and read upwards.]
This site will go dark for technical reasons for a few days on or around Monday November 4th, but should be back not long thereafter. Before that happened, I wanted to write and post something more about my friend. Here it is.

“…I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
– Jack Kerouac

Nineteen years is a long time. Half a lifetime, for me. For half my life, I’ve counted Rick as a friend. Think of that – 19 years. I had a brother who died when he was about 5 years old. Rick was my brother for four times that long.
I met Rick in the fall of 1983, when I’d first arrived at UBC. I was wet behind the ears, a boozy hayseed smalltown boy whose expectations of university sprang primarily from repeated viewings of Animal House. He was a year older than me, and though it seems an odd thing to say about Rick, who was determinedly uncool, he was not only boozy and friendly, but downright cool, by my lights at least. He was so approachable, uncomplicatedly kind, and totally unconcerned about how he was perceived that he was cooler than hell. We became friends quickly, and he showed me the ropes, and bought my booze for me before I had ID.
The next 5 years or so, those UBC years, were an idyllic time, the academic component of which I have almost completely managed to block from my mind. We drank and we talked and we learned some, more about being friends than about economics or math. We chased women, with an almost complete lack of success. Rick and I, Barry, Oliver, David, Chris D, and later Derek and DV and Alana and Chris R and Jen, and many others – we adhered into a loosely-bound group of groups that drew together again recently, years after some of us had last seen one another.
Rick knew retro-cool before it was cool to be retro. He had a ’64 Mustang for a while, which I worshipped. We’d take it down via the ‘scenic route’ to Spanish Banks and park beside the beach and drink. One time I begged him to go to the liquor store on 4rth Avenue, outside the Endowment Lands, to buy some rye. He protested that there was absolutely no brake fluid in the car – none – and the brakes were inoperable. I pleaded. He shrugged – a complicated, nuanced, truly Rickesque gesture – and we went anyway. When we got there, I had to hop out while we were still in motion and brace myself (as nonchalantly as possible) against the hood to bring the ‘stang to a stop in the liquor store parking lot.

‘Song of Myself’
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents
the same,
I, now thirty seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Walt Whitman

Rick and Chris Domitter went to Paris for a year, when Oliver and I were in our third year, and by now living in Gage Towers, from which we were later evicted. I remember sitting in my room with Oliver and Barry, drinking and smoking, exhausted, inebriated 4 a.m dorm room conversations, nights after the bars closed, music playing low in the background, red gel over the desk lamp whose beam was pointed out the window into the falling snow, drinking tea, putting out our cigarettes in the pot where my fig tree, Stoatgobbler, lived; feeling with a sense of pleasant lassitude every single world-weary minute of our 22 or 23 years, and listening to the cassette tapes that Rick and Chris had recorded and sent back to us, dreaming of Paris. Listening to their voices from half a world away, dreaming of getting out, going somewhere, seeing the world, living a life less ordinary.
I think it was that trip that turned Rick into the inveterate traveller he later became, and his letters and tapes to me that year inspired me to become a traveller too. His stories of sitting in a park in wintertime Paris, freezing, smoking to keep warm because his tiny rented room was equally cold and was ugly and depressing as well – these tales fit in with the books I was reading at the time and merged into a mythos that I knew both of us wanted to inhabit. I think it was around this time too that the swashbuckling part of Rick’s personality began to bloom. He was always fearless, it seemed, in an unostentatious way. Quietly, determinedly fearless. Terrified of women, of course, but fearful of nothing else. Thinking about Rick so much in recent times, of how to characterize him, how to sum up such a complex man in a phrase, I hit on ‘a combination of George Costanza and Doc Savage’. Rick of course, unlike George, didn’t have a meanspirited bone in his body, but those of you who knew him might undersand what I mean. Anyway, I think this might have been the time when Doc Savage started to appear.
The books – this was one of so many ways that Rick and I were of one mind. We both wanted to write, and we both did, a bit, and neither of us could stop compulsively reading. When we both lived near King’s Cross in Sydney, Australia, years later, we used to meet up at the library on MacLeay Street by chance, as often as we met anywhere else by design. (I remember when Rick got mugged in the Cross – by a ‘bunch of Arab guys’. They took the watch his Dad had given him, the one with gold nuggets embedded in it. That was one ugly watch, but he was incredibly upset by it, so much so that he developed a weird skin condition for a while. I remember his little bedsit room on Tusculum Street on the edge of the Cross, with his slightly threadbare grey suit in the closet, and empty Yalumba wine boxes, and stacks of books.) Books were more important than eating, and if not more important than booze, at least on a par. Rick didn’t actually talk about the books much – we weren’t so much into Literature as we were into learning about every possible way there was to live a life.

“Christ, I have read your classics, I have wasted a life in libraries turning pages, looking for blood.”
Charles Bukowski

Rick’s letters to me over the years were the most memorable correspondance I’ve ever received in my life – uproariously funny, human, and luminous with his love of life. It will be my eternal regret that we’d stopped corresponding as regularly in the past couple of years as once we had, but I am thankful that a few months ago, we resumed our more regular correspondance via email.
One of the first trips Rick and I took together was to Long Beach, on Vancouver Island. It was cold, bitterly cold – September, I think it must have been – and the water was freezing. We rented surfboards for the weekend, scorned wetsuits, carried a fat-bellied bottle of Carlo Rossi red wine down to the beach in front of our campsite, and went surfing. We were in the water for nearly an hour, I think, and when we climbed back into the shell at the back of his pickup truck – Truckasaurus – he couldn’t stop shaking. He was blue. Skinny bastard had gone and gotten himself hypothermia. Utterly oblivious to the consequences, though, young and indestructible as we were, we drank some more wine and went to sleep. He woke up in the morning feeling fine as always, and I woke up with a debilitating hangover, as always.
Rick loved the sea, and the mountains. The places of power – where the sky meets the land, and the land meets the sea. He loved the world, and the people in it (particularly the female people).
For the decade after we finished our stint at UBC, in ’88 or so, we met up at least once every year or two, somewhere in the world. New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, back home in Canada. I travelled around the world clockwise, and Rick went counterclockwise, and our paths crossed as often as we could make them.
Scotland was the first, and maybe the most memorable for me. About 4 months in an ancient Scottish house beside the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh, a boarding house run by an ancient Scottish couple, almost completely surrounded by innumerable piles of ancient Scottish dogsh-t. Stiffy was there – Stephan Summerer who had lived in the same quad in residence for the year before I got evicted – and Barry, who came over the Atlantic after he had an accident and got some insurance money. Rick was working at a department store, Stefan had some sort of laboratory job, and I was drinking Bulgarian red wine, and when Barry arrived, we scattered again across Europe.
Other times, other places – literally thousands of nights and days making a beeline for nearest body of water whenever possible, time spent joking and consciously enjoying our lives, spent drinking or not, but rejoicing always, digging the marrow out of life.
Rick loved nature, and he loved film and art. He loved music, but in the stubborn, contrarian way he had, was always scrupulous in his disdain for….well, for things he disliked. His tastes were eclectic – he loved jazz, and music of the 60’s and 70’s, he loved ‘power pop’ (‘if it’s crunchy it’s good’), and anything lyrical, well-crafted, and authentic. Not to say that the schmaltzy Vegas stylings of the Rat Pack, or the rich, tasty cheese of Burt Bacharach were beyond the pale of his tastes – but his love for the music was less ironic than it was sacramental, and that somehow made up for it. For years we’d go to punk rock shows, me self-conscious in my leather biker jacket, and him unruffled in his grey melton UBC Commerce jacket. He had no need and no desire to don protective colouration, to look the part, any part. People underestimated him because of this, as people do. I respected him for it – realizing that I didn’t have the same strength of character to not give a good goddamn what people thought of me.
Authenticity. If Rick hated anything, and he was foremost a man who loved, not hated, but if he hated anything, it was lies, dissembling, falseness, pretension. He refused to be a part of anything that was false, that was anti-life, anti-love, but he was loathe to talk about it in terms like that, not wanting to trivialize it, to make it sound trite, as I’ve done by talking about it here. Instead, he’d talk about how important it was to say “yes” – yes to life, yes to life in its infinite extravagant abundance, yes to everything, yes whether it brought you pleasure or pain. When I came back one year from 9 months in Greece, and explained that I loved it there because I found it filled with people who smacked themselves lustily on the chest and declared “Christo like!”, he knew exactly what I was talking about. It became shorthand for us for this idea. He accepted with equanimity whatever life might bring him. He lived a life that both in its broad sweep and its details embodied the things he believed.
Think about that – how many people have you met whose lives embody their beliefs, who live according to the ideals they’ve set for themselves? Far too few, would be my regretful answer, at least.
Beyond all the other reasons I had for loving Rick, beyond the simple fact of years of our lives shared, beyond his kindness, his irrepressible sense of humour, his enthusiasm for life and his determination to enjoy it and cause no hurt to anyone in the process of doing so, it was his sincerity and his goodness that I will miss.
He was a good man. He shaped my life in ways he will never know. The world is a darker place without him.

And now, as I’m absolutely certain he would want, I’m going to shut the hell up about it.

Adventures in Bad Judgement

As I was walking home through the clouds of industrial smoke this evening, I was reminded for some reason of one particularly wild evening in Quintana Roo, Mexico, a few years back.
We’d been hired, Greg and I, to do the sound and lights for a party, a big one, that was being held in ‘a barn’ in Tulum, a couple of hours south of Cancun. Tulum the town, which is a nondescript collection of buildings on a crossroads on the highway, not Tulum the gorgeous Mayan ruins nearby, which are, you know, gorgeous. And ruined.

We took the 3 ton cube van down, loaded with gear, made it through the army checkpoints (we always sweated a bit with them, carrying pyrotechnics as we usually were) and found the place in the early afternoon. It was a concrete shell, barn-sized all right, and it didn’t have a roof. Great. But we took it in our stride, in true make-the-best-of-it Mexican style, and had a beer while we figured out how we were going to set up. Manuel, the young Mexican guy who worked with us (and spent a great deal of his time shaking his head in bemusement at the antics of the crazy longhaired gringos) came back with some bad news : the building was connected to the grid, but that was it. No internal wiring at all.
Greg, who was the guy who actually knew how to do sh-t, after conferring with the promoters, told him to wire us up to the main circuit box. Manuel looked a bit doubtful, but after being reassured that everything was fine, he wandered off to start juryrigging sh-t together. It was the usual modus operandi – improvise, make do, and make it work.
We started setting up the triangle truss sections, the Par64 fixtures and their gels (sprinkled with sand from the last beach party a couple of days ago) and the amp racks and speaker enclosures, and 6 or 8 beers later, as if by magic, the sun was beginning to go down, and we had everything set up. There were a few more people hanging around, smoking dope, drinking, watching lazily as we tested the audio and lights. This was always my favorite part of a gig – finished the hard work for the moment, and relaxing before the party geared up. Leaving all the decisions and troubleshooting to Greg meant that I could enjoy as many beverages as I felt appropriate. The one exception had been when we’d done the indoor fireworks for New Year’s Eve at Senor Frog’s back in Cancun, but considering that we had blown off several thousand dollars worth of pyro inside a bar with sawdust on the floors, that had probably been wise.
Just as the last of the light was fading, it began to rain. The music had started, though, and people were arriving in droves, and they didn’t seem to mind. It was a flash crowd, and soon our roofless concrete barn was packed with wet bodies, dancing under sheets of hard rain and the intermittent flashes of lightning. We put up some tarps over the audio equipment and the dj, and let it go. The rain didn’t let up, but no one seemed to care. There was a weird earth-magicky kind of vibe happening, and the harder people danced, the harder it seemed to rain. Huge, warm drops grown fat in the wet air out over the Caribbean, hammering down like a waterfall.
The hippies and tourists just danced harder.
Manuel sidled over to us about half an hour after the rain really started coming down, looking terrified. Greg followed him outside, and came back a few minutes later, looking disturbed, which for him was a bit unusual. I arched my eyebrows in inquiry; he shrugged and handed me a beer.
Later that evening, things started to get bad crazy. Greg’s girlfriend arrived, and Manuel found himself a peasant-skirted girlfriend from Bolivia, who lived here in Tulum, and she had a large quantity of acid. Driven by the strange, powerful feelings I was getting from the storm and the crowd, I danced like a maniac in the warm rain, and swallowed everything anyone handed to me. The promoter was thrilled at the crowds, and kept us in drinks and smoke.

Dreamlike tropical hours passed.

I don’t remember the party winding up, or loading the gear back into the truck. I do remember Greg — who despite being gloriously stoned was as usual the one experiencing the fewest visual anomalies and general impairment — driving us at a snail’s pace down the narrow jungle road to the sea side cabanas where we were apparently staying.

The rain was still pounding down, there were no lights on the road, and the truck’s lights weren’t working. We couldn’t see a damn thing out the windshield. I made Greg stop, got out of the truck, climbed up on the bumper and leaned back against the cab window, facing forward, arms spread out as if I’d been crucified, like a huge hairy moth that had been splattered on the windshield, and alternately pointed left or right as he drove. He drove totally blind, guided only by my frantic pointing as he edged toward one ditch or another, while Manuel and his new Bolivian girlfriend made out on the passenger side of the bench seat.
It worked pretty well, except when we hit speedbumps.
We made it to the place we were staying, eventually, wired tight, but couldn’t handle it indoors in our thatched huts, and spent the rest of the night on the beach, watching the waves and the sparkle of phosphorescence as the raindrops struck the sea. All except Manuel and his girl, whose enthusiastic grunts and squeals we could hear in the distance, over the rain and surf.
The next day Greg told me that Manuel had “wired us straight into the mains. No breaker, no ground, no nothing.” I didn’t see how that had been such a bad thing, but then I made the connection to the fact that the dancers out on the concrete floor, myself included, had been frolicking in water that by midnight was about ankle deep, sliding on their bellies like seals, doing rain dances, inches from the wiring that was feeding power to the audio and lights. Greg had wanted to shut it down, but the promoter was adamant, and in the way of connected men in Mexico, was not a man that one could say no to, and stay in the area for long. We got lucky, as usual.
The Bolivian girl disappeared before Manuel woke up. Through some strange coincidence, his wallet had disappeared as well. The drive back to Cancun was a quiet one.


Drugs, and lots of them. Whacking great quantities of mind-expanding and mind-croggling chemical treats. Monster Scarface-style piles of snowy uncut columbian cocaine on the desk. A cut-crystal bowl full of pills, in all the colours of the rainbow. Monster doses of dimethyltryptamine and d-lysergic acid diethylamide to make my mind ripple and flap like a flag flying in the breath of god. Musty peyote buttons and foil-wrapped grams of psilocybin mushrooms. Opium to smoke and heroin to snort. Alcoholic beverages in all their gem-like hues. Sweet stinky tobacco and marijuana, dark brown hashish in both chunks and oil. Mescaline and methamphetamines. That’s what I want.


I feel the urge to clear the carbon out of the valves, dust off the mental cobwebs. I feel the urge to self-trepanate, sprinkle lighter fluid on the exposed ridges and folds of my cerebral cortex, and light ‘er up. I feel like slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the cruel, elusive face of god, that old bastard.
But I won’t, because I’m a responsible member of society. I’ll just write a little weblog post about it instead, and hit the button clearly marked ‘SAVE’.

The Tension

It’s all about the hopeful hymn-humming tension between the Two Things, life is, so often. Suspension, floating as long as possible, in that sweet gravitationally anomalous spot between bum and wage slave, between drunkard and saint, between drop-out and rebel, between breather-of-mountain-air and dead-eyed technophile. ‘Course, it may just seem that way after a couple of beers. f–ked if I know.
See, I’ve been a geek, biting the heads off digital chickens, from way back when. I’d spend endless hours at the age of 14 or so, back in 1980, tweaking the math and the BASIC code to make prettier shimmering patterns on the 147×47 pixel black and white monitor of my TRS-80 Model III. Only 16K RAM and 16K ROM on that sucker, with a tape drive for saving my handiwork, a tape deck that I played audio on – Life of Brian taped by leaning it up against the speaker on my little B&W TV and pressing the Play and Record buttons at the same time and being very very quiet – while trying to figure out by trial and error how subroutines were supposed to work. Hours, days, weeks alone upstairs in my lair, hunched over, in the dark.
I hated that machine and loved it in equal measure. It captivated me, hypnotised me. Red-eyed monomania, as the hours died overhead and dropped their dust in my hair. It almost ate my life, that f–king machine, before I discovered booze and women and dancing on the beach with a bottle in my hand and a song in my throat. Before the world opened its legs to me.
The monster is back, and it’s trying to eat my soul this time. I don’t quite know what to do about that.