Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Year After the Mountains

One year ago was my first day back from my Tajikistan odyssey. It was a fabulous bit of travel because it also involved stops in Ireland and London as well as a couple wonderful days in Istanbul. It was a great Habitat build because the people in the Tajikistan office affiliate are awesome, and the location was so interesting. It was definitely good for me - as it would be for anyone - to connect with people in a village so far off one's beaten path, so different in life experiences and yet so similarly willing to sing goofy songs after the lunchtime bowl of plov has been devoured.

It was also interesting because on that trip I came across many people who were also travelers, wanderers, thinkers...and the wanderlust became a theme of the trip, specifically, that one must cast away whatever is tying one down. I found myself repeatedly involved in different conversations with different people in different countries about how I should just go, go, go. At the time I was feeling "stuck" in Chicago, even though I loved my new city of Chicago, and I had some discontent churning around the back burner of my brain. I marveled throughout my Tajikistan odyssey at how well-placed people kept cropping up to say things to inspire me to go back out globetrotting, from random Bosphorus acquaintances to the fellow Habitat builders.

I have found it difficult to describe the experience in Garm - it was such a far away village in misty mountains that lay in front of bigger mountains, and when you peeked past those you glimpsed the peaks of a lifetime. I will never forget first spotting those 6,000+-meter high crags when I got high enough on the hill outside of "downtown" Garm. I will never forget seeing those same jagged snow-capped points from the air, a group of them covering miles and miles and miles.

As it happens, today was a strange day in Korea, for a variety of reasons, for us personally. So it was a day that gave my brain a lot to contemplate all around.

Tajikistan made me feel full of good things, and made me think things are worthwhile. Also? I was pretty terrible at hurling mud at walls to reinforce them. But we all have different skills in life, I suppose.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"And I believe it could be
someday it's going to come..."

Although (obviously) there was no prelude-to-the-end-of-the-world rapture on Saturday, there was a cosmically significant event for 10,000 Maniacs fans, of which I am one: at their Chesapeake, Virginia show the band played "Peace Train" for the first time in 20+ years! Seeing as I am around the world, about as far on this sphere as you can possibly be from Chesapeake, Virginia, I got to watch it in a 2-inch video on Facebook. I am not complaining!

I consider 10,000 Maniacs one of the greatest bands of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. They are hard to categorize, although they hung out comfortably in the alternative-folky-college-rock category for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Their sound was unique and interesting. In My Tribe, in particular, is a strong desert island disc candidate of mine.

As it happens, that album contained a cover of "Peace Train" when it was originally released circa 1987. Shortly thereafter, Cat Stevens famously spoke out about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Obviously, that or any other fatwa is insanely stupid, and Cat Stevens' comments have been subject to debate and interpretation, but at the time, circa 1989, many people interpreted the comments of newly-Muslim Cat Stevens to be supporting the death of Salman Rushdie. This led Natalie Merchant, then-lead singer of the Maniacs, to refuse to ever perform "Peace Train" again, and the band had the song removed from In My Tribe. I originally listened to In My Tribe on cassette, but in 1994 when I found myself wanting to replace the cassette with a CD, I used the then-new internet to search for someone selling a copy that had "Peace Train."

There's an episode of my beloved sitcom Designing Women in which Julia protests pornographic exploitation. At one point, Mary Jo questions whether Julia is wrong to want to "censor" porn magazines. Of course, Julia clearly explains the difference between protected speech and commerce, in a great Designing Women exchange with the magazine's publisher. Elsewhere in the episode, Mary Jo talks to Charlene about censorship and mentions the Cat Stevens kerfuffle. Of course, it has precious little to do with the pornographic-magazines-point of the episode, but Mary Jo does make an interesting point that when Cat Stevens uttered his possibly misinterpreted remarks in favor of the fatwa, people protested by burning his records, which essentially meant that they were advocating freedom of speech for Salman Rushdie's art by destroying Cat Stevens' art.

Then again, people should have the freedom (I think) to burn things as their own symbolic speech - so on and on the layers go. Julia Sugarbaker is totally right that the porn proprietors are not expressing themselves artistically and would shut down their magazines (etc.) tomorrow if they weren't turning a profit, so the whole high-and-mighty freedom of expression argument is basically bullshit. But Cat Stevens is so totally separate in my mind.

And now 10,000 Maniacs have performed "Peace Train" again!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Holy Mackerel!

Today we headed out to a salted mackerel place near the Andong Dam and the Wolyeonggyeo Bridge, famously the longest pedestrian wood bridge in Korea. Or maybe the longest pedestrian bridge in Korea, period? At any rate, it's cute around there, and we strolled across the bridge and gazed down the river at the Andong skyline while we waited to meet our friends for some famous Andong salted mackerel. I guess Andong became famous for this specialty because, being inland, the Andongers had to salt the mackerel while it made its way from the coast.

Other Andong specialties, in case you are interested, include the famous Andong jjimdak (which is a delicious spicy chicken stew that you need multiple people to eat because it always comes as a giant helping), Andong beef, and Andong soju. I am personally no fan of soju, and while they tell me the Andong soju is "different" and "better" it still does nothing for me.

But salted mackerel? Does a lot for me. It was so delicious. We just picked the deliciously soft fish off the bones from the plate and ate and ate and then ordered two more fish to eat. I can't believe we haven't got around to trying salted mackerel before now! I had this idea it would be expensive but it's totally not. We really are spoiled with so many restaurants to choose from around here, right in our neighborhood, within view of our school and apartment. It's actually an effort to try them all, an effort that we have not yet come close to achieving in the first tertile of 2011.

The Wolyeonggyeo bridge and Andong Dam are a mere ten minutes or so vehicle ride from downtown. Andong is not a big city. And yet I somehow still have so many cute and delightful spots around here to explore.

Last weekend Brian and I headed to Bonjeongsa, which is a temple a 25 minute or so bus ride from downtown Andong in the other direction. It was one of my favorite temple visits thus far in Korea, from 2005-2006 or 2011. It was really nice and peaceful, and so green! It was a great two hours of strolling up and down and around. There's tons of hiking to be had up there, too, so it's good to know that Bongjeongsa is available within completely easy striking distance, now that the warm weather (i.e. lack of ice) is here.

Other things keeping us busy of late? Let's see: we're getting ready to roll into the end-of-semester testing period at work, our weekly Korean class in Daegu is going swimmingly, and we had a Cinco de Mayo party with the other Andong English teachers on our rooftop because, conveniently, May 5 is also a holiday here in Korea, Children's Day. Also, Brian and I have a new fascination with watching Criminal Minds on TV. Mostly because it's on, is why one gets into any random U.S. tv show while living in Korea, but this one Brian discovered first and then convinced me to also watch, and now I find myself caring about the characters and getting sucked into the grisly but compelling stories, too. Of course, we haven't actually figured out exactly when it will be on, as the TV schedule can be a little unpredictable on SkyHD and some of the other English channels, but it is never long before it crops up again.

This past weekend in Daegu we saw the movie Source Code. Um, not really great, but an OK enough diversion for an hour or so. Definitely not great though. Let me emphasize that again: plausibility and tight logic were not by any stretch of the imagination part of this film. I am sure I will end up watching Water for Elephants soon, because I bought and read the book, but I'm not really holding out high hopes for it (and I also thought the book was overrated).

By the way, while I was looking for a picture of Wolyeonggyeo bridge to share with my adoring fans and I came across this fifty-year-old article about a different bridge in Andong, which might be an interesting read for some of you. I personally found it interesting that the population of Andong was only 40,000 during the war. It's around 180,000 nowadays.

Have I mentioned that we have been here in Korea for 18 weeks out of 52, in other words, more than one third of a year?

Monday, May 02, 2011

The End of an Era? (I hope)

It is my fervent hope that the death of Osama bin Laden will be the end of an era in at least one aspect: may it finally bring an end to the last decade of insufferable country music built around the theme of "God-told-me-to-be-a-Republican-and-go-kill-in-Iraq."

I mean, this stuff is really terrible. I am ordinarily an unapologetic fan of country music, but the last decade has been a time of crisis, a kind of country music Dark Ages. I suppose you could say it started with Alan Jackson within the first few months after September 11, 2001. In his otherwise quite lovely, heartfelt song "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" he sings about the emotions of "that September day" and it's all very touching, but the chorus has the line: "I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran." First of all, "the difference between" would have apparently thrown off his rhythm, so we have "the difference in," but secondly, the Iraq reference is so jarringly out of place in a song about September 11, a song released in the fall of 2001, that you'd almost think Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld put him up to it. To be fair, Alan Jackson doesn't actually lay any blame for 9/11 at Iraq's feet; he simply states - repeatedly - that he is a simple man, and he essentially makes it a virtue to be unaware of world politics/geography and specifically the Middle East, which must be relevant, because 9/11 was terrorism, right? Ick.

There are way worse songs though. In particular there is Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" which finally got me to turn off the country radio for a good long while, circa 2003. That song justifies the Iraq invasion ("some say we don't need this war" etc.) by singing, "Have you forgotten?...We said we'd get the ones behind bin Laden..." etc. No, Darryl, we have not forgotten. But they aren't in Iraq, you twit.

Not everyone follows country music, but I suppose I don't have to remind even those of you on the outskirts of country strummin' about the Dixie Chicks nonsense, when they were chastised, condemned, threatened, cursed, and run out of town just short of tar and feathers (although the equivalent of tarring and feathering was done to their career). The problem? They spoke out about George W. Bush, warmonger extraordiniaire. They were well within their rights and, as Texans, had suffered under him longer than many of the rest of us, but noooooo... in the country music Dark Ages, it was forbidden to utter anything against the Torturer-in-Chief or anything that interfered with the oil-based killing sprees.

There are others. I've heard a bunch that I can't identify, because I'm telling you, I had to stop listening the way I used to; I just couldn't stomach it. So I'm only tangentially aware of things like Toby Keith's song, which I believe is called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," that actually has the following couplet: "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way." I heard that one recently in the deliciously cheap and smoky country bar Grand Ole Opry in Seoul's foreigner-heavy Itaewon district and watched two dozen U.S. soldier faces light up as they sang every word. Toby Keith's song, which is ostensibly just a harmless ass-kicking patriotism party, doesn't explicitly mention Iraq so it's not as bad as some, but it takes a fierce stand against being against the current wars, in that whole "you're-not-supporting-the-troops-if-you-want-them-to-come-home" way.

Meanwhile, former top-of-the-charts singer/songwriters like Mary-Chapin Carpenter who wrote poetic ballads contemplating personal September 11th stories were ignored by the Nashville machine. I guess in "Grand Central Station" she forgot to mention any countries that had nothing to do with Osama/Al Qaida. Oh yeah, and she also wants peace. You remember - peace? Actual freedom? Freedom from violence and fear?

So maybe, just maybe, the death of Osama bin Laden can put an end to this era, the Dark, Dark decade of crappy George-Bush-bought-me-a-ticket-to-Iraq-but-God-assigned-the-seats* country music that ended up boomeranging country listeners who wanted something else in the totally polar opposite direction and recently landing us in the plucky guitar and plaintive warblings of Taylor Swift.
*not an actual country song lyric of the last decade, but it might as well have been

Can we PLEASE get back to really awesome country music now? I'm thinking a little 90s-era Martina McBride could serve as a reminder that my beloved country peeps are capable of invoking patriotic imagery for socially conscious reasons:

"Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing (ahh! notice! a peace symbol!)
Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away
Let the guilty pay
It's independence day!"
-from her Burning Bed-derivative exploration of escaping domestic violence, "Independence Day"