Friday, February 29, 2008



Sunday, February 24, 2008


On Happiness

Therapist: So why have you come to see me today?
Young Man: My coworkers recommended that I come here because they say I’m not happy enough. They say I always look stern and that I need to lighten up.
T: All right. Do you think you’re happy?
YM: Compared to what?
T: Compared to nothing. Are you happy with your life?
YM: Right now? You mean right at this very instant?
T: (nodding)
YM: I think so.
Okay, are you or aren’t you happy most of the day?
YM: Yeah … yeah, of course.
T: When are you not?
Well, I’m not really happy when I get up in the morning, because I’m not really a morning person and the weather’s pretty cold between 6 and 7 a.m.
T: Is that all?
YM: Well, no. I’m not always happy at work, because, you know, I try to do my best with all the work they give me to do, and the people around me seem to appreciate it. It’s just that there are some workers in my company who always need help, and because I always try to finish my projects in a prompt and professional way, the people in those other departments end up coming to me with more work to do.
T: And how often has this happened?
YM: You mean today?
T: I see. And how does that make you feel?
YM: Like my only reward for doing my work is having more work to do.
T: Okay, let’s talk about what happens after work. What do you usually do?
YM: I often go exercise.
T: Does this bring you happiness?
YM: Well, no. When I’m in the gym I’m usually inflicting pain upon myself for a period of time lasting from one hour to 90 minutes in length. When it’s finished I do feel those endorphin thingies that they talk so much about in Men’s Health. They kind of balance out the general muscle aches I feel.
T: If it doesn’t make you happy, then why do you do it?
YM: Because most of my colleagues are older than me, none of them exercise and pretty much all of them have considerable arterial or lower-back problems.
T: So, by inflicting carefully measured amounts of discomfort upon yourself now, you’re hoping to avoid a greater helping of it later?
YM: Yes, I suppose so.
T: When your colleagues are sick, does it at least make you feel better knowing that you are preventing those problems from happening to you?
YM: When they’re not feeling well, I usually have to cover for them at work, so I can’t say I feel great about it.
T: Have you done anything to stimulate yourself intellectually or mentally? How about continuing your own education?
YM: Lately I’ve been taking classes after work ends.
T: How has that changed your situation?
YM: The university is an hour from my house, the program requires hours of daily study to succeed, and when I graduate I’ll be marginally more valuable to prospective employers.
T: Well, I’ve saved this question for last. Do you feel fulfilled emotionally? Is there someone special in your life?
YM: There is, and she’s great. It’s just that we live in different cities because of our jobs. We’re both so busy that we pretty much have to schedule time on weekends to see one another. When we see each other it’s great, but when the weekend comes to end and I go back to work I realize that I’ve fallen behind and under-slept.
T: Where do you see this relationship going?
YM: We’re going to get married this year.
T: Well, you must be happy about that.
YM: (Pause) Have you ever planned a wedding?
T: Oh, right. I forgot.
YM: (mutters) … and they say I need help.
T: So, you say you’re generally happy …
YM: Mmm-hmm.
T: Except when you say you’re not …
YM: Right.
T: …which, judging by your answers, seems to be the majority of the time.
YM: Yeah, I guess so.
T: So, has your emotional state taken a recent downturn?
YM: Actually, this is the most satisfied I’ve ever been.
T: Really? Could you elaborate?
YM: Well, I have a stable job and I’m not struggling to pay the bills. I have a wonderful woman who’s going to be my wife. I’m glad to have all of those things but … I’ve always got think ahead, right?
T: I think I understand the problem.
YM: Oh, really?
T: Let me ask you: what’s the first name you think of when you hear the word “talent?”
YM: Well … Beethoven.
T: Good choice. Who looks happier in photographs, Beethoven or Kelly Clarkson?
YM: Hmmm…
T: Who do you think of when you hear the word “leadership?”
YM: Abraham Lincoln.
T: Who looks happier, him or George W. Bush?
YM: Oh …
T: And finally, who looks more pleasant in photographs: Kurt Vonnegut or Mitch Albom?
YM: I’m noticing a pattern.
T: The problem is that you have a rare condition.
YM: What’s that?
T: It’s called “responsibility.” Beethoven, Lincoln and Vonnegut didn’t grow up in an age when their own “happiness” was prioritized. Today’s society says we have to be happy people, not productive people or people of integrity. That may make us feel better in the short-term, but it leads to harmful side-effects.
YM: Like what?
T: Well, Kelly Clarkson and Mitch Albom, for starters. Maybe Barack Obama also, but the jury’s still out. Paradoxically, I’m pretty sure that if more people were responsible, then more people would be happy.
YM: So what should I do?
T: Just what you’re doing now. Enjoy your pleasures when they come, but don’t expect them to be there all the time.
YM: Well, you’ve opened my eyes. How can I ever thank you?
T: You don’t have to. I was happy to help.


On Wanting to Give Up

About four months after I began taking Korean language classes, I was eager to begin testing what I had learned on some of the locals.

I began approaching people the people around me, hoping to strike up a basic conversation with them. I would start by telling them, in Korean, that I was studying the language. I would make sure to do this in full view of my fellow teachers who were foreigners and had not yet made the commitment, in terms of man hours or monetary units, that I had.

At first the natives that I speak to would say nothing, but look pleasantly surprised while waiting for me to demonstrate more.

“I study at Seoul National University,” I would say. “You know Seoul National University?”

They would confirm that yes, they did in fact know about the largest university in their country, the Korean university that they consider their Princeton, the university that most of high schoolers study 12 hours a day in the hopes of attending.

“I go on Mondays and Thursdays,” I would continue, boldly venturing into linguistic terrain where few with my skin hue have dared. “It’s very interesting but difficult.”

My etymological escapes continue unabated until, contrary to all my best-laid plans, they ask me a question. In Korean.

“What are makdoifs dusldak?” they ask. The question is probably elementary. In fact, there’s a good chance I learned it earlier, maybe near the beginning of my studies. That being the case, it’s no longer relevant, because in my brain those syllables have gone back to no longer seeming to fit with one another into any meaningful inquiry.

I lean closer, turning my ear to person, encouraging them to say it again in the quixotic hope that it will make more sense the second time.

“What are makdoifs dusldak?” they repeat.

There is only one thing one can do in this situation. Only one form of communication which all cultures, at least all of the ones I’ve met, understand: the shrug.

“I don’t understand,” I say, with my palms at chest level turned toward the ceiling.

“What time are your classes?” the patient Korean person says, this time in English.

“Oh,” I say, and since “oh” happens to be used heavily by both languages, I can tell myself that I’m still speaking Korean. However, the foreigners I was hoping to impress are probably not feeling any more compelled to study than they were four minutes earlier.

“He spent that much money and he still can’t answer that question?” they probably say to themselves.

It’s okay, I tell myself. It’s only four months that I’ve been studying. The students in the English classes I teach sound better because they’ve been studying longer.

And so I look to my own students for inspiration. Though most of my working hours are earned in our textbook office, I do teach one class every morning at 7 a.m. I generally request to teach the highest levels that we offer, because the topics are more advanced.

I also prefer them to our lower-level classes because I’m not fond of looking at students who are beginners and saying, “If you are absent one more time you will fail,” and having them look back at me, smile their smiles of blissful unawareness and say, “Okay!”

Our institute offers six levels of classes. Should they graduate, they will probably not sound like natives but they will be able to use English in a professional setting. Lately, I’ve been teaching Level 5, which includes questions such as, “What would happen if the US military left South Korea?” in its textbook.

Not an easy question, even for native speakers of English, but these are, after all, elite-level students. They’ve been learning English since they started high school and they should be able to answer an elite-level question like that one during tests. Of course, it goes without saying that they will prepare for a question like that if they know it’s going to be on a test, right?

“I think North Korea attack South Korea, because South Korea’s power is … not good,” one student says, and I begin to wonder if my vocabulary will be that limited after I’ve been studying their language for many years.

“I think North Korea is very dangerous our threat,” another one says, and I begin to wonder if I will be putting Korean words out of order years from now.

“I think the Korea’s stability is very dangerous,” another student adds. As you can probably imagine, this answer makes my happiness very sad. Not only do these sentences make me wonder if studying a foreign language is worth the years of effort it takes, they make we wonder if I accomplish anything by getting out of bed in the morning.

If that’s what I’m going to sound like years from now, what’s the point?

Even so, I call the academic office at SNU in the last week of February, to find out if I passed my most recent class and see if I’m actually making measurable progress.

“Excellent!” comes the non-native but professional-setting-appropriate voice from the other line. “You had an average of 96.”

That means I can advance to third level at SNU. It also means that, for the second term in a row, I’ll receive the excellence award they give to those with a 95 or higher. The certificate will be addressed to “Rovert York” and my supervisor in textbook development will hang it up in our office.

I may still give up studying Korean someday, but not yet.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I Love Sir Charles

Sometimes we need a non-politician and non-pundit to tell it like it is.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The Enlightening Effects of Bicycling

Although I believe no product ever sold (especially one dispensed by Steve Jobs) can bring joy, there are procurable objects which can provide one with enlightenment about human nature, which is at times the opposite of delight.

If you live in a large urban area, one of those objects is a bicycle. In an area like rural Tennessee where I grew up, bike-riding is an entirely different experience; there is plenty of wide-open space and the assortment of hills and valleys provide plenty of exercise. In fact, the only disadvantage of bike riding in Tennessee is if you wear brown, you might be shot, stuffed and mounted by one of the less sober local sportsmen.

By contrast, there are few urban areas larger than Seoul, my current city of residence. Though smaller in landmass than the state of Tennessee, South Korea is home to nearly 50 million people, about 1/4th of whom live in Seoul and approximately 1/5th of whom shop at the same grocery store that I use on weekends.

I recently purchased a bicycle to aid in transporting me to various places not quite within walking distance of my apartment, such as said grocery store, the fitness gym and office where I pay gratuitous monthly cell phone bills. In addition to the soreness caused this particular mode of transportation’s seating, the money spent on this purchase has educated me a great deal as to the on-foot migratory patterns of humans, which in-turn enlightens one as to their personality traits.

I have long believed that there are three types of people in the world: 1) those who believe that there are three types of people in the world, 2) those who don’t, and 3) those who enjoy the writings of Ann Coulter.

Now, if you belong to group two, by reading this you can learn how those of us in group one think. If you are in group three, your having read this far already violates the restraining order I’ve filed against you, but you might as well finish.

If you belong to group one and aren’t sure of your placement within the three groups you believe exist, you can find out by taking this simple test. Circle the letter that best describes you.

1. While traveling great distances on the sidewalk, I use ______________.
a. the bicycle that I saved for and which helps me make the journey more efficient.
b. my feet, because I’ve spent too much money on hair care products and designer jeans to afford a bicycle.
c. my feet, because I understand what these young people don’t, and that’s that walking great distances builds character.

2. While traveling on sidewalks, I pay attention to __________________.
a. the people and objects ahead of me, because I don’t want to have an accident.
b. my iPod.
c. the objects on sale in store windows. You know, things cost a lot more today than they used to, and it’s because these young people don’t know the value of a dollar, and that’s because they don’t have character.

3. When the person on a bicycle rings his or her bell indicating that they want to go around me, I __________________.
a. promptly move to the side, because I know how irritating it can be to have to peddle a bicycle at an excruciatingly slow pace behind someone who isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care.
b. … I’m sorry, were you saying something? I was listening to my iPod.
c. do nothing, because either my hearing is not what it used to be or I think the person on his or bicycle can build a lot of valuable character by peddling at an excruciatingly slow pace behind me.

4. If I were to cause a person on a bicycle to have to stop suddenly, he or she would probably be __________________.
a. unhappy, because getting 10 pounds of metal and plastic moving again isn’t always that easy.
b. okay, really, or at least better than I’d be if I had to like, put my iPod on pause.
c. unhappy, probably, but think of all the important character they’d be building.

5. In the November election, I will vote for __________________.
a. none of the major candidates, because none of them are addressing the our nation’s real long-term concerns.
b. none of the major candidates, because I don’t know where the voting booths are.
c. none of the major candidates, because none of them are in favor of burning illegal immigrants at the stake.

If you circled mostly A’s, you are the modern, thoughtful bicycle-owner. If you circled mostly B’s, you really aren’t wise enough to be walking on sidewalks by yourself yet. Then again, you probably aren’t reading this in the first place because you think newspapers don’t have enough pictures.

If you circled mostly C’s, then you probably should have your license to walk outside in public re-evaluated. And, by the way, Mitt Romney lost: get over it.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Breaking News

From the online English edition of the Chosun Ilbo:

"A septuagenarian has apparently confessed to setting fire to the Sungnyemun, better known as Namdaemun or South gate, causing a conflagration that completely destroyed the historic Seoul landmark within hours on Sunday night. Investigators said the suspect, identified as Chae, matches descriptions by witnesses and has the same clothes and bag as a man who was seen at the scene. He was arrested in Ganghwa Island on Monday.

"Investigators also found a ladder and a bottle of thinner at his home.

"Chae is a recidivist, with a previous conviction for setting fire to an ancient building at Changgyeong Palace, a structure from the Chosun dynasty in Seoul, in April 2006, causing damage worth W4 million (US$1=W945). The 70-year-old man is on record as saying he committed the arson out of discontent with compensation for his land, which was appropriated by the government.

"In a letter police seized on Monday, Chae says he did not sell a plot of land in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, which is to be developed by the government, as he is dissatisfied with compensation, so he set the gate ablaze to draw public attention.

"The confession may put some of the wilder speculation that arose since Sunday night’s tragedy to rest. Police had suggested that a homeless man might have committed the arson since the monument is located near Seoul Station, where many homeless people find shelter. On the Internet, there were claims of a terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists or Japanese who “hate Korean traditions”, pointing to the simmering dispute with Japan over the Dokdo islets.

"There was even speculation that the arson attack was a political scheme to avert public attention from a special investigation of allegations surrounding president-elect Lee Myung-bak."


A Sad Day

The following information and photos come from Wikipedia's entry on Namdaemun:

"Sungnyemun or Namdaemun is a historic gate located in the heart of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The landmark is officially called Sungnyemun, literally "Gate of Exalted Ceremonies", as written in hanja on a plaque on the wooden structure.[1] As the southern gate of the original walls surrounding Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty, it is widely known as Namdaemun, literally "the great southern gate".

"Sungnyemun was the oldest wood-built structure in Seoul.[4] The construction of this gate began in 1395 during the fourth year of the reign of King Taejo of Joseon and was finished in 1398. The structure was rebuilt in 1447 and was renovated several times since.

"In the early part of the 20th century, the city walls that surrounded Seoul were demolished by the Japanese Government, allegedly to ease the flow of traffic in the area. The gate was closed to the public in 1907 after the Japanese colonial authorities constructed an electric tramway nearby. Sungnyemun was extensively damaged during the Korean War and was given its last major repair in 1961, with a completion ceremony held on May 14, 1963. It was given the status of "National Treasure No.1" on December 20, 1962.

"At approximately 8:50 p.m. on February 10, 2008 a fire broke out and severely damaged the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate. Over three hundred firefighters fought to bring the flames under control. There were no injuries reported.

"As of February 11, police are investigating possible causes of the fire. Although no positive determination has been made, a 70-year-old man, Chae, was arrested on suspicion of arson, and reports say he has since confessed to the police in writing. The same man had been charged with setting fire to Changgyeong Palace in Seoul in 2006. The cause was originally suspected as accidental; however, many witnesses have reported seeing a suspicious man shortly before the fire, and two disposable lighters were found where the fire was believed to have started.

"The Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea said that it would undertake a three year project that would cost an estimated 21 million dollars to rebuild and restore the historic gate."

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Romney Withdraws

Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, withdraw.

This reminds me of that sensation I used to feel when the Bears or the Cardinals lost early in or before the playoffs, and I was only tuning in from then on in the hopes that the Vikings or the Braves would lose.

Of course Ron Paul, the only candidate telling the truth about America's situation, had no chance.

But at least Mitt Romney, the candidate who, in this world of mass media, did more than anyone to redefine the word "pander" has shown the Americans have some standards.

Now, if only Hillary will join him on the ash heap of history.


This is Only a Test

The final test at each level of Seoul National University’s Korean language program consists of written, reading, listening and speaking portions.

The listening portion is multiple-choice and requires students to select the correct answer to a question recorded on CD.

Because said answers are written for us, it requires students to do nothing more taxing than to use ink to produce a millimeter-wide circular shape around the letter representing the best answer.

The difficulty increases during reading test, which takes actual Korean sentences that an actual Korean might say (if he/she were talking to a 10-year-old or someone hard of hearing) and leaves a single word blank. The student knows that the word which belongs in the blank is supposed to mean “health” and must then decide which two-syllable word utilizing the “-ng” consonant means “health,” and not “idea” or “problem.”

The difficulty increases yet again for the writing test, which requires us to write the correct response to certain questions or requests, for example: “Introduce your family using at least four sentences.”

Now, the student has already done this successfully, waaaaaay back in Unit 1, which was, oh, about two months ago and required the help of no less than two helpful native speakers of the language. Having not done it since then and having no helpful native speaker to consult with, the student tries his best to reconstruct his prior answer from memory. His answer goes something like this:

“Our family United States lives in. Five people in our family there are. Our father (sequence of syllables which if, all goes well, means “plumber,” if it doesn’t go as well, means absolutely nothing, and if it goes badly mean “anti-constipation medication”) is. Our mother nurse is. My older sister Betsy nurse is. My older sister Kathy (again, collection of syllables, this time hopefully meaning “housewife,” and hopefully not meaning “rickets”) is. Love family I do.”

Then, finally, the difficulty level is again ratcheted upward, considerably higher this time, as the student begins the speaking test. The Korean teacher sits across the table, points at words and instructs him to say them aloud while she checks his pronunciation.

Maybe the sentence means “I am going to the movie theater tomorrow.” Then again, maybe it means, “I hunt Darfur refugees for sport”; since it’s a pronunciation test the meaning is irrelevant. The sound of the Korean teacher’s voice saying these words plays in his brain as clearly as an MP3. All he needs to do is force that sounds down from his brain and through his vocal cords.

However, the vocal cords are in a mischievous mood.

“Let’s wait until he reaches the last syllable, and then let’s stop working altogether for a couple of seconds!” they say in whatever chemical signals vocal cords use to communicate with one another. “He thinks he’s nervous now, but just wait after we pull that little number! The sweat glands are gonna love this!”

The Korean teacher then asks the student a serious of questions, all the while pointing to the sheet in front of the student indicating which grammar rule he should use. All goes well until the last question, which requires that he use a suffix to combine two sentences using action verbs into a single one.

“What did you do yesterday?” the teacher asks.

“I studied a lot,” the student replies.

“You’re supposed to combine two sentences,” she says.

The students looks at the paper which shows a formula he should, in theory, be able to use in order to merge two sentences into one. It appears somewhat vague to him, but then again, equations were never his strong suit.

“I … don’t know,” he says. The student, if he is, in fact, someone who has spent the last two years teaching English to Koreans, is suddenly able to recollect the facial expressions some of his students have shown him.

These faces followed questions that seemed, in his mind, rather simple, such as, “Do you like mountain climbing?”, but the response of his students seemed more appropriate had he asked them to explain the Theory of Relativity using a metaphor involving a Coniferous tree.

He can very clearly remember a struggling student of his who, near the end of his class, was asked, “What foreign language would you like to learn?”

The reply he received ought to be remembered and reflected upon by ESL teachers as long as “E” is an “SL” being taught anywhere:

“I don’t want to any other language!” he proclaimed. “I like Korean.” (It sounds even better if you pronounce it “language-y”, the way many of this teacher’s students do.)

This English teacher who is also a Korean student is jarred from recollections by the voice of his Korean instructor, who says, in an encouraging, but firm voice: “Just … combine two sentences.”

“I studied a lot … and slept.”

“Okay, good,” she says. She then reviews his pronunciation and grammar scores and tells him that he did a great, terrific, and wonderful job except for about a half-dozen times she can pinpoint when he was merely good.

Long after she has finished explaining and said goodbye (in the cheerful manner that the university probably requires her to speak in), he is left thinking: What will I do if I didn’t pass? Even if I did pass, did I really deserve to? How will I respond to my own students when they give me the same “deer caught in the headlights of a foreign language and about to become roadkill on the highway of job preparation” facial expression that I just had on my face?

All of these are questions that will be addressed at a later date. Until then, one thought takes precedence: I’m going to order the hottest drink I can find. My vocal cords must be punished.

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