Archive for the Travel Category

Year Three

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Outdoors, Personal, Travel, USA on March 12, 2010 by Elephant Talk

I watched an excellent TED lecture on experience and memory an hour or so ago. He said that a perceptible “moment” lasts about three seconds. We have around 600,000,000 of these in an average lifetime. These are the incidents in our lives when we are not in the past or in the future but rather experience the now of being alive. Then they’re gone. But as much as we might state otherwise, they are not what we treasure as human beings. What we treasure and preserve are the memories of those moments. We store them up in order to reflect on them later. We endeavor toward collecting interesting ones in the future so that we may later enjoy these reflections on the past. The point is not to experience, but to utilize experience toward memory. Because memory is the story of our lives.

The timing of this TED viewing is appropriate to me personally because of the date today. It’s March 12, my birthday. But more significant to this thought process, it marks the third anniversary of my move to Korea. This is my third year of writing about this date. I did it last year and the year before. I just finished reading those entries and I remember that person very clearly. I can recall the moments that led me to write what I did.

So what about Year 3? In one way, it’s an extension of the feelings and impressions of Year 2. The “reality bubble” is still a weird thing. But this year is different in that it seemed to go by in a flash, much faster than the previous two. Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s my changing perception of the (memory of) the experience. This year (March to March) I made a stronger effort toward improving my Korean language ability (still frustratingly inept at it), continued to take fantastic weekend trips to the Korean countryside, and continued to play music. I spent what seems like an enormous amount of time applying to graduate schools. I traveled to the States in the summer, Japan in the fall, and Thailand and Cambodia in the winter. I completed an academic paper that had been nagging at me for a while, and started another one.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Sound, Travel on January 20, 2010 by Elephant Talk

There is a compulsion after a long time away from the blog to apologize for inactivity. I’m not going to do that. But this time I have a reason for my inactivity. I was inspired by my friend Tharp, who wrote an excellent post grazing over the highlights (and, indeed, lowlights) of the past 10 years of his life. I decided to write one myself, but it got voluminous and obsessive and turned into a longwinded unfinished project. (I can’t seem to do anything with brevity.) I’m only up to the middle of 2007. I’m into the start of the really good stuff and I just can’t see how I can fill all of those remaining experiences into a small container.

Anyway, that’s the reason I haven’t posted lately. I kept expecting to finish it and pare it down to something digestible for this medium. I will finish it at some point. It’s been an illuminating exercise going through all the joys, heartbreaks, craziness and adventures of the aughts. But by the time I’m done it may be too late to be relevant for a blog. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll post it at some point, maybe I won’t.

In the meantime, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my January.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Korea, Personal, Travel on December 3, 2009 by Elephant Talk

First the bad news. My objective for going to Japan was a failure. It’s not that I failed the GRE, it’s that I failed to match or exceed my expectations. I scored 30 meager points higher than the last time I took the exam in August. I was hoping for, at worst, a 100-point improvement. I would have been happy to gain another 125-150. But I didn’t. So in that regard, the effort was a waste of time and money.

I studied my ass off this time, hours a day, every single day. I set aside other things in my life during a very busy time, and even strained a couple friendships in the process. I used exam guides, complete with diagnostic reports charting my progress. By the time I’d finished all the practice exams, I was projecting a score close to 1200, a score that would have been at least satisfying and would validate the effort. I did not get near that score. And it’s the kind of score you need to get into a good communications program.

So, once again I say fuck you GRE. I concede that you win, you’re too much for me. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to think that I could regain all the complex algebra and geometry skills I may (or may not) have had when I was in high school two decades ago. So I will never take it again. It’s an exam for young people. Old men like me are not meant to take it. So, then, are old men like me not meant for doctoral study? It would seem to be the case. Universities, which use the GRE to determine eligibility, apparently only want young people. Incidentally, yesterday I saw a Facebook update from a friend of mine who signed up for GRE prep classes in Korea (she’s Korean) and was denied admittance to the class. The reason? She was told she is too old to take the class. No joke.

Now the good news: Japan is amazing, simply amazing. It was the perfect place to make me forget about my disastrous test score. So after the exam, I dug into Japan for four full days and nights. Nights in Osaka, day trips to Kyoto and Nara, a jam session in Kobe. I had a blast.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Travel on November 25, 2009 by Elephant Talk

It’s the night before Thanksgiving day here in Asia. I’ll be spending my Thanksgiving morning in an airplane flying from Busan to Osaka. As anyone who has read the past few entries knows, I’ve signed up to take the GRE there the morning after that. So while people in America are turning off the final NFL game and falling into a tryptophan-induced slumber, I’ll be waking up to take a 4-hour standardized examination. Fun for me.

The good news is that after that, I have four days to explore the Kansai region. I’ve booked five nights total in Osaka. I hoped to base myself in Kyoto, but everything was booked up by the time I got around to planning places to stay. So I will take day trips there and to Nara, if all goes well.

This whole journey has kind of a lonely feeling to it. Part of it is the knowledge that it’s obligatory. It’s not really vacation; I’m going there because I have to. But it’s also the solo travel aspect. I don’t mind traveling alone, but I prefer the company of others. It gives you someone to share experiences with, laugh at absurdities, and discuss options. Soaking up a Blade-Runner-esque nighttime cityscape or a lush, green temple setting is nice to experience solely through one’s own eyes and ears, but it’s also nice at some point to turn to someone and say “cool, huh?”

But I’m excited. I don’t care about the GRE. I’ve studied as much as I care to, and that whole structure can go to hell. I’ll get whatever score I get. But I’m looking forward to the rest of it. I know very little about Japan and didn’t do much research, so I do feel woefully under-prepared for the vacation aspect. The one time I was there was for a Fukuoka visa-run that lasted all of 24 hours. That trip, only two weeks into my Korea experience oh so long ago, felt simply like an extension of Busan. So this feels like my first time. And I’m always up for a first of anything.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Music, Personal, Sound, Travel on November 21, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Time is, without question, the most valuable resource we have. It is a fixed entity. We know more or less how much of it we have (at the most, anyway), and we are aware of the milestones along the way. Once we get to a certain age, these points become marks of incremental regression in ability, facility, energy.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, because I’ve been living primarily in the future for the past three or four months. It seems like everything I do lately is geared toward doing the next thing. This happens when you live by one-year contracts, and every cycle brings about a different signing scenario. I was profoundly disappointed by the last go-round, so I’m pushing myself even harder toward the next thing.

I’m applying for doctoral programs. This is an incredibly time-consuming process. It’s a bunch of maddening details made more insane by the vast body of water that separates me from my native country. Communication lags and takes the form of text, and there are certain things that need to be done in person that cannot be done. There is research, massive amounts of research. There is contact with advisors and students and program coordinators. There is contact with past professors for recommendation letters and advice. There are transcripts to be ordered (this simple thing being a strangely murderous process from my current location). There are statements of purpose to write, things to collect and package, things to consider including. And, of course, my big obsession right now: the GRE. I’m studying like a madman. I don’t know if it will help, but I’m dedicating myself to giving it my best shot. The exam requires a trip to Japan, which requires hotels, air travel, a big plan.

I also have, of course, my regular life. This involves teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, grading quizzes and projects, planning lectures, considering end-of-semester deadlines. It involves musical projects to which I’ve devoted myself. Everything else, including Korean language study, I’ve put on hold.

So this is how I exhaust my time. I’m burning that non-replenishable tank of fuel by preparing. The truth is, I’m not convinced that it will amount to anything. I don’t know yet if a) I’ll be accepted to a good PhD program, and b) I’ll accept an offer that comes to me. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m ready to leave. I like it here. Korea gives me time… to work, travel, write, play, experience. I like my friends, I like my life, I like what the place gives me. But I’m approaching that critical three-year period. From what I’ve seen of the foreigners here, this is the threshold. People who have been here two years talk about a future back home. People who have been here for three don’t. And if I do decide to stay, Plan B involves me staying for a very long time.

This mindset is what’s playing with my brain right now. It’s what has me thinking about time. Even if I wasn’t applying for doctoral programs, I’d still be using my time living in the future. I’d be studying Korean language (a long-term future endeavor), or I’d be re-writing my textbook (for future publishing), or I’d be thinking about new job opportunities.

It’s also got me thinking about the other things I could otherwise be doing with the time I’ve been given. I could be learning to play guitar. I could be expanding as a drummer. I could be mastering MAX/MSP. I could be writing a novel. I could be creating an ambient soundtrack to a non-existent film. I could be… Dancing Nancies.

PIFF: Dust to Dust

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Personal, PIFF, Sound, Travel on October 15, 2009 by Elephant Talk

In travel, as Spalding Grey used to say, you’re always holding out for that “perfect moment.” With this year’s PIFF festival, I’ve been waiting for my “perfect film” to come along. It almost happened yesterday. For me to really love a film it has to be what I feel is exceptionally well-made and also hit me personally. In short, I want to be impressed and moved at the same time. Dust, a movie out of Luxembourg, accomplished about 95% of each.

Dust is what good cinema is all about. The great thing about movies as a storytelling device is the way they reveal a story through images and sounds. Film is not really about dialog; it’s about presentation. Books can’t do this, and neither can theater. Director Max Jacoby utilizes the full spectrum of what is available in the form to his advantage. Little is said in this movie because the camera and soundtrack take up that narrative role more than any dialog could. Jacoby, through cinematographer Fredrik Bächar, is an expert in blocking and framing. Every shot seems intended to give you a clue about what these three characters are thinking and feeling. It could be choice in focus, a slow dolly into one character’s face, someone intentionally cropped out of the frame, or someone moving in or out of the frame. The sound design also plays a strong role, with liberal use of offscreen sounds. We hear a door open and we wonder; we hear the crackling of glass under footsteps and realize something happened here; we hear the arrival of a car and we feel what that means.

In essence, Dust is a post-apocalyptic love triangle. But the setting is not simply a device. The environment and situation almost acts as a fourth character. It’s something the other three must contend with. It has a say in their decision-making and it forms the particularites of the relationships that have developed and will develop. Jacoby presents the landscape as monumental in size and scope, both containing and reflecting their own dilemma. This space and setting, combined with the sparse dialog, also gives the audience plenty of headspace to wonder how all of this is going to work out. I found myself a lot of times thinking “well shit, they can’t…” or “oh right, so how…?” The slow pace kept me in suspense and kept me wondering. And when that happens, when you realize how involved you are, that’s when you know you’re watching a great movie.

Which brings me to the remaining 5% of this movie that I didn’t like, that being the ending. Again, it’s revealed by the camera, and it was… not hugely disappointing, and not unexpected. But it wasn’t enough. We needed a third act and we didn’t get it. The director had done such a fine job of telling this story and creating an atmosphere of tension, and three minutes before it ends I’m thinking, oh crap, now they have to deal with x. But Jacoby let me off the hook. He had me in suspense and I was gearing up for an interesting final 20 minutes or so, but then he let me go. In short, we needed a conflict and we didn’t get one. I warn you that the next sentence is a bit of a spoiler: Yes, the penguin kept the ring, but the spell was broken without the penguin having to face the consequences of that, so it didn’t really matter anyway.

Still, good lord what a beautiful work of art this movie is. Unfortunately, the movie I saw afterward, The Dust of Time, wasn’t. It was horrible. Seriously, my god, I hated this movie. That wooshing sound you hear is the sound of this movie going right over my head. I had no clue who these people were and what was going on. Well, I did eventually, but by the time I caught up to what the director was trying to do, I didn’t care. Willem Defoe is laying it on so thick that it’s almost campy. This movie has so much melodrama — heavy moments, crying, slow motion — that was empty because I didn’t give a damn. It’s so strange to be watching actors on screen pouring it all out and I’m just empty. And I had to endure this for over two hours. I kept thinking “it has to end sometime it has to end sometime it has to end…” but it just kept going and going and going. After a while I’m just staring at a point in the center of the screen like a laser, not looking at anything, just waiting for the damned thing to end. When that didn’t work I tried to open up some latent telekenetic ability so I could peel the corners of the screen in order to make a paper airplane out of it. Anything just to end the damned thing.

Every movie experience is like a relationship between the maker and the audience member. And in this relationship, maybe it’s not about you, it’s about me. Maybe I just missed what all this passion was about. I’d like to give some benefit of doubt and think that. But I could see other people squirming. And when it finally faded to black and those first text images started to roll onto the screen, people practically lept out of their seats heading for the exits. Usually PIFF-goers will wait for the credits to end, clap, and then leave. But not here.

Luckily this isn’t my final film. I’m seeing my last one tonight, the one I was hoping to see — Paju.

PIFF 2009 – Day 1

Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Korea, Personal, PIFF, Sound, Travel on October 8, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I’m sitting in the second-floor guest lounge at PIFF Center, which at this time of the day, 4pm, is very active. It’s the first day of the 2009 Pusan International Film Festival. Or, as I like to think of it, the best time of the year to be in Busan. People are greeting and meeting, perusing the catalog, reserving tickets, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, taking pictures, and doing business. As a media professor, I get a guest pass every year. So for a whole week, I watch as many free movies as I can squeeze in and enjoy some prime people-watching.

This spot always brings out an odd combination of young hipster types (filmmakers and film buffs) and older dudes in black suits (producers and other money people). This is like my little slice of Seoul. A good chunk of these folks are down from Seoul, but it also brings out the rare artists within our own relatively humble cowboy town of 4 million. You can usually tell who the directors are — something about the choice in eyeglass frames and sweater pattern. Creative people also, for whatever reason, have that look about them. They carry themselves differently. Outside I mostly see college students hanging out on the beach, laughing and gathering into small groups, just wanting to be part of the action I suppose.

I’ve got four tickets for tomorrow. I like to gravitate toward Korean offerings, or those films that seem weirdly constructed, or have a possible sound design angle to them. Tomorrow I’ll see Scandinavian film Metropia (“Roger hears voices…”), Korean films Dear Music: That is, their fantasy heading for the sea (seriously, that’s the title) and Like You Know It All, and Sleepless by Italian director Dario Argento, a guest at this year’s festival.

I’ll be carrying my laptop around all during the festival, so I hope to post a good supply of updates and reviews over the next eight days. Happy PIFFing!