Friday, December 31, 2010

It was the blankest year...

And it's over before it was done
There's nothing to fear
Filled with courage
They cannot conceive of wasting another year

  - Knapsack, "Steeper Than We Thought"

Normally I hate New Year's. New Year's Eve, specifically. First off, it's a couple's holiday, and I hate holidays that try to make you feel excluded for being single. Second, no matter how good a time I have, I always feel like I should be having a better time. It's nearly impossible to go out because every place is packed and the covers are always extravagant. On a good New Year's Eve I can swing an invite to a friend's party, which is usually OK but sometimes kind of a mess because I end up packed into a room with a billion other people trying to find conversation topics with a bunch of strangers and drunk, distracted friends. And some years I just end up at home with whatever roommate or roommates I have at the time, Dick Clark and the ball on TV, and a bottle of Miller High Life (the champagne of beers). Honestly some of the New Year's Eves at home have been among the best. It's relaxed, I'm among friends and I don't have to find a place to crash or drive anywhere at the end of the night.

I think New Year's Eve 2000 is probably the classic example of why I hate New Year's. It was the year after I had finished college and I was briefly living with my parents in Western New York. I think I only had about one close friend still living in the area at the time (most people with other options don't choose to stay in Buffalo, no offense to Buffalo - leaving home is just a Rust Belt reality for most people) but he went to Chicago for New Year's. I can't remember why I didn't try to join him. Might have been Y2K bug paranoia for all I remember. Probably had more to do with being young and broke. Anyway, this great punk band Libertine (not to be confused with that other UK band The Libertines that ended up getting a lot more famous) was playing at Mr. Goodbar in Buffalo so I drove into the city for the show. Apparently nobody else in Buffalo thought that seeing a band upstairs at Mr. Goodbar on the commonly accepted last night of the millennium was a good idea because the only people at the show were me, Libertine, the opening band and maybe one other paying customer. The great part was Libertine didn't blow off the show, they played their asses off for two paying customers. Still, it seemed a little ridiculous for the night of the most over-hyped New Year's Eve ever.

The other thing I don't like about New Year's Eve is that it has this inherent, overwhelming sense of loss. I know it's supposed to be a time to look forward and ring in the New Year and all, but I can't help but feel every year that we're throwing a big Irish wake for the previous year. We laud its accomplishments and pay tribute to all that will be missed, and in the morning we bury it and get on with our lives. Good or bad, the previous year is gone and it's never coming back.

2009 was a notably shitty year. The only really good thing that happened all year was the inauguration of the first US president in my memory that I've really respected. The 2008 financial collapse started 2009 on a bad note. I was already short on work when the stock market tanked in fall of 2008 (back in LA I used to work in entertainment, mostly temp or freelance), so I decided to start taking accounting courses online starting in January 2009. Because I figured I wouldn't be able to do 13-hour days on freelance gigs and still do my coursework I told all my work contacts that I couldn't do long-term gigs any more and I started looking for a full-time job as an accounting clerk or assistant. I even had a retirement party of sorts to celebrate my failure as a freelancer. No accounting gigs ever came, other than a couple days every month at one of the smaller studios. I actually ended up doing more freelance work in 2009 than I did in 2008, which still wasn't really enough to pay the bills. Around March I found about EPIK and teaching English here in Korea, so I decided to apply through an agency in LA that will remain nameless. It took forever to get my paperwork together - partly because getting anything done in broke-ass, Arnold-fucked California took forever and a day and three follow-up requests - and by the time I had it all together it was past the application deadline but the rep at the agency assured me that I was likely to be accepted regardless. (Apparently after the EPIK deadline he tried to submit my application to ETIS, the Seoul program, without telling me what he was doing.) By the time I got the final message that my EPIK application hadn't been accepted I had lost my roommates, thought I might be losing my apartment, and because of the timing I ended up getting fired at lunch on day one of a temp-to-perm accounting gig and in the process burning one of the world's biggest temp agencies because they didn't want anyone with any future conflicts. (To anyone who's ever looked at a dude living on the street and said "why doesn't that bum get a job," I will tell you from experience - it's not that easy to just "get a job.") Luckily I got some friends to move into my place with me, and I re-applied to EPIK in October directly through EPIK (and subsequently learned that all th expensive paperwork I had submitted was missing and half of it was wrong). Christmas Eve 2009 (the first day of the blog), when I learned I had finally been accepted, was probably the best day of the year for me. So a year ago, New Year's Eve 2009, I drank this toast to the evening: "Fuck 2009."

New Year's Eve 2010 was a lot better. I didn't even realize that it was the 31st until I got up in the morning and started making plans to go to Daegu to see Tron. Neither Mo nor I had the energy or the wherewithal to spend the whole night partying in Daegu so we made it a quick day trip. We talked about going to Busan instead - there's this Korean tradition that it's good luck to see the sunrise on New Year's morning, so we talked about catching the first morning train to Busan, but the earliest train arrived one minute after sunrise. So instead we stayed home, split a bottle of French sparkling wine and watched some K-Pop thing  and the ringing of some big temple bell in Daegu on MBC at midnight. In the morning we went up to the roof with our cameras and a bottle of cognac and watched the sun rise. So hopefully that means 2011 will be a luckier year than the last few.

All and all 2010 was a good year. There were mistakes and shortcomings, and there was stress, but I've been working, saving money and paying down bills; I've traveled; I've met some new people and I've seen a new part of the world. It's not always easy living in a strange culture in a place where you don't speak the language and there aren't many people that understand what you're trying to say, and it's unfortunate that some of the peculiarities of Korean culture seem to make it hard to make close friends with too many of the locals. (Korean friendships tend to be restricted to people of your age and social class, and Koreans tend to have tightly-knit social groups based on pre-existing relationships like school classes. So even above and beyond the language barrier it's really difficult to get into someone's social sphere here. But once you're in you've made a loyal friend for life.) I've been missing my friends and family in the States a lot, and I'll be happy to sink my toes into some California sand when I land for a visit in less than a week. But all things considered I'm very grateful to be here.

Goodbye, 2010, I'll be missing you. If any of you happen to be in America and you're reading this while waiting for the ball to drop, please enjoy yourselves, and drive carefully if you have to drive. I'll see you again soon. In the meantime... Aw, fuck it. We're gonna have a party.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Edited For Christmas

So, before I get started, Id just like you to observe this trailer and consider the following:
-      Somebody made a Rock Em Sock Em Robots movie.
-      Its not even called Rock Em Sock Em Robots.
-      That somebody is, in part, Steven Spielberg.
There are times when I have some misgivings about my decision to leave Los Angeles. There are times when I feel like maybe I was impatient and I should have stuck around to see if I could make better opportunities for myself. Then I see someone throw Steven Spielberg, Hugh Jackman and several tens of millions of dollars at a kitschy childhood toy, and I have absolutely no regrets at all.
The school year is winding down here. Right now its finals week so today Im in the teachers office all day with nothing to do. I already planned a lesson for next week, half-constructed another lesson and reviewed this years completed lessons so I can improve on them next year, so theres not a lot left to achieve at work right now. My non-work commitments are also wrapping up for the year. I dropped out of Korean language class this week. It had gotten to the point where not only did I not understand the current lessons, but some weeks I couldnt even remember what topic we had studied the week before. Plus there were only two classes to go and I kept picturing myself coming to the final class date and getting the certificate for completing the course  with perfect attendance, to boot when I hadnt actually learned anything, and the thought of it was just humiliating. My accounting courses are over for the quarter as well, thank Christ. Unfortunately I missed the deadline to submit course evaluations to my school, but that might be a good thing since it would have been hard to resist the urge to verbally tear my statistics professor a new asshole. So right now my only obligations are relaxing, planning my trip home, resisting the urge to buy another TV series from iTunes and checking out the latest World of Warcraft expansion. So far I cant tell you if Im impressed with Cataclysm or not. Honestly Im kind of bored with WoW altogether but theres not that much else to do here that doesnt involve a train trip to Daegu and spending money. Some of my real life friends in the US have been sucked back in by the expansion so I do get the chance to get together with them in the occasional Friday night/Saturday morning or Saturday night/Sunday morning joint session. Mostly Im sticking with the habit because Im too lazy to try to find another equally engrossing PC game that will run on my netbook. (Whats the deal with Civ 5, people? Should I wait until the first expansion comes out? Would picking up Civ 4 instead be a waste of money?)
Im definitely looking forward to coming home for a visit in January, although Im not as pleased about having to float the money for the trip on credit cards until I get my re-signing bonus in March. The little trend line on the Excel plot of all my debt is way above the target line now. I know itll come back down once that signing bonus comes in, but now that I can see the big picture of all my debts it makes me nervous to spend any money before I have it in hand. Plus its going to be difficult not to engage in a glut of shopping and fast food buying as soon as I hit American shores. Ive actually been browsing the websites of certain fast food chains to see what their current promotional items are. As much as Ive been missing greasy American fast food, I dont want to get back into the gastronomical habits I got into when I was in LA. Before I left I was perpetually either unemployed or freelancing on set. When I was freelancing, I was probably burning 3,000 calories some days, but meals on set were generally all-you-can-eat and on days off I didnt have time to cook healthy meals or buy groceries. When I was unemployed I was generally sitting around the apartment not feeling good about being unemployed and looking for any excuse to leave and do something enjoyable. In short, I ate a lot of junk in large quantities. Unfortunately my crappy, rusty scale was broken so I didnt realize exactly what I was doing to myself until I started seeing Facebook photos of myself with a giant bloated whale gut hanging out from under my t-shirt. So, as much as I dream of being able to gorge myself with American fast food again, Im also wary of re-inflating my waistline beyond the confines of Korean clothing size 110 (which, by Western standards, is not very large). The other day I learned online that one of my habitual fast food guilty pleasures from life in LA is over 2,100 calories. People, thats just not a good idea. Having lived here for a year and seen the way Koreans eat, its easy for me to see why the United States has a collective weight problem: people eat way too much, and way too much of it is junk calories from carbohydrates, cheese, grease and sugar. I wouldnt describe myself as svelte by any means after living here for a year, but at least its been easier to shed some of the awful eating habits I had when I was in LA. Then again, I cant credit Korean cuisine for all of the weight loss a lot of it has to do with having the time to prepare my own healthy meals instead of relying on fast food all the time. But I gotta tell you, Im counting the days until I can saunter up to the window at Tommys and order a double chili cheeseburger and those chili fries with so much processed cheese that theyre almost impossible to finish. And a giant bucket of Cherry Pepsi. And I noticed Papa Johns has a six cheese double bacon pizza now, too. Maybe Ill just cut calories by skipping breakfast
When I got here, I wasnt only surprised by the smaller portions but also the fact that most of my co-workers end up throwing away some portion of their lunch. I was raised in a good Protestant house where we were taught to never waste food, and I assumed since Korea went through a period of intense poverty after the Korean War that Koreans would similarly object to wasting food, but every day in the cafeteria some portion of my co-workers lunch ends up in the big organics bin for food waste. I voiced my surprise to one of my co-workers once and he explained that, in the old days, food waste went to the farm animals so people didnt see throwing away food as wasting it. Im assuming these days they do something else with the organic waste. At least I hope so, since most of what I toss out at home is eggshells and coffee grinds. Also I remember that feeding animal byproducts to animals was one of the things that was supposed to have led to the spread of mad cow disease, so considering the stink that was raised here over the supposed dangers of US beef I sure how theyre not still feeding garbage to their livestock here. But its interesting to observe the different attitude towards food. Of course now that Koreans have money and KFC and Dunkin Donuts everyone is worried about their weight, and apparently Koreans, who are generally very image-conscious, are now some of the worlds most fervent consumers of diet pills. Hmm. I guess development is a two-edged sword. Then again, obesity is probably a better problem for a society to have than malnutrition.
Ive been contemplating some sort of trip to celebrate my sudden glut of free time. I was talking to Mo about visiting Seoul but he hasnt been feeling well recently so I dont know if well be out tearing up Hongdae before the new year. I may finally go to Haeinsa Temple this weekend to see the Tripitaka Koreana. I had been wondering what to do about Christmas, since we have school up until the 29th, which prevented me from heading home before the holidays. Happily one of my co-teachers invited me today to spend Christmas Eve with his family. Im not exactly sure how the celebration of Christmas works here. Oh sure, there are tons of Christmas decorations everywhere, but Ive heard conflicting stories about to what extent non-Christians celebrate the holiday. For young people, it seems like a night to go out on dates or go out and party. I was actually contemplating going to church on Christmas morning just to do something to celebrate the holiday, since I cant be with my family. I know, to many of you thats about the least unusual thing I could do on Christmas. I was raised in a very Christian household, so if Im home with the family its definitely a part of the holiday regimen, but I'll admit it's been a little liberating to sleep in on Easter or go out for Persian food on Christmas night when I've been away for the holidays. I had prepared a page-long diatribe about how organized religion is full of shit to justify my position, but I don't feel like offending my family or religious friends this close to the holidays, so I'll summarize it thusly: I believe in God, but I have no faith in man's religion. There's a lot of wisdom in the scriptures of many religions, but as organized entities I find that all of them have erected shaky edifices from their solid bases. So, that said, why am I still tempted to go to church on Christmas? Well, in Korean culture, and what Ive seen of a lot of Eastern cultures, a big part of religion is respect for ancestors. Several times a year Korean families get together and wander off into the woods to tend to the burial mounds of their parents and ancestors. The younger generation is a little tired of it, in fact, from what I hear. But theres a very strong connection to family and roots here, and I think its been rubbing off on me. Maybe its that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing, I dont know. Honestly my family is kind of irritating. Theyre very idiosyncratic. For most of my life Ive been pretty happy to get away from them. This year, now that Im almost exactly halfway around the world from them, Im missing them a little bit. Almost enough to go to church, even though I think church is weak sauce. So there, if thats not a touching Christmas message then I dont know what is. Merry Christmas, one and all.
I had more to say, but if Seinfeld taught me anything, its to go out on a high note. Happy Holidays, everyone, in case I dont get a chance to post anything else before the 25th. Call Mom and tell her you love her. And tip your waitresses. Unless theyre Korean, then youll just confuse them.