Monday, September 28, 2009

Ph's Mini-Me

Pocket of Bolts' dept. chair, Ph, is an interesting person. We used to live very near him and his partner (also in the dept.) and so we kind of developed a nice social relationship despite obvious barriers of age and status. I always get the feeling they think we are lively and fun... which is really about all we have going for us, socially awkward and anxious as we both are... but it seems like maybe enough.

The amusing thing is that now my new job gives me a lot more in common with Ph. It's like he's president of the US and I'm president of... Luxembourg, or Andorra, or something. Presidents still have certain things in common, though. Dinner party on Saturday--I had had a bit of champagne--I characterized myself as his "mini-me", which he said was cool.

He said something about my situation which was very comforting, though you might not think so on the surface. He said, "Really it's a job more properly done by someone with more experience. But on the other hand, they are extremely lucky to have you." (Ph thinks--also hopes, because of PoB too--that the institution will make an effort to keep me as well, to make my job more permanent after the three years are up.) The reason, anyway, that Ph's proclamation was comforting was that it effectively explains my feeling of being overwhelmed and ignorant about everything. Well of course!--it's a job for an old hand, not someone brand new. And yet on the other hand, enthusiasm and dedication can make up for much of that lack of experience, especially when everyone's pretty much on my side. I have encountered no opposition to anything I have wanted to do, quite the contrary. My only enemies so far are inertia and my own fears.

Another funny thing that Ph said, that there are three rules for guys:
1) Never play cards with a man called 'Doc'.
2) Never eat at a place called 'Mum's'.
3) And never sleep with a girl whose problems are worse than yours.

I just had to pass that on because it seems like such fantastic advice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Sitting at the Bar

Last Sunday Pocket of Bolts and I had dinner with my Korean cousin Ae. This was actually a very new experience for me. She was in Chicago with some girlfriends of hers from high school, visiting another of their friends who has settled here. She made a very particular effort to schedule a visit with me as well. I was puzzled but intrigued. I remember her fondly even from childhood--incoherent impressions, but just a feeling that she was very older sisterly, kindly, safe. I was never especially close to any of my cousins though. I think the major impression she must have had of me was that I was "very shy."

We met her at her hotel and walked down to Quartino, a really nice Italian restaurant. It was raining hard. I had never been to Quartino before, but Pocket of Bolts, who did all the research for this particular outing, had very nice things to say about it. It was all family-style, meant for sharing, but not the kind of portions you associate with that. It was more like an Italian version of tapas. We got an a la carte antipasto plate (PoB chose the stuff--it was SO GOOD), fried polenta sticks, arugula pizza, grilled octopus, and shrimp risotto. A nice bottle of not expensive wine to top it off. I was nervous. We kept Ae talking about her career--being a CPA for a major firm, switching to startups in SF for a while, not hitting the business cycle right, getting married and having kids, going back to a steadier job again with another major company. It was interesting. I hadn't really been aware of any of it. Not indifference, just general obliviousness. It reminds me that I have through most of my life been weirdly oblivious of many other people's lives, even other people that it would make sense to care about. It's like the bandwidth for my gossiping ability is really really narrow...

We chatted about other stuff--advice from her about starting a family, stuff about her kids, about other cousins. She told us that if we were going to have kids, we needed my parents to live closer by. Also, she told Pocket of Bolts he would absolutely have to help out around the house and do his share of the cooking. Pocket of Bolts, who does 90% of the cooking and about 75% of the other housework (especially lately) bit his tongue and nodded politely. It was very funny. I don't think Ae (a rather traditional sort of gal, I think) can even conceive of what a degenerate wife I am. Oh well, PoB seems to like me okay this way. I have the best will in the world to do things... I just get oblivious....

Ae really wanted to have coffee or something afterwards. I was teaching in the morning, so a drink wasn't really in the cards. I was also nervous at having probably exhausted everything I could think of to say to her. But a Korean gal tends to get her way, when she gets her mind set on something. It was still raining. We wandered around looking for someplace that was open and looked interesting--ended up sitting at the bar at Ruth's Chris because why not. Ae and I split a bread pudding and had decaf cappuccinos. PoB had a martini. I am not accustomed to sitting at a bar--it seems so ... exposed ... but Ae promptly made friends with the bartender, who turned out to be (as I suppose bartenders often are) a very gregarious, interesting, friendly sort. He seemed quite happy to talk and chat with us.

Ae gave us a long and kind of adorable disquisition on how one should always sit at the bar because it's more fun and you can still get most or all of the menu but with less formality. She clearly has such different associations with it than I do (well, I have next to none), memories of courting her now-husband, good times in the pre-child-rearing days. That, plus another nice experience I had recently, and after all I may come 'round to it after all. I mean, the bartender was so nice he didn't even mind that Ae and I weren't drinking.

We parted with the assurance that we would try to hang out again at Christmas. Ae and her husband, like PoB and I, alternate Christmases with the different families, but it seems like we're on a convergent cycle. Perhaps, if I'm not too much in a state of post-dissertational collapse, I'll actually try to make it happen. Certainly Facebook makes things much easier to organize...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Comparing People

There is some very interesting way of comparing people. There's a Facebook application called "Comparing People", but it isn't very interesting. Who's hotter, A or B. Whom would you rather marry, A or B. Who's funnier, A or B. That's not comparing, that's simply rating. In the Six Dynasties period (in China), there was a really sophisticated discourse of character analysis and comparison, preserved to some extent in the anecdote collection _A New Account of Tales of the World_. The thing about that text is that it's not, for the most part, Who's smarter, A or B. Who's more virtuous, A or B. Comparing people is pointless unless it gives you some kind of insight, and the insights there are delivered through narrative.

Comparing people seems like a very touchy subject in our society today. The more serious the comparison, the less comfortable people are with it. In my world, Who's hotter is just--whatever. Whose book or idea is better? Who is the better scholar or thinker? We hardly dare to say. I was thinking about this during and after a long talk I had yesterday with my friend and colleague S-dot.

It is a difficulty with blogging these days that I really want to write very specific things about very specific people, and don't want to bother with pseudonyms and anonymizing... but I have to.

S-dot said, about himself, that he had high self-esteem but high levels of insecurity, but that a nightmare ex of his had low self-esteem but low levels of insecurity. It seems strange that these things could even come apart. I hadn't even considered that, but having done so, I think it's true. Furthermore I can theorize about why they do: you get self-esteem through your parents' love and approval, but you get insecurity or lack thereof from early interactions with peers. If your parents love you too much and your peers too little, you end up like S-dot--or me, as well. If your peers love you too much and your parents too little, you end up like "nightmare ex"--which I suppose is much worse.

I do think I much more like S-dot in this way, though I alienate people slightly less. Without a point of comparison (nightmare ex), it never would have occurred to me, though. In fact, I am like S-dot in many ways, but none of them superficial. S-dot is like a brother to me: underlying commonalities and wildly divergent surface traits. I am never nervous to arrange a meeting with S-dot, or even to talk to him on the phone (although I am generally very nervous to talk to anyone on the phone). I care about him quite a lot, but on the other hand, he also irritates me deeply about 20-30% of the time. That's 70-80% less than he irritates any of our other colleagues, who have urged me to "teach him some manners."

But I really shouldn't say more about that.

Last observation about comparing people--all the most interesting things one could say, the narratives one could relate, are unanonymizable specifics! I give up.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Treeless Mountain

A week ago, Pocket of Bolts and I went to see a movie called Treeless Mountain at the Siskel Center. It's a Korean movie about two little girls. The girls' father is absent, and their mother is unable to take care of them. They are shuffled off, first to their father's sister, and then to their grandparents. Left very much to themselves, they look for ways to try to fill the empty place in their lives where others have family.

The striking thing about the movie to me was how with only very minimal dialogue, it succeeded nonetheless in being intensely psychological. The camera was almost invariably very close in to the girls' faces, and was an incredibly realistic portrait of childhood unhappiness and discomfort. The little girls, especially the older one, Jin, are not always sympathetic in their unhappiness. They whine and fight and cheat and do bad things. But it is all against such a stark background of dislocation and neglect that the viewer is drawn into the dramatic condition of childhood, where seemingly small things assume tremendous psychological significance. The little plastic piggy bank (pictured above), a central object in the story, teaches the girls that there is no magic in the world. And while the kindly halmuni (grandmother) in the end is, I think, supposed to be a ray of hope, Pocket of Bolts walked out of the movie saying it was about the most depressing thing he'd ever seen.

I walked out babbling my long-forgotten childhood Korean.

The dialogue of almost the entire movie was just at the level of the Korean I must once have known: language used by, with, and for little kids. They're words I couldn't spell to write them out in this blog, but they sprang fully formed into my comprehension and even production. Hey you, get over here. I'm hungry. Yum. It's okay. Thank you. Grandmother, grandfather. One two three four five. It's already been a week and I am forgetting again, but man, it was amazing. All that stuff's still in there somewhere, primary linguistic data. The film was sad, of course it was. But I felt weirdly exhilarated.

Also, the blue princess dress that the younger girl clings to throughout--I had a dress very much like that, at very much the same age. And I wore it about like the girl did. "What can't you PLAY like a princess too?" her aunt scolds her, while scrubbing at the dirt stains. But what good is it being a princess if you can't climb to the top of the dirt-pile, or scramble around in the field trapping grasshoppers to roast and eat? No doubt being an actual princess is no fun at all, but the idea of being a princess is to feel glamorous and special at every single moment, no matter what you are doing.