Saturday, July 12, 2014

Poetry Jam #15

Sometimes I forget how long I've been at this blogging game.  15 batches of poetry (amidst my other scribblings) and getting better all the time, if self-evaluation is any measure.  I think it's a little bit remarkable, even if no one's reading it.

Just kidding.  I know someone's reading it.  I have the page views to prove it.  Unless they're just stumbling in here by accident, taking a quick look, and running like hell.

I've been thinking lately about why I allow such a large backlog of poetry to build up before posting it on here.  I think these thoughts a lot, usually when I go through a period of writing a lot of poems.  I always come back to my usual excuse that writing a poem, and then ignoring it for nearly a year, allows me to view it later with a critical distance.  Is this necessary for quality control?  Maybe.  I don't even know.  It's just what I do.

These twenty (twenty!) poems date from July to November of 2013.  Future biographers will note this as my "waiting to go to Korea" period, and some of these poems are sort of about that.  A few of them also contain references to death and violence, so be aware.


No less a man for being filthy,
no less honored for his shame,
and nothing more and nothing less
than human in the face of death,
or wrapped in the embrace of living.
That is what he'd have them write
before they cleaned his filthy corpse
and put his innards into jars:
no more a corpse for being filthy,
no more honored for his tomb,
and nothing less the loss of someone
human to a mausoleum,
lost in the pursuit of living.


Have a look at your city
through the window of a bus.
See the people of your city
in their comings and their goings,
all these people of your city
through the windows of a bus,
see that face of yours in
need of shaving, faintly,
in the window of a bus.
Find the driveways and the
stones of houses in your memory,
buildings from another time
that linger in these windows,
trees from other times before.
Have a look at your city
through the window of a bus
and see it like it's new again,
and never forget it.

The Role of the Praetorian Guard

Waste your day in vain ambition,
dream of rule and wake in ruin;
so the princeling's guard had said
before they dragged him from his bed,
and dashed a club against his head
and, joyless, watched him as he bled.

Thus the realm was saved from ruin
through the princeling's wild ambition;
so the younger princeling said,
a crown of laurel on his head
and bodyguards around his bed,
the wardens of the walking dead.

Clay Castles

Whenever I could manage,
I would build my castles
out of clay,
so the sea would have a
more difficult time
in taking them away.

But when I came back to
my little kingdom,
I never found my castles
made of clay;
thicker sand won't coax
a work of life to stay.

Magic Love

I don't know magic in this life
but when you speak, your tones,
your precious words that move me
with your sorrow and your crying joy.

With all my doubts dispelled, my love,
my heart embraced with silks,
the charm is truly cast,
my love, I need to hold you in my arms.

So summon me, across the sky
and to your bedroom, love,
so I might comfort you
tonight, before you make your sleeping spell.

Science Love

If there's a force that could keep us apart,
I know I've never weighed it on a scale;
they don't make a scale big enough to measure
all the weight they'd need to hold me down,
to keep me here, to stop my arms from finding you
and holding you before you fall asleep,
to hold you up from falling.

Elisabeth Sullivan's Parrot Paintings

The lady found her theme, and it was
parrots, clutched intently
on the tips of boats and surfboards,
sinking in the water, never sunk
while wings could soar;
parrots, perched in waters
where the colors never faded,
parrots on the shore
and parrots where the people
never go anymore.


What time awaits me, I will never learn
until that time remains with me no more,
escaping me, but granting me in turn
the awful knowledge of that open door.

The wisdom of the living for the night
will have no business on the road with me,
wherever roads may lead, whatever light
may shine, wherever my arrest may be.

I would depart in love, and I would choose
to shed the weight that rests upon my brow
before I close my eyes, if I could lose
the fear that holds them open even now.

And if I had a choice, I would forget
the limits of our words, and be at peace,
if time would grant the courtesy to set
a warning of the day of my release.

Beach Bones

Beach bones broken by the sea,
scattered, lying next to me;
beach bones built of burnt-out wood,
leaving roots where once they stood.
Beach bones bitten by the breeze,
Bony husks of weathered trees.
Beach bones barely passing by
the hours of the ashen sky.

Campfire in the Light Mist

I like the way you build
the fire.
I like the way you build
my dangerous tendencies,
the way your fingers run
along me,
the crackle and the
hiss and pop,
the soft implosion, pulsing flame,
the way the sturdy log is thus
the way the water sizzles
in the heat of you,
the mist upon the fire,
the glow,
the burning want.

Document Based Question

The first quote is from someone who
describes history;
the second is from somebody who
makes it,
shapes it,
lives it,
dies alone with it.
As you can see, they are very different.

Magic Potions

If you want to talk about magic potions,
I can buy them at the grocery store
in packs of six, or more if I choose,
in handsome marketer's packaging.

These potions are of limited uses,
but I'll take them over spells of love
and draughts of shrinking land, until
such time as they are brewed like beer.

Untitled October Second Poem

My lungs and your heart,
somehow working apart
from each other, in spite
of how we miss each other,
no matter how hard I breathe
or how few steps there are
from here to your door,
no matter how I distract
myself, if it's you
I want then breathing is
unsatisfying to our hearts.

Letters of the Alphabet

Q looks like an alien letter,
like a body-snatcher,
standing in for K
(or maybe C?)
and hoping no one notices
or asks too many questions
that they aren't prepared
to hear the answers to.

But Q is not a foreign glyph,
at least no more than C
or G or even K
and long lost friends like Þ.
Our symbols have a history,
a right to be among us
and to spell our words
as well as they are able.

Q is not a body-snatcher,
Q is not a rank impostor,
Q does not have to answer to U.

Summer Sun

Like a summer sun on winter mornings
you are here,
waking me with brilliant warmth, and
you are here
because you want to be here,
nowhere else, my miracle, my paradox,
my crisp summer sun.

Tea Time on the Edge

On my right, a steeping mug
and on my left an oily plate,
but one of these is finished;
ten fifteen, it's time to start,
there's so much time I have to fill,
but I am tired of filling time
with tea and Thai food, yeah?
In front of me, a puzzle,
mostly empty, getting fuller,
waiting for the ink to fill the spaces,
but my inspiration struck (or did it?)
and the tea is steeping hot
and I just want to drink my mug, yeah?
before I get caught up in something big.

The Language of Ice

The ice is talking to me,
speaking through the water,
every crack a verb
and silence an imperative:
"get out, get out"
you fool, (it says)
"get out,
and take your little ideas with you."
I can hear it growing softer
as the ice's edges melt,
but if you listen very closely
you might just make out the mockery
inherent in its accent,
defiant to the last
of its most treasured independence,
before my thirst negates it.


I don't want to be a king,
a ruler of the boardroom
or the bedroom,
emperor of some new money manse
or legislator;
not without your wisdom,
not without your sovereignty
exalted up with mine,
so glorious,
abolishing the very thought of sovereignty
with all the tenderness of common sense,
my love,
the only rule we'll know is kiss
and pray for rain,
and make the most of weather
when it snows.

The Victory of Music over Painting

Sound is sight-deprived
and sight is silent, hollow,
cracking through the skull
like ripples in the frost.
But sound is free from sight,
so sound is warm and comely
as a body's heat;
this sound is just as much
a spike in temperature
as echo in the ears,
a triumph over eyes,
and ice, and window glass.
a sound can melt your heart
before a sight can make
you want to change your mind.

The Bear

The bear who came to life to hold your hand
when you were crying on your bed, alone;
his plastic eyes, his fur of ruddy sand,
the way his empathy has always shown
when no one else could look you in the face -
would you trade him for a cigarette,
a carton-full, a bottle (or a case)
if anyone could make that bear forget?


Let the commentary begin!

Epitaph puts us off to a nice, morbid start with a consideration of what it must be like to be a corpse.  I don't remember why I wrote this, exactly, but it's confusing and provocative and I like it.

At the time I wrote Omnibus, I was in the process of moving out of Eugene, Oregon.  Having lived there for the better part of eight years, I was putting things in storage, getting packed for a quick jaunt to San Diego to visit my family, and preparing to subsequently live at my girlfriend's house in Canby until our flight date was set.  I found myself riding the bus home from downtown one day, and feeling all nostalgic.  So that's what Omnibus is: blatant nostalgia with some little repetition tricks.

I wrote The Role of the Praetorian Guard while reading A Game of Thrones.  This cultural phenomenon was in fact a series of books before it was a popular television series, and could easily have been retitled "A Series of Horrifying Murders."  Somehow, it got all up in my poetry.

Magic Love and Science Love are in fact a pair, though I don't remember if I planned it that way before I'd started writing the second one.  In fact, it was probable a happy accident.  Magic Love has a fun little 4/3/3/5 metrical scheme, though I clearly cheated on the second stanza with those gratuitous "my love" insertions.  Science Love has a really wonky meter and I'm not sure it's actually good.  But dammit, these two are meant to be together.

Elisabeth Sullivan's Parrot Paintings is about exactly what it sounds like.  The artist, Elisabeth Sullivan, was at the San Diego Art Walk in August last year, and so was I (as a booth wanderer, not an artist).  I thought her work was lovely, and something inside me really appreciated the liberal presence of parrots.

My return to San Diego came with a very unexpected emotional impact.  Shortly after my arrival, my dad told me that members of the extended family were gathering for a memorial service.  My cousin and two of my uncles, all of whom had died in recent years, were going to have their ashes interred together at the San Luis Rey Mission.  A few days before the service took place, my aunt (who was conducting the event) sent out an email to invite any of us to prepare a speech or poem if we would like to.  This prompted the writing of Preparation, though I was too shy to read it at the time, or to show it to anyone up until now.  The service was very emotional, both for its suddenness and because I remembered that the last time I'd been to San Luis Rey (2007?  2008?), my cousin and my two uncles had all been all been alive and present for the interment of my grandfather's ashes.  Anyway, I'm proud of Preparation, and I wish I'd read it then.

Beach Bones and Campfire in the Light Mist both came out of a weekend with my best buddies on the Oregon coast, as the countdown to Korea began.  The first is about driftwood and, yeah, driftwood, whoo.  The second is about our campfire, which we somehow kept alive through the Oregon coast's notorious and incessant rain.  It somehow spun into something disturbingly erotic.  Don't read too much into that.

Magic Potions is really funny to me now that I've quit drinking.  Aside from the obvious, I got to use the phrase "draught of shrinking land" in a poem about beer.  I am and will always be a huge nerd.

I have no idea what's going on with Untitled October Second Poem.  I read it today, blinked, and counted out the meter:
-/ --/
--/ --/
--/ --/
-/ -/ -/-
-/ --/ -/
-/ -/ -/
-/ --/
-/ -/ --/
-/ --/
-/ -/ --
-/ -/ -/ -/
What the fuck is this shit?  Is this free verse?  Is there any sort of plan here?  I didn't even remember writing it.  But I liked it, so it's here.

Letters of the Alphabet is probably really stupid, but I like it so I will subject you all to it too.  To read it properly, recall that the letter Þ is called "thorn".  If you read it in your mind as "P", you are a very silly person.

Summer Sun and Royalty are about Tara, and my feelings for her in the time that her parents were gracious enough to allow me to live in their house indefinitely while we waited months for our Korea departure.  She likes it when I write her poems, and she is a wonderful muse.

Tea Time on the Edge and The Language of Ice are documentary evidence of what an exciting time that was.  When you're writing about the way ice cracks in water over time, you know you need to go outside.  I kind of miss Thai food, actually.  I think I've only had it once since I got to Korea.

Lastly, The Bear is a poem for making people feel bad about smoking and drinking by invoking the memory of their childhood stuffed animals.  That probably makes me terribly square.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Ways of the Poem

A friend of mine recently asked for some instruction in the arts poetical.  Being something of a poet myself, and otherwise stuck for ideas of what to actually write on this old blog of mine, I thought I'd write him a primer on the subject of writing poems.  If you too have an interest in this most venerable of crafts (and likewise have no real background in it), I hope you'll find the following helpful.

I personally think it's a shame that the basics of poetry aren't more widely known.  On a rudimentary level, poetry is very easy.  The only necessary equipment is the ability to speak a human language (and yes, sign languages count).  You'll need a pencil and paper, of course, if you want to actually write it instead of just memorising verses like the bards of yore.  But most people these days have those lying around, or the digital equivalents anyway.  Just add an idea, and there's no real barrier between doing nothing and writing a poem.

So most people have the tools ready to go.  They just don't quite know what to do with them.  Some people might go their whole lives knowing nothing about how to put together a decent poem, except that it ought to rhyme.  There are some exceptions: certain jokey forms like limericks or haiku (a serious form in Japanese, in my experience usually comical in English) seem to get in people's heads in a way that they can use, even if they can't explain it in technical terms.  What I want to do now, more or less, is root around in the toolshed, and give names to all those pointy things you've always noticed but never used.

Poetry: What It Is

In simple words, stated to be as broadly applicable to as many languages as possible, poetry is the art of organizing words for aesthetic effect.  In a limited sense, this is applicable to prose as well, but there is a key difference.  Prose is ordinary writing that can borrow poetic techniques to imbue a message with feeling.  Poetry is as much about the feeling as it is about the message.  It's about trying to take a message and make it as beautiful, or as ugly, or as much of any other desired effect as you can.

There are a million different ways to do poetry, especially if you're not limited to a single language.  But if English is it for you, it doesn't mean there is only one way to write a stanza.  There is a long line of tradition and convention to draw from, but ignoring the parts you don't like is an acceptable practice.  After all, it's only words in the end.

Much like in music, the most central property of poetry is usually rhythm.  Rhythm means something a little different in different tongues, but in English the primary rhythmic element is syllabic stress.  For most poets in English, the location and number of those stresses in a line is of primary importance.  Building a decent poem out of them means keeping track of their arrangement, and using it fo the advantage of the poem's feeling.

Other essentials of poetry include phonics, vocabulary, and a willingness to disregard "essential" things when they are massively inconvenient.  You can go surprisingly far, however, with rhythm as your primary guide.

Before You Can Write A Poem, You Have To Write Lines

Rhythm is fundamental on at least two levels: within the lines, and between the lines.  The former is the domain of meter, while the latter is what we might call form. 

Meter is basically a scheme for organizing the rhythm of a string of words that has been placed in a line of poetry.  In English the rhythm is defined by patterns of stress.  Thus, meter in English usually consists of counting out stressed and unstressed syllables.  A poet may write a line like this:
A happy rodent playing with the cats
and the pattern of stresses will look something like this:
a HAPPy ROdent PLAYing WITH the CATS
More abstractly, the line could be rendered like this:
-/ -/ -/ -/-/
where "-" indicates an unstressed syllable and "/" indicates a stressed one.  You can use those symbols for your own purposes, but you don't have to.  I just like how they look.

"A happy rodent playing with the cats" happens (by stunning coincidence) to be a line of iambic pentameter, the classic embodiment of formal English meter.  "Iambic Pentameter" is an awful lot of Greek to throw into a discussion of purely English poetry, I know, but most of the technical vocabulary of poetry is Greco-Latin.  It's better to just get used to it.

The form of a poem largely consists in how its lines are arranged in reference to one another.  The lines might all be metrically identical; pentameters marching endlessly into the distance, as it were.  They might also vary in length or type.  "Free verse" consists in telling form to go to hell, which is a valid lifestyle choice but also requires more unconventional and advanced ways of thinking about rhythm.  I wouldn't recommend it for beginners who want to avoid learning about form.  You're better off mastering the writing of metrical lines until you can toss off a line like "a happy rodent playing with the cats" like it's no big thing.

The Wide World of Feet

A line of poetry is measured in "feet", a term that is less reassuringly simple than it might appear.  The word "pentameter", for instance, indicates a line of five feet.  Recall that "a happy rodent playing with the cats" was rendered abstractly above like this:
 -/  -/ -/ -/ -/
The unit "-/" (an unstressed syllable followed by a  stressed syllable) is a kind of foot known as an iamb; hence, a line of iambic pentameter.  This brings us to the point of this section: there are many kinds of feet, and they all have Greek names.  Here are four of the most common/useful feet:
The Iamb (-/): an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
The Trochee (/-): a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
The Anapest (--/): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
The Dactyl (/--): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.
And here are two more with a more specialized use, usually as convenient substitutes for an iamb or a trochee:
The Spondee (//): two stressed syllables.
The Pyrrhic (--): two unstressed syllables.
There are dozens more feet like this, and they're all mostly impractical for writing at length.  Those six will carry you a good long way.  Memorizing their Greek names is useful for technical analysis, but the most important thing is to remember the stress patterns.

Feet and words are both composed of syllables, but they are not the same thing.  "A happy rodent playing with the cats" is ten syllables, seven words, and five feet long.  The first foot consists of the word "a" and the first half of the word "happy".  There is no cause to build a line of iambic pentameter out of five words with a natural "-/" stress pattern.  You probably shouldn't do it, unless you've found five words that sound awesome that way, in which case you should absolutely do it.

Finally, remember that words like "trimeter", "tetrameter", "pentameter", "hexameter", "heptameter", etc., refer to numbers of feet, not syllables.  A line of anapestic pentameter like this:
But they fled the unstoppable army of ravenous bats
has the same number of feet as "a happy rodent playing with the cats", even though it has fifteen syllables instead of ten.  It's also significantly harder to write five anapests in a row over and over, so you know.  Trade off.

Little Rhythm Things

Stress in English does not exist as a yes/no dichotomy.  Words of three or more syllables typically have more than one stress, with one syllable receiving most of the stress and another receiving less.  Depending on the tone of a sentence, syllables that would typically be unstressed can suddenly reverse their roles.  "Put the markers IN the basket," said the stressed-out teacher to the student, investing more weight in the word "in" than any other syllable in that sentence.  In poetry, this makes a world of difference.

Stress is always relative.  A lightly stressed syllable can appear to be unstressed in the right context.  Consider the word "ravenous."  The big stress falls on syllable one, but a smaller, secondary stress falls on the third.  In the line " of ravenous bats," the meter treats the second stress like it's no big thing.  Either I'm just a sloppy poet, or the stress is all a matter of perspective.

Pausing a line, either with a comma or a period, interrupts the flow of the meter. If the natural expectation of an iambic pentameter is to pause every fifth beat, then shortening and lengthening the period between pauses defies expectations in all the right ways.  The proper name for pausing in the middle of a line is cesura; the term for connecting two lines without a pause is enjambment.  Hand in hand, they make poetry seem less artificial and more like the natural, irregular rhythms of speech.

All of this affects the overall rhythm of a line in a way that's deeper than meter.  To a sensitive ear, a metrically perfect line can still sound slightly off if these micro-rhythmic factors are undermining the regular march of stresses.  But with skill, these effects can be put to work in creating a richer and more interesting rhythm than the simple baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM of iambic pentameter.  Above all else, poetry is about making the language work for effect.  Play with rhythm, and you are bound to discover all sorts of interesting tricks.

 Phonics Effects

I went a long way with no mention of rhymes, but the time has come.  As everyone knows, the art of poetry calls for more than hypnotic, mesmerising rhythms.  People want the old razzle-dazzle.  They want some rhymes.

Rhymes, alliteration, and other trappings of euphonia make for more colorful poetry.  They also run the risk of looking cheesy, clichéd, and contrived.  But when they work, they really bring the pretty.  If it's pretty you're after, then rhyming is worth the effort.

The rules of rhyme, much like those of meter, are elastic.  Depending on your chosen form or your own personal taste, it can be anything from an exact correspondence in vowel and consonant sounds (bold/gold, free/sea, day/play) to a looser kind of family resemblence (bold/goal, free/scene, date/played).  Near or "slant" rhymes may not always satisfy a purist, but they are valid poetic techniques and can introduce a bit of extra texture.

I'm not much of a rhymer, myself.  I do rhyme, from time to time, and it usually comes out about as well as that.  I'm personally more fond of alliteration as a grace note in my poem.  It's an aesthetic preference and not a recommendation.  Most established poetic forms assume an effort at rhyming, so if you want to try your hand at sonnets or ballads or what not, you'll need to make that effort.

Rhymes and alliteration always tend to work best, in my opinion, as reinforcing elements of the rhythm, highlighting beats with their special ability to draw attention to themselves.  It all comes back to rhythm in the end, because rhythm is the life of poetry.  It's the reason people do poetry at all.  

A Voluminous Vocabulary

The poet trades in words, and a clever or unexpected term can easily turn a dull line into an interesting one.  Blessed with a lexicon like ours, an embarrassment of synonyms and rarities, one could say that English-language poets have something of an obligation to reach for the stars and pluck out some choice novelties.  Mindless repetition, after all, is no path to greatness.

Sturdy, common monosyllables are an indispensable part of any English writing.  However, the interesting stress patterns of polysyllables can improve a poem's rhythm.  Rare words can also introduce new possibilities for rhymes when you've grown tired of the obvious ones.  The more words you know, the more choices you have in meeting your poem's peculiar needs.

The inevitable downside?  People don't talk like thesauruses.  That's the reason we have thesauruses in the first place.  If you stuff every line with rare and unwieldy words, your potential readership will dwindle.  If you care about your potential readership (even if it's just you), be sure that your poem is never missing he kind of words that they can actually relate to.

After all, poetry is not just about putting the words in the right order.  Even more basic than that is finding he right word.  Whether it's love or infatuation, you'll want both in your toolbox for the big jobs.

The Personal Touch

English is an international language with a long history.  There isn't anything like an authority on how to pronounce every little word in the language.  And with every language, there is always variation between even individual speakers.  Sometimes you're going to wonder about a word, even on something as basic as the number of syllables.

One ambiguity that I often encounter (and exploit) is "R-breaking".  This is the tendency to pronounce words like "fire" as though they were two syllables.  The trouble is, when I consider the word "fire" in my mind, it doesn't really feel disyllabic. Depending on the circumstances of the poem, I feel perfectly comfortable treating "fire" as either one or two syllables.

These ambiguities extend to things like rhyme and stress.  Does "maw" rhyme with "ma"?  It does if you're me, but the assertion would puzzle many people.  What about the stress on the word "guitar?"  I stress the second syllable, but in some dialects it's common to stress the first. 

Since poetry is perceived as a formal exercize, it is tempting to agonize over proper pronunciations in the pursuit of a perfectly executed meter or a flawless rhyme.  Don't do that!  The best poets write in their own voice, and consequently their usage is always informed by their own dialect.  If a certain pronunciation or grammatical quirk sounds right or natural to you, it is not necessary to break your back in avoiding it.  If you are deliberately writing in a "Standard English" sort of way, it's another story.  But I suspect you'll have more fun with poetry if you write in your own style.

Alternative Approaches

The kind of poetry I've been describing, with meters organized according to stresses and syllables, is not the only kind available.  Bucking this paradigm does not make you an unpoet, nor does it automatically mean your work is worthless.  It just puts you outside the tradition.

The Anglo-Saxon bards, between their hearty quaffs of mead, considered a line of poetry to be well done if it had four prominent stresses, with the first three emphasized by alliteration, and syllable counts be damned.  Conversely, there are poems in Modern English that derive their metrics solely from counting syllables, with little heed to stress.  And of course there's free verse, where everything is made up and the points don't matter.

The point is, despite all the blathering I've done thus far on the technical aspects of poetry, you can pretty much do whatever you want.  Other people may not like it, but that doesn't mean it's not poetry.  Bad poetry is still poetry, and since you can follow all the rules and still produce monumentally awful verse, you might as well take some time to test out the boundaries.  

And Now, The Method

There actually isn't any one method I adhere to with any regularity when it comes to writing poems.  Sometimes I just write lines until something like a theme emerges.  Sometimes I build up a structure and fill in the blanks.  Sometimes I just freestyle and hope that no one gets hurt.  

Once you have established your relationship with things like rhythm and form, writing poetry is much the same as writing anything else.  If you have a big message to share with the world, bend the rhythm to suit your message.  If you're only concerned with the rhythm, then don't fret about not having anything deep to say.  Sometimes poetry is about deep thoughts and philosophy.  Sometimes it's about stupid dirty jokes.  Both are fine uses of your time and energy.

Writing poetry is an excellent opportunity to express yourself creatively and to learn more about your language.  There is a lot more to discuss on the subject than the quick and dirty notes I've jotted down here.  For a more competent how-to guide, I recommend Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Traveled.   For advanced studies, of course, there is actual poetry to explore.  Read with your ears, then give it your best shot.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why I'm quitting drinking

Sure, everyone says it when they've got a bad hangover.  But I'm hoping that by putting it down here, I can demonstrate that it isn't just the hangover talking.

People drink alcohol for a lot of reasons.  Fun, flavor, and chemical dependency all play a role in it.  Another factor is social pressure.  Drinking alcohol is not just something one does in response to one's own body.  It's a performance for an audience.  What and how much you drink is socially determined as much as it is chemically determined.

For a long time, I was very worried that I would become addicted to alcohol.  I grew up with visible examples of alcoholism in my family, and I knew exactly what I never wanted to be.  I passed my 21st birthday with only a few curious sips, a customary can of budweiser (or something), and a sense of moral superiority.  Then came 22, and I compromised.  I learned to drink, and in time I learned to genuinely enjoy it.  But all the while, I worried about what would become of me if I lost control.  And when I did lose control, I spent the next mornings feeling guilty and sick.

As it happens, I became a drinker while living in Oregon, nestled among a fine collection of craft brewing houses.  I learned to savor good taste in beers, and to listen to my body when it started sending me negative messages.  I cut out hard liquor.  I tapered my drinking so that I could enjoy a buzz without succumbing to oblivion.  I did what I could to establish good drinking habits.  Everyone who drinks should do that, but in my case I was motivated by a very immediate kind of fear.

Just as there were alcoholics among my family, I found them among my close friends.  I didn't count myself among them, and I still don't.  But I was afraid, and I started drawing lines in the sand for myself.  I thought I would be safe as long as I observed certain basic rules.  Beyond that, I knew I would be safe if I stayed in control of my drinking.

I've been in South Korea for six months, and right now I don't really feel in control of my drinking.

At first, I thought I could retain control easily enough.  South Korea's beer selection is light on the craft I enjoy and heavy on the cheap, watery business of getting hammered.  I spent my first few months more concerned that I would be deprived of good drink than that I would have too much. 

I found good, imported beer.  I've got four bottles sitting in my refrigerator right now.  They've been sitting there for months because I just don't want them anymore. 

Never undestimate the effect a culture can have on your behavior.  In particular, never underestimate a drinking culture.  This nation may not brew the best, but it loves to consume.  And frankly, the prevailing attitude in the drinking culture of Korea strikes me as suicidal.  When I go out with my boss and my coworkers, I am expected to hurt myself.  I am expected to drink until I can be confident I'll have to throw it all up in the morning.  The pattern has been set.

It is not as if I do this all the time.  In point of fact, I don't go out very often.  I've even been able to dodge these outings a few times.  But you can't dodge them all, and I'm so desperate to avoid offending my boss that I eventually find myself quaffing "somaek" (beer with a soju shot) in perverse tests of manly endurance.  Then I feel euphoric and profoundly unhappy.

This morning, I missed the toilet bowl by a few inches.  A glimpse at my employer's more guarded emotions was not really worth the accompanying feelings of shame and disgust or the fluid on my feet.

You can't just drink slower than everyone else when there's a toast every two minutes.  You can't limit yourself to the quantity you know you can handle when your boss puts a two half liters in front of you and says "one shot".  You can't take it back when you feel yourself cross the line of no return.  It's so hard to say no to a drink when the whole gathering revolves around chicken and drinking.

And to think, all of this is supposed to be a celebration of the end of a stressful week.

I no longer drink because it's been a long day and I'd like a little something to relax.  These days, I drink because a man I don't much care for is trying to raise morale.  And frankly, it's hurting me.  I don't know how else to get out of it except by not drinking anymore.

Last weekend, I went to the hospital for a mandatory examination.  The doctors read my blood, and told me my "liver index" was high.  A followup ultrasound indicated I have the beginnings of Fatty Liver disease.  Whether it's the drinking or my diet that's causing it, I don't know.  But I can feel the pain I'm putting myself through.  And if there's one thing I know I never want to be, it's a patient with cirrhosis or hepatitis.

I thought about moderation.  But I don't really feel like moderation is a valid choice for me here.  Maybe when I'm back in America, and I feel more comfortable setting my own pace, that could change.  Right now, I feel more comfortable going on indefinite hiatus.   I'll give my beers away.  I'll stick to tea.

I've been a drinker for five years because I compromised with social expectations.  Back then, I weighed the risks against a desire to be of the world, not left out of a more-or-less universal custom.  Now, I'm renegotiating the terms of that compromise.  I'm tired of being at war with my body.  I want some control back in my life.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

R.E.M. Unplugged

I've been a fan of R.E.M. at least since my Freshman year of college.  Back in my most active period of  album purchasing, I got into the band through Automatic for the People and Out of Time.  I thought they were beautiful records (even if Out of Time is occasionally silly as hell), but lacked the determination to make a full exploration of their catalog.  So those two albums stood alone in my collection, played and enjoyed, but not immoderately so.

Somehow, it wasn't until this year that I became a Fan.  That's a capital F right there, indicating the kind of enthusiast that puts time and energy toward analyzing the history and the psychology behind every track, living in the stories of every album and the musicians who made them.  You can communicate a lot with a capital F.

It wasn't a sudden discovery of the rest of their albums; through the magic of the internet, I'd heard many of them before.  But something really clicked this year.  I was feeling emotionally vulnerable: like so many times before in my life, I sought comfort in old music.   Perhaps it was pure chance, but R.E.M.'s first five albums came through for me in a huge way.  They hit me right in the feelings, and like a baby chick I imprinted on their mumbly jangling with a fierceness.  Now my girlfriend gives me the side eye whenever she hears "Don't Go Back to Rockville", but I'm a happy man with what might be a new favorite band.

And what are the odds, amidst this peculiar eruption of love, that R.E.M. would put out a new live album this year?  Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions  came along a few days ago and gave me another perfect excuse to do exactly what I've been itching to do: gush at length about my new obsession.  

Admittedly, the sound that fired my imagination so hotly was not the acoustic style on display here.  I was more than familiar with R.E.M. in this mode, but it's the electricity of Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant that has had me raving in recent days.  At their best, R.E.M. in those years put dynamism alongside mystery in a way that no other band could touch.  They were fast and beautiful and endlessly interpretable.  Best of all, they hit all my musical sweet spots: juicy backing vocals, melodic bass lines, shiny guitar sounds, the works.  The diversity of their sound was always a part of the appeal, but I was certifiably taken with the rock n' roll.

Now, Unplugged has brought me back to the soft embrace of Peter Buck's mandolin.  Put in the context of R.E.M.'s history, this long-delayed live album (or pair of them, if that's how you want to look at things) reveals their real greatness: not a particular set of conventions or instruments, but the overwhelming force of their personalities.  Separated by a decade, both shows are steeped in humanity.  Even when they change the arrangements, R.E.M. never stop sounding honest.

A contemporary of Out of Time, the 1991 concert has its share of goofiness.  They don't come out and play "Shiny Happy People" (thank God), but a few tracks come across as shallow gimmicks without the amplifiers.  "Radio Song" was gimmicky already, but playing it acoustic and sans-rap doesn't do it any real favors (go figure).  Michael Stipe's fake country accent, on the other hand, gives "The End of the World As We Know It" just the right kind of fun to compensate for the lack of watts.  Alongside sublime versions of "Fall On Me" and other songs that fit more comfortably and seriously in an acoustic set, the net effect is fun and warm and impossibly beautiful.

What of the second concert?  Minus Bill Berry and further removed from the band's dashing indie days, I confess I wasn't quite as eager to hear it.  It's too easy to valorize the youth of a band, especially when they visibly slow down in their old age.  Fewer of the 2001 songs sound like experiments (silly or otherwise), because by that time the whole "unplugged" aesthetic had become somewhat closer to R.E.M.'s default sound.  The band was already maturing in 91; they didn't get any younger.  But listening to the songs themselves, I found myself caring less and less.  Rock n' roll may be a special kind of thrill, but you can't really argue with beauty.

Stipe sounds a little more grizzled and old, but it doesn't really change his style that much.  Neither does the band neglect its old material, which is perhaps why Unplugged treats us to two versions of "Losing My Religion".  Concert number two is a much more straightforward affair, more what you might expect from rock stars with acoustic guitars and a mood for contemplation.  It's good that it's so pretty, or that might be the end of the conversation.  R.E.M.'s songs really are that moving, though.  I could listen to "Imitation of Life" for days, and if I get the chance I intend to.

I won't call this album essential, but I will call it a gift from one of the most remarkable bands of their time.  A band that ages as gracefully as this is one for the history books: the sort of thing to pay attention to.  Maybe it's just because I'm getting older, or maybe I've always been too old inside for my own good, but I appreciate that artistry.

Check this one out, reflect on your mortality, and thank someone for all the beauty in this world.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Keep Cool, Boy

That last post may have come across as angry.  I'm sure it came across as relentlessly sarcastic.  It might even be genuinely offensive.  So rather than let the blog sit on that note, I thought I would try to introduce a little perspective on the matter.

In a way, I regret writing it.  I don't claim to be a sage, but I do believe it's wiser to say nothing when all you want to do is denigrate someone.  It's not just the scatological insults that can cause collateral damage, after all.  If someone truly is a scoundrel, they'll remain so even if you refrain from pointing it out.  Unfortunately,  people do things for other reasons than careful consideration of what is and isn't wise.  Someone in my life has made a mess of things, and I wrote a mean little essay about them.  It's a little childish, but in my defense, so is the whole situation.

The sad truth is, Tara and my adventure in Korea is not going as smoothly as hoped.  You can read about all our troubles on the other blog; I'm not going to rehash them here.  Essentially, we were taken advantage of by people who ought to have known better.  We ought to have known better than to trust them.  Now we are stuck, and will probably have to do something a little crazy to get unstuck.

I'm just glad that, even with all the uncertainty in our lives today, Tara and I still have each other to rely on.  Together, we reaffirm the necessity and the practicability of trust and love, and together we are not afraid.  We'll work something out, and be better (and yes, wiser) for our troubles.

And in the meantime, I have a weekend ahead of me with not much to do.  I think I will make myself feel better by writing something good and worthwhile.  Potty-mouthed catharsis is nice, but it won't stand the test of time.  It's high time for something more sophisticated on this blog.  Something that I can look back on and smile at.  Probably something with less swearing.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

English and the Insult

*The following post contains, and indeed dwells considerably upon, profanity*

About a month ago, I had a conversation with a Korean friend of mine concerning the most effective ways to describe a disliked person in English.  Her English was pretty good, and she already had quite a handle on the basics of swearing, letting loose a series of fucks and bastards with righteous fury.  But she seemed dissatisfied with the limitations of English cursing, feeling that these words didn't really get at the heart of why the object of her ire was so detestable.  My helpful suggestions of motherfucker, asshole, and son of a bitch served only to illustrate her point.  American English at least does not have a very extensive list of devastating curses.

Recently, I too have had reason to consider the most effective way to utterly disparage the character of another human being in my native tongue.  It's not surprising really; we've all been in that sort of mood, and it's not really important to know who we're talking about today or what they've done to deserve such infamous treatment.  Trust me when I say that the bastard has earned the abuse.

As a matter of principle, I want to avoid the use of insulting language that derives its impact from racial, sexual, or gender identity, or from mental or physical disability.  I think we're all better than that.  A truly effective, devastating insult should bear on something worthy of insulting: namely, a person's lack of integrity.  I have taken the liberty to compile a short list of terms (with definitions) that I think should be considered more often by Americans in the throes of passionate rage:

Scoundrel: a dishonest or unscrupulous person.
Blackguard: a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way.
Heel: an inconsiderate or untrustworthy person.
Punk: someone worthless or unimportant; a hoodlum.
Scum: a low, worthless, or evil person.
Miscreant: a vicious or depraved person.
Reprobate: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person.
Dastard: a mean, sneaking coward.

If you ask me, that's a nasty list!  There aren't many people I know who would enjoy being called any of these things.  But they don't really have the weight you'd expect from something as serious as an insult.  They certainly don't feel like real curses, the sort of thing that could get you sent to the principal's office, or thrown out of an especially genteel book club (maybe "scum," but not the rest).  In fact, words like "miscreant" almost sound like the opposite of an insult, the sort of thing an upper class person with delicate sensibilities might say to avoid giving offense.  That's not what I want to do here.  I want to be very offensive.

One common principle of insults seems to be that, in order to truly communicate that someone is detestable, you can't just say that they are.  You have to go beyond saying what they are and make what they are sound like something that no one will ever love, possibly because they are contaminated with some sort of contagious, weaponized germ.

There are some exceptions to this principle.  Calling someone something as simple as coward, thief, or liar can provoke a fistfight under the right conditions.  If the person I wish to insult is a liar (and they are), then it seems like I have a built-in advantage to my quest to be offensive.  The problem is, there aren't many words in English that mean "liar" but can't be spoken in polite company.  Oath breaker?  Dissembler?  Fabulist?  Deceiver?  Maybe if you throw in a good strong "fucking" to carry the load.

Nobody wants to sound unhip while delivering an insult: doing so insults oneself by implication.  I think that's why our pool of insults is so conservative, limited to a few old standbys and some unjust digs at marginalized groups.  Nobody wants to go out on a limb by committing to a word like miscreant if it will be perceived as dated or wimpy.  That's also why nobody avails themselves of classic Shakespearean skewers like "umuzzled tardy-gaited barnacle" or "fobbing whoreson coxcomb."  They may be thoroughly rude, but they're adventurous and untested.  Fucking asshole may be muted, but everyone gets the idea right away.

There is one school of insults in English that remains creative: the scatological insult.  A scatological insult does not really aim to describe its target; rather, it aims to disturb everyone in hearing range with unpleasant images, and the possibilities are positively unbounded.  If a more character-derived insult is something of a dueling sword, then a scatological insult is like some kind of radiological bomb.  My target may be a despicable heel, but I can do more damage to the surrounding environment if I call them a dribbling shitstain.  And sometimes, that's a fine thing to do.

In this case, I think it better to forgo the use of toilet imagery and stick with the descriptive, character-based insult.  In fact, I've decided to go with scoundrel, a word that doesn't get nearly enough serious use in this day and age.  Make no mistake, there are scoundrels among us.  They should be disparaged and degraded, but most of all they should be recognized for what they truly are.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Korean New Year, a little bit older

Here in South Korea, we just celebrated Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year.  Those of you who follow my Korea blog (I'm sure that's all of you) know that Tara and I had a fine adventure in Seoul last weekend, observing some new year's customs.  But there's one thing I didn't put down in the most recent blog post, a little custom which I'd like to talk about now.

In many east Asian countries, there is an alternative way of reckoning a person's age.  You might think that the question "how old are you" does not require much analysis, but like most things reated to counting, much depends on where you start.  Korea does have the western-style age system of counting completed years since the date of one's birth.  However, this is mostly a matter for the legal system: the traditional system is far more commonly used.

It goes like this.  On the day of your birth, you are considered to be one.  It's often said that this takes into account the preceding nine months of womb time, but I am not fully convinced that this is the reason; it may just be that the people who dreamt up this system didn't think that being less than one made sense.  So you start at one, and your age increases by one at a fixed point each year: not your own birthday, but rather the first day of the Lunar Year.

There are a couple of interesting consequences for this choice of counting.  Everyone born in the same year is the same age, of course, which is a little more convenient from an astrological point of view (and traditional astrology is by no means out of favor here).  It also means that the many babies born late in the year find themselves two years old within a few months of birth.  Koreans tend to count early childhood ages by days rather than years, but it's still a little disorienting to think of all those precocious agers out there.

And then, of course, there is the disorientation that comes into the humble western expatriate's life.  By western reckoning, I am twenty six years old (my birthday is in late February, so I am a few weeks from being twenty seven).  By Korean reckoning, however, I turned twenty eight last weekend, along with all my cohorts in the year of the Rabbit.

All of this, of course, is a very extended way of saying that I feel old and Korea is not helping.  I like being twenty six.  Rather, I don't want to be older than twenty six.  I'm still mourning the loss of twenty four.  I've spent the past year making peace with the inevitability of twenty seven.  And now all of a sudden, I'm twenty eight?  That is not cool.

Twenty eight is plenty young, I know.  And I'm out traveling the world, which is a suitably young-person-ish thing to do.  I don't really have that much cause to mourn a wasted youth (maybe a little, but certainly not "much").  But it takes you off guard, counting yourself older than usual.  It's like looking into a very scary, future-revealing mirror.  You may learn things you aren't ready to know.  You might accidentally trigger an early mid-life crisis.  Before you know it, you're riding an exploding motorcycle off an exploding dam.

Still, twenty eight isn't that bad so far.  I still have most of my hair, anyway.  But I should probably get out of here before my fellow Rabbits start turning thirty.