Thursday, November 28, 2019

PARASITE by Bong Joon Ho

One of my favorite scenes in Parasite (the movie by the brilliant Bong Joon Ho) is when the poor neighborhood starts getting flooded. It's a massive disaster, the flood. And in the middle of the chaos, the adult daughter from the poor family (played by So-Dam Park) stoops on top of the toilet in her house and starts to smoke a cigarette. Her house is literally being flooded and the water level is rising in the bathroom so she takes a moment to stoop and light up.

The reason I love this scene is because it challenges the double standard our world places on who is allowed to experience comfort and who is not.

When a poor person is seen buying cigarettes or a soda or a beer or a joint, the privileged casts harsh judgement. Like how dare a poor person spend money on anything that might bring them some enjoyment, some escape, or a little buzz.

When a privileged person is seen buying the same, the privileged characterize it as "a well-deserved treat."

This double standard affects the way we participate in charitable giving, too. The privileged prefers to control the "gift" by buying a non-privileged person food or clothes or toys but the idea of just giving a poor person cold hard cash to buy what they want, is decried. "But what if they use it to buy junk food or booze?!"

Parasite unfolds in unbelievable ways for the audience to wrestle with such double standards.

The scenes are funny at times but it is not a comedy.
The scenes are horrific at times but it is not a horror film.

It is a film without a single bad scene. And the sum of the amazing scenes results in a film that I would fervently say is the best of 2019. Perhaps the best I've ever seen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

My daughter and I traveled to Seoul, Korea in 2014. While we were there, we took an excursion to Jeju Island (a historically matriarchal community) with my brother and his family. While on Jeju, we saw up close and personal the women divers known as haenyeo. They dive without tanks or special equipment. With each dive, they hold their breaths for more than three minutes and bring back up assorted sea life to eat and sell. That is, unless something goes wrong.

In the first two chapters of Lisa See's historical novel, The Island of Sea Women, I was educated on how shockingly wrong things can go under the sea as told by the amazing haenyeo protagonist, Young-sook.

Though the water-related tragedies that befall Young-sook are shocking, the tragedies that befall her on land are even more so, as she witnesses the suffering that spans all the way from the Japanese colonization of Korea in the '30s and '40s, to WWII, and then the Korean War.

Self determination by its people is not what led to the division of Korea into its North and South in 1945. Rather it was the result of the wills of two determined superpowers: The Soviet Union and the United States. In protest of this division, the people of Jeju had an uprising. And on April 3, 1948, the uprising culminated in the Bukchon massacre that resulted in a bloodbath of hundreds of civilian lives tortured and murdered.

The loss that Young-sook endures at the Bukchon massacre is so immense that it's almost impossible to get through reading the chapter that describes it. Along with the family members she loses, she also loses the trust of her best friend, Mi-ja.

Young-sook's inability to forgive Mi-ja is as strong as her ability to survive. Philosophy teaches her that "To understand everything is to forgive." Young-sook understands the teaching conceptually. But in practice, she is unable. In many ways, I think this is the way Korea's people (both north and south) relate to forgiveness.

There's something culturally and personally familiar to me about viewing forgiveness as a concept. It doesn't lead to warm and cozy reunions. I don't think it's either right or wrong when it doesn't. It just is.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My daughter is driving in tonight. I'll talk to her about this book. About the haenyoe we saw in 2014. How we are connected to them. And how we hurt. And how we forgive. Conceptually and in practice.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


During the most recent Democratic Presidential debate, I finally felt a connection to Cory Booker. I think the main reason his campaign never resonated with me is because his overall message has been "Radical Love" and my relationship with the word "love" is and has always been awkward.

It's not that I don't feel the love for certain humans, I simply don't feel comfortable saying it. 

I was raised in a family and a culture where we hardly ever said it. Linguistically, parents in Korea say things like "You did well" or "I'm proud of you" or "You must be hungry. Eat this soup I made for you." As a kid who grew up in such a context, I interpreted such statements as meaning "I love you." Not explicitly spelled out but profoundly and implicitly understood.

So when Booker came out with "Radical Love" for his campaign, I wanted to run the other way ... similar to how I feel when I see someone wearing a "Love More" t-shirt.

The people I love exist in a very small and tight circle. The larger circle is more about respect, decency, compassion, and other fine words like regard, attraction, and esteem. And then there are folks who I immensely dislike but can muster an ability to tolerate and co-exist with. 

I have a close friend who says "I love you, Jenny Doh" all the time. The first few times she said it to me, I tried to ignore it. But as I truly started feeling it for her, I forced myself to at minimum write it to her via text so she wouldn't feel that I didn't feel it for her. And I have also forced myself to say it to her face a couple of times. But it never feels natural and I don't feel it's me when I'm saying it. When I explained this whole awkwardness that I feel about the word to her, she delighted in hearing the explanation and declared again, "I love you, Jenny Doh." What a friend she is. To not pressure me to say it and not pressure herself to not say it. In other words, to accept our respective cultural, linguistic and familial upbringings. 

During the debate, it's when Booker spoke passionately about the inequities of how America has treated the privileged versus non-privileged in relation to possession, use, and sale of marijuana related products that I felt a connection with him. It didn't sound sappy like love sometimes does. It sounded forcefully and compassionately truthful.

The morning after the debate, I saw a photo of Booker, Klobuchar, and my candidate Buttigieg in a beautiful selfie. Smiling, respectful, and decent. Fierce competitors with different upbringings working to connect with people ... some who love explicitly and others implicitly.


(J Doh)

Why couldn't I have written 
words like these
when they tore my blindfold off?

Why couldn't I have written them off,  
seen you off
and built a fire with my pen?

To burn everything with
words like these.
Art like this.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

After plowing through part one of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, I was interrupted. A good interruption requiring me to put the book down and go meet a friend for coffee. I texted my friend before leaving to say "I just finished part one. I think this break will do me good cause I can feel that parts two and three are gonna knock me out."

Part one had developed a protagonist character in Elwood who I started to care too much for. That's always step one of getting knocked out, I think. Caring too much. What I love about the caring I feel when reading Whitehead's work is that it's not developed through hyperbole or melodrama. It's through literary restraint.

Prior to being unjustifiably picked up and placed in a "reform" school in Tallahassee called The Nickel Academy, Elwood's future looked bright. Through the love of his grandmother and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that he listened to on repeat, dignity became his north star. And once he was at Nickel, he planned to achieve faster than others in order to be quickly released. That was his plan. "That was his resistance (page 62)."

But what The Nickel Boys made me grapple with, given its true nature as a facility that brutally abused and killed its detainees is this: What happens to noble north stars and dignified resistance when undignified people are in charge of systems designed to keep you down?

For Elwood, what happens is that IN ALL THINGS, even in the face of unfairness, the dignified decide to act with hope by continuing to create context. Because isn't it context that MLK Jr created by writing the letter from the Birmingham jail? And isn't the journal that Elwood kept writing at Nickel also an act of creating context in hopes that people who care, people with dignity, will one day understand? As Elwood explains: "One thing gave birth to the other--without the cell, no magnificent call to action (page 193)." A truth that gets to the heart of scripture that says not "FOR all things" but rather "IN all things give thanks (I Thessalonians 5:18)."

I personally toggle back and forth from Elwood's hope and his friend Turner's cynicism. Conceptually from peace to violence. Practically from love to hate. It's so dizzying sometimes that I feel close to being knocked out.

Friday, November 8, 2019

John Pete George Ringo

"I am asking you to picture that first day the sun comes up in this country and Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America ... what comes next? The sun's gonna come up over a country even more divided and torn up by politics than we are today ..." said Pete Buttigieg during his recent speech at the LJ Dinner in Iowa.

It's when I heard these lines that I realized that this grotesque mess we are living in WILL END. There WILL be an actual morning after this shameful presidency that the sun comes up and we have a different leader. And when I was pondering these lines and imagining that morning, I couldn't help but start singing that beautiful song by The Beatles: 

Here comes the sun (doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun (doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

A song that we all know how to sing; created for us by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Beatles. Four individuals who made unique contributions to create one of the greatest bands of all time. 

Given that my daughter knows that I am a supporter of Pete, she was surprised when I recently told her that yes, my number one is Pete. And my number two is Bernie. 

To me, Bernie is the candidate who has been unafraid of pushing his passion without obfuscation. It is because of Bernie's lifetime of audacious work that our nation is even talking about the issue of health care in meaningful ways. In terms of The Beatles (to borrow an analogy that Jerry Saltz once made between painters and The Beatles), Bernie is John and Pete is Paul.

This pair collaborated to write Here Comes the Sun (among many other songs in their incredible body of work) that got our world to hear and feel lyrics that told unforgettable stories. (EDIT: Here Comes the Sun was not written by Lennon/McCartney. Rather, it was written by George Harrison.)

As much as they needed each other to create their songs, they always had some tension in their relationship. After The Beatles broke up, there is an interview where John referred to Paul's solo songs as "silly love songs," to which Paul replied by writing one of his biggest solo hits: Silly Love Songs.

Like Bernie and John, Pete is also unafraid. But like Paul, Pete is open to allowing a strong melody to harmonize and compromise with other notes and other ideas. He is ok with reading books with heft like Ulysses (by James Joyce) AND playfully snoopy-dancing to the theme from Peanuts ... and singing joyfully along with other "silly love songs" that are diverse, frequently incremental, and always beautifully pragmatic.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Problem with Everything by Meghan Daum

One of the nuanced points that Meghan Daum makes early in her book, The Problem with Everything is when she points out that our nation's claim about our growing problem with child sex trafficking is often made by "those wanting to see punitive measures taken against adult sex workers" (page 44).

It reminds me of when I find myself in a conversation with someone who says something like "Pornography is bad." And I think to myself: Yeah some of it is bad but some of it isn't. Or when someone says "Fuck the male gaze." And I think to myself: Depends on the male.

But usually when I'm caught in a conversation with an overriding theme of virtue, it's hard to make nuanced delineations because doing so potentially places me into a category that I don't want to be placed in. What is that category? Overly erotic? Unwoke?

I wonder if my discomfort of being placed in such categories reflects on my own fixation about how I want to appear to others. Like that time when I announced that my new word of the year would be "garden" with lots of sentences about how I was going to grow a vegetable garden. The thing is that I never started a garden. Just announced that I would so that I would appear to be a person with a garden.

In terms of adult sex workers, I've almost never been able to have honest conversations about the fact that as long as the worker is not forced into it, it's a legitimate career. This last sentence of mine will likely raise eyebrows and create whispers like "How can she support sex for pay? That's immoral and an affront to God!" To which my thought bubble would say "Mind your own garden."

Throughout most of the book my angst and I enjoyed the sense of hopelessness that Daum paints ... about how our current political discourse has become a reduction sauce (e.g., "Porn is bad") with no room for notes of nuance that point to the complicated, conflicted, and paradoxical truths of the human condition. Surprisingly, Daum concludes the book with a kind of hope that my angst doesn't oppose. That hope is about how life is worth living not because it is perfect with everyone understanding everything but because it is flawed, with most everyone seeking to understand. Yes indeed, the problem is the gift.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

In Part Five of his book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses "coupling," a concept that links behaviors to specific circumstances and conditions. For example, if a suicidal person finds herself on the Golden Gate Bridge and considers the idea of jumping off that bridge to be more comforting for her temperament than other modes of suicide (e.g., shooting herself with a gun), she might find herself acting on her impulse and jumping. However, if that person wasn't near that bridge but was still suicidal and only had a method that didn't feel comforting to her (e.g., scary gun), she might not act on her impulse. Coupling is when an impulse meets a context or circumstantial method that fits.

The Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937. It has been where more than 1,600 suicides have occurred. Eventually in 2018, a suicide barrier was installed on that bridge, which has led to a spike in suicide deterrence.

For those who argued against the installation of suicide barriers, their thought process is not dissimilar to those who today argue that universal background checks and assault weapon buy-back programs won't reduce gun violence because people determined to kill will kill, no matter what.

Gladwell cites a researcher named Richard Seiden who studied 515 people who had unsuccessfully tried to kill themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge and found that only 25 of those 515 went on to kill themselves with other methods.

Says Gladwell: with some exception, "the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment."

For some, the readily available lethal means is a bridge. For others, like Sylvia Plath, it was "town gas" loaded with carbon monoxide. Gladwell explains that more than a decade after Plath's suicide, the dirtiness of town gas evolved into natural gas, containing almost no carbon monoxide. And the rates of gas-related suicides plummeted.

In 2013, my brother committed suicide. It wasn't by jumping, though he told me once that he had considered it. But the bridge wasn't the method that would couple with his impulse. His ultimate method was a painless one and I know that it suited his fears and comfort level the most.

Even though Talking with Strangers begins and ends with the case of Sandra Bland who ultimately took her life in her jail cell, the book isn't about suicide per se. It's about all the ways we get things wrong in the process of talking to strangers. Or maybe it's also about how we get things wrong in the process of talking to people who we think are non-strangers. Our siblings. Our children. Our family members.

And how in the face of tragedy, we survivors try to find solace by blaming people for feeling the depths of darkness rather than erecting interventions that mitigate the darkness.