I’m on a Lee Jung-suk kick, which started when I watched W on Viki, then moved on to School 2013, then Doctor Stranger, which is awful, and now I’m in the midst of While You Were Sleeping, which apparently is super beloved, but I’m finding pretty boring.

I shouldn’t have liked School 2013 as much as I did because it’s a pretty unsophisticated high school drama, but I’m a sucker for teen dramas anyway, especially when the teen in question is Lee Jung-suk standing up to bullies, and being too cool for school as well a super nice guy. (I basically skipped all the teacher parts, because that really was boring.)

There’s a scene in the beginning of episode 2, where Lee Jung-suk’s character, Ko Nam-soon, arrives home from school. In the space of two days he’s been wrongly accused twice of wrongdoing by the school, and he’s been beaten up twice by the school bully. He’s also had to pick up his drunk, deadbeat Dad, and work a nighttime gig as a delivery boy.

When he arrives home, after being beaten for the second time, he enters his room, lies down on the bed, clearly in pain, and just repeats to himself a few times:

“괜잖다. 괜잖다. 괜잖다.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

It makes your heart go out to him. And it’s actually one of the few times we see the toll that his life is taking on him, since he usually pulls off the super cool, nothing bothers me, attitude.

Besides for obviously pulling on your heartstrings, I personally liked the scene because of the word he uses. 괜잖다 is used so frequently in Korean (or at last Korean dramas)—mostly in the 괜잖아/요 form in dialogue (as in I’m okay/are you okay?/it’s okay)—that it actually started to mean that in my brain. And I love that feeling when a word in another language stops being a foreign symbol to memorize, but actually starts to mean the thing that it means, if that makes sense.

Also, he uses the word in the infinitive form, and I’m not sure why or if it conveys something different than if he’d conjugated it somehow. The subtitles translated it as “I’m okay” but I think it could just have easily been translated to “It’s okay” because there’s no subject, and It’s making me wonder if there’s actually a distinction to a Korean speaker. Obviously, he wasn’t translating in English in his mind, so what did he mean, did he mean “I’m okay” or “It’s okay” or would he not differentiate?

Adventures in Konglish

My Korean has advanced to the point that I can make out English proper nouns in Korean news, spoken in the wonderful transmorphic way that languages have of twisting themselves into something new, and what some people call Konglish.

Although perhaps in the case of proper nouns, that’s not actually Konglish? I mean, how do you say California if not 갤리포니아, which transliterates/romanizes to kel-li-po-ni-ah?

In any case, in the ongoing mystery of why I haven’t given up on Korean, I have now begun listening/watching video clips on MBC News, because I stumbled upon the fact that they provide the transcripts to 2-3 minute news clips on their site. Which is absolutely gold.

In the sea of illegible (to me) Korean that is the MBC homepage, I use the thumbnails to guide me, and try to find a clip that features Donald Trump, the coronavirus, or something that might give me a few clues as to what the clip is about.

The upside to this is that I now know how to say ‘confirmed cases’, ‘positive results’, and ‘rapidly increasing’ in Korean. The downside is that I die a little of humiliation/anger/sadness each time I listen to the clip.

Which in the grand scheme of things seems like an okay tradeoff?

Tbh my Korean is not good enough to understand any of it, but I input the text in Learning With Texts, translate some of the words, and then listen to it a few times, mostly making out words like Keliponia, Terompe, Korona, Hyuseton, and Pilorida.

Eli Wiesel

Written after his passing in 2016.

For a long time I thought Eli Wiesel was my favorite author, and as such I have a hard time believing my writing could ever do his justice. He’s still one of my favorite authors, mostly for what he taught me about the power of language.

My favorite book of his that I’ve read is “The Trial of God.” It’s a play, set in the 1600s, about three traveling minstrels who spend the night in the village of Shamgorod. The inn is owned by Berish, the only remaining Jew in the village after a recent pogrom on the night of his daughter’s wedding. It’s Purim night and the minstrels should be doing their spiel, laughing and celebrating but there’s no one for whom to perform. As the night wears on, Berish derisively suggest that as a form of Purim spiel they should put God on trial.

The play is three acts. It never leaves Berish’s inn. Of the bards, one is a joker, one a wagon-driver, and the third a begger and mystic who makes cryptic but profound statements. A large chunk of the play is a verbal quarrel about who should defend god; nobody wants to take the role. The play is somehow darkly funny despite the themes, and despite the fact that it is based on an actual trial of God that Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Wiesel plays with the themes of loss and faith and tragedy in a fashion that is so human, so sensitive, and so uniquely Hasidic.

Mendel (minstrel 1): You forget why we have gathered here tonight? The question remains a question: Is there no one here–or anywhere–to plead the case of the Almighty King of the universe?

(Mendel has spoken with nostalgia. Melancholy sets in)

Avremel (minstrel 2): Poor, poor King of Kings.

Yankel (minstrel 3): Feel sorry for Him? Already?

Berish: We’re heading in the wrong direction! We’re her not to pity Him but to judge Him!

Avremel: Poor King who needs His servant’s pity.

Berish: He needs it? He won’t get it! Not from me! He had no pity for me, why should I have pity for Him?

Mendel: I-who? Berish the innkeeper or Berish the prosecutor?

Berish: Berish is Berish. And I’m fed up with you! I’m an honest man, I’ve never stolen, I’ve never cheated! I’ve never humiliated anyone. I have done only good, not He. He has done me nothing but harm. And now, now you want me to feel sorry for Him? Where was He when… (catches himself and tries to sound calm) I forgot that we are playing–maybe He, too, is playing.

For a college essay about faith I quoted from this book and then cited a Wiesel quote that really resonated with me at the time.

You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But you can’t be a Jew without God.

Wiesel was my favorite author at a time that his particular blend of language and faith, but a faith that was meant to be explored and questioned and battered and hated, in a god that deserved anger and needed defense, meant everything to me.

Now my relationship to is a little more complicated; it feels like a part of a past I’m still figuring out how to embrace. But even if the messages are less immediately revelatory to me, the language, and what I learned about its power, is something I’ll forever be grateful for.

oh-one oh-two

Things I thought about today: my father, my grandmother, sinners, Daredevil, and the secular word for evil. That was all one chain of thought. 

Other things that came up: the TV show You, primarily about cliches of struggling writers in New York (nothing has ever made me want to identify as a struggling writer in New York less than watching You), vegan restaurants in Brooklyn, the cost of apple butter, and aging.

I told my father, “You might live another 40 years.” He did not seem enthused. He told me the same thing that he said back when he must have been my age now, that he did not want to live without his mind. 

I remembered that his father died in his sixties, and I remembered the Midrash that Rashi quotes, that when Yitzchak approached the age at which his mother died, he could no longer ignore his mortality. “Behold now, I have grown old,” he said. He was 123.

After we hung up, I wrote in my journal: if I had more money, I would highlight my hair. 

The United States of true crime

In each episode of Small Town Murder, a true crime podcast, the hosts tell the story of a murder that happened in a small town somewhere in America (mostly).

But rather than just tell the story of the murder, the hosts tell the story of the town itself; its people, its history, its legend, and why to the people that live there, it’s home.

At 63 episodes in, the hosts have hit 49 of 50 states, telling the stories of Appalachian coal towns, seaside villages along the Pacific, wealthy suburbs, mountain resorts, and historic towns in the deep South. The only state that’s missing is Mississippi.

Here’s a map of the murders:

Crime is often deeply rooted in place, both its genesis and its aftermath. Small Town Murder is the opposite of something like Serial, which sees in a single crime a microcosm of national, cultural forces. Here, the crime is connected to the physical place, to the specificity of the mountain, or beach or town square. For the locals, the crime looms large in a way it never could for the rest of us.

I initially intended to map several true crime podcasts, and I found that there are at least 26 states that were the setting for a serial true crime podcast, or an anthology podcast specific to that state. The full list is here.

That turn out to be a challenge that would have required some more serious NLP skills, so this is the first step.

Another Thing

I want to start a magazine called Davar Acher. Because it has the most awesome triple meaning ever.

Literally: another thing
The Hebrew meaning of this is another thing, or alternatively, something else.

Colloquially: a pig, or other abominable things
The Talmud calls a pig a ‘davar acher’ during a discussion on using clean language. Here’s a piece of it, slightly edited for clarity:

Two disciples sat before Rav. One said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted swine”, while the other said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted kid,” and Rav would not speak to the former.

My dad uses “davar acher” to refer to a certain member of the human species who did pretty abominable things like abuse and cheat on his wife, who is very dear to our family.

Academically: a second opinion
The most famous commentator on the Torah is Rashi, and his work is commonly taught to young children. Rashi usually has a question on the text – about word usage, chronology, grammatical anomalies etc. – and then attempts to give the simplest possible answer. If one explanation doesn’t suffice he’ll write the first, then say “davar acher” before introducing the second. Rashi scholars point out that often each of Rashi’s explanations fill in a blank that the other doesn’t, so that they are neither contradictory nor complementary. It’s another way of looking at it.
This teaches the child/student that there can be more than one right answer, and that often, an answer may not be entirely satisfactory.

It’s so much packed into two words: a delight in difference and dialogue, but also in discrimination. There’s the implication of something more, without diminishing the current thing. It’s a combination of canon and colloquial contribution, a reminder of how much our interpretation of words retroactively define them.

Unfortunately, like my name, few members outside the tribe can pronounce it.