Quarantine queue

I know I should be watching Normal People, or Killing Eve, or finally watching Fleabag, which everyone swears I’ll love. (The last person who told me that, I was too lazy/scared to tell him that I actually had watched the first episode, or maybe two or maybe half, and I just could not watch another show about a starving-artist-Brooklynite follow the same stylized reality that I actually lived, and make entertainment of it.) I understand those shows are good, and when I watch them I’ll enjoy them, and I’ll enjoy being part of the discourse that happens about them on the internets. 

But I can’t because I’m too busy watching Hwarang, which is an absolutely bonkers Korean drama about warrior poets, and love triangles, and kings and queens in ancient Korea wearing robes and usurping thrones, and of course evil misters and plagues and beheadings and forbidden loves. I started watching it because the lead is Park Seo-Joon, who is the lead in Itaewon Class, a Korean drama that’s available on Netflix and therefore somewhat crossed the divide into somewhat mainstream zeitgeist, and is actually good as far as Korean dramas go, as in I would not be deadly embarrassed to recommend it to other people as opposed to Hwarang, which is basically terrible and a ton of fun to watch. (And deserves a whole other discussion on why it’s good, and not just dumb good, or maybe yes, and I’m just dumb?)

Thanks to Park Seo-Joon, I have learned that Korean actors are supper accessible on YouTube. He has his own channel which is just him doing things like eating food in the Philippines and getting haircuts and being extremely aware of how good looking he is. The videos are badly edited, the audio is terrible, and the intro is a montage of him looking sexy with just the word “attractive” overplayed at some point, which apparently he (or his team) doesn’t realize doesn’t actually have the same ring in English, or any ring at all. Plus, there’s a ton of behind the scenes content and interviews where he plays Jenga with his co-stars, and continues to be extremely aware of how charing he is, and it’s extremely confusing/fun to stumble on a whole other culture of celebrity and entertainment, and a great way to spend the pandemic while ostensibly learning Korean. 

Radicalized, by Corey Doctorow

Goodreads review:

Disappointingly simplistic.

I read an incisive short story by the author, Cory Doctorow, about algorithms a while ago, when I was writing about algorithmic accountability, that helped articulate some ideas for me. So I’ve been meaning to read more of his work, and I was excited to find someone who I thought would offer some insight into this Black Mirror-y world we live in. 

But this collection of stories resorts to easy moralizing. The four stories–about a superhero who tries to intervene in police brutality, a plucky immigrant who hacks her toaster, an Ayn Randian prepper, and a group of grieving Dads fed up with the insanity of our healthcare system–are populated by caricatures of evil hedge fund managers, faceless corporations, and righteous commoners. 

OTOH it’s an easy read, the toaster story is actually better than okay, and maybe if you don’t spend half your life on Twitter getting pounded over the head with these issues, it’ll provide some food for thought.

How I’m Studying Korean (part 1)

안녕하세요!

Yes, I’m using my pandemic time to study Korean. No, I don’t think this is the perfect time to study a language, or make sourdough bread, or write the great American novel. I think it’s a great time to listen to yourself and find out what you do when the world stops. I happen to be someone who starts studying Korean, gets addicted to it, finds themselves making flashcards at 1 a.m. and procrastinating all the things they probably SHOULD be doing by watching videos of Ollie studying Korean. I’ll probably give up soon, when life resumes, or when it gets too hard. What do I care, this part is fun.

On to the good stuff.

First Step Korean, Coursera

After watching a few YouTube videos and learning the basics of Hangul, I found a five-week beginner Korean course on Coursera called First Step Korean. I used it because I wanted structure, and since it’s free, it didn’t seem like a huge commitment. On the plus side, the structure is indeed great, and each lesson has a video, lesson notes, and a quiz. On the other hand, the course is pretty boring and doesn’t offer a ton of review, since the practice questions in the lesson notes are the same as in the videos. I had to watch each video twice, once to get a basic understanding, and once to actually follow along with the examples. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a really good place to start.

Quizlet (/using my phone’s Korean handwriting keyboard)

One other good thing about First Step Korean is that it has prepared Quizlet flashcards, and I love Quizlet. Well, maybe not love, but I’ve been using it since like 2009. I downloaded the app, and did most of the studying on my phone, because it has a keyboard option that lets you handwrite Hangul, which is a lot easier than painstakingly typing, and you practice writing at the same time! (Though you definitely don’t learn the whole proportion thing.)

I exported the FSK flashcards and re-uploaded them in much smaller sets by category because that felt saner to me. You can find both the originals and my versions here.

YouTube (Korean Unnie, Jolly, TTMIK)

I supplemented FSK with Korean Unnie‘s YouTube playlist that goes through all the letters. I like that she shows you how they’re supposed to be written, and a lot of the other knowledge she throws in. I’m still looking for a better guide on a pronunciation though.

Honestly, if you only take one piece of advice from here it’s to go watch Ollie studying Korean on the Jolly YouTube channel. Mostly because it’s hilarious, and a little bit because it actually teaches you a few things, and makes you realize how hard/fun learning a language is. But also because it will lead to Korean Englishman’s channel, and lots of other YouTube content in Korean.

Finally, the TTMIK (talk to me in Korean) videos are super useful. I find that it helps to have both a structured class like FSK, alongside more piecemeal explanations that start to give you a feel for the language even if it’s maybe beyond your level.

Korean dramas!

Obviously, I mean what is all this for?

Hey world

so yes, this is a piece written during coronavirus, about coronavirus, because of coronavirus et cetera, like a million others like it.

and that’s okay, because it means that we have more time to reflect. the world has been rejiggered enough that we’re going to learn new things about ourselves, we’re going to miss the status quo and also question it, we’re going to wonder what we can’t live without and then live without it anyway. for those of us who have only experienced displacement, trauma or survival in small doses, we are learning what it means to live in a world where the future is a luxury.

there will be pieces about love in the time of coronavirus, about scarcity, and solidaridy, and consumerism and about our devices changing overnight from vices to lifelines. there will be guilt over mourning things deemed too trivial, for bursting into tears over a tweet when people are gasping for breath, when many more can’t afford food or medicine, when grandparents are dying alone.

that is alright too. everyone has lost their balance. maybe it will be two months, and cases will peak, and the economy will stabilize, and we will see the end, even if it is a grim one. maybe things will change so fast and we won’t be able to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our freedoms. maybe we will spend a spring indoors, while the world blooms. maybe the earth is laughing at us.

a friend asked me over text if I was lonely. he is a new friend and we are only just exploring the contours of what our friendship is. I resented the question. because there was a moment last night when I played, “if the world was ending, you’d come over right?” after a day spent alone on the couch learning the Korean alphabet and watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. at that moment I wanted someone to come over, I wanted to be someone’s first call when the earth begins to shake. at first I wanted to escape the feeling. then I sat up on the couch, breathed in, and let the feeling sink into me. it felt like loss.

I did not want to confess this to the new friend, to suggest I had failed at being unlonely. this despite the endless calls and texts and video chats and virtual happy hours with friends and family. checking in on others, responding to check ins, watching movies, telling a friend, “I’m okay, but I’m on the floor sobbing right now.”

that’s it. I don’t have anything big to say. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. but I want to live this moment. I want to accept what it has to offer.

Ruminations on space

As a child I lived on a flat suburban grid. The mile streets were numbered; the houses sat on rectangular plots with lawns in the front and yards in the back, separated by driveways that emptied into the street. Beyond the square mile we lived in, bounded by 9 Mile and 10 Mile roads, freeways confused the linear order, but I was too young to know that.

As a student I lived on a mountain in Israel. I climbed 150 uneven stairs to get to school every morning. From the window of my dorm room space fell away. At night, I could see the outline of the Kinneret, a black hole surrounded by city lights miles below me. On days that school ended after sunset, I would watch the sky turn colors in the gridded windows of our trailer classrooms. Some days, I walked out of class and into the orange sky. I felt much closer to the heavens.

After Israel, I moved to Los Angeles. This time I had a car. The shape of the city changed in relation to me; mountains shifted, purple ridges appeared at the top of a street and disappeared several feet later. West began to mean something. It meant a fulminating ocean, the burst of blue that greets drivers emerging from the tunnel at the end of the 10 freeway. The ocean was always there, impossible to see or hear, hugging the end of the world.

In New York, I deny the feeling of entrapment it gives me. A world unto itself and impossible to leave. With a car I’d conquered space. In New York, I am constrained by it. Everyone hungers for it. The glass supertalls crane their necks up above the shoulders of the huddled masses of buildings, breathing cleaner air.

The city’s defendants keep their eyes on the frenetic life of the street; more life in a square block than all of Missoula, they say, more anger and love and injustice and desperation here than anywhere. A square foot costs more than your Mom’s mortgage payment, more than minimum wage for a week. Chinese takeout near designer handbags near drunk college students at the top of the world.

At work I talk to people who buy and sell pieces of space. They call our homes asset classes. They call the rent we pay net operating income. They think of the shapes of spaces as FAR, the amount of space zoning laws allow them to use for sleep, for play, for staircases so narrow they force awkward encounters with your neighbors.

Once, when I lived in East Harlem, I wrote about it for work, the forever story of New York: a neighborhood changing, a possible rezoning, near-death buildings abandoned by landlords, a neighborhood coffee shop opened by an optimistic half-Peruvian, determined to create a meeting place for residents old and new.

While reporting the story, I crossed the street from my building to the calm northwestern corner of Central Park, near the pond where two bodies were found when it thawed earlier that spring. On most days it was occupied by locals: runners, dog walkers, parents with strollers, parents on their way to school, workers on their way to work, the elderly from the home across Fifth Avenue, packs of teens, schoolchildren, depending on the time of day.

That day, a Sunday, it was still too chilly out for crowds, and the only man I had the courage to talk to was sitting on a bench facing the pond. He told me he was an organist who played at a storefront church on Third Avenue; he was playing at 4 that afternoon in fact, and I was invited.

He’d once lived across the street, on Fifth Avenue. He was in his fifties. Oh it was different back then, he said, and then paused, not mournfully but in a way that meant, where are we to start?

That was back when my building was still subsidized, before real estate agents tried to rename the blocks above East 96nd Street, before the condo building had been built on the corner opposite. In a deal with the developer, its first two floors had been designated as a community center for African-American and African art and culture, but the nonprofit organization had failed to raise the funds to build it. So for the three years I lived there, the concrete interiors of the grandiosely planned Africa Center sat vacant, beside the golden glow of the residential lobby next door.

That afternoon, I walked gingerly into the Third Avenue church, at the end of a bustling stretch of El Barrio. It was cozy inside and perfumed, packed with the body heat of the swaying congregation. The music bellowed, a woman described being possessed by the devil to a chorus of intensifying Amens.

This was a sacred space I didn’t understand. I left before the service was over to retread Third Avenue, to traverse El Barrio, to preside over the projects below me from my eighteenth floor apartment, to think endlessly about what it means to be situated in this space.

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.