(Top 101 Countdown) #57. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

February 28, 2010

First off, please let me say this: Holy &#$@, she did it! Yes, Yu-Na Kim has won the Olympic gold medal with a perfect, record-breaking free program. She was awesome, shrugging off any nerves like “Pressure? What pressure?” She must have icewater in her veins; I mean that in the best way possible. Anyhow, there were actually about eight solid-to-excellent programs that night (especially enjoyed spunky Akiko Suzuki, saucy Laura Lepisto, and the ever-smiling-when-she’s-not-crying-or-having-an-untimely-nosebleed Mirai Nagasu), but Yu-Na still managed to stand in a class of her own. Well done, indeed.

Okay, now time for some movie mini-reviews. I’ve actually stayed away from movies for some time, because when I want to really focus on something, I find books to be more rewarding, and when I want to be entertained, TV shows are shorter and simpler. But in the last week, I found myself returning to the days when I was a geeky college student working at a video store who made a point of devouring just about every movie that came in, especially the indies. I think maybe it was because I wanted to get the bad taste out of my mouth after watching the live American Idol performances (my goodness, they sucked; note to Korean-American brother John Park: John, it’s not a funeral).

First movie I watched was “I Love You Man,” and it’s a sweet “bromance” (I can’t believe I actually typed that word) about a soon-to-be-married guy (played by the guy whose name escapes me at the moment but played Alicia Silverstone’s stepbrother-than-boyfriend in Clueless) who realizes he doesn’t have any real guy friends and goes out looking for one. It’s actually all kind of sweet and earnest, and it makes a good point: it really IS hard to make good friends once you’re out of school. It actually looks to be simpler when you’re in Korea, where you’re pretty much friends with anyone once you’ve gone drinking together a couple of times, but really, it’s the same BS as in the U.S., with most so-called friends just using you as an audience to talk about how great they are. Their idea of friendship is having you clap and cheer while you watch them masturbate, and to be honest, I’d rather have no friends at all rather than partake, which I suppose is pretty close to the truth, but I digress.

After that, it was time for “The Hangover,” which is a real GUY movie. Usually, I hate, hate, hate guy movies, but this one offers twists galore, and you’re never quite what the heck will happen next. Overall, it was fun and clever (especially loved the Mike Tyson cameo), although I never really cared too much about what would happen to the characters (if they had all died in a car crash on their way to the wedding, I would’ve went, ‘Huh, that was kind of unexpected,’ and that would’ve been it).

Finally, I watched “An Education” since I heard so many good reviews for it, and I’m usually a sucker for a good coming-of-age story. Well, this one was… well, it’s actually my favorite out of the three films I saw last week, but I also had some mixed feelings about it. I’ll start with the bad. Basically, the story is about how a British schoolgirl gets wooed and conned by an older guy. The girl is smart and appealing, BUT when she finds out just what the guy and his partner do to make money (it’s not good), she makes a bit of a fuss but then gets over it in less than a minute. I found that part really troubling, making me want to scream “Are you daft?” at my TV screen in a faux-British accent. Fortunately, the movie re-grounded itself after that, and I really appreciated the fact that education really was portrayed as the girl’s way to find redemption (as opposed to, for example, a makeover). The lead actress–whose name also escapes me at the moment, and I want to say “Casey,” but that can’t be right, can it?–does a great job of creating a very real, earthy character. Her love interest also gives a capable performance, but I knew from the get-go he would be trouble in the end, remembering him as the psycho killer in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Again, I was proven right, ha ha.

Speaking of coming of age, let’s go to our Top 101 Countdown. What’s left to be said about the landmark single that is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it’s an anthem for angry, horny, dissatisfied youths (and youths at heart) all over the world. I’ll just add that there was a time when it truly felt like popular music could change the world. Maybe it was even more like than in the 60’s and the 70’s, but I was either too young or non-existent, so I can’t comment. But in the 80’s, artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince weren’t just creating music; they were creating dreams that people could hold on to and believe in. And then came the 90’s grunge movement, and Nirvana’s nihilistic screams offered another dream altogether, one that felt just as strong and even more authentic. But of course, it couldn’t last. With a blast and a bullet, Kurt ended the dream forever, and we all woke up. It turned out music was just music, and it had to be enough. R.I.P.

57. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

(Top 101) #58. Goodnight Moon – Shivaree

February 23, 2010

Schmuck or not, I’m back here Starbucking and writing my time away. This time, I got myself an Americano–it was the cheapest thing on the menu–and well, it’s coffee. Very dark and bitter. Why is it called an Americano? Is it a commentary on the decay of the American dream? Who knows… I know I could just look it up on Wikipedia, but hey, time is ticking.

I’m currently at Page 117 of my novel-to-oh-please-be. I’ve been feeling stifled writing while cooped up in my place all the time, so I’ve been trying to branch out a bit more. Namely, I’ve started writing while riding the subway. And actually, it’s been pretty productive. Later this week, I plan to write away while riding the Green Line (I know all the subway lines by color not by their numbers) while goes around and around on an endless loop.

On Sunday, I actually had what I’ve been writing be read and evaluated for the first time. It was scaaaary, I tell you. It was my second time attending the Seoul Writers Workshop, which is basically a group of English speakers who gather every two weeks to discuss each other’s work. For Sunday, I had submitted my prologue and the beginning part of my first chapter, about nine pages in all.

And the verdict? Was I hailed as the next literary phenomenon, the next heir to Shakespeare’s throne? Or was I ripped apart and banned from every creative writing endeavor for the rest of my life? Well, the answer: Neither, but overall, gently encouraging. Overall, it’s quite an intelligent (and in a couple of cases, truly talented, in my opinion) group, and it was very interesting to hear what they had to say. And it felt really exhilirating and legitimizingto have a group of people going back and forth about characters I created and lines that I wrote. It really brought home the point that a book is just a bunch of words on pages that don’t come alive until they’re taken in and read by a human mind. Overall, a few comments fell into the “yeah, but what the hell do you know?” category, but many were very helpful and got me looking at things I wrote in a new light. So all in all, it was a nice wind of encouragement and a very good motivator. One member made the point–talking about another writer’s story–that it needed more “personal touches that made it feel real,” and that really struck home. Novelists make things up, but the made-up things have to have truths inside them; otherwise, they’re going to ring hollow. You’ve got to write lies that tell a truth. And therein lies my mission.

Okay, now for our countdown. Here’s Shivaree with “Goodnight Moon,” a fabulously creepy tune that Tarantino used in the Kill Bill Soundtrack. I actually worked in a now-defunct video store in Redondo Beach for several years while attending college, and one of my customers used to go to the video store in nearby Torrance that Tarantino used to work at. According to our mutual customer, Tarantino used to give all kinds of great, offbeat recommendations for rentals. I don’t doubt it; Tarantino’s got great taste (I ended up discovering the genius that is Wong Kar-Wei thanks to Quentin, whose favorite movie is Wong’s Chungking Express), and that taste clearly runs through music as well.

(Top 101) #59. We Belong Together – Mariah Carey

February 20, 2010

Evan Lysacek--Red, White, Blue, and Gold (I won't mention the strange tan)

First up, I’ve gotta give props to Evan Lysacek for his gold medal. He was solid and steady, if not quite spectacular. All in all, there was a lot of spotty skating, not too surprising with all that Olympic pressure. I know there’s been grumbling from different corners about how Evgeni Plushenko should have won, but I’ll have to beg to differ. Sometimes, going for too much is simply, well, too much, if you’re able to pull it off well, which Plushenko didn’t. He landed his jumps, but his take-offs were messy, and he never inspired any momentum or real energy. Instead, it was all about, ‘Whew, that was a really close one, too…”

I’ve actually been meaning to write a post detailing the changes that I think need to be made in the sport of skating, but I simply haven’t had the time–I’m now at 107 pages and counting on my novel-to-be. However, I do want to mention what’s perhaps the biggest problem: the whole obsession with the Olympics. Everything in skating is either about the Olympics, leading up to the Olympics, or coming out from the Olympics. That’s a problem, a serious one. Sure, it makes the Olympics incredibly dramatic and exciting, but you’re talking about two weeks of competition every four years. That leaves, oh let’s do the math, about 202 weeks out of the four years that are pretty much meaningless.

Skating is an amazing sport. It’s athletic–think about it, even a hack can hit a good golf shot or forehand winner once in a while, but NO ONE’s gonna cork off a double axel while skating at the local rink without the requisitie training–and it’s artistic at once. The skaters themselves seem like good, interesting people who are nowhere as full of themselves as most millionaire athletes are. And of course, the drama and the controversy in skating is just as spectacular as the triple axels. Everybody remembers the whole Tonya-Nancy scandal, but there have been other classic moments, like Surya Bonaly doing an illegal backflip just to spite the judges and in my personal favorite moment, Midori Ito jumping so big that she literally jumped off the ice and landed in the camera pit.

What the skaters need more than anything is a meaningful skating tour, a series of events that are prestigious in their own right. The ISU Grand Prix is supposed to fill the role, but they’re too small-scale. They need to expand the number of events, the number of skaters per event, and drastically increase the level of prize money so that the skaters will have real motivation to keep competing. It’s ridiculous how many skaters compete at an Olympics and then either disappear forever or do nothing until the next Olympics are about to come around. Tennis players play tennis events. Basketball players play basketball games. But skaters often times don’t seem to want to skate very much. And in a way, it’s understandable. There’s little prize money, and not many people seem to care about the results unless it’s an Olympic season. A meaningful tour that’s successful on its own and with sizable prize money; unless it comes to pass, skating will always be a niche sport, I’m afraid…

Anyhow, there’s only the ladies left (sorry, but I’ve never cared for ice dancing), and it’s going to be interesting. Yu-Na Kim is of course the favorite, and I can say that the hype has reached a feverish pitch here in Korea. I can’t even imagine what will happen if she doesn’t win (although the nasty part of me almost wants to find out). Overall, though, I think she’ll deliver fairly well. I actually think all the ladies are going to have mini-meltdowns due to the overwhelming pressure (also, it’s going to be the first Olympics for pretty much all the main contenders aside from Ando and Rochette, I believe), and it’s gonna get pretty messy just like the men aside from Lysacek. But I think Yu-Na has the cleanest technique, which will give her a foundation to fall back on if she makes a nervous error or two. After Yu-Na, I’m gonna go with Miki Ando and Akiko Suzuki as the other medalists. I like Mao Asada, but I just think she’s made a mistake with the whole triple-axel-or-nothing strategy, and it’s going to bite her in the end. Ando’s been inconsistent, but I think her experience and the Japanese focus on Asada are both going to help her. Suzuki’s been skating really clean all season long, and I think she’s going to surprise a lot of people. As for the Americans, I think Rachel Flatt has an outside chance for a medal, but I don’t think Mirai Nagasu is ready quite yet.

But of course, as they say, skating is a slippery sport, and who knows what’s going to happen? The only thing I can confidently predict is that there will be a whole lot of tears and a whole lot of drama. I can’t wait.

Now, apropos of nothing is the #59 song in our countdown: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” It’s Mariah at her very best; let’s hope the skaters find their best as well in the coming days…

59. We Belong Together – Mariah Carey

(Top 101) #60. 1-2 Step –Ciara

February 12, 2010

It seems lately like I’ve been writing in this blog only when I’m going through some emotional tornado of some kind. Well, today I’m glad to report that I’m fine. I’m up to page 85 in my novel-to-be (I’m finally getting near the part the main character arrives in Korea). I had shrimp and egg fried rice for lunch; it was delicious. I worked the heck out of my biceps and triceps, and they’re burning as I type this. I watched the new Office episode while I was on a cycling machine, and it was pretty funny (favorite moment: Jim dips Dwayne’s tie in his coffee). So no drama, no trauma, no tears, no fears, not feeling manic, not feeling panicked… All is calm, all is bright. In fact, I think I may turn up the #60 song on the Top 101 Countdown and dance it all out with Miss Ciara and her “1-2 Step.” You go, girl, and take me with you while you’re at it!

60. 1-2 Step – Ciara

From a Recluse To a Superstar…

February 11, 2010

My Universally Panned Semi-Goatee

I just got home from the sixth-grade graduation ceremony at the school where I used to work. I’ve got to say, it was an emotional day, and I’m still reeling a bit, my heart feeling like it’s got an anchor on it…

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since kids are notorious for having short memories, but the moment I arrived on the school grounds, I was spotted by two boys who instantly whipped our their cellphones to take my picture. “I saw Tommy!” one of the boys said to the other in a voice full of wonder.

And that’s pretty much how the rest of the day played out. The graduation ceremony took place indoors–it mainly consisted of the kids sitting in their regular classrooms watching a video broadcast on the TVs as the parents watched and took pictures from the halls–and as I walked by the classrooms, cries of “It’s Tommy, it’s Tommy” rang out and students craned their necks to catch a glimpse of me. After the ceremony was over, I spent time talking with the kids and having my picture taken with them, and they were pretty unanimous in not liking my burgeoning goatee (“very strange,” “not handsome,” “you look like grandfather” were just some of the reactions). I couldn’t get over how much taller some of the students had gotten, and the voices of several of the boys were already changing (Hello, puberty!).

Mostly, though, it felt so bizarre and bittersweet to find myself back in my old life, one that I lived for three very memorable years. Just as the kids were graduating and getting ready for middle school, I too was closing the door on a chapter of my life. In life, there are always consequenceã„´, and there’s no denying it now: my decision to stop teaching and dedicate myself to writing was an irrevocable one, and there really is no turning back and returning to what I once had, even if I start teaching somewhere else. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, I felt the full impact of knowing that the past is gone and can never be recaptured, can never be relived. I consciously knew all of that of course, but today might have been the first time I truly felt it.

But it is what it is. The kids are growing up and moving on, just as they should be. As for me, all I can do is wish them well, indulge in a little self-pity for the rest of the day, and then simply write on. And no matter what the future brings, we’ll always have our memories…

(Top 101) #61. Lovesong – The Cure

February 8, 2010

I have been going to bed around 3 A.M. and waking up around 1 P.M. for a while now, and the schedule feels as strange as it probably sounds to people who actually have paying jobs. It’s like I never feel all the way awake, walking around with one foot in reality and the other who-knows-where… It sometimes feels like I’m living in a cloud; sometimes, it feels like I’m falling apart a bit. But hey, I’m writing, so I can’t complain.

This Thursday, I will be going back to the elementary school where I worked for three years up until last summer. The sixth grade students will be graduating, and I promised them when I left that I would come back for that. It’s a bit intimidating, because it will be my first time back. Mostly, I’m a bit worried about the teachers’ and staff’s reactions. I hope the principal isn’t still peeved at me for choosing to leave. As for the homeroom teachers, they may just look at me as an intruding outsider, which to be fair, I am now, having given up my teaching crown of thorns. But what outweighs those worries is the graduating kids themselves. I do miss them. God, it’s crazy how life can change Just. Like. That. One day, you’re swarmed with kids who are practically getting in line to tell you that they love you and that you’re a genius (mostly because I could beat all of them at chess) and handsome (lots of brain-washing went in there) and the next day, you’re in your apartment all day typing away at a computer, and you don’t talk to anyone for so long that you almost forget that you have a tongue. Just. Like. That. Anyhow, the kids have been sending me text messages to remind me they’re graduating (my favorite: “I VERY MISS YOU!”), and I will definitely be there, as I very miss them, too. (For some reason, I keep wanting to show up with a fedora and an overcoat, like a mysterious stranger from the past…)

Fortunately, I’m designed to handle solitary confinement better than most, I think, but even I do start to feel a bit stir-crazy at times, so it was good that I actually went out into the world on Sunday and dared to interact with some people. First, I went to an Itaewon coffeehouse for a meeting of a writing club made up of English speakers. The meetings are basically workshops where people post stories or poems on an internet bulletin board in advance and then everybody reads them and people have open discussions on them during the meetings. Since it was my first time showing up, I couldn’t post anything of my own, but still, it was actually pretty energizing to discuss people’s works and hear what other people–a pretty diverse bunch, I was glad to see–have to say and so forth. The next meeting’s in two weeks, and I plan to post the prologue of my novel. It’ll actually be the first time I show my writing (not counting this blog) to other people in… I can’t remember how long. First, it was because I was really protective and sensitive about my work, and then by the time I got over that, I was simply too busy to be doing any writing at all! But now here I am. Just. Like. That.

After the writing club meeting, I rushed over to Jongro-3-Ga for choir practice, and I must say, that’s one cool thing about being bi-cultural and (somewhat) bilingual. You can be having an English discussion on a short story one moment and then be gabbing and singing your heart in Korean a short subway ride later. After two hours of singing, the members actually went to a nearby theater to see a Korean movie called “Harmony.” It’s basically a Korean melodrama about female prisoners who decide to form a choir and that ends up changing their outlooks on life. As you can imagine, the story’s fairly predictable (think Lifetime Original Movie), but if there’s anything Korea can serve up better than a steaming bowl of kimchi stew (yum!), it’s melodrama. Oh, trust me on this one, and there’s nothing mellow about it. After two hours of domestic abuse, incest, adultery, attempted suicide, a mother giving up her son for adoption, and a sudden WTF?-inducing death penalty decision, they would’ve needed to cut up a parachute to make enough hankies for us to pass around. The bottom line of the movie was basically, life sucks (especially for women), but music is very nice. Ugh, it’s absolutely manipulative, but boy oh boy, did they drive the point home with an extra-sharp nail…

And speaking of depressing melodrama, what better way to introduce the next band on our Top 101 Countdown: The Cure and their obsession anthem “Lovesong.” They just don’t make dark, Gothic alterna-Gods like they used to. Teenagers in the late 80’s and early 90’s could choose to mope to Depeche Mode, Morrissey (or the Smiths), New Order (or Joy Division), or the Cure. Then the zeitgeist of alternative music shifted from depression to pure anger, and out came the grunge movement. Now? We have Kesha and the Black-Eyed Peas… Hmm… I guess it’s nice that pop music is a lot happier now, but let’s face it, it’s also a whole lot emptier. Bring back the MOPING, I say!!!

61. Lovesong – The Cure

(Top 101) #62. The Jewel Box In My Mind – Sunflower

February 4, 2010

I cannot go though I want to go
I cannot see though I want to see
In this eternity

I am approaching the point in my novel where the main character–a young Korean-American–comes to Korea for the first time since he was a little boy. (Autobiographical much? Well, just a tad.) So it’s timely that the next song on our Top 101 Countdown is the second of the three Korean songs on the list: “The Jewel Box In My Mind” by the Korean folk rock group Sunflower (hae-bah-rah-gi).

The song was released in 1986, two years after my family had immigrated to California, and I had already done a good job of shedding my Korean skin and throwing myself head first into all things American: pizza, 80’s New Wave music, Narnia books, and what-else-have-you… Actually, I think 1986 was also the year my father moved us to Canada, to a tiny but beautiful and rustic town in Ontario by the name of Bobcaygeon, which would later be immortalized in a Tragically Hip song. Bobcaygeon was wonderful in its own way, although the only significant differences between my American and Canadian lives were that a) I could spell color with a “u” if I wanted to, b) people sure loved hockey, a sport I’m not even sure I had even heard of up till then, c) I had to study French for the first time, and d) there were no other minorities to be seen in my class, aside from Eddie, who was Native American, and Madame Jackson, who was our black French teacher (the lack of diversity actually worked to my advantage as it forced me to adapt quickly, and it was in Canada that my English truly became fluent).

Anyhow, so I had no idea about this song until about two years ago, when I told my mother that I would make a Mix CD for her and asked her for a list of her favorite songs. This was the one song on that list that struck home with me. For me, it’s all about the guitar work here; the chords dig inside you until it feels like it’s your heartstrings that are being played.

62. The Jewel Box In My Mind – Sunflower