Putting the ME in MENSA…

March 18, 2011

I may be a dumbass, but I’m also a genius.  It’s official:  I’m now a member of Mensa.   No, there’s no need to check your calendar; it’s not April 1st.  It’s true!!!

Okay, if you haven’t died from laughing yet, let me explain.  Some time ago, I read a book called The Know-It-All in which the author chronicled his thoughts as he read through all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  It was a pretty cool book, both irreverent and informative, but what really jumped out at me was the part in which the author joined Mensa and atteneded a member’s meeting to see if all his newly gained knowledge would allow him to hobnob with geniuses. 

The reason this part caught my attention so much is that he mentioned that you could get into Mensa using your old SAT scores.  Now I was pretty much a screw-up academically in high school (I wouldn’t get my act together until community college), but I still managed to do pretty well on the SATs, scoring a 1410 (620 Verbal, 790 Math).  Actually, even before that, I did even better on the PSATs, scoring 1420 (620 Verbal, a perfect 800 on Math), and so I got my picture in our high school newspaper with three other students as our scores all automatically qualified us to be National Merit Semifinalists.  It really was ridiculous, because there I was standing next to three honor students while I was rocking something like a 2.5 GPA.  The news came as such a shock to my accounting teacher, Mr. Berens, that he told another class (as one of my friends later told me) that he couldn’t even BELIEVE that I could’ve scored so high.  I remember feeling really down when I heard that and I still think it was unnecessarily mean, but in retrospect, I guess I couldn’t blame him TOO much, since I was getting a D in his class.

But anyhow, after I read the book, I looked up the Mensa website, and yup, my scores qualified me to become a member.  So I ordered a copy of my scores from the College Board, sent them off to Mensa along with a check for $100-plus for membership dues and score verification, and boom, now I’m an official card-carrying member of Mensa.

I can’t say that I didn’t have moral qualms about applying.  I mean, I’m not so self-deluded to think that I wanted to be a member “just for myself.”  If I had to swear a vow of secrecy and never reveal my memberhood to a single soul, you better believe I wouldn’t have signed that check.  People always go on about how you shouldn’t care what other people think, but the fact is, yeah, I DO care for the most part.  And maybe a part of it comes from living in Korea and some people here thinking that I’m not all that bright due to my limited Korean vocabulary.  I also have an abhorrence for talking “big” and self-aggrandizement (seriously, if I found the cure for cancer, I’d have to ask someone else to take the credit, because I’d never be able to say the words, “Oh, I have the cure for cancer”).  So it’s kind of nice to have the Mensa card just as a kind of assurance.  Right now, I’ll take any I can get!


March 18, 2011

I can’t believe it’s only been one month since my last post.  I was sure it was at least two, maybe even three.

A whole lot’s happened.  To make a long story short, my life’s become UNIVERSITIFIED, UNIVERSITALIZED, and UNIVERSITILICIOUS.  Yes, it’s been the comeback that everyone… okay, a few… all right, just me, and even me not all that much… has been waiting for:  TOMMYLAND, THE COLLEGE VERSION!!!

Yup, I’m teaching full-time again, this time at a Korean university, and it’s pretty much taken over all life.  In the last several weeks, my life has gone from “sleep, eat, nap, eat, do some writing, eat, and sleep” to “teach, prep, grade, counsel, and collapse in bed for a few Zs before that dreaded alarm clock sounds.” 

It’s been tough, I can’t lie.  I’m teaching 12-13 hours a week over four days (M-Th), which might sounds nice, but the lesson prepping’s been an absolute killer.  I really, desperately want to do a good job and do right by my classes (teach them something but also keep things enjoyable), and I’m giving my all here.   By the time I’m done with my last class on Thursday, I feel exhausted and pretty much numb.  And relieved, extremely relieved that everything’s gone okay.

And that’s the good side.  Things ARE rolling alone nicely.  As of now, three weeks into the semester, I have managed to find my rhythm.  I’ve developed a nice rapport with the students; I now know what I want to teach for each class; I’ve come up with my classroom rules and grading policies; the other teachers and I are getting along well; and as draining as the work has been, it’s also been incredibly rewarding.  Ultimately, hard work pays off in just about every situation.  I’ve been able to get the ball rolling.  Now I just have to keep pushing and make sure it stays rolling.  Right now is the toughest time for all of us new teachers since we’re all figuring things out as we’re going along and we’re all developing class materials and lesson plans completely from scratch.  It’s our pay-your-dues semester.

Bottom line:  Like the wise Tim Gunn says, I’ve just gotta make it work.  And the only way to make things to work is to work yourself.  And that’s what I’m doing.

Two Fireflies (For H.S.W.)…

February 17, 2011



Under the lamppost there now lies

Brittle remains of two fireflies

Their lights faded, their wings grown still

They do not move, they never will

But there in the previous night

You would have seen a golden light

They shone to see each other fly

Under the lamppost they now lie


Nothing Spells FUN Like D-M-Z…

February 1, 2011


Doo doo, just another Tuesday come and gone.  Well, actually, not quite.  Let me rewind the tape a little.

Having lived in South Korea for much of the last ten years, one of the places I’ve always meant to visit is the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Well, I was working on my novel last week when it hit me that the main character should visit the border for a number of symbolic reasons.  Of course, I couldn’t write about it without doing it myself.  So after a quick call to the American USO Office in Seoul, I was all set to visit one of the most notorious and volatile areas on the planet.

I got up at 5 A.M. this morning to be able to get to the USO by 7.  Once there, about 30 of us boarded a bus and headed up north towards the border.  Our guide was a young Korean woman in her early twenties who was pretty and perky and quite proficient-of not all the way fluent-in English.  (I’ll call her Janie.)

As we drove for about an hour and a half, the huge buildings of Seoul gradually disappeared, replaced by the Imjin River and the barbed wire fence that ran alongside it to prevent the North Koreans from crossing over it.  We soon crossed a short bridge called the Grand Unification Bridge and drove on to an army compound, which had the feel of a summer camp retreat, with small, dull-colored buildings scattered here and there, the only signs of life being the few soldiers standing at attention at checkpoints.

We got off the bus at a small building called the Visitor Briefging Center where an American soldier stepped up on stage and gave a historical overview of the Joint Security Area (JSA), where we would soon be visiting.  To clear up the various names, the DMZ refers to the area that runs 2 km north and 2 km south of the border, officially known as the Demarcation Line.  The JSA is the small, smack-in-the-middle part of the DMZ where North and South Korean officials have meetings and North and South Korean border guards virtually co-exist.   It’s about as tense an area as you can get, especially with crazy events such as the 1976 Axe Murder Incident when North Korean soldiers wielding axes attacked and killed American soldiers who were trimming down a tree in the JSA.  (The axe in question is now housed in the North Korean Peace Museum; apparently, irony is alive and well up north.)

After the presentation, it was time to see the JSA for ourselves.  We were escorted by the American soldier who warned us not to bring our bags into the JSA (in case North Koreans accuse us of trying to bring explosives in) and also not to try to communicate with or gesture towards the North Korean soldier we were likely to see on the other side of the JSA (in case we get accused of trying to antagonizing them).

The Smurf Blue Buildings of the JSA

We got off the bus and entered a big, gray building called the Freedom House, where meetings betweens North and South Korea sometimes take place.  Once we crossed the building, we came face to face with three small, sky blue buildings (each about the size of a mobile home) and then in the distance, a bigger, gray, multi-story building known as the Panmungak, North Korea’s main building in the area.  The one North Korean guard we could see was stationed in front of Panmungak’s door, dressed in a green uniform with red stripes on the shoulders.  I kept watching him and when we appeared, he took out a pair of binoculars and took a good look at us.  (I would love to know what went through his mind at that moment.)

Can you spot the North Korean soldier?

Our American soldier escort then led us to one of the sky blue buildings, the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Conference Room, where talks take place between duty officers from both sides.  It’s basically your everyday conference room, dominated by a shiny lacquered wood table surrounded by chairs on both sides.  The crazy thing is, the table served as a microcosm of the border itself; when we crossed the table, we were officially in North Korean territory.  Also, there were two South Korean soldiers standing at guard, one standing near the table and one standing in front of the door on the opposite wall.  As it was explained to us, when North Korean tour groups visit the DMZ, they enter the same room, but the South Korean guards leave and are replaced by their North Korean counterparts, one of whom blocks the entrance that we came in.  It was just kind of mind-boggling to look at this room and this table-a nice table, but STILL!-and ponder the meaning of it all.  As some of us crossed the table, we noticed a dead bug of some kind lying on the floor.  Someone wisecracked, “It must have died while trying to defect.”

The Table

Soon, we said goodbye to the room and to the Korean guards (they never spoke, and our guide warned us not to touch them since “they will hit you”) and got back on the bus.  As we drove away, the American soldier pointed out where the Axe Murder Incident took place, and we also passed the Bridge of No Return where after the Korean War, POWs were given the choice to either cross and go to the other side or to stay where they were (apparently, the bridge is depicted in one of the James Bond movies, and I’m pretty sure it’s the bridge Angelina Jolie walks across to meet her husband in the beginning of “Salt”).

The Bridge of No Return--Once You Cross, You Could Never Go Back

We next drove on to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of the secret tunnels North Korea dug to get into South Korea for surprise attacks.  It’s not much to look at, basically just a short, rocky cave with a low ceiling (we all wore helmets, and I was never so happy that I wasn’t tall).

North Korea said they were just "coal mining." Riiiiiiiiight...

Afterwards, we went on to the Dora Observatory located on top of Dora Mountain, where we were theoretically supposed to get a grand view into North Korea, namely the Propaganda Village (where almost no one actually lives) and the ultra-high flagpole with the North Korean flag perpetually waving (in a classic case of phallic competition, the South Koreans outdid the original North Korean flagpole with a higher flagpole of their own, only to see the North Koreans come back and build a higher one still).  Well, that didn’t really happen in reality as the day was too hazy to see pretty much of anything aside from the humbled South Korean flagpole. 

After that, we moved on to the final place in our itineary:  Dorasan Station.  It’s pretty much your average rail station with the requisite lobby and counters and railroads and stop signs.  The only thing it’s missing is an actual train.  A few years back, a railroad between North and South Korea opened with great fanfare, and a train actually ran from Dorasan Station (the northernmost station in South Korea) to stations in North Korea for a little while.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last, and now the deserted station now plays host only to visiting tourists. 

Dorasan--A Stationary Station

Looking at the railroads heading up north to God-knows-what-it’s-like-over-there, I thought about all the things I saw today, and I don’t know, I can’t say that I came to any epiphany or some greater understanding of anything, really.  I think issues of North and South Korea, of war, of families torn apart for the rest of their lives, it’s all beyond the grasp of anyone who hasn’t experienced them firsthand.  The tour today was intriguing, interesting, and thought-provoking, yes, but for me to claim that they brought me any real insight into the Korean War and its aftermath would be pompous and asinine.  Ultimately, if today taught me anything, it was that there is so much that I do not know, so much that I cannot understand.  It was a completely humbling experience; that’s the best way I can describe it.  And really, I think it’s a good thing.  We all should be humbled every now and then; otherwise, we’d never strive to be more than what we are now.  So that is how I chose to leave the DMZ at the end of the day:  absolutely humbled, and utterly grateful for it.

So Which Way Now?


January 19, 2011

So after a month of luxuriating in and engorging myself upon American-style laziness (mostly watching the Tennis Channel and eating up the mountains of food my mom cooked up everyday), I’m back in Korea with its patches of snow and ice on the ground.  I must say, I wasn’t all that crazy about coming back.  The month passed by in a flash, and it seemed like I had barely overcome my jetlag and the time difference before it was time to get back on a plane.

It’s such a strange duality for me, my Korean and American lives.  When I go to the U.S., my life in Korea seems to melt away like it was all just a dream, and now that I’m back, it’s my life in America that seems to slowly dissipate.

And above all, there is my family.  My wonderful, eccentric, wildly dysfunctional family with all our eccentrities and incompatibilities.  So loving and so maddening at once.  I will miss them more than I could ever say (or write).

But ultimately, life goes on, and really, feeling sad about not being with my family isn’t going to anything besides making me feel sad.  I’ve got things to do, a book to write, a job to get ready for, and ultimately, a life to live.  And really, I’d rather live it with a smile and not a frown.

Noah and the Whale – L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

The Best Songs of 2010: The Tommyland Edition

December 27, 2010

2010.  It’s been an interesting year.  On the minus side, I pretty much made no money.  My aunt had health problems (though fortunately not as bad as 2009–shudder).  I think my hairline receded a few inches.  My romantic life is non-existent (well, by choice since I didn’t want to start dating while being unemployed, but still!).  My family has some issues, too; both my mom’s and my brother’s businesses are really slow due to the economy–obviously not alone in that–and I’ve just found out my father has a serious hoarding problem (maybe a Stage 3.5 compared to the Stage 5 showboaters on Hoarders).  Also, as I wrote about already, I fell off a bike, and it sucked.

On the plus side, I finally started building my writing muscle.  I wrote 380 pages of the first draft of my novel-to-be.  I performed in our choir concert without embarrassing myself.  And I managed to land a teaching position at a university with conditions that I’m quite happy with.

And of course, there’s been the music, as always.  I actually think 2010’s been a really great year music-wise.  Sure, if you just look at the Billboard charts, it’s easy to get discouraged, but in the Age of the Downloader, it’s possible to be expose yourself to all kinds of music scenes, whether it be indie or underground or in another language or what have you.  It’s become possible to design a musical palate tailor-made for your exact tastes; there’s no more need to settle for the mainstream stuff anymore.

So in this Golden Age, here are the Top 32 golden nuggests that I found shining the brightest:

32.  Mood Ring – The Howling Owls

31.  The One That Got Away – Katy Perry

30.  Fletta – Bjork & Antony Hegarty

29.  California Run – Neil Nathan

28.  Fuck You – Cee-Lo

27.  Is He Really Coming Home – The School

26.  Get Out of My Way – Kylie Minogue

25.  Kickstarts – Example

24.  Hello – The Cast of “Glee”

23.  Tighten Up – Black Keys

22.  Belinda – Ben Folds

21.  Vanity – Christina Aguilera

20.  Sex and Violence – Scissor Sisters

19.  Without U – 2 PM

18.  Afraid of Everyone – The National

17.  Up to the Mountain (Live) – Crystal Bowersox

16.  Run – Epik High

15.  Female Wrestler (Remix) – Power Animal

14.  Queen of Denmark – John Grant

13.  Lewis Takes Off His Shirt – Owen Pallett

12.  Dance to This Song – WongFu & KevJumba & David Choi

11.  Baby – Justin Bieber & Ludacris

10.  Tightrope – Janelle Monae & Big Boi

9.  Dancing on My Own – Robyn

8.  All the Lovers (Ext. Mix) – Kylie Minogue

7.  Don’t Look Now – Far East Movement & Keri Hilson

6.  The World Is – Matthew Ryan

5.  XXXO – M.I.A.

4.  Nothin’ on You – B.O.B. & Bruno Mars

3.  Spring and Fall to a Child – Natalie Merchant

2.  Acts of Man – Midlake

1.  A Fairytale Ending – The Boy Least Likely To

The Top 17 Songs (for a 2010 Mix CD)

Diva-graphies (Book Reviews)

December 27, 2010

The Ciccione Siblings--Before the Literary Backstabbing

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas.  Mine consisted mainly of sitting on the sofa watching the all-day Christmas Story marathon on TBS while my brother and his girlfriend grilled some ribs on the barbeque.  It was kinda dull, kinda awkward, but also awfully comfortable.  And the ribs turned out pretty darn good!

I woke up today (the 26th) and for the first time felt like I had completely gotten over my jetlag.  And with the weather finally California-esque, I hopped on my bike once again to hit the road (though not literally this time, thank God).

I knew I had to do it as soon as my hands were healed enough for me to grab the handlebars.  It’s like when Madonna fell off that horse and broke a zillion bones but got back on that horse the first chance she had.  She was quoted as saying that she knew she had to do it; otherwise, she’d be afraid to do it forever.  I took her words to heart, and fortunately, no more fear here, thank you very much.

It really shows that there is a whole lot one can learn from great divas, whether it be their courage, their style, their travails, or their triumphs.  So in their honor, here are my reviews on the diva biographies I’ve read in the last few months:

LIPS UNSEALED by Belinda Carlisle

You may remember Belinda in her bubbly, chubby Go-go incarnation or from her more sophisticated, redheaded solo days.  Well, it turns out she was high as a kite through it all.  “Mad About You” could’ve been about coke; “Heaven is a Place on Earth” was pretty much what she was thinking when was snorting it.  A particular “Yikes” moment is when she drops off her son at his school and then goes to the school restroom for a quick hit because she can’t even wait to go home first.   Full credit to Belinda for her unflinching honesty and willingness to take full responsibility for all her troubles.  GRADE:  B.


It’s interesting.  Despite her tough rocker chick persona, it turns out Pat Benatar was first and foremost a smart businesswoman.  There’s no drugs, no scandal to talk of here.  Rather, the conflict in her bio comes from the record industry itself.  She recounts the sexism she had to face through her career, from the execs who demanded she go out and do promos within days of a miscarriage to the radio DJs who’d make comments like “Why don’t you come over and sit on my lap, honey?”  It’s actually pretty interesting to read about, and Pat also gives a very detailed account of the recording process behind her best-known albums and songs.  Things get a bit too cheesy when she goes on (and on and on) about how wonderful her husband is, but ultimately, Pat shows that one can rock without being self-destructive.  GRADE:  B.

LIFE WITH MY SISTER MADONNA by Christopher Ciccione.

Obviously, there’s a moral dilemma here.  I’m not big on someone selling out a family member for a quick buck, which is what Madonna’s little brother is undeniably doing here.  But once you get over that, this is one heck of a fun read on the Material Girl.  Madonna’s life story has been told time and time before, but Christopher, having been a member of her inner circle for much of her career, offers up new, wacky stories for the very first time.  And to Christopher’s credit, he doesn’t do a “Sister Dearest” hatchet job; he gives her ample credit for the good she’s done while also describing the ways in which she’s hurt him (apparently Madonna can be a bit self-absorbed and temperamental at times–you don’t say!).  Ultimately, this book is gossipy, tawdry, sometimes even pathetic (Christopher’s insistence that his drug use–strongly frowned upon by Big Sis–was strictly “recreational” is worth a few eyerolls), but it’s just too much fun to resist in the end.  GRADE:  A.

KATE BUSH:  UNDER THE IVY by Graeme Thompson

With Kate Bush being notoriously private, it’s pretty much a sure thing that we’re never going to get an autobiography out of her.  (Seriously, even a new album seems like it may be asking for too much–we had to wait something like 15 years for Aerial.)  So this unauthorized bio is about as close a look into Kate’s life and work process that we’re probably ever going to get.  Thompson suceeds in presenting a meticulously researched career retrospective, and while clearly a fan, he manages to stay fairly objective throughout the book.  However, Kate Bush has been iron-determined to remain an enigma throughout her career, and Thompson never manages to shed any real light on just what’s been going on in that mysterious head (and heart) of hers.  He presents Kate’s genius, yes, but he doesn’t provide any glimpse into what lies behind it.  GRADE:  C.

OPRAH: A BIOGRAPHY by Kitty Kelley

Oprah may not be a pop star, but if she released a CD tomorrow, is there any doubt that it will go straight to #1 and break all sorts of records?  Oprah is Oprah, which means she can be anything she wants to be, basically.  From what I’ve heard, Kitty Kelley is known to be a “poison pen” biographer, but she actually stays pretty respectful here.  While she does suggest that Oprah isn’t quite as faultless as she seems (really, who could be?) and has exaggerated aspects of her rags-to-riches success story, she never drags Oprah through the mud outright and never tries to undermine Oprah’s philanthropy and achievements.  Similarly to the Kate Bush book, we don’t get a look into Oprah’s innermost thoughts and secrets, but a document on Oprah’s life is interesting enough in itself to deserve a read.  GRADE:  B+.