My Snail

Speaking Korean, I want to say, Some people spend their life apologizing for who they are, but the literal translation seems cold and analytical, so I come up with a new symbol: Some people live like garden snails. Of course it’s a different expression; it was bound to be different. Because I am myself, I get to approve my translations of myself, to assert that snails are apologetic insofar as they embody the sort of self-effacing person I’m referring to. To be understood—to know that the words passed through is the Korean idiom—comforts me far more than the obscure boast of a word-for-word translation.

But I meant to talk about vector functions. I’m into Calc III now, and I keep noticing that the brainfeel I get talking around clunky phrases in Korean is very similar to the one I get when parameterizing an equation. I can’t shake the feeling that math is just lyric poetry played out on graph paper, a rigorous way of plugging metaphors into each other. That contrived variable t isn’t a part of the curve we are trying to draw; it merely metaphorizes—parameterizes—the stylus tracing out the shape we’re interested in. The parameter is a figurative device.

Stoned mathematicians like to ask next: Is the function itself actual? What makes it more actual than its parameter? We might ask the same, in literature, of the breeze or babirusa likened to a human. A little change in perspective, and we realize that the metaphor is working in two directions at once, asserting as much about humans as about the nonhumans it personifies. We say that it’s the parameter that animates the curve, but this is just a mind hack; it’s equally true to say that the curve beckons its parameterization. Squiggles surely precede line integrals.

To speak pragmatically, the fluidity of metaphor is why I’m comfortable with translation styles that others might call too liberal. We can equate n-dimensional curves and their paramaterizations because we know that they are simply two ways of modeling a mathematical object whose existence was already only hypothetical. Language, too, does not terminate or close upon itself; whether translated or merely set in a different font face, it undergoes constant reinterpretation. Let me have my snail. Let me write my own concordance.

Bus Tickets Cost a Lot

Personal-finance gurus tell you to spreadsheet every single income and expense, tagging them all by category—because more data is better, right?

I, for one, can’t be bothered. Instead, I’ve created a hella-low-maintenance spreadsheet in which I pay myself a weekly allowance of ₩100,000 ($90) and track my spending against my predicted account balance.

I only update my spreadsheet with three events:

  • Every month, I input my pay, which varies slightly because my school deducts my cafeteria lunches.
  • I make a note in another column every time I transfer money to the US.
  • Every half month, I note my account balance.

A function then computes my target account balance—the amount of money that would be in my account if I spent my weekly ₩100,000 allowance and nothing more.

Because my school pays directly for my housing and most food, the only nonnegotiable expenses that have to come out of this allowance are my phone plan (₩46,000 a month) and my transportation (maybe ₩15,000 a week). A true spreadsheet fetishist would log these as well and reduce the weekly allowance accordingly. But such scrupulous data entry would consume time I’d rather spend writing pithy blog posts.

From my semimonthly account balances, I subtract the target balance for the corresponding days to produce the following graph.

Here’s how you read it: If I spend exactly ₩100,000 a week, then my account balance will parallel my target balance and the graph will flatline. If I stay under budget, the blue line goes up; if I overspend, it goes down. I’m tracking the difference between my target and actual balances, rather than their absolute values, to mitigate the spending impulse that comes from watching my account balance spike when my monthly pay comes in.

Even if the graph falls below zero, I’m not immediately losing money; I’m just saving less. Conceptually speaking, you can view as the graph of my additional savings on top of what I already save by implementing the allowance in the first place. In other words, it’s showing the current balance of my allowance account.

You can see that I remained pretty frugal during my first few weeks here, then started to spend more around mid-October. In fact, I made two weekend trips to Seoul, and bus tickets and hotels cost a lot. But my position is still north of zero.

For what it’s worth, the trend line shown, a least-squares regression courtesy of Google Sheets, is somewhat meaningless. This graph isn’t predictive in nature, unless you’re one of those in a deterministic universe, there’s no such thing as free will zealots. Instead, I use the graph as a psychological gambit: For every day that I don’t spend money, my target balance still declines by ₩14,000, meaning my margin above zero increases by the same. It makes me feel like I’m constantly getting paid.

Just for Context

Saying less and less about less and less.

Sheet music for the title track is downloadable in the Freebies section.

Aimless Practice

I like spacing out. Here and there I find myself staring at my desk's neutral blue pinboard, scrutinizing my phone case's patterns of dust, or losing myself in the gutter of a book rather than the words, and I wonder how many hours these moments would total if I spreadsheeted a week's worth.

Someone, catching me staring at the reflection of a reflection playing off the bezel of my computer's monitor, asks me if I don't worry all this daydreaming is a waste of time.

I don't. It seems plain to me that the day isn't a carry-on bag to be stuffed at maximum density. Maybe I can't prove it, but I suspect that after a few pages of actual reading or a few PowerPoint slides of actual lesson planning, the margins are where actual growth (of the mind, of the spirit) takes place.

Here's a magic word: meditation. I've seldom meditated on purpose, so I can't tell you how the accident of my unpanicked life compares to the brain gains you could achieve by paying a professional to teach you the discipline of silence. I can tell you, however, that others take my space-outs more seriously when I say, Oh, I was meditating. What was a lapse in concentration gets rewritten as the very essence of focus.

To my doubters, productivity is the paramount heuristic. And in 2018, meditation—even my aimless practice of it—is a productive brand.

This Here Is Just

From Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness:

But where there is no desire and no shame no one, however anomalous, is singled out; and I think Asra made no connection of this notion with myself and my peculiarities. He saw it merely as a variation on an old theme, and so he chuckled a little and said, In kemmer all the time. … Is it a place of reward, then? Or a place of punishment?

I don't know, Asra. Which is this world?

Neither, child. This here is just the world, it's how it is. You get born into it and … things are as they are. …

I wasn't born into it. I came to it. I chose it.

It must be LeGuin's time in France (on a Fulbright, no less) that taught her to write so soberly of inhabiting a foreign place. People who don't study languages always ask language learners if they're fluent yet. Here fluency means something like passing—fooling others into thinking you learned the language without exertion. Indeed, I get this compliment sometimes: If you'd called me on the phone I would've had no idea. It means, You have learned so much that it sounds like you've learned nothing at all. You lack the learner's signifiers. Your learning is, in a sense, insignificant.

LeGuin, I find, is rightfully unfascinated by the idea of fluency. When you think about it, fluency—as passing—is a strange thing to celebrate, a bit like a pharmacist rejoicing in her ability to eyeball pill amounts without counting them individually, as though that feat were the end of her study. I'm not studying Korean because it's easy; much less to prove that, against the odds, I learned it easily. I didn't, and I am not fluent, because anyone who might have persuaded by my first grainy sentence over the telephone meets quick clarification in the one that follows: I'm a foreigner, so thanks for being patient with me. It's an apology for my language ability, sure, but also for all my other deficits—my expectation that, for example, a cancellation fee would be simply subtracted from the refund rather than asked for in cash.

Here's what LeGuin gets right: foreigners aren't dissuaded of our difference as easily as you might think. Instead, the factuality of difference becomes a kind of comfort, the way putting on a new pair of shoes reminds you newly of walking's lightness. The rejuvenating feeling is the feeling of having chosen.

Toward Anyone

To anyone: What's closeness but distance from space?

Physics, in our language, describes affinity. We were there for each other. We lost touch. We reconnected.

Gossip becomes astronomy, an inventory of where bodies are and where they're going. We are suddenly celestial.

Line of Thought Tangent to Work

I have a lot of downtime at school, so I've been revisiting one of my favorite high-school subjects: calculus.

My study is decidedly nonsystemic. I've been doing problem sets from a Korean calc textbook that my host sister gave me, but I spend the bulk of my practice sessions just making up problems for myself. I try to come up with things I know I can't do, then look up the solution (everything's online) and puzzle through it step by step. I suppose that's because beyond learning calculus, I have a secret goal in mind: to think outside the box about pedagogy.

A math puzzle I created this week reminded me that a small change can turn something straightforward into a maze of algebra. Consider a function like y = sin(x). If I want to find the intersection between this function and a horizontal line like y = 3/4, it's trivial: I take arcsin(3/4). But what about the intersection between y = sin(x) and a sloped line, like y = x/2? A look at the graph shows there are clearly three points of intersection: one at x = 0, and then two others near x = ±1.9.

But you can kick the variables around all day and never get an answer in closed form. The exact solution to this problem is x such that x/2 = sin(x). WolframAlpha computes an approximate answer using (probably) Newton's method.

It's not hard to imagine a careless math teacher including a problem like this on an exam, thinking they'd make an answer key later. After all, finding the intersection of two curves is a standard precalc problem. I can even make it look like a geometry problem: Find θ such that A1 = A2. Figure not to scale.

Clearly, there's only one angle you could put there (besides 0) that would produce such a shape. That just a bit of algebra and trigonometry, right? But the trig reduces to θ/2 = sin(θ). If a high-school geometry teacher gave this problem to students, the mediocre ones would be baffled and the motivated ones would be crushed.

To put it in general terms, in pedagogy, there's a fine line between a healthy challenge and a self-esteem killer. In my English class, I often include words on my handouts that I'm certain my students won't know. It's not because I want to remind them that they don't know the meaning of underestimate. It's because I want them to practice overcoming the sense of panic that arises when you see a long, confusing word at some crucial position in the sentence. Once they sit in the feeling of panic for a moment, the students' brains start working. They try breaking the word up into meaningful parts, guessing the meaning from context, or asking a friend what they think—all valid techniques that real English speakers use when they encounter a new word in the wild. This is possible because I chose underestimate, a very guessable word. I would expect a much lower rate of success with, say, ombudsman. In mathspeak, it's a challenge problem, but it's one I know my students can do. It's the arcsine problem, not the transcendental equation.

Things that Are a Thing Here

They say that major lifestyle changes—even positive ones, like starting a new job or moving—are one of the biggest stressors out there. By that measure, it’s been a wild week: I’ve moved in with my host family in Naju, set up a Korean bank account and phone number in my name, and started teaching English at two middle schools. Unfamiliar digs, unfamiliar language, unfamiliar students and coworkers. But on all sides, I’ve been fortunate to find myself surrounded by supportive, understanding, and hardworking people.

Skip these two paragraphs if I already told you about my weekly schedule. I spend Monday through Thursday at an all-boys’ middle school in Naju’s old town. At about forty students in each grade (divided into two classes), it’s smaller than average, but our students more than make up for it with their rambunctious energy. Fridays, I’m out in the countryside in an actually tiny one-building school that has only twenty-five or so students (it’s the satellite of a school in a neighboring city), all very proper and devoted to their grade-level classmates. The second school is in a gorgeous setting: epic mountains pouring down fog from all sides.

At my main school, each homeroom gets English class two or three times a week; I teach one class and my supervising coteacher teaches the other. After school, I teach a smaller group of students an English conversation class (the students are all required to participate in a club class but they get to choose from various school subjects). I expected the large classes to be the hard part because of, you know, crowd control. But the club classes have proven more challenging because they expose the students whose English isn’t as strong. Half of the students are bored because they understand nothing, and the other half is bored of waiting for the former to catch up. This situation calls for creative pedagogy. I don’t know what that’ll look like yet, exactly.

Now, I’ll do my utmost not to be that foreigner who windbags about “how the Koreans do it.” So, with the caveat that I do not intend to define cultural differences comprehensively, let me share two things have stood out to me this week: First, it’s really striking how much authority teachers have here. Despite my youth and inexperience, my fellow teachers place a lot of faith (certainly undue) in my ability to plan solid classes. They’ve given me a textbook to follow, along with ample supplies and auxiliary materials, but nobody has nagged me for any bureaucratic nonsense like a tabular correlation of my lesson plans with those of my supervisor. The team trusts that I’ll do the work well, and I do my best to meet their expectations.

Observation number two: There’s a stereotype that Korean schools teach everything by rote, but to me, this appears to be more of a generational difference than a cultural one. If anything, it’s kids in the US who suffer truly tedious classes, structured the same way every day (“I will be able to … ”), because American teachers’ livelihood depends so desperately on their students’ standardized test scores. While standardized tests are also a big deal in Korea, teachers themselves seem to assign (and are permitted to assign) students’ overall learning and well-being more importance. Additionally, my students in Korea take a much wider variety of subjects than their American counterparts. Art, music, literature, and “morality” class* matter just as much as the STEM subjects, whereas the schools I’ve worked at in the States seemed to treat anything that isn’t quantitative as an ancillary. (But then, I did grow up in the shadow of Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon.)

In short, I really love my job. Call this the honeymoon phase, but I want to gush about one more thing while I’m riding high: On my first day, I received from the vice principal a tabbed, leather-bound notebook labeled “Teacher’s Diary.” I chuckled at the odd English, thinking it was just a regular planner, but it isn’t. Many of the teachers at our school actually keep a journal, in prose, reflecting on their daily lessons and pondering ways to improve their pedagogy. I’ve started doing the same. And I can already feel it making me more present in the classroom, more aware of how my students are faring. I mean, why wasn’t this a thing in my high school?

* I really want to observe this one. I was leafing through the morality textbook and it consists mostly of short parables and comic strips, which students read and then respond to with brief journal entries. When I remarked to another teacher that there are no such classes in America, she asked if we just learned morality during philosophy class. I told her we don’t normally have philosophy classes in grade school either. She turned back to her computer, looking perplexed.

The Way Out

As I write this, my bags are all packed and zipped up—the fourth time in a few months I've sat beside such a pile, if you take all the various post-college moves into account. It's time to board the bus for Naju and begin teaching.

At a graduation ceremony for our Korean classes on Tuesday, I had the pleasure of giving a short speech in Korean on the value of language learning. TL;DR: It's more than words and grammar. When we speak a new language, we reset our personalities and come to inhabit a brand new self. What a rare opportunity to embrace our innermost values to the fullest.

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

The going narrative laments the US's current left-right tribalism as the death of measured discussion and the rise of clickbait and metapolitical showmanship.

However, adamant party loyalty could also suggest the very opposite—that we prefer consistent policy positions to cunning bipartisan displays.

Both of these claims encode a wish for the White House to focus on policy instead of decorum, but perhaps, by letting presidential politics stand aside as a theatrical diversion, we could restore focus to the lower-lever executive appointees and state legislators who actually implement laws and regulations.

Policy of Optimism

Typing away in a café in Sokcho, and I keep hearing people mention "that foreigner" over there, thinking I can't understand. The twist isn't that I can. The twist is that most of the time, when I turn my head to see who said it, all I find is someone tapping away on their phone or fumbling for change. The gossiping patron exists only in my head.

I took a long walk through the city today. Near a busy crosswalk, I had a troubling encounter with a taxi driver who was taking his smoke break. As I passed, the taxi driver tsked at me, turned to his buddies, and started cursing and moaning about how foreigners traipse around this country like it's theirs. This time, I knew I wasn't imagining his words. I saw a few bystanders shoot him a glare. I just walked on. Or maybe I traipsed on.

A Buddhist monk who spoke to our cohort yesterday told us that good and bad fortune always arrive hand in hand. A few miles past the taxi drivers, I asked a huddle of Jehovah's Witnesses in a lakeside park if the water in the fountain was drinkable. I had a lovely conversation with one of their members: he praised my Korean, asked me how I studied the language, and wished me safe travels. I filled up my water bottle.

Later on, I encountered a middle-aged man studying something beside the pathway.

"What's there?" I asked.

"Ants," he said. "A whole line of them, from here to all the way back there."

"Amazing." I followed his finger and found the anthill, some 40 meters away, connected by an unbroken stream of workers. I wonder how many years it'd been since I last followed a trail of ants to search out their hill.

Every day presents us with opportunities to become flustered and discouraged. But I don't want to waste my energy rehashing every failure, lest I miss the moments of kindness and human connection sprinkled in among the brash voices. Call it anything but naivety. It's a survival tactic, a policy of optimism.

As for the inhospitable: shake the dust.

Where I’ll Be

Our Fulbright cohort had its formal placement ceremony today. I'll be teaching in two middle schools in the city of Naju, located in South Jeolla Province! I'll be headed to Naju in mid-August to begin my new position.

This placement is especially exciting for me because I spent the summer of 2016 studying quite close by—at Gwangju's Chonnam National University. I can't wait to return to Jeollanam-do! More updates to come.

Jesus, Take the Pedals

I'm back with a recklessly lo-fi EP of solo piano music.

I've added sheet music for the title track to the Freebies section.

If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part Two

We're accustomed to defining humanity in terms of its special powers: humans have language, humans have empathy, humans have agriculture. But for the narrator of Amy Bonnaffons's "If Wishes Were Horses," as we saw in the first of this pair of posts, those conveniences generated more ennui than comfort—a reminder that there's something unnatural about human nature, something that makes us yearn for alterity.

Bonnaffons offered her narrator a sublime escape: a therapy that would remake her, completely and irreversibly, as a horse. "If Wishes Were Horses" then dealt with the aesthetics of her transformation. As the story progressed, the narrator's velveteen prose and confessional style gave way to plain descriptions of her changing body. Soon, even her words disintegrated into bare sensations, "as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind."

We encounter the opposite literary epistemology in today's story, Trevor Shikaze's "Beast Leave." Shikaze's narrator, Wesley, ping-pongs between irreverence and self-loathing. He perceives everything except context. His default narratology is to jot field notes about physical bodies: "I can hear her smirk. I swear to God I can hear it, like this tiny moist click. I know exactly what her face is doing right now." Yet thanks to the wonders of irony, through Wesley's empty descriptions, Shikaze delivers a sophisticated critique of contemporary masculinity.

Her in the above quote is Parm, Wesley's best friend; she seldom appears in the subject case. He's single, she's married, and now Wesley has come down with the bachelor blues. Parm tells Wes to take some time away from work: "That's practically the main reason I had the boys," she says. Conveniently for Wesley, society has now invented a male equivalent of maternity leave: beast leave, in which men facing their quarter-life crisis take six months off to graft animal parts, the organs of deceased humans, and prosthetics limbs together into their very own ferocious living creature. (Just picture the video game Spore, except if it were underpromised and overdelivered instead of the opposite.) In Wesley's America, beasting has become a treasured test of manhood.

So, Wes takes Parm's advice. He lets his boss know he's going on leave, and his coworkers throw him a Frankenstein-themed going-away party. At home, Wesley vegges out and picks out beast parts online: a human heart from a dead Chinese child, the torso of a chimp, and the face of a babirusa (see below). Wesley blogs about his beast's progress ("If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part Three"?) and videochats each day with Parm, who roasts him constantly. Meanwhile, Wesley's dogs keep trying to whine their way into the garage and eat the beast's unattached limbs, so Wesley spends his days alternating between asserting his alphahood over the dogs and fretting over why his beast won't produce above an orange reading on the vitaMeter.

Then the beast wakes up. It devours Wesley's dogs and chases Wesley out of the house. Our protagonist injures his legs while escaping. He's fading out of consciousness when the Containment Squad—the beasting counterpart to animal control—arrives and subdues his beast. The story ends as Wesley comes to in the hospital. Parm's there, and they share a laugh. Everything's the same as before—so why did this story have to happen?

To get the ball rolling, let's take a look at our babirusa:

Maybe this is a stretch, but when I watch that video, I can't help but think that the male babirusa pictured revels in being called "one of the world's strangest-looking animals." I mean, check out those tusks! He can't not know how nuts he looks.

A similar kind of irony figures in how Wesley performs his maleness in "Beast Leave." Wesley wants us to know he's a manly man, but also that he's manly enough to roll with the punches. Like when he jumps out of his window to escape the awakened beast and immediately cauterizes his wounds with sarcasm:

My shins break off and ram into my kneecaps, which explode. Oh. My. God. I now have a new standard that all sensations will get judged against. My body goes sort of quiet for a second, and I hope what they say is true, about how when you're grievously wounded your brain sort of shuts off the pain response, fills your body with happy chemicals. Yeah, that happens. For about five seconds. Then the pain comes back like Terminator.

Wes confesses that he's in excruciating pain, but in the same breath, since this is present-tense narration, his ability to joke around is also a coded way of assuring us it doesn't really hurt that badly. The net result is that though we have no vitaMeter to measure the true condition of Wesley's masculinity, it feels a bit like he's getting off on this.

Indeed, an important subnarrative in "Beast Leave" consists of Wesley's various attempts to keep his masculinity under guard. One example is Wesley's patriarchal suburban habitat: Wesley buys a bigger house than he needs because he hopes it'll attract a loyal mate ("I think my decision was subconsciously influenced by the Discovery Channel," he admits, then digresses about bird nests). Wesley's only housemates are his dogs, a female named Sadie and a male called simply the Dude. Presumably, Wesley doesn't grace the latter with a real name because the Dude is a beta, and "I enforce a strict pack hierarchy." Wes also makes his beast a male, although we're led to believe this is a matter of course. We never witness Wesley select his beast's sex; he skips straight to pondering what size of penis to graft onto it.

If these characterizations weren't enough, Shikaze clues us into Wesley's preoccupation with masculinity by inserting clunky sex references into his narration. For instance, Wesley spreads plastic on the floor in anticipation of doggy diarrhea (the Dude was chewing on the beast's unattached prosthetic penis):

The Dude heads for the living room. He always does this. Only time I ever see him in the living room is when he's got diarrhea. I guess it feels good to drag his fiery anus all over the carpet. Well, not tonight buster. 'Cause I've condomized the place.

And that's not to mention Wesley's inexplicably lush penile lexicon: alongside the familiar "prick" and "schlong" we read "the manhood," "tackle," and "spooge." A guy surrounded by so many male creatures needs to vary his diction.

But Wesley would probably defend all this phallomania as ironic. In his (rare) moments of frankness, he hints that his core conception of manliness has more to do with practicing a primitivist self-sufficiency than mastering phallic technologies. That's why Wesley seems to rejoice in how unprepared he is for the beast's premature awakening: "Wish I had a real ax. But this was how I wanted to do it, no weapons. Improv only. Shit. I'm not ready." Wes might die, but if he survives, it'll make a great story. And like any good postmodern boy, Wesley lives for the narrative. Cf. his compulsive tweeting, which he hopes will garner him enough internet points to land him on Containment Squad, that organization's reality show featuring beasts gone rogue. Hovering always at the limit of Wesley's awareness is the allure of partaking in a viral story.

My last paragraph used two derivates of the word phallus, so now's a good time to make the psychoanalysis explicit. Let's take two scholarly concepts off the shelf: Freud's uncanny—as in the uncanny valley, that unsettling place of almost-familiarity—refers to images that disturb us because they remind us of our repressed selves. Our typical response to these images is to (try to) "cast them off" in a gesture called abjection. Abjection is a painful, often self-destructive process because we identify with the uncanny things we abject even as we resist them. Hence the tension we feel when witnessing something horrifying. Perhaps you've been followed by a feeling of irresolution for days or weeks after watching the show Black Mirror or 2013's SF darling, Her. (But see this theory-heavy psychoanalysis of the latter for a different approach.)

In short, abjection explains why the monster can die but fear lingers on. "Beast Leave" is a satire, not a horror story, but any satire needs a trope to riff on, and I think Shikaze's takes aim at abjection—specifically, by turning the depths of Wesley's psyche outward and laying bare the insecurities that compel him to guard his manhood so closely.

To make this analysis work, I'd observe that the beast embodies Wesley's repressed masculinity, the hated, unstable part of his identity that he conceals beneath so many layers of self-deprecation and ironic bravado. When he goes mano a mano with his beast, Wesley indulges in a distorted counterpart of Parm's maternity leave—instead of procreating, he destroys an avatar of the parts of himself he loathes. The uncanny, though, is irrepressible: even witnessing the beast be killed by the Containment Squad fails to stem Wesley's self-loathing, in no small part because Wesley's failure to control the beast on his may constitute a fresh blow to his masculinity. When Wes awakes in his hospital bed, he feels a pang of insecurity over having depended on professional help. Almost immediately, he reaches for an ironic, self-deprecating defense:

The hospital's notified my parents, who didn't get the message until this morning, but who are on their way, and who I'm guessing have notified my sister, who'll also be on her way once she gets the kids to school. I wouldn't be surprised if my brother flies in too, if he can carve out some time. Oh, man, I do not want to see them. Not in this condition.

I ask about my phone and the attendant points to this little shelf.

"But you're not allowed to make cell phone calls in here. There's a pay phone in the lobby."

The attendant leaves. I call Parm, tell her what happened. "I'm not supposed to use my phone, so if I have to hang up that's why."

"I'm just so glad you're OK. How are you feeling?"

"I don't know. Pretty disappointed."

"I'm sorry. I know you were hoping for something different."

"Yeah. I probably won't even make it onto Containment Squad."

"You might."

"Not a whole episode, though."

"Maybe during the credits. They always do a bunch of clips."

As when he jumped from the window, Wes's recourse to sarcasm might index the fragile condition of his masculine ego. Wesley surely has some metacognitive homework to do in the course of his recovery as he works out healthier relationships with Parm, with himself, and with the idea of maleness. But Shikaze ends the story before that can happen, leaving us with this gentle image of Wes and Parm laughing together. It's not quite joy, but I speculate that Wesley's momentary happiness comes from having scratched a very specific psychological itch by sparring with his beast. Before he started growing the beast, Wesley's crisis was essentially that he'd become woke to postmodernism: between his crappy job, his uncertain relationship with postnuptial Parm ("I wasn’t on board re: Vik for a long time. But whatever."), and his stubborn desire to accrue internet fame, Wesley was so busy performing the roles society expected of him that he'd lost a sense of his own identity. Like many of us, Wesley protected himself from the self-loathing that comes from living an inauthentic life by swaddling himself in blankets of irony. It was only a makeshift; soon enough, Wesley had to admit, "Sometimes you just need a major life change to sort of restart your self-image … So then and there I decide to build a beast." Shikaze witholds from us whether Wes's experiment in beasting will grant him a new lease (leash?) on life. The story ends with both possibilities in play, with the charming effect that Wesley's future really does seem back in his hands, at least for a time.

"I guess I'm a follower, when you get down to it." In the entire story, maybe this statement is the nearest Wes gets to introspection. But he blunts the realization by applying it to his most banal project: a Tumblr blog. "Beast Leave" is composed of such gestures—insight melting into irony, self-awareness melting into metafictional soup. That's why the story is funny. But it's also an indictment of a society too used to considering images before reality. Wesley isn't shaken by the omnipresence of the friends and strangers who inspect his every decision via the 20/15 vision of the internet. Like any human, Wes simply adapts, but his adapatation is to turn his life into an endless performance, which blinds him to the danger of his choices. Even the possibility of death can't subdue the intoxicating prospect of making it onto Containment Squad.

Bonnafons's "If Wishes for Horses" and Shikaze's "Beast Leave" suggest that existential crises only unwind with some decisive self-destructive action. The narrator in the first story resembled Wesley in railing against the performative drudgery of postmodern life. Her escape route was, well, escapist: she determined she must cease to be a human—that only life as a horse would bring her spiritual ambitions in line with her material needs. For his part, Wesley also recruited a technological corrective when he incarnated the primal, sexual, and violent part of his soul as a grotesque beast. By doing battle with his creation, Wes literalized the timeless act of repression. Granted, it was poor therapy for his deeper insecurities, but at least Wes got a few months off.

After rereading "Beast Leave," I wonder if Wesley's confrontation with the beast isn't some hapless catastrophe but the very purpose of beasting. That is, maybe every beaster fights with their beast. Early in the story, Shikaze clues hawkish readers into this by having Wesley's coworker ask cryptically if he plans to use weapons. Wesley is "thinking no." Then another coworker interjects with a caution about how beasting culture has changed:

Back [in Ron's day], you thought of a beast more as an extra set of hands to help out with the yard work. And you never made your beast dangerous, not deliberately.

"I guess the philosophy's different today. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just different."

I overlooked this remark at first, assuming that people in Wesley's world make über-brawny beasts for the same reasons people in our world buy stupid-fast sports cars—as a trophy of their manly prowess. With similar shortsightedness, Wesley is blasé about beasting's mundane danger until the story's ending humbles him. Sometimes it takes a near miss to remind us: while bravado and suicidality take opposite valences, they yield similar outcomes.

Why (I Think) It’s Cheaper to Use Your Card

When I went to Korea two summers ago, many advised me against using my Visa debit card to make purchases. Instead, they said, I should withdraw cash from the ATMs inside every convenience store, where I'd avoid my bank's foreign transaction fee of three percent. Their advice was wrong, and I have an Excel spreadsheet to prove it.

The important detail here is that when you access a foreign account from a Korean ATM, you pay a flat fee of ₩3000 (a little less than $3). Now, the ATM's withdrawal limit is ₩100,000 per transaction, so if you withdraw the maximum each time, the percentage cost of the transaction fee bottoms out at three percent—exactly what you'd pay most American banks in foreign-transaction fees. (This can vary greatly depending on your bank, of course. This guy wrote in 2013 that most American banks charge a flat fee rather than a percentage, but my bank is on his list and has apparently changed its model since. Citibank, on the other hand, advertises that they charge no fee whatsoever.) I assume this is the reasoning my friends had in mind when they told me to use the ATM: the fees are transparent and static, and as long as you withdraw the ₩100,000 limit every time, the surcharge is no worse than the bank's. It made sense to me, and I stuck to that advice for the whole summer.

However, when I got home, I checked my bank statement to find a nasty surprise: I was charged my bank's foreign-transaction fee on top of the ATM's built-in fee for each of my withdrawals. Effectively, I was paying ₩103,000 × 103% = ₩106,900 for every ₩100,000 withdrawal.

And that's not even the whole story, because I was paying in dollars, not won. As it turned out, the ATMs I used in Korea consistently undervalued the US dollar by about one percent in addition to applying their ₩3000 fee. I discovered this because my bank listed the foreign-transaction penalty separately on my statement—meaning I could see how much the ATM "billed" my bank before the bank applied its own conversion fee. So, I pulled my bank statement into a spreadsheet, looked up the true exchange rate for each of my transaction dates, and did a little bit of algebra to find the factor by which the Korean ATMs tweaked the value of the US dollar. There was some ambiguity in the math because I didn't know the exact times of the transactions; thus, the ATM's stretch coefficient (the proportion by which it overvalued the Korean won) varied between 1.006 and 1.015. But I mitigated the effects of this hourly exchange-rate variation by averaging over all the withdrawals I made. That average was quite close to 1.01, or a one-percent undervaluation of the US dollar. For the stats people: a one-sample T test rejected the null hypothesis (stretch coefficient = 1) with p = 0.0011. For the non-stats people: that means I'm pretty sure something's going on!

Once I accounted for all these various fees, I realized that by following past tourists' advice, I paid more than a seven-percent surcharge to access my money in Korea. It's better to just use your Visa.

If this were a snappy travel blog, I'd end the post here without any qualifications. But because I have an academic heart, I feel compelled to call attention to a critical limitation of my research (did you spot it already?): I don't know what exchange rates my bank would follow if I paid directly at the register. If it's the rate they charge for traveler's checks—a serious price gouge—the ATM strategy could still prove to be more cost effective. But at least I'm armed with something the anti-credit-card windbags lack: a kickass spreadsheet for comparing currency-conversion techniques.


Fun fact: the most-viewed post on this blog, by a long shot, is the one where I shared that I'd received a Critical Language Scholarship from the US Department of State to study Korean in Gwangju. Today, I'm pleased to announce there will soon be another addition to the State Department–mandated disclaimer at the bottom of this blog.

Beginning early this July, I'll be spending a full year in South Korea as a Fulbright fellow. I'll be serving as an English teaching assistant at the elementary level. After our six-week orientation in Seoul, I don't yet know the city I'll be working in. That said, though Korea isn't a small country, it possesses an excellent transportation infrastructure. If you'll be there at all during the next year, send me an email so we can catch up!

Here's a spotlight on the website of the Thornton School of Music about me and my friend Geetha, also a new Fulbright fellow.

More Sheet Music

I've uploaded the sheet music for a few recent compositions:

You'll find links to download other pieces on my Freebies page.

If Metaphors Were Turtles, Part One

Last month, my partner and I visited the San Diego Zoo, where our shtick was assigning various corporate titles to the lizards and snakes based on how they carried themselves within their glass cubicles. A favorite iguana squatted in the extreme upper corner of his enclosure and peered down at his feeder rodents with an expression of mixed insecurity and self-congratulation. It wasn't hard to picture him staring out at the audience, à la The Office, saying, "Yes, I would agree that my employees really look up to me."

Animals, like metaphors, become neutral vessels for our social fantasies. You don't have the guts to stand up to your boss in real life, but that humble snake-necked turtle, properly ventriloquized, speaks with the flippancy you always imagined was inside of you. Through such fantasies, we project ourselves onto nature so often that we teach our elementary schoolers the word for it: personification. But why, of all the species of metaphor out there, must we honor personification with its own label? Why not plantification or extractor fan–ification? In this series of posts, I want to share with you a few stories that ask these very questions.

In "If Wishes Were Horses," author Amy Bonnaffons imagines Atalanta Ranch, a colony on an island in Florida inhabited by women who have undergone an irreversible and little-understood hormone therapy. Its purpose? It turns women into horses. The story is narrated by a woman who decides to become one of Atalanta Ranch's next residents. Having grown restless and dissatisfied with the narrow range of human experience, she takes a daily injection ("discovered by Janus Belacek, a Hungarian doctor") that will slowly transform her body. As the process takes hold, the narrator finds her chronic ennui sharpening into a perfect animal fury. Meanwhile, Serena, the narrator's roommate and perhaps partner, attempts to become pregnant via IVF. The story begins by aligning their transformations, but as the roommates come closer to realizing their respective dreams, the two clash. Serena fills the living room with Amazon boxes—baby supplies—and an uncontrollable fury overtakes the narrator, who unleashes a blizzard of kicks and all but destroys the house with her budding hooves. "I'm going to leave now," she says, caught in her rage's aftermath. (The story was performed on This American Life. Hear the story here; to read a transcript, click "Share a clip." An expanded version will appear in Bonnaffons's forthcoming anthology, The Wrong Heaven.)

Here's my take: Bonnaffons's story reconfigures the relationship between humans and animals by pairing personification on the textual level with so-called "equinification" on the narrative level. At first, when the narrator is undecided over whether to become a horse herself, her interactions with the residents of Atalanta Ranch suggest a conventional understanding of the human-animal dichotomy. On her first visit to the ranch, the narrator sleeps with a fellow prospective resident, a woman-turned-horse appears in the inn's window:

Later, embarrassed, we turned away from each other. Just then I sensed movement behind the window. I got up stark naked and pulled aside the curtain. One of the horses was standing right outside, staring in with her dark liquid eyes. I felt the bed creak behind me then heard Kathy gasp. She saw it too. The horse gave a deep, slow nod. Then she turned and disappeared into the night.

Though the narrator's description of the horse is mechanical ("a deep, slow nod") its subtext brims with human emotion. That's personification, by definition. But wait—is that horse really a horse, or just a woman "trapped" deep within a horse's body? The way we answer reflects our literary orientation. If we think of the soul as a fixed entity living inside of us, the horse/​woman question dissolves into semantics: the critter in the window is a horse in the flesh and a woman in the soul. For now, that's how the narrator appears to think; in the horse's expression, she reads approval and introspection (not, say, the confusion or disinterest we might expect of a real horse witnessing lesbian sex). But this moment of interspecies/​interpersonal communication also anticipates the narrator's transformation across the story's arc. As the narrator comes to resemble the horse on the other side of the glass, Bonnaffons suggests that equinification encompasses her soul and body alike. In order to maintain this claim—that the residents of Atalanta Ranch truly become horses—Bonnaffons must guide her narrator to abandon the Cartesian framework expressed above. Conceptually speaking, she needs to tangle up her soul and body. How do you entangle such abstract concepts? Through language.

Like any writer who reads, Bonnaffons uses personification to convert animals into humans on the textual level. But on this story's narrative level, Bonnaffons's protagonist is converting her human body into a horse's, a transformation that has even stronger (anti)literary implications. Not only will the narrator lose her human body, but human thoughts, too, as Atalanta Ranch's disconcertingly frank pamphlet informs us: "Either you like the idea of shaking off your restraints and are willing to give up everything you know in the attempt to do so, or you're like most people, comforted by language, by clothing, by laws." Thus Bonnaffons positions language as a crutch, a "comfort" humans rely on because we are too fickle or materialistic to engage nature in its own terms. If language, rather than nature, is what produces the soul and body, then changes in our language effect changes in how we inhabit our physiology.

And vice-versa. That metafictional moment in the Atalanta Ranch pamphlet is an important catalyst: Bonnaffons uses the technology of equinification to speculate about what the world looks like from an animal's perspective. As the narrator transforms into a horse, her actions become aimless: "I was energized by aimless, volcanic fury." "I walked aimlessly." The point isn't that the narrator has lost her human discernment. On the contrary, such directionlessness liberates her. Certainly, the narrator's violence cuts her off from Serena and the human world, but the narrator also embraces the alternative language that begins to unfold within her equinified mind. In the final stage of her transformation, the narrator practices a mental poetry whose connection to nature rings truer, more "natural" than the wordy script of human thought:

My brain is not empty exactly. It's as though a hot wind blows certain textures through my mind. My rage has diminished, but I am neither contained nor calm. I feel many emotions now, but they don't quite fit the words I know. I would describe them mostly as variations of active receptivity, of alert acceptance. Somewhere soon, Serena will be teaching her children the words for things. This is a table. This is a chair. This is a horse. Meanwhile, my language is slowly departing, the words replaced by syllable and breath.

As personification encloses natural objects in the images and concepts we normally reserve for humans, "If Wishes Were Horses" attempts to encode a human consciousness, its rage and anxiety intact, into the embodied experience of a horse. Since Bonnaffons writes in language, it's necessarily only an attempt. In the universe of this story, we're led to believe that the narrator's consciousness hasn't been converted losslessly, but rather that it's adapted to her new body. As the pamphlet reads,

You will simultaneously be your human self and not be your human self when you become a horse. You will think the same thoughts, but in a horsey manner. Your personality will have the same attributes but horsily expressed. Your thoughts will take on a horsey cadence. Your feelings will pulse and throb with thick, horsey blood. We cannot guarantee that you will continue to inhabit your human identity in any recognizable way.

For some readers, the fact that Bonnaffons makes the horse's experience so palpable despite having "translated" her once-human-now-horse thoughts back into English might prove the salience of human language to repesent all sorts of alterities. I would maintain, however, that Bonnaffons places greatest emphasis on the narrator's self-conscious, postmodern anxiety about her transformation. Note how many qualifiers—"not empty exactly," "as though," "they don't quite," "I would describe"—appear in the above quote; such hedges are sparse elsewhere in the story. In Bonnaffons's ventriloquism, the narrator is able to reflect on the differences between herself as a horse and herself as a human, but if the changes the narrator described took place in "reality," she would lose not only her language, but also the language needed to describe her loss of language. In other words, there is no indelible "self" that transcends the horse narrator and the human narrator. That's how wide the gap is between human experience and animal experience.

It gets even more complicated. If we recognize the estrangement of Serena and the narrator as a metaphor for how language (as well as the actions that language rationalizes) restricts our social interaction, we can extract from "If Wishes Were Horses" a portable thesis about humanity and our fractured communities. The story wasn't really about horses and humans; it was about how we use the gestalten of personification and equinification (or generically, transformation) to reflect on humanity and our peculiar habits. This is the idea I was getting at with the reptiles in the zoo: animals and people may or may not "actually" be of the same kind, but by holding them at an ontological distance then inspecting their faces for traces of ours, we come to know ourselves as human(s).

We can project human personalities onto animal bodies because we recognize their mutual similarity; we find such comparisons amusing because we recognize their difference. As with any metaphor, personification's value comes from the tension between likeness and otherness. But what of this tension in the particular case of animals and humans—have we always looked at animals in this way? In my research on contemporary Korean nature poetry, I've been using similar conceptual language to look at how poets figure the relationship between humans and plants. As for humans and animals, let me defer to Cary Wolfe. This is from his 2009 PMLA review of an emergent genre of criticism called animal studies (thanks to Jon Kief for the reference):

Indeed, recent and emerging scholarship suggests a picture in which the idea of the animal that we have inherited from the Enlightenment and thinkers such as Descartes and Kant is better seen as marking a brief period (if the formative one for our prevailing intellectual, political, and juridical institutions) bookended by a pre- and posthumanism that think the human/animal distinction quite otherwise.

A diligent scholar, Wolfe deftly weds literary representations with philosophical discussions of humans and animals. His phrasing above might sound brisk, but in the body of his essay, Wolfe shows how humanism, a term we assocate with the promotion of human progress and ingenuity broadly, actually rests on a separation between humans and animals. Enlightenment writers (as Wolfe represents them) didn't just race toward an idealized version of humanity, but away from the danger that we could (again) become animals. Wolfe reminds us that humanism equals speciesism.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge to any speciesism is the scientific one: species distinctions are hazy at best and arbitrary in many cases, as scientific debate and the biological record alike attest. "If Wishes Were Horses" echoes the scientific argument against speciesism by inviting us to consider ourselves as horses and horses as people. However, Bonnaffons also extends the argument in a literary direction: she presents the notions of "a horse who is really a woman," "a woman who has become a horse," and so on as linguistic abstractions rather than valid natural categories. In this expanded context, the speciesist distinction between humans and animals becomes just one of the many binaries that cascade from the Cartesian division between soul and body. The centrality of personification in human language reflects the centrality of humans-writ-large in language-writ-larger.

I think Bonnaffons is an optimist. Since she sees that it'd be a special hell to have one's soul trapped within a horse's body, she has her Hungarian doctor devise a procedure that works on the soul as well as the body—or, if you'd prefer a determinist reading, the injection works on the physiology that generates the two. But what if the technology is brought to market ahead of thorough QC? In the next post in this series, we'll look at a story whose narrator wasn't content with looking at venemous reptiles and fierce carnivores through the glass of enclosure. He created a beast of his very own and miscalculated its ferocity.

Teleporting Urbanite

"On a lark," she said,
and had begun to drag
her suitcase across four narrow bands of meaningful color:
the sooty crack before the weatherproof curb;
the curb, its yellow self;
the brief bit of air before the bus began;
and another strip of yellow, for wheelchair users to notice.

But then the ticket-taker stopped her.

"Put that one underneath.
It won't go in there."

His neon vest dreamed of fluorescing
beneath helicopters, airplanes,
or building-high ships that ride tides into harbors.

She nodded, disembarked.
Each passing strip meant its past's opposite.

Polyrhythmic Dexterity Workout

Here's a piano exercise I devised to practice two skills at once:

  • Increase implicit awareness of different subdivision possibilities. When improvising over a 4/4 texture, you can quickly find the quarter note and eighth note triplets. You can also hear 4:3 groupings as hemiolas that resolve after three bars rather than dotted eights and quarters. Or, when improvising in 3/4, you can quickly superimpose a 4-beat pulse (as in the Miles version of "Footprints").
  • Solidify muscle memory of interval distances. The pattern, mirrored in the left and right hands, incorporates every commonly used extension of the thumb and digits.

By playing the left and right hands in low and high octaves respectively, you also get a nice arm stretch in.

You can grab the PDF here. The trickiest part is switching back and forth between letters B and C—practice it carefully!

Readers as Actors and Reactors

My translation of Yi Si-yŏng's 평화 ("Peace"), from his collection For Our Dead Sons (Korean):

If I were somehow the wind,
I would become the gentlest breeze in the world,
as not to wake that baby squirrel from its afternoon nap.

When I first began studying Korean poetry, this poem popped up on Siyoil, a Korean poem-a-day app I'd downloaded, and I spent a few minutes memorizing it so I'd have something to pull out of my back pocket when someone asked me to speak Korean for them. I soon found out that, like "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese), "Peace" is a poem many Korean speakers know by heart but can't quite identity. In a certain sense, that's the beautiful thing about "Peace"—its ability to seep into the reader's subconscious memory, stirring beneath the surface while we pursue other literary avenues. Beyond its brevity and cuteness factor, what makes "Peace" so easy to memorize and yet so forgettable? I'd suggest that this poem is so contagious because it's conducive to embodied mental simulation.

Just as we make more consistent assumptions about a romantic relationship when it's described using metaphors rather than abstract language, when Yi's speaker imagines being the wind, most readers initiate a neural simulation of this image. Because the wind is not an instrument in the speaker's control but the speaker himself, the sorts of decisions the personified wind can make are distinct from those the wind would make in another simulation—say, one in which the speaker is somehow given control of the earth's weather. In Yi's simulation, because the wind's agency is inherited from the (human) speaker, its sympathies are local—its affection is drawn to the speaker's immediate surroundings, "that baby squirrel." The wind's resolution to "become the gentlest breeze in the world" is one that all but nullifies its own existence. Yi could've dodged this by speculating about what he'd do if he were somehow the air, but that change would miss our mythological conception of the wind as an agentic character. This poem contains but one metaphor (and a conventional one at that) but the poem and the words that make it up are memorable because they pull the reader into a specific, embodied fantasy. And within that fantastic space, the speaker chooses to unwrite his own existence by having the wind efface itself—a gesture that embeds a subtle message about sacrifice and the purity of nature. Perhaps, having read "Peace," we would live more unassumingly, taking up a little less space.

In my home state of Washington, the masterminds of the state lottery came up with a similar innovation. For some time, lottery advertisements had relied on the standard technique: blinking billboards showing the next estimated jackpot in dollars. But by 2011, would-be gamblers had grown numb to the dull orthography of dollar sign, integer, and (some number of) zeroes. Enter Jessica Urgo, copywriter. She devised a hashtag campaign, #ifiwon, encouraging viewers to mentally visualize—and, of course, tweet about—the life they would purchase if they picked the right numbers in the Powerball or Mega Millions games. With a couple of humorous starter ideas and social-media pages open to public submissions, the campaign worked. The idea seems obvious in retrospect: if people mentally inhabit their lottery fantasies, they're more likely to buy lottery tickets.


Never has computer hacking seemed as creative as now. Consider what black hats can do merely by putting a microphone near your computer: with enough sample data, they can machine-learn the unique sound of each key on the board with 90 percent accuracy or determine a private decryption key by listening to the humming of your computer's viscera. Such discoveries—and these are just the techniques transparency-minded professors have discussed publicly—make us rethink the faith we place in our digital infrastructure. It seems every few months bring the revelation of a major vulnerability; it stands to reason that it’s only a matter of time before one of those vulnerabilities is a cataclysmic one that the developers can’t patch quickly enough.

But that's not what disturbs me the most. The subreddit /r/outside experiments with the idea that reality is a video game whose objective is a successful life. Posters lament the absurd restrictions imposed Machiavellian "devs," those code-wielding overlords whose decisions about the architecture of reality determine our decisions about how to navigate real life. Though it might feel like a satire of religion, I wonder if even real-world theism sits a level of abstraction away from grasping the very real omnipotence held by contemporary tech elites. Tom Scott, a brilliant YouTuber who defies categorization, has a dystopian video called "Single Point of Failure" in which one of Google’s top-five devs goes rogue, turning every Gmail account outward for journalists and amateur sleuths to voyeur all over.

I struggle with poststructuralism's steadfast determinism when I consider the immense amounts of power vested in the actors who govern our digital existences. Foucault and Butler reject the notion of identity, but I don't know what to make of the very real correspondence between our online identities and the selves they index. I find it easy—and this unsettles me—to say that my internet breadcrumbs are who I am because they determine so much of my life: the products that get marketed to me, the jobs I’m eligible for, the impression others have of me. My electronic environment digitizes me where Cartesian metaphysics fail, for Foucault, to incarnate me. And those who control that cyberstructure possess real agency over me by operating prior to and above the digital sphere—in a way the human subject can never circumvent the "system" of reality. Might the poststructuralist teardown of subjective agency be a mere consolation prize for those outside that elite place above the fray of a digital existence?