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“Your late twenties are all about coming to terms with your own mediocrity.”  So said my minutely older friend a few months ago, before resigning his body to the lulling heat of the green-tea bath, sliding out of sight beneath the water’s shimmering, yellow-green surface.  I wanted to object, to muster a bold retort.  I wanted to marshal an argument based on the conceptual fruits of perseverance, discipline, and hard work.  I wanted to wrestle a smidgen of realistic truth out from a tired, idealistic cliche, like “all your dreams are within your reach,” or something like that.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs.  This is the best I could find.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs. This is the best I could find.

But of course, I didn’t (as my grammar makes abundantly clear).  I watched as my friend’s hair spread itself flat along the surface, as it danced cautiously, like seaweed, in the agitated waters of a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang).  I watched from my perch on the other end of the small pool; my arms spread wide, crucified to the tiled edge.  My lower torso bobbing weightlessly to the shooting time of two underwater jets.  My stomach exposed, naked.  The steam rising slowly through my sodden mass of chest hair.

I knew that any counter-argument would only amount to hot air and, in this case, quite literally.  Our education systems (both in the West and here in Korea) are structured so as to give off the plausibility of your being anything you want to be: combine hard work and perseverance with good grades and innate abilities and, presto (or is it abracadabra?), you’re halfway up the corporate ladder to a management position, or combing the ocean floor for new marine life, or blasting off to space, or what-have-you.  It’s not that this never happens.  Indeed, many of the people we idealize, whose biographies we keep repeating, seemed on-track for success at a very early age.  Lance Armstrong, for instance, was cycling far out to neighbouring towns at ten years of age and then calling home to be picked up, so of course he went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  Or a nineteen year old Steven Spielberg, who skipped out of a tour of Universal Studies, retrofitted a closet into his “office”, and worked away on his first film, unnoticed, for some time before being found out (and subsequently hired on for his tenacity).   Since teaching in Korea, I’ve felt this strategy of hero-making a bit more acutely.  The textbooks I teach from are full of short bios on famous people, designed to inspire young students– and depress their aging teachers.

With no such immediately obvious trajectory to famous success, I’ve been developing a bit of a neurosis.  There is, here, an anxiousness to aging that I have not hitherto recognized.  There is an acute, looming sense of coming-up-short, of  having underachieved and, hence, squandered what “could have been.”  This neurosis is relatively minor (or, at least not maniacal– rest assured dear family, friends, and concerned readers).  It mostly consists of constantly, and almost unconsciously, comparing myself to whomever wrote what I am reading, directed what I am seeing, or spoke what I am hearing.  And it’s not an outright comparison either; it is simply noting each person’s date of birth and recognizing that they were a member of parliament at 32, or a published author at 27, or a first round draft pick at 18…etcetera, ad infinitum.

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms.  Photo by Jasonunbound

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms. Photo by Jasonunbound

It was at this jjimjilbang and to my wizened and minutely older friend that I admitted to such unfair self-comparisons.  Incredibly, I found an ally (for misery loves company), someone with the same penchant for feelings of inadequacy before the cultural productions of the young and the brilliant.  It is fitting that our ensuing conversation occurred within numerous hot pools, saunas, and cold waterfalls, all of varying degrees of temperature; a body simply cannot help but feel old in a Korean jjimjilbang.   Perhaps it’s the rapidly pruning fingers and the absorption of so much water that makes one feel closer to death; or it’s the way in which six hours of bathing seems to call for a thousand years of sleep; or, at the very least, it’s the horrific amount of dead skin peeled off by scrubbing brushes at the sit-down shower stalls.

Whatever the case, it is the prospect of death, I think, which drives these ludicrous comparisons, which makes me horrified at the thought of ‘wasted time’.  I rarely read a book twice; I almost never see a movie a second time.  And it was nice to share a genuine laugh at our ridiculous notion of gazing out over the vast expanse of human artistic production and comparing ourselves to any one and all.  It was like an AA meeting for the washed up and old (yep, we’re almost 26 and 27 respectively)!  I know, intuitively, that such behaviour is destructively selfish.  For, what else is it but pure selfishness when you cannot see past the tip of your own nose to genuinely admire the accomplishments of another person?  Admittedly though, we did share a triumphant high-five, in the sea-salt sauna, I think, upon realizing that the quirky and brilliant Cohen Brothers, though youthful, are in fact in their early-fifties!

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

Anyway, I think this habit goes back a long way.  In elementary school, I used to envision the Ninja Turtles breaking through the cinderblock wall of my classroom and calling me away to an all-important battle against Shredder.  My dream never did pass beyond the gaping jaws of my classmates, who were clearly jealous that I was on the “in” with Donatello,  for that was all I wanted anyway, to be different and recognized and, well, cool.  Perhaps not much has changed.  I hope this all sounds rather more melodramatic than melancholic; it’s not that I’m an unhappy, dissatisfied person– much the opposite in fact.  It’s simply that in the face of others’ successes, I feel I must not waste anytime.  And this ticking clock (call it my biological clock) produces a measure of anxiety from time to time.   That’s all.  Besides, the comparisons are not all bad.  Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran the headline “At 70, A Novelist Is Born, about Alan Bradley, a crime writer from Kelowna, B.C.;  though I will never be a crime writer, such stories do give me hope.  And maybe, too, I should stop reading Nietzsche (who, incidentally, was chair of philology at Basle University at twenty-four years of age).

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After having inhabited the Land of Narnia for about two years of my childhood, it seems I cannot pass a lamp post by without framing it in my camera lens.  Street lights are one thing, ever-present in their monotony, like gray-clad sentinels positioned by regimen at precise intervals.  There is an aesthetic in that, to be sure.  But lamp posts are something else altogether.

Appearing as they do in park spaces and along forested trails, lamp posts are suggestive of human presence, as if the world of men and women lies just beyond the next evergreen.  They exude a warmth not found in all the white haze of light pollution.  The lamp post is an antique, a relic of the past, a bearer of contemplative nostalgia.  Unlike street lights, you can’t be lost beside them.  Regardless of your direction, the lamp post signals home.  It is an electrified equivalent of the candle-in-the-window.

In the wilderness, where electrical lines have not yet run, there is abandonment.  In the city, where orange, conical light illuminates the limitless stretch of asphalt and concrete, there is alienation.  In the park, where the wilderness meets the city, there is tranquility.  And where there is tranquility, there is usually a lamp post close by to safeguard such peace of mind.

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Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment.

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment in this 1999-2000 photograph.

A few weeks ago, I turned the final page on Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1947 American novel about the coming-of-age of a nameless, black orator and activist.  Needless to say, it made for interesting reading alongside YouTube clips of Barak Obama’s campaign and speeches.

In Ellison’s novel, the protagonist pens his story from a forgotten, concrete cavern beneath New York City under the glow of 1,369 light bulbs he has strung from the ceiling.  While stealing electricity from the power grid above, the protagonist charts his journey through varying gradations of racism: his childhood in the explicitly racist South; the groveling, white-dependency of his all-black university; the subtle colour hierarchy of his white allies in “The Brotherhood.”  Along the way, he unconsciously collects the cultural artifacts of racism in his leather briefcase: a slave-era chain link, a black dancing doll, a fetishized “love-letter” from a white woman.  In the final unraveling of his public life and as Harlem riots above ground, the bloodied protagonist strews his baggage throughout the sewer system—an offloading of the symbolism of racial oppression—and stumbles into the forgotten cavern by the burning light of his high school diploma.

Until the concluding chapter, Ellison’s protagonist has only ever been, at worst, a “nigger” to someone’s hatred, and at best, a black pawn to someone else.  Both ends of this racist spectrum are utterly degrading, so he responds by making himself actually invisible, by becoming a recluse beneath the city.  And it is by this withdrawal from society that he finally acquires a powerful, personal agency.  Free from the racial gaze of everyone else, the protagonist is able to finally see himself for who he is and to write his personal story—a story that he suggests in his own epilogue may “speak for you.”

Barak Obama’s presidential win one week ago was certainly a magnificent achievement against the back-story of racism in America.  That his own personal story was so much a part of his victory suggests just how powerful his narrative is.  With two best-selling autobiographies, Obama appears to be a man who knows himself, or at least has considered deeply who he is and what he is trying to do.  Like the protagonist in Ellison’s novel, who emerges from the underground predicting a “socially responsible role to play,” Obama has surfaced with the confidence of a man, seemingly, aware of his own trajectory.  But Obama’s story is no longer only his own.  Obama is, in actual fact, speaking for a whole cross-section of Americans.  He is, now, the most visible of Americans.  Yet, there may be a cruel twist to all this.  His visibility depends upon the projection of a whole range of hopes and dreams.  He is, apparently, the embodiment of change-to-come, but this means that his “real self” remains invisible behind the projected desires of what exactly this change is and what it actually should look like.  Ellison’s novel ends with the promise of re-emergence, but we never learn how the invisible man’s new-found agency copes with public life.  For Obama, public life in the Oval Office, will be as much a test of his policies as it will be a test of his myth.

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In some ways, I’m a little surprised I’m doing this.  I’m far too conscious a writer to make this blogging process quick and easy.  But I need a forum in which to type words onto page, to freeze my thoughts, to chart a path.  Without a forum, any forum, it simply doesn’t happen.

I’m currently two years out of my undergrad and, since then, I’ve been voraciously, almost consumptively, accumulating experience.  I hit the starting gates of graduation in full tilt, propelled by all that I had read and thought, seeking adventure to balance out my over-inflated head knowledge.  So, I did what all good, Canadian boys should do: I hitch-hiked out west.

In hindsight, the hitch-hiking allure had all the cliches of ‘the restless wanderer’ type.  And I suppose I played it up to a certain extent.  But I was restless.  The intense faith of my youth was no longer in any way definable; I had read an array of texts that undermined so many of my political, social, and cultural assumptions; and, I was standing before an extremely open-ended future (read: “what the hell am I going to do now?“).

Happily, there has been a maturing, of sorts, over the last two years (marriage, however prepared or ill-prepared, tends to demand this).  I’m in a better headspace now.  It is time now to digest the lived experiences of my post-graduation years through reflection and retelling.  This is one of the purposes of this blog.

The other purpose is to enable a processing in real-time.  My wife, Colleen, and I are currently packing our bags for a 15 hour flight to South Korea.  We are leaving next week on a twelve month teaching contract.  I hope to post somewhat regularly the occurances, frustrations, and excitements of life and love in “the Land of the Morning Calm.”

A third purpose is to showcase some of my photography in a more specified way.  I usually upload a steady stream of photographs throughout my travels; but rarely do I discuss a picture or explain its implications and context.  I’ll be picky with which ones I post here. 

So with all this laid out before me, I will now post the very first blog on my very first blog!

Thanks for reading,

Geoff Martin

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