Archive for July, 2007

So that’s over and done with, then.

Harry, Ron and Hermione go on the run, trying to find and destroy the artefacts that give Voldemort his immortality. This is the last book in the series so there shouldn’t be any prizes for guessing that they succeed. The real questions that this book can answer are: Is their success total or in some way ambiguous? and What losses do they suffer along the way?

I enjoyed most of the novel, but towards the end – right where things should really be getting exciting – my enjoyment began to wane. I have two (or more) potential explanations for this. One is that I was trying too hard to finish the book; if I’d left Harry’s final (two) confrontation(s) with Lord Vol-au-vent till the following day my pleasure circuitry might have been better up to the job. The other is that maybe the journey is always going to be more interesting than the destination.

Perhaps a further explanation is that The Deathly Hallows contains all the same ingredients as the preceeding books: a falling out of the three protagonists, Harry becoming disillusioned with Dumbledore – and the disappearance of this disillusionment when Dumbledore explains everything that’s happened (the headmaster’s death doesn’t get in the way of this part of the formula) – and a slightly tedious middle section as the school year passes (even though Harry and co don’t attend Hogwarts this time).

Yet another possible fly in the butter is that my theory about Sirius’s non-death didn’t pan out. He does show up briefly, but he’s defintely dead. I Wendy, I Wanda, I wonder whether J K Rowling was deliberately confounding (or should that be ‘Confunding’?) expectations by ignoring the convention tha, in fiction, if there is no body, then there is no death (I think Iain M Banks did a similar thing with Uncle Rory in The Crow Road).

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to think of this concluding voume. There are a couple of things that confused me – like how they got hold of Gryffindor’s Sword a second time and just how Lord Baltimore was vanquished if he and Harry both make the other invincible – although I may have missed things in my rush to finish the book. The denouement is also rather too pat; I tend to prefer the more ambiguous ‘dramatic’ ending. Having said that, there is the merest hint of a suggestion that the big V may come back (although I may be inferring where no implication was intended).

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more on a second reading – by which time I’ll hopefully have acquired British versions of the books (so I don’t have to put up with capital letters following colons and the occasional Americanism).

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Today, I resumed my reading of Tales Before Tolkien. I started reading it several months ago and I always meant to quote a passage from a story by Frank R Stockton, ‘The Griffin and the Minor Canon’.

Basically, a griffin befriends a minor canon (a clergyman, not a gun) and takes up residence in his town. The griffin only eats at the equinoxes and the townsfolk are terrified that when the next equinox comes around the creature will devour them all. Because the griffin is so enamoured of the minor canon, the cowardly burghers expel the young man from the town in the hope that the griffin will follow him, but the gambit doesn’t work. As the equinox approaches the townspeople come up with another cunning plan:

A meeting of the citizens was called, and two old men were appointed to go and talk to the Griffin. They were instructed to offer to prepare a splendid dinner for him on equinox day, – one which would entirely satisfy his hunger. They would offer him the fattest mutton, the most tender beef, fish, and game of various sorts, and anything of the kind that he might fancy. If none of these suited, they were to mention that there was an orphan asylum in the next town.

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Although I tend to be ambivalent about poetry, I’ve always liked Larkin’s measured musicality and even his (alleged) misanthropy, and I really like the existential bleakness of this piece.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Source: McGill World Poetry.

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Having discovered the word ‘aubade’ (and its meaning), I had a look for some examples. This is one of two that caught my attention.

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: “All here in one bed lay.”

She is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy ‘s we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Source: http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/465.html.

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So on Friday night I went to see Die Hard 4.0 again – this time with a handful of other English teachers. It was just as enjoyable this time as it was the first time; indeed, I had the benefit of an audience (or a fraction of an audience) that actually laughed at the jokes. (You have to wonder how the Korean subtitlers chose to translate McClane’s crack about the ‘dead Asian hooker bitch’.)

After that we went to Beerplus to drink.

While there I told a fellow Briton about my experience at work that week; he said that the Korean teachers at his school carry around sticks to hit the kids with, while the foreign teachers get told off for tapping the students on the head with a marker.

I was pretty drunk by the time I got home at 4:00 or so. After a couple of hours in bed I got up to sit on the toilet and was sick on the bathroom floor (I was also still drunk). This was the first of several times I threw up, although it was the only time I regurgitated anything solid – later, I couldn’t even keep liquids down. Looking down at the splattering of partly digested bibimbap, decorated with dark squiggles of kim (dried seaweed … not so dry in this case), I noticed that there was a single solitary bean in its midst. Strange. Were there beans in the bibimbap? At some point during the following day I realised that it wasn’t a bean, but instead one of my large orange ‘horse pills’ – this tablet had apparently survived intact in my stomach for ten hours.

I spent most of the day in bed, neuralgic, nauseous and weak. I didn’t go to my Korean class. Eventually, after taking some more tablets (aspirin and Tylenol, in this case) I started to feel somewhat better. Some time that evening I got round to cleaning up the vomit in the bathroom.

Most of the night was spent reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By the following morning I was starting to feel tired, and slept. I ignored my alarm at eleven and suddenly awoke at 12:15, realising I had roleplaying to go to. I didn’t shower (I’d showered late the previous evening – after removing the sick from beneath the shower), changed my clothes and headed out.

My Aes Sedai character in the Wheel of Time game is proving to be surprisingly useful when it comes to combat. Aes Sedai (unless they’re of the Black Ajah) can’t use theOne Power as a weapon. Gwenaelle Sedai (for such is my character’s name) generally uses either Harden Air to bind or trip people, or Arms of Air to tear their weapons from their hands. She knows how cast Fireball, and the other player continually, jokingly exhorts me to use it on any enemy. Towards the end of this session our party was attacked by Shadowspawn: four Trollocs and a Myrddraal. At last, an opportunity to channel a lethal weave at someone. Unfortunately, my character was closest the Fade when it appeared and he stuck her down with a single blow. Gwen spent the rest of the combat trying and failing to re-embrace saidar. Disappointing.

Today – the first full day of my holiday – I went to Namsan Park and went up to the observatory in the tower. It was a very hot and sweaty experience. At the foot of the tower, as I was wandering round, I heard a voice calling ‘Sean Teacher!’ It was a student of mine – Frank. Apparently, he was on a school trip; one of his teachers spoke to me briefly and recommended I go up the tower. I took a good number of photos and, when I get round to it, I’ll put them on my flickr account.

Afterwards, I walked over to the vicinity of City Hall (counting over 750 steps on my way down from the tower to the first road (across the road and further down there were more steps I couldn’t be bothered counting)) and had a croque monsieur and a caffรจ latte at Starbucks. The sandwich was the first thing I’d eaten (excepting an ice cream), but I wasn’t feeling all that hungry. Maybe my lack of appetite was the lingering effects of Saturday morning’s hangover.

I haven’t shaved since last Wednesday. I’m considering growing a beard again – something I usually do in the winter-time. We’ll see how I feel when it’s time to go back to work again.

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Shortly before my last class on Tuesday our middle-aged British Canadian teacher told me that ‘they’ wanted to talk to me. When I asked who ‘they’ were he said, ‘The management.’ He didn’t elaborate on this. I started feeling nervous, imagining that something unpleasant was going to happen, something that would seem almost maliciously targeted (and although, as we shall see, this feeling subsided fairly quickly, just writing about it now is recreating the sensation; this is engendered, I suppose, by my fear of what you’ll think of me).

I spent most of that final class needing the toilet, and when I finished, that’s where I headed. As I sat there, I could hear our ‘ajosshi teacher’ speaking to one of the Korean staff, wondering if I’d left. As I left the toilets, my phone started buzzing, but quickly stopped when he took me into one of the small meeting rooms. It was just him and me.

He began telling me there’d been complaints from the parents of three boys I had taught up until two weeks previously. Apparently, they’d come to the hagwon and seen the video of my last class or two with them. (This was a class I’d hated teaching because the boys, and, increasingly, the girls, just did whatever they liked.) They were now threatening to sue me for some sort of physical abuse.

Although since I’d switched classes and was beginning to forget the experience of trying to teach them, looking back I can see that by employing more and more forceful methods to get their attention and get them to behave, it wasn’t really a good strategy (not that I was thinking about strategy, of course, I was just getting progressively more pissed off with them). Firstly, it didn’t work – they just went on ignoring me. And secondly, something like this could easily happen.

It was also certainly unprofessional – but then, I’m not a professional teacher. Also, it seems to me that younger kids enjoy (maybe enjoy’s not the right word) a certain level of physical interaction with their teacher. I’m pretty sure (I have to admit my memory is bit hazy) that I didn’t hurt them (… well, maybe just a little bit); as I said, they just went on ignoring me, so they can’t have been that bothered about it. OK – what was I doing to them? Pushing them about, trying to get them to sit down, tapping them with my marker pen, grabbing them so I could look them in the eye and be quiet.

‘Ajosshi Teacher’ wasn’t making much eye contact with me during the conversation, and I might well have been imagining it, but I though I saw a hint of additional wetness in his eyes. As he told me later, Korean teachers can get away with smacking and pinching and so on, but the rules are different for us foreigners.

Bizarrely, I suppose, I was actually feeling a lot better. As I said, I was expecting something more traumatic from a very personal point of view (something like, The other teachers have been complaining you’re not wearing enough deodorant or too much deodorant (I hate being paranoid)), but this was more like a mere professional misjudgment. Well … it is an issue of professional misjudgment.

I went home feeling much happier, even though if the parents have their way I’ll be sacked and won’t be able to teach in South Korea again (unless I get someone to bend the rules). That evening, I wrote (what I hope is) a suitably humble letter of apology to the boys’ parents.

The following day, having handed the letters over to the receptionist (who didn’t seem to know what it was for), the head teacher (whose last day in the job it was) took me into the other tiny meeting room to reiterate much of what my colleague had said the previous night. She also said that they wouldn’t fire me in any case until they’d found replacements for the Canadian guy who was sacked within a week of arriving, the Korean American woman (I want call her a girl, but it feels rather sexist) who is leaving soon and
me. Apparently, if I do have to go earlier than 14 September, they will give me my bonus month’s pay.

Everything I’ve read and heard about hagwons suggests that you should trust them as far as you can throw them (and how far can you throw a building?), but apart from a few minor lies (for instance, our head teacher told the staff room this week that we won’t be having evening meals because the food will go off in the heat – which means there are too many teachers here at lunch and dinner time because of the summer intensive classes and they don’t want to pay for more food) … where was I? … apart from a few minor lies I don’t have a reason for not believing this … except for the fact that we’re talking about hagwons here.

Later on, she took me to the classroom of the boys (one was absent) in question and had me talk to them about what had happened; she translated. Then she had all six of the students come up to me one at a time, give me a pat, say sorry and then give me a hug. A pretty awkward experience for all concerned, I think.

The issue has been playing on my mind a little bit more over the last few days, but I still can’t say I’m all that worried. I also haven’t heard anything more about it. I’m taking this to be a good sign on the assumption that if these parents were going ahead with legal proceedings someone would have told me. And now my summer holiday has begun (it spans from today, Friday, to next Thursday; the fact that we have to go back to work on a Friday is the kind of stupidity that I suppose you take as par for the course in a hagwon. I also taught three classes this morning (the first day of my break); some of my foreign colleagues are teaching over the weekend, I believe).

The final irony (I say ‘final’ – what I mean is I’ve only just remembered about it and I can’t find a good place above to insert it) is that, even having done what I did in the class, I could have avoided this by giving these boys better marks on their monthly reports last week. If you were reading carefully, you’ll have noted that there were two weeks between the last time I taught this class and when the parents came to complain. I reckon the reason they’ve acted is not that the boys went home and told them about the incident – as I’ve indicated, I neither hurt nor upset them – but because they wanted to find out why I gave the boys very low marks (and bad write-ups – not that the parents would be able to read them) in their reports. I was thinking along the lines of This’ll teach ’em, the little bastards – in the event, it seems that it was me who was taught.

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Stone cold stupid

I was listening to music this morning when one particular song caused me to have a particular realisation. This really ought to have been a realisation I should have had long before, but for some reason this realisation was only really realised this morning.

The song in question was Metallica’s cover version of Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, and the realisation went something like this: what could be better than listening to a song by either of my two favourite bands? Answer: listening to a cover version of one of my favourite band’s songs made by my other favourite band.

I really ought to perfect my grasp of the lyrics to ‘Stone Cold Crazy’.

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There are another couple of things I wanted to mention about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Firstly, the completely inconsequential observation that Gary Oldman as Sirius looked like a cross between Frank Zappa and Doctor Who.

I told you it was inconsequential.

Secondly, a couple of women were sitting a couple of seats over from me and they started talking maybe two thirds of the way into the film. After putting up with it for a while and debating whether I should tell them to be quiet (joyonghihada) – and if, indeed, I should, whether I would – I got up and gave the nearest of them a sharp tap on the arm, raised my finger to my lips and hissed, ‘Be quiet!’

As I resumed my seat, my brain processed the look of shock on the girl’s face as I had spoken to her. My intervention worked, but I was left with an annoying shaky feeling as the adrenaline circulated in my system. I don’t like confrontation.

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And today at work was OK. We were given our schedule for the coming week and August. On Monday, the intensive classes start and as far as I can remember (and I really ought to remember) my first classes start at 10:35. That’s not good. I have three morning classes in addition to a slightly reduced post meridian schedule.

I managed to swap my 6:55 class with the Korean American teacher who had teached it previously. She was very happy to have done so. When I taught her class, it was much as I remembered it – actually, it was a bit worse: more students, noisier and less attention paid by the good students. But it was still a pleasant change.

Last night, (if you haven’t read or seen this, you should look away now – well, in two paragraph’s time) I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Although when it began I was thinking that the acting was awful, I warmed to it, and overall it was reasonably good. Certainly a damn sight better than the first film (and I haven’t seen the intervening installations). It still suffered from less than totally authentic performances from the young actors and a high luvvie quotient.

It was interesting to see how the story had been adapted from the novel. For instance, Snape’s presence was much reduced, the process of Umbridge clamping down on freedoms at Hogwarts was greatly accelerated and Quidditch was completely absent. Also, Harry and Ron appear to have been working out – I don’t rembember that in the books.

There now follows a spoiler. In the climactic final battle in The Order of the Phoenix – film and book, of course – Sirius is hit by a bolt of magic and falls through an archway of death. Note that I didn’t say that he dies. Since I read the book a few weeks ago I’ve been working under the assumption that he’s done a Moiraine (see The Wheel of Time) and that he will turn up again in the final instalment. The main reason for thinking this is, of course, that there is no body; in fiction, major characters just don’t vanish when they die, they have a dramatic, drawn out death scene. Also, in the book, there is suspiciously little discussion of the ‘archway of death’ nature. There is an additional clue in the film: at the very end, Luna – after she has offered Harry her condolences – says something about how things you’ve lost turn up eventually.

At any rate, I won’t have long to find out – The Deathly Hallows is released tomorrow.

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Last night (spurning the opportunity to go for a free meal with my hagwon colleagues; an opportunity that was also spurned by my New Zealander, American and South African colleagues) I went to see Die Hard 4.0.

Very impressive.

A couple of weeks previously I’d also seen Tranfsormers (which also verily impressed) and the intensity, cinematography and choreography of the action in both films has really taken the action movie to a new level (or maybe it’s just a long time since I saw a good action movie). If anything, Die Hard was even better than Transformers because of its greater realism (of course, I use the word advisedly, but remember that I’m comparing Bruce Willis and giant alien robots)

The film had various familiar actors in minor roles: Tim Russ (Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager), Cyril Rafaelli (performing the kind of acrobatics he’d demonstrated in Banlieu 13) and an actor that I definitely recognised, but couldn’t place – it turns out he’s Cliff Curtis who was in Whalerider.

Also last night, I had yet another soul-destroying class with a bunch of kids who probably hate me more than I hate them. At one point, I took an electronic dictionary of one girl and took it to the front desk. When I came back and sipped my water I found that someone had put something in it (I have no idea what – it had a kind of chemical taste). None of them noticed I’d drunk it, so there was no immediate reaction, and I’d never been in a situation like that and didn’t have any pattern of behaviour to guide what I ought to do about it. Which meant that I didn’t do anything about it, even after they’s gradually realised.

I think I’m going to ask to switch to another class, but a part of me also wants to continue with this class so I can institute a strict regime of punishment. Somthing like, if they don’t answer questions they can go and stand in front of the desk with their hands in the air, likewise if don’t complete the exercises or show any disrespect. But I probably don’t have the self-discipline to put that into practice. Perhaps the worst thing about this class is that it reminds me of being at school and the fucked up attitudes of too many fellow pupils.

If only I could lose myself in a book for a little while. Well, the book I’m reading right now is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S Kuhn. I’ve come across his name in various popular science books I’ve read, so when I saw the book recently I decided to buy it. Probably a mistake. The writing isn’t the most engaging and I keep drifting off into random reveries while I’m reading it. On top of that most of it seems to be stated the bleedingly obvious (it’s nearly 50 years old). It’s only a little over 200 pages long, so I’m going to stick with it, though.

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