Archive | December, 2011
December 31, 2011

Create Your Own Roadshow

With Christmas over and New Year’s Eve coming quickly, I found myself feeling a bit guilty for not missing home a lot more than I seem to. I had a wonderful low-key holiday here and was able to video chat with everyone back home. I also received a couple of terrific care packages from the States for which I am truly thankful. Both contained English language books which I will argue are (instead of good toilet paper) the true “Korean Gold.” However, I felt that doing less here was ultimately so much more in the form of the holidays and I anticipate that I will be spending many more of them away from home in this manner.

Packed in with the first batch of books from Pat was the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead, from 1943. Having never yet read any of her books and desperate for good, long books to tuck into, I felt that the time and place had finally come together to tackle 650+ pages of Rand’s philosophy, which she called “Objectivism.” Rand’s reputation and notoriety made it impossible to approach the book completely uninformed, but I really didn’t know too much about Rand, this novel, or her philosophy. Seeing it and Atlas Shrugged near the top of most “100 Best Novels” lists for a long time had always peaked my interest, as did her influence on Neil Peart’s lyrics on side one of the 1979 Rush classic “2112.” I consulted a few sites on the net before starting just to get a little background and I realized I had done the same thing before reading an updated translation of the 1942 Albet Camus novel L’Étranger (The Stranger). My awareness of this book up to that point was limited to the fact that I had somehow avoided reading it in high school or college despite its status as “required reading,” and that the controvertial song “Killing an Arab,”  the 1979 debut single from The Cure, had in fact been inspired by the novel. Both novels were highly engrossing but also seemed to produce feelings of anger, confusion, and resentment having not lived up to my preconceived notions of what the were supposed to be.

While, writing an internet journal like this, a blog if you will, I have forced myself to write on a weekly basis, make a statement or observations about what I see, hear, and in some cases, believe. I am reminded of the part of Nick Hornby’s great novel (and equally awesome John Cusack movie) High Fidelity where the title character, Rob, is always coming up with “Top 5″ lists and discussing the proper aesthetics in making a mix-tape. As an aside and in tribute:

 My “Top 5 Best Guitar Players” in no particular order:

1. Lindsey Buckingham

2. Michael Hedges

3. Richard Thompson

4. Jimmy Page

5. Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins)

Towards the end of the story, Rob, the eternal critic, agrees to produce and record some young musicians who frequent his record store. His girlfriend, Laura, remarks how pivotal this is for him to cross-over from critic to someone who is out there actually producing something. I feel that if I am going to venture into the same territory, I need to understand what it really means to create and consume without bias. I recently realized that rarely to I begin any new endeavor without first doing some research. Whether it is a decision as life-changing as moving to Korea, or as simple as starting a new book, watching a movie, listening to new music, or dining out; I first consult various sources (like Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, and Pitchfork) for more information on the subject. What I realized was that I was not ever really living in the present moment or just experiencing things as they are before forming an opinion on my own as to their quality or merits. In some cases, research is essential, and in others, it informs, clouds, or changes your experience.

Being what I feel is an opinionated individual and displaying what friends refer to as righteous indignation more frequently than not, it is highly interesting to me to delve more deeply into the subject of those opinions and my beliefs and see what is really there. What are my ideas made of and where did they come from? Do I in fact have any original ideas or descriptions, or is all of it just a rehash of what I have seen and heard? My good friend Pat, who has been using Facebook as a platform to shake up what a social networking site can be, recently recommended a lecture by the late philosopher and psychonaut, Terence McKenna there, entitled “Reclaim Your Mind”. McKenna was a brilliant speaker on many subjects and at the heart of this particular discussion was the idea that “everything you know is wrong” and the key part of it that spoke to me most is quoted below:

“We have to create culture; don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons – icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”

In an experiment to accomplish just that, I went to dinner last week with new teacher, Josh Stinton, to a restaurant that has caught my attention since I arrived. There was something very inviting about the facade and entrance way, and just a hint of the mystery and sophistication that lied within tipped my curiousity every time I passed it. I had no idea what I is called, what they serve, or how expensive it is. Josh, having lent me the Camus novel, was interested in the idea and also up for the challenge. The only real indication to the quality of the establishment was a plaque outside with a pretty flower and the words “Good Restaurant” that I view as similar to the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval.

Once seated, we quickly realized that the restaurant specialized in top quality meat, particularly beef. In the past, when confronted with a menu without pictures or just my rudimentary Korean pronunciation, I would just point to a nearby table dining on something that looked good or appetizing and say “two of that, please”. Two in this case turned out to be enough food to feed the entire South Korean army. Our huge table was quickly filled with more bowls and plates than we had room for and the whole process turned out to be quite comical. As soon as we were sure that there was no way our hostess could bring us more food, she would arrive with a cart full of more mysterious delights to pile on us.

(Click on each image below to view full size)

The dinner turned out to be the most expensive I have had while here, by far, but also proved to be one of the very best. I tried everything she brought us at least once and finished most of everything except the plate of “mystery meats.” From our hilarious exchange with the staff, we were able to determine that it was raw stomach, liver, and some sort of spine or back meat. Saving the liver for last was a good idea, as it was in fact the only item that was to me disagreeable. Textures more than tastes have been my only real objections to any of the food I have had here over the last 3 months, and the raw liver was unfavorable on both accounts. The rest of the meal was terrific, however, and eating the stomach and back or spinal meat (we were never sure even though our server kept pointing to her back below the neck) was to me a success of the very order McKenna described. Will I eat any of the mystery meat again? Probably not. However, I tried everything we were served and approached each item with no prejudice or expectations.

I have dined in this manner many more times since that night and find it adventurous, exciting and refreshing. The Dolsot Bibimbap in the video below is one of my favorite meals, as a result. Although not completely converted, I now actually am starting to prefer it to a life of preformed ideas, ratings and reviews, or simply trusting the opinions of others. In addition to the major transformations I have undergone overt the last year, this idea relinquishing of control or an idea of what should be is what I intend to practice more in the new year and delve into deeper in future posts. In the meantime, get out there and create your own roadshow and have a safe and Happy New Year.

Dinner with Henry from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

Cheers!

Matthew

Cafe 205

Myeongnyun 2-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

 

December 17, 2011

The 12 Days of Christmas Music

Being away from home for the holidays has proven to be a refreshing change from the typical overload back home. Koreans do celebrate Christmas in a mostly western style, it just doesn’t seem to be as overly hyped and commercially tainted as it is in the States. It also seems to be much more connected to the true meanings of the season and therefore, more in line with my belief that it should simply be a time spent laughing with family and friends. While our family has curtailed the more commercial aspects of gift-giving around Christmas-time in recent years, holiday music is still a vital and sentimental element for my whole family. My tradition of making new Christmas mixes each year has been put on hold while here in Korea (sorry Krista) and I have decided to just enjoy the dozen or so mixes I have amassed and the hundreds upon hundreds of songs I have collected. I am also happy to report that these holiday selections are currently in heavy rotation at Coffee Nori here in Daejeon, where they have received a new life as favorites for a lot of people who have never heard them before. Among them are some of my very personal selections, which had me thinking about my “Essentials” list for holiday/seasonal music.

This will truly be a holiday to remember for me, as most of those in the past have become a blurry combination of fond and sad memories. Christmas will always bring back great memories, however, of my grandfather – particularly his generosity and sense of humor. While he took great pleasure in seeing my face light up when opening my “Big Jim Camper” set at age 4, he also thought it was really funny to get me “2 pair of pants” instead of toys as I grew older. Modeling my new pants (or the latest Buckeyes gear) for everyone was always mandatory. That way the teasing and cat calls could continue as the other kids on the block were opening their “Atari 2600″ game consoles and “Stretch Armstrong” dolls, plus all the other stuff that I really wanted each year. Looking back now, I would trade almost anything to have just one more Christmas morning with Grandpa George and all the whistling and playful teasing, as it has been that memory and his love that I celebrate each year – not the selfish desire for toys and money and “stuff”.

The  list below is the soundtrack to those memories – my favorite Christmas albums and songs, most of which now seem even more special given my distance from home. Just like my previous lists, it is impossible to narrow down a list of the very best without leaving off just as much good music. However, this list represents my favorites, new and old; the music that has become so intertwined with the very best of holidays past and the spirit of the holidays that I will share with my new friends here in Korea. I hope you take the time to do the same with those you care about and share the spirit of your favorite seasonal music during the holiday season.

 

1. A Motown Christmas / Various Artists (Motown/1973)

I found this double album a few years ago and on it, my absolute very favorite Christmas song. Marvin Gaye’s “I Want to Come Home for Christmas, ” a tribute to soldiers in Vietnam co-written with Forest Hairston, is to me the centerpiece of this album. Not only is it filled with terrific holiday imagery told from the point of a P.O.W., it contains some of the best singing and harmonies of Gaye’s career. The rest of the set is equally as timeless.

 

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (OST) / Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy/1965)

Christmas for most people would not be the same without the charm and warmth of the Peanuts Christmas Special and the soundtrack that that has helped ingrain it into our collective sense of the season. Just as Guaraldi brilliantly captured the essence of Charles Schulz’s cartoon strip in music for the animated specials, the holiday collection goes it one better. The cool jazz renditions of  traditional songs like “O Tannenbaum,” “Greensleeves,” and “What Child is This?” blend perfectly with the story and with new songs like “Christmas Time is Here,” which has become a holiday classic it its own right. Christmas would not be the same without this album and is rightfully near the top of my list without hesitation.

 

3. “Christmas Wrapping” / The Waitresses (ZE Records/1981)  found on A ZE Records Christmas Album

To me, there is no better time for quirky and clever Christmas music than the 80′s. Crazy versions of classic songs and new classics like this “girl-meets-boy” tale set during the holiday season are a key part of good holiday mix-making. The song was recorded for the ZE Records Christmas Album by The Waitresses, a new wave band primarily remembered for their near-hit “I Know What Boys Like,” and the theme song to the short-lived 80′s show Square Pegs.

 

4. “A Marshmallow World” / Dean Martin (MCP/1966) found on My Christmas Album

I could perhaps survive on “Rat Pack” Christmas music alone if I was forced to and there are a lot of great collections out there to be heard. In addition to the collection from Sinatra later on in this list (#6), my favorite song is this laid back version of “A Marshmallow World” from Dino. Now an icon of good times and eternal cool, Dean sounds so relaxed and smooth in this song, you may wonder if he didn’t have just a bit too much egg nog before the recording session. It’s a whipped-cream day, indeed.

 

5. Sounds of Christmas / Johnny Mathis (Mercury /1963)

My favorite childhood Christmas memories will always be associated with this collection from Johnny Mathis. One of many terrific holiday albums Mathis has released over his long career, this one stands out for me because my mom would always play it on vinyl each year. A festive mix of old favorites and new songs that have become classics in our house, like the title song, Sounds of Christmas reveals Mathis in fine form after leaving Columbia for Mercury and in the same classy style he has exuded for well over 40 years.

 

6. A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra / Frank Sinatra (Capitol/1957)

This album appearing on my list seems like a no brainer at this point. “Old Blue-Eyes” and his holiday music always seem to add a touch of class to every Christmas mix and  this collection, his very first of seasonal favorites, sets the bar incredibly high. Featuring the Ralph Brewster Singers along with an orchestra conducted by Gordon Jenkins, this album has also been re-released over the years as The Sinatra Christmas Album, with different cover artwork. Thankfully, it has finally been restored to its original splendor and was also made available on vinyl in 2010 for the first time in 40 years. I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells!

 

7. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” / Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel (New Line Records/2003) found on the Elf Soundtrack

It seems that when I first saw Will Ferrell as Buddy  in Elf, I knew an instant classic had been born. Casting Bob Newhart as his father was a stroke of genius that sealed the deal for me. Having already been a fan of Leon Redbone and his other holiday collections (courtesy of my Uncle Mike), his duet here with Deschanel has become another instant classic, as well. Nothing beats Buddy’s shower scene duet with heron the movie, but this sweet and simple pop standard (dating back to 1944) is truly heart-warming around the holidays and anytime the temperature drops.

 

8. December / George Winston (Windham Hill/1982)

This was the very first album I ever heard from the Windham Hill label back in college and I have found that the settings and ideal uses for these simple solo piano arrangements – like studying, reading, yoga and weddings – are endless. Sparse, winter-themed originals along with Winston’s take on “Carol of the Bells” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” make this timeless collection essential in any music lover’s library, especially during the holidays.

 

9. “Blue Christmas” / Elvis Presley (RCA Victor/ 1957) found on  Elvis’ Christmas Album

It is hard to believe that this seasonal music staple caused a huge uproar upon its release. Not only has it gone on to sell over 13 million copies, it is the first Presley title to attain Diamond certification by the RIAA and is the best-selling Christmas/holiday album of all time in the United States. When it was first released it was highly controversial and deemed offensive; even sparking calls for a boycott from “White Christmas” composer Irving Berlin as a “profane parody”. While combining hip shaking, Presley’s laconic delivery, and Christmas may have not gone over well at first, it is difficult to imagine Christmas time now without the King.

 

10. “Christmas Time is Here” / David Benoit (feat. Michael Franks) (GRP Records/1996) found on Remembering Christmas

Another instant classic from the Peanuts special, this cover version threatens to give the term “smooth jazz” a good name. Benoit’s subtle reworking and Franks’ always cool vocal delivery makes this one of my very favorite jazz-themed holiday standards. While the original captures the spirit of children around the holiday season, this version is the sophisticated grown-up version that somehow bridges the gap between all ages.  As a benchmark for what “smooth jazz” can be, it had me reconsidering adding Kenny G. to this list as well.

 

11. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” / John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band (EMI/1971) released as a 7″ Single

Having lost John Lennon tragically in December, 1980, it seems this song never gets old and will always bring his genius and generous spirit to mind for the whole month and beyond. While the Beatles released relatively few Christmas songs of this quality and significance, the message and spirit of this single is so powerful that even a cover version by Celine Dion is delightfully touching and powerful. God rest ye, Mr. Lennon.

 

12. Our Very Best Christmas / Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Motown/1963)

Rounding out this collection was hard, but I added an album from 1963 that I had not heard until recently. While Marvin Gaye steals the show on the Motown Christmas album, Smokey and company are also at the head of the class when adding that magic Motown soul and light R & B touch to all your favorite holiday classics. Christmas is truly a time to smile and spread joy and you can hear that feeling in Smokey’s voice on all these thrilling “Hitsville” arrangements.

So many songs and albums had to be left out when putting together a list like this, so I encourage you to try these, celebrate and share your own favorites, and keep your ears open for old favorites and instant classics during this special time of year. I will return next week for an update on Christmas in Korea and my upcoming trip to Seoul for New Year’s eve.

Until then, Happy Holidays!

The Rock Traveler

December 8, 2011

Thanksgiving in South Korea

One of the things I now have plenty of time for here in Korea is reading. In addition to catching up on the classics and new bestsellers, I have to read several books each semester for my classes. English language books are somewhat harder to find here, making it even more fun when you find one. With large gaps between class times, I have developed an appetite to have something interesting and “crunchy” for my brain on hand at all times to pass the time. Having received a nice collection from Pat Donley (Henry Miller, Ayn Rand, and John Steinbeck) back home, thankfully I have been reading voraciously over the last 3 months.

Not surprisingly, the school has a very strong collection of books, too, that seem to include every Newberry Award winner on the list. I have really been impressed by the quality and content of these books and it my job to read them all and help the students understand the details and message, if there is one, in each book. One of the very first ones I encountered was the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum Books, 1967), a novel written and illustrated by former science teacher E. L. Konigsburg. Although most of these books are written for teenagers and can be completed in just a few hours, I seem to be making up for the time in my life when I was required to read and therefore did every thing I could to avoid it.

In chapter 9, Mrs. Frankweiler says, “Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.” This particular line struck a chord with me as I have been documenting my experiences and putting them together in the form of this internet journal. Having recently celebrated Thanksgiving here, one of very few away from home, I was truly thankful for the experience. Along with Alice and Soon from Coffee Nori and a few homesick teachers, we found the tastes of home almost beyond words.

The whole process began over a month ago in a search for all the ingredients of a proper Thanksgiving holiday celebration. Having previously written about my desire to cease trying to find the comforts of home in Korean culture and restaurants, I was actually happy to attempt to duplicate a few select items to not only remind me of home, but to share them in a new way with others, as well.

Fellow native teacher and hostess, Susan, and I struck gold at the Daejeon Costco when she spotted frozen turkeys from across three aisles and through the bakery. As the weight was measured metrically, the math conversion for cooking time got a little confusing. Nevertheless, we purchased a fine, rare frozen bird as the centerpiece for our holiday dinner and Soon’s oven was perfect. Teacher Angie had mashed potato duties, Jin brought salad, and Susan added the homemade gravy, cranberry sauce, dressing, and green bean casserole. I contributed dinner rolls and tracked down my mothers recipe for corn casserole. Finding the actual ingredients for that recipe would prove to be another story, so I am truly thankful to Daejeon Peeps and LaTasha for coming through with 2 boxes of “Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix” at the eleventh hour!

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At the core of my desire to begin this journey way back in February was the desire for the holidays to be different this year, for once. I think I have been disenchanted with all the commercialism around season time for a long time, but it was something more. Being away really forces you to evaluate what the holidays are and what they mean to you in a completely different way. Explaining the idea of Thanksgiving and Christmas to my students actually challenged me to get to the heart of what I was really taking for granted. Making hand-traced turkey drawings with them helped, too. I found that what had become tedious, commonplace, and something to be endured, is now, over a great distance, making me actually feel much closer to the ones I love. So the next time you snap a picture in front of your travel destination, ball game, or your Christmas tree back home, pause and let the feeling of that moment enter inside of you. Then share it with everyone you can.

Happy Holidays!

The Rock Traveler

For more terrific books, check out Good Reads online.