Sunday, August 13, 2006


You know you've entered a brave new world when your departing student -- Korean, good-natured, always smiling -- chooses as a memento of your class a video taken of you wishing him good-luck, a video taken on his motherfucking dictionary.

Me, I used to settle for a handshake. Wait. That's a lie. Usually I didn't say anything to my departing teachers; after all, the door was open, summer break was near -- who had time for such adult pleasantries? But my students, some of them, were here for only two weeks, and I am a foreigner, and who knows when they'll get to shoot the shit with one of those exotic creatures again anytime soon?

So, my student pointed his electronic dictionary at me, told me to say a few words, then videotaped my good wishes to his heart's delight -- and to my rather low-key astonishment. I watched myself played back for our mutual amusement on the tiny monitor, the picture stilted but clear, the sound muffled but adequate.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. I taught in Japan for four years, and have been teaching Koreans for almost a year, and they always bring to class gidgets and gadgets that will hit western shores in five, six years time. Let's make it seven. I think Canada and America are probably about seven years behind, electronically, the best that Japan and Korea have to offer. (One of my former students, an elderly gentlemen in Japan who used to be head of Research and Development for Toshiba, told me that his company was working on DVD technology back in '85 -- right when video was just hitting its stride.)

Earlier this year my student asked me: "What's the English word for turning on your microwave with your cellphone?"

"Good question," I said. (Thinking: What the fuck?) "We don't have an English word for that function, because our cellphones don't do that."

But they sure as hell do in Korea and Japan. You can buy a Coke with your cellphone -- just hold your phone up to the vending machine, and, via the magic of pre-paid cards, you can guzzle to your heart's delight. You can order movie tickets. Register for lotteries. Check train schedules. And don't even get me started on what you can do in convenience stores.

And who knows what's in store for us? I saw a piece on the news about an event that happened in Hong Kong a little while back, where a rather heated argument broke out between a younger man and an older man on a subway. The older man berated his junior antagonist with vigor and energy. A fellow passenger videotaped the confrontation on his phone. Posted it on the web. The video spread. Within a few days the old guy's outburst was being used as a ringtone for cellphones all across Hong Kong.

So one minute you could be shouting at an asshole, or have him shout at you, and the next your voice would be used to serve as the wake-up call to sleepy commuters across China. Mama mia.

Living in Cambodia, and in some sense the Philippines, has been a good reality check, though. As far behind as Canada and America are, there are other countries even further back. (Not that this lack of progress is a good thing. But it does show that you can still function and glide through life without being constantly inundated by the latest, gotta-have-it technology.)

And as Bogie knew so well, the fundamental things apply as time goes by. A video camera in your electronic dictionary won't make your English any better, I don't think.

It could, however, be just cool enough to impress your old-fogey of an English teacher. That's gotta carry some street cred back in Seoul.


I first encountered author John D. Macdonald through his introduction to Stephen King's short-story collection Night Shift back in junior high school, and for many years, decades, in fact, that was where my involvement with Mr.Macdonald started and finished. I kept going back to that introduction, which commended King for his style and his sense of story, and which also served as a subtle lesson in how to write well. He was an intensely prolific writer of paperback originals, crime books, mostly (though not exclusively), and for some reason or another his own works eluded me; mostly because a lot of them were out of print, I suppose.

Recently, though, through the magic of astonishingly cheap used book-shops here in Baguio, I've been able to pick up a dozen or so of his paperbacks from the 1950's and 60's and 70's at less than twenty, thirty cents a pop. The original, tattered paperbacks. Speaking from the past. Rugged and well-read. Hinting at the humanity and insights to be found within their tales of crooked men and desperate women.

And you know what? Big surprise. The man is good. Real good.

There's something about crime fiction I especially like -- its lack of pretension and snobbery. The story in crime fiction exists to move. The book exists to tell us about something bad that happened to this particular set of people, and because the focus is on the story, the subtext, the human emotions, the lessons learned, are allowed to hover below the surface instead of announcing their importance at every opportunity, as the worst of 'literary' fiction so often does.

Macdonald was most famous for his private-eye series of Travis McGee series, but his first hardcover bestseller, Condominium, is an excellent read, humane and true. One condominium complex in Florida in the late seventies. The sad and lonely lives of its inhabitants. A hurricane on the way. You can do the math. A metaphor for life itself, some might say, all of us living together, foolishly making our way through our lonely little lives, aware that we're perched precariously on the edge of disaster, but living anyway, the best that we can. Until the calamity starts, and we're all washed away.

A powerful, thoughtful book that glides along effortlessly. (Of course, the most effortless books are usually the ones that were the hardest to write. To look effortless takes a lot of effort.)

It's always nice, at a later age, to discover writers who speak to you. It's as if they've been waiting there all along -- on the rack, behind the shelf -- wondering when you would find them.

And when you find them, all you have to do is open up.

What's the opposite of ambidextrous? Monodextrous?

I'm not sure. It sounds like it would be lonely -- to be the opposite of something as agile as
'ambidextrous'. If you can use both hands to do anything, it gives you a sense of power and grace. If you can only use the one, I would imagine that would make you feel somewhat inferior. But that can't be the case, because most people aren't ambidextrous, right? Most people use the hand they're good at to cut with scissors, hold their cups, change the channel. (Me, I'm a lefty; my right hand is pretty much confined to typing.)

Do ambidextrous people secretly sneer at the rest of us? Do they look at the consistency with which we use only one hand and roll their eyes at how underdeveloped we are as humans? Do they wait for the human race to evolve so that, eventually, all of us, united, brethren, separated no more, will rule the earth with both hands as our humble and hungry servants, obedient to our ferocious, ravenous, insatiable will?

I'm just asking.


roselle said...

wouldn't the opposite of ambidextrous be a person sans use of his/her hands???

Scott said...

Good point.

I guess it depends on what the meaning of 'ambi' is. Not that I know what it is...