Friday, December 31, 2010

A running total

I made a point to run 33 minutes on the treadmill today, to round off my theoretical mileage for the year at a nice, even 900. This is based on the fiction that I run a mile in 10 minutes; the 33 brought my total for 2010 to precisely 9000 minutes, or 150 hours.

But this is a fiction, the type that should be shelved in the "fantasy" section. All of those long runs in training for the marathon were at 12- to 13-minute pace, and I can only guess what percentage of a hash run is actual running, though I try to not credit myself with the walking and standing-around time. For that matter, my regular running pace is 10:30 or so per.


I can say that this year I ran 150 hours, more or less, maybe 800 miles. I completed two 5K's, four 10K's, and one marathon (which, twenty years from now, may be my most prominent memory of the year). I mentored cross country and did ten hashes (all in the last eight weeks)...

and lost five pounds and then gained eight (for a net of plus three), to equal my highest weight ever. This seems impossible, but recently every fatty or sweet food has been as addictive to me as crack to a crackhead or cigarettes to a... um... butthead. I seem to have no control at all; I've never been simultaneously so proud and so ashamed as I am of my physical condition. I'm very healthy in a cardiovascular sense, better than some runners 25 years younger and 50 pounds lighter. But still.

Last week I carried a 30-pound jug of cat litter upstairs for Faina and it hit me that that is exactly the extra weight I carry every day. Maybe that has something to do with my knees' hurting.

But I won't run myself down, so to speak. I ran a flippin' marathon; have I mentioned that? I'm running every weekend with people half my age. And I'm proud of that.

And I'll curb my addiction and run farther in 2011. I'm looking at a half-marathon in the spring and a full one in the fall. But I'll conclude this now; I seem to be running on.


As so often happens, I thought of something apropos to say just a bit too late. My most recent post, about the physical exam and my lack of Korean-language skills was missing something, but I couldn't figure out what. Here it is:

My Korean ability (or lack thereof) leaves me at the level of a fairly intelligent dog. That is, I catch some words that people say-- I prick up my ears at i man Won and yeogi, ajeosshi the way an Aussie shepherd does to ball and walkies-- but I'm mostly dependent on tone and gestures and instinct. And I get by.

Speaking of dogs, Corndog Millionaire is heading out in a few minutes, through the ice and wind, to a bar in Itaewon, to spend New Year's Eve at a party with my hasher friends. I have no idea how I'm going to get home past midnight, but it's better to celebrate with the pack-- and that is what it's called-- than alone. We dogs are, after all, social animals.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


No, in YOU endo!

A couple of months ago, a bunch of us at SPPA got notices that we were required by law to have physical checkups by the end of the year. It came with a little chart: Lauren- general. Chris- general. Steve- general, stomach, large intestine. Apparently my age makes them want to shove a large tube into my innards and take a look.

I was relieved to find that an endoscope goes in the top endo, not the bottom endo. But still. I am not going to be ordered by some faceless bureaucrat to have an uncomfortable, invasive procedure to check out hypothetical diseases that, if I had them, would affect nobody but me. I have zero family history of cancer (we like to go in for strokes and Alzheimer's) and am not up for a procedure for which proper sedation would involve a handful of Valium, a fifth of Jack, and a large mallet.

So I went to Mr. Park, the boss, and he told me I didn't have to have the endoscope. I have no documentation for that, but I'm happy to take his word for it. I'm offended that the government believes it can demand such a procedure, especially from a waegook (foreigner). In a silent protest, I waited till the third-to-last day of the year to go in for the checkup. (Also, I am a champion procrastinator; none of that amateurcrastinating for me.)

The Pren Dawktaw (their phonetic attempt at "Friend Doctor") clinic is on the fifth floor of an office building by Yangjae Station. It's filled with dozens of patients, mostly in green jammies and all of them Korean, and a handful of staffers, none of whom speaks but a word or two of English. (The first form they gave me to fill out said "DENTAL HISTORY" at the top; I bared my choppers, pointed, and said "Dentaw meanf teef.")

It was stressful with all the waiting and misunderstanding and trying to call the school (nobody there) and my fellow teacher Billy, who speaks excellent Korean (no answer). I wanted somebody to insist to them that they weren't sticking anything in either endo and, after my blood pressure reading was 30 points higher than normal, to explain that it was the stress of the moment.

But, with long intervals between each pair of tests, I struggled through with the chest x-ray, height and weight, another hypertension check, and blood and urine tests, for which I'd been up cramming the night before. (Incidentally, I'd never had a urine test before that involved sticking a little paper stick into the cup and turning in the stick. The good news is that I'm not pregnant.)

Finally I got to talk for a moment with a doctor who had decent English. He told me I should take hypertension medication (I do) and that they'd call me in two weeks to let me know if I'm alive. The subject of the long nasty tube never arose.

The big take-away for me was the frustration of being unable to communicate. It surprised me that every technician and attendant was of an age to have taken several years of English in school but nobody could talk to me. (I don't want to be the ugly American here; I know it's their country and my job to learn their language.) It almost made me want to really study Korean. Almost.

The fact is, it's an enormous amount of work to learn a language so very, very foreign to ours, and it's seldom all that much of an inconvenience to only have a rudimentary knowledge. I can read the letters, I know possibly as many as two hundred words (if you count fust-baseuman, left-fielduh, and the like), ten or twenty phrases such as Gogi baegu (without meat) and Wajongshil audieh isseoyo? (Where's the toilet?) And you know what? That's chuweoyo (OK) with me.

Kamsahamnida. Annyeongikeseyo! (Thanks. Bye!)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Do I know it's Christmas?

or "Hashing through the snow".

A few years ago, if you'd suggested I'd be sitting in an unheated bus station (at 15 degrees Fahrenheit) in a city I'd never heard of before-- in Korea-- at 9 p.m. on Christmas night, I'd have thought you delusional. Nor did I, oddly enough, envision running across a horserace track-- in my boxers-- at an equivalent temperature the next day.

But, in fact, I did both.

Actually, I guess that would have been an odd opening paragraph if I hadn't.

Christmas is hard far from home, with just a cat-- who speaks only Korean-- as company. So I jumped at the chance to join the Yongsan Kimchi (my group) hashers down in the city of Songtan, 45 minutes south of Seoul, on Christmas. I took the bus down and shivered my way to the Osan Bulgogi hashers' home bar, just around the corner from the US's Osan Air Force base.

After a long time of milling and mingling and chilling and jingling, the hash started. It was soooo cold, but the hares laid a great trail, through the city and up and down a trail on the mountain as the lightest of flurries started, and we all got back safely and happily.
Not actually me, but close.

Then the festivities began, amid the twinkling lights and Christmas music. We had the usual postrun circle, though people tried to clean up their comments and song lyrics because one of the hashers had brought his son and daughter. And finally it was time for the pot  luck, with draft beer and turkey and ham (though not for me) and fresh fruit salad (I cut it myself!) and cookies and apple pie and pumpkin pie and pecan pie. It felt like being rushed by the august fraternities, Eata Bita Pi and Tappa Kegga Brew.


Apparently the festivities went on long into the night, starting with beer pong and ending with people sleeping on other people's floors, but at about 8:00 I made the cold walk back to the bus station and waited for the penultimate bus back to Seoul.

The next day was Boxing Day, so the Southside hashers sent directions to wear boxer shorts on their run. So we did, over our tights and sweatpants. We met at the deserted Seoul Racecourse Park, just a few miles from my apartment. The windchill, I think, must have been in the single digits. That's actually plenty warm enough when you're running, but the gathering time and the circle afterward, in the light flurries... well, we took turns sitting in somebody's heated car.

Southside has the reputation of being more hardcore than my home group, Yongsan. And this trail was laid by Mr. Blister and Soju Sonata, who are a) active-duty military and b) insane. Their trail led us through a lot of shiggy (hash talk for hills, brambles, thorns, fences, some with wire of the barbed variety) and across both sides of the actual racetrack, which I had never known consists of thick soft sand... I really would have hated to be arrested in my underwear, by the way.) Then it was up the mountain and over, sliding down parts of the slope on my boxer-clad butt on a carpet of dead leaves...

For the second half of the trail, I kept company, far behind the pack, with LesBalls (a female South African friend) and Cooper.
Cooper. Lab plus beagle equals... Leagle?

Finally we lost the trail... I blame Cooper. Fortunately, I'd learned to always wear my GPS watch to hashes and to mark our starting point, so we went to the road and ran the half-mile back to our compatriots, who were frozen in place like people who'd seen a basilisk.
It was the shortest on-after ever. I decided to take the subway to the COEX Mall and almost forgot that I was wearing my boxers on the outside. So, for the first time ever, I dropped my boxers in public and took off into the nice warm underground.

The thing about Christmas is that you don't want to be alone; a few days ago, the Huffington Post showed what the said was "the saddest Christmas card ever": "Merry Christmas to you and your cat." It was very good to be among friends, however loosely tethered to normality they may be, and to have something fun to do. I topped off Boxing Day by watching the Doctor Who Christmas episode, which was a treat.

And now to do useful stuff during my two-week break. Almost all of my school friends have flown out of here. But I've got places to go, classes to plan, an apartment to clean, and treadmill running to do (I need 13 miles in five days to reach 900 for the year.) And an intraKorean peace to keep.

Happy holidays, everybody.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fahrenheit 4? 5? 1?

The sun is just now setting over the mountains on Christmas Eve. It's c-c-cold; at the moment, the wind chill is 3 above zero Fahrenheit. It was well below zero this morning.

On the brighter side, though, there's always the threat of war. It's nice to know that Wolf Blitzer, in North Korea this week, called the Koreas "the most dangerous place on earth". I don't understand why the South, which for the last seven years has refused permission for a local church to erect a giant Christmas tree right by the DMZ, let them put it up this year. Why intentionally provoke the crazy guy in the attic? South Korea is two-thirds the size of Florida; they probably could have found another spot for the tree.

It's strange to be here right now. It's Christmas; my friends are in Ithaca or St. Augustine, the family's in California, and almost all of my coworkers taking off for Thailand or Indonesia or home during our two-week break. Nicki and Dex Puckett and their amazing month-old son Loku have asked me over for dinner this evening, so that's really nice. And tomorrow I'm taking the bus down to the city of Songtan for a hash (20 Fahrenheit with 25-mph winds forecast) and a little Christmas cheer at the pot luck afterward. But it's not quite how it used to be at Christmas.

There's only one present I want this year...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I got a name. And a medal.

Yesterday, Saturday, December 11, 2010, a date that will live in inf... ah, heck. I'll start again.

Yesterday, Saturday, December 11, 2010 was a long, full, good day. Cold, though.

On any normal hashing day, any normal hasher my age... if there are any normal hashers my age... if there are any normal hashers at all... would have stayed home. First, it was bright and clear but colder than Lindsay Lohan's career, with a wind chill in the teens. Secondly, it was advertised as a "Danger Hash"; that usually means climbing and jumping, two things I wasn't any good at 40 years ago and mysteriously haven't gotten any better at as I've gained weight and gotten creaky. But it was my naming day with the Yongsan Kimchi Hash House Harriers and I wasn't going to miss it.

About two dozen insane hashers took off eagerly to follow the hares, only to find, ten seconds later, an eight-foot iron gate we were supposed to go over. One guy, the infamous Mr. Blister, did; the rest of us found our way around. The rest of the course was up and down steep rocky stairs (with a magnificent view from on high of the sundrenched, windswept Han River and all of central Seoul), through prickers and weeds and up muddy slopes, in the first floor and out the fourth floor of buildings, over (and under!) fences, and around the backs of houses.
(The YKH3 on Red Dress Day earlier in the year. Something's Not. Quite. Right with them.)

Somehow I finally made it all the way back. (My fellow hashers' climbing-and-jumping help... um... helped.) I had had to carry a toilet plunger-- symbol of some trifling behavior from last week that the pack found humorously objectionable-- the whole way, too. As everyone had cookies and sandwiches and beer (no cooler necessary) and shifted their weight and jumped up and down to keep warm, our pack leader took turns interviewing two other sixth-timers and me. The questionnaire was all about the great moments and humiliating moments and... ahem... highly personal moments of our lives. Then we were sent around the corner to shiver while she gave the info to the pack and they called out prospective names and voted.

Finally, when we namees had almost run out of shivers, we got called back. The pack was huddled together like raisins and constantly shuffled to left and right to stay in the sun. I have to say that I'm delighted with my name; someone took my tv appearance with Regis and a certain story about a trip I took to Iowa and the name of a recent movie and came up with my now-and-forever hash name:


Oh, that is so clever! But the amazing thing is that nobody here knew that, ever since my stint playing fantasy baseball 20 years ago, Corn Dog has been my nickname. Let's just say that I feel at home with my new name, which will replace that boring old "Steve" at all hashes for however many decades I'm still capable of hashing. (It's ironic that a longtime veghead such as I will be using the name of a meat dish at an event named after a meat dish, but hey...)

I made it home to thaw for an hour or so before heading out again to our school's Performance Night. We had an evening of our students' singing, dancing, playing instruments (Western and Korean), and four minutes devoted to my class' Six-Word Memoir project. (If you haven't seen it, please go back to my previous post and watch it, would you? It's really good, I think. And free.)

When the performances were over, I headed out on the subway again; the Seoul Flyers were holding their annual banquet at a pub in Itaewon. It was just bad luck that the one night they do that was the same date as the school's biennial show. I made it to the Dickens Lounge long after dinner was over, just in time for the last award of the night. But I did get to talk to friends and finally pick up my medal for running the Chuncheon Marathon seven weeks ago. (I ran a marathon... did I happen to mention that on my blog at some point?) The medal bears the name of the guy whose entry I assumed and my gastropod-like finishing time, but I've hung the medal with that side facing the wall.

In my long and picaresque running career, Saturday's prizes are the two awards I'm most proud of. And in the Flyers and the Hashers I've gained two running families-- one sane, one in-. It's nice, so far from home, to belong.

Happy Holidays to all,
Corndog Millionaire

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The joy of six

It's late and I'm tired; I just got in from a night of four very nice things in Itaewon: veggie burgers, onion rings, carrot cake, and my friend Shawn. Wet snow is dropping determinedly down and I want to go to bed.

But I had to take a moment to post this: In a Six-Word Memoir, you have exactly that many words to sum up your life. (Please hook up your speakers or headphones and press "play"!)

This is the Six-Word Memoir project by my creative writing class. I just provided minor grammatical and typographical fixes. I'm very happy with it and proud of them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What a longish, strangish trip it's been

I've had a certain sense of unreality lately.

The most important factor, of course, has been the threat of war. (Unh! What is it good for?) The saber-rattling from both sides is enough to make even a cool character such as I (::koff::), in the words of Jeff Bridges as Starman, "little bit jumpy". If the US Embassy ever tells us to bug out, I'm going to pack up the still from the Swamp, velcro Tug to my coat and call him a fur collar, hop on the chopper, and look for "GOODBYE" spelled out on the ground with stones. But as I've said before, I really don't think there's much chance of a conflagration. Still...

The feeling of surreality deepened on Sunday: I'd been on three hash runs with the Yongsan Kimchi group; this time I went to a joint hash.
Huh huh huh... he said "joint" and "hash".

Anyway, the Southside Harriers were having their hash along with Yongsan, and I decided to join in, if only to decide which group I was more suited to.

Well, it was c-c-cold; the hashers run all year 'round. The run started inside the fish market, a warehouse a hundred yards long and twenty yards wide, filled with vendors selling every single thing on earth, as long as it a) came from the ocean and b) was dead. I saw (and smelled!) fish, squid, octopus, clams, crabs, and, I think, Aquaman.

After amusing the Koreans by running through the market, we ran and ran and ran with very few checkpoints where I might catch up with the pack. It was then that I realized that I didn't have my keys, wallet, transit card, or phone with me, so if I lost the trail I'd have to walk eight miles home in the frigid air and sit in my hallway because I couldn't get into my apartment.

...aaaand then we had to scale a six-foot fence by the river, which I can't. But did. ...aaaand then we had to climb the rusty iron rungs set into a frickin' frackin'forty-foot cement wall. I kept thinking, what happens if one of the people above me sneezes and lets go? And how very odd it would be if missiles started hitting as I was two-thirds of the way up. I may have muttered a rude word or two; I know that seems farfetched, but...

...aaaand then we had to climb another six-foot fence and run the bridge across the river. The trail led us, at one point, through a fringed cloth hanging and down Hooker Alley, which is lined with little glass rooms like display cases where, apparently, ladies of negoitable affection often sit and wait for nice young men to talk to. I half-expected little cards saying "4.49 per pound" in each area On this Sunday morning, one middle-aged lady of dubious charms was in one of the spots, but the rest were vacant. (Did I mention my sense of unreality lately?) I'm trying to be light and amusing here, but the whole thing made me feel very sad and a little dirty. (And me without my wallet...)

And the trail went on and on and on for miles, past the US Army base to the VFW. I didn't stay for the Thanksgiving buffet (I'd had a feast on Saturday with the Seoul Flyers). I did make up my mind that I'm going to run with the Yongsan hashers, not the Southsiders; Mr. Blister and UFO and Bootylicious and the Yongsan people are crazy, but they're not frickin' nuts.

(Two more runs and I get my hash name! I hope Kim Jong Il doesn't do anything till after that!)

To add to the oddity, winter has fallen like a lead Steinway and I rejoined the gym and went in to run today at 6:30 in the a. of m... meanwhile keeping one eye and one ear toward our Northern neighbors and waiting for my "normal" life to resume.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coach Dog says thanks, kids

The Mighty Mighty St. Paul Cross-Country Club.

It's Thanksgiving Eve. (Is that even a Thing?) I'm thinking about how Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday, with lots of food and relaxation but without all the pressure of Christmas. (Yes, I'm a twentieth-century-never-learned-how-to-cook slob; at least on Thanksgiving, unlike on Chuseok in Korea, the women, after fixing all the food, can eat with the men.)

The holidays are the hardest time to be away from your family and country.

Today, I called a halt to Cross-Country Club till spring. I'll be running all winter, but it's getting pretty cold and pretty dark pretty early and I wanted to stop before the kids get run over on the way back to school or, worse, quit. I loved actual cross-country coaching more than anything else I've ever been paid for; I lived for those fall days and mourned when each season was over. (This is a shout-out to all those Flashes and Jackets I helped coach... I love you guys!) :: sniff ::

This has hardly been the same; we've just gone out twice a week to the park and the stream and all but a couple of the kids have run a few minutes and walked and talked for a half-hour each day. Korean girls seem to think that running makes women muscle-bound. (Koreans also widely believe that your blood type determines your personality, getting rained on makes your hair fall out, and sleeping in a closed room with a fan on will kill you.)

I'll miss it, though... they're good kids and I like to think I (or the experience) helped them somehow. Maybe in the spring more of them will see how running can enrich their lives. If not, that's okay, too.

Meanwhile, I'm thankful for Monica, Stephanie, Susie, Ecllid, Leo the Swift, Yuri, and little Christina and Kelly (who hold hands everywhere they go-- sometimes while running), and for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Here we go again

I suppose that once in awhile I should write about something besides running. So I will. (Though I did have a fun hash on Saturday and a good 10K race with my friend Lauren on Sunday. It was... oh, right, right. Back on topic.)

As you know if you've been able to tear yourself away from Dancing With the Stars, the North dropped a bucketload of missiles on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island (two miles from North Korea and 70 or so from me) yesterday. The best guess I've seen online is that some generals did it to demonstrate their discontent with their loss of influence with the upcoming succession of Kim Young Jerk to replace his dad Kim Ug Ly. Two RoK marines were killed. I think about them and their families and about the fact that all of the boys we teach will be in the military in just a few years.

My friends abroad (I mean, back home) want to know how people are reacting and what it feels like to be here. I think it's like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the aftermath of a minor tremblor: will the other shoe drop? People go about their business and keep their ears open for further developments. Arirang, the English-language channel, devoted 15 minutes of the news to the attack, but didn't break into their regular shows.

I'm not scared, and absolutely everything spooks me: tall buildings, roller coasters, Snooki. The reason I'm not scared is that I don't think that the North's leaders are so bullgoose loony that they're suicidal. I know enough history to know that sometimes things just go much further than any sensible person anticipated, like the Civil War, World War I, and Sarah Palin. (Same joke twice: too much?) And the current RoK government is much more hard-line than its predecessors.

The US embassy sent us registered Yanks email that basically said they'll let us know if we need to bug out. I don't know how I could take flying out of here and leaving our kids behind. But I don't think that the bigwigs on either side of the border want to die; The North Korean leaders are capital-E Evil, so they wouldn't care, but the South Korean guys don't want hundreds of thousands of casualties. So I think it's going to be okay.

All the same, maybe I won't go tour the DMZ on our day off this Friday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harrier? Than what?

I realize that I've hardly been writing about anything but my running for awhile. Hell, I realize that I've been writing that I've hardly been writing about anything but my running for awhile. Why? Well, aside from school, which isn't always an entertaining topic, running is basically what I've been doing, and so much of my attention and time were devoted to marathon training. (Incidentally, that rescued Chilean miner who ran the New York City Marathon? He finished his race in the same time-- to the minute-- that I did mine. I didn't hold him back... I'm innocent of contributing to the delinquency of a miner.)

Aside from that, I have a tendency to go home in the gathering dusk after school and sit there, doing some work, shoveling a bucket of carbs down my gaping maw, and counting (nonexistent) flowers on the wall. That don't bother me at all.

Well, maybe a little... it's getting darker. And colder. And earlier.

On Saturday, at the invitation of my friend Shawn-- she's the one whose shoulder my head is on in the bus photo in my marathon post-- I attended the Yongsan Kimchi Hash House Harriers' (YKH3) hash.

Hashing, to put in very briefly and somewhat inadequately, is a recreation of hares and hounds, wherein beastly British pursue British beasts. A couple of runners (the "hares") take off from the starting point and fifteen minutes later the other runners (the "pack") head out in pursuit. The hares have marked the course with chalk and/or flour and/or shredded paper: turn this way; go straight ahead; STOP... the trail could go in any direction; go back three markings and try again... it's brilliantly laid out so that the fastest runners go ahead and check possible leads, than double back so the slower ones (NO, I'M NOT THE SLOWEST) can catch up and catch their breath.

So, picture this... a ritzy shopping area of Seoul, thousands of Koreans out in their fall/winter fashions, totally bewildered by forty or fifty Westerners. some wearing cat ears or carrying bedpans or rubber bricks around their necks (don't ask), running down the street blowing whistles and yelling "ON-ON" and and "ON ONE" and "TRUE TRAIL" loudly enough to be heard a block away.

We went down alleyways and by posh department stores, around a soccer field and through a traditional Korean village, through a busy subway station and on the trail up Namsan Mountain, down by the creek past the incredibly elaborate lantern festival...
(As it was daytime, the lanterns weren't lit up, but by the end of the after-run social, a lot of the runners were.)

Oh. My. God, you guys, it was...

So. Much. Fun.

I hadn't realized how long it had been since I had actually played at anything. No basketball, no tennis, no softball... and I wouldn't even count those games as pure play in the way I mean here. I'm thinking Frisbee, Hacky Sack, New Games... you do know what New Games were, don't you, you old hippie? Something that's just fun, with no score, no losers, no competition... prepping for a road race is rewarding, but it's work, constantly checking how far you've gone and how fast you've done it. This is pure fun, like dogs tussling over a stick or kids playing tag or Victoria's Secret Angels having a pillow... ah, never mind.

To tell the truth, I didn't love everything about the club. There's a constant raunchiness involved that seems very forced, very frat-boy, to me. Regulars use "hash names", generally very dirty ones, in lieu of their real names, and there are all kinds of rituals before and after the hash. I was hazed (noninvasively) because I was a Virgin. (Umm... that means a first-time hasher, not what you're thinking. I swear I'm not a lower-case-v virgin, though I suppose it's possible that it's grown back by now.)

As I may have young (under 40) impressionable readers, I'll forgo repeating the names or the jokes or the details of the rituals. I will say that there's a lot of beer involved and, in this particular hash club, a plastic dinosaur named Dick. After the hash, I completed a ceremony that theoretically involves draining a can of Bud Light and pouring the remnant over my head, so I've lost my Virginity, though I'm still No-Name Steve until I earn a hash name.

There are a couple of thousand H3 clubs all around the world, including several in Seoul. I think I'm going back to the YKH3 hash this Saturday, though this week's theme is Naughty Schoolgirl and I left my plaid skirt  back in Florida. Sometime soon I'll also check out the Southside H3 and maybe the Seoul H3, which is all male. (I hear that there's a 75-year-old guy who goes out with them every week.)


Monday, November 8, 2010

I'd better watch out, I'd better not cry

...I'd better not pout, I'm telling you why:

Obama is coming to town.

...and Merkel and Putin and, oh hell, Thatcher, right, she's still in charge, isn't she? And DeGaulle and Bismarck...

Well, anyway, the bigwigs are coming to my neighborhood next weekend; the G20 Summit is at the Seoul World Trade Center, which is just four miles or so from my apartment.

The US embassy sent out this warning:
The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in South Korea to safety and security issues related to expected public demonstrations around venues for the G20 Summit scheduled to be held in Seoul, November 11-12, 2010.  The expected demonstrations will disrupt travel and have the possibility of becoming violent.  The U.S. Embassy in Seoul recommends that if you are not directly involved with the G20 Summit, you should avoid host sites, including the Coex Center in Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, in south Seoul.  You should avoid areas near the Summit sites or areas where there are large gatherings or increased police presence.  This Travel Alert expires on November 13, 2010.
 I think every blog post is more interesting when it has a picture, don't you? they're closing off all streets within two kilometers and the traffic and buses are going to be FUBAR all week and I doubt I'll be going very far at all. I was at the COEX Mall, beneath the World Trade Center, yesterday, and they'd already installed metal detectors and were searching people trying to go up from the basement mall. We've also been cautioned to carry our ID with us at all times.

This is the closest brush with fame I've had since I shook hands with Teddy Roosevelt on my 18th birthday.

Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose

...any way you look at this, you're shoes:

...too much running may cause hallucinations.

My regular readers (both of you) may be getting tired of reading about my running, so I thought I'd give you a change of pace. (See what I did there?)

So I thought I'd write about other people's running.

Yesterday was the Joongang Marathon, the one I'd originally registered for before switching to the Chuncheon because of its more relaxed time limit. Of course, the Chuncheon had perfect, warm weather for watching and I ran that; the Joongang had perfect weather for running (cool, foggy, windy) and I watched that.

I went to the Olympic Stadium to hand off my bib to another Seoul Flyer, as someone's Chuncheon bib had been handed off to me. We Flyers (I say "we" though what I do can hardly be called flying) found each other in the mob of 30,000 people...
Here are a few of the 35 or so Flyers who attended, just outside the Olympic Stadium before the race.

...and then some went to the 10K, some to the marathon, and three lucky ducks (including me) to go find coffee.
...a pre-race fanfare you won't get in Boston.

One of the drawbacks to running a race in Korea is that the few spectators along the course are as stolid as cows unless a friend or family member runs past. The three on the right of the group picture, Shira, Zuleika, and I (and I swear most of the hair that's covered by the cap is brown) stood a hundred yards outside the stadium and screamed and yelled ("Chuweyo!", "Assa assa!", "Fighteeeeng!") and pounded our thunder sticks (umm... you do know I'm referring to those plastic inflatable noisemakers, yeah?) for everyone who came by. Runners just lit up, gave us thumbs up, high-fived us... they were so clearly thrilled to be appreciated for once, while the other Koreans on the sidelines stared at the crazy waegookin and took our pictures.

Then we went into the stadium to await the end of the marathon, which I'd have to say was a pretty damn good one:
I will say that there are few places emptier than an 80,000 seat stadium with 500 people in it. Still, Shira's urging me to run the Seoul International Marathon full course in March, and I have to say that the prospect of finishing in the stadium, on the track where Carl Lewis and FloJo and so many others ran, seeing myself on the JumboTron as I approach the finish line... hmm...

Yeah, they call it the JumboTron for the skinny runners, too.

OH! I almost forgot... I lightly rewrote my blog post called The Forty-Year Promise for local consumption and the Chosun Ilbo newspaper is going to print it (and pay me... something) in the booklet they're publishing about this year's Chuncheon Marathon. Hooray for me!

Monday, November 1, 2010

The forty-year promise

...aka The Long and Winding Road.

When I promised myself in 1969 that I'd run a marathon someday, it was a nebulous idea, a statement that I simultaneously meant and didn't take seriously. Finally, this last spring, when I bumped into a Korean runner my age who said he was a marathoner and asked if I was, too ("Anniyo... Five K"), it occurred to me to ask myself why not, why in the eleven years since I started running regularly again, it had been so easy to force my one-time promise into the back of my mind, where it got neglected on the shelf somewhere between "Mrs. Peel, we're needed" and Cleon Jones' .340 batting average for the Miracle Mets.

(Yes, I can do simple math, but "The forty-one-year promise" just didn't have the same ring to it.)

And so I got serious at last. I bought items I'd previously scorned as affectations, like a GPS watch and a hydration belt. I got up predawn on summer Sundays and ran till I'd lost ten percent of my toenails. I forced myself into a corner, telling my friends at school and on this blog what I was going to do, making it so I couldn't bear to not complete the run.

And so (drumroll) to the (pregnant pause) big day.

On Sunday the 24th, I got up at 4:00, determined above all to not miss the Seoul Flyers' bus to Chuncheon. Friends at work had told me I'd have no trouble finding a cab in our neighborhood even at that hour, but I didn't want to take any chances. In fact, it took nearly 30 seconds for a taxi to come by. I got to the rendezvous point by Ichon Station, north of the river, so early that neither the bus nor anyone else was there yet.

But the bus got there and the Flyers got there and we all got to Chuncheon together.
Los Volantes del Seoul, antes de la carrera. The guys wearing beige in the back left are actually US Army MP's, who sneaked into our picture. I got even, though... I beat at least four of them in the race.

It seemed a long, long wait for the race to begin, long enough for many trips to the men's, where I passed one of the East African guys who always take all the top spots in these things. (He was like an Italian greyhound, about 3'2" and 17 pounds.) There was more than enough time to take multitudinous pictures, as well. this one, a few of my girlfriends.

But finally it was time to get started. The 21,000 runners were sorted into ten groups, A-J, depending on their previous times. Naturally, I was in Group J. The "A" group took off at 10:00, but it was 10:20 before the "J" team moved from the holding field to the street...
...are you sure that this is the line for ABBA tickets?

...and fully 10:35 before we got to start. And, of course, all of 10:37 before the sun came out and it got hot.

Actually, it was the most gorgeous Indian-summer day imaginable, very soon in the low-to-mid 70s with not a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, ideal marathon weather is 50 degrees and overcast. (The next day it was 50 degrees and overcast.) The race only provided water stops once every five kilometers, with tables with cold, wet sponges halfway between each pair of water stops. It wasn't enough. Fortunately, Kerri of the Flyers had told me there were gas stations on the way where I could buy water and lent me a couple of bucks to do just that. I'm not sure I could have finished without that help.

The hard part for the first few miles was holding back, running three minutes fairly slowly, walking one minute, ad infinitum. Judging from my performance toward the end of the race, maybe I could have held back a little better. But the early run went well as we made our way out of the city of Chuncheon (population 250,000), past the soccer stadium, and up in among the mountains.

At the first water stop (and all the ones after), dozens of high-school-aged girls behind the tables were shouting, "Hi Steve! Hi Steve!" I couldn't figure out how they knew my name or why they were rooting for me; then it hit me: they were yelling "Fighteeeeng! Fighteeeeng!" That's the generic Korean word for "Let's go" or "You can do it" or "Kick ass" at such events. (At my first 5K in Seoul, the gift was a "KOREA FIGHTING" running shirt.) Like the English phrase "well-being", which in Korea is an adjective attached to any product that can remotely be claimed to be healthful, "fighting" has been pilfered from our language to mean something sorta kinda like it to the locals.

From roughly mile five to mile fifteen, the course was gorgeous, with the muted fall colors all over the looming mountains and the serpentine lake glittering below. It reminded me, almost, of home, or the Adirondacks. It. Was. Lovely. I didn't put on my iPod for a couple of hours because I didn't want to distract myself from the view and the feel of the course.
Here's a hint of the sun, the mountains, and a water stop after 18,000 or so runners had been through.

As I've written, though, rather warm, very sunny, and punishingly hilly are not the ideal conditions for distance running. In all of my training, I'd avoided hills as much as possible to save wear and tear on my legs and because I thought I was training for the (flat) Joongang Marathon two weeks later. I had my two 10-ounce bottles of water, but they weren't nearly enough.

Aside from the inadequate water supply and the utter lack of port-a-potties (thank goodness for --ahem-- being male), the race was very well run, with excellent markings and a course even I couldn't get lost on. Several times along the way, bands serenaded the runners, a traditional Korean drum-and-gong group in colorful outfits here, a Joan Jettish band of teens, inexplicably pounding away to All I Want for Christmas is You in Korean, there.

Then we hit the roads through the farmlands, and I might have thought I was in Burdett, New York, or Hastings, Florida. The locals, human, bovine, and canine-- though, fortunately, not ursine-- all looked at us runners as if we were crazy; clearly rural folks are pretty sharp. Aaaand we plodded on and on in the sun. I kept passing, then being passed, by the same people, mile after mile, as we were taking our walk breaks (planned, in my case) at different intervals.

After 16 miles or so, we reached the blessed shade as a mountain, wearing a huge net to protect passersby from falling boulders, loomed at our shoulders.The shade made all the difference in the world, but after a couple of miles it was time to get back in the sun, cross a long bridge, and start the long descent to the city. By this point, of course, we were all ticking off the kilometers (of the total 42.2) to the finish... twelve, eleven, ten, nine point eight, nine point six...) And it was getting harder and harder to keep running for the three minutes and harder and harder and harder to start again after the minute-long walk breaks.

The last four or five miles to the finish are sort of a blur. I remember that Chuncheon itself has all the charm of downtown Syracuse (hint: not much), that I was dying for water and found a gas station that sold me some, and that my calf tightened up so much that I had to walk-- hobble-- for a mile, which spoiled my hope of finishing in five and a half hours. (It was the horrible pounding of 26-plus miles on hard surfaces that nearly did me in.) But finally I was almost there...

I ran the last half mile. Frankly, I'd pictured it in my mind over and over: my friends (who were going to be at the Joongang race here in Seoul) lining the final stretch and calling my name, the utter joyful elation as I crossed the line, preferably collapsing in a heap of virtuous sweat and glory, Vangelis playing on the PA system... yeah, well. The only people I saw who knew me were Kerri and Shira of the Flyers, and they cheered their hearts out for five seconds, but another Flyer was fifty yards ahead of me and they almost didn't see me at all, so... no photo. (I swear I actually did the race, though.)

I do confess to getting a tiny bit teary-eyed as I neared the finish line, just, I guess, at the realization I had done something important to me, if to nobody else. But it felt too matter-of-fact, and I was too tired, to be ecstatic. I still haven't felt ecstatic. Why? Well, I never had a doubt that, barring a serious injury, I would make it. That just wasn't a possibility. But I did, and do, feel a quiet but deep satisfaction, and I think I always will; it only took 41 years, but I did it.
On the bus home: a beautiful smile from Shawn, left; quiet satisfaction, right.

What have I learned? Well, to train longer, for one thing; what with starting a little late and moving my race up two weeks, I missed about a month of training and one humongously long prep run. My split times for each five-kilometer stretch (38 minutes, 38, 38, 38, 39, 42, 43, 43) show that I may have been mentally and emotionally ready, but the body could have been a little more so. I've learned that all the training in the world can't account for outside influences such as mountains, heat, and lack of water... some runners boiled over like Studebakers in Arizona in July. I've learned that I-- and so, all of us-- can do more than expected if the will is only there. Five hours, forty minutes, forty-three seconds isn't quite Olympic-caliber, but... well, you know.

I ran a 10-K race yesterday, a week after the marathon, and did well. I'm running another 10-K in three weeks, and, I'm pretty sure, another marathon next year (maybe in five hours flat).

I've learned that I'm a runner.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The final countdown

So here I am, a little less than twelve hours before I have to leave the apartment and head to Chuncheon for the five-to-six-hour Moment of Truth. (I'm counting on my friends' advice that at 5 a.m., even in my neighborhood, I'll be able to find a taxi to take me to the Seoul Flyers' bus. I'd hate to train for six months and not be able to get out to the race.)

I'm pretty much as ready as I'm likely to be; I've trained well (albeit for a few weeks short of the full term due to switching races), I've got my stuff stacked by the door (wonder which indispensable item I'll forget), and there's not much left to do but fret.

This will come as a huge shock to you-- if you've never met me-- but I'm a worrier and, some less charitable souls would say, a whiner. There are several things to be concerned with:

-The ideal marathon weather is 50 degrees and cloudy; the forecast is for 72 degrees and sunny. Ordinarily that's what I would call a perfect Indian summer day, but there are no Indians in this country and my running a full marathon deserves a lot of adjectives, but "ordinary" isn't one of them. (Of course, a day later it's supposed to be in the 50s.)

-The Chuncheon course is very hilly, albeit (running as it does entirely around a long lake) beautiful...

Last year's Chuncheon... note the gorgeous scenery. I'll be noting the enormous hill.

-I'm used to having lots of water on a long run-- dehydration is a bad, bad thing in running-- and all they have is a water stop once every five kilometers (three-plus miles). (Did I mention it's going to be warm?) On the brighter side, the dearth of water may be a blessing in disguise, as there aren't any toilets on the course.

-There will be about 21,000 runners; I'll be starting somewhere around 20,900th; I hope the other Seoul Flyers don't get sick of waiting for me at the finish.

Still, I had a massage a few days ago so I'm a little less sore than I have been and my iPod and watch are fully charged. I hope I am.

I have a self-imposed code: I will never wear a shirt from a race I don't actually finish. I have the official Chuncheon Marathon fleece and two Flyers/Chuncheon long-sleeve t's and I'll be hornswoggled if I have to throw them out. 

I can't let myself not finish.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My six-word memoir

Came to Korea to orient myself.

A sunlightful weekend

One of my students, in his effort to write vivid English, accidentally created the word sunlightful.It's a beautiful word, no less so for its absence from any and all dictionaries. I like it. A lot. I'm using it from now on.

And it has indeed been a sunlightful weekend, with crisp fall weather and an abundance of sunshine. I've used my time.

I started the weekend as grumpy as Lewis Black in Hell. But, like the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who got turned into a newt, "I got better."

It started when I got a glorious Butterfinger Pancakes brunch date canceled out from under me on Saturday morning. My friends, if Heaven has a Denny's, it's Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam.  :: sigh ::

I moped about the apartment awhile, spectral pancakes dancing syruptitiously about my head, and finally decided I needed to go somewhere. My somewheres tend to be the same few places: Gangnam, the COEX Mall and Itaewon for books, E-Mart and Costco for everything else. This time I was hoping for a little exercise and something different; I've been dying for a good hike but haven't wanted to interfere with my marathon training (or, for that matter, turn an ankle or fall off a mountain or anything before the big race.) (Afterward would be fine.)

I poked around online and found a listing for Umyeonsan ("Sleeping Cow Mountain"), just one subway stop from our nearest station, Yangjae. So I went there.

This city is full of surprises... just a few minutes' walk from the Nambu Bus Terminal, I started up a steep dirt trail on Umyeonsan. Trails separate, rejoin, and wind around all over the mountain, with few signs, even in Korean. I had a vague idea of heading to Daesongsa, the mountain's Buddhist temple, but no idea how to get there. So I just headed up and up, the noise of the massive city all around receding and the sound of magpies and breeze growing stronger, winding around amidst the pine trees.

After a half hour or so, I came upon a signpost that said "Daesongsa" in hangeul. (Being able to read the writing, even though I don't usually know what the words mean, has proven time and again to be invaluable.)

Daesongsa is the smallest temple I've been to, a single building for worship, surrounded by a fountain, a one-story office suite, and a gift shop: a tiny outbuilding, with bracelets, incense, books, and tapes, that operates, unstaffed, on the honor system.

Click on the above photo twice-- not a double-click-- for a detailed closeup.

 (This is not me.)
 (Nor is this Tug.)

For a Saturday, there were remarkably few people around, on the mountain or on the temple grounds, which added to the serenity I get hiking in the woods and at Buddhist sites. After strolling around for a bit, I looked upward at the lovely Umyeonsan woods with their endless (steep) trails, thought about the badly-needed peace I might find there, thought about the (steep) trails... and headed down the paved road to the city below.

And that was my next surprise... like some cartoon of a shipwrecked man on a supposedly deserted shore who one day discovers a Club Med on the other side of the island, after a short downhill walk I found myself on the grounds of the Seoul Arts Center, with its opera and symphony halls, art museum, and plaza with coffee shops, restaurants, and dancing fountains. It was like stepping forward a thousand years in five minutes. This, for example... a pedestrian bridge just down the block from the Arts Center; it's just a tad more modern than the temple grounds so close by.


Today is one week to the marathon (my five-plus-hour moment of truth), and the Seoul Flyers held their monthly social get-together on the Yongsan Army base, the US military's premier outpost in Korea. I'd never been on an army base before; Yongsan is huge, determinedly American, and mostly rundown (some of the buildings were erected by the Imperial Japanese occupiers 90 years ago.)

Our host Jim led ten or so of us on a "history hash", running around the steep roads and stairs of the base and stopping while he explained its buildings and its history. Our army has put every last building, even the stockade (the tiny prison building the Japanese put up, still with iron bars on the windows) to use and some of the soldiers live in little quonset huts.

The rest of the afternoon brought me:

-veggie dogs (my contribution)
-Boca Burgers (my first in two-plus years!)
-the race kit for Chuncheon-- booklet, timing chip, race bib (I'm Joseph Burchmeier now, as I could only enter the race by buying the number of a Flyer who had to withdraw), and a Chuncheon fleece jacket, which sadly is lavender in color but is otherwise lovely
-my official Seoul Flyers running shirt
-deviled eggs
-apple crumble
-cherry pie
-nice people
-new friends
-an invitation from my brand-new good friend Shawn to join the Southside Hashers running group, which conducts running-and-beer sessions on my side of the river every weekend.

If you know anything about me, you know that very few things in life are worth more to me than new friends... fortunately, free shirts and pie are among those few things.

(Mostly joking here. Mostly.)

So... one week to Chuncheon, confident and a tad nervous... and it's been a very sunlightful weekend indeed.

(Did I mention the pie?)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

...but words can never hurt me

...yeah, right.

The recent news about bullied gay teens killing themselves reminded me of a recent incident on Facebook.

A month or two ago, a girl I taught six or eight years ago in St. Augustine posted an angry status update about a guy who cut her off in traffic. She called him a "faggot". She didn't mean she could tell he was gay; it was just a term of scorn, the same way teens say something's "gay" when they mean it's weak or stupid.

I posted in response that I wished she'd picked a different word. A Friend of hers (unknown to me) responded that I should lighten up, that it's only a word and words don't matter.

Well, I've spent the last twelve years of my work life telling people that words do matter. The language of Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Tug McGraw ("Ninety percent of my salary I'll spend on Irish whiskey and women; the rest, I'll probably waste") matters.

Don't tell the families of the dead kids that words can never hurt them.

Here in Korea, men have a completely different outlook from American men when it comes to expressing affection and to masculinity. Boys in school pat each other's hair and sit with their arms around each other. I saw a ballplayer sitting on his teammate's lap in the dugout. (Highly unlikely with, say, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.) Heck, men wear pink shirts. (To use a common expression among the kids, "OMG!") Some of the boys wear earrings and, I think, a little makeup and spend longer in front of the mirror than I do at an all-you-can- eat brunch bar.

But gayness per se (that is not pronounced "Percy") is an utter taboo. Some older people believe that it didn't exist here till Americans brought it over. I know some gay expats, mostly women, but the gay Koreans keep themselves pretty well hidden (though I hear there are a few gay bars in Seoul for people who know where to look). In a culturally and ethnically monolithic society, being different in any way is frowned on. This particular challenge to tradition is several steps beyond.

For myself, frankly, it took a while to move from snickering about "homos" when I was a kid to realizing that sexual preferences have nothing to do with morality, that everyone deserves happiness, and that it's none of my damn business who you want to sleep with.

What's in our hearts is more important than who's in our beds.

The undiscovered country

Today is October 12, which used to be Columbus Day when I was in high school. (Columbus landed on Hispaniola when I was in elementary school.) But perhaps the less said, the better about how he didn't find the Mysterious East, he wasn't the first European in the place he did find, and what he did to the people there. Let's just say I'm glad the Big Ten school I attended wasn't in a city named after him. (The city was named after two women and a bunch of trees. I like women and trees.)

At any rate, I myself found the Mysterious East two years ago. And, like Columbus, I have an undiscovered country of my own. In my case, the undiscovered country is me... my nerve, my guts, my determination. And I'll be setting foot in this country in twelve days. (Assuming I can get to the Seoul Flyers' charter bus by 6 a.m., before the buses and subways run and before cabs are cruising the neighborhood.)

I'm pretty confident about the marathon, even though I cut the training short by a few weeks. I think I can finish in 5:20 to 5:30; I guess I'll find out soon enough. My lower back's been killing me lately (and yesterday I missed my first day in fourteen months at St. Paul) but that doesn't seem to hurt, or be hurt by, my running.

Reading these brief paragraphs, they seem rather melodramatic, but in the words of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, "Then I figured, what the hell." So I'll let them stand. It does occur to me that, though you'd never know it from the Star Trek movie by this title, according to Hamlet, the undiscovered country is :: ulp :: death.

But I think I'm gonna be fine.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


My longest training runs hadn't been going to plan; I could only do 17 miles when I was supposed to do 20 and 20 when I was supposed to do 23. So it was with some trepidation that I set out on a planned 26-mile run/walk (three minutes running, one walking) on at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. But immediately I felt as if this time I was going to make it; the heat and humidity were way down and I felt strong.

I made my way back and forth and forth and back again along the Yangjae Cheon path between home and Gwacheon City, four miles to the southwest. I spent some time navigating the track at the Gwacheon soccer stadium, watching the local club teams play; I saw the Blue forward and the Yellow goalie crunch together in a (possibly rib-cracking, definitely game-ending) collision.

I was about 16 miles into the challenge when my good friend Chris called; he'd promised to come out on his bike and keep me company. He'd actually told me he'd ride with me the whole way, but as nearly six hours of biking at 13 minutes per mile isn't exactly a fun way to spend Sunday, I'd told him I only needed a boost near the end of the run.

And so Chris came out, bless him, on his bike and rode along, encouraging me from Gwacheon almost to the Han River in central Seoul and back again to our neighborhood...

And. I. Did. It. I made it the whole marathon distance, 26 miles on my GPS watch in 5 hours, 50 minutes 51 seconds, plus an extra quarter-to-half mile through tunnels and under bridges, where the GPS freezes up.

It was the greatest athletic triumph of my life, at least since I made a home run in kickball (all the way to Mrs. Bell's classroom, you guys!) in :: koff :: 1959. I guess I'm allowed one athletic triumph every fifty years or so. I guess I should have been ecstatic when I finished, but I was so exhausted that a quiet glow of satisfaction was all I could muster. And I still feel it; it's outlasted the soreness.

...and the real marathon approaches, step by step, inch by inch... still moving faster than I do, however.

I can't believe it's not Buddha

After our monstrous rain on the first day of autumn, the weather miraculously stayed beautiful for the rest of our Chuseok vacation week. It was sunny and crisp, just the kind of gorgeousness we've learned to relish but not expect. Fall truly is beautiful here (although the leaves don't get spectacular), and all the more so because it's all too brief.

On Thursday, I discovered the correct bus number to go from our neighborhood to the COEX Mall. (The city government has a website that allegedly tells you how to get from anywhere to anywhere by bus, but it works about as frequently as Kim Jong Il hosts a pie-eating contest.) My destination was Bandi and Luni's Bookstore, my purpose to get the third book in Steig Larsson's oddly compelling The Girl Who... mystery series.

I still had the excellent Seoul map we used on our school photo scavenger hunt and I was amazed to see that Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple, was right across the street from the COEX Mall/Seoul World Trade Center, which I had visited often. It had been so long since my happy trips to Donghwasa, on the outskirts of Daegu, that I just had to visit Bongeunsa.

The first amazing thing about Bongeunsa is simply that there is a serene, bucolic temple compound right in the middle of one of the most upscale shopping areas in this huge, materialism-mad city. Down the street, you find Jaguar and Porsche dealers, ritzy department stores, the city's poshest hotels, and off in the distance, the huge Olympic Stadium. It's hard to imagine a less likely place for renouncing material goods.

The second amazing thing is that, as I entered the temple, the middle-aged Korean woman at the information desk noticed my "Ithaca is Gorges" t-shirt and asked if I was from Ithaca. I was startled, but (suave devil that I am) recovered and cleverly said, "Yes, I am." She said, "My son is at Cornell!" It's a small weird, after all.

She also told me about the temple's outreach program, in which foreign visitors take part in a tea ceremony, talk with a monk, and meditate. It sounds interesting and it only takes two hours... unfortunately, they hold it every Wednesday and I was there on Thursday; my next Wednesday off isn't until after Christmas. As usual, my timing was peccable.

Although Bongeunsa can't match Donghwasa's grandeur (as the latter is set among the birdsong and little waterfalls of the mountains), the Seoul temple grounds have their own charms. There's a tremendous sense of serenity on the property, with only the traffic noise outside the walls disturbing the crunch of gravel underfoot and the aura of peace that comes from so many hundreds of years of meditation.

I've written in passing before of my affinity for the philosophy of Buddhism: detachment, a peaceful mind, acceptance, living in the moment, and (above all) compassion. I fail at these goals often, but at least I know what I would like to be.

The trappings of the actual religion (the inevitable golden statues and incense, the bowing to a man who instructed his disciples not to worship him, the often-grotesque art, the extremely unlikely cosmology) repel me as much as the philosophy appeals to me. I think that ritual-- of any kind-- just turns me off.

...Tug likes this painting, though.

So I guess I'll never be a capital-B Buddhist, but the Dalai Lama and, especially, the wonderful Thich Nhat Hanh speak to me in a way that probably no other spiritual leaders do. And I love that Buddhism instructs us to renounce our egos and accept our place in the universe, rather than to place ourselves at its center.

Hey, look at me! Look at me! I'm renouncing my ego!

After my visit, I crossed the street to the dazzling neon-LED-jewelry-fashion-go-go-go underground world that is the COEX Mall and got my Larsson book (as well as a book called Buddha or Bust). I went placidly among the noise and haste and remembered what peace there may be in silence.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I'll say this for the Koreans; they're punctual. The monster rain of two days ago washed away the incessant summer in a single day; the equinox, the First Day of Fall, was the first day of fall.

My run yesterday revealed to me the ravages of the storm. The Yangjae Cheon had subsided, barely, back into its banks, though parts of the path were hamster-deep in mud. The lower expanse of the wooden railing along the ramp down to the stream had snapped off. A manhole cover on the path had popped out of its hole and was resting five feet away. Farther east, the two arched bridges above the water had their railings festooned (actually, "completely covered" is a more accurate description, but one so seldom has an opportunity to use the word "festooned") with dead weeds and orange floats that had broken loose in the water. The swimming pools alongside the stream were coated with mud that had washed down from the slopes above. Trees were uprooted. And I saw a turtle on the path.

Okay, a turtle, technically, is not so much a ravage as it is a reptile. I didn't want to leave the little guy (he was about the size of my hand) on the path, for fear a bike would run him over or somebody would take him home and eat him. (For once, I'm not being facetious here.) (Actually, using "festooned" and "facetious" in the same post is pretty impressive, don't you think? You may think I'm showing off, but I haven't even used the word "detritus".) (And this is my third consecutive parenthetical remark.) My friend, perhaps shell-shocked from the storm, was pointing along the course of the path as if he were walking toward the Han River, six miles away. I figured, though, that he really wanted to get across and tried to think like a turtle, which is quite different from my usual hare-brained approach. I figured he'd moved away from the flood waters and was now trying to get back to the creek, so I picked him up and put him in the long grass near the stream.

(I don't mean to be sexist by assuming he was a "he"; he was wearing black and dark green, really butch colors, so I guessed he's a boy. [How the hell can turtles tell that when they meet each other, anyway?])

Yesterday was gray and cool, maybe a little depressing due to the whole "dead plants and mud" motif; the area was a ghost town, with half the inhabitants on the road for Chuseok and everything but the convenience stores closed. I put on jeans and two layers of shirts in the evening, and later slept under a blanket, for the first time since spring. This morning has dawned sunny and cool and I might even find the energy to chase halfway across Seoul to the Veggie Group picnic.

I have four days of beautiful, cooler, sunny weather ahead before we all go back to school. I intend to use them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Chu-soak

It's 9 a.m. on the morning of Chuseok, I've been up for two hours, and I haven't seen a single person walk by on the street or in the park. It's not raining now,

As these captures from local tv demonstrate, we've had a bit of rain. It hasn't been nearly as bad in our neighborhood; I guess all the rain in our area drains right into the Yangjae Cheon. We haven't had flooded streets or anything, but it's been nasty. A low-lying area by the stream was already under water when I went for my run at 10 a.m. yesterday, and then the sky opened up as it does in Florida and it rained for hours and hours as it does in Ithaca and oh, my galoshes, it was wet.

The Korea Times says that parts of Seoul got ten inches of rain yesterday.

I was delighted to get a dinner invitation from Nikki, our art teacher, and her husband Dex, who will be our art teacher for a couple of months while Nikki's out having a baby. As I took the five-minute walk to Costco to get a dessert to take (Boston cream pie!) the rain permeated my umbrella and dripped right through onto my head.

Nikki and Dex were in Zach's old apartment, the big one by the school that I had passed on because two and a half people need the space more than one person and a cat. They had just had their ceiling patched up, but when I got there, they had a bucket on a big tarp to catch the rapid dripping coming through. The stairs all the way up to their fourth-floor flat were soaking wet; water had cascaded down the stairs all the way to the ground.

I lived for over fifty years in, first, the grayest town north of Robert E. Lee's pocket, and then the humidity of the hurricane belt, and I've never seen anything like the soaking, squishy weather we've had here for the last couple of months. We're all really sick of it and we wish to complain to the management.

As for the dinner, it was very nice; Dex had prepared tofu and traditional Korean veggies, and did I mention the Boston cream pie(!)? I'm very proud-- I bought it myself. After dinner, we played a Korean ripoff of Monopoly called, in Korean letters, "Ho-tael Gae-im". Who knew that Dex, who looks as if he just time-warped from Woodstock, was such a ruthless capitalist? Or that the two most valuable cities on Earth (the game's Boardwalk and Park Place) are Seoul and Busan? The fun part was constantly having to figure out with every transaction, that, for example, "150 man Won" is 1.5 million.

So it's Wetsday, halfway through our week off, and it's cool (temps in the low 60s... maybe blessed fall is here at last. I believe that we're caught up on precipitation till, say, November.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Seoul survivors

Our school has the week off for Chuseok, Korea's big holiday, on which Seoul empties out as everyone visits their families in their ancestral homes. In the days leading up to the day itself, Costco and E-Mart make it impossible to check out-- Costco's lines on Saturday morning stretched literally three-quarters of the way back through the store, and every cart was overflowing, especially with gift packs of delicacies like this:
I don't know why Spam is the epitome of fine dining in Korea. I hesitate to speculate.

(Speaking of Spam, imagine my delight in learning that Monty Python's Spamalot will shortly be playing here on stage, and my disappointment upon realizing that, of course, it will be entirely in Korean. Python's chaotic enough already.) But, as I always look on the bright side of life...

I've been busy. Last Thursday, Vanessa, our Chinese Chinese teacher, came over to translate for the cable guy, who was here to hook up my new cable and Internet. It's ten bucks cheaper than the old company's service and allegedly has faster 'net (not that I've noticed) and a better channel lineup. Well, it's got more English-language channels, including news from Russia, news from China, the Australia Channel, and EuroSport (German ping pong at last!)

All you need to know about what Koreans care about in the Western world is that the system carries CNBC and Bloomberg but not CNN; it's reminiscent of Kyobo Books, which has bookcase after bookcase of Anglophone business books but a measly fiction section in which Sidney Sheldon is considered a hot author. (But I digress... I lost a bunch of good Korean tv channels. At least there's BBC Entertainment, so I get an hour a week of Doctor Who from two years ago. Vanessa must have spent three or four hours last week helping Lauren, Bob, and me get the new hookup.

I'm glad the flag bearer on the left has made good use of the mustache I donated.

We had no classes on Friday; instead, we divided the students. Um, I mean into groups... let's not get grisly here. I had a group with Faina, our new English teacher, and Ron, the principal and his wife, Jill, and Faina's and my homeroom kids.
Faina's on the left. I dunno who's on the right... short white hair... apparently it's my dad. Huh.

All of the groups had the task of taking photos of themselves at well-known spots all around the historic center of Seoul. Our group was doing great until, after two and a half hours afoot and 15 shots, the kids ran out of energy and decided to, first, squabble about where to go next, and, secondly, spend a half hour of our precious time at McDonald's. We finished second, and by the time everyone got home, we were all happy to have survived the trek.

Tug's worn out, too.

On Saturday, I carted two packs of veggie dogs up the hill above Itaewon to the Margaritaville-themed social of the Seoul Flyers running club. I'd met a few of them at my last race but haven't been able to join the group runs. The get-together was at a lovely apartment right near Mount Namsan and Seoul Tower. Jae, the president (and everyone else I met) was friendly and helpful, and the Heineken and daiquiris flowed freely. I'd hoped to clear up some confusion-- should I do the marathon like this: run at nine-and-a-half-minute-mile pace for four minutes, walk a minute, all the way through, as I've been training for? Or just do 11-minute miles with no walking?

Jae's on the left, too. (When did I start to look like Tim Robbins?)

I'm delighted to say that I came away twice as confused as I went in... Jae, who hates run/walk, thought I should run the whole way. Shira, who likes run/walk, thought I should run/walk. In addition, Jae suggested that I appropriate one of the race entries of someone who had to cancel out of the Chuncheon Marathon, which I tried to enter two days too late. Chuncheon is two weeks earlier than the Joongang I'm registered for, has a prettier course, and allows six hours, not five, to finish. So now what? Try the run/walk there and if it doesn't work, the slower run in the Joongang? Two marathons in 15 days? What about my work friends who said they'll come out to cheer me on in the Joongang? They're not going to take an hour-long bus ride into the countryside for the Chuncheon...
People who are faster than I am are on the left. And the right. And directly in front of me... as usual.

Oh, my brain hurts. And my knee. And my calves are a little tight. And a few of the students have been giving me a pain in the...

On Sunday, I ran my six miles, got caught up with Lauren over coffee, and then wasted half of the day looking all over town for a couple of items I couldn't find in any stores. Today, well... no run, no Lauren, found one item.

I've been afraid of having nothing to do all week while the locals travel, but Nikki and Dex have invited me to their apartment tomorrow for grilled tofu, and the Seoul Veggie Club is having a Chuseok Day picnic on Thursday (on top of the buffet lunch ten days ago). And, dammit, I've got lots to do... that German ping pong isn't going to watch itself. long from me and from Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robojohn on the Yangjae Cheon

I don't know what I'd do without the Yangjae Cheon, the stream that runs northeastward from Gwacheon City to the river. From Gwacheon, it's four miles to the ramp near the teachers' apartments, another five to Jamsil Stadium and the Olympic Stadium, and one more to the Han River. The path alongside is filled with runners, walkers, dogwalkers, bicyclists, skaters, and on several occasions lately after incessant rains, swiftly flowing brown water five feet too high and five times too wide.
You can see the plants the river flattened at its high point; the stream here is usually just fifteen feet wide.

A couple of weeks ago, we got grazed by a typhoon. (That's called a hurricane in your hemisphere, gang... sure glad I escaped Florida!) The stream was far higher by 7 a.m. than in this video clip, and the US Army website said that the storm would be coming onshore near Seoul around 3 p.m. With buckets of rain blowing sideways and tree limbs down when I got up in the morning and the worst still to come, I couldn't believe that we'd have school... but what I had awakened to was the tail end, not the onset, of the storm.

The typhoon uprooted a tree, which stretched at chest height across the ramp down to the path, from the slope on the south side to the top of the railing on the north; it took three days for it to be removed, and I wonder if in the meantime any unwary bicyclists got a faceful of tree trunk as they sped down the ramp.

Other than at these flood times, the Yangjae Cheon is the only place I run. It's a great gift in a city this size to have mile after mile of car-free pedestrian trail. Large segments of the path are rubberized, which makes a big difference to my knees. Toward the river from our ramp, the path by the water is cement, but at various elevations there are long softer segments underfoot. There's a long stretch with sunflower lights: tall light poles with solar panels that power the lamps, with big metallic sunflower petals surrounding the round solar panel arrays.

Across the stream from the sunflowers, there's a touchscreen video display that offers shopping and weather information and interactive maps. Near there, I just discovered a newly installed robojohn: a big box with a slot to insert a 100-Won (eight-cent) coin. There's a metal plate that, in Korean, English, and Chinese, explains that your eight cents buys you ten minutes of private time in the unisex john; at the end of ten minutes, the door pops open (yike!) though you can insert another eight cents for ten more minutes. (Ten minutes seems ample, however, for standard usage...) After you exit the facility, it's automatically cleaned and disinfected before the next visitor arrives. I picture an army of eager little Loobots popping out of the walls to do their sanitation duties.

It's not the only odd, offputting, or charming thing I've seen on my runs, bike trips, and walks along the Yangjae Cheon, though. There have also been:

Senior citizens practicing tai chi under a bridge at 7 a.m. on Sundays. Very serene.

Instrumentalists playing classical music under a bridge, which incidentally provides great acoustics.

A guy playing jazz clarinet in the tile-lined tunnel, which incidentally provides fantastic acoustics, on the path to Gwacheon.

Two thousand Koreans in and around the swimming pool complex by Citizen's Forest Park; this happened every day all summer till the pools were closed, ironically, due to too much water. (Once the muddy river gets into your pool...)

Cops (I think) in riot gear with Kevlar vests and (I think) AK-47s getting off a bus.

Hundreds of young men in crew cuts and camo getting on buses next to the pool complex; I guess they were just leaving home for their two-year hitches.

Somehow, though, I guess I'd pick the futuristic toilet as the most striking sight on the Yangjae Cheon.

Call it a process of elimination.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

" "

Schadenfreude is a good word. English doesn't have a word meaning "taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune", but German does. It's funny how such a universal feeling lacks a word in the world's wordiest language.

I need a word, one that means "fantastic, but not good enough". It's nine weeks till the marathon and today the plan had me running (with walk breaks) 23 miles, slowly. I made it to 20, plus another two-plus miles of walking home. I started at 5:45 a.m. and it was already sticky; after 45 minutes, the electronic sign on Gwacheon City's bridge said it was 78 degrees, with 86 percent humidity. And then the sun came up. And out. By the time I got home at 11:30, the computer said the temp was 84, though the humidity was down to a Phoenix-like 68. Once again, with all the right gear (Gatorade, water, energy gels, Cool-Max clothes, microfiber sweat cloth), I just ran out of gas. Anyway...

I know I should be proud, and I am; I'm almost 57 and, for that matter, overweight. I had never done over ten miles until a couple of months ago and I don't know too many people of any age who could go for 20. But I don't see how in the world (even on this side of the world) 20 miles at almost 14 minutes per is going to translate into 26 (and 385 yards!) at the required 11 per. And completing this marathon has been my major personal goal for four months already... or 40 years, depending on how you look at it.

Plus, I'm hobbling around now like Larry King's great-grampa with a bear trap on his foot.

Anybody know the right word? Right now, all I can say is "               ".

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Let the river run

It's ten weeks to M-Day and my schedule calls for me to run six miles, including one mile at (what is for me a) high speed. The alarm went off at 6:00, I struggled awake, got into my gear, and headed out... and a minute after I got out the door, it started to rain. I'll run in the rain if I have to, but an hour in sopping wet shoes isn't ideal, so I turned around and went in to wait... and wait... and wait... and wait... and wait it out.

Hour after hour, I corrected papers and planned and ate breakfast and surfed the 'net and read, checking every five minutes to see if the downpour had stopped. It hadn't. It was a strong, soft rain, coming straight down without fuss or spectacle.

By 2:30 or so it finally stopped, so I got my gear back on and headed down to Yangjae Cheon (Stream), only to find it flooded, wall to wall, a genuine river, if only for a few hours.

It's funny, metaphorically we know about rivers of blood and the river of time and the river of dreams... what's the metaphor for a river of... water?

Every minute or so, some poor soul or other would come tooling along on a bike, eager to shake off the rust of a day spent looking out at the rain... wait a minute, wouldn't there be rust from being in the rain... ah, never mind... somebody would come along, looking forward to a nice ride along the stream, and come to a skidding halt on the ramp, a big black interrobang forming overhead, and turn around and go back.

I made my way on the streets and sidewalks and through Citizens Forest Park to the rubberized surface above the water a mile from home and put in my time there, around and around, down the path and over the bridges and through the woods, to grandmoth... ah, never mind. I'll fix that in editing.

And finally, six miles and 62 minutes later, with the sun shining for the first time in years, I made it home, got my camera, and headed back down to Yangjae Cheon to take a few pictures... which may have been a tactical mistake after an hour of humid running... disheveled and bedraggled isn't a great look for me. Oh, and craggy... don't forget craggy. You do gotta love the Alfalfa cowlick, though...
Apres le deluge, moi.

(Everything to the right of that strip of grass by my head is usually the running path.)