Sunday, May 23, 2010

One step at a time

As my longtime friends know, I can be terribly indecisive. (Or possibly not.) Sometimes it takes me forever to reach a decision and then even after I've made it I can't stop worrying over whether it was the right one and whether I should rethink it. I've fretted more often than Eric Clapton.

Lately I've been wrestling with which marathon to enter and whether to move to a much bigger apartment that's coming open in August. I have been going back and fifth over both of these questions many times; before that, it was where to go on my June break (to see family in California) and how much to ask for in my next contract (and that's done satisfactorily for all parties).

Somehow just moving, running, getting stronger and tougher, literally step by step, made up my mind for me. In the last four days, I've run 20 miles (four, seven, five, and four, respectively) and, without much work, the answers have come to me. Tomorrow I'm going to enter the Joongang Seoul Marathon in early November, even though they don't allow anyone on the course for over five hours (which might be a near thing for me), rather than the Chuncheon Marathon, which is run an hour outside the city in late October. And I'm going to suggest that the school let Nicki and Dex, who are expecting, have the big apartment. They need it more and, despite the hellish Pac-Man-bejingled bicycles, which are playing the mindless tune at this very moment, at 10:45 p.m., I kinda like where I live; how much space do a largish guy and a largish cat need, after all?

Two years ago, I struggled in my runs to break 11 minutes per mile; now I'm consistently doing each mile, up to seven of them so far, in 10 minutes each. I've never in my life run as many miles in four days as I just have, and weather permitting I'll be back out with the cross-country kids tomorrow. I've never felt this fit, though maybe if I stopped rewarding myself with a pint of ice cream whenever I feel like it...

I've set my own reward for a good day's run: I get to air drum to If I'd Been the One by .38 Special on my iPod as I do my cool down. As a side effect of the running, I make decisions.

I'm movin' on up, to the (Far) East Side.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vicious cyclist


I had my quarterly appointment today to get my meds prescriptions re-upped. After school, I rode my bike the 20 minutes to Yangjae subway station and left it chained to the railing outside McDonald's. I figured in such a public place, with hundreds of people walking by, it would be perfectly safe.

I took the subway to St. Mary's Hospital, got the prescriptions and had them filled, and took the subway back. When I got back to my bike... the seat was missing! Some lovely citizen had stolen the saddle, the post, and the taillight attached to the post.

I just stood there, blinking, for awhile, not quite registering what I was seeing. (What's wrong with this picture?) Why in the heck would anybody want my bike seat?

After awhile I stopped standing that scratching my head like Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel and saying "Oy, doy..." and figured, however annoying it was, I could walk the bike ten minutes to the bike shop and get a new seat. But the bike shop had to order a new saddle; it's going to take two days and the whole setup will cost half of what I spent for the entire bike a couple of weeks ago. So I had to walk the bike another twenty minutes and leave it on the balcony of my classroom... and I forgot to unstrap my meds from my 85 percent of a bike and take them home because, well, you know... oy doy.

One of our students, a very nice kid named Josh, told me that I shouldn't leave the little headlight on the handlebars because somebody would take it. Shows what he knows; I've still got that.

Meanwhile, proving that there is no justice in this world, the infernal bikes that incessantly play the Pac-Man theme are still working, still blasting away at my sanity.

I wonder if the seats come off.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nexen's the one?

I'd like to thank the Mets for getting me in gear yesterday; I'd planned to ease into Saturday by watching their game online, but they considerately fell behind 7-0 very quickly, which sprung me early from my Web-induced trance.

I had a good long run. Or a good, long run. I now know all the parks in the neighborhood and, along the stream, all the rubberized-surface areas and where the shade's likely to be at various times of day. This time, I ran six and a half miles without ever getting more than a mile or so away from home, winding around the water and through the parks wherever my whimsy and my Asics took me.

I'm adding five minutes each week to my weekend long run in preparation for the marathon. This one was 65 minutes and it felt good. There's a feeling of strength and satisfaction and, I guess, virtue after such an outing; it's a pity for newcomers that the eleventh through, say, thirtieth minute can feel like such a slog that many people give up running entirely. At any rate, this run felt really good, though by the end my calf muscles were tighter than shrink wrap.

So, a little later, I thought it might be a good day to get a massage. That's been a challenge here: most "massage" places aren't... um, erm... legitimate, featuring more "happy endings" than Meg Ryan's filmography. The massage therapists generally don't speak English and tend to be very, very forceful; I've seen them at the jjimjilbangs using what appears from a distance to be steel wool. My Korean skills don't extend to "I'd like a fairly gentle, stress-releasing, completely PG- rated rubdown from a licensed practitioner, please." But my shoulders are boulders, my lower back is always sore, and my calves... well, just say I prefer it when I can walk normally.

I'd received a brochure for a legit therapeutic massage place, and talked to the personable, Anglophone owner, at the 5K race a few weeks ago in Bundang. His studio is in Itaewon, just a couple of blocks from What the Book and the Foreign Food Market, so I headed over there. ("Over there" is roughly as far away as Over There was for George M. Cohan's doughboys in 1917.) When I got to Sky Massage, it turned out that the Chinese guy who's very good but really rough-- my fellow teacher Susan got a quick rubdown from him after the 5K and said it hurt like hell-- was there, but Maureen, who sounds as if her skills are exactly what I need, is in the States. So I'll try again in a week or two.

The trip to Itaewon wasn't a waste, however, as at I got a Runner's World magazine, a couple of Robert B. Parker paperbacks, and a Korean "phrasebook" on cd for transfer to my iPod, at What the Book, and a lot of prepackaged curry from India at the food mart.

My big outing for the weekend was supposed to be a trip with our principal Ron and his family to the Twins-Giants game at the stadium; Michelle at work called on Friday for tickets, but they were already sold out. That was certainly unexpected, and probably due to the Giants' fans, who are the most devoted in Korea. The Giants play all the way down in Busan, but their supporters travel all over to support them, generally wearing inflated orange plastic bags on their heads at the games... yeah, I don't know, either.

Anyway, Saturday was so beautiful, 75 degrees and sunny, and there I was in mid-afternoon in Itaewon, full of energy, that I decided to take the subway 'way out to southwestern Seoul to see how the "other" team in town does what they do.Their guests were my old friends, the Samsung Lions from Daegu.

The Nexen Heroes are the sad sacks (Sad Sox?) of Korean baseball. In 28 years, they've played in three cities and been known as the Sammi Superstars, Chongbo Pintos, Hyundai Unicorns, Woori Heroes, the Heroes of Seoul (the only team ever not to have a corporate sponsor) and, as of a week before the season started, the Nexen (tire company) Heroes. The fans' plastic sticks are translucent and cheap-looking; they look like somebody inflated condoms for a health-class lecture. Their mascot is a ridiculous big-headed, jutting-chinned guy who looks like the love child of Clutch Cargo and Jay Leno; the back of his head is lightning-bolt shaped, as if he had some hideous accident during birth.

I swear the only reason I took this video is so you could get a glimpse of the Nexen Hero in the bottom-right corner in the final second. Honest.

I suppose that, as the patron sinner (I'm no saint!) of lost causes, I ought to adopt the Heroes as my team. But their park is way, way too far away for them to be my home team, I hate their Redskins' colors, their mascot and their name, and as a lifelong Met, Ranger, Knick and Big Red fan and Democrat, I think I've suffered enough. This matters to no one but me, but I don't know if I'm a Bears (my home team) fan or a Lions (my first home team) fan when it comes down to it. For this day, I was a Lions fan.

The Heroes' park is, in size and amenities, between the Bears' (and Twins') modern stadium, which was built for the '88 Olympics, and the Lions' dump back in Daegu. On this day, I sat among the rabid Lions fans (note: the "rabid" is lower case; the team is not the Rabid Lions) and, with my back to an aisle and an empty seat on either side, it was a lot more enjoyable than at the games at the big ballpark with thunder sticks thundering right in my ears. I'd guess that 10,000 of the 18,000 seats were filled and more fans came the 200 miles from Daegu than from the area around the ballpark. Sad Sox, indeed.

So I had a great time, I learned some new fan sing-alongs (to the tunes of Sing Sing Sing, Red River Valley, and, my favorite, Cum on Feel the Noize), and the Lions prevailed 5-0. Sixteen more subway stops and eight hours after I'd left, I made it back home, tired but sated.

Today? Another beautiful day, had coffee with Lauren, planning to watch the new Doctor Who episode and take a shorter run and, later, a bike trek to the park out west to grade papers in the sun. Another good weekend... and the Pac-Man beepety-beep from those awful bike machines isn't even bugging me as much as it did at first... though they're no walk in the park.

Life's (mostly) Good in the shadow of the LG building.


Later that evening...

The run was kinda cool; I came upon a Korean man who was tired on his run and had started walking; when I reached him, he started running again and we ran together for 20 minutes, having a nice though halting conversation in his limited English and my entry-level Korean. Mr. Gwang is 55 and grew up in the grinding poverty after the war. ("Grinding poverty" is my phraseology.) He's a nice guy and it's good to run with somebody, even somebody you don't know. He was kind enough to be impressed that I could read "Gwacheon Marathon" in Korean letters on the vests of runners passing us... but, damn, that's two marathons I had no notice of within blocks of my place in the last three weeks!

I never did get out to that park in the west, as Nicky the art teacher called to see if I wanted to go to get pizza with her and Dex. (Guess what my answer was.) It's nice to have a little network that spreads info: she told me where to get a cheap used bike, I told her about a big sportswear clearance, they showed me where to get cheap pizza...

So it's been another really good weekend, oot and aboot. (This entry has been dubbed in Canadian.) And in four weeks I'll be in California...

Welcome to customs... do you have anything to declare?

What do you suppose is in the museum? Paintings of chickens? Paintings by chickens? Paintings on chickens? [I've been saving this photo for the right occasion, and this post mentions fried chicken, so...]

Life here goes along pretty well for a waegook (foreigner). We fit in pretty well. One frustrating thing, though, is there are certain customs one just has to guess at and hope for the best.

For example, people from all of the restaurants in the area come around and tape circulars to the apartment doors, once or twice every day. There are ads for Korean restaurants, Chinese restaurants, pizzerias, and lots and lots of fried chicken places. For nine months I've been taking them off the door and throwing them in the trash. I've thought it's really strange that my neighbors seem to just leave them on their doors.

Today, I saw a guy taking them off my neighbor's doors, and it occurred to me: do the restaurants send their people out to remove the ads if the tenants don't take them in? So now I'm experimenting: I left a fried-chicken sheet and a Chinese door-hanger on my door; will they be gone when I get home from work tomorrow?

Another example: on the subway yesterday, a Korean man whom I assume is deaf made the rounds on our car; he circulated in my seating area, dropping baggies on everyone's laps. Each baggie held a cloth or bandanna with the Korean manual alphabet printed on it. I wanted to keep it for my stepson, who's into languages and ASL, but before I knew it, the man had made the circuit again, picked the baggies up from everyone's laps, and gone to the next set of seats, dropping the baggies on those people's laps.

What did he want? A 1000-Won donation? A 2000-Won donation? What's the procedure for saying, "Yeah, I'll keep it. Here's money"?

Inquiring minds want to know. Not enough to actually learn good Korean, let alone KSL, but you know...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vicious cycles

Seoul, particularly the newish, upscale areas like Gangnam and Yangjae, where my friends and I do what we do, is a pretty modern place. Along the path where I always run and bike, for example, they've installed interactive video screens with maps, weather, and other informational info, as well as sunflowers that really are sun flowers: big flower heads on the top of the light poles that collect solar energy to power the lights at night. You can pay all your bills by feeding them along with your ATM card into a machine at the bank. And so on. Time magazine called Seoul "the most wired city on earth".


Workmen have been renovating the charming park right across the quiet street from my apartment since the first hints of spring appeared, redoing the sidewalk, resurfacing the tennis courts, installing some kind of fountain for kids to run around in, and who knows what.
Burn in the fiery furnace, Beelzebubian apparati. 

Their latest addition is a couple of installations to try to get kids (I guess) to exercise more: metal poles with electronic displays and stationary bicycles. One of the sends lights running up and down the display; the other lets riders "race" around a track as they pedal. Of course, this is irresistable to every one of the hundreds (thousands?) of kids in the neighborhood, as well as some of the adults. Great idea, yes?


One of the bike poles just makes a charming chiming noise as if an angel just had a lovely idea. The other plays, nonstop, absolutely without cessation, mind or pity, the four-second electronic bibbety-boop theme that you hear when you put your quarter into a Pac-Man arcade machine:

"Deedee deedee deedledee, deedee deedee deeddledee, deedee deedee deedledee, deedledeedeedledeedledee!"

There is not a half-second pause before the "music" starts again. The same four seconds, over and over and over and... like the Terminator, "It won't stop. It will never stop."

It's ruining my home life. On Sunday, I swear to God, the music never ever ever stopped for four hours. On every day since Saturday (except Sunday), when it was installed, it's gone on for two minutes, shuts off for five, on for three, off for thirty, on for six... when it's not playing, I'm waiting for it to play.

I can't think, can't meditate, can't relax, can't concentrate. I like having my windows open for the air and light, and they face directly toward these blasted things; they seem to effectively block all the noises that aren't directly in front of them, which has the effect of magnifying the sounds from straight ahead. Even though the Bike Machines From the Ninth Circle of Hell are a hundred feet away, they come in plenty loud and awfully clear.

Even when I close the outer clear windows and the inner frosted windows, the sound penetrates my apartment, not loudly, but how loud does a mosquito's buzz or a sink's drip have to be to get inside your head? When I'm not hearing the insipid, mindless, inane sound, I'm still hearing it. Somebody's been sending out the jingle every night around 10:30 when I go to bed; it played this morning at 7:15.

This is the sound that plays in the Joker's head every second of every day. It's why he's insane.

It really pisses me off that whatever genius in charge of the parks in Gwacheon-si of Gyeonggi-do, the area I live in just outside the city, never thought about or cared about the people living in apartments that face the park. I know no one to complain to, I don't speak the language, I doubt they'd care what a foreigner thinks (and from what I know of Koreans they're used to having their space invaded-- no video-game pun intended -- so my neighbors won't complain), and nobody's going to move or silence the bike game because of me.

I will probably stay at St. Paul next year, but I damn sure need to move. If I haven't taken a hammer to the machines, or my head, between now and August.

This is all I'm saying

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I think I'll go outside for awhile and just smile

It's been another way-past-gorgeous weekend, and I've tried to take full advantage of it.

My world's opened up a lot lately, starting with the spring weather. (It's been a long, cold, lonely winter, since I'm quoting 60s pop songs.) The last few days have seen sunshine, light breezes, and temps in the low 70s. The thing that's really brought me out of my environmental and regular-mental shell, though, has been getting a bike.

First my friend Chris bought a bike so expensive and spiffy that the store gave him a second bike free; he rides the cheap one to work every day and saves the fancy one for weekend expeditions. Then Nicki the art teacher bought used bikes for fifty bucks each for herself and her husband Dex. They were happy with their purchase, so I took the plunge and got my own two-wheeler from the same place.

And that has made all the difference. (I can steal from great poets, too.) As long as the weather's decent, there's no more slogging to school or waiting for the bus to Yangjae or Gangnam for me. It's great to be out, with the blood pumping, the breeze in my hair (though I hope it doesn't blow the rest of the pigment out) and the rushing water of the stream in my ears.

On Tuesday, I rode east along the stream for a half hour, most of the way to the Han River, and on my way back sat on the patio and had dinner at the Loving Hut vegan buffet, warming passing pedestrians with my benevolent expression. On Friday, after school I did my long run for the week-- 60 minutes-- and then Nicki wanted to know where the Loving Hut was, so she and Dex and I rode our bikes there and had a really nice time talking and eating. (No animals were harmed for our dinner, but some bull was shot in the conversation.)

Yesterday I got my run in again, 35 minutes, and a little later took the bike out, west this time. Technically, I live four blocks outside the city of Seoul, in Gwacheon, part of Gyeonggi province, and it's nice being out here; it's less polluted and terrifically less crowded than in most of the city. I didn't have much idea what lay more than two miles or so west of my apartment; that's as far as I'd gone in that direction on my runs.

I buzzed along at a steady clip on the path, past ajummas walking their purse dogs and little kids on bikes and skates, runners and ducks and herons and an old man with an ice-cream cart on a footbridge and a guy playing his clarinet inside a long tunnel under the road-- great acoustics, if a bit spooky-- and, four miles or so out, found a big public park. There were picnic tables and softball fields and an oval for skating and an honest-to-God soccer stadium, with artificial turf and seats for about 2000, roughly 1993 of which were untenanted. And a ten-foot-high pillar topped with three two-foot-long cast-iron statues of sperm. I'm not kidding and I have no explanation.

So I sat with my feet up and a can of Gatorade in my hand watching the blue shirts and black shirts play soccer against a backdrop of lush green mountains as dusk drew near and I thought: this is very fine indeed.

Today, Sunday, I watched the Mets win an exciting game and the Doctor defeat the Vampire Fish from Space, both on my laptop, and then it was time to get out and get moving. I rode the bike to Yangjae, looking for bungee cords to strap stuff with-- no dice, and no bungee cords either, but that's okay. Then I wheeled down to Citizen's Forest Park to sit out at picnic tables and watch the people play and listen to the birds sing and correct papers. After an hour of that, I rode over to E-Mart, then home, then out again to correct some more homework at a table at Alice Park. And then I rode around some more, just because I could.

Groovin' on a Sunday afternoon. Really couldn't get away too soon.

I'm so much better than I used to be. Of course, it's the weather, and the fun of biking, but for all my life even the happy times seemed tinged with melancholy, an awareness that it's all evanescent. But now-- credit spiritual influences from many places, credit my being more mature (don't laugh)-- I know how to live in the now. (Well, not all the time, but...) I felt truly alive; I feel it more and more often.

So maybe I'm halfway, emotionally and spiritually, to where I'm going. The two lessons I've internalized in recent years from Buddhism and other spiritual sources are being present and being detached. I'm a lot better at the former, which isn't easy for someone with my wiring. (They say "Be here now" but a good day for me was, for most of my life, to be somewhere near before too long.)

Regarding detachment, it has taken me quite awhile to grok how becoming detached from outcomes doesn't involve alienation or withdrawal from life. It's really quite the contrary; it allows you to be fully there and truly happy despite transitory conditions.

It's that last part I've not gotten to yet; if I'm dependent on sunny days, warm weather and fresh air to bring me up... well, there are overcast days, winter rain and smog coming. When my inside is sunny no matter what the weather outside-- literally and figuratively-- I'll have reached my next rest area on the path.

And when I get there, I've got a water bottle clamped to my bike.

Monday, May 3, 2010

May eye?

Please press the "play" arrow before continuing to the entry; honestly, it's the best thing on here.

Saturday was May Day, and if Chandler from Friends had been here, he'd'a said, "Could the day be any more glorious?" Here comes the sun and I say it's all right.

The running/biking/walking path; Alice Park is to the left, my apartment in front of the LG building.

After what feels like weeks of wet windy grayness, it was in the upper 60s and ever-so-sunny. I went for a 45-minute run in the late morning and was so full of vim, vigor, and vinegar that right after my shower (which was requested by the neighbors after the 45-minute run) that I decided to walk the 40 minutes to Yangjae Station to start my would-be shopping expedition. On the way, I found the Happy Family Festival in Alice English Park, which is a short jaunt from my apartment. There were families picknicking, kids playing soccer, babies being nibbled on by dogs and vice-versa... it was great. Koreans can be a dour lot, but there was nothing but smiles anywhere.

And I heard a familiar but unexpected refrain; by the time I followed it to its source, I just had time to record the final verse you heard above: Let it Be played on traditional Korean instruments by traditional Korean middle-schoolers wearing the traditional Korean hanboek.

I think that you'd have to agree it's a charming performance; in the state of bliss I was in from the weather, I found it lovely. I saw everything all weekend long with a May Eye: the best stuff was beautiful, the worst was fine. I couldn't have brought myself down if I'd tried. (I didn't try.)

Alice Park and Citizen's Forest Park, a little farther on, were chock-a-block with flowers of every color, the trees full of iridescent magpies and, finally, finally, pink and white and yellow blossoms.

The shopping trip was a dud: the Central City mall was nothing special, the bookstore was ordinary, there wasn't a Home Plus store there as I'd been told, and when I took the long trip to the spot where Google Maps had promised there was a Home Plus, it turned out to be their executive offices.

But it didn't matter, because it was May. I walked home from Yangjae, too. Didn't even want my iPod on, coming or going.

Sunday was more beautiful than the incomparably beautiful Saturday, temps in the low 70s. I ran another 40 minutes-- I really am going to do the marathon and lately there's been a real spring (no pun intended, this time) in my step. Then I showered (by public demand) and walked to Yangjae again, iPodless again.

The locals like their flowers.

This shopping trip was also a washout; the dollar store at Yangjae didn't have any of the four things I went looking for, and on the spur of the moment I took the long subway trip to Itaewon, where What the Book had always had Runner's World magazine until the one time I finally decided to buy it...

But it didn't matter, because it was May. Well and truly spring at last. And, after the subway ride, another 40-minute walk home in the sun and the warmth and the breeze..

I suppose it's (yet another) defect of mine, that my mood is so dependent on the weather. (That would certainly help explain why, living in Ithaca, I was so grumpy for the first 41 years of my life.) I'm beginning to think I'll need to retire someplace sunny but not humid; I need to live outside and not sweat to death. But that's for another day. Just for the weekend, it was nice to be someplace where even the buildings spring up and sway in the spring breeze...

This is not a Photoshopped picture; it's straight out of my camera.

Who knows? Maybe we'll have a lot more lovely weather. Spring hopes eternal.