Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twenty-six-plus

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

Rain/fall

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,
but...
 it...
has...
 
 been.

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.

2013.

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.

 ...so 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.
video
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 "               ".