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.