Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 362

I've always liked the week between Christmas and New Year's. Aside from the thrills of Boxing Day, when we put away the Christmas boxes, or box up our unwanted presents for return, or watch a Rocky marathon on TV, or buy colorful underwear, or browse pictures of brachycephalic dogs with underbites, or some damn thing (I've never quite been sure), it's a quiet time of reflection, catching one's breath, and tranquilly contracting hypothermia. And for more than half of my years on earth, it's meant time off from school.

Looking back at this blog, I see I've posted an ungrand total of six entries in the last 22 weeks. (For comparison, I made 35 posts in my first month in Korea and 14 in my first month in Seoul.) I guess this is because I post about things I find novel or interesting and, after three-plus years here, not much is novel anymore. Maybe I'm a little tired of my own glibness, too. I've thought of dropping this blog entirely, to tell the truth. (I haven't, evidently.)

There was a time not long ago when I would have found so many things ripe for blogging:

  • Tug went into the shop for plumbing repairs (to the tune of $1000) and is back there now for treatment of a cold and an eye infection, both of which he picked up when he boarded there the first time.
  • I fell on my head (and chest and wrist), running downhill on hash and tripping on a drunk bump in the street; at our hash Thanksgiving dinner afterward, I bled like a new red hoodie from Wal-Mart and, four weeks later, my wrist is still sore. (In my post about the marathon in November, I wrote that if there had been a string in the street, I would have tripped. At the time, I thought I was joking.) It's the third time in my life I've gashed myself just above my left eye by falling on my head... one is supposed to learn something from experience, and what I've learned is that I turn my head to the right just before I fall on it.
  • The gang I started working two years ago at school continues to disperse, one by one, around the world: Nick, our counselor, has moved back to the States and Lauren has moved from San Diego to Copenhagen.
  • My hashing friends leave, too... GI Ho, Spartakicks, and Spread Eagle Scout Master (among many others) are gone, TKO is leaving, and it's only a couple of months until we lose Shitonya and Bootylicious.
  • Korea continues to impress with its tech. For example, this is one of a dozen panels at a particular subway platform:
 ...while you're waiting for the next train, you scan the items you want with your handepone (cellphone) and send it to HomePlus. Your groceries are delivered when you get home.
  • I MC the Moms' English Club at school every Thursday evening, bringing the joys of Fried Green Tomatoes to the land of pickled cabbage.
  • Kim Jong II died, making way for Kim Jong III, and I'm told nerves are frayed on our side of the border, though I can't see it anywhere.
  • The stores go crazy for Christmas and, gee, Gangnam is pretty, all lit up with LED trees and gift-wrapped building facades. But the day itself is pretty much like any other; everything's open for business. And what I really miss are Christmas cookies and trees with lights.
 In Itaewon: possibly the biggest light display in Korea.
  • Penguins in parkas are patrolling the park. (It's c-c-cold.)
  • And so it goes.
The biggest thing worth blogging about is my relationship with Kyung ah, and that's almost too personal to write about. We've been seeing each other once or twice a week, and it has done me-- and I hope, her-- a world of good. We go to dinner or a movie, sing together at a noraebang, play a little pool... one day she drove me out past Incheon Airport to a dock, where we took a ten-minute ferry ride to a little island on the West (that is, Yellow) Sea. I loved every second of it: the salt air, the sea breeze, the hungry gulls, the company. can get a lucky shot, even with a cellphone camera.

Beyond that, we just enjoy each other's company, and it has been a long time since I've had someone in my life.

And, years from now, if I remember one thing about 2011, it will be this: it's when I met Kyung.

That means it's been a good, good year: I'm not alone.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy Earth

I don't usually write very explicitly about politics here; if you know me, you know where my sympathies lie. But now I'm just sickened. The police at Cal Davis (where, incidentally, I lived for a few months, exactly 50 years ago) have sprayed protesters (who were doing nothing more threatening than sitting on the ground with arms linked) directly in the face with pepper spray. A woman protesting in Portland was sprayed point-blank in the mouth. An 84-year-old woman was sprayed in Seattle.

It's nice to see how far our civilization has advanced since the Civil Rights days; in less than fifty years, we've gone from assaulting peaceful protesters with firehoses, billy clubs, and German shepherds to simply attacking them with something that a US Army study concluded can cause "mutagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities".

I'm so proud: unlike at Kent State and Jackson State when I was a senior in high school, nobody's been killed. Yet.

Personally, I'm completely behind the Occupy movements around the country and the world. We are systematically being ravaged by corporations, banks, and the politicians-- of both parties-- they own. The right-wing cries of "class warfare" are totally true... except it's not the middle class or the poor who have been waging it for all these years.

Call me a socialist if you like. I can take it. Hell, 75 years ago John Steinbeck was called a communist for standing up for migrant workers and working people against the banks and corporations that profited from their misery.

But suppose I'm totally wrong. Suppose corporations (as the Supreme Court and Mitt Romney have said) are people. Suppose the Occupy protesters really are lazy, dirty, communist hippies. Even so, do governments-- do the police-- have the right to assault and hospitalize peaceful protesters? Arrest them for trespassing, put them in jail. They did it to Dr. King. They did it to Nelson Mandela. They did it to Gandhi.

Here in South Korea, which was a draconian police state until the 1980s, every time there's a whiff of protest we see bus after bus after bus of police officers deployed. But in three-plus years, I've never seen anything like what I've seen recently in Davis and Portland and Seattle,,,

in the Land of the Free.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eighteen thousand fifty-eight seconds

All the omens were bad for my Joongang Marathon on Sunday, November 6. I hesitated to enter, to begin with. I overtrained (often running six days a week, including regular training runs, hashes, and the school cross-country club) and hurt my knee, so that I had to take two weeks off from training, including the two longest runs. I made a radical change, from traditional running shoes to "barefoot" shoes, in the middle of the training period. And I lost two of the 17 pounds I'd planned to take off. And put them back on as I carbo-loaded in the last few days before the race.

And on Sunday, Marathon Day, it rained. A lot. Not Monday. Not Tuesday. Not Wednesday or Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Not Monday, Part II, not... well, you know. I didn't want to go and didn't know if I could finish: my best projected time might keep me from being picked up for blocking traffic.

And yet it all worked out. I give myself an "A". Not an "A+", because my goal was to break five hours and it took me five hours and 58 seconds. But my other goal, after having run three minutes/walked one minute for the entirety of the Chuncheon Marathon a year ago, was to run pretty much the whole way. And I did that. And took 39-plus minutes off my PR. So I feel pretty damn good.

I did almost everything right during the race; I fueled well, BodyGlided liberally to prevent chafing of the Personals, carried water till it was obvious I wouldn't need it (and dropped my hydration belt off), had a devoted pit crew on the course, timed myself very carefully... I had my pace down exactly, and kept with it, to finish in 4:58. Except that that didn't account for the fact that a marathon course is measured by the shortest possible distance around curves, which one can't always run with 21,000 other people in the way. And then there were those trips behind the bushes... you've heard of answering the call of nature? Yeah, well, Nature doesn't call me; she stalks me. According to my GPS watch, I ran exactly a quarter-mile farther than the official distance.

I could have foregone the food bar I ate while walking, four miles from the end. I could have skipped that one last trip to the little boys' bush. Either one would have saved me a minute... ah, well.

It started to rain as soon as I left home before the race, and kept it up most of the morning, intensifying a half-hour or so into the run, and very soon I just couldn't get any wetter. And being wet, I was absolutely chilled by the cool, breezy day. For five hours. And even once it stopped raining, there was just no way to avoid stepping in cold puddles. When I finally got home, my toes looked like white raisins.

Toward the end, my knees weren't bending real good. If there had been a string in the street, I'd've tripped on it. (I did, however, win the wet t-shirt contest.)

I got really lucky, though... a few miles in, I met a fellow American named Kyle, who was running his first marathon. I coached him a little, we shared energy gels and ibuprofen, and we encouraged each other for the next 20 miles or so, until finally he pulled ahead, finishing ahead of me by a minute. But having company made all the difference in the world to both of us, as neither of us wanted to quit and let the other person down. And then, though the Marathon "scoop up the slowpokes" Bus driver suggested we get on board, we didn't-- we were just too close to the end to even consider stopping.

I owe a debt of thanks to my hashing friends LesBalls (thanks for the photos), Countess, and Choopa for coming into the city to cheer me at the finish, and an enormous debt to our school principal Ron and his wife Jill, for being there, both going out (in the rain) and coming back, with my ditty bag of shoes, socks, shirt, water, energy gels, and food bars. And to Mr. Park, our boss, who kept popping up during the route to take pictures and cheer me on. (And give me a warm, dry ride home afterward.) Practically the best take-away from the whole experience is the knowledge that all these people sacrificed a large chunk of their weekends because they care about me.

My dear friend Shawn (Countess) was proud of me. Me, too.

By the way, I've mentioned it before, but now I'm a total drink-the-Kool-Aid convert to barefoot shoes. Running in my conventional shoes, I got worse knee pain than I've ever had, but after taking a little time off and switching to the Merrell Trail Gloves (which are basically like going barefoot, but with a little protection for the feet), the pain completely disappeared. We evolved to run on the balls of our feet and let our bent legs absorb the shock. It makes all the difference in the world. (I owe more thanks to Debby, my ex, who long ago said that thick running shoes can't be good for people, and my friend Lauren, for introducing me to Born to Run, the bible of the barefoot crowd.)

When I got on the stadium track at the end, it was vastly inspirational-- Carl Lewis and FloJo ran on this track at the Olympics-- and a tremendous letdown, because when Lauren and I ran a 10K here, we came into the stadium 50 yards from the finish line, and I expected the same here, which would have let me break the five-hour mark. Instead, we came in almost a full lap, a quarter mile, from the finish. And all I would have to do to beat my goal was to match the world-record 1500-meter pace. Inexplicably, I did not do so.

Kyle and me, a few minutes after the finish.

If you aren't a slow person who's run a marathon, I can't describe to you the sheer incomprehensible length of the damn thing, I'd say roughly approximately 46,147 steps; the sheer creakiness and achiness of everything below the waist I can mention in public; and the deadly monotony of the training, especially the long, long Sunday runs. All the way through, I kept thinking, "There's no way I'm ever doing this again."

And then, when I crossed the finish line, the relief and the release and the pride... well, maybe there was brief, manly tear, and you know, it wasn't so bad, and... heck, I know I can cut 58 seconds off my time...

Sunday, October 30, 2011


This is a good book, but I won't mention it again in this post. It's just an illustration.

(If you don't want a detailed self-analysis that's a lot more about the SJC than the ROK, get out now!)

I am happier right now than I have been in many years; in some ways, in general satisfaction with life, this may be my best time ever.

Happiness mostly comes from inside, and I have always been somewhat dysthymic (good vocab word: in a chronic low-level depressive state). Why? I don't know; brain chemistry, I suppose. Some of my students used to give me Eeyore-themed presents, to match my outlook. In fact, I brought a stuffed Tigger-- the real, Milne Tigger, not that Disney schlock-- to Korea with me to remind myself to be more cheerful. I don't know that I'll ever reach true Tiggerhood, but I have at least achieved Poohdom, a general genial confusion.

With age has come a certain equanimity, if not wisdom: I recognize my strengths now and forgive myself (most of the time) my maddening weaknesses. I think I'm closer to being a good person than I was before, and a better teacher, and a better friend. I think.

The last week or so, though, has really changed my outlook completely. Last Saturday, I laid down the trail for my Yongsan Kimchi hashing group on my birthday run. It was also my Junior Trail Master hash-- 50-plus runs and five hares (laying trail), all in a bit under a year. I'd planned for six months to set a run from the brand-new subway stop opening near me; it's right near the neighborhood parks and my beloved Yangjae Cheon stream. Well, the new subway station was a year overdue, and as it turned out, it opened two days ago, six days too late for me to set the trail from there.

But we did run from a station not too far away, and what really made me feel great was how many hashers came because it was my birthday celebration. People who usually run with other groups made a special effort to be there, and that means a lot to me.
 The logo for my"Corndog's (Probably Not Last) Birthday" patch.

The actual haring was a perfect example of the kind of thing I've always hated about myself: I am criminally spacy sometimes. I set off to mark the trail, 15 minutes before the pack would follow-- and brilliantly left two of my three pieces of chalk behind. I found that out a mile into my four-mile course, and kept using the chalk I had until it ran out, a mile from the start/finish line.

I called myself some bad names; I shall not sully the pristine surface of the Internet by repeating them here. (This incredible zoned-outness, which I know makes me maddening to live with, is exactly the kind of thing I've dealt with my whole life, and I'm with myself almost constantly. I'm just now coming to accept it in myself.)

All I could do was to run as hard as I could back to the start, grab the chalk, and run as hard as I could back to where I'd left off, knowing that the pack would get there before I did and mill about in frustration, then wrathfully rend me limb from limb when they found me.

But somehow, miraculously, I made it back before they got there and completed marking the trail. Afterward, as part of the festivities, they taught me how to drink beer upside down from a straw:
The beer really went to my head, and very nearly vice-versa.

It's nice to have friends. This warm feeling began my winning streak.

But what really has mattered began the next day. I had just met Kyung ah, a lovely Korean woman of nearly my age, on a dating site. On Sunday, we met in person. And on Wednesday, for my actual birthday. And yesterday. We've been to movies and noraebang (karaoke parlors), gone hiking, shared lunch and dinner and birthday cake and wine... it's been wonderful.

Kyung ah is a writer on Korean history; she lives in the hills above Itaewon, the international neighborhood I go to so often for hashes and the What the Book store. We hit it off immediately; we have so much in common, politically, spiritually, and in our outlook on life. I find her wise and centered, and she makes me happy.

So, you say, it's been a long time for me, and of course having a girlfriend-- if two people with a combined age of 114 can be called girlfriend and boyfriend-- makes a guy feel good. And of course that is a big thing.

But I think my current outlook is more than that-- people who've known me a long time can tell that the clouds have been slowly clearing for me for quite a while. My hashing friends' regard and Kyung ah's high opinion of me, and mine of her, have added to little things, such as winning a teaching award and finishing last year's marathon, that were already making me like and trust myself more than ever before.

In many ways, other than the fact I don't have as many years in front of me as I did, I like being 58; I've gained more than I've lost in getting older.

I hope and intend to make that true for many years to come.
 "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ever been picked up by the fuzz?

...That's the setup for a joke from the late '60s; if you want to know the punchline, email me. If you don't know what "fuzz" meant in '60s slang, I can't help you. I guess you could pick it up from context, as I'm always telling my students regarding new vocab words.

Anyway, I had a great plan for setting the trail for today's hash. Shaft (my co-hare) and I were going to set off from Topgol Park, head south a few blocks, turn west along the Chonggyecheon stream, north past the golden stretch of touristy sights: Seoul Plaza, the Admiral Yi and King Sejong statues and Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyeongbokgung Palace, east, and then south through the crowded, artsy pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of Insadong to the starting place.

As Shaft and I are collectively 110 years old (he's a mere sprout of 53), and our pursuers averaged out to their 20s, we decided to pre-lay most of the trail, so we set off at 8 a.m., chalking Xes and circles and other trail markings as we went. All seemed fine till we were running down the sidewalk opposite Seoul Plaza, approaching the monolithic US embassy.
 Left, palace. Center, Sejong. Right, embassy.

There were dozens of Korean police officers in yellow jackets along the sidewalk outside the embassy; Shaft was pretty sure we wouldn't get into any trouble; after all, we were just marking trail with chalk, not flour. (Some hashers in California were arrested for suspicion of terrorist activity a couple of years ago for dropping blogs of flour that might have been anthrax [OMG!!!!!!!!!!!] in a Lowe's parking lot.) Still, we abandoned my plan and went a couple of blocks out of our way to avoid the embassy...

...which didn't keep a passel of policemen from stopping us. Two blocks behind the embassy, first two officers stopped us, then (literally) a dozen more walked up in formation, one of them carrying a little red unit flag... it was surreal; I thought they were just out for some sort of training exercise. But they gathered round us and the one who had a smattering of English tried to find out what we were doing.

We made running motions with our arms and said "running club" over and over, and apparently we were really, really convincing, because a cop car came up, they loaded us in, and we were driven to the nearest police substation...

...where we surrendered Shaft's passport and my Alien Registration Card and waited while they investigated us. Maybe we were considered suspicious because Shaft, to the conservative Korean mindset, looks like a pirate or an outlaw biker: balding, ponytail, earrings, bandanna. And I'm overdue for a shave and way overdue for a haircut.

The guy in charge, who had 1.2 smatterings of English, talked to us, made some calls, typed us into the database, and eventually called a translator. I tried to explain over the phone who we were; she had a bit of trouble getting "Hash House Harriers"... "Harriers... H. A. R. R. I..." We turned Shaft around so they could see the map, with all the Korean hash kennels, on the back of his shirt. I called up "Hash House Harriers" on Wikipedia and our kennel's Facebook page. I showed them the Xeroxed map with my planned route.

Perhaps it's just as well that I didn't remember that, under my jeans, I was wearing running shorts with "HASH" written across the butt. I'm not sure what they would have done if I'd had the bright idea to drop trou in the police station.

The whole thing took perhaps 40 minutes, and it's kind of amusing in retrospect, but at the time... I knew we hadn't done anything wrong or illegal, but just recently there have been anti-American currents locally; some soldiers have been accused of rape and the American military people has put our people under curfew. Also, I found out just tonight that the Occupy Wall Street protests spread to Seoul today. The cops here are old hands at dealing with protesters, too... let's just say thoughts that we might actually be charged with something, anything (Ohmigod... I'm gonna get fired! Deported! I'm too pretty to go to jail!) were not far from the surface.

But finally they gave us our documents back and gave us a ride back to the park to start the hash, after which we did not lay a trail back in the direction of the embassy, or the cops, or anyone with a yellow jacket, for that matter.

We ended up laying a "live" trail, meaning that we were out there improvising the route at the same time as the hashers chasing us. Five minutes from the finish, we got snared, which is something no hare ever wants. But, believe me, having a friendly hasher tap you on the shoulder is not the worst way you can get snared.

Monday, October 10, 2011

That Was the Week That Was

It's been a busy time.

It's Day 11 of the 11-day Nash Hash, the annual event when there's a hash every day. I've been to six of them: Friday night to run, Sunday afternoon to walk, Monday and Tuesday nights to run, Friday night for a social at the VFW bar, and Saturday morning to run. Last Sunday's endeavor was the best hash, heck, the best walk, ever.

The running trail was advertised as long and intimidating, so (having run for 2 1/2 hours the day before) I joined the walkers, who took the subway a few stops to cut off half the trail, then hiked up a mountain and down and up again, witnessing bulldozers clearing away large channels to prevent future mudslides like the ones that killed so many people this summer. The trail came down the mountain to the Seoul Arts Center, home of the opera house and art museum, and on this gorgeous sunny fall day, the expansive plaza was hosting a wine festival.
Seven of us (ToT, Nut n' Bone, TKO, Little Leaguer, Crystal, a Korean newcomer named Gina, and I) came down together into the festival and couldn't resist buying red wine and Ghirardelli raspberry-filled chocolate and the most incredible custard/fruit tarts ever and sitting back to enjoy the sun and the breeze and the mountain at our backs and the culinary delights, and it was so nice. And then Gina somehow got the host to bring us a free bottle of red and Little Leaguer somehow got them to start the dancing fountain show early and it was perfect, one of those moments with a happiness so simple and so complete that I know I'll remember it decades from now.

The previous day, I had set out to do an 18-mile training run and just completely ran out of steam at 12 1/2 miles, a very worrying thing with the marathon five weeks (at that point) away. The knee pain has completely gone away since I've been running in my new "barefoot" shoes, but the two weeks of missed training took a lot from my conditioning. However, I did the 18 miles yesterday and feel pretty confident again. Sore, too.

On that 18-miler, I ran down the Yangjae Cheon four miles to Gwacheon City, and on the way back heard fireworks coming from the soccer park (a full-size soccer field with a few thousand seats) on the banks of the stream. I went up to investigate and found some kind of sports festival. There were several hundred people, all adults, mostly middle-aged, seated in groups on the field, each group in its distinctive brightly colored jackets. A few hundred more people were in the stands, behind banners and balloons and traditional Korean drummers. Rock songs were blasting from huge speakers and there were cheerleaders-- real, American-style cheerleaders, not dancers like the ones at baseball games-- doing their routines.

I went around and around the track as the preliminaries... uh, preliminated, and even got some applause and thumbs-ups from people in the crowd. (That's more than I got for actually finishing my marathon last year.)
It was heady stuff, very Chariots of Fire, and I kept going until somebody told me politely it was time to clear the track. I brought back a couple of silver and gold streamers to remind me of how it was, for a little, to feel I could run forever.

Midweek, The Korea Herald, the country's top English-language paper, had an article about hashing in Seoul. A lot of my friends were mentioned, a few quoted, a couple pictured, and despite a few factual errors it was a fair and complete summation of what we do. It was the best free publicity we could hope for. Here's a link, in case you're interested:


In the midst of all this, our school had its overnight trip on Thursday and Friday. We rode four buses a couple hours down into the heart of South Korea, way out in the sticks. The venue was a bit of a letdown, as the place we'd booked called at the last minute to say they'd double-booked, but we did manage paintball (yeah, I played), a sports competition, a talent show, a competition field day, and a bonfire with DJ and wild group dances. I know you won't believe me, but I danced in the middle of a circle of students and teachers and was declared the winner of my round. (Apparently they like the miming of a circus bear with his shorts on fire.)

I dreaded bedtime, as we were at a bare-bones youth hostel with no beds. Eighteen months ago, when we took our three-day trip to Jeju Island, I woke up in great pain, as if I'd been racked. And not with guilt, with a rack. But this time we brought grabbed comforter after comforter, and with five (doubled, so in effect ten) under me and two over me, I slept the untroubled sleep of the exhausted and woke up to bluebirds and unicorns.

On Friday morning (a crisp, clear fall morning, perfect for running, I might add), I went for a run down the road, surrounded by mountains (well, hills) that a sign rather hyperbolically called the Chungbuk Alps.
 This is me, only lumpier. I swear.

We were in the heart of farm country; every flat square centimeter of Korea that isn't city grows something. I passed acre upon acre of rice...
 (This is what it looks like before the -Roni is added.)

, as well as vines bearing dates and hot peppers and greenhouses where they grow little mushrooms on lengths of wood...
...which I am now recording in my travel log. (See what I did there?)

Eventually I came upon a little Buddhist temple. (It's interesting to note that the Buddha may have renounced worldly goods, but the temple had a Mercedes in the garage.)

It was wonderful to get out of this huge, overcrowded city for a short while, seeing stars-- I've never seen more than one in a night in Seoul-- and breathing clean air and listening to the breeze in the woods and the rushing of water.

 On my run I saw more chipmunks (four) than people, aside from some of our kids who were being punished for having a party after lights-out the night before; they were helping a local farmer by snapping the stems off hundreds of his hot peppers.

If you're keeping track at home, that's a hash Friday, a long run Saturday, hashes Monday and Tuesday, a school trip Thursday and Friday, a social Friday night, a hash Saturday, and a loooong run Sunday. As that's about as much as I generally do in, oh, a decade, I'll kick back a little this week and get my strength back.

The arduous marathon, after all, lurks just around the corner, like... some arduous lurking thing.

Four weeks to go. I think I can, I think I can.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Taipei personality

On Friday last week, my colleague Susan Kim (the science teacher) and I left school at noon and took off for Taiwan. Inexplicably, this was not so much an elopement as a seminar: the College Board was conducting a two-day workshop on teaching Advanced Placement classes. I taught AP for a couple of years in Florida, but nobody ever gave me any training; they just handed me a Cliffs book and told me to teach from it. So I thought I owed it to my kids to learn how to do it right.

We flew out on Thai Air, which was certainly colorful in the white and purple plane with the gold, magenta, and purple seats and the lovely flight attendants in their jewel-toned cheongsams and sashes. The announcements came on in Thai and English, making me wonder if the other 288 passengers, apparently all Korean or Chinese, would know what to do if the plane had an unauthorized plummet. Fortunately, and against my expectation every time I get on a plane, it didn't.

The surroundings, the announcements, and the attendants (and the fact that the first person to broach this trip to me said the workshop was in Thailand, not Taiwan) somehow got it into my head for a few moments that we would be flying on to Bangkok. But I managed to stumble off the plane in Taipei nonetheless.

What can I say about Taipei? If I'd only ever had vanilla ice cream (representing the USA in my subtle, clever analogy), then maple walnut (Taiwan) would seem pretty exotic. But I've been living up to my neck in butter pecan for three years, so the effect was muted. Still nuts, though.

Compared to Seoul, Taipei has bigger dogs (unlike the Fun-Size [tm] little yappers so popular in Korea), fewer beautiful, stylish women, a thousand fewer coffee shops and a million more motor scooters. I'd be walking down the street and hear a tremendous roaring buzz (or it could have been a buzzing roar), and here would come an enormous swarm of scooters, often a guy and his girl on board, sometimes a family of four, once a man, a woman, and a baby who couldn't have been a year old.

The hotel itself, a small affair with perhaps 30 rooms, was nice enough; my room was small but had a great TV that had six channels of American movies, and the shower: Oh. My. God. (By the way, in both Korea and Taiwan, people say "Ohmygod" in English as an expression of surprise.) So that makes three Chinese words I learned: nihao (hello), shehsheh (thank you) and ohmygod (holy crap). But I digress.

Ah, the shower: a stainless steel marvel, with three huge shower heads directly overhead, a puissant spraying wand (yeah, working on my AP vocabulary here), and, on the vertical pipe, three adjustable nozzles at torso level. They all delivered a very hot, very powerful spray; it was heaven; coming home to my apartment, where the shower spray is provided by three arthritic bullfrogs drooling from above, was a bit of a letdown.

The hotel provided a sumptuous breakfast spread each morning: Chinese soups, salads, fruit, eggs, and an unusual French toast/sponge hybrid topped with honey. At the workshop itself, the organizers had arranged a special vegetarian lunch for me each day, and it was incredible. The "meat" was juicy and marbled with "fat"; I don't know why neither Americans nor Koreans can produce something, like this, so convincing: I Can't Believe it's Not Flesh.

The seminar itself, held at the huge Taipei American School, was terrific; Frank, our leader, is a popular teacher in Hawaii, a high muckety-muck in the AP Exam hierarchy, and, I think, the best teacher I've ever seen. He provided us with hundreds of pages of good material to try out in our classes. He and I hit it off, too... I wonder if there are any openings in Honolulu...

The sessions went from 9 to 4 on Saturday and Sunday. I'm not really big on tourist attractions: Hey, it's a palace. Hey, it's a painting. Hey, it's a statue. Generally, I'd rather walk around and just get a feel for a place. So on Saturday evening I walked, using my GPS watch, in a vaguely westerly direction, hoping I might find the Shillin Night Market without much caring if I did. I didn't; after an hour, I turned around and walked back. But I did get an idea of what life is like in Taipei.

The next evening, I headed in the same general direction, hoping to find the subway, which I'd take to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, then to the aforementioned Shillin Night Market. After an hour and a bit, I hadn't found the subway, but I did find a fancy department store with a men's room. As I came back out to the street, I said the heck with it and got a cab to the Memorial. (Of course, if I'd walked another three minutes, I would have found the subway.)

The Memorial itself, in function and interior layout, is reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial, but from the first step to the top of the roof, it's 25 stories high:

The plaza itself is massive, with a massive concert hall and a massive theater to complement the massive memorial. (The square is so massive, in fact, that you can't get a feel in the video for the massive massiveness of the massive buildings.)


After strolling around being all Caucasian, I took the subway to the Night Market, where I found a little building chock-a-block with people buying and eating disquieting things, frog legs  and chicken feet among them. There seems to be a general "foot" theme going on. Ah, the extremities they go to...

...and then strolled around for several blocks outside among the shops and kiosks and a whole bunch of locals, not buying key chains and t-shirts and, well, anything really except for a bottle of ice-cold, freshly squeezed-- or is it wrung out?-- zhu li (bamboo juice), which is supposed to be good for my heart, stomach, and lung meridians. (I may need to lose some weight; I've looked and looked and I can't find my meridians.)

On Sunday and Monday morning, I got out and ran 40 minutes each day in my new "barefoot" shoes. (I love oxymorons!)  I got sharp knee pain from overuse the weekend before and was gingerly trying to get back into training for the marathon on November 6, though I've lost so much conditioning... anyway, my knee didn't hurt. (What's a joint like that doing in a nice guy like me?)

That's about it; we flew back and went to work on Tuesday. It was well worth the trip; I think it will make me a better AP teacher and it was even more interesting than a weekend spent lingering around the Yangjae E-Mart. But it's good to be back home (yeah, I said it) where the women are pretty, the signs are legible-- phonetically, at least-- and the cat cares when I walk in the door. Besides, the shower bullfrogs were getting lonely.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

That darn cat

I've been in my new apartment for a week as of tomorrow (more of that anon). It's been very frustrating to be pretty much without my lifeline, the internet. I've had my Android phone (except for the day I lost it before I got it back; more of that ditto)... but that's no good for any real communication or surfing.  The problem is that, in moving in to my ex-colleague Mike Peck's apartment, I inherited his broadband service, which requires a password to sign on. Which I don't have.

It reminds me of my first month in Korea, when I had a few minutes a day of 'net access at my school... not a good situation when you're 8000 miles away from everything you know for the first time. (I thought all the businesses with "PC" signs were for sales and repairs; they're "PC bangs", where you can use a big-screen machine for a couple of bucks an hour. Doy.)

So imagine my pleasure when Jack, the school's new Korean staffer, said he could call my provider to hook me up if I'd only give him some paperwork with my account number. I rooted (and tooted) around in the drawers in my old place; imagine my further pleasure yesterday when I finally found the sheet the installer had left me when I got the service connected. All I had to do was get the paper to Jack today.

Now imagine my utter delight to be awakened at 5:15 this morning to the dulcet tones of Tug, my cat whose activity usually approaches meatloaf levels (as in, he might deign to swat at a shoelace if you literally drag it on his stomach), gleefully ripping my broadband document up with his claws and teeth. Apparently the little booger had found a remnant of the catnip I'd given him the night before. Stoner.

I found most of the fragments, but one large chunk is missing. I guess the cat ate my homework.

But, if I'm reading it correctly (which is dubious at best) the part that's still intact has my account number on it, so Jack should be able to call SK Broadband, and maybe... just maybe... I won't manufacture a small stripey tiger-skin rug after all.

Little bugger still owes me an hour's sleep, though. Dope fiend.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

...but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning red

Hit the arrow... now with color, audio, and amazing 2-D technology!

I'm trying to get my stuff moved to a new apartment a couple hundred yards from my current one, and it's been tough, due to the stupendous amount of rain we've had the last few days. My difficulties, of course, are meaningless compared to the toll the downpour, on top of the huge amount of rain we've already had this monsoon season, has taken. There are something like 40 dead now in South Korea, mostly in a mudslide in Chuncheon, the city to the east where I ran my marathon last fall.

Topography is destiny, it seems, when it comes to disasters. People who live at the base of mountains are in deadly danger; in my neighborhood, we can step around the puddles and be done with it. Meanwhile, the wife of the CEO of one of Korea's biggest companies drowned in her basement yesterday.

Our school closed early yesterday (my friends Billy and Murphy, who came from across town, waded through waist-deep water to get there) and is closed today. But at the moment, as I look out my window (and I'm going to miss the view), it just looks like another gray, drizzly day. Maybe the heavy rains, despite the forecast I gave in the video above, are over for now. Maybe. Maybe.
This is my running path. I think I'll let the kid try it first.

The Cheon at normal level. (The videos above are from the top and bottom of the ramp in front of the mountains at center-top.)
The Cheon is a lot more impressive just a little way downstream; I saw actual rapids at the site of a gently terraced falls. However, as I was on my run, up above on the surface streets, I didn't have my camera. I'm just grateful that, unless the foundations of the LG Electronics building crumble and it falls forward like a domino, I'm in a safe place. I hope no one else dies due to the deluge.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Roaming in the gloaming

I went to the Bears' ballgame last evening with my friends Bob, Chris, and Vanessa from work. There we met 'Nother Bob, the former principal of my school, who hired me two years ago, and his wife, who are leaving Korea forever in a few days. I hadn't seen 'Nother Bob since my interview. It was good to say hello again.

The game itself was, much like the Hundred Years' War and the TV show According to Jim, prolonged and unfortunate. But it was a truly lovely evening, with the rare, for a Seoul summer, qualities of bearable temperatures, clear air, and a light breeze. We had a good time. I'm less enamored of Korean baseball than I used to be; the atmosphere is always so frenetic, and it's hard to be involved when you don't know the players... though the Bears' pitcher, Fernando Nieve, actually pitched for the Mets last year. (This game reminded me of why he doesn't pitch for the Mets this year.)

All this has probably not been worth posting, but it reminded me of another game I went to with friends a couple of months ago. The fact that what I'm about to describe has stuck with me that long probably means its worth writing about. And, if not, your money will be cheerfully refunded.

That evening, we had one too many people to take a cab together, so I rode my bike five miles along the Yangjae Cheon (the stream that runs from Gwacheon City to the Han River) to the game and met my friends there. I barely remember the game itself; I'm not even sure whether the Bears or Eagles won. Come to think of it, I'm not sure the visiting team was the Eagles. I'm pretty sure it was a baseball game, though.

But what has come back to mind regularly since that evening is my ride home. At 10 p.m. I set off through the gloaming; there was enough ambient light to see people coming into view from, oh, fifty feet ahead. And even at that hour, there were dozens or hundreds of people making their way along the path. It had been a hot, sticky May day, but late in the evening the air was soft and pleasant.

The first thing that struck me wasn't how many children were out at that hour; I'm used to having preschool kids running around the park across from my apartment at 11:00 at night and sometimes later. What really got my attention was the number of women out running on the Cheon; I probably saw a dozen of them, each of them alone, in my half-hour trip. In the daytime, I doubt that I see one woman running in an hour.

First, I think it's wonderful that this city, whose metropolitan area has more people than New York's, is so safe that women aren't afraid to be out alone, even wearing skimpy outfits, late at night. Granted that there were always people around; it was dark, and you know that bad things can happen quickly. But apparently none of the women was apprehensive at all. I wish we Americans could say the same in our cities.

Then, I have two theories as to why so many more women here run at night than in the day. First, there's the Korean desire for pale skin. It's not that they want to look Caucasian, though there's a huge business in "de-Asaining" eyes through plastic surgery; it's that through Korean history it was a sign of status to have a light complexion, because the lower classes worked in the fields. Skin-lightening cream is very common and many women use umbrellas on sunny days. (Remember that the word "umbrella" comes from the Latin for "shade", not "rain".)

Also, although young Korean women are not modest in their dress-- this is the land of the microskirt-- I believe that many of them don't want to be seen in running clothes. Being all sweaty (sorry, I mean glowing) is considered extremely unladylike, and so is being overtly athletic. Several of the girls in school have said that they don't run because running makes women musclebound. Maybe the runners on the Cheon love to do it, but don't want people to know that.

But (despite the long digression) what I will remember, I think, for a long time is the scene under the bridge, halfway home. There was a man, I can't tell how old, as it was pretty dark, who had a boombox playing background instrumentals as he played the Peruvian Pan flute. I think he was wearing a serape, though perhaps that's my imagination.

Under a concrete bridge is a wonderful place for acoustics. (I frequently see musicians practicing in such places, of which there are many on the Cheon.),  His melodies, accompanied by the soft sounds of the stream, were haunting. I stopped the bike to listen. There was a soft breeze; it was just a lovely evening, and it was good to hear something gentle and melodic after the incessant noise of the crowd at the ballgame.

What I remember, aside from the music itself, is how many people-- walkers, runners, bicyclists, people with dogs, kids on roller blades-- had stopped to listen. Girls rested their heads on their boyfriends' shoulders. A runner jogged in place to listen. A middle-aged American on a bicycle got his monkey mind to stop chattering for a few minutes and was able to just be.

And then the piper was through with that song, people applauded warmly, and it was time to go home.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Taking the "hi" road

Today is my first official day of training for the Joongang Ilbo Marathon, coming on November 6. It's 90 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm waiting for the sun to go down so I can run. Meanwhile, I'm thinking...

I was introduced to running in its first boom, just as I was a senior in high school. This was in 1970, when the world was young and I was younger yet.

One of the first things I learned was that, when you pass another runner going the other way, you acknowledge him (or her, of course). A little wave, a nod, a smile, no matter how tired you may be. You are touching the earth together, in time and, if only for a moment, in space. It's simple etiquette.

(Wouldn't you say hi to this friendly fellow?)

I encouraged the same camaraderie on the cross-country teams I coached: when you pass a teammate coming the other way, touch hands in a light high-five. It may defy the laws of physics, but that touch makes both of you stronger. One reason I've always loved cross country is how, toward the end of the race, runners from any team will shout encouragement to members of any other team. In a sense, they're all on the same team. It's what you do.

When I ran my first full marathon in Chuncheon last October, it was a lonely thing; unlike many people in American crowds, Koreans who line the course near the end stand quietly, waiting for their friends to run by, not spending energy cheering for strangers. I pulled into Nazareth, feelin' 'bout half-past dead, as the Band sings, and thank God Shira and Zuleika from the Seoul Flyers were standing a couple of hundred yards from the finish, waiting to cheer me and the other Flyers on. For forty years, I'd pictured dozens or hundreds cheering for me, and I got two. But it was a very good two, and they made the last couple of minutes of the marathon so much more positive for me.

I run almost exclusively, when I'm not hashing, on the Yangjae Cheon now, and among the dogwalkers and plain old walkers and bicyclists and kids and couples there are always runners. I smile or nod or raise my hand in greeting; sometimes they respond and sometimes they don't. I'm just getting over the pettiness of being annoyed when they don't; I suppose they didn't start running forty years ago in Ithaca, New York (although why the hell not?), so probably they're not being rude, just uninformed.

But once in a while, an ajumma (stereotypical flowery-bloused, bevisored, chattering middle-aged lady) who's never run a day in her life will smile at me, or a man old enough to have fought in the war here will shout "USA Number One!" And that makes up for a lot. We're all on the same team, you see.
And when I finish the Joongang in November, the first thing I'm going to do is stagger back to the last hundred yards of the course and cheer for the people behind me. It's what you do.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Did your dog pick the color of your car?

I'm going to mention some stuff in this post that I've thought several times over the last two and a half years, or maybe I actually blogged about them, and maybe if I did you read it, and maybe if you did, you'll remember it and this will be a summer rerun, but maybe I just thought it or maybe inexplicably you haven't read every one of my 327 posts, in which case this will be new to you and doubtlessly fascinating and worth reposting on your Facebook wall or perhaps sending a modest donation to me through PayPal.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.

I noticed long ago the monochromatic palette of cars in Korea. My estimate was that 90 percent of passenger cars on the street are black, white, or silver/gray. It seems I was wrong: according to yesterday's international edition of the Wall Street Journal, it's actually 91%, the highest rate in the world. Seems that executives choose black, women choose white, and anybody can choose gray. Any other color immediately lowers the resale value. And almost universally people drive "sensible" models.

Pretty boring, really.

...though occasionally a sexy model comes along.

The WSJ and I theorize that it's of a piece with the Korean desire for community and uniformity. (Incidentally, the next two countries on the monochromatic car list are Japan and China.)

Another example of Korea's uniformity is, of course, the names. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in this country has a one-syllable family name (and literally more than half of the people are named Geem, I, or Bak... Kim, Lee, or Park to you) followed by a two-syllable personal name. Also, the same generation of children in a family will have the same first syllable in their names; the three branches of the hagwon I worked for in Daegu were headed by three brothers, Geem Heedal, Geem Heedeok, and Geem Heeman.

When I MCed our graduation, I tried really hard to get the correct pronunciation for I Yeunjeung, I Hyunwoo, I Hwayeon, and I Hwajin. It makes my life at school so much easier when kids choose to use Western names, though it makes taking attendance a challenge: Seungkeun is Simon, Dokyun is Leo, Eunhae is Jay, Gina is Gina... okay, that one is easy enough.

The family-name thing has a long a proud history; they're not so much families as clans, and some of them can trace their lineage back a thousand years. I understand that, but it makes things a challenge for Us Dumb Waegookin.

Korea is the opposite of America.

Their values spring from Confucianism: honor your elders (unless one of them is a salt-and-pepper Westerner who needs a subway seat), know your place, obey authority, fit in, fit in, fit in. Our values spring from Clint Eastwood.

When I get rich I'm buying a neon-yellow Lamborghini and changing my name to McBibimbap.

...though I guess "Cornman" ("Oksusu inkan" in Korean) is weird enough.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Golden state (of mind)

DRAMATIS PERSONAE: Steve (Corndog) Cornman, our intrepid hero; Debby (his ex); Bodhi (their dog); Tim (his stepson); Michelle (Tim's fiancee); Nate, (age 8, Tim's son and thus Steve's grandson); Jake, age 12, Tim's ex's son and, whatever the technicalities may say, Steve's grandson)

Truthfully, I wasn't especially looking forward to my two-week trip to California last month; due to Nate's custody agreement, I'd only be seeing him for five days, and generally just for a few hours each day at that. And I wouldn't be seeing Jake, who lives a couple of hours away, at all. I wasn't sure how I would fill up the days with Debby; how many times can you pick up a few things at the store or take the dog for a walk?

But once I got there, Debby and Nate and Bodhi helped me move my focus onto what we could do, not what we couldn't. And it was fine.

First off, beautiful Bodhi was head-over-heels to see me. She hadn't forgotten me at all in the year since I'd seen her (or the nearly two years before that). When she gets excited, she smiles, baring her top teeth in what you'd swear is a gopher impersonation. Then she sneezes and sneezes. She's one of the lights of my lifetime, and it felt good-- still does-- that she loves me so much.

 Bo, 2007. Isn't she lovely?

I've always had a special bond with Nate; I was the first person, other than his parents and the hospital staff, to ever see him when he was born. We've always been close, and it was wonderful to spend some time with him. On my first day in Ventura on this trip, I helped out at the Field Day at his school. I feel I carried out a sacred and arduous duty; it's not just anybody who can supervise children throwing beanbags through a painted-on-plywood clown's facial orifices.

Nate and I went swimming a few times and talked and just hung out a lot. On his penultimate day before going to stay with his mom, Debby took us to Griffith Observatory in LA, which was fascinating. In the Leonard Nimoy Theater (funded by Leonard Nimoy), we watched a film of Leonard Nimoy talking about the building's history (it was spocktacular) and we saw a show in the planetarium. It was a beautiful, sunny day, good for getting a good look around. (At the hills and valley, not at the stars; it was daytime! You're silly.)
Observe Nate.

One of the things that I notice when I'm in the LA area (which, until last year, I hadn't been since 1961) is how it seems I know every name on every sign; we went through or past Malibu and Venice Beach and Mulholland Drive and, oh, all the stuff I've seen on TV my whole life. I almost expected to be pulled over on the 405 by Erik Estrada. And there are just so many landmarks.
No matter how often the aliens, monsters, and quakes destroy the HOLLYWOOD sign,
they always rebuild it.
The next day, Nate's last with his dad while I was there, Tim, Michelle, Nate, and I went to the Universal Studios theme park. It was far and away the best amusement park I've ever been to (better than the Magic Kingdoms in Orlando and Anaheim, Disney's California Adventure, Everland, and Lotte World). We had a blast at Jurassic Park, the Terminator 2 and Shrek shows, the Simpsons ride, and especially the studio tour. (Did you know that Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver lived on the same block as the Desperate Housewives?) The tram went through the brief but absolutely spectacular King Kong 3D ride, survived an earthquake in the subway station set, and was attacked by Norman Bates, who'd just finished stowing a body in his car trunk:

...and on and on, from the crashed airliner in War of the Worlds to the shark attack from Jaws to the stunt cars in The Fast and the I Dunno, Didn't See It...

The best thing of all, though, is that Michelle has a friend who works in the front office at Universal and set us up with super-duper all-access passes, the same ones Stephen Hawking and Basil Rathbone get when they come visit. So we got to be those people you hate when you've been standing in line for 45 minutes and somebody waltzes in and gets right on the ride, no muss, no fuss. We got to talk to the Terminator 2 show's stars, too. It was sweet to be a VIP for one day in my life.

Debby and I went to Meditation Mountain for a full-moon meditation and we saw Larisa Stow and Shakti Tribe, a New Age/world music/spiritual/folk/jazz band, twice at Debby's church. The Saturday night show was amazingly inspiring and spirit-filled and as moving-- literally, as in people dancing in the audience-- as a Southern gospel service or, in another way, a four-hour Bruce Springsteen show. And their performance at Sunday morning's service was just as wonderful.

On a Saturday morning, I ran my first race on US soil in three years, a 5K along the beachfront. The next day, I ran and drank with the Ventura County Hash House Harriers. It's something to see: I'd never met these folks before, quite likely will never see them again, and as fellow hashers we were instantly warm friends. Meeting other hashers is like, I guess, meeting fellow members of the same fraternity; there are no barriers. I had a wonderful time, though the ceremonial chugging of 20 ounces of pale ale made at the nearby brewpub impeared my thougt proceses for a litle wile.
The guy in black had hashed with two of my friends in Seoul (6000 miles west) when they all lived in North Carolina (3000 miles east). Small weird, isn't it! 

As for the rest of my stay, just being real friends with Debby, three years after our split, and spending every minute I could with Bodhi made it all-- the endless hours of flying (grinding tedium punctuated by my own suppressed fears), the incredible freeway traffic getting lost in the incredible freeway traffic, even missing my first two Yongsan Kimchi hashes ever-- worthwhile.

And it was good, for a little while, to not be The Foreigner and to just be me.

And now I'm back.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

No odds, too many ends

I know I write about it a lot... I think about it a lot: I keep saying goodbye.

I don't know when I'll see Nate or Bodhi or anyone in California again. Lauren and Mike have gone home permanently from school.

Just in the last two weeks, five people in my Yongsan Kimchi hash have left Korea for good, including people I've been close to: Double Rainho, GI Ho (a Real American Zero), and Spartakicks.

And her dog, the hash's mascot, Cooper.
 Coop at the Red Dress Run. Bye, Coop.

People keep going away and I keep planning to be enlightened enough to be cool with it. Maybe tomorrow.

I've got a secret... in a rather odd place

Apparently it rained in Seoul for practically the whole two weeks I was in California. (More on that anon.) Just so I wouldn't feel left out, the Monsoon Goddess decided to make it rain for practically the whole ten days I've been back. It's been indecently gloomy and wet nearly every single day and the Yangjae Cheon-- the stream that runs near my house-- has risen and risen and risen some more.
 For illustrative purposes only... may not actually be in Korea. But it should be.

On a seemingly desultory note, my friend LesBalls flew to Jeju Island to take part in her first Ironman Triathlon. She's the hare-raiser (that is, the person in charge of recruiting people to lay the trails) for the regular Sunday hash group, Southside. She recruited me to fill in the schedule for today, July 3. I'd only ever co-hared once, following Les herself and laying down marks at her direction; I'd certainly never been the lead, or only, hare.

I took my duties seriously, spending two or three hours this week, during breaks in the rain, walking the mountain and backstreets between Yangjae subway station and my neighborhood, also called Yangjae. I filled three pages of my little notebook with block-by-block directions of where to lead them, where to turn, where to lay down a "checkpoint" (where the pack would have to check in all directions for the trail's continuation) and where to mark a "true trail".

(You guys don't have any idea what I'm talking about do you? No, you don't.... you're normals.)

I found an Independence Day doodle through Google Images, with a flag, a hot dog-- it's a veggie dog, though it takes a trained eye to tell-- and an ear of corn. (I'm Corndog, remember?) I came up with a snappy name for today's run (Yangjae Doodle Dandy) and had 25 patches made combining the picture and the name. (Many hashes-- like next week's 1300th weekly session of my home hash, Yongsan Kimchi, garner patches, which can be sewn on our club happi coats or stuck in a drawer, whatever... my happi sports 40 patches I've accumulated in eight months, but this is the first one I've commissioned.)


Yongsan Kimchi avoided the rain yesterday, we had a good hash, and I had some vague hope that it would be fair today.

I woke up at 4:30 to the sound of buckets, 55-gallon drums, Olympic pools of water pounding down. The animals were lined up two-by-two outside, even the ducks, which if you think about it was kind of dumb.

Needless to say, I lay there fretting about whether anyone would show up and how in the world I could make marks that wouldn't wash away. I finally got up and spent the next three or four hours pathetically sipping coffee and muttering imprecations.

After 8, almost three hours before the hash's meeting time, I set out to pre-lay as much of the trail as possible... I'm pretty slow, and if I didn't set a large part of the trail down in advance, the pack would probably snare me very quickly, despite the hare's traditional 15-minute head start.

I rode my bike a mile (wet to the bone within three minutes) to the huge church...

 (It's considerably less sunny today; who called it "Sunday"?)

...just over the hill from Yangjae Station, parked it, and started to lay trail.

The three common ways of setting a trail here are with chalk (which washes away), flour (which washes away), and "secret" (paper shredded into plankton-sized pieces by the machines the military uses to destroy classified documents). Oh, that washes away too, a little more slowly.

I hope you read that "secret" bit carefully... otherwise the punchline of this entry will make even less sense than usual.

I found out quickly that the eight pounds of flour I had in my bag was completely useless. So I chalked, as much as I could on vertical surfaces, and laid down clumps of "secret". I quickly found that my meticulously laid-out route wasn't going to work; I'd planned to lead the pack for quite a distance alongside the Yangjae Cheon and through the three parks alongside its south bank. Well, the paths along the Cheon were completely submerged...

 ...and the miserable conditions demanded that the trail be cut a bit short, so there went my park plan.

And then, halfway through, covered in a paste of chalk, flour, and secret, wetter than a frog's butt, water still pouring from the sky, I ran out of chalk. And secret. And had no way to tell the pack where to go from there.

So I called my friend Booty, Southside's leader, who said she'd bring more chalk and secret from home, and hiked back to the start point by Yangjae Station. Once everyone was there-- despite the liquid atmosphere, we had 20 people, some from as far as 30 miles away-- I took off again, laying the same trail again, half-sliding down the muddy trail over the hill to the church, then re-marking the same spots I'd done before, which had nearly washed away already. Then I had to completely abandon all plans and just zigzag my way back through the side streets.

Somehow I managed to stay ahead of the pack... Fahr, whose name I won't repeat in this family-friendly venue (but it's based on the Volkswagen slogan), missed snaring me by two or three minutes. People said many nice things about my trail as we gathered under the canopy in front of Seocho-gu District Office. (Not surprisingly-- we hashers always say "Things in Korea aren't... quite... right"-- the canopy was a foot too narrow to protect the benches from the rain.)

So, you know, hooray for me.

Everyone had a good time despite the incessant pounding rain; thanks to Booty's rescue package (I ran out of secret just 100 yards from the finish), the trail, improvised and truncated as it was, was a great success, as were my patches. Singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain...

And, covered again. face to knees, in chalk and secret, I went into the Seocho-gu Office men's room... and found secret in my personal area.

And I'm planning another haring adventure for my birthday, this time with Yongsan Kimchi and without a monsoon. Or anything unexpected in my shorts.

Friday, June 10, 2011


This is hard, you guys.
I just said goodbye to Lauren five minutes ago. I've gotten better at the Buddhist "all things must pass" thing, at not being caught up in trying to hold on to things. I know that it's wisdom in action. I'm not quite there yet.
We both choked up a bit and made it quick. 

I'm off to California in a couple of hours and when I get back in two weeks, she'll be gone. I have no reason to think we'll ever be in the same place again. Sunday mornings will seem so empty and Starbucks may go out of business.

The last two days were hard enough; Wednesday the school went to the Lotte World amusement park and some of our favorite students rode the rides with some of their favorite teachers. Last evening was the graduation ceremony.

I emceed that and did pretty well, other than when I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the 2011 graduating class of Saint Jos... I mean Saint Paul Preparatory School." Hey, eight years at one school...

I'm a ridiculous squishy-soft Muggleheaded goof at goodbyes, but I managed to not get emotional into the mike as I introduced our 20 graduates one by one. I was somewhat stunned when Ron, the principal, announced that the students had voted me Teacher of the Year; I haven't won anything since a volleyball/badminton set in 1964, and the volleyball was punctured at that. This award is a lovely little glass pyramid whose bottom has the school logo and my name and award.

I'd rather have a plastic lamp in the shape of a woman's leg; I could put it in my window. (But that won't stop me from keeping this pyramid with me always.)

There were a lot of hugs and photos and some tears (no, not mine) as the graduates said goodbye after the ceremony.

Later, eight or so of us teachers gathered for beers outside our local mom-n-pop. Looking around the table, I found it all so odd: some of us leaving forever, some for two weeks, some for the summer, some staying through the summer and then leaving forever...

I wonder if I'll end up feeling like my favorite character, the 900-year-old Doctor in Doctor Who, just going on and on (in my case, in Korea) while people come, get close to me, and leave.

Now it's over the ocean to see Nate and Bodhi and the family and wonder when I'll see them again after this.

This is hard, you guys.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

School's out for summer

The final exams are done, the grades are in. All that's left of the school year is today's school trip to Lotte World, the indoor/outdoor amusement park here in the city, and tomorrow's performance day, eighth-grade promotion, graduation, and staff/parent/graduate dinner. I'm a little nervous but very pleased that the seniors want me to MC the commencement ceremony. I'm practicing my insult stand-up act so I'll be ready.

Just kidding. Probably.

For those of you who've been losing sleep over my last blog entry, about the wonderful student-- I'll call her Haesun-- who is one of my favorites and who, after I caught her giving clues on a quiz, told her mother that I don't like her (Haesun), your long international nightmare of sleeplessness (note to self: edit this before posting) is over. Thank God, so is that sentence. It lasted longer than the Gulf War.

We worked it out, thanks largely to that very blog entry. I asked Ryan, our dean of students, for advice, and he suggested that I let Haesun read my last blog entry; that never would have occurred to me. I printed out the entry (minus the pic of me in a red dress, even though her mother had petitioned the school for a reddress of grievances) and gave it to Haesun. It showed her that I really meant what I'd said that I do like her; we talked awhile and everything's fine.

I gave the American Lit class an optional extra-credit assignment on To Kill a Mockingbird; the other students either did nothing or made a drawing, but Haesun spent many hours cutting chopsticks, folding paper, molding and painting figures, and building a diorama of the famous scene in which the people in the courtroom balcony stand to show respect for Atticus as he leaves:
It's another example of the tremendous amount of work she puts in every day; she aced the final, her grade for the semester is 100.01 percent, and everything is beautiful in its own way.

So... I hate reviewing for finals, writing finals, proctoring finals, and grading finals. But it's finally over.

In two days I'll be concentrating hard on keeping my plane over the Pacific rather than in it and then I'll be in Ventura, north of LA, visiting what's left of the family. (I've been a little out of touch... is Blossom still on TV?)

Then it's back to school for the summer, with two two-hour classes a day. (So the title of this post is a little misleading, but Vince Fournier didn't get famous by singing "School's out for two weeks".)

When summer school's over, I will have been in Korea for three years, at St. Paul for two, and I've just signed a new two-year contract.

...yeah, that's not a very snappy ending for a post. Hmm... okay... true story: most of the teachers were at a bar last night celebrating the end of finals and there was a soccer game on the TV. Somebody asked who was playing and I said, "It's Korea against Ghana... hey, it's Ghana-rea!"

Yes, I'm wicked impressed with my wit. Somebody has to be.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Are you crajy?"

Well, I'm mystified.

I have a student who is one of my very favorite kids. She works harder than anybody in school, asks a lot of questions (which I encourage), and really wants to do well. I had her in Creative Writing, where I continually praised her work and she earned an "A". I have her in cross country. I have her in English 11, where she responds to more of my questions than anybody else in any class. I've told her I really want her to be in my Advanced Placement class next year.

Yesterday I saw her making gestures in class, hinting at a quiz answer to another student. I went really easy on her, even though it isn't the first time she's done this kind of thing in somebody's class. I gave her a detention and a zero (out of a grand total of seven points). This dragged her semester average all the way down... to 101 percent. I specifically told her, "I'm disappointed, because I think very highly of you."

This morning, I woke to email from our executive secretary that said that the girl's mother had called saying that her daughter was upset because I don't like her and never listen to her in class.

I shouldn't take it too seriously, but I just can't get why one of my favorite students (not that I have any favorites, mind you) thinks I dislike her.

Meanwhile, last Friday was Teacher's Day in Korea. A student I haven't had since last year, and whom I never paid any special attention to, brought me a wallet as a present (the only gift, I think, she brought any teacher) and gave me a lovely card that said I was the nicest teacher she's ever had.

(An apparently total digression that isn't, really: the Korean language has no "z" sound, so the Samsung Lions are the La-ee-own-juh, my ex-colleague Zach was Jack, and kids go see animals in the Jew.)

...when the little kids in my hagwon classes in Daegu asked silly questions, I'd crack them up by crossing my eyes, sticking out my tongue, rotating my finger by my temple, and saying, "Are you crajy?!"

Concerning the current situation, I can come up with three possible explanations:

1) Koreans are crajy.
2) Teenagers are crajy.
3) I'm crajy.

Of course, all three may be true, and though I know I shouldn't put this picture out on the wild, wild Internet, I do have a clue to offer... might be me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A tale of two countries

A couple of things happened this weekend that reminded me what a backward, forward country I live in.

Yesterday after the hash I talked with Half an Angry Pirate. Pirate graduated from Cortland State, which is just 25 miles from Ithaca. Small world and all that.

We talked about animal rights and vegetarianism; Pirate sometimes puts on a bandanna and runs through the hideous dog farms nearby, taking photos. He's young and fast and knows the farmers can't catch him. He uses the photos in protests against eating dogs.

The treatment of dogs here, the big breed raised specifically for meat, is beyond barbaric, in their life and in their death.

There's a bosintang (dog meat soup) restaurant down the street from the school. In general, cooked dog is called boyangsik, "vitalizing food"; it's supposed to give you lots of energy on hot summer days and, like so much that decimates animals in this part of the world, to give guys stamina in bed. Always men's top priority, apparently.

I gather that the younger generation of Koreans is turning away from boyangsik, either because they feel it's wrong or out of embarrassment at what most of the world thinks. The dog restaurants aren't legal de jure or  illegal de facto, sort of like prostitution.

Do I think what they do to dogs is more horrifying than what they (and we) do to chickens and pigs and cattle and turkeys and everything else that tastes good? I do and I don't. I have a gut feeling that our species made a bargain with the dogs many thousands of years ago: protect us and love us and we'll protect you and love you. But I doubt the other "food" animals are impressed with our bargain, and a pig can suffer fully as much as a dog.

Pirate is far braver and more dedicated than I. I don't want to see the poor dogs jammed into cages like potato chips in a bag and I don't want, as a foreigner, to lecture Koreans on their morality. I'm a wuss, I guess; just trying to live the way I feel is right and explaining the whys to people who ask are about all I can manage.

Insert jarring segue here.

Today I went to E-Mart. The first floor of the building next door is a big showroom full of 3-D TVs and computer tablets and such. there are two signs outside, Samsung Di-gi-tal Pla-ja and LG Best Shyop. In front of the Samsung sign, there was a speaker system blaring K-pop while two young women, dressed in hot pink tops and black hot pants, gyrated to the beat. Fifty feet away, in front of the LG sign, there was another speaker system blaring different K-pop as a young woman all in scarlet danced, along with a ten-foot-tall guy (on stilts, duh) dressed as a Buckingham Palace guard.

The scarlet woman (pardon the expression) and the stilt guy seemed to be having fun. She was smiling and her dance wasn't completely robotic; he was blowing up balloon animals and waving to drivers. The pink girls expressed all the involvement of people watching their clothes in the washer going around and around while the laundromat's fluorescents flicker. Their dance isn't all that different from that of the cheerleaders at all the baseball games (who look as if they're having fun), but on the street they seem so joyless and mechanical. It's depressing.

Be that as it may, my point (and, as Ellen said, I do have one) is how strange it is to occasionally see the juxtaposition of one of the world's most aggressively modern, technological, capitalistic societies and the cruel medieval world that peeks through its cracks.