Thursday, July 28, 2011

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

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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.