Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happier

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:

                http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20111004000577

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.)

video 

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.