Sunday, December 1, 2013

Me and Yu and K forty-two

Last month I ran my fourth marathon, my third consecutive Joongang International Marathon, from the Olympic Stadium down to the outskirts of Bundang (that is, the suburbs of the suburbs) and back. I had thought that last year's would be my last, till the Boston Marathon bombings prodded me into an irrational but definite sense that I needed to do another as a statement to... someone... that we runners won't be intimidated, a day in memory of the victims.

Maybe that wasn't reason enough; I ran my first marathon to keep a promise I'd made myself in high school, my second to break five hours, my third to no-kidding break five hours (as I'd missed by less than a minute). All through the grinding miles this summer (about 360 of them, but maybe you find 575 kilometers more impressive), I pushed and sweated and resented myself for committing to this and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. (That, however, would take a bit more than 360 miles to figure out.) And on the really long runs, my left leg would stiffen so that I could hardly bend it... if that happened in the race, it would be the Bus of Shame for me.

Getting out of bed on the morning of the marathon is a grim affair. The predawn hour, dressing and fretting, feels like anticipating a root canal, and on the taxi ride to the stadium, every speed bump (and there are many) makes the stomach contract just a little bit more. I felt like a chihuahua getting fastened into a bungee harness and looking down in dismay and perplexity. I had no idea why I was doing this.

In the shivery November morning at the stadium, I kept busy finding a men's room that didn't have a 20-minute queue, stashing my stuff in a bag and storing it, and dodging among the masses of energetic Koreans doing their stretches in front of the girl group dancing and blasting K-pop from monstrous speakers. Then it was time to line up on the street.

I had been regretting not having a running partner (Val, from last year's marathon, or Laura-Claire, from my training this year), but I got very lucky. Within a few miles, a Korean man a few years older than I spoke to me and we began to run together. His English was pretty decent, certainly years ahead of my Korean. I told him my name was Steve and he gave his family name, Yu. (Maybe he thought his full name would be too much for a foreigner, and maybe he was right.) We ran the whole rest of the marathon together. That, right there, is a strong reason to not give up.

Within another mile or so we were joined by another guy of about 40, whose English was good enough for the circumstances. He never gave me his name, but he talked about loving his job as a city bus driver, so I'll call him Ralph (as in Kramden). He was especially proud that he can say "hello" in a dozen languages; he likes to make his foreign passengers feel welcome. He's a sweet guy.

So Yu and Ralph and I shared the next dozen miles together, and somehow the scenery and the time went by. They only knew to say "Good job" to encourage a foreign runner, so I taught them the finer points of "Go get 'em" and "You got this." I expounded on the superiority of the F-word in English to its Korean equivalent. ("Shibal" just doesn't have that same satisfying percussive effect.) They taught me some useful Korean phrases that I, being me, forgot by the end of the race.

We ran the whole way near the pacesetters carrying big blue "5 Hour" balloons. I began to long for the turnaround point out in the countryside and had just persuaded myself that we must be near it, and was abashed when the "3 Hour" balloons went by on their way back. The turnaround just would... not... come.

My leg had been aching under the knee since about Mile 5, but it never got any worse. However, after we finally turned around, with about ten miles to go, both calves got tighter than snare drums. Ralph's hip began to pain him about that same time and before long he fell ten feet behind us. I turned around and asked, "Gwenchanayo?" (Are you okay?) He said "Neh" (Yes), but the next time I looked back, he was nowhere to be found.

When running for five hours, without the option of quitting, there really is nothing in the world but putting one sore foot in front of the other, forever. It's purgatory.

Yu and me, among the select 20,000 who got their photos on the official website.

Yu was patient as I had to walk the uphills and stop occasionally to stretch my calves, yet as we approached the finish he said, "If you are not here, I am not here" several times. He's very gracious; I don't believe him, as he's a far better athlete than I--he'd run the Chuncheon Marathon the week before--but it did my heart good nonetheless.

Finally we were approaching the stadium after 42 kilometers, and I was lifted by seeing my friends Laura-Claire and Lesley there to root for me, as well as my colleague Claudia and her husband Frank inside the stadium. Yu and I struggled around the track until we got to the homestretch and I said, "Let's go" and we picked it up through the finish line.

Then L-C, Claudia, Frank, and I took a cab to Butterfinger Pancakes (or, as I call it, "Heaven's Denny's") for a huge brunch and a long convo mostly about how wonderful I am. Not a bad Sunday, all in all.

At the finish line, Yu had said "If you are not here, I am not here" once again, we shook hands, and he walked off. That was nice, but here's why I'm leaning toward not doing a full marathon again: in my previous three, I got a little choked up, in relief or triumph or fatigue, I don't know which: just a tiny bit teary-eyed, as far as my manly manliness allowed. This time, it was over and I didn't feel much of anything. Just another thing on my list, another thing to do on a Sunday.

 How to make a Budweiser taste good: run for five hours first.

I may yet do another; I know that the training gives me structure, something to think about, and the kick in the butt I need to get out the door. (Since this year's race, I come home from school intending to run, but it's cold and windy and gray and I'm tired and I don't wanna and you can't make me.) But maybe I can get the same benefits from a half marathon... I could do one with L-C or Les...

I've done a full one at age 60; a little voice inside says that cutting back now would be giving in to getting older... but what's to look forward to? Running one every year, just a little slower than the year before? (This year's time was a minute and 45 seconds slower than last year's.) Who am I running them for, anyway? It's nice to impress my friends, but I'm not impressing myself so much, and for really serious runners, it's "just" a marathon, not an ultra or a triathlon.

Well, I'll figure it out eventually. For now, I have nice memories of me and Yu and K forty-two.

If he is not there, I am not there.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sixty is the new fifty-eight

Hwangap, the sixtieth birthday, is a big deal in Korea. Here, as in other East Asian countries, there's a tradition that a new life cycle starts every 60 years, so hwangap marks the start of one's second life, with the opportunity to start over and do better. (Also, it used to be quite an accomplishment to reach 60.)

My hwangap came on Saturday. If we count from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon, I had a great day. (Saturday evening involved sitting in front of my laptop, eating cheesesticks and drinking hard cider, alone. Don't you judge me.)

We had a day off from classes at school on Friday so the teachers could greet the parents and justify why their little angels weren't all getting straight A's. (The questions are always about the grades, never about the learning.) That wasn't so very much fun, but at the end, I got a "Happy Birthday" song, a delicious cake, a handmade card, and a pointy yellow hat. So that was way cool.

Friday evening, a bunch of us from work hit the noraebang, the private karaoke room. The two requirements for noraebang are to sing loudly and to smuggle in beer. We fulfilled both admirably. Noraebang is the most fun I can have with my clothes on, and I loved it, as always, especially seeing some of my work friends really cut loose. The highlight was my friend Dave and I singing the K-pop hit Ugly: "I think I'm ugly, and nobody wants to love me/Just like her, I wanna be pretty, I wanna be pretty..." It has a ring to it, especially in our deep, manly-man voices.

Saturday morning, my actual hwangap, brought my birthday hash. I'd been announcing it at the end of every hash for months, and I was happy to get a big turnout. (It was also the World Peace Through Beer Hash, which didn't hurt.) It was a beautiful, sunny fall morning, and a couple of guys and I laid a really interesting trail near home... (have you ever slid on your butt down a 30-foot slope covered in AstroTurf?) 

Afterward, there were many kind words and two red-velvet cakes; nobody brought candles, so I blew out the toothpicks. Three of my friends from work, all women, attended their first (and maybe last) hash; they all said they had a good time and it was nice to have them there. I handed out the patches my buddy Oranguspray executed from my design:

(You read the "Don't you judge me" up above, right?)

Then some of us went to the foreigner ghetto, Haebangchon, for pizza, beer, and merriment.

To top it off, I walked over to Itaewon and stopped in to see Minha, the woman who makes the patches for the hash. (Her mother, in between selling souvenirs such as kimonos and keychains, sews them onto our happi coats.) They told me they had a present for me and presented me with a gorgeous, and gorgeously tacky, baseball-style jacket:

It's very comfy, but I won't be wearing it in public; ornate as the design is, it looks like the kind of thing a 19-year-old GI would take home to his girlfriend. Next to the kimonos, it's probably the most expensive item Minha's mother has in her shop. Minha made sure that her mom brought out a midnight-blue jacket, knowing that it's my favorite color. I was very touched by their generosity; I'm just a customer, after all, and they weren't doing it to drum up business, just being extraordinarily nice; there's no place else I could go to get the patches made. I'll remember their kindness for a long time.

Then... home. Nap. Cheesesticks and cider.

So, anyway, guys, I've been thinking about this whole "aging" thing...

First, of course, 60 isn't what it used to be; people live so much longer, and I expect to be respiring for a long time yet. My family is long-lived, and I've never smoked, I don't eat meat, I drink just the right amount for longevity, and I run. 

Also, emotionally and mentally I've just turned 25 for the thirty-sixth time; it used to be that people got all proper and respectable when they became adults, but we Boomers--call it refusing to get old or failing to grow up--decided not to change; we still do all the things we loved when we were younger, just less often and more slowly. (I hope that my knee doesn't stiffen up halfway through my marathon this Sunday... yes, I'm a marvel of athleticism and courage. Sometimes I amaze myself. [/sarcasm] )

I really do feel 25, except for when I get out of bed in the morning. Maybe I should stop doing that...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hana, dul, seht, neht, five

Last weekend marked five years in Korea for me. The fact that I didn't bring myself to blog about that, and haven't blogged even about such vital (to me) events as my first trip back to my hometown in 18 years, makes me wonder why I hardly ever post anymore. (It's been nearly three months, after all.)

I think the big thing is that the original purpose of this blog was to uncover the wonders and oddities of Korea for my friends back in the States, and now things aren't wonderful or odd to me; this is just where I live and the way things are. As the blog has gone on, it's been more and more about SJC and less and less about the ROK, sort of a free therapy session in which you, Constant Reader, have been my unpaid shrink. Thanks.

It's always been a fine line to walk, trying to reach a tone between "What a fascinating country" and "Look at rhe funny little Asians." My friend and colleague Dave went to the hash with me yesterday, and he made a troubling observation.

At the YK hash, the hares set off to lay the trail and somebody (sometimes me) leads the pack in a long, scripted, farcical ceremony, partially to reinforce pack unity and largely to give the hares a fair head start.

It looks a little something... like this.

One of the many, many parts of the ceremony:

Leader: "Once there was a hasher; was he smart?"

Pack: "NO!"

Leader: "What was he?"

Pack: "Stupid!"

Leader: "He was really (expletive deleted) dumb. He tried to cross an eight-road lane."

Pack: "An eight-road lane?!"

Leader: "That's right; they have those in Korea, because things in Korea..."


Dave pointed out that it's condescending to our hosts, at best, and could offend the occasional Korean person who comes out to hash. I responded that we make fun of everything, especially ourselves, which is true... but I had to admit that there's a difference. It smacks of Orientalism, the antiquated concept that people in the "Far East" are alien and exotic. (Heck even "Far East" smacks of colonialism; there isn't any "East" on the globe, and what's east of here? California.)

I remember an episode of The Amazing Race in Africa, in which one Racer made a comment about the "natives". His partner said, "They're not natives; they're called people." I've gotten well past the point where I see natives here; they're people.

There are practices here that appall me beyond words; some people eat live, squirming baby octopus, and some (fewer) people eat dogs, which were kept in horrifying conditions and killed as painfully as possible, in the belief that the adrenaline makes the meat more tender. I have to put that aside, in a double-locked room in my head. And some Korean beliefs are just silly, such as that sleeping in a closed room with electric fan on is likely to kill you, or that your blood type determines your personality.

But, all in all, as the song says, people are people. I think, in a gross generalization, Korean people tend to be closed toward strangers; emotional; extraordinarily warm toward friends, family, and coworkers; and, among the young, obsessed with attractiveness. But I have equally strong feelings about Americans en masse and about our customs.

So... five years. Am I shutting down the site? No. But I may not post much. I like expressing myself and I try to be entertaining. But this place, interesting as it can be as an ultra-modern, super-capitalist society overlaid over a backdrop of ancient culture and superstition, is just... well, where I am.

You can't be a newbie for five years.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just say neh

I think my favorite word in any language is "내". It's transliterated into English as "neh", and its sound is in between that and "nay".

It is so very, very useful! It means "yes", sort of, but maybe a fuller translation would be "I agree with what you said." It is just used all the time, since the Korean language lets a lot of things be implied by context. It can mean, "I heard you" or "That's true" or "Well... okay, then." It's good for everything from "I swear it's the truth!" to "uh huh..."

It's especially cool walking into a mom-n-pop store or a traditional market:

host: "Welcome."
me: "Yes, hello."
host: "Yes, hello."
me: "Yes."

and, later:

host: "Thank you."
me: "Yes. Goodbye" (the "goodbye" that means "I'm leaving.")
host: "Yes, goodbye." (the "goodbye" that means "I'm staying here.")
me: "Yes."

It's such a relief, when dealing with a language that is so complex that it has different "goodbyes" depending on who's leaving, and two completely different sets of numbers, and seven layers of word endings depending on the relationship between the speakers, to have something so simple and versatile.


The tricky part, for a Westerner, is that Koreans will say "neh" when we would say "no" to a negative question:

me: "Didn't you do your homework?"
student: "Yes." (I didn't.)

...which takes some getting used to, but, if you think about it, makes sense.

I find myself using "neh" all the time, even with English speakers who live here. It will take a while to get over it; I spent some time in another South, dangling off the eastern side of another continent, and I still love saying "y'all".

I just got back from Costco, where the checkout lines are interminable. The Korean man in front of me had a moderately full cart. He saw me with my lone item, a bag of frozen ravioli, and asked (in English): "Just one?"

I said "neh". And he motioned for me to go in front of him.

In Korean, the word for "information" is "안내", which may or may not stand for "no yes". Maybe I'll stop at an 안내 booth and ask, "Doesn't "안내" come from 'no yes'?"

The answer will probably be "neh". (It doesn't.)

Just say "neh" to language.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Empty stomach, full day

Many of my friends have, one time or another, gone on a "Templestay". This is the program that immerses its visitors in a day and a half of life in a Buddhist temple. Never having been that hot on sleeping on the floor and being awakened 'way before dawn to squat cross-legged and gimpy-kneed (and caffeine-free) on a different floor to meditate, instead I tried the "Templelife" program, a 2-1/2-hour sojourn at Bonguensa. (I posted about my first visit to Bongeunsa on 9/30/10, in case you inexplicably haven't memorized the contents of my 386 previous blog posts.)

Most Korean temple complexes are expansive and set in the quiet of rural mountains, where they were driven by the government's anti-Buddhist campaigns centuries ago. Bongeunsa, despite the fact that it's the locus of Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism, is a pocket-sized complex right in the midst of the richest neighborhood in Korea: down the street, past the Jaguar and BMW dealers, you can see the Olympic Stadium; right across the street from the temple is the biggest underground mall in Asia and Seoul's World Trade Center, where the G-20 meetings were held last year.
21st-century Korea, in one photo.

The lady at the ticket booth was very friendly and spoke excellent English, other than telling me that a ticket cost 14,000 dollars. (I didn't want to go in that badly.) It's actually 14,000 Won, or about 13 bucks. There were enough foreign visitors that we were split into two groups of a dozen people each.

Our guide, a very pleasant ajumma (middle-aged lady) with good English skills, took us on a 15-minute tour and explained the temple's history and Buddhist traditions.
(White is for mourning.)

(Red is for funsies.)

After being taught the correct way to bow (knees, forearms, and forehead touch the ground), we laid down mats in the main temple building and sat before the three gold-toned Buddha statues. Then it was on to a tea ceremony, then (paper) lotus flower construction, followed by a brief meditation, led by a young monk...

... which would have been better if, among the two dozen Westerners and the-oh-so-earnest monk, all meditating together in an absolutely silent room, somebody hadn't chosen that time to make his 59-year-old, empty gut sing all kinds of gurgly, twangy melodies (and, believe it or not, harmonies). Echoes, too. It would have been funny in a movie; in real life, I tried to become one with the floor.

Well, Buddha would have laughed; Buddha's my homeboy.
Say hello to my little friends.

Then, finally, each of us was given a surprise present: a Buddhist prayer bracelet. It matches the one I bought at Donghwasa, outside Daegu, and have worn for four years as a reminder to be peaceful.
I could wear one on each wrist, but then how would I take the photo?

So, down to it: I enjoyed my brief stay, though I was glad I hadn't done the overnight. My opinions of Buddhism were reinforced: first, the worship end of things is goofy. I don't believe that hideous, snarling guardians painted on the wall scare evil spirits away; I don't believe that your karma determines whether you will return as a ghost, an animal, a human, or a demon; I don't believe in touching my forehead to the ground in front of a golden statue of a guy who said not to worship him. (I did it--I don't like to be rude--but I don't believe in it.)

But, also, there was a great feeling of serenity at Bongeunsa, as I always get at the temples in Korea. I still hold with the things I've learned from Buddhist philosophy: compassion for all, detachment, living in the now. Holding them in my mind and heart has made me more peaceful and less troubled. 

For me, Buddhism as a way of thinking is priceless because it sees the world as it is, including all the pain and loss that we can't avoid, and teaches us how to look at it a different way and to be happy, not in some promised postmortem future, but every day. 

So I was glad I went.


I cut through the aforementioned COEX Mall to the subway, and here's a surreal and ironic juxtaposition for you, after the aura of gentleness at the temple: in the courtyard stood the star of the new American TV show Hannibal (as in Lecter), which hadn't even shown in the US yet. He was signing autographs and having pictures taken with the shoppers and his assistants, who were wearing butchers' aprons stained with--I hope--fake blood.

Buddha and the world's most famous fictional serial killer? I call that a full day.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cavemen snort

It's really nice when something you've been bumbling about with for a long while finally begins to click into place. This week, I've had that nice feeling with two aspects of my life here

The first is the Korean language. I've been in the RoK for nearly five years now; I learned hangul, the alphabet, within a few weeks, for which I take no credit--it's brilliantly designed, unlike ours, which kind of fell into place over hundreds of years, with sounds from a score of languages. (Try explaining to a Korean child why the c in center is pronounced utterly differently from the c in carrot or the one in cherry.) In Korean, will always be la. (Or ra, since there's no difference betweeen l and r, and it sounds almost like n... but, however hard it is for us to pronounce, it's always the same.)

I learned some stock phrases within a few months; I can say "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry", and I could understand a Korean saying it, if any of them ever did. (Koreans are very warm and polite to people they consider to be in their social or business circle, respectively, not so much to "outsiders".)

But actually having a vague idea of how verbs are conjugated or how parts of a sentence go together? That's new. Say "syntax" and I would have thought you were talking about paying extra for cigarettes or liquor...

 ...nah, soju's nasty; drink maekju (beer).

Till now. I've been going to the weekly Korean class with Qinjie for a while, and I still feel like an idiot when I'm there... I'm slow to pick it up, and there's so very much to learn. I will probably never understand a fast-paced conversation on TV or between people near me on the street. But I'm beginning to see how the pieces fit: 집애가요 (jip eh ga yo)--"home"/grammar marker for "place"/present tense of "go"-- means "I'm going home," or, in context, "He's on his way home" or, with a rising inflection, "Are you going home?" And I can say "I'm going to the park" and "Are you coming home?" (Not that I have any use for that one.)

It's like, say, an anagram contest where finally, finally, you see that Ithaca spells A cat! Hi! or Seoul is the same as louse (no slur intended; I'm happy to live here), or Steve Cornman spells Cavemen Snort.

(Okay, it's not very much like that, but it does allow me to use Cavemen snort as my headline. And, as Captain Mal Reynolds on my second-favorite science fiction show, Firefly, said, "That's not nothin'.")

And now for something not completely different...

I began running 43 years ago, and have been running very regularly since 1999. When I read the delightful book Born to Run last year, it changed my outlook and technique. But it took till this week for the full message to come through.

Born to Run is anthropology, kinesthetics, topography, marketing study, and biography all at once, all wrapped in the fascinating story of a secret ultramarathon. It's about a hidden tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico whose members of all ages routinely run dozens of miles at a time, their feet protected only by homemade sandals made from discarded tires or old strips of leather. this.

The first time I read it, it made me a convert to minimalist (that is, near-barefoot) running. Briefly: our bodies were designed by uncounted years of evolution to be runners; we survived for millennia by chasing prey, which (as quadrupeds only cool off by panting, and nothing can sprint and pant simultaneously) would eventually collapse from the heat, while we, able to cool off by sweating, kept going. We ran with our feet under our torsos, landing on the balls of our feet, using out bent knees to cushion the shock. But 40 years ago, with the development of padded running shoe with thick, built-up heels, we began running by sticking the front leg forward and landing on the heel, which left the knee unable to absorb the heavy impact. Thus: injuries.

So I done got me some flat, minimally padded shoes, just enough to protect from pebbles and broken glass... this...

, and started running "barefoot". It feels more natural and more connected to the earth, and I no longer get injured, through up to 20 miles at a time of marathon training, a full marathon, all on hard surfaces, and all... those... hashes, on concrete and up and down the rocky hountain trails of Korea. All while hunting the elusive tofubeast.

I'm a convert. Once you go flat, you never go back.

But it was just this week, after my third reading of the book, that the rest of the lesson finally got through: the purpose of running is to run. It's being alive, experiencing the world. For all these years, as much as I've gotten from running, it's usually been a chore, something to control weight or reach a time goal or win a medal or feel virtuous about. Now I've started just being out and moving and feeling alive. It's being in the moment, as our Buddhist neighbors would say.

And yesterday at dusk, on an hour's run along the creek, out away from the city, the physical aspect came together after all this time. Without conscious effort, I found my feet rotating under me like a bicyclist's, with small, quick steps, pushing forward smoothly rather than moving up and down like pistons. I told my cross-country kids for years that every running motion that isn't straight forward (such as swinging the arms across the body or bouncing up and down) is a waste of energy, but this is the first time I've ever run so straight and so smoothly.

Don't get me wrong: I still move at a glacial pace by athletes' standards... the winner of last year's Joongang Marathon was in the air, headed back to Kenya, before I finished. But I cut a minute per mile off my usual pace and felt fresher. And smoother and lighter and... well, gooder.

Okay, I've gone on and on and on. So I'll make the conclusion short and sweet. It's nice to see at last that life doesn't always have to be such a struggle. Let the cavemen snort; I don't care.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Going viral

I finally had the follow-up appointment with Dr. Choi regarding my illness yesterday. It's been a bit nerve-jangling for the last four days, knowing my test results were in but being unable to get at them. Ive been feeling fine, but worried about how the results would affect my having a job next year, or even being able to run again.

I guessed that I might have a hormone imbalance of some kind, perhaps with my thyroid or testosterone (and, no, despite appearances, not overburdened with an excess of it). But it could have been something far more wicked, such as CFIDS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), which I was exposed to for years. I've seen what CFIDS does to someone, and it's not nice.

As it turns out, it was neither hormonal nor CFIDS, just some passing virus, like catching a severe flu with no muscle aches, fever, or rumbly tumbly. I hadn't known that it was possible, for such a minor reason, to feel as if one's veins were filled with molasses and one's eyelids weighed 17 pounds. Each.

It is.

But it's over and no reason it should ever come back.

So... good.

Energy is very good indeed.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pheeling phully phlebotemized

You know when it would be really good to speak fluent Korean? When you go to the hospital for tests, that's when. (Speaking of "fluent", it would be nice to know, when the guy hands you an empty paper cup, that you're supposed to fill it.)

Yesterday I went to the Catholic University's St. Mary's Hospital, where I go for my BP meds, for tests to determine the cause of my recent mysterious fatigue. Hardly any signs are in English and hardly anyone there, outside the small International Health office, speaks it. And the floor plan that IH gives out is in English, but wildly inaccurate.
Interior design by M.C. Escher.

I finally found a sign that said "phlebotemy", but if I didn't have such a marvelous vocabulary, I would still be wandering around on the third floor.

I had a chest x-ray and wandered into an office that I hoped was the place for an EKG. (Fortunately, since I was unbuttoning my shirt, it was.)

Then it was time to go find the blood-testing office. I walked only about as far as Frodo in the Rings trilogy, but finally found it. The attendant gave me a little paper cup mysteriously devoid of Kool-Aid, and I intuited that I needed to fill it in the men's room. (Jeez, I hope I was right! Otherwise, whoever picks up the cup is in for an unpleasant surprise.)

I'm proud of my blood test result; I didn't even study for it and still ended up with an A+.

Afterward, the guy who took my blood asked his neighbor how to tell me, in English, to press down on the gauze for five minutes. Then he told me, in English, to press down for five minutes. And then I went home.

Oddly enough, I don't like going without food all day and being impaled by big needles. But it wasn't too bad and I'm eager to hear the results. It's kind of a big deal; Dr. Wilder, our new principal, let me know, frankly but sympathetically, that the school can't deal with a chronically ill teacher, so if it's Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I'm out of a job and have no purpose in this country. Also, I'll have to say goodbye to the Hash and to marathoning; the way I've been feeling, I can't drive 26 miles.

I really believe, though, that the cause is something more innocuous. (Sleep apnea? Stress? Something environmental?) I'm feeling better now, anyway.

I know I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sleeping thickness

Yesterday, our school had its Family Day, with all the students and parents gathering for tug-of-war, dodge ball, and assorted sports and games. I confess to doing ten percent more than the required grumbling about holding it on Saturday, thus making me miss my beloved YK hash; in past years, the school had always held Family Day on Friday.

Since I couldn't hash on Saturday, I did on Friday night, where I ingested a grand total of one beer. (One light beer, at that.) We ended at our fellow hasher Panzer's house, where I promptly fell asleep on his couch in the midst of the merriment. Val woke me at 2 a.m. and shepherded me home via taxi.

As it turned out, I missed both YK and Family Day, as I woke up at 10:15, too late to go to either. Apparently I'd forgotten to plug in my cell phone the night before; it died, preventing my alarm, as well as phone calls from work, from waking me up.

Swell. Way to make a good impression on the new principal! How professional of me.

I have been just exhausted every day lately, fighting to stay awake past 9 p.m. I don't know what's wrong. Yesterday, in the afternoon, I went for a gentle hike on the hountain near me, in hopes that the sunshine and breeze would wake me up. I ended up nodding off sitting up on a bench. Last night I fell asleep fully dressed. I woke up and jumped out of bed, ready for the day... till I checked the clock; it was 1 a.m. I went back to bed and got up at 7:00. It's four hours later and I'm still nodding off at my desk; I feel the way I do when I get up for a bathroom trip at 3 a.m., all disoriented, grainy-eyed, and walking through knee-deep pudding.

It's taken me twice the usual time to write this blog entry. Clearly it's not twice as interesting.

To sleep, perchance to dream...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Once more into the breach

It was too much.

In my planning period, at the start of the school day on Tuesday, I put my head on my desk and tears came to my eyes. I felt myself on the verge of weeping; I'd be no good for the next class. So I went to talk to Kate, our school therapist, and got myself back together. But the sadness lingers.

First, on Thursday evening, our student Jaesung (Louis) was hit by a car and killed. He was such a sweet kid, friendly and cheerful and quiet. He was a wonderful guitarist. On Friday morning, the school canceled our amusement-park field trip and went to a meeting room at the hospital, where waiting in the long, long line in the hallway was so hard, listening to the sounds of grief from the next room. On Saturday morning, according to custom, on the way to the funeral, they stopped at the places important in his life for one last goodbye. Many of us gathered in the school library to lay flowers in front of his portrait and listen to remembrances. On Monday, the school put up a bulletin board for his friends and teachers to post their memories and messages to Louis.

And then, on awakening on Tuesday, I turned on my computer to the headline MARATHON HORROR.

You can't quantify shock and sorrow; was September 11 a thousand times worse because a thousand times as many innocent people died? What about Sandy Hook, where all those pure, little kids died? I only know that this one, the Boston Marathon bombing, was personal to me.

Running is such a positive, life-affirming activity; it's all about self-discovery and breaking barriers and believing we can do better and be better. I've been running on-and-off (mostly off) since 1970, regularly since 1999, and it's changed who I think I am. It's changed who I am. I think of all the miles I've put in, the hundreds of thousands of miles those marathoners in Boston put in, the wonderful kids I coached in cross country, the lovely people who came out in Boston to cheer on strangers and show love and pride in their family members...

It was too much.

Boston's the Holy Grail for runners, the World Series, the Oscars. It's far beyond the abilities of a poor schlumpf like me to ever run fast enough to qualify for it. To the Church of Running, it's the Vatican and Mecca rolled into one.

As I wrote on this blog in November, I'd decided my days of running the full marathon were probably through. Training that much, through the Seoul summer, is not fun and the race itself is an ordeal.

Nobody who was in Boston even knows I exist, except for my hashing friend Sarah, who ran the race and, afterward, was standing in front of this Starbucks, but left a few minutes before the explosion. (She is fine, thank goodness.)

(Sarah's amazing blog about Boston is at 

None of the victims will know or care if I run another marathon. It won't help them in any way. In the end, nobody will care but me.

What I'm about to say makes no logical sense at all. But I can't help it:

I need to run a marathon this fall. For Boston.

Chuncheon, 2010; I was a little younger and the world was a little purer.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tell them

The lovely cherry trees are blossoming along the Yangjae Cheon, and it's spring. And a bitter, wintry wind blows every day.

Today was supposed to be our school's field trip; we were going to Lotte World, the amusement park. But when we got to school, we found that one of our students had been hit and killed by a car last evening.

He was a very nice kid, a sophomore, whom I had in my English class last year.

Instead of Lotte World, the rented buses took the teachers and almost all the students to a meeting room at the hospital in Bundang to pay our respects to the family. Based on the original purpose of my blog, I should tell you all of the fascinating cultural details of how such things are done here; but the grief was so raw and so deep that it would feel almost obscene to cheapen it with some kind of touristy retelling.

Instead, please remember the last time someone you know died unexpectedly, and it seemed so unreal, and how everyone said to tell the people you love how you feel, because you never know... and how maybe you forgot the principle a couple of days later.

Tell them now.

Friday, March 29, 2013

It was the better of times... was the worse of times.

Our school has been having its spring break this week, and some of my colleagues have been jetting off to Malaysia or Thailand (or, in the case of our counselor, Brian, a honeymoon in Italy--but he's a Cornell graduate, and you know how privileged they are). But I feel I've made good use of my time at home.

Qin Jie and I had a Korean class on Monday and reviewed together on Tuesday; we've gotten to the part where we're supposed to remember which verbs go -어요, which ones go -아요, and which go -애요 in the present tense. "Supposed to" is the precisely appropriate term here.

On Monday, I went to Itaewon for a farewell drink or four with my departing hashing friend ToT and other friends.

On Tuesday, I went to Itaewon for dinner and my first good talk with Tori, another hasher. She's a good example to me about prejudices; I didn't take to her at first because she's a heavy smoker, her arms are completely covered in tattoos, and--because she's Southern and in the Navy--I jumped to the contusion that she's a redneck. Turns out, she's a terrific person and very well-read and interested in the same kinds of New Thoughty, Buddhish spirituality that I am. Shame on me for prejudging her like that, missing the mark so widely, and losing out on months of good conversations we could have had.

Then, after dinner, we had drinks with ToT et al (whoever he is) again, because why not?

On Wednesday, Qin Jie invited me to her apartment, in the building next to mine, to show me how to make fried rice. You wouldn't think a Chinese person would suggest putting ketchup on fried rice, but she did, and it was good. Then our new colleague Dave--who incidentally is a great running partner and is becoming an enthusiastic hasher--was passing by on the way up to his apartment and invited us up to join a couple of our other friends/coworkers for drinks and pizza.

Yesterday, I went to Bongeunsa, the Buddhist temple across from the COEX Mall, which once a week holds a 2 1/2-hour Temple Visit program for foreigners. But I'll post about that soon. Then I came home and made fried rice; it's probably not as good as Qin Jie's, but I didn't get sick or burn anything down, so good on me.

Today I rejoined the gym near my house, which in the past I've only used for running during the coldest winter months; I need to build up my gerbil-like upper-body strength. Dave, who speaks excellent Korean,went with me and he was so damn charming that the lady at the desk let me start today, even though the membership is for April. The downside is that I worked out and now my arms are quivering as I type.

Meanwhile, I've also done spring cleaning to the point where the cat has space on the floor to lie down. Hey, it's not as bad as it sounds; he's a pretty big cat. (I exaggerate the messiness for humorous effect.) (Not by much.)

(Happy Easter, by the way!)
So I've been making strides at getting my house (mentally and physically, as well as literally) in order. It's the better of times. But, also...

All of my closest friends here are about to leave and who knows if I'll ever see any of them again? This, as I've said before, is the hardest spiritual lesson of all for me: learning to let go, knowing how to say goodbye. I have leaned on these people, Kat, Jane, and Val, when I've needed someone to lean on, and tried to be there for them as well. I'll miss them--Kat's leaving in a couple of days, Jane in a couple of weeks, Val in a couple of months--very much. And Tori, whom I'm just getting to know and care for, is gone in a few days as well.

There's uncertainty at school, as Ron, our principal ever since I've been at St. Paul, is leaving. I've enjoyed working with him, as he trusts his teachers, and his laissez-faire attitude has allowed me almost free rein to teach the way I want to. If you know me at all, you know I bridle under close supervision. I think I'm a pretty good teacher and I've enjoyed being my own department head. I'm grateful to Ron for that.

A few weeks ago, two men jetted in on different days to see the school and be interviewed, and Mr. Park hired one, Dr. Wilder, to take over in the fall. But now he's going to start *this Monday* instead. It's always a little stressful (though often in a good way) to get a new boss. Dr. Wilder is obviously very well qualified, but the uncertainty of how things will change...

And then, of course, everyone in Seoul could be evaporated in a nuclear fireball any day, so there's that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Totally serious this time, guys"

It's a little odd living in a metro area of over 20 million people, just 35 miles from the Crappiest Place on Earth(tm). I can't deny that I get a little nervous from time to time, and last week, for the first time in 60 years, the North announced it would no longer recognize the DMZ and the cease fire. (You did know that, technically, the Korean Civil War is still going on, right?)

They're also using such snappy phrases as "rain fire" and "sea of flames", and much as the winter chilled me, that prospect is strangely unappealing to me. If they came over the border, there'd be many, many thousands of human deaths, and a cat.

But we haven't gotten any warnings from the US Embassy, unlike a year and a half ago after the North shelled the South's Yeonpyeong Island. At that point, the embassy sent out an email saying, basically, "We don't think anything's gonna happen, but if it does, come to the embassy and we'll put you on buses to Busan and fly you out of here." So, until we get something like that again, I'm not overly worried. (Although the doctor told me my brain was too tense: "Too tense the size of a normal brain.")

Nothing on a large scale will ever happen here unless the guys up north are totally nuts, because it would mean their complete destruction. They've shown over and over that they don't give a damn about their people, but they do care about themselves.

I've likened the situation here to living in Florida or California: you know there could be a 'cane or a 'quake, but you just go about your life.

Sometimes I think we should just give the rulers a billion gazillion dollars and one of those islands that Survivor has been based on and tell them to go away and lie in the sun. They're nasty little baskers.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Things were slough all over

Dante began Inferno by talking about how he had been lost in a dark wood. I know what he meant; I've been stumbling around quite a bit myself lately, and all the impediments I've tripped over have come from inside me. Since November, I've had just enough will and energy to do my job and come home and slump (in more ways than one) in front of the computer while eating all the junk food in East Asia, trying to stay awake till 10 p.m., and waking up a 4:30 or 5:00.

I know what you'll say, O Hypothetical Reader: must be the Winter Blues. That is a factor; I cut way back on my running and general outside-being, which is always my favorite state. I holed up and ate a lot of synthesized food-like substances and got a little rounder.

But the downswing started before the weather got bad, and it ended before the first tentative hint of spring. I suspect the proximate cause was finishing the marathon; the training gave me structure and purpose and something to look forward to, and meeting my goal left me aimless. (I wonder how Neil Armstrong felt right after he got back from the Moon...) Then again, I was obsessively following the US election, and that ended a few days after my race. And maybe, just maybe, I've been lonely.

But in the last few weeks I've pulled myself out of my slough and sloughed off my malaise . (I like to preen over my knowledge of our language, but I never knew that "slough", as in swamp, rhymes with "cow"; I thought, like "slough", as in cast off, it rhymed with "tough"... didn't you? Don't think you can avoid answering just because you're hypothetical.)

Anyway, I'm doing much better.

What changed?

Mostly. energy or not, I got out and started doing stuff, rediscovering that there's life beyond the cat and the keyboard. My friend Kat, whom I've mentioned here recently, has been a great inspiration. She goes and does stuff, the more adventurous the better. Her inviting me to hike Bukhansan gave me a great jumpstart. And I've been going out for lunch and merriment on Saturdays after the hash.

In the last few weeks, I've hashed a bunch of times and had some interesting experiences:

Well, we laid that meme to rest for good.

Yes, I slid down the slidewalk too.

 Yeah, I would love to drink that, but I'm a vegetarian. It's a shame.

...and took part in a surprise 30th-birthday party for our friend HHIT; Two dozen of us hid in Foo Foo's little kitchen as HHIT walked in, thinking he was going to help Foo Foo move a TV, saw us, muttered a rude word, and we erupted in laughter. The only implement we had for him to break the pinata with was a golf club, and as Foo Foo has a big-screen TV and a light hanging from the ceiling...

...someone just threw the pinata to HHIT, who broke it open with a single punch

And then he had his nearly waist-length hair chopped off for Locks of Love:
Adult beverages may have been consumed, in moderation.

The next day, I hiked the silent hountain near my house...
 This is my church on Sundays.

and hurried back to change clothes and head to Itaewon, where I played a bartender in my friend Lost-a-Lot's indie film...
Stars have chiseled cheekbones; extras have bow ties.

...and attended Kat's pre-departure house party and ran a bunch of times with my new friend and colleague Dave, who's really very smart even if he only graduated from Cal Berkeley, and... you know, it all runs together. I know I've forgotten some things...

In the last week, I have literally had more social engagements than I did in a full year in Daegu:

Friday: poker with the guys from work

Saturday: hashing
 Some of them are my close friends; all of them are family.

Sunday: Coffee and Korean practice with Qinjie:
Friends don't have to have a single thing in common.

Monday: Korean class, then pancake dinner with Kat.

Tuesday: Chinese dinner with Qinjie, Kate, and Ms. Jeon. (See previous post.)

Wednesday: Mexican dinner signaling transition in mismanagement...
I'm upper management now... time to set my fiendish plan in motion!

Thursday (today): Nothing! So I'm gracing you with my wit and wisdumb.

Friday: Our course counselor Brian's bachelor party. (We are anticipating such decadent activities as bowling and darts.)

Saturday: Kat and Jason's going-away party.

Sunday: Coffee and Korean practice with Qinjie.

Monday: Korean class.

So, as you see, I've been a busy little corndog. Tug is slacking off and not doing the dishes as he should, or the cooking--and he's already got the oven mitts built in! So the place is a mess. But otherwise things are hopping and I am well.

(The following denouement is a bit overly rosy... the best friends I have here [Kat, Jane, Val] are leaving soon and school can be a grind--30 four-page papers to proofread--and the Mets still haven't called to give me a tryout at first base, but still, I love an upbeat ending, so...)

I'm  looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

Also dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep. Good night!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Secret Asian man

Possibly the three prettiest girls I've ever dated simultaneously. Possibly.

So... there's a lot more money in producing K-pop music than in teaching, so I've quit my job and am seeking my fortune choreographing, writing music for, and producing these three lovely ladies. They're called Corngirl 21. They're currently number six with a bullet on the Korean Billboard chart.

Okay, that's a total lie. The truth is that I've found one woman isn't enough to handle all my manly manliness, so I'm dating three.

Okay, that's a total lie, too, though clearly more credible than the first one. Actually, this is Kate Yook, our school counselor, on the left; Qin Jie, our Chinese teacher, on the right, and Ms. Jeon, who comes in once a week to teach Korean to Qinjie and me, in the middle. We all had a dinner date tonight, in the Konkuk University area, which is famous for block after block of (genuine) Chinese restaurants. (If you're used to American "Chinese" food... yeah, that ain't Chinese food... notice, in the photo, the huge yin/yang-shaped pot of two kinds of soup; there were spiced sliced potatoes and corn salad with a touch of hot peppers and a couple of bottles of Tsingtao beer... no veggie fried rice or General Kapow chicken here.)

It was an exhilarating and enervating dinner; Qinjie speaks Chinese and English, Ms. Jeon Korean and Chinese, Kate Korean and English, and I English and Elvish. So the conversation sped ahead, halted, limped forward, looked over its shoulder, scratched an itch, and hopped on one foot. Mostly Ms. Jeon (Jeon Seonsangnim--Jeon Teacher--in Korean terms) would ask me questions in Korean and I would understand a quarter of the words, or Kate would explain something to me, or... well, once Qinjie told me an American friend had taught her a French term: "menage a trois". I explained what it means: "When three people love each other very, very much..."

It was really nice, being invited out to someplace I haven't been and just sharing food and time with these women, none of whom I ever would have met in my "real" life.

The Korean class is going well. Qinjie and I had coffee on Sunday and studied together. Both Kate and one of my students told me yesterday that my pronunciation is really good, almost without accent, and Kate and Jeon Teacher agree that I have enough vocabulary (mostly nouns) that when I get a little more practice with verbs and grammar, I'll actually be intelligible in simple, basic conversations.

I feel that, after many false starts, I have the key in my hand and I just have to fit it in the keyhole and turn the knob.

And I'd long forgotten the satisfaction of working to learn something. It's nice to have that feeling back.

And to be dating all the members of a K-pop girl group. That's cool too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A peace of my mind

A hard, hard lesson I'm trying to learn from Buddhism is taming the ego. Mine is the Incredible Hulk of egotism. You wouldn't like it when it's angry.

Speaking of Corndogs...

I know, and have said many times to anyone who doesn't walk away too fast, that no matter what organization you're in, there's always office politics: jealousies, rumors, gossip, and junk. 

That was proven in my Yongsan Kimchi hashing group two years ago, right after I joined, when a guy who felt he'd been promised the Grand Master spot (the leadership) saw it given to someone else. He had come to YK over 150 times; he went cold turkey. He still hasn't gotten over it... he still hashes every week, but not with us.

The annual changeover from one GM to the next is coming up, and I was sure that I was the logical choice. Nobody comes to YK nearly as frequently as I do; I've missed five weeks in 27 months: three when I was out of the country, one for a mandatory faculty function, one when I was sick. I've done more than 120 YK runs and have been the pack's food supplier (for over a year), its treasurer, and its record keeper. (for over a year). I sent a message to Sir Lost-a-Lot, our current Joint Master (planner) that I'd like to be considered for the GM job.

So, when he took me aside before a hash a few weeks ago, I puffed up with pride...

...and defkated instantly when he told me that they were asking my friend Steak (30 years younger, with less than half as many hashes) to be the GM, and would like me to take over as JM, 

The GM gets a ceremony, and a patch in his/her honor, and a lot of freebies from hashers returning from overseas trips, and generally runs the opening and closing events each week. The JM is the power behind the throne as it were, doing the heavy lifting of planning and coordinating big events, making phone calls, lining up people to lay trails... just not getting much attention.

So, being the mature and sensible gentleman of a certain age that I am, I did the logical thing: I sulked.

I'm good at that. Decades of experience.

I know, I know. It's petty and pathetic. I'm ashamed of it. But it's there.

I did agree on the spot to take the JM job, but I didn't like it, and it was obvious. (Everything I feel is always obvious, to friends, coworkers, students, and Google Earth.)

I think this is what I need to finally learn to do right now, in my heart and not just my head, where I accepted it a long time ago:


 In Buddhism as well as other progressive creeds, ego is the sense that we are separate from the universe and each other. But we are all really parts of the same glorious thing. as a freelance Transcendentalist Taoist New-Thought Agnostic Buddhist Pantheist, I know this in my marrow to be true. 

I have my moments, on a run or sitting in the park on a spring day, when the walls disappear, the truth flows through me, and I'm at peace.  When I'm happy.

I've never been much good at meditation, but I found a new method recently online: coffee meditation. Early in the morning, I sit with my cup and smell the coffee, sip it, feel the warmth of the mug on my hand, breathe, and just be with the coffee and the new day.

As far as the JM job goes, I'm good now. Truly. I don't need the attention of being GM. I'm looking forward to contributing to the pack that means so much to me.

As far as oneness goes, I fell in love with this song and this video. They fill me with serenity and solace and sometimes (I'll say it) quiet joy.

"Just know, that wherever you go, no you’re never alone, you will always get back home."

And that's good enough for me.

The ego is your enemy, not your friend. It is the ego that gives you wounds and hurts you. It is the ego that makes you violent, angry, jealous, competitive. It is the ego that is continuously comparing and feeling miserable. - See more at:
The ego is your enemy, not your friend. It is the ego that gives you wounds and hurts you. It is the ego that makes you violent, angry, jealous, competitive. It is the ego that is continuously comparing and feeling miserable. - See more at:
The ego is your enemy, not your friend. It is the ego that gives you wounds and hurts you. - See more at:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"I don't speak the language...

...Latin yes; this Eastern babble, no."- Bhuta, Help! (the Beatles movie), 1965

In four and a half years here, I've acquired shockingly little Korean; I can say "I have a book" or "I have a pencil" or "I have a bag", or, in a dazzling display of virtuosity, "I don't have a duck".

There was the time in Daegu when I told my little-kid class, in English, "I like to drink kopee", which means "I like to drink bloody nose", rather than "I like to drink keopee", coffee. They thought that was pretty funny. Brats.

Of course, I can read hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which my friend Bob, who has been here just as long, can't. (Ha ha, Bob, I rule.) But that's of extremely limited use when I don't know what most of the words mean. I know computeo and keop and keopee and left fieldeo and centeo fieldeo and right fieldeo...

Hangeul was the world's first methodically designed alphabet, as commissioned by King Sejong (the guy below). Give me a minute or two and I can make all the noises in the word balloon, but the only words I recognize are "Sejong" and "people".
I've tried, kind of, to learn more; I had a brief beginner course back in Daegu and I have bought so many books, generally used and marked down, that I can't recall them all offhand; I have Korean Made Easy (can't be done) and Survival Korean and Korean for Dummies (they weren't kidding... it doesn't bother with the Korean alphabet) and phrasebooks from Lonely Planet and Berlitz and Jimmy's A-1 Korean Emporium and Muffler Shop.

Before I ever came over here, I got Rosetta Stone, which is useless because we don't learn languages the same way as adults that we did as children. And I don't really think one of the first words they needed to teach me was "elephant". Maybe I should have learned it better, though, as in the line for Safari World at the Everland theme park I tried to amuse some little kid by saying "Koyangi" and making elephant noises and waving my arm like a trunk... later on I remembered that koyangi means "cat". (Koggiri is "elephant").

 This is us.

And I tried "iSpeak Korean", an audio program of useful phrases that loads onto an iPod... but that interspersed "That's too expensive" and "My hovercraft is full of eels" with my Pink and Clapton and Eagles songs. That can really harsh your mellow, dude.

I tried to register for a free class last spring, but when I went to sign up right after school, I found that the course had been filled up by 8:05 a.m.

I had just about given up--after all, I get by pretty well without a solid knowledge of Korean. But not being able to speak to people really adds to my isolation. I live such an American life, limited to a few TV channels that play the same few movies over and over, or going to the mom-n-pop store and only being able to say "Hello", "How much is it?", "Thank you", and "Goodbye". I'd like to say, "It's really cold" or   "How is your cat?" (Although around here the answer might be, "Needs more salt.")

Ladles and jellyspoons: the hardest languages for native English speakers.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my school arranged for a teacher to come after school once a week. (They did that last year, but she never got past hangeul, the alphabet.) I decided to try one last time.

The teacher this time was very nice, but she had no idea of how to teach anything. She would ask what random phrases we wanted to know, teach us how to say them, and move on... no order, no logic, no system. So I was ready to give up again, maybe once and for all...

...when we got a notice that she had other commitments and we were getting a new teacher.

Ms. Jeon is very good. Last week our class consisted of Kris, our art teacher's husband,...

Kris is an artist who's making waves here; you can buy his stuff (like this) on coffee mugs.

...Qin Jie, our Chinese Chinese teacher; and me. I was 'way ahead of them, since they're new in country and I'd had a class. Ms. Jeon's English is limited, and I knew the very basic stuff we started with, so I went as a go-between. I hope I was more helpful than insufferable; at my age, I'm very open about my strengths and weaknesses, and I know I can be infuriatingly smug. But it went really well.

Last evening, only Qin and I could make it, and we learned a lot more. To my dismay, though, Qin had to help me understand some of it... Ms. Jeon's English knowledge may be finite, but her Chinese is excellent, so she rattled off a lot of grammatical info to Qin, who translated for me. (spoken Chinese--nasal and singsong, to my ear--and Korean are really distinct in sound, but Ms. Jeon spoke so fast I couldn't always tell which one she was using.

Many Korean words are homophones of Chinese words, Ms. Jeon's explanations to her are more extensive than Qin's to me, and Qin is after all a language teacher, so she's progressing a lot faster than I am. If she can teach Korean kids Chinese in English (with her Chinese accent and their Korean accents), she can help teach Korean to an American by translating Chinese to English. Got it?

I get very frustrated when I struggle to learn stuff in front of other people. (That's another of my many flaws that I'm aware of.) But the class went well and Qin and I get along very nicely. We live next door to each other, so we talk over what we've learned on the walks home. Maybe, as soon as I get 30 years younger, she'll go out with me.

Next week, we should have our full complement of students: Qin, Kris, Amber (the art teacher), Casey (the other English teacher), Harry (the Korean-Australian gym teacher), and me. Amber, Kris, and Casey have basically no Korean at all, so it will be interesting to see how Ms. Jeon keeps us all involved.

Already, in just two weeks, I've learned to tell a taxi driver, "Itaewon Yeok ga juseyo" (Please take me to Itaewon Station), rather than "Itaewon Yeok juseyo" (Please give me Itaewon Station.)

At this rate, I will be fluent in hanguk-eo in the year 2525.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A strongend the opposite of a weekend.

Yesterday, Sunday, was Seollal, the Lunar New Year's Day,  the biggest holiday in Korea. It bothers me that everyone in America calls it Chinese New Year; it's also Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Mongolian New Year. On the other hand, it tickles me that ten percent or so of the Americans who think they know their Asian Zodiac signs are wrong. For example, the Year of the Snake (my year!) started yesterday, not on January 1; if you were born before Lunar New Year's Day, you're actually one spot ahead of what that cute paper place mat told you. Your friends may think you're a rabbit when you're actually a tiger, nuch like every movie librarian when she takes off her glasses and shakes out her hair.

Anyway, it's been an active weekend for me.

On Friday evening, a bunch of us teachers got together for poker. I started with an incredible run of bad cards and went broke. Then I bought back in and my brilliant strategic play soon had me hoarding the biggest pile of chips. Then, through unbelievably bad luck, and despite my tactical acumen, I went broke again.

On Saturday, my hash group said goodbye to one of our most popular members, After School Special (a.k.a Nina). She named the occasion the Afro Circus Hash, so we had hashers in neon-colored Afro wigs, tiger-head hats (me), even a monkey suit...
 Crazy foreigners.

We ended up at a bar whose owner probably didn't know what hit him, between the songs, the noise, and the bagpipes. My friend Val even brought her son Maddox; he had the best time of all and didn't want to go home.
Did I mention that we had a balloon artist, too?

On Sunday, I went with my friend Kat, her boyfriend Jason, and three of their friends to Bukhansan National Park, the collection of mountain trails and peaks on the far north edge of the city. Koreans adore hiking and ordinarily on the weekends Bukhansan is wall-to-wall people, but on Seollal, in the snow, it was pretty quiet. 
How hard could it be?

We bought crampons at the base of the mountain and started up through the snow and the ice and the stillness. It was beautiful, sunny, and one hell of a challenge. We scaled Baegundae, at 2744 feet the highest mountain in this part of the country. Bukhansanseong Fortress, erected in the 1700s, and a number of small Buddhist temples, stand on the slopes of the mountains.

 This is Jason's friend Matt. I got sweaty palms just looking at him standing out there.

The crampons were a life saver for me, almost literally, as the last stretch to the top of Baegundae involved using two hands to haul myself up a steep, uneven snow-covered granite dome. My knees (and my jeans) didn't always want to bend far enough to take the next step. Getting down was interesting, too. And, oddly enough for the mountains in early February, it was cold up there.
Jason and Kat.
I hope I don't make it seem as if I'm patting myself on the back too much. (However, in the interest of honesty, I am 59 years old and kept up with five people 30-plus years younger than I, four of whom are on active duty in the US Air Force, so... yeah, I rock. (I pretty much take my good health for granite.)
Me, bein' all manly an' stuff, above the city.

This was the first really strenuous hike I've done since leaving Daegu over three years ago, and my most strenuous since the three-waterfall hike in Yosemite 37 years ago. So I feel pretty good about it. About that, and about not plunging to my death.
Me, bein' all manly an' stuff over on the other side now.

And today, on the third day, I rested.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Unephen Stephen

Is it possible to write a blog post so self-centered that nobody in the world could be interested in it but the writer?

Let's find out, shall we?

I've always had a bumpy relationship with my name. First, nobody can spell it. It's S-t-e-p-h-e-n. People spell it "Steven", or people pronounce it "Steffan"; once I ordered something over the phone and said, "That's Stephen with a PH", and the box came addressed to "Steven PH". Sometimes I feel like shouting, "It's in the g*dd*mn Bible!" but perhaps that would be poorly received.

(Saint Stephen was famous for getting stoned. Dude.)

As Stephen Colbert said, "Stevens who spell it with a 'v' are jerks." We have King and Hawking and Foster and Fry. All the bad guys have is Spielberg. Yet nobody seems to recognize the name anymore. And then there's the basketball player Stephen Marbury... he pronounces it "Steffan".

Then there's "Cornman", the world's most boring superhero.

Or everybody wants to spell it "Corman".  And if you type it in Arial, it comes out "Comman"... Cornman.And I have to carefully count the bumps in script r...n...m... when I sign my name.

...and an entire childhood being called Corny, Cornball, Cornbread, Corn Chex, Cornhole... I felt different enough without that, too. (Life would have been easier if I'd taken my mom's name, Davis.)

At least I get to say I had to be an English teacher because my name is five nouns: Step. Hen. John. Corn. Man. That's kind of cool, but then again the middle name is either a toilet or a prostitute's customer. Can't win.

The one thing I almost never am anymore is Steve. I usually assume, if I hear "Steve", that there's another Steve in the room.

All of the kids, of course, and the Korean staff, and most of the teachers (as they are much younger) call me Mr. Cornman. And almost all of my friends in Korea are hashers, so to them I'm Corndog... which, unlike the Corny names I listed above, I love. Stephen Emerson... sorry, Ralph Waldo Emerson... said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I am usually consistent and always foolish, and when I get up in the morning I'm a hobbling goblin, so I can live with that.
Sometimes the Korean kids say  옥수수 인간, oksusu ingan... "Corn person". That's kinda cool.

And Kat always calls me "Corn". And Val always calls me "Cornman". And Scarlett Johansson doesn't call at all.

Probably she doesn't like my name.