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: http://www.buddhasangha.com/quotes/quotes/spiritual_quotes_ego.htm#sthash.vdu3vCsv.dpuf
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: http://www.buddhasangha.com/quotes/quotes/spiritual_quotes_ego.htm#sthash.vdu3vCsv.dpuf
The ego is your enemy, not your friend. It is the ego that gives you wounds and hurts you. - See more at: http://www.buddhasangha.com/quotes/quotes/spiritual_quotes_ego.htm#sthash.ISf270Qa.dpuf

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

...is 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.