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, 라 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...
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.
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...
, 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.