Sunday, August 06, 2017

Wisconsin Summer

San Francisco Half Marathon/Moonlight Marathon

This summer I ran two half marathons. First, the Davis moonlight marathon on July 9th in Davis, California. I had been training for a couple of months building up to the San Francisco half marathon at the end of July, but I always look for races around places where I'll be staying, so when I saw this was about 3 miles from the NEH seminar I attended this summer I went for it. I usually like to get in a "practice" race before the real one to estimate what time I might expect. Considering this was a couple of weeks prior to the San Francisco race, but San Francisco was supposed to be hillier, I thought that I ought to add about 5 minutes to whatever time I ran here and I was estimating I would finish around 1hr 50 minutes.

What I did not consider was the heat. Davis is away from the coast and although it looks close to San Francisco on a map it does not share it's weather patterns. On the day of the race it was 105F at peak of the day and about 100 when I started running at 7pm. Add on top of that that I thought the race was the next day, had gone out drinking with buddies the night before, only to realize at 3pm on race day that the start was in 4 hours... So, I considered not running it, but I had been hydrating all day and felt ok. I biked to the race (I know, biking to a race then biking home? madness) and by the time I got there around 630pm there were a lot of people milling around. To make a long story short, the race started just about on time and the course was a pretty nice loopy bit of bike trail going through quiet neighborhoods and parks. As the race went on I realized that the heat was slowing me down. In the first hour I must have stopped for water/to walk at least 5 times. It was at about 8pm that the sun really started to leave the sky and the temperatures dropped. I think by the time I finished, just a few minutes after 9pm, that the temperature was 75F, a big difference from the start. It was noticeable on my timing as well. The second half of the race I ran faster than the first with about 1hr for the second half and 1hr 5 min for the first. So, I didn't hit my time of 1 hr 50 minutes for the whole race, but I completed it and was pretty proud of that. Then I got on my bike and pedaled the 3 miles back to campus.

Two weeks later I was in San Francisco for the 1/2 marathon there. By this point in the year I was very well prepared to run this race, having trained hills and distances beyond the 21 km required. When I arrived in SF it was late afternoon so my plan was just to chill and eat a mild dinner, but then I remembered that I hadn't even picked up my race pack yet! Ok, so I checked out an Uber to the pick up place, about 3 miles away. Unfortunately Uber doesn't work for me in the US (with a Chinese CC) so I ended up walking to the expo center and then walking back, a 6 mile loop. I then had a spaghetti dinner and hit the hay around 9pm. It took a long while to get to sleep though since my window went to a shared courtyard where some women where (literally) yelling at each other in conversation.  I finally got to sleep around what must have been 1030. I had set my alarm for 445am since the start time was 530am and I wanted to eat a bit before leaving. In the darkness of the morning a door slammed and woke me up. Being race day, I thought, I better check my phone to see if I should get up. Good thing I did! I don't know how, but both of my alarms failed to go off so now it was 5:07am, 23 minutes to race start and I was a mile away from the start line and just waking up. I jumped out of bed to get my clothes on and decided there wasn't time to eat, but I had a couple of gels for the race so I sucked down one of those as I half jogged/power walked to the start line. I shouldn't have gone so fast because when I got there I stood around for another 30 minutes waiting for waves to start. I didn't actually cross the start line until around 6am.

The race was marvelous. Early morning in the bay area was very beautiful and slightly cool, but I was sweating and there was fog pretty early on. I felt really good going onto the Bay Bridge and pretty much the whole race I was passing people. I actually put myself a wave back further than I thought I could do with the idea that it would be encouraging to pass people and it was. The bridge was shrouded in fog and really I couldn't see more than 100m in front of me let alone get a view of the ocean or bay.

By the time we came off the bridge I was thinking that I might hit my goal of 1hr 55min. That is a bit slower than my normal 1/2 time, but SF is a hilly race. The next 1/3 of the race was mostly up and down hills and then finally on to the finish. Overall it was a great event. I then boarded the bus back to SF which was sunny and clear. An hour later, after walking to my hotel, showering and packing up, I was on the road to fly out of San Jose and to Wisconsin.

Yes, it was as hard as it looks, but I loved it!

NEH Hannah Arendt

What can I say about NEH programs and especially the Hannah Arendt seminar under Kathy Jones? Not enough, but I will try. 
This is my third NEH seminar and I have loved every one of them, but this one was definitely the best and I would argue the most intellectually challenging. For the first week or so I was thinking each day, do I belong here? Who are these people and how did I end up among them? They were so passionate about a text which, I must admit, was very hard to read and interpret. Sometimes the full meaning of what we were reading or discussing wouldn't hit me until a week later (I think some things I am still trying to sort out). Reading through Eichmann in Jerusalem and then Origins of Totalitarianism, both by Hannah Arendt, with one of the world's premier Arendt scholars was really a treat. Being surrounded by peers of high intellectual pursuit and a curiosity similar to my own was challenging and at the same time really rewarding. I had a lot of doubt and anxiety in this seminar, but it pushed me to thinking about things in a whole new way and questioning much of what I didn't before. 

The seminar, which at least for 2018 has not been renewed (after 7 years running! bummer) took place over a month long period at the UC Davis campus. As with most NEH programs, participants were housed in student housing with daily interactions during the week and free weekends. At first I thought, oh, there are only  3 hours each afternoon we are expected to be in discussion, the rest is free, how nice. I soon realized that the three hour discussions were heavy and dug deep. I was drained after each one, but eager to read the next section assigned, which would usually take me another 4-5 hours a day as I had to read and re-read each section just to glean most of the meaning. We were also visited by other scholars such as Uda Ispis and Ayten G├╝ndogdu

On the weekends we, of course, wanted to unwind and at least push the weight of the holocaust and banal evil to the backs of our minds. So we went hiking(to Feather Falls), did trivia, and took day trips together to San Francisco. Some of us lounged by the pool and read Origins of Totalitarianism, a funny sight to see 4-5 people around a pool all reading the same big black book and not one of them making a peep. Often we would meet in the dining halls or out for a drink in the evening and those conversations were almost as valuable as the seminar discussions themselves as we talked about the current political climate and how that related to the banality of evil, or how it did not at all. 

It is had to say enough about this program and about the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, but maybe it is enough to say that I now understand how the average man or woman can commit atrocious acts and how whole societies can go along with them. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hiking Little West Lake

This past weekend Aya and I spotted that we had a good air day coming in Beijing and neither of us had obligations, so we signed up for Beijing Hikers to do a hike north of the city in the mountains. We have been living in Beijing for almost 3 years and most of that time we talked about doing one of these hikes, but the air is always a toss up and most weekends I work so time kept ticking away until this weekend we finally had the opportunity to go. I signed us up via the Beijinghikers website and we were put on standby for that Saturday's hike. Most hikes fill up 5-7 days in advance. Lucky for us they decided there were enough people on standby to get another, smaller bus to follow their regular large one. We took a car down to the Lido hotel in Beijing where we met up with other hikers at 830. After about 20 minutes of checking names and handing out bananas everything seemed in order. So, two buses with about 40 people, we headed north to Little West Lake. It took about 2 hours to get there with a potty stop mid way. Most of the drive was through the norther burbs of Beijing, familiar territory for us.
The drive was fine and we started our hike near the top of the mountain. There were not many other groups on the wall or first part of the trail, but in true Chinese fashion those people who were there were chatting noisily and a few of them were blaring music from devices as they hiked breaking the serenity. Also in true Chinese fashion, people never gave way if there was only room for one person to pass on a trail, if they decided to sit for a rest it was always right in the middle of the trail, and a lot of the people I saw hiking just threw their trash on the wall or off the side and there were areas were you could see it was thick with trash. Hey, it's not my country, but if it were...

The first part of the hike we spent 2-3km on a restored part of the wall. It was pretty steep going up and down between towers and took us about 1.5 hours to get through that bit. The next part, where our guides had held up the lead group, was a little bit of a fairly flat stretch through some orchards. That only lasted about 1km before we were back up on the wall, this time an unrestored section. Again we encountered many Chinese hikers. Another 1-2km along the unrestored wall and we could see the end, a ticket shed at the bottom of a steep descent. Once our group came together there we walked the last part of the hike, all flat along a lake and through a park that was packed with people, and then to the parking lot.

After we got all our people together we boarded and had a short drive to a place to have lunch. By then it was about 3pm, so a pretty late lunch, but a few people in our group straggled so we were a bit behind. Lunch was at a local place on a balcony overlooking a reservoir, so pretty nice view and the food was good. After lunch we packed in the buses to head back to the city and most everyone fell asleep from food and weariness. As we approached the edges of Shunyi we asked if we could jump out. It seemed like an odd spot, but it was only 4km from there to our home whereas the bus was going downtown which would probably mean another 45 minutes to get there and then another 45 minutes to turn around and come back to Shunyi. It was no problem to just jump out and from there we took a cab back to our apartment so we were home by 530pm.

Overall I liked the hike and might do one again if I can find the time, but I'm not sure if I want to. Driving out of the city, then being surrounded by Chinese crowds is not exactly a stress reliever. One of our guides was asked if he had been to the Ming Tombs (a popular tourist spot we passed on the way) and he replied that he never had nor would want to since it would mean crowds. He then went on to say that despite living in Beijing for 8 years he had hardly went to any of the touristy spots because he couldn't stand the crowds. I agree, so if we go again we will aim for a place that is a little more off the beaten path. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sumo Practice

Down an unassuming street in Tokyo a stable of wrestlers practicing on a rainy Saturday morning. A gaggle of mostly foreign people were standing outside the windows watching about 15 large men in fundoshi pushing each other around while a couple of others stood to the side pumping weights. Then, a large man wrapped in a robe and sandals came out to mount a bike and teeter down the street.
The rain picked up and the crowd moved on.

Cherry Blossoms

This year we travelled through Osaka to Kobe to Tokyo and we knew that we would see some blossoms on the way, but it was hard to tell when and where. Unfortunately Osaka had not yet bloomed, though we did see a few early trees here and there. In Kobe it was much the same. Luckily Tokyo was just past the peak so many trees were either in full bloom or just past it and loosing petals for leaves.
I also thought the weather this year was quite warm. I didn't need a jacket really at all. A sweater would have been fine the whole trip. This is not what I remember from 2008 when I went to Kyoto with my friend Richard. At that time I wore a jacket and I remember feeling cold in the evenings. So I investigated, has the weather gotten warmer? In fact, yes, and it seems to be causing blossoms to come a little earlier each year.

Dialogue in the Dark

While in Osaka Aya and I went to Dialogue in the Dark. This experience is designed for those with sight to feel what it might be like to be blind. In this case I was especially apprehensive because we were in a small group of Japanese people and all directions would be given in Japanese, but overall the experience went ok.
We entered a dimly lit room where a blind man was waiting to speak to us. As he dimmed the lights he explained how he would guide us and gave us white walking sticks to feel our way around. There were 5 of us excluding the guide and after a few minutes we entered the dark room. Here we had to move to take our shoes off and give up our walking sticks. That was hard enough, not to bump into people, not to trip, but then we entered, "the house". At this point we had to make our way down a stair way and out into a yard where there was a hammock. Some of us got in the hammock. Then we had to come back up the stairs to the porch where we had a tea and sweet. After this we made our way back to the front door and got our shoes and sticks back.
This whole time I kept thinking, how are they going to fill the hour and  half that this is supposed to last, but it took us so long to do anything that the time just flew by. I was pretty impressed by the experience, it was really difficult to get around as each step was taken with doubt. I suppose if you are in a familiar place you can move around pretty freely because you get to know how far apart everything is, but if you are not familiar it is pretty scary. This led me to some other questions like, how do you pour tea in the dark without over filling the cup? How does one get dressed in the morning? Most importantly, how do you know when to stop wiping? 

A Day at the Races

This trip to Tokyo Aya was keen to try going to some boat races and though I thought it sounded a little silly I was interested to see what it would be like. We arrived in the middle of the day on a Saturday, but the arena was maybe 1/4 full. Most of the clientele were grey haired and I don't know if that is just Japan or an indicator of who comes to bet on these races. We grabbed an info sheet and tried to figure out how to fill out a betting slip. 5 boat racers, in tiny boats, climb into their boats and do a couple laps to show off. Then they get into position and the race starts. After three times around the race is over. I was kind of expecting people to cheer or grumble, but the arena was mostly silent but for the roar of the engines.

Both times we bet we lost, about 10 dollars between the two of us, but it was a bit fun to sit and watch the races and I can see why some retirees might get into it. In addition to the races, which occur every 30 minutes or so, you can get some pretty nicely priced beer or food from a few stalls and restaurants around the arena. I could see making a day of it and maybe, maybe we will go back some day.

Yamazaki Distillery

Three years ago I was going for a drink after work with my friend Bill and we went to some posh new place that was a short walk in between both our places. Looking at the menu I thought the Two Smoky Barrels looked interesting, a whiskey drink with orange and lemon flavor. It was so delicious that when I got home I went about finding out what exactly the smoky barrel was. Three years later and I've now tried a couple dozen different kinds of whiskey from the smoky tastes of Islay to the sweet tastes of Aberlour. What does toast taste like? Can I smell the pears? Why char a barrel and what is the angel's share? What is the different between a blend and single malt? I learned.

Shortly after I started trying these different whiskeys my friend Bill bought a bottle of the Yamazaki 12 year. At the time it cost about 65 dollars, a pretty hefty sum for me and a bit out of my budget, but Bill was kind enough to spare me a glass. This was the first time I tasted Yamazaki and it was good.

Since then I'd been keen to visit the distilleries of Japan and so my wife helped to set up a tour we took this April. The distillery is just outside of the city of Osaka so it wasn't hard to get to. We set up and afternoon tour and there were about twenty other people on the tour with us. Oddly (or not?) only three people on the tour were Japanese. Prices varied, but we went for 1000yen per person, about 9 dollars at the current exchange rate. This price payed for the tour as well as a tasting of 4 whiskeys at the end of the tour. A pretty good deal.
The tour took us through the stills and vats where the whiskey was born and on to the barrel room where it is stored. It was a joyous tour and all of us were smiling ear to ear. At the end we had a tasting of 4 types of Yamazaki whiskey and a number of snacks salty and sweet.
After the tasting, cheeks rosy, we headed to the bar. I tried three small glasses, one of which was a 25 year old Yamazaki. Many different whiskeys were available, both Yamazaki and foreign. All were delicious.
Unfortunately word has spread and the Yamazaki 12 year is now a rare bird. What cost Bill 65 dollars 3 years ago would now cost him about 150 dollars. Whiskey is back in fashion and the Chinese market is now imbibing as well. Many brands, including the stalwart Johnny Walker, are facing increasing demand in the face of limited supplies. Prices will only go up.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

This is 35

A friend of mine recently moved to Germany to teach at an international school in Frankfurt. He told me, “So today I was introducing the unit on economic development to a class of 12th graders and I was talking about increases in life expectancy, income and life expectancy blah blah when a student mentions that she doesn't think increasing life expectancy in the developed world is such a great thing. She's worried about end of life issues, being a burden on society, etc. Suggesting she would rather end her life a little before she loses the joy of life... GREAT, I can get my geek on...let's talk about living wills, power of attorney docs, "kids you have to make adult decisions soon, blah blah" she mentions the cost of end-of-life decisions..."yeah class, you have to think about this stuff" then she closes with "I just don't see the point of living past 40." FORTY! I mentioned that I am well into my forties and maybe we could choose a different age...she allowed that 50, maybe ... maybe 60 (if you are in good shape) would be okay. Thanks.”

I guess since I am only 35 I don’t have to worry about  young people euthanizing me, yet! It amazes me more and more how fast time is going. Sometimes I find myself thinking about ten years in the future as if I am just going to skip right there. Sometimes I find myself looking at the past in awe that something was 20 or 30 years ago and I was alive!

Overall I am feeling pretty fit. At all my doctor’s visits I always get the thumbs up and most of them commend me on a good diet (though they often tell me to drink a little less). Mentally I am at the top of my game and I don’t see that changing. Of course, I feel some of the aches of getting older. Things don’t heal as fast and I find I need more rest, especially after a long periods of physically demanding work or play. Thankfully Aya helps me with that, with nice weekends away, cakes, and beer. With her, I can get older, and moldier, together.