Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Deer and the Cauldron

As you get older, you notice more generational differences, and the more you start to feel the world isn't yours, and a bit of culture shock sets in. When I started teaching, the Chinese students were quite similar to me in age and there was a lot more I could relate to, even though we were born in different countries. But as China has transformed had record pace, the generational differences are even greater. The students of today are vastly different in their values and priorities from those I first taught. When I do encounter a student I can relate with as a person, it's a moment of excitement, but that is becoming very rare. It used to be that I could motivate students by telling them how I learned language but very few of these suit the modern students who know that there are ways to "get by" without doing the hard work. Two ways that I believe are best to learn are listening to the radio (for passive exposure to comprehensible input) and reading (for time with a wide variety of non-spoken language and ideas; exposure to grammar). Recently I told a group that I was reading a book myself in Chinese, even though study isn't the focus of my life. I said I was reading to enjoy, and learning was a nice side-effect. This probably had little effect. The only effect was that when I alluded to the book title, all of them said: "Oooh, a book about sex." Regrettably even these "adults" want to be children forever. And though it does have a few adult themes, it is not a book about sex. Sigh. The cover of the fourth volume of five says it all, and the protagonist, Wei Xiaobao, is said to have seven wives. I have almost finished and he is barely out of his teens with only one wife (and that at a stretch - she was tricked and compelled into it; and she wants to kill him).

For most of this year though, reading fell off my priority list in favour of running, but I still read in oft moments and times when I wanted distractions; two books took focus both Louis Cha (金庸) novels, Fox Volant of Snowy Mountain (which I finished), and The Deer and the Cauldron, the "book about sex", which as of 31 December I'm on chapter 41 of 50. Both I'd brought from China to read and keep my Mandarin up as well as to read all of Louis Cha's body of work; The Deer and the Cauldron is my seventh, roughly halfway through his body of work. His work is always interesting in terms of creative and elaborate stories, which boggle the mind in their intricacies, as well as tying everything into real historical events and figures. 

Although I chose one of the two novels because of a recommendation, and the other one was a gift, their background timeframes were very similar. Fox Volant of Snowy Mountain was set in the mid-Qing Dynasty but whose back-story focusses on a period when the Ming Dynasty has just fallen, followed by a brief reign from usurper, Li Zicheng, and then the Manchus steaming in to push him out with the help of a Han general, Wu Sangui. The Deer and the Cauldron is set just after the early Qing dynasty while Wu Sangui is still alive and the Qing Emperor Kangxi was on the throne. I'm glad to read it just because the more I do, the more history is being given flesh and I can understand how things happen. Previous books have had the characters interacting with Genghis Khan during his rise. The latter book has the character, through various circumstances, taken to Moscow where he sees how a young Peter the Great (before he was great) became a tsar. If there was one distraction while reading it is that the books are quite unhistorical in their portrayal of male and female relationships, suiting a soap opera/TV series generation. But it definitely enriches the plots.
Along with the relationships comes probably the best thing about Louis Cha novels, the emotional entanglement through circumstances. I have nine more chapters to read in The Deer and the Cauldron to find out how Wei Xiaobao resolves his conflicting loyalties which are very much coming to a head. His closest friend is Kangxi the emperor, yet he leads a branch of an organisation that is aiming to overthrow him. He has creatively found a way to keep these two worlds of his life consistent. Spoiler is that history already tells me what the ending may be. I can't wait to find out how he does it... and how he gets the other six wives!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Running records and goals

I ran my last run for 2017 in Whitianga on 28 December. It was a pleasant run, along the Mercury Bay shoreline, up a hill, around the neighbourhood, with a 3.5km section of pace, 16.5km in all. It felt good. I felt compelled to run because (a) it was a great place to run, like Piha and Taupo earlier; and (b) to break 2000km for the year. I probably should have been giving my left knee niggle a rest but it was a symbolic number and I do get itchy feet. I'm now not going to run until I know that the knee niggle that has been with me in various forms is no longer apparent, unless running is part of the treatment for it. The niggle itself has not been an issue for my marathon nor my most recent "get lost" half marathon at Omaha.

In the meantime, one's best times are always good to keep a track of for posterity, so here are my achievements of 2017. All my best are from this year, needless to say:
Estimated Best Efforts according to Strava measurements
1 mile6:06

My best official race times are:
- 5km - 21:18 (Western Springs Run Auckland, Jul 2017)
- 10km - 43:58 (Botany Run Auckland, May 2017)
- Half marathon - 1:36:53 (North Shore Marathon, Sep 2017)
- Full marathon - 3:46:35 (Auckland Marathon, Oct 2017)

My goals for 2018:
- Consistent uninjured running
- 2500km/year (i.e. over 200km most months)
- 5km - 20:00
- 10km - 41:30
- Half marathon - 1:32:00
- Full marathon - 3:20:00

I've already entered several events:
- Coatesville Half in March 2018
- Rotorua Marathon in May 2018
- North Shore Marathon in Sep 2018

The main complication will be the four weeks I spend in China Feb/Mar but I'll try to run where possible. 

How am I going to achieve those? Well, I am unsure whether I've mentioned it but I intend to do it by following the common wisdom that has proven itself to be true. Firstly:
- higher mileage, especially of lower speeds - probably one of my issues in both years was my tendency to try to push every run
- running long runs with fast finishes - never done it before but make a lot of sense
- strengthening exercises - I started doing this this year and it does seem to work
- hill sprints - I only did my first session of this a couple of weeks before the Omaha half in December. I felt better for it.
- focussing on high cadence - I didn't really get cadence till I discovered it for myself. It's the number of strides per minute. I realised half way through the year that I could literally "change gear" by making my stride shorter but put more strides in. Intervals helped refine this.

 I'd like to thank my wife for her patience with my running and not complaining about a hobby that has an alarm going off at 5am, disturbs her sleep, makes for stinky laundry and regular trips to the shoe store. I'm also thankful to live in a place that allows easy running 12 months a year. I'll no doubt understand new things about myself and running and mould these along the way. I hope this coming year has as many discoveries as this has, 2017. Let's go!

Merry Christmas

We spent a few post-Christmas days on the Coromandel Peninsula and stayed in a great apartment while there. It was, as you expect, a place you could live quite happily and forget it was acting like a hotel. They had all the mod-cons such as a dishwasher, washing machine and stove, and supplied the powders etc. for each of these so you could be fully independent of hotel staff, if you chose. All of this served to allow us more freedom to eat in, having all of our breakfasts and two of our dinners comfortably in our room.

Whitianga, where we stayed, is a great little town, too, and developing ever faster. For our first grocery-shop we went to one of the big supermarkets, buying a poddle of oysters to eat at the beach, breakfast cereal, oil for the pan etc. I was relaxed and happy because I'd slipped into holiday mode and ready to take time as it came. After paying at check-out, the cashier wished me "happy holidays" and I wished her back "Merry Christmas" and she looked awkward. And suddenly I thought about the very interesting culture war in the States.

Eight years had been a long time for conservatives over there in the Obama years. For them, it was a constant assault on what they thought was the American way of doing things, including celebrating Christmas. One of the things was the trend for companies and organisations asking service people to stop using "Merry Christmas" and adopt culturally and religiously neutral phrases such as "Happy holidays" and "Seasons greetings". These changes caused backlash

The funny thing was that my "Merry Christmas" at the supermarket was reflexive and I certainly support the trend toward saying "Happy holidays" to those the speaker is not familiar with, which is especially the case for those in the service industry. For me, and I believe for most New Zealanders, "Merry Christmas" isn't a religious saying - it's a cultural phrase, even merely a linguistic idiom. It's as religious as Santa and reindeer. 

But many people see it as a religious phrase and religion always brings a degree of discomfort when pressed onto others. It's everyone right to say what they'd like as individuals but it doesn't mean that it won't have consequences, and I wouldn't want to discomfort others for no reason, when it was just the desire to wish someone well or to provide a turn in a social interaction that needed to be filled. 

The strange thing in the culture war is that the fact that it's a wish for another and such a wish shouldn't really be a basis for conflict. There is a distinct problem for the religious who would like to show their sincerity but their idiom is religiously rooted. When a religious person says they'll pray for someone, it is meant as a kindness. To an atheist it may come as a wish, but may often come as something different. We now live in a gloriously pluralistic world - the formally alternative are now accepted in the main. It is an emotional issue for those who are finding that they've floated out of the mainstream and sometimes the cognitive dissonance is awkward. (Check out this amusing interview after 2:00, where the satirical interviewer points out that there is no difference between before and after Trump.)

In my habitual phraseology, I clearly hold onto some unobserved relics of a bygone time. It's still something that I wish to reform my habits about in the new year.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


The time is 11:12pm on 22/12/2017. I was exhausted at 8pm, went to bed at 9:40pm, got up at 10:10pm to read my book after I struggled to sleep, felt dozy and went back to the bedroom at 10:40pm only to again feel too mentally agitated to sleep and came out to write this now. I hope a little writing of my thoughts will exile them to the page.

Today was the last working day of the year. It was a "half day" but it was always going to be a full day for me. Our school is moving. We've lost some staff and I needed to notify people on the results of the interviews. 

It was a tough day with a burst of frustration from a departing teacher. He was a little bit of an enigma: He came mid-year and had an excellent CV: He'd been a teacher trainer, taught all over the place and had written his own textbook. But also clear from the get go, he had a bit of fire about him. He'd had a frustrated previous employment that ended unpleasantly. We had a common friend though and he assured me that he was a good guy. And he was clearly the pick of the bunch and we took him on. 

And perhaps in some situation, with a different or better manager he'd be a productive member of the team still. Or not. He started class and immediately struck trouble. He told me the class was "dead". There was one student, "D", who wasn't responding, refusing to cooperate and he couldn't figure out why. He told me about her and I told him that D hadn't been a problem in other classes. I spoke to her when I had time on the fourth day he was teaching her. She said she was under stress because her accommodation had been a problem. He reported another student, "U", not responding to him and students were using their phones in class. On the Friday, two students including "D" came to my office to complain about his teaching. 

I got as much evidence as I could to find out what it was that he was doing wrong. He was following the departure of a popular teacher and it's not uncommon for classes to give a following teacher a hard-time. But this was pretty extreme - and it is my responsibility to evaluate the cases early on, because if there is a problem it needs to be dealt with. I spoke to him on the Friday afternoon of his first week. I believed the problem was he hadn't really created a good rapport from the start. He expected students to give him respect from the get-go, which is not a bad expectation but is not a given. He had a set of habits and idiosyncrasies (whispering), humour (sarcastic; sometimes mocking) and style (lots of his own materials, though often too varied) which wouldn't be a problem in themselves, but without rapport most of these would become annoying or distracting. I suggested toning down these distractors and upping the rapport side of things. 

Monday came round, he taught and at the end of the day, he came energetically into the office and declared either D was removed from his class or he wouldn't be teaching it. I was stunned. He described how she showed utter contempt for him and he couldn't bear it. He mimed her throwing a piece of paper back at him. I spoke with the student after and told her that all people deserve respect. She denied throwing the paper back at him. (Later he admitted that she hadn't thrown it back at him, but "she had the smug contempt as if she had.") I felt I was sufficiently hard on her in a meeting. 

But it wasn't much of a fix. In the end I decided to move him and another teacher around. He did better in this class but still drew complaints right up to the end of his probation. We put him on another three month contract, and switched his class around again. The class I moved him to was one that was the most difficult to teach, a monoculture beginner class, that my most reliable teachers had already taught and driven to their wits' end. And that was when he started to do well. The students enjoyed him. And that's when he gave notice. And soon as he gave notice, he lost the sense of professionalism. There are a good portion of people that once the end is near, they can't really "turn up". His classes were still fine as but soon as he was out of the classroom, he was out. And started getting ruder and sharper.

Today was his last day. And actually it was a half-day but paid as full, and without classes just packing and a last Christmas meal with colleagues at 1pm. But he couldn't wait to get out. Eventually he just came into my office, said that one of my early e-mails had said the half day ends 12:30pm and he had to go, then gave me a verbal serve, saying I was wrong in not telling him about the maturity level of our students when he joined, that it's a huge problem in the school and that I deny it; that I say they're good students. I challenged a few things but generally just let him get it off his chest. He said such things "mess with people's lives". For him one of the parts of this story had: he was looking to buy a boat but because he was only on short contracts while he was with us. He'd struggled long to buy one and it was obviously quite a frustration. He held it together to say goodbye to others and I shook his hand before he left.

The irony for that last bit was that if he hadn't given notice, we'd have probably given him a permanent contract. 

That is one of the many threads threading my brain at a time that I should be able to let it all unwind.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Back on the road

After the completion of my big goal of running a full marathon, it was interesting to get my mind back to other interesting running goals. I generally wanted to develop a better "aerobic base" for my running next year - this is to make the body more efficient and enduring for any kind of running. I had a few particular goals, too, I wanted to do more social running and also make breakthroughs in my running of particular distances.

For 5km running, my plan is to take part in "parkruns" from time to time to push for improvements in my 5km running. Parkruns are free, timed 5km runs in parks around the world. Auckland has about four different parkruns, and I've already been to Cornwall Park's and enjoyed it enough to go back. My goal is to be able to reliably break 20 minutes on most courses. As it is, I've only broken 20 minutes once on the waterfront.

For half marathons, I'll take part in some of the half marathon series that are around every month or two. My goal here is to slowly bring my time down closer and closer to 1:30, with my first goal being to reliably run a half marathon under 1:35. My last big race of the year was the Omaha Half Marathon, which I did this morning. I'd committed to it once I felt my recovery from Auckland Marathon had gotten to the point that I could train again. It was an interesting race.

I'm not sure if my pacing problems are any bigger than anyone else's. Pacing is thorny. Individual to races and individuals. I blew my chances of a good time at the Auckland Marathon through my over-optimistic pacing. Several other 5km/10km races this year failed too for similar reasons. To get to the intermediate target of a 1:35 finishing time, I had to average 4 mins 29 seconds per km over the whole race (4:29). But this race, I thought was the best most strategic pacing I've ever done. After the 5km, I wasn't overtaken; I overtook a lot of good runners. It went something like this: The race starts with small tracks near Omaha beach and near a reservoir. I was conservative, just using little bursts to get in front of people, keeping around 4:30 pace and then it was onto the beach. Sand-running is generally slower than track running and this section went for 2kms and my pace was about 4:55 for the duration. I was overtaken by some on the beach and I chose to not mind slipping back. From my recent training runs, I knew I could sustain 4:20-4:30 pace for the middle sections if I'm not too tired. My overall pace once I left the beach was 4:36 but then I relied on moving from one bunch of runners to the next making sure that I was cruising with a group before moving onto the next one to keep my desired pace. For the 14km after the beach, I maintained an average of 4:26 which dragged my overall pace to 4:29. Right on!

But that's when disaster struck. The route of the half marathon crosses many other race routes and somehow I got confused and went down the wrong road. I realised it pretty quickly but wasn't sure where I'd gotten it wrong and I managed to link up with some other runners. Unfortunately they weren't runners from my event. After 21km came up on my app, I knew I was nowhere near the finish line. I asked a few marshalls but they were unclear how I could get back. Instead, I decided just to run this second race path and get to the end... I ran 27.5km with a terrible half marathon time in the end.

It was embarrassing but I proved my theory and my fitness. I wish I could run it all over again.