Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Asians Taking Pictures of Other Asians: Round Two

“I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away…” -Robert Frost

If life is truly just a series of snapshots, and no one really knows anyone else except for a bunch of still developing Polaroids in our minds, then please enjoy the latest installment of Asians taking pictures of other Asians. Let’s face it, if you’re Asian (and you people know who you are) and you have a camera… then you be taking pictures. You can’t STOP… an Asian from taking pictures, and you can't stop me from capturing you do it.
Here’s the news from Taiwan as we close out the month of June. Enjoy.
“Moses supposes his toeses are roses…” -Tongue Twister

June has been wild and crazy. My buddy Paul and his son were attacked by a man with a machete, a grandfather of one of my students in the neighboring village was struck by lighting and lived, three teachers from our school were fired this week, I totaled my scooter after hitting a pothole at night and slammed into a tree, I got a new tattoo (sorry, Mom), and I got in a shoving match with a taxi driver after he almost clipped Xian and Rebekah who were holding my hands in the middle of the crosswalk. Imagine his surprise when I pulled him out of the car and started slapping him in the face and screaming.
“The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea,
In a beautiful pea-green boat…” - Edward Lear

But the BIG NEWS of course is final’s week. There are two more days of school and then vacation. For the summer I have trips to Indonesia and China planned, and I also look forward to doing some island hoping with just me and my backpack in some traditional villages to learn wooden canoe building and spear-fishing. I’ll keep you all posted.
“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me…” - Robert Louis Stevenson

But the REALLY BIG NEWS is the World Cup. Believe it or not, of the 300 plus kids that filled out brackets, there are only 7 remaining that have a mathematical chance (Yes, Grant… I’m doing the math), and guess who could still win it all. Yes, I am still in the running. I am the only person who picked the Netherlands to win, and if they beat Brazil… well, Hartenstein Luck says I just jinxed it… but, I do have the Orange Jersey. I know, you’re jealous.
“He doesn’t like honey and haycorns and thistles
Because of the taste and because of the bristles…” - A. A. Milne


This weekend we are heading off on the high speed train across the island to the east coast to snorkel in the Indian Ocean and hopefully tour the Taroko Gorge. I’m not easily impressed by nature, let’s face it, I’m an Oregonian, but this is where they filmed the final scenes for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so to see some mountain pagodas and run through caves and hike through bamboo forests and jump out into the ocean a little is the perfect way to celebrate finishing another school year and the real start of summer.
“I squeak like a cat and I quack like a frog,
I oink like a bear and I honk like a hog…” - Jack Prelutsky


I feel like I’ve been drenched for the last two months. First of all it’s hot. I mean hot hot hot. You know? Like I’m covered in sweat all the time. It’s the tropics and so the humidity kills me. Second of all it’s the rain season so you can set your watch by these afternoon downpours that just shut the city down. There are rivers running through the streets and it soaks everything. There is no way to avoid being wet. It runs off the rooftops. It splatters you on the sidewalk. It comes in the open windows. It’s just water everywhere. The good thing is that it cools the nights a bit and keeps the mosquitoes down, which I'll take any day.
“Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew…” - Eugene Field

The news in my city of Taichung has also been pretty strange. There was a kid found dead in his parent’s house surrounded by Coca-Cola cans and ramen bowls after he mysteriously died playing video games. He’d been dead a week before his parents even opened his door to check on him.
The nation’s top mafia boss died of old age, and they paraded his body through the streets of each county capital complete with flower wreaths, dancing prostitutes, and tributes by rival gang leaders. It was televised.
A historic trade agreement was passed between China and Taiwan earlier this week, but most of my students don’t even care about it. They have been brainwashed by teachers and have no concept of what China is. They can’t answer simple questions like: Is Taiwan a country or not? What is Taiwan’s birthday? Does Taiwan belong to China or not? When I tell them I have to write R. O. C. (Republic of China) on all my international letters they don’t believe me.
“Higher than a house, higher than a tree,
Oh, whatever can it be?” - Riddle Ryhme


Final Notes: This week I was offered a job in Poland but turned it down. I caught a wonderful documentary on killing sharks by a Taiwanese film maker at the fine arts museum during their Urban Nomad Film Festival. I found my favorite clear liquid facial wash at the local pharmacy which is fantastic. I haven’t smelled like my old self in over a year. AND… Xian graduates from kindergarten in a week, she is giving the commencement speech, and then she is going to come to my school as a first grader in the fall. It is my dream come true to have one of my children in the school building (albeit across the street) where I will be teaching.
I’m all smiles. Hope you are all well too. All Love. - Hartenstein

Sunday, June 27, 2010

To Have and Have Not

(The following poems were composed on napkins over the course of three very late evenings in the cafés along Canal Street in Taichung, Taiwan.)

The first thing I remember
She was laughing
I’d landed on my back
Staring up at the blue sky
Puffs of white clouds
Rolling overhead
Rusted bicycle wheels still spinning in creaks
Next to the broken wooden fence
At the bottom of the green grassy slope.
I hadn’t stopped in time
Now
Wind and sound coming back
To my lungs and ears
Her voice
Roaring as she raced to me from above.
“You’re crazy. I love you.
You’re crazy.”
We picnicked there beneath the maple
By the river
And she played Claire De Lune
On her guitar
While I laid at her feet and marveled
At her hands
Such small hands
That carried away all my desire.
For the last month I have been sleeping in hotel rooms
Nothing but the best
Room service at 4 a.m.
Lounging poolside on the wooden adirondack during sunbreaks
Sending my shirts to be ironed
By the Taiwanese men with thin moustaches
While we wait out the rain.
On the balcony you gave me a gift
Wrapped in a long slender box.
You said, “A man should wear a necktie to work.
Who are these men that think they
Can teach in short pants?
What man wears short pants?”
You stand me in front of the mirror like I am your child.
“This is a Windsor knot. My Abuelo taught me.”
I keep my lips quiet, trying not to laugh at your accent.
“What? What I say?”
Too late
I am upon you.
That night in the café we watched the futbol
The Portuguese have arrived on the field
With their oiled hair glistening in the rain
Chiseled faces
And chests
Their heroes standing motionless during the anthem
It is a rout
7 to 0
They keep him on the pitch to score
The one in the magazines sun bathing on yachts
And necking with the models in nightclubs
That one.
He has not touched the back of the net for country
In two years
His goal is the fifth that evening
Comical and foppish
Losing the pelota over his shoulder in that beautiful mane
Of glistening hair
Before straightening his feet
He cannot miss from there
Cheers erupt from the stadium crowd who have waited
For this moment
While the Koreans from the north weep
For they have shamed their country
And will be sent to the labor camps to hammer rocks upon
Returning home.
(Obsessed by Hemingway at an early age, I found this quote underlined in an old book this weekend.)

“I kissed her and saw that her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with other officers.” - Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.

The young man followed me
Into the bathroom to tell me
His secrets
“I think I am the kind of man
Who could lead a double life,”
He said.
“But I am not the type to talk to a woman
For hours in the afternoon
Just to make love to her throughout the night.”
He lit a cigarette and threw the match
On the wet cement floor
While I washed my hands
And the fluorescent light flickered.
Outside the café
Above the walls
The cicadas wailed
“You, on the other hand, look to be both.”
I dry the water from my fingers shaking them in the air
“But this woman is not a mistress,” I add.
The man exhaled slowly. “No? How then does a man talk to a woman for hours if not in hope to make love to her?”
I left him standing in his own cloud of smoke.
In the park
I watch the father and son
Throw the ball back and forth
The man refusing to move or lift his arms
As the ball sails past his glove
Jerking a thumb
And scowling at the ground
While the boy chases after the errant sphere.
That morning at the Windsor Club
The girls and I sit
In the bubbling jet tub
Seven stories above the city
Holding baby snails in our hands
Seemingly fallen from the sky.
Later we dolphin dive in the rooftop pool
And hold our breath under water
Staring at one another through gogglers
Trying not to laugh
And send bubbles up our noses.
You will never need to chase after my affection
My darling ones
It is here
I have captured it for you
Forever.
“Listen,” I told him. “Don’t be so tough so early in the morning. I’m sure you’ve cut plenty of people’s throats. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.” - Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

In the early dawn we walk along the canal
Taking pictures
There is no one left to see.
You hold my hand and let go
And I whisper to you with my eyes.
The children will awake soon
We must get back
I have just told you
Everything is a veiled attempt at seduction.
“And if you never succeed?”
You ask, sitting on the back of the motor scooter
Wrapping your arms and legs around me
like a koala.
I turn the key and rev the little motor.
The other day in the classroom
I stand in front of the faces and speak
The children listen to everything.
I tell them
Write as if you are looking at each word like a lover for the first time in your life
Write as if tomorrow you will die
Write as if you are drowning and only words can save you.
The next day you came to my school and never left
Watching me hop up and down like a man possessed
Leaping on desks
Ranting
Frothing
Drawing maps in chalk and singing choruses
Quoting Hemingway saying, “All American literature comes from one novel.”
Now you understand.
You say, “You live your life like a poem, don’t you?
You say there are only two things to write about
But all your poems are about love?”
Si. Si, amor
I answer
“That is because I welcome death, but live in fear of the other.”
We lay on the bed and I tell you
When I was a boy I dreamed in Hemingway
Mother had a copy of
The Sun Also Rises and
Farewell to Arms
On the shelf and I sat on the back deck
In the fading light and heard the words so clear.
Later in my boyhood room at the old electric typewriter
I would try my hand at poetry
Writing like Hemingway about
Scotch poured from decanters
The sound of eggs frying lightly in grease
Shooting cigarettes from the lips of matadors over Pellegrino
In the hot Madrid sun.
Into the night I would type
Pounding the keys in a symphony
Drifting off to sleep in the chair
While Ernest whispered in my ear.
From a letter written June 11, 1991
I found stashed in an old book this morning
To a lost love I never sent
“She lay on the bed and listened to the train pass by the city.
She listened to the train and thought about the boy.
She thought about the boy and listened to the train.”
I would awake breathing hard
Staring at the walls
Hearing Hemingway in my ears
And for some reason unknown to me still
Compelled more strongly than anything I have ever known
Or felt or desired
I began typing
Trying to make music again
With my hands.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blowing Besos

(Poems composed while laying in the sand at Juhnon Beach over the weekend.)
This morning I got your letter
From across the wine dark sea
It arrived in my little P.O. Box
I open with a key
Red and blue fringe
And my name written so clearly
I took you to the park beneath the vines
And for an hour I shut out the world
Except for you
And your dress stains removed with seltzer
And brother with leukemia
You quoted Dickenson to me
You wrote
“The chariot is frugal that bares the human soul”
And I folded you into my big book of
Shakespeare plays and won’t
Open you again until the leaves
Of autumn fall at my feet.
Yesterday while running
Through the city
I caught a yellow butterfly midflight
It was just past the machine shop on
Mei-Shin Lu where I turn the corner
And sprint the last half-mile home
Through the Cyprus trees and across
The bamboo bridges
Dodging the woman with strollers
And old men playing chess
Looking up too late to catch me
Whizzing by in a blur.
Last week the Koreans got clobbered
Two goals against in the first half
And my eldest daughter
The one that feels things so deeply
Like her dad
Took off her foam soccer ball hat
And sat under the table
And wouldn’t come out
Until I crouched down beside her
And let her pinch my arm
Until it bled
Poor parenting
I suppose
But sometimes it helps to shed blood
Right along with the thing you
Love most
Dying in front of your eyes.
Sunday afternoon
I got a haircut in the little neighborhood salon
Sat under the pink shiny blanket
In the spinning chair
And mumbled directions in Chinese
Kept my fingers crossed as the
Clippers started snipping
And the chunks of hair fell
Like monkeys from the trees.
Following morning in the teacher’s office
We sit side by side
Collectively loathing the new guy
Who yammers as the day is long
Both of us thinking
The same thing
Silence is golden
Later we laugh
How we need a magic ring we can touch
Focus our message
“Wonder Twin Powers….
Shape of a big sandwich of shut it.”
Now every time he starts talking
We both put our heads down and giggle.
It was a Thursday evening
And I caught you playing
With the buttons
Of your shirt at your desk
You didn’t see me until
It was too late
But then there was no escape
Because you know I’m not looking away
“Keep it unbuttoned,” I whispered
“Makes life more interesting,”
And so you did.
Waiting for the school bus
On the first day of the week
With three pint sized daughters
Playing Simon Says
Simon Says touch your nose
Simon Says touch your ears
Simon Says touch your clothes
Touch the sun
All their little hands reaching
Up into the sky
So high on tippy-toes
No higher than my waist
Such hope that they will be the one
Wiggly fingers
Pursed lips
Eyes shut in concentration
Not a care in the world that
They were already out.
Last weekend drove west to the
South China Sea
To run wild in the waves
And explore secret dunes
And windmills in the distance
The water so warm you’d swear
It came straight from the tap
Wind surfed off the shore and stared down
Into the depths
Just pulling on the breeze
Knowing nothing would catch me
If I fell.
This morning I came to work
I opened my computer
And began planning out the day
A week before finals
It’s crunch time and
You texted me
You said, “Thank you for making me feel alive again”
That made me smile
It took me five minutes to text a reply
Silly fingers won’t cooperate on the little keys
I wrote:
Am writing poetry before class
Heating up coffee in the microwave
Feeling wind against my freshly shaved scalp
The hair already starting to grow
I feel alive too.
Saturday night
After the girls drifted off to sleep
I hit this rooftop party
To dance under the flashing lights
Bodies glistening
Arms thrown wildly in the air
Across the park I could see into my daughter’s bedroom
The little lamp beside their bed
19 floors off the ground
I thought about standing in the ocean that morning
Not quite land not quite sea
Only wave and surf
Looking out at the unknown horizon
Looking back to see safety on the shore
It’s like that moment before a perfect kiss
Leaning in unsure if you
Should let it swallow
You whole
Hoping it will last
Forever.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

To Sir, With Love

“If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters, that would soar a thousand feet high, to sir, with love.” - Lulu

I found this phrase scribbled in pencil on a desk today in class:

SEX IS BEST.
HOW WOULD YOU KNOW, UR A VIRGIN DUMBASS. ARE YOU READY TO POP YOUR CHERRY?

Seriously, how sick is high school?
It’s the great equalizer of human experience. You may grow up and split an atom or walk the red carpet at Cannes or invent a new solar panel on the International Space Station, but before that you were a geeky spazoid with braces and zits disgusted by your own armpit hair. Oh yes, you went to high school alright, and just like Edison and Einstein, Marlon Brando and Barack Obama you graduated and flew the coop.
Well, speak for yourself.
Some of us never got our cherries popped. In fact, we never left school at all.
I’m speaking, of course, about teachers.
(The following pictures were taken a week ago at the Taichung Fine Arts Museum just down the park blocks from the apartment.)

Oh, teachers.
Seriously, what are we going to do with you?
When my brother got married, Grant being a math and science teacher wedding Christi an elementary school teacher, and I gave their toast (yeah, I was asked to… it’s not like I would just stand up and start talking at a public event you know) I hinted that since these two were educators, the families would be passing a hat around later at the reception because… well, we all know what public schools pay their employees.
Ha… Ha… Ha…
I got creamed. Aunts and uncles and old toothless, gray-haired Grandma Jenny in the tennis-ball walker came out of the woodwork shaking her cane.
“Don’t you know that nobody goes into teaching for the money?”
“Don’t you respect your profession?”
“How could you say that?”
It was a joke people.
But for whatever reason, most of the public expect teachers to walk on water, be saints, miracle workers. You know, keepers of the gates of hope.
I, of course, blame Hollywood.
Hollywood? Seriously?
Oh yes. Speaking of which, the general consensus is that Dead Poets Society is the greatest teacher movie of all time, and it’s hard to disagree. Baby faced Ethan Hawke channeling Walt Whitman. Robert Sean Leonard in green tights as Midsummer’s Puck. Grumpy Red Forman making a grumpy Red Forman appearance. You’ve got lightning bolts painted on chests, secret caves with college chicks, and Robin Williams as Mr. Keating aptly kicking copies of Byron in those preppie boy’s faces.
Best line of the movie is not, “O, Captain. My Captain,” but… “Damn it Neil, the name is Nuwanda.”
Oh, I get it. Believe me, I get it. And all apologies to Ryan Gosling for the truest portrait of a teacher ever in Half Nelson, but my favorite school movie has got to be To Sir, With Love. Sidney Poitier as teacher Mark Thackeray in 1967 London’s East End, with his trim cut gray suits, all that silly British mumbly cursing, and that beautiful scene where he and Pamela Dare dance. Just say that name in your head.
Pamela Dare. Pamela Dare.

Pamela Dare: Sir, would you dance with me tonight?
Thackeray: Of course, but nothing too fast. I’m getting much too old for that sort of thing Miss Dare.
Pamela Dare: We’ll make it something special, promise?
Thackeray: Promise.
Pamela Dare: Sir, would you call me Pamela tonight?
Thackeray: Yes… Pamela.

I mean, you’re kidding me right? It’s just so undeniably sweet.
It reminds me how people look to teacher movies with fondness. As if they remember something from a better time. They look back on their school years and think, “That was pretty good, wasn’t it?’
And, of course, it was.
But seriously,
for most of us, the guiding force in those early school days was not the steady voice or stable hand of a teacher, but actually another person in our lives.
I’m talking about that faceless blob behind the newspaper at the breakfast table. You know, that old guy out in the garage wrestling the Christmas tree into that busted-up stand? Remember, the whiskered face grunting in the morning you pass along the way to the shower? You know who I’m talking about.
Fathers, of course.
(Rebekah in her awesome rain boots and jacket ready to go stomp some puddles.)

You’re going to start talking about your kids now, aren’t you Hartenstein?
Seriously?
Yes. Because I can’t think of anything more cool than being a Dad or no better thing to devout my life to. And as this weekend is Father’s Day, I want to send a special note to all you awesome Dads out there who are killing it every day and especially you Dads who are raising your kids to be, of course, artists.
(Kinu sketching with black marker on glass window.)

You’re seriously an idiot, dude. Artists? You can’t MAKE your kid an artist?
Yes, you can.
No, you can’t.
What if they suck?
They won’t.
What if they really like wearing wife-beater tank tops, drinking Budweiser, and cheering for NASCAR?
They won’t.
What if they love watching WWF inside their boyfriend’s trailer and work at WALL-MART, in Arkansas?
They won’t.
What if they wear scrunches, trade Poke’mon cards in their thirties while living in your basement, and keep an extensive collection of shot glasses from international Hard Rock Cafés?
They won’t.
How can you be so sure?
Because, of course, I’m their Dad.
(Hanging paper tigers from the fine arts museum.)

I take my kid art serious.
This week we dipped soccer balls in paint and rocketed them against blank walls in the apartment just for… kicks.
We wrote poetry on kites and let the strings go high in the clouds.
We left doodles in library books and scribbled funny words behind paintings hung on walls.
I’ve been reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki to them at night and now my girls are obsessed with rafts and sea creatures, knots and fathoms. We sketched Easter Island statue faces on Lego obelisks and sailed to them on imaginary flying carpet towels while the rain poured outside. That night Xi’an asked me if our story-time would ever end. She will be turning seven next year and worried that age was too old to be read to by a bespectacled Father prone to silly voices and doing Luciano Pavarotti eyebrow expressions while singing Rigoletto’s La Donna E Mobile.
I told her, of course, a Father’s love is like imagination. It never ends, and she smiled.
(Swinging after school on the first day without rain in a week.)

Seriously, I know you think I’m weird, but I read too many Russian novels in college. All those aristocratic heroines who dance and play instruments and speak multiple foreign languages and travel in carriages in the snow to ballrooms lit by fires. Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova and Pushkin’s Tatiana Larina, they are different than their British counterparts Jane Eyre and Liz Bennet, these Russian woman embody the soul of a nation. They are what the people aspire to be, naturalistic, spontaneous, liberated, free.
In many ways, I feel that’s exactly how females should be, an ideal, something for man to admire and aspire to understand.
I mean, of course, that women are the spark of the soul’s artistic expression.
I take myself way too seriously, huh?
But I just know this, that I’ve had the pleasure of serving thousands of students over the years, but the one thing I will be held accountable to and measured by is the success and failures of my children.
And life is hard.
But if I can instill in them a desire to seek art as a way to express themselves constructively?
If I can help them to encourage others to be bold and daring in their creative thinking?
If I can persuade them that the development of the soul should be their life’s ambition?
Well, then of course, this Father, will have his own reward.
It's better than a crummy old tie from SEARS that's for sure.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lust For Life

“Well I am just a modern guy…
Drive a G.T.O.
Wear a uniform
All on a government loan…” - Iggy Pop


Friday night headed north three hours to Taipei,
packed running shoes, a swimsuit, and magic markers for the girls,
packed a rain jacket, collapsible umbrella, and pajamas with draw strings,
packed three bananas that went black, a ham and cheese sandwich on sour dough, and an orange soccer jersey from the Netherlands,
checked in on the thirty-fifth floor of the five-star Shangri La Hotel right in downtown.
(Hartenstein orders and pays for a pizza party for this 8th graders to say thanks for a great year. Why? Just because...)

Wore a white terry-cloth robe pantless through the lobby with three children trotting alongside,
swam in the rooftop pool on the fiftieth floor,
laid in the hot tub out in the rain,
learned how to say 101 Building in Chinese but quickly forgot,
pretended the elevator was a capsule rocketing into space,
pretended that the Japanese businessmen were secretly hairless sasquatches,
pretended to be an alligator nibbling little fingers,
never took my sunglasses off once,
used twenty different towels to dry my three daughters,
left them on the floor of the marbled bathroom
read “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think” By Dr. Seuss and tucked them in
waited for giggling girls to nod off then hit the pub.
(Hartenstein on rooftop pool in the rain with his girls at Shangri La Hotel in Taipei.)

Watched the World Cup surrounded by faceless strangers,
stood elbow to elbow with singing Australians, Chinese draped in American flags, and weeping Spaniards,
saw pictures of Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix on the wall,
hugged a Dutchman who couldn’t believe we were wearing the same shirt,
chatted with a prostitute who said this month would be good for business,
watched a Mexican man fall kicking and screaming on the ground when an off-sides call brought back a goal.
(Hartenstein, Xian, and Kinu atop double decker bus sweeping through downtown Hong Kong. Hang on, you two!)

Cheered that night and laughed and could care less who won,
made it back to the hotel just after midnight,
wrote a poem about making love to my wife,
wrote a poem about apple slices on a blue handkerchief,
wrote a poem about standing alone in the fog,
laid in the hallway and sketched grass blades from a painting hanging under a solitary light while everyone slept,
fell asleep wrapped in my six-year-old’s arms.
(Rebekah, Kinu, and Xian just after riding in the space capsule elevator and running from Bigfoot in the lobby. Ready for the pool, again...)

Woke up and watched Elmer Fudd chase Bugs Bunny on the television,
steamed milk in a tea pot and watched rain fall over the city,
ordered black coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice from room service,
tipped the boy five dollars,
explained a James Hilton novel to a four-year-old,
penned a letter on hotel stationary and mailed it to myself,
read the Taiwan Times in the pink bubble bath surrounded by laughing faces,
hit the buffet and ate smoked salmon with poached eggs,
ate shrimp dumplings and strips of crisp bacon,
ate brie cheese with salami and buttered croissants with marmalade,
sat with SungJoo drinking tea discussing where all the years have gone,
checked out of the hotel and drove around the city,
got lost looking for markets read about in a tour book,
decided to head home as rain was pounding the city.
(Hartenstein atop the city of Taipei with the 101 Building behind him.)

Packed the kids in the van and drank Starbucks with chocolate doughnuts,
listened to Mahler's symphony 21 on headphones while looking out the window,
let the girls sleep on the van floor and thought about my parents in Colton,
snapped pictures of farmers standing in green rice fields,
snapped pictures of apartment complexes and bridges over flooded rivers,
snapped pictures of the faces in cars rushing by,
thought about old loves and women I still want to kiss,
thought about far off places now close enough to touch,
thought about all my dreams and put them into lists,
dozed off with my two year old hugging my chest,
awoke in Taichung thinking all of it was a dream.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Hartenstein Hall of Fame

(For years students have asked me how to get into the Hall of Fame, and there has never been a clear recipe. Mostly, it's because you have done some great dubious achievement or made me laugh, or simply because I have fallen in love with you. As the school year winds down, here are some of the most recent entries.)

Peter Yun
For your earnest ability to scribble questions on slips of paper for me to find randomly after class. For never cracking a smile, not even when I told the Five Chickens story, and for writing about your father, which I know was the most difficult, bravest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You finally told one person, and I heard ever word. You are good and noble and I wish I had your strength. I will take the secrets you shared with me to my grave.

Sarah Chun
For diary scribbles and bubble wrapping paper and bloody drawings that scare the stuffings out of me. You are a wonder! Your mother told me I was the only teacher you ever forced her to meet. When you stare at the floor in class, I try so much harder to make you smile.

Katie Wu
For absolute positive attitude and complete cheery disposition. You shine, girl! You are effortless and put others first, every time. You give me inspiration and hope, and that ain’t easy, kid. Thank you for always telling me about the movies you see and the books you read secretly in your lap when I am telling stupid stories about backpacking and train jumping. You keep me honest and true.
(The world can be a pretty rough place, and certainly school yards and classrooms often don't do us any favors.)

For Anne Lin
For such calm leadership and quiet dignity, you always lead by example. Thank you for brushing the other girl’s hair in class, for raising your hand before making a joke, and for being the first to open your book and turn in your homework. When a class doesn’t have a student leader like you, it has no hope of success.

Michael Yang
For believing in me when no one else at the school did, although it did mean you had to wear a wig and skirt in front of the whole student body. For grinning innocently and standing next to your mother during Parent Night with stillness. I am proud of you beyond words, and I think of you as a son.

Tiffany Chang
For writing mind blowing fiction regardless of what people say or feel about it. You have talent and ability. You make me laugh and want to run outside and eat trees. I believe in you, and I always will. Coming to Taiwan was worth it just to know you exist in the world.
(There are a lot of ups and downs at school. It's hard to make and keep lasting friends, and most of the time you have to go it alone.)

Aden Lin
For playing a flute between class and having such coolness and depth of understanding. You never run, you never act crazy, you just keep it under the collar. I wish I had your nobility and thousand-year-old soul. You make me believe that on the rare occasion, someone can surprise me.

Angela Lin
For finding me crying in secret in the middle of the soccer field and having the good decency to bring me pudding. For three months later when you were coloring at your desk and you saw me tear up again, and you gave me the picture. Here is to being a good human, your Winnie the Pooh bookmarks, and raising your hand and asking me to sing another song to the class when you know I am on the verge of tears. I thank God for your soul.
(Students sit in classrooms all day surrounded by peers, but they are evaluated individually on their attention, ability, intellect, thoughtfulness, and perfomance.)

Oscar Wang
For fighting me tooth and nail on every turn. For rolling your eyes and cursing me and being an absolute thorn. You made me work so hard. You made me prepare for every possible problem. And that 98% you earned on the National Exam would have still felt like redemption even if you hadn’t said thanks.

Reilly Lee
For putting up your dukes and spitting venom, for coming up to me in the book store and talking shop when all your friends scattered. For never shying away for a fight and telling Kris where to stick it. I want you in my foxhole. For letting me borrow your mother’s moped and then covering for me when I was late. If the world were filled with people like you, the word hero would become obsolete.

Janice Lim
Shakespeare said, “Some rise by sin others by virtue fall,” and you’ve had a rough year. I can’t imagine the complexities of your heart and mind, but there you there every morning waiting for me outside my door, and you never say a word. Yet when I am absent, you have the school secretary call my house. Writing this I want to throw my arms around you and laugh for joy.
(So why not make school a fun place? A place where kids feel they belong, a place they can call home. If in some small way I have made you feel welcomed and loved, then my job was worth it. For all my old students over the years, I miss you so much and know you are doing well. Thank you so much for such great memories, and for those I left out, well, there is always next year.)

Kevin Chun
For taking walks with me around the block and sitting quietly in the park, reading every poem I ever set before you. For never questioning my motives or methods but just allowing me to lead. And, of course, for completely flipping a switch and correcting your behavior the day after I sat with your father in the classroom after school. I am so proud of you. I am just so proud of you I could burst.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Joga Bonito

(Standing in the light behind the stained glass window at school, I become weightless as air.)

“Ligera como el agua
Del manantial sobre las piedras puras,
Asi te quiero, amada.
Al pan yo le pido que me ensene
Sino que no me falte
Durante cada dia de la vida.” -Pablo Neruda, The Captain’s Verses


Today was such a beautiful day.
I saw a one armed man riding a bicycle pulling a cart full of garbage
And drank coffee out of a clay bowl I brought back
From India
While sitting on a swing beneath a Banyan tree in the morning breeze.
Someone taped a picture back to my classroom wall
Without having been asked
A secret admirer perhaps
Or hidden saint, restoring my faith for just one more day.
Between classes I thieved a scooter and tooled around the block
Having it back before the owner noticed
Or she would have been
Mad as a hatter
And maybe chased me with a ruler
Or broom,
Then I colored with pastels for the first time in months,
Staining my hands with gunky sweetness
Wiping them across a shirt I plan never to
Wear again.
But if I do, so be it.
The end of the year is busy with grades and tests
But I made an old friend laugh so sweetly on the phone
A smile so wide across her face it filled the screen,
And I had students fill out World Cup Brackets
Explaining that the Brazilians play futbol with
Joga Bonito.
Just before the final bell
I checked the swimming pool schedule and found it empty
Stripped down to my boxers and took a dip
Floating six stories above the street thinking
Beauty is so close, it is everywhere I look,
But sometimes you have to just let it be,
And love it with only your heart from afar.
Neruda says, “Light as the water
From the spring upon the pure stones,
Thus I love you, beloved.
Of bread I do not ask that it teach me
But that it not fail me
During each day of life."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Early Films of Lindsay Lohan

(Hartenstein with his star-studded 7th graders.)

Lately I’ve been hitting on this woman at work and it’s become a school-wide obsession. It started as a lark, really, a student-led practical joke, but it’s become sort of a Mean Girls version of The Parent Trap, and now I’m worried.
We were in class when the subject of teachers came up. Taiwanese students have nicknames for all the educators in the building: “Cabbage Patch,” “Octopus Lips,” “Tomato Bottom,” some stem from facial features like “Soy Sauce Eyes,” others from mannerisms like “Monkey Ticks,” some are just famous movie characters like “Chewbacca Pants” and “Squidward Tentacles.” He’s the cashier at the Krusty Krab where Sponge Bob Squarepants flips burgers. I had to look it up.
Taiwanese kids can be cruel, and they love it as much as stinky tofu wrapped in rice.
That is, until we arrive at the subject of Smeagol.
(Cool poster that reminds me of why art is supposed to make you giggle.)

Smeagol is a math teacher here in the building.
I see her standing very slovenly and solitary, hissing to herself every morning while waiting for the elevator and wearing a different floral patterned polyester house dress like all the other female teachers at the Bilingual International School. Apparently, Taiwanese women don’t like pencil skirts or the stairs.
Yet here is where she differs, Smeagol has nylon ankle stockings that have rolled down into a pair of casual pumps like one of those deliriously old and bewildered bag ladies who carry umbrellas in the park and feed pigeons out of brown paper bags. On most days, to the twisted delight of her students, she adds a thick layer of lime green eye-liner and pink lipstick smeared all over her face like a blow-up sex doll while solemnly speaking into a microphone about quadratic formulas and parabolas to classes packed with queasy and hormonal eighth graders already creeped out enough by their own post-pubescent bodies. Smeagol, whose Chinese name is actually Teacher Mae Lin, is a combination of Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane and Annie’s Miss Hannigan. By no means, a “looker,” she unabashedly loves telling cringing classfulls about fitting her sagging breasts into girdles and the quiet joy of reading Twilight to her cats.
Without a doubt, Smeagol is one hot mess.
This is where I come in.
“Teacher Brian, what would happen if you flirted with her?”
Wait…
“Or gave her a hug?”
Hold on….
“Yeah, or asked her on a date?”
Now stop…
But it was too late.
Suddenly the question on every student’s lips needed to be answered. Could this woman, unmarried and twenty years my senior, that was loved and feared with reverence and revulsion, actually know that she was being flirted with, and… what if she liked it?
(Awesome student Stella poses after I introduced her to Marlon Brando via You Tube.)

I put up a pathetic fight.
Most teachers will tell you with such dignified nobility that they abhor websites like “Rate My Teacher” out of solidarity for their fellow colleagues, but really it’s about absolute fear. They’re scared to death some pissed-off adolescent is going to snap a picture of them exiting the private staff lavatory with toilet paper stuck to their shoes or another might post some horrendous lie about them that will eventually wind up in some school-wide Burn Book.
“I saw Mr. Johnson eat an entire jar of petroleum jelly.”
“Oh yeah, I heard he sticks fingers in his armpits and smells his own B.O.”
“And then makes out with them.”
“I started that one.”
“Nice.”
The only thing worse than stumbling upon these while perusing the internet would be the use of instant message language attached to it.
“Did you know Mrs. Lancaster worships Satan?”
“Really, IDK… LOL… ; )”
And so before I knew it, I’d thrown Smeagol to the wolves and agreed to very publically lay on the charms to the sinister delights of teenagers. It was an act of self-preservation, a distraction of slight-of-hand, I knew that. In high school, as in life, it’s dog eat dog. I immediately regretted it, but decided to give it the old college try. Maybe there was more to Smeagol than meets the eye.
(I returned to my old classroom and found that none of the students cared enough to keep our bulletin board looking clean or adding to it. In fact, they sort of trashed it. It disgusts me to think that things I try so hard to keep can be just junked by someone else. Does anybody care about anything?)

Besides, I was already embroiled in enough controversy.
Since returning from India and Nepal, I was not allowed to teach my old students and was given other classes instead. To their dismay, the kids revolted. These same angelic wunderkinds who put on the Macbeth play six months ago for me, have now turned into devils for my replacement. They throw paper and chalk at his back, curse him in Chinese, ditch his class. One kid named Quentin even tried lighting him on fire. To be fair, the boy is partially mentally handicapped and fighting a two-pack a day nicotine habit, but still.
Burning teachers?
That’s a bit extreme.
So I don’t want to ruffle any more feathers.
I lay in bed all night thinking about what to do. It was like many nights I’ve had over the last decade and a half of teaching when thinking about conversations I need to have with students who are troubled or on the wrong path. What to say? What to show? I abhor the idea of school not being a safe place for students, but what about being a safe place for those sworn to keep it safe? And what if it’s a matter of just not being accepted by the same kids you’re trying to help? I just didn’t know. How do you tell another adult they’re just not cool?
(Awesome sign with a creepy entrance. I saw this while taking a walk through the neighborhood. Abandon All Hope, Ye...)

It’s a judgment call at best.
I don’t know if anyone ever figures it out. In high school, where cliques of cool counted as an actual currency, it meant leatherjackets or peeling out the wheels of your hotrod while blaring Alice Cooper. Looking back, that didn’t sound very appealing then either. In college, being cool was about finding yourself, but that just led to me being broke, greasy, and constantly unshowered. Bong hits gave me migraines and casual sex left me naked and shaking. I tried looking for pop culture heroes. Big Mistake. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or James Dean in East of Eden gave me confidence and vulnerability as the same thing. Literature gave me Kerouac and Keats but also an emptiness and a longing that would never be filled. If I wanted to be cool, I would have to try another way.
(Hartenstein and Rebekah on a nice Sunday afternoon cruising to the Fine Arts Museum.)

The search for cool still dominates much of American culture, from the top earner and performer at work, to the alpha dog among our peers. Yet at any age, the words for cool may change but the meaning stays the same. In your twenties you become famous, in your thirties interesting, in your forties eclectic, in fifties fascinating, sixties infamous, in your seventies redeemed and adored. Yet by your eighties who cares because you’re in diapers, right? So what’s the point in trying to achieve legendary status?
I look at young people today and always ask them, “Who are your heroes? Who do you look up to? What values do you have?” But those are just school assignments. What I really want to know is, “How are you doing in your individual pursuit of becoming cool?”
Because I really want to know.
(A butterfly I saw amid the white flowers outside the school grounds last week.)

Now, I think I’m a cool person, but just saying that makes me cringe in disgust. I still own cargo pants and have a hotmail account. So I am definitely not cool. Yet I feel good about myself. I play the Indiana Jones theme song in my head when climbing stairs and sometimes the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack enters my mind when I’m strutting down the street, but that’s just shamefully painful, huh?
I look at fallen stars. People who once had potential and direction but lost their dignity in the pursuit of cool. Public joke Paris Hilton posing behind sunglasses. Lindsay Lohan slumped over in the backseat of a car. Is that the price of chasing a legendary life? Public scorn and ridicule? I hope not. Lately I’ve been thinking about the early films of Lindsay Lohan a great deal because this summer I will start a unit on Mean Girls in class. Yes, I will be teaching during this summer. Taiwanese students attend year-round. But movies like the Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen are brilliant for their sweet message. A whole generation of young American girls were raised on them, and Mean Girls has risen to be perhaps the most quoted and adored film among women 25 years and under over the last ten years. So what happened to Lilo? Was she a victim of her own success or did the need to be cool just eat her alive.
It’s not enough to say innocence is only lost once. A better thought is, how will you spend your life trying to get innocence back?
(Isn't that statude amazing? Two people caught in free-fall.)

Which brings me to Smeagol.
A week ago during national exams Teacher Mae Lin came into my class and I really watched her. The way she organized her lessons, the way she mothered those kids in her own awkward and oddly caring way. Yes, her hands are sort of clammy, and she does appear to have an issue with drool, but the comments about her hunchback are over exaggerated, and clearly there is no such thing “Quasimodo eye.” That’s just piling on, you know?
In spite of this, I sort of fell for her a little.
All this woman needed was a little make over, a little pep returned to her step, a little bit of jazz in her pizzazz. I could do it. I was the right man for the job. I would show these kids that acceptance comes at all levels of life, and I would start by showing Teacher Mae Lin that she was truly “precious.”
I was going to make Smeagol shine.
(Thank God for English.)

My first attempts at making romantic overtures to Smeagol crashed like gutterballs. I stuck my head into her advanced geometry class and asked for a pencil like some wholesome cup of sugar, but she tripped over a stack of books and fell into the door, slamming my head into the wall.
The class erupted in piteous groans. The following day I stood next to her in the lunch line trying to comment on the freshness of her fruit salad bowl, but she suspected thievery and quickly engulfed it, dripping Jell-O and mayonnaise covered maraschino cherries down the front of her blouse.
An open invitation, certainly, but I needed to stay focused.
My students, on the other hand, were dying a slow death.
As I upped my efforts, complimenting her festive Christmas sweater and hot leather pants ( why there are still holiday decorations like Halloween pumpkins and Santa Clauses still hanging all around the school is beyond me) even commenting how her filthy brown stained microphone head smelled like lilacs. The students sunk their teeth into textbooks and wood desks to keep from bursting out in retching gags.
They could barely contain themselves.
“Teacher Brian, you must stop.”
“I can’t. I’m close.”
“We’re dying.”
“You must endure.”
“We beg you.”
“You asked for this. Besides, Smeagol the flower is almost ready to bloom.”
The next day I made actual physical contact, touching her elbow as she came to relieve my class. The entire collective student body gasped out loud. Smeagol stepped back.
“Why Teacher Mae Lin, that’s such lovely blue eye-shadow you are wearing.”
Smeagol blew her nose with a loud honk into a soiled handkerchief and then returned it inside her brassier. “Why thank you, Teacher Brian, and may I say… how fit you look today?”
I was taken aback. “Fit?”
“Yes,” she looked at the floor and grunted in my direction. “Like a ripe steamed dumpling.
You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom. Thirty sets of Taiwanese student eyeballs were locked onto us.
“Ummm,” She licked her lips in a breathy whisper. “Yum! Yum!”
Before I knew it, I was out in the hallway staggering in a daze. I walked up and down the stairs in delirium. Smeagol had flirted with me right back.
(Certainly, this dude has the Indiana Jones song on repeat.)

The following day I was shocked at how nervous I was entering school, and the thought of seeing her again. I arrived early, set out my lessons, and waited, waited, waited. But when Smeagol finally arrived she looked so… normal.
Gone were the lipstick and eyeliner, and in their place just a normal bland pant suit from the Taiwanese version of SEARS. I tried to hide my disappointment. I wanted my Smeagol back. I wanted her in mismatched heels and flowery blouses with prancing elves on them. Yet when our eyes met, we quickly looked away, and I knew she was feeling something too.
The bell rang and we went off to class in different directions, but afterward I was back at my desk with eyes closed thinking of something a student had said. Very often their comments rock me, and I need time to process. Suddenly I felt a mouth-breathing presence behind me. Smeagol had laid a bean curd filled moon cake on my desk. To be fair, she passed one out to everyone in the office, but mine was the only one with a curly cue of whipped topping.
She knew I noticed.
The rest of the morning we sat back to back saying nothing. The office was filled with her silent wheezing and the comings and goings of staff members. Yet at one point I turned and listened. I watched her every move as she graded geometry quizzes with a leaky red magic marker. She was just a woman after all, with gray hairs popping beneath a black dyed scalp, brown liver spots on her neck, and soft hanging jowls.
In fact, the more I watched, I realized Smeagol was lovely.
Later that afternoon the weather changed and I had a sneezing asthma attack at my desk, just bent over in my chair while it felt like someone was hitting my chest with a sledge hammer. Snot poured from my nose until suddenly I felt a handkerchief come over my shoulder.
“Thank you.” I handed it back.
Smeagol smiled, revealing two rows of brown teeth.
“Keep it. There’s plenty more.” She patted her chest.
“Right,” I laughed, believing I’d just wet my pants.
(Poster on display in my favorite Japanese sushi place.)

By that week’s end, teacher Mae Lin and I were drinking tea together on the black leather sofa of the upstairs teacher lounge and talking every day. Mostly it was about students, our worries, our best teaching moments, and lessons that have worked while others failed.
Students passed by, shocked to see us together in so private a setting.
This seasoned woman, nearing sixty, with so much fire left in her. She was so alive with dreams and a lifetime of knowledge. Once we started talking, I quickly forgot all her physical limitations and literally sat at her feet and marveled. What a joy it was to speak with her.
More students stopped to gawk and wink. I didn’t care. I was lost in conversation. The best kind of attraction. Teacher Mae Lin and I had become friends.
That's when it hit me. I've always known I'll never be cool.
I care too much about the little things. How people feel. What makes them special. I don’t mind seeming foolish if it helps someone smile or realize something about the world. I don’t believe in roasting people or cutting them down to make myself feel good. I don’t want meanness in me. Rather, I just want people to find hope, and maybe fall in love with themselves too through our time together.
At the end of our conversation the other day, Teacher Mae Lin made a bold confession. She said she knew all the teachers were given terrible nicknames by the students, and this meant that the students had accepted them as authorities. She was proud of it. Yet sadly, her own nicknamed remained a mystery. She thought since I was an English teacher, perhaps I might be able to explain.
“Uh-huh.”
“Smeagol? What is that?”
I took a drink of tea.
“Ummm…well, Smeagol or Gollum is a character in a very famous book. It’s a story about a very uncommon friendship between two people who are having a very long conversation about one thing. Should they keep it or get rid of it. In the end, Smeagol helps the other to go on and live his life without worry or fear.”
Teacher Mae Lin closed her eyes and smiled in such a dreamy way. I love when people do that.
“I can see why the students like you,” she finally said. “But it’s strange. You know, they respect you, but there is no codeword for you in the building. In the whole school, you are probably the only teacher that doesn’t have a nickname.”
I’d never thought about it before but I suppose she was right.
“No. Everyone just calls you Teacher Brian.” She warmed another cup of tea for us both and sat back to ponder. “That must upset you some, doesn’t it, that students don’t fear or revile or feel threatened by you? Especially since you pour everything into them.”
I thought just a second before answering and then let it fly. “Sad, no.” I smiled. “Rather, for the first time in a long time, it makes me feel… innocent.”