Thursday, September 30, 2010

hartensteinabroad episode 11 "Happy Teacher's Day"

And now on to the lighter side of life... I hope you enjoy my tongue and cheek.

Don't Let the Door Hit Ya!

Since I know at least two of you read this, Matt, Stan, and Robert, I think you are gutless turds and I'm glad you're out of my life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

hartensteinabroad episode 10 "Global Studies"

Hey Readers... thanks for watching my videos. I hope you enjoy this latest. I never thought I would teach history or global studies, but I'm enjoying the opportunity, that's for sure.

Yeah You, Got That Something...

Cut off jeans at the knees and pushing my old black rusted bicycle through the tall grass. Yes Tim, I let my children stand on the sofa, and you will too. I took pictures from a balcony off the 8th floor at midnight of the harvest moon and awoke to stir miso soup and slice cucumbers on stained wooden cutting board on the living room floor. Lately I've been introducing my girls to documentaries on The Beatles and today, after beginning to write my newest Shakespeare student creation, I had my whole class singing, "I wanna hold your hand..." Sing it with me.

(Check out the newest Flickr Pics as well.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Maggie's Farm

I wake up in the morning, fold my hands and pray for rain
I’ve got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

Last year I made four school proposals:

1. The graduating 9th grade students should be allowed to have a dance.
(It was shot down immediately. Boys and girls are not allowed physical contact and should focus solely on exams.)

2. The school should create after school sport clubs.
(It was shot down immediately. Extra-curricular clubs, like sports, though nice, create too big a distraction to studying.)

3. Student Run Haunted House during lunch. During month of October my students will plan it, work inside it, take tickets and donate the money.
(It was shot down immediately. It is school policy that all students eat for thirty minutes and nap for thirty minutes each day to replenish their system.)

4. Drama Production. Our class wanted to put on a Shakespeare Play.
(It was accepted, but I was told not to make a habit of it.)
Well, he hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin, if you’re having a good time.
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.

The Chinese teaching staff barely speaks to me.
Our school is private and hires only well-respected retired Chinese homeroom teachers who are already collecting their national pension. These are women who have taught thirty years, and though they just stand in front of the class with a microphone explaining what is needed to know on the national exams, they have no interest in exchanging ideas with foreign teachers.
They are polite and courteous, completely professional, but the barriers between us are more than language and mistrust.
I don’t know any of their names, any of their philosophies, and as I start my second year working side by side with them, we continue to do nothing but pass one another in the halls and bow our heads slightly as we pass by.
I have to be honest, at this point, my inability to connect with Taiwanese teachers is entirely my barrier to break down and not theirs.
Well, he puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window is made out of bricks
The National guard stands around his door.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie's pa no more.

The school is having a problem with 7th graders exposing themselves. All three are different boys battling mild autism, and they are all in the same class. The parents, staff, and administrators are completely unequipped to deal with this issue. There are few psychologists in most Asian cities, and certainly the notion of a school counselor is unheard of. Even the foreign teachers, who share the kids, handle the situation with gross humor and ridicule.
Two of the boys have a male Chinese homeroom teacher, and he is so completely overworked that he cannot spend any time counseling him. He is responsible for filling out parent communication books for 37 students each day. These books are taken home and signed by the parent and returned for him to fill out the next day.
I watch him at his desk.
It takes about two hours of daily work.
Two hours of work every day devoted to these reports that he could be spending hanging out and talking as a man to these boys.
They attend the school from 7:30 a.m. to 8:20 p.m.
I want to talk to him so badly, but he is shy and reluctant. About two weeks ago, I started saying ‘good morning’ to him, but never got more than a smile in reply. Now we just enter the staff room and stare at the floor as we pass one another.
He did get advice from one of the seasoned female teachers. She said, for the first few weeks of school, to yell at the troubled students every day. Take them in the hall and scold them, make them cry if possible, then they will just sit in class with their heads on the desk. They will not become problems and it will lessen your work.
He seems to be following this advice.
Well, she talks to all the servants about man and God and law
Everybody says she’s the brains behind pa
She’s sixty-eight, but says she’s twenty-four.
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie's ma no more.

Three things happened this week that surprised me:

1. The first was an announcement during our staff meeting that a Haunted House will be constructed during Halloween themed teaching during the last week of October. All proceeds will be donated to local charities.

2. A swim team has been created that will practice for two weeks during school hours and compete in a city-wide competition starting in late September. There are no try-outs, students are selected by principle of school.

3. One of the Chinese teaches said she thought a dance for 9th graders was a good idea. I had never talked to her before , didn’t know her name, and had no idea why she was holding the flyer I had created last year when I proposed it to my boss. She said she would take it to the administration and I should wait and see.
As I sit here and write this… it’s a Saturday morning and I’m about to take my girls for a play date at the swimming pool, I feel… well, you know how I feel.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Dangerous Men of 19th Century Russian Literature

I lost a year of my life once.
I was a sophomore in college, a twenty-year-old who couldn’t get into bars or find any job other than scrubbing toilets and pumping gas. A beatnik, I grew my hair long and wore ratty clothes with holes I bought off thrift store racks for pennies and filled my pockets with stolen bread out of the cafeteria and sandwiches wrapped in newspaper.
I was alone, surrounded by closed doors.
It was a long slow winter that year, and most days I could be found in the public library a couple of windy and snowy blocks from campus, upstairs a few aisles back of an actual crackling stone fire place sitting very still and cross-legged on the floor entranced by the shelves of Russian writers.
Here is where I entered their world.
Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (1839) about a young soldier who kidnaps a woman and kills another in a duel to prove he is morally free. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) about a man who trades in the identities of dead peasants who remain on public census records.
Then of course, the biggies:
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s monumental and maniacal Brothers Karamazov (1880) Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha and the brutal murder of their wretched father that examines the depths and depravities of romantic love and the arguments for the existence of God. Then Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace (1863-9), which took me ten years to read, with the indulgent misfit Pierre Bezukhov downing a bottle of wine while leaning out the open window ledge floors off the ground to win a bet and whose spiritual journey spans the entire novel ,and the love of his life, the irrepressible Natasha Rostova, who charms everyone and falls in love with a series of men she ruins only to marry Pierre in the end and become an unkept woman of society. Those Russian characters were so strong, so symbolic of the nation itself. Anna Karennina (1875) throwing herself in front of a train. Raskolikov from Crime and Punishment (1866), murdering to set himself outside (and as he sees it) above society.
19th century Russian novels meant something.
Books whose sole purpose was the examination of absolute truth.
Stories that were the first of their kind.
They were bread when my belly was empty that winter.
They were my light when all the doors on my dorm hall were closed.
My heavy coat against the frozen swirling wind.
After reading them, I was never the same.
Here in Taiwan I know one Russian, and he believes he will burn in hell.
The behemoth Vitaly Fredorovich Vassilia joins me in the weight room on the 7th floor of the Windsor Hotel. He is a leviathan. Long gray hair and beard hanging down from his head and chin. A madman, grunting and sweating and pumping iron in the corner of the gym.
“A man’s body should be his life’s work,” he lifts his shirt and beats a fist against his ribs. “Just look at me. Fit as a Russian bear.”
I smile. I have an hour to work out at lunch and don’t waste time moving from bench to curls.
“You know what I mean, ‘life’s work,’ yes?”
His shadow overtakes me.
“I see you every day laying on the floor crunch, crunch, crunch. You lift your elbows to your knees. Crunch. Crunch. Why you do this? Because you have some woman who runs her fingers on the lines of your stomach? No. Those hands don’t put bread in your belly. What, because you fear death? No. You do this because you are a man. Because you are hard. A woman’s body is so fragile, so delicate. She crumbles with age. But not a man. He is defined by the strength of his arms, and legs, and chest.”
I should say that Vitaly Fredorovich is an Adonis. I should also say he is sixty-eight years old. To see him, his body cut and taut with lines of age and time-weathered skin, is to marvel, for he is ripped and sinewy in ways marble cannot capture. It is as if looking at the first man created by God.
“I make people nervous,” Vitaly Fredorovich said to me once, his deep gravely Russian voice shaking against the glass windows overlooking the city. “It comes from years of driving soldiers into battle. They called me ‘Vitaly the Tank.’” He grinned, showing rows of saber-like teeth emerging from his thick beard dripping with sweat.
“Before that I was a fisherman in my father’s village in Siberia.”
He picks up a sixty-pound dumbbell off the rack and starts doing curls, grunting slowly and telling me about pulling nets in from the frozen sea and how vodka kept him awake on long nights. Vitaly Fredorovich watches his own body in the mirror, speaking aloud about the magnificence of aging. How some men are able to keep their shape through decades of hard work, but most men are punchy and bloated, those Europeans and Americans who have never worked with their hands and arms and whose saggy guts have sunk into comfortable office chairs.
“Man is not a smooth boyish stone, some Michelangelo’s David rotting in the Italian sun,” he groans, straining to place the dumbbell back on the rack after a massive rep. “No, man must be made of jagged scars. His body a living work of art. It must show the strength he has earned with age.”
“The body, huh?” I nod at the girth of his biceps. “But what about the soul?”
“Ahhh!” Vitaly Fredorovich smiles. “You mean, the work of the life eternal? Yes, let me tell you about the greatest lie even sold to man, the existence of the human soul.”
Now you know it. Vitaly Fredorovich is a madman.
The first time we met he insisted we drive to the ocean.
We’d become fast but unlikely friends. He’s a science engineer, retired soldier, and former test pilot, and I a lifelong teacher of English literature. In fact, he was old enough to be my father, but when he grinned and started pulling cans of beer out of his pants pockets during our children’s kindergarten graduation, cracking them open loudly, I couldn’t help but smile.
After the ceremony I agreed, and it was a quick drive out to the coast.
“Honestly, I have no interest in the lives of people,” he confessed to me, as we raced past the rice fields, our children in the backseat laughing. “Most people are nothing more than a nuisance.”
When we arrived at the beach, we stripped down to our underwear and followed one another out into the sea. Shoulder to shoulder the waves crashed against our legs and chests. Vitaly is larger than any normal man should be, his hair blowing wildly in the wind, leaving his thin rimmed glasses on the shore without concern.
The day was uncommonly beautiful.
There was sun and salt in my eyes and my daughters were using paper cups to build sand castles against the shore. Vitaly Fredorovich’s son Alexi, my daughter Xian’s best friend, was something of a miracle. Chang-Rae, a Taiwanese woman, was Vitaly Fredorovich’s second wife, and thirty years his junior. His first wife had been stolen by his best friend, the one who painted a portrait of him seated naked at the table. His head slumped over beside a empty bottle of vodka.
“That’s me. That is Vitaly Fredorovich Vassilia,” he confessed that night. The two of us were leaning back in our chairs of his apartment while our children stirred flour and salt in buckets on the floor. “And drinking is how I lost her.”
“But the soul, Vitaly. You were going to tell me about the soul?”
The room echoed with his laughter. “Oh yes, the soul.” He wiped his mouth with a sleeve. “The soul is the devil’s lie to make us yearn for God. The devil was Russian, you see, and he wants nothing more than to do battle with heaven and be destroyed.”
We had come to their apartment that night to make bread. Vitaly Fredorovich’s grandparents owned a mill beside a small river in Vladivostok when he was a boy, and he was showing us how.
“The whole world is engaged in this battle,” he said. “The trick is to live one’s life without the power of the supernatural. Then when you die, you can look both God and the devil in the eye and ask for nothing.”
“Really?” I laughed, looking around the room for signs of life. A glass cabinet full of imported Irish whiskey, a framed photograph of a racing team.
“Before I met Chang-Rae, I was a wretch of a man. I slept with a different woman each night. I gambled away my previous children’s inheritance. I spit in the face of God.”
“All men feel this way,” I smiled. “And we all repent in the end.”
Vitaly Fredorovich bellowed a laugh. “Repent. I will never repent. I know I am going to hell.”
“You believe in hell, but you won’t repent?”
Xian held up two white hands covered in flour and smudged a finger against her own nose.
“Yes. Most men believe there is no God because of the suffering of the world. How could there be a God when children suffer. But not me. Only a God could turn a deaf ear to the prayers of man. Only a God could turn his back on the world. So I turn my back on God.”
“Then Vitaly Fredorovich,” I said to him. “You are a fool.”
To this he laughed even louder. “Ah yes, now you understand the Russian soul.”
What made the Russian writers so fascinating, was that their lives were just as interesting as the characters of which they wrote. Gogol burned his sequel to Dead Souls in a fit of religious fanaticism before starving himself to death. Famously, Dostoevsky, massively in debt and about to owe all future earnings to an unscrupulous publisher, dictated his novel The Gambler (1867) to a beautiful stenographer night and day for a month and then married her. Even Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. A rich land owner who lived like a peasant, a degenerate gambler who believed in self-discipline, a complete puritan who professed abstinence but who was a compulsive philanderer.
But my favorite is the poet Alexander Pushkin, the father of modern Russian literature, who wrote the brilliant Eugene Onegin (1831) about a clever but bored aristocrat who charms a young woman so much that she writes a letter declaring love to him. He rejects her and continues his torrid bachelor ways until many years later upon meeting her again, he realizes his terrible mistake and asks for a second chance, the woman, Tatiana, despite the fact that she still loves him, refuses him entirely
It is widely considered that these two characters represent Russia and Europe themselves: Onegin the superfluous playboy and Tatiana the simple truthful soul of the land.
In real life, Pushkin himself was mortally wounded in a duel challenging the alleged lover of his wife. Pistols at dawn in the snow. This begs the question, should a man lose his life over the beauty and honor of a woman? Vitaly Fredorovich told me the answer is different if the woman is Russian?
Truly spectacular.
Vitaly Fredorovich has told me many times he grew up illiterate and ignorant. Brute strength was what he admired. His mother had run away with a trapeze artists in a traveling caravan circus out of Novosibirsk and his father remarried a woman who died of fever while bearing him a second son. This infant was a runt with a stump leg, and grew mute with fits of epilepsy during full moons and showed no discernable ability at all until a local cleric discovered the adolescent boy could communicate with animals. Birds, horses, even goats in the market were brought to the back of the house to pass away the afternoon in conversations.
But Vitaly Fredorovich’s father cared nothing for this, facing the sea each morning holding a ring of keys around his neck that opened every door and cupboard in the house, locking away his bread and brandy and blankets from his children even until they begged for food and warmth.
“A man will work his whole life and have nothing to show for it,” Vitaly Fredorovich’s father bellowed, clutching the ring of keys around his neck. “You will know this soon enough.”
One day a storm came and blew the father’s fishing boat out to sea and he was never seen from again. The house cupboard’s remained locked, and Vitaly Fredorovich sat at the table alone until all the candles melted away. That month his brother vanished. Villagers said he was carried away by hungry wolves, others say he flew to the golden city of the birds, but no matter. Vitaly Fredorovich enlisted in the military, advanced quickly to a high rank, and was deployed to the mountains of Afghanistan.
“Of course, since God has no interest in me, I had no interest in morality or fate.” Vitaly Fredorovich slammed his glass on the table and proclaimed. “There are only senses of the flesh which we allow to master us. Therefore live. For when we die, they fade forever into black.”
The bread had risen in the oven and set to cool on the balcony ledge twelve stories above the city. We sat on the wooden chairs beside the metal table. There was yellow homemade butter and blackberry jam in a small bowl.
“I watched my first wife leave through the bottom of a vodka glass,” he said. “She left with a man more sensual, one that fed her soul.”
I watched my daughters in the other room running to and fro past the door. I could make out their blurred shapes by the laughter ringing through the dark hall.
“The man that bows on his knees and prays is a coward. The man who lives for pleasure is a God.”
“A sensualist, you mean?”
Vitaly Fredorovich became angry. “But what else is there? What else is man to do? Live our lives as heathens then confess to God on our deathbed for forgiveness?”
“You wouldn’t be the first.”
“What then, to be a ditch digger in heaven? No, I will live full and unafraid. I will say to hell with the afterlife.”
And with no more explanation, he rose and collected the warm bread and returned, pulling off a corner with his hands and tearing it with his teeth.
“I know this.” Vitaly Fredorovich bellowed. “In life, you meet so few people that speak the same language as your own heart. Yes, there are friends. Yes, there are loves. Yes, there are those who share the same dream and who work alongside you for the betterment of the world. But equal passions of the heart? Ha! Who do you know that truly shares your own unique secrets and desires? Who do you know?”
I had no answer
“See. No one. So you know how rare it is? So one must live alone. Only alone can we know ourselves.”
“But isn’t that the soul?”
Vitaly Fredorovich sat for a long time, the bread continuing to cool, then at once our children burst into the room, laughing and singing and leaping onto our laps, knocking me onto the floor. I had been barreled over. But not Vitaly. Though I was overcome by my bemused daughters, he sat still as a statue cut in stone. I laughed and lifted my girls onto chairs, set bread and butter in front of them, and showed them how to cover them thick with jam, delirious with joy, while Vitaly rose, walked into the dark bedroom, and closed the door behind him.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

hartensteinabroad episode 8: "Confucius Says"

It was an odd week for sure. Long and stressful with unexpected surprises and worrisome moments, but in the end I was able to focus on school and doing right by my students and daughters. Sometimes thats all that matters. I miss all of you. I pray you are well.