Monday, November 26, 2012

Theme Song to the Magnificent Seven

 “We deal in lead, friend.”  -Vin, The Magnificent Seven

I had stayed up late watching cowboy movies in the hotel, just me alone in the dark with the sounds of little snores behind me and awoke early for a jog away from the shore, down the side streets of the little city of Kota Kinabalu, toward the bowery lands where the people rose from sleep in their mud huts and wooden shanty houses propped up on sticks.
 “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”  -Calvera, The Magnificent Seven

I wasn’t meant to be there.  The men in the cafes opened the shutter gates and dusted off the tables with scowls. The women in their bright scarves silent in the kitchens, bent over the sinks at work, glaring at me in the new sunlight.
 “Why?  There’s nothing up there but murderous, cutthroats and derelict of barflies, and if they ever felt exclusive brother, they’re past it now.”  -Henry, The Magnificent Seven

I stopped to walk along a rain gully by the thick overhanging palms along a row of houses bright as gumdrops covered in decay.   Children sleeping in hammocks.  The buzz of antenna wires.  The blades of grass so sharp, slicing into my legs.  Then I started thinking about theme songs.  
 “We’ll fight with guns if we have them.  If we don’t, with machetes, axes, clubs, anything.”  -Hilario,  The Magnificent Seven

I know, it's a weird thought.  I should have been thinking about all the reasons I didn't belong there.  This world of poverty is not meant for a foreigner to see.  Instead I was counting my own personal theme songs and how they have changed over the years.
 “What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, huh?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  -Vin, The Magnificent Seven

What?  You don't have a personal theme song?  What's the matter with you?  Everybody has a theme song.  A show tune you belt out while dancing in the rain, and adventurous march rousing in your head as you plunge toward a flight of stairs or race down the highway... you know, a theme song?
 “(dying) you came back, for a place like this… why?  A man like you… why?”  -Calvera, The Magnificent Seven

Okay, maybe I'm just nuts, but here goes.  For the longest time growing up, whenever I would mow the lawn or climb a tree or steady my bike atop a giant downward sloping gravel hill set to plummet into the abyss below... I would hear Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in my head.  Yep.  Valkyries, man!  Every time.
Of course, this was replaced years later, well after the movies had come and gone through the theaters, but when I was jumping trains and charging through Russian museums and sprinting up palace embankments of Chinese temples... I would blast Raider's of the Lost Arc in my ears.  Yep, Indiana Jones, dude!  Forever and ever.

“The old man was right.  Only the farmers won.  We lost.  We always lose.”  -Chris, The Magnificent Seven

Those two songs were my personal theme songs.  I know, dork right?  Don't care.  But lately, as I jog through all these dusty Asian cities, past temples in ruins and rubbled mountain villages, in and out of third world countries time has forgot... a new song has appeared.  Rowdy.  Rough around the edges.  Sonorous as the high plains and full of grit as a lowland gulch.
Yeah, I started singing you today, Magnificent Seven.  It began as little snores in the dark and didn't stop.  This remarkable adventurous life.  Though the white undershirts hung on wire lines and the men paused over buckets full of rain with lathered necks set to shave.  Though the women held babies to their waists and stared, and one man’s eyes said, “You do not come here.  This place is not for you.”  I just stared back, and let the music roll. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Men of Leisure, Men of Passion on the Shores of Sabah

 I was walking on the beaches of Borneo today thinking about sand.  I know… I know…sand?  What’s up, Hartenstein?  Sun baked already?

 Actually, sand is pretty cool.  Pulverized over millions of years, sand was once an object like a prehistoric shell or a Martian meteorite crashed to our surface or some flashy coral Polynesian toilet seat from the dawns of time that has been worn away into nothing but fine silt dust at the edges of our world that seeps in between your toes or gathers in your hair or the pockets of your swim trunks and rinses away in the shower.  Hammered.  That’s what happens after millennium after millennium of crushing punishment.  Sand.
 Standing there on the Borneo beach that morning, on the shores of Sabah, I was really thinking about leisure.  There were cool breezes and drinks with umbrellas.  Daughters wrestling with starfish, snorkeling in the shallow pools.  Palm trees whispering love sonnets.  Paradise.  Exactly where a man hopes to find himself at the end of his life.  Content.
 I wasn’t really thinking about oceans of sand at that time.  Heat so harsh your pores bleed dust.  Sun a guillotine razor on your neck.  Lethargic black flies in asthmatic gasps resting on your flesh too weak to circle or swoon.  Surrounded at all sides by men of no passion.  Who crave nothing, desire nothing, pursue nothing but blind belief.  The sand does that to them.  Sand that spends thousands of years seeping slowly into their minds and brains, lobotomizing them.

Nope!  That’s not going to be me.  I knew that morning as I grabbed my daughter’s hands and raced in and out of the waves laughing that even though I was in paradise I would leave it soon for another place.    I would do it for passion, so that it would never die, never slip away.  As my daughters licked the melted ice cream from their wrists while the sun went down, I dozed off.  Content, that even a man of leisure must sometimes put his passions to bed for the night.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

If You Give a Kinu a Kota Kinabalu

If you're going to take a little kid named Kinu to Borneo... she's going to want to go to Kota Kinabalu.
 So you give it to her... but once she arrives she's going to want to go swimming and play on the beach... so, you'd better make sure her mom is there to play with her too.
 But... playing with her mom on the beach will make her  want to watch the sunset...

 So you give her a sunset... but watching the sun go down just knocks her out cold...

 So you let her sleep in ... in the little kid bed... but when she wakes up she'll be super hungry and want pancakes...
 Eating the pancakes will make her all sticky, so she will have to wash up... and seeing the water will remind her of the ocean and all the cool fish...so she'll make a crab face!

Then you take her out to the beach again for a lovely day on the Kota Kinabalu shores...but, seeing the ocean will remind her of sunsets so... you'll have to do it all over again tomorrow.  The End!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rebekah and the Jelly Fish

On the shores of Borneo, my daughters dig their fingers into the sand and come up smiling.

 Little plastic shovels and pails, collecting colorful seashells, kicking our toes in the waves and letting them soak.
 Kids need these kinds of days.  To remember the good and forget about the bad.

 Swimming and sun.  Water slides and inner tubes.  Hanging with older sisters in faraway places.

Making sand castles and flying kites during sunset.

Kids also need to take their lumps.  They need to fall off their bicycles and scratch up their knees sliding into home.  They need to have the wind knocked out of them after falling out of trees and they need to slip in the sea and come up coughing salt water in their lungs.  Lumps give them appreciation, caution, fear, and the need to try it again.

While on the beach that day Rebekah was stung by a jelly fish.  We were swimming in the early afternoon in the little lagoon with the soft lapping waves and the gentle breeze.  Suddenly she came up screaming and pointing to her side.  She ran to me and was scratching her ribs and hoping up and down.  I knew at once what had happened and what to do.
A year ago, while in Thailand, Rebekah was bit by a squirrel in the park while trying to feed it some bread.  Her finger was cut and she had a little shock, but she learned never to feed a squirrel again.

Of course, a jelly fish isn't something you can easily see.  It is out there, lurking, ready to strike.  As I carried her to the life guard who got the ammonia spray ready, I was already promising ice cream and a funny Sponge Bob band-aid.  That calmed her down.  Until the next time.  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Monocrome Dreams & The Road to Borneo

I grew up in the last gasping death of black and white television.  Coming home on the yellow school bus, I’d sit cross legged on the orange shag splitting OREO cookies and dipping them in hot chocolate while watching all those great shows from the 70’s switch over from monochrome to color:  Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched.  I remember, even as a boy, distinctly not wanting the change, feeling nostalgic for something that I never really had, a belief that the past was better than the here and now, speeding into an uncertain future.
I used to even dream in black and white as a kid.  Gray fields to play behind closed eyes.  Gravestone skies over tree houses.  Ashen faces of the neighbor kids and racing my bike toward sooty horizons.  Despite this I was happy, I just needed color.  But it wasn't there.
My list of family culprits to pin this on is endless.  My mother who showed us Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland every Christmas, or my father who would slap his knee when Abbot & Costello did Who’s on First?   My older sister Lisa, the romantic, leaving the Monopoly game unfinished to sit on the sofa all afternoon watching Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk or Bogart’s Casablanca.  I wanted black and white.  I held onto it like a truth.
I loved those old black and white films so much, especially the comedy teams:  The Stooges, Martin & Lewis, Lucy & Dezi, the Marx Brothers (oh… Harpo Marx is still my favorite actor of all time), but one pair would always delight:  the Road movies of Bob Hope & Bing Crosby.
I was thinking about Hope & Crosby today while walking along the beautiful sands of Borneo, trying to remember their seven different “Road to” movies that spanned over twenty years.  Here’s the list starting in 1940 and ending in ‘62:  Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali, and Hong Kong.  The plots were always the same, Crosby talking Hope into some get rich scheme and Hope doing all the dirty work.  Both pledging never to let a woman get in the way and both falling for the first pretty smile that catches their eye.  How “patty cake” always got them out of trouble, and Hope mugging for the camera saying, “Crosby’s about to sing ladies and gents, you might want to go get some popcorn.”
I remember those stories so well, hearing the names of those faraway places and laughing along with the songs, closing my eyes and beginning to dream. Life is so much better in color, isn't it?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Borneo Stories

I returned from Europe to Taiwan and found my daughters well and bouncing up and down upon their tails like Tiggers and Roos through the Hundred Acre Wood.  It was deep in the summer of 2012, the Olympics were just around the corner, and we decided to take a family vacation from the small Chinese Taipei island south to the wild shores of Borneo.
By family vacation I mean a large group of intrepid travelers from South Korea who would be joining us along the trail.  SungJoo's mother and father and younger sister, along with our three daughters.
We set sail for eastern Malaysia, north of the tiny sliver of country called Brunei, into the Sabah region of the northern island of Borneo, to the capital city of Kota Kinabalu.
Our daughters are solid travelers.  They pack their markers and Nintendos, scrap books and little journals into pink backpacks.  Rebekah's blanket and Kinu's stuffed bunny NuNu.
I knew little of this area other than savage stories of headhunters and black magic.  Deep jungle treks of white explorers that were never seen or heard from again. Rugged landscape and distant islands hoping along the main coast where time has stood still.  I knew that during World War II there were outposts here, what a remote place to be stationed, and I knew there would be people.  Smiling.  Warm.  Friendly.  But also mistrusting.  Cautious.  Pensive.  Leary.  I picked up Kinu and put her on my shoulders.  Adventure awaits.  Let's set sail into the Indian Ocean.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sonnet 43

"When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, 
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed."  -Shakespeare #43

Well... I've had better ones!
"Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright, 
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!"  -Shakespeare #43

But I loathe self-pity.  So here are the highlights...
"How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made 
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!"  -Shakespeare #43

On the drive to the university through the desert, we passed over a dry river wadi with about fifty black camels and a shepherd wrapped in scarves and rags on a donkey.  He was just a boy.  Later in class, this portly weeble of a student named Sultan stood up too quickly and his belt exploded.  I've no idea where it went.  I tried not to laugh, but the class erupted... I hid my face behind a book.  I spent the night alone on the rooftop watching the white clouds pass by a quarter moon.  
"All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me."  -Shakespeare #43


I told no one.  Kept it a secret all day.  I miss my girls.  If you looked up this sonnet hoping to find Lizzie Barrett Browning's Let Me Count The Ways ... tough luck!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hobo Stew

(Brian Hartenstein trekking the Rub Al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia.  The world's most desolate area)

There are no safe men.  I’ve always know this.  When I was young and my legs could still fly, my college friends and I used to gather outside the city of Newberg to wait for the midnight freight train to pass.  We always heard it, rumbling and roaring in the distance.  That beckoning whistle, we felt it in our blood.
Those were brave boys, my college running buddies, stout and wise for such young years.  Jeff the Looker who made girls swoon with just the raise of an eyebrow, and Randy the Hick who kept loaded guns in a gym bag in his truck.  Steve in a red bandanna lifting a boulder above his head for kicks and Lorin towering above us with those monstrous strides.
We’d all gather to race the train.  That explosive steaming freight train that rumbled outside the city a couple hundred yards toward this black trellis at the precipice of a vast ravine, running like the devil was at your heals, leaping for that last ladder wrung before the edge and riding into oblivion.
Thing was, you could never gauge how fast the train was rolling.  Standing there in the dark by the tracks watching this little circle of trembling light.  Hands sweaty.  Legs shaking.  The train’s whistle gaining speed and size and the pumping wheels pounding in rhythm to the beating in your chest.
And then suddenly it was upon us, this great pounding beast.  The force so strong it almost knocks you over but it doesn’t because your legs are sprinting and arms pumping and you're gasping for air and flying headlong into the dark as if you and the train were both riding the same forceful wave.
The other boys stopped and cheered after a hundred meters or so.  They threw their bodies down in the dirt and collapsed hands on knees.  But not me.  I never stopped.  I was racing.  Of all those brave boys, only I could keep up with the train.  Racing.  Racing toward the ravine. Racing toward that last wrung on the ladder before the fall into the abyss.
It was a few years later when we actually rode the rails for real.  Rolf and I hopping freighter box cars out of Portland and Vancouver up toward Tacoma and others east along the Columbia to Spokane and Idaho.  We were novice travelers then, carrying a couple of tins of sardines and a block of cheese in my old army knapsack.  A filled up gallon of river water and Swiss army knife for protection.  But what we learned stayed with us forever.
Talking to Hobos, knowing that speak, has saved me many times since.  Kept me out of jams and made other men, stronger men than I, back into a corner.
Funny things stay with you too.  How to hide from John Q. Law and what morticians use to identify a mangled body.  What a “snipe” is… a discarded cigar butt dropped in warm water and sucked down as coffee, and how a Mulligan (another word for an Irishman) is also a stew you make by slicing up potatoes and carrots and wrapping them in foil and sticking in an old tin coffee can full of lit up kindling.  Butter and salt are luxuries, aren’t they? 
They also call it a Hobo Stew.
Well, I made that tonight, out in the desert, in this place so far away from home.  Wrapped it up tight and dropped it on the coals and then blew them to flame.  Listening to it sizzle, thinking back over the years, I know.  There are no safe men.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The apples, Bill. The apples!

"The leaves will fall again sometime and fill the fleece of nature with those purposes..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

To all my dearest friends who send me such wonderful pictures of my hometown which I miss so much... this is for you.  Yes, Keep Portland Beautifully Weird!"
"But now there are are challenges to spring in that ripe nude with head reared..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

Thank you for the streets of downtown with the yellow and red and orange leaves crumbling under foot.
"Into the realm of swords, her purple shadow bursting on the winter of the world..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

Thank you for the crisp sidewalks of Sellwood, wet moss on stones in the shade, wood porches with swinging screen doors, running after the mailman just to say..."Morning, Sam!"
"A boy runs with dog before the sun, straddling spontaneities that form their independent orbits..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

Thank you for the exploding fireworks of Beaverton and all the old friends and students once there that still write.
"I have seen the apples there that toss you secrets..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

Thank you for drives to work in the misty morning, warming up car heaters in the shivering cold cab, wrapping fingers around warm coffee mugs huddled together.  There was a deer walking through here yesterday, where is she today?
"Put them beside a pitcher with a knife and poise them full and ready for explosion..."  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

Thank you for endless afternoons of sky gazing toward cerulean possibilities... the autumn we carry within.
"The apples, Bill, the apples!"  -Hart Crane, Sunday Morning Apples

I miss Portland.  Thank you so much for these pictures.  You have no idea how much I needed to see these.