Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Falling Buddhaliciously in Love in Classic MGM Style

  “Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.  Embrace me, you irreplaceable you.  Just one look at you—my heart grew tipsy in me.  You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.”  -Gershwin, An American in Paris

You never really thought it would come back, but then it did... this old song bubbling in your chest that just has to come out.  You feel it so deep in your bones.  You don't want to admit it, but it has to be true.  You've fallen in love, again.
  “Maybe the air gave me the drive, for I’m all aglow and alive.  What a day this has been!  What a rare mood I’m in!  Why, it’s almost like being in love!”  -Loewe and Lerner, Brigadoon

You thought about it sitting on the stone benches outside Perfume Pagoda, high atop Huong Tich Mountain of fragrances... it was the Buddhists who got you thinking...
  “The day was bright, the air was sweet, the smell of honeysuckle charmed you off your feet.  You tried to sing but couldn’t squeak.  In fact, you loved him so you couldn’t even speak.  Buzz.  Buzz.  Buzz went the buzzer.  Plop.  Plop.  Plop went the wheels.  Stop.  Stop.  Stop went my heartstrings…”  -Martin, The Trolley Song, Meet Me in St. Louis

You see, Buddhist believe in love... oh yes, but it's a spiritual kind of love that allows them to show kindness and compassion... it's not romantic.  No... the Buddhists shun romantic love.
  “Days can be sunny with never a sigh.  Don’t need what money can buy.  Birds in the trees sing their day full of song.  Why shouldn’t we sing along…”  -Gershwin, I Got Rhythm, An American in Paris

Instead they focus on the nature of reality. How we all feel attachment and aversions toward control and happiness... but it's fleeting, an illusion.  True happiness and love comes when you let go and allow the other person to exist free of want or desire which causes suffering. 
 “I’m laughing at clouds so dark up above.  The sun’s in my heart, and I’m ready for love.  Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place.  Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face…”  -Comden & Green, Singin’ in the Rain

This letting go is at the essence of Buddhisim.
 “If I seem to scintillate, it’s because I’ve got a date.  A date with a package of the good things that come with love…”  -Berlin, Stepping out With My Baby, Easter Parade

Thank God, you're not a Buddhist!  Because falling in love makes you want to scream for joy, hug random strangers, and kiss puppies.  Romantic love makes you want to touch and hold and burst out into uncontrollable fits of broadway musicals!
“Can’t we two go walkin’ together, out beyond the valley of trees?  Out where there’s a hillside of heather, curtsyin’ gently in the breeze.  That’s what I’d like to do: see the heather, but with you…”
–Lerner,  Heather on the Hill, Brigadoon

But you know you have to let it go... to breathe, to survive... still, that doesn't stop you from singing on the inside.

Mother. Horse. Cat. Feather: Teaching Your Kids Chinese

 Trung Hung To Dao Temple.  Perfume Pagoda.  Huong Tich Mountain, Vietnam.
A number of my Western friends are raising their children bilingually.  Believe me, it's a lot more difficult than just, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you," or "Don't pick your nose and eat it."
 The Main Entrance Gate to Trung Hung To Dao
Raising bilingual kids, or in my case, trilingual, means that you are in a constant state of flux as a parent, literally balancing between two cultures, ideologies, practices, and customs.
 Can any of you read the markings on this temple?  Your kids can!
It never ends.  It never gets easier.  Especially, since the predominant langauge of the place we live, is Chinese... and my Chinese stinks!  Trust me, nothing is more humbling than looking helplessly at your 9 year old begging for translation help while out in public being gawked and oggled by a crowd of pointing, giggling, spitting, laughing, gurgling, farting, and grumbling Chinese...  But my kids have gotten used to it... they've learned, along with about a million words... to tolerate their illiterate and pathetic father.
 Buddhist Tapastries with Five Element Colors. 
So... to combat this, I've been taking Chinese classes. It's brutal.  (面包) Mianbao and  (西瓜)  Xigua.  (  苹果) Pingguo and  (葡萄)  Putao. I've got flashcards tapd to the wall and text books stacked on the floor and my head is swiming in Zhongwen.
 Banners hanging to dry along the way to Perfume Pagoda.
On the first day of class, the teacher stands in front of us smiling, rattling off Chinese phrases in total random order. It's baffling. Totally confusing. She says through brown teeth I try not to stare at: Ma- Ma- Ma- Ma-. Each with a different intonation. Now I know, this is nothing new for Chinese learners. The Four Ma's, the pronunciation of each meaning either :  Ma  (妈妈)  mother ... Ma  ()  horse ... Ma () cat ... or Ma  () feather.
Xian hanging back.  Giving me a pat on my back.  I deserve it.
So I scribble and I write and I raise my hand and ask... I do my best.  That's all one can hope to do.  My daughters don't mind.  Learning a second language has taught them an even more valuable life skill... forgiveness.  Thanks, girls.  我爱你!!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Eating Squirrel at Perfume Pagoda, Huong Tich Mountain, Vietnam

Brian Hartenstein and Daughter at Perfume Pagoda, North Vietnam, Dec 29, 2012:
I've eaten a lot of gross junk in my travels.  Ate broiled dog in Korea.  Shark fin soup in Taiwan. Monkey brains in Hong Kong.  Snake blood stew in Bangkok.  Sheep intestines in Scotland.  Fried scorpion in Saudi Arabia.  Lamb eye ball kebabs in India.  And cat veins in China.... of course, you can add to that list: silk larva, grasshoppers, and goat testicals!
Cable Car across Huong Tich Mountain, Vietnam.
But it's all in a day's work. What's worse for you, really:  buttered turtle penis or a large order of salty fries at Mickey Dees?
Mountain of the Fragrant Traces, Vietnam.  Don't look down!
One thing or another is going to get you... that's something to ponder when your a couple hundred feet off the ground in a cable car an eight-legged spider the size of an adult male's hand is suddenly spotted on the roof of the cab.
Daughters at Huong Tich, reading to start hiking upward toward Perfume Pagoda.
What I'm saying is, you shouldn't worry so much.  It's not that you'll live longer, but you'll live better.
Cool Vietnamese junk along the train at Huong Tich Mountain.
Hiking up Huong Tich, we stopped and sampled the local fare.  Food and travel go hand in hand.
Wild ginseng, beet root, and natural herbs and fragrances along the path.
Huong Tich has a little of everything.  Eggplant like stuffing.  Cabbage stew over rice.  Braised corn on the cob.
Trails end at Huong Tich Mountain, time to descend stairs into Perfume Pagoda.
But believe me, by the time you hike all the way (over an hour upward through winding villages, make sure you wear relaxed gear, having comfy shoes, and bring something for heat chaffing...) and finally get to the mouth of Perfume Pagoda Shrine...
Small turtles for shelling and snacking... and individual squirrels caught in wire traps for grilling.
You're going to need something to satisfy your hunger.  In that case, try some freshly cooked mountain squirrel!!  It's a delicacy.
Perfume Pagoda outer alter.  The inner alter was covered with red lanterns.
I did!  I had been carrying my youngest over my shoulders for about thirty minutes and was wiped out, stopped, smiled at the talkative woman chattering on about how I was her first customer of the day and had to buy something for good luck... so I pointed at a squirrel and said... that one.  He goes in my belly.
Perfume Pagoda looking upwards towards mountain path through high jungle.  Time to head back.
Lickety Split!  Decapitation.  Skinned.  Impaled.  Grilled.  Handed to me on a plastic plate with sweet & sour hot sauce.  I have to say... on that cable car ride back, I was looking at that spider in a whole new way.

Open Canoe to the Mountain of the Fragrant Traces

Vietnam, Dec 29th, 2012:
(From the Road...)  60 km southwest of Hanoi by bumpy shaking narrow gravel lanes shared with racing lorries and oxen cart, likes a complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich Mountain... The Mountain of the Fragrant Traces.
We disembark at the village of  My Duc along flooded rice fields, drink warm fizzy Fanta, check our gear, and make arrangements to cross the Yen River.
Small metal boats are rowed by old village women with wooden oars, cutting slowly over the rivers murky surface. 
Passing fishing huts and over lotus gardens hidden beneath the tranquil water, Huong Tich recieves vast Buddhist pilgrims in the second month of the Lunar Calendar.
But today we have the river basically to ourselves.  Crammed into the tiny crafts for a ninety minute ride, I joke to the woman, "Shouldn't I be rowing?  The others are leaving us behind?" 
But she laughs a toothless old grin and adjusts her bamboo hat.  I was told later by a village guide smoking on a wooden bench beside the muddy makeshift dock, "How would she receive a tip if you did all the work?"
No matter, the beauty of this trip are the small details.  A wild crane lifting off a sullen branch toward the clouds.  A yellow fish darting beneath us causing a splash.  Monks in the hills beating low drums, signalling our arrival.
There are scents too.  Deep lavender and sweet lotus blossom.  Sugary honey blossom and a gentle breeze.  The sense of smell is the strongest tied to memory, and I feel like I am moving into my past.
This morning on the Yellow River, floating into the unknown.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Backpacking with Kids through Vietnam

 NORTH VIETNAM, December 27, 2012 (On the Road to Perfume Pagoda)
So we're in the back of the little street bus bumping and bouncing over potholes and dodging water buffalo and screaming chickens in the road.
 There's a truck full of fresh faced soldiers shouldering AK-47's looking miserable huddled against a canvas wrapped truck bed and a whole live pig, big as a man, wrapped in chicken wire and squealing tied to the rump of a motorbike racing past.
 Voices on the bus are scattered.  German.  Chinese.  French.  Cantonese.  We're the only Americans and the girls are holding on, seemingly unfazed as their Nintendos blip and their little legs dangle over the vibrating bench seat.
 The other passengers gave us the back.  Either that or we took it.  I'm not sure.  Passengers usually glare whenever my children board.  Be it a train or plane or local bus, the other travelers just want us out of their sight.
 That's fine.  Vietnam has other things to offer than the kindness of strangers.  But pretty soon Rebekah starts to complain.  Stomach aches and a little fever. Still two hours to go before we hit the river.
We're lucky there was road construction, because just moments after she said this she was puking on the side of the road.  Luckier still we were out on the side of a hill when it happened.  Probably bad meat in the stir-fry.  The cockroaches should have tipped us off.  Anyway... she felt much better afterward.  Believe me, we all did.

Friday, February 22, 2013

My Kingdom for a Horse: The Bones of Richard the Third

Gloucester always makes the syllabus.  I really can’t imagine a Shakespeare Course not examining Richard III.  Of course, I always start with As You Like It, something about Orlando in the forest of Arden tacking love poems onto trees and the mere fact that Will’s mother was Jane Arden (I mean, if you were to ever marry a woman based solely on her name…?) There’s also an Arden Forest next to his home in Stratford.  It’s all too much for the romantic in me.
Second we move to Lear.  (I’m a father of three daughters after all), but it’s Kurosawa’s RAN that spices up that third week of class.  Then it’s off to the last Plantagenet King of England, the Villain of the House of York.
I’ll present you with three reasons:  #1:  Shakespeare portrays Richard as a power crazed evil hunchback who murders his rivals to seize the throne!  How awesome is that?  I mean, you had me at Evil Hunchback!  The only thing cooler would be if Richard were an Oompa-Loompa or a secret Sasquatch. 
Reason #2:  The Speeches.  (It is a Shakespeare course after all), but everything from, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” to “The lights burn blue.  It is now dead midnight.”  From “Where eagles dare,” to “My horse, my horse…”  Richard’s ruthless, blood thirsty cries and whispers are relished.  My favorite being, “Since I cannot prove a lover, I am determined to prove a villain,” which to me sheds early light two-hundred and fifty years later on 19th century literature’s premiere villain: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov who ponders, in an unjust society, the only true form of survival is to become a criminal.
Reason #3:  All the great actors have portrayed him.  There’s Lawrence Olivier, who's ashes are buried in Westminster across from the Shakespeare statue in Poet’s Corner, to modern day Kenneth Branagh.  But it’s the latest addition, the World War II Nazi motif Richard III starring Ian McKellan.  That movie is a powerhouse!  It blows kid’s minds.  The jazz music and the costumes and tanks rolling through walls.  Certainly, it makes the story come alive again.
But I also have students perform Shakespeare parodies, which this blog has outlined numerous times.  Still, I’ve yet to do a Richard III.  I suppose, the right student just hasn’t come along yet to play him.  Here in Asia that's not easy.  I forced Macbeth on the most popular kid in class because I wanted him to see he could be more than just a dumb jock.  But he turned out to be a worthless twit, cursing me and sabotaging our production.  I forced Caesar on another, a thoughtful boy who wanted desperately to win the Spelling Bee and the Speech Contest, but he threw a fit before the show and I basically had to dress him and push his sullen, tantrum throwing butt on stage. 
So I’m taking my time with Richard.  It’s hard to believe in students, especially in Asia.  You tell a kid, I see something in you, something no one else sees.  I want to build this whole play around you and give you a chance to shine on stage and let everyone see how amazing you are…. And the Asian kid just looks at you and goes, “My homeroom teacher says I need to memorize the math answers for the quiz this afternoon.  She yells at me if I get any wrong.”
At that point, it’s bye bye, William Shakespeare.
A couple of years back, Al Pacino did this documentary called: Looking for Richard.  I love how real actors seek Shakespeare out.  They go to locations, feel the stones where the people of history actually walked, and hope the DNA rubs off on their performance.
It’s like this furniture maker in London, name of Ibsen, who confirmed the DNA match last week of the monumental historic discovery of the bones of Richard III recently dug up under a car port in Leicester.   (He’s a direct descendent of Anne of York, Richard’s sister) I love how someone can carry around the markings of incredibly famous or infamous people in their blood.  Travel is like that, how you can walk in the footsteps of history’s most notorious people and places. 
It rubs off on you as well.  You carry it forever.
Funny thing about these bones being found, is that it proves the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard was nothing like the actual man, but more a House of Tudor propaganda weapon.  Richard’s spine was not crooked, but in fact, showed high levels of a protein diet, and there is no actual record of him killing his two nephews in London Tower.  In fact, by all accounts, King Richard was an enlightened man. 
Makes you question what other accepted truths are really just bunk.  The bones were found two feet underground… what else is lurking just under the surface for us to scratch up and find.  What, if any, could change the world?
Well, that’s just conjecture, isn’t it?  Richard III is really a play about power.  All of our life is a struggle for power.  From overbearing parents who control what we eat and watch and play, to teachers who gives us grades for effort and precision, to schoolmates who make us feel worthless and popular,  to lovers who sway our emotions with petty jealousies and trivial asides, to bosses who dump useless tasks in our laps, to spouses who tighten our throats with guilt and manipulation, to corporations who tell us what to buy and when, to governments that mandate rules and regulations without any accountability… why not rise up and fight?  Why not become Richard III?
It’s the kind of question classrooms were designed for, safe and perfect, let’s discuss.  Shakespeare knew it as such, and Richard knew it too, for at the end, his lines, “My horse, my kingdom for a horse,” says it all.  I too, want to fly away, before it all crashes down on my head.

Vietnam War Propaganda & America The Beautiful

 O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain! –America The Beautiful

The art is unmistakable.  Like a driving beat it just marches on.  Communist murals, fighting songs, rousing the people, saluting the flag.  War is always good for business, except... when it's not.
 O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!  –America The Beautiful

You never really feel danger in Vietnam.  Oh sure, crossing the street can be daunting but they tell you to just stand still, the scooters will go around you.
 O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!  –America The Beautiful

But you see it.  It's there.  This underlying mistrust, like when I couldn't understand the waitress and she slammed the menu on the table and walked off or when the old men in the park who stoop on low chairs, stopped mumbling when I passed and glared. 
 O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!  –America The Beautiful

I get it.  I'm not denying it.  That's part of the deal when you're an American abroad.
 O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!   –America The Beautiful

Funny how it's sold back to you though.  Wandering through North Vietnam, we head into this little propaganda art gallery and the woman sneers through her teeth as I ask about a Ho Chi Min print, sneering again when Xian asks why the woman painted yellow is shouldering a machine gun.
 O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!  –America The Beautiful

So we go outside for some lemon tea and crisp cakes.  There's no tension in food.
 O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!   –America The Beautiful

That night in the hotel is quite strange.  I write this basically to remember, but it's the most harrowing night of sleep in years.  We are on the 30th floor and the bed is directly adjacent to a giant bay window.  Just inches from my pillowed head there is a shere drop straight down to the street below.  Tossing and turning in the night, I awoke many times to a feeling I was falling. Really falling!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!  –America The Beautiful

So we left the Vietnamese propaganda art galleries and walked along the river.  I found myself whistling this old American Hymn.  Signing does come in handy, doesn't it?  Even though, it often helps or hinders no one but yourself.