Just Past the Horizon

Another Newspaper Article

As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”

- Ernest Hemingway

Growing up, I didn't pay much attention to the Olympics, or sporting events in general. There was no particular reason for this. While other kids were playing basketball, I was off, wandering through the woods, playing pretend. While other kids dreamed of being Michael Jordan and playing for the Chicago Bulls, I dreamed of being Indiana Jones and exploring lost cities. When I ran into sports kids on the playground there would be a brief exchange of glances and then we'd part ways, shaking our heads. Sports/pretend? That's got to be boring.

As I got older, I became more interested in physical activity ( I got into jogging and weightlifting ) but I never really understood other people's passion for sport, the obsession with wearing sports jerseys, the collecting of baseball and basketball cards, or the endless speculation on current and future sporting events. My head was off in the clouds, and as I grew, my childhood love of pretend translated itself into maturity through books.

My first real exposure to the Olympics came when I was in college. One night, my friends and I were sitting around in our dorm room. It was late, and there was nothing to do, so we were flipping through TV channels, trying to find something to watch. As we roamed through the channels, we flipped by the Winter Olympics.

“Hey, go back,” one of my friends said. “What was that?”

We had stumbled across a game of curling, what I still believe is one of the most bizarre sports in the Olympic repertoire. We watched as grown men got down on their hands and knees and pushed large polished rocks down a sheet of ice towards a circular target. We were mesmerized.

“Is this really an Olympic sport?” somebody asked.

We got on the internet. It was indeed.

What began as incredulous disbelief slowly turned into earnest excitement. Although we didn't understand everything that happened, we were swept up by the enthusiasm of the players. We watched as the athletes aimed their stones with patience, foresight, and skill, and when something amazing happened, we found ourselves cheering, somewhat to our own surprise. Later that night, as we got ready for bed sometime near one o'clock in the morning, we found we were still talking about what we'd seen.

“That was pretty amazing,” someone said. All these years later, I still have to agree.

After I graduated from university, I moved to China. At home, a person has their choice of friends, but when traveling abroad, people who would not otherwise spend time with one another find themselves lumped together. Many of the friends I've made during my time in China have been Brits, and if there's one thing I've learned about the Brits, its that they love their sport. Although I didn't have much interest in it myself, I'd humor my friends and join them in pubs to watch football or rugby. The connection that runs through British society because of their shared experiences in sport amazed me. They could talk for hours about players and games dating back to times before they were born. I would find myself wondering, as I had when I was young, where does all this passion come from?

I think it comes from our societal love of heroes.

When I thought back and tried to define my reason for loving books, I discovered it was because I loved stories of heroes. Stephen King once described the fantasy genre as stories of “blood and thunder and armies and dragons.” In those stories, no matter how dark the road, or how evil the villain, there was always hope. If the hero was strong enough and brave enough, he'd win the day. And more than anything, I believe that people want the stories of heroes to be their own stories, even if they won't admit it.

Sport provides us with stories that are equally incredible, if not more so for being real. While athletes are far from perfect individuals, they embody the traits that many of us wish we had more of: determination, courage, and fortitude.

Consider the story of Jesse Owens.

Owens was the first black man to receive a gold medal in Olympic history. He competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany, where, at the time, Adolf Hitler was in power. Hitler, wanting to showcase the superiority of whites over all other races, boasted that German athletes would sweep the field, defeating other people of inferior colors. Owens defied him, taking home four gold metals for America. Despite Hitler's rage, Owens became a crowd favorite, and many Germans came up to Owens on the street, asking for his autograph.

While I am not that enthusiastic about the Olympics, that doesn't lessen my belief that we need them. We need heroes. We need people that can inspire us to believe that life is ours for the taking, and that with some strength and determination, we can overcome. The Olympics provide us with a an example of human potential and a rod by which we can measure and spurn ourselves on. In this years Olympics I've particularly amazed by Im Dong-hyun, the legally blind Korean. In the opening days of the 2012 Olympics, he broke the world record in archery.

After hearing Dong-hyun's story, I am left asking myself: If a blind man can become the world's greatest archer, what then is my excuse for not reaching the limit of my own potential?

The answer of course, for all of us, is that we have no excuse. And the hope that our heroes rekindle within us is that, with enough strength and determination, we'll win the day in the end.

I'm a reporter! Or something....

Recently, I've started working for a Chinese newspaper. Here's an article I wrote for them.

Travel and the Art of Zen:Finding Beauty in Everyday Life
By Derek Wentz

I've always believed that travel isthe art of finding beauty in the mundane acts of other people'slives.

In late 2009, I packed up my thingsand traveled to China to become an English teacher. In the firstplace, I've always enjoyed the English language, so English teacherfelt like a good fit for me. But more importantly, I came because Iwanted to experience other worldviews and other cultures. (There is asaying that goes something like travel is the great enemy ofignorance and cruelty.) I also wanted to travel because I buy intothe Buddhist concept that life is more about the experiences that aperson accrues over the course of their life than the achievementsthey accomplish. When I considered travel options, I couldn't thinkof a place more culturally, historically, and existentially differentfrom life in the United States.

China hasn't disappointed me. It'sbeen everything I'd hoped it would be and more. That's not to saythat China hasn't been without its hard times. But it is to say thatI wouldn't trade the times I've had here, the good or the bad, foranything.

A recent trip I took is a perfectexample.

Over the strange and meandering courseof my career here in China, I've done a lot of unexpected things.I've taught English, it's true, but I've also been wrangled intostage performances on television, an exciting (if short) actingcareer as an extra in a Chinese film, and most recently, a languageeditor and writing contributor for an all English Chinese newspaper.The one you hold in your hands in fact. (If you spot a typo, I'mpartly to blame.) As a part of working with the newspaper, I've beenoffered opportunities to see and do things I might not otherwise havedone here in China. When my co-workers asked me if I'd be interestedin taking a trip across the province in a high speed train, myresponse was to pack my bag.

I had to get up early to catch thetrain. My companions and I were asked to be at the Wuchang railwaystation at 6:50 A.M,. I live in Han yang. Getting up, getting clean,and getting a taxi pushed my wake up time back to 5:00 A.M.

I managed to get out of my apartmentby 5:15. I ran down to a nearby bank and withdrew some cash for thetaxi ride. Conveniently, as I emerged from the bank, I saw a taxicruising down the road. I flagged him down and hitched a ride toWuchang.

The railway station sat empty when Iarrived shortly after six. I'd brought a selection of e-books with mewhich I elected to sit down and read while I waited for mycompanions. By 6:55, they'd arrived: two Chinese women (whose Englishnames were Echo and Helen) and a man from Ghana (named Simon). I'dmet Echo before, but the other two were complete strangers to me.

After a ceremony (which I believecelebrated the opening of a new high-speed train) we boarded a trainwith a massive group of Chinese tourists and headed across Hubeitowards Yichang.

The train-ride alone was pleasurable.While I spent a good deal of it reading, from time to time I'd lookup and there, stretching golden-green in every direction, was theChinese countryside. One thing I lament about my life in China ishaving spent it all in a big city. At some point I need to move outto the countryside. Life out there seems so different from thefrenetic energy of the city. Farmers walked slow paths through theirfields, tending to their crops. Even at midday, people sit on theirporches or just inside their homes. Its not that they're lazy. Itsjust that they don't seem to be so busy.

The closer we drew to Yichang, themore the landscape grew simultaneously familiar and alien. If you'veseen much Chinese art, you've seen the depictions of ancientConfucian scholars sitting on green-gray mountain islands surroundedby oceans of mist. (Both they and their beards have been lost to thelong annals of time. Honestly, I've seen one Chinese guy with abeard. And it was on his neck rather than his face.) These paintingsat once give the impression of being otherworldly and yet familiar,part of our world, yet somehow unlike it: the essence if the idea ofenlightenment. Having only seen such mountains in paintings, Iassumed they came from the lands of imagination. I was wrong.

Riding past these mist shroudedmountains (and later walking among them) was like stepping into akung fu movie.

After arriving at our destination,throwing our things in our hotel, and eating some lunch, we set outon our first tour. I always mean to ask for the names of the places Ivisit, but as usual, I forgot. It was some sort of park thatenshrined one of China's most famous waterfalls. After a short waitto gather tickets and fellow tourists, we took a tour shuttle to themain scenic area.

The park had laid out a series ofpaths and bridges that led up into a ravine cut out over the eons bythe flow of a jade colored river. Echo, Helen, Simon, and I walkedthe bridges, took pictures, and got to know each other. Mostly, Italked with Simon. I'd never met someone from Ghana before. Later, aswe approached a long suspension bridge built high over the river, wediscovered that Echo was afraid of heights. Simon and I alternativelyteased and encouraged her to walk across the bridges. She did soreluctantly after our repeated assurance that it was perfectly safe,clutching the rails with white-knuckled hands. As we crossed, theother tourists began jumping up and down, and rocking side to side.The bridge swung, Echo squealed, and Simon and I laughed.

“I'll never trust either of youagain,” she told us after we'd reached the bridge's end.

Eventually, we came upon the featuredwaterfall. It looked like something you'd only ever see on a postcardor in a National Geographic. Thin streams of water cascaded over theside of a cliff three to five hundred feet above our heads. It wasn'ta roaring majestic thing like you often see in movies, but a quietgraceful one, which, somehow, seemed appropriate. The path ran alonga thin ledge just behind the waterfall. Little Chinese women stoodabout selling thin plastic ponchos to keep the water spray off.

I stopped in a cave that led out tothe path behind the waterfall, unable to decide whether to put on myponcho or not. On the one hand I wanted to get a little wet. On theother, it would be another four or five hours until we got back tothe hotel. I decided to put it on. The wind generated by the fallingwater whipped the thin thing about, making it difficult to don. Asmall Chinese boy saw I was having a hard time and stopped to give mea hand.

The water, relatively quiet as it was,drowned out all sound as I passed behind it.

I enjoyed the waterfall, but the realtreasure I found was just beyond it.

The path wound up several hundredstairs to bridges suspended high up in the ravine. Down below, theblue-green river ran quietly between opposing rock walls, still andpeaceful. Several small waterfalls emptied into it from above. WhileI could have taken the path, I chose to walk around it across a rockyembankment that led to the edge of the river. For the first time onthe trip, I was completely alone. I was far enough away from othersthat I stood in complete silence. The paths above were high enoughup that they were cut off from view.

And I got the sudden urge to go for aswim.

After deliberating for a few minutesand glancing around, I stripped down to my shorts and dove into thewater. It was cold, but pleasantly so in the heat of the day. I swamout, my head dipping under the water with each stroke, until I wasfloating underneath one of the waterfalls.

There was nothing special about thisravine or the water in which I swam. There are likely a hundred otherplaces like it in the world. But as I floated there, looking up atthe trees clinging to the cliff-side above the water and letting thewaterfall wash my long hair out of my eyes, I felt so very clean andso very much alive. Just a few thousand feet away, a Buddhist shrinesat atop a mountain. It occurred to me that it's one thing to listento Buddhists talk about taking joy in the simplicity and harmony oflife. It's another thing entirely to experience it.

I got myself back to shore andcontinued the tour. I got some strange looks and smirks from othermembers of the tour group as I walked around with them, sopping wet.

That night, Simon, Echo, Helen, and Iwalked around the city. When it got late, we gathered in one of ourhotel rooms to play cards. We taught each other card games from ournative countries and talked a whole lot of pleasant nonsense.

And I wouldn't trade any of thesethings for the world.

Every Coin Has Two Sides

Or so my students say.

The Chinese have a saying for everything it seems. Getting married? Your friends will feel obliged (if not outright invited) to tell you everything they know on the subject, even if they themselves are not married. Both their own wisdom and the wisdom collected by society at large will be yours to have. Fungal growth on your buttocks? It may not be Confusious who say, but somebody will.

One thing my students are fond of explaining to me is that every coin has two sides. I can count on one hand the number of final exam speeches that have excluded this phrase. In the beginning, I thought it was a tactic to pad out a speech with useless information. But the phenomenon is too wide spread. I've heard the excruciatingly boring details on the two sides of most any topic you can imagine, ranging from using the internet to girlfriends. The girlfriends speech was sort of hilarious. I'll let your imagination run with that one.

While I've enjoyed the time I've spent as a teacher, I've faced a few challenges.

The foremost challenge has been getting my students engaged in class. It seems to me that teachers are one part instructor, one part entertainer. If you can't get your students to pay attention, you might as well stay home and save everybody a couple of hours. Add to this situation Chinese High School. The Chinese are hellbent on being the best nation in the world. Chinese high schools are meat grinders in which students are forced to attend class and study all day long (and I mean all day long in the most literal sense of the phrase). If they are to have any hope of attending university, they have time for nothing else. The best and the brightest are funneled into the communist party and towards the top universities. How far you fall short from the heights of achievement determines where you can go to university, if you are able to go at all. By the time students finally achieve the soul crushing dreams of their youth, they're a bit burned out. Having been deprived of things like a normal social life or the needed chances to explore themselves as individuals (It's pretty hard to find yourself between the lines of type in a textbook.) they arrive at university and suddenly find themselves... relatively speaking.... free. You can imagine how high on their list of priorities my class is. Can you blame them?

Students are pretty bored. The other problem is that students are shy. Often hilariously so.

The first time I stepped out from behind my podium during class and asked a student a question, I thought I'd killed the poor kid. The look on his face made me think he was going to start shaking his head back and forth and shout "No, that's not true! That's impossible!" He can't be asking me a question, right? In fact, if I had produced a red laser sword, chopped off his hand, and told him I was his father, I imagine he would have clutched the burnt stump of his arm and smiled. Relieved that the existential horror of answering a question, in English, had safely passed him by. That is, until I repeated the question.

So picture my surprise when my Tuesday Business Negotiation class nearly turned violent.

I came into class with a simple plan. Today we'll play a game. I wanted them to have an in class negotiation experience so I could refer back to it as an example as class progressed. My tools were a couple of decks of cards, some money, and some candy. The cards were worth special values. Rewards of candy, money, and bonus points were doled out based on achieving certain objectives. There are all sorts of interesting observations I made about the nature of the game as it progressed, but I'll save those for discussions in which they are appropriate. Suffice it to say I let trading go on for both forty-five minute periods before I called on the students to sit down near the end of the second one.

As I had been watching the game, I noticed something I had perceived to be unfair. During the second period, the students had been gathered into groups. One group had made a secrete deal with another in hopes of winning one of the prizes. I had intended there to be a level playing field at this point, so I revealed the secrete to the class at the end of the bargaining phase.

The students who had been taken advantage of erupted. In the space of a few seconds smiles disappeared. A few people knocked over chairs standing up. Faces went red or purple. I could not be heard over the shouting. Once I finally got everybody quieted down, I told the class they had five minutes to make new deals, thus softening the blow of the secrete deal, but not completely taking away its advantage.

The other two groups bolted to their feet. One student flew out of his chair, across the room, and started shouting in my face.

The prizes:

1) A bag of snickers bars. The individual bars were about two inches in length. There were enough that a person might get one or two if their group won the prize.

2) Money prizes: 10 RMB to one student, 5 RMB to two other students. 10 RMB is enough money to buy a cheap meal. Five is enough for and a snack. To give you another comparison, one dollar is worth around 6 RMB.

3) Bonus points towards their mid-term grades. Which the students obviously didn't give a crap about.

One girl looked like her head might explode. Another girl was on the verge of tears. One girl got up and stormed out of class. The boy who charged me nearly did as well.

It was pretty pathetic.

But I was so shocked that I had a hard time reacting. I barely went beyond standing there and staring at them.

I got the room under control. I should have sat everybody down and chewed their asses for acting like children. In the aftermath I got pretty angry about the whole affair. But again, I was shocked.

I sat the groups down reasoned with them. I admitted that it had been unfair to allow the second round of trading (If I didn't want them to make secrete deals, it was on me to make that clear). Currently, they were playing for largest and smallest group. I told the groups they would be counted as they stood rather than go through another round of trading.

The groups were counted. Two groups of the four were gunning for largest group. The largest group who had made the secrete deal, had 11 members. The group that hadn't had 8 members. However, the group of 8 had a secrete of their own.

If you had a Jack of hearts in your hand, you could add fake members to your group. The group of 8 had 6 jacks. They now had 14 members.

The kid who had gotten in my face earlier started screaming that the other group had cheated (something face conscious Chinese people almost never do) . I could make him out because he was still standing close to me. The roar of his friends was indistinguishable as individual voices.

I doled out the rest of the prizes as best I could. There had been massive numbers of cards changing hands after I had told them trading was over (the whole class, save for a small group of five, who had been prepared, started scrambling to win the money). Then I dismissed them so I could collect my wits.

Every coin, it seems, has two sides.

This wasn't the first time I've seen the darker sides of my Chinese neighbors. But it's always surprising. I think the reason is the strength of the contrast. People either seem to have everything under control and treat each other with an almost maddening degree of civility (even in situations that should call for anger), or they are screaming, stomping mad. I've not witnessed much in between.

I have no idea why this is.

Part of my student's volatility can be explained by their high school backgrounds. Most of them have the emotional maturity of middle schoolers because they've not got much social experience. This is usually endearing.

But why so much anger in this situation? Bargaining has been involved in every outburst I've seen in China except two. I've never seen a fight at a sports meet, in bars, or any of the places you'd usually expect them. What is it about bargaining that gets the Chinese so riled up?

I'll keep considering the question. It is interesting. I think that when I find the answer, I'll have learned something essential about Chinese thinking. In the meantime, my students are going to get the scolding of a lifetime on Wednesday.


Life goes on. I've been keeping busy. The school has given me yet another subject which I know nothing about to teach. Business Negotiation. Between studying text books and relaxing, I fit in bouts of reading, writing, and guitar playing. I'm a heck of a lot better at the process of digesting and presenting material for class, so I'm not as swamped as I was last year, but I'm still busier with class than I'd like.

Books I've read: Hrm. I plowed through Stephen King's short story collection, then went on to read The Cellar. Stephen, as usual, was a delight. The Cellar, on the other hand, was pretty mediocre. And weird. No, not in the good way.

Non-fiction, sadly, has sucked up the rest of my reading budget. I've been reading three other books at the same time. One for class (Getting to Yes), one for research/fun (Inside the FBI), and one for fun (Stephen King's Everything's Eventual, a collection of short stories. Hard to go wrong with Stephen).

On the writing front I wrote a short story and a poem. Various fragments have made their way across my screen and into the trash bin. My other blog is getting more attention than this one, I'm sad/happy to say.

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time watching TV. This is going to have to stop. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy watching Castle, White Collar, Game of Thrones, Sherlock and Doctor Who. But I'd get a lot more reading done if I weren't watching so much TV.

The Hobbit Premiers in 9 months, 1 day, 9 hours, 33 minutes, and 7, 6, 5, 4.... seconds.

I'm unhappy about the prospect of not coming home this summer or even next year. Not see The Hobbit in theaters? Inconceivable! But I might be staying over here for a plethora of reasons.

Anywho. Hope you're all doing well. Catch you later.


Post Apocalyptic China Wasteland Blues

Its dead around here. Like, no sound of traffic and crows cawing dead.

This year, I have decided not to go any where over my winter break. I want to get myself to Tibet this summer, and that's already breaking the budget. So here I am, having a pretty good time working, relaxing, and scrounging for food. Today, I've worked on a short story and completed a poem that's been incubating in my head for the last month or so. Shortly, I'll go hunting for food. It'll be a little more difficult than you imagine.

The area I live in exists largely because of the university I work for. The shops, the street vendors, and more importantly, the restaurants survive off the patronage of the students. And the students are all gone home.

When that happens, its like one of those scenes in a Western when people start closing doors, shutting windows, and bringing their children inside in fear of a coming gunfight. It gets particularly fierce when spring festival itself arrives. When I was here last year I was reminded of scenes from I am Legend.

I might have to go to Walmart, buy some food, and cook it.

What is the world coming to?

10 months, 25 days, 6 hours, and 31, 30, 29, 28.... seconds until the Hobbit premiers in theaters.

Tomorrow is Coming

Free China souvenir and irrevocable BFF status to the person who can guess the oblique reference in the title. And who isn't named Andrew. He has an unfair advantage.

The first time I have a class, I like to start things off with a question and answer session. I go around the class and require every student to ask me one (or more) question (s). There are some common themes.

The girls typically ask:

  1. Do you have a girlfriend? (I'm debating photoshopping one together for next semester. Or trying to convince them that I'm dating Scarlet Johanson. It wouldn't be as hard as you'd think.)

  2. Do you like Chinese girls? (Guys. I've got nearly a decade on most of you. And I'm your teacher. Weird.)

There's the mandatory questions:

  1. Do you like Chinese food? (I don't know. I mean, does Chinese food like me? Because Chinese food is kinda cute.)

  2. What do you think of China? (I love China. Yes I do. And the Chinese government. And most of all, history's greatest leader, Chairman Mao. Taiwan is a province of the People's Republic!)

After your standard stock questions run out, things get a bit more interesting. One of the weirder questions I was posed: A boy rose and asked me to point out the girl in the class that I thought was the hottest. One of the most interesting: What do you think about Tienanmen square?

On day one, you've got to be on your feet.

I think, more than anything, students are curious about us foreigners: How do we survive in China? What are our live like compared to theirs? (they're endlessly asking me to compare things like Chinese students vs American students) One question that pops up with some regularity is:

Can you speak Chinese?

And when I answer no, it's usually followed, without pause and with genuine curiosity:

But how do you buy things?

I could tell you about a dozen stories about interesting/hilarious shopping excursions, but the following is my favorite.

When I first got to China, I went through a period of temporary insanity. I brought my X-box over here from the States, and after a week of searching, I couldn't find the power converter that I needed to get the thing working. Video games used to be pretty good stress relief for me, and I was really wanting to plug my console in and shoot some terrorists, or aliens, or whatever. Anything that would let me slip away for a little while.

Have you ever done something, not because you actually believed it would work, but because you really wanted it to work? Don't do that. Its a bad idea.

I may have plugged in my X-box without the power converter. I really wanted it to work. Maybe the power supply really could handle Chinese power, but it wasn't labeled as such. Right? Right?

My power supply, of course, made a loud popping sound. The “powered” light glowed for a few overly bright moments before dying away. My lower lip quivered a little.

A month or so later, my then neighbor and wingman, Benjamin Williams, told me about something he'd found in Wuchang, one of the three (or maybe four) cities that have formed into the mega-city of Wuhan. It was an X-box shop, and from what he could tell, the guys who ran it not only sold X-box supplies, but repaired stuff as well. That weekend, I packed my X-box up and Ben and I took the two hour bus ride out there, hoping that I could get the thing fixed.

How do you explain to a Chinese person that you'd played the fool and plugged your American power supply into a Chinese power outlet? That one wasn't as hard as you'd think. First, I used one of the few Chinese words I knew, the word for American, and pointed at the power supply. Once he caught on, I mimed plugging it into the wall and then made an explosion sound. He thought this was hilarious. When I tried to mime out him fixing the thing, however, he couldn't follow me.

A lady working in the shop came up with a pretty ingenious solution to our problem. She pulled up Google translate.

Guys, this was like a scene out of Star Trek.

The keyboard had the software capacity to type in both Chinese characters and English letters, so I would type in my half of the conversation, Google would translate it, the other guy would read it, and then repeat what I had done. Google translate was crude, but it did the job. Two people, who didn't share more than a handful of words with each other held a conversation.

If I didn't already have a religion, I'd probably start worshiping Google.

Think about this for a second though. If you have an internet connection and a computer, you can now have a conversation with anyone who can read and write one of the languages in Google's database. For free. There is no longer such a thing as a language barrier. Or if there is, we've punched an awful big hole in it.

In a decade, I wouldn't be surprised if you could get something like Google translate on a hand-held device (If you can't already). And how long after that would it be before a hand-held could understand speech patterns and translate them?

We take so much for granted. We really do live in an age of wonders.


Howdy folks! Life goes on. I apologize again for being away. The last two weeks have been a little busy with final exams and things of that nature. To be honest though? I may have been having a wild and tempestuous love affair... with another blog! Gasp. But don't worry, I still love this one. The separation was only temporary. I've promised I'll stop seeing that other blog.

I'm still writing and reading my way along. Various writing projects have been set upon and defeated. I polished off Stephen King's Eye's of the Dragon (which I enjoyed), and also read Issac Asimov's Foundation. That was good too. It was even more of an interesting read because of how much other fiction Foundation has influenced. Asimov really was a visionary. I'm now reading two books side by side: Night Shift (a short story collection by Stephen King) and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The idea is that when Moby Dick gets to be too dense and crunchy, I can take a break and dive into a Stephen King short story. The problem is I've made it a hundred pages into Night shift and one into Moby Dick. Oops.

Its also the new year. Crazy huh?

I better wrap things up for this post. It's already four o'clock and I've still got three writing projects to polish off/ work on today. Onwards and upwards.

Hope life is treating you well.

Drop me a line sometime if you like. I love to hear from you all.



PS: 11 months, 7 days, 7 hours, 59 minutes, and 35, 34, 33... seconds until The Hobbit premiers in theaters.

Snow White and the Four Dwarfs

Its amazing to me the changes a year can wreak. In terms of job proficiency, I have skyrocketed. No longer is Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin my theme song, but instead Black Sabbath's Wheels of Confusion.

Wait, that doesn't sound better. I'll keep working on my metaphors.

I now have a pretty good formula for class: vocabulary and pronunciation practice, followed by work out of the student's text book. This usually takes up the first forty five minutes. During the second period, I like to have some sort of activity, and this changes on a week by week basis. Whatever I have them do, I like getting them to turn on their brains as well as exercise their mouths. One week we did a unit on poetry, another American folk tales. I also have one week where I make them invent and act out a skit.

The prompt for the skit making on this particular occasion was “weird family”. As the week went on, results varied wildly, mostly by class. Its weird, but classes tend to perform on the same level. If the first skit for the day is a dud, its pretty likely the rest will be bad as well. If the first skit is hilarious, you're in for a fun period.

There aren't a lot of skits that I remember, but some of them... well, they stick with you.

The period started off well. It was probably the first time I'd laughed out loud at anything the students had done. As the last group finished up, the next group got up to present. I wiped a few tears from my eyes. The class and I had burst a collective gut.

The group had nine members in it. Their spokesperson stepped forward and told us that they'd be performing Snow White and the Four Dwarfs. I was not amused. I'm usually unhappy when the students rip off their work from another source. But, I changed my mind pretty quickly.

The students went down the line and introduced themselves, first Snow White, the Four Dwarfs, the magic mirror, the queen, and the huntsman. One girl acted as the narrator. When they finished going down the line, I leaned back, expecting the skit to begin. Instead one more cast member was introduced.

“And Derek will be playing the Prince Charming.”

Before we continue, I should inform you that out of a group of seven girls and two guys, a dude had been chosen to play Snow White. I gave them all a suspicious eyebrow raise.

The story progressed as normal at first. Snow white lives in the castle with the queen, has to scrub the floors, boring, boring, yadda, yadda. Then comes the magic mirror scene.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most beautiful of all?” the student/queen asked. Mind you the queen is being played by the other dude in the group.

“You are, my queen. But although you are beautiful, there is one who is still more beautiful. It is Snow White, and you love Snow White!”

Wait, what?

Follow the scene where the queen orders the huntsman to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her/him. When he (one of the girl students, actually) comes back with the pig's heart (a crumpled up piece of paper), the queen once again quizzes the mirror about who is the most beautiful.

“Your love, Snow White, is the most beautiful!”

Now wait a minute. Is the queen trying to kill Snow White because she/he (gender was getting really ambiguous by this point) is beautiful, or because she (or is it supposed to be a he? You guys know a queen is a she right?) is in love with Snow White?

The queen kills the huntsman and goes to do the job herself. When she succeeds, the four dwarfs (played by the giggliest group of girls I have ever met) come skipping over to me, hoping I'll give Snow White a kiss to bring her back to life. The dwarfs looked at me expectantly, the class held its breath.

I totally kissed Snow White. Well, sort of.

Snow White was laying dead behind one of the tables where the class (except for the front row) couldn't see him/her. I leaned down, out of eyesight, and made the loudest, wettest kissing sound I could manage. After the howls of laughter had subsided, and Snow White had been revivified (that's right, my kisses can bring chicks/dudes back from the dead), the narrator continued.

“And then, the Prince took Snow White back to his castle.”

Without missing a beat, I grabbed Snow White, threw him/her over my shoulder, and marched triumphantly across the room to my castle. When we got there, I was in for a surprise. I set Snow White down, and he/she spoke to me.

“Thank you for saving my life. But I don't think you are my one, true love.” Snow White turned to look at the old hag who'd just poisoned him/her with an apple standing on the other side of the room. “I am really in love with the queen!” And Snow White rushed into the arms of her murderer. The treacherous harpy.

I still feel really confused. On multiple levels. A big part of this confusion stems from the question of Snow White's gender.

Option A) Snow White is a dude.

Ramification: I kissed a dude.

Option B) Snow White is a girl.

Ramification: My kiss drove Snow White, the mythic incarnation of beauty and love, to lesbianism. Maybe.

Really, this whole situation is a great metaphor for wider life in China.


I guess that wraps things up for this week. Life goes on. I have read a book and a fourth in the week that has passed. I devoured Eric Brown's Kings of Eternity (which was good), and I've started Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon (which promises to be even better). Eyes of the Dragon is a fantasy novel no less, something that surprised me when I picked it up. Stephen writes it in a style that's somewhere between a children's fairytale and a campfire story with your grandfather. A change of pace from his usual approach.

Writing continues. My daily word counts are increasing, but not as quickly as I would like. I progress, but slowly. In fact, I still have yet to have begun today's work, and its nearly 5:30. Stupid teaching. It always seems to be getting in the way of things I'd rather be doing.

Only 366 days, 6 hours, and 21 minutes remain until the Hobbit premiers in theaters. Can you tell that I'm excited?

Oh, and by the way. I am now obsessed with the idea of learning the cello. I don't have any idea if this conviction will hold out until I get back to the States (or if it will survive the incredibly low income level I'll likely be living at), but right now, I'm pretty pumped. I found this awesome web video a few days back (shout out to Bethany Howell!), and by extension a really talented cello player whose music blew my mind. I may have gone out on iTunes and bought up everything he's ever done after-wards. I also might have a slight man crush on him. I'm still feeling confused after that skit, alright?

Hope life is treating you all well. (Really, this cello music is incredible. Steven Sharp Nelson. Learn who he be!)


The Return of the Writer and The Unexpected Journey

Hello everyone. I'm back. I apologize for being away. The good ship Derek hit a rough patch recently, but never fear. He's still afloat.

Yes, I have been reading/watching a great deal of Tolkien, as my title reflects. By the way, there are only 374 days left until The Hobbit comes out in theaters. I am not lying: I would come back to America just to watch that film on opening night. But don't worry. I'll be coming back because I miss you all too.

A lot of interesting things have happened to me this year, and I'd like to chronicle them, if for no other reason than the excuse to write. But so much time has passed. Where do I begin, how do I sort out all that has happened? I think its only fair that I start at the beginning.

It seems like a decade ago. Drew, a friend of mine since time out of mind, and I sat waiting in the Indianapolis airport. There's a feeling that I get when I sense change in the air. It balls up just below and around my heart, nestled there like a blanket on a cold winter evening when the windows are fogged up and steam rises off of hot drinks shared in good company. I would say that its indescribable, but isn't it my job to describe things? The feeling is that of high school graduations, of going away parties. Its the feeling of one last college get together before those years of bliss are finally up. Its how you feel when the road beckons and you must say goodbye.

Drew and I were on separate flights out to New York, so we parted ways each to our own terminals. I settled down in the empty waiting area and propped my feet up using my backpack. At the time, I believe I had just started reading IT. I pulled it out and thumbed through a few pages, but I didn't read much. I was feeling too restless.

Six hours or so later, I had landed in JFK and was making my way from the domestic to the international terminal. I had plenty of time, but I was nervous. Switching terminals involved rechecking bags. Drew and I were on the same flight going to China, but Drew was coming in two hours behind me. I've done a good deal of traveling. To that point, Drew had done none. The first time you go through one, a big international airport can feel a bit overwhelming. Add to that a short time schedule (It can sometimes take hours to get your bags checked if you're standing in a long and understaffed line)? It can be a bit much for your first trip.

I sat down in the waiting area for the China Eastern flight to Shanghai and I waited, watching. The hours ticked by and no sign of Drew.

This was when our troubles began.

Drew's flight had been delayed. Fortunately, so had the China Eastern flight to Shanghai. When Drew came sprinting into the waiting area, bags floundering behind him, I was relieved. This was the flight we needed to board most. If he hadn't shown up, I'm not sure what I would have done. There was a big storm coming into New York, and if we didn't get out, we could have been stuck there eating cheap airport food and sleeping on the cold airport floors for days. The good news was that he was here. The bad news was that they hadn't given him his boarding pass for the Wuhan flight. There was only a two hour layover in Shanghai, and we lost an hour and a half from the JFK to Shanghai flight delay. It was going to be close.

We didn't make it.

We landed in Shanghai and raced to get on our next flight. The check-in line for the flight had long since closed by the time we got to it and the men manning it refused to print Drew a boarding pass. We argued with them . We gestured angrily for effect. The check-in men were not impressed. They told us that we could pick up our bags at baggage claim number sixteen.

We waited for a while, watching bags come down the conveyer belt and get drug off by various travel weary Chinese. My bags came and I loaded them on a cart. Slowly, the crowd died away leaving Drew and I to watch the near empty conveyer continue spinning.

“Where are my bags?” Drew asked. Because this is a family friendly blog, this comment has undergone some editing. It was originally a bit longer.

We watched and waited. No bags came. Drew stood there, tired, mandolin case in hand and backpack over his shoulder. My bags sat next to me on a pushcart. It was over twelve hours until the next flight to Wuhan.

If you've ever missed a flight, you know that there is often a complimentary hotel room given out if you have to wait until the next day to catch another. It was here that I made a bit of a dumb.

“Should we ask them for a room?” Drew asked me.

I debated internally for a while. If you know me, you know I don't have that much of a problem with sleeping on floors.

“Nah. Who knows how far away the thing is. It could be an hour into Shanghai. I don't really want to be away from the airport. If we had bad luck coming back we could miss another flight.”

In my defense, Drew never argued this point with me until much later. A lot of things make sense when you haven't slept in a day or two.

We wandered around the airport looking for somewhere to get some food. There were none considering it was after ten o'clock local time. Next, we tried to find a good place to lay down and sleep. That also proved impossible. For some bizarre reason a group of Chinese men had brought a jackhammer into the airport and were in the process of digging up the floor on the eastern side of the building. Since the airport was one giant room, their work followed us where ever we went. Eventually we gave up and went outside. Drew wanted to have a smoke and I was tired of listening to the jackhammer.

We sat for a while. Drew talking, me listening. Drew talks a lot, and more often than not I tend to be quiet. It makes for a good relationship. As we sat our eyes wandered the skyline of Shanghai. I don't remember who saw it first.

“Oh crap.”

If someone said oh crap, then it was probably me who saw it first.

There, across from us, sitting directly opposite from our terminal, was a big shiny building labled in clear white English letters: Airport Hotel. There was a lovely sky bridge that passed between the two buildings, connecting them. You wouldn't even have to go down to the street to get over there.

We went down to the help desk for China Eastern, hoping to get some help, but the people manning the desk were gone. We even went over to the hotel, hoping to bluff our way into a few hours of sleep, but it was not to be. They wanted a piece of paper. No amount of charm, wit, persuasiveness, or anger will convince a Chinese person to do something in the face of an all-powerful, omnipresent directive of a piece of paper.

So we slept in the airport. Well, Drew slept. I just sort of laid there for a few hours and then wandered around. When I was in high school, I could sleep at any hour of the day, and do so on any surface. That ability is now gone. In fact, I'm starting to turn into a bit of an insomniac. I blame China.


Its December here. Believe it or not, its still fairly warm outside. Cold weather, real cold weather, only arrived just this week, and was gone again just as quickly. Life as it ever has, goes on. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

I've not gotten much reading done since I've been here, and in the last few weeks, I've been trying to make up for it. Recently, I polished off A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. I'm currently reading both the Silmarillion (for the humpteenth time) and The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown. Next up, either Foundation by Issac Asimov or something by Stephen King.

On the writing front, things go.... okay. I have gotten some writing done. But it hasn't been as much as I would like. That's part of the reason for the return of the blog. I'm having trouble on the fiction front, and writing non-fiction always seems to help smooth out the kinks. I have been having a good time at it though.

I've also been doing a lot of looking to the future lately, and I've decided that I've had my fill of China. I'll be coming home this summer to stay for a while. How long, or where I will go in America? Who knows. The thought of getting a job is a bit depressing, but I guess I've always had good luck in that department. Hopefully I can get something that doesn't involve flipping hamburgers. I think I'd rather go back to construction.

I hope life is treating you well. Until next time.