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.