Sunday, September 4, 2016

All the Things


Thanks to the brilliance of a one Mr. David Haysom, I have suddenly found myself teaching a whole heapload of the writings of an American poet named Elizabeth Bishop. And this go-round teaching poetry has very closely followed my experience with it in the past: I begin not being very enthusiastic (at least internally) about the prospect, and then I dive in and enjoy the initial biography-reading, but then I don't feel very qualified or knowledgeable about teaching my students how to pull apart a poem, but then once we get into this piece or that, I rediscover why poetry is worth studying: it's beautiful. And it makes me want to...write? Create? Live fully? Read more, at least. And it's good. Even if my students have not reached that place yet. Elizabeth Bishop: a tip of the cap to you, ma'am. And to you, Mr. Haysom, for her inclusion in the DPLA syllabus. I hope John Donne, Derek Walcott, and Emily Dickinson can keep pace with EB.


I feel like I have fallen in love with the sky in the past week, and in the past years. Maybe when I was young nothing was happening in the heavens above Iowa and Minnesota, but most likely I was too young and focused on what terrestrial things were in front of me to notice. When I moved to Seoul, I know for sure I started to appreciate the blue of the sky, when walking above the center of the city on my way to or from school, and then coming to Beijing...I developed an intense appreciation for anything cool and clear happening above me. Not only is Beijing polluted most of the time, but even when it's not, there just aren't that many clouds in the sky. So when there are, and they are set in a cast of clear atmosphere, I notice and smile. And although today the AQI rocketed back up to it's typical 150-200 level, the heavens over Beijing in the previous nine days have been pristine, stimulating, and rare.


Boxes of wedding-decorating materials have begun arriving at the apartment I am currently occupying. I am not going to open them yet; I haven't the jurisdiction. But they are arriving. Soon each box's content will be methodically strewn about a certain joint not too far from here, commemorating one of the biggest events I can hope to experience in this life o' mine. And these boxes, I think that they are going to keep coming; one is supposed to arrive this afternoon, and I am waiting for it here, at home. They'll keep on arriving all the way up until when the most intriguing ReubEllen wedding-bound items arrive in Beijing on the afternoon of September 25 (the Haggar family).


They pour in, drawn to my inbox like flies to a forgotten peach in the back of a classroom over the summer (Did that really happen?). They are from everywhere, from tenth grade students who want this teacher or that to be their personal project supervisor, from folks I have met only a few times but who want to talk forensics, from staff members concerning school events that have been e-mailed about five times, from other teachers abusing the all-MYP e-mail option, from my mom, who has mixed up my work e-mail address with my personal one. All of much consequence, all of little. This year I have vowed to deal with all e-mails "at once," so that they don't sit in my inbox and in the back of my mind senselessly chewing up energy and time. Bring 'em on.


From one house to another; it's a complicated matter. While all my Chinese-based possessions made a smooth transition in July from where I lived this winter and spring in Wangjing Xiyuan Sanqu to where Ellen and I will live together after marriage in Jiuxianqiao, there is another, fuller house to be moved over here. Slowly, slowly, every time I spend time at Ellen's, I have been taking something - something! - back to our new home with me. Sometimes the "something" has been two massive suitcases full of books. Sometimes it has been two small teddy bears, one of which was wearing a Twins hat. Most of the time it has been something in between big and small. And there will come a day when a moving company (or Team Darkness?) helps move all the big items that I can't handle on my bike. We're moving, slowly.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Poorly Structured

The days flash past like a Jason Bourne chase scene. Wasn't it just summer? Wasn't I just lounging around all day, reading poems and plays for DP LA, trying to work out in the earliest of the a.m. and not showering until Ellen was nearly off work?

The tables have been repositioned; now activity chokes each twenty-four block like pollutants strangling away those lackadaisical summer mornings on which I wanted to run, the smog being the most concrete of the assailants on my attempts to achieve a routine - how can you work out three times a week when on two of your potential running mornings, you'd be doing your body more harm than good by going out?

And now - on the third beautiful day in a row - there is much more than just PM 2.5 keeping each day full of surprises and scheduling curveballs. Vocational responsibilities dribbling over into night and weekend, sussing out the truth that the early morning bird that I think I am and want to be is actually a beardy night owl, balancing Elizabeth Bishop poetry explication, wedding invitation production, and forensics season genesis around relationships and dreams. My energy rhythms are changing; instead of getting home and staggering to sleep, I open the windows and want to do and be something or other as the cool, AQI 4 breeze sneaks through the north window and out the south, softly removing any hope of structure from my days.

Can I be successful in a fluid, chaotic, ever-changing lifestyle of slowly moving Ellen into our house as we prepare to become one, of teaching and organizing much newness and oldness at BWYA, of madly pursuing the hopes to learn Chinese, pour into Team Darkness, hone my body into a hiking machine, invest in the body of Christ, and write semi-frustrated blog posts? These are the challenges, and these are the goals. I guess they are getting in the way of each other.

Rhythm is evasive. The world now is not the calendar boxes and neatly-sectioned hours that occupy the planner on my phone. It's more like the weather was in Beijing today: an unpredictable combination of clear, pristine moments; gray, unexpected changes, short bursts of disruptive rain that keep you stuck on your bike under a bridge; and golden, pinkish sunsets before cool crisp nights that might not last before the factory stacks begin churning out toxins again. Structured? No. Stimulating? Yes.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Psalm 19:1

The heavens declare the glory of God...

...the skies proclaim the work of His hands.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Challenges and Hurdles of Getting Married

The wedding is coming. The list of things to do is long and daunting. One of the main items on said daunting list was to submit our paperwork to the Chinese government so that, on paper, Ellen and I would be husband and wife. The fates did not seem to want this to happen, but, in the end, we persevered. Ellen's housing registration in China is not in Beijing, where we live, but in Changchun, a big, cold city 535 miles to the northeast of Beijing, so we prepared our documents, grabbed some train 'n' plane tickets, and prepared to ship become legally wed.

The First Hurdle

Our Thursday morning train was scheduled to depart from Beijing South Railway Station at 7:53 a.m. No problem. The two options for reaching the train station were (a) taxi (b) Line 14 of the subway. We opted for Option A. Swiftly striding through the pouring rain, I arrived at Ellen's house at 6:20 a.m., and by 6:53 a.m. - one hour before our train left - we were on the street waiting for a taxi. And we quickly got one, and were on our way.

Traffic was fine but changed to horrible once we got within a kilometer of the train station. Left turn lanes were full and bogged, no lanes were moving, the rain continued to pour, and neither Ellen nor I spoke. Our hearts began pounding because of the emerging possibility of missing the train. I watched the clock tick closer and closer to our departure time. 7:35. We finally turned left toward the station. 7:40. We got onto the entrance ramp. 7:45. There was still so far to go, and our vehicle was absolutely creeping up the road. It was time to take action into our own hands.

On the ramp, in the pouring rain, we jumped out both doors of the taxi, grabbed our crap, and booked it on foot past the slough of other cars, passengers, and puddles. After reaching the entrance to the train station, it was time to run. Yes. We were those people. Fortunately our train was departing from a boarding gate that wasn't too far from the entrance; Ellen sprinted forward, leading the way, and I dashed on behind, wielding two suitcases and a very, very dark expression. The crowds parted before us. We got to the gate, got in the wrong line, rearranged ourselves in the correct line, and tore down the stairs to the waiting platform. Without waiting, we both threw ourselves onto the train bound for Changchun at 7:50 a.m., panting and gasping and sweating.

Once in our seats, we laughed. I had never cut it so close getting to a train or a plane. Not fun, not the way we wanted to start the trip, but - we made it! The train took off, and we were headed for Changchun.

The Second Hurdle

The following day was the big day, the primary objective of the trip: obtain marriage certificates for ourselves. Both Ellen and I had done our homework while in Beijing; we'd prepared all the paperwork that we knew we'd need, save one thing: the famous and required marriage picture. This is a photograph inserted in one's marriage certificate in China; it is a photo of the couple with a red background. There are size and angle requirements, but it is a pretty simple photograph. It was the one thing that we hadn't brought, but the officers at the government building were equipped with a red backdrop and a big camera that could take this photograph for us. So, after we had handed in our paperwork and had gone back to the take the picture, disaster struck: the quality of the photography at the government was deemed (by one of us) insufficient, too mediocre in color and definition to capture our rapturous and delightful good looks. So - it being only 10:15 in the morning - we struck out to find a photography shop that could take a better picture for our marriage certificate.

An online search brought us to a fancy studio in some dapper part of town. The studio appeared to be equipped to capture a vast multitude of different types of photography, what with the wide variety of the different props and backdrops that was available. I had to raise an eyebrow at some of the other clientele, two women in their forties wearing Mickey Mouse ears, very tight yellow tops that revealed some of their plumb bellies, and shockingly small black leather shorts. Where were we?

The manager was quite nice and told us that they could gussy us up before taking our marriage certificate photo. So I sat and waited while some teenage girl put make-up on my fiancée's face and then cut off half of one of her eyebrows. Not exactly what we wanted right before taking this important picture. "I can't work with your eyebrow the way it is!" claimed the teenage make-up artist. After a heated conversation (and the introduction of two cats to me, which I think was a ruse to make me think that this photography studio didn't suck as bad as it did), the teenage make-up artist went to work on fixing Ellen's face, which normally does not need fixing.

After an hour in total of make-up work, we were ready to shoot, so some dude took pictures of us for half an hour, and we looked awesome. Then the arduous process of editing the photographs in the correct way began. I returned to zoning out and pestering the cats while Ellen supervised the photoshopping. Another hour later, we were finally given the best final products that could be procured. The color of the backdrop, which wasn't exactly red but was more of a maroon (unacceptable to the Chinese government), had been an issue, as had been the clarity and definition of our mugs. But, finally, three hours, one eyebrow, and 118 RMB later, we had what we needed!

Ellen and I rushed happily off, back to the government marriage registration office, ready to become legally wed! We burst in! We re-pulled out our documents! We produced the photos and excitedly handed them to the lady behind the desk! This was it!

The lady behind the desk looked at our pictures and without further ado said, "These won't work."


Something about the way our shoulders were aligned. It wasn't right. The color was also a very questionable shade of red, and the photo cuts were too small.

So, we had to settle for the original option of just having our pictures taken at the government marriage office. Later, that night, we went back and threw Molotov cocktails through the photo studio's windows, of course, but...that will be another post.

The important thing, however, was this: our primary objective had been achieved, and we had, at that moment, in our hands...our marriage certificates. The most important thing, for sure.

The Third Hurdle

To celebrate this momentous accomplishment, Ellen and I had decided to head to a volcano that straddles the border of China and North Korea. The volcano is called Baekdusan (백두산) in Korean and Changbaishan (长白山) in Chinese, and it looked pretty awesome. The volcano - dormant, mind you - was a forty-five-minute flight from Changchun, so Ellen and I planned to meet up with a friend of ours there, go up the volcano, and enjoy the wilderness for a spell.

The hurdle was getting there. If the reader will kindly recall the first hurdle, we hadn't done so well arriving for our departing transportation modes in a timely manner. Our flight from Changchun to Changbaishan left at 11:15 a.m., which is a hard time to miss. So I figured we'd be fine.

But you can probably guess what is going to happen.

We checked out of our hotel and wanted to get to the Changchun's western train station to grab a train to the airport. Nice, cheap, and quick. However, after leaving the hotel at 9:15 a.m., we found ourselves surrounded by immense amounts of traffic, and it suddenly seemed unlikely that we were going to make the 9:50 a.m. train to the airport. As we drew closer and closer to the train station, my heart began smashing around in my chest in exactly the same way it had two days earlier, on the way to a different train station in a different city. Were we going to make the train?

We didn't. And when we got to the train station, we discovered no other trains went to the airport until 12:30 p.m. It was already 9:55, and it would take another hour to get to the airport. We ran - and I mean we ran, and people were diving out of the way and yelling at us - back to the road to get a taxi. Off we went, putting immense verbal pressure on the driver to get us to the airport as fast as humanly possible.

The driver did his best. We got to the airport at about 10:50 a.m. and flew to the check-in counter, where we were told that check-in was already closed and that there was nothing to be done. We were not going to be able to get on that flight. Eat the tickets, book new ones for 8:45 p.m. that night, and buckle down for the next ten hours at the airport.

Ugh. Sweat and heart-pounding, and fears manifested in awful ways. I had never missed a flight before, and I guess if I was going to have to miss one flight in my life, this would be the best one to not get on; there was no incredibly-pressing reason to get to Changbaishan any quicker than we were able to. When we did finally fly away and arrive at the volcano's small, Joe Foss Field-like airport, the friend we were going to meet there - Jesse - came in on a flight about fifteen minutes after us, which worked out well. Still, the taste of failure, of not making the 11:15 a.m. was bitter. Many, many long hours were grumpily spent that afternoon the waiting lounge at the airport.

The Fourth Hurdle

Changbaishan. The main attraction is, of course, the volcanic peak and the lake lying in its crater. In Chinese the word for lakes up in the mountains is some sort of buzzword - tianchi (天池)...heavenly lake - and is a must-see, a must-photograph. We struck out early in the morn to try to navigate the long lines and crazy bus routes that were present to transport tourists to a spot near the top. There were plenty of people and plenty of clouds, which, as soon as we saw them, made us doubtful of whether we'd be able to get a glimpse of the volcano's crater. But we went anyway.

A shuttle took us to where the Chinese tourism industry snaked hundreds of RMB from us, and then we walked to another shuttle that took us up the side of the mountain. For a nice while green rushed past the sides of the bus, but as we climbed higher, an impenetrable blanket of fog fell. Or maybe we ascended into it. And then we were at the foot of a 1,500-step staircase, and the only way to go was up.

We reached the top. Here is a picture - a very, very nice one - of what we could have seen on a pristine day:

The fourth hurdle. We didn't really get over it. Here is what Ellen, Jesse, and I got to see:

In some ways, the fog and mist and clouds were cool and mysterious. If, say, they'd come down and covered Beijing, it would have been sweet - something new, creepy, different, shrouding what you know. But we all would have much preferred to be able to see the beauty of the wilderness surrounding us, instead of just the fog surrounding us.


The fifth and final day didn't have any crappy setbacks, missed or almost missed flights or trains, massive wastes of time, incompetency, or disappointments. Perhaps it was as Jesse said: if we set our expectations low or expect nothing, we will have a good time. And we did.

The first thing we did was to go "rafting." The Chinese word for this activity - piaoliu (漂流) - doesn't get specific enough for a person to really know what is going to happen. Ellen and I have both experienced many different types of piaoliu, and some have been on bamboo rafts down quiet, peaceful streams navigated by local minions; others have been dangerous, crazy, white-water rafting-type experiences. So when we called a piaoliu place and told them we wanted to undergo their product, we only knew we'd be on a river and would probably get at least our shoes wet.

Fortunately! This was a very enjoyable rafting experience! We showed up to find seven or eight guys hanging out among big piles of life jackets, rubber rafts, and crappy oars. They didn't make us sign waivers, go with a guide, or drink their Kool-Aid; they didn't even give us directions. We just got in the rafts and went! And it was great. Behold:

None of us fell in. We did get soaked, from the splashes of the more violent parts of the river, or from the way we angled ourselves in our vessels. There was some wildlife - mostly ducks, and some butterflies. We didn't see any snakes, despite warning signs posted about them at the point of embarkation. There was a good balance of rough and quiet sections to the river. And there were no other people, no hordes of tourists to battle and jostle with. Just very quiet water moving over rocks, past trees, and through time. 

Later we went up a hill above our hotel and saw what there was to see.

 We also took a bike ride on bikes that could barely handle the power of our muscles.

And it was good. Real good. One problem-free day out of five.

The main objective of the trip, obviously, was to get the marriage certificates. And we did this successfully, so even if everything else had gone even worse, the trip would still be considered a success. Primary goal completed. In truth, we will wait to really "be married" until we are wed before the Lord in September, but this was an important step to take in the process, especially since we had to go all the way to Changchun to make it happen. Getting to partake in a few auxiliary activities was excellent as well - in addition to the fun at Changbaishan, Ellen and I visited her enormous college campus and one of her college classmates. Good to see where she'd been, this lady with whom I will spend the rest of my life. There will be many more trips, and many more journeys. This one - with its myriad of setbacks that we overcame - was good to go through together.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yunmengshan National Forest Park Journey

5:45 a.m. - My alarm rings.
5:49 a.m. - I struggle out of bed; all throughout the school year, rising at this time would be no problem at all, but now, during summer vacation...
6:17 a.m. - I exit my apartment and mount my bike, which was accidentally left out in the rain the previous day.

6:24 a.m. - My damp bike deposits me at Wangjing Subway Station, where I grab a train heading north on Line 15.
6:41 a.m. - After arriving at Houshayu Station, I head out Exit C, cross the street, and wait for the 936 bus.
6:48 a.m. - Tired of waiting after only seven minutes, I board the 31 bus, which I think is a bus I need to ride later in my journey.
6:49 a.m. - Upon checking my directions and the 31 bus's route map, I realize it is not at all a bus I want.
6:57 a.m. - Bus 31 leaves me at some random bus stop.
7:04 a.m. - I board the next bus that comes and head back to Houshayu Station.
7:18 a.m. - The wait for the 936 bus at Houshayu resumes.

7:41 a.m. The 936 bus arrives and I board the crap out of it, ecstatic.

8:57 a.m. - I leap out of the 936 at Yanqizhen Station in Huairou, ecstatic to get off it.
9:06 a.m. - The h11 bus arrives, and I board it.

9:29 a.m. - The h11 bus reaches Liujiadian Station, which can hardly be called a station, and I leap off the bus, excited about not having to ride or wait for any more buses for several hours. I begin walking up a deserted, wet road.
9:35 a.m. - I blow the first of several hundred snot rockets. 
10:01 a.m. - After a brief monetary transaction outside the park headquarters, a ticket to Yunmengshan National Forest Park - 云蒙山国家森林公园 - arrives in my trembling hand.
10:11 a.m. - I reach the trailhead at the park after having purchased some bottles of water. The entrance to the path looks green, dark, and irresistibly inviting.

10:12 a.m. - I start to sweat.
10:15 a.m. - I arrive at the first hill's crest, panting heavily, awash in perspiration, wishing I had brought bug repellent and a backpack that distributed the weight from my bag more evenly. Woof.

10:22 a.m. - The first of four misty springs beckons me from the main path. I cave and deviate from the main path for twenty minutes.
10:38 a.m. - I pass a dawdling couple.
10:41 a.m. - The main trail takes a sharp, unrelenting turn upward into the dark green and the misty gray.

11:14 a.m. - A mass of cloudy goodness starts swirling among the peaks I'd been admiring between painful gasps for air.

11:52 a.m. - I pass a family - a father, mother, young daughter, and grandma - and think, "What time did they start their journey up here?"

12:04 p.m. - The trail - previously somewhat undesirable stone 'n' concrete - becomes wooden stairs 'n' railing. Hmm.
12:09 p.m. - A group of twenty college-aged dudes who are coming down from the top passes me silently.
12:10 p.m. - It begins to rain lightly. This continues for the next three hours.
12:11 p.m. - I reach the 1,413rd meter of the mountain...its summit. There are five men (of an age that makes me think that they should be at their jobs, not climbing a mountain)(but maybe they had the same thought about me) and a tiny little shack on the platform atop Yunmengshan.
12:15 p.m. - The five men leave; I sit in the shack and eat my crappy lunch as the clouds grow thicker and thicker below the peak.
12:23 p.m. - I rise from my spot of rest to snap some shots of the view from the top but soon realize all I can see is a wall of cloud, one that would cover the tops of Yunmengshan's fellow hills for the next - you guessed it - three hours.

12:57 p.m. - The family I passed earlier arrives at the summit platform. I depart via a different route than that which brought me up.
1:19 p.m. - Without having to leave the trail, I urinate for the first time since leaving my apartment and, smiling, ruminate upon how the advantages of unpopulated hiking trails are many.

1:54 p.m. - The trail finally morphs back from wooden stairs 'n' railing to the slightly more authentic stone 'n' concrete.
2:23 p.m - I urinate a second time. My inner processes are normalizing as the downward trek has resulted in less sweat and more water intake by my body.

2:34 p.m. - The rain's steady pattering increases to more of a battering as I, cursing my failure to ring a raincoat, leave the helpful cover of the forest trees.
2:58 p.m. - I stop under an awning near the trailhead and pray that the rain will let up.
3:10 p.m. - The rain begins to let up. I resume my descent.
3:23 p.m. - I get off the trail and back on the concrete, heading toward where the h11 bus can pick me up and take me back to warm civilization.

3:45 p.m. - Dogs bark at me as I pass. I bark back.

3:57 p.m. - I reach the h11 bus stop.
4:06 p.m. - The h11 arrives and I board it happily and fearlessly.

4:37 p.m. - I leap heroically and bravely off the h11.
4:39 p.m. - The 936 arrives, and I jump swiftly and gallantly onto it. Something that I don't understand and ignore is said as the other passengers-to-be and I board.

5:01 p.m. - The 936 pulls into the Huairou bus station, sixty kilometers from where it should be stopping in Beijing, at Dongzhimen Station. What the bus driver said as I boarded the 936 materializes in a flash of understanding.
5:03 p.m. - Another bus bound for Beijing pulls up, which I board valiantly and boldly and grab a seat in.

5:25 p.m. - The dude next to me gives up his seat for a family with two small toddlers; one toddler sits in the vacated seat while the family towers over him and me.
5:26 p.m. - I give my seat to the other small toddler, hoping that the bus will arrive in Beijing very soon.

6:16 p.m. - The bus stops in Sanyuanqiao, and I get off and walk to Homeplate.
6:58 p.m. - A huge plate of chili cheese fries and cheeseburger madness arrives in front of me.
7:32 p.m. - I leave Homeplate via bus to get my bike and go home.
8:40 p.m. - I enter my apartment, collapse on the rug in the living room, and die peacefully.

And it was good. The more of these types of the days, the better.