Saturday, April 20, 2013

When six months is more like 6 weeks; or, Stuck, but happy

Ever had one of those moments where you wake up, and for a split second, have no idea where you are?

This morning I woke to "The Star Spangled Banner." Even on weekends, it's played on the base-wide PA system, and this morning it seemed brutally loud and very foreign when I was trying for the first time in weeks to sleep late.

I had a millisecond of panic before recognition set in: I'm in Cuba. On an American base. My kids attend the only American school in a Communist country in the world. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me.

Okay, that last part isn't really true. But I can see Cuban watchtowers out of my front windows. And I'm sure they watch me, too.

This week marks six months that I've been here, and next week will be six months for the guys. Can you believe it?

In many ways, our lives have remained the same. Yes, we are living in a foreign country, far away from home. No, we really aren't living in a foreign country---we're living in a 45 square mile area of foreign country that is segregated from any actual "foreign-ness."

Except it really is a whole other world.

Twice this week, I've heard people refer to this place as "Back to the Future." As in, you got out of your DeLorean, and it is April 20, 1991.  Time has neglected this place. Lots of buildings are full of termites or rust or mold. I sometimes think someone in Washington has forgotten about us, because many places here are in serious need of an overhaul.

I have reflected this last week, when talks of furloughs have settled down and several excessed teachers of closing DoDDS schools in Europe are finding out where they are going, about what would have happened if my first job would have been on any other international post in the world.

We would be experiencing the actual culture of a country right now, instead of getting glimpses of it through binoculars or hearing bits and pieces on the radio.

Instead of McDonalds or Subway or Pizza Hut or a handful of small (mostly American) restaurants on base, we could venture out for authentic local cuisine. I could be writing this as I sit with my glass of wine, people watching from a café in Germany or I could be nursing a beer in a pub in Belgium or drinking a strong expresso in Italy. I could be experiencing my life-long dream of traveling through Asia.

Weekends would be hopping on trains or autobahns or subways and seeing the world. It would be much easier to go back to the States anywhere else (and easier for people to come see us). We could grocery shop at local farmer's markets and grocery stores and try to guess what the labels are saying. My kids would be picking up another language.

My highschooler could participate in sports against other teenagers, instead of against adults. I still feel lots of sadness and guilt for taking him away from a music program where, for three years, he had learned to beautifully play the cello. We could be somewhere that has a high school orchestra.

But when I get down on what we don't have, I also think about what we do have.

Anywhere else in the world, we would be living off the military post and on the local economy. It requires a lot of paperwork, and requires a leap of faith that you will end up in a good area for commuting while taking traffic or weather or your children in account.  As I am writing this, a herd of kids just ran through the back door and out the front.  Would we have that if we were living in the middle of a town somewhere else, especially moving in the middle of the school year when we didn't know anyone? Would my kids have instant friends in the neighborhood? Would there even be kids in the neighborhood?

Would it be safe for my teenager to hop a bus and be home by 11 pm? Could he go to the movies (for free) or bowling (for cheap) and meet friends without us worrying about his safety or us having to take him there and back home?

It is very back to the future---I do feel like I'm raising my kids in the 1970s. Get them some bell bottoms and a banana seat bike (mine was purple), and the effect would be complete.

I don't know how I would handle living where it is cold and wet and damp and grey again. Living in Washington State almost killed me. Oh, it was so depressing! And I loved Colorado and snow---until my feet got wet and cold. Then I become a sniveling, whiny baby. Nobody needs to see a middle aged mom whine and cry about her feet being cold.

Being, well, STUCK at this place without a way to live off post---a requirement of civilian employees anywhere else in the world----means that the military has graciously extended benefits to us that most civilians don't get. My dependents and I can participate in base-wide events for free; we get to shop and attend programs that most civilians don't know about or get to do anywhere else in the world.

I really like that we rub elbows with the military community more here than we would at any other place, because they are, after all, the heart of this place and the reason the schools exist. (And being a former Army wife, I have a very soft spot for anyone who has lived that life).

This is a great first place to land, and if for some reason we decide to stay forever or go back to the States, it will be a great last place. In six months, I have managed to find a nice mix of friends, including coworkers, neighbors, and friends of friends. I feel like I'm back in my little hometown of less than 2000 people---I was in the Commissary this morning, and had two little girls hug me at the meat counter, another one hug me in the cereal aisle, had 3 different parents of my kids' classmates greet me, talked to a coworker at the doorway, had another conversation with someone I just met at a workshop this week, and made sure I stood in line for my favorite checker---he always gives the youngest a fist-bump and teases him.

I could have tried harder the last 10 years that I was in Texas, I guess---I could have tried every single semester, for example, to get into the local school district so I could have known many more people and felt like I was more connected to my community. I could have gotten out more in my neighborhood, baked pies for the new folks, offered to help the old folks with yard work, etc. We could have moved out of our historical neighborhood and into a newer, family-friendly development that attracts more than house flippers and old people.

But some of you know how this goes---once you are living your life, you can't just slow it down and start over. Sometimes you need a drastic change---like pulling up stakes and moving your family, even if it is to a base that many Americans don't even realize exists.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Lessons Learned (and other lingo); or, Roots and Vines

Between my background in education and my present location on a military base, I am well versed in jargon. Education changes every few years---let's just repackage and recycle (and sell for big, big bucks) a new trend, and watch everyone learn the lingo: if you are meeting in your professional learning community while engaging in standards based mapping, all while covering constructivism (or is it metacognition?), I feel your pain. Oops, there goes another paradigm shift! You must learn new lingo.

At least with the military, an acronym is usually around forever, and the jargon doesn't really change with whichever way the wind blows. If it were FUBAR in 1970, well, it's still FUBAR today. And if you are familiar with OPSEC, that holds true here---thus no names and pictures of my family or several places on the base on my blog.

So this morning, upon realizing that I wanted to write about "lessons learned," I felt the need to jab a pencil in my eyeball. What has happened to me? I used to snicker at the term that is really, really overused in the military, and now I'm using it.

That being said, I've reflected on some lessons of recent times and had an epiphany or two that I'd like to share:

ONE: My youngest is really, REALLY allergic to the skin and sap of mangoes.
One trip to the pediatrician, one trip to the ER, and a frustrating trip to the NEX later, we are going to have to go with homemade remedies since Benadryl and Caladryl are all we have here (and are not getting the job done). I mentioned this before, but the same chemical in poison ivy is in the sap of mangoes.
I'm up for any suggestions. I am very ignorant of what to do since I'm not allergic to anything, dermatologically speaking (but pretty much all antibiotics---I would trade, trust me).

TWO: One trip really can change your life forever.
I went to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a summer abroad studying at Cemanahuac Language Institute while an undergrad, and I met a group of people who have forever changed my life. Two of the group were BRATS---as in a Military (AF) Brat, and an Aramco Brat. Hearing their stories about traveling and seeing the world at a young age, and seeing the amount of freedom they had---all while living in a close-knit community---is something that I believe led me here today.  From that point on I have had a sense of needing to do more than just settle in one place---especially when there is a huge world out there to explore and see and places where you can do this and raise kids at the same time.
Another of the group was a little older than the rest of us, so I looked to her for advice---and when I found myself going through a difficult time and more or less homeless (by my own doing and choice), she helped me see there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Then there there was my Mexico roommate who said, "My sister is looking for someone to split her rent, let me give her a call." And just like that, a total stranger became my roommate (and friend), and those sisters and their family really took me in. Best thing about their mom? She lived close by and grew up in New Orleans---and like most New Orleans ladies, she can COOK---so it wasn't anything to have the doorbell ring and her show up with a big pan of jambalaya because "I just thought you kids might be hungry."

Although I didn't get a pan of jambalaya at my doorstep, I did get a couple of very nice care packages from the same lady recently. I can't even tell you how flattered and humbled I am that she thought about me,  and she was generous beyond measure. Let's just say that she, also, has changed my life for the better.  I am thankful that she has also remained a part of my life.

One more tidbit from that trip---the AF Brat is now my husband of almost 20 years.  Not too shabby, considering that was the last thing I was looking for when we all became friends.

And like that butterfly causing a hurricane in chaos theory,  one short semester with strangers 23 years ago caused a lifetime of connections and consequences that continue to this very day. You never know what roots and vines are going to spring from one place you all hold dear in your heart.

THREE: I hate the word "staycation." Like all education jargon, some military phrases, and the words "puce," "goiter," "mucus," "gullet," and the phrase "fair and balanced," it should be struck from the English language. Forever.

So instead I'm going to describe my Spring Break as a stay-at-home-vacation. The grandparents came to visit! We were very happy to host our first visitors, my parents, to our tiny little slice of this lovely island. We did pottery. We collected sea glass and sea shells. We gathered seeds (if you think I'm a gatherer, you need to meet my mama). We ate at most of the base restaurants (that would be six of the eight). We went bowling. We drove around and took lots of pictures of the ocean, the kids, the kids in front of the ocean, the kids in the ocean, etc. We visited and chilled out and had a wonderful time. They are travelers and adventurers, so they didn't scoff when I suggested going out at night and looking for hutias as a form of fun family entertainment (actually, it was my mom's idea).

They were also there when our oldest officially became a certified SCUBA diver!!! Yay! We had a wonderful time, and I am eternally grateful for my parents who made the tremendous effort to visit. Two sets of forms, two sets of tickets, the run-around from everyone, a ridiculous expense, and dealing with military bureaucracy and military rules (and jargon) as a civilian are all not easy tasks.

It was a wonderful Spring Break, indeed. And now. . . the downhill slide until summer break. No furloughs this school year, so we are looking at approximately nine weeks until we are on real vacation (not just living-in-paradise-and-working vacation).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A hunk, a chunk, and more; or, Quick cash now!

Much earlier I wrote about a common Gitmo saying---you leave Gitmo either a hunk, a chunk, or a drunk. I heard an even better (and probably truer) version: You leave a hunk, a chunk, a drunk. . . or a monk.

There's a serious shortage of women on this base.

Not that I don't mind hearing "Yes, ma'am!" and having doors opened for me everywhere I go.

I do imagine it's difficult being single here, so MWR does a lot of free or almost-free programming for single and unaccompanied service people---kayak and biking trips, hikes, bingo night (seriously), golfing tournaments, ceramics classes, etc. MWR stands for Morale, Welfare, and Recreation for you non-military folks---and even though at first glance, recreation programs may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to budget cuts in difficult times, they are so crucial for the morale of a small, isolated base with very limited facilities, especially for people away from their families or alone. Despite what this place is lacking as far as places to hang out, MWR does a great job of trying to entertain everyone, even us non-military folks.

Tonight I took advantage of one of the MWR programs and went to a pottery class. It was so much fun---they have a slab roller, extruder, and several wheels. You can buy boxes of clay and store it there. Glazes are cheap and they fire everything for free. Plus it's a great way to spend a couple of hours, whether you are single (and perhaps lonely) or just are looking to learn something new. I foresee a mother/daughter pottery date next week.

I have become part of the coterie of parents who scream out their back doors, "Hey _____, come in! It's dinner time!"  This evening I saw a tree next to the playground undulating in a very unnatural matter---it definitely wasn't the wind---so I went to check it out and realized there was a kid in the top of the tree (thankfully, not my kid) shaking these out:

A bounty of beautiful mangoes.They are green and small, but we'll see what happens once they ripen. 

Our youngest has decided that he wants an iPad, and once he realized his $37 wasn't going to buy one, he's planning and scheming ways to make money. He had all these bundled in his shirt and said, "Mommy, mommy, I have a GREAT IDEA. I can open a store, right in my room, and right in my room I can sell FRUIT." 

Sounds like a TERRIFIC idea, right?!?!?  

The idea of hundreds of sticky, green mangoes in his bedroom really frightens me, so I had to break it to him gently that there will be NO FRUIT SALES in this casa since it's probably illegal and with all the trees on base, the demand for mangoes is as low as the price. 

That stopped him. . . I hope. 

By the way, the oldest informed us (correctly) that mangoes belong to the same family as poison ivy, and the skin contains urushiol, the oil in poison ivy that makes some people break out. You can get contact dermatitis just from touching them, and some people are very allergic to them. I am the only one of the four of us not allergic to poison ivy, so I guess we'll find out in the morning how our fruit gatherer faired, since he managed to get sap from head to toe before his brother gave us the dinner time lecture on the perils of picking mangoes. 

Spring Break has officially begun for the kids, so maybe our little schemer can think of another way to get some quick cash while he's out of school.