Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Grenades v. Gun Shots; or, Serpentine! Serpentine!

With the advent of fall arrives special knowledge that only comes around once a year: I may survive a terrorist attack. I know all about PII and PHI. I passed the Cyber Aware challenge. I know about blood-borne pathogens. I won't do anything hinky on my school's internet. Sexual harassment is bad, mmmkay?

Yes, it's that fun required annual employee training that all DoD employees so look forward to! Here's the best part---most of this has to be done on our janky internet.

How janky? I guarantee it didn't take you 27 hours to upgrade to Apple iOS 7. Just sayin'.

I don't know if this information constitutes any deep, dark, classified secrets (maybe I should have paid better attention), so I won't reveal all.

What I can tell you is that if you are ever in the line of fire, duck down and pray like hell.

If you have a grenade thrown at you, lie flat and pray like hell.

Oddly enough, there is no mention of the "serpentine method" found in one of my favorite movies, "The In-Laws." Up until this training, that would have been my go-to method for any unforeseen sniper attacks.

Also, if you are at a hotel and room service knocks on the door offering cake, DON'T TAKE IT. It could be a ploy by some unnamed evil force. (Whether they are going to poison you or attack you is never made clear). You are supposed to instead call the front desk to see if it's a legit gift. ***

No worries. If room service ever knocks of my door, I know they have the wrong room and just ignore them. If I'm in an actual hotel with room service, I know I'm probably dreaming. Does Holiday Inn Express have room service??

Also, don't leave your private information sitting around. Shocking concept, right? Don't go around emailing people your social security number. That includes me. I don't want your social security number. That is, unless you can also give me your bank account number and any PINs you have at the same time.

Germs are bad. Wash your hands. Often. If you work with small kids, you may want to consider Lysol-ing yourself and stripping down before you walk through your house.

I came home from my first day of storytimes and library lessons at the elementary campus with a snot trail and dirty hand prints all over my nice, new skirt. I love the little kids. I just don't like them always being all up in my bubble. And when it comes to working with little kids, I have a ginormous bubble. Keep your distance, germ carriers!

I am not mocking my training (well, mostly not) and definitely not making light of serious situations. I am, however, a little punch drunk after a marathon session of listening to a robotic voice talk to me, all the while I'm waiting (and waiting, and waiting) on pages to load.

***Yes, the cake scenario is really in the training. I kid you not. I did the same training last year, and when that same slide came up, I got all excited. What's not to get giddy about when cake is involved?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Four-Minute Scuba Dives, or, We have a malfunction

Diving is not for the weak.

I don't mean that in an, "I'm so macho doing an extreme sport and you're a sissy" kind of way.

I mean, if you shore dive from Windmill Beach in GTMO, you have to have a strong back, shoulders, and arms to schlep equipment from your car to the picnic area, and then from the picnic area through dirt and sand to the water. Then you may have to swim out a hundred yards before you slip underneath the waves.

Son 1 and I went for some diving early Sunday morning. I will be the first to admit that I'm not a finite detail kind of person. It's a good thing my son is, because this is what you have to remember:
skin (or wetsuit)
BC (buoyancy compensator)
dive computer

also, towels are necessary, snacks are nice, mask de-fogger is preferable.

I'll just say I'm not the ONLY person in my family who has realized while in the process of dressing out to dive that I've left a crucial item at the house. With the exception of a snorkel, you have to have each of these items to make your dive.

We did a great job of getting everything packed (okay, my son did most of the packing except the towels and snacks), and we got to Windmill in plenty of time to pick a good spot to set up. The weather was great---not windy, low tide, sunny, not too hot. The water was warm---my son only wore his swim trunks and a tee shirt---and my ears cleared quickly for once (I sometimes take a few minutes to descend). The visibility was amazing. For only the second time since we've been here, I spotted sand dollars, and I got one for each of the boys.

Then, of course, disaster---I realized my dive computer would not turn on. The computer doesn't only tell me my depth and how many minutes I can safely stay at that depth, it keeps me from ascending too fast (one way to get "the bends") and most importantly, its pressure gauge tells me how much air I have left.

Important stuff, right?

So we aborted the dive and I had the shortest bottom time yet (the son said 4 minutes, but I wouldn't know, since a clock and timer are also part of the computer. Grrrr).

We did have a fabulous snorkel on the way back. I usually hate snorkeling, because I think you tend to look more like lunch to a predator when you are up on the surface than eye-to-eye or on the bottom. I don't want to find out either way.  We made good use of the heavy equipment we'd schlepped, with the BC doubling beautifully as a snorkel vest, and on rougher days, a regulator can be a good alternative to a snorkel when the waves get a little crazy. It's an expensive way to snorkel, no doubt, but it's not a bad way to do it.

The son turns to me and shouts, "Look, mom, a baby barracuda! Did you see it?"

I shout back, "Nope, but I HAVE SAND DOLLARS!"  Woot!

Then, "Mom! Four or five barracudas! Did you see them? And more babies!"

Me: "No, I didn't---but did you see my sand dollars??"

Then, "That was an awesome sea turtle! I think I got a picture of it!"

Me: "What sea turtle? Huh? But hey, I have sand dollars. . . "

My son says that 1)I need to do a better job de-fogging my mask---you can't argue with that when you see the pic of me above, and 2) I need to get a stronger contact lens prescription. He's right about that, too.

We have a waterproof case for a digital camera that is clunky and awkward to use, but once you've played with it a few minutes, it takes great photos. In the four minutes we were down, we unfortunately didn't get many pictures, and these are less than stellar. But still---that moment when you are ascending and are caught in the spectrum of white/brown sand and coral, rising out of the darker deep waters, seeing more and more sun's rays cutting through once you get closer to the surface---he did manage to get a picture of that. And whether it's 40 minutes or 4, I love that moment when you ascend through the bursts of colors that is the ocean.

Oh, and did I mention----I have sand dollars!!!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rainy Days and Mondays; or, The Map of Lost Mail is here!!

After many months of a drought, and restrictions on all water usage resulting in a yard that is an oh-so-attractive shade of dirt brown (because that's all there is---dirt), I'm happy to see rain the last few days. In fact, it's sort of like our rainy season here (okay, it's actually called hurricane season, but that tends to freak people out).

Pedro the Yard Chicken stopped by to pose in the dirt. 

We do have our "hurricane kit" all ready to go---lots of gallons of water, flashlights and batteries, canned and boxed goods. I have to admit, though, that the most exciting offering for hurricane kits is this product, which I believe is essential to any household facing the uncertainty of the season that is upon us:
It's kind of beautiful, isn't it? 

You don't realize how sunny and beautiful it is living in eternal summer until you have a few rain soaked days thrown in. You also haven't lived until your internet goes out every time it rains. At least we have power this time.

It wasn't all bad today; I did manage to FINALLY get a long-awaited package.

Living on a military base overseas means that your mail is sent to either an APO (Army & Air Force Post Office) or, in the case of the Navy, an FPO (Fleet Post Office). Our mail first goes to a sorting facility---at one time it was in New York, but now it's Chicago---and then goes to our tiny local post office, which doesn't have any actual mail boxes for its customers. When you send mail to me, it goes to the post office, and then someone from work has to pick it up and deliver it to my office mail box. The entire base works this way. The mail is only flown in two days a week now, so mail delivery day is exciting business around here.  Sometimes we get packages, which is for many of us, our connection to life's many necessities you can't find here, and if the sender happens to be my mom, the package is packed with Zero candy bars.

I don't know if you are familiar with Zero bars, but you should be. Hershey describes them as a "unique combination of caramel, peanut and almond nougat covered with delicious white fudge." You may know them as the white candy bar in the ugly silver wrapper. Don't let the ugly wrapper fool you. The Zero bar is, along with purple speckled butterbeans, bacon, and red Skittles, one of life's perfect foods.

A long-awaited package makes even the most dreary, rainy Monday seem a little nicer.

While visiting Mississippi in July, the first thing we did was find some sporting goods stores so we could buy the kids baseball gloves that fit. Our oldest had outgrown his little league glove, which we could have passed down to the youngest, except Boy #1 is a leftie and Boy #2 isn't. So onward we went, hitting several stores in Hattiesburg until we found two nice gloves that will hopefully serve the kids well for softball and baseball season.

Somehow in the frenzy of packing, the gloves got left at my parents, but never fear---my mom went down to the local P.O. a couple of days later and sent them (along with some Zero bars) via Priority Mail to Cuba.

I should also mention that Priority Mail still takes 3-4 weeks to get here from the States. I can't really tell if it's worth paying more to send anything that method, because once the mail hits the sorting facility in Chicago, it can't be traced.

And that can be a problem.

Gloves left Mississippi on July 19. Gloves hit the sorting facility in Chicago on July 21.

Gloves got to Cuba on September 9.

Gloves took a detour along the way
to APO 09833.

Not FPO 09593.

This would be Sharm El Sheik, Egypt.


I have started a map to mark all the exotic and interesting places my mail has accidentally traveled while I'm stuck here in Hotel California land ("You can check any time you like, but you can never leave").

It's actually a positive thing that we've had such misfortune, since I managed to spend most of my high school World History classes doodling on my Trapper Keeper and daydreaming about Rick Springfield. Now I have motivation to break out a map and play Where In the World was My Lost Mail. If we've managed to have mail go to Muscat, Oman; Madrid, Spain;  Livorno, Italy; and Sharm El Sheik, Egypt in only 10 months, we'll have many, many more interesting locations for our Map of Lost Mail before we leave Cuba.

And in case you are wondering, Zero bars that have traveled through three countries and are a little melted still taste delicious.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Diversions and Celebrations; or, Where I Went and What I Ate (and drank)

Before I talk about the freakish spike in my social life the last few weeks, I must address one issue: CHEESE.

I've moaned and bitched and cried about the lack of cheese here (I refuse to count Kraft Singles as cheese, sorry folks).

Guess what I found for the second time in a year at our commissary?

Cheese, Grommit!!
Beautiful blocks of Havarti, Gouda, and pepper jack cheese. I am a happy, cheese eating fool. There will probably be a purchase of Metamucil in my future, but I DON'T CARE! I can eat an entire block of Gouda if I want BECAUSE I CAN!!!!

(Yes, I am shouting. Cheese makes me that excited).

Cheese at the commissary was just a prequel to the crazy week that was last week.

Some highlights:

Moonlight cruise on the Bay

The marina rents out pontoon boats that are perfect for Bay cruising. Two boats full of some of my favorite Gitmo folks went out for fun, food, and drinks one evening right before sunset. My favorite part was stopping in the middle of the Bay to pass wine and food between the boats. We shared a lot of laughs, and it was a great way to start a new school year.

Dinner: baked Brie (yes! I found Brie at the end of summer and hoarded it for such an occasion!) and some tasty Moscato

Cupcake Wars competition
Until I saw advertisements for a contest and other cupcake-related events, I had never heard of the television show "Cupcake Wars" or its host.

Earlier in the day, "Miss Holly" had spent time in every classroom at the elementary school, talking to kids about how she makes cupcakes, showing them her tools of the trade, and giving them each a cupcake to sample. In fact, her team flew 18,000 cupcakes (!!!) to the island for virtually anyone who wanted one to sample. She was very gracious and related really well to the kids, and in turn they LOVED her---H raved about how sweet she was and how much he enjoyed her visit---so I was more than happy to come out and join an event where she judged cupcakes. One of my creative colleagues coordinated a cupcake team for the competition (the Sampson Pirates), and we even had our own mascot show up to cheer us on (the school mascot, a pirate, naturally) .

We had 30 minutes to create a scene from a stack of cupcakes, bags of various colors of icing, and piles of decorative candies, and a huge baking pan.  Our final product was really cute---it was a beach scene from GTMO, of course, complete with a huge, killer iguana. The judges must have been impressed---or maybe suffering delusions from sugar narcosis?---but either way, we won second prize, and I chose a signed cookbook as my prize.

Dinner: a Corona and way, way too many cupcakes

Surprise Birthday Party/Bay Boat cruise, part deux

A surprise birthday party, a spooky, abandoned fort, some John Denver and Lady Gaga. What else do you want?

A group of us took a boat out to celebrate the surprise birthday party of a lady who really epitomizes what I think of as Gitmo living. She hikes, she gardens, she does pottery, she runs, she snorkels, she kayaks. She participates in races, she does painting classes, and she is always up for an adventure. I am perplexed by people who never leave their houses and hate living here---even if you hate the heat, you can do enough indoor activities to keep you relatively entertained. I like hanging out with folks who accept that life isn't perfect here, but are willing to do as much as they can with what we've got.

A large group of us drove around the Bay, sharing laughs and mimosas and really good cupcakes (again!) and appetizers, before we headed to Fort Conde, an abandoned fort from the early 1900s that seems to grow right out of the jungle and is covered with graffiti. I felt like I was walking into a scene from the show Lost. The area around the fort has been cleared, but it's not the easiest place to find or hike to. I'm glad our hostesses knew where they were going and how to get there---which is only by boat. The old fort was creepy and mysterious all at the same time. The bats hanging around added to the ambiance, and I found a hutia skull on top of a concrete wall:

It is, so far, my favorite souvenir from my time here. We also went snorkeling near Glass Beach and I saw the absolutely largest sea turtle I've ever seen. I thought a coral reef was moving, when I looked again and realized it was a turtle hovering over the top and then swimming away. Overall, I had a great day of exploring unknown places and meeting new people.

We ended the day with tans, full bellies of sushi, cupcakes, and mimosas, and jammed out to a little Lady Gaga AND John Denver. I know a seriously eclectic and fun group of folks here. 

Brunch: included mimosas and sushi

The husband and I also went to a goodbye party for a few folks, including a great guy he knows from diving and I know from work. Goodbyes are a constant here. Sometimes you are sad to see the good guys leave. 

The party was catered by a Thai chef and included one of my new favorite dishes, Laab (or Larb, depending on whom you ask). There was also some Pad Thai and Filipino Lumpia and Pancit---no big party goes without some Lumpia and Pancit here at Gitmo. 
We also hung out with friends until way past our bedtimes, said goodbye to a neighbor, and enjoyed time at the movies (cheap popcorn and hotdogs). It's been a hectic last two weeks, and I'm kind of glad to see it slowing down a little. I don't mind having only a few events over a month instead of over a week. It seems like we do more in a week here than we used to in an entire month (or two or three or six months). 
Time to do some gardening and laundry---I really don't mind chilling out around the house on Saturdays, because I know there are always things to do right around the corner, if I so choose to do them. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A year later; or, Some chance, some luck, some hope

What a difference a year in a life can make!

Last year, I was going into my 10th year in a district in Texas. It was my third year at a high school that I loved---I had been part of the founding faculty, and one of the first five or so people hired. I had followed a group of middle schoolers from a somewhat challenging school (Title I, large ESL population, large number of foster kids, and the MOST dedicated, amazing teachers of anywhere I have ever taught) and I loved seeing those kids grow from geeky middle schoolers to somewhat-mature young adults. It was rewarding.

It was exhausting.

For ten years I had been commuting from Georgetown, where we loved the school district and neighborhood for our kids, to either N Austin or Round Rock. If you have never driven in Texas, please know, Texas has the worst drivers in the country. I've lived in five states all over the country, and Texas drivers are a special kind of bad driver.

(And before you Texans get all defensive and blame incoming Californians---please stop. Everyone blames Californians for bad driving, no matter the state. I've driven in California. They don't hold a candle to Texas drivers).

Because my husband had an even longer commute to South Austin, with even more frustrating and crazy traffic, it wasn't unusual for us to have spent 10-12 hours at work and commuting. When we got home, we then commenced the 2-4 hours of work required when you have kids at home (homework, dinner, cleanup, bathtime, bedtime, housework). It was killing us.

I am so glad we are no longer living that life. I miss friends and I miss family, but I do not miss that lifestyle at all.

Here's the thing I haven't told many people---my second day back to work in August 2012, I got a phone call from Human Resources in the district where I lived and my kids went to school. I was excited and terrified. They wanted me to come interview for a job that was only a few miles from my house. My youngest son could come to work with me. I would cut the work day by several hours and have more time and energy for my family. But I also felt an obligation to my district and the students I loved, and I felt a lot of guilt for even considering the job.

Instead of calling back immediately, I sat on it for a few days, and when I finally made the decision to call back, the position was filled. I felt that odd combination of relief and disappointment that comes with missed opportunities.

Scenes from our last year in Texas

Twenty years ago, when I was a newlywed to an Army soldier, I researched teaching overseas and dreamed of living in Europe or Asia.

We never got stationed anywhere except stateside, although I can't complain---if you've visited or lived in Augusta, Georgia, Colorado Springs, Colorado, or Olympia, Washington, you know these are all beautiful and wonderful places to be stationed.

One of my Washington colleagues and I talked often about applying for overseas teaching jobs, but with a small child, I didn't think the time was right.

We moved to Texas, had another child, and got caught up in our 50-60 hour work weeks without time to breathe.

So another phone call, only a couple of weeks after that first call, really did change my life.  I was a little blindsided when an email came across my desk asking if I would be interested in interviewing for a job in Cuba. CUBA? I called my husband to discuss it, and before I could respond, I got a phone call requesting a job interview. It was that fast, and I was excited and nervous all over again.

It was Sept 4, 2012---a year ago today---and with that call, I realized that maybe one opportunity had fallen through because there was something even bigger around the corner.

If I had pursued the first job, I probably would have turned down the interview.

And that's how opportunity comes---sometimes when you are least expecting it, you get a chance to do something you have only dreamed about doing.

An request for an interview led to a phone interview a week later, which in turn led to a job offer a couple of weeks after that. The offer was contingent upon me successfully completing "the packet" within two weeks---a one inch thick stack of paperwork which contained Herculean tasks, such as:

  • undergoing a background check
  • mailing in fingerprint cards (FBI has at least 5 sets for me now)
  • completing medical and dental physicals (did you know there is a dental physical?) for the entire family, including my first EKG---a special requirement for employees in isolated locations
  • obtaining government "no fee" passports---not to be confused with tourist passports--- which were only available within the required time period from the post office in rural Taylor, Texas (barbecue field trip!) 
  • sitting through online training about terrorism for three of the four of us
  • shots and rabies updates and a physical for our Cairn terrier Spike, who didn't make it to Cuba after all  *sniff sniff*  :(

And then there was the painful experience of traveling at least four times to Ft. Hood for paperwork and a pack-out briefing, after which they lost all our paperwork and we had to do it again. I didn't miss the bureaucracy the 15 years we had been out of the military life. More than once, my husband grinned at me while standing in yet another line for yet another walk-in appointment and said, "Are you sure you are up for this again?"

Of course he knew the answer was a resounding, "YES!"

Official government business. . . as a librarian. Sweet!! 

Meanwhile, as I was dealing with "the packet," I was still working full-time. I was a wreck. With the exception of my principal, whom I immediately told I was considering leaving before I even had an interview, and whom I respected enough that I really, really wanted his blessing, none of my colleagues knew that I was FREAKING OUT and trying to stay calm and professional when all the while, I was on the verge of a complete and total nervous breakdown. I broke out in hives and couldn't eat. A group of kids I had worked with for five years excitedly told me plans for the club I sponsored, and after they left, I shut my office door and burst into tears. I would miss them so much.  I lied to most of my colleagues with the exception of a few administrators about why I was missing work. I sadly went through the motions at both kids' open houses, knowing we would soon be telling these teachers and groups of friends goodbye.

I learned that I really, really hate keeping secrets and lying, even if it's "little white lies."

The day I got my orders, I went on leave, tried to get rid of the majority of 20+ years of furniture and household goods, and prepared a house we had lived in for 8 years (and the only home our youngest has ever known) to sell and would probably never see again. I lost count of how many people we told about our upcoming adventure (which was always accompanied with the explanation that yes, we can go to Cuba and there really is a base there; no, I won't be a librarian for the prison!) We sadly said goodbye to our family and tried to act brave, all the while, being a little terrified of the vast unknown.

So that's the story of how I was sitting at work, minding my own business, when a phone call lead me to another country only 46 days later.

I have friends and family who have told me that we are brave/crazy/ambitious/irresponsible/adventurous or a little of all of the above for our seemingly sudden decision to move and work abroad.

Here's the thing---we always knew that one day, we would get the opportunity to do it. Sometimes opportunity to make a big change only happens once. You can either jump, or you can sit around and wonder "what if?" I am the kind of person who would rather jump and experience success or failure, than live with regrets. I don't think that makes me brave/crazy/ambitious/irresponsible/adventurous.  I think it's just normal.

I was talking to my parents this weekend about their recent 50 year high school reunion, and my mom was telling me about some of the comments people made when they found out that I was living in Cuba. She said something to the effect of, "I still can't believe you did it. It was brave. I don't think I could have ever been that brave at your age, or even younger." But I disagree. Making big leaps runs in my family.

My sister and her husband took a huge gamble and started their own business. My father and mother moved to a town where they didn't know a soul so he could take over a drugstore and be a first-time business owner. My Papaw was the first person in his family to go to college. He eventually ran for office of Superintendent---and won. My Granny gave up a nursing career in her late 30s to get married and eventually had children---and having lost her own mother as a toddler, she had to raise 2 daughters without her mother's advice (and being raised in part by old maid aunts, they weren't help, either). My Grammaw decided to go out on a date with a rather persistent, nice young man she met at a bus stop (who was, of course, my Paw). My now-husband told me he was joining the Army and "the military doesn't move girlfriends," so we got married within a month. We lived a very comfortable life with an only child for seven years, and decided that we wanted one more child to make our family complete.

You don't have to do anything radical or drastic to make a change, and I'm still navigating the challenges of living here and dealing with how to make it a positive experience for both of my kids.

But you can't sit on your butt the rest of your life and have regrets for not chasing your dreams.