Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Gift of Time; or, #bookgoals

I decided that 2017 is going to be my year to get back in the reading groove.

I used to be a voracious reader---someone would mention a book, and I had probably already read it. Or read something very similar. Or read something else from that author.

I am not bragging; this is just what happens when you don't watch television and you are happiest tucked in your bed with a book. If I could get my family to occasionally bring me a cup of coffee and maybe throw a croissant (preferably with Nutella) on a plate now and then and deliver it to me in my comfy bed, I'd be the happiest girl in all of GTMO.

But life doesn't let me do that, so I have to be an adult, leave my room, and deal with responsibilities.

And now there is modern technology here. In a few months time, I have become glued to shows and series I can stream online, and it is embarrassing how little I've read this year when I looked over my list (yes, I keep a list of every book I read---I have been doing this on and off since high school).

I decided to make a list just for me of to-read books for 2017. Most are sitting on my bookshelves at home waiting to be read, so it was easy to compile the list. Then I went to my Goodreads account, and was absolutely horrified to see that I added some of those books to my to-read list in 2007. TEN YEARS I have been dragging these poor books around with all good intentions of reading them, but will it finally happen in 2017? Some are still sitting in the boxes from when I moved here in 2012. . . this is pitiful. So I am going to make this the year of either reading the damn books, or finally giving them away.
31 books (and counting) that I MUST read by the end of 2017. . . 

Some books I started and life and other things got in the way. Many were gifts and I feel guilty that I never finished them (or in the case of 1-2, never read them).  A few I bought because I was going to hear the author speak and wanted them signed. Then I never read them. Again, pitiful. Why buy a book if I am not going to read it? And why not give it away instead of dragging it around like dead weight for 10+ years?

So occasionally I will review whatever I'm reading. I did this once before, and never did it again, for whatever reason. Book nerd alert: If you don't enjoy reading or hearing about books, you can skip this next paragraph.

Review #1: Okay, first off I know this is still 2016, but I'm getting a head start if I am reading 31 books (or more) in 2017. I started with reading Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This is a short one (only 131 pages) that I picked up at the thrift store here (because I don't already have boxes of books in my garage---argh). It's the memoir of a man who has had a stroke at 43 years old and can only move one eyelid. He comes up with a system of dictating his memoir by blinking when his therapist reads him the letter he wants and writes out each word for him. Letter by letter, he dictated this book in only a few months. It's short but it is chock full of beautiful and ethereal images and stories---mostly small moments that at the time didn't seem important, but are given special precedence or gravity as he is in bed paralyzed with "locked-in syndrome." (Active mind, ability to see and hear, but no ability to move or talk). The book is dream-like, and some of the vignettes---like the last time he shaved his 93 year old father---brought me to tears. The diving bell is his current life---a life where he is trapped inside a somewhat useless body. But his thoughts? "My mind takes flight like a butterfly." It's beautiful and full of hope.

Early Diving Bell sketch from the late 1700s---

Connection to my life
(because I always make my students do this): The book has haunted me for the last few days and I realized that the diving bell and the butterfly is a great analogy for life here in Cuba---it's being trapped but also in many ways, being given the gift of time. Many days, it is the feeling like I am being trapped and very anxious and sad---the diving bell. But being trapped here (literally) gives me time to reflect on people and memories that make me happy. I have time to reflect and DO. I no longer commute an hour each way to work. I can play games with my kids and we all four eat dinner together around a table every night.  I have time to do things I want to do, like run, go to yoga, take painting classes, join a writer's group, or just hang out with friends. I can be creative and when running or painting or writing, I also let my mind take flight---like a butterfly.

So that's my book recommendation of the week---and support your local library, because I'm sure they have it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Definitely maybes; or, Dang, I'm forty seven?

So I just turned forty-seven years old this week.

Crazy how time just creeps up on you, and next thing you know, you are looking towards 50. Seriously, how did it go by so fast?

And sometimes I try to remember something significant from every single year of my life---and the scary fact is, sometimes I can't come up with anything. Does this just happen to me?

I am blessed with an amazing memory and I have vivid memories from very, very early in my life. My sister and cousins always marvel at what I can remember from when I was a toddler. I can describe my grandparents' house in Crystal Springs that they moved from when I was three. I probably only visited it a handful of times, but I have specific memories. (And there are no pictures from the interior, so it's all from somewhere in my brain).

I know the perfume my preschool teacher wore (Yves San Laurent's Vie Gauche). I remember the first time I saw a cow (and someone---maybe my Granny---was holding me). I remember snippets of my early years in Mississippi---how my first grade classroom smelled (like that sawdust stuff they put on vomit) and the series of boxes Mrs. Fortenberry kept which held objects for every letter of the alphabet. N was for Nest, and there were tiny robin's eggs in the nest. Were they real? I don't know.

I remember my kid's first words (G---"daddy", H---"brother"), but I don't remember when they sat up or started walking. I wasn't great at keeping records, either, so hopefully it's not a developmental thing they'll ever be asked again. I remember lots of lots of faces, but I don't remember the names of several former students. I've taught well over a thousand kids, after all. But if one friends me on facebook, I can tell you at least 2-3 things about them---what sort of music they liked, if they liked poetry, if they were artists, if they were kind to the kids most kids aren't kind to, or if they were awkward looking but I knew they would end up being beautiful and handsome and all their former classmates would wish they had paid them more attention in high school (all teachers can tell you which kids have "peaked" in h school and which ones are going to blossom when they become young adults).

So why can't I remember where I put my purse or my keys? Or remember to pick things up at the grocery store, even when I have a list in front of me? I guess the mundane goes into another part of my memory, and it's something I struggle with every day.

I do remember this: the fear, apprehension, and excitement of moving here alone. I'll never forget seeing the runway and thinking, "this place looks like a desert." Or the absolutely ugly, hideous, rusted out and termite eaten buildings you pass right when you leave Ferry landing and start your way up Sherman to the housing area. It's really not a great way to start life on base; the ugliest and most worn-down part of the base is also the very first impression you get when you arrive. I remember the shock of finding out the prisoners were only a few miles from my house---I thought they'd be on a remote area of the base. I looked at the barren yard and thought, I can do something with this.  And in the 11 days between the time I arrived and my children got here,  I worried about what I had done to them. Is this the best place for them? My oldest gave up a lot of opportunities and experiences of living in a metropolitan area and attending a 5A school. I still have some guilt over that, even though I think some of the good---and bad---of living here has prepared him for the real world.

my first week in GTMO---this view still makes me pause and love life here

To put it bluntly, disappointment is something you deal with when you live here. This is especially true if you are coming from the civilian world and have not had to deal with the maddening life of bureaucratic hell. You go through 10 levels to get one answer, and there is a chain of command that has to be followed. People get back to you when it's convenient to them, not when you necessarily need an answer. It's taught me patience (and how to bite my tongue). Isolation is something else you deal with here. Sometimes this is a good thing; I love the safety as a female of being able to run alone at night, or for my child to be able to wander around the neighborhood with the relative safety I had as a kid growing up in small town Mississippi in the 1970s. But when you have a hurricane headed your way and can't evacuate, that isolation is terrifying. As a teacher, you deal with very small classes. I've had classes as small as four students. This is wonderful because all kids learn at his or her own pace, and you can truly individualize instruction. It's also horrible when half the kids don't do their homework and you are stuck in limbo, deciding if you want to drive on and leave half the class behind, or punish those who did their work by letting the slackers catch up. This is one of my biggest disappointments as a teacher---you can't instill a sense of responsibility in students, no matter if they know they are holding the rest of the class back. It's frustrating and selfish on their part, but it's also part of working with teens.

But then. . . isn't this life every where? Maybe your disappointments and frustrations are different, but at 47, if you haven't really encountered any of them, you just aren't living life.

Forty seven is my year of definite-maybes. I may be able to transfer. I may find ways to let the bureaucracy not drive me crazy. I may find more things and people to love here. I definitely will miss my oldest as he goes to college, and maybe (hopefully definitely) he will thrive. I am looking at the possibility of six years here, something I definitely never dreamt possible, but I am maybe looking at new adventures and a new location starting next summer.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

We All Sail On; or, Closing Out the Year

December is a landmark month in many ways. 

December is a month of reflection on what I could have done better these past 12 months. How I could have handled situations (and people) with more grace, how I could have been more patient, less reactionary, more organized. Maybe the main question is, how could I more safely handle kitchen cutlery? Should I really cook ever again? 

I also think of ways I have accomplished goals and I'm proud of many things that have happened this past year. I managed to spend a month in Germany and traveled all over Europe, some of that trip with just my youngest son, and in countries where I didn't really speak any of the language. I got a lot of new stamps in my passport, and although I didn't always have my camera out, I have images indelibly stamped in my mind. Some I will carry in my heart and don't want to share---most of these involve my two boys, who are constantly growing and changing. I sometimes find myself startled at photographs from just a few months back. I selfishly want to keep these memories for myself, because time is moving too fast. 

Our summer in Europe was sometimes exhausting and even frustrating (and I really did get my fill of churches for the next few years), but I loved the adventure and history and watching my children's faces as they took in Europe for the first time. I loved watching my husband navigate the streets of his childhood town in Germany and somehow meander through small streets right up to the door of his favorite toy shop from when he was 7 or 8 years old---and 40 years later, it's still there. 

Then in early August, I had to get on a train to board a plane back to the U.S., leaving my 18 year old son knowing that he was going to travel alone to destinations unknown for 6 weeks or more. He went where his heart (or wallet) led him, traveling to places like Bulgaria and Italy, where he has friends, and to Hungary, Poland, Austria, Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank. He saw pyramids, museums, and a famous Banksy. He argued with vendors and shopkeepers, he negotiated taxi prices, he learned how not to get ripped off, sometimes learning these things the hard way. He learned that you can't always hide you are an American, even if you don't always dress like one. If you've lived or worked or traveled outside the U.S., you understand why you don't want to always be known as an American. 

He stayed in hostels and nice hotels. He rode on trains, in planes, and used Über, too. He navigated this on this own, sometimes making mistakes, and never once was I completely at ease until he was back home in Cuba. But I was excited and at awe at how brave he was, how creative he could be when it came to problem solving (and it wasn't all smooth sailing), and how thrifty he was most of the time (since he spent mostly his own money). At 18, I never knew you could take off alone on a train with a backpack and a few hundred dollars and see the world. I am happy he got this opportunity. 

Many people (some to my face, some to other people behind my back who, naturally, told me) have questioned why I would "let" my 18 year old son travel so many places alone. Wasn't I scared? Was that really a responsible thing to do as a parent? How could I allow him to do such a dangerous thing? Yet most people who have asked these questions have rarely, if ever, left the United States, and if so, not any time in recent history. Or they don't understand that you really can't stop an 18 year old stubborn kid (he got a good dose from both parents) who is determined to see the world. Do you "let" an 18 year old do anything? Especially when he's spending his own money and making his own plans?  In Europe, he could rent a hotel room and order a beer with no trouble. He was treated more like an adult there than in the U.S.  It was sort of trial by fire, and in less than a month, he will be going back to Europe again, but this time to live---in Spain, going to college in Madrid.   

So this is a year of letting go of the child who, when I was 25, was told I would probably never have (boy, that doctor was wrong), and who, at 4 years old, drove me absolutely crazy and made me question my parenting abilities every single day of my life. The child who went from an only child and center of our world to a big brother at 7 1/2, and never once showed anything but love and acceptance and pride in that role. He's a kid I would have wanted to be my friend in high school, and now I'm sending him to college and feeling those crazy feelings all parents have---and maybe even more, since we will be on two completely separate continents, and just getting to see each other will take a major act of persistence and coordination, especially for us living in GTMO, the Hardest Place to Leave on Earth. 

2016 meant seeing GTMO friend Erika (with Kim) at St. Simon's Island; saying goodbye to Ana (and later Elena and Uliana) at Ferry Landing; seeing Leslee (with Michelle) in Jacksonville; seeing my high school buddy Michelle in Pensacola; getting a long, wonderful stay with Anna in Germany; going to my first GTMO formal with Uliana; and seeing Ana again in Macedonia. 

As it marks the end of the year, I think of the many, many people I've met because of living here that I am thankful are part of my life, and I desperately hope that I've shown each of them the gratitude they deserve. 

We've made new friends and had some dear, wonderful friends leave island in 2016. Living in a community that is constantly in flux many times allows us to become fast friends with people for an intense 1, 2, or 3 years. As a result, we have friends from all over the world who, like our friends in Macedonia, give us reasons to visit places we've never even considered going before now. It also means that with every goodbye, you have to be willing to open your heart again to opportunities for friendships. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I shy away from warming up to new people because it really does hurt losing people you really trust and enjoy spending time with. So many people I've clicked with have moved on and we lost touch. Others I talk to every week. It's the struggle of living overseas, but it is also the beauty of living overseas---you have friends all over the world who understand your need to not call one place "home." 

I also did not get good news about the transfer round that I was hoping this week. It's out of my hands and there is no special consideration for our hardship area, so I figure the chips will fall where they may. Another year here or a new adventure elsewhere in the world will not change the facts in 2017 that I am a mom who is going to worry about her son living alone abroad, or a mom who is going to worry about her "baby" becoming a middle schooler, or a teacher who is always tired (and my feet---I really can't wait to retire so I'm not on my feet 8 hours a day). In April, the two campuses will combine to one, so I will be back on campus with my youngest again. I will lose one of my very best GTMO friends (the best) in early 2017. 

Time marches on, and even slow island life goes on, as well. Many big changes are around the corner, and finding ways to deal with the trials, tribulations, and celebrations of GTMO will still be here. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Brave New World; or, Techno-slothing

Technology has hit GTMO.

So instead of using the pay phone to call home, I can whip out my cell phone---the same cell phone that can call US numbers---and talk any time I want. I no longer have to wait to find a (free) public phone to call my house or my husband at work, which depending on where I was on base, once meant I could possibly stand in line. Yes, just like in the 1970s. Also I don't have to spend about $20 for a single decent phone conversation with a friend or family member in the U.S. anymore. 
a ball gown, a garden gnome, a diet Coke, and an honest-to-God functional phone booth

Okay, mom, now that I figured out how to close the phone booth,
how do I get out of this thing? 
You can't miss it, either. With little grace or effort to hide our oblivion to our surroundings, we have become an island of people who walk with our heads hanging towards the ground (or sitting and staring at our crotches). Welcome to the 21st century, GTMO---it ain't pretty. 

I'm just waiting for someone to walk into the Windjammer Pool or step on a not-so-friendly iguana or into the Bay because they aren't paying attention. And I'm sure someone else will be there with a cell phone, filming it all and posting it on Youtube, which we can all now watch without waiting hours to buffer.

I used to consider myself a tech-saavy kinda gal, but four long years of technology draught has made me feel like a doofus.  I am still not used to carrying a cell phone. I leave it at home. I leave it at work. I have people texting me, where are you? Do you ever answer your texts?  And the answer: only if I remember my phone. 

After 4 years of not using a cell phone, I forget to turn off the ringer at the most embarrassing moments. I don't ever check my voice mail. Even before trying to cut off my finger, I was awful at texting. And talking on it? I've always hated talking on the phone, so I'm bad about using it.

I was in my house last weekend and I heard a weird buzzing. It REALLY freaked me out. 

I've had hummingbirds fly into my classroom more than once (the last time, a student calmly and patiently opened her hand, and when finally rewarded with a tiny hummingbird gently landing on her palm, she released it unharmed outside---true story). We have other insects and animals that make vibrating, buzzing noises, too. So I'm thinking, it's a bird. It's a weird beetle or huge moth. It's a snake. It's a weird tropical creature that probably carries an incurable tropical disease, and it's in my bedroom.

It was none of the above. It was my cell phone making that unusual ring tone/buzzing noise to indicate that someone is trying to do facebook chat. 

And just like that, I'm talking to a friend in South Korea. It's awesome! But it's so strange, because I feel like I have been in a vortex of 1980s technology and missed out on 10 years instead of four. 

Oh, what I've missed out on.

There's the world of Youtube.
Of course we had Youtube before higher speed internet, but between buffering and the internet just stopping (or never even working), I never, ever watched those videos everyone seems to post on socal media:

Cats scared of cucumbers.
Cats riding on Roombas.
Music videos. I didn't realize bands still make music videos.
Vine compilations. 
Inspirational quotes set to music that are really, really, corny, but some days are exactly what I want to see.
Videos of people playing video games. And they get paid (a lot, evidently) for it. Seriously, W.T.H? 

And there is THIS viral video that just happens to feature my GTMO buddy's granddaughter, Aurora.
And right on time for the election---the nasty, vile, sometimes erroneous (okay, many times erroneous) information out there, many times in the form of fake-but-real looking news reports--- I sort of decided to quit watching Youtube so much and don't really click on people's videos on facebook anymore. A few weeks was enough. I'm totally over it now. 

Like my cell phone, I like to take my Youtube in moderation.

But then there is Netflix and Apple TV.

I had Netflix before moving here in 2012, but I find myself gobsmacked at what's out there and what I've missed in four years. 

I really *really* feel like I'm getting nothing productive done because I have access to television on demand. I am really overdoing it.

Like watching an entire season of Nurse Jackie with a friend in one sitting. Or watching all seasons of Scandal (don't judge) or trying to catch all of Gilmore Girls (again, no judging) so I can catch the special over Thanksgiving weekend. 

I had a friend who won't be named (and sometimes reads this) who grew up without a television in her home. When she bought her first house, she went out and bought a t.v. In a few days, she took it back. The store wanted to know what was wrong with it. Nothing, she said. I just watch it too much.

So this Brave New World, the one with cell phone calls (and facetime!) and television on demand (and youtube!) and viral videos, video chats, instagram, and facebook----I am a little overwhelmed. And I am underwhelmed. I do sort of miss working my way through a novel or a magazine in attempts to get to sleep. I miss stopping everything in my life so I didn't miss the one and only showing of Game of Thrones on HBO Sunday night (no on-demand here). It gave me a place to be and something to do consistently. 

Instead, now I can become even more of a hermit and choose to spend all evening on the back porch, my bedroom, or most bizarrely, in the den, watching something with headphones, while my kids and husband are sitting a few feet away, doing the same thing. 

I love being able to connect with more people in more places---it is SO hard to maintain friendships via messenger, because so much is missed in a text conversation---but I also feel like a true techno-sloth. In connecting with people outside the home, I feel cut off from what's around me. 

So with that, forgive me if I don't return your texts or call back if you leave a voice mail. I probably have left my cell in the car or at work, or the sound is turned completely off. If you message me on facebook and it seems like I'm online but ignoring you, it's only because I can't figure out how to make it look like I'm not on 24 hours a day. If I don't answer your calls, it may be because I am not fast enough to slide that stupid bar on the phone. Or I had the sound turned off and now it's dead, so calling it doesn't do any good in trying to find it. Or it's locked and I can't unlock it fast enough, because my fingers are TOO DAMN SLOW. 

And if I text you about my thong, it's actually supposed to be thing. 

Trust me on this.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like. . . Xmas in Summer; or, Santa Baby, Bring Me a Transfer

December is here!

December does bring a little milder weather, compared to the humid, sweaty, bug-ridden months of July and August. As I'm writing this, it's 88º outside, and with humidity and low cloud cover, at least according to The Weather Channel online, it "feels like 97º."

Ah, well. At least it doesn't feel like it's 107º, right?

Monty Python gives me my mantra for many a day in GTMO.
December brings the annual Christmas parade and Christmas tree lighting. We have a huge Christmas tree on (where else?) Christmas Tree Hill that is ceremoniously lit, as well as one in the atrium of the NEX/Commissary (only shopping in town!). 

The elementary kids always sing during the lighting, which means December also brings me trying to find our youngest kid a pair of long pants to wear for the occasion. He will also need these for the Holiday show right before school is out. (Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed music---it's always my favorite show of the year). 

So December means lots of kids on base will be wearing "high water" pants, because at about $45 a pop, we aren't buying our kids pants they will wear 2-3 times in a year. I usually buy a pair in the summer if/when we go back to the States in a size or two too large, but somehow, miraculously, that kid grows and they don't fit, come December. 

December means decorations at home, too. It's a weird and strange thing getting into the holiday spirit when it's basically summer. Last year was the first year we put up the Christmas Palm Tree. We promised the youngest kid that if we were here for four years in GTMO (yeah, right, how many people are here for 4 years, right?), we would break down and buy the Christmas Palm Tree. 

Well, folks, we are at year five and we are enjoying another Christmas with the Christmas Palm Tree. 

The best part of the Christmas Palm Tree? It uses less ornaments. Easy clean-up. It fits neatly in a box. And it's strange and weird, just like GTMO. 

December also brings transfer season.

This is the one thing I don't want to talk too much about. I feel like I will somehow jinx myself, which is really silly, because if you've been following this for a while, you know transferring from here has been at times a frustrating, upsetting, depressing topic. Other times, I feel at peace with being here---I'm not necessarily a "I'm here because I'm supposed to be here at this time" sort of person, but it has allowed us some rewards, as well, which I also have talked about. (I usually talk about these things 2-3 months after finding out the transfer season is over and I didn't get my lucky ticket). I won't get into the whole "why do you want to leave GTMO" bit; just look over posts from the last 4 years, and you'll see the things I love and despise about here. Sometimes the balance is more in one way than the other; I usually am balanced in the middle. 

So I am, for the third year in a row, officially an "A+" candidate for transfers. In the "good ole days" (boy, I ALWAYS seem to get into districts once those supposed days are over), A+ guaranteed you a ticket out and to one of your top 3-4 spots on your list. Now, with a tight budget, a smaller military, and less resources put towards moving teachers around (it's cheaper to hire stateside than move those of us already in the system), I'm in this weird limbo.

In 2014, I put in considerable time researching countries, schools, activities in the 10-15 areas on my "wish list" for my family, the prices of tickets to and from the US, local celebrations and festivals, food, housing, etc. I had spreadsheets and the OCD thing. I was the ONLY A+ in my entire school. But alas, with only 3 years in the system, a very limited number of transfers, and a system that chooses the "best" candidate for a vacant position solely on number of years that person has in the system, I didn't get out. 

I was crushed. 

I sort of rebounded and found hope again in 2015, but with much less zeal (and much less choosiness---I really put almost every place down on my list), I tried again. And no transfer. 

So this year, I'm sort of like, meh. If it happens, yay. If not, I am even more convinced I work for a bureaucracy that cares less about its employees and more about cutting corners. 

I hope that doesn't sound too bitter. I am bitter sometimes, but most of the time, just frustrated. I did not become an overseas teacher to spend it on a 45 square mile piece of land that has no connection to the culture or people of the country it inhabits. 

So December brings that, and I can honestly say I took less than 3 minutes to fill out my application this year. I refuse to build it up and put so much time and energy into the transfer season ever again. It's like when you break up with a loser boyfriend, and then get back with him thinking he's going to change. But nope. . . he's not. 

In the meanwhile. . . some more good. December brings my oldest son preparing for college. This includes a trip to the Spanish Consulate in Houston this week to get his visa so he can study in Madrid. He will be leaving in January. 

December brings a super-quick trip back to the US (Jacksonville, OF COURSE) so we can take him to the airport to say goodbye. Don't know if I'm quite prepared for that one. 

December brings my birthday, which is always an anti-climatic event, since 99% of the time, all my friends are out of town for vacation. This year will be no different. But it also means I get to celebrate a small gathering with my family, and if we are lucky, a couple of friends who will hopefully still be in the area. 

I do like closure, and I have a lot of open doors at the end of December---the transfer round, my son leaving the country. But I do think it's also a sign that 2017 is going to be a year of big changes. How big is yet to be seen. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel is Dead; or, History is Now

Ding, dong, the tyrannical dictator is dead.

After 4 years, 1 month, and 6 days (but who's really counting, right?), something BIG has finally happened on this island.

Friends are messaging me about being a witness to history. Fidel is dead. What's going on in Cuba?

Well folks, my guess is as good as yours. As you probably know, we live in US-Cuba, not Cuba-Cuba.

That being said, we are subjugated to endless rhetoric and propaganda every morning on Cuban radio. "This day in history" on one of the local stations is always something about either a) the Revolution, or b) the Spanish-American war. Cuba is always on the victorious side. The Heroes are brave and strong, and Cuba is morally superior to the dirty haters of liberty.

Or something like that.

In reality, Cuban radio is not going to broadcast the truth.

Please remember that the charismatic old man was also a ruthless dictator.

Please research and know the Damas en Blanco ("Ladies in White") still peacefully and silently march every Sunday for the release of their loved ones who have been imprisoned close to our little base. They are protesting the detainment of dozens of journalists and librarians who dared to think they could express freedom of speech and press. Hours before Obama visited Havana, the Cuban regime had them whisked away on house arrest so the US press would not cover their story.

Please think of the people here living in third world conditions. Since we've been here, there's been an outbreak of cholera in the area right outside the gate. There are lines for food and people still use rations cards. This is hidden from the tourists who pay lots of money to see Castro's sanitized version of Havana, but in the poorest area of Cuba (our part), it's common knowledge.

And here in GTMO, one of the most reviled places in the world for its prison (which residents here will explain---ad naseum---is not the main reason this base exists), we have international organizations which help dissidents who brave shark-infested waters, Cuban marksmen who are trained to shoot anyone they see swimming towards the base, or mine fields to seek asylum. They come because they have been persecuted for their religious or political beliefs. Many times, if your family member is imprisoned, you are persecuted, as well. It sort of reminds me of the N. Korean system of punishing future generations for the "sins" of its dissidents.
A trio of Cuban musicians,
hand carved by Cuban asylum seekers on GTMO,
and my favorite thing I've ever bought here. 
Fidel cleaned up the US Mafia that ran much of Havana and overthrew the military (and US) backed junta of Trujillo, but he replaced them with an equally violent group of rulers.  In recent years, he has morphed from a strong force to be reckoned with (who was known for hours-long speeches every year), to a rather pitiful, sickly old man whose last speeches were rather incoherent. All power was turned over to his brother, Raul, about 10 years ago. He was just the figurehead for the Revolution and a reminder of what could have been, had he chosen to use his influence to bring positive change without oppressing his people.

Don't hold your breath for normalized relations between the US and Cuba until Raul is gone. Don't think the people of Cuba are going to rise up and have a revolution now Fidel is gone---he's been "gone" for years now, and unless you are part of the military, you don't own a gun, anyway. Don't count on the gate opening and those of us in GTMO being able to flood into the nearby provinces---including Santiago, where Fidel's ashes will be scattered---any time soon.

Meanwhile, don't fall for the accolades of Fidel, who brought education and great health care to his little island paradise. He kicked out what many believed were American imperialistic leaders, and tried to bring autonomy to the country of Cuba. He did those things in an astonishingly effective and successful way.

But the human cost has been too great, and several other smaller (and larger) countries have done the same, without the human rights violations. President Obama said, "History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him." Let's hope the future will be kinder to the people of Cuba and bring about change into the 21st century that they so desperately need.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Happiness; or, Best Things

Things that make me happy: 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a student say, "Hey, I really like your dress!" Then he said, "you know, it sort of reminds me of Lord of the Dance!"

So, so many questions:

a). Was this a compliment or an insult?
b). How does a 16 year old boy know about Lord of the Dance? Didn't that go away in, like, 2000 or something?
c). I am not wearing a bolero jacket with appliques, a la Michael Flatley---so what does that mean? Really?

Also, it made me laugh. Really, really laugh. Sometimes you need that, and thanks to working with teenagers, I find quite a few things in the day to make me laugh. 

I love this quote: 

from Beloved
This is from one of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison, from her book Beloved.  It's written on the wall of my classroom. It's my new mantra. You are your best thing. That goes for you, me, everyone. I can't be superwoman and do everything at work perfectly, I am awful at meal planning and my "love/hate" relationship with the grocery store and cooking has drifted towards the "hate/despise" spectrum, but tomorrow will be better, and I am really making huge efforts to take better care of myself while dealing with the challenges of living somewhere without quality fresh produce.

As an aside (bragging here)---my 56 page master's thesis was on the book Beloved. 

As another aside---why doesn't anyone ever ask an English major about the subject of his or her master's thesis? I have never been asked this in a job interview. I know high school English teacher or librarian is not exactly the hallowed halls of academia, but dang---if anyone here reads this, and just happens to interview candidates about their qualifications for a job and sees they have an MA in English, take 3 minutes to ask about their thesis topic. Toni Morrison won the Nobel for literature the week I defended it, so I felt a lot of validation, regardless. 

Happy Meals make me happy (don't judge). This prize made me very happy: 
***book not included
Why? Batgirl was a librarian. She also happens to be reading the world's smallest edition of Beloved. Duh. 

This makes me really happy: 
After several weeks in Europe that did involve a little more walking than usual, but a whole lot more eating out (and, okay, a lot more imbibing), I lost weight. I really think it was because we a) sat down and took our time to eat our meals---it's that slow European dining experience that makes you savor your food and have a conversation at the same time; and b) we ate fresh ingredients with less hormones and antibiotics in our food. 

So we are really sort of screwed with b) here. But I have made an effort to take my time eating, and not gulp down my food like I'm starving to death. Until I tried to cut my finger off (making fresh cucumber and dill salad, by the way), I was also working out a bit. I really think now about what I eat. I can't go down to the bakery to get fresh Brotchen, but I am eating less junk food and trying to eat more vegetables. Anyway, the point is I've lost over 15 lbs, which is about what I've gained in 4 years of eating mostly processed food, and I'm feeling a million times better. 

The week of my son's high school graduation, I tried on one of my favorite dresses I only wear for very special occasions, and the damn thing shrank. I mean, my butt had grown. Not a ton, but enough that I was not comfortable wearing it and had to go with plan B dress, which isn't easy when you don't really have clothes stores here (and it takes 2-3 weeks to get mail, if it ever makes it to you in the first place). Moral of the story---don't wait until the week of an event to try on the outfit you've spent months planning on wearing. Geez. Moral of the story, part two---take time to weigh yourself occasionally and adjust your diet and exercise accordingly.

So I now have a special occasion dress that fits perfectly, a toy to remind me that I love being a librarian and ONE DAY I WILL be back in the library, and I have a student who thinks I look ready to break out in a Celtic groove at any moment. Life's not always perfect or even interesting here, but it's mine and it's my best thing.  

Monday, October 31, 2016

Oops,I did it again; or, Five in the Books

How appropriate that on the eve of Halloween, I would mutilate myself.
Fuzzy pic thanks to hubby who hates blood and pain.
I laughed at my stupidity while he turned green watching from the corner. 
Yes, that's real blood and that's what happens when you decide to slice your finger instead of a cucumber using a kitchen mandoline. 

(Not to be confused with a mandolin, a stringed instrument that I guess you could pick up and play whilst cooking dinner).

Now I am going through my day looking like this: 
I'm not flipping you off; I'm just showing off my
amazing bandage job, thanks to my hubby. 
Not pictured: 
The nice big slice in my thumb a few weeks back thanks to a sharp kitchen knife and a clumsy chef. I managed to super glue it shut, but it took hours to stop the bleeding on my finger tip this time around (mostly because there was no skin left), so to the ER I had to go. 

What's the moral of the story? I need to hire a sous chef. I need to avoid the kitchen. I need to pay better attention and not try to multitask while cooking. 

The worst part? The cucumbers were actually fresh and crispy, which is many times a rare and miraculous occurrence in the produce wasteland known as the GTMO Commissary. They had to be dumped (with probably the end of my finger---I never did find it). 

Dark road + running off large shoulder=major sprain 
And ended up for several months like this:

So do I need a Halloween costume? Or do I just go as the world's clumsiest human being? 

I just took my mummy finger and my almost-11 year old and celebrated his 4th anniversary of landing on this rock, and his 5th GTMO Halloween. 

It was not a big day to celebrate because it was an exhausting weekend (big sale at the dive shop for the 2 big guys, a sleepover for the littlest guy, and an unplanned a 2+ hour long visit to the ER).

The last 3 years, we've managed to be part of a party of some sort or the other, with the kids venturing out in a large gang, Peanuts style, and the adults enjoying adult beverages and lots of laughs in our old neighborhood, Nob Hill.

This year Halloween fell on a Monday and started at 5. Many people weren't even home from work yet. Because of the weird rainy season we've had this year (a definite anomaly here), the neighborhoods are full of waist-high grass and tons of mosquitoes.

If you didn't recognize me as Clumsy Mom, you should know me as Anti-Zyka Mom. I actually hit a friend up for bug spray instead of candy when I rang her bell---this would be after I had already sprayed down once---because they were vicious.

With us in a new neighborhood, we didn't do our typical adult beverages, since I now have to drive across base to my home. Plus the whole Monday thing---not the best way to start a week.

It was rather low-key, with visits to some old friends and the realization that I really don't know many people here any more.

It was bittersweet going to our 4th Trunk or Treat when I realized that I only knew 2-3 people there. I feel so out of touch; I no longer have friends who are H's classmate's parents. It's sad, because I miss hanging out with the kids and having adult conversations at the same time.  It wasn't a conscious choice I've made; people just come and go, and I have managed to stick to the same circle of friends the last year (or what's left of them), with none of the remaining ones having kids H's age anymore.

I work at distancing myself from work and keeping out of the fishbowl, but sometimes I need to dive back in. It's isolating and smothering at the same time. Keeping that balance, even after 4 full years, is a nebulous thing. I'm happiest reading a book in my house, but sometimes, especially in this tiny place, I need to venture out because I am realizing that while I was hibernating since school started, the base population has changed drastically.

That's the transient nature of living and working on an isolated base, and also the issues with being an introvert who would rather spend the weekend alone than out socializing.  It's just another thing to work on while living here---how to get out of my comfort zone and work on being a social creature.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Riding the Storm Out; or, Bitter or Better, Whatever

In a nervous frenzy, I originally wrote this entry a couple of weeks ago, as Hurricane Matthew was bearing down on GTMO. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I will start at the end of my first draft: 

"So I'm worried about our surrounding islands and those people. I'm worried about the sea life that is finally recovering from our last hurricane. I'm worried about our iguanas and tarantulas and all sorts of lizards. I'm worried about our boas. I'm even worried about the annoying banana rats that eat my plants. (And my plants---I'm sad about the possibility of losing my plants that I love so much).

And the irony: we FINALLY got cell phones that can call the US, and a hurricane will probably take out those towers. We FINALLY got high-speed internet, and we are all holding our breaths that the cable from the US to GTMO doesn't break with this hurricane.

But I will say it again and again----we are being evacuated. We will be okay. Our family will be safe."

Oh, oh the irony.

I was right about a few things. The sea life didn't take a big hit, and the animals are okay. Our house is fine. The cell towers were left standing, and the internet is still working. GTMO is still on track for its slow and arduous journey into the 21st century.

But that last part----our family will be safe----really hurts to read, because things did NOT go as planned with our evacuation.

What to know about hurricane season: we keep a hurricane kit handy and update it often---lanterns and flashlights and candles, batteries for everything, a radio, and lots of water and non-perishable food. Since we moved here, we have always had a plan of where to be and what to do if/when it hits, and in the past, we have felt confident that we will be safe.

And this wasn't my first time through a hurricane here---I was here less than a week when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. That was my trial by fire to life on GTMO.

With Hurricane Matthew bearing down, we came to this frightening conclusion: everything we own is here in this house.

When news of an eminent evacuation came, here was the quandary: if you have to choose your most precious belongings to fit in a suitcase (with a 40 lb limit), what would you pack?

We have military paperwork (including my stupid LES paperwork----my DoDDS friends will understand that one). We have passports, birth certificates, social security cards. We have other important paperwork. I wasn't even worried about clothes. But how do you pack non-replaceable baby pictures, things you got from your grandparents, and a crazy, big book collection?

In my suitcase, I packed a couple of books, some old family photographs, flash drives, jewelry, and a few sentimental items. I didn't even have 1/4 of the suitcase packed, because it was honestly so overwhelming.

But what I never, ever dreamed was that my entire family wouldn't make it off island.

We waited up Saturday night for the call to show up to evacuate, but it never came.

Then I got a frantic phone call on Sunday morning from a colleague that, in essence, said, "get your ass down here right now because they are taking the last of the evacuees."

We crammed into an auditorium and were told to move towards the front and would be loading from the front of the auditorium.

That didn't work out so well, as people came in and sat whatever they wanted, and those of us who had been there a long time watched people who were just walking in the door get chosen to check in to catch a flight.

People with pets were ushered to the front of the line and left hundreds of us sitting there wondering if there was going to be room for the rest of us.

Then the CO came in and announced that there was only one plane left, and with over 200 people left and only about 130 seats, he needed volunteers to stay on island.

To stay on island. With a Category 4 hurricane coming straight for GTMO. That's like Katrina in 2005.

Panic ensued. I'm not going to lie; I started crying and didn't stop until long after we got to the U.S.

We were told that we could choose one parent to go on the flight.

Then our children were lined up by age and we were told that children 10 and under would probably make the flight.


My husband insisted that I go with the kids, so I started bawling. Did I mention the Cat 4 hurricane headed straight for us? Or the fact that we were never called to show up for the evacuation? Or that people with pets got priority over everyone else on the last 2 flights? Disorder and chaos and poor planning all at one time.

At this point I realized that a) my husband could very well die and b) we should have packed our damn taxidermied squirrel in a cat carrier so we could also jump the line and get on board as a family.

My youngest and I made the cut, and it was touch-and-go as to whether my 18 year old would make the flight.

This would be the point that I had a panic attack on the floor and freaked out whoever was making these seemingly arbitrary decisions about who got to go and who got to stay *just enough* that he got to go with me.

But my husband had to stay.

At this point, I didn't care about our lifetime of stuff. Call me fatalistic (or a realist---we did have family members lose a house in Katrina, after all, but at least could evacuate to save their lives). All I could think is, I could lose my husband. My kids could lose their father. I could lose colleagues---not only friends, but teachers who have been wonderful mentors to my two children. Neighbors we've grown to love, the wonderful foreign nationals who I've played soccer with and who have watched my youngest son after school, who do many thankless jobs on base and have spent countless hours working on our cars and have become our friends in the process. How could this happen? We are non-essential civilian personnel. Why didn't they send enough planes?

I watched many, many of my colleagues leave the auditorium dejected. I worried about them and cried a little for their safety. After watching several of my teenage students not make what I thought was the last ferry to the airport, I cried some more (there should be violin music playing in the background by this point in the story), until the last ferry to the airport turned around in the middle of the Bay and went back to pick them up. Several of these kids I've known the four years we've lived here, and almost all of them I've taught. Not knowing what was going to happen next made it heartbreaking that they almost got left on island.

Ever flown 4 1/2 hours on a C130? Fun times. 

Flash forward. I didn't sleep more than 2-3 hours at a time until Matthew had passed GTMO on Tuesday, and tragically, at the last minute it took a turn to the right and decimated a small town about 40 miles east of us instead of our base.

We were lucky. Very, very lucky.

My husband and our wonderful neighbors bunkered down in one of their houses (rated for a Cat 2, by the way), and they bonded over their terrifying experience of waiting for a potential catastrophe.

For my family, it was not a vacation. Maybe we should have tried more to enjoy our freedom from base, but it just felt wrong celebrating when so many people we cared about were stuck in the path of a hurricane.

And full disclosure---instead of waiting for the news about the hurricane from Pensacola, I got in my rental car with the boys and drove a few hours to MS. I needed to be home. We stayed 2 days and I got to see my grandmother, who had turned 92 just a few days before we got there. We haven't seen her in over a year. I needed time to be with my family and felt a million times better. And yes, we ate out a few times in Pensacola and the kids had fun hanging out with each other and not worrying about school. The kids needed to be kids and forget about why they were there. But for many of us who had left friends and family behind, it was a bittersweet feeling---we are finally off island, but were wanting to be back with the people we love.

Some of my amazing GTMO friends were also there for me in Pensacola, knowing how worried I was about my husband and alternating between distracting me and comforting me. I didn't realize until I got there that I have both a high school and college friends living in Pensacola, and I got to reconnect with a couple of friends the 10 days we were there. You really do get to know who your friends are in times of crisis.

We joke about this place being Hotel California (you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave), but this just hit too close to home.

I'm not amused by that joke anymore. I hate the feeling of having no control, and as much as I want to live in the present, feeling like I'm literally STUCK here is a horrible feeling.
okay, so I'm not TOTALLY biter. There is some humor to be found in being stuck in this crazy place. 

So this is me after mulling around my feelings for 2 weeks. I wish I could be more upbeat and all "I'm so happy we all survived!" Maybe that will come in time. All I can say is yes, we were lucky. 

I keep seeing people posting the saying, "Life can make you bitter or better. Choose better." With time, hopefully I'll see something positive out of this experience other than we all lived and should be thankful, poor planning be dammed. For now, though, I can't think about the present state of this place, and I choose to be pragmatic (and maybe a little cynical), and focus on the future. The Evacuation Debacle of 2016 makes me happier than ever to be back with my entire little family, and makes me more determined than ever that I WILL live somewhere a little less confining and with the freedom to move about (and out of harm's way), if I choose.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Travel Time; or, More for Less

I have friends who have asked (some in a round about way, others who have just come out and point-blank asked) how did you go to Europe for almost a month? Isn't it expensive?

Well, yes, And no.

Here's what I have always told my students for 20+ years: you will have dozens of friends and acquaintances once you graduate high school. Love or hate facebook and other social media today, it does make it easy to keep in touch. And also it's easier to meet friends of friends.

Chances are, you have friends, family members, or former colleagues who are living in a beautiful and interesting place in the US or overseas. They may be stationed somewhere with the military or there for a job or school.

You know when someone says, "Hey, I'm living in _________ now. You should come out and visit!"

Well, you should do that.


It is simple as that.

Loch Ness, Scotland, April 2002

Here's the other thing----
Most of my friends don't live in an isolated area where they literally have 2-3 choices for dining (and none are great---or expensive), where they can go 3-4 weeks on a tank of gas because the commute is so short, and where they drive a beater car because you would be foolish to drive a nice car in a place with very limited auto repair facilities. 

We also don't pay a mortgage or utilities here---it's provided free as part of the "perks" of living here. 

I bitch, moan, and complain about living here sometimes (many times), and island fever is a real thing and I sometimes worry about going all Jack Nicholson-The Shining on people, but life is cheap and entertainment is limited and sometimes (many times) life is boring here. Our survival tactic is to budget a little bit of civilization into our lives during the summer in the form of travel.  

Glasgow, Scotland 2002
Mission District, San Francisco. 2001
Chinatown, NYC. Dec. 2004
So back to travel and cheapness. Even if you have bills and you have limited vacation time (or unpaid vacation time), for a little more than the price of a plane ticket (or gas, if driving cross-country is your thing), you can have a fabulous vacation.

There are friends and friends of friends. You would be shocked once you start asking around at how many people are willing to take a total stranger in for a week (or longer). I've had friends and former students offer to contact relatives in far away countries to put me up for vacation. There are hostels and Couch Surfing and small, family run hotels. There is also Air BnB and people who know people who are looking for house sitters during the summer. It's not the Ritz, but you can either spend, spend, spend, and only go on vacation once in a blue moon, or you can do it on the cheap and learn about other cultures in the process. We are lucky and know people who live all over the country and the world, so we were able to visit Germany and Macedonia while staying with friends. I loved it because we don't see them often, and you get a unique perspective staying with someone from the community where you are visiting. 

Baden Baden Germany, 2012

There are also advantages and disadvantages to doing package deals or DIY travel. 

Last summer we found a great deal on a vacation to Mexico through Travelocity. My husband called a service rep to ask about arranging transportation from the airport to the hotel, and through that conversation, we ended up getting two weeks for a little more than the one week price, and two rooms for the price of one. We didn't have to figure out all the logistics of a hotel, flight, and other transportation because we did it as a one-stop shop. Sometimes this works best (especially if trying to coordinate all these things causes you major anxiety, like it does me). For a family with 2 kids, including one child under the age of 10, this was also the best trip option for us at the time. 

This year we went through the website SkyScanner and found great air deals with airlines not usually featured on the big travel websites. We flew Condor to Frankfurt. There are several no-frills airlines out there---Wow is another one---where you have to decide, do I want to carry a huge suitcase, or do I want to pay less than half price for a ticket that requires me to bring no more than 5 outfits? Movies, large suitcase check, meals, alcohol---these are all extra on no-frills airlines, but there is no way it adds up to what you pay for a ticket on major airlines. Our son traveled on another cheap airline from Germany---TAP, out of Portugal. 

My bright green carry-on got me through Europe for a month.
Through SkyScanner and Travelocity, Orbitz or Kayak, Travelwatchdog or any other travel site that sends you monthly (or weekly) travel deals, you can find great prices on tickets. We have airline miles and get emails from those companies, as well. It takes some time to go through and find the best price, but if you are paying outright for your tickets, sometimes you have to do a little work. 

A great option for those people who do pay monthly bills, credit cards that have travel miles can get you tickets quickly. A few of my friends are very thrifty and can follow a budget, so they put all their monthly expenses on a credit card, pay them off immediately, and get enough miles for 2-3 trips a year. If we ever get back to the real world of making monthly payments for a mortgage or utilities, I will definitely consider doing this. 

Traveling via train and small airlines is a great deal in Europe. For $20, 30, or 40 you can fly round trip to another country, spend a couple of days in a hostel or cheaper hotel, and spend a few days for less than a single day in some of the big US travel destinations. Bus travel is another option---we've been all over Mexico in buses. Just make sure to learn about the different classes of buses and get one that is air-conditioned and has a bathroom. The price difference is usually only a few dollars. 

I have friends who love Disney and go every single year. This is great if it's your thing. Personally, I hate big crowds. The thought of standing in line for an hour makes my stomach churn.

As I told my parents once, why would someone want to spend thousands of dollars to see pretend countries at Epcot, when you can enjoy a real country (and for a longer period of time) for much, much  less?

And honestly, the best secret of cheap travel is knowing a teacher. Teachers get paid for the days we work (usually around 190 a year) and most have the option of getting those paychecks stretched out over the summer. We get anywhere from 6-8 weeks off in the summer for vacation (unpaid vacation---I mentioned that we don't get paid for that time off, right?!?!). Many teachers are great at budgeting to have extra money in the summer.  Many of us are also very good at scrimping and saving because, face it, we are getting paid a whole lot less than many of our non-teaching friends. But hey, we get the (unpaid) summer!!

Teachers for the most part also are curious about the world. Teachers are perpetual students. Depending on what we teach, we are always reading and learning about other cultures, other parts of the world.

So find a cheap, adventurous teacher friend, and I can promise you he or she will have great ideas on how to travel for little money. I was lucky and found a teacher friend who has been my travel buddy to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and San Francisco for a wedding. She has lived in Scotland and Germany and I've been to visit her at both locations. For 18 years now, she has helped me wrap my head around travel because I am awful at planning trips (thus the all-for-one stop vacation destinations when I plan a trip). 

The bottom line is whether it's a last minute deal on a travel site to a city in the US or a week-long trip to another country, you owe it to yourself to see how the rest of the world lives. Climbing pyramids in Mexico, driving through Monument Valley, searching for the Loch Ness monster, getting lost amongst the canals of Amsterdam, and watching my kids order pastries in Germany are memories I'll cherish forever. I've given up a life of a new (or even a nice) car, a big house, and a large wardrobe. I no longer spend lots of money on first edition books, my big, nerdy, expensive hobby. I love my mis-mash of old and new furniture and don't really care that it doesn't always match. I made a decision in my 40s to give up material things for a life of experiences.

It's difficult living far away from my US family here in Cuba, but it's also made these experiences possible. I know it's not for everyone---my friends who have made roots (especially my friends in my hometown of Monticello, MS) have something I wish I had---the desire to stay in one place. They have a present that is set in a history that is slowly fading from my memory, and I feel a lot of sadness when I go back and realize I don't recognize people anymore and don't know or remember most the people they are talking about. They have a life many of my own students, who have lived nothing but a peripatetic life, would love to have. And many of them also manage to have their own adventures---and have a home to return to.

Home for me is with my family, not a place. But for those of you who have a home that is a place---cherish it. Be proud that you know what you want and you know where you want to live. I may get there one day, who knows. In the meanwhile. . . hit me up and maybe we'll plan the next great adventure together.