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.