Wednesday, July 30, 2008

To My Readers

I don't know how many of you there are, but I've been surprised by the number of people who have told me at one time or another, "I was reading your blog and..." One thing I'd like to see have more of at Life's More Real is reader participation. Leave a comment, ask questions, make a statement, agree, disagree, call me stupid, call me smart! I'd love to hear from you, so if you're out there, let me know!

And... you'll have to forgive any recent spelling mistakes, the spell check feature doesn't seem to work here.

Battles with Nicolas

I like little kids generally. They are cute, innocent and honest in the way that only kids are. The kids here a Fundacion Mahatma Ghandi are no different. I've been working with about 15 of them, ages 6 through 8. I help them paint, make necklaces, or with whatever art or craft is scheduled for that day.

Mostly they are all smiles or laughter. They give me hugs, hold my hand or sit on my lap for no apparent reason. All very cute. But there are problems. They don't share. They grab others things. They hit. They scream. I, being a middle school teacher, am not entirely sure if this is what 6, 7, and 8 year olds do when misbehaving, or something else entirely.

When somebody takes someone else's things, the children raise the hue and cry of "PROFE!!!" (short for professor). They point at the offfender and then babble rapidly and incomphrensibly. I come, look at them, try to figure out the object is that is causing trouble and try to return it to the right party. It works by and large, except with one boy named Nicolas.

The other volunteers warned me about Nicolas. He does not play well with others. He likes to grab, yell, hit and scream. Worst of all he doesn't listen to the staff. The first day I let it slide, as I wasn't sure what discpline options I had (make him stand in the corner? send him outside?). The best tool in my classroom management box, the hairy eye ball, did nothing. He'd just stare back at me and smile.

The second day I came determined to impose some order. Soon enough I was given an opportunity. As we were rearrainging the class for another activity, Nicolas planted himself on the top of a stack of chairs that other children needed to sit in. I asked him to get down.

He said no.

Other children started to yell and him and tug at his chair. "Back away, I'll deal with this.", told them.

I again asked Nicolas to come down.

He said no.

I grabbed his chair, with him in it, and lifted him off the pile and sat him down. He clapped gleefully and asked me to do it again.

"No, and you need come down when I ask you. The other kids needed the chair and you were taking them all."

He ignored me and asked me to pick him up again.

"You're going to sit in the corner for five minutes."

He shook his head no.

So I picked him up again, chair and all, and put him in the corner. He got his wish and grinned triumphantly. The lead volunteer came around pass out art supplies. Drawing time! The kids love drawing. Nicolas started to scoot his chair toward the table. I blocked him. I grinned triumphantly. "5 minutes!"

He shook his head no and kept trying to get to the table. I, bigger and stronger, was able to keep the seven year old seated against the wall.

So he tried a new tactic, he started laughing and pointing at me. I ignored it for about 30 seconds. Then, I got annoyed. I asked him why he was crying.

He kept laughing. I asked him again, why are you crying? You keep crying, why?

He just kept laughing. Getting nowhere, I decided to go back to ignoring him. The other kids were drawing, they were laughing too, but in a happy way. Nicolas saw all this and tried to scoot his chair up to the table. "5 minutes." Only "3 now," he said. "Your time starts when you start behaving." Somewhere deep in my mind, memories of my parents stirred.

I started helping other kids, oohing and awwing over houses and flowers. Nicolas kicked me, softly in the rear end. "5 minutes I told him." "Only 2 now," he said. "No, 5 minutes starting when you behave."

And then, a miracle. He was quiet! I was victorious! He slumped in his seat and frowned his biggest frown. 5 minutes came and went. I felt satisfied.

Nonetheless, before I told him I was very glad he was here and that he's a good kid. I also told him that he needs to listen to the adults here, and that we are all team. If he sits on 6 chairs, 5 kids don't get a chair and that's not fair. He nodded his head and then joined his group, still sullen.

For the rest of the day, amazingly, there were no problems. No one grabbed anyone's things! I caught Nicolas' eye when I had a chance and winked at him. He smiled. Later, he asked me to look at his drawing, "What a pretty... house!" I finally decided it was, though it could have been a spider. He looked pleased. Best of all, later that day on the street he ran up and gave me a big hug!

The moral of this story? When kids (or adults for that matter) misbehave there's always some underlying motivation. Try to understand that and be compassionate. Discpline them but still love them, and kids will love you back!

That advice has been given me by more than one excellent teacher. I think it applies elsewhere in life too. It's also very hard to put into practice and I can think back on too many times this last year alone where I applied the discipline but not the love. But when it works it's great! Just thought I'd share...

A Real Slice of Dominican Life

Updates on my journey thus far:
  • Megan and I traveled to Rio San Juan, a small town on the northern coast. It's biggest draws are the beautiful beaches nearby and the minimal tourist presence. Nearly every night the whole town gathered together to watch teens from various neighborhoods play basketball on some outdoor courts. It was the real deal, they had uniforms, referees, score clocks, and even an emcee. Best of all they blasted merengue between quarters.
  • After five days there we said good-bye. She went east to the beaches of the Samana Penninsula with a newfound Italian friend. I went west to Cabarete, international extreme sports hotspot, where I tried my hand, with mixed results, at windsurfing.
  • And finally two days ago I arrived in Las Terrenas, where I'll be for the next two weeks working for the Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi until I head home.
The amount of expats living here is amazing. Everywhere you look there's a white face whizzing by on a motorcycle or 4-wheeler (the North Coast's preferred methods of transportation). A few blocks down from the foundation, you can find a half-dozen mulleted, middle-aged Germans sitting outside a liquor store drinking beer from noon til dark.

Like everywhere else on the coast it's hot and muggy. I sweat throughout the day and a good part of the night. It's also incredibly dusty. Fortunately the beach is only a few minutes from my hotel.

But I'm not here to sweat or meet old mulleted men. The Fundacion Mahatma Gandhi runs a small community library, the only library in town, which doubles as a community center. The library is small but neat building, with a covered seating area that can be used as a classroom or meeting area. Next to the library is a concrete structure that has a half-dozen classrooms. Outside those buildings is a large field, partially mowed, where the kids can play games. The unmowed part contains, for reasons unknown, a broken down jeep and piles of concrete. Led by a super-friendly man named Jose and his wife Annette, the foundation gives children a place to read, learn, or just come and hang out in a structured and safe environment.

Right now is the last week of summer camp, and I'm helping teach the 6, 7, and 8 year olds. It's been tiring, yet rewarding. The other volunteers are fantastic and have welcomed me with open arms. They genuinely love kids, as is obvoius by watching them for thirty seconds. We are all paying to be here. That seems to have weeded out the free-loaders and malcontents, usually those just looking for a paycheck, that I've seen at other summer camps.

Most of all, I'm glad I'm finally doing something productive. There's only so many beaches you can see before the start to blend together. And up until now 99% of the contact I've had with Dominicans was with the art dealers, taxi drivers, waiters, hotel staff, etc etc. The tourist machinary is so fine-tuned here it's hard to break free. I started to feel that I was wasting my time and my money.

But not today. As I walked to the internet cafe one kid waved at me from across the street and another, Nicolas, ran up to me and gave me a big huh. He is a story in himself, and for that you'll have to read tomorrow!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Great Authors: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Books, like music, can transport you through place and time, expand your knowledge, and in the best cases evoke powerful profound thought and/or powerful emotions. This places literature firmly under the penumbra of Life's More Real and its expertise in all things that make life good. (ha!)

This trip has afforded me plenty of time to read. A quick run-through of what I've read, all recommended:
  • The Normals by David Gilbert. A quirky, fun read about people who volunteer for medical tests.
  • The Piano Tuner* by Daniel Mason. One of the most stirring and beautiful books I've read in a long time. Based in 19th century Burma, it explores the British occupation and one officer's quest to pacify the region through music and culture rather than war. The parallels to the Iraq occupation are striking.
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. A true tale about a New York City author's experience living in Savannah, Georgia. Sheds interesting light on the dynamics of power, money, sex, and heritage among the Southern aristocracy. Revolves around the murder trial of Jim Williams. Many of the events and characters in the book are so outlandish, the fact it's a true story makes it even more enjoyable.

Right now I'm reading the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was a Russian writer in the 19th century, a contemporary of Dickens, and my personal favorite author. You probably read Crime and Punishment in high school.

His writing reflects the social upheaval that marked the 1800's. Freud, Mark, and Darwin were challenging assumptions about man's place in nature, society, the afterlife, and his own mind. Intellectual and radical movements; socialism, communism, atheism, and all other kinds of -isms, were sprouting up around the world challenging kings and Church. In his writing, Dostoevsky tries to answer, or at least explore those questions in his writing. And those big questions are still relevant today: is there a God? Why is there suffering in the world? What is good? What is evil?

Dostoevsky is remarkable to me, however, in the way he captures all of the little impulses, urges, thoughts and emotions that motivate people to act the way they do. More than any other author I've read he details that finer, more difficult part of human nature that makes, despite our gifts of reasoning and intellect, so irrational at times. It's hard to see a bit of yourself in it.

So if you haven’t read him check it out. Crime and Punishment is a good place to start. The Idiot is the best book I've ever read. Be warned though, his books can be VERY slow at first. To paraphrase something I once read, "Reading Dostoevsky is like preparing a gourmet meal. It takes a long time, but in the end it's worth it.

Your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated!

*For some reason I can no longer link. Sorry!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dangers of Being a Cow

Here we have the tranquil Dominican countryside.

Then suddenly... BAM! A commotion!

Apparently the truck ahead of us nailed this cow. For those of you concerned, the cow did appear to be getting up as we drove off.

Friday, July 25, 2008

When You Are 50...

Will you be doing this? Pretty amazing if you ask me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How to Create Pangea

  1. Squirt sunscreen into both hands.
  2. With hands, attempt to rub suncreen over your entire back.
  3. Swim in the ocean for 4 hours under a hot, blazing sun.

The resulting red blotch in the middle of your back will look almost exactly like Pangea as pictured in school textbooks. It also will hurt a lot.

The lesson? Unless you can detach your shoulders from their sockets, you cannot cover your entire back in sunscreen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Answered Prayer: Yee-Ha and Hallelujah!

Yesterday on the bus ride from Santo Domingo I was plugging along through the Book of Leviticus on my quest to finally read the Bible through cover-to-cover. At the time I was feeling a little bummed: the trip hadn't yet met my expectations, and there was--and is--a nagging little voice in my head asking why am I not doing something more worthwhile with my time. But more on that in another post. I said a little prayer and asked for God to give me a glimpse of Him somehow.

So lo and behold, staying at our hotel last night was a youth group of 24 from Otter Creek church in Brentwood, Tennessee. It was my Oregon Duck's hat that started the conversation, they being SEC fans. Apparently two of their congregration have been living here in beautiful Rio San Juan, and they came down to help with their ministry.

They were all overly kind and their accents down right charming. They invited me to join them for worship as the sun set. I joined their circle on the third floor balcony of Bahia Blanca, overlooking the Atlantic. After worship they shared their favorite moments from their time here. They worked with some children who lived at a nearby dump, teaching, ministering, and basically just loving them. It was easy to see through the tears and choked voices that this trip had really meant something to them. They had formed relationships and bonds that they would take back with them to the States, that some would have with them the rest of their lives. Perhaps most importantly, a number remarked on how they never knew they could make such a difference. It was moving and inspiring.

As they closed the evening their leader thanked me for joining them. I stood up and promptly recieved a long ovation--for what I'm not sure. After the clapping died down I told them about my prayer from earlier that day and how they had been the answer. After thanking them for blessing me, I walked off into the tropical night to more applause. If only all my evenings ended like that.

The whole event really got me thinking on what I could be, and maybe even should be doing with my summers. But as I said earlier, that is for another post. Now I must decide if I want to snorkle, try to learn to scuba, or simply just splash in the waves.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Paradise Found

Finally, my expectations and reality have converged in the Dominican Republic. Rio San Juan, on the DR's north coast, is everything Bavaro was not. Quiet. Charming. People here going about their lives rather than trying to hustle me into trinket shops.
Our ride from Santo Domingo took about 4 hours, crossing from the south of the island to the north. When I saw people playing baseball on dirt fields instead of all inclusive resorts I knew this was going to be an upgrade.
Best of all is our hotel, Bahia Blanca. It is literally on the sea, built on an outcropping of rock that juts into the Atlantic between two bays. My room is on the third story. Open the front door and there is ocean as far as you can see. Out the back door, a balcony and more ocean.
Now to set off to explore this charming little town. Still trying to get photos uploaded.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Aljadrez!

At last I've arrived. We spent today wondering around the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo. One museum had the coolest collection of weapons I've ever seen, including a monstrous scimitar-like thing known as the Brain Crusher (Rompecabezas). I probably couldn't even lift it. Later we visited the oldest working church in the Americas, which looks pretty much like any other old colonial church. The most noteable thing about is was that my friend got kicked out for having her shoulders exposed.
Just minutes ago I stumbled upon a game of speed chess. The locals were eager to have me play, and after my recent games with Your Red Room and others I felt battle-tested and confident. Until I sat down. With about a dozen people watching I got a bad case of the jitters and made bad move after bad move. I rallied briefly, but was crushed. Still, it was more interaction I'd had with any Dominican's who weren't waiters or hotel staff so as far as I'm concerned it was time well spent.
Pictures tonight.

Global Giving in the Times

My favorite Change The World organization, Global Giving, just got some love from the New York Times. But you heard it here first.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whew...

Kudos to Meriwest Bank. Today they credited back ALL the money my friend lost. Good for them for doing the right thing.
Now we're back in Santo Domingo in the Zona Colonial. It is a huuuuuuge improvement. There are actually Dominicans going about there everyday lives. People are everywhere. Being busy, shopping, laughing, playing dominoes in the park. Feels like I finally started traveling.

Disaster!

Yesterday my friend Meggie's ATM card got stuck in a machine. Right as it did a friendly man happened to come up and offered us the service of his cell phone. We're still not sure of the details, but the supposed bank representative on the other end of the line convinced my friend to key in her pin while holding enter, which then somehow authorized charges.
Yesterday they took $500, the 24 hour limit, as we called frantically to Visa and her credit union to get it canceled. No kudos to Meriwest Credit Union. Me and Megan both talked to their people last night, begging to cancel the card, but their representative refused saying it could only be done during business hours. We explained that if it wasn't cancelled they could withdraw more money at midnight. Still no luck.
We finally got through to someone at Visa who told us he had cancelled the card. Lo and behold this morning we discover $500 in fresh charges, totally nearly $1,000 withdrawn. As I speak we are working the phones, trying to get the card cancelled!
This is a definite bummer. In my humble opinion I think the bank should reimburse my friend the latest $500 at least! To be informed of on-going fraud and yet do nothing seems like negligence on their part.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fun Abroad?

Life's More Real is in the Dominican Republic for the next month, where surprisingly life is LESS real than anywhere I've ever been. The whole island seems to suffer from all-inclusiveitis. Here in Bavaro, recommend by Lonely Planet as having some of the best beaches in the whole country, those beaches have been replaced by row after row of beach chairs belonging to the different resorts as far as the eye can see.
Each resort caters to a different crowd, political and cultural boundries maintained by a ropes running from hotel to sea. Here Americans, with their trademark love handles. There blondish people speaking a guttural German sounding tongue. Further on topless women indentify the Spanish, French, and Italians and so on and so on. All wear different colored arm bands, like those you get at the fair, to keep theirs in and others out.
The only thing left out is nature. We were forced to hunt for the no man's land between the resorts. We finally found a nice little stretch of beach where no one cared what armband we had on. A tropical Switzerland.
The tourist industry here is in overdrive. Stores selling painting and little wood figures are everywhere. Everyone is friendly, but so for all the wrong reasons. It's impossible to go 10 minutes without someone trying to shepard you into his store, cooing comforting words. "I give you the best price," "What do you want to buy today?" or my favorite "I got what you need." Really? Oh, male and female salt and pepper shakers in erotic poses. Thanks, but not today.
The restaurants? Serving overpriced, poorly done American selections. I'm hoping I'm in the wrong part of the country. We're leaving tomorrow for the North coast and what we hope will be a more authentic slice of Dominican life.