Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mailing a Post Card in Panama

I promised about 100 kids that I would write them a post card from Panama. I wasn't expecting 100 of my students to put their addresses down. More like 10. I've offered before to write post cards whenever I took some trip overseas during the summer, and usually about 5 kids took me up on it. Since I was leaving for two years I expected a few more. But not 100.

So I bought 10 post cards and wrote the first batch to my 8th graders who graduated last year. These are kids who I had taught for 4 years, and who moved on from Butte Creek the same time I did. I felt a closer bond with than I had any other class, it felt right that they should receive the first of my 100 post card salvo from Panama. 

Then I came to discover that Panama has no national post office. There are no mail boxes, no mail men, nothing. Private businesses fill that void a bit, like Fed Ex for example, but they mostly cater towards businesses. After asking around in my neighborhood, a number of kindly strangers who could put up with my bad Spanish directed me to a store called "Mail Boxes."  Perfect.

Arriving at Mail Boxes yesterday, I pulled out a post card and asked how much it would cost to send one to the west coast. I was hoping for under a dollar, would have been OK with $1.50, and really hoped it wasn't more than $2.00 a post card.

The lady looked at it, smiled, and grabbed some laminated chart and a calculator and began pounding away furiously. For over a minute she was calculating, chk chk chk on the calculator, before pertly popping her head up and proclaiming "$46.47." I of course asked her to repeat it, and after confirming a second time, I did some calculating myself, and decided I sadly will not be mailing 100 post cards at the cost of $4,647 dollars.

Panama is like that. It seems so similar to home at times with its skyscrapers and glittering malls and ubiquitous American chain stores, but try to mail a post card and bam! Panama-ed.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Trip to the Barber in Panama

I haven't been to the barber for approximately three years. Until today.

During that time, I've cut my own hair. It works fine, apart from the occasional really long random hair I miss that sprouts from my head like an antenna. I really don't care how it looks to be honest. It just needs to look OK.

But my clippers didn't make the trip to Panama. And my first attempt to cut my own hair here with a beard styler ended so badly my girlfriend had to spend hours fixing it, while she alternated between amused and horrified at the large chunks I took out of the back of my head.

This time I went to a salon.

My Spanish is still improving, so all I could say is "I want it shorter" and "I want to look like a man of business." In Panama this was understood as "Make me look like Vanilla Ice." While he trimmed the sides nicely, he kept the top much longer than any farm boy from Eastern Oregon would want.

A number of other odd things occurred. While not positive if these experiences are consistent with all salon visits or just here in Panama, I found the following noteworthy.

  • After rinsing my hair, the stylist vigorously dried my ears using his fingers and a towel. That felt slightly forward.
  • An equally vigorous head rub with the towel was used to dry my hair.
  • He shaved my cheeks with clippers.
  • He spent about 5 minutes blow drying my bangs so they would stand straight up.
  • He then liberally applied gel and mousse until my hair was stiff enough you could iron a shirt on it. 
He then sent me out into the mall looking like this:

Please help! My hair won't come down.
Even as I write, its still sticking straight up in the air.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Missing Home

Sometimes it rains when I wake up and I think I'm back home. Then I realize the curtains are bright green, my dog isn't anywhere to be found and there's a gecko looking at me.

I'm not sure I should be missing home. Panama meets my expectations in every way. When I left Silverton for two years, I pictured myself working in a new and challenging school and traveling to tropical beaches on the weekends.

Check and check.

I love school. They demand so much more from than I'm used to, but give me ample time and resources to implement what they want. I feel in over my head, and insecure about my job performance for the first time in half a decade. Yet I can tell I'm growing. I've even had teachers come in three different times and say "I heard you're doing (teacher thing) really well, can you show me what you're doing?" What? Really? Ok.

The weekends blow my mind. This Saturday my girlfriend and I decided we'd go to the beach. Flipping through Lonely Planet, we settled on Kuna Yala, a semi-independent archipelago on the eastern end of Panama's Caribbean coast. We loaded up, and 2 hours later we crossed the continent arriving on the Carribbean shore.

Kuna Yala has over 400 islands ranging from the luxurious to deserted. Being late in the day, we didn't have many options, we joined a group of Panamanians and Colombians heading to Isla Ukuptupu. Why not?

30 minutes later our motorboat pulled into port. Ukuptupu was about the size of a football field with traditional thatch roofed lodgings. Quaintness aside, Cabanas Ukuptuku would not be categorized as luxurious. No fan, no mosquito net, and the toilets flush right into the ocean. I quietly renamed it Isla IckyPooPoo. That night I fell asleep sweating dreadfully, and awoke thinking a bat was attacking me.

Still, our hosts were incredibly kind. The Kuna speak their own language, have their own dress, and even make their own laws. Our host John, an elderly man of 77, spoke English and told me the story of how he learned my language while working on a US Army base in the canal zone. For dinner they served us freshly caught fish, and there was a litter of 6 new born puppies to make my girlfriend happy.

We didn't swim off of Isla Icky Ukuptupu, for obvious reasons. But each day they took us by boat to waters a little less fecal. The first evening we snorkeled off a little coconut studded atoll that held a single thatched hut and family. For the first time in my life I saw that thing I've always dreaded on the beach. The sting ray. This small animal has the world's most painful sting, I heard once.
They blend right into the sand, so they can be easily squished by careless ocean goers. One even swam towards us passive aggressively, no doubt wanting to get stepped on so he could sting us.

"I'm not your doormat!"
The next day we went to a busier island, quite a few boats dropped people off. The snorkeling wasn't as great, but Kuna fishermen did row by about every 15 minutes with live lobster, crab, red snapper and barracuda that you could buy and have cooked for you right there. Rebekka and I had two lobsters for $10.

Kuna Yala was amazing, thrilling, scenic and a little uncomfortable. Sadly, like all of Panama, garbage lay everywhere. I never want to buy a plastic bottle or bag again. It's one thing to read about giant trash islands in the middle of the Pacific, but another to swim with Diet Coke and Frito Lays.

With all the excitement, its hard to explain exactly what's missing. Or maybe not. My family. My dog. My house. My kids I've taught the last 7 years. That's all not here. But I've traveled before and loved it. I think. Maybe I'm forgetting all the times I felt homesick before.

More likely, Oregon has molded me over the last 7 years. I've become a part of it. My clock ticks to its seasons. Fall is for football and Oktoberfest, not tropical beaches. My fridge back home was full of blueberries from a kid I taught. And now its mangoes and pineapples. I had Oregon figured out, I knew its secrets. Why should I be surprised to wake up somewhere else day after day and feel like something's not right?

No doubt Panama will leave its mark. Will it ever become home, if only for two years? I hope so, but it has big shoes to fill 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Eating Local in Panama

Panama has enormous crabs.

Eating local has always been something I've aspired too. The connection between people and the earth is ancient, delicious, and increasingly disappearing. Globalization has brought Idahoan dried potatoes and Rogue Brewery beer all the way to Panama. In supermarkets here you're more likely to find foreign produce than local.

Still, Rebekka and I have found two places that are as local as it gets. The first is the Mercado de Mariscos, or simply, the "Fish Market." A nondescript building holds about 40 stalls selling the day's catch. It smells like hell, and couldn't be fresher.

Most everything you can imagine is here. Squid, little octopus, clams and all kinds of fish. Our first visit we played it safe and snagged some blue fin tuna. You pay by the pound and they'll fillet it for you right then and there. It cost $16 and we ended up with enough tuna for eight meals.
Ebenezer proudly posed for our pictures.

The crab stall.
Our next visit we opted for red snapper and the most enormous crab I've ever seen. This crab proved to be a mistake, shelling these guys is nothing like shelling a Dungeness from Oregon. He was armored like a tank, and it took me about an hour to get all the meat out.

Rebekka leading the crab in some stretches.

Last weekend we also visited the local farmers market, known as the Mercado de Abastos. It's located in a weird warehouse in the middle of the city. And it smells like death. A giant garbage dump filled with rotting vegetables and who-knows-what else greeted us at the entrance.

The place is huge. People drive through, stopping at stalls that interest them. Most of the vendors are there to sell to restaurants or even grocery stories. Enormous bundles of bannanas, pallets of pineapple and cartons of coconuts are for sale, cheap. But you can purchase in smaller quantities. We bought:
  • One pineapple for 75 cents
  • Four potatoes for 60 cents
  • A bundle of celery for $2.00
  • Four coconuts for $2.00
  • Two mangoes for $1.00
  • A pound of tamarillos for 85 cents
  • 15 mamon chinos (lychees) for 50 cents
A bundle of produce for $7.70. And I'm pretty sure we overpaid for all of it.

You would never guess there is something delicious hiding in here.
It's all been delicious, healthy, and as about as cheap as you can get in this relatively cheap country. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Underdressed Llamas

Few #firstworldproblems are worse than being under- or over-dressed. But imagine being responsible for a whole group of people being under-dressed? Horror upon horror.

Today saw my new middle school hold its spirit assembly. Each homeroom had to create a name and go present a little skit. Standard school stuff. Doing things in front of people always makes me uncomfortable, but in controlable situations like these I'm able to keep my anxiety manageable.

My homeroom proudly named ourselves "Lamoreau's Llamas." A few girls taught us a song they learned from summer camp with funny hand motions. We would sing it, then teach the group. We dressed up a boy as a llama, and he looked quite funny. I thought we were good to go.

Then the assembly happened. As kids poured into the halls I saw coordinated outfits, banners, signs, and more. One group of students was all dressed like clowns. Another had Angry Bird beanies. Some wore panda masks. Others all carried jars of Nutella. 

It looked something like this.
In the noisy gym, my kids looked at me like a puppy does when you accidentally step on its toes. Why did you do this to us? Why don't we have costumes? The fear of ridicule that all middle schoolers face racheted itself up a level or two.

To make things worse, I was over dressed. Not realizing the festiveness of the day, I wore my usually slacks and dress shirt. The rest of the staff costumed in some way, or at least had jeans and a t-shirt on.

Sucks to be "that" guy.
"Don't worry." I assured them. "Just do your song really, really well and everyone will like it."

Luckily, our group went towards the end. My whole group relaxed palpably as a few group's presentations were really awkward. Its impossible to have 200 middle schoolers in the room and not have awkward. One girl said excitedly, "maybe we won't be the worst group!" Not the nicest sentiment, but one we've all felt at sometime.

"Substance beats style" I told them, "Just sing the song really well and you'll do great."

Finally our turn came. Our llama, wrapped in butcher paper and if not for the llama ears looking indistinguishable from a burrito, hopped his way on stage. We sang our song. Kids said their lines a little hurriedly. The song didn't come out quite right. And the llama suit ripped. The audience clapped, not once, but 4 times, because they didn't know we were going to keep singing the song.

And when it was all over, a few teachers told me "Wow! Great job!" But mostly I suspect they were being nice. Teachers are usually really good at that. Either way, the moment passed. The kids did good, most of the audience sang along.

The thing that went unrealized by my students, as I often forget it too, is that in those situations everyone else is just as nervous as you. Even if everything goes wrong, unless it goes epically-Youtube-viral-video wrong, everyone will forget it in about 30 seconds when the next group goes up. We are never as big of a deal as we are to ourselves. Most people just don't care.

Really, there's not many times you get to go up in front of 200 people all staring at you intently. Instead of being afraid of it, why not live it up? In the end, they're only people. Just like you, just like me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Monsters and Me

All humans are solar processors.

It's one of the more interesting ideas that I teach. Any plant life we eat obviously grew with help from the sun. Any animals we eat sustained itself off of those sun-grown plants, or other animals that did. So one way or another we are processing solar energy.

In studying latitude we learn that the amount of sunlight a place receives directly correlates to how much life it can sustain. Pole to Pole by Planet Earth explains it best (and in a British accent).

For example, you don't see trees above the Arctic or below the Antarctic Circle because there isn't enough light for them to grow. The closer to the Equator you get the more light you get. So first you get pine trees, then broad leaf trees, and finally you get to the tropics where there is direct sunlight year round.

Here we find jungles and rain forests, like where 50% of the world's biodiversity is found in rain forests even though they only cover 3% of the Earth's surface. There is so much light, so much plant matter, so many bugs and animals. And there is also me.

Living in a tropical environment means 1.) It's never cold. 2.) The sun sets around the same time all year. 3.) Your home will be invaded by weird and awful bugs.

To wit: in the week since I moved into my ground level apartment I have found inside my dwelling both a monster centipede and an unbelievably fast lizard.

I excitedly hurried off to tell my girlfriend about both of them, but when we returned they were gone. The lizard hasn't been seen since. We named him Gummy and presumably he is living comfortably in our spare bedroom eating bugs. The centipede reappeared and was smashed by my girlfriend's shoe. It sounded like the crunch of 1,000 potato chips. Haunting.

"I just wanted to cuddle."
Photo from
Though my school is miles away from the ocean, blue crabs wonder the halls on occasion, and I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg for weird bugs.

All new things I've experienced here fit into two categories: awesome or terrifying. Socially acceptable to honk my horn whenever I want? Awesome. Stepping on  hundred-legged Darth Vader clones while going to take a pee? Terrifying.

Time will no doubt round down both those edges. Maybe one day I'll wake up in Panama and smile at the lizard in peering down at me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson, Facebook, Friends and Fakers

I let the internet outrage me occasionally.

At the moment, it's Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black boy was shot to death by a cop. The resulting outrage gained international notoriety when the police responded by rolling out armored personal carriers, troops equipped more for Iraq than main street, and started arresting reporters for reporting.

I post political musings pretty regularly on Facebook. A few of my friends are strong Republicans, who think Obama is a dictator (if not the anti-Christ) and Obamacare signals the fiscal and moral decay of our nation. I feel like I'm all over the board on issues, I try to support the best idea over political parties. I am strongly for Obamacare, for example. And I'm also very argumentative at times. So at times I get into epic back-and-forths.

I think it's great I have Facebook friends I absolutely disagree with. If I didn't, I'd be inside a dangerous echo chamber just reinforcing my own beliefs with lots and lots of likes.

One group I've had a love-hate relationship with is the Tea Party. I think many of their ideas are ruinous and downright horrible. I think their passion and commitment to the Constitution is admirable. Indeed, my second favorite politician is a Tea Party congressmen from Michigan, Representative Justin Amash.

The death of Mike Brown is horrible, and the police response unfathomable in America. You would think the segment of America who thinks that Obamacare is tyranny, and fiercely pushes back on any attempt to restrict any type of gun in America after another horrible shooting would be up in arms about a military style crack down on protesters and media.

But no. With few exceptions, the Right side of the spectrum has been silent. I would say "you don't get to pick and choose who the Constitution applies to" but the sad thing is, for a lot of our history we did. The rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution only applied to whites. One would hope that era was over, but a quick scan of any of the comments on any Ferguson news story will show you its not.

The crackdown on the first amendment in Ferguson separates the wheat from the chaff. If you only get all sentimental about the Constitution when talking about Obamacare or the Bundy ranch, but aren't when journalists get arrested and tear-gassed, you aren't really the Constitutionalist you think you are. The thing those self-proclaimed patriots miss is that when you don't stand up for other people's rights, you are only eroding your own. A classic poem explains it well.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Leaving Your Comfort Zone is Uncomfortable

There is a lizard loose in my apartment.

I left a fulfilling job, a comfy house and even my beloved puppy to come here to Panama.

Now I have a job that is really, really hard. I live in a small apartment with no dog. There is a small lizard that somehow got in through my bedroom window, and then scampered off to who-knows-where before I could take him back outside.

Back home I did have the occasional wild intruder. Mostly gigantic spiders nearly my hand-span in width. They were incredibly fast, and incredibly scary. One time a guy came to my door and told me they were hobo spiders. He then offered to exterminate them for a few hundred dollars, but I declined since my shoe worked just as good as any poison.

On the balance sheet of life, I suppose trading lizards for spiders is a plus. Trading a lizard for my puppy is a minus. Sometimes I play this accounting game to see if I came out a head or behind on my move to Panama. It's too early to tell.

I do know I left a very comfortable situation. 

I had life figured out where I was. 

Now I do not. 

That's part of the reason I wanted to move, to get out of my comfort zone and into the challenge zone where I'd be forced to learn, grow and adapt. That sounds awesome. And probably will be. But I forget that "leaving your comfort zone" also means "becoming uncomfortable."

So that is where I find myself at this moment. Work is hard. Very hard. I feel uncertainties as an educator that I haven't felt since I first started. 

Living in Panama is hard. It's much more than the driving I wrote about yesterday. My girlfriend and I are isolated from all the friends, family and community that give us a sense of identity. We left a small town where I could walk to the Saturday Market and have most people know the name of me and my dog. Panama City is a giant Latin metropolis where I'll never see the same person twice.

I do feel growth. And each day is usually better than the last. But I don't want this to be some motivational post about how "it was all worth it." There are a million of those.

I think it will be all worth it. I think I'll be very happy here. I sure hope it all works out. But maybe it just needs to be acknowledged that change is hard. If you really want to get out of your comfort zone, you'll be uncomfortable.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Driving in Panama

Panama City is a noisy, busy place. Traffic, construction, and music blaring out of cars at ear-splitting decibel levels. Cars and drivers here deserve particular note.
  • Cars merge in a way that is almost sensual, like Latin lovers dancing salsa. There is NO space between cars. Where the American driver sees clearly that there is no space to merge, the Panamanian just sticks his nose out in front of you, forcing you to stop, and in he goes.

    If you try to be courteous and stop to let someone into traffic, you will often cause more harm than good. The driver you are trying to help, confused by your behavior and possibly sensing a trap, will not budge until you've both stared at each other for awhile. He will then rapidly enter traffic once you give up in frustration and try to move on.

  • This, and all other driving, is accomplished with much honking. You honk when you pass. You honk when you see someone on the side of the road. You honk if you are in traffic so bad the street is a parking lot.

    Two honks seems to be the standard greeting. One long, unbroken honk generally signals frustration. I've taken gladly to this habit, and try to greet every honk I hear with two friendly honks of my own.

  • If you see someone with their hazard lights on, they are telling you they are about to do something crazy. Like pass on the shoulder or weave in and out of traffic.

  • Windows here are tinted to a crazy degree. Like many cars here, my CRV came with near black windows. I do not exaggerate in saying I can barely make out headlights from the driver and passenger window at night time. As a result, I drive at night with my windows down.

    The scary thing is, I'm the only person I've seen driving with my windows down at night, and some windows are even more tinted than mine.
Despite all this, I've managed to manage. I even drove across the continent to the Caribbean side this Saturday (takes about an hour) without incident. Still, driving here is intense.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Nothing is worse than finding out you are terrible at something you thought you were decent at.

The first suspicions crept into my mind when I saw my girlfriend looking at me oddly as I struggled in a reservoir earlier this summer. "Why you are you doing that?" she asked. 

"Doing what?"

"Why are you swimming like that?"

"Like what?! I'm just swimming."

I usually consider myself an athletic guy. I'm decent at most sports I play. Yet, somehow my girlfriend raced past me like a torpedo in the hotel swimming pool this evening.

Apparently, it's funny to watch me swim. In water I'm gangly and uncoordinated, just like I was in middle school when I tried to dance to any song that wasn't slow. Like a shark sensing blood, my girlfriend spent the next 20 minutes in the pool chasing me making the Jaws sound, and I flailed in vain trying to get away.

Worst of all, it makes you wonder "What else am I doing that people are laughing at?" Maybe just watching me walk is funny.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Panama, So Far

I had to squeeze this in before I reached a whole month without blogging.

To be fair, I moved some 3500 miles and have been living out of a hotel (albeit a very nice one) for the last 3 weeks. All while starting a new job. In fact, our first day of school was today.

Panama City is surprisingly modern. I can't imagine a foreign city more like America. The skyline is modern, the old colonial area disappointingly small.  Nearly everything we have, they have. Most everyone speaks some English, and the taxi drivers hardly try to rip me off.

Still the city has some charms. In the morning and night the climate is amazingly comfortable. Jungles, beaches, and Panama Canal are all an hour or less away. There is a stunning array of tropical fruits, and I saw a sloth.

Being completely honest, the transition from America to here has been difficult. A quick catalog of problems I've run into:
  • Shipping my puppy down turned out to be much, much harder logistically than I imagined. Due to his size and the heat of summer, he's really limited on the type of planes he can fly on. He is happily summering at my parents.
  • Used cars are super expensive here. I found a 2006 CRV online, had a mechanic check it out while I was at work. Got the A-OK. Paid $9,000 for it, only to find it has no airbags. There is a flap cut into the steering wheel so big I can stick my fist into it.
    Apparently this isn't a big deal in Panama, so the mechanic either didn't notice it or just overlooked it. Fortunately the school is helping me resell this death trap.
  • The in-service week was the hardest week I've professionally as a teacher. At one point, 9 of the last 10 hours spent there had been in meetings. It was so refreshing to actually teach today.
It's been challenging, especially for my patience, but I think that's a good thing. When we are challenged, we grow. Without a doubt, I will return to the states a much better teacher. My school is amazing in a lot of ways. The campus is beautiful, my classroom has amazing technology, and the president of the country sends his kids here (he was at our morning assembly). Plus, they hired my girlfriend as a pre-school aide, answering that thorny question of what exactly she was going to do while here.

Most of all though, it is incredibly demanding of its teachers. Expectations of planning, communication, and collaboration are higher than I've ever heard of in the states. But they keep class sizes low (22 max) and give you ample planning time, so they make it manageable. I'm excited to see what I'll learn, and what I can accomplish here.

I'm tired. I'm weary. But I'm really, really glad I'm here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I Have No Skills

I am amazed at the lack of skills I have. To illustrate that point, let me tell you a story about a shirt.

Last September, I bought a new shirt from Marshalls. It was stylish, yet cheap. A week later I wore that stylish shirt to the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest, a small-town, beer-soaked and sausage-laden good time. When a slightly intoxicated female flung her arms around randomly, catching my shirt with her hand, to both our surprise a button popped off right in the middle.

I clutched my bosom protectively, made it home unmolested and took the shirt off. 

I didn't know how to sew a button on. So I didn't wear the shirt. For 9 months. Same goes for a nice pair of brown cargo shorts I bought. I didn't even know the manufacturers of these items sewed that extra button on in case this very thing happened! I thought it was just decorative.

Yesterday my mom taught me to sew on a button. It was surprisingly easy. Threading the needle, tying the knots, and sewing that button on way better than the manufacturer did gave me immense satisfaction. 

Maybe I'm an extreme case, but I doubt it. We don't make the things we use anymore, and as a result we don't know to fix them. When they break, we throw them away. A few weeks back a buddy of mine crashed on an air mattress, that happened to leak. "Throw it away" he said. Neither of us thought of patching it.

Part of the issue no doubt is that things are made so cheaply now. A $15 dollar shirt loses a button? Oh well, buy another. 

There are a few problems with that mindset. First and foremost, I have find I have very few skills when it comes to making or repairing things, greatly lessening my chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse. It also creates an inordinate amount of waste and junk.

So, I'm determined to learn more skills. Doing things yourself is very satisfying, and ultimately saves money. Being a homeowner on a budget has already forced me to learn a few, but I'm determined to learn more. With the DIY revolution, Pintrest and the Internet I have few excuses. The knowledge is out there. Here's what I want to learn in the next year:
  1. How to sew a button
  2. How to hem and tailor my clothes
  3. How to make cheese
  4. How to weld metal
  5. How to mill my own flour
  6. How to bake my own bread
  7. How to brew my own kombucha
That list will grow, but it's a good start for now.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Coming Home

Crazy how time flies. 10 days without a blog?

I leave for Panama City, Panama in ten days to start a new chapter in my life. I've spent the last week back home in little La Grande, in beautiful Easter Oregon with my parents and old high school buddies.

Coming home after seven years is always nice. Though its been eight years, a lot of the people and places haven't changed. Home remains home. It's nice to have that touchstone.

Some things I love about La Grande in no particular order are:

  1. The summery sage-y smell of petrichor.
    It literally is the essence of summer.
  2. The endless bounty of food in my parent's house.
    Growing up my parents always hosted my friends, and always had a giant store of food on hand. People still just stop by and open the fridge without asking. That would annoy the hell out of me, but they seem to love. In the fridge right now there is: steak and mashed potatoes from last night, bowl of raspberries just picked, tamales and handmade donuts from Farmer's Market just to highlight the edible goodies.
  3. Seeing random people I know.
    I really liked my high school self. High school me was extremely friendly, optimistic, and friends with everybody. While I still try to uphold those qualities, I've found sometimes in life you have to make decisions that upset people. Seemed different back then.
  4. Nell's In-and-Out
    They make these delicious drinks out of soda, cream and who knows what else. They have names like Winnie The Pooh (my favorite) and the Skywalker. While I don't drink pop usually, Nells is my exception. 

Ultimately though, my touchstones are family and friends. I've retained a core group of high school buddies with whom things never really seem to change.

One night we played Risk until the wee hours of the morning, like we used to back in high school. The only difference was we drank wine instead of pop and juice.

The next we went up to Indian Rock which overlooks the whole valley and watched the sun set while roasting marshmallows.

Those little moments are the threads that weave together the good life. I try to savor them every chance I get.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sometimes Nothing is Like You Expect

Even normal seeming days can hold surprises.

Yesterday promised to be a little exciting, because I had scheduled my second ever flight lesson. I did one last summer as well, putting me on pace to get my license somewhere around age 70. 

Flight lessons are prohibitively expensive. Anywhere from $150-$200 for an hour, so I have to wrestle with the side of my brain that says "Don't spend that money!" and listen to the part that says "This is why you have money!" 

Flying is also amazing, aside from take off when I am certain my little plane will wobble itself off the runway into a heap of steel. You can see everything from up there. I counted 8 Cascade peaks. The Willamette Valley suddenly looks like the Willamette Valley does on a map. We scooted over to Silverton in about 10 minutes and even flew right over my house.

Tuesdays are the nights I usually do trivia with a bunch of my co-workers (I've come a long ways in 7 years). But last night my girlfriend had an event planned with her employer's family, and I was expected to come. So off we trekked in the heat, and I was already counting down the polite hour and a half we could spend before leaving to catch the end of trivia (thoughts I now feel guilty about).

When we knocked on the door, instead of being greeted by my girlfriend's employers, it was the parents of a student I taught the last four years.

Because I am slow, I didn't quite grasp what was happening until I saw about 20 of my 8th graders stream out of their garage. A surprise party! 

It was a perfect summer evening, one that reminded me of when I was a kid. We barbecued, had a water fight (I lost), played volleyball and basketball. They even set up one of my top three all time favorite Social Studies movies that I tell them to watch when they are old enough The 300.

I wish I could bond with all my classes like I did with the 8th graders. They will be a special group to me not how well they did in class, but for the kind of people they were. They started the Random Act of Kindness Club, planted the school garden, and turned a broken down bus disaster into the world's greatest kickball game.

As I soaked it all in, I remembered something that I told myself to remember long ago, but somehow always forget. You never know what you might mean to your students. Throughout high school, I had teachers that I absolutely idolized, though they probably never knew it because I was shy and quiet. They were role models in my life, and shaped me to be who I am today. As a teacher, that's part of what you're signing up for.

Teaching every day, there is so much to deal with. Lesson plans, grading, constant emails, and ever increasing focus on state testing. While the kids shuttle in and out of your classroom all day, it's easy to forget that they are people with their own issues and lives, not simply receptacles to shove information into and keep from talking too much. You never know what a kind word or gesture can mean.

Making a difference is not just limited to teachers. We all have people in our lives that look up to us. We can all change someone's day with a smile or genuine compliment. We can all inspire others to greater things. 

That's really an amazing power, if we chose to use it. You might not know what you did mattered. You might not ever know. But it does, and you matter too.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Local Bounty and Local Spending

Living in the Willamette Valley and teaching at a rural school have provided me access to a number of delicious goods. Why pay Safeway $4 for a dozen eggs trucked up from California, labelled and branded "organic," when I can spend $2.50 to get eggs (some laid that morning!) from a student.

But summer is the best. A student of mine has a very small organic blueberry plot. Last year I bought $100 worth. I forget how many pounds that was, but it lasted me literally until a week ago. Today I just picked up 15 pounds more. 

Driving in the countryside this time of year is like some modern Eden. Fields of wheat, perfectly arrayed vines, hops growing tall. During summer I almost cut grocery stores out entirely. There is local everything. And it is all cheaper than the imported stuff.

I'm a huge supporter of voting with my dollars. In fact, there are few things we do in our lives that cause a bigger impact than where we spend our money. Leaving all the politics aside, my choice is to put my money into the pockets of my students and local farmers over some big agri-business. I don't want Oregon to be like Nebraska or Iowa with endless fields of corn or soy.

What we pay for, we endorse.

If I want people around here to grow a variety of crops for local consumption, there needs to be some local consumers. 

If I want to save small farmers, I'd better buy from them. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Smaller is Better

My flight lesson got cancelled today due to rain. So I'm forced to stay indoors and blog while my dog look at me with accusing eyes, asking when we'll go play fetch.

The idea behind our American republic is awesome. We don't have a king who rules us just because his father did. We elect leaders to enact the laws and policies we want to see. And during the time known to historians as "the Good Old Days" we rubbed shoulders with our elected representatives regularly and shared our views in the market, at church, or even in the latrine. Colonial New England is most celebrated for having this remarkable familiarity between elected representatives and their constituents.

And their timeless fashion sense.

That whole mechanism of representative government gets a little distorted, especially at the Federal level. We only see our federal politicians on TV or in the news so its hard for them to really hear our voice. That's part of the reason why we so dislike our federal leaders most of the time.

But at the state and local level, you can still sometimes get a taste of how it used to be. The other day at a local festival I saw my state representative Vic Gilliam walking around. He is probably my favorite politician, though he has a different party registration than me. Not only does he respond to every letter my students ever wrote him, he shovels the poop after our town's annual pet parade.

I went up and said hello, and introduced him to my father who used to be involved in state politics. While I felt bad for taking his time, Vic Gilliam seemed to just want to chat (maybe that's why he is a politician). Best of all, I got to ask him what he thought of open primaries, which I would love to see happen here in Oregon. He told me what he thought, said he'd really been considering them, and thanked me for sharing my opinion.

It was a little thing, but it felt great to have a voice. So many of us feel so helpless and disenfranchised by what happens at the national level, but we have so much more access at the state and local level. More and more, I think that's where real change happens, and where the average citizen can make the biggest difference.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


In one month I'm moving to Panama City, Panama, and have to decide what to take, what to keep here, and what to sell and throw away. When I recently was unable to toss a queen-sized air mattress that leaks badly, Stuff reminded of the very powerful hold it has over my life.

We work hard to acquire Stuff.  We cherish it, guard it, care for it. We get mad if its broken, stolen or misused.  Sometimes we are so worried about Stuff we don't even use it for its intended purpose, lest it suffer some harm.

Here's an anecdote.  I know a well-to-do man, very wise with his money.  He bought a nice used car for $10,000 cash.  Not a Mercedes or Lexus, think Honda or Toyota.  He was telling me how nice it was, and how he got such a great deal on it.  I noticed it was in his garage.  So I asked him,

"Do you drive it to work?"

"No" he said, "I drive my old beater.  I don't want the wear and tear."

"Do you take it on trips?"

"Not during the winter, I don't want it to get chips."

"So you bought a $10,000 car only to drive it on long trips on the summer?"

The irony hit him, then he tried to hit me, but I skillfully dodged his blows. But I'm just as guilty of having the same mindset.

Why do we love our stuff so much?  I don't know. Perhaps our possessiveness of our possessions is some evolutionary vestige. Stuff was once very difficult to acquire because it all had to be made by hand. That's different now. Industrialization and globalization has made stuff so cheap and plentiful that 1 out every 10 families rent space to store their extra junk. It's a 22 billion dollar industry.

How we see all the crap we've collected.

How the world sees all the crap we've collected
The Woodburn Auction I've written about here and here and here provides a stark reminder on the true value of our possessions. Often you find all the worldly possessions of some deceased soul, divided out into little brown boxes for all the world to see and finger through. It can be a little haunting. All the trinkets, souvenirs, dishes, drawings, pictures that they cared enough about to keep all their life end up going for $2-$15 a box.  So there's your answer. Most of your stuff is worth about $2-$15 a box when it's all said and done.

All those things we own own some little part of us. If I can't throw away a leaky air mattress, that air mattress clearly has a hold on me. Just typing that made me feel stupid. An air mattress has a hold on me?!  All possessions should be judged on one thing only: their utility. 

If you have a car that can't be driven, or a carpet that can't be walked on, a bike to expensive to use... then why do you have it?

Paring down my life recently has brought a sense of freedom and clarity. I'll only be taking to Panama the things I really need, and only keeping here the things I really love (mostly my bike and snow shoes). If something has outlived its usefulness to you, sell it, give it or throw it away. Keep the things that are truly sentimental, but if you can buy it at a Wal-Mart, it's probably not that special.

Friday, June 20, 2014

You Aren't Special

In my pursuit of an examined, well lived life, I've set up ideas as guideposts and protective barriers for the choices I make every day. "Anything worth doing will be hard." "Your health is your best investment."  "Money is a tool, not a god." to name a few.

Good intentions aside, I often lack the self-discipline to follow my own advice. It's easier to watch an episode of Family Guy than work on the story I'm writing.  Sleeping in beats working out more often than it should.  Rather grinding to do something really well, I've dabbled in get-rick-quick ideas like real estate, the stock market, and even a run as a blackjack card counter that made everyone rich but me.

Ambition is good, it inspired us to do great things. Ambition without work ethic and discipline is fatal. Part of that is the society we live in. From the second we are born we are told how special we are. That we can do anything we can put our minds to, and on and on. So everyone grows up wanting to get famous, be rich, be known, and we expect it to happen quick and easy. That explains all the get-rich-quick schemes on TV. Or look at the pop culture starlets whose only claim to fame is a sex tape. But how many of us really have the talent, combined with the work ethic to produce something great? Very few.

I'm victim to that mentality as much as anyone else. I'm a victim to wanting greatness, wealth, and fame but not the work required to acquire those things. But a sobering fact has slowly dawned on me.  I am not special. At all. I am just a very ordinary guy. Most of us are in that boat.

Does that mean our lives are doomed to mediocrity and blah-ness forever? Not a chance  In fact, when we stop flitting around chasing superficial things like wealth, fame and recognition we can plow our efforts into pursuing passions, deepening relationships, and making a difference in the world.

A long time ago I heard a sermon that has applied to so much in life. The gist was, no matter how far away you've traveled the wrong path, you are always only one step from God. That's true for you and I living our best life. No matter what you've done wrong, or mistakes you've made, you can live your best life right now, starting today.

Start by pursuing your passion with all your heart. Sacrifice for it. Make time for it every day. Find those that are better than you at it and learn from them.

Stop idolizing, stop comparing, and stop misusing your money. Money is a tool to provide for your and your family, and help others. That's it. When you die, it does you no good. Get a budget, get out of debt, and start helping others. Incidentally, if you truly start chasing your passion, it's much more likely to turn into something that makes you money than anything else you do.

Instead of valuing money, value your relationships and the moments that happen each day. Every day I live there are moments that could not be any more enjoyable if I had a billion dollars. "Billionaire Moments" I call them.  Last night I went fishing with my girlfriend and dog. We didn't catch a thing. The whole time a bald eagle was soaring over head, and two ospreys were splashing down in the water again and again and pulling out trout. It was unbelievable.

And give. Giving is the greatest joy, and giving leaves a legacy greater than anything you'll ever do. Give until it hurts. Give your time, your talents, and your money until money breaks its hold on you.

When we stop assuming that we are special and focus on the things that really matter in life, maybe we'll become what we wanted to be all along.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I Haven't Shaved In Over a Year* (Except Once)

Men, if you want one tip to immediately make your life better, stop shaving. Shaving sucks on so many levels. Lets list a few.
  1. It hurts. 
  2. It makes us bleed. 
  3. Razors are expensive. 
  4. It's time consuming.
  5. We have to do it frequently.
For all those reasons, this year I stopped shaving. I didn't go all mountain man. My principal would have disapproved. And after seeing the Rocket's James Harden flop all over the court with his hideous beard, I never want to look remotely like him.
Not the man you want teaching your kids.
Instead, once a week with my handy $20 pair of clippers, I would trim the growth back to that nice stubbly phase that you see very handsome dudes wearing.

It was awesome. I saved tons of time and money. My face never bled. And for the first time in my teaching career, someone wrote graffiti in a textbook not insulting me, but praising my physical appearance. 

Some strange sense of professional obligation did lead me to shave once around January. I felt weird. I looked weird, like turtle out of his shell I thought. Worse, the disapproval from my students was unanimous. They confirmed my early feelings by telling me "you look weird" so many times I lost count.

So guys, give it a try. Might be the best decision you make this summer.

(Women, I know you have it worse. But I am in no way comfortable or qualified to offer you any advice.) 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back to the Auction

Yesterday was my first official day of summer. I celebrated in grand style by going to the Woodburn auction like I did almost every Tuesday last summer.

Last year at one of my first auctions I bought a box of some trading card game for $10 that ended up being worth $600. That put the thought in my head that I could accomplish that feat every week. Instead I got a garage full of collectible plates and purses and a few trips to the Goodwill store.

I did end up making a little bit of money every week. But just a little. The time invested was not worth the pay out. The auction moves very slowly through boxes and boxes of mostly junk, so sometimes the items you want to bid on take hours to reach. Also, it smells bad there, and their bathroom is the most God-forsaken stink hole in Oregon. Then there is the hassle of selling all the junk on Ebay. For awhile I thought sets of plates were the way to go, but it is very, very hard and expensive to pack plates so they don't break.

I came to realize the Woodburn auction will never be a part time job for me.  Still, it's fun to go.

Yesterday I went with only $25 bucks in my pocket, and bought four paintings for $2 each. The auction remains an interesting mix of young and old, white, Mexican and Russian, all brought together by the love of junk.  I saw random pieces of splintered wood their yesterday. I also saw this disturbing thing, so vile that I have to blotch most of the picture out to keep the blog kid friendly. Worst of all, it was used.  On second thought, I won't show that. Instead, here are two of the nice paintings I got.

Ahhh, water colors. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Miracles on Friday the 13th

Today was the last day of school. It's always bittersweet, but this time more so because I'm leaving my school for two years to teach in Panama.

I'm not sure what my favorite part of the last week was.
  • A 6th grade girl giving me a thousand paper cranes strung together like a wind chime for good luck. She said it took her a month to make them all.
  • Addressing my 5th grade class as they left for the last time, "Well, you were really a pain in the butt at the start of the year, but you got..." and getting mobbed with hugs before I could finish.
  • A scrapbook my 8th graders gave me.
  • All the little talks with parents.
  • The reaction of the students at the final assembly when my principal announced I was leaving.
Our last day of school was Friday the 13th. This day has been considered unlucky ever since the King of France purged the Knights Templar monastic order on that day back in the 14th century. But yesterday, apart from being an emotional last day of school, three miracles happened.

1.)  A dead cactus came back to life.
The Lazarus Cactus
This cactus was given to me four years ago by a 5th grade boy who seemed right out of a Normal Rockwell painting (freckles, cowlick). This year when I came back to school in September, it was dead. Apparently even cacti can't survive three months without water. Intensive rescue efforts failed, and though it had perished I was unable to throw it away, sentimental guy that I am. All year it sat on my window sill, a testament to my forgetfulness, and a reminder that even the hardiest creatures are mortal.

Then yesterday, as I got ready to finally throw it away, I noticed something. It had sprouted. From death, new life.

2.)  I saw the girl who wrote me this note again.
This girl knew she was moving to Nevada at the end of last year, and was very sad at the thought of leaving her friends and even teachers. When she gave me this note, the simple uncomplicated emotion behind it struck me as one of the things that makes working with kids so great.

Well, surprise surprise, who did I see at the school picnic yesterday? This girl. A little older, but the same sweet kid who still loves the Walking Dead. She said she missed her old school very much. I'm glad her note was wrong.

3.)  The sun came out at just the right time.

This one is a stretch, but I needed three miracles. A rainy day suddenly turned to sunshine right as the end of year school picnic started.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ode To Penny

Tonight's blog falls under the category of "things I've never told any living person before." So why not blog about it?

At trivia tonight a question was, "What was the name of Inspector Gadget's niece and dog?"

Hi kids! Don't think too hard about how I store all this stuff in my head, or you'll figure out I'm a terrifying robot.

The dog I couldn't remember (Brain). But his niece I knew right away. Penny, my first love.

Blonde and Brainy.
My first crush--my first kiss--was a cartoon. Penny had everything a 2nd grade boy was looking for. Penny was smart, beautiful and sweet. She always knew how to read the clues her bumbling uncle couldn't. My young heart never stood a chance. I went through a phase where I would occasionally sneak kisses from the TV screen. I don't think anyone ever saw me.

I forgot about Penny until tonight, but she still holds a special place in my heart. So I wrote her this ode.

Mystery solver
Problem dissolver
With a cool watch I wanted to have

I kissed you sneaky
On a boxy old TV
Thank God my parents never saw that

Monday, June 9, 2014

Playboys at the Garage Sale

"To know one's self is wisdom, to not know one's neighbors is genius."

The random smattering of humanity that lives near me is a mixed bag. Like humanity, it's mostly good. Having so many neighbors is new to me. Growing up in the country, I never lived in a neighborhood until recently. Before neighbors meant the kid who lived a field over. Now it means the creepy guy who just lopped 6 feet off my bay tree without asking.

By and large though, the little social interactions that have started developing are awesome. There's the lady who brings her giant German Shepard puppy over to beat up Winston. Or the couple who always invites me to watch Duck games. That sense of community is definitely a thread in the tapestry of a good life.

A few houses down is an elderly retired couple. They'd always commented on how handsome my dog was when I'd walk by, and before long I'd find myself stopping by their house for beer and toaster strudels. I've loved being around old people ever since I was a kid and my dad took me to the retirement home where he worked. Old people just love you, because so many of them just want company.

Over beer and a toaster strudel the old guy tells me about his myriad health aliments. How he's died three times. And how much he likes wolves and bears. His sweet wife tells me how much her husband complains and that she gets bored in the mornings because he sleeps to 11. Mostly though, they just ask about me.

This couple is a pair of high school sweethearts who made it all the way to a golden retirement. They are about as old fashioned as it gets. The kind of couple that makes girls get all girly and say "I want that."

So you can imagine my surprise when walking by their garage sale Saturday morning, I see "Playboy" listed for sale. And sure enough, in a box, there are old issues of Hugh Hefner's rag. And the man tells me about them matter-of-factly "You should check them out." And his wife is smiling at me as sweet apple pie.

Now if I had Playboys (which I don't), I sure wouldn't sell them at a garage sale. I'd feel guilty, tear my name and address of the cover, and try to secret them away in the dead of night.

The guy selling Playboys at his garage sale is never the one you expect. Lesson learned.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Monday Morning Read: Make Them Move

This is the last week of school for me, and probably many of you. I hope it's been a happy year full of lots of learning and laughing.

My 7th year has definitely been my best. Half of teachers drop out of the profession before five years, but if you make it far enough, there comes a point where you stop surviving the very demanding requirements of the job and start thriving. Classroom management becomes easier, lessons plans go through multiple refinements, and you actually know what to say to parents once in a while. If you're been teaching long enough, you know what I'm talking about. If you're new and still struggling, stick with it. You're almost there!

For me, the turning point was year four. I had always worked hard to make good lessons plans and provide timely feedback (read: grade stuff quickly), but in year four I felt a certain sway and control over my content and class I never had before. Sometimes I felt like an artist painting a canvas.

One of the best things I picked up that year was from a Marcia Tate workshop titled "Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites." Her's was the best professional development I'd ever been to. It provided the science behind a lot of stuff I already knew intuitively.

Doing worksheets are boring, and they don't retain anything.

Talking for too long is boring, and they don't retain anything.

Answering questions out of the book every day is boring, and they don't retain anything.

For whatever reason, they older kids get, the more lame stuff we make them do. Think about kindergarten. It's full of songs, movement and hands on activity. The wiring in our brain eats that stuff up! I'll prove it. Can you remember the first song you ever learned? No? Say the alphabet. We all say it in that same sing-song we learned in our earliest days.

After that PD I set out to add lots more motion to my lessons. We all want to be fun teachers, and we all want kids to like our class. So make it fun! Here's some of the ways I use motion in my classroom:

In 5th grade we use hand gestures and sayings to remember a key characteristic of two of each of the 5 regions of the United States. For the Midwest we rub our bellies and say "Mmmm Bread Basket."

In 6th grade we play a medieval West African trading simulation where in order to cross the Sahara you must hire a Berber caravan and say "Berber, Berber, Berber" as you cross.

In 7th grade we play a Feudalism Simulation you must kneel when taking a fief from your lord and shake saying "Land for Protection," emphasizing the basic feudal contract.

In 8th grade we use a series of hand motions to help remember key parts of the Declaration of Independence. When talking about our three unalienable rights we say "life" and put a hand over our heart. "Liberty" while spreading our hands wide. And "Pursuit of Happiness" while reaching to the sky.

The results are amazing. Movement really makes learning sticky. Those points aren't forgotten. Kids remember those key points throughout the year, usually with giggles. Try it this week. Find one key idea you really want to reinforce and make some sort of movement to hammer it home. I'll bet they remember it in the fall.

Let me know how it goes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sad Goodbyes are the Best Ones

Tomorrow my 8th graders graduate. Today I suffered the requisite bout of sadness and nostalgia. I get downright depressed at the close of the school year. The thought of not seeing my students' smiling faces almost brings me to tears.

Then summer comes, the sadness vanishes and I wonder what brought me so low.

"Graduation goggles" (coined by the TV show How I Met Your Mother) accurately describes the rose-colored glasses we sometimes wear during big life changes. When a stage of life is coming to an end, we tend to view everything and everyone in the best light.

Teachers live in a rhythm of goodbyes and graduations. Every year I say goodbye to students I've developed relationships with over four or more years (I teach at a K-8). Students who I've watched transform from children who arrived in my class in 5th grade, to young adults leaving in 8th. This year its worse because I really liked these 8th graders. They were particularly kind-hearted and selfless, and excelled in my class.

Maybe I'm more nostalgic than most male teachers. Since I was little, the finality of the passing of time struck me as deeply somber. Each moment, day, year, only happens once and takes me a little closer to the inevitable end. So I find myself trying to hold onto all the moments, little and big. I blog and keep a journal sporadically. I never delete emails no matter how banal, and have kept every letter, note or card I've ever been given since elementary school.

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that if I'm really down about something ending, it means it must have been pretty great. Sad goodbyes are the best ones because that means that period of time really meant something.

I'll be sad tomorrow. And it's a good thing. I love my job. I love teaching social studies. The constant stream of positive feedback and praise from students and parents boosts my soul. Being a teacher is part of my identity. It's tough to see it end.

Until summer comes and the graduation goggles come off. I'll find interests and hobbies old and new to pass the time. And I'll be sad all over again when summer ends and I have to start getting up early, grade papers, and deal with students plagiarizing Wikipedia and thinking I won't know.

I love summer and always will, but I hope I'm always sad at graduation. I hope I keep my graduation goggles. Because if I didn't care, it wasn't worth it.