Monday, September 27, 2010

For you Kevin

"When will you publish the next post?"  I explained to my son that the last post was the ending and he protested that it was a terrible ending.  I noticed that there were a couple hundred views to my blog in the last couple of weeks.  So as long as someone is reading, I will post from time to time.  Are you happy now Kevin?

Mean Monday

I have a morning ritual. Like most people, I’m a creature of habit. The first and most pressing issue is to put a stop to the incessant meowing by filling Riley’s bowl with fresh kibble. As a fresh pot of coffee is brewing, I turn on the news; sometimes CNN and sometimes the Today Show but never Fox News. After an hour, I realize I haven’t been paying attention to the television and it is turned off. This is Barkley’s signal that it’s time for a walk. He prefers to take a ride to Starbucks, partly because he’s lazy and partly because he likes to sniff out the occasional crumb people drop beneath their chair. He quickly succumbs to the inevitable and gets his stride on.

We walk around the neighborhood, saying hello to those that are still home. We stop to talk with a friendly neighbor, or visit with Peaches, another dog in the hood. There are more people home than there were in 2008 when I left. Many people talk about the economy, the cost of living or just their immediate struggle. Those that are retired talk about their struggle to make their fixed-income ends meet in the changing economy.

The occasional gardener with a loud blower and mower can be spotted, as well as a painter and carpenter making home repairs. There are just fewer of them. There is only one for sale sign in the neighborhood, but if I look closely, I can identify a few empty homes, likely the unattained dreams beyond the grasp of people who could never afford them. Banks are now left holding their proverbial fate, a quiet shame that leaves notorious banks pointing fingers at financially strapped and upside-down homeowners who failed to acknowledge their own budget boundaries and now point a strategic finger at greedy bank executives.

The little white golf cart vehicle with the official logo on its side was the impetus for naming Monday and Tuesday several years ago; Mean Monday and Ticket Tuesday. If you ask most anyone in the neighborhood who is the most harassing and annoying presence in the neighborhood, I believe you would likely get the same answer. It’s the woman who freely hands out $50 tickets to those that fail to recognize Mean Monday and Ticket Tuesday. The parking enforcement police are in full force to clear the way for street sweeping. Is this a way to sustain a small piece of middle class economy and keep money recycling through government or is street sweeping really necessary? Why do some streets have street sweeping and others don’t? Are my streets cleaner than those that don’t have this service? As I think about this, I wonder if this service makes money, or if it is only a sustainable economic ploy to keep a few people employed in city jobs.

As I turn the corner finishing my walk, I spot an open fire hydrant spewing gallon upon gallon of water into the gutter spilling over into the street. Nearby, a city worker sits in a pick-up truck with the water district logo on each door. I am curious. I approach his truck to ask him about the water which continues to run down the street flushing into the ditch and drains into the Pacific Ocean. He is eating his lunch; a sandwich and hardboiled egg, but is friendly and willing to tell me everything he knows about his job.

He explains that he opens the hydrant to flush the system. He shows me the numbers before the flush and tells me they are good but I have no idea what good means. The water will flow for at least twenty minutes. He explains that the flushing activity ensures that the water is clear and does not smell. I want to tell him that the water appears clear and I can’t smell anything, but I refrain because he is friendly and doing his job.

He said he was sitting around at the office today when the boss told him to go flush the water lines. Even though I know the answer, I ask him if there was a better way to get the same results. I’m careful not to run the water when I brush my teeth. This seems ridiculous as I watch the water rushing from the hydrant.

But this is what I really want to know. It is Mean Monday and there are still two unanswered questions. Will the dreaded harassing woman in the little white golf cart stop and hand him his $50 ticket? Why do we need the street sweeper with all that clean water rushing down the gutters of our street?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Post-Peace Corps Adjustment

I plugged my IPod into the USP Port, turned up the music and allowed my thoughts to drift as I drove my car up the mountain.  I thought about the cabin my parents had in Big Bear when I was young.  Every weekend was spent there and I had a circle of friends and social activities on the mountain as well as at our home in Thousand Oaks.  There were lots of dates, dances, hikes and snow fights.  There are plenty of good childhood memories of the time we spent as a family at that cabin.

The scent of pine and the sounds of singing Blue Jay's bring me back to a time of innocence.  It was as a result of those memories that I purchased a small house on the mountain several years ago.  I had been working in a corporate job and the peace the mountains brought to my life was a welcome relaxation from the stress and long hours.

I sat on the deck enjoying the view of the city, a view I didn't know existed until 2007.  So many homes were lost in the fire that year.  Every home beneath mine and several homes located on my own street were burned to the ground.  It was after that fire that I discovered the small benefit to the terrible destruction on the mountain that year. I feel fortunate that my little get-away house was spared.

I made a cup of hot tea, put on some music and regained my place on the wood deck outside my living room. The air was crisp and I wrapped a fleece blanket around my arms.  It was quiet as I thought about my life before Peace Corps and contemplated new options as I move forward.

I will teach a college course beginning in January.  I can volunteer, possibly teach a Junior Achievement class.  I plan to visit friends, one of which I haven't seen in twenty years.  In October, I may go to Boston or possibly meet my sister in Washington DC.  Whatever turn my life takes, this is the first time since I was in my late twenties that I have five months without structured obligations and commitments. I find it more difficult to not work than to work.  I have no idea how to do life without a calendar. God help me and those around me.

My thoughts turned to my granddaughter.

Tap, tap, tap. She wears her pink leggings underneath her pink tap dancing outfit. Ava’s long brown hair hair flows past her waist and she is wearing a beautiful pink flower pinning her hair out of her eyes. Of course, pink is her favorite color and anything princess is her favorite thing.

There is a tray of cookies at the preschool reception desk. Theresa and I each help ourselves to one. My finger is firmly attached to Ava's little hand as we make our way to her classroom to find that there is no tap this morning. Theresa quickly undresses her.  In record time she is transformed from a tap dancing princess and into her chicken outfit complete with the construction paper hat she made earlier in the week. Today is Circus Day at the pre-school and Ava’s class will be doing the chicken dance.

I look around the room at the tubs full of toys and the stack of cots, each with a child’s name on it. Each child has a cubby and a box with their name on it for their personal things and an extra set of clothes. There is a bathroom where everything is scaled for a four year old. The playground has lots of colorful equipment and there are tiles with hand prints and children’s names on the outside walls. It is a very happy place.

I watch each classroom of children enter the playground in a parade procession; there are concessionaires carrying popcorn, elephants, lions, dogs and of course, Ava’s class of chickens. 

Each classroom performs to music and then jugglers perform, one on a unicycle. Finally, there is a faire with games, face painting, snacks, prizes and fun.

Last month the school hired a mobile aquarium to come to the school so the children could touch and learn about sea life. They have programs during the holiday season and other special activities various times during the year. There is so much abundance at the school that it gave me pause to reflect on the after school program in Saint Lucia. It’s not that either program is better than the other, or that there is judgment about abundance or the lack there of. It’s just that the contrast is . . . well, so noticeable.

The next week, Ava once again put her tap shoes and her tutu on and was ready for her lesson.  She and several other girls tapped their shoes on wooden boards and kept time to music.

A couple days later, Brendan says, "Do you want to go to Disneyland? We have a Season Pass."

There are other things that fill her time; pool parties, a trip to the lake, birthday parties and quiet nights with her mom, dad and uncles who help her with puzzles and read countless books with her.

I think about the children of MoPo Village often.  Children in the United States may have more resources and access to diverse activities.  But does this make them happier in their lifetime?  Since my return, I have found myself worrying about a screen that needs to be replaced, paying for my retirement years and wondering if I should move to a better neighborhood.  I don't remember worrying about trivial stuff like this during the last two years.

We were warned during our Close of Service Conference that our stories would only hold the attention of our friends and family for a very brief few minutes.  We were warned that we might see things differently.  No one wants to spend hours traveling down someone else's memory lane, including me.  It does leave me wondering how I might fit in . . . especially when I face an empty calendar for the next five months.

Before I left, I was concerned that I was living my life within a small twenty square mile radius and thus, I was wasting valuable time in my life.  So for two years, I lived in another and very different twenty square mile radius.  I have seen children who are hungry.  I've also seen children unable to attend school because they have no uniforms or shoes.  I have seen children become magnets to books because they are scarce on the island. I have seen children respond to new ideas and I've seen their behavior change.  I have seen children who were believed to be unteachable, learn to read.  I have seen children entertain themselves with little resources and handmade toys. I have learned how to create teaching resources and activities without a budget.  I have taught adults teaming and negotiating concepts and seen the 'aha' come alive.  The past two years has been my big 'aha' moment.

I have lived a simple life - yes, for two years I used public transportation.  I lived in a village where people brought me fruits or roasted corn or even a tea bag as a gift.  I went to work in the same two or three outfits every single week.   No one said anything about it as they did the same.  I lived in an apartment with buckets in the showers and kitchen because the pipes are dry due to a drought. I took countless cold showers.  I lived in a village where people took care of one another, although as with any small community they also fought together.

After a few days of relaxation, I packed up my things and drove my car down the mountain and back to the bustling city of Los Angeles.  I thought about all I have learned in the past two years...certainly more than I could ever possibly hope to give to the people in my village, my Saint Lucia friends and the children of MoPo.

It is with excitement and anticipation, some trepidation and reluctance, and some guilt over my culture's glutenous behavior that I reenter my old life.  But I am entering this life with a new attitude and understanding about another small piece of the world.  Now, I need to get to the business of figuring out how to fill my empty calendar, but first I think I will take a nap.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tropi-Chopped or Regular?

“Do you want it tropi-chopped?” he said in a thick accent. He repeated it twice with increasing urgency. I had no idea what he was talking about when Kevin jumped in and said, “Yes, tropi-chopped”. I'm still not clear as to what tropi-chopped actually means. 

“Do you want it with vegetables or beans?” This was easy, “vegetables please”. 

 The list of rapid-fire questions was endless: white rice or yellow rice? Combo? What comes with a combo? What side do you want? What do you have? Balsalmic tomatoes, corn, curley fries, cole slaw, French fries, ceasar salad … I’m sure there was more to the list, however, my brain was not processing anything at this point. I was given no time to think and felt like I was being grilled. I wanted to yell, “Just give me something to eat! ” 

Who decided that it would be a good idea to make ordering a meal so complicated? And then he said, “What size drink would you like?” He gave me a cup and sent me on my way to the all-you-can-drink machine where I could choose between coke, diet coke, root beer, Hawaiian Punch, seven up, water, tea and a myriad of assorted all you can drink drinks.

I sat down waiting for my dinner and remembered Elizabeth, a Peace Corps Staffer, telling a story about choosing a bottle of shampoo which spanned the entire isle at Target on her first day back to the United States.  All these choices make life complicated.