Archive | October, 2015

Pollyanna’s Not an Idiot After All

25 Oct

That giant hurricane that hit land here in Mexico this weekend started forming just below us earlier this week. It soon became apparent that it would pass us by, and the clouds overhead disappeared along with our chances of dealing with a tropical storm. “There goes our last chance for rain,” some of my (cooler-weather-loving) coworkers lamented. “Back to the stifling heat!” My favorite rain-lover grouched. Meanwhile, I was doing happy sunshine dances, ecstatically grateful that a) I didn’t have to face a tropical storm this week (before I even knew it was going to be a monster hurricane) and b) it didn’t even do more than drizzle on my way to and from work, which I was extra relieved about because our car is busted and I’d have no ride to work in the rain. It was a very happy week for me. But then, I’ve mostly been happy lately anyway, so what can I say.

If you know me, you know that I am a critical person. I might have been born with one raised eyebrow. I was a rebellious teenager that still needs to QUESTION EVERYTHING. I’m sensitive and empathetic and therefore intent on social justice and changing the system. But that doesn’t mean I have to be pissed off all the time.

“You sound like you’re in a great mood,” my mom said when she called this week. “What’s up?” As I started telling her about stuff going on in my week, I realized that the bad stuff was pretty heavy bad stuff. But we have electricity! I was listening to music! And our car breaking down meant going on a bike ride for our errands, something I rarely get to do anymore since I can’t take the kids on the bike. And my three year old is thoughtful and caring and smart and funny. And my baby is driving me crazy because he’s bursting with so much movement I can’t contain him long enough to change his diaper, which is good because that’s exactly how he’s supposed to be right now. And I’ve discovered a whole new world of recipes for oatmeal that you make in the refrigerator overnight! And I’m getting an inspiring and moving piece of artwork from Louisville for my early Christmas! It’s hot and sunny! I love my house, even though it’s eternally messy. I love my life, even though there’s always something going wrong. Might as well be joyous.

For a long time I’ve been confused about the difference between feeling happy and being complacent. I think I thought- at least internally, if not out loud- that this whole glass-half-full idea was just an excuse to not do anything differently. That by looking for the good stuff you’re ignoring the bad stuff, which we can’t ignore if we want everyone to have good stuff. I think I kinda thought Pollyanna was like this Rainbow Brite / Orphan Annie-type cartoon character with constantly pointy pigtails- another shallow Disney thing, another be-grateful-for-whatever-the-system-deigns-to-give-you character being sold to us.

But Pollyanna was actually a character from a book, and she was inspired to look for the positive because she liked people and wanted everyone to be well- not just to feel happy (thanks again, Mom, for making me read). She tried to make a difference in people’s lives. She didn’t just walk around singing about rainbows and sunshine all the time. Reading Pollyanna didn’t change my life; there were lots of other things going on with me already that have been changing my life. But it did help me quit thinking that “happy people” are shallow, and that happiness (and optimism) is something innate, or something you either are or aren’t. It’s a practice. It’s something you have to do, not something you magically are, and it’s not eternal, either.

Lately my gratitude practice is overflowing, seemingly of its own accord. Instead of struggling to find 3 little things to be grateful for everyday, somedays I find myself scribbling whole paragraphs in my notebook. It’s taken a long time to get here. Like doing endurance exercise or strengthening your muscles, feeling real gratitude is sometimes a struggle, but one that gets easier. It’s become just as important to me as exercise, too- something I desire to have a good day, to feel good.

I still want to change the world, and I still want to change some things in my life. I don’t think I’m content and complacent, by any stretch. I still feel sad, frustrated, and angry on a regular basis, too- which is fine. They’re just feelings. Conan thinks I’m focusing on the negative every time I voice a complaint or ball up my fists and make ridiculous caveman grunting noises (yes I really do this). Every time I get bummed out or overwhelmed by the struggles (be it our personal life struggles or bigger things like government inaction on climate change), Conan thinks I’m letting the bastards get me down. But they’re just feelings. They come and go, and for me they can go faster if I can safely voice them first. I’m still dramatic sometimes, because, geez, I feel things really f****ing intensely sometimes. But that’s not all bad either! It also means I feel so much joy that I could explode with it, on a regular basis. Which is pretty damn cool, thank you very much.

These days, I don’t think happiness and complacency do actually go hand in hand. I think, in fact, the more you encourage yourself to feel good about life, to find the good, to feel gratitude, the more you want to share the goodness. The crappier you feel, the more bogged-down, too-many-problems-to-even-get-started you feel, the harder it is to make a difference in the universe. Optimism isn’t hedonism. Gratitude is certainly not complacency.

Looking for and relishing the positive aspects of what life gives you does not mean you accept life and society exactly how it is- it doesn’t mean giving into the system, or accepting abuse, or tolerating degradations just because. Relishing the positive just makes you less of a grouch. You can be a critical thinker without criticizing everything. Not that I had a raincloud over my head all the time before, nor am I a constant rainbow now, but I certainly feel less overwhelmed with my levels of stress and anxiety lately. Making a practice of noticing my gratitude isn’t some forced/pretend happiness, it’s food for my spirit.

So hopefully I’m not pissing off my grumpy friends with my incessant sunshine, with all my reasons to be glad. But it’s okay if I am, because I feel great! Viva Pollyanna!

Pollyanna’s not happy all the time. She works hard to find a reason to be glad.

Jesus, Mary-Joseph, and Marco Polo: The Name Game

18 Oct

I’d already taught several Michael Angelos and Julius Caesars when Marco Polo appeared on my roster. Thanks to that silly tag game kids play in the pool, I pretty much had to bite my tongue to keep from giggling every time I took attendance. At least my Miguel Angels and Julio Cesars mostly go by just Miguel or just Julio, but Marco Polo wanted me to use his first and middle name, the whole Marco Polo shebang. The worst part is that I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with his name- I just can’t help but picture a kid in a pool with his eyes closed calling out Marco! while the other kids flee and yell Polo! (Sometimes it’s a struggle to buck up and act like a grown up at work.)

In case you hadn’t figured it out from the whole people-from-Mexico-named-Jesus* thing, naming your kid after somebody famous is a really popular phenomenon here. If it can be somebody famous and religious, all the better. I’m particularly fond of Maria José for a girl, or José Maria for a boy; I’m impressed by people’s ability to give their kid an opposite sex middle name for the sake of the holy couple.

Also for the sake of the Catholic faith (or maybe a lack of inspiration back when folks had 10 kids), people used to have “calendar names”- they’d name their child whatever saint was designated for that day. People still sometimes say it’s your “saint’s day” instead of your birthday, because every day of the year has a saint for it. And lemme tell you, some of those saint names are kind of awful-sounding. Names like Filemon and Onofre (Sorry if this is your name, dear reader). My mother in law told me that once she complained to her mother that she didn’t like the name Paulina, and her mom told her, “Well, I could have named you Pánfila instead.” Paulina says she learned to like her name after that.

People also love creative and unique names. Granted, there are names that I originally thought were unique, invented names but which are actually traditional indigenous names (like Shunashi, a Zapotec name). Conan’s grandmother was named Godeleva, which sounds harsh to my ears, but I hear she loved it because no one else had her name. Conan’s parents, unfamiliar with all things Irish, thought they were giving their son a unique name, slightly changing the spelling and pronunciation of the biblical place Canaan (stress on the Nan, not the Co). There are names like Inedit, Esdras, Gamaliel. To me, the coolest part about new and unique names is that they’re more or less easy to pronounce, thanks to Spanish being totally phonetic. Sure, Maydelith looks a bit tricky, but once you wrap your head around it, it’s not bad. Because of this, I’m a little bit baffled when people tell us that Khalil is a difficult name. True, it is not a common name around here, but it is completely phonetic- it totally follows Spanish pronunciation of letters. The upside is that people are used to unique names, so nobody makes a big deal out of it once we say it a couple times.

Of course, there are also names borrowed from the U.S., usually with a slightly different pronunciation. Like Edith is pronounced eh-deet, accent on the deet. Conan always giggles about super Mexican-gringo combos like Brittany Guadalupe. I like it when they change the spelling to match the pronunciation, like changing Michael to Maikal.

But is naming your kid Rambo taking it too far with the famous people thing? Are there names that are just a bit too creative? Who gets to decide? I think names are, in part, an intimate part of family life, as well as a reflection and expression of culture. As such, I don’t think anybody has the right to decide what you, the parents, can name your child. Sure, I may giggle about names like Marco Polo for a second because, well, I’m giggly and immature some of the time. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the name, and perhaps in Mexico people learn enough world history to know who he was and not just have a kid’s game named for him.

Furthermore, it’s quite a slippery slope when government intervenes in what people can name their kids. Researching this, for example, I learned that in Germany it’s prohibited to give your kid sex-neutral names.** That seems a bit sad and excessive to me.

But names are also a part of public life, and unfortunately, discrimination based on names exists. While I’m against doing so, part of me understands wanting to restrict some names when it can cause so much grief for a kid, even into adulthood. I mean, it’s one thing if people give you a hard time because you have an indigenous name; that’s ignorance on the part of folks making fun of you or discriminating against you, but at least you’ve got a good name and were named that for a reason. But what if you suffer your whole life for what seems like a needless cause- like getting named Escroto (Scrotum, in English- and yes this is a registered name in Oaxaca). Is there any potential reason for that to be your name, besides parental cruelty?

During Conan’s very brief stint as a schoolteacher, he had a student named Cesarea, which is the word for a C-section. Conan has always wondered, did the doctor tell them, “well, it’s gonna be a Cesarean,” and the family understood that as the doctor deciding her name? Was it just an attempt to make a female version of Cesar? What are parents thinking when they name their kid Facebook or Hitler? I almost died laughing at this list of prohibited names in the Mexican state of Sonora: (Cesarea made the list.) Then I realized that most, if not all of these, were on this list because someone named their kid that. Circuncisión (Circumcision), for example. Terminator. It’s worth clicking on. But there are some on the list whose prohibition I don’t get. Harry Potter? I mean, at least he’s a cool character from a really awesome series of books. What wrong with that? And Cheyenne? That’s a beautiful name. So we’re back to the slippery slope situation.

In Oaxaca, they’ve decided not to ban names. Instead, the folks at the Civil Registry are supposed to “counsel” parents when they come in to register their kids. If it seems to be an odd name, they ask what it means to the parents or why they want to name their kid that. Maybe it’s a good enough compromise. Meanwhile, I’m two weeks in to a new academic semester and I’ve learned the names of all 90 of my students, AND managed to act like a grown up and not giggle once- well, not about anybody’s name. Go me!

*Jesus is pronounced more like hey-zeus than anything, which also makes me giggle occasionally, because apparently I am secretly still about 8 years old in maturity / humor. Also, people named Jesus mostly get the nickname Chuy (pronounced like Chewy) or Chucho (choo-choh, like a chu chu train except oh on the second syllable. FYI.

**from this article- an interesting read

Are You a Parent of Small Children? Take Our Exclusive Quiz!

11 Oct

Exclusive! Find out if you really ARE a parent of one or more mini-humans!

Do any of these describe your reality?

-Someone vomits on you and yet you find yourself comforting and calming the perpetrator, plus doing all the clean-up, instead of receiving any kind of apology or compensation.

-You get up to turn on the coffeemaker. You return to bed for ten more minutes of glorious shut-eye while you await your black gold being processed by the magic that is electricity. But lo and behold, you discover that there is no longer enough space in your bed to lie down and stretch your legs out. The two smallest humans in your house have maneuvered themselves into taking up three fourths of the king sized bed. “How did this happen?” You ask yourself. “I never wanted to be a bed-sharer in the first place! When do I get to cuddle with my partner, who’s huddled on the opposite side of the bed, a thrashing three year old between us?! When do we get to take advantage of having a king size bed?!?!” You finish your silent freak out and resign yourself. At least you still have coffee.

Mastering geometry- how to be this little and take up maximum space in the bed

Mastering geometry early on- how to be this little and take up maximum space in the bed

-You’re pissed off at your pet for chewing up the baby’s favorite chew toy. You think about letting the baby have it back, but decide against it due to the bits of loose rubber that are now choking hazards from the cat chewing holes in it. Drat that cat!

-You start getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning- even on weekends- just to have A FEW LOUSY MINUTES to yourself. Your mother, upon hearing what time you now voluntarily get yourself out of bed in the mornings, almost goes into cardiac arrest. You assure her that you are indeed the same child who invented a million tricks to avoid that early rising nonsense, including falling back asleep standing up in the shower. She then proceeds to laugh maniacally, because, “payback’s a mother.”

-You regularly get screamed at and ordered around by total tyrants, and yet no one encourages you to flee from the dictatorship. “Mommy, you come here now!” my three year old just told me today, as I was supposed to be swinging her in the hammock for nap time. “You don’t get your water! I want you to be thirsty!” Help! I have children! Somebody call Adult Protective Services!

-You find yourself talking on the phone to someone and interrupting your conversation to say things like, “Go to the bathroom if you have to pick your nose! And wash your hands afterwards!” Or “Do we color on walls?” Or a panicky “No no no no not the cat litter!”

-Your kid has learned the basics of menstruation years before her time and can’t wait to grow up and shave her legs because NO ONE RESPECTS YOUR PRIVACY!

-Poop becomes the biggest point of contention between you and your partner- whose turn it is to wipe the bigger kid’s butt, whose turn to change a diaper, whose turn to prewash the clumps of half-digested beans out of the cloth diaper, etc. Then you’re not sure if it’s worse to have to fight about poop all the time or to have such a hands-on relationship with little people’s poop.

-You’re at work, thinking you’re in adult mode, when suddenly you realize you’re humming a song from Dora the Explorer! Aaaahhhhh! Will it never end?

-You continue your masochism, even asking for more of this madness. You go home to your kids every night after work, and you’re happy to see them- perhaps overjoyed, even, to return to their tyranny after a long hard day in the grown up world. The baby smiles at you and flaps his arms (is it gas or is he happy to see you?). The big sister runs to the door, yelling, “Mommy! It’s Mommy! Mommy’s home!” And all is forgiven. Sure, you miss those pre-kid things like privacy and space in the bed, but you keep refusing to trade it for your little monsters.

You have passed this quiz. If one or more of these points describe your life, you’re definitely a parent of small children. Keep fighting the good fight, folks! I’ve been told it doesn’t last forever.

Juquila Haterade, or How Puerto Became My Paradise

4 Oct

Living in Juquila (pronounced who-keel-uh, kinda like who killed ya), a small mountain town known only for an appearance of the Virgin Mary, was like growing a tumor in my spirit. While I don’t / can’t blame all of my relationship and personal problems on Juquila, I still have lingering trauma, drama, and bitterness from my year of living there. Thank goodness it was only a year or it would’ve surely turned into terminal cancer of the soul.  It’s not an altogether awful place, but it was a terribly toxic place for me.

view from outside Paulina's house in the morning sunshine

view from outside Paulina’s house in the morning sunshine

I have to say, Conan’s family has always been great to me, and great people to boot. Really there are a lot of lovely, wonderful folks that live there. They were just all too busy and / or too reserved to have any meaningful contact with me. The culture as a whole of this one small town (not of the state in general, and certainly not of the whole country, mind you), with its general lack of intellectual or creative stimulation and its extreme sexism, truly was like a carcinogen to me.

Sound exaggerated? You go live there for a year and get back to me.  But living in Juquila was good for me for two reasons. For one, I can enjoy all the good parts when I go to visit, taking comfort in the fact that I don’t live there! I can eat the best tlayudas in the state, eat the best hamburgers in the world (Epig’s epic burgers), let my kids be temporarily spoiled by relatives, see the pretty view from my mother-in-law’s house, and move on with my life. I get to chat with the lovely folks we know who live there, because they make time to chat with us (and mostly include me) when we’re just there for a brief visit.

the beautiful view from Paulina's backyard- one of the things to appreciate about Juquila.

the beautiful view from Paulina’s backyard- one of the things to appreciate about Juquila

The other great thing about having payed my dues in Juquila is that the tiny coastal town of Puerto Escondido is miraculously, wonderfully, fantastically livable. I’m sure if I had just moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to Puerto Escondido directly I would not appreciate it the way that I do. Puerto would probably feel like purgatory instead of my little paradise.They say comparisons are odious, but for me comparing Juquila and Puerto Escondido is like (solar) radiation therapy to shrink down my tumor. So lemme drink my Juquila haterade for a minute. I can go ahead and get it out of my system, and at the same time, tell you about why Puerto Escondido is my paradise.

I’m pretty sure my friend Xian invented the term haterade, years ago. I’ve been waiting for my chance to use this brilliant word ever since, and here it is!

Food Selection

I almost forget sometimes how great Puerto is for food. I was complaining to my mom one day about the grocery store. There are two supermarkets in Puerto, but the one with the best selection has zero idea of customer service and routinely doesn’t have my favorite items for weeks or months at a time. “Well you should probably move back to Juquila,” my mom told me, deadpan, like she does. Right. The land of zero supermarkets. Where no one’s ever heard of crazy stuff like ginger or the ever-exotic red cabbage. Where salad is lettuce, tomato, onion and avocado, always and forever. Where you can thank the Virgin if there are two options for any product.

In Puerto there’s a health food store, with brown rice and local organic produce. There’s a corner store hangout spot with free wifi and imported products like dark chocolate and Sriracha. There are sit-down restaurants with foreign food like Thai and falafel. I could go on, but really that’s enough. It’s not Louisville, but my inner foodie is mostly satisfied.

Days off work for everyone

It’s so nice to live somewhere again where people mostly close up shop by 7 or 8pm. Where you have to buy machine-made tortillas on Sundays because women are giving themselves somewhat of a break. Where lots of places are closed on Sunday. I know, it seems counter-intuitive (and certainly un-´Merican) to enjoy more limited access to commodities. But when it means our community is more laid-back and less earning-obsessed, I seriously appreciate it. I like that we are in an economic situation where we don’t have to feel like we’re constantly scrambling for a couple extra pesos- where I can just go to work and get my paycheck, and not worry that by relaxing at home on a Sunday I’m losing out on potential income.

People in Juqulia almost all work 7 days a week. Especially people who have a home-based business, taxi drivers, people with their stands in the plaza, self-employed small businesspeople and those they employ- they all work long days, every day. So that covers pretty much everyone in Juquila. It’s not like that in all of Mexico or even all of Oaxaca. Yes, people work more here than in the US, certainly- longer hours in general, and the normal work week for most folks is Monday through Friday and includes a half day on Saturday. But not every town has most of the town working sunup to sundown seven days a week.

It’s a slave-driving kind of work ethic, except instead of slaving for some CEO or rich owner, people mostly enslave themselves. To me it wasn’t any more glamorous than slaving away for “the man.”

When we were living there, we were constantly “on,” too, in Paulina’s store, where we sold cell phones and top-up minutes for cell phones. It’s not that it was hard work by any stretch. It was mostly boring and annoying. Gotta go pee or change a diaper? Wait till someone else can cover for you. You don’t want the general public too see you drink coffee in your PJs (because you have the go through the store to get to the kitchen)? Then you better get up earlier than everyone else. We tried to convince Paulina to close the store on Sundays for a while, so we could have a family day, but I think we only pulled it off once. Inevitably she’d say, “well, I’m not doing anything- might as well open for a while.” The idea of taking off work (unless there’s a party) is a foreign concept in Juquila. Not so in coastal Puerto, where people are hard-working but know how to enjoy a good lounge in the hammock.

Fabulous weather

Okay, so the in-the-80s-and-humid-like-an-alligator-tank-everyday weather of Puerto Escondido isn’t for everyone. But it is the weather for me! It’s Louisville summer all year round! Skirts and tank tops every day of the week! Sunshine approx. 363 days a year! Vitamin D party time!

Juquila lovers hate on Puerto’s weather the second that they arrive- oh the terrible heat! Oh the sun! Oh dear! Where’s a good storm to keep everyone at home or work for 6 months of the year? When’s the windy season? Where are the predictable afternoon clouds? How do you survive here? But for me the constant heat and sun is ideal, especially now that we have fans in our house.

Women exist in social settings

Okay, this is not always the case in Puerto, either. There are still some people who will say hi to Conan and ignore me right beside him. But they’re much more the exception than the rule. Of course there is still rampant, raging sexism that is expressed in a ton of other ways (like everywhere), but pretending that someone doesn’t even exist, completely robbing them of any social worth, isn’t usually one of those ways.

In Puerto, not only do most people acknowledge my existence, but also there is space for women to have a social life. For many women in Puerto (unfortunately, not all women), there are options to do something fun. Because really, part of a complete existence is being a multi-dimensional human being. Not just being a mom, wife, worker. Hanging out! Chatting with your girlfriends (not just for 2 minutes when you’re run into each other running errands)! Going out with other couples and having interactions with men and women together! Playing sports! Doing something else that you enjoy for yourself!

None of those things happen in Juquila, ever- at least not for married women, and not much for single women, either. In Juquila, we went together once to the one night club, and there were about 10 other people, maybe 8 of them men. Conan had been to the club before, because groups of men go out together to drink, and their wives stay home and take care of the kids. When there’s a party or an event in the plaza (like a rodeo, or fireworks, or a band), men might deign to take their partners and children, but you mostly won’t find them interacting much. At a party women do most of the work, while men do the important job of handing out beers and mescal and drinking it with their friends.

As I mentioned, everyone is always working, but somehow men always find time to go out, to drink, to play sports, even to go to football or basketball tournaments in other towns. But the only women who ever play sports in Juquila are the nurses who work in the hospital, who are, not coincidentally, all from other towns. For women from Juquila, it’s not just sports they don’t play. They don’t play anything. They don’t go out without children. There’s really no concept of women doing anything for fun for themselves. It’s so the norm that I couldn’t talk any women into hanging out with me, unless it was to do something useful like make tamales. No one seems to question this, either.* If you question it, you’re destroying men’s maleness, making them less male. Te pegan, men say if their male friend doesn’t want to go out- implying that your wife hits you, that she has assumed the male role of control and violence. That phrase and the way it’s used pretty much sums it all up.

This is the biggest part of what nearly destroyed my spirit. I can live without sushi. I can live with crappy weather. I can’t live without meaningful connections, without real friendship, without social validation through positive interactions for my extroverted self, without acknowledgement of myself as a complete and equal human being. I can’t. Ever again.

But it sure does make me appreciate my little tropical paradise. And thanks, Juquila, for the great visit yesterday. It was actually really fun! And I love to see you guys in Puerto, so come visit anytime!

*My mother-in-law is the only exception to this rule that I know of, in terms of women from Juquila who still live in Juquila and who question this. Perhaps there are other exceptions, I just didn’t meet them or didn’t catch on that they were exceptions. There are also lots of exceptions of people from Juqulia who don’t buy into this- but they almost all now live in other places, or they’re from other places to begin with.