Tag Archives: puerto escondido

The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)

 

*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.

My Oaxacan Reality Show

30 Aug

Have you ever approached the mirror expecting to see a cockroach, because things are so bad you’re sure you’re living out a Kafka novel? I started my Monday timidly glancing towards the mirror, convinced someone had come along in the night and boofed-up my hair, maybe wiped excessive blush and three layers of mascara on me, because I undoubtedly am living some bad reality TV. Or perhaps the previous days were supposed to be motivation for me to write about my life for The Onion, everyone’s favorite satirical paper. I knew my life wasn’t a sitcom because it was too preposterous to be made-up.

 

This was my reality show script this past weekend:

 

Friday: The Absurd Car Saga Continues

 

We’re driving down the coastal “highway” (a highway covered in topes, aka speed bumps), cruising along nicely because we’ve already stopped twice since leaving our house to put water in and cool down the car. That’s the state of our car currently- the motor’s been totally rebuilt now, along with about 15 other things, but anything that we haven’t put in new in the 2 years that we’ve owned it is just waiting for its moment to break down. I could write 3 different blog posts about this lemon of a car and all the idiot/liar mechanics and how every time we fix something they break something else or something else breaks right afterwards. I could write about how it tricked us by not breaking down for a couple of months, and so we decided to do some more major repairs on it to make it last us, and it hasn’t lasted a full week since then. But Conan’s made me promise not to blog about the car. “It’s bad enough I have to live this experience;” he explained, “I really don’t want to read about it.” But the car was the start of this mad-house weekend, so, sorry, Conan, but I’ve got to tell a little bit.

 

So we’re driving to Lucia’s school to pick her up. Now, luckily, we haven’t had to make the trek to take Lucia to school and back every day, thanks to a super nice lady, J’s mom, who lives a couple miles from us. Lucia’s new school, which is fabulous for her, is like light years away from us. It’s as far as you could possibly get from our house and still be in the same small town. Taking a taxi there is prohibitively expensive. It takes two buses and a good amount of walking on both ends just to get there without a car, and then there’s the trip back for Conan and Khalil. So all the days when our car doesn’t work (usually, thus far), Conan takes Lucia down the road to J’s mom’s house. J’s mom takes her and brings her back to there in the afternoon.

 

Three weeks in, Lucia is used to going with J’s mom. She showed me the other day how she and Papi speed-walk down the street to the collectivo stop in the mornings. Conan showed me the video that he showed Lucia to stop her complaining, a video of some kids who scale a cliff to get to school and back. This is good, I thought. My kids in no danger of growing up too privileged for her own good. But J’s mom now has to start taking her older kids to school as well, which means she needs to leave an hour earlier. I refuse to think about the problem till Monday, though, because our life is a twelve-step program and we’re already dealing with this tricky moment.

 

We’re driving in our radically unreliable car because the plan changed too much in one day. Lucia was supposed to be getting a ride with a different mom because she was going to her new bestie’s house to play after school. Unfortunately, there was a problem on the other mom’s end and she had to reschedule. We’d already cancelled Lucia’s normal ride with J’s mom, and I knew Lucia was going to be madly disappointed. Thus, I thought it might soften the blow if I went to get her. I told Conan I was going to take the buses and such to get her, but he convinced me it’d be better to all go in the car- we’d just put water in along the way. So here we are.

 

The car makes it all the way to the school! J’s mom had had car trouble herself earlier in the day, so she arrives in a borrowed car. The borrowed car gets a flat tire right on the corner by school, so Conan tries to fix it. The car’s spare needs air and our spare doesn’t fit. J’s mom calls the flat-tire car’s owner and he comes quickly in J’s mom’s now-fixed car (how’d she get a mechanic to work so quickly!? I gasp). She has to go pick up more kids, so we take the flat-tire-car-owner to the gas station to get air in his spare. When we arrive at the gas station, we hear a big pop! from our car. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I yell, about to pull my hair out.

 

It’s not a flat tire, at least. Conan opens the hood. Some belt has snapped. But not completely- only part of it is torn. Conan gets out the dirty steak knife he apparently keeps handy and cuts off the busted part. We take off back down the road to the school where the other car is. We make a deal with the flat-tire-car-owner that he’ll pick up me and the kids off the side of the road if he sees us there on the way back to our side of town. With only a couple of stops to cool the car down- one of those stops to buy quick food, we make it home just in time for me to go back to work. Well, I’m late for the 8th time this week, but I get there.

 

Speaking of late, Conan’s going to be late to an important prayer service. The babysitter calls while we’re on the road, saying she can’t watch the kids that afternoon. That means Conan can’t leave as planned for Pinotepa, a coastal town a few hours down the road where his stepdad Arturo is from.

 

Here in Oaxaca, when somebody dies, there are nine days of evening prayer services for the deceased, with the ninth one culminating in an all-night sort of wake/prayer service. They repeat the process a year later, and this is the year anniversary. We already missed the original service for Arturo’s mom, so it’s important that we go. But I couldn’t even handle the mental images of a weekend purgatory with my insomniac children, all sleep-deprived and exhausted and expected to sleep on straw bedrolls when there’s an exciting wake going on around them. Plus we are all in the throes of a cold, just to exacerbate the potential misery. Conan was going to go alone, but this is like another sign from the universe. He decides to stay home and try to figure out the car situation.

 

 

Saturday: Blood and Gore and Electrical Outlets

 

Our most trusted and honest mechanic is unavailable. Sadly, this guy is slower than molasses in January AND the least experienced and least knowledgeable of the dozen mechanics we know down here, but at least we’re sure he’s not trying to rip us off, ever. We wait, as usual.

 

We decide on a family field trip to the library before our weekly venture to buy fruit and vegetables at the market. At the library, Khalil’s pulling books off the shelf with glee. I look at Lucia for a second and when I look back at Khalil he’s got his finger on an electrical socket and is trying to shove it in there. WTF? Who puts an electrical outlet in the children’s books? Or who puts the small kids’ books where the outlet is? Geez, Mexico, Geez!!! I know that safety is a joke here, but it’s a library, which really should be a universal safe space, don’t you think? Sure, they don’t have those convenient plastic outlet-cover things with that specific purpose down here, but this is a land of genius inventions!  Put some duct tape over that shit like I do, people! No wonder a kid’s third birthday is such a big deal here: if your kid survives that long, it’s obviously a miracle.

 

The rest of our outing is blissfully uneventful, not including Lucia’s meltdown in the taxi because I told her I’d buy her a treat “later” and then later never happened. “I wanted ice cream, too, but I bought fruit for you little people instead!” I want to scream, if only I could have my own meltdown. Instead I limit myself to furtive eye-rolling while I console her. Life is really hard.

 

Tensions remain high at home due to hunger and exhaustion. Voracious snacking happens while I prepare official lunch. Later Conan and I get in a fight over who is supposed to rinse Khalil’s poopy diapers. Conan escapes outside to do yard work. I attempt to put Khalil down for a nap.

 

I’m lying in the bed with Khalil when Conan comes up and asks if we have peroxide. I look up at him and there’s blood all over his shoulder and on one side of his chest. It’s coming from his head and it’s still flowing out swimmingly.

 

“What happened!” I shriek at him. “Do. We. Have. Peroxide.” He repeats. Then Calm Julia starts a wrestling match with Hysterical Julia. “Go in the bathroom,” I tell him, breathing deeply while my hands shake. “Bring some ice,” he says. I grab peroxide, ice, and the small, worn white “Él” (His) towel that was a wedding present, which just happens to be in the kitchen. I douse his head in soap and water and try to guess how bad it is. He holds the towel with ice in it on his head. The bleeding continues.

 

I’m flapping around like a chicken, trying to get things together to schlep him and the kids to a clinic. “Get your shoes on,” I tell Lucia. “Because we’re going to the hospital?” she asks, having overheard me tell Conan that I’m taking him. “Yes,” I confirm, and she is remarkably obedient. “I’m ready, Mommy,” she says, stunningly cool and calm.

 

Of course our car is not working. I am also out of minutes on my phone, and in my agitated state I appear to be unable to use Conan’s phone to call a taxi. Conan feels dizzy, which puts me almost over the edge. “Don’t pass out on me!” I tell him sternly.

 

“The neighbor,” Conan says, reminding me that we have a helpful neighbor. I try to call him instead of a taxi but my phone hasn’t miraculously gotten a top-up on minutes in the past 30 seconds. I can’t work Conan’s contact list still, either, and as I’m trying to push in the buttons and becoming less and less dexterous and sharp-witted (you’d think I got my head busted open, too), Conan says, “Go.To.The.Neighbor’s.House.” OH, right! I snatch the baby and go.

 

Luckily, the neighbors are home. The papá, Sergio, comes over to help. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says, and Conan says, “Yeah, I don’t feel so dizzy now,” as if to say “Let’s just forget about all this.” I’m on the verge of screaming, “Your head got busted open by a heavy wooden beam! Have you already lost your mind?!” Instead I limit myself to a determined, “We’re getting you checked out.” The neighbor offers to give us a ride to the worthless pharmacy doctor down the street. That’s better than nothing, so we get in the car. Lucia stays with the mamá neighbor and their three kids to play, thankfully.

 

conan pole

Conan demonstrates how the beam was (we recently did some construction on the house and this beam was stuck extra tight until this moment)

conan pole down

This is how the beam fell, except Conan was kneeling down to pick up the bucket right there. He has some amazingly bad luck. But better him than the kids, we agreed.

 

The pharmacy doctor is closed at the pharmacy in our neighborhood. The less-busy one downtown is also closed. We get out of the car at the next one, pleased because it looks like there’s no line. We tell the neighbor we’ll catch a taxi back and thanks for the ride. Turns out there’s no line because the doctor has just gone to lunch and won’t be back for an hour. Ooops. Now what?

 

The Red Cross is just a couple blocks away, so we start walking. I’m carrying the sleeping Khalil in my arms and Conan is shirtless and still messy with blood, holding the bloodied white towel with ice in it over his head. He says he feels “fine.” I am not assured.

 

At the Red Cross they clean and examine his injury and tell us he needs stitches, but they’ll have to charge us for the materials- a couple hundred pesos. They work off of donations, so that’s that. And they’re not doctors, so they explain that they can’t give us a prescription or any other care, so we might prefer to go to the Health Center (Centro de Salud). “They’re government run, so they don’t have any reason to charge you a peso,” the paramedic says. (I suppose he’s a paramedic. Whatever he is. Random guy who knows how to sew people up? Friendly apprentice to a Silence of the Lambs-style murderer? Who knows?)

 

We take a taxi to the Health Center and go in the Emergency doors. You remember the Centro de Salud, the one that was on strike for months? They’re not on strike anymore, thank goodness. Someone is in the exam room and there’s another couple waiting. The other guy’s having chest pains and he gets seen first. Conan tells the nurse he had an accident and got hit in the head. She glances in his direction. Analysis complete.

 

While we’re still waiting, the nurse comes over and asks, “Did you guys bring a vehicle?” I’m thinking “Did someone park illegally on the nearly-empty dirt road outside? Why are they asking this?” I give her a simple no, although I’m tempted to disclose too much information about the useless state of our vehicle.

 

“Well, it looks like we’re out of the thread for stitches, so you’re going to have to go to a pharmacy and buy it.” She informs us casually. The nearest pharmacy is something like 10 blocks away. I look slowly at Conan with his head injury and I look down at the sleeping baby in my arms. Do I go on this outing with the baby, which will take longer but be safer? Do I leave the baby with the head-injury patient? Do I send the injured party to buy his own medical supplies, with his bloody towel and topless, bloody chest, because our first walk-around wasn’t quite fun enough? IS THIS A SICK JOKE?

 

Of course it’s not a joke, though; it’s just how it is. This is not as bad as the time that a doctor sent us home during Lucia’s crisis asthma attack with her blood oxygen level still at a dangerous 89% and not responding to treatment. It’s not nearly as bad as my friend’s birth story. She’s a negative blood type and her baby’s positive, so you need a special shot, which you can get anytime between 28 weeks pregnancy to 72 hours after birth. Otherwise it’s dangerous if you might ever want to get pregnant again. The hospital where she gave birth (yep, those same scary fools that are my insurance company) kept telling her they’d get it for her soon, until her 72 hours were almost up and finally they admitted that they didn’t have it. Her husband had to drive hours away to go buy it and race back to get it to her in time. So, I think, this is not that bad.

 

Luck is on our side! The director finds a little bit stashed away in a closet somewhere. Hallelujah, amen.

 

The nurse won’t let me accompany Conan, probably because she doesn’t want anyone with non-injured heads to hear her inappropriate commentary or to be a witness to who-knows-what. “These glasses just don’t let me see right anymore,” is among her pertinent remarks. That was after she discussed with the other lady (nurse’s aide? Who knows?) this being her 2nd time giving stitches. When Conan asks, incredulously, “Really? Second time ever?” she explains that it was her second time with the other lady. Conan’s hoping that’s true, but it’s too late to back out of this anyway.

 

Meanwhile, the director, who’s the only doctor on site, takes me to a different room to complete some minimal paperwork. I give him basic info about Conan and what happened. He tells me he’s writing a prescription for an antibiotic and pain pills.

 

The doctor still hasn’t actually examined Conan, so I’m trying not to scoff about his antibiotics. When I ask him if antibiotics are necessary in this case, he assures me that they are, just like all the doctors here do, no matter the circumstances. They don’t even diagnose you; one doctor I saw limited herself to the question, “Injection or pills?” like they used to ask, “Paper or plastic?” in the grocery store. You have a cough? Antibiotics! Diarrhea? Antibiotics! It’s a miracle that there are still antibiotics that kill off actual bacterial infections here since they’re used for everything else instead. But I digress.

 

If I had known that my moment with the doctor would be the only moment for questions, I would have gotten it together to inquire a little more. If I had a peso for every time I thought “If I had known this sooner,” since we moved here, we would be filthy rich enough to improve doctors’ training in the entire state of Oaxaca. Although we’d only do that if we could ALSO buy a car that works.

 

Conan survives the dodgy nurse’s handiwork and we go to the reception/cashier area with a piece of paper. The receptionist charges us 85 pesos. I ask if that’s how much it costs despite his having this insurance- the Seguro Popular (insurance that covers you at this type of public health clinic). She’s like, “Oh, you have Seguro Popular?” Conan explains that he does but his paper is at home. Because that’s all it is- a printed piece of paper. It’s not like it’s something you carry around with you everywhere, or it’d be unreadable once you needed to use it. “Can’t you look him up in the system?” I ask, to which she probably should have burst out laughing. But instead she politely tells us that there’s no system like that; he just needs his scrappy piece of paper that anybody could print from a computer. I guess they’re counting on the fact that not enough poor people have the means to make their own ridiculous document for insurance coverage. Or they just don’t care.

 

“Welcome to Oaxaca!” I think, land where you better be at home with your shoddy print-out proof of insurance when anything happens or else it’s no use. What’s more of a joke, though, is that at no point did the doctor examine Conan’s injury, and no medical professional has given him any medical advice or instructions on follow-up care. No one has given us any idea of potential complications, what to watch for, tips on keeping it clean, or even when to get the stitches taken out. Nothing. I kind of assumed the nurse had told Conan some of that information. I must be somewhat in shock myself because I am not on my A-game with the demanding questions, and therefore we get zero information. At least he got seen, I guess.

 

conan busted head

It doesn’t look too bad after it’s all stitched up. Too bad it feels really bad still. We go out for ice cream down the street from the clinic before we get a taxi home. There’s the silver lining. 

 

Sunday: Dry like a Desert, No Oasis in Sight

 

Conan acts like he feels fine and starts to refill leaking fluids, add extra water, and beat on something to make the tail lights come on (oh, yeah, we have some electrical problems, too) so we can take the car out. We go to inquire about brand-new cars, because at this point I’m convinced that it will be cheaper than trying to maintain a car that never works. Unfortunately, the facts and numbers demonstrate my miscalculation. A new car is still unattainable. But my kids have fun playing hide and seek around the Volkswagon showroom and jumping on their couch. That’s what matters on a Sunday, right?

 

We drop the car off at the mechanic’s, who hopes to get to it today. He calls Conan right as we’re about to sit down to dinner that evening, because he’s about to get started working on it. Conan rushes off to the mechanic’s house. As soon as they start working, it starts pouring down rain and nothing can be done till the next day. (What, do you expect mechanics to have garages here? Bwahahaha.)

 

While Conan is out, we run out of drinking water. I still don’t have any minutes on my phone, so I can’t call him to bring some home. I’m worried that it’ll be too late to get any from the house on the corner by the time he gets back. I could leave the sleeping children alone in the house for a minute, but I’m scared of the dogs once it’s dark out and they get more aggressive. So I’m stuck, with my ragingly sore throat, and no water. I need tea now! Worse still, how will I get out of bed in the morning if there’s no coffee? I blow up a balloon for my imaginary pity party. For some reason, this small inconvenience feels like the worst thing yet.

 

Then I remember that it’s not my first day in the illustrious state of Oaxaca. It’s not even my first time with this particular problem. I get a big pot and put tap water on to boil. “It’ll be better coffee,” I think, “I’ll add some cinnamon to the pot!” I make my coffee the traditional way, letting the grinds sink to the bottom. It’s all ready for me to reheat when I get up the next day, thus assuring my 5AM wake up will be executed successfully. I make ginger tea with some of the boiled water, and it’s the perfect soother.

 

I plan the meals for the next day. Conan has a plan for Lucia’s school transportation for the next day. No further plans can be made. We’ve made it through this day. That is all. There’s no moral to the story, nothing special to be learned, because this is a REALITY show, folks. I go to sleep hoping for a better script and better hair tomorrow.

A Spike for the Ego

21 Aug

I gave up being a stellar young volleyball player when I was thirteen, because it no longer fit my budding rebel image. I’d been the hot-shot player on my team, because I loved it and therefore I practiced relentlessly. But I traded it in for tentative puffs of smoke, for dancing in the mosh pit, for spoken word poetry. Sports were for jocks and that wasn’t me, I declared, with all of my tentacles extended to speculate and conjecture about my identity. Little did I know that years later, volleyball would save my life, imparting me with a concrete expression of myself as a real human being, when nothing and no one else around me acknowledged me as a distinct and singular individual.

 
Volleyball as refuge for me started in the itty-bitty mountain town of Juquila, Oaxaca, during that year of my life when I was lost in the abyss. I was whisked away in the shock, in the wonder and delight, in the anguish and growing pains of becoming a mother. I was in semi-exile from my home, trying to clench my fist around some solid piece of myself. I was locked away in solitary confinement, with an infant who couldn’t talk, a very depressed partner who wasn’t talking to me, and a small town full of folks who acted like I was an alien species.

 
Then I found a place to play volleyball.

 
It was at the hospital, up one of Juquila’s many steep hills. Everyone else who played regularly was staff from the hospital, but a neighbor who worked at the hospital told me it wasn’t exclusive, and I leapt at the non-invitation as if it were a red carpet leading me to my very own party. They were mostly younger folks hired from other parts of the state, and they were mostly a little more open-minded than many of the locals in Juquila.

 
Usually Conan would come with me to bring baby Lucia- who refused to take a bottle- in case she needed to nurse. Even though I wasn’t 100% free of my mother role, at least I was somewhere in my own right. It was a place to go with a legitimate purpose all about me, as a person who played this sport, as opposed to being Conan’s partner, or Paulina’s daughter-in-law, or just “la gringa,” a strange specimen to inspect and marvel at. It was a respite from both being ignored and being a side-show freak.

 
Not that I found a new bestie or something from going to volleyball once a week. We never had deep or intimate or intellectual conversation, nor many other things that I was longing for. Nobody ever invited me for anything but volleyball- and there wasn’t really anything else to do in Juquila anyway, except perhaps have a drink. But I got to use my body for something besides walking to the market and nursing the baby, and I got to be  part of a team. Being accepted into the volleyball games was enough. I eventually even got invited to be on their team for a big tournament. That was the most recognized and autonomous I ever felt in Juquila.

 

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Proof of my existence: My shirt even had my name on it for the tournament! Thank you, hospital volleyball players of Juquila.

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An action shot

When we moved to Puerto Escondido, I started from scratch again with my search for a social existence. There are a lot more people and options, as well as a different attitude, in Puerto. People are so much more open- it’s palpable. When I talk about Juquila, when I describe things and some people there, my shoulders hunch up, I shrink in on myself, fighting off the cold. But when I think about Puerto, my arms extend like wings, or like the surfer I’m not, out, open, free. What a difference.

I was invited to a volleyball team at the university where I work, too, but my existence in Puerto doesn’t start and end with volleyball. Granted, I still don’t have the incredibly fulfilling social life I pine for. But I am recognized in so many ways and spaces. I have a house that’s all ours, with electricity and everything, where I can be totally me and blast my music at 7AM. I’m not a novice Mommy-in-the-making anymore; I’m full-fledged, parenting with my eyes closed half the time. I’m a teacher with more than 5 years spent in classrooms, including two years under my belt using a curriculum that I helped invent. I get along royally with my students and I’m generally pleased to be at work, enjoying what I do. I have fabulous coworkers who I love to hang out with, at work and beyond. I know some other really cool folks who I almost never get to see because of this busy life- but at least I know really cool people! They know me. We exist in this social universe!

And I play volleyball, every Friday after work. I play to be outside of my Mommy role, outside of my Teacher role, to just be me, me and my body, little autonomous Julia. My muscles work hard and I feel sweaty and strong and glorious. My laughter erupts time and again, like yet another oil spill in the ocean, uncontainable, uncontrollable, its effects diffusing into all the realms of my being. I feel so alive, every single week. I feel like I belong, goofing off with staff and students and thesis candidates, other people shirking their normal roles to have a good time.

My volleyball skills are not what they used to be, although I’ve still got a surprisingly wicked underhand serve on a good day. More importantly, I feel legitimate and whole and right when I’m on the court: secure in my body, sure of my identity and place in the universe.

So I found myself getting pretty irritated with a small group of new students and their hot-shot egos who found their way to our games. See, in August and September, the university has a special introductory semester for new students while everyone else is on vacation. So right now there are just a few of us regulars and several enthusiastic new students. Bless their little hearts.

There is this group of those guys (almost always male, especially down here). We all know them: the guys who are confident that they’re more important than you. In volleyball, they are rampant, unapologetic ball-hogs. They’re flagrant court stealers, trying to play every position at once. They’re not only sexist (if you’re good, you’re good for a girl) because they also steal the ball from other men who aren’t as good/aggressive as they are- they’re equal opportunity in their discounting of all us “inferior” players.

They’re not amazing players in reality, though. At least half of these boys’ skill is brute force. They lose the point at least as much as they get it. Sometimes they blow the point because they hit it way too hard. Often they blow it because they’re so busy making sure some less-skilled player doesn’t mess up that they abandoned their own position and can get the ball when it lands there. And sometimes they just mess up, just because they’re human. But because they can spike, because they’ve got great hustle, because they’re overzealous, they’re really impressed with each other and uninspired by the rest of us. They’d like to think that it’s they’re game and we’re just there for show.

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Conan captured perfectly this ball-hog in Juquila stealing the ball from right in front of me. These guys are international, after all.

I am not there for show, however, thank you very much, chicos. I’m not a star volleyball player, but I’ve got thirty two years of budding and blooming personality under my belt, and no one can diminish that in me now. When I call the ball, I’m going to hit it, even if they get in my way. When they scoot in to my position before the ball’s even been served, I politely tell them to scoot on back out of my space. “I might miss it, but you might, too,” I told one of them this past week. Or when one of them tried to switch into the setter’s spot without asking me about it, I told him nicely, “Sorry, I like this position, too.”

I was feeling all irked about their presence, until I realized that those boys and I both have our egos all tied up in this game. Their stake is all about performing well for their buddies, whereas my stake is all about having a space to “perform” myself. I’m old enough now to not pen myself into a category. I can be an avid volleyball player and not worry about being a jock. I can be a devoted Mommy and still be a wild child rebel in my own ways and time. I can just be all of who I am now and most days I don’t give myself any complexes about it, thank the universe.

These poor boys, though, are not even having fun! They’re so busy trying to prove that they’re bad-asses that they can’t even laugh when they mess up. They either try to put the blame on someone else or they beat themselves up over it. Granted, it doesn’t make their behavior any more acceptable. They still need to learn that we all have a right to play, regardless of sex, regardless of skill level. But it does give me a little more  compassion for them. Here they are, many of them, separated from their old friends, out of their parents’ house, in a new town, for the first time in their lives. They’re trying to hang on to and continue recreating their own social identities. It’s hard. I get it. Maybe, with time, with more of us insisting that we all belong equally on the court, they’ll get that part, too. Maybe they’ll even learn to respect themselves more when they learn to respect others. Maybe they’ll even have fun during volleyball someday. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep holding space and pushing back at their infringement on my territory. For myself, for the other women who play, for the other not-so-aggressive players, and even for team macho themselves. It’s what my more-grown-up ego demands of me- to keep claiming my right to exist, to respect other people’s right to exist, on the volleyball court and elsewhere. Thank you, sports, and fellow players, for helping me rediscover my place.

P.S.   Semi-related bonus story: Recently Conan found out how it felt to live in the shadow of someone else and I don’t think he cared much for it. Some students of mine came up to him and the baby outside of my work and asked, “Is this the teacher Julia’s son?” (in Spanish). He said it was and they smiled at each other, said something between themselves, and walked off. “It was like I didn’t exist,” he complained to me.

My ego is too mature these days (maybe) to gloat about something like that, although it was kind of nice to feel understood. Luckily for him that’s not his whole existence in this town, because it’s no way to live. Love and solidarity, folks. Take care of each other, and hold space for yourself, and for others. xoxoxo, Your Humble Gringuita in Oaxaca

Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca

1 Jul

Somewhere between six and ten people died and lots more were injured during a protest in our state, Oaxaca, on June 19. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people died, or exactly what happened, because everyone has a different account, and you can’t really believe anybody. The government, the police, the media, and the teachers’ union are all notoriously corrupt. Both the causes of the protests and the way they are being carried out is a lose-lose situation for everyone in our state, especially for all the children and youth.

The government says six people died, but nobody trusts the government. Elections here are even more rigged and fraudulent than in the U.S. Buying votes is normal. You might get killed by the competition if you are running for office, partly because if you are elected you can (and probably will) steal enough money from the people to keep you set for life- therefore it’s worth killing over. The government is full of outright, blatant lies: just Google “the missing 43 Mexican students ” (here’s some of the info:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35539727) if you haven’t already heard about the biggest government and police corruption scandal during this president’s reign. In this most recent case, in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, the original official story was that some other organization or group jumped in and shot the protesters. Originally, reports even said the police went to the protest unarmed, which isn’t the slightest bit credible. So you can see why government and police reports aren’t believable.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the utter honesty of the teachers’ union as well. I imagine that accounts from teachers and other folks on site when it happened are more realistic than accounts by police or the media. But the union here is not really the voice of the teachers. Membership in the union is obligatory and participation in protests is mandatory, although they rotate participation some so they don’t have to be protesting every day for these month-long strikes, at least. While I don’t think our public school teachers are the bad guys in this scenario at all, and I’m in favor of unions, I think this particular union is not good for our schools or the kids, and not even particularly good for the teachers. (More info about the teachers’ union, sección 22: http://www.mexicogulfreporter.com/2013/08/oaxaca-education-at-mercy-of-omnipotent.html )

Some articles act like the teachers are screwing over the system, and it certainly sounds like it when you read that teachers’ and staff compensation account for 94% of education funding (http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ ). But teachers don’t get paid excessively, I can assure you (people aren’t shy about discussing income here, so teachers I know have told me how much they make). It’s not bad pay but it’s not outstanding, either. Thus, this statistic in context speaks way more to a) other folk that get paid, for example folks who only exist on payroll and not in a classroom, including dead people (yes this really happens here- some live person is cashing in the dead person’s paycheck) and b) just how little funding there is for education. Here, there’s no funding for transportation or food, and next to nothing for anything else. This means classrooms not only don’t have enough books, sometimes they don’t even have classrooms. (Conan and other students had to help build their own high school, for example.) Parents pay so much out of pocket that for “free” public education that school is inaccessible for many people. Not only do parents pay for school materials for their children- which is already hard on many families-, but also they regularly get asked to pay extra fees for whatever the school needs. Parents also have mandatory volunteer work days at the school (because schools can’t hire other staff), and they get fined if they don’t attend.

What Are They Fighting About? The Existing Problems, the Reform, and the General Lack of Confidence in the System

Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes in the world. It “ranked 118th out of 144 countries in quality of primary education, behind many poorer countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.” ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-reforms-idUSKBN0OI0AL20150602) Within Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in education. The federal government passed a bill for Education Reform back in 2013, because pretty much everyone agrees that radical changes to the system are sorely needed in Mexico.

The reform sounds helpful on paper, and in general people seemed to be mostly in favor of it before. Some of its official objectives are creating more equity, and that it be free and accessible. The reform proposes lots of money for more schools, money to improve existing schools, money for food in schools in poor areas, and other such necessary funding. Who knows if it will be enough funding and where the money is coming from, but that part sounds great. It proposes transparency about where the money goes in schools. It calls for better textbooks, more parental and community involvement, and more access to teacher training. It will also require teachers to undergo evaluations and trainings, and to justify their absences if they miss more than 3 days of class. There are lots of things that it doesn’t cover that would be nice, like changing the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, things like that- but it’s a start. (this article gives a good overview in English and here’s some info in Spanish directly from the government about their plans: http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ 

http://www.nl.gob.mx/servicios/reforma-educativa

Since nobody believes the government, however, and the news can’t be relied upon for real, relevant information, either, we are also inundated with rumors and counter beliefs about the reform. The number one complaint is that they are going to use this to privatize education. The government viciously denies it, but they are working on privatizing other public things, like petroleum. The government also said the police weren’t carrying guns, among other lies; they don’t prove themselves trustworthy, to say the least. So the government repeats that the tenets of the reform are to make education free of fees, and people shrug their shoulders.

The kind of information that my students tell me they believe about the reform is that, for example, they just want to fire all the teachers. We’ve heard that they’re going to take away everyone’s retirement benefits. We’ve heard that you won’t even need teacher training to be a teacher- that anyone who can pass the exam will be a teacher (which is not a very credible claim, since so much of the reform emphasizes teacher training, but there you have it). A big concern is that if teachers don’t pass an exam they will be fired on the spot. According to the proposal, teachers with poor evaluations will receive more training and then take the exam again in a year- and have a third chance with more training if the fail the second time. Supposedly the evaluations will take many factors into consideration, including the environment and culture where teachers are, which is really important here in Oaxaca where there are many indigenous languages spoken throughout the state, and many kids growing up in a household where Spanish isn’t spoken. Of course the reform needs to take regional and cultural factors into account, and it does propose to do so- but once again, it’s easier to believe what your teacher friend down the street tells you than what the government puts out there. And the teacher may or may not believe what they’re being told about the reform, but regardless they have to protest it or there will be serious sanctions against them.

My impression before this protest was that most people do want evaluations for teachers, or at least some kind of accountability, to deal with the very real problem like teachers selling their guaranteed, lifelong position off to someone else when they retire. Some people are definitely concerned that there is ZERO oversight on teacher quality; teachers are guaranteed a position for life (and beyond, when teachers give their position to their child, for example), no matter what they do or don’t do. Parents are also sick of the strikes; Oaxacan kids have lost more than an entire school year in the past 7 years of strikes. (from this article, which was also one of the broadest and best articles I read covering the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/world/americas/mexico-teachers-protests-enrique-pena-nieto.html?_r=0  ) And that’s not including the 6 or 7 months-long strike that happened in 2006, which was the 25th consecutive year of teacher strikes in Oaxaca under this teachers’ union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  )

But ever since people got killed, the tides have changed drastically in terms of public support. Most people are vocally or actively standing with the teachers now (including a lot of international folks who don’t seem to know what is actually going on here), which also means they’re against the reform now. Also, people down here still revere teachers and, more importantly, lack trust and faith in government to a much greater degree than the cynicism and distrust they have for the teachers’ union. The union talks a good talk, and the demands during the annual strikes (yes, every year for the past 30 years or something now, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  ) always include some demand or the other related to the wellbeing of the students.

While pretty much ALL the systems and agencies in this country are corrupt, the government is seen as the most corrupt. Certainly the federal government cares very little about Oaxaca, too. (For example, when the months-long strikes were going on in 2006, for ages the federal government washed their hands of the situation, saying it was a local issue.) So the union is robbing people, sure, but the government killing people- and getting away with it, as usual- is certainly worse.

At the very least, no matter how people down here feel about the union and the striking teachers, most people doubt that the reform will actually help Oaxacan children anyway. After all, it’s been proven over and over that people can’t rely on institutions here. It’s pretty depressing, if nothing else.

The Effects of the Protests

The protest is ongoing and the demonstrations and blockades, along with its secondary effects, are widespread throughout Oaxaca- plus there’s some similar action happening in our neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero. Teachers have been on strike since mid-May, first of all, although it was all pretty low-key until elections in early June. Things heated up, then calmed again, and then the killings happened.

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a shot from 2015 strikes (borrowed from ibtimes.com)

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teachers camping out in the zócolo, the main square, of Oaxaca City- a common sight…. (image from nvinoticias.com)… Teachers have rotating schedules for when they have to participate in protests- thank goodness! They have families, too. 

Since then, the government and teachers’ union have had two separate dialogues, both lasting for several hours, where NOTHING has been gained nor lost on either side. Nobody is reporting any clear news on what the hell they’re saying in there for all those hours (perhaps they’re talking about their grandkids, a la Bill Clinton), but there they are. So far they haven’t set up a third meeting. (Here’s an example of the very vague reporting: https://oaxaca.quadratin.com.mx/reforma-educativa-no-se-abrogara-osorio-cnte/)

The union and the government are at an impasse. The union won’t accept the reform, and the government won’t rescind the reform, which is now written into law and already partially implemented. The union is promising to get more drastic and expand their actions to other parts of the country. More and more police are arriving. There are rumors of military involvement. The only thing to do is to wait and see. Here’s a lot of relevant information about what’s happening:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2016/07/supplies-airlifted-to-oaxaca-as-blockades-continue-in-several-mexican-states/  I suspect things will get crazier before they get better, despite the government’s vague promises that they will resolve this within a few days.

A big part of the protest is the numerous blockades that the teachers union and their allies have set up throughout the state. They’re mostly letting people pass (with some delays) but blocking commercial trucks. So some areas are short on food supplies, and the gas supply is short everywhere, although it’s coming through sporadically, here at least.

I can’t attest to the extent of the problems happening due to the protests, because there’s also a lot of misinformation and false information about it. For example, I just read an article saying that in Puerto Escondido (where I live) and in Huatulco, there’s gasoline but only for 12 hours a day and each car can only get 200 pesos of gas. In reality, the situation here is that gas seems to randomly arrive at one or two gas stations and everyone lines up to fill up. At times there are cars parked lining up hours before a pipe even comes in. At times people are waiting in line 3 hours to get gas. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a short wait. But it’s not how they painted it in the media.

The news is also stressing how much people are suffering from a lack of food, and it’s hard to say to what extent that’s true. Here we still have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. The prices of the stuff that gets trucked in from Oaxaca City has gone up, but even that seems to still be plentiful enough. The two supermarkets in town have some empty shelves, but they are at least getting sporadic shipments of things or they’d be totally empty by now. I have been able to get most of the things on my grocery list every week despite the situation, for example. But I don’t know how it is in other areas. Supposedly Oaxaca City is seriously affected, but a friend of mine there said she’s not seeing that. The government just set up a schedule to airlift food to our state, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, or what food they’re taking. Our family in Juquila says they aren’t getting stuff like cookies and other commercial food, but nobody’s going hungry there, either, or at least not because of the strikes. It’s all a bit 1984-esque to me.

The strikes are hurting a lot of the small businesses, though, which a large portion of people rely in for their income. Less people are travelling, for example, so all the folks who have their restaurants along the (very slow, winding) “highway” are not getting as much business. Our friend in Juquila had to come down here for hamburger buns for his restaurant, as another example. It is making people late to work for transportation problems in some areas. It means my friend has extra hours added to her weekly journal to her Masters-level class in the next state over. It’s definitely inconvenient and costly for a lot of people who already have enough economic problems. I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds on national news, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. I do know that people are a bit sick of it. “I don’t know why they can’t protest in Mexico City instead of here,” one friend said. It’s a good question.

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Surviving beyond the system: individuals selling gasoline at higher prices for desperate folks- here in Puerto Escondido (sorry it’s not a great pic- taken from our moving car)

Conclusions: What about the kids? What about a total revolution?

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the kids are not winning. The children of Oaxaca, already living in the poorest state of this country, living in a country with one of the worst educational systems and outcomes in the world, are not benefitting in any way, shape, or form from any of this protest, and they might not benefit from the reform, either. I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but it would be nice if some institution did something with the best interests of the children in mind as their primary motivation. I’m sure President Peña Nieto and Local 22 Teachers Union are open to your suggestions, dear Reader. (lol)

We do desperately need reform, or, better yet, revolutionary improvements for our students here in Oaxaca. Yes, we need books, food, transportation, uniforms, and so, so much more. We need a different curriculum, dynamic teaching and learning strategies, a way to make school worthwhile, relevant, and accessible for kids so they’re not routinely dropping out at 12. We need institutions that serve the people, institutions that people can count on. We need police who don’t shoot protesters as the status quo. We need governments that don’t order, support, and cover up killings and disappearances. If corruption is always going to exist, we at least need a bit less corruption in all levels of our public institutions and agencies. We need much more than what anyone here in Oaxaca can even realistically imagine receiving at this point. And that’s the worst part of all, perhaps- that there’s so little hope, for our state, for our youth, for our future.

 

 

Excess of Vitamin D (Ode to my Adopted Coast of Oaxaca)

15 May

It’s that time of year again, folks! Spring time on la costa, when I wake up at 3AM with my sheets soaked in sweat and pull myself out of bed just to go take a shower so maybe I can sleep some more. (Granted, this happens less often now that we have electricity.) My hair is a frizzy frazzled mess, thanks to the 85% humidity. The water in my shower is tepid even though we don’t have a hot water source. The baby is battling some sort of fungal diaper rash. I don’t ever actually dry off because I’m soaked in sweat again as soon as I turn off the water. But I love it! I love it! I adore my hot, sweaty, beloved, adopted costa!

I appear to be suffering from GLEE(VD) Syndrome, the opposite of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). My current disorder stands for Gringas Loving Everything due to Excess of Vitamin D. One of the side effects is inventing cheesy acronyms, so beware, folks, if you plan to travel to a tropical climate for an extended amount of time. You, too, might find yourself making up stupid names for things because you’re giddy with the realization that you are living the dream of eternal summertime.

Photo on 5-15-16 at 1.54 PM

Frizzy, sweaty, and smiling! Yipee!

My mama always said you can only complain about one season. If you’re gonna gripe about the snow, don’t talk bad about the sunshine. If you’re gonna moan about raking the leaves, don’t whine about the raging April showers and storms. Pick one season to complain about, and that’s it. You don’t get to hate everything all year long.

It’s a good policy, and it’s serving me well. When I walk back into my office in the most outrageous heat of the day at 4pm, and I’m dripping sweat and running out the door to go teach, I try to keep myself from bitching by saying something like, “I’m so glad it’s not cold out!” or “Thank goodness for this sunshine!” One of my coworkers has declared that, “This is much better than negative 40 degrees,” and I’ll be adding that to my list of things to say in the 4pm heat. Because if I only get one season to complain about, it’s winter. I loathe and despise the cold. I abhor the way cold weather and lack of sunshine seeps into my bones, all the way into my soul, sucking the joy right out of my very existence. Seriously. Winter is my arch nemesis.

Not that winter exists here in Puerto Escondido. Despite being on the coast, however, there are seasons. They’re just way more subtle than the drastic seasons in Kentucky. Sure, there are the official two seasons- rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is from May to early November, and dry season the other half of the year.

But there’s more to it than that. Like right now, we’re in the April to June ungodly humid season, the Satan-himself-is lightheaded-from-sweat-induced-water-loss season. Granted, it may rain some starting about the first of May, but it won’t actually cool anything down for more than 3 minutes. But I’m not complaining! No, siree. Sweat is good for getting those toxins out of your body, according to the internet. Some people complain they aren’t motivated to exercise when it’s this aggressively stifling in the air, but I figure you might as well exercise because even if you’re just sitting there you’re going to be sweating. It’s a lot like summer in Kentucky, which is my favorite season. This is not Kentucky, though, where I had to carry around a hoody in July because the air conditioning everywhere would nearly freeze me to death. There’s practically no A/C anywhere because it’s too expensive. One less thing to worry about!

After this, from July through the end of September, we reach the more-likely-to-rain-or-have-a-closeby-hurricane season. At that time of year, if there’s a hurricane off in the distance bringing some of its effects in, it’s liable to be cool enough for a cup of hot chocolate. (Yum!) This is when you have the Puerto equivalent of snow days. Classes might be cancelled, and even if they’re not officially cancelled, most parents won’t send their kids because the roads flood, making it too hard to get them there. (I still have to work on “snow days,” unfortunately.) Granted, roads flood temporarily pretty much anytime it rains hard, but they’re extra flooded when it rains for days on end. You try to stay home as much as possible, watching movies, making popcorn and hot chocolate. (What? Did I mention that already?) In the rainy season, it usually just gives us a shower or a storm around the time that I get off work, or a little later, and then it’s over. It’s nice and sunny again the next day- nothing like the days and weeks of gray that can happen in my city.

October and November are pretty uneventful. It’s hot and sunny (yipee) and a bit humid, with some ever-so-slight coolness from time to time. It’s nothing to write home about, but it is nice to not have to think about possible hurricanes once we’re out of the rainy season. March is another transition month, just your average hot and sunny time.

December through February is our pathetic imitation of winter. Except that that makes it sound sad and negative when really it’s f#~!ing fabulous! It reminds me of parties I had, as both a child and an adult, where we’d crank up the heat as high as it could go and wear shorts and tank tops, drinking icy drinks out of fancy straws with little umbrellas, imagining ourselves laying out on the beach. Except now I don’t have to imagine. It’s real! It’s hot and sunny on my birthday, even though I was born in sub-freezing temps. Bwahahaha!

In Puerto, my trusty hoody and some pants are as prepped as I need to be for the cold. On those days I’m stoked because I get to pull out some pair or another of awesome boots, which is the absolute only thing I appreciate about the cold (or slight chilliness, as the case may be.) Lucia is stoked to wear those pajamas that have footies and long sleeves during this season. Khalil is thrilled to not lose half his body weight in sweat every day and night. Conan’s tickled pink at being able to put a sheet over us at night (some nights). I heat up water on the stove for the kids and me to take warm showers, and there are often appropriate moments for more hot chocolate! (Seriously, guys, I’ll bring you some good Oaxacan chocolate if you’re nice to me.) And I’m thrilled that it’s- you guessed it- hot and sunny everyday, even though it’s chilly at night.

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Showing off her monkey footy pajamas, which she would totally wear no matter how hot it is if we let her.

What I love most of all, though, is that I’m living the Janis Joplin song: “Summertime… and the livin’s easy…” ALL YEAR ROUND. (If you don’t know this song, you have to listen to understand just how blissful summertime listen)

I mean, year round hot and sunny means, for example, no hoarding every kind of clothing and accessories. No bibs for the baby, because we just take his clothes off to eat. We let him run around nearly nude most of the time. I don’t have to fight with Lucia to get her shoes on if she doesn’t want to- I just throw her sandals in the backpack. I don’t have to constantly be wearing layers and changing my kids’ clothes 3 times a day based on the changes in temperature within every day in Juquila. I don’t have to put on a bunch of clothing just to be able to get up to go make coffee. I don’t have to put 5 layers on a baby just to get up and make coffee. My skin doesn’t dry out from the scalding hot showers my body requires when it’s cold. I don’t feel stuck in the house, because it’s almost always a good time to go out. Besides which, my house doesn’t even have windows that close (though we do have mosquito nets on our windows), so it’s almost like I’m outside all the time anyway. I’m not constantly shoveling food into my mouth to try to store up body fat. No covering the windows in plastic.The constant sun gives me plenty of vitamin D (excess? perhaps) and prevents a lot of my grown-up acne. I ride my bike to and from work most days of the year. I can ride a bike or exercise without feeling like my lung is caving in from the cold biting wind. I can wear skirts and tank tops all the time, even to work. We don’t need a clothes dryer. I don’t live 4 months a year hunched over, scrunched up, shriveled up, trying to somehow magically make more body heat.

I could go on for days and days like this, extolling all the benefits of what others deem infernal life on the coast. Partly because, yes, truly, I love hot and sunny weather. But I also stole another of my mama’s philosophies: if you’re going to be happy, you might as well do it right now. I quit telling myself I’ll be happy once x, y, or z happens. It’s like a dear niece of Conan’s, who when she lived with us never wanted to go out because she was always waiting for the heat to lessen up. She’d say, “I’ll go just as soon as it cools down some,” even though that might be in another 6 hours, or maybe not at all. I cannot wait for the heat to lessen up to be happy, or for anything else to change in my life, or I could just be waiting the rest of my life. So thank goodness for this unrelenting sunshine! And if you really want to hear me complain, just send me back to Juquila’s perpetually cold gray mountain weather.

Hop On the Cyclone of Compassion

2 May

A friend and I were talking about our small kids this week when she brought up her concerns about the teen years ahead. There’s a lot to worry about there, especially if my kids turn into rebel teens like I was. (I know, you’re shocked, right?) A couple years ago I would’ve jumped right on that gravy train of anxiety, realizing that, geez, I hadn’t worried about any of that stuff yet, and how am I going to make sure that my kid doesn’t hook up with online predators or use heroin or forget the condoms or become obsessed with crappy pop music a la Justin Beiber! AAHHHH!

Luckily for me, as I told my friend, I’m much too worried these days about whether or not I’ll find time to hang my clean clothes on the clothesline before they mold to worry about the distant future. And okay, I might just be dealing with my anxiety a little better these days. Or I could say that being a parent has obligated me to drop my control-freakness down about 27 notches. After all, starting in pregnancy, these little monsters start teaching you that YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THEM. Nananana-boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo.

So you better work on getting some control over your reactions, because that’s all you’ve got. You can hope all you want that they don’t get hurt or killed, but the only thing you get to control is resisting your own urge to hurt and kill them when they are driving you insane. Okay, you can take measures to protect them, yes, sure, please do. But you don’t have control. It’s not enough. Even the most sheltered, protected kids can die, or become junkies, or major in philosophy in college. You just can’t make them the way you want them to be.

You can read 80 thousand books on baby sleep issues and still not be able to make your kid sleep where and when you want them to. You can try to ban them from playing dress up, like one father did to his 3 year son when I worked at a daycare for one nightmare month, but you can’t take that desire out of them if that’s what they want. You can teach them to fight peer pressure, but nothing guarantees that they’ll be able to invoke that in the mere moment when someone they think is really cool offers them a beer. Even if they can fight peer pressure, what happens when they just want to do something you don’t approve of? Even babies, even toddlers who are dying to please you because you are still like god to them- they’re not ours. They’re not something we can control, they’re not even someone whose death we can always prevent. They’re their own little being with their own fate, which we have the privilege to help watch and nurture and cultivate, but the way they grow is all theirs. It’s not mine, anyway.

I’m learning this slowly but surely, and I hope that when my kids are teens, I’ll try to keep it in mind. Yes, I’ll do everything I can to help them lay strong roots, and be my own tree for them to lean into. But when bad things happen (and they will), when they make bad decisions (and they will), when they get hurt (physically and emotionally, I’m sure), I’ll be there. And that’s all I can do.

Once I finished laughing at myself for overcoming anxiety thanks to exhaustion, this conversation got me to thinking about what IS really important to me. What do I really, really hope for my children? Knowing I don’t get to control anything for real, but knowing that we all model the best we can and cross our fingers from there, what do I dream for my kiddos? If I could wish just one thing for them, how do I hope they turn out?

Hands down, if I could pick something to gift them, it would be compassion. More than anything, I want my kids to be people that care about other people. Starting now, and including caring about everyone. I want my children to be the kind of people who don’t feel ashamed that the news is making them cry. Who wipe their tears and brush off their knees, getting up to ask how we’re going to fix this. To be people who say, “Of course your pain affects me,” to people across an ocean and those in their neighborhood, to people who look like them and people who don’t, to anyone who is hurting. I dream that my children will be people who ask, “What can I do to help?”

I hope my kids are the kid who invites the smelly, still-nose-picking-in-the-third-grade kid to their lunch table, even if they kinda don’t want to, because they know they’ll feel too sad to watch him eat by himself, and they know it’s the right thing to do. I hope my kiids keep asking, like my 3 year old already does, why don’t some people have houses? And why can’t they just come sleep at our house? I hope they turn into big people who maintain their capacity to imagine what someone else is feeling, and to question everything. I hope that they decide every day that even if they can’t solve world hunger or turn the tide on climate change or prevent domestic violence or keep racist, murdering cops out of the system or a million other things that they wish they could fix, they can still aim to be part of the solution, to not do more damage if they can help it, to be nice to everyone along the way.

I want them to be compassionate with themselves. To forgive themselves when they realize they’ve made a mistake, to try to make amends. To take care of themselves, so that they can better take care of others. To know that they’re good enough just the way they are, and still try to be better every day.

Of course there’s loads to worry about when they hit the teen years. When I think about my teen years, I am overwhelmed and a little embarrassed, remembering my raging hormones and sexual urgency, the intensity of my romantic concerns, the way that just a person’s name could make me break out sweating in anticipation. I sigh, remembering the goth phase, the punk phase, and the 18 different colors that I dyed my hair (plus that time I shaved it). I fondly still dance to the CD from my favorite punk/ska band, but shake my head at myself thinking about the senseless risk of all the times I got rides home from strangers after a show. I smoked cigarettes outside of school, I drank alcohol with friends in public restrooms, I tried several different drugs. I adopted any traveler kid passing through my city, and when I turned 18 I took off to hitchhike around Europe. It was quite a tumultuous adolescence (sorry, parents), but aren’t they all, really, to some extent or another?

When I write down all that, it sounds rather frightening. But even while I was busy getting into all this trouble, I was also doing cool stuff. I was learning to be a good friend, trying to talk friends out of suicide and drunk driving, holding friends’ hands after sexual assault. I hung out a lot with a group of activist kids, who were writing and publishing their own zine and taking action in the world. We’d do stuff like protest a Klu Klux Klan rally, go to the mall and put informational leaflets in the clothes that were made in sweatshops, march in the gay pride parade, no matter what our sexual identity. I became a peer educator at Planned Parenthood. I attended and then became a youth counselor at an alternative diversity camp for teens. I left high school at 15 to reeducate myself. I published my own zine. I wasn’t always nice to everyone, but when I wasn’t, it was due to my wild hormones and trying to defeat my self-loathing, and not because someone was different from me.

I think the coolest part about me is my constantly cultivated sense of compassion, my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes more often than not, even when it’s really, really painful. What I most love about myself, then and now still, is my ever burning desire for everyone to have justice, for everyone to have their human rights respected. I’m no Mother Teresa, I’m not Mr. Rogers, either. I’m not as amazing as this beautiful writer and activist, or even as wise and caring as my Nonna. But I am always nurturing my ability to give people, including myself, the benefit of the doubt, and to dish out the respect and care that I want for myself and my children.

I want this so desperately for my children, this cultivating compassion, because it’s such a win-win situation. If the world were full of compassionate people, there would still be hurt and suffering, but not on the scale that it is now, and not in the same systemically unjust ways that it is today. And the more I can practice compassion, the better I feel everyday. It’s often something really small, that seems inconsequential. Like the way that I see my nursing students slack and fall behind and have too many absences in my class. Instead of thinking, “Those lazy nursing students! They’re the only group that gives me such a hard time!” I decide to think, “Those poor nursing students. They must have it so much harder than the kids in the other majors. When they do show up to my class, half the time they’re sleep-deprived, or they’re starving because they don’t get a breakfast break until later in the day.” And it makes me feel better. It makes me get along with them better, because I have an open, caring attitude instead of being pissed off at them for missing my class too much. More of them make an effort to have a decent attitude in my class, even when they’re exhausted.

Compassion, caring, respect, all of these things are cycles just like the negative cycles we talk about- the cycle of violence, of abuse. Compassion can be its own powerful cyclone if we can get ourselves into the path of the storm.

So boy do I ever want that for my kids. But since we don’t get to choose how our kids will turn out, mine will probably rebel against me and turn into excessively materialistic, sedative-abusing, constantly-complaining mall rats or something. Of course, our town would have to build a mall first, so at least there’s that on my side. Meanwhile, I’ll stay in my busyness-induced state of zen, and worry about the teen years when they get here.

What Not To Do When You Move to Small Town Southern Mexico

9 Apr

My dad always said that opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one. So true, and yet we all still think that ours is truly valid, that we can really help someone out with our hard-earned wisdom. So I’m here today, ladies and gentlemen, to share my opinions, my own stellar advice for all of you pondering a moving to the marvelous state of Oaxaca. For those of you already in Oaxaca, this is still superb advice, but you might already know it. You guys can go ahead and laugh with me, please and thank you.

This is advice that I would have appreciated, theoretically. I mean, okay, sometimes I love to jump headfirst into things, blindfolded and grinning. But often I would prefer to research things to make the most informed decision possible. Usually that means I seek as much advice and information as possible and then jump briskly off cliff number one anyway. Sigh.

So here you go- I present you the fruits of my experience, aka some advice that you can read, reject and ignore. (I’m practicing for the kids’ adolescence.)

The first tidbit of guidance I have for you is second-hand, but it is first-rate advice nonetheless.

Don’t change your country of residence immediately after having your first child.

“Don’t plan any major life changes for a while. Transitioning to parenthood is hard enough.” Our lovely doula, the birth assistant we hired for Lucia’s birth, tried to warn us. Truer words were never spoken. But, alas, the U.S. government did not appreciate this wisdom. And you know, there’s gotta be some benefit to starting your kid off really, really early with the globe-trotting.

But it’s not a great plan for adjusting to parenthood sanely. Abandoning your entire support system and general way of life while learning how to parent is a special kind of madness. I mean, leave the country, yes! I am so glad that we live here- now. If we could have waited a year, though, it would have saved us lots and lots of heartache. So while I don’t recommend jet-setting first thing postpartum, if you find yourself doing it, you’re a special kind of badass, and I want to be your friend.

Don’t buy an automatic car that needs work.

Contrary to popular belief down here in the land of stick shifts, automatics are not bad cars. In the U.S. I owned several over the years, and a couple of them were fabulous cars. They go up hills just fine, thank you very much, when they work. The problem here is, unless your automatic is more or less new (or at least in such condition that it never needs to be worked on by a mechanic), you are screwed, because nobody knows how to fix it properly.

This advice is spawned by my current frustration- the impetus for this blog post- which is a recurring soap opera. Every time our car breaks down (which is about bimonthly) it either takes a week (or longer) to fix it, or in the process of fixing it they cause some other problem. This month both things happened.

At first I thought this phenomenon was due to having bought a lemon of a car. Then I thought it was because the mechanic we often took it to (the cheapest option, a friend of a friend) was just a slow and inexperienced mechanic. But at one point we had a problem that required about ten different mechanics. Ten! They didn’t know if it was mechanical or electrical, so we took it to all the types of mechanics. They didn’t have a clue. They took apart our car, broke other things. It was absurd. And it just keeps happening!

It was nice to use an automatic to transition into learning to drive on these bumpy dirt roads with lots of drivers who don’t follow any rules. But now I have my teacher lined up to teach me how to drive a manual car, and I’ll hook you up, too. Just say no to automatics that might need mechanics. Buy yourself a nice little Tsuru, just like the taxis and half of the rest of the population own. That’s what we’ll be doing next, if I manage to follow my own advice. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Don’t build a house to live in when there is not yet electricity in the neighborhood.

“It’s just an overgrown lot right now, there’s no electricity or water,” my in-laws warned me when we came to visit the plot of land in Puerto that Conan owned. “Right, but we can get that stuff installed, right?” I asked, thinking it was just a matter of getting things hooked up, signing a contract, paying the bill. Little did I know….

We got water hooked up just fine during the building process, thanks to some help from a family member. But with electricity, there was no “hooking up” because there was nothing to hook up to on our block. The electric company won’t set it up someplace new unless they’re paid to by the folks living in the neighborhood and/or government (and we’re talking thousands of dollars). So it was a lot of waiting and fighting and hoping and hopelessness. Perhaps someone tried to tell me beforehand, but I was too blinded by my desperation to get out of Juquila to really let it sink in. And really, if I had it to do over again? I suppose I would think about us renting a place while we waited for electricity. But would I stay in Juquila till the lights came on here? Hell, no. Hell, no. (Seriously. Double or triple hell, no.)

We got lucky that we only spent a year and a half (two years for Conan) living without electricity. I know people who spent years and years living “off the grid” by accident. So you just don’t know when you’ll get it. Don’t plan to live there unless you’re one of those amish-style hippy types who wants to go charge your iphone at someone else’s house and live without fans because your body odor just isn’t at its best in the A/C. And if that’s the case, bless your little heart, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Don’t start a business that you know nothing about.

When we lived in Juquila, we couldn’t find decent jobs. Everyone and their mother wanted me to teach their kid English, but nobody actually wanted to commit to regular classes, or pay more than 20 pesos an hour (less than 2 US dollars). Conan’s construction skills were not in demand, either, since everything they construct here is very different. He got a job at one point, but he was working about 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for next to nothing.

So we decided to sell cell phones, accessories, and recargas (prepaid minutes) out of his mom’s storefront in the front of the house. That’s right- we sold cell phones. Imagine me selling cell phones. Me- who refused to have a cell phone until I lived in Chile in 2007. Me- who then held on to the same flip phone for like 6 years. Me- who still had cassettes until I moved down here, just to give you an idea of how resistant I am to new technology. It was totally my dream job to sell cell phones- Not! (Haha, look how backwards I am! Still using kid quotes from the early 90s- that’s me.)

In fairness, Conan knew much more about cell phones and accessories than I did (and do; I’m still clueless). But neither of us had any idea what the people of Juquila would buy, really. It was a pretty uninformed business venture, which seems to be kind of the M.O. in Juquila. There are no corporations; it’s all small business. You don’t take any classes or write up a business plan. You either have experience because your family owns something or you just scrape together some money for a small investment and get started with your tiny business that you hope will do well so you can expand. It’s a respectable way to do things in the circumstances, but it did not make us a living. Now if we had invested in statues of saints instead….

It wasn’t a total waste of money. We sold most of it over time. We used some of the phones and accessories ourselves. We earned some money, slowly. It was certainly an interesting experience. And I certainly admire the tenacity of the neighborly small business owners who just open up the front room of their house and stock some snacks and sodas along with the most common of vegetables. I mean, why not? Who says you have to have a stupid business plan? Granted, bigger small businesses down here do still have a plan, I’m sure. And maybe a small business could still work for us someday. But not in Juquila. And not cell phones. This lesson was learned, for now.

Don’t let your small child sleep in the same bed with you “just for the transition.”

Don’t do this unless you want to sleep with them forever. There is no “just for the transition.” Once they worm their way in, you will never get him or her out of your bed again. The transition just keeps on keeping on. Just say no to bed-sharing, for the health of your grown-up relationship and the sake of your ribs, which will remain bruised throughout the duration from all that kicking and thrashing these mini-monsters do. ‘Nuff said.

mac32_cosleeping04

this is our near future…

The Moral of this story is…..

Well, nothing, really. As you can see, I don’t have any real advice. I don’t have a clue what you should do, but I have a wealth of savvy on what not to do. Not that you should listen to me. Counsel such as this probably would have saved me lots of heartache, but that doesn’t mean I would have taken it. My dad was always futilely trying to save me from making the same mistakes that he made, but heartache is ours to find, one way or another.

Furthermore, if I had known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? In general, probably not. For one, I love rollercoasters, and I am constantly learning to appreciate this roller coaster that is my life, no matter what. Also, I’m working on not judging myself harshly, and both Conan and I have done the best we could with what we were working with, and that just has to be good enough. Not to mention that I always figure these brilliant “mistakes” are good for my character. And I’m pretty damn cool on a good day. So if you find yourself by happenstance moving to small town Oaxaca, look me up and I’ll impart more thrilling opinions. Worthwhile? Well, that and a few cents will get you a stick of gum, as my dad would say. So on second thought, come on down and I’ll give you a cup of coffee instead.