Mar 30, 2007

Happy Birthday Little Sis!

To the greatest sister anyone could ask for. Happy birthday Dawn! I love you!

Mar 25, 2007

Singapore Sojourn Day 5: "Sentosa!"

Barbara and I with the students on Sentosa Island, with Singapore in the background.

The kids in the Carlsberg Sky Tower. That's "The Treasurer" in the background with the camera. Sentosa Island.

Singapore skyline as seen from the Carlsberg Sky Tower. Lotta smog, huh.

Monday, March 19, 2007
Once again we got up late. I went to the bank to change money and to try to find a converter that would allow us to plug in our chargers for our digital camera and camcorder. No luck.

We got on the bus for Sentosa around noon.

Sentosa is a small resort island just off the coast of Singapore. You can reach it by cable car, by train, or by bus via a short bridge. We took the bus.

There are all kinds of activities on Sentosa ranging from beaches, to the luge to the Carlsberg Sky tower, a spinning tower that gives you a panaromic view of Sentosa and the Singapore skyline beyond. We bought the kids a pass that covered several of Sentosa's key activities, and turned them loose. First they did the Cinemania 4D, a "movie" thrill ride, where the audience watches a 3D film while their theater seats jolt them about and various blasts of air and water crate the sensationof mice running under your feet and so on. Apparently "Micronesian Queen" and "The Treasurer" took off their 3D glasses at some of the really scary parts, so realistic was it. Or so I'm told. Barbara and I sat out that activity.
We had an overpriced and okay-tasting lunch at the theme parks signature restaurant, Taste of Singapore. I think the hawker stands provided a much more authentic "Taste of Singapore" than this restuarant did. But, thanks to the kids holding park passes, we were able to get 20% off.
After a late lunch we tried out the luge, a long downhill course that your race down on flat, wheeled carts that you brake and steer using a single lever. That was a lot of fun, and was probably my favorite part of Sentosa.

Barbara snapped these picture of our students hurtling down the final stretch of the luge course. The main part of the track was much wider than what was picture here. The track narrowed as you approached the end to force you to slow down.

At the bottom of the luge track there was a "skyride", a ski lift type apparatus that transported you and your luge cart back up to the top of the hill. Here's one of our students in midair.

Me with the 8th-9th graders post-luge. Sentosa's luge slogan was correct. "Once is not enough." We all eagerly went for another go-around.

After that it was time for the 8th graders to have some Official Learning Time. While the 9th grade students wandered the park with Barbara, I took KoreaY, Holly, and Micronesian Queen to Images of Singapore, a sort animatronic walk-thru museum that depicts the historyand culture of Singapore. Anyone whose been to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World has a pretty good sense of what this was like. The kids enjoyed it, and added to their knowledge of Singapore for their Geography class.

A sample shot of the displays in the "Images of Singapore" museum. I think this shows a Chinese bride preparing for her wedding, but I don't remember. You can see how much I learned!
As we criss-crossed the park, several times we passed a snake charmer offering to allow gullible tourists the privelige of paying to having our photo taken with his snake. Finally, during a brief interlude between "Images" and the Sky Tower, two of our students relented, and paid five dollars to have their picture taken holding this huge, horrifying-looking snake. The student below actually ran away screaming on her first try at holding the snake, but as you can see she eventually mustered up the courage to get her five bucks worth, hold the snake, and even smile.

Our final activity of the day was the Sky Tower, and we were able to take some great panaramic photos of the Singapore skyline from that vantage point. We left the park around sunset and heated back across the bridge to Singapore, where we shopped at the Vivo Mall for a few hours before heading home--late--by bus once again.

Me with the Singapore skyline in the background, on the Sky Tower.

Singapore Sojourn: Day 4: "Zoo Symphony"

Don't our smiles all reveal that we're thinking: "I really hope these apes don't leap on me and rip me to pieces"

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sunday, as was typical of our trip we woke late (having gotten back to the guesthouse late as well--also typical of our trip). By the time we finally got on the road to the zoo it was afternoon.

We arrived at the Singapore Zoo a little before two, but we still managed to see much of the park and a lot of fascinating and beautiful animals. The kids got to ride an elephant and we had our picture taken with the orangutans. Some slides below:

Here's the sign I mentioned in the slide show caption with the zoo somewhat defensively assuring us that the camel's skinniness is NOT their fault.
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs on an open field near the Woodlands MRT station and Woodlands mall.

At about 5:45 P.M. we left the zoo and took a cab to the Woodlands MRT (metro rapid transit or train) station where the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was performing in a grassy field near the station. We met up with Terry and Liane there. The concert was entitled "Russian Spectacular" and for the sake of our students pop/hip-hop/and rock-addled minds, was mercifully short. Some highlights included a couple of gorgeous violin solos by a teenaged violinist about the same age as our students, and Tchiachovsky's 1812 Overture as the finale.

Here's the teenage violin prodigy, Selina Tang, playing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

After the concert we ate and socialized with the Farrises while the kids shopped at the Woodlands Mall before taking the MRT home.

Impressions of Singapore

The Trees

Singapore is famous for it's cleanliness, and yes it is clean. It is famous for it's lack of crime, and yes, it is remarkably safe. But what you don't always hear about Singapore, but that will stand out in my mind more than anything else about the city/island/nation is the profusion of trees and other foliage.

The trees were everywhere, clustered about every building even in the heart of downtown, in the yards of every home, lining every roadway, gracefully arching over even the freeways. They did so much to beautify and dress up Singapore. Everywhere was verdant foilage. The overpasses were festooned with brilliant pink bougainvillea spilling out of concrete planters and dripping over the sides of the overpass. Tall rows of royal palms lined paths on great green open spaces near the MRT station, and everywhere trees, trees, trees. Some of the less ritzy areas, the HDB public housing complexes and such, wold have looked so much more unattracive if they hadn't been surrounded by trees.

It seems like in most urban areas, the trees are the first to go. Perhaps they could take a few lessons from Singapore and leave the trees.

The Hawker Stands

Ubiquitous around Singapore are the hawker stands—whether the air conditioned indoor food courts in the malls, our outdoor complexes on the street corner—they are the authentic Singaporean dining experience. They look somewhat like food courts found in American malls, with numerous food concession stands with vivid pictures of the menu offerings pictured above the stand. Usually each stand offers a slightly different menu—maybe all seafood at one stand, noodles at another, vegetarian halal offerings at a third, with drinks and desserts purchased at separate stands respectively. The food is very cheap (about $1.80 to $3.50 per dish in U.S. dollars) and I’m told that many Singaporeans rarely eat at home and just eat at hawker stands every day. As has been typical of my eating experience in most foreign countries, the authentic food of the country while certainly edible and sometimes even tasty, is not exactly appetizing to my Western senses. The strong, foreign smells in the hawker stands, the overly bright pictures, and the difficulty in identifying the food in the steaming trays before me seemed to kill my appetite much of the time. Still most of the time I managed to pick something I could enjoy and in some cases, I struck gold as with the roti john I ordered at an Indian food hawker stand on Tuesday. Delicious! I liked it so much, I went back and ordered up some roti prata and a fried banana at the same stand.

The People

Singapore is a fascinating, exotic, and beautiful place--city on an island that is a country. The people are a multi-ethinic mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Eurasian people—all speaking English with a sharp accent that sometimes sounds Indian, sometimes Chinese, sometimes something else. Despite our own multi-ethnic community in Saipan, Singapore felt distinctly foreign: the large Muslim population with women in long dresses and hajibs, the many Hindus with characteristic red dot on the forehead. While the people didn’t seem overly friendly or warm, I found that there were always those around eager to help, starting with the Visanathi (sp?) the woman behind the counter of the Esso station who gruffly let me use her phone and offered my a cold bottle of water and two bags of fruit bread for the kids when we were stranded outside the Union lodging at 3 in the morning. There were people who offered exchange for our bus fare. There was an Indian lady who helped us get on the right bus to the Singapore Art Museum on Wednesday. There were friendly and generous merchants in Little India and on Arab Street that took the time to chat with us and even teach us a little about their culture.

This pretty much destroyed my working theory on the costs of Singapore’s strict and highly regimented society. The nation is very prosperous—I don’t think I ever saw any real poverty stricken areas such as one would find in Bangkok or Manila, virtually crime free, and clean as a theme park. But the government is extremely strict. The Singaporeans even joke about it—you can by t-shirts that mock Singapore a “Fine City” for the many fines in Singapore—fines for littering, smoking, eating and drinking on the subway, and so on.

A sampling of some of the "fine" signs found all over Singapore. The above were on the metro. I'm not sure where Holly saw the one below! Presumably not a bathroom. . .

As we rode into Singapore early Friday morning down smooth, clean parkways, the cab driver bragged about the safety and cleanliness of the city. He told us about it’s 30 year old HDB flats (public housing developments) that still looked brand new thanks to the government requirements that the buildings be refurbished and repainted every seven years. He described with some pride the $500 fine for littering, with a $1000 fine for second offense in addition to the public humiliation of having to do community clean-up service while wearing a large sign and appearing in the news for the whole nation to see your shame. As I listened to his stories, I told myself there must be a cost to this society. Something must be lost inorder to maintain this kind of strict regulation. And for awhile I thought that something was in the cheerfulness and happiness of the people. I expected I would find Singaporeans repressed, suspicious, wary, exacting, harsh—always looking over their shoulders.

Our first day in Singapore, as we walked to Thomson Plaza I noticed occasional patches of litter and I thought rather smugly, Aha! I expected perfection—nothing less—of Singaporean’s fabled cleanliness, and now here was proof that even they, with all their strictness, couldn’t do it. I figured I’d rather be in the good old U.S.A. where yeah, maybe we wink at littering, but at least we hadn’t lost our national cheerfulness.

Except of course the Singaporeans turned out to not be somber and repressed. Certainly no more or less than people anywhere else. Maybe they actually liked their society the way it was. Maybe there was no “cost.”

Which got me thinking: Maybe one size doesn’t fit all. Maybe the American culture with it’s emphasis on unfettered freedom, a more casual attitude towards “minor” laws, and much less involved government isn’t the template for all people and all cultures everywhere.

I mean obviously a Singapore style government would never work in the U.S. We wouldn’t stand for it! We’re too much about the rights of the individual to go long with the kinds of harsh laws and harsher punishments found in Singapore. Anybody recall the outrage when an American citizen was arrested in Singapore and caned for vandalism. But just because they wouldn’t work in the United States doesn’t mean they don’t work somewhere else.

I spent a lot of time studying the vast tracts of HDB housing and I was struck by how successful they are. One source tells me that 87% of Singaporeans live in these flats of varying levels of luxury. There are similar urban high rise areas in the U.S. but they have fallen into disrepair, are plastered in graffiti, riddled with crime and drug use, the holding pens for America’s minority poor. Singapore’s public housing by contrast is clean, relatively well-maintained, with zero crime and drug use, and a government mandate that each complex must be 1/3 Indian, 1/3 Malay, and 1/3 Chinese. Each complex has it’s own schools, playgrounds, food court, parking garage, mosque and temples. This is the original Great Society dream except in the United States it failed miserably and in Singapore it seems to have been successful. I think in the U.S., especially among conservatives, there is the rather arrogant assumption that such a program cannot work anywhere because the idea of Big Government sponsored is inherently and fundamentally flawed on the most basic human level. It would appear that they are wrong. However liberals who presume that such a program would work anywhere have also proven wrong. A starry-eyed view of the basic goodness of humanity doesn’t take into account the cultural values and mores, the weight of community expectations that can make or break such grand social experiments.

What I believe Singapore illustrates is the power of harnessing the basic human greed and self interest that turns the wheels of free market capitalism, combining it with a heavy handed government mandates and a zero-tolerance policy, and adding people whose culture values the subordination of individual desires to the greater good of the community as a whole to create a “perfect storm” of order and prosperity. For this system to work the people have to see little value in expressing oneself through graffiti on public property, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, being able to eat and drink wherever you like with having to fear more than a slap on the wrist. This is a country where the tobacco products sport not just a little surgeon general’s warning—but huge, graphic photos of the most horrific diseases caused by smoking—rotting feet, cancer gouged cheeks, mutilated teeth and gums all in vivid, living color. Every smoker is forced to advertise each time they take out their pack of smokes—“this is what I’m doing to myself.”

Tobacco products in Singapore with lurid warning labels. Tempting, huh.

Of course I’m oversimplifying. I’m sure there are myriad other factors—Singapore’s small size for example. A Singaporean merchant commented to me on how large the U.S. and how difficult it must be to “control.” I thought, Buddy, you have no idea. We don’t take kindly to anyone controlling us. Another factor may be Singapore’s ideal location as a center of shipping and commerce which certainly contributes to it’s wealth. The ethnic harmony may also result from the fact that the ethnic groups do not have a history of hatred and oppression crippling them.

But the point remains simply this: A distinctly “un-American” system works in Singapore. It seems instructive that other countries—say Iraq, for example—might not benefit from a governmental system that mimics that of the U.S. without taking into account the culture and values of the people in that country.

Mar 24, 2007

Singapore Sojourn Day 2 & 3: "Finding our Bearings, Snow City, and The Farris Family"

Our friends Terry and Liane Farris

I'm afraid for this entry, the only photo will be the one above. Barbara was in charge of the digital camera and I had the camcorder, and while she did an excellent job of chronicling Japan and the rest of the trip she took no pictures on Friday and Saturday. Which is a shame because she is an excellent photographer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

We were exhausted from nearly 24 hours of travel and ready to get into bed as soon as possible. As a result we were easy prey for the taxi touts waiting at the customs exit.

Normally, when entering a foreign land I like to take a few moments on leaving immigration and customs to pause, orient myself, check my plan, change money, maybe look for a cell phone to rent, before venturing out into the wide world of a new country. But on this night, I was tired. I knew the instructions I'd receieved from Wihel, the accountant at the Southeast Asian Union Mission office who was coordinating our lodging, and so when the taxi drivers approached, we jumped into cabs without a second thought and we were off. I would later wish on several occasions that I'd taken that moment of orienting myself.

The first complication had nothing to do with our hasty departure from the airport however. We arrived at the Union office without incident. We found the open entrance gate, as described in Wilhel's last e-mail to me. We found the door labeled "Sprinkler Valve Control" and it was unlocked, as described in the e-mail. But inside we found no key or instructions on how to find our room, as we been led to expect from the e-mail. We searched everywhere in the sprinkler room, tried the doors, but it was clear. We were stuck. On the streets of Singapore at 3 o clock in the morning. Fortunately, Singapore is probably the safest city in the world so we werent' scared. Just really tired and very frustrated.

I walked to a nearby Esso gas station where a kindly cashier let me use her phone. I'd neglected to get an emergency contact number for Wilhel, so in desperation I called the only people I knew in Singapore, our old friends, the Farrises. Terry and Liane Farris lived in Saipan for about a year back in 2003-2004 and their four kids were all students at our school. Liane Farris picked up her cell phone, and after a little phone tag, she was able to track down union treasurer Clyde Iverson, who was able to come over and open the building for us. We're still not quite sure what went wrong, but apparently there were a lot of people staying at the Union guesthouse and somehow, we got lost in the shuffle and the key and instructions were never placed for us. Furthermore, someone was already staying in the room reserved for us, so for the first five hours of our stay in Singapore, the boys and I slept on cushions on the marble floors of the elegant lobby of the Union office and Babs and the girls slept on the floor of a multipurpose space upstairs.

At around 8:30 our guest apartment was free and we moved in, and settled down for some more rest. The apartment was small, but clean and modern. The girls slept on four single beds in the one bedroom. The boys and I slept on futons in the living room. It was not luxurious, but it was comfortable, and with some strictly enforced cleanliness rules we were able to keep the place clean and organized even with the cramped quarters and one bathroom.

After spending some time consulting with Wilhel and getting some valuable information from her about how to get around in Singapore and where to change money, at around 1:00 P.M. we struck out to find some food and get our hands on some Singapore dollars. This was the first time I wished we'd taken our time in leaving the airport. Because we hadn't changed money at the airport we couldn't board the bus that would take us from our lodging to Thomson Plaza, the nearest shopping center with food and a bank. So we had to walk. And a long walk it was, through the sweltering Singapore heat, with the traffic thundering by on the road, and the exhaust fumes choking us. The students learned early on to hate walking in Singapore.

Around 3:30, we left Barbara behind at the Thomson Plaza shopping center--she wasn't in the mood for more cold weather--and I took the kids via bus and train to Snow City, an indoor snow experience. Essentially, it was a giant warehouse, supercooled to below freezing full of 100% genuine (albiet machine-made) snow. There was a huge slope you could slide down on inner tubes, and bins of snow for making snow men and having snowball fights. Most of the kids had a blast, though the Treasurer and Micronesian Queen exited the warehouse after about 15 minutes. I guess they couldn't take the heat. . the cold.

While Snow City charged top dollar for their employees to take pictures inside, pictures out in front of the entrance were free of charge!

Unfortunately, we arrived at Snow City after a 40 minute train ride to find that the next session wouldn't begin until 6:45. We were supposed to meet Barbara back at Thomson Plaza at 7:00 P.M. This was the second time I wished I hadn't left the airport in such haste. I would have probably tried to rent a cell phone if I'd had a moment to think, and a cell phone would have been very useful right then. As it was, I could think of no way to reach Barbara to let her know we'd be significantly late. Even worse, I'd left all my contact numbers in the apartment, so on the off-chance Barbara had gone back to the lodging, which she had said she might do, I couldn't reach her there either. So we ended up not getting back to Thomson Plaza until around 9:30 where we met a furious Barbara who was certain someone had ended up in the hospital. She was just getting ready to call the police!

On that unhappy note, ended our first full day in Singapore. We hoped the trip would get better, and fortunately it did.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The third day of our trip, the second in Singapore was Sabbath. We slept late but that was okay because church was just downstairs on the main floor of the Union offices.

We met Terry and Liane Farris and their kids at church, and after church Terry treated us to lunch at the American Club, a swanky joint where weatlhy American ex-pats--CEOs and such--go with their families to hobnob with fellow wealthy American ex-pats. Terry's job as a wealth manager at one of the world's largest banks allows him and his family into this rarified world, and we were glad to come along as tourists.

After lunch, we went over to the Farris home for awhile and then took the kids to a park where they could ride bikes or rollerblade, while Liane and Barbara chatted, and Terry filled me on the fascinating world of philanthropy, his area of focus in the banking world.

The Farris continued the grand tour, taking us to see their kids' school was was amazing, not so much for it size (it was huge, with more than 3000 students) but for its opulence. Somewhere between the full gym, the Subway outlet in the student center, and the massive track facility, it occured to me: "I could live in this school!" before we headed to dinner at one of the ubiquitous hawker stands that can be found everywhere in Singapore.

We ended the evening with a visit to the Night Safari, a kind of night zoo where you can see all the nocturnal animals. Somehow they're able to light the place in such a way that you can see the animals without the place looking like it's lit up like a football field.

A fun day. It looked like Singapore wouldnt' be a string of complications after all.

A big thanks to the Farris family for treating us and carting us around all day long! We miss you guys!

Singapore Sojurn Day 1: A Japanese Interlude

Thursday, March 15, 2007

This is the first of several retrospective blog entries chronicling our sojourn in Singapore: this year's 8th grade class trip that Barbara and I took with six students from March 15 to March 22. In order to protect the privacy of my students, I've given the students nicknames and the students will not be identified in the pictures.

We had three eighth graders on our trip, "Holly"(whose nickname carries over from REAL Christian Theater blog entires), and a quintessential Micronesian girl of Carolinian and Marshallese heritage who shall be referred to as "Micronesian Queen", plus one of three Korean boys who we referred to collectively as "Korea." This young man will be referred to as "KoreaY." Our ninth graders were "The Treasurer" (you may recall The Treasurer--who earned her nickname last year as the treasurer of last years 8th grade class--was denied permission to travel to Korea at the last minute and couldn't go on her own 8th grade class. It was for her that we opened up this year's trip to ninth grade students as well) and the other two members of Korea, who I will refer to as "KoreaX" and :"KoreaZ".

We met at the airport around 3:00 A.M. This year there were no disasters—no forgotten passports, no child left behind.

Our flight departed at 5:00 A.M. and we touched down in Japan at Narita International Airport just before 8:00 in the morning, Japan time. We had about 10 and a half hours in Japan so we decided to take the opportunity to get out of the airport and give the kids a brief taste of Japan.

We didn’t have the time or the money to take the train all the way into Tokyo (it would have cost our group almost $500 and about fours of total travel time), so we opted to see the sights of Narita instead. I’ve been to Narita several times, but always just passing through. The most I’ve ever seen of the city is the Radisson Hotel where Barbara and I spend the night on long layovers a few times. So it was nice to finally see what this little city had to offer.

We found a rich cultural tradition, ancient religions, and the graceful beauty of Japan.

Our main activity was a visit to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a complex that included Buddhist temples and shrines, and a park area. We found the place fascinating, though essentially incomprehensible to our English-speaking, Western Christian minds. Everything was in Japanese, so we were left to look on with insensible wonder at the beauty and pageantry around us. Below a slide show of our Japanese interlude:

After lunch we tried to get over to a nearby cultural village/museum but after taking a train to the bus stop we realized we wouldn't have time to take the scheduled bus there and get back in time to catch our flight. So we hopped back on the train and went back to the airport, where we explored the airport mall for a bit before boarding our flight to Singapore.

The flight was long--almost eight hours, and Micronesian Queen quietly, without complaint or uproar, got sick a few times. The rest of us made do, sleeping fitfully and watching movies (I watched Bobby--which made me long for a man like Robert Kennedy on todays political scene--I guess they don't make them like that anymore, and Dreamgirls--I was struggling to stay awake near the end so I'm not clear as to how it ended). We landed in Singapore, bleary-eyed, at around 1 o clock in the morning and quickly found ourselves stranded on the street.

The Man and the Monologue

Last night Barbara and I went to see The Vagina Monologues. The play, originally written by Eve Ensler is performed all over the world, often by women in the community. In our case, the play was a production of Off the Beaten Path, an organization dedicated to bringing unique, thought-provoking shows and activities to the CNMI, and using the funds from these events to support local charities.

This is the second year that The Vagina Monologues has been produced here in the CNMI and I sense it may become an annual event.

Like most people, I’d heard of The Vagina Monologues but wasn’t sure exactly what it was all about. Well, beyond the obvious anyway. I was familiar with it as a kind of cultural punchline, and had the vague sense that it was probably anti-male, contained a lot of in-your-face shock value material, was mostly about sex, and had a lot of women shouting the word “vagina.” I knew that it was geared towards stopping violence against women. So, I went out of curiosity, I suppose. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about for myself. I also knew that I was supporting a good cause. The proceeds from the performance went to Guma Esperanzam the local women’s shelter, and to Connecting Families, Inc. another anti-family violence organization on Saipan.

It turned out to be an insightful and thought-provoking evening. It wasn’t anti-male. It wasn’t pro-male either. Men weren’t the focus at all. Women were. Much of the material was very frank, yes, but I didn’t get the sense that it was there just for shock value or to make the audience uncomfortable. I also found that this play isn’t exclusively about sex, anymore than women or their vaginas are exclusively about sex. Sex may be the only context in which we men deal with the vagina, but for women there is a lot more to the story. And yes, there was some shouting of the word “vagina” but only at the end!

So what insights did I glean? What thoughts were provoked in the mind of a man at the Monologues? (and I wasn’t the only man, I might add. While the majority of the audience were women there quite a number of men there—most in the company of wives and girlfriends--but some bravely on their own, including a group of fellows who plopped down right in the front row. Not what most men would choose for a night out with the guys so I gotta hand it to them!).

Well, for one thing I realized that men have no physiological or emotional reference point by which to relate to the experience of women. This is not a play where you think “Oh, yeah, I know how THAT is. We men have a similar experience.” This is a play where you sit quietly and learn; you put all the usual male opining, pontificating, and summarizing aside, because frankly, in this territory a man has no idea what he’s talking about.

I realized the extent to which we still live in a man’s world. We men still generally run the show. We set the agenda. We decide what’s important, what issues are worthy of discussion. Often, it is the male perspective that determines the behavior of women as well. We men decide what we find beautiful or attractive in women, and in the world in which we live, most women dutifully go along. The Vagina Monlogues is very much about women as they are—not the romanticized, media-created, male-oriented “ideal” we men may fantasize about. This is a production that addresses all the aspects of being a woman that men would rather not think about—I think largely because the experience is so foreign to us. And what is foreign to us we often find strange or disgusting. I think this may be why so many women respond to this play—this time women are setting the agenda, deciding what’s important. In this play women are talking about every day realities of being a woman that men (and yes some women) feel either don’t need to be or shouldn’t be talked about.

I think that every man that’s interested in gaining a better understanding of the experience of women should see this play. And really, every man should want to gain a better understanding so that means every man should see it. It has great value because you learn things in the play that I think women would like for men to know, but that few women would ever actually tell a man, simply because it would be too embarrassing or vulnerable to do so. I think that married men will find the play the easiest to relate to because they’ve already encountered and (hopefully) have a certain comfort level with the intimate realities of life with a woman. Single men may be in for more of shock, however, but the mere fact that this play might make you squirm in your seat a little bit is not reason enough to dismiss it. In fact, seeing the play may help disabuse single men of unrealistic expectations they may have of women, and better prepare them to spend their lives in an intimate relationship with a woman someday. The “educational value” of the play far outweighs the cost to your comfort zone.

In the back of some people’s minds, is the question: “Is this appropriate for Christians? I mean should Christians really be talking about vaginas?” It’s kind of ludicrous question if you think about it. Try answering this question: “Why not?” Last I checked God created male and female, so I guess He created the vagina as well. So yes, I believe it’s more than appropriate for a Christian. So next year when V-Day rolls around, be sure to check out The Vagina Monologues!

Mar 23, 2007

Real Men Make Pies

Two weeks ago my buddy Grant and I got together to make some pies. We had a bunch of apples left from the food supplies for the Mangaha campout and I decided to make a bunch of pies. Grant volunteered to help out (and thank goodness he did, because I think I would have quickly been overwhelmed by the task of making multiple pies on my own). Three hours, twenty apples, eight cups of flour, 3 cups of shortening, and sundry seasonings of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar later, we had ourselves four piping hot, flaky-crusted home-baked apple pies, which we presented as gifts--one to Missy, Layla, Britni, & Mai; one to Virle, Larene, and Joie, and of course one each to ourselves. Below some pictures of men at work:

I pause in my work slicing apples, to snap this picture while Grant rolls out a crust.

These pies are ready for the oven.

We mug for the cameras with our pies before putting them in to bake.

It was a fun afternoon--talking politics, religion, women--all the controversial topics you're not supposed to touch in polite conversation, while we peeled and sliced apples, made up dough, and rolled out crusts. This is how men make pie. I remember now, that night I was reminded again of why I value Grant so much as a friend. He thinks differently than I do--about politics, religion, women. . .about a lot of things, and because he thinks differently he makes me think harder. He challenges me, and I like that. I learn a lot from Grant, a lot more than I would if he agreed with me on everything. They say iron sharpens iron (or something like that) and Grant sharpens me. Sometimes he comes around to my point of view, sometimes I come around to his, more often both our views change, widen, broaden, deepen.

We should make pies more often. . .

For Grant's perspective on the manly art of pie-making, check out his blog!

ALSO: I've got a new entry in my Faith Journey's blog, a reflection on a Sabbath afternoon of witnessing. It's title: "Can I Get A Witness: Burdening the Woman in Kagman" Check it out by clicking on the Faith Journeys link under the blog list near the bottom of this page or by typing in the website and feel free to comment! I welcome feedback.

ALSO: We're just back from Singapore, and in the next few days I'll be posting a series of blogs about our trip there.

Mar 7, 2007

A Rainy Day at the Mandi

The view sitting in the infinity pool at the Mandi.

The day after we came back from Managaha Babs and I went to the Mandi Asian Spa once again. It was a rainy day, but the Mandi is so beautiful and so relaxing that it's great even on a rainy day. I spent an hour or two in the infinity pool, soaking in the warm water and reading "The Kite Runner." Later the rain came down and I leaned back letting the droplets cool my face, watched the steam rise from the water.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy day!

Walk with me to the Mandi. This video is of the walk to the entrance of the Mandi in real time. Gorgeous even on a cloudy day!

This is some video of the interior of the Mandi. Quite luxurious, eh.

Before we headed over to the Mandi we stopped off at our favorite restaurant in the world. . .Coffee Care for a delicious lunch.

The infinity pool at the Mandi

The Wind

I imagine the wind comes from Japan. It comes howling down over the Pacific and pummels our little tropical island, a winter wind that doesn't really feel cold--not like those stabbing snow-blown winds of the midwest that make you gasp and curse. The wind feels deceptively cool and refreshing. You set your tent up facing into the breeze to create a natural air conditioning system. But this wind has a subtle chill settles into your bones, and before you realize it you realize you're cold and need a jacket. And this wind is relentless--battering your tent day and night.

For some reason the side of Managaha where we camp always gets fierce, constant winds. This year we finally had to move our tent because I was genuinely worried that the tent might not make it--it I could see the seams beginning to stretch.

The video doesn't really do it justice.

On the day we broke camp, Sunday, March 4, rain was added to the mix. We awoke to wind blown showers and we packed up our tents wet. To keep our tent from mildewing, this is what we did when we got home:

Mar 6, 2007

Captured by Grace

Quiet. Only the sound of the distant surf, the wind whistling in the tree tops. It is dark. Somewhere in the distant jungle a flashlight glimmers than disappears. No one is around. Or is there? Look carefully. That dark mound, that tree stump. It just moved. Look closer. It is a player, clad in black, waiting for the moment to strike.

For me the highlight of Managaha has always been the traditional Saturday night game of "Capture the Flag" played late in the night in the boonies of Managaha. It is a game of stealth, of patience, of long stretches of waiting and boredom punctuated by heart-pounding, adrenaline fueled chases through the jungle that make all the waiting worth it.

Chaos. "Grants going for the flag. Go! Go! Go! Get him!." Flashlights blaze on! You stumble blindly through the woods, tripping over roots, sweeping away spider webs. Shouts. Screams of victory? Or frustration? And for whom? Our team or theirs? "Did you get him? Did we get him!" We did. Triumph. Yes! That's how the game is played, baby! Whoo-hoo. The flag is safe, as silence again descends on the jungle. For now.

The goal is simple: Cross into enemy territory, capture their flag and bring it back to your side without being tagged by the other team. If by chance you get tagged, you are escorted to prison where you will be infinitely bored while you wait for your teammates to come bursting out the darkness, evade the prison guards, tag you and set you free again.

In practice, it is a long, hard-fought game that will keep the players reliving the highlights well into the next day

I think since the very first Managaha campout I've been one of the team captains, and over the years I've racked up a string of victories--that is until last year. And this year.

Twice in a row now, my team has suffered ignomious losses. The worst part of it was that both of the games I lost in the past two years, I lost within 30 minutes (a real Capture the Flag game should last at least a couple of hours) and through no ones fault but my own. The final indignity is that I lost this years game making the exact same mistake I made last year! See every game has what I call "line loungers." These are unimaginative folks that like to just hang around the boundary line flipping their flashlights about, taunting their fellow line loungers on the other side of the boundary, and occasionally making little darts and feints across the line before scurrying back to their side.

Last year, I figured that these line loungers were useless, and I would pull them back and try to lure their line loungers deep into our territory. Well it worked too well. One of their line loungers wandered across the line, unchallenged, walked back to our flag, took it, and walked back while we were distracted by having just captured their team captain. I suppose they figured, "Hey, you can have our captain. We've got your flag. Game over."

You'd think I would have learned my lesson and left the line loungers be this time. I would've thought so too. But we'd both be wrong. Sure enough, thinking I had an invincible back up plan, I pulled line loungers off the boundary for a little walk-around, and while we strolled, the word came back--our flag had been taken. The game was over. And silly me, had the exact same shocked reaction as last year--"That's not possible!" But of course it was.

Heather Tucker, a hard core pre-school teacher had darted across the line and snatched the flag while my flumoxed players tried to figure out what was going on.

It was early yet, only 11 P.M.. It had only taken 30 minutes for my team to be beaten thanks to my hubris, so we decided to switch sides and play a second game.

The game began and this time I wasn't messing around. I kept people all up and down the line and we settled in for a hard fight. I made a constant round of my troops, encouraging them, and informing them of the latest developments as our "prison" began to fill with captured members of the other team. Our team was playing well--disciplined, tight, focused, eyes on the prize. We were not messing around.

But the victory we longed for was not to be. I actually preferred the quick loss to the teeth-gritting frustration of the second game. Twice we captured key members of their team, including their captain, the intrepid and daring Missy Chamberlain. Twice we had to let them go because of what might be termed "technicalities". Oh, the claims were legitimate. There was a dispute as to whether a rescuer tagged a prisoner before she was tagged. Prisoner and rescuer went free. Our players in the excitement of the tag were not properly escorting prisoners to prison. Three high-value players--Grant, Heather, and team captain Missy went free. Again. I later found out that one of my prison guards let Ricardo Rankin one of the fiercest CTF competitors on the planet go, after he argued that the only reason he'd been caught was because he thought someone walking on the beach was one of our players. Running away from the latenight beach comber he got tagged. My prison guard let him go.

All the calls were more or less legitamate. I couldn't argue that. But they stung. It hurt our morale to keep feeling like we were making progress only to have it seemingly snatched away from us. To be frank, the kids on my team were handling it better than I was. Truthfully, I was angry. I was resentful. I understood the rules, I understood they were fair, I knew all that. . .I guess I just wanted a break. And I knew there was no reason I should get one.

The crowning indignity was, with 10 minutes left to go in the game (we had decided to end the game promptly at 1:00 A.M.--another frustration, as I was used to playing until the game was won or lost, not just ending it arbitrarely), we decided to throw caution to the winds and make an all out run for the flag. For the past hour the opposing team had seemed to have taken on our strategy, seemingly melting into the woods and doing nothing. Waiting. Waiting for us to make a move. (Or, the less charitable side of me thought, running down the clock since they already had a win under their belt). I went to collect one of my players who was talking to the opposing team's captain at the boundary line. We ended up talking for a few minutes and during that time the clock ran out. Missy was ready to call it a night, and she didn't think it would be fair or practical to have her team keep playing. I was mortified. My poor team had been waiting all night for the signal to "go." Time and time again, I'd told them to wait, promising them that the time would come. They must be patient. And loyally, faithfully, trustingly, they had obeyed me. They had waited in the dark, crouched down in the bushes, the pouring rain, and now even that, the chance to run and have some excitement would be taken away as well. . .on a technicality. Missy drove a hard bargain. I ended up revealing my whole strategy to Missy, practically begging for a chance to run. Finally, she agreed to play an additonal ten minutes on the humiliating terms that even if we got their flag, they would be considered the winners. My ego beaten and stinging with shame, I agreed and we all gamely made a run at the flag. Many of us ended up in prison, and we were never able to get their flag, nor they ours. The game ended in a draw around 1:30.

My kids were happy to have had a chance to run, and chalked it up to a game well played. They were proud of how they'd played--and I was proud of them too--but somehow I couldn't let it go. It was just a game. It was all in good fun. And yet I was miserable. I felt cheated. Wronged. I had known Missy would be a tough and worthy competitor--behind that friendly grin is an iron will, nerves of steel, savvy intellect, and the heart of true competitior. It was why I asked her to be the other team captain. I'd always said women were better at this game then men, and she'd proved me right. So why couldn't I accept it, and go to bed in peace?

We exchanged the usual "good games", but I couldn't keep up the facade. I had to let Missy and Grant (who had been one of those captured and let go twice) know how I felt. So I told them. Told them I wasn't happy with the outcome, with how the game played. They listened, patiently, graciously. They didn't argue. And I felt a little better. But only a little.

What else? What else did I need? What was I looking for?

I didn't know until I it received from my good friend Grant.

"Hey, Sean. I just wanted to say it takes a big man to play the kind of game you played, to take some bad calls with such a good attitude. I don't know if I could do it."

What was he talking about? I didn't have a good attitude; My attitude stunk! He didn't need to say that to me. I didn't deserve that. I hadn't earned it.

But you see, that's what I had been longing for--a break, an undeserved, unearned gift--in a word, grace. And unwittingly, I'm sure, Grant offered that to me and in a moment he lifted the burden from my shoulders. Just like that, everything was okay. The game sunk back to it's proper perspective. I was okay. I wasn't going to be haunted by resentment, nursing a grudge. I could let it go.

"Thanks, Graves. It really means a lot to me for you to say that," I said. He had no idea how much it meant.

You see all evening I'd been living by the letter of the law, striving to play the perfect game and failing. I didn't expect any breaks. I knew I didn't deserve them. The rules were the rules. You couldn't play a game without them. But deep down I was looking for a break. I was longing for grace.

And the amazing thing is that when you receive grace, it really does change you. Grant's extension of grace literally changed my attitude in a way that I don't think any thing else could have. He could have argued with me and proved he and Missy were right and I would have no choice but to acknowledge it. He could have chosen to take to heart my obvious petulance and just ignored me, let me stew in my own juices and he would have been within his "rights" to do so. He could have pretended everything was fine and smiled in the face of my disgruntlement and he would have looked like a nice, good natured guy. But none of those things would have changed me. Only grace could do that.

Grace. In case we've forgotten, that's what our faith is all about. That's what sets the followers of Christ apart from all other faiths. We are the recipients and the purveyors of grace.

That night I was playing capture the flag, but instead of capturing a flag--that was not to be--I was captured by grace, and I'm better for it.

Thanks, Graves.

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
Grace. . . a thought that could change the world

For by grace you have been saved through faith;
and that not of yourself; it is the gift of God.
--Ephesians 2:8

A gallery of the some of the key players in this years capture the flag match-up:

The Captains. Me and Missy. You do not want to run into this lady in the jungle on a dark night. She will take you down! Well done, Missy. It was a privelage to play against you and no shame to lose to you. Let's do it again next year! I'm totally up for a rematch. Or better yet, teammates!

Ricardo Rankin (Team Missy), CTF veteran and fierce competitor. He takes the game seriously, but with a genuine respect for fair play and sportsmanship. I would have loved to have had him on my team. The hallmark of a great CTF player is that they pretty much disappear during the game and you never know where they are. That's Classic Ricardo.

My prison guards. They were busy throughout the evening keeping track of captured members of Team Missy. Well done ladies. It's a thankless job keeping track of whiny prisoners and you handled it like pros.

Defense Team, (Team Maycock)! Britni, John Moreno, Mai anchored my defense. These troupers literally sat for hours, hidden, patiently waiting to the spring the trap on those who dared go after our flag. Theirs was especially unrewarding but invaluable work--they'd never make the run for the opponents flag themselves. That glory would go to others while they guarded the home front and kept us safe. My admiration for them knows no bounds. I absolutely REFUSE to compete next year without them!

My line loungers. If only I'd left them alone during that first game, the evening might have gone much differently.
Heather Tucker (Team Missy). She played with spunk and fire. She won the first game for Team Missy with her gutsy grab for the flag. She played hard, smart, and stealthy and they dont' come any better than that.

See the guy in blue with guitar in the middle? He played a strong game, full of courageous, daring moves. He laid it all on the line to move the game along. But Grant's most powerful move was made after the game was over.