Dec 26, 2008

December in Saipan

I love December in Saipan. There's no snow. The temperatures remain in the same tropical range of the mid-eighties as they do the rest of the year. The ocean sparkles blue against the white sand like always. But since when is Christmas about the weather?

Let it snow, let it snow, somewhere else. In Saipan it's the spirit of the season that matters most of all.

Herewith a few of the holiday happenings among our Saipan family this December:

Book Club

Carol leads the discussion of our latest book club selection, The Shack, by William Young.

We started our book club last year with a group of friends. We covered several titles including Love in the Time of Cholera, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Eat,Pray, Love and The Time Traveler's Wife --enjoyable books all, though each quite different from the other. The book club went on hiatus for awhile, delayed both by the departure of many of our members at the end of last school year and by the arrival of one Little Fella at the beginning of this school year. But the idea remained alive--it took awhile, but finally on December 7, 2008, our book club finally got going again. We met to discuss the surprise-bestseller, The Shack by William Young. The book has garnered a lot attention for it's non-traditional portrayal of God. Many have been moved by the fresh take on the heart of God's love in the story, others have raised concerns over what they feel is an irreverent representation of the Trinity. I won't say more than that--you'll have to read the book and decide for yourself, but suffice it to say the book prompted lots of enthusiastic discussion in our group.

The group will continue past the holiday season. In a nod to members' past, our next book will be My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult chosen by Veronyka Perez, last years' kindergarten teacher.

Cristina makes a point as the discussion continues.

Christmas Open House

Our 3/4 teacher, Rhonda Prokopetz, poses in her classroom. Check out the fireplace in the background. She's so creative!

On Thursday, December 11, we held a Christmas-themed Open House for parents and students at our school. All the teachers and their students worked hard to spruce up their classrooms for the holiday and put some of the best of their work from the first half of the year on display.

Another view of Rhonda's classroom

Miss Angie, our kindergarten teacher with her Christmas tree made of hands.

Miss Girlie, our 5/6 homeroom teacher with her Christmas village.

Ms. French shows off her cottonball snowman.

Here's Eliah and Mommy, chillin with one of his peers. This young man is several months older than Elijah and is the youngest sibling of one our second grade students.

Ms. Cristina, our 1st and 2nd grade teacher with her tree.

Here I am in my classroom. Perhaps my biggest weakness as a teacher is that I hate decorating my room. I admit I've put off changing the bulletin boards, but Open House (plus hearing from another teacher that the students had commented that my room looked boring compared to hers) motivated me to put some effort into changing the decor.

Another view of my classroom. The long table draped in white butcher paper is a medieval mural that my freshman world history class is working on. At the end of the unit they will have an oral test in which they must discuss aspects of the mural. The books to the right in the foreground are some of the titles we've read in our freshman literature class so far this year including Romeo & Juliet, The Screwtape Letters, The Pearl, and The Good Earth.

Staff Christmas Party

Our staff getting into the Christmas spirit: On the couch, preschool director Amy and 5/6 grade teacher Girlie. On the floor, Rhonda (Grades 3/4), Nicole (Grades 7/8) and Edna (Pre School).

On Saturday night, December 14, 2008, the teachers and staff of SDA gathered at the hospital to give out gifts at the childrens ward of the hospital. After that we all returned to our house for a dinner of Capricciossa pasta, Bab's famous Mediterranean salad, french bread with olive dip, and three blueberry pies baked from scratch (courtesy of yours truly). After dinner we played the fun gift exchange game that we usually play at our church Christmas parties.

We celebrated our office assistant, Megan "Mocca" McCollum's birthday at our staff Christmas party. Her birthday was actually the next day, but we decided to celebrate it Saturday night since everyone was already there.

Miss Mocca gets her wish!

Ms. French contemplates the much coveted purple bag during our gift exchange game. Sadly for her she ended up losing it to Virle at the end of the game. Ah well, it was all in fun!

At our staff Christmas party we also took the opportunity to bid farewell to Antonee Aguilar (sitting on the left next to Miss Cristina our grades 1 & 2 teacher and fellow preschool teacher Miss Jamie), who was worked in a variety of capacities over the past year from ESL teacher to office assistant to his most recent post as preschool teacher. He hopes to continue to work elsewhere in Saipan, so if that works out, hopefully we'll still see a lot of him. He's a real stand-up guy.

Farewell to Xian Xian

Xian Xian and Elijah at the Hyatt Regency's Giovanni's restuarant.

One of our former students (and the current student director of REAL Christian Theater), Xian Xian Cui (formely referred to on this blog as "CK Girl") moved back to China on December 22. The move was sudden and unavoidable. Fortunately she had enough credits to graduate from high school a few months early, and she will be ultimately relocating to the U.S. to go to college. So as an early graduation gift Babs, Elijah and I took her out for dinner on Sunday, December 14, at one of Saipan's swankiest restuarants--Giovanni's at the Hyatt Regency. Xian Xian is a young woman of high ambitions so Giovanni's seemed like the appropriate dining spot for someone headed for the top. We are so proud of Xian Xian and all she has accomplished since she first came to us a shy fourth-grader, and I know she will accomplish great things in the years ahead. It was enjoyable evening of reminiscing the past and envisioning the future. We know we'll see Xian Xian again, and until then we wish her well.

Elijah, Me, Xian Xian and Babs at the entrance to the Hyatt.

Hello to Keisha

Keisha poses with Elijah

Another former student of ours, Keisha Paez, now a college sophomore came home for Christmas, and Babs and I were fortunate enough to see her briefly before we left for the States. We've long had a tradition of spending Christmas Eve with the Paez clan, but this year, we planned the party for a little earlier, since we'd be in Ohio for Christmas. So on Wednesday, December 17, in the midst of a very hectic week, we took some time out to head over to the Paez house to celebrate and spend precious time with some of our very closest friends on Saipan. This was our last Christmas with Carol and the kids, as they will be relocating to Oregon this next summer, so we made the most of it. As usual, I brought the Paez kids gifts of peach cobbler, apple pie, and peanut butter blossoms (all homemade of course). Carol, as usual, made the soup and salad. And as usual we sat around and talked til way later than we should have. All in all, it was a perfect evening.

Keisha with Babs and Me at the Paez Christmas party. This is where the true reward in teaching comes--watching your "kids" grow up and live their dreams. Keisha is a pre-law student majoring in psychology.
We saw Xian Xian again at the Paez house. She was there to spend some time with one of her dear friends since the 8th grade, Fredo Paez. Fredo is a senior too.
Elijah contemplates his first Christmas gifts--a toy and a book-- from Auntie Carol and the family.

Christmas Program

The school warms up with a short performance with selections from our Christmas play for the manamko (senior citizens) at the Manamko Center, Monday, December 15, 2008. That's the entire elementary school singing, and you can make out Ms. Mocca on the far left sitting at the piano. Somehow she managed to play the piano for all the songs AND direct the kids. Amazing!

On Thursday, December 18, we had our annual school Christmas program. This year the story took a medieval turn--a story about the legendary "Good King Wenceslas" and his daughter Princess Wences (played by "Little Sister"), who through the story turns from selfish and spoiled to generous and giving. The plot was thin, but the music, ably directed by Ms. Mocca was fantastic. Lots of catchy tunes with plenty of solos to spotlight our students' singing talents. In a bold move, Ms. Mocca had the ENTIRE school sing in the choir; amazingly, we managed to pull it off. Ms. French did a great job directing the actors, Miss Rhonda, Miss Angie, and Ms. Sanchez did beautiful work on the set and props, and Miss Girlie created gorgeous medieval costumes for almost all the students. Everything came together well and the program was a defintive success!

"Little Sister" who had the starring role of "Princess Wences" in our Christmas play, posing with a friend. She is such a gifted actor!

A scene from the play: Two court jesters played by "Ko" and "M" try to cheer up "King Wenceslas" (who shall be henceforth known by that name) who is grieved by his daughter's selfishness.

Dec 22, 2008

An Artist's Debut

Barbara's display at Saipan's annual Holiday Art Sale, Sunday, November 30, 2008.

Around Saipan, Barbara is known primarily as an administrator--an organized executive, an inspiring leader, and a skilled businesswoman. But there is another side to Babs--one that I know well, but that until recently she's not shown to very many others. She is also an artist--an imaginative painter, with an eye for abstract designs and the creative and beautiful use of color.

This past November 30, Babs took the courageous step of sharing her artistic visions with a wider audience. She decided to exhibit some of her work at Saipan's annual Holiday Art Sale. Her unique abstract paintings really stood out and garnered attention from those attending the sale.

I'm so proud of Babs and I think her work is wonderful. Of course, I am biased, but I also know that I'm genuinely drawn to her work and that I would not be able to create the visually interesting and athestically pleasing works of art she has designed.

I find it interesting that both Babs and I have lately taken steps to pursue our artistic ambitions, me with my novel and she with her painting. Who knows whether either of us will ever make it big with our art. . .the important thing is that we are doing what we love and taking steps to share what we love with others. I am enjoying that journey with her.

Below are four of the ten paintings Babs exhibited at the art sale. These are my favorites! All paintings are acrylic on canvas.

Spiraling Blue

Road to Palau

Blue Race

Windows of Peace

If you're interesting in purchasing one of Barbara's pieces or would like to see more of her work, leave me a comment and let me know!

Nov 28, 2008

Thanksgiving in Saipan: Dinner at the Maycocks

Happy Thanksgiving 2008! All 20 guests gathered at our table.

What's Thanksgiving without an abundance of good food and an abundance of good friends? We had both once again, with our annual Thanksgiving dinner at our house.

The Guests

1st/2nd Grade teacher Cristina Sanchez and one of my former students, Fredo Paez

One of my students, "Little Sister", with Virle Gayatin, our office manager and accountant, and Elijah

Twyla Seaton, the newest dental hygienist at the SDA Clinic, with Carol's youngest son.

7/8 Homeroom teacher Nicole French, Andrea Stafford (the wife of Mike Stafford, one of the dentists at the SDA Clinic), and Carol Paez.

In foreground, Edna, our newest preschool teacher; On the couch, office assistant Megan "Mocca" McCollum, 5th/6th Homeroom teacher Girlie Zuinega holding one of the kids; standing, Joeie Verona, one our preschool teachers, holding another of the kids.

Antonee Aguilar, preschool teacher, and Mike Stafford.

At the Table

A view of the table from the other end.

Look at the Little Fella, sitting at the table like he's all grown up! So cute! That's our 5/6 homeroom teacher, Girlie Zuinega, holding him. She's one of Elijah's biggest fans!

Girlie and Elijah

The Game
After a delicious dinner with all the traditional favorites, we gathered in the living room to play "Mafia", an endlessly entertaining parlor game introduced to us by some of our teachers one Saturday night a month or two ago. It's simple to play--all you need is a deck of cards, but the variations of experiences, depending on who you "are" in the game make it quite fun. Here's how it works:

Each person draws a card from the deck. Some people will be "mafia" if they draw a jack, at least one player will be a doctor (if he or she draws a queen), some players will police (if they draw a king) and all the rest of players will be ordinary "townspeople." After everyone knows their identity, the cards are returned to the deck and the game begins.

For each round, there is a narrator that does not actually play the game but directs the action. The narrator instructs everyone to "go to sleep" which means everyone closes their eyes. Then the narrator instructs the mafia to open their eyes and silently point out someone they want to "kill." When the mafia agree on someone they are instructed to "go back to sleep." Then the narrator instructs the doctor to open his or her eyes and point to someone they want to "save" (they may choose to save themselves too). Keep in mind that they do not know who the mafia have targeted so they are giving their best guess as to who needs to be saved. The doctor then goes back to sleep and the cops are instructed to wake up and agree on a player. The narrator will then nod his or her head if that person is a mafia or shake his or her head of the person is not. Thus the police can over the course of the game narrow down the list of suspected mafia.

After the police have made their selection, everyone in the town is instructed to wake up and is informed that the player the mafia targeted has been killed. The townspeople must then decide on who among the players they want to formally accuse of being members of the mafia. Once the formal accusations have been made (usually after much arguing and defending on the part of all the players), then a vote is taken and the person with the most votes is out of the game. At that point they will reveal whether they indeed were the mafia or whether the townspeople guessed wrong and killed off one of their own.

The goal of the game, if you are a member of the mafia is to avoid detection. If you are not a mafia member, your goal is to figure out who is a mafia member and eliminate them from the game. The game ends when either the mafia outnumber the townspeople, or all of the mafia are eliminated (in our game, with 15 people playing we had three mafia, 2-3 police officers, and one doctor).

It is way more fun than my description probably sounds. Once you get started it's hard to stop. As soon as we finish a game everyone always wants to play one more round. Even when you're eliminated, it's still fun because then you can keep your eyes open when everyone else is asleep, know who the mafia is and watch in fascination to see whether the remaining players will catch them. The last round of our last game that we played, was as good as any movie, complete with surprise twists! You can have a lot of fun with your "characters" too. Twyla, who always drew the townsperson card throughout the evening, played a really strong game--I called her the Crusader for Justice and the Vigilante because of her bold pursuit of anyone she thought was the mafia. Cristina was a classic cop, methodically working to catch the mafia (though in that final game, in a move of smooth criminality, Antonee--one the best mafia of the evening--shut her down just when she finally figured out that he--who had been sitting quietly next to her on the couch--was the last remaining mafia, thus preventing her from revealing his identity). Fredo, who drew the doctor card twice during the evening proved quite adept at being able to correctly guess who to save thus thwarting the mafia's plans on several occasions.

It was a really fun way to round out the evening. I might see if I can get my family to play it when we're visiting them in the States this Christmas!

All in all, it was a happy Thanksgiving!

One Hill

Me at the top of Mt. Topachau at the end of my second Turkey Trot, Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 2008. I ran the whole way, which was my goal, but there was really only one hill that mattered.

Nicole French, my fellow teacher, (wearing her game face! lol!), me, and Mike Stafford, a dentist at the SDA Clinic, at the finish line. Babs and Elijah as well as Mike's wife, Andrea and their kids met us at the finish line, so they were able to take pictures for us.

For months I'd been anticipating and training for this moment, and now it arrived in an appropiately dramatic fashion: the clouds closed in around me, cutting off my view of the panaroma of ocean blue and island green, and shrouding the peak ahead of me in mist. Gusts of chilly rain whipped around me, and I was forced to pocket my ipod. I would face my nemisis without the added motivation of music. I would face her alone, with nothing but my will, determination, and wordless prayers for strength.

One man against one hill.

They have a name for her, but since this a family blog I'm not going to say what it is. I will simply refer to the hill in the feminine and more worldly-wise readers will read between the lines.

Technically, I'd been training for the annual Turkey Trot--Saipan's thanksgiving morning run up our highest peak, Mt. Tapochau--but in actuality I was really only preparing for one part of that run--one particular stretch of rocky, rutted uphill hell. The rest of the run I knew I could do--but this one hill? I wasn't so sure. Last year, she was the only part of the run that I had to walk, and this year I'd made it my goal to conquer her, to run the whole way.

Last Sunday,as a sort of warm-up to the Turkey Trot, Nicole, Mike Stafford, Crystal Pierson and I ran from about halfway up the peak to the top. The run included the hill and I ran all of her, but she was brutal, a triple threat--she was one of the longest inclines of the run, one of the steepest, one of the most uneven and unsteady surfaces. The practice run only served to increase my anxiety. If, starting at the halway point, I barely made it up her unforgiving slope, how could I ever hope to do it starting from sea level? Despite the doubts hovering in the corners of my mind, I was determined to do it.

Nicole, Mike and I along with a little over a hundred other runners gathered at the base of the mountain at 5:30 A.M. By quarter after six, we were off and running. Mike and Nicole quickly pulled far ahead of me, as did other familiar island faces--Dr. Lyndon (Barbara's doctor during her pregnancy), LJ Castro (actor in the soap opera I helped write and produce a few years ago), Chris Nelson, running with a tiny camera mounted to a bicycle helmet (owner of our islands only local TV station), and Brenda Shultz, who I had kept pace with during last year's run. I let them all go, determined to conserve my energy for the battle ahead. At any rate, by the time we crested Capitol Hill, I'd already caught up to most of them and they became the group I would pace with for most of the run.

The day was beautiful and the run, though taxing, was fun. Until the clouds rolled in, and she loomed ahead.

I felt like Moses approaching Sinai.

There was nothing for it but to keep running. . .and keep running I did, passing many, more sensible people walking her steep trail. My breath came in ragged gasps, my smooth running gait became a floppy stagger, my heart pounded, my vision literally misted over (from the rain and fog on my glasses). There was no inspiring song in my ears to glofify the moment, just my own thoughs--you're almost there, you're almost there--and encouraging words from Brenda, Chris, Dr. Lyndon and others along the way. I thought of telling Dr. Lyndon that this had to be at least as bad as child birth, but I had no strength. Finally in a daze of exhaustion, too wiped out to think much less celebrate the accomplishment of my goal, I stumbled up to the last water station located just at the top of the hill.

"Water or gatorade?" a friendly voice shouted.

"Ga'orade, ga'orade," I slurred and sloshed back a few swallows. I walked a few paces down the road, before willing myself back into a run. It was actually downhiil for awhile--which was a welcome relief after that hill--then some more inclines before the finish line, but they were all a piece of cake by comparison. After all, there was really only one hill that mattered, and she had already been run.

There She is. Nicole snapped this picture out the window of our car on the drive down later that morning. There are probably more reasonable ways to run to the top of Topachau. I probably could have increased my time by running faster on the level, downhill, or low incline portions and walking a hill like this, but everybody has their own sense of what it means to "do well" on the trek to the top--mine was to run this hill.

Nicole, Mike and I each finished five runners apart. I finished 38th place, Mike finished 43rd and Nicole finished 48th. I'm not sure what my actual time was--my ipod was back in by the time I crossed the finished line and I didn't hear the time, but Mike's time was 59 minutes and 11 seconds so I'm estimating I finished 2 or 3 minutees ahead of him, so I'm guessing I cut about nine minutes off last years time. I was quite pleased to have improved so much!

All the Turkey Trotters pose at the finish line. Mike is on the right end with two of his kids, Nicole and I are in the middle (Nicole is wearing a green sweatshirt and I'm right next to her. Dr. Lyndon is kneeling about fourth from the left in the light blue jacket, and Chris Nelson is blue, standing third from the left in the back row. Click on the picture to enlarge the photo).

Nicole standing on top of the world. Due to our proximity to the Marianas Trench, it is said that Mt. Tapochau, from it's base far beneath the ocean to it's peak, is the tallest mountain in the world, for outsizing Mt. Everest.

"Looking back on the road so far. . ." The long and winding road to the top.

The Songs
If you're looking for some good running music, here's a few tunes I suggest you download to your ipod. I had painstakingly put together a track list for the run this year, trying to estimate where on the run I would be at what time and what song would give me that little bit of extra juice, but to my horror, I discovered once I began running that I'd set my playlist to shuffle, and so my carefully planned song order was out the window. This were the songs I ended up with:

1. Where the Streets Have No Name--U2
2. I Will Follow-U2
3. High of 75-Relient K
4. Beautiful Day/Srgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band/Blackbird-U2 (Live in Japan [bootleg])
5. Kite-U2 This song brought a smile to my face as I worked my way up Capitol Hill. I thought of my old running pals from last year--the 4Runners. "I know that this is not goodbye. . ."
6. The One I'm Waiting For--Relient K
7. Sometimes by Step-Rich Mullins. "Sometimes the climb can be so steep, I may falter in my steps, but never beyond Your reach."
8. One Tree Hill-U2 (Live in Japan [bootleg])
9. One Country-Midnight Oil. For Australia, where my love of running was renewed.
10. American Dream-Switchfoot. Here, the rain began, and the hill loomed, so I put my ipod away for awhile. I finished the song on the final stretch and crossed the finish line to this next song, a bouyant classic perfect for running. . .
11. Pride (In the Name of Love)-U2