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

Nov 11, 2008

The Spirit of SDA

This year's volleyball team, every bit a team of champions, even with a third place trophy. The starting team is every other boy in the back row, "Micronesian Queen in the red kneeling, "Y" (also referred to on this blog as "Koala") holding the volleyball, and "J" the last girl kneeling on the right. The team is flanked by two of the best vollyeball coaches around, Nicole on the left and Angie on the right.

This past Friday, our high school volleyball team—mostly made up of last year’s champion middle school squad—took third place in the Coalition of Private Schools Sports Association high school volleyball tournament. It was another storybook season for the team: ranked fifth out of seven, the team bested the fourth ranked team to enter the semifinals, lost to undefeated Grace Christian Academy, and then upset number two ranked Marianas Baptist Academy to claim the third place trophy. Now some might sniff at the shortest trophy on the stand—after all, it’s not first place. But consider that, the starting team consisted of five freshman and one sophomore, with a trio of 7th and 8th graders and one 10th grader new to the game warming the bench. These kids managed to defeat teams made up largely of high school juniors and seniors—players much closer to adults than kids. The teams they played and won against were taller, stronger, heavier, and often more powerful than they. Watching these kids pull out those crucial and hard-fought victories, I felt this third place meant as much or more than the championship we won last year. Last year, our players did win against higher-ranked teams, but at least the players were basically the same age—the playing field was level. This year we placed where we did against the odds.

So how did they do it? A couple of key factors:

Powerful things come in small packages. We’re a small school, so we usually field small teams. True, they often have to work harder than the kids from the big schools, but they get to spent a lot more time on the court and a lot less time looking on from the sidelines while “starters” have all the fun. The small size of winning SDA teams tends make them extraordinarily cohesive as well. They learn to function fluidly and intuitively as a team—they learn to rely on each other, because more often than not there’s not much more help to be had waiting on the SDA bench. Even some of our star players seem to be small in actual stature. I can think of more than one SDA MVP in volleyball and basketball that was a head shorter than most of his competition but who seemed to have a springs in his legs and fierce fire in his heart. What we lack in size we make up for in speed, flexibility, teamwork, and heart. That’s the Spirit of SDA.

The team and the trophy might be small, but their spirit is huge!

Speaking of heart—these players have it in spades. They were willing, in the end, to lay it all on the line. To give everything. They decided to risk the burning shame of leaping to block a spike from an 18 year old senior and having it smashed down in their faces. They decided not to pretend like they didn’t care to avoid the hurt of caring a lot and then losing. They decided to fight back rather than give up when the other team started to pull ahead. They put their hearts out there and held nothing back. If, as the Buddhists say, desire is the cause of suffering, then they were willing to risk the suffering. They simply wanted it more. That’s the Spirit of SDA.

Heart: Personified by this young man, "Ko." After a season of difficulty at putting his whole heart into the game, he demonstrated a remarkable and moving turnaround in attitude during the tournament, finally matching a "can-do" spirit with his considerable skill.

But we mustn’t give short shrift to skill either. These players have a natural athleticism that belies their age. They will only get better as they get older. Despite being champions last season, this was not the same team that brought home first place last November. This team is ten times better. Whether, it’s setting up for a killer spike, sizzling serves, or our specialty, the miracle save in three hits from far outside the court boundaries, our kids do it all. They bring their best, and only their best to game day. That’s the Spirit of SDA.

"Ko" in the blue SDA shirt, nominated for the second year in a row, as MVP for his team.

It’s more than natural talent though. Talent requires development and that requires skilled and knowledgeable coaches—and our team had that in Nicole French and Angie Perez. These women knew their business and they didn’t mess around. They pushed and challenged the team. Their expectations were sky high. But more than that, they had the personal skill and the experience to actually teach these kids new skills. Nicole and Angie helped the team as a whole raise their level of play. This season the team needed more than motivational cheerleading (such as I could provide)—they needed Professionals. And wouldn’t you just know it that this year’s teachers just happen to be a crack squad of Professionals—serious, focused, grown-up, ready to work and ready to win. That’s the Spirit of SDA.

One more key to this year’s remarkable season—while the kids honed their skills and played with their hearts they never lost their trademark high spirits. They could be serious and still crack a quick and genuine grin. They could want the win, but deal with a loss without losing heart or perspective. They treated their competition with easy-going grace. While they might be prone to throwing their weight around back at school, on the court they epitomized humility and good sportsmanship. Perhaps more than anything, this is what we aspire to—what we want to be the essence of the Spirit of SDA.

It was a fun season, and I’m very proud of my students and all they accomplished. If they can take the Spirit of SDA—teamwork, talent, a teachable spirit, heart, and graceful spirit--and apply it outside the volleyball court, they will find there are many, more important, victories in life to be had.

Our team with the Sportsmanship Award. We were honored that the other schools in the league felt we worthy of this award.

Nov 9, 2008


. . .it takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And although it seems heaven sent
We ain't ready, to see a black President. . .

So legendary rapper Tupac Shakur lamented in his classic song "Changes" recorded during the mid-nineties, not too long before his untimely demise. Up until this year, I used to nod my head ruefully to that particular lyric, knowing that it was true. Little did Shakur know that a little more than a decade after he penned those pessimistic words, we as a nation would be ready to see a black president.

Now I know a lot of my good Republican friends were pretty disappointed by the outcome of this election. Some felt pretty strongly about the fate our country with Obama taking office—one friend even groaned on hearing the news: “Ohhhh, nooo. America is going down.”

Well, I suppose we’re all entitled to our political points of view, but I don’t think you have to be a Democrat to recognize that Obama’s election to the presidency is a step forward for our country. It is a remarkable fact that the highest office in the land is now held by a man who 45 years ago couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as a white man, and who, 145 years ago would likely have been considered someone’s property. From the slave quarters to the back of the bus to the White that's what I call change!

Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the United States means a lot to me.I was deeply moved by Obama’s acceptance speech, particularly the part where he echoed Dr. Martin Luther King’s words from the speech he gave the night before he was killed when he said: “We may not get there this year or even in one term, but I’ve never had more hope that we will get there. We as a people will get there.”

I’m happy that Obama won, not just because I think he will be a great president, or because I happen to agree with many of his policy stances, but because of what his election represents to me as a black man, and to all of us as Americans. His election represents the most important kind of change in America--not the change of administration, not even the change Obama promised and his supporters expect, but a much larger change-- a change in what seemed possible for people of color in this country. This change is less about one man, and much more about a whole nation.

Does a President Obama mean that racism has or will disappear in America? No. Does it mean that magical winds of change will blow across the land, and across the globe bringing peace, prosperity, and brotherly love to all? Highly doubtful. But a President Obama does mean that we’ve made a fairly large step towards living up to our nation’s ideals. We don’t know whether Obama will turn out to be a great president, whether he will live up to the high hopes so many of placed in him. I would hope, however, that all of us, regardless our political persuasions would wish him well, and pray for his success as a leader. The times we live in are too serious to indulge hopes of being able to unleash a lot of partisan “I-told-you-so’s” four years from now. But I believe that regardless of what kind of president Obama turns out to be, our nation has gone a step up, not down, in electing him.

A Long Journey. . .