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Do you have the Need for Speed?!

March 17, 2011

I know the birth of this blog was partially inspired by my leather-walkin’ through the desert and living off cabs, busses, and my extended thumb on the free-way (not really that last one), but I gave all that glamour up for a pretty little gray 2008 Mazda 3.  I’m once again hooked on the world’s number one drug of choice: oil.  And while I’m burning fossil fuel – pushing 130 km/h – up The 30 toward Kuwait City, it feels like I’m looking through my rearview more than I’m looking at the road in front of me.

Where do I begin?  Driving here is an experience.  And here are some vehement thoughts I’ve gathered from mine.

What twirks me is just the arrogance of the other drivers, the lack of consideration for them, and the sheer carelessness.  It’s only our lives!  But somehow so many play it with a careless touch of a racing game in an arcade.  It’s the “Get out of my attitude!” that, oh, just sends me right to the fist-shakin’!  I’m thinking…where are you going in such a hurry?  It’s 530 in the A.M….I KNOW you’re not late for anything! How often is there a need to be weaving through the lanes at 150 km/h like a bob-sledder down an ice slope?

Think to yourself.  How often have you weaved through traffic at 90+ or 150+ (depending what country you’re in), thinking oh, man…I’m really late for…for what?  What are you so late for that you have to risk yours and everyone else’s life around you?  Where are these people going?!  Are they late for their dinner with the Emir or something?  I’m sure he’d understand.

My mother told me a story of when she was going into labor with one of my brothers in the Philippines, and my father was speeding down the shoulder of the road flying by everybody to get to the hospital.

He got pulled over.

The police escorted them to the hospital, and everything worked out fine.  That’s the closest excuse I can think of to speeding in the reckless way that people do here.  And it may not be that good of an excuse considering the fragility of the lives at risk.

At least some have the courtesy to flash their high beams at you…translation: get out of my way or I’m going to tail gate you so close that it’ll look like my bumper is trying to make out with your bumper.  Please, let’s keep that relationship a distant one (Oh, side note funny story this morning about Islam and kissing…here’s the dialogue between my Jordanian kid (with the sweetest accent) and my Korean kid:

J: Why don’t you like Justin Beiber?  He’s very good!

K: I just don’t.

J: (excitedly) Did you know Justin Beiber has kissed girls on the lips outside?

K: uhh…

J: It’s because he’s Christian.  Muslims are not allowed to do this.)

Kuwait's main free-way

Anyways…Flashing high beams.  When that happens to me I have to remind myself to not take it personal.  Maybe they really are in a hurry.  But the tailgating that follows afterwards if someone doesn’t pullover to let a car pass is just…it’s beautiful.  Never have I seen two cars drive so fast and so close.  If the front car were to break even the slightest – fuhgeddaboudit!

I almost wish that the next time I see that happen – a car tailgating so close the exhaust from the front car’s tailpipe has nowhere to go -that the front car does break and they do create a glorious crash.  Just to teach that idiotic driver a lesson.  Of course, I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  But sometimes it takes the hard way to learn a lesson.  Tailgating is a well-known problem in Kuwait.

What else?

Free-Way Shoulder: Use at own risk, but is used regularly as extra traffic lane to pass.

Right of Way: Who ever gets there first.  It’s like a game of chicken.  If you’re timid or back out too soon, you lose.

School Zones:  Non-existent.  It’s weird – and frustrating – to have people honking at me to drive faster in front of the school where I work.  It’s only 630 am with kids walking to school around us.

Roundabouts: like roller coasters, fun and scary at the same time.

I don’t mean to make it sound like driving here is always an awful experience.  The key I’ve learned is to not take the aggressive driving etiquette “actions” personal.  It’s the way driving is in Arab countries.  They drive fast, neglect their blinker and blind spot. At the same time, you don’t have to be incredibly aggressive, but you can’t be timid or hesitant.  The horn is used regularly also for communicating with other drivers. I’ve used it more here in the last month than I did in all of the 9 or so years of driving back home.

Of course, it’s not for everybody.  There many people who spend years here and never get behind the wheel.  I made the decision to do so because I wanted more freedom in my schedule, particularly with deciding my own time of when to leave for school and when to come back. And now I have more flexibility in scheduling regular trips to the hospital, pharmacy, grocery store, shopping mall, etc.

To a certain extent one has to adapt to the ways of the culture, as I’m learning to do.  I can add gas to the fire by driving aggressive myself, but for the most part I try to balance between the slow lane and the fast lane.  The middle lane is the easiest to handle, making it easy to not have to think much about the traffic around you so much, as nobody “pushes you around” like in the fast lane.

At the end of the day, it all seems to work out.  Like a machine with an incomprehensible and intricate slew of shafts and gears, you scratch your head at how it works.  But it does work!  It’s how I get from one side of the desert to the other.


Consistency Killed the Cat

March 13, 2011

Dear Diary,

Today at school, a cat fell through the ceiling.

Your Buddy,


True story.  Kuwait has a high population of stray cats living out of dumpsters and alleys.  Teachers have found kittens and taken them into their homes, but most live off the filth of the land and the rodents of it.  And it’s common knowledge that some of these cats live in the ceilings of our school. Because of the recent, consistent rain, the roof has been leaking, making the ceiling material and insulation spongy and fragile, enough so for a malnourished alley cat to fall through it, almost land on a student walking by, and go sprinting down the hallway in a clear panic only to crash head first into a glass door, then get back up and run outside.  It was pretty sweet.

The scene of the accident

The last four or five days have shown uncharacteristic downpours and thunder storms.  With just those few days of rain, we’ve easily filled this year’s quota.  Desert sand plus lots of rain means driving through bumpy and muddy “roads” where I live in Mahboula.  Anyways, as it was raining figurative cats and dogs outside, and literal cats inside, I sighed with the relief of another Sunday workday finished.  Even though I’d skipped lunch, I felt strong.  Even though I’d didn’t come in over the weekend, I felt proud of the shape my classroom had taken.

And with the pensiveness of a wet and cloudy day, here’s another reflection on…life.

At the Philadelphia job fair in 2009, I remember interviewing with this very laid-back and likeable superintendent from a school in Turkey.  Half-way through he asked me if I’d gotten any job offers yet, and I explained to him that a school in Kuwait offered me one that morning and that I was leaning towards taking it.  From there the interview turned into a conversation about overseas living, teaching, etc (since we both knew he wasn’t going to hire me).  As I left he said, in response to living abroad, “You’ll never be the same.”  Right then, I wanted to stop his door with my foot and ask, “Never be the same? What do you mean?  How so? Details please?”  Maybe that reaction was a sign of where I was at the time, and that I must’ve REALLY wanted things to change.  Or maybe it was naivety.

For years it’s been somewhat difficult for me to find myself with…what I’ll call, suspended peace of mind (don’t think too hard trying to see through the ambiguity of that statement).  Not that I’m constantly becoming unhappy with where I am or with what I’m doing, but rather…(hmm, I can’t seem to finish this sentence).  It’s a combination of things, really:  In nearly all aspects of life (including peace of mind), I often hold too high of standards for myself, which leave potential for more “failings”.

All I really want is consistency.  I realize as a teacher, that might be asking for a lot.

In any given work week, hear a lot of complaining.  This negativity can easily permeate through the faculty.  It seems every other week there is something extra-curricular happening at school that cuts into my teaching schedule.  And teachers know, we DO NOT like having our schedule’s moved around or our teaching time cut short because of an assembly, or a birthday celebration, or Pizza Day, or whatever.  It gets the kids all riled up so it’s harder to teach, and we lose…TIME!  Something teachers — checking every old email, every spot behind the bookshelf, and every pocket full of lint — can never find enough of.

I know getting sick is something we can’t always help, but…it happens.  The short of it: missing one teacher changes our assistants’ schedules, which changes the “operations and routines” of the day.  Plus, the mood is a bit more somber, because everyone is doing a little bit more work then they are used to doing.

Then we have absent students, parent/teacher communication, report cards/progress reports, professional development deadlines, holistic assessments, blah, blah, blah.  Alright, now I’m just bitchin’.  But still…I would LOVE two normal teaching weeks in a row!  Y’know, to teach.

Back to peace of mind and consistency.  I think reflecting and thinking about what I’ve learned was so drilled into me in university that now I can’t help but do it.  The change I wanted to know about two years ago at the job fair wasn’t something I could have picked up and read about in an encyclopedia.  And it’s not supposed to be!  No matter how badly you want to open those presents under the tree, you have to wait (you sure didn’t ask for socks!).  No matter how badly you want to turn 21 and hit the bars, you have to wait (you sure asked for that shiner!).  No matter, how badly you want to backpack South America, you have to save up money, buy a Rosetta Stone, and…wait.  Change is constant, anyways.

My thinking about that moment two years ago and how I might change, and wanting so badly to “kick start” my life is a feeling I’ve lived with and am often reminded of, even now as I’m typing away, looking at my Arabic clock showing 8:00, and thinking about what time I’ll set my alarm for the morning.  BUT…This need for change or growth or learning isn’t really something with which to be so damn conscious!  If that superintendent told me how I might change, it would may set me up with an unnecessary pressure to achieve those things he said.  The change is constant and inevitable, anyhow.  I don’t need to see beyond my car’s headlights, long as I have a decent map.

Hmm…My want for consistency AND change suddenly seem contradictory.

In conclusion, sometimes it rains.

Change is constant.

Consistency is not.


It Goes from September to June

February 17, 2011

The beginning of a school year for many new teachers can be compared to building a house.  Each September, we begin a new house.  With each successive year, the house is better and stronger than the one before.  Throughout the year, the builder/teacher/carpenter/architect is free to make renovations, additions here and there, and do patch-up work on places that need regular attention because of ware and tear.  It’s much too taxing to  really tear everything down in the middle of the year and try to begin the house again.  Once we’ve established those foundations in the first few weeks, that’s what the tenants/students know and are used to.  It’s inconsistency children do not like.

It’s true what they say, the first year of teaching is about survival.  Create a house you can stand, that’s livable, and hopefully the roof doesn’t cave in or the power doesn’t go out while you’re teaching a lesson.  This year I’ve “built” a better classroom.  My attempts at teaching technique, classroom management, etc. are much more deliberate, experience-based, and purposeful than they were last year.  Not unlike many classrooms with young teachers, I’ve sprung a few leaks so to speak and have had to make some changes in the way my classroom is run.  This, and a combination of several other factors have made this winter…tiring.

Flying through February, and as we approach March, I’m realizing that my body doesn’t have the kind of endurance veteran teachers have.  The beginning of the year is so full of optimism and energy that I don’t feel this at that time.  Like a baseball season: for rookies, come August and September their bodies lack the endurance to play such a long season (Jeez, a baseball analogy…real original, R.J.)  Fine, that’s simple enough.  To put it another way, I’ve felt tired at times when I don’t expect to be tired.  But is it just because of the longevity of the teaching season?  Short answer: no.  Luckily, I’m at a school that allows me enough flexibility to use a teaching style of my choice.  It’s really up to me how good of a teacher I want to be.  I set generally high standards for myself, which means when something in my classroom doesn’t work out, I can take it pretty hard.

In western-style education, each minute of every teaching day is planned to some degree, but the the potential for flexibility is always there.  There are those unexpected events during the school day that are not planned that tax your brain (e.g. calling three parents in one day all for separate reasons, a student breaking a vertebrae going down the BIG slide, or having a parent meet last nearly two hours when is it was originally scheduled for 30 minutes) And of course the additional things to classroom work like professional development that need to get done…curriculum mapping, self-reflecting, goal-setting, etc.)  But these are things I signed up for…of course it’ll be tiring.

The reasons for any apathy or fatigue can also stem from having Rheumatoid Arthritis.  My symptoms ebb and flow, and despite a very debilitating first few months…the disease has been relatively under control…more or less.  The balance beam I have to walk is trying figure out how much of my week’s behavior and health is attributed to the arthritis?  How much is it not?  It’s an easy pity card to play, really.  One I play only when I 100% positive about it.  Something that works against me, however, is ignoring it.  I’m realizing as I get older, my body can’t do things it used to do…can’t endure specific lifestyle choices.  As I was reminded about this a few weeks ago, I thought it was time again to inquire, and re-educate myself, more from other people that also have RA.  I’ve often avoided this because doing so it can get real depressing real fast.  Instead of me rambling on about it, I recently came across this rather accurate guide to the disease.  Go ahead, open it up and read it.  Should only take a minute :)

Done reading?  Good.  The point of this blog is to kind of help me analyze the what and the why of how my body’s feeling from day to day, from week to week.  Why I suddenly feel fatigued at work? or why this time 7 hours of sleep didn’t really cut it?  Doing things like reading RA forums and blogs gives me a chance to better understand my health in the context of being a teacher.  I need a certain amount of energy to keep up with my class.  I can afford very few days of teaching tired…particularly with such a long season.

Will-Powered Weekend Work

January 29, 2011

Here’s an exercise in procrastination.  But it’s about work so…it’s also an exercise in tricking myself.  (Again, stream-of-conscious-esque.  So, don’t know how interesting it really is.)

I’m trying to balance will power and intrinsic motivation when it comes to getting work done, particularly on the weekends.  There are some weekends where it is really easy to do work, and I don’t have to deliver any amount of will power at all.  I just do it.  There are other days where it is completely the opposite.  I’d really like (I assume anybody would) that intrinsic energy to not have to force yourself to work, but actually just feel your body willingly partake in productive actions.  I love when I don’t have to actually tell myself to work.

I need more of those days when I wake up on a Friday or Saturday morning, work out in my living, take a shower, cook breakfast, go to my lap top and/or my desk, open up my notebook and/or math curriculum and…begin working.  My goal is to be able to do all these things without having to tell or ask myself to do these things.  My goal is also to be able to do these things at a reasonable pace and within a reasonable amount of time.  I do not like to rush through activities on the weekend, the same way I don‘t like to rush my way into trying to catch a specific bed time.  School is fact-paced enough.

(Then it’s the question of, “Well, what kinds of things should I do the days preceding these productive weekend mornings to increase the likelihood of this timely productivity?”  Exercise, pinapples, avocados, dark chocolate, exposure to sunlight…y’know, anything proven to increase levels of serotonin.)

Essentially, what I’m talking about is approaching work like it’s not really work.  Sometimes I stumble upon work this.  On a weekend morning, when I’m just doing some idle activity like strumming my guitar or washing the dishes, my daydreams fortuitously invade my classroom.  Suddenly, I’m lesson planning in my head and I don’t even know it.  Suddenly, I have to dry my hands with the kitchen towel open up my curriculum.  I don’t think about it; I don’t force myself to do it.  My body and brain just become taken over with this natural thought process and inquiry.

These kinds of days don’t happen nearly enough (both the dishwashing and daydreams turned productive work afternoons), and it’s definitely a moment of which I should not rely on wholly.  I’ve found approaching work slowly and calmly, as opposed to approaching it you’re face-to-face with a roaring lion in the center a coliseum.  Instead, natural inquiry and interest creates a much more productive work time.

It’s like going to bed.  I don’t like going to bed.  But I love falling asleep.  I want the way I live to naturally harness, assist, and advocate for the way I wish to work:  Not always feeling like I’m GOING to my desk to work, but instead utilizing a kind of mental conditioning that takes me to my desk to work without having the metacognitive analysis of… “Well, R.J.  Y’know you have to do this.  If you get started now, you’ll have enough time to go grocery shopping then cook dinner.  You may not even need to come in early tomorrow if you get started now.  All you need to do buddy is straighten your back, turn off the music, and open your notebook…(then into a calm whisper) c’mon buddy…you can do it…that’s it, you can watch these YouTube videos later….”  UGH!  I hate that shit!

I don’t want to go to bed.  I want to fall asleep.

Goodnight everybody.


Advice on Flirting for the Elderly

January 28, 2011

*I guess I got too lazy to use quotation marks, despite the fair amount of dialogue.

I had the most interesting conversation with an elderly Kuwaiti man (maybe late 50’s early 60s) recently in Starbucks at the Marina Mall.  It began with him wanting my help in looking up a word for him in what he called a “theesa”, but seeing the piece of paper he had with him saying Thesaurus made me understand what he meant.  This is really the boring part of the story – over ten minutes of me trying to help him look up words on my lap top (words I think he already knew the meaning to)…don’t ask me…I was there and I couldn’t understand what he really wanted, a complete language barrier impediment.

When I thought the conversation was over he challenged me with a different question, one that was far more interesting.  He explained to me that he comes to this particular Starbucks almost everyday.  And often he sees this beautiful, mid-twenties American woman come in with her dog and sit near him.

His question for me was what does it mean if this beautiful woman says hi to him?  I said, she’s probably just being nice.  I could tell he really wanted me to say, well she’s likes you and she wants to get to know you better.  His other question was, What should I do if she says hi again.  (You say hi back, duh.  That’s not how I said it to him.)  I think he was confused over this whole notion of just “being nice”.  I think he felt that if she says hi to him, then she should “want” something from him.  He said, If she says ‘hi’ and she doesn’t want anything from me, then khalas (finished) I shouldn’t say hi to her.  Then I told him, Well you would be mean to her if she said hi and you did not say hi to back to her.

At some point in the conversation he said – and take this how you want – he said, If she’s being nice to me, I can be nice to her.  We can be friends and I can give her things.  If I had a response to that, I don’t remember what it was.  But I really wanted to be helpful because he seemed sincere.  And I admired his starting a conversation with complete stranger that’s clearly not Arabic.

I told him I really don’t know what this American woman is thinking.  He was hoping that since I told him I’m from America I could really help him understand her thought process on this whole cafe discourse.  He really wanted to know what else he should say if she were to say hi to him.

He came back to what he should do if she comes again.  Should I say hi, he asked.  I said, It depends on what she does…If she says hi, then you say hi…If she doesn’t, you don’t…But if she gives you eye-contact, then you can say hi…But if no eye-contact, then I would not say hi. He said, ahhhh…okay, I understand.

Keep this in mind…this is a 50+ year-old Kuwaiti Man in winter Dishtasha and all talking with this Filipino-American about advice on…how to talk to women.

The next thing he said gave me more faith in the genuine-quality of people – plus it was funny.  He described to me, more or less, that it is very hard for him to ignore this girl because,  “She comes in here and….” he hesitantly mimed his hands as if they were on the hips of a woman, “she’s always wearing this beautiful thing.  You know what I mean?”  I laughed, and said, Oh, I know what you mean.  At that moment, we could be two guys from any culture talking about beautiful women, laughing our hearty laughs, and perhaps clinking two foaming beers below a hi-five given a different setting.

I concluded it by giving him no specific or explicit thing to say.  That saying hi is common for Americans to say to strangers.  But if he really wanted to he could start an innocent conversation asking about her dog she always brings into the cafe.  He understood that he probably shouldn’t just ask her if he could join her at her table.

By the end of this 25-30 minute conversation he was very grateful.  He asked me if I wanted a drink, but told him I had to get going.  He told me that he is always at this Starbucks at this time, and if I ever want to sit and talk with him I’m more than welcome.

Ending 2010 with a (Volcanic) Bang

January 28, 2011

Here are some (overdue) pics my father and I hiking Mt. Pinatubo in late Dec. 2010.  This volcano erupted in 1991 (I think), leaving towns all over the island covered in ash – not unlike Mt St. Helens in 1980.  Despite the damage it caused, it left the pristine Crater Lake at the top of the mountain.

The hardest part was just crossing all the cold water streams. Glad I brought two pairs of shoes.

I got angry part way through and decided to take it out on a giant rock...BY BREAKING IT IN TWO!

Then I took a rest.

Tour guide leading the way. Probably getting tired of how slow we're moving.

Nearing the top

We made it!


"My arm goes here; yours goes there; and we smile."

Wading in the water of an "undetermined depth"










On the jeep ride back we passed by some of the indigenous “Mountain People” (or Negritos).  At first I thought that guy was flipping us off.  But just two very emphatic peace signs.

No One Place is More Special than any Other

January 11, 2011

The summer before 8th grade I have these clear memories of my brother or my parents driving me home from basketball practice.  I’m in the back seat icing my knees.  Yes, I’m 13, and I’m icing my knees.  Short of it is that I inherited a condition called Osgood Schlatter (which, interestingly enough is the same name as my alter-ego), causing my knees to swell from over-exertion…hence, the ice after b-ball practice.

That summer I clearly remember toiling with the idea of playing football in the fall…it seems mundane, I know.  But during a couple of those rides home with bags of crushed ice melting on my knee caps, I clearly remember telling myself, “Deciding whether or not to play football is THE most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my entire life!”  In a way, I welcomed this tension in my head, because to me it felt like I was getting older; I could actually had a choice in something!  The only thing holding me back were my not-so-good-Osgood Schlatter-knees.  I decided to take a chance.  I played football that year and never once regretted the experience.    I even won what I thought of as kind of dubious athletic award at the end of that school year.

The winter of 2011, believe it or not, has posed more difficult decisions than deciding between junior high athletics or afternoon Saved by the Bell episodes over ham and cheese Hot Pockets.

Bah! – Okay, here’s the deal…having a job as an international school teacher puts you at this kind of nexus…where all these people around you (some of them close to you, some of them mere acquaintances) are making life-changing decisions.  I’m listening to these changes, my eyes-widening in amazement and tinges of jealousy to sounds of my colleagues discussing their future lives in Japan, Thailand, Germany, or Malaysia (all which have happened).  I’m listening to friends talk about moving back home to the states or to Canada, and my eyes narrow in contemplation of my own future…my mind drifting in nostalgia.

Here’s where I lose my shit!  I’m a real good observer of people, and whatever qualities I lack in originality, I may consciously or sub-consciously pick up from a much-admired friend or colleague, learning from his or her examples, and such.  This puts me in a potentially bad situation because I’m susceptible to not trusting myself with big decisions.  So, what do people when they don’t trust themselves?  They let others make the choice for them.  They might “copy” the people they really admire and trust.  Because they figure, That person did it, I should be able to do it too.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my original decision to stay for a 3rd year here in The Kingdom of Kuwait was not really well thought out.  I just kept saying what I felt was expected of me.  I had plans to do what colleagues of mine have done in the past.  I’d look at these other teachers that have been abroad for several years, teaching at different countries and think, “Man, there go some people that got it all figured out!  They know what they’re doing!”  I thought that maybe if I kind of follow in their footsteps, then I too, would have it all “figured out”.  Well…Crumple that idea into a McDonald’s bag and toss it out the car window on King Abdul-Aziz Bin Abdul Rhaman Al Saud Expressway!

I could go on and on, but I’ve got an early bedtime, and I know you’re only reading this because you don’t want to feel bad when I ask you later, “Did you read my blog?”  And then I’ll realize how much of a tool I sound like asking that question, but then quickly get over it because…I’m slowly learning to trust myself and my decisions.

Lesson learned?  Staying abroad doesn’t make you any better, or any worse, than someone that goes home.  We’re all different.  We all got our own stories and baggage.  I’m beginning to believe that no one place is more special than any other.  There are a lot of good people that leave Kuwait after two years, or even less.  These people are not worse off; they are not weaker than anyone else.  There are a number of uncontrollable factors that play into our contentedness with a particular place.  Okay, now I’m really just rambling.

One last point.

In the discussing of my own possible departure from Kuwait, I’ve heard this soft tone of disappointment from a couple people when they hear I might be going back home.    As if to say, “Oh, really?  That’s too bad.”  As if going home is exclusively a bad thing! (please don’t have this reaction if I tell you I’m leaving Kuwait).  As if I couldn’t “hack it” abroad and now I have to come home.  As if I’ve denounced myself from a secret club, and now they won’t tell me the new secret handshake!  Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but it can feel like that sometimes.

This popular comedian says in one of his bits about relationships, “Divorce is always a good news.  I know it sounds strange, but it happens because of a BAD marriage.  No good marriage has ever ended in divorce!  That would be really horrible if a good marriage ended in divorce!  THAT would be a tragedy!”