Thirty

Thirty years ago this spring I was invited to a Center for Assessment and Stateside Training (CAST) as a prelude to a possible invitation to join Peace Corps Ghana. I had put on my application that I would serve anywhere but Africa. In 1983 I knew only that there was a drought affecting a wide swath of Africa. When I get stressed out I tend to eat, I thought that a drought and food shortage might be stressful and that I would have the wrong reaction in the midst of a food shortage. So I naively put that I would serve anywhere but Africa.

When I filled out the application I was not seriously considering Peace Corps, I was looking at a number of possible post-graduation options and at a job fair day in 1983 I had filled out the application along with many other inquiries. The “recruiter” noted that I checked childhood allergies and said that would probably knock me out of consideration. The months went by and I never heard back, so I did not think again about the forms I had filled out.

Then in 1984 an invitation to a CAST for Ghana came in. The CAST would be a week long session of evaluation and assessment in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, at the end of which Peace Corps would decide whether to invite a candidate and a candidate would decide whether to accept that invitation. Ghana had received volunteer groups every year except 1983. By 1983 Ghana was considered a difficult posting with a high early termination rate. No new volunteers were sent in 1983. Usually a new group overlaps a pre-existing group by a year, but with no 1983 group and the 1982 group finishing up in 1984, the 1984 group would have few other volunteers in country.  The CAST was intended to pre-select a group that was ready for the challenges that Ghana was thought to pose.

I had no real intention of going to Africa, but I thought a free week’s vacation in Harper’s Ferry would be fun and so I traveled to Washington DC and then on up to Harper’s Ferry for the CAST.

The assessors at the Harper’s Ferry CAST were, as I recall, all Americans. I do not now recall clearly, but my recollection is that some, if not all, were returned Ghana volunteers. There was one Ghanaian among the assessors, the in-country nurse for Peace Corps Ghana, Clara Donkor.

Clara decided I was trouble based on my being a Kwaku and informed me that she was adopting me as her son. When she did that I realized that if I was accepted into the Ghana program at the end of the CAST, I would at least have to go to Ghana out of respect for this woman I had just met.

I remember Harper’s Ferry as a week of group cooperation games and occasional mind games. When we were asked what lasting impact we hoped to have in Ghana I replied that I hoped to leave behind at least a pile of rocks. I do not recall how that went over, but I did make that pile of rocks in Akropong. Just last month I very intentionally piled up some rocks in area where I was planting some local medicinal plants. Wherever I go, I make sure I pile up a few rocks, my homage to that commitment I made in Harper’s Ferry. I have changed the lives of so many rocks over the years!

Although I had thought I might be rejected by the assessors, I suspect Clara put in her support for me and I found myself invited to the next stage of training in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

Dana in Mount Carroll
Mount Carroll

 

In Mount Carroll a different team of returned Ghana volunteers gave us a crash course in teacher training with a focus on the educational systems of Ghana. There was also a fellow from South Africa who had a role in the training. The training used a site that had been the home of Shimer College at one time.

After stateside training in Mount Carroll, the group flew to Accra for an initial week of in-country training, followed by village based training in Akrofufu, Eastern Region, and then another round of teacher training in Nsawam. The training was so long that at least one candidate terminated due to the length of training. Another volunteer terminated in the first week because conditions in country were “too dirty” for her.

I recall watching Mars, prominent in the southern night sky in Mount Carroll. That first night in Ghana when I looked for Mars, the planet was not there. We were outside performing libation, but my eyes were on the southern skies. Where was Mars? The change in longitude meant a shift in time, but I knew that should not affect the position. I tilted my head back and looked straight up. Mars. Straight overhead. I knew in an instant I must be near the equator. That was the moment I realized I was no longer in Kansas.

A day or two in country, I recall joining an excursion out towards Winneba, happily eating and drinking whatever I was offered. By the fourth day I was hit hard by shigella dysentery. The cramping was intense. Clara prescribed Donatel but the assistant nurse heard Tylenol, which did nothing for the insane cramps that hit every nine minutes. I eventually moved into the dark and rather dismal Accra elementary school bathroom, spending a night on the seatless porcelain toilet in the dark, in too much pain and discomfort to seek help. That experience was so powerful that years later when I had amoebic dysentery I ignored it for a month. The cramps were no where near as bad and I could could for far longer than nine minutes before needing to find a toilet.

The rest of the volunteers went on to Akrofufu for village based training. I was down on the order of 18 pounds at that point. I do not think they expected to see me again, I was a probable medical termination. Clara moved me into the Peace Corps office and I recovered. I did not want to be medically terminated because there might be times during a journey out of country that I would not be able to get to a toilet fast enough.

Before I left Accra I met with a doctor who informed me that the shigella strain I had contracted had tested as resistant to the anti-biotics available in country at that time. He essentially congratulated me on recovering on my own.

 

I think some of the other volunteers might have been somewhat surprised when I showed up in Akrofufu. I, on the other hand, felt rather bullet proof. I had survived a dysentery that was not treatable, why quit now?

Host family Akrofufu
Host family Akrofufu

Summer 1985, inspired in part by a Ghanaian French teacher who had traveled the Volta region with only a change of underwear, I traveled in a portion of the Eastern region for a few days wearing only my Ghanaian cloth and carrying nothing. No backpack, no change of clothes, wearing only my cloth, my teacher’s identification card in one pocket, some Cedis in my other pocket.

I stayed with relatives of my roommate for a night, and then headed up into an area off the main routes, into the hills to the east of Koforidua, north of Nkurakan. I wound up spending the night in a small village with a family who insisted I sleep in the only bed in the house.

The next day I was asked to teach at the local elementary school, and I did so.

I headed back towards Akropong the next day.

Although my journey was brief, I have never again traveled so light, so minimally. I also remember feeling comfortable. That was one of those moments in life when one has a new understanding of oneself. Walking along a road I had never walked upon before, wearing only a traditional cloth, carrying nothing, and feeling completely at home. Feeling that this is the most wonderful place to be at that moment.  In the one place I had once said I did not want to go.

As a student in elementary and secondary school I had failed to learn French (elementary school), German (middle school), and Spanish (high school). In response to some question a foreign language teacher asked, I said that I had no plans to go anywhere outside of the United States, would never need to function in a foreign language, and had no desire to function in a foreign language nor in a foreign culture. Walking along that red clay back road above Nkurakan I changed everything.

Shanalin in Ghana shirt
Shanalin in Ghana shirt

Thirty years ago I began the process that has led to a life lived abroad.

Sakau on the brain

My colleague hovered unsteadily near the office coffee pot. He appeared a bit more haggard than usual. I asked why and he said that he had stopped drinking sakau (Piper methysticum, Pacific island kava)  for three nights and had developed a headache. Tylenol only briefly knocked down the headache, and the headache was interfering with his ability to sleep.

I know that headache. And the sleep issue is not due to the headache – they are both withdrawal symptoms that hit around the 48 to 72 hour mark post-sakau. Sakau alters some part of the brain’s chemistry. My hunch is that sakau either artificially supplies a needed brain chemical, or that sakau blocks uptake of a brain chemical resulting in a decrease in production of that brain chemical. Either way, out at around 72 hours, give or take 24, the effect of the sakau wears off and the brain is either short of a chemical or out of balance in some other way.

A dull, heavy, headache is a symptom with which I am all too familiar. The broken sleep is another pattern with which I am well acquainted. In the wake of some viciously strong Kosraean sakau January 2012, I developed insomnia. I drank on a Tuesday night, on Thursday night I was woken up by dark dreams, agitated, excited, high heart rate. I would battle that insomnia for two weeks in January, unable to get anything more than a couple hours of stage one sleep – no deep sleep, no REM sleep.

At that time I had not yet sussed out that the sakau was causative. Two years later I am certain. I tried Unisom and melatonin back in 2012 – but they only made things worse, echoing some of what I was reading on line about anxiety. Sleep aids not only do not work for the anxious, they sometimes make everything worse.

I went to our family doctor and he suggested I try a couple Xanax. I went home and looked up what Xanax was supposed to treat and the potential side effects. I tossed the Xanax out. The Xanax, however, led me to learn about generalized anxiety disorder and the difficulties those who suffer from anxiety experience. Material written by those suffering from anxiety was spot on in describing what I was experiencing. A recent article by Scott Stossel on Surviving Anxiety caught me off guard when he also used a term that I too had thought, “existential dread.” That pervasive and unshakeable fear that is an entity unto itself.

The key to my recovery was to take nothing including no sakau and to get back into a regular running routing.  Even with no sakau and running, I would remain anxious for another week, unable to come down out of the “mode” I was in where sleep was not possible.

Since then I have been paying much closer attention to the link between sakau and my brain. I know now that for me, third night post sakau I will have dark dreams that give me broken sleep. If I drink too much, I could trigger a full blown insomnia cycle. The amount that triggers me is small. I can drink no more than a single cup of sakau. In other words, if I “get the feeling” then I will have broken sleep and possibly insomnia that will run from the third night to about the sixth night. So I have to avoid sakaula as the sense of death and darkness that comes with the “mode” on the third night is too awful.

Since I do not “crave” sakau the way a nicotine addict craves ciggies, I cannot say that sakau is addictive, just that it has a rough withdrawal.

I strongly suspect that because brain chemistry is involved as everyone has a different brain reaction to sakau. I also know that this is a result of long term use, possibly at times abuse, of sakau. I have been drinking for twenty years, typically once a week but at times every night. I had no problems for the first ten years of drinking. I am also keenly aware that there are aging brain effects that I cannot deconfound from my sakau consumption. I am a study with a sample size of one.

I have noted, however, that many veteran older drinkers throttle back their consumption or quit. No one talks about this as sakau consumption is tied into the concept of being an ohlen Pohnpei. A real man. And those who do drink regularly almost seem to be unconsciously and intuitively aware of the third night brain effects. Many drinkers drink on a  Friday-Sunday-Wednesday schedule. Redoping  the brain before the absence of the effect of sakau chemicals hit.

I drank without issues in the 1990s. Even every night binges of heavy drinking did not disturb my brain chemistry significantly. In hindsight, however, I now recognize brief spells of post-binge sleeplessness circa 2001 as a sign of developing brain chemistry issues.

I rarely drink now, and when I do, I throttle way back. I wanted to provided company to a colleague on a Friday night, so I drank a cup and a half. And a small cup at that. I barely sip from the ngarangar when it is presented that way, and I prefer the cup where I can better control my consumption rate. I also held to my holiday running binge of daily joggling. Still, Sunday night I woke up at three in the morning after some sort of dark dream and settled back to sleep only slowly. Could be all in my head, but two years of experimenting have me convinced that this is simply a withdrawal impact. The third night I will fall asleep without difficulty, but wake up suddenly from dreams filled with dread and foreboding.

I have been playing with the parameters over the past many months. If I drink x amount, what can be done to minimize the third night impact? I have not found a silver bullet. Exercise helps, but does not prevent the third night broken sleep. Flushing with fluids does not seem to help appreciably. Eating before sakau and attempting to buffer may help, but only insofar as it decreases the sensation of sakaula. Ultimately, if one is sakaula, then one is changing one’s brain chemistry.

I know that true generalized anxiety disorder sufferers who attempt to get off of a Xanax dependency can take up to six months for their brain to again produce sufficient levels of the brain chemicals that make one feel functional. The brain heals only slowly – the centers that produce the chemicals are slow to return to production in the wake of a loss of externally supplied brain chemical.

Sakau may have a similar effect even in moderate and irregular doses. There are not a lot of studies of people on high doses of kavalactones over multi-decadal periods. The work of Dr. Balick suggests that Pohnpeian sakau is unusually strong not because of the plant but because of the use of the polysaccharides found in the keleu.

I have been on a running binge this Christmas, trying to run every day. I put in a short and fast 24 minute round trip to Spanish wall on the most recent Friday I went to sakau. Saturday I ran for 40 minutes on a treadmill followed by 15 minutes in a sauna, Sunday I put in a one hour and 53 minute run and juggle under sunny skies. I wondered if the sauna might help sweat out the chemical issue.

Sunday night I did wake up at 03:14 in the wake of a night terror, but by using some of the thinking my reading on cognitive behavioral therapy taught me two year ago, I was able to calm my elevated heart rate and eventually go back to sleep. Generally speaking, if I can recalm on that third night I seem to avoid the hyper-vigilant, sleepless mode.

I still drink sakau, in part because sakau is intertwined with my social life. In part because I recognize that doing things that scare me is good for me and prevents the over development of a comfort zone. In part to continue to test the parameters that influence sakau withdrawal. Although sakau is not addictive in the craving sense, I have a hunch that some military vets with possible PTSD issues here use sakau to handle their anxiety, and then get locked into a nightly cycle when they find that they are sleepless without sakau. Sakau definitely knocks down the high arousal state of a sleeplessly anxious person for a good 24 hours. And with little to no hangover, sakau allows one to be a very highly functioning person.

The amounts of sakau I drink are pitifully small now and I drink only on a rare occasion. 

Sakau should be studied in the treatment of anxiety – a lifetime on sakau is probably better than a lifetime on a mix of benzodiazepines. The side effects appear to be far less pronounced. That said, a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy and vigorous daily exercise are probably a better path to working on healing the anxious brain.

Oatmeal and Tattoos

At this time of year the sun sets early and straight. Straight down into the road that runs  from the state hospital to Dausokele bridge. Homeward bound the sun is a solar blast furnace that blinds me and my juggled tennis balls. Sweat seeps into my eyes and burns. I know only joy as I run into that setting sun. The sun sets me free.

On the return from Dausokele I can either turn left at 4TY and head home or extend along the waterfront road to Mesenieng. There I can opt to turn for home and head up to Spanish wall or extend again to the airport.

The left turn brings me up past an indigenous ink art salon. Tattoos are a part of custom, culture, and tradition out here. They were and are a part of identity, and both men and women often sport traditional and modern tattoos. I do not have any tattoos, do not want tattoos. Running is my tattoo.

Dana running and juggling, joggling.

Thirty-five years of running have left a mark that is underneath my skin. Not topical. And no less permanent than a tattoo. I do not look like much as I am an LSD runner – Long Slow Distance. A few hidden muscles than are only hinted at when my foot contacts pavement. Bones that are slightly stronger from hundreds of thousands of impacts over three decades. On the inside I am a runner.

Insides and outsides are important. Some people are one thing on the outside and another on the inside. While running and juggling I am watching the road, watching cars. An eastbound car at Angie’s swings a hard and fast left in towards Mapusi. The young female driver’s gaze is fixed forward, she does not look left or right. She dare not. Her father is very strict conservative religious hypocrite. I gather he has forbidden the daughters from marrying, and the one that did was ostracized. The single sisters can only visit their sister in wedlock when the father leaves the island, and then only with care not to be detected. Forgiveness is in short supply in that family, despite that being the purported core of the faith. The outside one meets in the street is not the same as the inside the daughters know all too well. Extreme authoritarian fathers were possibly a reason young island women may have suggested to their young lovers, “Let’s get in a canoe and go on a long and dangerous journey across the open ocean in hopes of finding a new place to live.” Run, runaway across the water. The worst that could happen is that the two lovers would be lost at sea, becoming the stuff of legends.

As I run I duck in and out of stores in search of oatmeal – that breakfast treat which I enjoy not for the claimed cholesterol busting qualities but rather for the gluten-free nature of pure oatmeal. The island had actually run out of oatmeal, although not likely as a result of some sudden rise in popularity of the pasty porridge.  Although my run for the oatmeal would end in failure to find the flecks, information would later reach me of a cache in a small store on the waterfront.

Runs end on a steady climb into a final uphill, a last push into Dolihner. Homes where runs end on an uphill have been good to me in life thus far. A last piece of rising terrain on which to test what I have left in the tank. Uphills have always been my friend out on the road. For an LSD runner an uphill is a chance to gain ground – I move at the same slow speed on flat terrain, downhill, and uphill. My velocity is essentially independent of the slope.

Next weekend there is a diabetes day run from the hospital. In a nation ranked number one on the planet in 2012 for the rate of diabetes, the marks that diabetes makes on the body are an all too common sight here. The missing limbs, the dialysis scars. Diabetes is a terrible tattoo. Running away from diabetes is literally possible – run. Run long. Longer than an hour. Run hard. Run until you can talk but cannot sing. Run daily. Works amazingly well at preventing diabetes. Besides, if you can run faster and farther than the hospital staff, then they can’t catch you to cut stuff off. Or at least that is my theory.

The runs that start at the hospital are usually run into Kolonia, a loop around midtown, and back out to the hospital. The route is a favorite of mine primarily because of the rolling terrain that the route features. Plus the finish line is at the emergency bay of the hospital – what better place to end a run? “Doctor, my heart is pounding and I am out of breath…”

Of choices, promises, and paths

When I run I get to make choices. Which way I choose to go. How fast I choose to run. When I will choose to turn-around. Where I will choose to pick up a CapriSun or Kool-Aid juice pack for rehydration. Running is filled with choices. Sometimes life includes choices. Sometimes life does not.

Distant hills

A long term resident and friend is in a distant place tonight, headed to a new post far from a place that has been a home to him for decades. His departure was not directly his choice, but rather a result of a commitment he made years ago. Some have suggested he should set aside that commitment, others have petitioned those who might have the authority to permit him to remain here. He has remained quiet and honored that commitment.

Life sometimes asks us to walk a path we do not want to walk, to be lead where we do not want to go. A path we did not choose. A change in circumstances, illness, tragedy, or a loss that is too painful to bear.

Sadness

For the fateful faithful, God’s plan. For the anarchic faithless, “shit happens.” Neither makes the change, the path, comprehensible. Neither is an explanation. Some things are without explanation.

I realize that for the friend who is far from here tonight that men have sent him to this new place, not God. The point is not the cause but the commitment. He is going where his feet do not want to go because he is honoring a vow. The one choice we can make amid the incomprehensible chaos of life.

Another friend has said the same to me, “This is a promise I want to prove to myself that I can keep until I die. I want to know that I can do that.” The point is not whether the choice is an optimal choice, the point is the commitment. A word, an ethereal promise ultimately to oneself.

We keep promises and hold to vows as a way of creating a small island of stability in the chaotic void. In those small places there is safety, security, and a chance for love to flourish. We go where our feet do not want to go because we choose to do so.

Liberation Day Half-Marathon

Liberation Day “half-marathon”! No pics – no one in the fam remembered to bring a cam. Ran 18.6 km in 2:02 at four in the afternoon. Conditions were as good as they get – high humidity but good cloud cover interspersed with light rain showers. Not as conditioned as I should be, but a variation of Diana Nyad’s words echoed in my head as I ran out into U and back to the state track: Never ever give up, you [really] are never too old to chase a dream [even to enjoy a run with teen and twenty-somethings in a Liberation Day long run], and [running] is a team effort. None of us who ran could have run without the support of the FSMNOC, Pohnpei Sports Council, and especially the encouragement of Sweeter Daniel, George Steven, Rendy Germinaro, and all of those who worked the water stops. We all won today. My sincere thanks to everyone who supported the runners today. I have not seen the finishing order, but Maklino Ardos running for Nett was well out in front deep in U. Kitti fielded a single runner who came in eleventh – some pale looking fellow who ran under the names Souwel en lempwel, Dioan; Oaulik en Pahnais, Wone.

Ending of Sailing

With me being gluten free, the house has not seen a homemade pizza in many moons. With some persuasion from the gluten free head of household, a mother and son team whomped up pineapple and portugese sausage pizza using fresh pineapple from the patch outside of the house.

pizza
Our home grown pineapples are a variety not exported and have a wildly sweet flavor with an undercurrent of pineapplishness. 
She tends to eat scrambled eggs and rice with her fingers, but fritters get cut with a knife and eaten with a fork. She thinks different and does different. She may be my Apple child.
With the sailing coach leaving island, and the owner of the dock having moved to another home, the children’s sailing club is going on indefinite hiatus. There is a farewell picnic scheduled, but these two have a swimming meet that day. So this is their last chance to skipper a sailing boat. Very appropo that a brother brings his sister to shore for a final time. 
As with all things, there are beginnings and endings. The beginning is filled with promise, hope, and anticipation. The ending is sad and bittersweet. The Saturday dock has been a lively place for over 18 months now and my children have made many new friends from a culture with whom they do not usually get a chance to interact. I too have come to know some on the dock and now recognize them around town. 
Pohnpei is this way – Taekwondo came and went. Activities come and then fade away again. Children of different cultural cliques gather for a while and then disperse yet again. Parents connect for a time, and then go about their own ways. And those who leave the island tend to disappear from our lives here. Sometimes we see an occasional social media image or post, maybe a rare email, but otherwise those who leave vanish into the wider world.
Maybe only the rock remains, watching as a sentinel as the one flight a day makes its final approach past Peipalap bringing in new sets of parents and children, takes away other sets of parents and children.

Cheering from the sidelines

My son tagged the wall as he came in second in the 50 meter race. As he surfaced, the first place finished gave him a high-five. Both of the swimmers beamed with energy and shared excitement. On the sides of the pool their teammates cheered the one-two finish.

Swimmers start their race off the blocks
My daughter gets a good start

As the racing day progressed parents called out to the their children to push harder or to swim just a little bit further to reach the wall. Parents cheered and celebrated. And when one very young swimmer, alone among his age group, chose to swim the 100 meter butterfly solo  - four laps of the 25 meter pool, everyone around the pool was cheering the little fellow on. I think he thought it was a two lap event as a timer had to tell him at the 50 meter point to do two more lengths of the pool. Which he obediently did.

Swimmers leaving their blocks at race start
My son coming off the blocks for a 50 meter event

I walked along the side of the pool saying nothing, taking pictures. I suppose I should have been cheering as my son and daughter racked up first, second, and third place finishes in their age group. When my daughter was the only female swimmer to join the open 200 meter individual medley, that was exciting. Her team really shouted encouragement to her. Even my wife, normally rather placid and reserved, shouted “Go!” 

Breast stroke leg of a 200 IM swim
My daugher in the 200 IM, breast stroke leg of the race

I was proud of both of them, and I said so, but I realized I was a terrible fan as I was not much of a cheering sports enthusiast. I enjoyed seeing the camaraderie among the swimmers, the group support. In the water or by poolside, the competitors were never alone.

Two young swimmers
Two young swimmers

Later that day I hit the road for a one hour run out into Nett. I am trying to get my legs back around to half-marathon endurance condition. I know that I will be at the back of the pack running alone. I am almost always alone. A road runner practices alone on a road and then races, around here at least, alone on the road. There is no cheering from the pool side, everything is inside one’s head.

The half will be in 32 Celsius heat at 4:00 in the afternoon, humidity at 80% or higher. Heat index of 42 degrees Celsius or higher. Tropical sun or possibly tropical rain, but likely both. Conditions that would likely halt a modern big city American marathon length race. If the day is sunny, the race will devolve into a heat survival sweat house grudge match. Runners not against runners, but the runner against the insane heat. Those races are purely mental. Mental plus swimming pools worth of water and electrolyte fluids.

And the cheerleaders are only in your head. The road, around here, is a quiet place. Running is a different sport – little wonder it is not a multi-million dollar mega-machine sport like American football, European football, American basketball, or American baseball. There is no one place one can go and see the entirety of a road race. One cannot sit and watch the whole thing while enjoying beer and hot dogs. On an out-and back half, the runners disappear from the starting area and reappear well over an hour later. Not much to watch.

So I stood by the pool and watched as all the kids swam, proud of their efforts, knowing they too are wrestling with their own mental race in their own heads. Pushing their own limits and discovering they too can break through and do things they only hoped that they could do. Or for the little guy who did the 100 meter fly, do things they never imagined they could do.

Pacific island dance judging analysis

Last Saturday I assisted with a judging a preliminary round of a Pacific island dance contest. This Saturday I was one of four judges for the final round. Four judges judges seven groups on five criteria. The criteria were modified from last week.

1. Movement. (Late movement, Turn the other way, keep looking at the partner, etc.)
2. Costume
3. Always smile? Ashamed? No singing with the music?
4. Well practice?
5. Performance as a group
Chewing gum and chewing betelnut and spitting: 10 point deduction.

Each criteria was worth ten points. Each group danced two dances, each dance could generate up to 5 of the 10 points in each criteria.

Bring it on girls
Bring it on girls

With four judges, five criteria each worth ten points, in theory there was a maximum of 200 points possible. At the end of the evening the rank order and points for the seven dance groups ranged from 152 to 182 points.

Dancers Sum
Bring it on girls, Pohnlik, Kolonia 182
Sista Sista, Ohmine, Kolonia 175.3
Young Roses, Paliais, Nett 174
Kapinga Pride, Pohn Rakied, Kolonia 162.5
G-Babes, Meitik, Nett 159
Ohnonlong, Wone, Kitti 158
Beauty Cousins, Madolehnihmw 152

Second and third were only separated by 1.5 points, fifth and sixth by one point. As a statistician I have a preference for rubrics that generate more spread. I am all too keenly aware that small differentials are not statistically significant and are not likely to be repeated. That said, a dance contest is not unlike a sprinting race, crossing the line a few hundredths of a second ahead of another runner is the difference between gold and no medal.

Each group had four scores, one from each of the judges. The range from the lowest score to the highest score was smallest for Kapinga Pride and largest for G-babes. G-Babes divided and decorrelated the judges.

Dance group score spread
Dance group score spread

Beauty cousins also saw a large range in scores.

The judges seven scores, one for each dance group, tended to distribute in a range from 35 to 45.

Dance judges score distribution for the seven dance groups
Dance judges score distribution for the seven dance groups

Two judges had rather symmetric distributions about median scores of 40 and 41.5. My median of 45 was high and asymmetric. My low score of 32 was not an outlier, but that was in part due to my large inter-quartile range. One judge had a low outlier and the highest upper whisker at 49.

The dance instructors, coaches, and advisers are most likely to want to know their strengths and weaknesses against the rubric used.  Overall the category “Always smile? Ashamed? No singing with the music?” (termed “Facial” in my analysis) scored the lowest.

Criteria Average
Costume 8.46
Facial 7.82
Movement 8.14
Performance 8.48
Practiced 8.62

One of the judges last week noted that she wanted to see more eye contact. Engage the audience, smile, show confidence, and show that you are enjoying yourself. I noted that one of the dancers seemed a little stiff, reserved, and was not moving as fluidly as I knew she could. I asked her and she said she was nervous tonight. During the free style, free dance at the end of the evening, however, her smile beamed out and she threw herself into competitive dancing with nothing short of gay abandon. All of her grace and fluidity were back.

One group looked over-practiced. They did not smile, just went through the paces. Perfect synch, no life, no zest. Maybe too many hours of practicing the dance over and over. The first place winners danced with confidence, big smiles, lively. They knew their moves, but they also appeared to be having fun with their dance and seemed to relish the spotlight. They were up there to bring it, as their group name suggests, and they were clearly excited at the change to perform in front of their friends and family.

Dance criteria averages by group
Dance criteria averages by group

The G-Babes were judged to have the best costumes with a 9.75 average for the four judges. In the other categories Bring it on girls captured the top averages.

Last week I noted some correlation differences among the three judges.

Correlations Leilani Dana Kiyoshi
Leilani 1
Dana 0.748 1
Kiyoshi 0.735 0.655 1

I correlated well with Leilani, and she correlated moderately well to Kiyoshi. The items that correlated Leilani and I were not those that correlated Dr. Umezu and I, and we saw a lower correlation. This pattern occurred again tonight.

Correlations Dela Cruz Ichikawa Lee Ling Umezu
Dela Cruz 1
Ichikawa 0.19 1
Lee Ling 0.88 −0.10 1
Umezu 0.18 0.58 −0.07 1

Dela Cruz and I were highly correlated, we strongly concurred. Dela Cruz was only weakly correlated, at best, to Ichikawa and Umezu. I was not correlated to Ichikawa and Umezu, with a relationship between our scores that was no better than random. Ichikawa and Umezu were only moderately correlated.

A more detailed study of the correlations by criteria suggests that the four judges concurred on costume and performance, saw some limited agreement on movement, and disagreed on facial and practice criteria. Of interest was that the disagreements did not always occur between the same judges in those criteria where disagreement occurred.

Ultimately the rubric is open to interpretation. There was no training on the rubric nor were any of the judges professionally trained in dance. The goal was to identify groups that could be called upon to dance in dinner shows for visitors and guests. What might impress a tourist is not necessarily the same as what is likely to impress a professional dance judge. I suspect the judges achieved the goal desired despite some issues of internal inconsistency and differing interpretations.

The greatest divergence of scores seemed to be around G-Babes. I was left wondering whether there are cultural differences that may impact how one views the G-Babes.

G-Babes dancers
G-Babes dancers

The G-Babes were the youngest dancers dancing, maybe five or six years old, maybe the eldest is seven or thereabouts. I wondered about the G-Babes myself, but during the free dance sessions they were the first to stream out onto the grass and they danced and laughed with such enthusiasm. They were having the time of their lives. They clearly loved to “shake it” and enjoyed being out there with the “big girls”.

Pacific island free dance
Pacific island free dance

One cannot appreciate their diminutive stature compared to the other dancers until one sees them next to a Sista Sista dancer or a Bring It On Girls dancer as in the above photo.  Whatever differences the judges perceived, the G-Babes were clearly the crowd favorite. Ferocious amounts of cuteness, clearly well practiced dance routines, and having fun.

Sista Sista, Ohmine
Sista Sista, Ohmine

That said, what does the visiting tourist come to see at a dinner dance show? What expectations are there? All of the dances tonight were Polynesian, and only Kapinga Pride is of Polynesian heritage. The true dances of Micronesia are wonderful and awesome, but nothing like what a tourist imagines. Besides, to some extent the Micronesian dances are reserved to their cultures. They are dances with meanings and cultural import. For the Micronesian dancers, the Polynesian dances are both what the tourist expects and what is culturally more comfortable to deliver up to foreigners. That is only my opinion, but if accepted, then groups such as Bring It On Girls and Sista Sista are the dinner show dance groups.

As I noted last week, I know some of the dancers, their families, and where they from on the island. I was impressed with all of the groups. Everyone clearly had gone home and put in a lot of solid practice. The costumes were also stepped up and improved. One could see a lot of work, effort, and pride had gone into each group’s preparation. I was certainly proud of all the dancers tonight.

Kaycie Dikepa and Yolanie Lucky
Kaycie Dikepa and Yolanie Lucky, Kapinga Pride

Information age based generations

Just yesterday a friend and I were noting that another friend simply never checks email when off-island. In my mind I realized I thought of the friend as being of an older generation than the friend belongs to biologically. I realized I no longer think in terms of generations by age but rather by cyber-information handling habits.

Old system age based generations (which may vary with source, this is only my take on generation names)

  • Baby boomers
  • Generation X
  • Millenials

New system information age based generations

  • Generally do not monitor email during vacations and do not comfortably use social media. Use email at work only because that is a core communication system in their work place.
  • Monitor email regularly during vacations but do not comfortably use social media. Email is first checked and can be their only check. 
  • Social media is first checked on a daily basis whether or not on vacation, email is monitored but can be a once a week check or less often when on vacation. Tend to also post information and photos to social media while on vacation. When really busy at work, email checks are dropped before social media checks.

Pacific island dance rubrics

In 2011 I was asked to be a judge for the College of Micronesia-FSM Founding Day celebrations. Back in 2009 I had felt that the groups were not sufficiently recognized for their attire – what I would later term costumes for want of a better word. In 2009 the Pohnpei national team, Yapese, and Kosraeans all made strong efforts on attire that I felt went unrecognized. The result was a rubric in 2011 that recognized attire as a component of the scoring. That rubric would be modified and redeployed in 2013 when I was selected to coordinate the judging for Founding Day 2013.

This past weekend I was asked to be a judge at a dance competition which sought to encourage the development of dance troupes of the sort that might perform at a dinner show. I was unclear whether a rubric had been developed, but had heard that the rubric should be simple, thus I dropped the five column, four point rubric for a four column, three point rubric. I was keenly aware that this might narrow the score differences substantially, which could be problematic. The 2013 rubric for Founding Day resulted in some very small separations in scores as noted in a blog on that day’s judging. There was a tie at third place and one group took second by only one point above that tie. The rubric is not resulting in the score separations one might like to see if one is trying to pick “medalists”. And while I am not a huge fan of medals, the students are – they are competing for first place and nothing less.

The scoring would have been three for strongly exhibited, two for moderately, one for weakly exhibited, and zero for not exhibited.

Choreography
Variety: Dance exhibits a variety of dance positions and movements as appropriate to the dance form
Difficulty: Difficulty and continuity of the movement combinations
Timing: Dance movements are synchronized, coordinated, coherent, dancers are on the beat
Posture, position: Dancers posture and positions are aligned, smooth transitions between movement and postures, postures are uniform where appropriate

Attire
Costumes Culturally, traditionally authentic, add to performance

Vocals
Projection, participation: Vocalizations include good projection, can be clearly heard, where the vocalization is a song/chant sung/chanted by all the dancers, everyone is singing/chanting

Presence
Team spirit: Dancers show confidence, stamina, energy, stage presence, the dance is impressive and entertaining

Once I arrived at the venue, South Park Hotel, I learned that Kenny Omura had developed a rubric we would be using. I felt a sense of relief that I would not have to put my narrowed scale to a test. The rubric was simpler and the instructions were to deduct points against a ten point scale for five metrics. The score sheets were in both English and Japanese.

1. Performance as a group
2. Movement. (Late movement, Turn the other way, keep looking at the partner, etc.)
3. Music choice (different from Tevaka, Fenua, etc.)
4. Always smile? Ashamed? No singing with the music?
5. Well practice?
Chewing gum and chewing betelnut and spitting: 10 point deduction.

I clarified that singing with the music was a deduction, the dancers were to dance to the music, not lip synch nor sing. The judges were also instructed to ignore for now the choice of music. The judges, however, still scored this metric. I was guided by the advice that the production should be appropriate to Pacific Island dinner show dancing.

Yolanie Lucky
Kapinga pride dancer

Although I knew some of the dancers, I had connections of one sort or another to all of the groups. Being a professor on a small island means always means dealing with evaluating – in one form or another – those who you know and care about.

Many of the groups, and all of the all male groups, missed the point that the dance was to be appropriate to an evening dinner dance show that show cases Pacific island dance forms. The male groups invariably chose gangsta rap or gangsta influenced hip hop, rather poorly mimicking Jabberwocky or the latest video that they had seen. Not a single male dance group attempted a Pacific island dance – and there are some excellent ones out there. The Samoan and Maori men all have fantastic dances that celebrate strength, virility, and the protecting role of the male in the family.

With little guidance on scoring, the judges were left to their own devices in terms of deciding how to score. None of the judges intentionally looked at the other judges scoring choices, nor did the judges see the other judge’s scoring choices until all ten groups had danced. Thus I was interested in what correlations, if any, might exist among the three judges. One judge was from Pohnpei, one from Japan, and myself from the United States. Although we were operating without any particular training or referencing, the correlations suggest that the judges were reasonably well correlated. We were able to use the rubric in a manner wherein our scores generally agreed.

Leilani Dana Kiyoshi Sum
1 Gangsta meitik 29 30 23 82
2 Gangsta 2nd group 24 20 21 65
3 Bring it on girls Pohnlik 37 43 46 126
4 G-Babes Meitik 35 42 25 102
5 Gangsta (5 boys) 28 27 25 80
6 Young roses Paliais 35 43 35 113
7 Sista sista Ohmine 34 38 33 105
8 Beauty Cousins Madolehnihmw 34 37 30 101
9 Kapinga pride 30 44 29 103
10 Onohnlong Wone 28 41 30 99
Young roses
Young roses

In terms of basic statistics, on average I made the fewest deductions while Kiyoshi made the most deductions. My coefficient of variation, however, was just under that of Kiyoshi, so we both scored across a relative broad range. Leilani scored in a narrower range with an average between Kiyoshi and I. The upshot is that while our standards might have been slightly different, the differences were not substantial nor significant.

Statistic Leilani Dana Kiyoshi
Mean 31.4 36.5 29.7
Median 32 39.5 29.5
Mode 35 43 25
Standard Deviation 4.17 8.15 7.23
Coefficient of variation 0.13 0.22 0.24
Range 13 24 25
Minimum 24 20 21
Maximum 37 44 46

The scoring sheet used by Kenny gives me ideas on how to potentially evolve the rubric in use for Founding Day and increase the spread. Maybe a ten point per category maximum score would improve the spread. Mathematically, the transformation is likely to be linear and not have any actual mathematical meaning, but the increased numeric spread would make a close finish look less controversial, make the margin look bigger.

On a personal note, knowing the judges and your music is probably useful. One group attempted to do a Tahitian style dance to Azonto music from Ghana. In that attempt they missed the song’s movement cues and the Azonto style, in fact, the result was an odd clash because Azonto does not have the same beat structures as Tahitian/Polynesian dance styles. As someone who lived in Ghana for two years I found I had to fight back a desire to mark down the dancers for not understanding the meanings and movements of Azonto. Dance to any music you want, but know that genre, know the style, know the meanings, know the motions. Know that culture and be able to connect to the music, make sure the music fits who you are and what you are about. I suspect that is the problem I have with some of the gangsta rap – a music and a musical culture completely disconnected from the life experience of a Micronesian on Pohnpei. The boys in the hood would simply pop a cap in you if you walked down their street. Even if your pants are falling off, you are not a gangsta nor does your society want you to be one.

The top seven groups advanced to the final where five judges will be deployed. I asked that costumes be included in the scoring, Leilani asked that eye contact be added to the score sheet. Although eye contact is both a cultural variable and may or may not be a requirement of some dance forms (Yapese stick dances for example), in an evening dinner dance setting there is a Fantasy Island expectation of “Smiles, everyone, smiles!”