Category Archives: musings

Meditation

Sky with clouds
Running time is often a time to think, to contemplate, to reflect, and to plan. Over the years I noticed that the runs which were the most relaxing, and post-run were often the most mentally productive, were runs where I had to focus so intently on my running and juggling that no other thought could be entertained in my mind. Runs where variable, gusting winds would shift my tennis balls in midflight as traffic slid past me. I had to focus only on the immediate instant. These runs were peculiarly relaxing, and afterwards I was filled with new ideas and solutions. Exactly when I hadn’t been thinking about them – when my mind had slipped into a state without random thoughts of anything else other than the immediate instant.

At some point I stumbled on the The Oatmeal and his citing the terrible and wonderful reasons he runs long distances: in order to the seek a void. The Oatmeal cited Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  Murakami would note, “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”

As I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, articles in Runner’s World were extolling the benefits of meditation for runners. The taming of the monkey mind, the complementing the physical body benefits of running, and make one a better runner. Meditation, along with yoga, were often recommended to runners in the pages of Runner’s World. And underneath meditation seemed to be a seeking of a void by being present only in the immediate instant.

This summer my summer reading rather intentionally included Sakyong Mipham’s Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind.  His description of the simplicity of mindfulness meditation – breath focused meditation, seemed to simple and, at the same time, something I could do. No mantras, no special chimes, incense candles, or other requirements.

Meditation is not exactly a mainstream behavior in my neighborhood. As ABC news correspondent Dan Harris has noted, back when I started running, running was unusual. Today running is no longer considered unusual, but meditation is still seen as something different. Harris explains that as science including new research using new technologies confirms the benefits of meditation, one day a family doctor is likely to recommend improving your diet, exercising, and meditation. There are a plethora of videos to help a first time mindfulness meditator get started – talking one through the basics. And as Mipham notes in his book, just as in running, start at an easy pace for shorter distances until you are accustomed to running. Start with brief daily sessions, let your body and mind adjust to meditating. And, at least in my house, do keep a sense of humor and avoid taking yourself too seriously.

I did not become a runner overnight. I became a runner gradually as days of running added up to months, months to years, and years to decades. At some point I went from being a 1970s exercise jogger to a runner. I deeply understand that regular meditation practice over the coming days, months, and years are the path to benefit. And that I might not see the benefits for some time. Running has taught me patience. I opted for starting with shorter duration meditation to start, which keeps manageable working meditation into my daily life. And, just as I am in running, I find I am an evening meditator. Although I am new to the discipline, I already look forward to my evening meditation much as I look forward to a chance to run. For now that is a good start.

I do not know me

When I happened upon what advertisers think I am interested in, I realized that I clearly do not know myself.

I had no idea I was a big griller (our grill is a piece of wire fencing on an old automobile hub) into road trips (going somewhere on a small island is hardly a road trip) with my family (more often solo) in our Dodge Journey (never seen one of whatever this is) with a secret penchant for Liz Claiborne beauty and fragrance products (so secret that I too was blissfully unaware of that side of my personality).

If you tweet, then you can see what advertisers think you want to see too. Most curiously the list misses the areas in which I have recently spent actual money: running shoes, smartphones, ChromeBase, and various Kindle books in mathematics, running, and statistics. Either the advertisers do not know me or I do not know me.

The former is somewhat puzzling. Twitter’s own list of my interests aligns better with my perception of my own interests.

With some quibbles over Reality TV and Romance, and the absences of my running and juggling life, Twitter knows me well. So why do the advertisers misread where my money is likely to go next?

If you also Twitter, you can see Twitter’s read on you as well.  Of course this depends on whether you let Twitter study you. Turns out Twitter studies you by default, so unless you turned off the Personalization and Data Settings, Twitter is collecting all sorts of information about you as a Twitter user. I let Twitter run wild with my data. I treat all social media as a public presence with zero privacy. If one wants privacy then one can never use a computer, cell phone, telephone, or any other communication capable technology. Including snail mail. No tech. Period. And one should probably not live on a small island.

Now you’ll have to excuse me as I need to go load up my new luxury Nissan SUV (I have a 25 year old Toyota Exiv sedan that was purchased used) with my Fisher-Price toys (I played with those fifty years ago) and Converse sneakers (I would never buy an athletic shoe I cannot run in) for a trip to the spa (as soon as I find one on Pohnpei) where I am a well known high spender (I have a dollar in my pocket that has to last until Friday).  Oh, and, yes, I will be dropping by the mall on the way home to pick up more Liz Claiborne products and jewelry. Just as soon as I find the mall on this island.

September 1963

35 mm slides

My son was exploring in a family basement and came across the cabinets of 35 mm photographic slides therein.

35 mm slide cases
35 mm slide cases

35 mm slide projectors are only available as used items these days. There really is no practical way to preserve these thousands of family slides and carry the images forward into the future. These are not paintings of yore that hung on a wall, these are creations of technology that lived and died by the sword of technology.

Among the slides are slivers of my own past.

September 1963
September 1963

My sister and I, photographed in September 1963, processed in October 1963, just a month before the nation would lose John F. Kennedy.  The hands holding the photo – the son of the boy in the picture.

I think about images and photographs mostly in the frame of family history – how to pass down the family photos. I have no idea how long Google or FaceBook will be around. CompuServe came and went in its time, as did GeoCities. Each time I moved photos to the next available platform.

And even on Google and FaceBook there is the issue of access into the future. I can “friend” my currently living children, but how to pass along permissions to descendants in perpetuity? Short of setting everything to public sharing? Perhaps future descendants will not care to see images of the ancestors.

As for the slides, they are most likely to continue to remain in the darkness of their cases for the foreseeable future.

Water

Volunteer rule number one was not to drink water from unknown sources.

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A woman I did not know and I could not ask offered me a glass of water. That was the custom. The road being hot and dusty, visitors would be first offered a glass of water before they were to speak.

Cultural rule number zero was only evil spirits would refuse to accept water.

I had taken a tro-tro to a junction and then hiked up an unused road in the hills above Nkurakan. I was headed to a small village nestled up in the hills that I had not been to, well off any beaten track. Stephen had said he had a cousin teaching at the elementary school up there.

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I had made my way to the village and was easily recognized as an outsider, although unusual for foreign visitor I was traveling in my local cloth, not in western clothes.

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The children only stared at me – for the first time in a year in country the children were not singing the “Obruni koko, maakye…” song. I made a mental note to teach the children the song that some foreigners seemed to find annoying. Armed only with a name, I asked the children where I would find the cousin.

Led to a home by the children, I sat and faced the water test. Custom was water before speaking. Had I come for good or evil? I took the water and drank. I always did. After the antibiotic resistant shigella dysentery had knocked me down to 118 pounds my first week in country, I took a rather careless attitude to what I consumed and drank. Local rule zero always bests foreigner rule one.

Although I was not evil, who was I and why was I there? In my best stumbled and broken Akuapem accented Twi I explained I was Kwaku Donkor, son of Clara Donkor, traveling on the recommendation of cousin Stephen from Nkurakan. Smiles and warm hand shakes broke out all around. My identity was defined by to whom I am related and connected. I was family.

Family is always welcome, and always welcome back. Family does not need a pre-arranged invitation to visit. Dinner was fufu and I was given a bedroom to sleep in, undoubtedly displacing other members of the family for the night. I was in no position to refuse the hospitality.

The next day I was invited to give an impromptu science lesson at the elementary school, and I did so.

In country I did not travel much. Other volunteers traveled to distant places. I made short trips usually staying with relatives or friends, and did not usually go where there were no relatives or friends. I would simply show up and find myself welcomed. In turn I welcomed those who visited me. I always tried to keep a healthy supply of coffee for visitors and guests.

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I still keep coffee on hand to welcome family and friends – none of whom need an invitation to visit. I have tried to also raise my children to share in this understanding, although the assessments are still pending on whether or not I will have succeeded.

Goodbye to the cable TV era

I looked around the house the other night. Each and every zombie was staring at a glowing obelisk clutched tightly in their hand. I pointed at the cable TV. “Does that thing even work?” Without looking up, each zombie shrugged their shoulders.

I turned on the television to check the only channel I still check on the cable – ChannelNewsAsia. I was disappointed to find that Russia Today had replaced ChannelNewsAsia. I flipped off the set. “Works, but nothing on that I want to see.” No zombie even looked up.

For twenty years my personal money manager has paid the cable bill bimonthly, fifty dollars. That’s part of the budget cycle that keeps the family operational paycheck to paycheck. And for twenty years the good folks at ICTV have obliged my money manager.

Now ICTV is in receivership, apparently bankrupt, and operating under court appointed management. The interim management must have decided to clean up the books. A team came by the house the very next day and threatened my money manager to pay up for January or get disconnected. I could have predicted the result. Threatening my money manager is not only bad customer relations (perhaps the ICTV team could benefit from the college’s HTM training, there are ways to handle these things) but also will not yield the desired long term result (customer retention and future cash flow). My money manager told the team to go ahead and disconnect the cable.

My money manager called me to tell me what had happened. I paused, thought for a moment, and then realized that was money better spent in other ways. I was the last cable denizen in the house, the rest are netizens. And even I had shifted primarily to online sources of news and information. With the loss of CNA, there was nothing left worth the money.

I later went down and paid off January at the office, but told the clerk to leave us disconnected. Cable had become irrelevant. Like VCR tapes, and now DVDs, a new tech era has supplanted an older technology. Anyone remember BetaMax? NetFlix is killing DVDs and cable programming. Internet video on demand is crowding out cable.

Little wonder cable television is in receivership – I wonder how many other customers have shifted resources to bandwidth and dropped their cable subscription.

I gather FSMTC wants to buy the assets, which makes sense. Not necessarily for distributing cable television. Those cable lines provide a high speed Internet pipe into every home. ADSL on the uplink side, cable coax on the downlink. That has potential future value.

Student success

The call came in at midnight. Medical emergencies often seem to be middle of the night events in life. She’d been transported from the residence hall to the emergency room. Chest pain. Difficulty breathing. Abdominal pain. Lower back pain. Severe pain. Both sides. I knew this was a fourth trip in as many days. Tests were coming back negative or inconclusive. While her condition deteriorated. As if a child of mine were in distress, I was headed out the door.

This time the hospital admitted her and, with one particular test providing a cause, put her on the appropriate medical treatment.

Word was passed along to her instructors that she had been hospitalized and was undergoing treatment. Two faculty members asked about her condition, asked to be kept informed as to how they could help. One of the two asked also whether the student was taking visitors – the faculty member wanted to stop by. Their immediate reaction was for the care and safety of the student. Beyond concern for her immediate condition, they also expressed a desire to help her succeed in their courses when she returns.

The third faculty member said only, “She missed a quiz and test already, she is likely to fail my course.” The faculty member did not ask about her as a person, expressed no concern over the distress the young woman was in. Just stated that she was headed for failure in their class. Cold. That was the only word that came to mind. Cold. No words of comfort. No assurance that the faculty member stood by ready to help the young woman once she had recovered. No commitment to her success as a student. Heck, no sign that the faculty member considered her a human being suffering from pain. No empathy at all.

I suggested as much, that right now her family and those of us who know her are a tad more concerned that she get well and recover than whether or not she took some particular quiz.

A commitment to student success can be an empty slogan. A trite over used cliche. Or one can ignore the chaff that now attends the term student success and, as teachers have done for millennia, show a supportive approach to the individual student as a person. Each student is a bundle of hopes and dreams, some parents’ loved and adored child, someone who, when they are in distress far from home, could use some empathy and care from those entrusted with their education.

I once had the privilege of attending a talk given by Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian educator and philosopher. Prior to hearing him talk I had tackled some of his writings, but I found difficulty understanding the philosophical underpinnings of his writing. At the talk Paulo was asked, “In a word, what is education?” Paulo paused and then said, “Love. Education is love.” That I could understand.

 

Of learning and loss

Forces driving the financing of education, especially higher education, increasingly want to see that the education delivered prepares the student for the world of the workplace. Measures such as the number of graduates who succeed in obtaining employment in their field of study are used to gauge the success of a program. How often has someone said, “Education is the key to success” with the implicit meaning that the value of an education is what one does with that education beyond graduation.

Loss

 

In a higher education system increasingly driven by the value of education as a path to employment, what is the value of that education to one who will never become employed? One who is tragically lost to us. Rousseau in Emile first introduced me to the idea that an education should be of value to a child even if that child does not reach adulthood. And value for children is in having fun, enjoying life. An education should be fun. Enjoyable. An experience that is sufficiently wonderful that even if the child were to know that they will not live out the fullness of the years, the child would want to be in school. In elementary school. In high school. In college.

An education should be of value to a child in the here and now, an enriching and exciting experience, an adventure filled with wondrous wonders. Perhaps everyday will not be exciting, but net the experience should be positive.

Higher education at present is especially enamored of student learning outcomes and measuring learning. Learning is measured, assessed, analyzed, reported, and used to attempt to improve learning the next term. Few instructors rate whether their class is fun, exciting, interesting, something that the student would recommend to other students.

This is not a call to instructors to become entertainers, but rather a call to make the subject matter the instructor loves as interesting and exciting for the students as the subject is to themselves. And if an instructor does not love the subject they are teaching, then that instructor should not teach that subject, perhaps consider leaving education altogether.

An education should have value for the child, the student, in the here and now, in the present.

Halloween 2016

Halloween 2016 fell on a Monday school night evening. This was also a Monday social security day – the end of the month when senior citizens come to Kolonia to collect their social security checks and go shopping. That income is important in many families here, and falling on a Monday meant that the Halloween shopping weekend would likely have been negatively impacted. In local parlance, October 29 and 30 were a “broke weekend.”

Tristan and Kisha Halloween 2016
Tristan and Kisha Halloween 2016

The weather was acceptable, only a brief passing light rain shower in Dolihner, otherwise generally dry conditions.

Perhaps the largest factor was that last year Halloween fell on a Saturday night. A weekend with no school the next day.

Whatever the underlying factors, numbers were down year-on-year. Groups are a very roughly estimated with overestimation more likely than under. That said, the front porch saw a drop from 90 groups in 2015 to 79 groups in 2016. Traffic began around 18:35 but by 20:30 no further trick or treaters arrived on the porch.

Halloween group sizes 2015
Halloween group sizes 2015

Note the nine outlying groups in 2015 – groups with more than roughly 15 candy receivers, including one up near 45 and another above 50. The differential in the number of groups is a drop of only eleven. The lack of large groups, however, meant raw numbers of individual candy takers was down more significantly.

Halloween group sizes 2016
Halloween group sizes 2016

The numbers were down even more significantly. The count of candy receivers in 2015 was 590. In 2016 only 416 showed up on the porch, a drop of 174 trick or treaters. Average group size also dropped, primarily a function of the drop in the number of large groups and the absence of any group larger that 35. The household thought that the choice to block cars from driving up the interior road negatively impacted the large group counts. My sense is that the large trucks used to haul the big groups of kids from other parts of the island may not have been as available as they were on a Saturday night last night.

In 2015 the average group size was 6.56 with a standard deviation of 8.90. In 2016 average group size was 5.27 with a standard deviation of 5.50. The median, however, increased from 3 to 4 year-on-year.

We again used the dual bowl system. One twenty-five dollar bag of better candy and a single 330 count bag of Hershey Kisses. Elterina added in three bags of additional small candies that may have added upwards of 90 candies to the Kisses bowl. We would end the evening with candy on hand.

For those who want to play with the raw data, the data is available in a Google Sheets spreadsheet. Analysis was done using Google Sheets with the above charts prepared using the Google Statistics add-in for Google Sheets.

Flowers

Every year I dread the arrival of late May and early June. I have perhaps lived here a decade or two too long. May and June are the months when the island tragically loses some of the best and brightest of the youth of the nation. Although I attempt to engender learning in my statistics course, I do not pretend to know either the statistics nor the cause of the tragedies. I only know that hearts will be ripped out of the chests of parents who have lost a child. I know that survivors will live with guilt and “what ifs” for the rest of their lives. For all, there is a loss that can never be returned. A pain that time cannot and will not heal. And no words that anyone can say that comfort those who have been left behind. There may be solace for a brief moment, but then you turn around for some reason expecting him or her to be there, and suddenly you realize they are not and will never again be. There. And the gaping hole reopens. Ten years after. Twenty. Forevermore.

Seven

No, I do not know the causes. No, I do not know the solutions. In the absence of causes and solutions, doing nothing is tantamount to accepting the annual injuries and occasional losses. Might I suggest a change in habits. Give flowers. Not money. Give mwarmwars, leis, garlands, blossoms, and balloons. Giving money may lead to bringing flowers to the family later. Better to give flowers now rather than money now and flowers later. End the gifting of money to the graduates. Do not tuck that money into their hands at graduation. Hug them, flower them, balloon them, have a family get together at home. And remind them that they are not done, they have only just begun.

Choices

My path is defined by the choices I make and choose not to make, the choices others make and choose not to make, and natural events. When I run there is a sense of control. Yet any sense of control is illusory.

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The reality is that momentum limits my options when others make choices. I can but react. In those split seconds there is no time to blame or complain, only time to react. And then to run on. Whether I have made a choice with positive outcomes is never immediately clear. Only in the fullness of time might I learn what will be. Perhaps the perceived limits are also illusory. Every time I drop a juggled tennis ball I am reminded of how often I err, and I have been dropping the ball more often than usual these days.

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