Category Archives: musings

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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Contemplations

As those who follow me may be aware this age year is an age year of reflection. I am the age at which my father passed away. As a runner I seem to be in better physical shape than my father was at this age. While his risk at my age was a heart attack, my larger risk this age year is the traffic I joggle in amidst on an evening run.

This evening was a particularly poignant nightfall. As is the custom I headed to the state morgue to join family in keeping watch until an off-island brother can arrive for the funeral. I had been visiting when I could over the past few evenings. I knew those who came and went, and how they were connected.

Sadness

Tonight when I arrived at the morgue the faces there confused me. They were from other connections. I gradually realized some were connected to the passing of a wonderful wife and loving mother I heard about earlier in the day. Her remains were in the morgue. There were other faces there, friends and family, that did not fit into either of the deaths I knew of.  And I saw a third coffin.

I learned that a third friend had passed away and that the remains were also there at the morgue. The third friend was someone who had come many years ago to Pohnpei and had made Pohnpei their home. A family who had hosted them in their early years on Pohnpei sent members up to note that they would handle the burial. The family even noted that Mwohnsapw Isipahu was awaiting the arrival of the deceased. I was comforted by the love shown.

In this age of social media I am more aware of the passing of the loved ones of friends. People I might not directly know, but whose passing directly impacts people I do know. There are not more people passing away, social media simply surfaces deaths more efficiently than I would normally stumble across.

When the funeral is far away I always wonder what I can to be of comfort. As do others, I offer my prayers and condolences. These are what I can do yet they seem insufficient – a friend who recently lost their father said that a memory will return to their mind unbidden and then they  fall to a million pieces all over again at the sense of loss. The living are left to comfort those whom the deceased is survived by.

While this is an age year of reflection and contemplation, and few know when they’ve seen their last sunrise, I expect to see a good many sunrises to come. Still, I will leave this suggestion, should you be around in some future decade when my passing surfaces on social media – when you are wondering what to post or perchance do, to go out and run a mile. Run a mile and lose yourself in thoughts of those you’ve known, those you’ve loved, and have lost.

Athleticism as the driving engine of positive health outcomes

She turns slightly as she faces the mirror, flexing her shoulder muscles, their underlying contours sharply defined on her now lean, lithe, muscular body. A hint of a smile crosses her face, she is pleased with what she sees. The work outs have been hard, but she can see the progress.

I look at her and see an athlete. The mirrors in the fitness center might have been placed there to ensure one is executing a lift with proper form, but the athletes therein know that the mirrors are there for posing. An athlete is concerned about their body, their appearance. They come to view their body as something that has to be cared for physically. The athlete learns from their performance, their sense of energy, that the type of fuel which goes into the machine matters. The athlete comes to care about nutrition. Their joy in their body form leads from working out to eating right which leads to improved health outcomes.

Marlin working out
Marlin working out

Micronesia is wracked by non-communicable diseases. Here in the FSM the 30% rate of diabetes in the adult population, the 80% to 90% of the population with body mass index over 25, is particularly devastating. Lives cut short, lives lived with horribly reduced quality of life. Kidney failure, dialysis, amputations, and death. As the Pacific Island Health Officers Association declared, this is the equivalent a natural disaster, a very real health emergency.

Yet the approach to solutions is typically health, nutrition, and maybe then fitness in that order. The largest health insurer in the nation pours money into health – treating the disease. As an insurance entity the insurer seems unable to grapple with the inevitability of the future collapse of a health insurance model that focuses on treating disease instead of preventing disease. There are too many with disease to be supported by the few who are healthy.

The insurer currently is responding to the crisis by raising rates, but eventually the rates rise to levels that the healthy are no longer will to pay. At some point the healthy members opt out, take the risk of being uninsured and paying their own way medically, and the company becomes fiscally insolvent. The health insurer disappears in sea of red ink.

Other organizations focus on nutrition and eating right. Some entities have been engaged in nutrition education for decades out here. Decades during which the national diabetes health profile has gotten worse, not better. These programs sound good, look good on paper, might even feel good, and ultimately have no substantive impact. Behaviors are not changed.

Shanalin working out
Shanalin working out

Only the athlete makes long term behavioral changes in their diet and moves on to positive health outcomes. First comes fitness, then comes dietary choice changes, and the result is health. The current approach focuses money on health, then diet, and a few crumbs are tossed to fitness and sport. Even the Compact funding is primarily in education (K-12) and health – with health being primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment-of-disease health care. Compact health sector funding might fund a hospital but never a fitness center nor a gym nor a track.

Shot on goal by Tristan
Shot on goal by Tristan

Yet only only money poured into fitness, exercise, and sport will make any long term lasting difference. Only fitness can save lives and improve the quality of life in the long haul.

What would a national plan look like that put fitness and physical exercise first? Significant, if not massive, increases in funding sport-supporting facilities, sports councils, active support for entities such as SHIP-HOOPS sports programs, and the FSM NOC. Funding at the state and national level for indoor fitness centers in each state, maintenance of existing facilities such as tracks, tennis courts, gymnasiums, and pools. An insurance program that incorporates incentives for a physically active life style. Partnerships between insurers such as MiCare, fitness centers, and facilities owners/operators. For example, the existence and continued operation of a swimming pool or publicly accessible track should be viewed as a benefit to an insurer such as MiCare; lack of maintenance of that facility should be seen as a loss.

Improved health care and health care facilities that focus on treatment will not reduce the disease burden. Increased nutrition education will not lead to changes in dietary choices that are contributing to the disease burden. Increased athleticism will lead to individuals making healthier dietary choices as they choose to value their physique. The result will be improved future health profiles.

Recharged

Although I returned to a written reprimand (non-attendance graduation) and docked pay (missed six non-teaching work days), three weeks off the rock in December and January refreshed me to my bones. By not consciously thinking about teaching for twenty-one days I find I have some new curricular ideas and a reservoir of energy with which to work.

Vacation, as in traveling to somewhere distant, is a curious activity. There is little to suggest that traveling into unfamiliar places with unknown dangers would have been a survival benefit to our ancient ancestors. Staying home almost always had to have been safer. Yet the deep allure of travel is present across cultures.

Micronesians arrived in these islands on voyaging canoes, long journeys over open ocean. That first canoe, or canoes, had to be traveling uncharted waters. The question “Are we there yet?” as unanswerable as “Where are we going?”

For those on a voyaging canoe the journey was only partially calculated risk, a gamble that what lay beyond the horizon was worth the risk. Yet as modern voyaging canoes have shown, capable navigators could hold courses and make return voyages. Navigators had skills in finding islands in the vast Pacific, reading swells and clouds. Those sailing lived off the sea as they traveled.

Arrival at a new island that was large enough to support life had to be thrilling. The new island would look strange and unfamiliar, and that would make the arrival all the more exciting. That aspect of travel is still there for my tropical island raised children. The “islands” they visited are not just different, they are exotic beyond their imagination.

Cloud Gate Chicago
Cloud Gate

One can see the Cloud Gate in a computer image, the skyline reflected by the gleaming curved surfaces. Being there is viscerally different. The brain suddenly comprehending the size of the Cloud Gate while not comprehending the scale of the buildings just across Michigan Avenue. The sound of the city, of traffic, distant sirens ever-present, cold air whipping across Centennial Park and past one’s ears.

Our brains adjust to the daily world around us and eventually treat the sights and sounds of home as background noise. Home is rarely exotic on a daily basis. For those who commute past a wonder of the world, the sight is a daily occurrence, an ordinary event. For children who regularly see the Cloud Gate, the structure is far less remarkable than for children raised on a rain forest island of coconut palms.

Snow!
Snow!

For a child raised in Alaska, snow is a given. For a child raised in Micronesia, a first meeting with snow is beyond magical. In that moment of discovery and joy one’s brain is completely flooded with wonder. That sense of wonder is contagious, even an adult can feel that sense of seeing the world anew.

Ancient humans undoubtedly traveled primarily out of necessity. The need for a new food opportunities, uninhabited lands for ever-expanding families, or to escape a deteriorating life situation. Survival sometimes favored those brave enough to move, to abandon the place in which they knew how to survive. The new environment presented new challenges and required a sharpness of mind. Today travel is recreational, but the sharpness of mind, the attention the new environment requires, is still there.

In that absorption of the mind with the new surroundings is a dropping away of the mental load of the daily ordinary which was left behind. The brain gets to do a reboot and reconfigure, a refresh of the brain circuitry. Upon return from the journey, the mind retains the benefits of the refresh. There is a sense of being recharged and re-energized. While constant, continuous travel likely becomes mentally exhausting – travel would be the daily ordinary for such a person – for those of us resident for years in one place, travel can be refreshing in a very deep sense.