Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beauty At The Beach

I have been to the beach numerous times.  I have been to the beach so many times I’m not even sure I could count that high.  And the beach is my son’s favorite place to be, so we are there all the time – winter, spring, summer and fall.  It doesn’t matter how cold it  is, he is content to sit on the sand with his bucket and shovel and dig.  I have been to the beach so many times, I could navigate my way around easily enough if someone blindfolded me.  But just because I have been there probably every summer since I was five doesn’t mean that I have looked and observed and truly seen everything around me.  Did you know that the water never strikes the bulkhead the same way twice? Did you ever watch how gracefully droplets leap into the air and then dive back down into the bay?  Have you ever noticed the haphazard way that shells are strewn across the sand and the secret messages they seem to spell out? Have you ever watched the way water and light dance delicately over the body of a shell that is only partially submerged?  Have you observed the way colors change subtly on both rocks and shells depending on your perspective, the play of the water and the warm rays of the sun?  Did you ever stop to count the holes carved into the body of a shell after a life of being tossed and turned in the surf? Have you ever observed that the beauty of a shell long out lives the animal that once lived inside of it?  At the beach, death and beauty continuously coexist. 

It has taken me awhile to mourn the loss of snow and ice and be able to move on to something else.  I found that something else last week at the beach with my son.  While he was busy digging holes, building sandcastles and threatening to go swimming in the cold water, I set out to search for the little things – objects I have missed so many times in the past.  I stood in the water with my camera poised on rocks, shells and seaweed while my son questioned, “Mama, what are you taking a picture of.  I don’t see anything.”  What he meant was, “I don’t see anything interesting.”  But what makes something interesting?  In our busy lives, what makes us pause, take a deep breath and say you are worthy of my time?  What catches our eyes and forces us to focus?  What trips up our hurried pace and commands us to slow down?  How can we live in the moment, if we refuse to slow down and find beauty not only in the grand things, but in the small things that have become so ordinary we sometimes even forget that they are even there?   With my camera in hand, I opened my eyes and this is what I found:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Teeball: This Is Boring

Today, friends of mine got married, but I had to leave the wedding before the reception began in order to coach my son’s teeball game.  I had hoped that the assistant  coach would have been able to step up today and take over the game so I didn’t have to leave early, but the assistant coach had informed me last week that he wasn’t going to be much of an assistant since his job ensured that he spent more time away than at home.  And due to the league’s wonderful rule that requires all recreation coaches to hold a special Rutgers certification, I couldn’t even ask another parent to pick up the slack this afternoon.  It’s an awesome deal for Rutgers, they get to rake in the money; it’s an unfair deal for the little people like me.  I should have realized the awfulness of it when I volunteered and was then informed I had to pay to take the course.  Seriously, I volunteer and then I have to pay an added fee on top of volunteering, a fee other parents, who aren’t giving their time, don’t have to pay.  What little leagues should do is increase the fee to play for kids whose parents don’t volunteer and then pay registration costs for the parents who are willing to give their time. 

On my team, I have seven players.  Teeball teams are kept to a minimum so that the games don’t last an eternity.  The games often seem long enough as it is for players and parents.  Today, only four of my players showed up.  I was slightly perturbed, especially since yesterday it had been suggested to me that I cancel the game so that I could attend the wedding.  I declined to do so, mainly because I refused to disappoint my own son – who probably wouldn’t have cared as long as he got to play in the playground – but also because I didn’t think it was fair to disappoint the other kids, the ones on my team as well as our opponents. Besides, I was kind of raised with the philosophy that once you make a commitment nothing, not even death, should get in the way of you keeping your promise.  Three players didn’t show up, we did not have a full team, but the good thing about teeball is there are no rules; pretty much anything goes.  We could field a team with four players, and the advantage to having less people on the field was I didn’t have to worry so much about the kids tackling each other in a mad frenzy to catch the ball. 

My son was enthusiastic when I arrived on the field and he could not wait to have a catch.  So I threw a few grounders to him and the other kid who got there early.  As the other boys arrived they joined in.  As we were practicing, I realized that some kids, my son included, were stepping with the incorrect foot when they threw.  I decided it might be a good time for a brief lesson in proper form. I demonstrated the right way to throw and explained to them that the foot they step with is on the same side of their body as their glove.  I showed them to hold out their glove hand, step towards the glove and then throw.  This I hoped might give them a visual clue while they were playing.

When the game was about to start, I asked my spouse – who is not Rutgers certified - to coach first base, and I asked the spouse of my assistant coach – also not Rutgers certified - to help the kids get ready in the dugout. I didn’t care about the legitimacy of it.  I needed help and Rutgers wasn’t offering any.  I’m only one person and I physically could not have eyes all over the field at once.  Besides, the other team had older kids in the field coaching - presumably not Rutgers certified.   While coaching first base, my spouse picked up a wayward ball and threw it to me.  “It’s your faulted,” I chided her as she stepped into the throw - stepping with her right foot and throwing with her right hand.  “It’s your fault, our son doesn’t throw properly.”  And then with a smile I added, “I forbid you from ever throwing again in his presence.” 

As the away team, we got to bat first.  In baseball it is of course advantageous to bat last, but with tiny tots I think the reverse is true.  Batting is far more appealing to most kids than fielding, which means they want to do it. I set the batting order based on the numbers the kids wore, which meant that my son hit second. He could not wait to swing, and as soon as the ball was placed on the tee he went after it.  He hit the ball to the pitcher and ran to first.  When the last kid in the batting order got up to hit, my son was on second.  When his teammate hit the ball he ran, and he was running his heart out, pumping his arms and legs as fast as he could, but he looked like he was running in slow motion, an illusion that was emphasized as his teammate passed him rounding third base.  He didn’t care, he crossed home plate with a huge smile on his face and nearly knocked me down deciding to give me a hug instead of a high five.

In the field, my son was far more interested in the mud than in what was happening at home plate.  I continuously had to call his name and give him a gentle reminder that he should be looking at the batter.  When the ball was hit, half the time he just stood there and watched it.  Once, when he was standing on the pitcher’s mound, an opposing player hit the ball fairly hard down the first base line.  “Get it,” I screamed to my son, who took off running into foul territory, completely oblivious as to where the ball was as he nearly crashed into the fence.  On the field I had two boys who had a decent clue about what to do and they tried very hard.  They chased down the ball and tried their best at first base to catch what was thrown to them.  I had two other boys – one of which was my own son - who were completely distracted and who wanted to be anywhere except where they were. At one point in the field, one of the little distracted boys called my son’s name, “I’m bored.”  Without missing a beat, my son replied with a sigh, “This is boring.”  And I thought, “For this I left the wedding.”  Then I reminded myself that my son did have fun warming up and he did enjoy batting.  Besides, the smile on his face and the hug when he crossed home were certainly worth leaving early for. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Opening Day for Teeball

            Have you ever spread metal filings across a table and then dropped a magnet in the middle of them.  The filings immediately swarm towards the magnet until they are surrounding it, some of them clinging to it.  Well, that essentially is teeball.  One child hits the ball off the tee and all the kids in the field swarm, sometimes tackling each other in the process of trying to get the ball.  But still there is something cute and adorable about little kids trying on and sampling a big boys’ game.  There is an innocence, a sweetness and a simplicity that eventually gets devoured once statistics start getting recorded and the need to win somehow shuts out everything else.

            Two days ago, I asked my son if he was excited about his upcoming teeball game.  Our conversation went as follows:
Me: Are you excited about playing t-ball tomorrow?
My Son: What team am I on?
Me: The Orioles.
My Son: It [the picture on his hat] looks more like a penguin.
Me: No it doesn't, that's just what your teacher thought.
My Son: It can't be an Oriole, because it's not a cookie.
Me: No, Oreos are the cookies, Orioles are birds.
My Son: No, it's a penguin. Can I have an Oreo? I'm hungry.
Me: Ugh!

Last night he played and I coached his first teeball game.  He seemed to enjoy it much more than I expected after our practice a couple of weekends ago when he broke down because I was giving my attention to other children.  When we pulled into the parking lot, he exploded out of the car in a ball of excitement which was a great way to start the evening.  Of course, he did not miss the playground adjacent to the field and as soon as he spotted it he was clamoring to play – it’s not like he hadn’t played for two hours this morning at another playground with a friend of his.  But that’s my son, he sees a playground and everything else flies out the window of his attention.  Waiting at the field was one other boy from the team so I called him and my son over to warm up. I tossed them some grounders to practice fielding and reminded them with each throw to throw over hand since underhand seemed the more natural motion for the both of them.  “Over, over, high, high,” I prompted as they pulled the ball back getting ready to release.  The other boy’s grandmother kept screaming at him not to throw the ball so hard.  It took a great deal of restraint for me to keep back the words I wanted to say.  Really, what person tries to discourage their kid from throwing a baseball hard?  No one ever got anywhere in baseball throwing a ball gently. The fact that my son was cooperating and having fun helped keep my lips closed and my mind somewhat distracted from the grandmother. A few minutes before the game started, I finally met the man assigned to be my assistant coach.  Several minutes after that, he informed me that his job keeps him busy on assignments overseas so he would probably miss more games than he’d make.  Great!  Just my luck. I have a wonderfully long history of people bailing after promising or volunteering to help me. 

Our team was up first, and to ensure that my son did not have a breakdown in the first thirty seconds of the game, I did have him bat first. One advantage to being the coach is I can decide where my kid plays. He could not wait to swing, so I held off putting the ball on the tee until I had helped him adjust his feet and hands.  As soon as the ball was down he swung.  The bat made contact, the ball drifted to the grass and he was off to first base.  Instead of stopping, he kept going to second.  And then when I told him to stop he started going back to first.  Eventually, I got him to go back to second.  After the next boy hit the ball, my son, after a moment of confusion, started to run to third, but he paused in mid stride to wave hello to his mother. When he finally came home and crossed the plate he was smiling. 

Out on the field things were a bit different.  He had absolutely no interest in playing defense.  He did, however, enjoy playing with the dirt and kept trying to shape it into little hills around where he stood.  He also did a bit of dancing, raising his arms above his head and shaking his body.  He kind of reminded me a bit of his uncle who is a much better dancer than ball player.  Periodically, he would run over to me and beg, “Can I play on the playground?  Please can I play?”  And I’d have to gently guide him back to whichever position he was playing, “Let’s discuss it later.”  But his mind was on everything he could climb instead of the boy at bat. One ball was hit directly at him and that ball he managed to get in front of and pick up.  I screamed – as I did after every hit – “Throw to first, throw to first.”  My son started run holding the ball and when he finally got the ball out of his hand his form would have been much more appropriate for throwing a javelin, but hey, the ball got to first – long after the runner arrived.  On other occasions, when the ball was hit passed him, he would turn and chase it like most the kids on the team, but instead of sprinting after it his run would morph into a sort of half skip half gallop. 

            Despite the mass chaos of seven kids running around aimless and confused for an hour, I will admit the game turned out much better than I feared it would.  My son wore a smile most of the game, he got excited every time he got to bat and he had fun digging in the field.  Bottom line – he had fun.  Since that’s what the teeball is supposed to be about, I suppose it was a success – for now.  And yes, when the game was over, he did get to play in the playground.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Korea Part VI: A Trip to the War Memorial Museum

Our first Sunday in Seoul was our first day off.  I did not want to sit around doing nothing and neither did Steve.  I had gone to Korea to learn something about a different country, a different culture, so what better place was there to go than to a museum.  The War Memorial of Korea was new, having opened only two years earlier.  It is located in the Seoul neighborhood of Youngsan-dong on the grounds that used to house the army headquarters.  The building is massive with six floors – four above ground and two below - displaying various war and historical relics.   The moment you step into the central plaza which leads to the entrance you are greeted by statue on top of a dome of two brothers hugging.  Both brothers – the elder who fought for the South and the younger who fought for the North – are still wearing their army uniforms and a gun is slung around the older brother’s shoulder.  The statue represents the Korean peoples hope for a reunion with their brothers and sisters in the north.  It is the first thing I saw, and it is the one vision that has remained with me most clearly.  There I was about to step into Korea’s past to learn about its historical struggles, but before walking through the door I was reminded that the struggle is ongoing and will not be over until the division between North and South no longer exists.  Scattered around the museum’s grounds are the planes and tanks, vital instruments of war, relics from the Korean War that are too big to be displayed inside.  Steve and I walked around outside first, before the sun got too high and the humidity too oppressive.  I took pictures fascinated by the fact that the machinery had participated in an actual war.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been there, but images of war only come to those who have survived the horror.  In retrospect, it seems rather insensitive to want to catch a glimpse of something that others spend the remainder of their lives trying to block out and forget.  What was the collective memory of all the planes, tanks, submarines, helicopters and other vehicles surrounding me?  How much action did they see?  How many men did they meet?  How many of those men never returned home? 
While my camera snapped, Steve picked up a pen and started to jot down notes.  What he wrote, I’ve no idea, because by then we were already starting to drift apart.  There was no direct cause, no specific falling out, at least none that I can recall.  I can’t even remember why the wall between us started to rise, but it did and it happened before we even started our first day of teaching.  Looking back, it is almost like his role in my life had only been to get me on the plane and to ensure that I set my feet down in the direction of travel. Once that was accomplished, even though we would work together for the next twelve months, he moved on and so did I, without bitterness or regret.  So while we arrived at the museum together, once inside he went his way with pen and paper in hand and I went mine with a camera draped around my neck.  We did, however, agree to meet for dinner, since neither of us had yet formed other bonds of friendship. 
My trip to the museum was merely one of many realizations regarding my lack of a proper education in both history and geography.  History, if I may digress for a moment, I have since concluded is taught horribly in the United States.  American history is important, I won’t argue that it isn’t, everyone should know where they came from, but American history is only a fraction of what happened between the dawn of time and now.  Why do American schools spends years hammering in the names and dates attached to the Colonial Era, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, while neglecting hundreds of years and oodles of countries?  Perhaps, history should be taught chronologically instead of geographically, and then Americans wouldn’t be so ignorant of people and events that existed beyond our borders.  In high school, I vaguely remember learning about China and having to memorize a series of dynasties, but China was the only Asian country in my textbook that was taught as a entity separate from the States.  Hell, my second and final year of American History in high school ended with the bombing of Japan in World War II, which incidentally, never made sense to me.  In school, the teachers and textbooks taught me that we entered World War II because Japan bombed us in Pearl Harbor and the War ended when the atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but everything in the middle had to do with Hitler and Germany.  No one ever bothered to connect the dots – Iwo Jima, the Philippians, Guadalcanal and the Battle of Midway, just to name a few – and so I had no idea that the Pacific front even existed.  Really, how do you leave out half of a war and pretend that you are teaching?  And since my history lessons ended with World War II, I had nothing more than a vague notion that a war took place less than a decade later in Korea. It was the forgotten war, the untaught war, the war that didn’t really seem to matter – to Americans.  For Koreans, it was a completely different story.  It was the war that carved a deep political line between North and South, separating entire families and ensuring that political ideologies would trump familial ties for decades to come. 
Did you know that the Korean War technically isn’t over?  I didn’t.  I knew that a television show titled MASH took place during the Korean War, but I had never even seen a single episode.  I think that was honestly the extent of my Korean War knowledge – sad.  I’m almost ashamed to acknowledge how little I knew despite having earned a college degree.  The War is not over because a treaty was never signed.  On July 27, 1953, the North and South signed an Armistice which established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel but neither side has let down it guard or conceded victory.  Americans, whose involvement in the war was initially sparked by their obsession with the Cold War, a war now over for more than twenty year, are still stationed in Korea, promising to aid the South should the North attack.  Anyway, you may be wondering what started the war, and when I visited the museum I did learn one side of that story – that the North fired the first shots. Since then, however, I have read a couple of books on the war and I have learned that the initial spark of the war is shrouded in controversy.  To avoid the possibility of boring you, I will leave it at that, especially since there are people far more qualified than I to tell you the story of why brothers took up arms against brothers, the role Japan played in the country’s division and why America chose the side they did.  If you are interested in more, The Korean War: A History by Bruce Cumings is a good read.
            Anyway, overall, I was impressed by the museum. The English, however, on most of the descriptions would have benefited by being proofread by a native English speaker. The grammatical mistakes were endless, but I will not complain because I appreciated the effort, the fact that there was a translation, something I could read and understand well enough to improve my own ignorance and naivety.  When looking at displays grew tiresome and I felt in need of a break, I found a bench where I sat down and wrote some postcards to my family and friends back home.  I’ve no idea what I wrote, or what may have been the thoughts most pressing at the time, but I do remember writing out the postcards and the urgency I felt to communicate with my friends.  I had just spend hours traveling through time, and when I emerged what I most wanted, in essence was to assess my own connections to the present, people who at the time had already begun to slip into my own past and who in a few months would only exist for me as part of my personal history.  

            When I met back up with Steve, he suggested that we check out I’taewon and have dinner there.  I’taewon or “Little America,” as we Americans often referred to it, is one of the top tourist destinations in Seoul.  Many restaurants serving international cuisine are located in I’taewon.  It is the place to go if you are craving food from just about any corner of the globe – Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. It is the one place in Seoul where you will see almost as many signs in English as you do in Hangul and it has a very active Red Light District which the international military men refer to fondly as “Hooker Hill.”
Since I’taewon is located near an American Army base, it is crawling with American men who are in the military and for me it was my first introduction to servicemen from my home country.  My first impression, however, was not a favorable one.  After just a couple of hours in I’taewon it is no surprise that Americans are not looked upon favorably by people from other countries.  For starters, the military men (and I say men because I didn’t notice any women in the Army on most of my excursions to I’taewon) act like they are at home and as if it is the Koreans who are the interlopers.  When speaking to Koreans they generally spoke only English, and if the Koreans to whom they were speaking did not understand they would start screaming and grow agitated.  It may sound like a stereotype, but I’ve seen this one in action enough to know that it is one stereotype that is squarely grounded in reality.  There are loads of Americans out there who genuinely seem to believe that speaking louder will stimulate a foreigner’s brain just enough so that they will suddenly feel enlightened with a new vocabulary. Some establishments in I’taewon didn’t even allow Koreans to enter unless they were with an American for fear that a brawl might break out.  How awful is that, to be denied entrance into a place in your own country simply because your guests tend to be a little on the hyper and aggressive side?  Steve and I sat down at the counter in one bar and an American guy roughly put his hand on my shoulder and told me to move, “You’re sitting in my girl’s seat.”  From behind, with my dark hair, I was on occasion mistaken as a Korean woman, of course I only ever had to turn around for whomever it was who addressed me to realize their mistake.  Turning to my fellow American, I said rather obnoxiously, “I didn’t see anyone.”  He flexed his muscles, reached for me and Steve, fearing a fight, grabbed me by the arm, yanked me off the stool and dragged me back out into the street. In the upcoming months I would have many fond memories associated with I’taewon, but I do not count that first night among them.  I think I might even have pledged to myself that I wouldn’t return.  I can’t remember where we ended up eating, all that echoes in my memory from that night with Steve is the fact I was learning what it meant to be an American from a foreigner’s perspective and what I saw wasn’t terribly flattering.  (Here I must add a side note to state that my negative experience and many of my negative observations regarding the American military men in Korea do not speak for the military as a whole.  I have since met some men and women in the military who are incredibly respectful of foreign cultures and of people in general.  It is sad though that stereotypes are sprung from the few knuckleheads that seem to forget they are guests in someone else’s home.)

The following day, Dave told me and Steve to report to Kangdong Wonderland in the afternoon to observe some classes. The school was on the fifth floor of an office building so Steve and I rode up in the elevator together.  When the doors opened we stepped directly into the school.  Less than ten paces in front of us sat the secretaries, including Robin who spoke a little English.  To our right was the faculty room where all the teachers – Korean and America – had their desks and where they spent their time between classes doing all of their prep work.  The teachers who did not have the morning preschool kids didn’t start teaching until two but they were expected to arrive by noon in order to plan their lessons.  Most teachers, however, used at least half of that block of time to go out for lunch.  The moment we stepped into the faculty room, dozens of eyes turned towards us while several hands shot out and bodies approached to welcome us.  Our supervisor, Mira, introduced us to fellow Americans as well as Koreans, all of whom were required to chose an American name by which they would be known in the school.  One of the teachers I met that afternoon was Kevin, a New Yorker like me.  But not only did he come from my home state, I later learned that he and I went to the same high school.  He had been a senior my freshman year, but we had to travel thousands of mile to meet. 
Mira had drafted a schedule for Steve and I of the classes we were to observe.  Since the teacher training classes had been a bust, I was hoping, beyond hope at this point, that I would learn something valuable during these observations.  If learning to sleep with your eyes open can be considered something valuable then the day was a success, if not, well, I will chose to look on the bright side, obviously the expectations for teachers were not high which meant this was certainly a job I could do. 
In the first class I observed, the teacher was busy teaching eight year olds the phrase, “I have…”  In a cup were several small laminated pictures.  The teacher would pick out one at random and hand it to a student who would have to identify what the picture was and then use it in a sentence, “I have cake.”  “I have chocolate.”  “I have milk.”  And around the room the teacher would go as each student got a turn.  When all the pictures had been used up, back into the cup they went and the activity started all over again, again and again, over and over for forty long minutes.  Half way through the kids had lost interest.  Some of them were going through the motion, others were staring at the wall and one kid was busy doing what appeared to be math homework. 
The second class I had the pleasure of watching was a group of six year olds who I must admit were rather adorable.  They were busy learning about prepositions.  The teacher picked up each kid and placed them in a different area of the room to sit.  He then pointed to each child and the class had to identify where their classmate was sitting.  “James is under the desk.”  “Robert is on the table.”  “Clair is in the closet.”  For the first ten minutes, the activity was entertaining and engaging, after a half hour I couldn’t wait to go home.  The kids felt the same way and by the end, they were so busy talking to each other in Korean, the teacher gave up trying to instruct them in English.
So I take that back, I did learn something very valuable that day, I learned that to be an effective teacher I needed not to be monotonous and that was a lesson I carried with me through years of teaching.  If you are incapable of being an entertainer, you’ll never be a spectacular teacher.  I have no attention span, kids have no attention span, so together we are a perfect match.  As I leap from task to task, children always seem to better keep up and follow along than adults.  For the rest of that week, Steve and I did nothing but observe classes and by Friday I was much more at ease.  Teaching in real life back in a public school at home might be a challenge I wasn’t up to but teaching in a Korea was certainly something I could handle.  I only wondered if the parents of my students, all students in the academy, really understood how grossly under qualified and unprepared we American teachers were.  Just because we had white faces and could speak like natives didn’t mean we’d adequately be able to teach English. But considering the volume of English speakers living throughout Korea, the reality of our ineptness either never crossed anyone’s mind or they didn’t care.  The bottom line for the businessmen running the academies was money; perhaps that is why within two years most of the Wonderlands had crashed. On the outside they looked great, but on the inside, how much learning was really taking place?