Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beneath Me


Usually it’s the roof at sunrise, my shoes at school, the beach sand afterward.

But recently, what’s beneath me is water. I talked myself into taking SCUBA lessons. I'm only doing this because it’s on the James Bond syllabus, inspired by a Swedish friend’s pursuit of such 007 skills.

On Sunday, just a foot below the surface—where air was, air—I wondered, did I really care to see what’s beneath me? I’m pretty sure I didn’t. At least not when I practiced letting the regulator drift behind me before reining it back. I like my air supply accessible when I open my mouth.

If I remembered birth, would the worry be reversed? "Oh, no, I’m leaving the water. I’ll have to breathe air!"

Are our lives a continual reversal of fears and inclinations? Once afraid of public speaking, now a teacher. Once inclined to cool climates, now living in the equatorial pacific. Once afraid of diving, now paying to learn.

Beneath me? I have no idea. It’s dark down there.

But that’s why I’m adding a few weights to my belt, cinching it in, and remembering not to hold my breath.
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Friday, October 31, 2008

All the Tea in China


The Great Wall, dumplings (steamed and boiled), tea balls that open to floral sculpture in boiling water, old women with mandarin collars smiling from centurian doorways, public toilets, tiny apples on skewers dipped in caramel, red lanterns, technicolor Mao, Tienanmen in the smog, toddlers swaddled in padded clothing, coal carts peddled down alleys, The Forbidden City, sound-barrier-breaking spitting, cobalt eaves, silk measured with an abacus,Peking duck with plum sauce.


The conference, titled: "The Interconnected World", was grand. Grander still, the city it was held in. Beijing was synesthesia: you could taste color, smell the sky, and touch the language.

I spent most of my free time in the little Hutongs, the alleys of the old city. Here, laundry hung on hangers in front of windows. Greens dried on door stoops. Donut makers set their vats of oil at intersections in the early morning chill.

A friend, who had spent Christmas there a couple of years ago, gave me the name of a tea shop I "had to visit." I was curious about finding a small alley in a warren of such places. I'd printed off a sheet of practical words with their Chinese characters: taxi, tea, beer, toilet. Somehow, with lots of smiles and nods, I found Alice's shop. The owner uses an English name for such foreigners as myself incapable of capturing the tones of the language (my "thank you" and "hello" sounded like "purple" and "fountain pen" for all I know). I spent hours with her and tiny cups of tea. And I returned again and again. She and her husband and only daughter live in the tiny hall behind her shop. I came back home with enough tea to keep our island's water purification plant in business indefinitely.

And then the Wall. My calves just stopped aching from that up-and-down, 10k hike along the spine of mountains. History and stone. Rise and fall. Time.

Back here on Saipan, I am getting ready to visit my Chinese tailor. She is tiny and sweet and speaks just a few words of English. We communicate well with sign language, but I probably won't be able to explain that the pant hem she'll fix was ripped in her homeland, a world--internconnect--away.
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Saturday, October 11, 2008



(An image of last year's honors class just before Christmas break)

First Week

Did you hear it? Neither I. The power’s out, so the school bell didn’t ring. Nevertheless, we’re in session. (And my battery-operated fan attached to a spray bottle has become my new best friend.)

The seniors’ first project of the year was to create coats of arms to decorate the cover of their journals. We had mottos: “Live hard and die,” “Be all you can be,” “Family and love.” We had symbolic charges: crossing palms, the island’s monolithic latte stones, 670s—Saipan’s area code used on island like a graffiti artist’s tag. We had supporters made of rosary beads and flame tree fronds.

As the students presented, I realized my face was aching from smiling all the time. It was so lovely to see them share themselves. I was loving it. I’m sure it helped that the power actually stayed on all day—a first that week. Still, I am surprised at this sneaking-up-on-me feeling that I do care about this.

My first year of teaching, caring was a matter of getting the basics done without burning out. An oh-my-gosh-I-need-to-make-480-copies-&-grade-second-period’s-quizzes-&-eat-lunch-in-50-minutes kind of way. This year, an odd thing is happening. I am starting to be overwhelmed by what I can only describe as profound caring for these students.

This summer, I took the art Praxis test in case I was able to teach art this year. Afterwards, I went to reward myself with brunch at my favorite café in Ashland, Oregon. It was a weekend morning, so the place was packed. There were only two seats left at the counter, and another woman and I found ourselves no longer strangers as we read sections of the menu aloud:

“Oatmeal pancakes with maple butter?”

“Oooh, blueberry streusel.”

“Or linguisa-spinach scramble . . . .”

Once we ordered (oh, those oatmeal pancakes) we started talking. I discovered she has been teaching various grade levels and subjects for almost twenty years. I asked what her greatest piece of advice was. She looked above the head of a chef in the kitchen and then back to me.

“Be nice.” She nodded. “If I can teach them to be nice, I’ve been successful.”

If I were to create a motto for my own journal, it wouldn’t be too different. “Be kind.” Caring then comes, free of charge.
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Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Duke of Kanat

We arrived to sounds of ukulele and sightings of big hair. Our friends had come to pick us up at the airport after attending a 70s-themed benefit. Ah, island arrivals with friends are the best.

They drove us up to our Kanat Tabla apartment. When we pulled into our parking lot, I saw my “new” car . . . propped up on cinder blocks, courtesy of our Chinese landlords who had spotted the flat tire.

I should mention I bought a very used car from my next-door colleague at the high school. Though Manny the Mechanic (who doesn’t advertise, instead shrugging “People with good karma, they find me”) said my car is the Lexus of Fords, I had my doubts after cataloguing the repairs: back brake light sloshing with water, passenger window duct-taped closed, stray cords snaking around the floor mats, a mysterious clanking sound in the front wheel, a very flat tire, radio . . . radio?

Still, Anna has a car! The Duke of Kanat. As in The Duke of Can Not Fall Any Further Apart. After a few days, dollars, and Manny’s stamp of approval, I hope not.

The Kanat part of the car’s name is our mountain (read: hillock). The Duke part was inspired by one of the car’s bumper stickers, which I was told is Japanese for crazy (clearly the state I was in when buying the car) and which, if pronounced correctly by someone else sounds like it has the word “duke” in it.

I’ve never been a fan of those stickers, both because they are a pain to remove and because a college friend once postulated that the number of bumper stickers on a car is inversely proportionate to the IQ of the car’s owner. Well. I now have sympathy for those who buy used cars with stickers that have welded to the paint after years of sun and salt.

Wecome home, me. I’d honk if my horn worked. (Yes, Dad, I’ll get it fixed pronto).

Saturday, August 23, 2008



"So what do you think about returning?" Friends ask.

I think about:

San Pedro and his chicken who stand watch in front of the tiny chapel next door to our apartment building.

The rotten melons possibly still rolling around a back refridgerator at one of the grocery stores.

The cotton candy sunsets.

The dogs that snarl when I walk down our hill.

Whether my suitcase will weigh too much with a few months' supply of chocolate in it.

How the beach sand is the perfect skin exfoliant.

The papaya at our usual fruit stand.

The new faces that will look up once the first bell of the new school year rings.

I say: "I'll miss it."

Maybe I mean here, home. Maybe, like I predicted when I arrived on Saipan last year, I miss it there, too. Like San Pedro (or the chicken?) I'm standing watch. I'll let you know what I see.
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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ya'hu the End of Year Countdown

Fifty-one days . . . .

Yesterday, the power went out during the last period (Something we can expect to happen frequently since the CUC, our island’s power company, doesn’t have enough money to get us through May). Driving away from school, Autumn and I headed for anywhere cold. I suggested a primal scream, and, windows down, we delivered one to the passing hyacinth at the top of our lungs. So good to allow the body to reverberate with soul noise. Especially when followed by five-dollar sushi in an air conditioned restaurant.

Forty-nine days . . .

In the bathrooms, hornets build nests on the hinges of the stall doors. Their homes look both like earthen cones of clay and vessels descended from the sky. As long as the inhabitants leave me alone while I open stall after stall hunting for toilet paper. For some reason the toilet paper is always used up by second period. Budget cuts.

Forty-one days . . .

Sorene says, “Oh, hell!” but with an island accent it sounds like “All Hail.” Macbeth resounds within our orange walls.

Fourth period, I still have some boys who wear their backpacks during class, afraid to set them down. Saipan is known as an island of stealers. When Magellan visited centuries ago, the locals stole his life boats. During a subsequent storm, he and his crew died because they could not escape from their ship. On lesser levels of theft, I’ve “lost” gum, a deck of cards, a set of speakers, a yoga mat, two tetra-pack cartons of milk, and lip balm from my desk. Some days, I lean my elbows on my table, which is lovely reddish hue unfortunately achieved by a termite-treatment spray I pretend is non-toxic, and sigh.

Teaching on Saipan, I am the student. All Hail the teachers—in which ever accent you choose.

Thirty-Seven days . . .

They say attitude is everything. Our art teacher’s license plate says “Yuck Foo.” I am trying to remember the literary term for such transpositions.

Attitude. Yesterday, after a particularly Mondayish Monday, Big Bird (Ben), Oscar the Grouch (Rebecca) and Snuffleupagus (Me) went straight home, exhausted. [Note: the names are all self-elected, Sesame-Street-inspired alter egos. After choosing them, we decided that we must also come up with more Matrix-meets-Manga versions of ourselves for our regular egos.]

My big night: watching the sun set. I sat on the roof and watched the sky for two and a half hours. A storm was breaking miles and miles beyond the reef. Spotlights of sunset broke through in the distance, illuminating the sea in a rosy glow. Beneath the miles-high rain clouds, the sea was battleship gray.

The panorama was so enormous, that I found myself swiveling my head right to left to take it all in. There, in an upper-story window of northern cloud, was a lozenge of ruby. There, to the South above Tinian was a sliding-glass door of blue sky lined with orangesicle. It was like watching the windows of a skyscraper as night fell. They lit up, storey by storey. Story by story.

I taught the word nebulous that day, a steel-gray, battleship day. I also taught Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” where he exhorts readers not to tie a poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it, but, among other things, to “walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch.”

It was one of those days that just took some time to find the light switch.

And then you reach the end and realize there was a ruby in it after all.

Thirty-five days . . .

Jolyn and Lloyd are practicing a dance for the talent show. They are probably my two best students. Jolyn has just received the Gates Scholarship en route to becoming Saipan’s first orthodontist, and Lloyd writes with a savvy and wit that I haven’t seen since grad school.

They are not a couple, but when a man and woman learn a dance together, it is hard to not think of them as one. The metaphor for relationships being dances has been used and abused. But there’s a reason.

A woman’s small, mechanical voice sings from Jolyn’s i-pod, “ . . . when I put my arms around you . . .” Lloyd explains, “this is where I hold you, this is where I let you go. This is when we come back together again.” Sounds like a Shakespearean comedy. Sounds like life.

Though I am the one sitting behind the desk with my armor of computer grading system, I feel like I am the one with an “incomplete” under an assignment I’ve forgotten.

This is where, in a made-for-high school, made-for-TV-movie, the tinny sound of the small i-pod speaker swells to full orchestral, digital surround. Where the camera spins up and around, giving everyone an eagle’s eye view of their lives.

This where I’m supposed to have one of those epiphanies about the Really Important Things.

We’ll see. I’ve got a stack of pre-progress reports to print off before lunch ends, and I just lost half the seeds of my red bell pepper in the keyboard of my laptop . . . .

Twenty-one days . . . .

My first prom. Wilbrent, in his white tux, offered me his arm when I entered the Royal Taga Hall at World Resort. I had told the kids I was going stag, albeit with my housemates. Third period had the highest number of escort offers. Wilbrent, with his poet’s soul, happened to be there when we got to the door. I just read his chapbook, and, in a poem lamenting a girl who loves someone else, he writes: “Her shadow is a perfect art.” Ah, they will grow up to be fine adults, these.

Nearer the ground on the teeter-totter of teaching, another student plagiarized two poems for his chapbook. One by Christina Rossetti. My dear Filipino basketball player doesn’t quite understand English grammar, let alone a pre-Raphaelite sensibility. I wish he had at least plagiarized someone with his own voice.

Yesterday, we had podiums with microphone and speaker systems delivered to our classrooms. Just in time to do poetry readings from the chapbooks. There was actually a line to the podium to read (maybe because I promised extra credit owing to the general failure to notice that the analysis of five literary terms in poetry presentations comprised the majority of the grade).

Kids brought in treats from the countries of the international poets they had presented on. Or at least they tried to. One student asked what kind of food they ate in Russia. I mentioned blinis and borscht and potatoes. “Oh, can I bring potato chips, then?” I won’t mention the diabetes rates on island.

Rae made a Korean dumpling called mandu. Jasmine, who works at Taco Bell and studied Octavio Paz, was going to bring in some grande burritos, but ran out of time and wore a t-shirt that said “ya’hu” taco bell. “I like” in Chamorro, pronounced “za-hoo.” Janyll, diligently trying to come up with something from Argentina, brought banana bread in the prom bag imprinted “Venez avec moi, Prom 2008” (which had been criminally misprounounced during the morning announcements the weeks leading up to the event). As much as I try to increase their knowledge of the world, I wonder: Paris in Saipan?

Back to Prom. The upper stage had a two-story Eiffel tower strung with lights that the kids could dance under. The Hall was filled with Cinderellas and tuxes. Hair was aerodynamic. Straight locks had been curled, and curls straightened. Formal gowns had been ordered off-island.

They loved it. They wanted to be transported to Paris. Maybe they even like being transported, via poetry, to Romania, Japan, Korea, Germany, the Czech Republic.

Ya’hu Saipan.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Zealand

North Island: Auckland

After an early Easter church service in a wooden cathedral, I spent the afternoon on a sailboat with a German couple, a Chinese family, a Venezuelan mama and her precocious teenager (shouldn't let him near ropes), and a quiet Japanese woman who lost her hat to the wind. Bluest skies, a few cotton-ball clouds, islands and beaches gliding by.

Not too shabby. But I must say, the best part of the day was when I went to Shakespeare and Company, the first brewery in the country and home to a praiseworthy King Lear Stout. I was just sitting down by the window when a guy came over. "You can't sit alone." "Is that so?" He laughed. "It's a law in New Zealand." And then entered the dozen other members of his cricket team who had all been out on a chartered fishing boat for six hours. The next six hours involved white roses twisted from napkins courtesy of Vo, commissioned poems for the handbag boys courtesy of me, and an a capella "Wonderwall" courtesy of the entire team, which led to karaoke around the corner.

I like kiwis. I made multiple scribbles in my notebook that night. One page has only one line followed by a colon. "The goals of the kiwi:"

South Island: Queenstown

Mountains! Veritable mountains worthy of exclamation points! Since it is the tail end of summer/early fall down under, the tops were naked of snow. The Remarkables, the mountain range that played The Misty mountains in the Tolkein-inspired films, looked like broken shards of cooking chocolate. I hiked a bit, ate a lot (green-lipped mussels, paua patties), and met amazing people. A Belgian street artist invited himself to my table with his own order of mussels and told me about a recent art fiasco in town. A local chef let me sample his handmade ice cream in the kitchen. While waiting for the same bus, an elderly British gentleman showed me the kitty postcard he’d had signed by a vet in historic Arrowtown where a series called Remarkable Vets had been filmed. A Canadian river guide took me out for a night on the town (which served to remind me that the only things that change about nights on the town are the towns).

There’s more (soaring cliffs rising from fjords created by the Tasman sea, mirror lakes, long teas on lakes). But it’s getting late and tomorrow’s Monday. Back in the saddle.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Island Child

A student asks, “Have you been tall ever since, Miss?”
He stands next to me, black hair level with my shoulder.
Another climbs onto his desk, “Even me, Miss. I’m tall.”
Laughter from the shy students near the wall, the ones
who hold hands over their mouths to speak.

I too always found a wall. Now I live in the middle
of a deep ocean and talk all day long.

We read one of Donne’s Meditations—

No man is an . . . .

Even me.
Ever since.

How to live here

Walk home from work for The First Time. This is big. It’s a small island with roads of coral that go slick in rain. Drunk drivers are everywhere, sidewalks aren’t. When you walk on the white line (no shoulder), face the traffic, just in case.

Men will honk. Women will stop and ask, brows wrinkling, “Do you need a ride?”

And then the dogs. The many, many dogs. Descended from dingos. Lean and mean. When you walk down to the coffee shop from your house, pick up four coral stones in case you need to throw them.

To ignore the traffic, pick a plumeria and spin its stem until it the petals blur.

When you pass a house and five dogs bound out from behind it, freeze. Remember what you’re holding. Flower in one hand. Stones in the other.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Voggy Valentine

Vog = smog + fog - a few letters and + one. Easier: volcanic air polution.

A volcano north of us (the tippy-toppiest one of the Marianas that starts with an "A," is errupting. Yesterday, the air smelled sulphuric.

Today is Valentine's Day. On the mainland, it's still the thirteenth, so you probably aren't in a sugar coma yet. My Aunt Sharon sent me an entire package of V-Day decorations and candy, cushioned by a gallons-worth of foam heart stickers, of which I have one remaining: on my face. School parties are a bit tiring. There's the prep, like blowing up balloons. And I hope it's the vog that made that so difficult and not a seriously diminished lung capacity, because I had to sit down halfway through my first and last balloon. (Thank you, first period, for coming to my aid).

This is, perhaps, the first Valentine's that I have felt giddy with love for everybody. Candygrams came flooding into various students all the day long, everyone was in high spirits. All of my classes signed a pink banner that last period carried to the office to hang on the bulletin board. Three of the boys asked if they could bring their ukelelis to play for the principle. Sure. We arrived to the office, and the principle, who was having a late lunch with his wife, suggested we find the vice principle near the library . . . who was entertaining a member of the Board of Education.


Miss Elkins (now wondering if this were a wise idea) and her troop crossed campus and found our audience.

It turned out to be magical. We all stood in a circle, and listened to a song about what the speaker would do for his lover if he had all the money in the world. But the refrain was nothing that money could buy.

As we walked back across the field, I looked back to the students singing as they came and found that it was quite easy to breathe. In fact, I think I could have tackled that balloon with ease.

Love you all.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The main themes

Third period, Giqo asked if I would help him write a poem about eczema.

“Let me guess, it has to rhyme, and it’s for your fourth period health class?” He snapped his fingers with a smile, found out.

Another student in second period had asked me to look at her poem . . . at least she had already written it. Lot’s of suffering and isolation—I can’t even remember what disease she had written about, just that the speaker was on the verge of death and no one appreciated him. I forget how much high schoolers love drama. For the poetry slam in November, the winner did a teary performance about someone wishing she could come back from the grave after dying in a drunk-driving accident. Ah, if only such steep tragedy had half as much literary quality as it does exclamation points.

At lunch, I walked across the “Sahara,” the rambling grass field between my building and the library, to Ben’s ceramic studio. I passed students eating beneath the trees where I took my fourth period to read Beowulf the last time the power went. They sit in clusters, some wishing they were in other clusters, some all alone together, some all alone. Any high school anywhere.

I was carrying a manila folder with things for the librarian to laminate, things that are a lovely cross-section of what I get teach. The thirty-one rules of courtly love (for an AP exercise in which each student took a rule and wrote a scenario, Cyrano-de-Bergerac-style, in which it would apply), a page from Vogue showing a slew of runway fashions inspired by medieval armor (for The Canterbury Tales), and three of the best flyers last semester’s students designed for their performances of Macbeth.

When I arrived at the studio, Ben and P.E. teacher Glen were watching a muted basketball tournament alternatively with the presidential debates. Glen discovered a lady who makes Thai soup for three dollars. You pick it up in knotted bags: one with the noodles, one with the broth and greens. Two smaller bags tied come together: one with vinegar seasoning and the other with salted chilis.

As I walked back to my room beneath the covered walkways—it had started raining—I passed the senior boys singing island songs to ukulele. They sing beautifully, and I always stop to listen. I don’t have to understand Chamorro to know that they are singing of the same things we study in literature, the same things they like to write and read poems about. Life, love, loss.

Such is every day. Such is a Friday at Saipan Southern High School.

Anna, athletic?

On Martin Luther King weekend, islanders could be seen driving by a baseball field to see grown men in pink tutu’s limping in flippers to hit a volleyball they couldn’t see through their goggles.

Context. That weekend, I took the ferry to Tinian to join twenty other contestants in a volleyball championship. Which, me being me, is funny enough. Funnier: it is the Rudy Rudiger Volleyball Championship.

Now there’s the difference. At the opening of every game, one player from each team had to run up to the net and chug a beer. Whoever finished first could chose court side or first serve. If the other team served a ball and it touched the ground in bounds, your team had to chug a beer in thirty seconds, or . . . (I was never sure about the “or”, thankfully, my two teammates were both seasoned beer-bongers in their forties, and they always managed to come in well under twenty seconds. Bravo, boys).

And it’s a game in which the better you are, the worse you get. Example: if you make two good serves in a row, you might have to wear a flipper on your hand, serve from your knees, or don a pair of snorkel goggles with the left eye magic-markered black. If you spike that ball, you might get tied at the waist by a ten-foot rope to your team mate. If you argue the score with the ref (likely a team member you just beat in the last game), you get to wear a sumo-wrestler’s wig or a green princess dress. Even I did well enough to don many of the assorted handicaps at one time or another.

Surprisingly, none of the locals were interested in joining the tournament. They preferred to watch a field of expatriates, gowns and wigs blowing in the trade winds of January, downing beer and devouring cheddar Pringles for sustenance. And I thought I’d have a relaxing weekend with lots of time reading on the beach.

My weekend warrior-edness continued. Last Saturday, Rebecca, fellow English teacher Autumn, and I went sea kayaking from Autumn’s house down to Sugar Dock where we all often swim after work. You could spot me a mile off in hat and sunshirt, as ever. It was a crystalline day and the lagoon felt more like open ocean, with swells you could glide to shore on.

And tonight, it looks like I’ll be doing my first hash run with the Saipan Hash House Harriers. This sort of hash is not to be confused with a condensed form of a certain weed but is rather a creation of frat-boy track runners once upon a college. The island version involves a someone called a “hare” who hacks a trail through the jungle that the harriers run through . . . .

My default being inertia, I was about to say I'd rather be on that beach with a book. But although I won't be seen jumping from an airplane any time soon, adventure is beginning to get to me.