Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Top Albums of 2012

I kind of want to call this The 3rd Annual Thought Porridge Awards, but nothing is actually awarded.

Is it December already?  It must be, because the internet is filling up once more with all sorts of Best of 2012 lists.  Loyal readers of this blog will already be familiar with TP’s stance when it comes to ranking art.  For newcomers: In short, I think that presenting one’s opinion as fact is the height of presumption and precisely the sort of behavior that causes true artists to hold the media and the masses in contempt. 

With that in mind, it bears repeating that this list does not claim any of these albums to be the best of anything.  This list is subjective.  It contains my favorite albums that I discovered, or first paid real attention to, in 2012.  The albums themselves could have been produced in any year, but they must be more or less “new” to me.

Lastly, if you find you really enjoy this, let me make a plug for my 2011 and 2010 lists.


The list is in alphabetical order by band, not in order of my favorites.  Neurotic readers will note that this was bad year for the second half of the alphabet.


1.  Beach House – Bloom (2012)

Last year I wrote that the band Exitmusic was a bit like Beach House, but way better.  Evidently, Beach House read my blog and decided to serve me up a plate of crow.  All their previous stuff has been melodic and sometimes very pretty, but glum and soporific.  Not so with this album.  The first track, “Myth”, is among my top five favorite tracks of the year.  It seems like found themselves a good producer or got into a good studio, because they’ve finally turned up the volume on the drums and the bass.  They injected enough pop into the music to make it listenable, and the product is a really satisfying album.

I mean, I assume the album is satisfying…I’ll tell you when I stop listening to the first track on repeat.  Just kidding.  Maybe.  But, no, really, the album’s good.  Except for in the last track, which is 16 minutes and really just two songs separated by 7 minutes of silence.  Musicians across the world, could you please, please stop having long-ass gaps of total silence in your songs?  There’s nothing artsy about it, it’s just irritating. 

2.  Bear in Heaven – Beast Rest Forth Mouth (2009)

Between Grizzly Bear and Minus the Bear and Bear in Heaven, my musical life is starting to get furry.  This is a band I’d never heard of until I visited the US.  I was driving around in South Florida with Craig in his car.  Most of you don’t know Craig, but you should know that over the last six years his car has been a place of many wonderful musical discoveries for me.  Craig used to be a CD purist, paying top dollar for high quality sound, but these days he’s abandoned his principles and often enjoys the tunes on his iPod through a shabby little cable that hooks into the tape deck in his car.  Combined with age and electronic infirmity, that has set back the formerly rich sound quality.  Sadly, that’s the first way I heard this album, so naturally I didn’t appreciate it the first time around.  Nonetheless, I downloaded it later and listened to it through high quality headphones, and I found it fascinating.  Like so many albums that I love, the songs really flow well into one another, which provides cohesiveness.  They’ve definitely got a kickass drummer (not something I often notice).

It’s one of those albums where you don’t know what you think of it as a whole the first few times, but you get attached to a couple songs.  Then, as you keep listening, different songs start appealing to you, and sounds and riffs that you didn’t care for at first begin to please the ear.  And some things get to you right away: the buildup and chorus in “Ultimate Satisfaction” and that bass/guitar/keyboard sound that could only be described as towering (though “epic” might work) halfway into “Deafening Love”. 

3.  Bear in Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool (2012)

What?  Two albums by the same artist on the same list?  It’s not unprecedented!  In 2010, Pink Floyd and Johnny Cash both got two albums on the list.  I heard Beast Rest Forth Mouth first, but the newer I Love You, It’s Cool might be the one I prefer.   Like BRFM, it’s got these very non-traditional melodies and song structures, odd assortments of sounds that need some getting used to.  One big difference is that, while BRFM featured songs that felt like they fit within more traditional indie rock instrumentation, the songs in ILYIC are thick with spacey, keyboard-driven sounds.  Heavy reverb on the vocals and distant-sounding drums give the album a much more atmospheric feel.  It sounds both newer and older; ’80s-ish,  but in a good way. 

Both of these Bear in Heaven albums are ones that I could find annoying in the wrong mood, but incredibly satisfying when I’ve got a craving.  They’re highly cohesive and weird enough that you wouldn’t really just listen to them in the background or put them on casually for your friends.  They need some attention and flexibility.  Without meaning to put them on par with Radiohead, but it’s a little similar to the way I feel about Kid A/Amnesiac: In the right mood, it’s amazing.  In the wrong mood, I just don’t have the patience.

4.  Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be? (2009)

This album kind of sneaks onto the list, not because I fell in love with it, but because it’s served pretty well over the last year.  It’s almost breaking my own rule to put it here, because I first heard it two years ago and it’s not like I hadn’t already heard it.  But for some reason, starting back when I was in a major funk in January, I began listening to What Will We Be more often.  When you’re feeling a bit melancholy, what song might start you feeling better than one called “Can’t Help But Smiling”?  That’s the opening track.  Throughout the year I’d put this one on and let my mind wander.  One strange thing is that there aren’t any truly great, life-changing tracks, but there are a bunch that you’ll find yourself humming for days after listening to the album (“Angelika”, “Baby”).  Devendra, being the playful weirdo that he is, can deliver his funny little lyrics in a way that just makes me chuckle. 

Reflecting his nature as a musician, the album has all sorts of tracks.  You get emotional stuff  (“First Song for B”), garage-rock jams (“Rats”), psychedelic folk (“Meet Me at Lookout Point”), rock that sounds like a road movie ones (“Goin’ Back), and a smattering of all the other critters running around in his brain.  I hope for the world’s sake that someday he puts together a concentrated, cohesive album.  What he could do if he focused all that talent…it’d be something to behold.

5.  Empire of the Sun – Walking on a Dream (2008)

I confess: This is my guilty pleasure of 2012.  I’m a couple years late to this party, I know.  The Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia like to swap playlists as a way to get to know each other, and I found songs by Empire of the Sun on several different playlists.  “Walking on a Dream”, “We Are the People”, and “Country” are just so flippin’ catchy.  When I listened to the whole album, I had a whole-soul eye-roll at myself.  I couldn’t deny that I found it super catchy and listenable, but it also felt decadent and overwrought.  I mean, look at that album cover.  Siegfried & Roy go to some alien planet, where there are tigers, elephants, futuristic cities, Chinese junk ships, deserts, active volcanoes, space stations, and what appears to be a palantír from Middle Earth.  And white Mickey Mouse gloves (!).

Uncomfortably similar, no?
But I’m not hating.  That way over-the-top sulky singing voice, the Aussie falsetto, the simple strumming timed exactly with the backbeat…many songs on the album just make me want to keep hearing them, which I think is the definition of catchy.  I have no idea if the lyrics mean anything.  I’ve never been able to figure if the songs are actually about something.  I’m too distracted by all the shiny sounds.  For me, listening to the elicits the same reaction as looking at the cover art: Are these guys serious?  Well, actually, I kind of like it…


6.  Exitmusic – Passage (2012)

The first sounds you hear on this album are two piano chords and a crunching sound (presumably a guitar being plugged into its amplifier).  That crunching sound echoes several times, and that tells you a lot about what this album sounds like.  Most of the album swims through echo and reverb.  It’s as thick as honey, if not so sweet.  I guess the opposite of this thick sound would be a “crisp” sound.  Anyway, I’m not complaining.  Though I don’t love this album to the degree that I loved the EP that preceded it (which was on last year’s list), it does have a greater range of sounds and emotions.  The way that Aleksa Palladino sings is pretty interesting.  She howls and yowls and growls, sometimes she’s breathy and sometimes full-throated.

The album creates moods like giant banks of stormclouds, rolling and thundering off in the distance, evoking deep greys and blacks and bolts of white and purple lightning.  Listening to the album is like watching that massive storm arrive.  There is a dark vastness to the sound, but whether you feel that the vastness is pregnant or empty depends on your mood.

7.  How to Destroy Angels – How to Destroy Angels EP (2010)

An odd chain of connections led me to listen to this band.  I was a fan of the soundtrack of The Social Network by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.  Then I saw the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was awesome.  The soundtrack to that film was really reminiscent of The Social Network, and I saw that it was indeed done by the same dudes.  So I got the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is almost 3 hours long, and only two songs have vocals.  The final song (“Is Your Love Strong Enough?”) was performed by Trent Reznor’s other project, called How to Destroy Angels.  And it so happened that I got addicted to that song and had to get my hands on other work by How to Destroy Angels.  I’ve never really listened to Nine Inch Nails, but I’ve always sort of liked that industrial sound.  HtDA is what people call “post-industrial”.  It seems I get easily into anything that’s “post”.  So, long story long, I got this EP.

What can I say?  It’s not the greatest music of all time, but I really like it.  HtDA is good brooding and background music for writing, rather like the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The EP is heavy and melodic, even poppy in some places. The songs are extremely clean and precise, in the same way that albums by the Strokes are super precise. .  For me, albums like this are a counterweight to albums like those by Bear in Heaven, which are more challenging and can bring out a wide range of reactions.  How to Destroy Angels doesn’t challenge as much, which makes it pleasant, if that’s a word one can use to describe any music by Trent Reznor.

8.  Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters (2012)

Hundred Waters is a band from Gainesville, Florida, which, in addition to their music, practically makes us automatic best friends.  I’d never heard of them until a bunch of people I went to college with started linking to their website, where you could stream the entire album for free and even read all the lyrics.  The first song that drew me in was “Caverns”, with its tinkling and sparkling and splashing and echoes, and how Nicole Miglis, the singer, somehow whispersings the first few lines to make it sound like she’s right there, and you are too, in an immense, glittering cavern.  After hearing it for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Sometime before visiting the United States in August,  I got hold of this album, which I found engrossing.  These are some serious musicians.  I saw a video of Nicole Miglis playing a recital of a rousing ballade by Chopin at the University of Florida and spent the next hour telling anyone who’d listen that I was just going to have to quit Peace Corps and marry the girl before someone else did.

The album, especially in the first half, is like a wonderful canvas painted in a million colors.  The songs all have different structures and often end up in completely different places than they started.  Really, I don’t have the words to capture everything I like about it.  It reminds me of Björk, in the way that she’s so nonstandard.  Nothing about this album feels regular or normal; it just feels fresh and honest and bold—and often rather wacky.  Not every moment is good, and there are a couple moments where the songs get a little carried away.  Still, the songs flow well into one another, and I’m excited because it feels like their best work is ahead of them.  Some of my strongest associations with this album are with first getting back to the US, reading the book Kafka on the Shore, and having people look at me like a crazy person for suggesting that I would leave Indonesia to marry a girl I’d never met.

9.  Idan Raichel – The Idan Raichel Project (2006)

Like What Will We Be, this album also kind of sneaks onto the list through the back door.  I might be violating my own rules by putting it on the list, seeing as I’ve had this album for close to four years already, but I’ve only recently started appreciating it as a whole.  I suppose it was for the same reasons.  Some songs on this album just have the power to bring me gently out of a down mood.  Listening to those songs got me listening to album in its entirety more often, and my appreciation grew.

Some people call this world music, but that’s a lame and rather flimsy term.  Idan Raichel is an Israeli musician.  I first heard of him through my friend Leo.  The songs on this album are in Hebrew and Amharic, and there’s just a huge range of moods and styles.  It’s clear that a lot of different musicians worked on this.  I love how different it is to much of the music I listen to.  I love the melodies that you wouldn’t hear in purely Western music.  And I like that I can’t understand the lyrics.  When you don’t know the meaning of the words, you’re free to focus more on the music and on the way a language actually sounds.  Half of poetry is about the way words sound rather than what they mean, and it’s much easier to concentrate on that forgotten side of lyricism when interpreting meanings is impossible.  Particular favorites from this album include “Bo’ee”, “Mi Maamakim”, and “Ulai Ha Pa am”.


More Thoughts

So that’s my list.  Truth be told, this was not a strong year for new music in my life.  There are only nine albums on the list because I just wouldn’t have felt right squeezing any others there.  There were plenty of albums and bands that I heard for the first time and quite liked, but overall I find this list weaker than the last two years.  I heard a lot of pretty good albums this year, but I don’t think I would call any of them truly great.  Nothing blew me away like The Age of Adz or The People’s Key or Homogenic or The Flying Club Cup or ( ). 

Is this a function of getting older?  I wonder if, as you age, it becomes harder and harder for new music to get deep down into your soul.  Maybe that’s not the case, and I surely hope it isn’t.  This could just have been a fluke of a year.  It also doesn't help that I listened to practically no new music all the way through July.  I had a long drought, whereas in 2010 and 2011 I was consistently listening to new stuff.  Maybe this is all to be expected.


Honorable Mentions & Random Stuff

·       The XX – xx (2009)
o   Interesting stuff, very catchy.  The only thing is it's a bit hard for me to connect deeply to the lyrics, at least at this point in my life. 

·      Grizzly Bear – Shields (2012)
o   Some really good stuff on this album.  It was next in line to make the real list, but I didn’t give it enough listens.  The songs are a bit more energetic than previous Grizzly Bear stuff, which I like.  And “Gun Shy” is insanely addictive.

·      Incubus made a comeback on my radar, thanks to Melanie (who, incidentally, has made her own Top Albums list for 2012, so check it out).  Takes me way back to high school.  Also got a lot of individual tracks from her that gave me something to think about.  Does admitting that I really enjoy Ryan Adams’s version of “Wonderwall” and John Mayer’s “Free Fallin’” mess with my indie cred?
·      The song “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes almost deserves its own place on the list.  That song was crucial for me in the early parts of this year.

·      James Blake went up a couple notches in my estimation, as I found myself some evenings actually craving songs other than “The Wilhelm Scream”.

·      The song “To Build a Home” by the Cinematic Orchestra was a three-day obsession.  I love that kind of piano.

·      The compilation album “Dark Was the Night” has some really, really great stuff on it.  Any person looking for a good variety of indie music should check it out.

·      The songs “Spread” and “Roses” by OutKast from the album The Love Below.  I’m many years behind everyone else on this, but I swear, those songs were new to me and I could not stop laughing anytime I heard them.

·      “When I’m Small” by Phantogram.

·      Probably no song puts me in a better mood than “We’re From Barcelona” by the band…wait for it…I’m From Barcelona.  Note: They are Swedish.

·      Gave a lot of attention to Eminem’s Recovery, renewed my appreciation for the amount of technical skill that guy has.  It’s seriously absurd.

·      It wasn’t eligible to make it onto the list because I’ve already listened to plenty, but Jose Gonzalez’s In Our Nature has been getting a lot of love from me recently.  That’s a really damn good album.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How are you?

When people ask me how I'm doing—I mean actually ask, not out of politeness—I think they must see the perplexity on my face and fill the initial lack of a response with their own conjecture.  I usually have no answer ready. After that it’s an uphill battle to convince them that I’m not actually doing badly, and I’m probably doing well, even.  But the reality is I’m not sure exactly how I’m doing right now.  Somehow ever since getting back from the USA in late August, it hasn’t been quite clear to me. 

There was a long stretch where I think I was, for the first time, battling boredom and isolation.  Boredom because this is my second year, and everything is more familiar.  School is easier, and though there are some unique second-year challenges, it does not take up the same share of my attention as it did this time last year.  Isolation because there was a six-week stretch during which I only spent two nights outside of my village.  I was left with a lot of time to myself, and most of my spare mental energy was devoted to considerations and preparations for life after Peace Corps (which, in turn, only increased the detachment I felt from my physical environment). 

I’m applying to six graduate schools for programs in International Affairs/Public Affairs/Public Policy.  My applications are mostly finished, and I will submit them in the next six weeks or so.  I should hear back from the schools in mid-March, and I think that should be about the time I decide what to do with myself after these 27 months have passed.  A third year in Indonesia remains an option.  A lot depends on finances and where I see the best opportunity for myself.  I’m not worried about it now, and I find that since I’ve paused working on graduate applications, I’ve felt better about life.  I have been in more contact with other Volunteers, which always lifts my spirits, and I mustered the discipline to take care of a few things at school that had been nagging at me. 


One strange thing I’ve noticed since returning from the US: I don't miss it at all anymore.  I wasn’t homesick before going, but from time to time I would find myself longing for something specific to the US—or more precisely, something specifically not available to me in Indonesia.  Physical comforts, foods, entertainments, activities.  That longing has disappeared to a degree I would scarcely have believed possible.  Lately, nothing in me has been reaching back across the ocean, and it feels like my sense of home has been uprooted. 

The other day I was trying to think of where I would feel most at home, and the image that came to my mind was looking out over the smooth sea in Sulawesi with DP and John and Elle and Nicole.  The friends I have here…well, any accurate characterization of my fondness for them would sound preposterously exaggerated.  For me, it seems the idea of home in any given place only achieves resonance when people are added to the picture.  Very few people still live in the places in Florida that I used to call home.


Growing up, I’m realizing more and more that being an adult often means living far away from the people you really care about.  At least in my generation and demographic.  It’s easy enough to see why: everyone is pursuing their own best interest, and now that the world is massive web of niches and opportunities, it’s both natural and highly probable to end up separated from your close friends. But it makes me stop to think about my priorities.  The two things that make me happiest are being utterly engrossed in a project and being in a cocoon of love and friendship.  I need to be wary not to lose sight of that and strive to keep them in balance.

I have read that people’s happiness as they age is a U-curve.  They are happy as children and young adults and become steadily unhappier until their forties, after which they seem to figure things out and they get happier as they grow old.  Well, I don’t want to be 40 before I figure out that I’ve arranged my life in a way that makes me unhappy.


Less than seven months remain in this commitment.  Close to three-quarters through.  It is interesting to see how the pace of blogging has slowed to a crawl among my cohort.  No one, including me, feels like sharing all that much.  I write infrequently because I don’t really know what to say anymore.  I no longer need to write to process my environment.  And I have little motivation to try to make people understand what I’m living.  No one in the USA or Europe who reads this is going to absorb the details or get a true notion of my life and work here, unless they talk to me regularly and at length.  And, of course, why should they be all that interested?  I’m not asking everyone the gritty details about their lives and jobs.  Ha, speaking truly, the person outside of Indonesia who I feel has the clearest and deepest understanding of my life here is my mother.  She asks good questions.

But that does explain why these Peace Corps friendships are so precious.  I feel it more and more—as long as I live, these friends I’ve made over the sea will never be replaceable.  No one will ever get it like they do.  It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the way friendships form here.  It was something I looked forward to before joining Peace Corps and something I could not truly anticipate before getting here.  I am so grateful.

Home (?)

Monday, September 10, 2012

life as a whirlwind

Long time no blog.

Two months or so?  Yes, a long time…

1. There was Ramadan

I didn’t fast this time around.  I mean, I didn't eat or drink in the open at all, but on most days I noshed a bit in my room in the early afternoon.  There were actually several days on which I did fast fully and completely, but more because I just wouldn’t go out of my way to procure food (seeing as there was no food or water readily available).  I also managed to be productive during Ramadan, laying all the groundwork for Speaking Club, teaching certain fundamentals in my classes, and setting up/carrying out an MGMP workshop-y thing for the six schools in my area that have Peace Corps Volunteers.

Anyway, Ramadan was a much more pleasant experience for me this time around.  It was fine last year, but I was feeling the combined stresses of strict fasting, an unsettled school schedule, and in the inability to go anywhere.  This year I was way more active.

Of course, last year my Ramadan was a full month, whereas this year it only lasted two weeks for me.  That’s because…

2.  I went to the USA

What a trip.  I left right in the middle of Ramadan, planning to miss the second half of fasting and the holiday craziness surrounding Idul Fitri.  I feel a bit guilty for saying it, but there’s no love lost between me and the holiday season here.  Last year I didn’t get more than 15 minutes of sleep on the night before Idul Fitri because of the excruciating 12-hour takbiran marathon in the mosque next to my house.  I felt nothing but anger then, and did not even participate in the social asking-of-forgiveness activities.  This time, I was happy to be gone and avoid the whole horrid experience.

Just getting to America was its own adventure.  Everything started out as smooth as could be.  It was late at night when I flew from Surabaya to Jakarta.  The flight was on time, not crowded, quite pleasant.  As I was checking for my flight from Jakarta to Dubai, a problem surfaced: My passport had no visa in it.  The flight attendant checked me in, but told me to go to the immigration people and have them check my passport.  In case of any problems I was to return to the counter right away.  To make a long story short, I had brought the wrong passport.  I have one that’s specially issued by Peace Corps, in addition to my personal passport.  I had taken my personal passport, which does not have the correct visa.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave without the PC passport.

After a very stressful night of phone calls with the USA, coordination with people back at site, and discussion with airline/airport representatives, we were able to settle things without too much lost time and money.  At my expense, my counterpart, Ms. Ani, went to my house, grabbed the correct passport, took the bus to Surabaya, and got on a plane to Jakarta, where she delivered the passport to me in person.  A few hours later she got back on a plane and went home.  Now that’s friendship.  Luckily, it was Sunday, so she had time on her hands.  It was also her first time riding an airplane.  From the airline side of things, at first it seemed like this was going to cost a ton of money to fix, but Expedia was able to rebook me on all the same flights the next day without too great of a fee.  That had been a huge concern, because the airline had told me that one of the legs of my journey (Dubai-New York) was fully booked for the next two weeks.  I guess Expedia’s got a little weight they can throw around. 

All this meant that I had to spend a full 24 hours in Jakarta’s airport.  At some point in the middle of the night, I was searching for a functioning power outlet to charge my cell phone.  One man saw what I was doing and offered to show me where I could find one.  Later, he showed me a spot where I could sleep.  We got a couple pieces of cardboard and tried to sleep on the tile in this sort of unfinished shack thing in the airport.  I was curled up in my sarong .  It was super cute, especially when the dude, who was sleeping not more than two feet away from me, farted really loudly in my direction.  When I got up in the mid-morning, I had a terrible pain in my back and I’d caught a cold.  I passed most of the day in a café on the internet and hanging out with Ms. Ani when she arrived with my passport. 

In the evening, when I went through immigration for the second time, my heart was pounding, but I made it through without incident.  Thus commenced another day and a half of travel.  An eight-hour flight to Dubai, four-hour layover, fourteen-hour flight to New York, couple hours layover, three-hour flight to Ft. Lauderdale,  and a mercifully short trip from the airport to my house in Boca.  My eyes were bloodshot and stinging something terrible.  My older brother and dad were there to meet me at the airport, and my younger brother had stayed at the house to prepare dinner.  Welcome back, have a steak.


Being in the States was an interesting experience.  I felt really busy most of the time.  People there, and here in Indonesia, were curious about how it felt to be back in the States.  The most surprising thing was how not-foreign it was.  I mean, yeah, there were plenty of little things that caught my attention, and I was frequently thinking about how different the US and Indo are, but I wasn't in anything resembling shock.  There was some strangeness, though.  It was strange not to have to struggle.  It was strange that all the skills I’ve learned over the last year and a half were not at all relevant to everyday survival in the US.  Speak Indonesian?  Who cares.  Know all about life across the world?  Who cares.  There’s nothing satisfying in talking about your work if the person opposite you has no framework or background to appreciate what you say.  I guess that’s just as well, because I didn’t really feel like talking about my work all that much.  There’s just too much to describe, and mostly people don’t give much of a shit.  Which is all fine, I guess.  But it is a changeup from being completely immersed in this Peace Corps environment, where all your friends are going through the same thing and want to talk and hear about what you do, and have the capacity to really get it.

It was a bit strange being reminded about certain things in America.  People are whinier and more selfish.  There’s also a degree of obliviousness running through a lot of people.  I had forgotten what it’s like to having to deal with that, and I did my best not to let it stress me out.

Anyway, I spent most of my time with other people and very little by myself.  The time that I was alone was largely dedicated to studying for the GRE, which I took a couple days before the end of my trip.  One impression I left with was that whatever I do after Peace Corps needs to be arranged well in advance.  There is just no way I’m going back to America without a plan already in motion for what’s coming next.

The trip was very good, and it was the right thing to do, but leaving the USA I felt exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally.  I hadn’t had any time to be alone and process the experiences.  It says a lot that I was actually looking forward to the 40-hour trip back to my site so I could spend time alone to think and write and understand what was going on.

3. School has started for real again + the difference between 1st and 2nd year

After getting back, I didn’t really have any time to rest.  School started two days after I arrived.  Finally, all the craziness is behind, and the next couple months will be solid, relatively uninterrupted time for teaching and learning.  I’ve been back at it for two weeks.  In most ways it’s going really great.  In all aspects, teaching is much easier this year.  Planning is easier, because my CPs and I spent so many hours creating materials last year.  Teaching is easier because I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, and there is no intimidation factor.  Last year, most classroom systems and policies (participation, grading, regular quizzes, individual conversations) were implemented haphazardly, as the ideas came to us.  This year we’ve been able to do it all at once, from the beginning, so everything feels far more structured.

My counterparts are taking a much larger leadership role than they did before, especially Ms. Ani.  I would like to see slightly more initiative from them, but the dependability factor, and their comfort in taking on the work that our collaboration entails, has multiplied several times.  That last statement is about to get a huge test.  Last year our Speaking Club topped out at 35 students (7 groups).  It was relatively easy to coordinate, because it grew organically as student interest grew over the course of a semester.  It was also easy because almost all the members were students that I taught personally.  This year is different.  Speaking Club is the English club.  We promoted it and had a pre-registration and real registration.  We tried to scare the kids by telling them how strict the rules are.  In the three days after we opened up the registration, 25 groups signed up (two of which are being kept on a waiting list, because we do not have the manpower to accommodate that many groups).  Yeah, 125 students.  The only way to service that many groups is with a solid commitment from all the English teachers and a group of student-volunteers.  All seven English teachers will be involved, as are eight 12th graders.  Even with fifteen people helping to facilitate, we’re going to be pushing it.  If we pull it off and hold it together, it’ll be the biggest contribution I’ve made to this school, and my proudest accomplishment as a PCV.  Yet the feeling this year is completely different.  It’s less personal.  I really want the club to work, but I have less control over it than I did last year.  I suppose that’s what sustainability is about.  It ain’t my baby anymore.  I want to have time for other activities, too, like basketball.

4.  Futurism

If there’s one thing I’ve carried back with me from the USA, it’s the sense that I need to be prepared for the future.  Something about being there popped the Peace Corps bubble that I’ve been living in the last year and a half.  I’ve only got nine months left as a PCV, unless I choose to extend, and I’ve got to know what’s next.  Do I tack another year onto my service?  Do I try to take advantage of non-competitive eligibility to land myself a federal job?  Do I try to find work in Asia?  Do I bust down the gates to grad school and get myself a master’s degree?

In reality, I’m pursuing multiple options right now.  I want to choose between concrete, not abstract, options.  I’ll apply to grad schools and look for jobs and see what kind of work I could do as a 3rd-year PCV.  When all these futures have a shape and color I’ll make my choice.  Still, it’s hard to devote an equal amount of time to the pursuit of all these paths, and harder still to do it while maintaining a sense of presence in and connection with my work as a PCV.  Figuring this out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

More Stuff, This Time from June/July

Sulawesi Getaway

It might be more accurate to say that I took a vacation near Sulawesi.  Four other PCVs and I spent nine days on and near Sulawesi, mostly on the little island of Bunaken.  This was a good vacation.  Much better than the one I took to Bali and Lombok.  I wanted something calm-peaceful-serene.  Bunaken was the right place for that. But if you’re happy playing tourist…forget I said anything.  Bunaken sucks, go to Bali instead.

I don’t really like writing about “what I did” on vacations (or reading about what others did), but one minor highlight was Nicole accepting a challenge to put two large spoonfuls of cumi-cumi (squid) in her mouth and trying to chew/swallow it all at once.  The cumi-cumi was served in a black ink sauce, which made it look rather like a pen had exploded in her mouth.  To her credit, she got it all down after a couple minutes of working on it and claimed a free beer as reward.  

The peace and quiet afforded me a lot of time to think some things over, which I needed.  I finally finished filling up my first-ever paper journal, close to two years after starting it.  Good decompression.

The part of Sulawesi we visited is majority Christian, which was very interesting.  I’d never been to a Christian part of the country before.  There are just as many churches in Manado as there mosques in Jombang.  It was a little bit trippy.  It gave me the impression that the people there are equally religious and equally eager to express that religiosity, but they just do it in a different way.  It was totally different, and completely the same, if that makes sense.  It was also nice not to have the adzan screeching through the peace of the mornings and evenings.


Mid-Service Training (MST)

Mid-Service Training was at the Santika Hotel in Surabaya.  This was definitely a step up from IST last October, which was at the Oval Hotel.  Everything was nicer—the food, the air, the ambience.  And there were no bed bugs!  The only thing I could say for the Oval is that some of the rooms are bigger with pretty awesome windows.  And maybe the only thing I could say “against” Santika is that during mealtimes, the staff is a bit overzealous about offering coffee and trying to clear plates from the tables.  Other than that, it’s no contest. 

MST had a completely different feeling than IST.  IST was held about four months after we had arrived at our permanent sites.  At that point, most people had a lot of crazy built up in their blood.  There was tension in the air, as if every session was critical to our survival at site, and every evening after sessions had to be jam-packed socially or wasted.  There was something frenetic about IST.  For a few days afterwards, I felt totally sapped.

MST was relaxed.  There was no panic in the air, and nobody was begging for help.  Very few of the training sessions were run by the staff.  Rather, the majority were facilitated by Volunteers leading discussions about project ideas and sharing best practices.  It was pretty fluid.  Going into MST, I actually felt like it wasn’t terribly important (at least not in the way that PST and IST were important) and wouldn’t end up being very useful.  As it turns out, I was happy about the sessions that we had.  There were lots of good ideas floating around.  After some six weeks of neither teaching nor thinking about teaching, it was a great way to get my head back in the game.  And I gave my first-ever haircut to a very brave man.

MST was also the first chance for all of us to get together since Thanksgiving.  ID-5 has lost six people since then.  It was sobering to see how much the group has shrunk.  When we arrived with thirty people, there was definitely a big-group feeling.  Twenty made it to MST, and now this feels like a really small group.  Throughout the training I was periodically impressed by the maturation of ID-5.  We have come a long way.  Everyone is so much more aware of themselves and their environment than they were before.  People are calmer.  It’s like we’ve figured out who we are in this place.


Notes from the first few days of school

So, my second year of teaching has begun, and I’m not sure it’s possible to exaggerate the contrast to the first.  All things considered, I think I was about as prepared as one could expect going into the last school year.  I wasn’t really that confused, but the whole environment was still quite foreign.   This year, however, has a completely different feel.  I only started teaching on Monday, three days ago, but the last few days might be the most productive that I’ve strung together since getting here. 


·      We had our first teacher planning meeting for me and my CPs.  Everyone who was supposed to come DID come—no excuses, no complaints.  Because so much of the groundwork was laid last year, we’re farther in terms of organization after three days than we were after several months in my first year.

·      All the English teachers met with the principal to discuss our activities and making Speaking Club the school’s official English Club.  Honestly, I felt a couple twinges of pride looking around the office and seeing all the English teachers, two Vice Principals, and the Headmaster sitting and hammering out the details to make this activity legit and school-supported.  All the English teachers will be involved, and we received permission to recruit student facilitators from 12th grade so we can expand the capacity of the club.  The government funds that normally go toward supporting traditional English clubs will now be directed to the Speaking Club, so we can actually pay the teachers for their participation—a pretty important motivational tool for people who are used to going home to their families immediately after school ends (or even before it ends).  This was a huge step towards sustainability.

·      At MST, Ms. Ani and I decided it would be worthwhile to get an MGMP running for the schools in my regency that have PCVs.  There are only five state madrasahs in my regency, and three of them now have a Volunteer.  So we discussed this with the principal, and he approved the idea (and some funding).  We’re going to invite PCVs and their co-teachers from three nearby madrasahs and try to get some cooperation going between the schools.  Hopefully I can help out the new kids as they make their way through the wacky funhouse that is the first semester of teaching in Indonesia.  And farther down the line, perhaps we can organize some kind of English camp or competition. 

·      I’m infinitely more relaxed in the classroom than I was at the start of last year.  The students are less frightened, I think, because they saw me around the school for a whole year before becoming my students.  The main thing is feeling like a boss.


Fasting for Ramadan starts tomorrow.  I’m not going to do it this year.  I mean, there’s no way not to fast at least somewhat.  Eating or drinking out in the open would be unacceptable and cruel to all the hungry, thirsty people.  But having had the experience of a full month of fasting last year, and having already paid a significant physical price for the general conditions of deprivation (at least as regards food) where I live, I’m not interested in joining the fast again.  Anyway, I’m leaving for the US two weeks from tomorrow, where my goal is to do exactly the opposite of fasting.  I’m ready to pig out.

I would like to be more active in the next two weeks than I was last year during Ramadan.  Now that I actually know a lot of people, I can feel comfortable going to other houses to break the fast.  I would like to do that with my old students and with some teachers and maybe at other PCVs’ houses.  Ramadan also affects the teaching schedule.  Class periods are shortened to 25 minutes and all extracurriculars are canceled.  Still, I’ve got a lot I want to accomplish before my trip to the US, so there can be no slacking off.