With a body like this, who needs hair?

“He asked could it be worse? Yes, it could! He could be dead! Or have a blood draw with his eyes open!* Or he could eat a poison pretzel. Those are all worse.”

-Finn, responding to Coldplay’s question in “Fix You.” *He had a blood draw for an allergy test a couple months ago. We haven’t forgotten how bad it was.

There’s a legendary story about Paris in the 1920’s. It was the literary hub of the western world after World War I as writers and artists flocked to the city of light. Here two authors who couldn’t be more different met and formed a strong kinship. One was Earnest Hemingway, the brash young American reporter who liked to drink and fight and bluster. The Irishman James Joyce, who the New York Times once described as “the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts” wasn’t a natural companion. Joyce was thin, physically weak, had bad eyesight, and was introverted to the point of being called a monk. Hemingway was stout, gregarious and affable, if not also often short-tempered. They did however share a common love for language and drinking. Here in Paris, a long mutual respect formed between the two literary greats.

The legend goes that during a night of intemperance at the Paris Ritz, Joyce was in rare form, baiting other customers with insults from atop his intellectual perch. When one patron had had enough and went after Joyce thinking him an easy target, the Irishman darted behind Hemingway and through his laugh called out “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

True or not, I like this story. It came to mind recently while I was having a serious meeting with the school bus driver and the assistant principal. It seems that on the afternoon in question, our seven year old “Joyce” and five year old “Hemingway” were reviving this act. As the bus driver retold the events leading up to the brawl, I tried not to smile at the thought of it. I probably was though, and it probably didn’t help the situation.

Since the New Year, I have busied myself in two areas. Erin’s work schedule so far in 2019 has taken her to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Turkey, and Hong Kong. I might be leaving some out. She’s also driven the famed Garden Route, gone on safari, and hiked Table Mountain. Oh, and she’s growing a baby inside of her as we speak. My wife is a boss, didn’t you know? With all that she’s been up to I’ve been the one who on most days gets the boys up, fed, packed, and out the door. In the afternoons I drive the taxi to swimming three times a week. I apply the band-aids, and I remove them too. I play soccer in the garage, I pump up the bike tires. I track down the missing library books, shoes, and the art projects that looked like recycling, but upon further reflection actually weren’t. I go to the birthday parties on weekends and eat the bad cake. I read How to Train Your Dragon every night. And yes, I’m the one to hear from the principal when the boys are in a fight on the bus.

And you know what?

I love every second of it. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I can count on one hand the number of things I’m good at. Not the things that anyone can do (like burning toast because you push the lever down one too many times), but the stuff that I have a real talent for, is rare. Being a parent to these kids between 5 and 10 years old, that’s my wheelhouse. Diapers, naw. Teenagers? Drama much? No, the Lego-constructing-Nerf-shooting-living-room-fort building years are where it’s at. That’s my parenting sweet-spot.

Saturday Chess Club.

Other than raising two almost-upstanding young men, I’m also still chasing the same running goals. Still. Chasing. It’s been a long road. Early in February snuggled between Erin’s trips, I was able to steal away to Iten, Kenya for a week of training and make-believe. Some people go to Florida to watch spring training. Some people get back-stage passes to meet their idols. And some people head to Nairobi and get on a small prop plane to Eldoret before getting into a shaky old van for another hour’s drive up into the rarefied air of 2400m (8,000ft) above sea-level. That is me. I packed a bag and set off to see what life is like for the fastest humans in history.

The dirt smells like sweat.

Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center plays host to athletes from all over the world. It has a modern gym, lap pool, and dinning hall. I immediately fell in with a group of Irish athletes. The running was good, but the community and camaraderie were world-class. At night, after the day’s two training sessions, we would retire to the Iten Club, a small coffee house adjacent to the Training Center. Conversations with strangers from all over the world would flow easily as we posted social media updates, updated our training logs, and examined race results on the only reliable WiFi in the area. Some played dominoes, some enjoyed a cup of Kenyan tea, and others recounted stories of excellence or folly. There was usually a soccer game or a horrible 90’s American movie on the lone TV above the fireplace (I’m looking at you Hercules and Xena, The Princess Warrior).

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the running, but there was something special about that time after dinner in the cafe. It reminded me of Oxford twenty years ago. World-class talent on the edge of life-changing discoveries. Nights weren’t late as the next training session was always crouching in the back of our minds. But for a couple hours every evening we conversed in relaxed tones and laughed easily. We found community in the middle of the spartan lifestyle running demanded. And outside on the walk back to my room, the dark exposed more stars than I have ever seen. Between the altitude and the night sky, the entire experience was breathtaking. More than just the training, my week in Iten was filled with these amazing moments of humanness. In athletes 15 years younger than me, I recognized the unmistakable fire that comes from the pursuit of excellence. At breakfast we greeted each other as old acquaintances who were bound together again by common destinations. I don’t know Portuguese or Swahili or French, but the fist-bump is a universal sign for respect, and each run ended with one. If you’ve ever felt the pull of a running dream, whatever your age or ability level, I urge you to go to Iten. I plan to go back someday, “yet knowing how way leads on to way.”

Unfortunately since returning to Pretoria I have picked up a running related injury. Hamstring tendinopathy. It’s more irritating than painful, but it has brought my dreams back down to human size. Run a few times this week. Finish this race. I see a PT every couple days, and we are making progress in strengthening the tiny muscles that have brought the big ones to a halt. I head to Cape Town next week for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and have downshifted my goals to simply enjoying the experience. Comrades is only a few weeks behind Two Oceans, and I’m considering withdrawing. I turn 40 next month, and I’m worried this is a precursor of more lameness to come.

I didn’t run today, but I got a hug from Amarula, so that’s worth something.

If there is any comfort here, it’s that I’m learning that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of physical conditioning I can handle, and the level of gratitude and happiness I feel on a daily basis. So what if I can’t run like I used to? I can read more now. I can write more too. And if I’m looking for an age-group award, I’m still the best Nerf-shooting, lego-creating, fort-building, world-traveling, almost-forty-year-old I know.

Be good and keep in touch.

It’s been a year.

“But that life, that time, seems like a dream now, even to me, like some long-dissolved rumour.” – Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer

Feb 9th, 2018. My last day in the classroom.

Back when I taught middle school an older community member came to my class every week and gave us one hour of his time. At first I was confused to why he wanted to help, but he told me he only wanted to be useful. After a couple weeks we found a rhythm. He would come in without expectations. He would read to kids in the library. He would review an assignment someone had missed. He would shelve books. He would photocopy. He would sort papers. He would tell students about his work. He would listen to the stories of their lives without judgment. He never asked for anything. He never said the work was beneath his pay grade. He was solely interested in showing up every week and doing what he could with that one hour regardless of how small the effort seemed. Every week for the entire school year, maybe 35 hours total, he was present. I’ll never forget how much that meant to me and to the students he worked with. It was a powerful reminder of the impact that the consistency of purpose can have.

It’s been a year. I deeply miss the kids and my co-workers and the energy we created in that yellow classroom looking out over the trees and traffic of Green Hills. It’s been another year and still the high school kids report at 6:50AM. I’m sure the buses still drop kids off to locked front doors at 6:25AM. It’s been another year and still metro teachers don’t have any form of maternity leave (besides sick days) or even a plan for bettering compensation. Another year of rising housing and healthcare costs. It’s been another year of nickel and diming teachers, prohibiting the use of online fundraisers and removing tax exemptions for classroom supplies. It’s been another year of sexual harassment lawsuits brought against central office and schools. It’s been another year of HR bumbling and school board infighting. It’s been another year, and yet again I think I was present at more board meetings than one of the board members. It’s been another year of half-truths and (while maybe not illegal) unethical behavior from the director.

I’d like to hear from my teacher friends back home that nothing’s changed since we left. But that’s not true. A year later and teachers and students are worse off. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still great work being done, but it’s a result of the sacrifices and the Herculean efforts of amazing people in-spite of the hurdles and problems created by central office and the board. I wish I could say that metro schools are a place I would like to return to, a place where I would like to enroll my kids and to work and grow as a professional. But that’s simply not the case right now. Besides the family of teachers and school administrators I know and respect, there is nothing attractive about the prospect of working there again. Based on the teacher turnover and vacancies, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Three years ago I felt that the district wasn’t moving, a rudderless ship. Now I can see it’s moving in the wrong direction. And as a teacher, a parent, a tax payer, and a voter, I don’t know which is more infuriating. It’s been a year. 

The people who supported me and helped me grow as a teacher and human being.

Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not the sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life.

We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.” – John Fowles, The Aristos.

I look at these pictures and think about what public education could be, what it should be. Not for I.B. or magnet or charter kids. For all kids. I’m only a day’s travel away from where I taught, but I feel so far removed from the struggles that my teacher friends still endure. I don’t want to, but I still find myself reading the blogs and newspaper articles and the tweets. I still text with teachers and students trying to support and empathize. The reality is that a year later I’m still overly invested in the work of that community like some sort of co-dependant ex-boyfriend. It’s a manifestation of survivor’s guilt I think.

So here is my request. If you have the means, please consider loving on a classroom or a teacher or a kid for the rest of this year. Say thank you by giving a little of your time or a few of your resources or even your attention to the needs of our teachers and students. Choose to donate a book, new or used, each week to a class library, buy a pack of copy paper or tissues or hand sanitizer when you are grocery shopping, or offer to volunteer at games or concerts or arts events. Reach out to specific teachers at your school and ask what they need. One hour a week, one book a month, listen to one student story at a time. As a species we seem to like the myth that big efforts lead to big results. But that’s not how lasting changes happens. I can’t run a marathon because of one good workout. Small efforts over extended periods of time result in big changes. Want to get fit? Don’t go to the gym for eight hours. Go for 20 minutes every day. Want to write a book? Don’t aim for 85,000 words in a week, write a good paragraph every morning for a year. Want to change education? Invest your time and energy in one kid, in one classroom teacher, in one school consistently and repetitively.

Books collected by Hillsboro students and families delivered to the Meetsi Primary School in Mamelodi, South Africa.

This is the only answer I have to frustration that comes from paying attention. In between the distracting news stories, I’m putting my head down and continuing to work where I am. I know that a year from now the board will be the same. The director will probably get a contract extension. Salaries will remain the stagnant. But I also know that those kids you read to, those books you donate, those teachers you support will be better off because of your small commitment to change. Be good and keep in touch.

I have a fear inside me as real as an organ

And I sit with the memory of kings
With only words to criticize
As if I finally found the antidote for pain
Without knowing what that’s really like.

And our actor ends his love song
And all these lovers sit and stare.
If I don’t find peace in the valley
It’s ‘cause there wasn’t any there.

– Dawes

It’s been a while since I’ve sat and stared at this blank page. Part of that has to do with our schedule, but if I’m honest (and I’m trying to be more honest), I’ve been hiding from the blinking curser. It’s a good name for something that taunts you, the blinking curser. Since August we have filled our days with travel and adventure and all the logistics that come with it. As you may know, I recently ran the Cape Town Marathon. As a family we explored Namibia and met members of the San Tribe. Erin summited Kilimanjaro. And last month we travelled the sixteen hours home to the States. Seeing family and friends was refreshing. I didn’t know I needed to be home until I was there. In Pretoria our boys are growing into strong swimmers and starting to enjoy diving and playing under the water not just in it. For them going under water is no longer something to be feared, but rather something that is attractive. While they are getting confident in their own abilities, it’s always nice to resurface, take a deep breath, and feel the sunshine on your face. I enjoy experiencing the silence and other worldliness of being under water too. There’s something in the solitude of the unfamiliar depths, the pressure, and sensation of strength which appeals to me. But you can’t stay there, right? You need to breathe again. That’s what it’s like to go home. Resurfacing. A place where everything feels natural, where you can take a breath before going back down to explore the unfamiliar world and the unknown you.

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Landing in New York on a perfect October morning.

I have also restarted my work on my graduate degree. I find the work filling my time, but less than fulfilling. I’m still undecided on a return to the classroom, which makes me wonder about the time and energy I put into my Hopkins classes. At some level I know I’m using the school work as a distraction from the real enterprise of writing. I’m good at the academic work and so rather than try and struggle with something I’m terrified of and that I’m not as good at, I fill the void with writing empty papers and conducting half-hearted research. The fact that I’m only three classes away from finishing the program doesn’t help.

The simple fact is that I’ve never written something I’ve been really satisfied with. And I recognize this problem. We are old friends. Of the thousands of races I’ve run, I can only tell you about one that left me completely satisfied. I’m not talking about good customer service satisfied. I mean that in those moments during and after, I was operating at my very limitations. I know on an elemental level that I could not have competed any more resolutely on that day. My muscles and bones and sinew were tested and resolved. I raced to the best of my ability and walked away feeling complete and wholly alive. Over thirty thousand miles and twenty-five years and there’s only one race where it all came together? Yes. I wonder if it’s that difficult to go to that place or if I’m just not that good at getting there? So, when I consider really writing, I struggle with thinking about how many pages and how many words it will take to find the just-right combination that will make me feel the same actualization? What if I can never put those words together? What will I miss or sacrifice while I try?

So I’ve been distracting myself with school and running and anything else I can think of.  I’ve avoided the real work and the blinking curser for the last two months convincing myself that tomorrow the words will flow more voluntarily and there will be time to chase the dream of one day having a book on the shelf of Parnassus or the airport must-read mantel or Shakespeare & Co.

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Confession. I always stop and look at the bookshelf space where mine would sit.  At the bookstore here in Pretoria that means right after Chole Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” and just before Amanda Berriman’s “Home.” 

Back in Nashville I sat again in front of the class of 2019 for a morning. I’m sure they thought that I was talking to them about being good enough and embracing challenges and the struggle between head and heart and faith and reason. Those words certainly applied to them, but they came to me organically as if after a long growing season they were finally ripe enough to pick and examine.

I know I can replicate the successes I’ve had in the classroom. I know I can be an effective school leader. I know that I’m a really good stay-at-home dad. I know I can get a job in coaching or tech or travel and pay the bills. I know I can continue to run decent marathons and live in exotic lands and be a good me. But my god, I want to be a writer. I want to hurl fiery words out into a dark universe illuminating a path I didn’t know was there. I want to wield a hard language so that people look up from a page and softly say, “Damn.” I want to build worlds and lives out of the endless combination of twenty-six letters, and like D.N.A., I want them to be so vivid that I can’t see me in them anymore. I want to write a book that makes me feel like I did in that race all those years ago, unrepentant and unafraid and alive again.

And I don’t know if I can.

And that terrifies me.

 

 

 

Be good and keep in touch.

High Hopes

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At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights of that dreamed of world

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times.

– Pink Floyd, High Hopes

Two weeks ago the family climbed into the Land Rover for our first trip to the Drakensburg Mountains. It’s been a fairly quiet winter here for us, and the opportunity to get out of town was welcomed by everyone. This trip has been in the back of my mind since we first arrived here, and it certainly did not disappoint. Like almost every adventure we take, it starts with running.
Every Tuesday night at the University of Pretoria, a group of runners meet-up to test their fitness on a 4km road loop. Affectionately known as the Tuks time trial, many of the runners use it as a social time to catch up with familiar and friendly faces. Last April after doing some internet research on local running groups I came across the Tuks harriers and decided to give it a try. While there are some real speedsters who sometimes show up, most Tuesdays a core group of 30 and 40-something trail runners and ultra folks amble off the line with smiles on their faces and lighthearted strides. Since returning from Nashville, I have attended every Tuesday night for the camaraderie as much as the workout. The running community, no matter where in the world I am, never fails to be welcoming and fun and great hosts. In this regard the Tuks group is no exception.

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The High Performance Center’s sport grounds are the perfect place for an evening workout, so long as you can dodge the errant rugby and soccer balls.

In a nice compliment to the run, a campus eatery offers a weekly special dish for those who want to hang around and continue the fellowship. At one of the first post-run dinners, I asked the local and more experienced runners for their South African bucket-list races. I’ve discovered a few races on my own, but I’ve also found that they were hit-or-miss in terms of quality and experience. I know my best racing days are behind me, but I’m on a running streak again for the first time since 2016. I’m enjoying the increase in my milage and getting a few workouts in on the golf course. I feel like racing again, and I don’t know how long this will last, so I want to make it count. Two races, which had been advertised on my social media feed ironically enough, were also on the calendar for some of the others in Tuks. I love how running is an individual sport, yet we can be so easily peer-pressured into races and group training runs by others. So on consecutive Tuesday nights in July, I found myself committing to the Rundela 27km, a road race commemorating Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, and the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20km run from the base to summit of one of South Africa’s highest peaks.
The road race was long no and tough, but not a problem for my fitness and ability. Trail racing however is a different beast entirely. For the last twenty-five years, I have consistently trained on trails, but rarely raced on them. In high school our cross country team often ran long on the snowmobile trails and power lines and in college I ran at least once a week on the West Virginian hunting trails and endless dirt roads. Later, while coaching at Belmont University I ran most of my weekly milage in the early mornings on the horse trails at Percy Warner Park.
But even with all the miles over rocks and through the mud, I’ve never really had the desire to go racing up mountains and into wilderness. I’m too tall and lanky and my feet aren’t fast enough for the more technical turns. Even so, in 2004 I won a summit race up and down Bradbury Mountain by out-kicking some poor guy who lead the whole way. It’s funny that I think of that as a mountain race because that hill barely qualifies as a mountain topping out at 405 feet (124m). More recently I have seen mixed results in the (highly recommended) Nashville Running Company trail series races. I won a lovely six mile tour of a lesser known Metro park, landed on the podium at the 2014 Dry Creek Half Marathon and was also absolutely destroyed at the vicious 2017 Defeated Creek Half Marathon. So it’s been a mixed bag when it comes to trail racing.  You might understand then that I would be a bit apprehensive when registering for the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20 km roundtrip climbing more than a mile into the thin air of 3000 meters of altitude.

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Members of the NRC race team at the finish of the 2014 Dry Creek Half Marathon.

We left Pretoria late in the morning on Friday and enjoyed the drive south through Johannesburg and towards Harrismith. This country’s landscape changes quickly, and within a couple hours we found ourselves crossing arid and windswept grasslands and descending into an environment that more closely resembles Arizona or New Mexico than what we imagined South Africa would be. Along the back roads into the Drakensburg we encountered dozens of baboons and cattle and goats all watching us with the same curious looks on their faces. We followed the signs till the road narrowed and twisted upwards. Set right against the mountain walls, the Cathedral Peak Hotel is a quaint if not dated resort. Imagine a real-life version of the Grand Budapest Hotel. We checked-in, tipped the eager bellhop, had a quick dinner, and settled in for the night.

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Race day sunrise from the Cathedral Peak Hotel patio.

Race morning was cool and clear and the summit looked inviting in the distance. I enjoyed two cups of coffee, some crispy bacon, and watched the sunrise paint the peaks golden. I was unsure of what the temperature would be at the higher elevations and decided to start the day wearing a jacket, gloves, and carrying a winter hat. The hotel and race are offering R25,000 for the a new FKT (fastest-known time), and as such, I figured the competition would be at least as strong as the coffee, but I didn’t know exactly how I would stack up next to experienced mountain runners. At the Rundela two weeks prior, I was surprised that my fitness kept me within the top ten for the first 20 km. My training has been much more consistent since the first week of June, but I still didn’t have any indication on how I would do climbing and descending for the next few hours.

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This day is looking up.

With a short blast from an airhorn, the thirty or so competitors started off. Since no one immediately wanted to take the lead on the jeep trail, I strode confidently up the center, opening my stride and hoping someone would follow. In fact I was so focused on the guys behind me, I missed the first turn 300 meters into the race and continued up the wrong trail taking the others with me. An extra 100 meters had past before the call came from behind us that I had gone the wrong way. We turned and did our best to regain our positions at the front. It was difficult passing people on the narrow and technical trail down to the river. Whoops, sorry guys. After the water crossing the climb began in earnest. I didn’t know what position I was in anymore, and it didn’t really matter as the hill kicked steeply up, and it quickly consumed my attention.

The sun was erasing the long shadows and the temperature climbed as we did, steadily and intently. By 4km I had removed my jacket and gloves and by 7km I knew that I should have carried more water. The one liter (the required minimum) would not be enough at the rate I was drinking it. I alternated between running and power hiking on the crazier sections, and I felt like I was making solid progress. The lower parts of the trail were technical, but not overly so. It wasn’t until I reached a section called “Bugger’s Gulley” that I really started to feel the effects of my effort. The last and steepest part of the climb had rope sections and guides stationed to help competitors with the rock face. Here I really had to slow myself and concentrate as the consequences of a misstep were nothing short of fatal. The last 300 meters were more mountaineering than trail racing, and I was not prepared for the hair-raising vertical drops and the rock climbing skills needed to summit. Steadily though and after two hours and eight minutes, I found my way to the top. I summited alone and in fifth place long after the leader, but not long after the others.
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The views from the top were absolutely spectacular, and I sat and snacked on a Cliff Bar examining the 360 degree panorama for ten minutes. I texted Erin that I had made the top, and as I was getting ready to descend, another racer, a South African carrying no water, food, or even vest arrived. He was wearing an oversized cotton t-shirt and old Reebok cross training shoes. In his best broken English, he asked for some of my water. I’m ashamed to admit that I hesitated, thinking about the long trail down and the temperature that would only be increasing. Reluctantly I handed over the bladder and straw from my vest. It only took a moment though for the gratitude for all I have and all that can do to return. I looked around at the peaks and the distant valley where the hotel and finish line was located. I saw the helicopter hovering below us, and the vultures circling on the thermals coming out of the valley. I will be ok, I thought. I have everything I need and then some. I can and should be generous with all of it. The race director later told us that the top of the mountain is where everything makes sense, but it is the journey that changes us. Perspective. The 10,000 foot view. I gave the man the last half of the Cliff Bar and wished him luck on his race. I knew that I would be fine in a couple hours. I didn’t need the water as much as he did. And I didn’t need to win or break records or become a jerk in the process either.

I cleared the three rope sections again, but I didn’t realize just how much the climb had deadened my quads. Exiting Bugger’s Gulley, each stride was compounding the fatigued muscles, and it was apparent that going down would be much tougher than going up. On the few flat sections off the ridge, I found my stride and ran freely in my highest gear, but that was about the highlight of it. My sweat was drying quickly in the sun and a salty crust had formed on my hat, vest, and lips. I regretted not putting sunscreen on my legs and arms. The helicopter circled as I dropped into the shadow of Orange Peel Gap. There the pain in my quads only steadily increased, and I was forced to slow even more going over the boulders and resign myself to finishing rather than racing the remainder of the trail.
Entering the final kilometer I was pretty much walking toward the finish line with my only concern being breaking the four hour mark. It wouldn’t be fast enough to get on the leader board, but it was an effort I could be proud of. I rang the bell at the finish line and collapsed into a salty and dusty heap. In fact, only the race director offering me an ice cold Coke would get me to sit upright. Two weeks on, I can still feel the deep muscle pain in my legs from that descent. It took me ninety minutes to come down from the peak, the race leader did it in half that time and set a new record in the process, 2:22:00.
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I’m certain that we go back to the Drakesburg range. It is beautiful and lonely and pristine. The boys enjoyed rock climbing and Erin spent the morning riding horses through the canyon. There was something for all of us. I’m also certain that I will do more mountain races in the future. For all the suffering during and after that race, I really did enjoy the journey. Next week Erin leaves for her Kilimanjaro attempt. I’m equally proud of and excited for her. When I told my friends at Tuks last Tuesday night about her adventure, they shared this race idea with me.
Be good and keep in touch.

A Far-Off Place

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The first week of this month my family journeyed north to the Pilanesberg National Park. While we had done several smaller driving tours of animal sanctuaries, this would be the first time that we really ventured into the bush. Pilanesberg isn’t originally native habitat though. In the 1970’s the South African government created the nature preserve in the crater of an extinct volcano. Over 6,000 animals were brought in from Namibia in the early 1980’s. Today those numbers top 10,000 including lions, elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs. I think everyone’s expectations were lofty, and we tried to prepare our sons for the disappointment of not seeing any of the elusive Big Five. (Can you name them?) The park is simply massive at 250 square miles and while the roads (paved and unpaved) provide access to most of the area, the odds of spotting one of the three lion prides or a southern white rhino is not always in a visitor’s favor. Secretly I was ok with this. I didn’t want the journey to be a drive-through experience or pre-packaged show that’s the same for every tourist. I would always prefer sitting and waiting and letting nature find us if she wanted to.

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We arrived at the Bakubung Lodge in the early afternoon and were immediately impressed with the grounds and rooms. It’s winter and the slow season here, so the lodge had shutdown the boilers for the two rooms we had originally booked. My wife’s parents and our youngest would share a room, and my wife and I and our other son would bunk down in the other. We brought air mattresses for the boys just in case. I’m learning that in South Africa you’d best take care of yourself and be pleasantly surprised when it works out that you didn’t have to. It’s much easier than having any sort of expectations, especially when the term “resort” is used. The rooms were comfortable and clean and quiet. We opened the curtains and doors to the patio to see the park immediately on the other side of an electrified fence. The nature was there too.

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For dinner we opted for a braai experience hosted by the lodge in the national park. For me this was the most enjoyable part of the trip. I don’t think the rest of my family found it as powerful I did. They can be forgiven as it was a cold open-air truck drive in the dark to the braai. In addition the food wasn’t exactly American kid-friendly, and the boys were already tired. But as we left the hotel grounds and entered the park gates, a mountainous bull elephant emerged from behind a thicket. It froze in the truck’s spotlight unsure what to make of our commotion and the smell of diesel exhaust. Our driver told us to be quiet in a concerning tone. From its massive head two tremendous tusks reached out and down disappearing into the grass. I judged that it was easily twelve feet tall as turned and sauntered back into the night. When the brush stopped moving, we rolled on. Above the truck a million stars appeared. The drive rattled us around for another 20 minutes before coming to an abrupt stop at a human sized gate. Entering the braai area we were welcomed with a song from eight singers and a drummer. The food was laid out buffet style, and we sat down on benches around long wooden tables. At the center of it all was a warm glowing bonfire. The kids didn’t eat much of the unfamiliar food and were restless for the dessert portion. For them chocolate, whatever its form, is always more appealing than the main course. The camp was protected by a less than intimidating fence and torches, but we were reassured that the animals on the other side wanted nothing to do with the noise or light our group was making. Still I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere out in the darkness something sat salivating at the smell of grilled lamb, chicken, and beef.

As the moon slowly made it’s way above the surrounding hillsides, it struck me that we were completely surrounded by miles of wild and remote natural wilderness. I huddled close to the inviting bonfire and savored the last of traditional Zulu/Tswana meal. As I warmed by the red coals and watched my kids watch a group of drummers perform, I forget about the world beyond the light of the fire. For over an hour that night my family sat there together, listening to songs and staring into the dancing flames like human beings have done for tens of thousands of years. The drummer’s rhythm and singing ebbed and flowed rising with the smoke up into the star speckled sky. In that moment of holding my family close and removing the anxieties of the modern world, I felt that maybe this one life could be enough. For all the distance and distractions that moving to South Africa has entailed, we are now who we want to be.

The following day we loaded up the lodge’s safari truck for our afternoon tour. After the cold temps the previous night we each wore several layers and hoarded blankets in preparation. The boys tried to contain their excitement and rattled off as many animal facts, relevant or not, pertaining park’s wildlife. Entering the gates in the daylight was exhilarating. Armed with their gift shop binoculars, the boys kept watch as we bounced along a dirt road deep into the heart of the park. In the distance we spotted herds of kudos and impalas. On a ridge in the distance our guide spotted a cheetah. While I agree it did resemble a four-legged animal, from 300m away I wouldn’t bet on correctly identifying it. The afternoon was spent bobbing along in the back of the truck, calling out zebra and giraffes and cape buffalo. On the way back to the lodge we did find a family of elephants crowded near the road and a lone hippo in the tall grass next to a lake. The boys pointed and posed for pictures, and felt a sense of accomplishment. The sun set over the hills and left us with a parting gift of magnificent reds and yellows and finally a deep purple before finally turning on the stars for the night. If our only experience at Pilanesberg was our four hour tour, we would have left satisfied. However, the park held back something special for the following morning.

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On day three the lodge and valley was completely fogged over as we made our way to breakfast in the canteen. Bundled in the same clothes as the previous days, we climbed aboard the truck and settled in for a morning of limited visibility. Our guide was in a great mood and tried his best to make us laugh as we re-entered the southern gates. For an hour we drove along mostly in silence looking at the fog sitting heavy on the golden grass fields. In what would be a trip-defining moment for my son, the truck slowed and the guide pointed out a group of elephants to our right. The other people on the truck repeatedly said elephant and pointed to where the bushes moved with something sort of large and gray. Our eldest but not our quietest child then corrected everyone by pointing out these elephants were actually rhinos. The southern white rhinos (not to be confused with the tragically extinct northern white counterparts) are imposing and prehistoric looking animals. About five of them snorted and chewed and slowly bulldozed their way through the underbrush towards the truck. The largest stopped about 20 meters away and gave us a spectacular view of his size and majestic presence. Looking around the faces on the truck, I saw smiles and wonder and bewilderment. Several nationalities were represented on our tour and every single smile betrayed the same overpowering emotion, something between awe and fascination. For just a moment we were all children again, marveling at the raw power and beauty of the animals before us.

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With our spirits high and as the fog started to slowly burn off, we continued on the rough dirt road with our eldest chirping about how he had correctly identified the rhinos when no one else did. Within a few kilometers we spotted few cape wild dogs (the original native inhabitants of the park). Just as our driver was pointing out the fact that the dogs were usually an indication of lions, we heard it. The truck creeped forward not more than fifty meters until the sound of lions was clear. The fog had lifted enough to see a hundred meters clearly, and there off to the left of the truck, the western pride, comprised of a dozen or big cats, had just taken down a cape buffalo or a larger kudu for breakfast. Through the tall grass we could see the lions circling and ripping at their kill. We couldn’t take our eyes off of them. As the largest one ate, he kept the others at bay with a sound that I can’t describe, but that I can still feel in my chest. It rumbled like thunder in the distance and inspired a primitive fear. There’s no way to talk about it. I don’t care how good your surround system is, this wasn’t only audible, it was palpable as well. We held our boys a little tighter as the truck maneuvered for a better look at the feasting lions.

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Within minutes the pride was on the move again. On big paws and with a carefreeness that bordered on arrogance, they walked out of the grass and onto the dirt road. Our truck followed, rolling in neutral as the cats crossed in front of us and drank from a stream that ran by on our right. By now the sighting had been radioed in and other cars and trucks had shown up to get a glimpse of the digesting cats. Having seen the show and feeling supremely lucky, we moved on to find a mother and calf hippo at the head of the same stream the lions were drinking from. Further down the road a family of giraffes and zebra enjoyed a late brunch overlooking the valley behind us. The sun warmed the metal frame of the truck and we started back to the lodge for lunch. My youngest son sat on my lap, his head bouncing off my shoulder as he gazed out over the foreign landscape as we rumbled along.

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I don’t know what this international adventure will continue to hold for me and my family. We are happier here, I know that. The boys have a wide circle of international friends and they love their school. My wife is absolutely crushing her job. I’m content in reading and writing and running a little every day. And for the first time in my life,  I’m a father first, not a teacher, not a coach, not a parent who is pulled in too many directions. But in four years time from now will I go back to teaching? Will we find a little American suburb of another artsy up-and-coming city to call our own? Can you go back? Would you? I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m terrified of losing this feeling of aliveness which permeates every aspect of our African days.

Be good and keep in touch.

A Degree of Seperation

What I want is for the two of us to meet somewhere by chance one day, like, passing on the street, or getting on the same bus.

– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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On June 20th, 1998 I walked across the stage in Yarmouth High School’s gymnasium to get my high school diploma. Twenty years later I was on the commencement stage again for Hillsboro’s graduation.

Returning to Nashville was everything I hoped it would be. I spent my time seeing former students and families and friends. I ate at all my favorite local eateries, and most of all, I could see the city and country that I’ve called home in a new light. I landed in Atlanta on a Friday morning and was immediately witness to a line of frustrated customers and apathetic employees at a Dunkin’ Donuts. People being bothered by the presence of people. Annoyance. Irritation. Anger. When I arrived at the gate for my Nashville flight, I saw it again. Bitterness at our flight being delayed nine minutes because our flight crew was late getting in. As I sat down in my seat for the last leg of my journey, I half laughed. Is this really how I used to go through life? The last twelve weeks I had grown to appreciate the difference between problems and inconviences. Landing back in America I could see it now, and I was a different person because of it. Right?

By mid-morning I was parking at Hillsboro High School. The memory of the double-takes and smiles when I first walked through the door warms my heart. It was the last academic day of the school year and both the teachers and the students were relaxed and happy about their impending freedom. I didn’t head for my old classroom right away. I felt like room 213 wasn’t mine anymore, and I was scared that seeing someone else teaching in there would be like seeing an ex laughing with someone new. You expect it, but you can’t erase that feeling. I wanted to keep my memory of that place, not to make new memories. Geography can be funny in that it can hold on to the echo of the sounds and smells and light, and I guess I wasn’t ready to walk back into that yet. So I settled in the IB History teacher’s room and more than gladly accepted the hugs and the high fives and genuine smiles from students and teachers alike. We told stories and laughed and reminisced. It was a true homecoming and a feeling that would be extended through the ten days at graduation parties, dinners, the state track meet, long runs, and happy hours. I’m warmed on this cold winter morning just thinking about the joy of it all.

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That first night I attended a graduation celebration for Addy, a former student and one of the managers for the XC team. I was exhausted after 8,000 miles of travel and nearly 40 hours awake, but seeing familiar and friendly faces energizes and enlivens. I was both inwardly and outwardly happy when my head finally hit the pillow for a solid night’s sleep.

The next morning I had a few hours to polish my commencement address before the second and third graduation parties started. Frothy Monkey on 12th Ave South has long been by go-to study and writing home. I sped from East Nashville where I was staying with a fellow teacher to the popular coffee shop hoping to beat the crowds. Driving again in the US was an easy enough adjustment, although I did try to get into the car on the wrong side several times. Another habit I carried with me from Pretoria was the constant vigilance at intersections. Car hijacking on a Saturday morning in May in Green Hills or 12th South is highly unlikely, but I couldn’t ignore the road intelligence that I’ve worked hard to develop. Drivers in South Africa are bad, but they are making me better at being vigilant and anticipating other people’s dangerous habits. At Frothy Monkey I over ordered on the food and coffee enjoyed every sweet bite while I searched for the right words.

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As for the speech itself, I worked on it for three weeks. It was difficult to narrow to a specific topic and then to narrow the topic to the five minutes allotted. After a dozen practice runs, I was still hitting roughly seven and a half minutes. I didn’t know if the jokes would go over, and I felt a bit like a fraud. What gave me any credibility? I was an unemployed English teacher who left the luxuries and modernity of America for a developing country. The only thing I was certain of was my uncertainty. I had asked for this opportunity, but I think what I really wanted was to teach my class again. I wanted to talk with my students, not to formally address 2500 people, most of whom didn’t know me or why I was on the program. This is one of those “be careful what you wish for” lessons that I still need to learn.

In the preparation, I had watched at least a dozen other speeches and stole what wisdom I could from my favorite writers and texts. In the end the final presentation was just over eight minutes. I hoped the administration would forgive me if it felt long-winded. Another week and I might have been able to say more with less. As it was, I’m mostly proud of the product and how it was received. I wish I had been more expressive in the delivery, but I felt the need to rush through to make up for the length. In the writing and sharing, I did feel a sense of closure that I didn’t know that I had needed. Leaving mid-year was right for my family, but as a professional, it left a huge hole in my heart. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back and to see everyone together again. It was a great privilege to see these students head out into the world. You can find a video of the speech recorded by Hillsboro librarian (and jack-of-all-trades) Joyce Claassen on YouTube.

As I’ve said before, this group of students was very special. As their teacher in 7th grade and 9th grade, their 10th grade AP and 11th grade IB English and Theory of Knowledge, and 12th grade capstone, we’ve been around the block a few times. I will forever be an advocate for looping. In fact if I head back to the classroom, that might be a condition for my employment. For five years we shared our laughter and tears and wins and losses and accomplishments and disappointments.

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Forty 2017 Hillsboro XC runners enjoying another perfect October morning.

Our field trip to Shakespeare’s Folio at the Parthenon in 2016.

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Ireland in 2017.

I watched them grow out of athletic socks and baggy cargo shorts and braces and awkwardness into confident, knowledgable, and capable human beings. We traveled to Greece and Turkey and Ireland and the UK together. We ran countless miles together. They threw me a baby shower for my first born and made meals for my family when my second born was in the NICU. They babysat my kids and kept me working hard even in the face of the most absurd conditions. Today, thousands of miles apart, I still feel that we are a community. The love and passion I brought to the class was a direct reflection of the love and passion they shared with me. They made me a much better teacher and parent and friend. Everyone was appreciative that I made the long trip home for graduation, but really I was the one who was grateful.

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While cash might have been more useful as a graduation gift, I am still an unemployed teacher (until I can sell some books anyway). Instead, I hand picked paintings and jewelry and accessories from South African artisans at our local market. In buying almost forty paintings by Gab Duru, I hope that not only am I showing the students and families how much I admire them and appreciate the positive impact they’ve had on my life, but that we are also helping to make a difference in the life on an artist. If you would like a piece of Mr. Duru’s art, please feel free to reach out to me and I will make sure it gets back to you in America.

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That week in May I attended ten more graduation parties. The warm feelings continued and as my schedule filled with coffee dates and whiffle ball and last runs in Percy Warner, I tried to fit more and more in. Without noticing the effect it was having on me, I started overbooking my limited time. Everyone’s request was a priority. I would show up late apologizing only to have to leave early or risk being late to meeting with the next friend or student. Luxury problems. I failed to deliver all the graduation cards and gifts. Regrettably, I had to miss one graduation party altogether. Over the week I would cut out time for meals and honk at traffic and drive like a South African taxi and try to make everything go faster. I had transformed back into the impatient American who always felt behind the clock. It was amazing. In this environment, my former self and habits re-emerged. Even now, three weeks removed I still feel a hint of disappointment that I couldn’t achieve all that I wanted in my ten days. At the end of this amazing adventure in a few years’ time, I wonder if I will be able to hold on to the South African pace of life and peace of mind that I’ve found here. Is it me or is it the American environment which drives people to hustle and rush and be impatient in the name of getting just one more thing done?

I’m happy to be back in South Africa, but I miss those people left behind. I wish there was more time for laughter and stories and sharing meals. Call it whatever you want: Fellowship, Community, Family. It is what we all seek. As my youngest son says, “It fills my bucket.”

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So what is next for the class of 2018? We are all awaiting news of their IB scores and results in July. Most are headed off on new adventures next fall. Some are headed to their first choice of universities with scholarships in hand. My heart is with those who are more disappointed by how their senior year concluded. Navigating the world of financial aid and college acceptance requirements is difficult and often disappointing for all involved. We like to tell ourselves that anything is possible, but the reality isn’t always true. Or rather, that what’s possible isn’t always an easy or straightforward path. Regardless of the individual situations, I have the utmost faith in all of the students who walked across the stage on May 23rd. They are good human beings. I know they can change their world because they have already changed mine. I’m planning a trip to Kilimonjaro next year, and I hope some of the students and families will be able to make it. Like all of our adventures, it will be open invitation. This isn’t the end. We still have mountains to climb.

Be good and keep in touch.

Commencement

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“If you want it, the abyss will be there for you. It is in no hurry, so do not hurry to it. Yes, silence may be the only perfect thing we can imagine… Yes, death is beautiful, but it is not human. It can never be more than it is; It will not solve the argument of you.”

– Brian Ellis, “Please, wait”

The light of winter casts long shadows twice a day. I’ve always found my bearings easily and this has helped me as a runner to know my way intuitively on trails and unfamiliar roads. To get home, I know I need to go this direction. But with the sun lower in the northern sky in what I have always known to be late spring, my internal compass is more easily confused. I need more time to think about my direction. To further disorient, my car and GPS units are metric. An exit 1900m away arrives quickly when you are driving 120km per hour. It all requires more attention. Slipping back into the habit of driving on the right hand side of the road even for a few seconds can be fatal. It’s happened more than once so far. And at least once a week I climb in the passenger door only to see the steering wheel controls on the other side of the car. In that old life when thought I was fully present, much of what I was doing was on autopilot.

In ten days time, I will be flying back to the US for my former students’ high school graduation. It is a special time of year, one where we take pride in what has been done and also when we look forward to new beginnings. Commencement. A ceremony where degrees are bestowed for achievement, a closing. Commencement. The beginning of something new. The combination of excitement and longing for a time past is bittersweet. When I was in the classroom everyday I felt a sort of certainty, a confidence in the way things worked. I felt like an expert. There were very few instances where felt that I lost my voice or couldn’t set the right atmosphere.  Twelve weeks here have eroded that confidence and certainty more than a little. I can no longer easily find true north.

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The class of 2018.

When I see my old students again, what will I tell them about a world that I feel I’m just now starting to see? What do I say about privilege and luck and responsibility? What do I tell them about the reality of ambition and dreams? What can or should you say about human nature to someone just heading out on their own? I get emails from them asking how this experience has changed me. Do I tell them I’m much more guarded now. There has been a rash of kidnappings and ransoms lately. I look over my shoulder in broad daylight. I’m hyper-aware that this life can be taken away in an instant. A carjacking or robbery doesn’t make the headlines unless someone gets shot. And then there’s only outrage if it was the victim and rejoicing if it was the would-be thief. The reality is that we’ve taught our kids security words for getting out of the car quickly. We practice entering and exiting the vehicles quickly. If a stranger picks them up, they are to scream, kick, fight. We walk quickly and quietly in parking garages. I don’t drive distracted, and actually, I don’t do anything distracted any more. I’m on my phone when I can give it my full attention. When I’m with my kids we are in a safe place where they can get my full attention. I’m overly cautious about where I’m running, when I go to the market, when I’m at stop lights. But because I’m not distracted, I’m also far more generous and patient than I have ever been. I give people my full attention. The security guard, the parking lot attendant, the waitstaff, the guy on the corner looking anxious. My wife and I are much closer than we’ve ever been. I know my boys better too. The kids at the school in Mamelodi get my full attention when I’m there. I’m present, for better and worse. I now have the luxury of time, and these are my new habits in my new habitat.

 

The last couple weeks I’ve wondered if I love or resent this new life. I love it because it has increased my awareness of my privilege, but I also resent it increasing those advantages. The examples of such allowance are numerous and readily apparent. Besides our skin color and nationality, we live in a very secure gated community in a house paid for by the company that sent us here. We sleep with confidence in our safety. I can volunteer when and where I want to, and I’m deeply appreciated for just showing up. Someone else cooks our food. Someone else cleans the house. Someone else educates our kids. Someone else does the gardening. As my wife pointed out, we are grown-up children. I just ate an outstanding breakfast for the equivalent of seven dollars, generous gratuity included. I will tip the car guard in the parking lot two dollars, and he will be immeasurably grateful. I’m constantly aware of the new affluence and means present in my life, and it begs the question what did I do to deserve this? Before I married my wife I wasn’t always aware of how I affected others. That was its own sort of privilege. I acted in self-interest for much of my 20’s, and today I’m embarrassed by how I treated some people and situations. Undervaluing people and passing judgment on others was a serious character flaw. I regret how narrow my thinking was and how I imagine it affected people around me. In addition I’ve never been very humble or satisfied or appreciative with my limits. So why do I deserve to spend my days in relative ease when so many around me need to struggle and work for basic survival?

The only conclusion I can draw from this line of questioning is that “deserving” has nothing to do with it. I certainly do not deserve any of it. I haven’t earned it. And none of the people outside the gates looking for work or students orphaned by HIV deserve the circumstances they were born into. I’m coming to despise the enduring power of the idea that merit justifies our behavior and beliefs. If there is a single lesson I hope our boys take from this experience it is that worth and value are not synonyms. But I’m still left with wondering what is my responsibility in the face of this inequity. It is a quiet gravity pulling at me for action. Is there a way to live that could justify the privilege of the life I have? What do I owe to the society that has given me this rare gift? How do I pay this forward? Norman Counsins once wrote that “The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.” How does one nourish compassion? In two weeks when I stand in front of my students as a class for the last time, and I can’t pretend to have answers or even a sense of direction.

 

I apologize for the solemn tone of these last two posts. I’m not depressed, I promise. I’m quite the opposite actually. I’ve never felt more alive. Every morning I wake up full of love and joy and curiosity, and above all, gratitude. When I started this blog, I said I would be writing for me. It would be a way for me to think and to express those thoughts. Maybe you want to hear about life here. Or maybe you want pictures of exotic animals. Either way, I don’t think you came looking for the mid-life existential questioning that you’ve found here. I’m glad you’re reading this regardless of why you came. I hope you are good and happy and I can’t wait to see you again.

Be good and keep in touch.

Us and Them

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” 
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

 

The last few weeks have been both a whirlwind and a slow crawl. Paradoxes abound in South Africa. We are now out of the hotel and into our house. The boys have started the process of unpacking their toys, a task which I think might take the full four-year term to complete. It is nice to have the certainty of a house again, but there is also something isolating about the silence of the day that the commotion of the hotel kept at bay. We have cable TV, although like back home, there’s never anything on. Internet at the house seems to be a pipe dream at this point, and oddly enough I’m ok with it. The iPads sit lifeless on the top shelf. The old cd collection which had been relegated to a couple of distressed shoe boxes is suddenly enjoying a resurrection. All three Bennett guys now have mountain bikes, and we have started the process of teaching the boys to ride without the training wheels. I’m excited about the outdoor adventures the bikes will provide for us. Our eldest is now an expert on the local ropes and zip-line course. Who would have thought that our timid little bird would ever want to jump from a tree platform fifty feet up. This is what we came for. The Comcast of South Africa is welcome to take its time.

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First fire in our braai.

Winter is on the way and the rains have ceased. Our last good soaking dumped five inches on us in the span of a few hours. Our pool overflowed with a brown sludge and the yard flooded, but the house remained mostly dry. The rains down in Africa don’t play. Juliet, our domestic worker, needed to get home during that storm, and I couldn’t imagine wading out into such a torrent to catch a bus that might never come. So we climbed into the Audi for the first real test of its all-wheel drive capability. There’s a reason why trucks and SUVs have snorkels here. As we left the golf estate I witnessed the full destructive force of the water and gravity. Cinder block security walls were leveled. White water spilled out of drains and overflowed from culverts. The rush of water felled trees. Five inches of rain fell in five hours. I saw makeshift homes washing away. Four lane roads were suddenly half a lane wide. Cars and trucks were piled high with people trying to make progress against the elements and the fates. Stop lights (affectionally referred to as “Robots”) and street lights were eerily black leaving the outline of the road only to the imagination and the spectacular flashes of lightning. As I feared the taxis and buses quit for the day abandoning thousands of people at the makeshift stands and stops. Many had started walking or rather wading home. We drove in silence through the dark township. The narrow roads were lined with eyes peering out from under sheetmetal roofs and behind barred windows. The outrageous conditions that so many people endure are humbling and heartbreaking. Overwhelming gratitude for all that I have is never far away. I’ve sat and cried in the car more than once over the last few weeks. I simply cannot wrap my head or my heart around the injustice of fortuity.

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After the rains, the pool was sludge.

Each day is bright and cool and weirdly reminiscent of autumn on the Maine coast. My days are spent putting around the house and playing with our youngest son. He doesn’t start school until August, and I’m cherishing having a little shadow by my side as we unpack the last of the boxes or assemble bikes or navigate the markets for what we need. We take walks and imagine fighting Transformers. We go to swim lessons and build Legos. He is also teaching Juliet how to play American style. This means she is given a lightsaber or more often a Stormtrooper mask and blaster. She’s a wonderful human being, and I can already see that she loves our boys. As you might remember, Juliet and her husband have two daughters, and that they can only afford to journey home to Zimbabwe to see them once a year. We focus on how we can help: paying a living wage, arming her with skills and certifications related to her interest in cooking, giving ample time off in order to travel, inquiring on how we can help reunite her family, and ensuring her girls are given the opportunity to stay in and focus on school. And yet… It all still seems too little to assuage the unfairness and cosmic prejudices that have appropriated the resources and opportunities so unjustly.

Yes, I feel guilt. Yes, I feel embarrassment. Yes, I feel shame. And it isn’t at what I have, but what I’ve forever taken for granted. My advantages were so prevalent and so omnipresent that in the States I never tried to distinguish between the results of my efforts and the results of historical, geographical, genetic, social forces and just dumb luck. I assumed it was all my doing. Perspective. Compassion. Empathy. We all want to possess these attributes, but there is an expensive emotional tax for commiseration. It is one that I have paid mostly in lip service. I simply cannot imagine a life where I only see my boys once a year, or one where I commute through deluge, crime, and danger to work for only a chance at a better tomorrow.

So what do I do with this? What is my responsibility in this new light?

I don’t know.

I enjoy teaching literature because through characters we can focus on choice and responsibility and consequences. We can contrast the ideas of fate and absurdism and try to see how we can exercise some sort of control over our own stories. I teach existentialism not out of despair, but rather to try to get to the heart of purpose and the human condition. For me responsibility is as concrete as making decisions, acting, and accepting the consequences. If there is anything which I take from our readings and discussions, it is that what we choose to do or not do does make a difference. It makes a difference to the environment, it makes a difference in terms of material and economic consequences, it makes a difference to other people. It sets an example and endorses action. I ask my students what terrifies them more, that nothing matters or that everything does? Each year I fall more firmly into the camp of what we do matters.

But what does it mean then when I drive past people literally begging for help? What am I choosing to see, and what am I choosing to ignore? If at every moment we choose who we are and what we do, what does it mean to want to ignore the human being standing in front of me? In Man’s Search for Meaning Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl says “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” How do I need to change? My favorite author Jeanette Winterson answers this question by comparing humans to snowflakes. We are all different, and we must forget this fact if we are to function.

“They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things.
There is only the present and nothing to remember.”

… 

On Monday I travelled to Jo’berg for an interview of sorts at the American School. It is the second time they have offered me a chance at my dream job. Small, diverse, highly motivated classes of IB students. The campus is pristine, complete with golf course and new natatorium. The staff is incredibly talented and driven in their instruction. The resources are unimaginable for an urban public school teacher. I could certainly see myself learning and growing and thriving professionally in this environment. While I considered the offer, I spent yesterday in the Mamelodi township at a public elementary school. The students there receive an educational experience that is at the other end of the privilege spectrum. The campus is surrounded by makeshift walls of concrete and re-bar and topped with razor wire. The main gate is imposing to see, but it wasn’t locked and could be easily opened with a shove. In the first room I visited there were roughly forty students sitting on a red carpet in the middle of the small stuffy prefab building. The walls were bare, boxes and stacks of donated materials lined the one shelf in the back. A teacher and an assistant were setting up miscellaneous items on the few desks that there were. But I never got to see the activity they were planning. For the most part, the teachers had the kindergarten students counting one to ten and then back down for the first hour I was there. Yes, the students sat on the carpeted area for an hour counting to ten. We kept waiting for something to happen, but they kept sitting and kept counting. And while upsetting, I can’t blame the teachers. Most do not have a formal education or degree beyond their own public schooling. I was told that some months they get paid and some months they don’t. It is difficult to retain teachers who have gone to on to teacher’s college when there is no guarantee of salary. There were no books and very few teaching materials apparent. I met the headmaster and he like most administrators I have ever worked with was kind and proud and knowledgable of all of his students. Easily in his sixties, his eyes were sharp and bright. I had a feeling that the people who worked with him believed in him and his mission. For the generations of kids from Mamelodi, this might be the best educational experience they have ever received. After all, the school was clean, safe, and they were learning to count. South Africa is often a paradox. One minute it is devastatingly heartbreaking and the next you are witness to public displays of joy and beauty and appreciation that is rare back home.

I do not think I will accept the teaching job. Many of the same reasons that I declined the offer last December are still relevant. I do not yet know how to best spend my time here. I do love and miss teaching. Yet I also feel the pull to something else. I want it to be writing and running and thinking, but I don’t know if those will answer my questions either.

 

On the drive home from Mamelodi I fight tears and decide to listen a meditation app. A calming voice with an English accent tells me to breathe.

One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten.

 

Be good and keep in touch.

On Fellowship and Community

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“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the last few weeks we’ve continued on what I consider to be the most crucial undertaking to-date for our transition, making friends. We left a city where we were rich with community. From the faculty of the school where I worked to the running teams and our friends from graduate school, we were well connected socially to Nashville. I still email and text with the old world daily, but I’m starting to feel the isolation of this new place set in. It’s not loneliness yet, I do have my wife and boys here after all, and they provide tremendous joy and daily inspiration. But I’ve also spent almost every minute of the last five weeks talking only with them (and 66% of them are under the age of 7), so you can imagine my delight in the fortuitous meeting of some fellow ex-pats. As a teacher I found that it was always important to ensure each student had formed a connection to someone on the first day. New students, exchange students, English learners, artists, athletes, thespians, all needed to be connected to their communities by people who act as social cicerones. These beautiful people who recognize the isolated, often from their own experience, and extend a welcoming gesture are my personal heroes. In school I’ve found that cross country runners and theater kids are often the best at inviting the outsiders in. They are usually more motley and therefore the most welcoming to new faces regardless of circumstance. The need for these social ushers is no different for adults in new communities.

Ex-pats are by definition strangers in a strange land, and I thought some work would be required to find community. But I never imagined just how difficult it would be to meet people when you lack language and some social literacy. We are staying in a very densely populated Afrikaans and German speaking area of East Pretoria. Both cultures have been cordial, but in our experiences they are also mostly closed to outsiders. After initial curiosity, conversations never really develop or extend beyond the introductions despite our best efforts. During our first few weeks, we’ve met a few parents from the American School, but as we arrived in the middle of the term and school year we’ve also found that many families are in their established routines and accustomed to the rhythm of their days. We’ve also missed out on all the orientation and meet-and-greets hosted by the school for this year. Enter the isolation and loneliness that is all too familiar for ex-pat families.

Then last week when we were walking in the park (the same one where we had tried and also given up on making friends with local German parents) my eldest ran up to me and declared “Hey Pop, that boy speaks English like me!” He pointed toward a family sitting nearby, but I was only slightly encouraged. We have tried to explain the difference between the versions of English to our sons, but it’s often lost in translation. To my surprise my son meant the boy actually spoke American English, not the heavily accented-English that is the second tongue we are becoming accustomed to. As we walked closer the mother of the two boys that our son was playing with stood and introduced herself. I felt optimistic almost immediately. She and her husband have spent most of the last twenty years living abroad, mostly in Africa, and she had recognized us both as American and also as a bit crestfallen. We immediately hit it off and within hours she had texted us with recommendations for local restaurants, safe outdoor play areas, and had invited us to dinner the following night. Our new friends also connected us with another ex-pat English teacher and fellow runner. That very night he had also texted to invite me out for a long run that weekend. While the run itself was a brutal reminder of how far my fitness has fallen since 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed the company and conversation. Sometimes all it takes is someone to say “You can sit with us.”

I’ve been in love with international travel since a trip to Italy as a senior in high school almost 20 years ago. In my adult life the world has been both terrifyingly immense and simultaneously surprisingly close-knit. When I was younger I spent too many days and nights thinking that the world I desired to be a part of was distant and unreachable, when in fact the social connection I wanted was just outside my door. Distance, I have learned, is often more an obstacle of imagination rather than one of space and time. The world is full of serendipity and connections are never far away. As evidence of this I offer up the time Erin and I travelled half away around the world with a group of high school students only to run into a college ex-girlfriend on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Or the time I flew across the country to a track meet at Stanford only to sit down next to a guy who lived on the same Oxford campus at the same time as I did? How many times have you bumped into faces and names from your past in the most random times and places? I’ve gotten used to running into former students, but I’m never prepared for making the connections half-a-world away. And even here, a place I thought would be the farthest away from the circles I’ve run in, I find that an American school family has roots in Brunswick, Maine and attended Mt. Ararat High School. For twenty minutes we named common friends and summer jobs and experiences. And the woman who introduced herself in the park? She was a roommate with one of my high school friends at William and Mary. This world is expansive, and yet friends and friends of friends are everywhere if I can just get out of my own way to meet them.

An update on last week’s blog. We own cars! And even better, they might be insured! It was a process filled with tribulation, but I think we are the better for it. Yes, it might be possible that we ultimately paid a bribe (or two) during the sketchy registration process (we’ll never know for sure…), but we are now driving around in two street-legal vehicles, complete with run-flat tires and smash-and-grab window protection. So that’s good news, I think. And since we now own some stuff outright in South Africa, we are starting to feel more and more like residents rather than extended tourists. This sense of ownership is empowering. In addition, we only have a little more than a week of hotel living before we get to make a house our home. If you’re keeping score, we are now in week ten of hotel residence. I know I speak for all the Bennetts here when I say that we are ready to be home again.

Be good and keep in touch.

Learning Morse Code

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Members and coaches of the 1998 Yarmouth High School Ski Teams. This week head Coach Bob Morse retired from coaching after 48 years and 32 state titles.

This week my hometown celebrated the retirement of my high school cross country and ski coach. Bob Morse is one of the figures whose impact transcends the role of teacher and athletics coach. For 48 years he guided Maine athletes to the highest levels of sport and while doing so he also instilled in them a deep appreciation for the outdoors, a respect for their own potential, and demonstrated a generosity with his knowledge of athletics. Like most young people, I struggled with finding a place and direction. Morse was a constant support and mentor for me. He was patient, and he was accepting. He took time to listen and to ask questions. With Morse I always felt like he believed in me and in my potential even when I didn’t believe in myself. For that gift I will always be grateful.

Last fall at a cross country meet I was thanked by a parent for being a voice of reason in their child’s life. I think it was a bit hyperbole, but I understand how adults can affect the trajectory of a young person’s life in ways their parents can’t. The words a parent speaks to their teen often fall of closed minds, but when those same words come from a respected coach or teacher they are valued as a much greater currency. I understood what these parents were saying because it was also this way for me. My parents tried to give me what I needed, but the suggestion and advice always meant so much more coming from Morse. When parents thank me for giving time and energy to their students and athletes, I never know how to react. It’s not entirely selfless. I’m paying a debt. I feel I’m only doing what was done for me by Morse and many other teachers, both formally and informally. Of course I will do the same for others. That’s how community works, right? And it’s my hope that someday someone of integrity will also be the mentor and role model for my sons when they stop listening to me. The old adage “it takes a village,” has become a cliché, but there is still truth in the sentiment. I prefer the Ugandan proverb, “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” We all have many parents and grandparents who look out for us. When we reach that age, it is our turn to do the same. And though we haven’t seen each other in recent years, I will always consider Morse and the Yarmouth coaches and faculty to be part of my family. I doubt that I’m the only former athlete who feels this way.

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Another year, another state title for Bob Morse and the Yarmouth High School Ski Team.

When remembering those years, I feel deeply fortunate to have experienced Morse at his finest, first as a seventh grade mathematics teacher and later as a coach for ten athletic seasons. I ran cross country, I skied, and I competed on the track for him. As a self-critical teenager (is there any other kind?) I could and often would disappoint myself with my athletic performances, but I never once felt like I let Morse down. His voice of encouragement and positivity was selfless and plentiful. Morse embodied the positive energy that we needed. There was one time after a morning ski race when my future bother-in-law intentionally prevented the team’s return to campus and class by wondering off. I thought for sure this would anger him. True to form Morse never raised his voice or showed distemper. When one of our athletes was kicked off a mountain for jumping from a ski lift, he simply shook his head in disbelief. At heart I believe he was just as mischievous as the rest of us. He took us to the mountains for pre-season camps, for training, and for racing. Long before geocaching was popular, Morse took our math class to a place called Fat Hog Hill for orienteering lessons. After giving us a compass and the initial control point, he climbed back on the bus and said he would see us for lunch at the terminus. We stood in the middle of the Western Maine hills looking at each other as the bus pulled off down the dirt road. Athletically and academically, Morse’s challenges were always set just outside of our comfort level, but always within our ability.

I don’t think there was a greater joy for him than to bring young people into the sports and community he loved. Because he never valued results more than his athlete’s development, the state titles came organically and routinely. As a coach I appreciate and try to replicate how Morse treated his least talented athletes with the same energy and support as he did his All-Americans. He cultivated winning programs by growing people. Morse invested his time and energy in the athletes of Maine for nearly half a century. I often think of how his wisdom was camouflaged by wit and humor. Our teams found camaraderie trying to decipher his riddles and enigmas which pitted our minds against his. As documented by Kathleen Fleury in last month’s Downeast Magazine, Morse’s knowledge of the state of Maine and his innate talent for finding skiable snow in warmer winter months was never less than astounding. But for me, his ability to pass off his wisdom in dismissive asides and throw away answers which sometimes left my head spinning that was impressive. Morse’s Zen-like one-liners and repartee that contained multiple meanings always left me wondering how much more he knew than he was letting on. It was simply a joy to be on his teams.

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Yarmouth XC 1997.

Morse was a true athlete’s coach. He wanted us to be the best athletes we could be, and he knew that in order to achieve that end we needed to become the best people we could be. Years after I left Yarmouth, I would occasionally return and stop by practice to catch up with him and see how the team was doing. But I always left feeling like he had learned more about my life than I did about his. Much of my teaching and coaching philosophies and practices stem from the experiences I had in his classroom and on his teams. I am eternally grateful for his generous gift of time and energy. He made the Maine athletic community infinitely better, and I’m certain his impact on will continue to be felt for generations.

So tonight, please join me in raising a glass or ringing a cowbell for a true luminary, one who lit the way for so many of us. Thank you, Morse! Heia! Heia!