7,000 miles pregnant.

Almost three months since my last post. After about 60 days of non-blogging (and not much writing at all of any kind), I almost forgot that I actually enjoy writing. One side effect of turning a pastime into a job is that once your passion becomes your job, it’s… work. Should be obvious, I guess, but it’s not until it happens.

So when I found out I was pregnant in April, I kind of felt like I had no mental energy to spare for something as mundane as writing another blog post. I all but quit copywriting, and that led to a sabbatical from blogging, which I’m not sure was as much of a break as I thought it would be.

Pregnancy converged with grad school classes (which I’m still woefully behind in) and a six-week trip to the states that turned into a 7,000-mile road trip from Philadelphia to Colorado and back again, lots of detours in between. That trip might have spawned lots of great blog posts.

Instead, that epic 20-state road trip will go down in history as a few Instagram pictures and snatches of memories, as well as a few stories for my yet-to-be-born child: “When I was pregnant with you, your dad and I almost drove off the edge of a mountain just outside of Cripple Creek, Colorado….”

Stories are so much more exciting when there’s no written evidence to water the action down with too much reality.

As I type this, I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport waiting to board a very long flight to Tokyo (which will be made longer, I can tell already, by my 14-week-pregnant body).

I’ll get to Guam sometime, longer from now than I’d like to think about. In the midnight/early morning hours. And then real life will start again, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to pretend anymore that I’m still on vacation or that life isn’t meant to be written down.

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A Tabernacle for the Sun

I’ve been collecting a lot of sunrises and sunsets lately. It feels like I’m packing them away like fragile things and adding them to a secret collection. Sometimes nothing makes you slow down and regain perspective like watching a sunrise or sunset, especially reflected in the placid waters of the Pacific.

 

photo 2

Every one I miss is one that I’ll never get to watch as it paints the sky again.

I’m not a fan of Emerson. At all. But something I read in high school stuck:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

― Ralph Waldo EmersonNature and Selected Essays

A few weeks ago, a good friend went with me to watch a sunset from one of Guam’s clifftops. She gazed at her phone for twenty minutes, rapidly messaging someone on the other end of the Internet, then looked up just before the last drop of honeyed gold dripped below the horizon. “That wasn’t such a great sunset,” she remarked.  “Ready to go? I’m hungry.”

It’s a testament to how good a friend she is that she even went with me to watch the sun set at all. But for her, unless the entire sky is riddled with brilliant golds and oranges that show up well on an Instagram pic, it isn’t really worth her time–or attention.

If we only saw a sunset once every thousand years, how many people would swarm outside and find the best possible spots to watch those colors light up the sky? Yet our smartphones, books, and conversations about the weather seem infinitely more consequential.

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Island life (Guam probs)

I don’t take being under the weather well. And something about having a cold on a tropical island seems wildly incongruous in an entirely stupid kind of way.

It makes me want to write told-you-so letters to all the old women who used to warn me that colds and flu bugs resulted from chilly weather and drafts. Pretty sure I haven’t felt temps cooler than 79F since last July, during a 24-hour layover in Japan. Guam isn’t cold, it doesn’t have cold, and the only drafts are warm, humid-air ones. Therefore I should not have a cold.

Alas.

I am sick and miserable. Sick enough that right now I’m as attached to my box of Kleenex as I normally am to my cell phone. Miserable because it’s muggy and Guam-y outside AND inside because my power is out. It’s 11:30 p.m., and I’ve sought refuge in my least favorite fast-food joint to drink bottled water, allow my sweat-soaked shirt to dry out, and wait for the battery on my longsuffering MacBook Air to die before heading back home to see if the Guam Power Authority has managed to work their magic.

Sickness is one thing. Sickness and no aircon is another thing entirely.

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Night Life Beneath the Pacific

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.

– Dave Barry

At 2 a.m. Thursday evening, Manny and I went snorkeling. I’d never been in the ocean at night–not really, not beyond sticking my toes in the water and watching the moonbeams reflected in the silver-grey waters. The hubster promised that it’s another world at night, when different creatures venture from their coral reef homes and bioluminescents glow below the surface of the water.

Armed with powerful underwater flashlights, we ventured into the waters of Apra Harbor, Guam. I struggled with basic tasks that made me feel more uncoordinated than normal; even stepping into the shallows made me feel like I was going to wipe out spectacularly.

When I finally secured my gear and stuck my head underwater, I realized how close I’d come to sitting on a big, iridescent, spiky sea urchin.

When we finally got out into deeper water, I got my bearings and shone my flashlight around to see what there was to see. The ocean truly is a different world after the sun sets. Fish that seem grey or brown during the daytime glow silver and gold at night. Shrimp hug the edges of coral, eyes shining eerily in the reflection of your flashlight.

Unfortunately, the experience was one of the more uncomfortable snorkeling sessions ever. My fins were fighting me, my mask kept filling with water, and in the shallows, where it was easiest to actually see the marine life around us illuminated by our flashlights, the water surged and pushed us around, dangerously close to the sharp coral and into each other.

More than once, Manny kicked me in the face or shoulder with a fin while trying to get his bearings, and I’m sure I returned the favor more than once. I think actually diving at night would be preferable to paddling around at the surface.

But the best part of the evening was the moment Manny whipped around and enthusiastically flailed his flashlight toward an elegant, color-changing, squirming creature just a couple of feet ahead of me.  Already a little annoyed at my malfunctioning gear and not yet used to the cool nighttime water, I focused on the beam of light his flashlight was illuminating, and there it was–a foot-long octopus, glowing and changing colors as it retreated from us to its hiding place in the nearest clump of coral.

At that moment, my mask filled with water (again), a small wave pushed me off course, and Manny’s words of advice came to mind: “Just don’t think about all the reef sharks you can’t see behind you.”

Brilliant.

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EVERYTHING is irritating (Culture shock: an irrational explanation)

According to Northeastern University (and psychologists everywhere), you can expect to experience four stages of culture shock when you move overseas.

1. Wonder/Honeymoon: Everything is shiny.

2. Frustration: You realize that you don’t speak the language, that even something as straightforward as buying toothpaste can be an exercise in frustrated cultural expectations, and there are no sour gummy worms–or chicken pot pies–to be found.

3. Depression: Unexplained bouts of crying.

4. Acceptance: Realizing that you could maybe live a normal life here.

Handy chart, right? Now you know exactly what to expect, and nothing will faze you. After all, that’s why they hand out charts and similar culture-shock breakdowns to prospective exchange students and those moving abroad. Because if you know what to expect, everything’s easier. If it’s broken down into a four-step process, you can handle it. Or can you?

If you’re like me, your primary problem lies in thinking that you’re experienced enough to be above such culture shock and other similarly pedestrian afflictions.

When I moved to Guam (which is, admittedly, so Westernized that it’s really not incredibly shocking), I experienced something like an odd combination of all 4 stages (and then some extras thrown in for good measure) all at once. It was combined with all the stages associated with being newly married. Good times.

Four-step lists (and seven-step lists, and most other lists) annoy me because they’re almost always gross oversimplifications of the way things actually are.

It probably goes without saying that, when you live in a land of eternal summertime, summer eventually gets old. Instead of dreaming of sunshine, you dream of fall leaves. When the beach is a ten-minute walk away, it loses part of it’s splendor. Not all of it, mind you. Just some–enough to make you wish for snow-capped mountains instead of white-capped waves.

Sometimes, everything about a new culture is just irritating. Like when you go to a mall in Mexico City and realize that toilet paper isn’t a given in every modern bathroom. Or when you step into a Japanese bathroom for the first time and hit every button on control panel attached to the toilet before figuring out how to flush the stupid contraption.

No informational brochure or culture-shock flow chart can prepare you for that.

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The Year of Sunshine–a bucket list for one more year on Guam

Since my little rant about bucket lists a few days ago, it became clear that I need to both beef up and clarify my Guam bucket list, because it looks like I only have 13 months to complete it.

The Powers that Be (a.k.a. the U.S. military) have informed the hubster and me that we’ll be leaving our little tropical paradise next March. That’ll add up to just under two years of Guam life–22 months, 600 and some-odd days of summertime. By then, I’ll be so desperate for snow that I’ll probably resort to pulverizing excessive amounts of ice in the blender just so I can build a miniature snowman.

So, with a spirit of uber-excitement at the prospect of living in another beautiful overseas location, and in the spirit of challenging (and fun) bucket lists, I submit: the Guam do-or-die List to end all Lists.

1. Earn advanced SCUBA certification

Since becoming open-water certified last year, I’ve become way more confident in the water–especially in terms of facing swimming things with teeth. Instead of freaking out, my reaction now is usually more like, “Oooo, shiny. Come here, fishy fishy.” But I know I’ve still got plenty to learn. Along the same vein? Before I leave, I want to log at least 60 dives. If we end up in Incirlik, Turkey, next, I don’t think the dive gear will get much use.

Side note: If you like swimming, fishies, and adventure-y things, getting started diving is a fantastic way to indulge your wild side. And for Guam residents, it’s surprisingly inexpensive.

2.  Get started on grad school

I’m in the process of applying for Indiana State University’s Graduate Certificate in TESL right now–a step that would better qualify me to teach English to speakers of other languages. Plus, it’s several graduate-level classes I can apply toward a master’s degree later on, which is one of my real bucket list items. Win-win.

3. Try my hand at cooking Chamorro food

Some of my favorite grub on island comes from the BBQ joints at Chamorro Village, the weekly flea market in Dededo, and the little local cantinas that remind me of the Pacific’s version of a taco stand. Some local favorites–oxtail soup, for example–don’t exactly sound fantastic. Other delicacies like chicken kelaguen and chalakiles sound like they’re worth trying in my own kitchen.

4. Get in shape-ish

They say that Guam is the perfect place to get in shape. In my experience so far, Guam is more ideal for sweating, fanning oneself, and taking photos for Instagram. The eternal summertime often makes me want to retreat into air conditioning more than anything else. But with all the hikes, beautiful jogging trails, and scenic views around here, there’s no reason not to work some purposeful sweat into more of my days.

5. Write.

I’m a part-time freelance writer. Most of my experience has been writing product descriptions, marketing websites, or re-drafting website landing pages for various online businesses. Yes, it pays fairly well; yes, it allows me to camp out at Infusion for hours at a time and know that the investment in gourmet coffee was worth it. Plus, I love writing conversational non-fiction. But before I leave Guam, I hope to write more consistently and more creatively than before–maybe even branch out into fiction. This week, I got a fun article about eccentric geniuses published at Listverse.com, which was an exciting start.

6. Learn German. Or Turkish. Or whateverish it is they speak where we’re going

When I find out where my husband and I will be stationed next, my next step–after wikipedia-ing the country and writing one very excited Facebook post–will be to pick up Rosetta Stone and a grammar book to study the language of our destination. Germany and Turkey are the most likely candidates, but we could end up stationed in the States–in which case, I’ll just keep brushing up on my español.

7. Hike.

Hiking on Guam can be brutal, but it’s worth the blood, sweat, and sword grass. In the last year, I’ve seen waterfalls, soaring cliffs, mountains that look like they were carved from emerald velvet, and water so blue it hurts your eyes. The Best Tracks on Guam clearly details the island’s most rewarding hikes, giving trekkers hints on exactly where they should look to see the stuff that’s so easy to miss. I want to do more of those hikes before I leave–including the dreaded central ridge trail that covers 12 miles of southern Guam’s hills.

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Why I decided to beef up my bucket list (and stop hiding from failure)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

–W.B. Yeats

Staring at the sea makes it surprisingly easy to think. A few weeks ago, while sitting on one of Guam’s beautiful beaches, I started thinking about all the stuff I’ve done in the past few years–incredibly improbable things that happened, blessings and weird things like marriage and finishing college and friends and Pacific islands. A lot of it is more or less documented on my own bucket list, which is full of the kind of feel-good things that lend a bit of inner satisfaction every time I cross something off.

Scuba diving.

Skydiving.

Traveling.

Road trip from West coast to East.

In my situation, the biggest challenge associated with all those things was financial, not personal. I’ve never been deathly afraid of heights, for example, so skydiving wasn’t a huge milestone for me in that sense. So many of my crossed-off items are more a collection of spectacular, unforgettable memories than real accomplishments.

For many bucket list items, all you need is the right location or the right amount of money or the right friend to go along for the adventure. The problem with my bucket list? Not many things on it actually require work or perseverance. The ones that do are also the easiest to put on hold.

A Google search for “bucket list” yields 155 million results. On BucketList.org, you can make your own life to-do list, sort each item, collaborate with friends, and find inspiration from the bucket lists of others from around the world. What’s trending on their front page today:

BucketList.org Screenshot

Have a mud fight. Try a fried Snickers. Travel. Fly a kite. These are the trending “goals.” They’re whimsical and fun. They sound like just the kind of thing we need more of–acting like a kid a bit more, getting out of our box a bit, doing something just for us

In case you don’t know what to do with your life, Yahoo Answers has tons  of suggestions for your bucket list, from “eat the hottest pepper in the world” to “party on a yacht,” “dye your hair green,” “try weed,” and “make mistakes.”

At some point, our culture’s life goals become reduced to a list of the whimsical or the exotic or the taboo things we find fascinating. It’s like we’re stewing a bouillabaisse of our own boredom and then daring one another to take a sip.

A relatively new (but powerful) movement thumbs its nose at generations past who worked toward specific goals and instead embraces the anti-goal: the theory that making goals at all only hurts us in the end and prevents us from enjoying life to its fullest. 

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 4.50.28 PMSuddenly, it’s much more popular–and much more zen–to be as anti-goal as possible (like the author of the article from which the above quote was taken). After all, if we’re persevering for something in the future, we could miss the chance to eat a deep-fried Snickers in the now. Heaven forbid.

We scoff at the few individuals who still make New Year’s Resolutions. We’re up-to-date enough to know that making resolutions never works anyway.

There are countless articles out there published in everything from Psychology Today to various scientific journals outlining all the reasons we should stay far, far away from the dangerous trap of goal-making. Why?

The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear.

–Ray Williams, “Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work

Williams says that because (a.) goals require life change and (b.) change makes us uncomfortable,  (c.) goals are inherently demotivating and should be avoided. Using this type of logic, it would follow that we should avoid change as much as possible because of the psychological distress it causes us.

And Williams isn’t the only psychologist to take this view:

The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract.

–L.A. King and C.M. Burton

This last statement was published by the American Psychological Association in an article titled “The Hazards of Goal Pursuit.

We shouldn’t make goals, experts say, because we could fail. And that would be bad for our self-esteem. It seems that the “optimally striving individual” shouldn’t strive at all.

So we make goals like “fly a kite” and “get a tattoo on my butt,” because we’re still kind of driven to accomplish something, as long as it doesn’t implicate ourselves in anything important or difficult. Any more direct or specific an implication could lead to failure, which is a potentially devastating power against our psyche.

I’m all for living and spending each moment purposefully. But there’s got to be more to purposeful living than having mud fights, taking a vacation to India, or jumping out of airplanes–which seems to be where Culture at Large is telling us the meaning in life is to be found. In ourselves. When we do things that bring out the kid (or the rebel) in us.

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of living. Sometimes I go for long walks in the pouring rain just so I can jump in the mud puddles along the way. Sometimes those are the moments that make life beautiful. But by themselves, taken to an extreme, they’re the moments of a child’s life–a childlike happiness rooted in a single moment and nothing else.

Is sheltering ourselves in failure-proofed rooms full of fried Snickers worth it? I don’t know about you, but I like to think my psyche’s a little tougher than the American Psychological Association gives it credit for.

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