Halfway to 52

I don’t like to make a big deal out of my birthday. If I’m lucky I get to spend the day with the people I love and just hang out while eating unhealthy food, maybe watch a movie, and occasionally storm a soccer field in the middle of the night with a flag made of my broken hockey stick and claim it as your own. Other times, like yesterday, I spend the day alone. This may sound sad to some people but I spend so much time on my own here anyway that I’ve become more than accustomed to entertaining myself. So yesterday I slept in, did laundry, biked into town, had a nice lunch, ate a lot of ice cream, slogged back home with what felt like a brick in my stomach, and spent the rest of the evening relaxing and doing some exercise at home. I had begun the day with a FaceTime session with the family back home, and ended it FaceTimeing with Ammy, so all in all I was pretty content. I hadn’t even told anyone in my village that it was my birthday because I was concerned they would make a bigger deal of it than I wanted. So I went to bed that night having closed out on another birthday.

When I arrived at school the next day it was raining, and so morning announcement were being shouted into a microphone while students lined up under the awnings in front of their classrooms. After the bell, I headed to my first class amidst a sea of students, the younger of which persisted in their habit of using me as a jungle gym. I made it to the classroom I share with my coteacher, Kruu Ice (Kruu means teacher in Thai), and we proceeded to push through a review of the last few weeks topics. After class I started to make my way back to the teachers office but was stopped by a group of students before I could reach the stairs. They all started handing me cards and saying happy birthday. I was shocked, first that they even knew it was my birthday and second that they would have made me anything. As it would happen one of the other teachers had seen a ‘happy birthday’ post from my coteacher to me on her newsfeed and word had spread. I thanked all of the students for their kindness and complimented their artwork and then headed to the office. I hadn’t been sitting for more than ten minutes when the door opened and a line of students filed in each smiling and presenting me with a birthday card they had created. It was wonderful, some of them had really out a lot of effort into them. I felt great and afterwards I couldn’t stop smiling.

The rest of the afternoon was full of ‘happy birthdays’ from other teachers and students. They asked how old I was, what I had done to celebrate, etc. I told my students I was turning 100, which few accepted a little more readily than I would have liked. Before long the last period of the day rolled around, 4th grade. I should mention Mondays are slow for me. I teach only the first and last periods of the day, the middle hours are usually spent reading, wandering, etc. I walked up the stairs towards my classroom and was greeted again by a wall of students. A quick glance in the room on my left and I could see the students were drawing. Suddenly one girl ran up and hugged me and handed me another birthday card, before I could finish thanking her another student had handed me a card, and another, and then another. One student came up and handed me a lighter which at first kind of alarmed me, but then another student slapped it out of her hand and told me it belonged to a different teacher before scurrying off. Before I could follow her another student grabbed my arm and started pulling me towards the classroom. My coteacher smiled at me and as I went to look for a spot on the desk to put down the cards I heard my name called. I turned around to see a wave of kids from a few different grades flood into the classroom carrying a small birthday cake with lit candles, a bag of durian chips, and even more birthday cards. The smile that spread over my face at that moment wouldn’t leave me for almost two hours. The students sang happy birthday, I attempted to blow out the candles (which was hard because they were those trick candles), and then tried to get frosting on a few of their faces. They asked if they could watch a cartoon, and after glancing at my coteacher it became evident that she had told them the decision was mine to make. ‘Ok, ok du cartoon’ I responded and the kids cheered.

Later I sat down with a few of my students while we watched one of the Madagascar movies. A group of them gathered around me and started asking me every question they could think of. What was my favorite food, what was favorite food in Thailand, what was my favorite animal, what was my girlfriends name, and eventually, when would I go back to America. I told them I was going back in September for a vacation but after that I would be back in Thailand. They asked how long I would stay in their village and I said about another 8 months, then I was planning to move to Bangkok. Around this time one the girls in my class rested her forehead on knee. I should mention, kids in Thailand are pretty physical. I can’t make it through a day without someone leaning on me, asking to be picked up, laying on my shoulder, climbing onto my lap. The minute I stop moving I pretty much become furniture, it’s just kind of normal, and so when Oil(that’s her name) laid her head on my knee I didn’t think anything of it. Until after a few minutes I noticed my knee was wet, and I realized she was crying. I’d seen her cry once before, another time that the topic of how long I would be staying was brought up. The other kids noticed and while they weren’t crying, I could detect a similar mood among them. They weren’t asking how long I was staying out of curiosity. They were asking because they wanted to know how much time we had left together. They were going to miss me and I realized, despite the abundance of grey hairs they cause me, I was going to miss them.

Is tough to determine success, or even progress, as a peace corps volunteer. A lot of times I feel like I’m not accomplishing much of anything. I try to remind myself that just showing up, just being there, is something that will have an effect, but as time goes on in a place with so much need, that assurance carries less and less weight. Working in education, I probably won’t know what effect I’ve had on these kids for years…if ever. But today as I sat with the kids I started to redefine my impact.

Sure one of the teachers had the kids make birthday cards for me, but there was a lot of care put into some of those cards. They drew things like dinosaurs and monkeys, they each wrote me notes in their own words (and then coached me through reading them). It was sweet, and goofy, and to someone who frequently feels like an outsider looking in, it was very meaningful. They each made sure they handed me the card they made, made sure I opened it and saw their work, and attempted to read what they wrote. Maybe just showing up, just being there, just making sure the kids know I care about them and that they’re important to me, is more powerful than I could have imagined. And yea, maybe they won’t retain more than a few sentences of English, and maybe only a few will ever really be able to speak it. But no matter what I’ll leave this town in 8 months knowing that for 2 years I made them laugh, I picked them up, I let them lean on me during assemblies and sit on my lap when watching movies in class. I hugged them, high-fived them, accidentally knocked a few of the smaller ones over, but always picked them back up. And maybe, just maybe, these two years will have a positive impact on something even bigger than their education….their lives.  That sounds pretty good to me.

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The Time Things Take

I find it amazing the ways in which people perceive time. In my case it always seems like the things I want to stretch out for days are over in a heartbeat, and things I wish would end sooner seem to go on for years. I’m sure a lot of people can say the same, and I know there are countless theories about time and how we view it. The one aspect of my life where the ‘speed’ of time seems to fluctuate the most is when I’m running, and this has never been more evident to me than recently as I’ve begun preparing for a 100k race this October.

So 100k (roughly 64 miles) will be the longest distance I’ve ever attempted to run, and thus it’s required a different type of training than I’ve done for other races. My legs, arms, and core need to be strong. My lungs and heart need to be in good working order, and it would be nice if I was relatively injury free when the race starts. But one thing I’ve really been focusing on training (which I’ve tended to neglect in the past) is my mind. Anyone whose run recreationally has likely encountered what some runners have called ‘monkey brain’. It usually sets in at the point in a run when you’re far enough out to be tired, but not close enough to the finish to feel any type of relief in knowing your pain will soon be eased. I am more than familiar with monkey brain, and it is no friend of mine…mostly because I tend to have no control over it. Some runners can quiet the monkey with ease, but mine just seems to get louder and louder the more I tell it to shut up. That’s why in addition to the long runs and push ups and core workouts, I am focusing a lot of my energy on tackling the monkey. And nothing gets the monkey more riled up then when I look at my watch after seemingly running for days to see that only a minute or two has passed. When this happens it’s Monkey-1, Colin-0.

Today’s run felt like it was happening in slow motion. Not that everything around me was in slow motion, because that would be awesome. Had that happened I would be out experimenting with my new found superpowers instead of typing right now. I’d move people from one room to another in a second, tie shoe laces together, all kinds of stuff. But anyway that didn’t happen, instead it was me moving in slow motion. I ran 22 miles on Monday, 15 on Tuesday, and was in the process of running 11 today. I was fried. I started thinking about how the 22 mile run had flown by where as the first 4 miles of today’s run felt like they took a month, and things didn’t improve. ‘How the hell are you going to run 100k?’, the monkey asked in perfect English. I ignored it and kept putting one foot in front of the other, but he made a good point. 100k races last a long time, far longer than any other race I’ve run. I could very well be running for 10+ hours depending on the terrain. And while I didn’t come up with any strategy what-so-ever for combatting the massive mental fatigue I felt (I know that probably seemed like it was the direction I was going in) I did start to think about all the other things I had done in my life that had taken a really really long time. And so I’m going to write those, using the 100k-ish time as my middle ground.

THINGS THAT TOOK LONGER THAN THIS RACE PROBABLY WILL-

Various Airline Flights – I’ve spent the majority of my post-collegiate adult life in Asia which, at least until teleportation is invented, is best reached by airplane. Now I know this is a journey that used to take months at sea, and I shouldn’t be complaining about a few 14-21 hour flights…but damn that’s a long time to be in one seat. This was no more evident than on my first flight to China during which I was seated in front of the bathroom (score) and my seat wouldn’t recline (un-score). It could have been worse, which is why next is…

Every Train Ride in Thailand – I grew up in New Jersey. I worked in Manhattan. I was forced to deal with N.J. Transit which, for an organization which runs the same trains on the same routes at the same times every week, is pretty terrible…or so I thought. I rely heavily on the trains in Thailand, but unfortunately it’s one area of this rapidly developing nation that has kind of been left to rot. Trains that are supposed to depart at 4 depart at 6, trains that are supposed to arrive at 1 arrive at 4, 10 hour journeys become 14 hour journeys. If you get off a train in a better mood than you got on it (and you’re not being greeted by a loved one) than you are nothing short of magical.

Family Road Trips – Just to round out my transit lists is the typically long family road trips. As a kid we always drove anywhere we went on vacation. In a family with three kids, we fed off one another stir-craziness. On one trip my parents drove the whole way from Disney World to New Jersey in a day. Fortunately they had developed a pretty nifty way to quiet us down, one which is now featured on most mini vans…but slightly less rugged in form. My parents bought this tiny little t.v. with a VCR attached to it. They would rest this tv on the arm rests between their seats and then use bungee cord to secure it in place. After that it was just a matter of deciding which pacifying flick to pop in. My sisters and I had petty varied tasted in cinema, but we could all agree on a Forest Gump…which is why I’ve seen that move more times than Tom Hanks. I should mention though that being the only boy, I was frequently overruled by my sisters when it came to picking movies…which is why I’ve seen…terrible terrible things.

Meeting the Mother in ‘How I Met Your Mother’ – I loved that show, but it was an endurance challenge if I’ve ever seen one.

The Amount of Time it Took to Update this Blog – Oops.

THINGS THAT TOOK AS LONG AS THIS RACE WILL HOPEFULLY TAKE-

Sleep – I’ve done it a fair bit, and it needs no explanation.

All Things DMV – I typically entered the DMV clean shaven and came out with a full beard. My hair grows fast, but not that fast.

Peace Corps Training Sessions – No matter how interesting the topic, you can only stare at power points for so long before you start to think in slide-form. And flip charts…where some people count sheep before bed, Peace Corps Volunteers are plagued by nightmares of massive flipping pages. Gives me the willies just thinking about it. These sessions typically were broken up into increments of a few hours, but at the end of the day it’s such a blur you may not even remember if you paused for lunch, or how you got dressed that morning, or what your name is.

My Last Two Ultramarathons – Yea this 100k isn’t my first foray into the world of Ultramarathons. I previously participated in two 50k races, however a lack of training for one and a few mid race injuries in the other left me limping to the finish line…which was like 15 miles away. What should have taken around 5 hours ended up taking 8+ and by the end my mind was someplace else.

THINGS THAT TOOK LESS TIME THAN THIS RACE, BUT SUCKED SO THEY FELT LONGER-

Watching Any Adam Sandler Movie Made After ‘Big Daddy’ – It’s like having teeth pulled, then put back in your head, then pulled again. And on that note…

Going to the Dentist – Every second feels like an eternity.

Teaching Kindergarten – I should specify that this is something that doesn’t typically suck. The kids are a handful but teaching them is fun, and a crowd that never gets tired of fart jokes is definitely a crowd I’m cool with. But sometimes, just sometimes, if your energy levels aren’t quite 100% a day of teaching youngsters will move at snail pace. But the kids won’t slow down, no if anything they speed up. You on the other hand will feel as if time is going backwards while these tiny little humans use you as a jungle gym. I’m convinced there is no more effective form of birth control than experiencing a kindergarten classroom when you’re feeling a little sluggish.

Being Anywhere You Don’t Want To Be – If you’ve ever had to force a smile and say something like ‘Yea I’m totally interested in the mating habits of ants’ or ‘So we’re going to do the guided tour of the yogurt factory? Awesome’ or ‘Oh there’s another twenty murals to see? Good I was worried they had stopped painting after 30’, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

Being Stuck in Traffic For More Than 5 Minutes – ‘Uhggg it took us FOREVER to get here’. No it didn’t, but it certainly felt that way.

 

Everyone’s familiar with the monkey brain. It hits us at the exact moments when time, and whatever you’re doing, just don’t seem to mesh. In prepping for this 100k I’m working to make sure I toe the starting line, armed to teeth to do battle with that monkey. Meditation works wonders in calming our often hyperactive brains, and it’s a practice I’ve been slowly working my way into. The people in my village are masters at just sitting with themselves, taking in minimal stimulation, and just enjoying that nothingness. There must be something to it. Even if you don’t have a 60+ mile race to train for, just learning to calm down and be comfortable with your idle self can be a wonderful thing. At the very least it might make the next traffic jam, train ride, or Sandler movie just that much more manageable.