Author Archives: Michelle Ross

A Rainy Reminder

I cannot overstate how much I love these crazy afternoon rainstorms that we’ve been having lately in Kuala Lumpur. If this is how rainy season is going to be, bring it on!

To be fair though, I am in the best position possible to love the sheets of water streaming from the sky, the blinding flashes of lightning that coincide exactly with cracks of thunder that jar even the most solid foundations. I’m lucky enough to be sitting in the office space of my house, which is softly lit by a floor lamp and a candle, cozy as can be, doing some online reading while the rain splatters against my window and the wind rushes through the palm trees in the driveway.

As I wander to the balcony to sit and watch the cars slink by in the onslaught and murky visiblity, I can’t help but think at how devastating this storm could be for those who don’t have the advantages and comforts that I have. All it would take is a slightly leaky roof or less than steady walls and this afternoon’s storm would mean small lakes in a home, coteries of critters seeking refuge and a sleepless night ahead as moisture pools in fabrics and mattresses.

What brings comfort and coziness to one can mean discomfort and disaster for another. As I press forward with my afternoon agenda of lesson plans and a bit of light literary theory reading, this dichotomy rests with me. It is always good to stop and count ones blessings, as the littlest things can make the biggest differences.

 

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BASE-ically Crazy, If You Ask Me

People travel for different reasons. For some, it is the lure man-made wonders- ancient temples and towering skyscrapers. For others, natural wonders call their names- deep, rainbow colored canyons and breathtaking mountaintops. Those who travel for work are in search of new connections, new deals and higher profits for their companies. Some travelers are looking to find something or someone, escape a situation or try to outrun a memory.

And some travelers are just looking for a new place to jump off the highest point possible.

 

Those are the folks we went to visit this weekend. Kuala Lumpur was holding its annual KL Tower BASE Jump event, meaning folks from all over the world gathered to hurl themselves off the top of a nearly 1400 foot high radio tower in the center of the city. We had heard rumblings that the jumpers were going to be in town this last weekend, but couldn’t find any specifics about when the jumps would be taking place. As I was driving to school on Friday, I saw a single parachute open mid-sky and was easily convinced we needed to find out more. As it turns out, the participants would be jumping most of the day Saturday and Sunday. (There were evening jumps planned too, but with KL storms, I’m not sure those happened.)

Sunday morning, after a quick shower and bowl of cereal, we headed into town. (I can actually see the KL Tower from my kitchen, but just the top bulb, which is where they jumpers take off, but because of the skyscraper-heavy skyline, we wouldn’t be able to see the rainbow of parachutes open.) We parked along the road, which means we actually parked in the traffic lane, but I figured it was all legit since I paid five ringgit and got a ticket to place in my window. Who cares that it was blocking future traffic; I had the official slip of tissue paper with a number on it. Too legit to quit. As we walked to the top of the hill upon which the KL Tower sits, we had to stop multiple times to watch the BASE jumpers coming off the building. From below, it is hard to see the initial leap, but the snap of an opening parachute draws eyes upward, creating a constant need to stop and stare.

We hadn’t planned on going into the tower itself, but when we got there, we were told we could go to the top and watch them jump from above. On a regular day, I’m not sure the tower entrance fee is worth it, but how often do you get to see people throwing themselves off a building with just a small backpack and a GoPro-sporting helmet? So, we quickly signed away our lives (not their fault if we fall off!) and headed up the elevator, which we shared with a jumper from California. When we told him we were from Idaho, he was excited and said that many of the jumpers loved going to Idaho to jump from the bridge in Twin Falls. He said that on Friday he made the KL jump nineteen times and did twenty-six more on Saturday and he was on number seven for Sunday and he was definitely feeling it in his joints. (I’m not sure what the long-term effects of the sport are, but I am guessing knee-replacements come early for some of these folks!)

Watching these guys (and gals! We saw three female participants) was incredible. I squawk if I even get near the edge of the building, but they would fly off of it on a rope swing with nary a peep. Are you serious? How does one not squeal as they dangle from a rope, suspended 1400 feet above the ground?

And how does one become so accustomed to hurling themselves off buildings that it merely jumping isn’t’ enough, but to up the game you must launch one another off by the feet, go piggy-back style or bail as a group, just to keep in interesting?

Most of the jumpers were young, in their 20s and this is what they do for fun. They travel the world in search of buildings, antennae, span (bridges) and earth (cliffs) from which to jump. (BASE.) I don’t know if these guys have “real” jobs or they just wander the earth, seeking the next thrill, but one young man made me laugh as he awaited his next turn to go over the edge. He was chatting with other jumpers on the platform, saying, “Man, I think I am going to ask my mom for a new helmet for Christmas.” Haha! Really? You jump off buildings for fun, but you are hoping Santa will bring you new equipment to shield your noggin? Cool, dude!

As an acrophobic of highest order, I can’t imagine strapping a self-packed chute to my back, snapping on a bike helmet and then leaning over the side of a building. Heck, I can barely get myself to the edge of the many tourist-trap viewing balconies we’ve visited all over the world. BASE jumpers travel in pursuit of actual, physical high points. I, on the other hand, will happily stick to the quest for cultural peaks and the summits of humanity.

 

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A Plan Thwarted

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
― Allen Saunders

It’s easy to make plans, but no matter how much work you put into them, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you had envisioned it. On both big and small levels, this has been the theme of my move to Kuala Lumpur. Coming into our second posting with the Foreign Service, I thought for sure I’d have a job working at the embassy, hopefully in the Public Affairs section, as there were two openings coming available this past summer. I’ve got a strong resume, having worked not only as a teacher for nearly a decade, but as CLO for two solid years in Chengdu, plus I had lined up some fantastic references. But, after two interviews that felt positive and optimistic, and zero calls to my references, I got received two “We regret to inform you…” emails. I guess it is a sign that I should be doing something else. (Blog posts on that “something else” to come soon. Stay tuned!)

But, even on a smaller level, KL seems to thwart plans. After a long week at work (how are the short weeks always the longest?), we had a quiet day around the house on Saturday so that Thad could have a bit of down time, but then decided to venture out of town a day-trip on Sunday. Port Dickson seemed like a good choice for our first road trip in Malaysia, as it is less than two hours away and the closest beach to the capital. I’d done some research online and was excited to visit the ostrich farm they have just outside the town. According to their website, Thad could enjoy a nice ostrich burger for lunch and I could touch an array of animals the attached petting zoo. (Initially I was SUPER excited to go, as the website advertised ostrich rides. I was going to get my Swiss Family Robinson on, but then read a little further and realized that riders had to be under 40 kilograms, which is about 88 pounds. I don’t think I’ve weighed that little since about the 5th grade, so there will be no ostrich riding in my future. Sad!)

With plans for a road trip, some lunch and some animal visiting, plus a stop by the beach, we headed out late Sunday morning. The car had about a quarter of a tank of gas, so we thought we’d get on the road and find a petrol station along the road- they are a dime a dozen around here. (Plus, I knew lots of the ones along the freeways have Dunkin’ Donuts attached, so I may have had an alternative motive in my recommendation to scout one out along the way.)

Through the SMART tunnel we went and we were off. (The SMART tunnel is about three miles long and basically skips all of the downtown traffic, starting from just beyond the US Embassy and popping out at a toll both beyond the masses of the city, all for a mere two ringgit.) Probably fifteen kilometers outside of town, I spotted the coveted gas station/DD, so off we pulled. While I took care of gassing up the car (which really means telling the guy what kind and how much and then going in to pay) Thad went to the ATM to get cash for our little outing. Maybank is the official government bank here, so he opted for that ATM, figuring it would be the safest bet. Wrong! After putting in his card and PIN, the machine spit out a receipt but no cash. The slip of paper informed him that his card was expired (it was not) and that the machine would be keeping it. What?!?

Since Thad has spent the last two years dealing with a variety of fraud as a major portfolio at work, he was instantly on alert. Something was just not right. Within minutes we were back in the car, on the phone with our credit card company, cancelling both his card and mine and making sure that the account was locked down tighter than Fort Knox.

Feeling a bit annoyed with the card situation and lacking much in terms of cash (I had just used a good portion of what we had originally brought to fill up the car), we decided that a road trip out of town may not be the smartest move, so we packed it in and headed back to KL proper.

Big plans. Little plans. You can make them all you want, but in the end, you’ve just got to go with the flow and play it by ear. I may not be spending my days in heels and dress clothes, working to promote the US the way I had hoped I would be here and I definitely did not get to explore the ostrich park this weekend (or even get my coveted Dunkin’ Donuts treat!), but there are bigger and better things on the horizon for my day-to-day schedule and yesterday turned into a lovely afternoon of patio dining and people watching in the city.

In the end, it all works out.

 

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It Wouldn’t Be an Adventure without a Bit of Insanity

To survive with any kind of sanity intact when living overseas, it is best to learn right away that you can’t stop the craziness from happening, so flexibility and an ability to laugh at the situation, solve it and move on are necessities. (Luckily, none of these things take up any suitcase weight, so they are easy to haul from city to city, post to post, country to country.)

These traits are not ones that come naturally to many folks, myself included. Having been raised in the same house in southern Idaho for my entire life, I had a pretty set outlook on how the world around me should be. My days had a pattern to them that made sense for a middle class family with fifteen llamas and some room to run. Drop me in the middle of the Dominican Republic at the age of eighteen and suddenly, that box that I knew so well didn’t hold the right tools for day to day life. There was no large lawn that needed to be divided and conquered by the kids, no llama stalls to muck or bales of hay to haul to the feeder and no endless piles of books and newspapers to flip through as I lazed away a Sunday afternoon. (Three kids meant splitting major chores three ways, but I got pretty good, as the middle child, at finding ways to make my portion a bit smaller whenever I could. With the lawn, I quickly learned that taking the middle section and offering to mow first had some major advantages. By mowing first, I could accidently forget to take care of the section we loving called the “grasshopper lawn” and then it suddenly became the job of the sibling with the third that also connected to that part. And by making my end line a few yards in on either side, I could save myself a few passes with the mower, leaving them to the others to clean-up. The stalls were a bit harder to divvy up, but multiple breaks to lean on my pitchfork or always being the wheelbarrow pusher and then taking the long route back saved me a few scoops here and there.)

There I was, eighteen years old and living in a land that was vastly different from anything I had known. I was with a school group, but we each lived with a local family, so I was often on my own and flexibility and spur of the moment problem solving were not really a part of my repertoire at that time. Having been in the country only a few days, it was time to start school at the local university. My host family took me in a cab, but I was too overwhelmed to really focus and keep track of our routing. After a morning of orientation, I was expected to return to my host-home for lunch and the afternoon break. While everyone else seemed to scatter as soon as we were released, I quickly realized I had no idea in which direction I lived. None. And I had no idea what to do. Eventually, one of the counselors for our program must have seen the stricken look on my face and quickly consulted his list of addresses for foreign students and put me in a cab back to my residence, at which point I couldn’t even figure out which floor I lived on. (I’d blame jetlag, but it was only a three-hour time difference. It was more being so far out of my comfort zone that at the time, I didn’t even know where to start in processing this new life.) Luckily, Host Mom was standing on the balcony, yelling “Rubia! Rubia!” Figuring I was the only blonde girl in the entire neighborhood, I followed her directions until I made it home. Talk about learning on the fly!

Luckily, by the time we moved to China with Peace Corps, I had nearly an extra decade under my belt, with more foreign travel and general life experience to guide me. I quickly adapted to the 9AM calls on Saturday morning, telling me to be at the gate in twenty minutes for a department outing to the countryside. (Who needs a shower if you are going to the countryside anyway, right? And personal time?? It doesn’t exist if the danwei leader wants an outing. You just go.) Having course schedules change the night before the new term became routine and learning that all exams must only be marked in red ink or they must be remarked were tidbits that I just stocked away for the next round of classes.

Knowing that there is no way to know how a day is going to go, I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I went to do a bit of grocery shopping and ended up with a barricade behind my car, at yet, I must admit to a minute of sheer wonder. How did that pole grow organically from the asphalt in the twenty minute I was gone?

Here’s the deal. On my way home from volunteering at a local refugee school (blog post on that to come soon!), I decided to stop at a local grocery store to grab a few items. It was just after lunch and the small parking lot was packed! I drove around the side of the building and found a great spot near the end of the spaces available. Pleased with my parking, I headed in to by some crazily overpriced cheese, some pasta-fixings and a few odds and ends snacks.

I wasn’t in the store more than twenty minutes.

As I did a bit of 4-wheeling with my cart across the parking lot that could play backup to Craters of the Moon, my focus was mostly on keeping my cart going in something resembling a straight line. I didn’t actually look at my car until I was nearly behind it, at which point I spotted the newly arrived pole. I stopped, looked around, double checked that this really was my vehicle (our make/model is super popular amount ex-pats in KL) and once I’d confirmed that yes, this was my SUV, I took another minute to ponder. How had I parked there? Where did the pole come from? And more importantly, what was I going to do?

My first thought was to just pull it out myself. Sure, why couldn’t I, wearing a dress and sandals, just yank that metal pole out of the ground? Needless to say, plan A was a bust. After shoving my groceries in the backseat (there was no way the trunk was lifting with that pole inches away), I went in search of a parking lot attendant. While explaining my situation, the guard looked confused, so I just asked him to walk with me to my car. As we got about halfway down the line of vehicles, he started laughing and said, “Oh, that is *your* car.”

Yes, that is my car!

Without another word, he unwound a giant linked chain, did some magical pushing and pulling on the pole and out it came. As he dragged it across the asphalt, he motioned for me to pull my car out and be on my way. No explanation, no apology. This is just the way it is.

All those years ago in the Dominican Republic (I’d rather not date myself by saying just how long ago it was, but suffice to say, I had no email address, as the internet was nearly non-existent, especially in Santiago and calls from home were horribly expensive long distance, once a month), had I been in a similar situation, I’m pretty sure I would have sat down on the curb, tears in my eyes, waiting for someone to make it better. Luckily, a few handfuls of countries and even more ridiculously random events later, Tuesday’s outing didn’t ruffle a feather.

Heck, it was nearly a VIP parking spot! If only the chain were a red velvet rope…

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The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

the fourteenth goldfish

Fun! Fascinating! Captivating! Charming!

I thought about going with fourteen adjectives to describe Jennifer L. Holm’s recent release, The Fourteenth Goldfish, but then decided it is doesn’t need a gimmicky introduction; it stands strongly on its own as a great work of young adult fiction that pushes readers to think more about science, consider the possibilities of reverse aging and wonder just how much age plays into a person’s role within their family. While this book definitely skews to the younger side of young adult fiction, aimed primarily at the sixth/seventh grade levels, it is a fantastic find for science teachers since it introduces some great characters from the history of science and questions the role of scientists in all of our lives.

It was a bit shocking that Ellie’s kindergarten teacher thought it was a good idea to teach young kids about the circle of life by giving them a pet store goldfish with a lifespan of a week so they could learn about death. That seems like a bit of a harsh way to crush the innocence of a child, but Ellie’s miracle fish lives for years, outlasting all of the other kids’ aquatic pets. I giggled when Ellie’s mom fesses up to having used replacement fish for year, sneaking the dead one out of the bowl and plopping a new on in its place before Ellie can discover that her initial goldfish wasn’t special and didn’t outlive those of her classmates.

Soon though, the goldfish-incident is forgotten, when Ellie’s mother brings someone new home to stay. Dressed in a sweater vest, perfectly ironed khakis and black dress socks, Melvin just doesn’t blend in with other kids his age, but Ellie has a strange sense of knowing this odd new addition to her home. But why wouldn’t she? Instead of being another sixth grader debating between the corndog or the pizza for lunch, it turns out Melvin is actually Ellie’s grandfather!

Melvin, a scientist, through the help of some fisherman friends in Australia, has discovered how to reverse the aging process, using himself as the guinea pig in his first human experiment with what can only be described as science-fiction come to life. Since no one knew what he was working on and he now looks like any other pimply kid on the brink of being a teenager, access to his lab is denied, and he can’t drive a car or live on his own without raising suspicions. His daughter (Ellie’s mom) takes him in, but makes him attend middle school as part of his cover, where his multiple graduate degrees make sixth grade science something he could do during a nap and fitting in nearly impossible.

Stuck with Melvin, her grandfather, Ellie begins to realize that she isn’t cut out for the life of an actor like her parents, but rather that she has a keen interest in the experiments her grandfather has worked on and maybe her place in this world is wearing a white coat in a lab rather than an ornate costume on a stage.

I love that this book introduces a variety of historical figures in science, everyone from Galileo and Newton to Salk and Oppenheimer, but in a way that leaves a lot of room for the reader to follow up and discover more about them. There is enough detail to intrigue, but enough left unsaid to encourage a bit of post-reading browsing. But, the scientist themselves aren’t the only draw of the book, as it touches upon bigger questions, like what exactly is the role of a scientist and how far is too far. Jennifer L. Holm’s recent publication, The Fourteenth Goldfish, is lighthearted and a quick read (I downloaded it before bed and didn’t turn off the light until I had turned the last page!) and one that will draw in a variety of middle level readers, earning it:

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Cable Car Insanity

In the first thirty years of my life, I think I can count on one hand the number of cable cars/ski lifts I’ve ridden on. There was the one time at Lagoon, legs dangling and bumping along from one end of the amusement park to the other, after which I decided I’d rather just make a mad dash from the Colossus roller coaster, through the alley of carnival games, past the Shooting Star coaster, weaving through the dizzy-ride arena (Scrambler! Tilt-o-Whirl! So much fun!), to reach the other end of the death-defying lift before my friends disembarked. The trek was worth the few extra months of beating my heart saved by opting out. Then there was the time in middle school where I thought for just a moment that I would become a skier, so signed up for the annual school-sponsored ski trip. (What was I thinking? Not having ski-appropriate clothing, I ended up miserable on the bus ride home in my soaking wet and freezing jeans, fully convinced that snow sports were not for me. Ever.) And don’t forget the rickety lift to the top of the Great Wall outside of Beijing, that while short, was probably the most mechanically unsound of them all. That may be a fully comprehensive list of cable car experiences for the first three decades of my existence.

And since then?

A ridiculous amount!

Just in the last year I’ve been on the one at Bamboo Sea in western China, the one in Hong Kong to see the giant golden Buddha , the one at Park City in Utah to ride the luges down the mountain and now, just this last weekend, the one on Langkawi Island. I had a nice average of one every ten years, now I’m at one each fiscal quarter!

With three days of freedom (okay, freedom for Thad, as my days are pretty open at this point), we decided it was time to check out the much talked-up Langkawi, an island off Malaysia’s west coast. With round trip tickets for right around $100 each and the flight just an hour long, it was a perfect way to get out of town for Labor Day weekend, which also happened to be Merdeka, Malaysia Day.

After wandering Oriental Village, at the base of the cable system, we loaded up for the harrowing ride to the top. Each car seats six, but we were lucky enough to be at the end of one timed ticket groupings, which got us a private car. Now I could let my freakiness out as we ascended the exceedingly steep mountainside (at times, the cable car is being pulled up the hill at a 42 degree angle), since I didn’t have to try and mask the fear of imminent death. While Thad stood and wandered from side to side in the car, messing with the window slats, taking pictures of the waterfalls and generally making the car jiggle more than necessary, I sat perched on the edge of my bench, holding on to the railing for dear life (I’m not exactly sure what I think the railing is going to do if the car comes unattached from the cable, but either way, I white-knuckled it to the top!) and looking up to catch a glimpse of the ocean here or a glance at the forest there.

While it just takes about fourteen minutes from the base station to the top station, we decided to hop out at the mid-way station to get a better view of the island and ocean, but then did continue on up to the peak of Gunung Machinchang. Not wanting to pass up the chance for a mountaintop hotdog, we sat and enjoyed the spectacular view as Thad opted for some processed meat before re-embarking on a ride in a car that dangles from a cable.
Glad to be back on solid ground and not looking to increase our altitude in the least, we opted for a day of snorkeling with the fishes on Sunday. We saw baby sharks (which begs the question, “Where were the adults?!”), puffer fish, parrotfish, angel fish and a million others I can’t identify, but happily followed around for hours.

Langkawi was a great weekend getaway and definitely somewhere we’ll be hauling guests who want to see a bit more of the country, other than the capital city itself. But, I do think I’ve hit my cable car quota for 2014, so will have to send visitors up the hill by themselves, while I sit at the bottom, drinking an icy cold glass of pineapple juice and enjoying the views from exactly zero feet above sea level!

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Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in sand

Heartbreaking. It’s the one word that best wraps up Regina Calcaterra’s 2013 memoir of growing up on Long Island with a mother who was truly a monster and a social services system that was broken, leaving five children to raise themselves and each other.

With five kids from five fathers, Cookie is hardly an ideal mother-figure, but add in untreated mental illness, alcoholism and a propensity to physically and verbally lash out at anything in her path and you’ve created a nightmare of a home. Regina, the middle child of the five, lives her childhood being bounced from home to home, staying in foster homes for a time here and there, only to have her mother win back custody time and time again. As the product of the man her mother was most hurt by, Regina bears the brunt of her mother’s anger, being lashed with a belt, hung from a closet rod, kicked and punched and continuously referred to as a slut and a whore from as young as she can remember. Although Regina tries to run away a few times, she realizes that she has to be home to protect her younger siblings, caring for them when Cookie disappears for months on end.

Until, in a moment of pain and utter exhaustion, Regina finally gives in and tells the authorities the true extent of the abuse at home. When she finally comes clean, her family of five siblings, who have lied and stolen and worked hard to stay together as a unit, are separated, which is exactly what they had been working to avoid. Having been the one who “told,” Regina carries with her a massive guilt, as it’s not too long before the social services system returns the two youngest kids to Cookie, at which time Rosie, the baby of the family, takes Regina’s place as the ultimate scapegoat, enduring humiliating abuse and degradation for years.

Not able to do anything to help her younger brother and sister, Regina follows the advice of some caring teachers who remind her that education is the only way out of the life she was raise in. She works hard through high school and eventually gets accepted to university, where her life is filled with classes, the gymnastics team and working multiple jobs to be able to not only support herself, but secretly send money to Rosie, who is now living in horrible conditions in Idaho with Cookie and her newest male companion.

It’s heartbreaking and unimaginable that an human being could treat another in such a vile way, but Regina and her siblings are an amazing story of a family who does its best to look out for each other, individuals who pursue their own paths to a happier life and one woman who works hard to become a part of the system that failed her as a child, empowered to make the changes needed so that future foster kids don’t have to suffer the way she did.

This was another midnight-nothing-to-read library download for me. (It’s what happens when I don’t have to set an alarm and I finish a book with nothing pre-downloaded. I go to the Boise Public Library e-books page, sort through the “now available” titles until I find something random that look interesting and off I go. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with literature!) Not coming off a recommended reading list, a new release list or a review from a friend, this turned out to be a good pick. Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is not an easy read, but one that reminds us all that it is possible to overcome the odds, even when the chances seem impossibly slim, earning it:

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