Late Night Phone Calls/Southern Ridges/Grins

February 10, 2018

Katie called me today.  It was 2:30 pm and I had just finished an energizing 8-mile hike capped off by a trip to the mall, where I was kicked out of six consecutive shoe stores for having gargantuan stompers.  If you’re reading this and you’re planning a trip to Singapore, do yourself a favor and chop the extraneous phalanges.  Or pack extra shoes, because the humidity will definitely cause them to peel off your feet like a pair of flayed bananas.

Anyway, it was 1:30 in the morning where she was.  Our conversation went like this:



and then later-


Me: YES!

(I stopped there, not having delusions about fighting the night creatures of western Maine.)

When I hung up the phone, I was grinning with friendship but also with an inexplicable craving for Japanese rice wine.  Since an extended family of mosquitoes has recently moved into my bedroom, I was also in need of a tiny little murder weapon.  I’m all for peaceful coexistence, but not in the face of dengue fever.  Plus, my legs look like anatomical connect the dots.

All of this is my very long introduction to just saying that life is good.  I’ve got sake, salad, and a stroll in the Southern Ridges under my belt.  Pics are here; hope y’all are doing as well.

I have not found this advice helpful as monkeys have generally attacked me unprovoked, but I will share it with my “chimps will punch me” friend regardless.
I apologize if you can’t tell by looking at it that this spider’s wingspan is larger than my face. I’m not a great photographer, and my entire inner artist was busy screaming uncontrollably at the time.


I do find it quite great that Singapore builds walking paths at the canopy of secondary rainforest. You can be smack in the middle of high-density urban and this is your view.
The greatest pedestrian bridge I’ve ever tromped my mutant feet across. Yayyyy, structural engineering!
Also a cool bridge. It does an LED light up thing at night, apparently. Since it was daytime, I just did walking and looking for rogue monkeys.
And here’s now. Goodnight, sweethearts.

To Stream Or Not To Stream?

Full disclosure: this is not a Netflix post.

Correction: this might as well be a Netflix post for like three paragraphs, because why shouldn’t I sprinkle my wisdom?  It’s a snow day in Portland, and that means hot chocolate and chill, unless you are

  1. Kevin, who will do National Signing Day regardless of weather (he’s like a postal worker that way: happy holidays, Kevin!) or
  2. a teacher, which means you are equal parts moaning about July and secretly high-fiving your mirror (careful) because you don’t have to go in on a Wednesday.

Anyway, real quick here are my Netflix recs.  Wow, this post is going to be chock full of lists!

  1. Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23.  This is my very favorite silly sitcom of all time.  Chloe and Luther are the definitions of fabulous and they are comic gold lamé.  James Van der Beek did not exist for me until this show, and then in that Ke$ha vid.  Once, when he was imagining what it would be like if boobs were upside down, I laughed until I fell off the couch.
  2. An Idiot Abroad.  A reluctant traveler, Karl Pilkington, refuses to jump off the high places Ricky Gervais sends him all over the world to jump off of.  In one episode, he watches a man fold a body part over a stick that shouldn’t be anywhere near that area in the first place.  It’s GREAT.
  3. Derek. More Karl and Ricky, except in comic drama.  If you don’t believe, through your tears and through watching this, that kindness is magic, your heart is cryogenic and I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry for you.

Anyway, this isn’t a Netflix post!  I’m actually distracting myself from transcribing a bunch of interviews I did with teachers here.  It’s good stuff, except each one is 30-40 minutes of audio, which takes approximately one lifetime to capture by typing.  And I keep having to stop and think about stuff like streaming, which slows me further.

Streaming- in Singapore’s education system- is the act of dividing kids into either

1) Express (the highest stream)

2) Normal Academic, or

3) Normal Technical

after a major test they take here at the end of year six. And when I say major, I kid not.  Parents will take unpaid leaves from their jobs in order to tutor their children in the weeks before the test because the score determines the stream, and many believe that the stream determines their entire future.

High stakes?  Karl Pilkington wouldn’t jump off them, I can promise you that.

According to an orientation we had at the Ministry of Ed, the streams actually began as a response to a dropout rate that was up around 37%.  See, Singapore started their nationalized education system in the 1950s and 60s and built it from the ground up.  Teachers were learning to be teachers as they were teaching, and a baby boom from the war- plus older kids who hadn’t been to school during said war- were flooding buildings that were already overcrowded.  There were race riots and there was chaos in the streets; kids were dropping out at alarming rates and some were joining gangs in order to find a place where they could belong.

We learned at the Ministry that after streaming was introduced, students were more likely to be in classes that engaged them and that catered to their individual education needs.  The dropout rate went down to as low as 7%.  That’s impressive.

Although the system has evolved- kids can move up and down streams year to year, and even by subject matter nowadays- it’s still quite a big deal.

And it’s a heck of a lot of pressure about one test score.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this as a teacher.  I love having kids with varying skills and passions in my room.  It makes people more aware of the needs and problem-solving strategies used across brain types, and it builds empathy and community.

But in highly academic content areas, does it makes sense to stream kids with similar skill sets and interests?  It could expose them more quickly to pathways in which they’re likely to find success.  Maybe.  I’m just so worried about late bloomers, missing potential, and ingrained inequity, though.

Agh!  I need to turn of my active brain and let my subconscious simmer for a bit.  Your thoughts are certainly welcome.

But in the meantime: Netflix, anyone?



Singapore: My First Month, Plus History and Cher

February 5, 2018

Upon moving to the equator, about 80% of the music on my phone threw up its hands and resolutely moved to the cloud, where it lives- too cool for this weather and my lack of consistent wifi- in complete and utter inaccessibility.

Since I spend 3-6 hours every day either walking or in public transportation, this was initially disappointing.  I have rediscovered, however, some gems I might otherwise have forgotten.

Thus I know it takes almost exactly one run-through of 20th Century Masters- The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cher, Vol. 2 to get to school.

And I am pleased.

It’s music that’s conducive to thinking.  I don’t have to decide whether I believe in life after love, but I am trying to figure out what makes Singapore tick: what they do well and why, and how to bring some of the best stuff back home.  It’s almost my monthaversary here, which is enough time to form some surface impressions after a (metric, of course) ton of history and observations.

The man at the Ministry said it best: this place is a paradox.

Singapore is a physically small country- about 3 1/2 times the size of Portland- with an outsized presence in the world.  It’s also densely populated, with over 83 times as many people as our little city, yet it’s covered with green: from literally living architecture to gardens to protected parks.


It’s known in the realm of education for international prowess in math and science, yet I’m here studying what some (though not I, ew) call the “soft skills” of social and emotional learning, and that’s because they’re one of the only countries I could find that includes mandated time for it in the curriculum.

Singapore is also famously politically conservative, but tell that to the kid with the pencil case reading “make epic shit happen” or man on the MRT with the “it’s Friday and I’m horny” t-shirt or this store selling tops emblazoned with “the world has bigger problems than boys who kiss boys and girls who kiss girls”.

I’m looking for a pattern or a pigeonhole in vain.

One thing that is clear (says the social studies teacher) is that it is impossible to understand the present without consulting the people’s past.  Trips to the Ministry of Education’s Heritage Center and the Former Ford Factory, and books like Peter Thompson’s The Battle for Singapore have helped me do that.

At the MOE HC (they love acronyms here, and when in R, right?) I got some good history.  In 1819, Stamford Raffles signed a treaty establishing Singapore, with its deep harbor and strategic shipping location, as a British trading port.  At that point, there were perhaps a thousand people on the island, mostly native to the Malay peninsula and those of Chinese descent.  According to HistorySG, “the first census in Singapore, which was taken in January 1824, recorded 10,683 residents comprising 74 Europeans, 16 Armenians, 15 Arabs, 4,580 Malays, 3,317 Chinese, 756 natives of India and 1,925 Bugis”.

Can you imagine?  The population increased by a factor of 10 within five years!  That’d be like Portland exploding to over half a million people by 2023.  Oh, don’t even get me started on how badly the middle schools would smell.  Bet we’d have a lot of interesting new foods, though.

Anyway, over the next 50 years people kept pouring in by the tens of thousands, mostly from China, Malaya, and India to work tin and rubber mines or on the docks.  The British possessed and ran the island. They were essentially building a multicultural colony for profit, and from scratch.

I will let you imagine the kind of problems that might arise, what with colonialism, turf wars, mismanagement, and- speaking of smells- a conspicuous lack of modern plumbing.

Ahhh, “night soil”.  May we never return to your heyday.

The Former Ford Factory is more of a World War II museum, but that’s a big deal because Singapore became our Singapore as a result.  If the book I’ve referenced above is to be believed (and full disclosure, I’m only 42% through it, so grain of deep water harbor salt) the British leadership in the days leading up to a sure invasion was pretty much BungleFest 1941.  Imperial Japan was suffering an embargo of steel and oil by the US, Britain, and the Netherlands, so they figured they’d head to the oil fields in Indonesia and take those over, thus fueling their war with China.  To do that, they needed the Malayan peninsula, including Singapore.

So the same day they bombed Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces bombed Malaya and Singapore, too.  Britain pretty much threw up the bloodied white flag with an unconditional surrender in this room the following February.


Japan took over.  They weren’t kind.  There are some fascinating, heartbreaking oral histories in this model of a museum, and I cried and cried and shivered.  (WHAT is with the arctic AC, humanity?  There is a happy medium between stifling and frigid.)

Anyway, to a large degree colonialism fell apart- at least on paper- after the war.  Singapore eventually became a state of Malaya (with its new name Malaysia) in 1963, but not before a period of (say this in an exaggerated local car dealership commercial voice) TOTAL CHAOS.  Also, Malaysia booted them in 1965 so they were forced to figure things out on their own.


How do you take a city, newly a country, with three distinct ethnicities with their accompanying languages and traditions, who have quite recently been totally ravaged by war, and turn it into anything resembling successful in the world?  Your two major natural resources are the human brain and a strategic port that is as inviting to takeover as it is to ships.

What?  What do you do?  Can you imagine trying to tackle that?

The solution Singapore found was a strong central government that laid out exactly how people would have to come together and harness their brains for success.  The message was to work, to survive, to be rugged, and to study, and thrive… and the view was that there was no way it was going to happen without the government ensuring a uniform process through which it would.

This country has borne criticism about federal heavy-handedness, but to be fair, over the course of a relatively short time they rose to world leadership in business and education.

So what’s next?  Do people still need this strong push toward strict work ethic, efficiency, and pragmatism?  Now that the country has established inarguable strengths, is it time to reevaluate the focus?  Is the Character and Citizenship Education I’m seeing in schools a key for people to start leading more balanced, fulfilling lives?

We shall see, I hope.  At least, I’m definitely looking into it as I move into month #2.  And I flippin’ love this place with its interesting and diverse people, its spicy and succulent foods, and the thunder… so I’m looking forward to the parsing of the paradox.

If you’ll excuse me for the moment, however, I think I hear Cher in the distance.  So I’m off- but don’t worry your pretty little head about the answers to those questions.  I’m here to stay for a bit, and I got you, babe.


MacRitchie Nature Trail and Reservoir Park (where- spoiler- I did not die in the rainforest)

February 3, 2018

There’s a sign at the ranger station clearly stating that the 250 meter suspension bridge is one way, single file, and can hold just 30 people. This I noted with the same smug sense of self-reliant survivalism I’d had at, for example, the previous sign, which read Nature Reserve: Enter at Own Risk. I felt good because I wear sneakers, follow rules, and intentionally and consistently avoid things like crocodiles, opioids, and plummeting. Thus, it was with zero sense of trepidation that I set forth on this:


When I stopped to take photos, however,

I felt a shift in the fault line and warily looked behind me… to see approximately nine million idiot tourists venturing forth together. Are you kidding me?  Heights and I haven’t been friends since I finally hit 5’11 and there stopped being a point. Heights, in fact, kind of scare me. So instead of looking blissfully at the canopy for lizards, snakes, and bratty macaques, all of a sudden I was quaking in both fear and anger and I just wanted my feet on solid ground again.

I haven’t been so frustrated with the decisions people make in the face of an obvious threat since, well, government.

I gripped the railings and grit my teeth and doggedly pushed toward land.

Fortunately, land was pretty darn pretty.  MacRitchie is a protected habitat where tropical rainforest grows with all of its ecological accoutrements, and it’s kind of wow.  I mean, look at the size of this leaf!


Paths are pleasant, trees are twisty, and none of the monkeys attacked.

Score!  Clear winner in man vs. nature.  Just wish I’d had a little more guts for part of the battle.


Super Blue Blood Lunar Eclipse/Thaipusam

February 1, 2018

My first impression of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is that it looks extremely painful, as evidenced by this photograph of a man with a rod through his cheeks and with hooks, which are attached to heavy weights, pierced through the skin of his back.  He looks like every nightmare I’ve ever had of when fish turn the tables.


There’s even another man pulling at the weights.


Despite the holes I voluntarily put in my own head in order that I be able to hang decorative hoops and feathers, I am slightly horrified.  For whatever reason my vanity seems more rational than a religious devotion that requires corporal metalsmithing.

The devotees, according to this BBC article, apparently don’t feel pain because they’re so entranced by their dedication to Lord Murugan, Son of Shiva, for whom this holiday is dedicated.

Lord Murugan is known as Lord of the Dance.  This is also true of Michael Flatley, seen here in a Wikimedia Commons photo that has been labeled “okay for reuse” despite the fact that he is quite obviously Irish jigging in gold braid.


Full disclosure: I kind of love both Lords of Dance now.

I don’t understand a lot of stuff about a lot of religions (or how dancers get their feet to move that quickly, for that matter) but there’s something to be said for making an effort to figure out what drives people.  Hindu practice is new to me, so I’m trying to learn a bit.  In Little India on Thaipusam, I see a parade of devotees


a wealth of vivid colors in marchers


on families


in stalls


and on the heads of men in front of other men who are maybe annoyed with me for taking intrusive pictures.


I don’t have a lot of context yet for the whole thing, but I know it’s a lunar holiday falling on the day of a super blue blood moon lunar eclipse, and I know that Thaipusam and that celestial mouthful I just typed are definitely things I’d like know more about.


Sports in Schools, Rivalries, and Baskets of Fries

January 30, 2018

“Once an athlete, always an athlete,” my friends used to say to (and about) each other after an insightful sports-filled observation about something happening on tv.  Or maybe after one of them caught a falling french fry in a particularly catlike manner.

I was always sort of jealous of this even though I would nod solemnly and agreeably, because even though the athlete stuff was no longer a public competition of grace and strength but rather a lively conversation over a plate of melted cheese and a basket of delicious fatted potatoes (Rivalries BOFs are unparalleled) there was still a certain mindset behind it to which I wasn’t quite privy: there’s a sports brain, and it allows for a certain passion for analysis of anyone kinetically inclined.  It also, in this case, came from people who were undisputedly “once an athlete”s.  They were point guards and pitchers and quarterbacks.  I once heard one of them casually answer “no, I let my professional status expire.”

So the friends were legit, but they’re certainly not the only ones who gain a lifetime of reward from a passion played out in schools.  Shoot, despite my feeling inferior, I’m certainly evidence of that.  I was a role player on the high school court but banging around before a stressful school day is still, at times, the best part of my week.  The relationships I’ve developed through basketball alone are ones I treasure. The habits and discipline and teaming and fun stuff I learned through school-based sports teams and coaches are at least as important to my life now as what I learned in an academic classroom.

So at schools, are we giving that enough attention?

One of the first things I learned about education in Singapore is that they recognize that it’s not all about a mastery of math.  They recognize the research that shows that kids are more successful in and out of the classroom if they learn social and emotional skills as well as academic ones.  In fact, they don’t even call their activities “extra” curricular because that implies that they’re outside of the important part of the learning lineup.  Here, activities are called “co”curricular because they exist as equals.  I love that.

Here, secondary school kids (the age equivalent to US 7th-10th graders) are required to participate in a co-curricular activity (CCA).  It doesn’t have to be sports- they can choose music, a club, or a uniform group like scouts or pre-military as well.  They stick to one- or two, in some special cases, but only if the student applies for permission and demonstrates exceptional time management skills- and they focus on that one for the year, with the option of switching the next year if they and their teachers decide that’s best.  They tend to practice a couple of times a week for a couple of hours at a time, and year round.  It’s a way of developing a specialized skill with a group of like-minded kids, and it’s clearly an integral part of their educational experience.  In fact, I’m typing this from a netball game (kind of like basketball without a backboard, but with just passing and shooting- no dribbling or running with the ball) that takes place at a beautiful facility away from campus, and at noon.  Students left school at 10 to get here early to practice, so they’ll miss significant academic time that they’ll have to make up.  This might happen once a week, but again: it’s considered important.  They’re learning skills they will always need, and hopefully will always enjoy.

Another difference between here and the way things are mostly done in the US is that schools hire experts outside of general education to teach the skills.  A basketball coach might share his or her time with two or three schools, but that person is devoted, qualified, and knowledgeable.  Every academic teacher is attached to a CCA, but it’s more of a mentoring, nuts-and-bolts role, and for teaching character and citizenship (the social and emotional component) alongside the coach’s or director’s expertise.  It’s quite an interesting setup.

I’m not 100% devoted to this model because I like the idea of kids getting involved in many different ways instead of specializing in one, but I do like the intention, the importance attached, and the dedication to a healthy, well-rounded human.  So what can we do to make sure that kids around the world are getting the skills they need- for the humans they are- in the communities they’re in, instead of just for their academic brains?

I may have to discuss this further with friends.  I may have to do it at Rivalries.

Because once an athlete, always an athlete… and many of them work in schools.

But also (and maybe more importantly): you can’t spell “friends” without “fries”.


A Walk On the Very, Very Wild Side

January 27, 2018


To get to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, it’s one train, one bus, and one+ kilometer walk past the crocodile farm and some trees that definitely, definitely look like the breeding grounds for the reticulated python that will probably drop from the low-hanging branches and will probably not haughtily discuss how he really put one over on that Eve, once.

That is because he will be strangling me.  I am entering this adventure with a healthy dollop of paralyzing fear.

This turns out to be assuaged almost immediately.  Hahaha!  In the words of the immortal Wayne and Garth… NOT!  What is actually assuaged almost immediately is any sense of control I have over Mother (that beautiful bitch) Nature.  Because see, you can’t enter the mangrove forest without walking under spiders the size of your fist that look like this:


After some surreptitious dawdling, however- I am waiting for this group of tourists to walk ahead of me in order to deflower any possible cross-path webs- I find myself in the Mud Experience, where I get to clamber across rope bridges


and look at dog-faced water snakes


and then tiptoe into the Dragonfly Pod.


I am starting to think this is worth it.

I few minutes away, I reach the flats.  This is where mudskippers, the neatest little evolutionary marvels to ever dance on the sand, are doing exactly what their name implies (vid not bloggable, so see Foostergram or facebook for that).


There are crocodile warnings posted everywhere and quite frankly, I’m terrified… but there’s another part of me that’s all “honey badger don’t care” because everything is just SO COOL.


I eventually move on to the forest trail, which looks like this:

and has more of those spiders that are more delicate than- but at least as big as- my trembling appendages.  Whose woods these are, I think I know: not humans’.


Little baseball sized coconuts are littered like hand grenades along the path, and aside from the groomed part, It really does feel and sound like I’m in the dead of rainforest, especially along the mid-canopy trail.  The signs call this the Forest Experience but I’ve taken to calling it The Daunting Haunting Fauna Zone.  As I circle around, I think I glimpse the head of a smallish crocodile thrash around in some kind of hunger ruckus, but if you think I’m getting closer to check, you must have licked the belly of a very specific kind of hallucinogenic frog.  I take a picture anyway, and oh!  I think it IS a croc!


I linger for awhile getting sunburned, then move to another trail.

On this one, the signs are about how the snakes and spiders seek shelter where humans do.  Thus, the pit of my stomach is a solid mass of nerves.  I spot something large and ominous on the path ahead of me and it is definitely not vegetable and it is definitely not mineral.  I stop and take a couple of blurry photos.

Every time a leaf drops, I lose two ounces in fear.

It’s really a gorgeous walk past fishes leaping and birds holding court, and everything around me is being the best it can be.


And I do, in fact, see some monkeys at the nature preserve.  And the little one does, in fact, chase me down to bro-hug me around the ankle while I lecture him sternly, while screaming.  I now know a little bit about what PTSD is like.  My right butt cheek, in particular, does the odd and involuntary spasm for a good twenty seconds once the danger passes.  It’s one of the strangest physical experiences through which I’ve ever lived.


Couple of lizards on the way out, and their slithers give me the chills of pre-history.

Saw a lot more “actual habitat” nature today than I’ve ever seen in my life.  I can’t pretend I wasn’t terrified, but at the same time: best day ever!

Suck it spiders, I’m excited about that trek.