Of Dogs, Kids, and Things

It has been an incredibly busy 2 weeks here on our new adventure. It almost feels like a typical week in Seattle with work, kid activities, volunteer work, etc. Of course, a huge difference is the warm hot weather and the gorgeous views of the beach we have every day here.

Deb just finished a huge project with our friends Colleen and Kim – they pulled off a huge fundraiser, especially for this area. Deb mentioned it in Giving Back. The fundraiser benefited two great organizations here: Abriendo Mentes, an organization that helps school kids with after school activities such as learning English and working with computers, and Costa Rica Pet Care, an organization that helps spay and neuter street dogs here.

We held the event last night at El Oasis in Brasilito. Shelly, the manager graciously allowed us to use her restaurant on a Saturday night for the event. We had several awesome local bands playing, including Local Legends and Los Dos. There were about 150 people in attendance and we all had a rocking good time. With ticket sales, drinks, food, and raffle, it looks like we netted about $4200. It was an extremely successful event by all measures. It even did far better than several fundraisers I’ve seen in Seattle. I think one of the key reasons is that everyone here knows the two organizations and really appreciates their work. We had all of the food and drinks donated as well as the venue and the bands. That says a lot about the community we live in here. It was a ton of work, but really satisfying.

The fundraiser was just one of a few things going on. While Deb was working on the fundraiser a lot, I’ve been working on my class in Information Visualization at Universidad Veritas. Creating the course and material always takes a lot of time (Deb seems to think I get a bit obsessive!). When she and I taught at UW, we got to work together, but we were also working full time. Fortunately, this is my only “job” this time around. J

I’m averaging about 2.5 classes worth of content per week, so I should be ready in plenty of time for the start of class July 24 and still have time to put my conference talk together for the Interaction Design Summit here. I’ll have a few awesome friends in Seattle giving guest talks for parts of classes. Tableau Software has donated licenses for the whole class and we’ll also be using Microsoft’s new Power Map, so I hope the students have a blast.

There is also a small world event going in Brasil that has a big impact here. For our non-futbol friends, it’s called the World Cup. We’ve managed to carve out time to keep up with our 3 teams. The US is our first team, of course, and they have done well in game 1, but will have a lot of challenge with Portugal today. Brasil is always our favorite. We have so many wonderful ties to Brazil with friends and extended (au pair) families. This is a particularly exciting cup because it is in Brasil. We would have actually gone to Brasil if we hadn’t decided to live in Costa Rica for a year.

The most exciting news and fun so far though, is our Costa Rica team! Going into the Cup, they ended up in what everyone has called “el grupo del muerto” – the group of death. The group includes Costa Rica and 3 previous World Cup winners: Uruguay, Italy, and England. Costa Rica has pulled off two stunning upsets so far, first beating Uruguay and then beating Italy! I can’t tell you how incredible it is to be in a bar full of Ticos and gringos and watch Costa Rica win. Before the Cup, many of our Tico friends didn’t think Costa Rica had any chance. Now, they are all starting to believe. Watching this transition and the underdog story in Costa Rica is priceless. It’s will be one of our most memorable experiences here.

We have jerseys for our 3 teams. Hopefully, we won’t have to choose which to wear anytime soon since none of them will play each other – for a while at least. But hopefully it will happen. We’ll have a lot to root for.

Finally, Deb’s birthday was the 19th. We are having a little bonfire party for her tonight. Somehow I got it into my head two weeks ago that I wanted to paint a picture of her for her birthday. It’s been a loooooong two weeks. I hadn’t picked up a paint brush (for painting pictures) in almost 20 years, so I was a bit rusty. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I hid the painting in progress and all of my paints and brushes around the house so she couldn’t find them. I had to wait for her to go to bed to get everything out for the most part. It usually took me about 15 minutes to set up and another 15-20 minutes to tear down. Fortunately, as the fundraiser approached, she was out working on it for good chunks of time in the day and that helped. Aidan even helped by taking her to the beach one day.

As of the writing of this, she hasn’t seen it yet. I’ll surprise her soon. I hope she likes it. Here’s the initial drawing:

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And here’s the final painting (I need to take a picture outside with good light – I took this late at night with a flash):

While the last two weeks have been more of an exception to our time here, they feel oddly normal, possibly comfortable. Maybe I like having several things going on. More likely, I think I might unconsciously be preparing myself for the job hunt and return to Seattle ahead. It is coming much faster than we all think. Deb and I recently started pinging a few folks about possible opportunities and some things are starting pop up. Likely, we’ll have some big decisions ahead with work, staying at home, unschooling for the young adults, and maybe even where we live. For now, it’s nice to step back and just enjoy the time here while it lasts. We want to make every last minute count. Pura Vida!

The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

Here on our new adventure Deb and I are always looking for new ways to introduce learning and to make something more interesting to our young adults. While watching the movie Gravity the other night, I found an unexpected opportunity to try to get Aidan and Nev more interested in math and science.

For a bit of context, neither Aidan nor Nev like math very much. Aidan likes chemistry a bit but generally their view on science is “ho-hum.” Deb and I were planning to introduce a math and science project after the young adults’ current history and religion project. Aidan has had some great approaches to both at University Cooperative School but Nev has endured the more traditional approaches which I think can tend to kill interest pretty quickly. Like most kids, they don’t have a lot of good examples of needing math in their lives – or science for that matter.

Gravity, in case you have not heard of it, is an incredible movie about two astronauts caught in a disaster in space. The movie is very high on realism – including no sound in space, but I get ahead of myself. It is an exciting film to watch.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Gravity, you may want to avoid reading the rest of this until you do.

About 20 minutes or so into Gravity, Houston warns the astronauts that the satellite the Russians detonated earlier has caused a chain reaction and that there is a large amount of space debris hurling towards them. Nev asked, “What’s a chain reaction?” I got my first surprising opportunity for a “learning moment.”

I use the word “learning moment” here in the same way most people would use “teachable moment.” It generally refers to a moment when a particular topic, idea or skill becomes easy to learn, usually because the learner is particularly engaged. While accurate, I dislike “teachable” because it centers the focus on the “teacher”. This is really about the “learner” and their interest. A “teacher” may simply facilitate the learning but a teacher need not even be present for the opportunity to happen.

I paused the movie and explained that a “chain reaction” meant that every time pieces of the Russian satellite hit another satellite, they would create another explosion, sending even more debris into orbit and striking even more satellites. That progression is a chain reaction. And that’s when it started.

I had mentioned something about the pieces shooting around orbit like bullets and Nev and Aidan looked a little confused. It got clearer when I “reminded” them about space physics: there is no friction. When things start moving, they maintain their speed, unless disrupted, and nothing slows them down. When you add Earth’s gravity, those pieces get pulled into orbit around the Earth and will keep travelling around the Earth like a blanket of death for a long time. They were engaged – even after I said this was all just physics.

They asked some more questions and we talked about the fact that after such an event, we’d unlikely be able to have many functioning satellites for a long time (and what that would mean). We talked about how extraordinarily challenging cleaning something up like that would be. Aidan was a little worried that it might happen.

I unpaused the movie and we continued watching. They then saw all of the pieces come shooting by the astronauts in the first pass, destroying the shuttle, killing the crew, and wreaking havoc on other space vehicles. It was a real moment. They saw the “chain reaction” happening. I paused the movie again and reminded them that the debris would be back again…why? We had another good, short discussion.

As an aside, we don’t usually pause movies except to get snacks or to answer the rare question. I was surprised, happily, that they kept asking questions throughout the movie and didn’t mind the pauses.

We had another good physics discussion when George Clooney was towing Sandra Bullock. I paused the movie and asked them if they knew why when the line became taught it would jerk George Clooney. We talked about how there is momentum in space but no friction (again) and that means when Sandra gets moving she has counter force on George; i.e., an “equal and opposite reaction.” Space was becoming fun and more questions followed.

A math moment came when George Clooney said they should set their watches because the debris would be back in about 90 minutes. I paused the movie and said “do you know what he just did?” He did math in his head. I said that without a calculator, he had to estimate how fast the debris was moving, what its orbital path was, what the distance around the Earth was at their altitude, etc., and then figure out when they would have to watch out. He was the experienced guy but not the scientist. He still needed to be able to do that math.

We all play video games and tend to like to see ourselves leading groups, etc. I told them that people in real positions like this need to be able to do math. It might be “cool” to be the experienced space captain, but you can’t get there without math. Heads, surprisingly, nodded.

There were several other times we paused. Aidan asked why they were hitting the ship so fast after George got Sandra. I asked “well, how would they stop?” There are no “brakes.” George was out of propellant (which would not brake, really, just shoot them in the other direction counteracting their current speed). Then Aidan started getting even more engaged, peppering me with things like “so, if they kept going and hit the space capsule, they’d break something?” and “so, if they kept going they would just burn up in the atmosphere?”

“Yes, but why?” They’ve seen enough sci-fi and Cosmos to know about “burning up in the atmosphere” but had never tied it to the fact that there is no friction in space, but the atmosphere creates friction and moving very fast with friction creates heat. Ahhh. More head nods.

I think they were aware of these types of facts generally but had never processed the “why” – the mechanisms of physics. Physics, and to some degree, math, weren’t abstract anymore. They made connections about events in the movie now with how physics, as much as they knew, worked. And that made physics maybe just a little “cooler.”

Now I’m not fooling myself into thinking that we’ve just created two young adults who will now want to learn math and science eagerly. Not yet, at least J But, we did have a number of great conversations about math and science during an exciting movie and not only did they not mind, they enjoyed it. That’s the spark we always hope for. We can build from that.

Last night we somehow got on the subject of zombie apocalypse. I challenged, “You know, the zombie apocalypse is all about math.” Then I quickly explained epidemiologic math – the math behind infection rates – you know, if one person infects two others and they infect two others, etc. How would you know how fast it will hit if you don’t know math? So now, Aidan and Nev are moderately interested (read “moderate” here as a stunning success) in doing zombie apocalypse math. I think they are probably going to become wary now that we will connect many “cool” things with math and science. We won’t abuse it, but we will use it.

We are thinking of adding some more movies that can illustrate math and science concepts to their upcoming project. Apollo 13 is definitely on the list. Maybe we’ll find some horrible ones too and let the young adults critique the (poor) science. If you have any good suggestions, please send them!

It is so exciting to see their energy when they want to learn. I had expected to see it a lot more with unschooling, but they are pretty much teenagers and I am happy with what we find. As I mentioned before, they learn differently than me and they are motivated differently than me. I’m still getting used to that. While I am, I still treasure these kinds of moments, as I treasure my time with them on this adventure. Pura vida.

Giving back

Wherever you live there are opportunities to become involved in helping your community. Our community here in CostaRica is no exception. My current project is working with a group of local residents to plan and host a fundraising event, called Books and Barks, to benefit two organizations that consistently improve the community here – Abriendo Mentes  & Costa Rica Pet Care.

Our party will be held June 21. A local restaurant, Oasis, is donating the whole restaurant and kitchen. Many, many businesses – from restaurants, resorts, and bars, to markets, ice suppliers, and musicians – are donating food, drinks, supplies, and musical entertainment. It should be a very fun event with 4 bands confirmed. We have a core team of local folks headed by our fearless local yoga instructor, who are planning, coordinating volunteers, advertising, selling tickets, and procuring. Fortunately, I have our fabulous UCoop school auctions to look to for models of how to run very fun and successful fundraising events.

Here is a little bit about our awesome local organizations/funding beneficiaries:

Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. The local economy has shifted from agriculture and fishing to tourism jobs, leading to roughly 40% unemployment. The regional state elementary schools operate only about 3 hours per day for 85 days per year and only about 13% graduate from high school. Abriendo Mentes provides a foundation that prepares local children to one day become successful, economically stable adults.

Costa Rica Pet Care has been working tirelessly for 12 years to help our local pets. And by Costa Rica Pet Care, I largely mean the founder, Dawn. Her work includes sterilizing over roughly 12,500 dogs and cats. Dawn coordinates with veterinarians all over Costa Rica who donate their services for 1 weekend per month doing spay and neuter clinics. She tirelessly drives through the rural regions, finding sick and injured animals and provides medical care for these animals. This work helps to keep diseases from spreading at alarming rates through the community.

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Some before and after medical care photos:

 

Spay and neuter clinic photos

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I know that most of you reading this blog don’t live here and cannot attend our fabulous fundraising fiesta. However, I do hope that you would consider helping by donating a few dollars (via PayPal) through the link below. Any money you send will be split equally between the two organizations. A little bit goes a long way.

  • $10 can provide deworming or distemper shot
  • $25 can provide 1 year of school supplies for a child OR feed a dog for a month
  • $30 can spay or neuter 2 pets
  • $50 provides art materials for a month of creative projects
  • $100 funds ESL and technology education for one child for a whole year
  • $500 can provide a (much needed) computer for the lab

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Guanacaste Literacy Inc, (DBA: Abriendo Mentes) is a 501(c)3 organization in the state of Texas. Tax ID: 27-1427847 Address: 3310 Crosspark Lane, Houston, TX  77007          

 

 

 

 

Girls Gone Beaching

I recently returned from a girls’ 4-day weekend in the Nicoya Peninsula. Specifically, we spent time in Montezuma, Santa Teresa, and Malpaís. There were 4 ladies on this trip. Our primary purpose: investigate/evaluate 2 yoga instructor training courses (not for me obviously – one of the other ladies on the trip). I was particularly excited to go because this area of Costa Rica was on my short list for where we might live during our year here.

 

Montezuma

If you do a tiny bit of internet searching on Montezuma you generally find some description like – a quiet, eclectic, remote hippy town that has grown up in recent years to include some tasty restaurants run by expats and a local organic farmers market. Sounds like just the place you might expect us to land right? I ended up not choosing Montezuma because of the distance from the airport, hospital, and because of reports of very strong rip currents. I was excited to see first-hand the path not taken.

The beach here turned out to be beautiful, but with a lot of lava rock.

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Montezuma beach across from Montezuma Yoga studio

 

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Katie and a fabulous piece of driftwood

 

Ultimately, I’m pleased with my decision not to live here, though it was certainly worth the visit. We did manage to find one pretty good restaurant with a nice location on the beach. But for the most part the restaurants, bars, markets, buildings, and street vendors were pretty uninspiring. Everything was easily walkable. We all agreed that we enjoyed the people and the town more during the day than the evening. It’s a little rougher crowd in the evening.  The town does have a couple of very beautiful yoga studios. One is the Montezuma Yoga studio. It was here that I met my first white-faced/capuchin monkeys. I learned that they like to throw mangos at people. Charming.

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Montezuma does have some impressive waterfalls.  There are 3 along the same river and range in hiking distance from about 30 minutes to about 2 hours. We chose the 30-minute trip to the first falls. This decision was based primarily on the fact that we each only had one pair of shoes and these were, of course, flip flops. The hike is up a rocky riverbed, which meant that we actually hiked it barefoot. It was a fun hike. However, much to my disappointment the pool at the bottom of the waterfall was quite brown and murky. It is typically clear but as this is just the beginning of rainy season (re-named by the tourist industry marketers to Green Season) the dirt was just getting stirred up and not yet cleared out by enough rain.

 

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Santa Teresa and Malpaís

Post waterfall adventure, we drove off on a bumpy jungle road to Malpaís and Santa Teresa.  These two towns are very close together, as in you can’t actually tell where one stops and the other starts. First stop after a hike is always food. Fortunately, Katie knew about one restaurant The Bakery.  This place was awesome! We ended up eating there 4 times. It’s not just pastries of course.

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Santa Teresa was also on my short list for places to live. It is a surfing town. Apparently for a long time it was a “secret surfer paradise.” I ended up not choosing this town and am a little bit sad about this one. It turns out that the Santa Teresa information found during my research phase was at least 2 years old. I read a number of articles that described the area as over-run with tourists to the detriment of the locals and un-walkable because the main road created so much dust that everyone had to wear dust masks just to walk down the street or get to the beach. The truth is that the road is paved and has been for roughly 2 years. There are definitely some tourists, but it’s also clearly a town of residents from a variety of countries. We even saw a guy with the word “local” tattooed on his arm (sorry no photo). We of course debated about whether he was really trying to identify as a local resident or if possibly he was just that into local food/farming. We ended up staying an extra day because we loved our lodging and its easy walk to the beach – Casas Villas Soleil.  I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area. We didn’t eat every meal at The Bakery. We also had incredible butterflied, grilled Red Snapper at a restaurant called…The Red Snapper.  This town seems very livable. It is quite a drive to an airport or a hospital though – roughly 5 hours to those services. We were also warned not to go on the beach after dark. Not really sure how seriously to take that.

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As we lounged and chatted about Montezuma, Santa Teresa, Malpaís and other Costa Rican beach towns with which we are familiar, we designed our perfect Costa Rican beach town. Our mythical town has a host of features like The Bakery, a weekly organic farmer’s market, a good grocery market, a few good restaurants and bars of course, with live music, just the right amount of rain, a main paved road, safe bridges across the rivers, tourists but not too many, and other things I’m forgetting right now. I’m sure you can imagine your own list. In the end we came to realize that retail offerings serve to make a richer experience, but it really is the community/the people that define a small town. You need diversity of experience, skill, opinion, background, etc, and of course not everyone will get along with everyone all of the time, but the secret ingredient to these small towns is people who want to work together to create a thriving community. Our little town of Potrero may be odd in its layout and sadly lacking in quality French pastries, but the community does work together to help each other, to solve local infrastructure challenges, to welcome new people, and to build relationships. For that, (and the paved road) I am happy.