Thursday, May 31, 2012

Congo Strongo Revisited!

what, your side yard doesn't look like this?

So here we are, you sexy bastards, nearing the end of my first year of teaching in Congo.  There have been many ups, a few downs, and lots of strange zig-zaggery during the course of the last nine months, but I like to think we have learned a lot in my time rocking the heart of darkness. Speaking for me (because until you buy a t-shirt I can’t in good conscience speak for you) I learned a lot about my relationship with the world around me,  my own personal goals, and the best way to make Pilli Pilli infused popcorn.  Upon my initial arrival (after taking a few weeks to clean off the delicious sands of Mallorca)  I wrote out a list of my first impressions (which you can read by clicking here).  I thought I would follow that up by announcing my top 5 favorite things about living in Kinshasa now that I have the scars and parasites to back up my bloviation.

1) Everyone in Kinshasa, no matter their station, has a bit of parking lot attendant tucked away in their soul somewhere.  Anywhere else in the world, when you are forced to wedge your truck between flaming barricades and a machine gun nest whilst perched ominously on a steep dirt road overlooking a drainage ditch, you would have cause for concern.  Or at least wondering if that pack of Twix is REALLY that necessary.  Not here.  No matter where you are, anyone who happens to be standing around will walk up and guide you into your appointed spot.  I have seen folks sprint down the stairs and across the street for a chance to help people pull up in front of that kick ass Chinese place (so good).  They also help you pull out when you leave by bravely stopping traffic on both lanes.  Sometimes these parking angels don’t even carry machine guns, nightsticks, or parking attendant weapons of any kind.

2) I had a pet spider this year.  She was bold, beautiful, Brobdingnagian in scope, and a great friend to share a shower with.  When I got close to her she would lean forward and arch her front legs whilst lowering herself closer to the ground.  In this position she looked like a cross between George Foreman and Aughra from Dark Crystal.

 I loved her.

 I am singing a Bon Jovi song to you right now, I swear it.

When I saw her scurrying across the ceiling I rested easy, knowing she killed another one of those goddamned mosquitoes.  One day, a month ago, she seemed more skittish than usual.  I was concerned so I approached  her while whispering sweet nothings about small insects, Vincent Price, and myriad comic book characters.  I noticed she was carrying a large egg sac under her belly with her front legs.  I am happy to know she will be teaching her brood the ways of the Lippart household.

3) This year I have come to the realization that I am a world class fist bumper.  Not only have I taught three easily impressionable youths the transcending power of the first bump, I was lucky enough to bear witness on a fine Kinshasa morning when, as I was walking home from Erin’s house, I heard a loud squeaking noise.  I looked across the soccer field to see two toddlers (Charlotte and Lu Lu) running across the field towards me, making strange “Bah!  Bah!” noises, with their right hands extended, fists out.  I stopped, held out my arm, and watched with glee as they ran up, touched their small, innocent fists to mine, and made the two year old approximation of the “explosion” sound effect.  They smiled up at me and held their tiny, pudgy, trembling fists for one more taste of the thunder. It was at that moment I knew that, regardless of the path my life takes, I have made a difference in the world.

4) This year I found out, for sure, that  I love the greasy.  I don’t just mean food, facial hair, back sweats, or pants- I mean places that are one step away from total chaos.  I had a great time in Myanmar (as recounted here) but always felt a bit directionless in Taiwan, in spite of awesome friends, beer, and collapsing sidewalks.  If I wanted normalcy, hell, I could go back to Jersey (or at least buy spray on Ab Tan).  Being in a country where, at any given moment, a man could come out of the bushes and sing me a Beatles song (played on a guitar with three strings) gives me a strange sort of comfort, in the true Dostoyevskian sense of the word.  While I wouldn’t retire here or use this area as a home base for my empire, it definitely gives you a humbling sense of your place in this random, unthinking universe.  And the beer tends to be cheaper.

5) While I stand by my number four, I will say it is great to have normal food again.  After five years of pig face, scorpions, jellyfish on a stick, stinky tofu, chicken feet, duck tongues, and pig throats (let’s not forget the blood clot soup, dear reader . . . oh, let us not forget) it’s nice to go to a restaurant, order chicken and fries (poulet avec frites, you bastards) and not have it served with eyes, brains, or reproductive organs.  I am living in a country where I am almost positive I won’t accidentally eat fried human afterbirth, and, I can assure you from personal, maddening experience, that is a good thing.

But that, of course, is a story for another day.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From The Mouths of Babes Part II: Helicopter Parenting

For part one, click here!

I have had many interesting experiences over the years, dear reader.  Some have left me nearly starved, almost crippled, or covered in weird greenish stuff, but they have mostly been positive.  Or at least the blood was easy to get off.  During my travels around the world and into your hearts I have come across a blinding array of fascinating people, places, and floor stains.  In my current stop, the deliciously unpaved city of Kinshasa, I have certainly added to my list of great, not so great, and “what the hell just happened?!” people, but one that has been both  a surprise and pleasure to know is young Eli.  I won’t go into details on him right now, but suffice to say I have trotted him out for my blog many a time (click here for a taste) and, as someone mentioned the other day, he has almost become a mascot (blogscot?) for me.  I can safely attribute a third of my massive page hit count to him and his easily quotable antics.

But for those new to my blog (especially you Russians) I will describe him thusly: when my hit autobiographical novel is released (Lippart on Lippart: A Story of Lippart) and they do the inevitable movie, there is only one person who could pull off the important role of Eli.  Only one man alive who has the wit, decency, sense of wonder, innocence, and requisite beautiful smile:

And that just about sums him up.

Anyways, I mention him because I had a rather sweet conversation the other day and wanted to share it with all of you, as my sense of privacy is only outstripped by my lack of shame and desire for merchandising fees.  Last Friday I was working with my STUCO kids at the MS dance (being an international educator means that you are simultaneously changing the world and keeping people’s hands away from crotches that aren’t theirs) when Eli and his dad came to hang out.  In between free soda, awkward toddler dancing, laser shows, and some foosball trash talking, Eli called me over to where he stood perched by the goalie position.

“Matt, I am so rich now!  I have found so much money on campus!”

I momentarily pictured him back-stroking through a vault of doubloons, Scrooge McDuck style.  Or, for my more modern readers, doing the Dougie while wading through a mountain of Urban Outfitter gift cards.

“That’s awesome, Eli.  You should buy me something.”

“Okay.  I can buy you something.  What do you want?”

“A helicopter.”

He paused and then exhaled loudly, a sign that I have come to interpret as him either A) thinking deeply on some subject or B) regretting the fact that he stopped to talk with me.

“Matt, a helicopter is really expensive.  I don’t think I can afford that.”

I nodded sagely.

“That’s true.  Good point.  Well, no worries.”

I began to walk back to where some kids were surely reenacting that kick ass scene from Like a Virgin and  Eli called my name again.  When I turned around he was looking at me with his full on serious face: a cross between “oh god I’m going to throw up” and “oh god, you’re going to throw up.”

“Okay, Matt.  I have an idea.  Are you listening?”


“So, first- get married.”


“Then, give your wife a baby.”

“Got it.”

“When the baby is five and three quarters years old, I'll come over and buy them a toy helicopter.  And then, you can both use it.”

He smiled at me, waved, and walked back into the darkness.

Man, that helicopter is gonna be awesome.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Eye of the Storm Part 3: Deep Thought

 For Part 1 click here!

Click here for Part 2 you bastards!

 You sexy beast you.

So here we are, dear reader, at the end of the road, so to speak.  And where have we ended up, 3 operations, lots of stitches, and multiple beers later?  Well, not too far off from where we started, I suppose.  I am once again a beautiful man, no longer crying tears of sweet, sexy blood (I scored no goth chicks during that period, to my considerable dismay), and my eyes are both a bit more aligned and much easier for me to control, sort of like Mario and Luigi.

Pre- operation, I had a very hard time figuring out what eye I had been looking out of (and, alternately, which one was off wandering around).  As of now I pretty much use one eye all the time, which, while not preventing it, at least keeps the optic perambulations confined to one rogue agent.

Only having one eye with which to see the world causes some problems that might not be readily apparent.  It makes me more vulnerable to gypsy attacks, for one.  I have to be constantly on guard when shopping for small bells and neckerchiefs.  And selling wives at the town fair is fraught with tension.

A bigger issue is what it does to the world itself- at least the world as filtered through my brain.  You see, one of the main difficulties caused by my condition is an almost complete lack of depth perception.   My ability to judge distance, especially with moving objects, is terrible.  This has caused me to be wretched at almost every sport due to not being able to judge the speed at which balls are flying at my face.

Man, Clueless was a great movie.

Stereoscopic vision requires two eyes.  This miracle of cooperation allows us to see our surroundings in terms of depth.  With this we can judge distance, speed, and overall sexiness with relative ease.  My eyes don’t work that way so my world looks fundamentally, profoundly different.

In what way, other than not being able to enjoy JAWS 3D the way God intended? Glad you asked, dear, inquisitive reader.

 My world is a series of photographs, a slide show presented on a (mostly) flat plain.  Everywhere I look I see a new painting.  When it snows, for example, I don’t feel like I’m IN the snow- it’s more like I’m on the outside looking in, kind of like watching a movie with a snow scene.

Hopefully not this movie though.

I never really gave this much thought- how could I (eye?  He he he.)?  Our perception defines our universe.   I never really understood how differently other people looked out at the world until one day last year, about two weeks after the surgery.  I was sitting at my desk at home, listening to GWAR and idly looking at my kick ass “Best Teacher” coffee mug, when all of a sudden it leapt towards me.   For a second I thought there had been an earthquake.  I actually jerked back in my chair before I realized what I was looking at.

It was the coffee mug like it was supposed to look. 

The way everyone else could see it.

I am not ashamed to admit it (especially if it gets me sympathy groupies) but I actually cried while looking at this thing.  To me, at that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (including Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics- goddamn.)  For the first time, an object felt REAL to me, like a solid thing.  I reached out my hand but was, strangely enough, afraid to touch it, like it would vanish into the background again.

After a few seconds the cup snapped back into its usual flatness.  I spent the rest of the night straining my eyes, trying to get it to revert back to solidity, to no avail.

Over the next few weeks it happened again, off and on (the doctor said it was a side effect of the operation, but would probably not be permanent, at least until I finished the round of surgeries), and every time I desperately tried to hold onto that image as long as I could.  It happened to random things at random times.  Once, it was a pen.  The stapler at my desk in school.  The kids in my English 9 class.   That lady down the street with that fucked up thing on her neck.  Each time it was a little miracle, a reminder to me about how wonderful the world can actually look, when we can see it for what it is. 

Except for that neck thing.

So how has this had an effect on my life?  When I was a kid, it was mostly confusing and awful, like the final episode of Small Wonder.  Here is a story to illustrate my point.  I would (literally) freeze up when playing baseball in PE as a kid, because I could not catch the ball, or hit it, or even shake my fist at it convincingly.  As you can fathom, this made me super popular during PE.  I have a memory of being in 7th grade, doing a “unit” on volleyball.  Our teacher ran PE in an old school competitive style, thankfully outdated now, whereby student “captains” were allowed to basically cajole, insult, threaten, and hit us in an effort to ensure that their future lives pumping gas or working at convenience stores were replete with good memories of simpler, less pot belly ridden times.  Our PE teacher let the two class Cro-Magnons be captains.  They picked the teams in that charming alternating style that my readers over 25 surely remember with great chagrin.  Of course this meant that after round one, all the jocks were selected.  Round two brought their girlfriends and assorted hangers on into the fold.  Round three brought about the grudging inclusion of the “fag kids”.  This group included the girl who displayed her poor moral judgment to all and sundry by wearing braces, the fat kid who couldn’t afford Body Glove t-shirts, and the dude whose family only had one car.

This culling left only two people.  Me, and the kid with the leg braces.

I actually stood there for five minutes ( or 30 seconds in embarrassed teenager time)as these two guys argued over which team had to take me.  As this humiliation dragged on the PE teacher simply stood there, arms akimbo, smirking at the scene.  In the end, a compromise was reached.  Both leg brace kid and I was told to sit down and watch.  This was followed up by instructions to “be less gay”.   Now, I won’t get into the description of the teacher- lord knows I never stereotype or speak in generalities about people.  A quick internet search for “that jackass piece of crap that Matt Lippart had in grade 7 PE” didn’t turn up any pics, but I found a rather good approximation.

 Mmmm, spicy.

So my eyes cost me my athletic career.  Well, that and my love of gummy bears.  On balance, though, it worked out, because it led me away from trying to fit in with the sporty crowd and towards the heavy metal thunder which quickly changed my life.  I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without the past 23 years of heavy metal rage, and one of the main reasons I started listening to metal was to try to carve out an identity other than awkward googly eyed bastard.  I think one look at my leather chaps and prodigious musical skills will show I went down the right path.  It’s like that movie Pick of Destiny without the awesome vocal harmonies.